Colombo International Book Fair 2018

 

 

Last week, the 2018 Colombo International Book Fair was held at the Sri Lankan capital’s Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, or the BMICH as it’s known for short – an impressively glassy, airy-looking building whose shape has always reminded me of a graduating student’s mortarboard, although the slab of roofing that extends over it is eight-sided rather than four-sided.

 

 

The avenue that leads from nearby Bauddhaloka Mawatha to the steps of the conference building was picturesquely lined with flags advertising the fair, but the event wasn’t held in the building itself.  Instead, visitors were directed towards a hodgepodge of smaller exhibition buildings and pavilions around to the side of and behind the main structure, paying an entrance fee of 20 rupees along the way.  Crammed into these buildings and pavilions were stalls and compartments representing more than 250 bookshops, booksellers, publishers and book-related institutions (ranging from the British Council to the Iran Cultural Centre), plus stationers, arts-and-crafts suppliers and anyone else who thought they had a product they could profitably sell to Sri Lanka’s reading public.

 

 

My partner and I went on the first day of the fair, a Sunday.  Because many Colombo-ites were unable to make it there on a weekday, the event that day was extremely busy.  The spaces outside the buildings were mobbed.  And the interiors were packed – the many narrow, twisting passageways between the stalls, and the even narrower passageways between the tables and shelves inside the stalls, were jammed with bodies.  A couple of times when the congestion became uncomfortable, we wondered what would happen if a fire alarm suddenly went off.  There’d be carnage, surely.  Western notions of Health and Safety seemed not to apply here.

 

 

Still, in an era when the media never seems to stop peddling horror stories about children not reading books anymore and spending all their leisure time online or playing computer games, it was heartening to see how many kids were in the crowds here (most of them, admittedly, being herded along by their beleaguered-looking parents).

 

 

As we explored the fair, we’d find tucked away among the multitudinous stalls an occasional second-hand bookshop trying to sell some of its yellowy wares.  I was especially happy to discover the Dehiwala-based Priyankara Bookshop, which was flogging hundreds of old, battered, liver-spotted paperbacks from yesteryear.  These included fat bestsellers by the likes of once wildly-popular authors like Arthur Hailey, Hammond Innes, Thomas Tryon, Dick Francis and Wilbur Smith (well, those last two still are popular, I suppose); more so-called ‘literary’ stuff by such scribblers as Anthony Burgess, J.B. Priestly, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Graham Greene; and sci-fi and fantasy novels by the likes of Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg and William F. Nolan.  I was delighted to pick up a 1974 paperback edition of M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City, which has this wonderfully evocative cover by the artist Bruce Pennington.

 

© New English Library / Bruce Pennington

 

Needless to say, I walked away from the Priyankara Bookshop stall with an armful of stuff.

 

Lastly, I saw these three books, written in Sinhala, on display outside a stall.  One book sported a portrait of Kim Jong-Il, another sported one of Vladimir Putin and a third sported one of Donald Trump.  What were these?  Three political biographies or three horror novels – a Trilogy of Terror?

 

 

Ghostly, but could be ghostlier

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

I’ve finally had a chance to watch the movie Ghost Stories, which was written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, had a cinematic release in the UK in April this year and went on sale last month on DVD.  I don’t think a new British horror film has been unveiled with such fanfare since The Woman in Black in 2012.  In Ghost Stories’ case, the hype came from the fact that it was based on a very successful stage play, also called Ghost Stories and also written by Dyson and Nyman, which ran in London from 2010 to 2011 and 2014 to 2015.   The play earned some breathless reviews from critics who claimed it was terrifying.  (That said, certain people whose opinions I respect, like the novelist Christopher Fowler and the film-writer Ben Bussey, weren’t impressed by it.)

