Old man shouts at Edinburgh

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I spent a total of two years living in Edinburgh, one year at the end of the 1980s and the other at the end of the 1990s.  And although I have lived in other cities for similar or longer periods (Aberdeen, Sapporo, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Pyongyang, Tunis, Colombo), Edinburgh is the place I name if anyone asks me what my ‘home-city’ is. 

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I was originally a rural dweller rather than an urban one.  My dad was a farmer and, during my adolescence, I lived on a farm on the edge of the town of Peebles, population 8000.  However, Peebles is just one hour’s bus-ride from Edinburgh, and I soon got into the habit of making regular visits to the city to get those cultural experiences that weren’t available in a wee country town: browsing for hours in the (now-defunct) Science Fiction Bookshop on West Crosscauseway near the campus of Edinburgh University; spending more hours browsing in second-hand record shops; and stuffing myself with foreign food that wasn’t Italian or Chinese.  (Those were the days before Peebles acquired its excellent Indian restaurant, the Prince of India.)  Maybe it’s those distant but fond memories that, more than anything, make me think of Edinburgh as ‘my’ city.

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A few weeks ago, I was back in Scotland and, as is customary during my visits home, I hopped on the bus and went to ‘my’ city several times.  I expected, as ever, to notice a few changes.  After all, the world’s truest maxim says: “Everything changes except the law of change.”  And I expected, as ever, to be unimpressed by most of those changes.  It’s also a sad fact that as human beings grow older, they tend to become less tolerant of change.  However, even as an ageing person in an ever-changing world, I feel I am justified this time in shaking my head, waving my fist and shouting: “Edinburgh, what the hell are you doing?”

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Here are some reasons why.

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1. They’ve cut down the trees next to the Scottish National Gallery.

Yes, that attractive strip of sloping parkland hemmed in by Waverley Bridge, Princes Street, the Mound and the railway tracks leaving westwards from Waverley Station, and whose perimeter is dotted by such landmarks as the Scott Monument, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery, has been pulverised.  As the photo at the top of this entry shows, the trees that used to stand there have gone and the area is now a basin of unappealing grey-brown slag with a couple of JCBs howking around in its squalor. 

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This devastation, sorry, revamp, has been carried out at the behest of the National Galleries of Scotland organisation, who want to “create a new, sloped path that will make the gardens and gallery fully accessible to people with mobility impairments, prams and pushchairs.”  They’ve promised to plant saplings to replace the felled trees, though obviously these won’t reach the size and gorgeousness of their predecessors till after I’m dead and gone.  I notice, by the way, that the site of this work is also the site of Edinburgh’s annual Christmas fair.  And if I was a wee bit cynical (which, of course, I’m not), I’d suspect that the real reason for getting those pesky trees out of the way is so that they can shoehorn more rides and stalls into the fair every December / January and wring even more money out of it.

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2. They’ve stuck an architectural horror in the corner of St Andrew’s Square.

The corner formed by South St David Street and the southern side of St Andrew’s Square, once home to the B-listed Scottish Provident building – ‘B-listed’ apparently doesn’t carry much weight in Edinburgh these days – is now occupied by a gruesome new structure containing branches of the likes of TK Maxx and Wagamama.  There’s something positively indecent about how it flaunts its blingy frontage at poor old Jenners Department Store across South St David Street.  When I first laid eyes on this horror, I had to retreat into a local hostelry (the Abbotsford) and down a pint to recover from the shock.  And it was in the pub that I took out my notebook and penned this description of the beast: “its vertically-slatted façade looks like a wall of razor blades fiendishly designed to cause mayhem and mutilation in a Saw movie.” 

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3. It’s gone all Airbnb.

Airbnb short-term lets are everywhere in modern Edinburgh.  Recent figures suggest that the city contains 10,000 of the things, which works out at one Airbnb per 48 inhabitants.  This leads to problems like anti-social behaviour – I’ll bet half the renters are hen and stag parties – rising rents and property prices, loss of housing supply and the general ‘hollowing out’ of communties.  Walk around the Grassmarket, for example, and you find so may Airbnb lockboxes in view that it looks as if a plague of giant metallic woodlice has descended from outer space, and they’ve attached themselves to the doorposts and started eating the woodwork.

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I’ve heard people say with weary resignation that it can’t be helped.  This is Edinburgh, which has always been a touristy city and where accommodation has always been expensive.  But why make a bad situation even worse?  With my perennially shaky finances, I can’t imagine myself being ever able to live in the city again. So your loss, Edinburgh.

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4.  Edinburgh’s record shops are dying out.

I’ve lamented previously on this blog about the disappearance of Edinburgh’s live-music venues – my pessimistic conclusion was that the city was becoming ‘as musically bereft and barren as one of Simon Cowell’s armpits.’  Now it looks like it’ll not only be impossible soon to hear live music performed in Edinburgh.  It’ll be impossible too to buy music in physical form there.

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Before my return to the city, I’d heard the sad news that one of my all-time favourite second-hand record shops, Hog’s Head Music on South Clerk Street, had closed down.  I thought that I could at least console myself by going to Coda Music, the excellent world and folk music record shop at the top of the Mound.  Imagine my horror when I nipped down to Coda Music from the Royal Mile, came around a corner and was confronted by another derelict property with a notice in its window from the shop’s owners, announcing that they too had decided to call it a day. 

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Now I can’t rant at venal and short-sighted city planners and local politicians about this one.  The disappearance of these shops seems down to two simple and unavoidable reasons.  Firstly, of course, most people these days purchase their music online – something that did for the Hog’s Head.  Secondly, these places were run back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by music-loving young Turks who, by 2019, are getting rather long in the tooth.  And I doubt if there’s any up-and-coming new generation willing to take the businesses over from them. In Coda’s case, the owners reported that the shop was still enjoying a good trade, but they’d reached an age where they just wanted to stop working and enjoy some retirement.

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At least the small but durable Record Shak at 69 Clerk Street is still operating.  With admirable disregard for modern trends in sound technology and listening habits, it even continues to sell cassette tapes.  For how much longer, though?

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5. They’ve knocked down the St James Centre.

Okay, this is one thing I don’t feel sad about.  For more than 40 years, the St James Centre’s brutalist architecture made it not so much a carbuncle as a cancerous tumour on the face of central Edinburgh.  Now it’s gone.  Tower cranes loom over the site where the building once stood, looking like skeletal buzzards picking at its collapsed, unloved, concrete-y carcass. 

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But of course, this being 21st century Edinburgh, the powers-that-be couldn’t miss the opportunity to replace the loathsome-looking St James Centre with something even more loathsome-looking.  Et voilà.  We are getting a new – the sound you hear is my heart sinking – ‘shopping and retail’ complex with a 214-room hotel as a showcase feature at its centre.  The unusual outline of the proposed hotel has caused local people to dub it ‘the Golden Turd’.  (Anywhere else in Scotland, it would be called ‘the Golden Jobby’.  But as this is Edinburgh, the posher word ‘turd’ is preferred.)  Actually, looking at computer simulations of the thing, I think it resembles something even less appetising than a turd.  It looks like a turd with a giant, just-extracted-from-someone’s-arse tapeworm wound around it.  Yummy.

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(c) Laing O’Rourke

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Let’s kill Hitler

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(c) BBC
(c) Penguin Books

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For a novel whose plot hinges around an attempt to kill Adolf Hitler, there’s remarkably little about Hitler in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.  In fact, the genocidal German dictator isn’t mentioned once.  Presumably this is because although Rogue Male first appeared in print in late 1939, after war had broken out between Britain and Germany, it was written before the outbreak of war when Household evidently felt it would be diplomatic not to name names. 

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Thus, the book’s hero goes boar-hunting in Poland, crosses the border into a neighbouring country that isn’t identified, and one day ends up with the brutish leader of that country, also not identified, in the sights of his hunting rifle.  Is he actually in Germany and on the point of bagging Hitler?  Or could he be somewhere else, Russia say, where he’s targeting Joseph Stalin?  But although Household keeps it ambiguous, given historical events soon after the story’s late-1930s setting, it’s impossible to read Rogue Male now and not visualise in those sights a bloke with a square-shaped scrap of a moustache, an oily side-parting and a swastika armband.

