Ursula departs


© The Washington Post


Following the tributes paid in the last few days to the legendary science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away on January 22nd, I feel a little embarrassed to admit that I have only read one work by her.


This was a collection of her first three Earthsea novels (1968-72), set in an imaginary archipelago where magic, wizards and dragons are all prominent.  I read it when I was 12 or 13 and it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realised I’d got its title completely wrong.  The front cover of the book bore the name The Earthsea Trilogy, but ‘Earthsea’ was inscribed in such ornate medieval lettering (especially the ‘E’ and the ‘h’) that I misread it as The Fartisea Trilogy, which would have been pronounced as the flatulent-sounding Farty-Sea Trilogy.  Thus, while I read, I kept wondering when the characters were going to pack their bags, leave Earthsea and move to the obviously-more-important Fartisea of the title.  D’uh!


Anyhow, the Earthsea stories really impressed me.  It was a revelation at that age to read a work of serious epic fantasy that gradually built a whole fantastical world around its characters but did so in clear, unpretentious prose.  The quality of the writing especially struck me because a little while earlier I’d tried to read Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), the first of ten volumes of Tolkein-esque fantasy written by Stephen Donaldson and known collectively as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  But I’d soon given up, defeated by Donaldson’s pompous, overwrought prose-style.


Other things that I liked about Earthsea are neatly encapsulated in this tribute that the American science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote about Le Guin in the Los Angeles Times the other day: “This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer – the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who walk through it.”


Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading a collection of short stories called The Dream Archipelago (1999) by Christopher Priest, which like Earthsea are set on an imaginary group of islands that have fantastical properties.  One story, The Negation, is about a young, naïve man called Dik who aspires to be a writer but who gets drafted into the military and assigned to a bleak snowbound frontier-town when war breaks out between his country and a neighbour.  He discovers that as a propaganda stunt / cultural morale booster, the government is sending a writer called Moylita Kaine to live in and write about the town for a period; and, because Kaine wrote the novel that first fuelled Dik’s writerly ambitions, he arranges to meet her.  He subsequently gets into trouble when Kaine decides to involve her trusting young admirer in an act of subversion.  I hadn’t realised that The Negation was autobiographical, but on his blog the other day, whilst paying his respects to Le Guin, Priest described the story as “a disguised but also explicit account of my meetings with her.”  He’d known her while she and her husband were living in London in the mid-1970s.


Knowing this, it’s easy to imagine Le Guin (who was then in her 40s) as the enigmatic Kaine, brusque but self-effacing, “sometimes… deliberately vague”, her eyes sparkling “in the snowy light from the window”; and the younger Priest as the story’s shy, unsure-of-himself hero.


One thing’s for sure.  I need to track down and read copies of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) soon.


© Penguin Books


Yet another 25 Scots words that must not die


© Vanity Fair


My better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, recently drew my attention to a Youtube video in which Gerard Butler, now a meaty big Hollywood action-movie star but once a humble wee lad from the Scottish town of Paisley, talked about his favourite lexical items in the Scots language.  These included words like ‘bawbags’ and ‘jobbies’ and phrases like “Yer bum’s oot the windae!” and “Haud yer wheesht!”  Come to think of it, Gerard was probably shouting all of these things last year when he read the reviews of his movie Geostorm.


(The script for Geostorm would actually have made more sense if it’d been written in Scots: “Och shite, they’ve jist drapt a muckle heat-jobbie on Hong Kong!”)


This, along with the fact that today is January 25th and tonight is Burns Night – annual celebration of the life and works of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard and one of literature’s greatest writers in the medium of Scots – has inspired me to list 25 more of my favourite Scots words and expressions.  Previous lists can be read here, here and here.


Awaw an’ bile yer heid (idiom) – basically, “Go away and boil your head.”  Or less elegantly still, “F**k off.”


Clamjamfry (n) – a troublesome, noisy, chaotic mob of people.


Clawbaws (n) – a derogatory term for a male who constantly has his hand down the front of his trousers, presumably playing with himself.  The suffix ‘baws’ is a popular one in Scots – see also fannybaws, believed to have originated in the Scottish TV comedy sketch-show Chewin’ the Fat (1999-2005) and being, according to the Urban Dictionary website, a “Glasgow word meaning stupid bastard”.


Fankle (n) – a confused tangle.  One reason why I gave up fishing as a kid was because I always managed to get my fishing line in a ‘fankle’.


Fash (n / v) – to do with annoyance.  “Dae fash yerself” means “Don’t get annoyed”, while “He’s in a right fash” means “He’s having a right strop.”  The word dates back to old French (and no doubt to the days of Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance’ with France) and is related to the French verb fâcher, to be or make angry.


© Channel Four Films / PolyGram / Miramax


Gash (adv) – meaning badly, grimly, terribly.  ‘Gash’ is a word that got a new lease of life thanks to the success of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting (1993) and its subsequent 1996 movie adaptation by Danny Boyle.  In the movie, Kevin McKidd’s Tommy shudderingly recounts how he once played a game of pool against Robert Carlyle’s psychotic Begbie: “…But Begbie is playing absolutely f**king gash…  He’s got a hangover so bad he can hardly hold the cue…”


Haar (n) – a weather-word and, like most weather-words in Scots, one that refers to crappy climatic conditions.  A ‘haar’ is a wet, clammy fog you might encounter along the coast.


Heid bummer (n) – the person in charge.


Hoachin (adj) – infested with or full of, as in: “The puir bairn’s hair wis hoachin wi nits.” The late A.A. Gill, born in Edinburgh and a notoriously snobby food-critic at the Sunday Times, once remarked during a diatribe about the awfulness of Scotland’s cuisine: “The place is hoaching with some of the best raw ingredients in the world, yet finding a scallop on a menu is like trying to go dogging in Riyadh.”  I assume that by dropping ‘hoachin’ into that sentence, Gill was trying to show his Scottish street-credibility even while he slammed the place.  It didn’t work.


Lug (n) – a well-known word for ear, ‘lug’ also appears in the compound adjective lang-luggit, referring to a nosy person who likes listening in on other people’s conversations; and in the phrase to nip someone’s lugs, meaning to irritate someone with constant nagging or meaningless chatter.


Messages (n) – shopping.  So ‘doing my messages’ means ‘doing my shopping’.