 

I haven’t seen the play, but my expectations for the movie version of Ghost Stories were high because of the talent behind it.  Jeremy Dyson is an accomplished writer as well as a member of black-comedy specialists the League of Gentlemen.  Nyman is both an acclaimed stage magician and an actor who’s appeared in several things I really like: Charlie Brooker’s zombie satire Dead Set (2008) and two films directed by Chris Smith, Severance (2006) and Black Death (2010).

 

I was also interested in seeing Ghost Stories because it continues a long-standing British film tradition, the portmanteau horror movie – one that doesn’t consist of a single long, scary story but of several short, scary ones.  This tradition began in 1945 with Ealing Studios’ classic Dead of Night, consisting of five tales made by four different directors, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer; and it later flourished in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to Amicus Productions, a company that churned out seven horror-anthology films between 1965 and 1974.  The bulk of the 31 tales in those seven Amicus movies were based either on the short fiction of horror writer Robert Bloch or on strips in horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, which were published by EC Comics and had generated much notoriety in the 1950s.

 

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of those Amicus anthology movies.  There’s only one that I think is a bona fide classic, 1974’s From Beyond the Grave, and only two others, Asylum and Tales from the Crypt, both made in 1972, that I’d even put in the category of ‘enjoyable hokum’.  Their problem, apart from the fact that the quality of the stories in them varied wildly, was that the filmmakers were rarely able to tie the stories together with a framing device that made them seem believable.  Usually, that framing device brought together four or five strangers in a situation where they’d recount their pasts or have their futures predicted and it’d turn out that they’d fallen foul, or would fall foul, of some supernatural agency (usually as punishment for wrongdoing).  A typical example of this scenario is 1973’s Vault of Horror, where five men trapped in an underground chamber tell each other about recurrent nightmares they’ve had – nightmares that eventually prove to have really happened.  These involve a restaurant full of vampires, a housewife psychotically obsessed with neatness, a premature burial, some dabbling in voodoo and a deadly variation on the Indian rope trick.

 

In a world where people have spent lifetimes searching unsuccessfully for evidence that the supernatural exists, the idea that a group of strangers who’ve all had devastating supernatural experiences could just turn up together at the same time and place was stretching credibility more than a bit.  Even as a kid, when I saw those movies on late-night TV, I wondered to myself: wow, what are the odds?

 

Ghost Stories has as its linking device a person who’s utterly sceptical about the supernatural.  Nyman plays Phillip Goodman, a paranormal investigator dedicated to exposing frauds who claim to have supernatural powers and prey on gullible people.  Partly, Goodman does this because he was inspired by a debunker called Charles Cameron, whose exposes were shown on TV when he was a boy.  But it’s clear he’s also reacting against the mysticism of religion, which in his boyhood was shoved down his throat by a strict Orthodox Jewish father.  One day Goodman is summoned to meet a now-elderly Cameron, who gives him details of three supposedly supernatural incidents that even he wasn’t able to explain.  He challenges Goodman to investigate and explain them.  This leads us into Ghost Stories’ triptych of creepy tales, which are told to Goodman, as flashbacks, by their three unhappy protagonists.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

The first case involves a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) who was tormented by the ghost of a girl whilst doing his rounds in a building that was once a woman’s asylum.  The second involves a youth (Alex Lawther) who had a harrowing experience after running down a mysterious something in his car one night in the middle of some woods.  And the third involves a banker (Martin Freeman) who was troubled by a poltergeist while his wife was in childbirth.

 

Now I really liked the framing device here.  Unlike in those hokey old Amicus movies, the stories’ protagonists don’t just congregate by some mad coincidence in one place but Nyman’s character has to go and actively seek them out.  Also, the fact that he’s portrayed as such a hardened disbeliever at the start suggests that the film will try to make the events that follow appear as credible as possible.  But once the three stories get underway, the film begins to sag.  These aren’t self-contained stories with beginnings, middles and endings so much as brief, unexplained anecdotes.  Some weird stuff happens, it’s creepy, and then… that’s it.  I found this rather thin.