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Incidentally, when Rogue Male was brought to the screen afterwards, the filmmakers didn’t follow Household’s ambiguity.  A 1941 Hollywood adaptation called Manhunt, directed by Fritz Lang – who’d bailed out of Germany in 1933 after Joseph Goebbels started taking an interest in him – depicted the target as Hitler and, viewed today, the film feels like an unabashed wartime propaganda piece.  (It was, however, made just before the USA entered the war and its anti-German stance caused the studio some nervousness.)  Meanwhile, a 1976 adaptation by the BBC, directed by Clive Donner, was also unequivocal that its hero was going after Hitler.  There’s a still from the BBC version at the top of this entry and the actor playing Hitler is none other than Michael Sheard, fondly remembered by kids of my generation for playing Mr Bronson, the hard-nut deputy headmaster on the BBC’s much-loved school drama / soap opera Grange Hill (1978-2008).

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Just as the book’s target is anonymous, so is its hero, even though he tells the story in the first person.  (Again, the film versions differ from the book in giving him an identity.  In 1941’s Manhunt, he’s called Captain Thorndyke and is played by Walter Pidgeon.  In 1976’s Rogue Male, he’s called Sir Robert Hunter and is played by the late, great Peter O’Toole.)  There’s even vagueness about whether or not he ever intended to pull the trigger in the first place.  Perhaps, it’s suggested, he only wanted to have the Führer in his sights for a moment to satisfy his instincts as a hunter. 

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Whatever his intentions, he’s apprehended by a guard and subjected to a brutal interrogation, before his captors decide that the easiest way to deal with him is to bump him off and make his death look like an unfortunate hunting accident.  The ensuing story can be divided into two parts, with each part having a similar, funnelling structure where the action begins in an expansive setting but ends in a cramped, claustrophobic one.  First, Rogue Male’s hero manages to escape from his captors and is pursued by them across the countryside of whatever foreign nation he’s in – okay, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say his captors are the Gestapo and the nation is Germany.  His pursuers close in but he manages to elude them by stowing away on a London-bound ship, hiding on board inside an empty water tank. 

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Then begins the second, longer part of the narrative.  Back in Blighty, he discovers that Hitler’s agents are still on his trail.  They don’t just want to eliminate him but also want to make him sign a document saying that he carried out his attempted assassination with the blessing of the British government.  Again, the pursuit begins against a broad vista, this time the streets of London and landscapes of southern England.  But again, his options narrow and eventually he goes to ground – literally to ground, because he digs himself a little cubbyhole under an unruly and remote hedgerow marking the boundary between two farms in Dorset and hides there.

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(c) BBC

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One thing that surely inspired Rogue Male was Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game (1924) about a big-game hunter who gets hunted as game by another, even bigger-game hunter.   However, while Household borrows this ironic scenario of a hunter becoming the hunted, he explores it in surprising depth.  His hero obviously grew up in a rural aristocratic culture of shooting and foxhunting but he’s strangely empathetic with the creatures on the receiving end of the bullets and bloodhounds.  He mentions once or twice that he got sick of hunting rabbits because of their defencelessness and, holed up in his Dorset burrow, he becomes rabbit-like himself. 

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He also bonds with a cat living wild in the hedgerow above him, whom he names ‘Asmodeus’ (presumably after the ‘worst of demons’ described in the Book of Tobit).  At one point he speculates of Asmodeus, “there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us…  back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action.  I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.” 

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Later, he comments, “I had begun to think as an animal; I was afraid but a little proud of it.  Instinct, saving instinct, had preserved me time and again…  Gone was my disgust with my burrow; gone my determination to take to open country whatever the difficulties of food and shelter.  I didn’t think, didn’t reason.  I was no longer the man who had challenged and nearly beaten all the cunning and loyalty of a first-class power.  Living as a beast, I had become a beast, unable to question emotional stress, unable to distinguish danger in general from a particular source of danger.”

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While Rogue Male’s central character becomes unhealthily animal-like, his main adversary is a sinister caricature of a gentleman hunter.  A German agent masquerading as a tweedy English major called Quive-Smith appears on the scene, displaying impeccable upper-class charm towards the civilians he encounters whilst pursuing his quarry with extreme ruthlessness.  Quive-Smith books a room in one of the farms adjacent to the hedgerow and burrow, pretending that he wants to spend a few weeks in the area doing some shooting.  Spying on him from afar, Household’s narrator notes uneasily that “the major carried one of those awkward German weapons with a rifled barrel below the two gun barrels… the three barrels were admirably adapted to his purpose of ostensibly shooting rabbits while actually expecting bigger game.”

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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In addition to The Most Dangerous Game, Household was probably influenced by a novel about another manhunt, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915).  But while there’s more to Buchan’s story than its conventional action-adventure reputation would suggest (due to its recurrent themes of disguise and imposture), I think Rogue Male is superior in terms of characterisation and psychological tension.  Buchan’s Richard Hannay is an outsider in that he’s a veteran of the African colonies who finds life back in the ‘Old Country’ stuffy, pretentious and tedious; but the hero of Rogue Male is an outsider in more complex ways.  He comes from a world of wealth and entitlement but treats that world indifferently and it’s noticeable that when he’s back in London he has a lack of friends in high places to call upon for help.  Indeed, he’s such a loner that at times you wonder if he wants to resign from the human race itself. This is even without the mental and physical stresses of being hunted making him feel more like an animal than a man.  Household provides a few clues about a past tragedy that may explain his misanthropy but wisely doesn’t get bogged down in too much backstory.

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And though Richard Hannay is no shrinking violet, it’s doubtful if he could put up with living for long in the burrow that the narrator digs for himself in Dorset and where he spends a good part of 90 pages – first hiding in it from Quive-Smith and his men, and then besieged in it by them.  Household doesn’t excessively describe the dirt, muck and claustrophobic darkness of this hideaway but he still manages to imply its squalor.  His hero gets accustomed to it while he’s inside it but realises how horrible it is when he leaves and then comes back: “The stench was appalling.  I had been out only half an hour, but that was enough for me to notice, as if it had been created by another person, the atmosphere in which I had been living.”  Then again, like many men of his generation, he’s already undergone something traumatic that puts this experience in perspective: “…my God, I remembered that there were men at Ypres in 1915 whose dugouts were smaller and damper than mine!”

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I’ve known the story of Rogue Male for a long time thanks to seeing the two film adaptations.  I didn’t much like the 1941 Hollywood version, which downplays the rawness of the novel and turns it into a typical espionage thriller, reducing the amount of time Walter Pidgeon spends in the burrow and padding things out with extra characters and plot twists elsewhere.  (When Pidgeon gets off the ship, he’s promptly greeted by a parade of Cockney Pearly Kings and Queens waltzing and singing down a foggy street – the filmmakers’ way of assuring American audiences that, yes, he is back in London.) 

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But I enjoyed the 1976 BBC version.  Its scriptwriter, Frederic Raphael, streamlines parts of Household’s narrative and embellishes others – most notably, adding a new character, a pompous and unhelpful representative of the British government sublimely played by Alastair Sim – but it’s gritty and, for the time, brutal, even if Peter O’Toole never quite becomes the desperate, filthy, animalistic figure that his counterpart in the book becomes.  It also has a great cast (John Standing, Harold Pinter, Michael Byrne and Mark McManus as well as O’Toole and Sim) and it even slips in a cheeky visual reference to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s wartime classic, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943).  

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However, I only read the novel a few days ago after discovering a battered old Penguin edition of it in Priorsford Books, a charming second-hand bookshop that opened recently in my hometown of Peebles.  And coincidentally, it looks like Rogue Male could soon be back in vogue for a while back it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch plans to produce, and presumably star in, a new version of it.  Let’s hope the Cumberbatch version, if it appears, is closer to the sombre tone of the 1976 adaptation than the anodyne, crowd-pleasing tone of the 1941 one.  Or, better still, it makes a real effort to capture the fascinatingly introspective, misanthropic and grimy mood of the novel that inspired those versions in the first place.

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(c) BBC

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Barging into Bangkok

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Barges are a common sight on the Chao Phraya River in modern-day Bangkok.  Unfortunately, these happen to be huge, ugly, industrial things that, pulled by tugs, crawl along the water like convoys of giant, mutant cockroaches, their cargoes sealed under dark tarpaulin, their sides and ends padded with chains of car and truck-tyres. 