© Antony Spencer / E+ / Getty Images


Moonbroch (n) – a lovely astronomical term.  Historically, a broch was a round stone tower.  From that, a ‘moonbroch’ is the ghostly rainbow-like halo you see around the moon on a night when the moonlight refracts through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.


Orraman (n) – an odd-job man able to turn his hand to a variety of tasks, very useful to have on a farm.   An ‘orraman’ figures in the lyrics of The Portree Kid, a spoof on the country-and-western classic Ghost Riders in the Sky, composed and sung by the legendary Scottish folk duo The Corries: “His sidekick was an orraman and oh but he was mean / He was called the Midnight Ploughboy and he came fae Aberdeen…


Plook (n) – the Scots equivalent of the English slang word ‘zit’, meaning a pus-filled pimple.  When I was at school, kids used to assure me that “evrae time ye eat a Mars Bar, ye get a plook”.  (Lawyers for Cadbury UK Limited please note – there is absolutely no scientific proof that this assertion is true.)


Poke (n) – a bag.  I think this must have been a common word in English generally at one point – see the expression ‘to buy a pig in a poke’.  However, I’ve only ever heard this word used in Scotland, in the context of fish-and-chip shops where customers might ask for ‘a poke o’ chips’.


Polis (n) – not a city-state in ancient Greece like Athens, Delphi, Rhodes or Sparta, but the Scots word for ‘police’.


Puddock (n) – a frog or toad.  A particularly ill-fated one appears in the 1930s poem The Puddock by John M. Caie, which ends with the lines: “A heron was hungry an’ needin’ tae sup / So he nabbit th’ puddock and gollup’t him up.”


© The Muppets Studio / Walt Disney


Skelp (n / v) – to slap or beat with your hand.  Not to be confused with the more fleeting but possibly sharper blow implied by the word skite.  Therefore, you might say, “Not only did the teacher skelp him on his lug but he skited him roond his legs wi the cane.”


Skrieve (v) – to write.


Sleekit (adj) – dangerously crafty and cunning, but with a deceptively charming exterior.  In the 1980s, I remember Scottish Labour Members of Parliament denouncing the SNP MP Jim Sillars for being ‘sleekit’.  However, for outright, concentrated ‘sleekitness’, the Labour Party outdid themselves later on when they invented Tony Blair.


Smeddum (n) – a flour or fine powder.  From that, it has also come to mean the kernel or unbreakable essence of something; and from that, to mean someone’s spirit, energy and drive.  It’s no doubt the third of these meanings that’s referenced by the title of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s short story Smeddum (1934), about a tough matriarch called Meg Menzies who works ‘like a big roan mare’ in the harsh environment of rural north-eastern Scotland.


Stowed oot (adj) – packed with people.  On many an occasion in my youth, I was turned away from a bar or club by a not-so-apologetic bouncer who told me, “Sorry pal, it’s awready stowed oot.”


Tablet (n) – not, in this post-Trainspotting era, a drugs reference but a type of Scottish confectionery.  According to my well-thumbed copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary, it’s “like a firmer version of fudge, made from butter, sugar and sometimes condensed milk.”


Tumshie (n) – a turnip.  By extension, if you call someone a tumshie-heid, you’re calling them a ‘turnip-head’, i.e. a moron.


Tattiebogle (n) – a scarecrow.  This quaint word is derived from the words tattie, meaning a potato, and bogle, meaning a ghost.  It implies the roughness of the Scottish soil compared with that of England, in that the ‘tattiebogle’ is more likely to be scaring craws or corbies away from a potato-patch than from a wheat-field.


From Pixabay.com


Houses of the spirits



I recently visited Thailand and soon after my arrival I was out and about with my camera, snapping pictures of one of my favourite Thai things: spirit houses.


I’ve written before on this blog about San Phra Phum, as they’re known locally.  They’re the miniature buildings you see outside nearly every Thai home and business, held aloft like bird-tables on wooden pillars, fragranced by smouldering incense sticks and often garlanded with flowers.  Their raison d’être is to provide accommodation for the spirits residing on the premises and to keep those spirits contented, so that they don’t move into the human building and cause ghostly high-jinks there.



Spirit houses need to be carefully positioned in relation to the neighbouring human abode and a Brahman priest should be consulted to identify the best spot for it – which is usually, I’ve read, north of the human house so that there’s no danger of the spirit house having a shadow cast over it.  Once the spirit house is erected, certain things are placed inside.  These include a representation of the angel-like Hindu deity Phra Chai Mongkol, who bears a sword and a bag of money, presumably to ensure protection and good fortune for the house’s ethereal inhabitants; human figures to keep the spirits company; dolls’-house-style pieces of furniture for their comfort; and possibly models of horses and elephants, to help them get around.  I’ve even seen spirit houses cluttered with model cars and other toys, to give the spirits something to play with; and ones bedecked with strings of fancy coloured lights, to allow them some illumination after nightfall.



One memorable sight I saw recently was in the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai, while I was passing a construction site.  An old building had just been demolished and a new one was shortly to be built there.  Nearly everything in the area had been flattened and a digger was prowling around, removing the last remnants of the old building – but remaining untouched and intact in the middle of the rubble were a pair of spirit houses.  Apparently, it’s a bad idea to destroy spirit houses and render their inhabitants homeless.  So even Thai developers who wouldn’t think twice about bulldozering an old human property need to exercise caution in how they treat the miniature wooden dwelling next door to it.



It’s alive


From GuitarParty.com


Christmas Day last year marked not only the 2017th birthday of Jesus Christ.  It was also the day that Shane MacGowan, singer, songwriter, musician, raconteur and front-man of the much-loved Anglo-Irish folk-punk band the Pogues, celebrated his 60th birthday.  Wow, I have just written six words that I never expected to write together in a sentence: namely ‘Shane MacGowan’ and ‘celebrated his 60th birthday’.


Indeed, back in the 1990s, the prospect of the famously and fearfully hard-living MacGowan reaching even his 40th birthday looked doubtful.  A man whose modus operandi had always been to be the Brendan Behan of the musical world, his industrial-level alcohol consumption and resultant unreliability had by this time led to him being ejected, temporarily, from the Pogues.  Also, late in the decade, he’d developed a heroin habit so severe that his pal Sinead O’Connor felt compelled to report him to the police before he killed himself with an overdose.