 

Worse, once Whitehouse, Lawther and Freeman’s narratives are finished, the film still has a fair amount of running time left.  It spends this time trying to tie all the strands together.  Everything we’ve seen, it transpires, relates back to Goodman himself, to his own past experiences and current state of mind.  There’s even a section where the film goes off on a tangent and shows a particularly traumatic episode from Goodman’s childhood.  Thus, you start watching Ghost Stories expecting it to be like a triple-decker sandwich with the three stories providing the fillings in the three decks.  But in fact, they’re more like three currants in a big doughy bun – the dough being all the material about Goodman.  Which wasn’t what I’d really wanted to see.

 

The film closes with a twist that I found unsatisfying too.  I don’t want to give anything away, but it reminded me of the ending of another movie on Jeremy Dyson’s CV, the film version of the League of Gentlemen’s TV show, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005).

 

That said, the film creates a few wonderful frissons.  There’s a sequence where Goodman ascends a dark staircase to meet the Alex Lawther character and glimpses something that leaves the audience wondering, what the hell did we just see?  And a moment where Goodman and Martin Freeman’s character are seen walking along the horizon of a bleak moor, unaware that a spectral figure has loomed into view a little way behind them, calls to mind M.R. James’ chilling story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904).  But again, the stories are too brief and inconsequential to have much impact.

 

I know Dyson is a fan of and has probably been influenced by the ghost-story writer Robert Aickman, whose fiction was disquieting because it avoided giving explanations or neat denouements – in his writings, uncanny things happened without rhyme and reason and all the characters could do was experience them.  Though I doubt if the prim, conservative Aickman would appreciate the visual treatment that the stories get here, with flashy, modish jump-cuts and nods to contemporary Japanese horror cinema.

 

So I found myself disappointed by Ghost Stories, though that’s not because it’s a bad movie.  It has some memorable moments and it’s been made with considerable thought and skill.  But alas, it feels like a lesser version of the masterly, ultra-frightening horror film that it could have been.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

The temple of revenge

 

 

Just offshore from the coastal village of Seenigama in south-western Sri Lanka, you’ll find a temple consisting of two small buildings perched on top of a rocky little island.  The temple is devoted to an imperious-looking deity called Devol, who’s believed to look after the local fishermen and, it’s said, local truck drivers too.  But he’s more famous for being a god of revenge.  If someone has wronged you, you can travel to the island and make an offering to Devol in the hope that he’ll impose retribution on the culprit.

 

To get from the island from Seenigama’s beach, you have to travel in a flimsy-looking blue-brown boat with an outboard motor.  It can take a dozen or more people at a time, some of whom – not all – are given life-jackets.  When I got to the beach, I discovered that most of my fellow passengers were feisty old Sri Lankan ladies who boarded the boat by enthusiastically beetling up over its stern and sides and into its two rows of seats.  A little later, they transferred themselves from the boat to the island itself with a similar, impressive display of agility and sprightliness.  I couldn’t help but wonder if those elderly ladies were heading to the temple to call on Devol to wreak revenge on their enemies.

 

 

The boat-trip only took a minute and the island quickly swelled up out of the sea ahead of us.  At the island’s waterline were black rocks and higher up were grey ones, and then the natural formations gave way to man-made walls of faded yellow with blue-painted arched crests along their tops.  The boat ended up bobbing and swiveling drunkenly in the surf next to some slimy boulders that, further up, transformed into stone steps.  Walking around the island in footwear isn’t allowed and I’d already removed my boots and stashed them in my bag – which was just as well, because to get from the boat and onto the boulders I needed to wade through a swash of seawater.

 

While I ascended to the steps, I felt uncomfortably like Stephen Maturin, the landlubberly and accident-prone ship’s surgeon in Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander books, who “at one time or other… had contrived to fall between the boat that was carrying him and almost every class of ship and vessel in the Royal Navy.”  But I managed to negotiate the boulders and steps and get onto the temple grounds above without slipping and falling and drenching myself.