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But to view the traditional barges of Bangkok – those famously sleek and gliding vessels that were often propelled by ‘more than 100 oarsmen’, went on their way ‘accompanied by the harmonious sounds of rhythmic chanting’, were ‘delicately carved with gilded lacquer and mirrored glass decorations’ and had prows fashioned in the forms of ‘mythical creatures’ – you need to pay a visit to the city’s National Museum of Royal Barges.

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The museum is next to the Bangkok Noi Khlong (Canal) just before it joins the Chao Phraya River.  If you go there by river-ferry, you can disembark at the Phra Pin Klao Bridge pier north of the canal-river junction and make your way by foot.  Be warned that the route from the pier to the museum is a slightly torturous (albeit signposted) one, which takes you through a labyrinth of narrow, twisting alleyways.  These are lined with low, sun-bleached walls, large potted plants and the doors, verandas and gardens of tightly-packed houses; and punctuated with occasional tiny shops, occasional crumbling spirit-houses and occasional footbridges straddling narrow waterways.  An added piece of local colour for my partner and I when we traversed this area was a drunk Thai guy sitting on some alleyway steps and happily shouting “Happy New Year!” in English at everyone who went by.  (It was only noon at the time but it was almost New Year.)

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We were starting to wonder if we would ever find the Barge Museum in that charming but disorientating neighbourhood when, suddenly, we arrived at its side door.  The museum is contained in a hangar that opens onto the canal, with the canal-water entering the building between a series of indoor piers.  The barges are moored in the channels between the piers.  Each vessel is accompanied by a sign giving its vital statistics – its length, width and ‘depth’, its number of oarsmen and crewmembers (apparently, oarsmen didn’t count as proper ‘crew’) and the years when it was built and when it was restored.  As well as complete ones, there are also a few sections of barges, resting on girders above the water.  The signs by these truncated specimens usually feature the line: ‘Damaged by a bomb during World War II.’

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Some of the exhibits here are gorgeous.  Their gold-lacquered hulls are patterned with vines, leaves, flowers and processions of serpentine naga and squatting garuda.  The ‘pavilions’ in the centre of their decks are topped with gracefully tiered or spired roofs.  And their figureheads are fantastically sculpted.   The most striking of those figureheads include a golden dragon’s head on a high, slender neck and sporting a long, gharial-like snout; a pugnacious-looking, red-bodied, golden-beaked garuda; and a spectacular naga with turquoise-centred, gold-edged scales, great flame-like crests and a tangle of seven heads.  I have to say that, thanks to my inner movie nerd, that last one reminded me of King Ghidorah in the Godzilla films.

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Another sign informed us, apologetically, that ‘craftsmen are restoring the decoration of the Royal Barges preparing for the Royal Barges Procession in 2019.’  Accordingly, individual restorers and pairs and teams of them were hard at work on most of the barges when we visited, scraping, cleaning, repainting and polishing their intricate carvings, patterns and figureheads.  These restorers were of all shapes, sizes and ages and their presence didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the museum at all. 

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Indeed, watching them carry out their painstaking restoration work was rather inspiring.  They exuded a quiet enthusiasm for and pride in their craft.  I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere out there is an alternative universe where I entered a different line of work from the line I entered in this universe and where I ended up having as my professional title: Restorer of Thai Barges.  (Just as I sometimes like to imagine there are other alternative universes where I’m employed as an Egyptologist, or as a wolf biologist, or as a repairer of 18th century automatons…)

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A Fluffi-shambles

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From the National

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Last week was not an auspicious one for politicians who’ve served as Member of Parliament for Peebles, my hometown in Scotland. 

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Firstly, Lord David Steel, who was the town’s MP from 1965 until 1997 (while it was part of the constituencies of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles and then Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) and who is also a former leader of the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats) found himself in some severe shit.  He admitted in a hearing for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that in 1979 he’d ‘assumed’ his fellow Liberal MP Cyril Smith was guilty of child abuse at a hostel in Smith’s constituency of Rochdale.  Not only did Steel appear to turn a blind eye to this matter at the time, but nine years later he recommended Smith for a knighthood.  Since Smith’s death in 2010, police have uncovered ‘overwhelming evidence’ that he was an abuser of young boys.  By Thursday last week, it’d been announced that “the office bearers of the Scottish Liberal Democrats have met and agreed that an investigation is needed.  The party membership of Lord Steel has been suspended pending the outcome of that investigation.”

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Then there were the desperate and undignified squirmings of David Mundell, the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, a constituency that Peebles got lumped in with in 2005.  Since 2015, Mundell, or ‘Fluffy’ as he’s commonly known, has also served as Secretary of State for Scotland in the Conservative governments of David Cameron and Theresa May.  He didn’t win this position because of the possession of a stunning intellect, abilities or personality but because in 2015 he was the only Conservative MP left in Scotland.  (Back then, at the yearly Agricultural Show held in Peebles, the Conservative Party would invariably set up a tent and Mundell, aka The Only Tory MP In Scotland, would sit inside, ready to press the flesh with his constituents, should any present themselves.  Passers-by would invariably point and crack the well-worn joke: “Look, there’s the Rare Breeds Tent.”)

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Last week, it became clear that the UK government and parliament were in omni-shambles mode.  The parliament managed to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, against the holding of a second Brexit referendum, against the UK leaving the European Union without a deal, against the so-called Malthouse Compromise and against parliament being allowed to take control of the whole sorry Brexit process.  But even in the midst of this omni-shambles, Mundell’s behaviour stood out as particularly shambolic – his was the Fluffi-shambles. 

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He found himself caught between the rock of his party’s enthusiasm for Brexit and the hard place of knowing, quietly, how damaging Brexit is likely to be for Scotland (which voted overwhelming against leaving Europe), for his heavily agriculture-dependent Scottish constituency and for his own re-election prospects.  Finally, he defied the government whip when the vote was called on ruling out an economically disastrous no-deal Brexit.  The Conservative government demanded he voted against it being ruled out, whereas Mundell wanted it ruled out.  Being spineless, though, he chose to abstain rather than vote the other way from his political peers and masters. 

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In ordinary times, even Mundell’s abstention would be treated as a defiance of government policy and a resigning matter for a minister.  However, in these extraordinary times, with Theresa May exerting about as much authority as a wet paper bag, Mundell got away with it without resigning.  Happily for him – the basic salary for an ordinary MP was £77,379 in 2018, but as Secretary of State for Scotland he can claim £67,505 on top of that (well, going by 2017 figures). 

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A subsequent interview saw Mundell give a less-than-polished account of himself: “I’m not, er, resigning because I support the Prime Minister in her course, er, of action.  Her course of action is, er, to leave, er, with a deal, er, in an orderly Brexit but I just… I’m very clear that I don’t support, er, a no-deal, er, Brexit and I’ve made, er, I’ve made that clear on numerous occasions, the House has made its view clear, and the government is responding and taking forward, er, the decision of the House today…  There are a number of cabinet ministers, ministerial colleagues, er, who didn’t wish to oppose what was clearly, er, the will of the House on not leaving, er, without, er, on not leaving with, er, in a no-deal, er, Brexit…”

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I’d say that during the interview Mundell looked like a rabbit frozen in some car headlights, but that would disparage the courage, grit and determination displayed by rabbits frozen in car headlights everywhere.  Indeed, Mundell’s snivelling performance would make the average rabbit frozen in car headlights look like Mel Gibson leading the Scottish forces into action at the Battle of Stirling in Braveheart (1995).

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Oddly, the ‘numerous occasions’ when Mundell made it clear he was against a no-deal Brexit didn’t extend to an amendment tabled in parliament in late February to rule out that very thing.  Mundell refused to support it, or even abstain on it, because those tabling the amendment were the Scottish National Party.  He dismissed this as a ‘stunt’ and claimed that the SNP actually want the chaos that a no-deal Brexit would cause.  Which is evidently why they proposed an amendment calling on the UK government to prevent a no-deal Brexit from happening…  What?

