I hear you’re a racist now, SNP

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Well, that was nice of the Scottish Labour Party.  Last weekend, they held their spring conference and presumably, like any political party, they hoped they’d present themselves in a good light.  Good enough to win a few new voters or, in their case, win back a few old voters.  Because in recent years the Scottish Labour Party has haemorrhaged support – in 1999 it had 56 seats in the Scottish Parliament and another 56 in the Westminster one, compared with 24 Scottish seats and just one Westminster seat today.  And a great many of those former Labour voters have defected to the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

 

So in their wisdom what did Scottish Labour do?  They got Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, to come to Scotland on Saturday and give a conference speech that accused the SNP of racism.  Yep, that’ll win those old supporters back.  Call them racists.

 

Specifically, Khan talked of “Brexit, the election of President Trump and the rise of populist and narrow nationalist parties around the world” and said there was no difference between the likes of the SNP and “those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion.”  Which sounds like a pretty good definition of racism to me.

 

Admittedly, when Khan delivered the speech, he tried to tone it down slightly – but the damage had been done for it’d already been printed in the Scottish Labour-supporting tabloid the Daily Record.  And it sparked a tremendous uproar from SNP supporters, furious that despite backing a party that’s probably the most pro-immigration and pro-European Union of the major parties in Britain today, they’d been told they were no better than, say, the British National Party, National Front and English and Scottish Defence Leagues.  You know, real racist organisations.

 

One thing that stuck in many people’s craws was the fact that back before the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, while the SNP had campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote, the BNP, National Front, EDL and SDL had all campaigned for a ‘no’ one.  Indeed, the racists’ campaign literature had often warned that in an independent Scotland the SNP would bring in more immigrants, more refugees, more Muslims, etc.  Though I have to say this picture tweeted by ex-BNP leader Nick Griffin as a warning about how an independent Scotland would look is so cool it surely made more people vote for independence than against it.

 

© Metro

 

Incidentally, Khan’s mention of religious divisiveness seems ironic too considering that there have been moments in recent history when his party in Scotland has cosied up to the pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic Orange Order – Labour councillors in Falkirk handing more than £1000 of public money to the Order in May 2016, for instance, or Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council throwing more cash at it in June 2012 so it could stage street parties in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

 

https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/8416/labour-party-council-leader-votes-give-orange-order-community-funding

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13060185.City_funds_Orange_events/

 

Labour’s response to the furore was to claim that, because Khan comes from a British Pakistani family, anyone disputing his ‘SNP equals racism’ claims were themselves racist. Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament Anas Sarwar, also of Pakistani descent, tweeted: “Quite ironic that 2 brown guys are being abused / trolled by mob of angry white men in a racism row.”

 

Actually, the people who got angry about Khan’s speech included the correspondent Robert J. Somynne, lawyer Aamer Anwar, entrepreneur Yasmin A. Choudhury and SNP politicians Humza Yousaf and Tasmina Sheikh, none of whom are ‘white guys’.  Not all of them are ‘guys’, either.

 

At least Khan received some backing from Scotland’s not-in-love-with-the-SNP mainstream press.  Among those voicing support for him were Stephen Daisley, columnist for the totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Daily Mail, and Iain Martin, former deputy editor, head of comment, columnist and blogger with the totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Telegraph newspapers.

 

Then on Monday evening the Guardian newspaper poured fuel on the fire and published an opinion piece by a PhD student at Stirling University called Claire Heuchan.  Baldly titled THE PARALLELS BETWEEN SCOTTISH NATIONALISM AND RACISM ARE CLEAR, the piece promptly started its own shitstorm.  By the time the Guardian decided to close the comments thread underneath, two hours after it’d appeared, there were 1242 comments – many of them not written in admiration of Heuchan’s thought-processes.

 

Well, regular readers of this blog will know that I’m sympathetic to both the SNP and its goal of an independent Scotland and I have to say Heuchan’s Guardian piece annoyed me even more than Khan’s speech, mainly because her arguments were so half-baked.  For example: “Zeal for national identity invariably raises questions of who belongs and who is an outsider”, which makes me wonder why this has to be a peculiarly Scottish issue.  After all, zeal for national identity in Britain as a whole amputated the country from the European Union recently and left many EU nationals living in Britain fearful for their futures.  Actually, if national identity’s so bad, shouldn’t Heuchan be petitioning for Britain to shed its borders and merge with France, Germany and everywhere else in Europe?

 

She criticises the independence movement for its supposed belief that that Scotland is better than England, which will be news to those who simply want an independent Scotland run by the people who live in it – including English folk, ethnic minorities and EU nationals – because they believe it would be better run that way than by Westminster.  Not better than England or anywhere else, but just better than how Scotland is now.

 

She castigates independence supporters for holding England “accountable for all the wrongs of imperial expansion while denying this country’s own colonial legacy”, which forgets that prominent pro-independence Scottish historians like Tom Devine have written extensively about Scotland’s role in shaping the British Empire.

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/6524149.stm

 

Then there are the claims that Heuchan, who’s a person of colour, makes about whiteness.  Being white means your’re entirely immune and oblivious to racism, apparently.  The trade unionist Claire Hepworth is criticised for tweeting that she’s never heard any of her SNP-supporting friends and followers being racist.  “Comments such as Hepworth’s only make it harder for people of colour to come forward about the discrimination we face…”  Suggesting that because she doesn’t know anyone who’s racist, Hepworth is an accomplice to racism.  And a claim that “(w)hite SNP supporters and allies have never been subject to racism” seems unlikely considering that many SNP voters in Scotland are of Irish descent or belong to other white national groups and quite possibly have been subject to racism.

 

Soon after the Guardian’s comments thread was closed, Heuchan disappeared from Twitter too.  I imagine certain newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the also totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Daily Express will soon be running horror stories about her being hounded off Twitter by racist SNP scumbags.

 

To be honest, I suspect the real reason why the Twitter account vanished was because people were reading her past tweets and finding items from before the 2014 independence referendum that showed she was a ‘British and proud’ activist campaigning for a ‘no’ vote. Now Heuchan is free to define her identity whatever way she likes.  But it might have been wise to temper her piece with a wee bit of balance and admit that British nationalism can be racist too.  Ask those many people who were abused on British streets for speaking a language other than English during the giddy days that followed dear old Blighty voting for Brexit.

 

No political movement consists wholly of angels.  I’m sure a few racist bampots who object to both coloured people and English people do support the cause of Scottish independence.  And I know that in the past the SNP had its share of anti-English bigots.  (Though in the 1980s I knew some Scottish Labour supporters who’d mouth off about ‘English bastards’ too, on account of them voting Maggie Thatcher into power every four years.)

 

But if the pro-EU, pro-immigration SNP are going to be maligned as racists, what does that make Theresa May’s Conservative Party, hellbent on steering Britain out of Europe, using EU nationals in Britain as ‘bargaining chips’, ramping up the rhetoric against immigrants and refugees and toadying to a bigoted thug like Donald Trump?  Indeed, what does that make Sadiq Khan’s Labour Party, now that at Westminster they’ve resolved to support the Conservatives over Brexit?

 

Worse, I’d say.  Much worse.

 

© The Independent

 

Bill Paxton too? That’s just f***ing great, man…

 

© F/M Entertainment / DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group

 

Despite my best efforts, this blog in the last couple of years has tended to resemble a series of obituaries.  I’m afraid this tendency must continue today as I’ve just heard the news that the American actor Bill Paxton has died at the age of 61 from complications following surgery.

 

In American movies of the 1980s and 1990s Paxton seemed ubiquitous.  He turned up in the populist likes of Stripes (1981), Weird Science (1985), Commando (1985), Navy Seals (1990), Predator 2 (1990), Tombstone (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), Twister (1996) and Mighty Joe Young (1998).  Though not all his films could be described as ‘populist’.  I suspect I’m the only person in the world who remembers he was in Jennifer Lynch’s arthouse misfire Boxing Helena (1993) with Sherilyn Fenn and Julian Sands.