 

 

In addition to the buildings, the temple contains a tiled yard, a clump of palm trees, a well, a shed with a pump inside, a small metal sculpture of a rooster and a tall concrete pole with spotlights attached.  The day I was there, many pigeons were perched on the golden-yellow roofs and for some reason flies were crawling in great profusions about the tiled ground.

 

Inside the smaller temple-building I found a tall statue of Devol with a coppery-red face and a curly moustache.  His image is partially obscured by curtains, supposedly – I’ve read somewhere – to lessen the harmful effects of his wrath as it radiates from him.

 

 

After taking a few photographs in that building, I turned around and stepped out of it again.  The moment my bare feet touched the moonstone at the threshold – which like all the horizontal surfaces here was wet and treacherous – I slipped spectacularly and landed with a great thud on my ‘jacksy’, as they say in Glasgow.  Thankfully, my bag, with my boots inside it, muffled the impact of the fall and possibly saved me from breaking my tail-bone.  It was embarrassing, however.  All the visitors in the yard outside promptly looked my way and enjoyed a quiet chuckle at my haplessness.

 

 

The larger temple building contained an altar on which, if you wish Devol to wreak revenge on someone, you present offerings of chilis, garlic and hot spices that, later, a priest grinds up in a ritual outside.  And that’s how it works here – to place a curse on the person who’s mistreated you, you need to contribute to the making of a chili paste.  Three deities lurk in alcoves behind and to the left and right of the altar.  The central one looks fairly benign, but the other two are more sinister.  The left-hand deity wears a helmet and girdle made out of interlocking cobras while the right-hand one is even more ghoulish, with a rictus grin and fangs protruding downwards from the ends of its long mouth.

 

 

Various travel blogs in which I’ve read about the temple have gone on in detail about how the visiting pilgrims, seemingly intoxicated by the idea of getting revenge on their persecutors, work themselves into states of ecstasy and hysteria.  But I saw none of that.  The crowd who’d come with me in the boat seemed calm, composed and quietly respectful.  (Well, apart from their moment of mirth when I keeled over on that slippery moonstone).  As I’d said earlier, most of them were elderly local ladies.  It occurred to me afterwards that Devol has several roles – he’s a guardian of fishermen and truck-drivers as well as a bringer of revenge – and maybe the ladies had come with a more peaceful purpose.  Maybe they just wanted to pay their respects to Devol and ask him to look after their sons and husbands, who were making their livings out on the waves or on the roads.

 

 

Rachid Taha 1958 – 2018

 

© Wrasse

 

For my musical education, I owe a lot to Rachid Taha, the Algerian singer-songwriter and musician who sadly passed away on September 12th.   He was the person who alerted me to the fact that beyond the parameters of the English-speaking world there are countless types of music, especially types of traditional music, that are well worth listening to.

 

Before hearing Taha’s records, my only exposure to such music – which in some British and American record shops is still patronisingly labelled ‘world’ music, which suggests that (a) the UK and the USA aren’t actually part of the world themselves, and (b) all the hundreds of musical genres from all the countries outside the Anglosphere can be lumped together under one simplistic heading – had been through the dabblings of certain Western rock musicians.  For example, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s 1994 album No Quarter was choc-a-bloc with musicians from Egypt and Morocco.

 

My musical tastes should have been more internationally savvy earlier on, because I’d spent my younger days living in places like Japan and Ethiopia.  But I never really developed an interest in traditional Japanese or Ethiopian music at the time because there was just too much going on around me and too many other things competing for my attention.

 

One day, though, somebody gave me a compilation CD and on it was an exotic but tantalisingly familiar-sounding tune.  It took me a minute to realise I was hearing a version of The Clash’s 1982 classic Rock the Casbah – a Rachid Taha version, renamed Rock El Casbah.  The song’s Arabic references had been cranked up to eleven, so that it was now sung in Arabic and the original’s cascade of piano, bass and drums had been replaced by a barrage of North African strings, percussion and flutes.