In the summer of 1995, I was in New York when I learned that MacGowan and his post-Pogues band the Popes were performing at a local venue.  So I bought a ticket.  The gig saw a mightily-inebriated MacGowan manage to sing all of two songs.  He spent another fifteen minutes sitting at the edge of the stage clutching his head while the Popes played a couple of instrumentals.  Then he disappeared.  The band did a few more instrumentals and then followed their leader’s example and exited too.  The crowd nearly rioted.  Poor Shane did not look like a man who had much of a professional future ahead of him.  Or indeed, much of a future.


Yet the old bugger was still on the go three years later when I saw him, with the Popes again, at the Fleadh music festival at London’s Finsbury Park.  This time he remained standing and remained singing for the entire set, even if he did have the dazed air of a man who’d just been returned to earth after being abducted and probed by aliens.  And it was touching how, when the performance was done, the crowd kept chanting, “Shane-o!  Shane-o!  Shane-o!” until, finally, an appreciative grin spread across MacGowan’s bleary features.




He was in better form the next time I saw him, in the early noughties.  He and the rest of the Pogues’ classic line-up – James Fearnley, Jem Finer, Darryl Hunt, Andrew Ranken, Spider Stacy, Terry Woods and the late Philip Chevron, plus original bassist and sometime-vocalist Cait O’Riordan – had got together for a Christmas tour and they made an appearance at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I was living at the time.  Admittedly, MacGowan’s voice was weaker than it’d been during the glory days of Pogues albums like Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), but he seemed to raise his game whenever Cait O’Riordan sang onstage with him; and their rendition of 1988’s famous Christmas song Fairy Tale of New York, with O’Riordan taking the place of the late Kirsty McColl, was rather wonderful.


The whole event, shameless, nostalgic cash-in though it was, was rather wonderful in fact.  Well, with a combination of the Pogues, Christmas and a few thousand boozed-up Geordies, how could it not be wonderful?


In the meantime, in 2001, MacGowan and his long-time partner, the journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, had published a book called A Drink with Shane MacGowan.  A rambling mixture of memoirs, anecdotes, opinions and philosophy related by MacGowan and recorded and edited by Clarke, A Drink… is great.  It’s both fascinating and knowingly hilarious.  I particularly liked the bit in it where he theorises why Samuel Beckett was such an existentialist misery-guts.  (It was because Beckett was the only man in the whole of Ireland who liked cricket.)


© Pan Books


Anyway, the other evening, three weeks after his sixtieth, MacGowan was honoured with a belated birthday-bash at Dublin’s National Concert Hall.  During the proceedings, some of his most famous compositions were played and sung by various musical talents, luminaries and icons (and Bono).  Near the end, the birthday boy himself was wheeled onstage – he’s been largely wheelchair-bound since 2015, when an accident outside a Dublin recording studio left him with a broken pelvis – to sing Summer in Siam, from the 1990 Pogues album Hell’s Ditch, with his old mate Nick Cave.  He then brought the event to a close with a solo rendition of the venerable Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme, his now-weary and gravelly but somehow more-affecting-than-ever voice probably ensuring that there wasn’t a single dry eye or lump-free throat in the building.


Here’s a list of my ten favourite Shane MacGowan songs – ones he’s written and / or ones he’s sung.


The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn (from the 1985 Pogue album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Glasses of punch, whiskey, banshees, ghosts, angels, devils, rattling death-trains, midnight mass, Euston taverns, “lousy drunken bastards”, pissing yourself, getting syphilis and decking “some f**king blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids…”  If ever a song was the Pogues’ manifesto, it’s this one.


Sally MacLennane (from Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Equally rousing and elegiac, this is the perfect song for bidding adieu to an old friend: “I’m sad to say, I must be on my way, so buy me beer and whiskey cos I’m going far away…  FAR AWAY!


If I Should Fall from Grace with God (from the 1988 Pogues album of the same name).  This is surely the one that makes all Pogues fans ‘go wild on the dance floor’.


Fairy Tale of New York (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Obviously.


Thousands are Sailing (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Written by Philip Chevron, this paean to the millions of Irish people forced to migrate to North America in the 19th century receives much of its power from MacGowan’s vocals, simultaneously wistful and exultant.  It just didn’t sound the same when, minus MacGowan, the Pogues performed it in the 1990s.


Down All the Days (from the 1989 Pogues album Peace and Love).  A tribute to the severely-palsied Irish writer Christy Brown, who had to “Type with me toes, drink stout through me nose, and where it’s going to end, God only knows,” this also contains the memorable lines, “I’ve often had to depend upon the kindness of strangers, but I’ve never been asked and never replied if I supported Glasgow Rangers.”


© Mute Records


What a Wonderful World (a 1992 duet with Nick Cave, available on the 2005 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album B-Sides and Rarities).  MacGowan and Cave’s amusing, but still tender and respectful, version of the Louis Armstrong classic is the song I want played at my funeral.


God Help Me (from the 1994 Jesus and Mary Chain album Stoned and Dethroned).  Considering what MacGowan was going through at the time, this melancholic, low-key collaboration with the usually abrasive, feedback-drenched Scottish alternative-rock band the Jesus and Mary Chain is probably aptly titled.


That Woman’s got me Drinking (from the 1994 Shane MacGowan and the Popes album The Snake).  This features one of the best choruses ever: “That Woman’s got me drinking, look at the state I’m in, give me one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten bottles of gin!


Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway (from The Snake).  Gerry Rafferty’s rumination on a relationship that’s gone wrong is reworked by MacGowan and the Popes in their own inimitable manner.  I wonder what Rafferty thought about the subtle changes made to his lyrics at the very end of the song.  The Rafferty version simply concludes, “Her father didn’t like me anyway.”  The MacGowan one concludes, “Her father was a right c*nt anyway.




© Daily Mirror


“The party’s through there,” said the mother of a schoolmate who’d invited me to a shindig at her house one evening in 1980.  With a grimace she added, “Just follow the noise.”


And what a noise it was – a relentless, clattering, crashing onslaught of guitars and drums with a sepulchral voice growling over the top of it: “If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man, you win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me…”  Yes, the noise was Ace of Spades, signature song of the mighty rock-and-heavy-metal band Motörhead.