 

From all accounts an affable and good-humoured Texan, he probably had the right temperament to get on with certain directors who had the reputation of being hard-asses.  He worked with Walter Hill in Streets of Fire (1984) and Trespass (1992) – the latter movie I like to think of as ‘the Bills versus the Ices’, since it’s about a pair of treasure-hunting firemen played by Paxton and Bill Sadler falling foul of a pair of gangsters played by Ice Cube and Ice T.  He worked too with the no-nonsense Katherine Bigelow in the haunting horror-western Near Dark (1987), playing one of a band of vampires who roam the dusty prairies and prey on unsuspecting cowboys.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

But it was with Bigelow’s former beau, the single-minded James Cameron, that Paxton got some of his most famous roles: as a punk clobbered by a naked and just-arrived-from-the future Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) (“I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack!”), the alternatively bragging and blubbering man-child Private Hudson in Aliens (1986) and the sleazeball car salesman Simon who pretends to be a secret agent in order to get into Jamie Lee Curtis’s pants in True Lies (1994).  He was also in one other movie Cameron made in the late 1990s – I can’t remember its name but Leonardo DiCaprio was in it.  Whatever happened to him?

 

The great thing about Paxton was that though he frequently performed in a supporting role, he was often the most memorable thing in the movie.  His characters were commonly loud and obnoxious and had an inflated sense of their abilities, but they were very funny as a result.  This was never more so than with the motor-mouthed Private Hudson in Aliens, who despite everything else that’s going on in that movie manages, just about, to steal the show.  Before the aliens show up, he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry.  Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you…  We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!”  And after they show up, he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked!”  Inevitably, many of the people paying homage to Paxton on Twitter last night were tweeting another of his Aliens quotes, the brief but legendary “Game over!”

 

© I.R.S. Releasing

 

Occasionally, he got a chance to step forward into the shoes of leading man and the results were excellent.  He was tremendous in Carl Franklin’s One False Move as Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon, the good-natured but naïve hick sheriff who’s doesn’t seem to know what’s coming when a trio of murderous psychos (including one played by the movie’s co-writer, Billy Bob Thornton) flee the law in Los Angeles and head for his town.  You find yourself seriously fearing for him as the movie nears its end.  He also impressed in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) about three people in a wintry mid-western town – Paxton’s blue-collar plodder, his wife (Bridget Fonda) and his slow-witted brother (Billy Bob Thornton again) – whose lives are drastically changed, seemingly for the better but in reality much for the worse, when a mysterious crashed plane sets a huge cache of money in their laps.  Also worth checking out is the horror film Frailty (2001), which Paxton directed as well as starred in, alongside Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe.

 

Six years ago, I unexpectedly found myself present at the making of history – and I unexpectedly found myself thinking of Bill Paxton too.  I was living in Tunis at the time and one January morning I wandered down to the centre of the Tunisian capital to find out why a huge crowd of protestors had gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior building.  This would have been unthinkable just 24 hours earlier – Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s security goons would have dragged any protestors away, thrown them into a cell and beaten the shit out of them.  This mass protest, it transpired, was the tipping point of the Arab Spring.  Ben Ali fled the country that same day and other Arab dictators started toppling like dominoes soon after.  Anyway, I noticed how some protestors were holding signs towards the ministry building that bore the message GAME OVER! – Private Hudson’s famous line from Aliens.

 

I know it’s improbable, but I’d like to think this showed that even the murky and complicated world of North African Arab politics had been affected by the acting talent and sheer entertainment value of the great, but now unfortunately late, Bill Paxton.

 

© Times of Malta

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: San Antonio’s art museums

 

 

When I visited Texas a little while ago, one thing I didn’t expect to encounter a lot of was highbrow culture.  Indeed, during my first few days there, my expectations of encountering such a thing got lower still as I noticed certain details about the place.  Details such as a Texan fondness for car-window stickers saying WE DON’T DIAL 911, WE USE COLT 45.  Or the rolls of novelty toilet paper on sale in Texan souvenir stores that had Barack Obama’s face on them.  Or the hulking roadside signs bearing the message THINK GOD in stark black letters.  All these suggested I wasn’t in a part of the North American land mass much given to Manhattan-style cosmopolitanism and culture-vulture posing.

 

However, after another couple of days, I realised I’d been wrong.  There is culture to be found in the USA’s biggest state and it isn’t just the culture you find festering on a half-eaten and month-old Big Mac.  At least, there’s culture to be found in the Texan city I was staying in, San Antonio.

 

Here are my thoughts on three of the art museums I discovered in San Antonio which taught me not to jump the gun in drawing conclusions about people and how highbrow or lowbrow they are.  (That said, ‘jump the gun’ does sound like an appropriate Texan expression.)

 

Sandwiched between the River Walk and West Market Street in central San Antonio, the Briscoe Western Art Museum is the type of cultural institution you’d expect to find in Texas.  Its mission, to quote its website, is “celebrating the art, heritage and history of the American West”.   Hence you get to see such items as a painted wood, steel and leather chuck wagon that would dispense ‘hot coffee, beans and biscuits’ to tired and hungry cowboys out on their rounds; a monstrous-looking beartrap collected by “J. Frank Doble, among the West’s finest writers and historians”; a 1950s / 1960s prairie windmill for pumping water up out of subterranean aquifers; and a collection of more than a hundred cowboy spurs from the 18th to 20th centuries.  Seemingly hovering in mid-air behind sheets of display-case glass, those spurs resemble a moored fleet of steampunk submarines, powered by star-shaped paddles at their sterns.

 

 

There’s also a diorama of 1836’s legendary Alamo siege, which is much better than the one on display in the Alamo itself.  And you get to see some American West-themed paintings.  I recall being impressed by Terri Kelly’s Contemplación and Oleg Stavrowsky’s And Stay Off – both pictured below.

 

From pinterest.com 

From briscoemuseum.org

 

The final museum-room I visited had some lovely old posters advertising America’s national parks.  (Take a bow, John Muir.)  They had a pleasing 1930s-ish look to them and I detected a hint of Art Deco too, though maybe it was just me.

 

 

The Briscoe’s museum shop, of course, is dedicated to all things Western and cowboy.  I thought it was brave of them to have on their bookshelves a few copies of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

 

 

While the Briscoe deals with local culture, the San Antonio Museum of Art, on the River Walk too but out of the downtown area, up by West Jones Avenue and almost at the expressway, is unashamedly internationalist.  You should set aside a good couple of hours to do this institution justice for it contains a lot of stuff.  SAMA, as it’s called, features everything from 18th and 19th century European paintings to Oceanian spirit masks, from Buddhist statues to samurai armour, from Islamic-world ceramics to Chinese Qing Dynasty vases, from Korean folding screens to Egyptian sarcophagi.  I could probably fill this blog from now until next Christmas with information about what I saw there.  But I’ll mention a very few of my highlights.

 

Being Irish, I enjoyed the display of ‘Irish silver’ up on the fourth floor, which featured silver in every culinary form you could think of: corkscrews, wine coolers, cups, funnels, ladles, teapots, jugs, chocolate pots, toast racks, tankards, decanter stands, beakers, ewers, chalices, urns, cruets, sauceboats, butter dishes, fruit bowls, teaspoons and toasting forks.

 

 

In the Oceania section, I liked the ‘male ancestor figure’ from Papua New Guinea.  Made of wood and shells, he sported a conical head, long nose, vacant expression and large arched member and he stood upon a luckless-looking squatting monkey.  Another unhappy monkey was one in the Chinese section kneeling under the weight of a Tang Dynasty ‘spirit guardian’, whose distinctive features included a pig-like snout and chin, a twisting tusk erupting from his cranium and weaving flame-like spikes behind him.

 

 

And in the South Asian section there’s a fascinating Buddhist mandala made of marble sand.  A mandala, it’s explained “is a cosmic diagram made of concentric circles and squares representing the symbolic home of a deity… used as tools for meditation and in spiritual development.”  SAMA is only one of four American museums to contain a mandala, as normally they are taken apart after a few days to symbolise the transience of things: “Permission to preserve this mandala was granted by his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as a gesture to promote peace and harmony.”

 

 

Alas, I didn’t have time to look at SAMA’s collection of Latin American art, contained in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Centre on the ground floor.

 

And lastly to my favourite gallery in San Antonio, the McNay Art Musueum, north of the city centre, in Alamo Heights and on North New Braunfels Avenue.  The McNay is the oldest institution of its type in Texas, dating back to 1854.  Just inside its entrance stand some fun sculptures, such as Seymour Lipton’s Moloch, which resembles a mantrap folded into the shape of a pitbull terrier, or one by David Smith, which resembles a tangled weather vane but is really a representation of Groucho Marx’s face – look closely and you might spot his bowtie, cigar, moustache and glasses.  However, the real goodies are the paintings on display further inside.