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From twitter.com / @scottishlabour

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When it comes to tying himself in knots like this, Mundell has form.  In October last year, he and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson threatened that they “would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK” in some new Brexit deal.  Officially, this was because they feared it would “fuel the case for Scottish independence.”  Unofficially, I suspect they were playing to the hard-line Protestant, Glasgow Rangers-supporting gallery in the west of Scotland that has strong ties with the pro-British Protestant community in Northern Ireland, a gallery whose votes they’ve benefited from in recent years.  A few days later Mundell turned round and declared that he hadn’t intended to resign at all – and by mid-November May had indeed proposed a Brexit deal that might involve separate arrangements for Northern Ireland.  At least his £67,505 ministerial top-up salary was safe.

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In fact, whenever I see yet another cringing turn by David Mundell, I wonder why there’s any point in having a Secretary of State for Scotland at all.  After all, responsibility for the running of Scotland’s domestic affairs doesn’t lie with him but with the Scottish government, at the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, which was set up in 1999.  But the real reason why there’s a Secretary of State is obvious – the Scottish government is run by the pesky SNP and London feels the need to have the likes of David Mundell hovering in the background, looking on and harrumphing disapprovingly, like history’s crappest colonial governor ever. 

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And I sometimes wonder too if Theresa May, whose empathy, emotional intelligence and people skills are not thought to be large, even knows who poor old Mundell is.  It wouldn’t surprise me if she believes he’s some fluffy-faced Caledonian footman who’s on hand to tend to her whenever her advisors decree that she visits the God-forsaken northern regions of her domain. 

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Still, awesomely hapless though he is, at least last week Mundell didn’t vote to leave the door open for a no-deal Brexit, even though by abstaining he didn’t vote against it either.  That’s more than could be said for most of his dozen fellow Scottish Conservative MPs, who cravenly ignored the pro-EU wishes of their electorates and voted with the government.  These include such specimens as Kirstene Hair, the intellectually-challenged MP for Angus, who once admitted to not voting in the Brexit referendum because she found the choice on offer ‘very difficult’.  Or the splendidly unhinged Ross Thomson, MP for Aberdeen South, who last month got involved in a stushie in the UK parliament’s Strangers’ Bar, where he was accused of groping a number of people’s bottoms.  Thomson’s defence was that he’d been drinking for five hours and was merely grabbing those bottoms in order to stop himself falling over, like they were handles or ledges.  From this, I can only surmise that there are some very peculiarly shaped bottoms in the pubs of Westminster.

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Actually, should Mundell decide that he can’t take it any longer, don’t be surprised if Mad Ross ends up as the next Secretary of State for Scotland. It’s not as if he’ll have to live up to the reputation of a distinguished predecessor.

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From the Evening Times

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Rab Foster goes to the pub

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(c) Aphelion

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A short story of mine entitled Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf has been published in the March 2019 edition of the webzine Aphelion.  It’s credited to the pseudonym Rab Foster, which I use for stories written in the fantasy genre, and as you might expect from the title it’s largely set in a pub – or to use terminology more appropriate to fantasy fiction, an ‘inn’ or a ‘tavern’.

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Fantasy stories are riddled with taverns – usually populated by thirsty barbarians, dwarves, hobbits, etc., knocking back tankard after tankard of foaming ale.  Off the top of my head, I can think of the Prancing Pony in the town of Bree in the first of the Lord of the Rings books; the Leaky Cauldron, the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head Inn in the Harry Potter novels; and the Silver Eel Tavern in Fritz Leiber’s witty Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories.  Oh, and let’s not forget the Slaughtered Prince in Neil Gaiman’s novel Stardust (1999).  When Stardust was filmed eight years later, a real-life hostelry called the Briton’s Arms in the picturesque, cobbled district of Elm Hill in Norwich was used as the Slaughtered Prince’s stand-in.  I lived in Norwich in 2008-2009 and the Briton’s Arms was one of my regular hang-outs, but since it’s really a tea and coffee-shop the beverages I consumed there were non-alcoholic ones.

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Anyway, despite the prevalence of taverns in this type of literature, it occurred to me that the hard-working staff in these places – the jolly ruddy-faced innkeepers, the saucy serving wenches (who would invariably get pulled onto some bawdy barbarian’s lap in the course of their duties) and so on – rarely get much attention.  So I thought it would be nice if, for once, there was a fantasy story that put them centre-stage and featured one of them as its hero.  Hence, Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf.

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Incidentally, the layout of the titular Speckled Wolf, with its island bar and high gantry, is inspired by the prestigious Café Royal in Edinburgh.  The idea of the stained-glass windows came from the public bar of the Green Tree Hotel in my hometown of Peebles – though what’s depicted in the Green Tree’s windows is less dramatic than that in the Speckled Wolf’s windows.  And I suspect the general ambience of the place was modelled on that of the Machar Bar in Aberdeen, where I spent many an evening (and afternoon) during the 1980s.  Mind you, an acquaintance recently told me that by the early 2000s the once spare and no-nonsense Machar had acquired a carpet – a gruesome thought.  So its ambience has evidently changed since my day…

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For the next few weeks at least, you can access the March edition of Aphelion here and Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf itself here.

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Favourite rock biopics

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(c) Momentum Pictures

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Following my previous post about the film Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which tells the story of the 1970s / 1980s rock band Queen and which I had very mixed feelings about, I thought I’d write about the rock biopics I like best.

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The first one that springs to mind is Control (2007), directed by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn.  This focuses on Ian Curtis, frontman with the legendary and pioneering post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980.  It has an appealing cast: Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his wife Deborah, plus Joe Anderson as Peter Hook, James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Summer and Harry Treadaway as Stephen Morris, Curtis’s fellow-bandmembers who after his death would regroup as New Order.  But what makes Control special for me is how Corbijn blends the tragedy of Curtis’s life-story, the drabness of 1970s Macclesfield (Curtis’s hometown), the spare, pulsating and somehow beautiful bleakness of Joy Division’s music, and the romanticism that inspired and drove Curtis, and manages to create something that despite the final outcome is actually uplifting.  Corbijn’s decision to film Control in colour but then convert the film-stock into moody black and white helps.

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There’s also humour, a factor that, given the absurdities and excesses of the music industry, needs to be present in every good rock biopic.  This comes largely courtesy of band manager Rob Gretton, played by Toby Kebbell.  “It could be worse,” he tells Curtis in the aftermath of one of his devastating epileptic seizures.  “At least you’re not the lead singer of the Fall.”  Look out too for Salford performance-poet John Cooper Clarke, playing himself as a support act at a Joy Division gig.  Only the enviably pencil-thin Clarke could get away with playing himself when he was thirty years younger.

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(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures

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I’m not a Beatles fan but I really enjoyed Backbeat (1994), the Iain Softley-directed film about the band’s pre-stardom period at the beginning of the 1960s when they spent time in Hamburg performing early rock ‘n’ roll standards.  The Beatles of this era consisted of five members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best, played in Backbeat by Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O’Neill, Stephen Dorff and Scot Williams respectively.  The main acting duties fall on Hart – who, incidentally, has also played Lennon in the 1991 movie The Hours and Times and the 2013 Playhouse Presents TV production Snodgrass – and Dorff because the movie focuses on the friendship between Lennon and Sutcliffe.  The latter would die of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1962.

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What sets the film alight is its music.  To recreate the sound of the nascent Beatles kicking ass on stage, the filmmakers smartly gathered together musicians from 1994’s hottest rock bands – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Don Fleming from Gumball, Mike Mills from REM and Dave Grohl from Nirvana – and got them to knock out renditions of the likes of Long Tall Sally and Good Golly Miss Molly.  Even the muscular Henry Rollins (originally from punk outfit Black Flag but in 1994 doing rather well with his own Rollins Band) got in on in the act, providing the vocals for a sequence when Sutcliffe tries and fails to croon Love Me Tender.  In fact, the film’s only duff note is a brief scene where it gratuitously and unconvincingly grafts Ringo Starr onto the narrative.