And when my fifteen-year-old self obeyed my friend’s mum’s directions – moving awkwardly because of the one-litre bottle of Woodpecker Cider I had stuffed up and hopefully concealed inside my T-shirt – and walked along a passageway and passed through a door into the house’s living room, I entered a blitzkrieg of extreme sensations.  The sound of Motörhead, hitherto muffled by the living-room door, suddenly jumped to a truly skull-cracking volume.  And I was assailed by the heat, commotion and flying dandruff generated by two-dozen schoolmates whose heads churned in unison to the music.  Meanwhile, I observed lurking in a corner a few members of the local Ska and Mod communities, clad in their customary tight jackets, polo shirts, braces, rolled-at-the-cuff jeans, drainpipes, Doc Martens, loafers, trilbies and pork-pie hats, all with expressions on their faces reminiscent of Dracula’s when Van Helsing tore down the curtains and flooded the room with early-morning sunlight.


An evening’s partying ahead of me, a litre of cider, a roomful of friends, Motörhead going full-blast on the hi-fi and a bunch of Mods and Ska-kids looking miserable?  Wow, I thought.  What a great time to be alive!


‘Alive’, alas, is no longer an adjective that can be applied to the line-up of Motörhead that were playing on the stereo at that memorable moment in time.  I write this having just heard of the death of guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, who along with vocalist / bassist / main-man Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilminster and drummer Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor constituted the band’s ‘classic’ line-up from 1976 to 1982.  (Lemmy and Phil Taylor died within two months of each other at the end of 2015.)  During those half-dozen years, they released a half-dozen albums, Motörhead in 1977, Overkill and Bomber in 1979, Ace of Spades in 1980, live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmith in 1981 and Iron Fist in 1982; and these were choc-a-bloc with splendid, ear-battering songs.


Songs like the afore-mentioned Ace of Spades, which if you ask me at least two days of the week I’ll identify as my favourite tune of all time.  And the eponymous Motörhead,  which Lemmy had actually written for his previous outfit, the ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, and which since then has been covered by everyone from Lawnmower Deth to Primal Scream.  And Bomber, inspired by Len Deighton’s 1970 World War II novel of the same name, which warns, “Because we shoot to kill, you know we will, it’s a bomber, it’s a bomber!”.  And Overkill, which begins with the mission statement, “Only way to feel the noise is when it’s loud and good…”  And that paean to a little-acknowledged but vital group of people in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, We are the Road Crew, which with its sledgehammering rhythm describes the tribulations faced by the average roadie: “Another town I’ve left behind, another drink completely blind, another hotel I can’t find, another backstage pass for you, another tube of superglue, another border to get through…


One nice thing about Motörhead during this era was that despite their uncompromising sound and hardcore image – the monstrous, fanged, tusked creature that was their emblem, the jagged Germanic lettering used in their logo, the outfits they wore onstage that made them look like crosses between spaghetti-western villains and Hells Angels – they clearly didn’t take themselves too seriously.  I first heard Ace of Spades, for example, when they featured on the famously anarchic Saturday-morning TV kids’ show Tiswas, an appearance that saw them getting drenched in buckets of water and pelted with custard pies.  In 1981, for a laugh, Lemmy recorded with the allegedly wholesome, granny-friendly Irish singing group the Nolan Sisters, of whom he later said: “We were supposed to be the smelliest, loudest motherf**kers in the building but we more than met our match.  We were in awe.  You couldn’t mess with the Nolan Sisters.”


© Valkyrie Records


However, a decision in 1982 to record a version of Tammy Wynette’s Stand by your Man (with the late Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics) proved a joke too far for Fast Eddie Clarke, who left the band in protest.  That marked the end of Motörhead’s greatest line-up, although the next three decades, when Lemmy worked with guitarists Brian ‘Robbo’ Robertson, Michael ‘Wurzel’ Burston and Phil ‘Wizzo’ Campbell and drummers Pete Gill and Mikkey Dee, were pretty good too – mainly because the many later albums didn’t tamper with the band’s fast-and-loud formula.  Lemmy surely believed the old adage that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.  Mind you, I think his finest late-career moment wasn’t with Motörhead but with Dave Grohl’s 2004 project Probot, when he and Grohl collaborated for the rousing song Shake Your Blood.


In 1997 I had my first opportunity to see Motörhead live.  I was living in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo and the band were booked to play a gig at the local venue Sapporo Factory (which appropriately enough was a former beer brewery).  Alas, the gig clashed with a rather important family event – my sister’s wedding, which necessitated me being back in Scotland – and I missed it.  Afterwards, a mate who’d attended the gig told me how Lemmy asked the crowd if they wanted to hear some ‘new songs’.  When the crowd shouted back “No!”, he retorted, “F**k off, I’m going to play the new songs anyway.”  My mate noted that it didn’t matter because “the new songs sounded exactly the same as the old ones.”


Luckily, I got around to seeing the band twice during the noughties, both times while I was living in England: in 2004 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and in 2008 in Norwich.  At the Newcastle gig, Motörhead performed a song by the legendary New York punk band the Ramones in honour of their guitarist Johnny Ramone, who’d recently passed away.  There seemed to be a curse on the Ramones because their founding members were dropping like flies at the time.  Lemmy announced wearily, “We keep saying we’re never going to play another Ramones song again.  But then another one of the bastards goes and dies on us and we have to play another Ramones song, as a tribute.”  Well, we’re now in 2018 and by a sad coincidence not only has the entire classic line-up of the Ramones expired – Joey Ramone in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, Johnny in 2004 and Tommy in 2014 – but so too has that of Motörhead.


Of course, they themselves may be gone, but their music remains.  I’ll finish this post by paraphrasing one of the characters at the end of the 1982 movie Mad Max II – that’s the last we’ll ever see of them, but they live now in our memories.  And on our stereo systems.


© Bronze Records


My favourite films of 2017


© Universal Pictures


Better late than never – well, I’ve been off on holiday for the past fortnight – here’s a round-up of the films I saw in 2017 and liked best.  My definition of a 2017 film is simply one that was released in the UK during the year.  I should say I’ve been extremely lazy about watching movies this last year and there are many I haven’t seen – indeed, I have DVDs of The Killing of a Sacred Dear, It Comes at Night, Toni Erdmann and the remake of The Beguiled sitting on my table at this very moment, waiting to be watched.


Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s sleek, shiny riff on seemingly every bank-heist and car-chase movie made in the 1960s and 1970s – Bullit (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The French Connection (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), The Getaway (1972), The Driver (1978), etc. – is a triumph of style over substance.  But what the hell?  I loved it and I think I’m entitled to one guilty pleasure in 2017.