 

 

They include works by Cezanne, Chagall, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Rousseau and Van Gogh.  I particularly liked Edward Hopper’s Corn Hill, 1930, whose explanatory notes include this quote by the artist himself: “Maybe I am not very human.  What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house”; Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portrait with the Idol, which has lurking in its top right corner the Polynesian goddess Hina, “symbol of happiness, calm and peace”; and Georgia O’Keefe’s From the Plains I, inspired by the summers that the artist spent in the stark landscapes of New Mexico.

 

From wikiart.org

From wikiart.org

 

There’s also a neat little Medieval and Renaissance Art section, containing more paintings as well as altarpieces, limestone and wooden statues (of Mary Magdalene, St Paul, St Anthony and sundry other saints), stained glass and the inevitable representations of the Madonna and Child.  Actually, the atmosphere engendered by those venerable religious artefacts did more to make me ‘think God’ than any giant sign planted by the roadside.

 

 

Britain’s number-two pub argument settled

 

From camannwordsmith.com

 

Tom Baker.

 

There.  That’s conclusively settled an argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  And after they’ve had their first big argument, about who is the best James Bond.  (I sorted that one out a few months ago.  It’s Sean Connery.  See here: http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6620.)

 

The argument this time, of course, is: who is the best Doctor Who?  Incidentally, I suspect it’s been raging a lot lately, stoked up by news that the most recent incumbent in the role, Peter Capaldi, has decided to call it a day and the BBC have started looking for a replacement to play the much-loved TV Time Lord.

 

It’s a tricky question.  There are essentially three types of Doctor: the crazy, eccentric ones (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Matt Smith), the stern, grumpy ones (William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, Christopher Eccleston, John Hurt, Capaldi) and the swoon-some pretty-boy ones (Peter Davison, Paul McGann, David Tennant).  And as people are naturally inclined towards one of the three groups, the crazy, the stern or the swoon-some, it’s difficult to judge all 13 contenders without bias.

 

Anyway, here’s my ranking of the actors who’ve played Doctor Who, from best to worst.  This is strictly an official list and I’ve avoided folk who’ve played the Doctor in projects outside the TV-show canon like Peter Cushing, Trevor Martin, Richard E. Grant, David Warner, Geoffrey Bayldon and Rowan Atkinson.

 

In descending order, we have:

 

Tom Baker

Matt Smith

Jon Pertwee

Patrick Troughton

Peter Capaldi

John Hurt

Christopher Eccleston

William Hartnell

Colin Baker

Paul McGann

Sylvester McCoy

David Tennant

Peter Davison

 

© BBC

 

To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Tom Baker is the best Doctor Who needs his or her head examined.  He came crashing into the series in 1975, with his mellifluous voice, wide eyes, curly hair, toothy grin, wide-brimmed hat and super-long scarf, and made the role his own.  When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.  And when the show celebrated its 50th anniversary in November 2013 with a feature-length episode called Day of the Doctor, it was Baker who appeared as the show’s sole representative from the old days.  Actually, there was no way they could not have got the mighty Tom involved in the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

 

© BBC

 

Number two in my list is the second-most-recent Doctor, Matt Smith.  I have to say that back in 2009, when it was announced that Matt Smith would take the role over from David Tennant, my expectations weren’t high.  Largely this was because Smith was only 26 years old at the time, which seemed ridiculously young for any actor attempting to play the Doctor.  However, I was pleasantly surprised because I thought Matt Smith’s Doctor was delightful.  He managed to be endearingly clumsy and child-like, yet also serene and wise; compassionate and yet plausibly alien.  Smith’s unusual physique, with a face that looked like it’d been chiselled by an Easter Island stonemason, helped greatly.

 

The third actor in the list is also the third actor to play the Doctor chronologically, Jon Pertwee.  Among Who fans today Pertwee is a divisive figure.  His detractors accuse him of turning the cerebral and pacifistic Doctor into a swanky action hero.  He attired himself flamboyantly in a velvet smoking jacket, frilly shirt and cape.  He had a Jeremy Clarkson-like predilection for driving fast, if vintage, motor cars.  And he had no qualms about thumping anyone who antagonised him – which was Jeremy Clarkson-like too, come to think of it.

 

To those allegations I can only reply, who cares?  When I was a kid during Pertwee’s tenure in the early 1970s, his impact was immense.  For me and my school-mates and probably everyone else in Britain under the age of the twelve at the time, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.  Not only was he unafraid of alien monsters, but he karate-chopped the bastards – wow!  (Though technically speaking, the martial art he was adept in was really an alien one called Vensuvian Aikido.)

 

He was also equipped with marvellous eyebrows that became prominent at the point in each serial when the latest, hideous alien monster revealed itself.  Pertwee would customarily respond to it with a splendid reaction shot, eyebrows climbing off the top of his forehead.  Like so:

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Patrick Troughton, who as well as being the much-admired second Doctor was also a long-serving character actor, often in British horror films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963), The Black Torment (1964), Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976).  In that last one he played a priest who got skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church, a moment that still chills me.  Movies where Doctor Who gets killed I always find hard-core.

 

Troughton’s Doctor was impish and dishevelled, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges.  His influence on subsequent doctors (especially Matt Smith) has been considerable and it’s just a pity that many of the episodes featuring him have been lost.  Before 1978 the BBC had no policy about archiving the tapes of its old shows and as a result they wiped much of the early Doctor Who.  Stupid sods.

 

Then we have the current but soon-to-depart Doctor, Glaswegian Peter Capaldi.  At first I struggled to accept Capaldi in the role.  His abrasively Scottish take on it put me in mind of Malcolm Tucker, the ferocious and spectacularly foul-mouthed spin doctor he played in the satirical comedy show The Thick of It (2005-2012).  Indeed, it was difficult to think of him as anyone other than Tucker.  However, in 2015, I saw him give a tour-de-force performance in an episode called Heaven Sent.  It was so good it finally purged me of all memories of psychotic profanity-spewing Caledonian spin doctors.  And on the strength of that I’ve bumped him up to number five in the list.

 

© BBC

 

Long-term fans of the show often grump about how the modern, revived version of it has cast younger actors in the title role.  But Nu-Who, as it’s nicknamed, has actually featured two older Doctors: the 58-year-old Capaldi and my sixth-favourite Doctor, John Hurt, who alas passed away last month at the age of 77.  In 2013 he turned up as a surprise version of the character called the War Doctor whom nobody had known about.  Until then, the Doctor had kept this incarnation of himself secret because the War Doctor had done something very un-Doctorly.  He’d saved the universe by ending the most cataclysmic war it’d ever known, between the Daleks and Time Lords – but in doing so he’d had to commit genocide and wipe both the Daleks and Time Lords out.  As well as being a bad-ass Doctor, Hurt, who appeared in 2013’s Day of the Doctor alongside Matt Smith and David Tenant, was amusingly curmudgeonly and he kept berating the modern Doctors Smith and Tenant for being young, silly, flirty and frivolous.  In other words, writer / showrunner Stephen Moffat made Hurt the mouthpiece of all those grumpy long-term Doctor Who fans.

 

© BBC

 

The next-best Doctors, in my view, are the two who kick-started the show in its modern and original forms: Christopher Eccleston, who took on the role when the series was revived in 2005; and the venerable William Hartnell, who played the Doctor when it debuted in 1963.  Dour, northern, working class, basically the Ken Loach Doctor, Eccleston gave the character some much-needed street cred and it’s a pity he didn’t remain with the show for more than one season.  That said, he never looked comfortable with the comedic elements of his scripts.

 

Hartnell’s Doctor was starchy, cranky, patriarchal and hard to like.  Yet there are moments from his grainy black-and-white tenure, such as the farewell speech he gives to his granddaughter Susan – “Yes, I shall come back.  Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.  Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine” – that still raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

 

© BBC

 

And now it’s time to take a deep breath.  For I’ve put Colin Baker at number nine in the list, and not last at number thirteen as most people would – just as George Lazenby regularly finishes last in lists of favourite James Bonds.  I’ve always felt the second Baker, and sixth Doctor, had an unfair rap.  When he arrived in the mid-1980s he had some dire scripts to contend with, but those weren’t his fault; and he deserved credit for trying to steer the character back to the irascible one played by William Hartnell.  Unfortunately, for many fans, Colin Baker’s Doctor was a non-starter because of his costume.  For some unfathomable reason the then-producer, John Nathan-Turner, decided to tog him out in an awesomely repulsive multi-coloured coat – probably the worst decision in the show’s history.  Adding insult to injury, poor old Baker then had to suffer the fallout of the second-worst decision in its history, again made by Nathan-Turner, which was casting the ghastly Bonnie Langford as his travelling companion.