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(c) Palace Pictures / The Samuel Goldwyn Company

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The bleakest film on my list is surely Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox’s 1986 re-enactment of the doomed romance between the Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and American groupie Nancy Spungen.  Telling a love story that begins with boy meeting girl against a background of severe heroin abuse, continues with boy and girl in the grip of severe heroin abuse, and ends with boy stabbing girl to death thanks to severe heroin abuse, Sid and Nancy is a grim and at times difficult watch.  But it has the saving grace of humour, even if it’s humour of the cringeworthy variety, such as when Sid is introduced to Nancy’s respectable, middle-class, all-American family and attempts to entertain them with a display of his ‘musicianship’.  The lead actors are good too: Gary Oldman as Vicious and Chloe Webb as Spungen, although these days it’s weird to see David Hayman, regarded in Scotland now as a national treasure, in the role of Malcolm McLaren.  Famously, Courtney Love lobbied hard, but unsuccessfully, to win the role of Nancy Spungen.  A little too hard, some would say, considering what happened subsequently.

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One person who’s not a fan of Sid and Nancy is John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, Vicious’ friend and fellow Sex Pistol.  Lydon hated the way he was portrayed in the film by actor Andrew Schofield, who isn’t a Londoner like Lydon but is from Kirby, north of Liverpool.  And he detested the film generally and Alex Cox in particular, dismissing it as a fantasy put together by ‘some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era’.

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Next up is Oliver Stone’s 1991 dramatisation of the story of late 1960s / early 1970s psychedelic-blues-rock band the Doors, simply called The Doors, which in many ways is a warped mirror image of Bohemian Rhapsody.  Like the Queen biopic, it often veers away from the truth.  Unlike that later film, however, it isn’t afraid to present a warts-and-all picture of its subjects, especially of the band’s frontman Jim Morrison, who’s played by Val Kilmer.  So well does Kilmer do in the role, incidentally, that at times you forget it’s him you’re watching onscreen and not Morrison himself. 

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(c) Bill Graham Films / Tri-Star Pictures

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Stone’s unflattering portrayal of Morrison, during his decline from gorgeous, long-haired, rock-music Dionysus to beastly, babbling, booze-befuddled sociopath and finally to bearded, beer-bellied, bathtub cadaver, greatly upset fellow band-members Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robbie Krieger (played in the film by Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whalley) and his lover Patricia Kennealy (played by Kathleen Quinlan).  Indeed, I suspect Kennealy, who married Morrison in a Celtic pagan ceremony and is a pagan high priestess herself, may have eschewed Celtic paganism’s usual benevolence and fired a few spells in Stone’s direction after she saw the film.

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Well, The Doors probably tells a few porkies but I have to say I really enjoyed it.  It’s over-the-top and out-of-control and Stone goes too far by mixing in some guff about Native American shamanism, but its bacchanalian and hallucinogenic excesses feel exhilaratingly true of the era, if not wholly true of the band.  And taken in the right spirit, the film is very funny.  Comic highlights include Kennealy giving Morrison carnal encouragement with, “Come on, rock god.  F**k me, f**k me good!”  Or John Densmore expressing his reluctance  to take acid and Morrison reassuring him, “Relax – it’s peyote.”  Or Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) offering Morrison a golden telephone with which to ‘talk to God.’ Andy can’t use it himself because, it transpires, he doesn’t ‘have anything to say.’ 

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Finally, my last pick on this list of rock biopics returns to the era of Joy Division, but isn’t about a band or musician.  It’s about a record executive, Tony Wilson of Factory Records, the independent Manchester-based record label, who signed Joy Division in the late 1970s and struck gold again a decade later when he signed the Happy Mondays.  This is 24 Hour Party People (2002), directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson.  This time Joy Division are played by Sean Harris (Curtis), John Simm (Summer), Ralf Little (Hook) and Tim Horrocks (Morris), while the Happy Mondays are represented by Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell as Shaun and Paul Ryder and Chris Coghill as the band’s freaky-dancin’, maracas-shaking figurehead, Bez

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(c) Film 4 / Pathé / United Artists

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Before his musical successes, Wilson was best-known as a TV reporter for Granada Television and with Coogan in the role, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Coogan’s famous alter-ego, Alan Partridge.  This is especially so at the film’s beginning when we see Wilson filming a report where he attempts to go hang-gliding:  “Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it’s the latest craze sweeping the Pennines.  I’ve got to be honest with you.  Right now, I’d rather be sweeping the Pennines.” 

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24 Hour Party People cleverly subverts the issue of factual accuracy in music biopics with much post-modernism and breaking of the 4th wall – for example, when we see the fictional Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, played by Martin Hancock, do something and then the real Howard Devoto appears in the frame and tells us that he doesn’t remember this happening back then.  There’s a great supporting cast of character actors, comic performers and comedians, including Shirley Henderson, Andy Serkis, Rob Brydon, Dave Gorman, Peter Kay, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, while several real-life musicians make cameos including, in addition to Devoto, Mark E. Smith, Clint Boon and the Stone Roses’ Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield.  And the film has many good lines, my favourite being when Wilson introduces the Ryders to Bez with the comment, “Every band needs its own chemistry.  And Bez is a very good chemist.”

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Finally, which band would I like to see a biopic of in the future?  The answer to that question has got to be Hawkwind, the venerable ‘space rock’ band who’ve been slogging away since 1969 and whose ranks have included over the years such personalities, eccentrics and oddballs as Lemmy, ‘manic depressive hypo-maniac’ poet Robert Calvert, statuesque topless dancer Stacia, Ginger Baker, Arthur Brown, sci-fi / fantasy author Michael Moorcock and Dik Mik, operator of the ‘audio generator’ that provided the band with its distinctive whooshing noises.  Properly done, you could end up with a hilarious comedy-drama that does for the characters of alternative English psychedelic rock music what Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) did for the characters of low budget 1950s Californian movie-making.  So what do you think?  Anton Corbijn?  Michael Winterbottom?  Oliver Stone, even?  Anyone interested?

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From rateyourmusic.com

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Is this the real life? No, it’s just fantasy…

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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Beelzebub had a devil set aside for me recently while I spent most of 24 hours travelling with a particular airline from Sri Lanka to Scotland.  The set-aside devil was the airline’s in-flight movie service, which was mostly composed of tired old rubbish like Johnny English Strikes Again (2018), while the only decent offerings were stuff like Black Panther (2018) that I’d already seen. 

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Finally, to take my mind off the tedium of the flight, the cramped-ness of my seat and the occasional unnerving shaking that outside air-turbulence would subject the plane to (“Thunderbolts and lightning / Very, very frightening!”), I gave in and watched Bohemian Rhapsody.  This was last year’s biopic of Queen, the 1970s / 1980s rock band who remain fabulously popular today even though they’ve been creatively inert since 1991 when their singer Freddie Mercury passed away.  I watched the film reluctantly, knowing that the critics had been at best lukewarm and at worst scathing about it. 

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I suppose, I thought, I can’t be too picky…  “Because I’m easy come, easy go / A little high, little low / Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me / To mee-eee….

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Actually, Bohemian Rhapsody has earned (as of a week ago) 861 million dollars around the world, despite the critics turning up their noses at it.  This is in keeping with the great Queen divide.  Back in the days when they were a properly functioning band, people I knew who considered themselves serious and knowledgeable connoisseurs of music would tell me that though they tried to be broad-minded, they just couldn’t stomach bloody Queen, whom they saw as purveyors of bloated, corny, stomp-along, guitar-twiddling shite.  Meanwhile, other folk, who bought at most three CDs a year and barely knew the difference between Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley and Reg Presley – the majority of the British population in other words – believed Queen were the absolute bees knees and anyone voicing a negative opinion of the band was just “a big disgrace / kicking their can all over the place.”  So this chasm between what the cultural intelligentsia thought of Queen and what the ordinary masses thought of them is nothing new.

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Incidentally, I have to say I found it ironic how popular Queen were in the 1970s and 1980s among guys who styled themselves as straightforward, unpretentious, down-to-earth, laddish, maybe a bit unreconstructed and probably a bit homophobic.  They’d punch you in the face if you suggested they might be into anything involving ‘puffs’.  But after a few seconds of hearing the shamelessly camp Freddie Mercury crooning, “Oooh, you make me live… / Oooh, you’re my best friend!”, they’d be hugging each other, be singing along in cracked-with-emotion voices and have tears rolling down their cheeks. 