And few things are more pleasurable in this tale of a young getaway-car driver (Ansel Elgort) being forced by his boss (Kevin Spacy) to work with ever-more dysfunctional groups of bank robbers than its use of music.  Edgar Wright’s movies always have great soundtracks, but the songs here – everything from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms to Focus’s Hocus Pocus – have never been as seamlessly and exhilaratingly woven into the action.


Blade Runner 2049

With Blade Runner 2049 Canadian director Denis Villeneuve achieved the impossible.  He crafted a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece that was as haunting, elegiac, philosophical and visually overwhelming as the original.


A Dark Song

Films usually make the practice of magic look easy.  You draw a circle, recite an incantation, perform a sacrifice and – hey presto! – your wish is granted.  The little-seen but fascinating Irish horror movie A Dark Song, directed by newcomer Liam Gavin, takes a different approach, however.  Here, fulfilling your goals with magic requires gruelling effort, endless repetition, numbing attention to detail, painful self-deprivation and much, much time.  A Dark Song has a bereaved mother (Catherine Walker) subjecting herself to months of confinement in a remote house carrying out arcane rituals under the unsympathetic eye of a hired occultist (Steve Oram) in the hope that eventually – eventually – she’ll gain access to a realm of angels and demons where she can communicate with her dead son.  It’s entirely possible, though, that Oram is a charlatan who’s doing this to cheat her out of a lot of money.


Inevitably, it’s something of an anti-climax when the angels and demons finally appear – they seem both too generic and too strange.  But the getting-there in A Dark Song is absolutely engrossing.


© Syncopy Inc. / Warner Bros



Christopher Nolan’s epic recreation of the evacuation of 340,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 suffered from unfortunate timing.  It was released a year after the British public, by a small majority, voted to leave the European Union.  Predictably, the film was seized upon by right-wing Brexiters as a timely reminder of what plucky little Britain is capable of when it finds itself in a tight spot – especially when quitting the European mainland is involved – while liberal Remainers lamented about it wallowing in nostalgia.  Well, bollocks to thatDunkirk is just a great film and writer-director Nolan deserves kudos for avoiding the usual war-movie clichés and applying his own special style to it.


Dunkirk is refreshingly un-clichéd in its depiction of the ordinary soldiers.  They’re frightened young men, scarcely more than boys, who aren’t being heroic but are simply trying to survive (and who expect to be ‘spat at in the streets’ for failure and cowardice if they do make it back to Britain).  Meanwhile, Nolan indulges his customary fondness for fragmented narratives and cuts between three different storylines that are happening over different time-frames and are Russian-doll-like in their sizes – a week when some soldiers struggle to stay alive on the French beaches, a day when an English yachtsman (a splendidly gallant and focused Mark Rylance) and his teenaged crew cross the channel to do their bit in rescuing the troops, and a few hours when two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) fight off enemy aircraft trying to decimate the men and boats below.  Gradually and satisfyingly, the storylines converge on Rylance’s little boat.  And also deserving praise is the intense and unsettling music by Hans Zimmer, which cranks up the tension to near-unbearable levels.


Free Fire

I said Baby Driver was my one guilty pleasure of 2017.  Well, I lied.  Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire was my other guilty pleasure of the year.  It doesn’t have a story so much as a situation – a 1970s arms deal goes wrong in a warehouse, so that the IRA men doing the purchasing (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), the intermediaries (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer), the dealer (a marvellously annoying Sharlto Copley) and various associates and henchmen spend most of the film’s 90 minutes pinned down and gradually being shot to shreds in a massive and complicated gun-battle.  Sneakily, this saves Wheatley the bother of having to write a proper script.  But the élan with which he directs the proceedings, the bickering, bitching dialogue (“As gorgeous as ever!” Copley tells Larson.  “Well, you’ve put on a bit of weight.  Did someone impregnate you?”) and the performances by the increasingly bullet-ridden cast make Free Fire a deliriously stylish – if not particularly substantial – experience.


© Rook Films / Film 4 Productions


Get Out

The classiest horror movie of 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out uses as its starting point the uncomfortable experiences of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) enduring a weekend at the well-to-do countryside home of his white girlfriend’s family.  Her family and friends are soon making him cringe with their efforts to virtue-signal their liberalism and non-racism, enthusing about Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and the general wonderfulness of all things black, whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the fact that black servants are bringing them their food and drinks.  This being a horror film, Get Out reaches a point where it stops being a painful, satirical comedy of manners and starts being something altogether more paranoid and scary.  The result is impressively gripping but Get Out is to be applauded too for its humour.  Particularly funny is the hero’s excitable best mate (Lil Rel Howery), who’s the first person to realise something is seriously wrong: “You gotta get the f**k outta there, man!  You in some Eyes Wide Shut situation!  Leave, mother**ker!”


The Handmaiden

For The Handmaiden, South Korean director Park Chan-wook audaciously took Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel of intrigue, duplicity, kinkiness and illicit (for the time) love, and transplanted its story from Victorian England to early 20th century Korea.  The resulting work is lusciously colourful and exotic.  It benefits too from spirited performances by actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as the identity-swapping heiress and maidservant at the centre of the plot.


© Moho Film / Yong Film / CJ Entertainment


The Love Witch

If Baby Driver was an aural treat, Anne Biller’s fascinating supernatural / feminist fantasy The Love Witch was 2017’s greatest visual treat.  Its story of a young witch (Samantha Robinson), who’s self-confessedly ‘addicted to love’ and will weave any spell and wreak any havoc in order to get it, is set in a kitsch, retro-1970s California where the frocks, hats, lipstick, nail varnish, eye shadow, sportscars, suitcases, wallpapers, upholstery and candles are a gorgeous rainbow of crimsons, light blues, lavenders, pinks and cherry reds.  The film itself is a tad long, but it’s highly enjoyable, with its sweet-but-sinister script containing plenty of satirical barbs about the lengths a spell-weaving gal has to go to find love in a man’s world.



Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, like Dunkirk, features a triptych of narratives – though here the narratives are in chronological order, showing the tribulations of the central character as a child (Alex Hibbert), adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and young man (Trevante Rhodes) while he wrestles with bullies, criminality, an errant mother and a growing awareness (and acceptance) of his homosexuality.  Brilliantly written and beautifully, almost poetically, filmed, Moonlight is a rare beast indeed, a Best Picture winner at the Oscars that actually deserved to win Best Picture.