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Paul McGann, who played an agreeably Byronic Doctor.  Alas, with only two appearances in the official show – the lame 1996 TV movie that tried to relaunch the series for an American audience, and the 2013 ‘minisode’ Night of the Doctor, a taster for Day of the Doctor, which showed how McGann’s eighth Doctor turned into Hurt’s War Doctor – he didn’t get much chance to make an impression.

 

After McGann comes his predecessor in the role, Sylvester McCoy.  I like McCoy as an actor, but his efforts with Doctor Who in the late 1980s were scuppered by the scripts he got, which were the show’s worst ever.  Indeed, it was around then that I gave up hope and stopped watching it.

 

And now many female Doctor Who fans will shriek in horror because at a lowly twelfth place in my list I’ve put… the gorgeous David Tennant!  Yes, I know that when Tennant played the Doctor the show reached levels of popularity it’d never reached before (and probably won’t ever reach again).  Not only did he have every teenaged girl in Britain tuning in to watch, but he probably had all their mums tuning in too.  But I found much of Tennant’s portrayal annoying – not just the lovey-dovey stuff that he indulged in with his travelling companion Billie Piper (and seemingly with the main female guest star in every other episode), but also the self-pitying whininess that increased the longer he was in the role.  No wonder cynical fans started referring to him as ‘Doctor Emo’.  It’s telling how the episodes of the show that got most acclaim during his reign were the ones he was hardly in (Blink) or the ones where he played the Doctor out of his usual character (Human Nature and The Waters of Mars).

 

© BBC

 

In bottom place I have Peter Davison, the fifth, early-1980s Doctor, whom I just found young, bland and ineffectual.  At the time he was best known for playing Tristan Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Doctor’s shoes he sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’.   No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective (2003-2007) and Matt Berry’s hilarious Toast of London (2012-present), and thought he was good.  Back then, though, Davison was simply too young to give the role much gravity.

 

And there ends my ranking of the 13 Doctors, which has been scrupulously fair and unbiased.  Even if I did stick all the pretty-boy ones at the bottom. 

 

Alternative Hurt

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

And so another prominent feature of the cinematic and televisual landscape that’s surrounded me since I was a kid has gone.  I’m referring to the legendary English actor John Hurt who died late last month.

 

Hurt had many famous roles and managed for six decades to keep his profile high among the film and TV-viewing public.  He played the flamboyant Quentin Crisp in Jack Gold’s TV comedy-drama The Naked Civil Servant (1975); the luckless Max in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978); the even more luckless Kane, who becomes an unwilling incubator for the nightmarish H.R. Giger-designed beastie in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979); the noble but deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980); and that great everyman of dystopian fiction, Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (1984 – yes!).

 

Later, while the highbrow performances kept coming – as scabrous Tory politician Alan Clark in the TV mini-series The Alan Clark Diaries (2004-2006), Quentin Crisp again in Brian Laxton’s An Englishman in New York (2009), Corkery in Rowan Jaffe’s Brighton Rock (2010), Control in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (2011) – he also appeared in several internationally-popular franchises: as Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies; Bruttenholm in the Hellboy movies (2004 and 2008); Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); and the War Doctor, the militarised black sheep of the Doctor’s many incarnations, in the fiftieth-anniversary special of Doctor Who (2013).

 

The role that made the biggest impression on me, though, was the very first one I saw Hurt playing – in Jack Gold’s TV mini-series I Claudius (1976), based on the novels by Robert Graves, where he was the simultaneously deranged, ludicrous and terrifying Roman emperor Caligula.  Actually, thinking now of the scenes where Hurt harasses the limping, stuttering future-emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi), I can’t help but think of another demented tyrant who likes to mock the physically afflicted.

 

© BBC

© BBC

 

But for this tribute, I thought I’d write about some items on John Hurt’s CV that have received less attention – films he appeared in that have vanished off the radar and / or ones in which he had supporting roles.  Here’s my pick of the Alternative Hurt.

 

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Based on the case of real-life 1940s / 1950s serial killer John Christie, Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place remains a gruelling watch today.  This is largely due to a performance by the normally cuddly and loveable Richard Attenborough, who brings Christie to life in a balding, pot-bellied, cardigan-wearing, tea-sipping, lisping, ingratiating, manipulative, quietly lecherous and homicidally perverted fashion that makes your skin crawl.  What’s even worse is the knowledge that Christie evaded capture for several years by having his third and fourth murders, of neighbour Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson) and her infant daughter Geraldine, wrongly pinned on Beryl’s husband and Geraldine’s father Timothy (Hurt).  After Timothy Evans was hung for the crimes, Christie killed four more times.

 

As the thickly Welsh-accented Timothy Evans, Hurt manages an impressive balancing act.  His character is slow-witted, boastful, occasionally violent and generally unlikeable; but nonetheless he elicits enough sympathy for the audience to be shocked when he gets condemned to death through Christie’s duplicity and the police’s stupidity.  (Attenborough, it’s said, agreed to do the film because he felt it justified his abhorrence of capital punishment.)

 

The Osterman Weekend (1983)

In the final movie made by maverick director Sam Peckinpah, Hurt plays a CIA man who enlists the help of investigative reporter Rutger Hauer to bust an alleged spy ring.  Mainly, this involves rigging Hauer’s house up with surveillance equipment before the conspirators are invited over for the weekend.  The reality, though, is not what Hauer thinks it is…  A collision between a twisty, hi-tech espionage thriller and Peckinpah’s signature crash-bang-wallop, slow-motion, blood-spurting action set-pieces, The Osterman Weekend doesn’t always work.  But its cast (Hurt, Hauer, Meg Foster, Craig T. Nelson and Dennis Hopper) keeps it entertaining.

 

And a scene where Hurt, speaking to Hauer via a two-way video / audio link, suddenly has to pretend to be a TV weatherman when the wrong person appears in Hauer’s proximity, is very funny.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Palace Films

 

The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears’s The Hit features John Hurt as an assassin and a young Tim Roth as his apprentice.  They capture a retired gangster, played by Terence Stamp, and transport him across Spain.  Long before, it transpires, Stamp turned Queen’s evidence against some criminal associates and now it’s payback time.  What lifts this crime-drama-cum-road-movie out of the ordinary is its characterisation.  Stamp is surprising philosophical about his impending fate, Roth is endearingly gormless and Hurt gives a glorious study in world-weariness.

 

The Field (1990)

A tragic drama about an obsessed Irish farmer (Richard Harris) who gradually loses his mind when a precious piece of land slips through his fingers and into those of a rich American property developer (Tom Berenger), Jim Sheridan’s The Field ends up in King Lear territory – with Harris as the diminished monarch and Hurt as his loyal Fool.  In fact, Hurt’s performance as Bird, Harris’s daft, cackling and excitable side-kick, adds a few slivers of comedy to what is overall a powerful but grim film.

 

Rob Roy (1995)

Having played a Welshman in 10 Rillington Place and an Irishman in The Field, Hurt completed his Celtic hat-trick with his performance as an evil Scottish nobleman in Michael Caton-Jones’s Rob Roy.  The film suffers from the fact that its star, Liam Neeson, fails to convince as the Scottish Highlander Rob Roy MacGregor – every time he opens his mouth, a Ballymena accent comes out.  And excitement-wise it never quite sets the heather alight, especially compared to the same year’s barnstorming, crowd-pleasing Braveheart.  Its strongest feature is its outstanding trio of villains: Tim Roth (again) as the bastardly dandy Archibald Cunningham, Brian Cox as the venal factor Killearn and Hurt himself as the purringly malevolent Duke of Montrose.

 

© United Artists

 

Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a demented psychedelic western about an innocuous accountant who becomes the quarry of bounty hunters.  It also boasts an astonishing cult-movie cast headed by Johnny Depp.  Hurt appears as a vinegary aide to the great Robert Mitchum who, in one of his last film roles, plays the rich, powerful and barking-mad businessman who sets the bounty hunters on Depp’s trail.