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It’s telling that in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell (1998), Marilyn Manson recalls how at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils received regular lectures about the evils of heavy metal and hard rock music – and the band those Christian teachers seemed to fear and hate most all was Queen, due to the effect that Freddie’s sexually-ambiguous prancing and preening might be having on the sons of God-fearing America.

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Anyway, watching Bohemian Rhapsody, I certainly felt there was plenty wrong with it.  The problem with building a dramatic narrative out of Queen’s story is that there’s hardly any drama in it.  They got together in 1970, had a monster hit with Bohemian Rhapsody-the-single in 1975 and then stayed at the top for the next 16 years, their popularity seemingly impervious to the coming and going of musical fads like disco, punk, New Romanticism, goth, ska, the Mod revival, the Madchester scene, rap, techno, hair metal and grunge.  No doubt the late 1980s and early 1990s were traumatic for them when Freddie was diagnosed as HIV positive, became sick and died from AIDS in 1991, but the film doesn’t hang around long enough to chart those final years.  Rather, it ends on the high note of Queen’s famously barnstorming performance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley in July 1985.

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Lacking real historical drama, the film tries to generate some by playing fast and loose with the facts.  It depicts the band as having effectively broken up by 1985 thanks to Freddie’s out-of-control ego and the other band-members’ intransigence and lack of adventurousness, with the Live Aid concert being their last chance to pull themselves together and prove to the public that they’re still relevant.  As a plot device this is lame – and, factually, it’s nonsense because no such schism had appeared in the real band.  I remember them being ubiquitous during the year before Live Aid because of the success of their The Works album and singles like Radio Ga Ga and I Want to Break Free.   Another liberty with the truth (and the film has many of these) is a big emotional moment before they take the Wembley stage when Freddie tells the others he’s HIV positive.  In reality, he didn’t know this until 1987.

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From mentalfloss.com

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Conversely, the stuff that might have generated some drama, i.e. the band’s moral warts and carbuncles, are discretely airbrushed away, which probably has something to do with Queen’s lead guitarist and drummer Brian May and Roger Taylor being the film’s ‘creative consultants’.  So we get nothing about, for instance, their decision to play some lucrative gigs at the Sun City complex in Bophuthatswana, South Africa, during the apartheid era, which landed them on a United Nations blacklist; or the fact that in late 1985 they released a supposedly Live Aid-inspired song called One Vision and then kept all the profits for themselves.  No wonder they used to sing, “I want it all / I want it all… / And I want it now.

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Also doused in a tankerload of whitewash is the issue of Freddie’s promiscuity.  In reality, in 1984, Freddie bragged to the DJ Paul Gambaccini with hedonistic and – considering the times – reckless abandon: “Darling, my attitude is ‘f**k it’.  I’m doing everything with everybody.”  (Later, Gambaccini reflected, “I’d seen enough in New York to know that Freddie was going to die.”)  But in Bohemian Rhapsody he’s presented as a victim.  Insecure about his sexuality, he’s led astray by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who lures him into a world of partying, orgy-ing and general dissolution.  In another clumsy move to tie everything in with Live Aid, the film has Mercury firing Prenter shortly before the concert.  But the real Prenter didn’t get his marching orders until 1986, one year afterwards.

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Despite everything, though…  I did enjoy the film.  Sort of. 

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It has an endearing cast: not just Rami Malek as Freddie – who, in a crowd-pleasing move by the Academy, picked up the Oscar for Best Actor the other day – but also Gwilym Lee as May, Ben Hardy as Taylor and Joe Mazello as the band’s quiet but affable bassist John Deacon.  It helps that these young actors actually resemble the band members they’re playing and the physical quirks that made Queen seem a little more human, like Freddie’s oversized incisors and May’s bombed-out buzzard’s nest of a hairdo, are lovingly recreated. 

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Also, Mike Myers has a neat supporting role as a record executive called Ray Foster, who apparently wasn’t a real person but a composite of various real-life executives who tried to put a stick in the band’s creative spokes.  Equipped with frizzy hair, sunglasses, a hideous woollen tank top and yet another provincial accent from the Mike Myers version of Britain, Foster gruffly objects to the idea that Bohemian Rhapsody-the-song be released as a single: “It goes on forever.  Six bloody minutes!”  To which Freddie retorts: “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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The most enjoyable parts for me, however, were the script’s clunking attempts to foreshadow some of the band’s biggest hits.  It was fun to see how many micro-seconds it took me to work out which song they were talking about.  For example, when Freddie starts rabbiting on about how he wants to do a rock song with opera in it…  It’s Bohemian Rhapsody!  Or when May says he wants to write a song where the crowd can join in by clapping their hands and stamping their feet…  It’s We Will Rock You!  Or when John Deacon horrifies the others by proposing they do a disco tune…  It’s Another One Bites the Dust

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This foreshadowing got to the point where I expected to hear an exchange like: “What, David Bowie wants to record with us?  That makes me nervous.  I feel under pressure already!”  “Wait, I have an idea for a title…”  Or: “Writing film scores can’t be too difficult. In fact, I bet I could write one in a flash.” “Well, funny you should say that, because Dino De Laurentiis happens to be producing a new movie…”     

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To sum up: I found Bohemian Rhapsody dumb, superficial, bombastic and somewhat problematic, but also fun and entertaining and even uplifting in a slightly tacky way.  Which is appropriate, because that’s very much how I find Queen.

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The tsunami monument at Peraliya

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It’s difficult to spend more than a few days in Sri Lanka before you start to spot memorials to, notice lingering traces of or hear local people talk about the Boxing Day tsunami that slammed into the island’s eastern and southern coasts in 2004, claimed over 30,000 lives and forced over 1,500,000 Sri Lankans from their homes.

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The statistics of the carnage wreaked by the tsunami in Sri Lanka are so tragically overwhelming that they hide a more particular fact – that because of the tsunami, the country also experienced the world’s worst rail disaster.

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I will let Wikipedia relate the details: “The 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami rail disaster is the largest single rail disaster in world history by death toll…  Train #50 was a regular train operating between the cities of Colombo and Matara…  On Sunday, 26 December 2004, during the Buddhist full moon holiday and the Christmas holiday weekend, it left Colombo’s Fort Station shortly after 6.50 AM with over 1,500 paid passengers and an unknown number of unpaid passengers with travel passes (called Seasons) and government travel passes…

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At 9.30 AM, in the village of Peraliya, near Telwatta, the beach saw the first of the gigantic waves thrown up by the earthquake.  The train came to a halt as water surged around it.  Hundreds of locals, believing the train to be secure on the rails, climbed on top of the cars to avoid being swept away.  Others stood behind the train, hoping it would shield them from the force of the water…

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Ten minutes later, a huge wave picked the train up and smashed it against the trees and houses which lined the track, crushing those seeking shelter behind it.  The eight carriages were so packed with people that the doors could not be opened while they filled with water, drowning almost everyone inside as the water washed over the wreckage several more times.  The passengers on top of the train were thrown clear of the uprooted carriages, and most drowned or were crushed by debris…

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“…the Sri Lankan authorities had no idea where the train was for several hours, until it was spotted by an army helicopter around 4.00 PM.  The local emergency services were destroyed, and it was a long time before help arrived…  Some families descended on the area determined to find their relatives themselves.  According to the Sri Lankan authorities, only about 150 people on the train survived.  The estimated death toll was at least 1,700 people, and probably over 2,000, although only approximately 900 bodies were recovered, as many were swept out to sea or taken away by relatives.  The town of Peraliya was also destroyed, losing hundreds of citizens and all but ten buildings to the waves.  More than 200 of the bodies retrieved were not identified or claimed, and were buried three days later in a Buddhist ceremony near the torn railway line.”

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Today, when you enter Peraliya, travelling north on the coastal road from the popular seaside town of Hikkaduwa, you’ll see a monument to the victims of the disaster called Tsunami Honganji Viharaya on the road’s right-hand, inland side.  It consists of an 18.5-metre-high Buddha statue rising from a little islet in a rectangular pond, constructed on the spot where the devastation occurred a decade-and-a-half ago.  Although the statue was built with donations from Japan, it’s actually a reproduction of the one of Bhamian statues in Afghanistan that were dynamited and destroyed by the Taliban in a bigoted and pig-ignorant display of cultural vandalism in 2001.