© A24 / Plan B Entertainment


A Happy New Year as 2018 blaws in


Early in 2017 I posted something on this blog with the title Caledonian Culture War.  This was about the introduction in Scotland of baby boxes – from 2017, the parents of every new-born child in Scotland will receive a box full of baby-friendly goodies like a blanket, changing mat, towel, reusable nappy, sponge and thermometer, with the box itself able to double up as a crib.  Also in the box is a poem of welcome to the bairn written by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar (poet laureate).  This is composed in Scots English and begins: “O ma darlin wee one / At last you are here in the wurld / And wi’ aa your wisdom / Your een bricht as the stars…


Unbelievably, some people had a problem with this.  And in the post, I stated I had a problem with them having a problem with it.


Yesterday I was surprised and delighted to find in this blog’s inbox an email from Jackie Kay, who’d evidently read the post and had decided to include me in her New Year greetings.  The greeting came in the form of a short poem, part of which addresses the baby-boxes controversy.  You can read it in full at the bottom of the Caledonian Culture War post, but I’ll reproduce the ending of the poem here, as the sentiment expressed is perfect for the beginning of 2018.


“…happy new year yin and all, wee yins and big yins and – here’s tae us taking a snip at oor cultivated cringe – and turning the whinge down to a low peep in this year about to blaw in, the year 2018, wha’s like us?!”


So as 2018 blaws in, I wish you all a happy, cringe-free and whinge-free New Year too.  Though I have no doubt that on this blog I will continue to find things to whinge about from time to time.


According to Western Christianity, today is the 8th day of Christmas, so technically we’re still in the middle of the festive season.  Here are photos I took the other night of the Christmas tree and New Year greeting outside the Asok Skytrain station on Bangkok’s Sumhumvit Road.



Deathlog 2017 – Part 2


© Paramount Classics


American Renaissance man Sam Shepard died on July 27th.  As a playwright he was responsible for Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985) and others; he acted in movies as varied as Days of Heaven (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); he authored two novels and directed two films; and his screenwriting credits included Zabriskie Point (1970), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and of course Paris, Texas (1984), a movie I can’t think of now without hearing Ry Cooder’s elegiac slide-guitar score in my head.


Other casualties of July 2017 included the masterly horror-movie auteur George A. Romero, who died on July 16th; Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, one-time boyish-faced star of movies like The Family Way (1966), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Loot (1970), who died on July 25th; and Chester Bennington, singer with popular nu-metal band Linkin Park, who died on July 20th – I had little time for nu-metal music generally, but I thought Linkin Park were among the sub-genre’s least offensive practitioners.  Meanwhile, departing on July 15th was distinguished movie and TV actor Martin Landau, who first gained attention as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest back in 1959.  I’ll always remember Landau for playing Commander Koenig in the TV sci-fi show Space 1999 (1975-77) and playing a washed-up, drug-addled Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s delightful Ed Wood (1994).


© Toho


Where to start in August 2017?  Old Western movie-star Ty Hardin died on August 3rd, as did hard-working British TV and film actor Robert Hardy, who was still going strong in his eighties thanks to the Harry Potter franchise.  August 7th saw the passing of Japanese actor and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who filled a rubber suit to play Godzilla in many a giant-monster movie for Japan’s Toho Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Having played Godzilla in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima changed sides, donned an ape-suit and played King Kong in 1967’s King Kong Escapes.  Passing one day later was American country-and-western singer Glen Campbell, whom I’ll remember best for one of his occasional acting roles – as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western True Grit.  The last day of August saw the demise of American TV actor Richard Anderson, fondly remembered by 1970s youngsters as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78).


Another horror-movie auteur, Tobe Hooper – of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy – passed away on August 26th.  The great English science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on August 19th; while Gordon Williams, Scottish author of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), the basis for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, died on August 20th.  And legendary Hollywood funny-man Jerry Lewis left us on August 20th.  To be honest, I found his comedy movies about as amusing as toothache, but I can’t deny an older Lewis was excellent as the cynical comedian / chat-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s twisted showbiz satire The King of Comedy (1982).


Bruce Forsyth, English TV gameshow host, entertainer and comedian – and supposedly the last person working on British television who’d first appeared on it prior to World War II – died on August 18th.  I found Forsyth’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking showbiz schtick hard to take, but I liked him for the guest appearance he made on The Muppet Show in 1976, when he helped Fozzie Bear stand up to those wizened, mean-spirited hecklers Statler and Waldorf.  That was definitely Bruce’s finest hour.


© ITC Entertainment


Len Wein, the great comic-book writer whose many achievements included creating the squishy half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing with the late Bernie Wrightson back in 1971, died on September 9th.  The following day saw the death of Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy.  I loved Donleavy’s 1955 novel The Ginger Man as a teenager, though I wonder if I would find it a bit juvenile if I read it again today.  Grant Hart, who manned the drumkit for the brilliant 1980s alterative-punk band Hüsker Dü, died on September 14th, and one day later yet another Twin Peaks (and Paris, Texas) alumni, the marvellous American character actor Harry Dean Stanton, passed away.  Another American actor, Bernie Casey, died on September 19th.  Casey’s roles included that of Felix Leiter in the ‘rogue’ Sean Connery / James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1982), which made him the cinema’s first black Felix Leiter a quarter-century before Jeffrey Wright landed the part in the Daniel Craig Bond films.


Boxer Jake LaMotta, whose chequered career formed the basis for the classic Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull (1980), died on September 20th.  A week later saw the death of Hugh Hefner, millionaire founder of Playboy magazine.  With his playmate-filled mansion and penchant for pyjamas, pipes and ship’s-captain hats, Hefner struck me as a sleazy and infantile old letch.  But I can’t belittle his literary taste – in between the nudie pictures, Playboy published work by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and many more.


September 25th marked the death of English actor Tony Booth, best-known as a cast-member in the controversial but influential BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and for being the real-life father of Cherie Booth, i.e. Mrs Tony Blair.  Here’s a fascinating fact: Booth claimed his great-great-great-uncle’s son was John Wilkes Booth, who was both an actor and the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.  I wonder if the staunchly socialist Booth felt tempted to emulate his ancestor once his son-in-law had been in office for a few years and shown his true colours.