 

At one point, Hurt also shares a scene with Lance Henrikson and Michael Wincott, who between them have appeared in four other Alien movies – which makes this quite an Alien-actors convention.

 

The Proposition (2005)

While Alien contains the ultimate John Hurt death scene, John Hillcoat’s violent, grubby Australian western The Proposition gives him a pretty memorable way of shuffling off the mortal coil too.  As the raddled but eloquent bounty hunter Jellon Lamb, he expires quoting some lines by the Victorian author George Borrow: “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on a heath…”  That’s just before he gets a knife the size of a shovel-blade rammed through his chest and a bullet in the head.  Well, Nick Cave wrote the script, so what did you expect?

 

© Zentropa / Memfis Film

 

Melancholia (2011)

The Lars Von Trier-directed Melancholia is both a study of clinical depression and an account of the last days of earth before it has an apocalyptic collision with another planet.  But the mood is thankfully lightened when John Hurt makes a cameo appearance as the gregarious, party-loving old reprobate who’s father to Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

An arty, languid but likeable vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive sees Hurt working again with Jim Jarmusch.  While most of the film focuses on vampire lovers Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Hurt provides good support as the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, who didn’t actually die in 1593 but – surprise! – got vampirised instead.  Four centuries later, he lives as Swinton’s avuncular and quietly blood-drinking neighbour in Tangiers.

 

Snowpiercer (2013)

Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer has an imaginative premise.  The earth has been decimated by a new ice age and the last human survivors live in an oppressively hierarchical society on board a super-long train, which is in perpetual movement around the snowbound globe.  Unfortunately, the film is all over the place in terms of tone, unsure whether it wants to be a gritty sci-fi actioner, a slice of Terry Gilliam-esque surrealism or a darkly humorous Roald Dahl-type fantasy.  Hurt at least brings some levity to the proceedings, playing the leader of the train’s rebellious proles.  Unsubtly, his character is called ‘Gilliam’.

 

Incidentally, one John Hurt movie I haven’t mentioned here because I’ve never seen it in its entirety is 1978’s The Shout, also starring Alan Bates, Susannah York and Robert Stephens and based on a short story by I Claudius author Robert Graves.  People whose opinion I respect say it’s very good; and from the opening minutes, which are up on Youtube, it certainly looks intriguing.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

The later travels of Gulliver

 

 

The other day, whilst walking along Galle Road in Colombo, I noticed this inventive display in the street-front window of an IT business.

 

It’s a representation of Lemuel Gulliver near the beginning of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels, bound down against the sand by the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput – onto whose shore he’s just been washed following a shipwreck.  But if you look closely at the display, you realise it isn’t those pesky little Lilliputians who’ve tied down this Lemuel Gulliver.  Rather, it’s some futuristic little men dressed in silvery spacesuits who’ve arrived on the scene in miniature 4x4s, on miniature quad-bikes and with miniature JCB diggers.

 

 

By coincidence, I’d read Gulliver’s Travels a few weeks earlier.  That was the second time I’d read it, or at least read part of it, because I’d first tackled the book when I was 10 years old.  Back then, my interest in it had been kindled by seeing on TV The Three Worlds of Gulliver, the 1960 movie adaptation starring Kerwin Matthews as Gulliver and with special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

 

The Three Worlds of Gulliver was aimed at children and played up the adventure and spectacle at the expense of the satire.  Indeed, keen to exploit two common childhood fantasies – the fantasy of being a giant in a world where everything else is miniature and the fantasy of being a miniature in a world where everything else is giant – the movie took place only in Lilliput and in the giants’ kingdom of Brobdingnag.  It ignored the locales that Gulliver visited later in the book.

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

As my ten-year-old self discovered, there was some adventure and spectacle in the original literary version of Gulliver’s Travels.  But I wasn’t ready for the calm matter-of-fact tone of Swift’s prose, or for Gulliver’s penchant for meticulous observation and detailing of the lands he explored (which suggested he was more a man of learning than a man of action) or for the social commentary that permeated everything.  It seemed sober and serious rather than exciting; and I ended up reading the stuff about Lilliput and Brobdingnag only.  I didn’t attempt the book’s third and fourth parts, which I’d heard were about flying islands and talking horses.

 

Now that I’ve read the book in its entirety, I thought I’d say something about Gulliver’s later travels – the episodes after Lilliput and Brobdingnag that I didn’t read when I was a kid.

 

Gulliver was shipwrecked before arriving in Lilliput and abandoned by his next set of shipmates on the shore of Brobdingnag.  (They fled in a longboat when a giant appeared, leaving him behind.)  His luck doesn’t improve during his third voyage, which sees him captured by pirates and set adrift in a canoe.  He’s rescued by the inhabitants of the flying island of Laputa, which floats like a giant sentient Frisbee above the larger and conventionally-earthbound land of Balnibarbi.  Laputa’s king also rules Balnibarbi, quelling any dissent or rebellions below by manoeuvring the island over the trouble-spots and preventing them getting sunlight and rainfall, or dropping rocks on them, or – the most extreme sanction – lowering the island on top of them and squashing them.

 

From shortstorylongblog.wordpress.com

 

This third section of Gulliver’s Travels is regarded as the weakest but there’s still plenty to enjoy.  Swift uses it to state his position in the empiricism-versus-rationalism debate of his era.  He’s a staunch empiricist; and Gulliver’s accounts of his time in Laputa and Balnibarbi are his way of giving the proponents of theoretical and speculative science a good kicking.

 

The Laputians are ridiculous figures who’re so immersed in thought and unaware of their surroundings that their servants need to shake bladders filled with pebbles or dried peas in their faces to remind them when it’s their turn to speak in a conversation.  Disconcertingly, they have “one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith” – which was supposedly Swift’s dig at the compound microscope and the handheld telescope, both invented in the early 1600s.  Just as parents used to warn their kids that watching too much TV would give them square eyes, so Swift warns that too much microscope and telescope usage will give people an alarming form of strabismus.

 

The Laputians are next to no one in their mastery of mathematics and astronomy – Gulliver notes that they’ve discovered “two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve around Mars”, an uncannily accurate prediction by Swift since the two Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos weren’t discovered until 1877.  Unfortunately, they insist on applying their abstract knowledge to more practical areas.

 

Their cuisine suggests something you’d get nowadays in an achingly pretentious and eye-wateringly expensive restaurant: “a shoulder of mutton, cut into an equilateral triangle, a piece of beef into a rhomboid, and a pudding into a cycloid…” and bread cut into “cones, cylinders, parallelograms, and several other mathematical figures.”  Their tailoring is lamentable – Gulliver gets measured for a new set of clothes with a quadrant, ‘a rule and compasses’ and some mathematical calculations that go wrong, and the resulting outfit is “very ill made, and quite out of shape.”  As for architecture, “(t)heir houses are very ill built, the walls bevil, without one right angle in any apartment, and this defect ariseth from the contempt they bear to practical geometry…”

 

When Gulliver departs from Laputa and descends to Balnibarbi, he finds it in a state of poverty and disrepair.  Rule by the Laputians, whose heads are literally in the clouds, has done it no favours.  While there, he visits the country’s Grand Academy, which has in each of its 500 rooms a ‘projector’ – a professor – busy with some sort of research.  The impractical spirit of Laputa reigns supreme in the academy and Swift lays into it with as much malevolent enthusiasm as a modern Daily Mail journalist writing a mocking exposé about overpaid, lefty, ivory-tower academics wasting our taxpayers’ money and teaching airy-fairy nonsense to our youngsters.

 

Gulliver finds, for example, one old coot engaged in an eight-year project “for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers”; a construction expert working on “a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downwards to the foundation”; and an entomologist trying to train spiders to spin coloured silk.  Worst of all is a man in an evil-smelling room striving “to reduce human excrement to its original food…  He had a weekly allowance from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.”  It’s likely that Swift had London’s Royal Society, founded in 1660 “for improving natural knowledge”, in his sights when he wrote this.

 

© Penguin Books

 

I hadn’t known that in the third section Gulliver visits other places too – which weakens its effectiveness because the result is random and scattershot.  After Balnibarbi, he travels to the island of Glubbdubdrib, populated by ‘magicians and sorcerers’, whose governor lives in a house run by ghostly servants that materialise and dematerialise at the lifting of their master’s finger.  Gulliver persuades his hosts to conjure up the ghosts of the greatest figures in history for him to interview: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Aristotle and so on.  Predictably, he discovers that the reality of human history is different from how it’s been recorded.  “…I found how the world has been misled by prostitute writers, to ascribe the greatest exploits in war to cowards, the wisest counsel to fools, sincerity to flatterers…”  Not only does the satire feel strained here but I don’t like the sudden intrusion of the supernatural.  It jars with the tone of the rest of the book – which, for all its unlikeliness, could be treated as a very early work of science fiction.