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An arched footbridge – you remove your shoes before you cross – takes you over the pond to the islet and statue.  Two stone lions guard the islet-end of the bridge, an altar-table in front of the statue is supported by three small black statues of elephants with upraised trunks, and plaques below the pedestal on which the Buddha stands carry messages from various religious and political dignitaries. People tell me the figure itself, clad in a gown whose folds descend from its shoulder to ankles in a distinctive pattern of tight, parallel grooves, is the same height that the tsunami was at its highest.

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At the entrance to the lane that takes you from the road to the footbridge is a yellow-walled building with the words TEMPLE OFFICE painted on its side.  Inside, you’ll find a gallery of photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.  Some of them record such carnage that they’re extremely hard to look at.  Among the less graphic photographs, one shows the local rail-tracks after they’d been twisted into steel squiggles by the force of the water, while another shows a makeshift sign relaying the latest information from the National Disaster Management Centre.

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A little further along, on the road’s left-hand side next to the sea, there’s a non-religious memorial to the victims: a plaque, a column, and a scene carved onto a wall of grey and rust-orange stone that represents the destruction immediately after the tsunami had struck the train and village.  Its details include piles of bodies, masonry and smashed palm trees, sections of wrenched-up and misshapen rail track, and upended train carriages, some with corpses hanging out of their windows.  It’s startlingly candid in what it shows.  Indeed, it will surprise some Westerners accustomed to such memorials in their own cultures being discretely abstract – not displaying any features of the disasters they commemorate, which might upset traumatised survivors and grieving relatives of the dead.

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Behind the memorial is a strip of coastline consisting of nothing but grass, sand, rocks and palm trees, with an idyllic-looking and deserted beach stretching off to the north.  I asked the tuk-tuk driver who’d brought us if there’d been village-houses here and he said there had: up until 2004, obviously.

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Unsurprisingly, our visit to Peraliya put us in was a sombre mood.  Our sombreness turned to annoyance, however, when we were tuk-tuking back from the second memorial and we passed the Bhamian Buddha statue again.  Traipsing along the road in front of it were two Western female tourists clad in tiny, skimpy spaghetti-hoop tops and cut-off jeans that stopped immediately below their crotches.  In other words, they were baring about 70% of their flesh whilst wandering by a monument erected in honour of some 1700-2000 people who’d died in awful circumstances.  Oh, for God’s sake, I thought.  Show some bloody respect.

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There are two poignant footnotes to the 2004 tragedy at Peraliya.  The locomotive that’d been pulling the carriages, and two of the carriages themselves, were eventually retrieved from the disaster scene, rebuilt and repaired and now, every year on December 26th, they return to Peraliya to take part in a religious ceremony held in remembrance of those who lost their lives.  Secondly, one of the small number of survivors was a train guard called W. Karunatilaka.  His sense of duty was such that following the disaster he continued working on the Colombo-to-Galle train service.  And indeed, according to my research, he was still serving on that coastal route as late as 2015 and 2016.

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An Albert memorial

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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The death of Albert Finney 12 days ago felt like it marked the end of an era – one whose heyday ran from the late 1950s to the 1970s, when British cinema was heavily populated with brash, brooding leading men largely from working-class backgrounds and often showing disdain for the pretentions and affectations traditionally associated with the acting profession: the likes of Stanley Baker, Alan Bates, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, David Hemmings, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed, all now deceased.  Compare them with the current crop of young British movie stars, who seem to have got where they are today by dint of being posh and / or having longstanding family connections with the stage and screen.  (Reed, the member of that old guard from the wealthiest background, had a family connection – but he made a point of waiting until he’d succeeded on his own before he worked with his famous uncle, the director Sir Carol Reed, in 1968’s Oliver!)

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It feels like the end of an era, but it isn’t quite – for a few actors of Finney’s generation, background and disposition remain on the go, like Sean Connery (now retired), Michael Caine and Anthony Hopkins (both still active, happily).

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By way of paying tribute to Albert Finney, I thought I’d list my favourite cinematic memories of him.  So here, in no particular order, are the Finney performances I’ve enjoyed most.

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Leo O’Bannon in Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987) put writing-directing duo Ethan and Joel Coen on the map, but Miller’s Crossing was surely the film that proved they were a moviemaking force to be reckoned with.  As Irish mobster Leo O’Bannon, a character who’s rock-hard yet cursed with a naivete that threatens to provoke a gang-war, Finney is the film’s lynchpin.  It says a lot that he effortlessly holds his own in Miller’s Crossing even though he’s surrounded by actors threatening to steal the show (but never quite doing so): Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro, Jon Polito and J.E. Freeman, all playing the various unscrupulous characters who plot and machinate around O’Bannon. Meanwhile, the Danny Boy sequence, where Finney demonstrates his cigar-chomping, bullet-spraying lethality, is simply a great piece of cinema.

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(c) Woodfall Film Productions / Bryanston Films

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Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

The Karl Reisz-directed, Alan Sillitoe-scripted Saturday Night and Sunday Morning helped usher in the ‘kitchen-sink’ and later the ‘social realism’ school of British filmmaking that – with a few honourable exceptions like Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), Chris Bernard’s Letter to Brezhnev (1985) and Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) – is far from my favourite genre.  But I like this movie because of Finney’s ferocious performance.  As Arthur Seaton, the defiant young Nottingham factory worker whose motto is “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and who damns his family and co-workers as “dead from the neck up” because they’ve succumbed to domestic dreariness and nine-to-five wage-slavery, he’s too blinkered to realise he’s heading that way himself.  Largely responsible for his downfall is his rampant libido, which works several hours ahead of his brain and has him lusting after Rachel Roberts and Shirley Anne Field, the second of whom he ends up marrying.  The final scene, with Field and a sullen Finney approaching a new suburban housing scheme that threatens to be the place of his incarceration, comes as no great surprise. 

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Maurice Allington in The Green Man (1990)

Maurice Allington, the middle-aged bon viveur, raconteur and proprietor of a country restaurant called the Green Man, is a far more refined character than Arthur Seaton.  But he’s no more able to rein in his lechery, here directed at Linda Marlowe (playing his wife) and at Sarah Berger (playing his doctor’s wife) whom he fancies involving in a ménage à trois.  Meanwhile, Allington faces complications on another front besides the domestic one – for the Green Man, it quickly becomes clear, is also a hotbed of paranormal activity.  An offbeat ghostly-comic TV series with an impressive pedigree – it’s scripted by Malcolm Bradbury, based on a novel by Kingsley Amis and directed by Elijah Moshinsky, better known as a director of operas and Shakespearean drama – The Green Man’s strongest point is probably Finney’s splendid performance as Allington, who comes across as an oddly sympathetic cross between Alan Clark and Keith Floyd.

*

(c) BBC

*

Dewey Wilson in Wolfen (1981)

Unfairly maligned by New York Times critic Vincent Canby as ‘platitudinous mumbo-jumbo’, Wolfen is actually a rare beast (and ‘beast’ is the word), a 1980s horror movie that tries to say intelligent things about ecology, social inequality and urban deprivation and renewal.  Finney’s New York accent, big hair and 1980s-style jogging gear take a little getting used to, but he gives an enjoyable turn as a policeman investigating the brutal and mysterious murder of a property developer.  The culprits, it transpires, are a pack of deadly, super-powerful and super-intelligent wolves lurking in the Big Apple’s more rundown areas, their existence known only to a tribe of Native Americans who now work on the city’s high-rise construction projects but who once existed alongside the creatures in the wilderness.  Finney’s supporting cast here – Gregory Hines, Edward James Olmos and Tom Noonan – is excellent too.

*

(c) Orion Pictures / Warner Bros.

*

Kincade in Skyfall (2012)

In the 23rd James Bond movie Skyfall, Finney plays Kincade, the elderly gamekeeper at Bond’s ancestral estate in the Scottish Highlands who helps him (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) when villainous Javier Bardem and his goons lay siege to the place.  Finney’s gruff Lancashire tones, admittedly, aren’t what you’d expect to hear emanating from a bearded ghillie who’s spent a lifetime tramping around the heathery Caledonian mountains.  But it’s gratifying to see him in a Bond movie at last.  His rapport with Dench is particularly good. 