The music world suffered another blow on October 3rd with the death of the agreeable American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, while the comedy world said goodbye to the ground-breaking Irish comedian Sean Hughes on October 16th.  The same day saw the passing of venerable Guernsey actor Roy Dotrice, whose career stretched from The Heroes of Telemark (1965) to Hellboy II (2008), via 1984’s Amadeus where he played the title character’s father.  Like many a veteran British character actor, Doctrice got a late-career boost when he was cast in Game of Thrones (2011-present).  Other actors to die in October included Robert Guillaume – wonderful as Benson, droll butler to the chaotic Tate family in the American TV comedy Soap (1977-81) – and on October 9th the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort.  Ironically, Rochefort may be best-known to English-speaking audiences for a role he didn’t play.  He was lined up to be Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally ill-fated and eventually-cancelled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  In anticipation, Rochefort even learned to speak English.  The 2002 documentary Lost in La Manca tells the story of this epic that never happened.


From goseelivemusic.co


October 22nd saw the death of Daisy Berkowitz, one-time guitarist to Goth-metaller / shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and on October 19th the Italian movie director Umberto Lenzi passed away.  Lenzi was prolific in several genres, but I’ll remember him chiefly for his 1974 thriller Spasmo, an elegant if not terribly sensible example of the Italian giallo genre.


November brought a rash of music-related deaths – Chuck Mosely, the 1980s frontman for the great American alternative / funk-metal band Faith No More, on November 9th; Michael Davis (nicknamed ‘Dik Mik’), who in the 1970s operated the appropriately futuristic-sounding ‘audio-generator’ for the legendary ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, on November 16th; and Australian-born TV composer Dudley Simpson, who died on November 4th.   Simpson’s career-highlights include the incidental music for Doctor Who during its creepiest phase in the 1970s and the unsettling and pulsating theme tune for The Tomorrow People (1973-79).  Saddest of all for me, however, was the passing on November 18th of Australian guitarist Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC / DC and mastermind behind that band’s mightiest guitar riffs.


November was also a bad month for British TV sitcom actors, witnessing the deaths of Keith Barron on November 15th and Rodney Bewes on November 21st.  In between television work, both men appeared occasionally in films – I particularly remember Barron in 1974’s movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Bewes (playing James Mason’s son) in the 1970 adaptation of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine.  Meanwhile, actor John Hillerman died on November 9th.  Hillerman played Higgins, the snotty English concierge of Tom Selleck’s building in Magnum P.I. (1980-88).  So convincing was he in the role that following his death I was surprised to learn he’d actually hailed from Texas.


© Universal Television


Finally, German actress Karin Dor died on November 9th.  In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the villainous Dor tried unsuccessfully to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond by trapping him in a plummeting airplane.  Then her boss Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) punished her for her failure by dropping her through a trapdoor into a pool of hungry piranha fish – and lo, a cinematic cliché was born.


On December 6th, France mourned the death of its very own Elvis Presley, the Gallic rock-and-roller Johnny Hallyday.  I’m unfamiliar with Hallyday’s music, but fondly remember his acting performance in the 2002 movie L’Homme du Train.  In this, he starred alongside Jean Rochefort, who’d died just two months previously.  Indeed, the film’s ending, where both men die simultaneously and wind up standing together in ghost form on an ethereal railway platform, seems sadly and eerily prophetic now.  Five days later saw the death of English entertainer Keith Chegwin, whose relentlessly cheery presence was a staple of British children’s TV during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Swap Shop (1976-82) and Cheggers Plays Pop (1978-86).  Later, self-deprecatingly and post-modernly, Chegwin played himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-13) and the movie Kill Keith (2011); but I liked him best for his appearance, at the age of 14, as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ultra-violent version of Macbeth (1971).


Bob Givens, the veteran American animator who designed the world’s coolest cartoon rabbit, Bugs Bunny, died on December 14th; while Christmas Eve saw the death of American actress Heather Menzies.  She was best-known for playing one of the Von Trapp children in wholesome musical blockbuster The Sound of Music (1965) but I preferred her for playing the heroine of a less wholesome movie, the Joe Dante-directed / John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).  Following her death, Dante called her a“lovely person who was immensely helpful and supportive as the star of Piranha, my first solo directing job.”


Finally, December 2017 saw the departures of two men who, in different ways, were excellent ambassadors for the world of science.  Heinz Wolff, the German-born scientist who appeared on British TV shows like Young Scientist of the Year (1966-81) and The Great Egg Race (1979-86) and who, with his bald, domed head and bowtie, looked splendidly like how you’d imagine a scientist to look, died on December 15th.  Meanwhile, space-shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 became the first human being to make an untethered flight in space, died on December 21st.  It seems dishearteningly symbolic that their deaths came at the end of a year when the most powerful man on earth was a nincompoop who didn’t just seem ignorant of science, but actively seemed to despise it.


From theinquirer.net



Deathlog 2017 – Part 1


© Eon Productions


The Grim Reaper seemed to cull a record number of big-name celebrities in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Muhammed Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher.  2017 has seen less carnage, but nonetheless some people I admired have passed away.  Here’s a post about them.  Links are provided to those people whom I’ve already written about on Blood and Porridge.


January 19th and 21st saw the deaths of British writers Hilary Bailey and Emma Tennant, who by a sad coincidence were friends and occasional collaborators.  I read some of Bailey’s work in the New Worlds Quarterly paperback series that she’d edited in the 1970s – the series was a reincarnation of the famous science-fiction magazine New Worlds that her one-time husband Michael Moorcock had edited during the previous decade.  I’m unfamiliar with Tennant’s work but have a tenuous link with her.  She belonged to the aristocratic Glenconner family who owned the Glen, a mansion in the hills a few miles southeast of my Scottish hometown of Peebles.  I’ve hiked past the Glen many a time and, according to Tennant’s Wikipedia entry, she lived there as a child and remembered it as “the strangest place possible.”


January 27th saw a further literary demise, of novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty.  He authored The Exorcist (1971), which was made into the ground-breaking and massively successful horror movie of the same name two years later.  In 1990 Blatty directed the film’s second sequel, Exorcist III, which has its admirers; and in 1980 The Ninth Configuration, a movie ignored on its release but now viewed as an offbeat classic.   Film critic Mark Kermode described Configuration as “a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action.”