 

More effective is Gulliver’s next port of call, the island of Luggnagg.  He’s excited to find out that Luggnagg’s inhabitants include a group of immortal beings called the struldbrugs.  However, that excitement changes to disgust when he realises the true cost of immortality.  The struldbrugs don’t die but they keep on ageing – ending up as wizened homunculi, hopelessly crippled by infirmity and senility.  “They were the most mortifying sight I ever beheld, and the women more horrifying than the men.”

 

Then there’s the marvellous and melancholic fourth section.  It begins with Gulliver taking to the sea again, despite his luck so far being worse than Job’s.  And – surprise! – things go wrong again.  He falls foul of a mutiny and is put ashore on an unnamed land that, it transpires, is inhabited by the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos.  The former are an intelligent, noble and gentle race of horses and the latter are degenerate human beings who’re anything but intelligent, noble or gentle.  During Gulliver’s first encounter with the Yahoos, several of them defecate on him from the branches of a tree, which hardly endears them to him.  These adventures with civilised animals and bestial humans were surely an inspiration for Pierre Boulle’s novel Monkey Planet (1963), which itself became the basis for the Planet of the Apes movies.

 

From 4umi.com

 

Gulliver takes greatly to the Houyhnhnms’ culture, although as many commentators (including George Orwell) have pointed out, they inhabit a dull sort of utopia.  They’re governed by cold logic and their lives seem devoid of feeling, fun or kinship.  You get the impression that Gulliver is so fatigued by everything else he’s been through that he’s happy to spend the remainder of his life as an ascetic.  Among talking horses.

 

But fate intervenes yet again and Gulliver is forced to take his leave of his beloved Houyhnhnms.  He arrives back in the human world, to which he has extreme difficulty readjusting.  People, even the members of his family, remind him too much of those revolting Yahoos.  We last see him shunning their company in favour of that of two horses whom he keeps in his stable.  “My horses understand me tolerably well; I converse with them at least four hours every day.  They are strangers to bridle or saddle; they live in great amity with me, and friendship to each other.”

 

Poor Gulliver has become unstable.  But at least he feels stable when he’s in a stable.

 

From gulliverstravels.wikia.com

 

Respecting the Sabbath

 

© Rolling Stone

 

The third commandment tells us to keep the Sabbath holy.  Well, I believe in respecting the Sabbath but I’m not talking about the seventh day of the week.  I’m talking about Black Sabbath, the 49-year-old heavy metal band who played their last-ever gig two nights ago.

 

Fittingly, Black Sabbath’s farewell performance took place at the Genting Arena in Birmingham, the city where it all started for them.  Guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward and incomparable – many would say incorrigible – singer Ozzy Osbourne grew up in Aston, one of Birmingham’s working-class suburbs.  Prior to forming the band, they did a variety of unglamorous jobs there, including delivering coal, labouring on building sites and working in a sheet metal factory, car plant and abattoir.  Iommi ended his time in the steelworks with an accident that sheared off two of his fingertips and nearly ruined his budding career as a guitarist.  Osbourne, meanwhile, took up housebreaking and got jailed for six weeks.

 

Butler told the BBC recently, “It wasn’t a great place to be at that time.  We were listening to songs about San Francisco.  The hippies were all peace and love and everything.  There we were in Aston.  Ozzy was in prison from burgling houses, me and Tony were always in fights with somebody… we had quite a rough upbringing.  Our music reflected the way we felt.”

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-birmingham-38768573

 

If they felt miserable in Aston and channelled that misery into their music, I can only say the misery was worth it.  The first, eponymously-named song on their first, eponymously-named album in 1970 sets the tone for Black Sabbath’s career of evil.  It’s a gloriously dark and doom-laden affair, opening with rumbles of thunder, the sluicing of rain and the clanging of altar bells.  These give way to a funereal chug of heavy guitars and the eerie high-pitched squalls of Ozzy’s voice (“What is this that stands before me?  / Figure in black which points at me-e-ee?”), which later speed up for a tumultuous but still ominous climax.  I imagine that if any of those peace-and-love hippies whom Butler referred to had gone to a Sabbath gig in 1970 (having ingested some psychedelic substances beforehand) and the gig had opened with this number, they’d have probably fled from the venue screaming in terror with their hands clamped over their ears.

 

© Vertigo

 

Iommi and Butler were horror-movie fans and their music had a horror-movie vibe.  Even the band’s name came from a scary film, 1963’s Black Sabbath, directed by the legendary Mario Bava and starring the legendary Boris Karloff.  Also horror-movie-esque is the cover of the first Sabbath album, showing a black-robed lady looming spectrally in the middle of a spooky autumnal landscape – the building in the background is actually Mapledurham Watermill in Oxfordshire.  I find it cool that nobody knows the identity of the woman, presumably a briefly-hired model or actress, who posed for the picture.  Iommi has claimed that, later, she turned up at one Sabbath concert and said hello to the band.  But I like to think she’d never been at the original photo-shoot at all.  Rather, she was a ghost that haunted the watermill – and when the cover-photo was developed, her wraithlike image had somehow imposed itself on it.

 

Black Sabbath produced another album in 1970, Paranoid, which was choc-a-bloc with groovy tunes – the famous title track, the skull-crushing Iron Man, the nihilistic War Pigs and the sublimely dreamy and trippy Planet Caravan, which has been described as ‘the ultimate coming-down song’.  The following year’s Master of Reality gave us the jaunty but provocative After Forever (“Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope / Do you think he’s a fool?”) and the wonderfully sepulchral Children of the Grave.  Other classic songs included Supernaut, which turned up on the 1972 album Vol. 4; the exhilarating title track of 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which is perhaps my favourite Sabbath song ever; and the similarly exhilarating Symptom of the Universe on 1974’s Sabotage, which suggests (to me, anyway) Sabbath were secret forebears of punk rock.  1976’s Technical Ecstasy and 1978’s Never Say Die are less acclaimed and lack a truly killer track, but I’m still partial to them both.

 

© WWA Records

 

In 1980 we got Heaven and Hell which – shock! horror! – didn’t have Ozzy Osbourne doing vocals.  The singer had been sacked from the band due to his massive substance abuse and consequent massive unreliability.  While Ozzy maintains that he was no worse a wreck than the other three band-members were at the time, it was surely tough working with a man prone to such misfortunes as snorting a line of ants he’d mistaken for a line of cocaine or being caught by the San Antonio police urinating over the Alamo whilst dressed in a frock.  Making a Black Sabbath album without Ozzy sounds as feasible as filming The Lord of the Rings without Gandalf, but Iommi, Butler and Ward wisely recruited the late, great Ronnie James Dio as a replacement.  Dio gave Black Sabbath a new lease of life.  He made them sound different – his operatic voice a contrast to the wailing alienness of Ozzy’s – but I have no complaints about the resulting album, full of spiffing tracks like Children of the Sea, Neon Knights and Die Young.

 

From blabbermouth.net

 

Dio sang on the next album for Black Sabbath, 1981’s Mob Rules, and returned to sing on 1992’s Dehumanizer; but they were the only Sabbath albums for a long time that were any good.  During the 1980s and 1990s Iommi was the sole founding member who stuck with the band and a succession of jobbing musicians contributed to the records.  Singers included Ian Gillan and Glenn Hughes, two alumni of Sabbath’s more mainstream 1970s rivals Deep Purple.  Meanwhile, the band seemed to get through drummers at a rate worthy of Spinal Tap, with the ELO’s Bev Bevan, the Clash’s Terry Chimes and the ubiquitous Cozy Powell banging the skins at various times.  To be honest, the band’s output during this period – 1983’s Born Again, 1986’s Seventh Star, 1987’s The Eternal Idol, 1989’s Headless Cross, 1990’s Tyr, 1994’s Cross Purposes, 1995’s Forbidden – is pretty rubbish.