*

Skyfall also proved, alas, to be his final cinematic appearance.  But there are definitely worse ways to bow out than standing alongside 007 with all guns blazing – and I love how when Bond tells him, “This isn’t your fight,” Kincade replies with typical Finney-esque defiance, “Try and stop me, you jumped-up little shit.”      

*

(c) Eon Productions

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The milkman delivers

*

(c) Faber & Faber

*

Milkman, the novel written by Belfast author Anna Burns that won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction late last year, might more accurately be called Milkmen because it has two characters bearing that name.

*

One is a 41-year-old married man and a member of a paramilitary organisation.  We don’t learn why he’s nicknamed ‘milkman’, but it’s a moniker that inspires fear.  He starts making unwelcome intrusions into the life of the book’s 18-year-old female narrator.  One day he stops alongside her in his van and offers her a ride while she’s walking on the street – or more accurately, walking and reading, for when she’s out and about she invariably has a book open in her hand.  (It’s normally a book from the 19th century or earlier because, as she makes clear, she’s not a fan of modern times.)  “You’re one of the who’s-it girls, aren’t you?” he says.  “So-and-so was your father, wasn’t he?  Your brothers, thingy, thingy, thingy and thingy, used to play in the hurley team, didn’t they?  Hop in.  I’ll give you a lift.”  Disconcerted by his knowledge of her and her family, the narrator declines the offer. 

*

Then he appears and jogs alongside her while she’s taking a typically strenuous run through her city’s ‘parks & reservoirs’ area.  “He slowed the run right down…” she observes, “until we were walking…  He had no interest in running.  All that running along the reservoirs where I had not ever seen him running had never been about running.  All that running, I knew, was about me.”  Spooked, she resolves afterwards to run in the company of a male relative, ‘third brother-in-law’, who’s temperamental (“a mad exerciser, a mad street fighter, a basic all-round mad person”) but dependable, in the hope that his presence will keep the milkman away.

*

And then he surprises her after an eventful evening downtown.  She’s just attended an adult French class whose teacher is less interested in teaching the students French than in teaching them that the sky contains more than one colour, blue, by making them properly watch the sunset for the first time: “My poor deprived class… the sky that seems to be out there can be any colour that there is.”  Then, on her way home, she discovers the head of a cat that’s been blown off by a bomb explosion, decides to take it somewhere where she can bury it and wraps it in handkerchiefs.  Standing up with this grisly burden, she discovers the milkman beside her: “Now he was inches from me, and I from him, with only those hankies, and their dark, dead contents, acting as a buffer in between.”

*

Though he doesn’t attempt to molest or even touch her, and he doesn’t proposition her, the milkman has clearly taken an uncommon interest in her.  And the narrator, we have realised by now, is somewhat uncommon herself.       

*

The milkman’s unwelcome and sinister attention has severe consequences.  The narrator inhabits a community that sees itself as under siege by the state, that doesn’t recognise the state’s army, police, courts or hospitals,  and that allows itself to be administered by the ‘renouncers of the state’, i.e. the paramilitaries of whom the milkman is a member.  The result is an isolated society of neurosis and paranoia, whose members are continually at pains to say and be seen to do the right thing at the right time, and not to say or be seen to do the wrong thing at the wrong time; to know who they’re talking to and who’s listening to them; to sense what other people are thinking and keep their own thoughts to themselves; to keep up appearances, go with the flow, not draw attention to themselves, and so on.  In this pressure cooker of a place, gossip spreads as quickly as bush-fire through tinder-dry Outback, and when the narrator and the milkman are spotted together tongues start wagging madly. 

*

The fragile equilibrium that exists between the narrator – already seen as something of an oddball – and her relatives and neighbours is shattered as her supposed affair with the middle-aged, married and murderous milkman provokes disgust, scorn, fear and envy.  Her outraged mother – ‘ma’ – lectures her: “You’ll regret it, daughter, finding yourself ensnared in the underbelly of all that alluring, mind-altering, unruly paramilitary nightlife.  It’s not what it seems.  It’s on the run.  It’s war.  It’s killing people.  It’s being killed…  I’m telling you, it’ll end badly.  You’ll hit the ground with a bump if he doesn’t take you to death first with him.”   

*

Ironically, it’s the book’s second milkman, a real one whose job is to deliver milk, who helps turn things around.  Not only is he unafraid to stand up to the renouncers when he thinks they’re in the wrong, but he tries to extend help and comfort to members of the community who need it – often those who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict between the forces and renouncers of the state.  (With the narrator, his good deed is to take the cat’s head off her hands and give it a decent burial himself.)  Ironically, the real milkman’s compassion goes unrecognised and unappreciated by the community as a whole who, in contradiction of his kindly nature, have nicknamed him ‘the man who doesn’t love anybody’.  He does, however, prove to be the catalyst that finally helps repair things between the narrator and her family.  Though not before he’s involved in a case of mistaken identity by the state forces who’re out to assassinate the other milkman.

*

(c) The Irish Times

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As you’ll gather from the above synopsis, Milkman is an eccentric book.  However, from the moment that it secured the 2018 Man Booker Prize, ‘difficult’ is the word that people have been levelling at it.  London’s Evening Standard acclaimed it as ‘a fine and remarkably original literary achievement’, but then quietly damned it in the next breath by asking, “…how many who buy it will read all the way through?”  Even Kwame Anthony Appiah, head of 2018’s Man Booker judges, sounded slightly apologetic about giving it the prize: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard.”  Well, I can only reply with an un-literary ‘bollocks to that’.  I didn’t find Milkman pretentious or unduly challenging.  Far from it. 

*

Eyebrows have been raised by Anna Burns’ Kafka-esque policy of not giving anyone or anything in the book a proper name or label.  But it’s obviously set in Belfast during the 1970s period of the Troubles – Burns grew up in the North Belfast district of Ardoyne – and the various factions prowling around are obviously the IRA, the British Army, the RUC, etc.  Meanwhile, the fact that none of the characters have proper names, and are referred to instead by simple family-appellations, like ma, second brother-in-law and wee sisters, or by capitalised and un-capitalised nicknames, like chef, Somebody McSomebody and Mr and Mrs International, doesn’t impede the reader’s comprehension or enjoyment at all.  (I assume that by not attaching proper names, Burns is satirising the extreme care with which folk in Northern Ireland during the Troubles took in choosing and announcing names – names that sounded too Protestant or too Catholic could get you into trouble in the wrong place and / or among the wrong people.)

*

What might also be off-putting to potential readers is the book being, essentially, 350 pages of internal monologue.  External events are filtered heavily through the thought processes of the central character.  But the narrational voice describing the bizarre goings-on, protocols, customs and rituals that the political circumstances have engendered in the neighbourhood is consistently droll and frequently hilarious.  It’s particularly (if blackly) funny when talking about the misfits that the situation has inevitably produced.  Certain folk have lost their marbles or become recklessly anarchic, so that ‘normal’ members of the community call them the ‘beyond-the-pale’ people – like tablets girl, a sad and deranged soul who wanders around slipping poisons into people’s drinks; and nuclear boy, a youth convinced that Armageddon is coming courtesy of a war between the USA and USSR; and the issues women, a septet of ladies who hold regular meetings in a garden shed and who, to the local paramilitaries’ discomfort, have resolved to impose a feminist solution on the conflict. 

*

I’ll admit there were occasional patches where the narrational voice got a little too introspective and I had to apply some willpower to get through a few pages.  Not that the main character is dull, but in terms of being interesting, she can’t compete with the details of the weird landscape around her.

*

The humour is what I liked most about Milkman.  It’s a novel about the Northern Irish Troubles that manages to be funny, something that can’t be said of other novels about the subject that I’ve read over the years, such as Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal (1983) or Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man (1994).  From the period I spent living there, I’ve always remembered Northern Ireland as a very humorous place, even if the humour was often a defence mechanism against the horrors that were occurring at the same time.  And I also liked Milkman because, despite the ordeal it puts its heroine through, it’s ultimately an optimistic and transcendental work.  As the wildly-philosophical French teacher implores: “Implement a choice…  Come out from those places.  You never know… the moment of the fulcrum, the pivot, the turnaround, the instant when the meaning of it all will appear.”  Perhaps it does appear, fleetingly, at the end.

*