© Warner Brothers


Also checking out in January were American character actor Miguel Ferrer – Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) – on February 19th; acclaimed English actor John Hurt on January 25th; Scottish politician Tam Dalyell on January 26th; and, on January 25th, the American film and TV actress Mary Tyler Moore.  Through her sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), she was instrumental in getting American television to portray women in a more proactive and empowered fashion.


January 26th saw the death of a more conventional American TV performer, Mike Connors, who played tough-guy private investigator Mannix from 1967 to 1975.  Mannix fans presumably included a young Quentin Tarantino, who named a character after the P.I. in 2015’s The Hateful Eight.  Two days later saw the passing of keyboardist and guitarist Geoff Nicholls, who played in legendary Brum heavy-metal band Black Sabbath from 1980 to 2004.


February was had a relatively low death toll, although on February 17th we said goodbye to another Twin Peaks alumni, Warren Frost, who played the kindly Doc Hayward in its first two series in 1990-91 and briefly in its 2017 revival series.  And the much-loved movie character actor Bill Paxton died on February 26th.


March 14th saw the death of veteran American film producer Jack H. Harris, who’ll surely be remembered as ‘Father of the Blob’.  Not only did he produce hoary sci-fi monster movie The Blob in 1958 (starring Steve McQueen as an unfeasibly old teenager) but he masterminded its 1972 sequel Beware! the Blob, which was directed by none other than J.R. Ewing himself Larry Hagman and thus became known as ‘the movie that J.R. shot.’  Furthermore, Harris produced the 1988 remake, directed by Chuck Russell, and at the time of his death was trying to get a second remake off the ground.  On March 18th seminal rock-and-roller Chuck Berry passed away, and the following day the masterly American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson died too.  Checking out on March 26th was actress Darlene Cates, splendid as Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio’s mother in the 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?


© MGM / United Artists


American funny man Don Rickles died on April 6th.  I wasn’t a fan of Rickles’ humour (“Who picks your clothes?  Stevie Wonder?”) but as an actor he was memorably nasty in Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and memorably pathetic in John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992).  One day later, the English stage, film, TV and radio actor Tim Pigott-Smith passed away.  My juvenile self will always remember Pigott-Smith for playing: (1) Hotspur (to Jon Finch’s Henry IV, David Gwillim’s Hal and Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff) in the 1979 BBC production of Henry IV Part 1, which I was made to watch at school; and (2) Thallo in 1981’s Clash of the Titans.  Meanwhile, bowing out on April 12th was Charlie Murphy, elder brother to Eddie Murphy and a distinguished comic performer in his own right.  His Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories turn on Comedy Central’s Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006) was hilarious, perhaps most of all when he described an alleged encounter with Prince, where the diminutive funky singer-musician showed an unexpected flair for basketball.


We also saw the departures of American blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Brooks on April 3rd; hugely influential British comics artist Leo Baxendale on April 23rd; and American guitarist John Warren Geils Jnr, mainspring of the J. Geils Band on April 11th – how I loved the Geils song Centerfold when I was a fifteen-year-old.  American director Jonathan Demme, whose CV included Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), died on April 26th.


And American character actor Clifton James died on April 15th.  James was best-known for playing redneck police officer Sheriff Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, 1974’s Live and Let Die and 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  (In the latter film, Sheriff Pepper turns out to be less of a redneck than expected.  Holidaying with his wife in East Asia, he refuses to have his photo taken with an elephant: “Elephants!  We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”)  For a more nuanced Clifton James performance, however, check out his supporting role in Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1975).


© 20th Century Fox


Another notable movie policeman passed away the following month, on May 10th: Michael Parks, who played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dawn to Dust (1996), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and the Rodriguez / Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse (2007).   Parks also played the villainous Jean Renault in the first two series of Twin Peaks (1990-91) – so yes, he was another Twin Peaks casualty of 2017.  Another man who was no stranger to violent action-thrillers, character actor Powers Boothe, died on May 14th.  Boothe’s career saw him perform in such gritty movies as Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) and Extreme Prejudice (1987), Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005).


Other notable actors departing in May included the cinema’s longest-serving James Bond, Sir Roger Moore, who died on May 23rd; and English character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, who passed away on May 10th.  Bayldon appeared in British horror films like The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (both 1972) but will be remembered by British TV viewers my age for playing a medieval wizard transported by magic to the present day in the children’s fantasy show Catweazle (1970-71).  Meanwhile, the musical world took a hit on May 18th with the death of yet another grunge-band frontman, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.


From Wikipedia


Before taking leave of May, we should raise a glass of vodka to the memory of Soviet Air Defence Forces officer Stanislav Petrov, who died on May 19th.  Petrov is credited with saving the world from nuclear destruction in 1983.  Suspicious of an early-warning report about an American missile approaching the USSR, he disobeyed an order to launch a retaliatory strike.  The initial report turned out to be false, the result of a malfunction in the satellite tracking system.  Phew.  Looking at the shitty state of international politics in the early 21st century, I suspect we’ll need a few more people of Stanislav Petrov’s calibre in the years ahead.


June 2017 wreaked havoc in the world of children’s TV entertainment.  On June 9th it claimed Adam West, square-jawed star of the campy old Batman TV show (1966-68); on June 19th Brian Cant, narrator of the revered British stop-motion-animation shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969); and on June 5th, the venerable Peter Sallis, who provided the voice for Gromit in Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit quintet.  Sallis also played Norman Clegg in all 295 episodes of the BBC’s seemingly never-ending sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010) and appeared in a couple of Hammer horror movies.  I love the fact that he was in both the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the Wallace and Gromit epic Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).


© Aardman Animations


Anita Pallenberg, 1960s icon, actress and muse to the Rolling Stones died on June 13th and Dave Rosser, guitarist with the reformed American alternative-rock band the Afghan Whigs, died on June 27th.  Finally, June 30th saw the passing of Barry Norman, English movie critic and host of the BBC’s long-running Film… review show from 1972 to 1998.  I disagreed with many of Norman’s opinions – he could be annoyingly conservative and prissy in his tastes – but he performed his duties with undeniable wit, charm and aplomb.  And a long time before the Internet, when the UK media didn’t seem particularly interested in films as an artform, his weekly show was an invaluable lifeline for cinephiles like myself.


To be continued…  Alas.




My favourite Christmas things


From pixabay.com


This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.



Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.



In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.


Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.


© Vintage


Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.


Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.


© First Look Pictures


For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!




Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)




As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.


© Charlemagne Productions Ltd


Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?


Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.


From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com


So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.