 

Happily, the original line-up had reconciled by the late 1990s and they’ve played together sporadically since then, at least when other work commitments (like Ozzy’s solo career), illness (Iommi was diagnosed as having lymphoma in 2012) and feuding (Bill Ward fell out with everyone else and quit in 2012) didn’t get in the way.  In 2013 they even managed to produce a new album, 13, which while not quite up to their former standards got some positive reviews and produced a decently apocalyptic single, God is Dead?  Filling in for Ward on the drums was Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine.  For Wilk, I imagine getting this job must have been a dream come true.

 

Well, it seems they’ve finally called it a day.   Maybe that’s just as well in Ozzy’s case, since the old boy’s 67 now and surely needs to take it easy after a lifetime of drugs, alcohol, excess and idiocy.  (At Christmas, after the news that George Michael and Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt had died within the space of 24 hours, a friend said to me worriedly, “At this rate Ozzy’s not going to make it to the Bells.”)

 

They deserve to enjoy their retirement for their legacy is huge.  Their weighty fingerprints are all over musical movements like grunge and hardcore punk.  And they’re clearly major influences on such metallic sub-genres as black metal, doom metal, goth metal, power metal, sludge metal, speed metal and stoner metal.  Indeed, they’re responsible for producing more metal than the Brummie steelworks where the young Tony Iommi lost his fingertips and almost lost his future in music.

 

From epictimes.com

 

Mucha ado about something

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

I greatly admire the work of the late-19th-century / early-20th-century Czech painter, illustrator and designer Alphonse Mucha.  Happily, a visit I made a few weeks ago to Glasgow coincided with an exhibition held at the city’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum that was dedicated to him and entitled Alponse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty.

 

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen Mucha’s paintings displayed en masse.  Back in 1990, I was wandering about the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima when I stumbled across a gallery that was hosting a major exhibition of his work.  This was my first exposure to his oeuvre and I fell in love with it immediately.  I even spent a small fortune on the lavish artbook on sale as an accompaniment to the exhibition.  Its text was entirely in Japanese, which I couldn’t read, but I just wanted to drool over its many colour reproductions of Mucha’s pictures.

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

At the time I was working in a high school in Hokkaido at the other end of the Japanese archipelago and when I returned to my workplace one of the first things I did was lend the book to a colleague there, the school’s art teacher, Artist Hirosawa.  (As a teacher, his title was Hirosawa Sensei, which translates as plain old ‘Mr Hirosawa’; but the first thing he’d ever said to me was, in English, “Hello, I am Artist Hirosawa.”  So ‘Artist Hirosawa’ was how I always thought of him.)  The sight of Artist Hirosawa sitting with the book open on his staffroom desk for days afterwards, drooling over those colour reproductions too, suggested that they liked Mucha an awful lot in Japan.

 

A decade later, I had a chance to spend a short holiday in Prague and a place I immediately made a beeline for was the Kaunický Palác, which contains the Mucha Museum – dedicated, as its name indicates, to Prague’s most famous artistic son.  (Mucha actually spent much of his life in the Moravian towns of Ivančice and Brno, and in Vienna, Paris and the United States.  But Prague was his home during his last three decades.)  Predictably, I went away laden with more Mucha memorabilia courtesy of the museum’s giftshop: postcards, prints, bookmarks, calendars.

 

What is it about Mucha’s artwork that so appeals to me?  Well, everything, I guess: the nymph-like, neo-classical figures, the flowing gowns, the cascades of pre-Raphaelite hair; the curves, haloes and patterns; the flowers; the exquisite use of pastel colours (even though pastel colours are usually something I don’t much like).  I love that whole, languid Art Noveau dreaminess that suffuses his work, even if it suggests an era desperate for escapism – because while Mucha was putting together his gorgeous compositions, life for much of the urban population of industrialised 19th-century Europe was anything but gorgeous.  Against a backdrop of William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ belching out smoke and clanging with thunderous noise, it was frequently filthy, muddy, crowded, brutal and squalid.

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

One aspect of Mucha that I particularly like – though I’ve read this was something he himself was unhappy about – was the fact that he was a commercial artist.  He made his name in Paris designing lithographed posters for plays featuring the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt.  He produced posters, advertisements, book illustrations and designs for wallpaper, carpets and jewellery.  Mucha seemed to win fame and acclaim because of, rather than in spite of, his willingness (if not his desire) to work in everyday media and have his art mass-produced for mass consumption.

 

Mind you, with his advertising work, you wonder if people admiring its aesthetics ever managed to notice its products as well.  One advert on display at the Glasgow exhibition, for bicycles (‘Cycles Perfecta’), does indeed feature a bicycle.  But inevitably it also features a nymph, who all but hides the bicycle – it nearly disappears amid her tresses of hair, her ribbons and the folds of her dress.

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

I find it interesting too that Mucha was a committed Freemason.  In 1898 he joined a Masonic lodge in Paris and after he’d settled in Prague he established the first-ever Czech-speaking lodge.  He gained the titles of Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Czechoslovakia and later Sovereign Grand Master of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite in Czechoslovakia.  I’m not a fan of Freemasonry itself but its symbolism fascinates me and I appreciate much of the craftsmanship and architecture it’s produced.  (If you’ve ever explored, say, the Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street in London, you’ll agree that Masonic art is impressive.)

 

It’s always good to see a collection of his work together, but Kelvingrove’s Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty suffers slightly from lack of context.  I’d have liked more information about the items on display, explaining how and when they fitted into Mucha’s development and preoccupations as an artist.  Sneakily, the exhibition also incorporates ‘British influences and Scottish contemporaries’ – the latter consisting of “the radical, highly symbolic work of ‘The Four’: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, James Herbert McNair and Margaret and Frances Macdonald.  Exhibited and published internationally, their early work was distinctly bold compared to Mucha’s curvaceous designs.”  This allows the exhibition-organisers to slip in a couple of non-Mucha works as well, including Rennie Mackintosh’s famous Scottish Musical Review.  Again, I’d have liked a little more context for their insertion.

 

The Mucha biography displayed at the exhibition reminds you that he came to a sad end.  After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Gestapo hauled him in for questioning.  His Slav nationalism, epitomised in his 20-painting masterpiece The Slav Epic (1910-1928), didn’t endear him to the Nazis.  Neither did his local prominence in the Freemasons, whom the Nazis regarded as part of the great Jewish conspiracy and had banned in Germany in 1934.  During his interrogation, Mucha developed pneumonia and, shortly after his release, died of a lung infection.  Yes, his work was gloriously escapist; but he came off worst when he encountered the reality of the 20th century, reality in its cruellest and most pitiless form.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Time’s up for Tam

 

© BBC

 

It’s fair to say that the state of modern British politics is dire.  Desperate for a trade deal that might punt a little money the way of post-Brexit Britain (and desperate to show that the country still has friends on the international stage and isn’t a global Billy No-Mates), our Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has just hobnobbed in Washington DC with President Donald Trump.  Trump is a man whose idea of a successful trade deal is to make sure he ends up with all the money in his pockets and the other guy is left with a big, fat, humiliating zero – he wrote a book with Tony Schwartz in 1987 called The Art of the Deal but it should really have been titled The Art of the Steal.  So I suspect that Theresa’s attempted wooing of the Trumpster isn’t going to end well.

 

Meanwhile, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is an oaf whose ideas about how to make friends and influence people involve such antics as going to France and cracking jokes about World War II punishment beatings.  And the British Labour Party seems to have given up on providing any meaningful opposition to May, Johnson and co and has gone from setback to disaster to catastrophe to apocalypse.  Instrumental in this has been the woeful leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.  Ethically, I don’t think Corbyn is a bad bloke, but he seems to have the management skills of a drunk chimp.

 

This makes me nostalgic for an older era of British politics when at least a few politicians managed to combine intelligence with conviction.  One such person was Tam Dalyell, Member of Parliament for West Lothian and then Linlithgow for over forty years, who died a few days ago at the age of 84.

 

Tam had a privileged background.  He spent his childhood in a grand Scottish mansion near the Firth of Forth and inherited a title, the Baronetcy of Dalyell, from his mother’s side of the family.  He got much of his education at Eton College and Cambridge University, whilst doing national service with the Royal Scots Greys for a period between the two institutions.  Significantly, he didn’t get through officer training and ended up serving as a common soldier.

 

Later, he taught for three years at Bo’ness Academy, near to his family home, and he also wrote a column for the New Scientist magazine.  This interest in science was just one example of his eclecticism – he’d started off studying mathematics at university, then changed to history and then done an additional degree in economics.

 

Despite his well-heeled origins – which gave him a rather languid, aristocratic air – Tam was left-wing in his politics and when he became a Member of Parliament it was for the Labour Party, not the Conservatives.  Not that Labour Party leaders had less reason to curse him than Conservative Party ones had, for when it came to being a contrarian Tam was in a league of his own.  Whenever he got his teeth into an issue he felt was worth fighting for, he didn’t release it in a hurry and didn’t give a damn whom he annoyed.

 

An early cause was the injustice wreaked upon the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, whom the British evicted between 1968 and 1973 to clear the way for the establishment of an American military base there.  He was also a thorn in the side of the 1970s Labour government when it tried, then unsuccessfully, to introduce devolved governments for Scotland and Wales.  Tam’s argument was that the devolution proposals made Britain’s system of government unfair and unbalanced.  It would be wrong to still have Scottish MPs present in Westminster influencing decisions that affected England, if there was a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh making decisions affecting Scotland that English MPs had no influence over at all.  Four decades later, the UK has a devolved system of government and the conundrum identified by Tam – which became known as the West Lothian Question after the name of his old constituency – has never been satisfactorily addressed.

 

Elsewhere, Tam’s role as a one-man awkward squad knew no bounds.  He spent years hounding Margaret Thatcher’s government about the General Belgrano, the Argentinian warship sunk with heavy loss of life by British forces during 1982’s Falklands War.  The Belgrano had been torpedoed outside, not inside, the 200-mile-radius Exclusion Zone established by Britain around the Falkland Islands as the war’s official combat zone.  He also questioned the verdict of the Lockerbie Bombing trial, the legitimacy of the first Gulf War and of military intervention in Kosovo, and the justification for invading Iraq in 2003.  Indeed, the Iraq fiasco prompted him to brand his then party leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair a war criminal and he came close to having the Labour Party whip withdrawn, i.e. he was nearly kicked out of the party.

 

Needless to say, Tam blew his chances early on of being considered for a ministerial position and high office.  He got as far as being Parliamentary Private Secretary to the minister Richard Crossman in the 1960s.  But I suspect he was happier sitting on the back benches, being a pain in the neck.

 

After retiring as an MP in 2005, one way in which Tam kept himself busy was by writing obituaries – often for people from Scottish political backgrounds such as Sam Galbraith, Bruce Millan and Albert McQuarrie – for the Independent newspaper.  His obituaries were erudite and gracious towards political friends and foes alike.

 

I recall one obituary Tam penned a few years ago about Margo MacDonald, the formidable one-time Scottish National Party MP (and later an independent Member of the Scottish Parliament).  Tam concluded by sheepishly admitting that he’d liked Margo so much that, despite his credentials as a long-time opponent of Scottish self-government and her credentials as a long-term supporter of it, he’d gone and voted for her in the last Scottish parliamentary elections.  More evidence that right to the end Tam Dalyell was his own man.

 

© The Independent

 

The multiple personalities of Ruth Davidson

 

From caltonjock.com

From zimbio.com

(c) BBC

 

I’m looking forward to the new movie Split, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.  Ever since Shyamalan made his name in 1999 with the spooky classic The Sixth Sense, he seems to have frittered away his talent with a string of increasingly disappointing films like Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013), but early reviews of Split have been largely positive and suggest Shyamalan has retrieved his mojo.  What has particularly impressed the critics is the film’s central performance by Scottish actor James McAvoy, who plays a man with multiple-personality disorder.  In fact, McAvoy’s condition is so extreme that he’s inhabited by no fewer than 23 different, competing and sometimes conflicting personalities.

 

But James McAvoy isn’t the only Scot who’s displayed symptoms of multiple-personality disorder recently.  If you examine the pronouncements of Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, it’s clear that poor Ruth isn’t a single psychological entity either.  Rather, she’s a walking battleground where various, often diametrically-opposed personalities fight for supremacy.

 

For example, there’s one personality within Ruth that’s staunchly pro-European Union.  This personality was in control, temporarily, when she took part in a debate before last June’s vote on whether or not Britain should leave the EU.  Railing against the Brexiting likes of Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom, she declared, “The other side have said throughout this debate that they don’t like experts but when it comes to keeping this country safe and secure I want to listen to the experts.  So when the head of GCHQ says we are safer in the EU I listen.  When five former NATO chiefs say we are safer in the EU I listen.  When the head of Interpol, who is a Brit, says we are safer in the EU I listen.  When the head of MI5 and MI6 says we are safer in the EU I listen.”  Even the left-wing, anti-Tory New Statesman magazine was sufficiently impressed to call her a ‘stand-out performer’ afterwards.

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/06/eu-referendum-debate-sadiq-khan-and-ruth-davidson-give-remain-punch-it-needs

 

From politicshome.com

 

Presumably it was the same pro-EU version of Ruth who, before the referendum, posed with other Scottish political party leaders of in support a ‘remain’ vote.  And the same version again who, two years earlier, had urged the Scots to vote ‘no’ to independence (and ‘yes’ to remaining part of the UK) for the reason that this would guarantee Scotland’s place in the European Union: “No means we stay in, we are members of the European Union.”

 

Oops, that didn’t work out well, did it?

 

But fast-forward to today.  The British public narrowly voted to leave the EU and suddenly a new personality has wrested control of Ruth Davidson, one that’s in favour of Britain quitting the EU too; one that sees juicy economic opportunities for post-EU Britain; and one that opposes everything the Scottish National Party, which runs the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh, is trying to do to preserve Scotland’s place in the EU.  Britain – though admittedly not Scotland, which voted by 62% to 38% to stay – chose to leave the EU, barks this new Ruth.  So get over the result and get on with Brexiting!

 

Admittedly, Ruth’s new pro-Brexit personality has at least expressed support for the UK, and by extension Scotland, remaining in the EU’s single market.  It’s something she believes Scotland should have “the largest amount of access to.”   Though Theresa May, British Prime Minister, Tory supremo and Ruth’s big boss in London, ruled this out in a speech a week ago when she declared that Britain “cannot possibly” remain in the single market because it would mean “not leaving the EU at all.”

 

Oops again.  That didn’t work out well, did it?

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-38555683

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-38641208

 

I suspect a third personality might surface in Ruth Davidson soon.  One that’s totally hard-line in its support of Brexit and rejects the single market as much as it rejects every other aspect of the EU – you know, sort of like what Theresa May’s been saying.  I don’t know why I think this.  Call it a hunch.

 

There’s yet another personality lurking inside Ruth that manifests itself occasionally – one that loathes the USA’s new president, Donald Trump.  This personality was clearly in control of Ruth last year when she borrowed a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and trolled the ginger-skinned tycoon on Twitter: “Trump’s a clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch, right?”

 

Yet two days ago, her boss Theresa May arrived in the USA to meet President Trump and suddenly another personality took hold of poor Ruth – one that seemed a lot more sanguine about the clay-brained, knotty-pated, whoreson, obscene, greasy, etc. businessman-cum-world-leader.  This new version of Ruth believed May – who described Trump’s presidency as dawn breaking “on a new era of American renewal” – just had to open her mouth and talk a wee bit of sense into him and everything would be okay.  May’s first speech in the USA, tweeted this new Ruth, “promotes liberal internationalism, warns on Putin, defends Muslims and makes case for democratic leadership in the world.  Bravo.”

 

Actually, Ruth’s words about May defending Muslims were perhaps a bit premature seeing as soon afterwards Trump slapped a ban on refugees entering the USA from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.  On Holocaust Memorial Day of all days, too.

 

Oops, that didn’t work out well, did it?

 

Some people would argue that Ruth Davidson doesn’t have a multiple-personality disorder at all – that her situation as a Conservative with reasonably liberal instincts and something of a social conscience who runs the Scottish branch of her party but who has to take orders from a considerably more right-wing regime in London means that during her pronouncements she needs to do more twisting and turning than a whirling dervish.  But I don’t believe Ruth could be as supine and pathetic as that.  I think there’s something genuinely, seriously wrong with her.  She ought to see a psychiatrist immediately.

 

But who’s going to have a word with her?  Who’s going to take her aside and give her this well-meaning but unpleasant advice?  Probably not her many sycophantic fans in the mainstream Scottish press, who kiss her arse as enthusiastically as Theresa May’s been kissing Trump’s arse recently.

 

© Blinding Edge Pictures / Blumhouse Productions