 

All in all, it was a brilliant reworking of the song – though if you were to believe Taha, you could understand him having a special affinity for it.  Apparently, he encountered The Clash in Paris in 1981 and presented them with a demo tape of his then band, Carte de Séjour, whose sound was a fusion of punk, funk and Algerian Rai music.  The Clash politely accepted the tape but never got back in touch.  However, when Rock the Casbah was released a year later, Taha had a sneaking suspicion that they’d not only listened to it but they’d maybe pinched a couple of his ideas.  Not that there were any hard feelings.  A couple of times during the 2000s, The Clash’s Mick Jones got up and performed with Taha when he played Rock El Casbah on stage.

 

After hearing that I listened a lot to Taha, as well as generally taking much more interest in music from outside my English-speaking bubble.  Taha’s songs were an irresistible brew of Algerian Rai and Chaabi music, plus rock, funk and techno.  They could be infectiously dance-y, like 1993’s Voilà Voilà or 1997’s Indie.  They could be relentlessly and hypnotically intense, like 1995’s Nokta, 1998’s Bent Sahra or 2000’s Barra Barra – that last song turned up on the soundtrack of Ridley Scott’s 2001 film about cack-handed American military intervention in Somalia, Black Hawk Down, which I can’t imagine Taha being very happy about.  (For TV viewers, it might be more familiar as the music in the adverts for the computer game Far Cry 2).  Occasionally, they just had a toe-tapping, overwhelmingly hummable joie de vivre, such as 1993’s Ya Rayah or 1998’s Ida.

 

The swaggering, raffish Taha passed away at the age of 59, which strikes me as a tragedy.  By rights he should have had a few more decades ahead of him in which to further explore his creativity and make more records.  His musical curiosity and love for experimentation and collaboration were inspiring.  And it has to be said that his politics (“Black and white – the same.  Arabs and Jews – the same.”) meant he was a cultural ambassador whose loss in these paranoid, distrustful times is one we could really have done without.

 

The absolute (Secretary of) State of this

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

At certain eras in history, for certain sections of humanity, there were places to which you really didn’t want to go – places whose very name filled you with dread.

 

For members of the British underworld in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was Sydney Cove, Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, Van Diemen’s Land and the other brutal penal colonies that’d been established in Australia, to which you could be transported if you were convicted of anything worse than pinching five shillings-worth of goods.  For criminals in the Second French Empire between 1852 and 1953, the place that was synonymous with hell was another penal colony, the pitiless one at Cayenne, or Devil’s Island as it was better known.  And for German soldiers in the Wehrmacht during World War II, there were surely frequent nightmares about the prospect of being sent to the freezing and carnage-filled Russian Front.

 

Meanwhile, for members of the British government over the past half-century, the equivalent of the worst penal colony devised by the British or French Empires, or of the Russian Front, is surely Northern Ireland.

 

Political satirists have long been aware of this.  A 1984 episode of the BBC political comedy Yes, Minister had the British Prime Minister resigning and two ruthless politicians competing to take over as PM.  Both men threatened hapless minister Jim Hacker that they’d make him Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if they ended up winning and he hadn’t publicly backed their campaigns.  A generation later, a 2012 episode of a more abrasive TV satire, The Thick of It, showed slow-witted politician Ben Swain responding warily when he was offered the job of Foreign Secretary: “And you mean Foreign Secretary?  That isn’t code for Northern Ireland?  I’m not f**king going there.”

 

The position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland came into being in 1972, when the old Northern Irish government at Stormont was suspended following the start of the long period of bloodshed and mayhem that became known as the Troubles, and when direct rule was imposed from London.  The first holder of the post was Conservative MP Willie Whitelaw, who set the template for many secretaries of state to come.  He was stiff and crusty, looked like he’d be more at home wearing tweeds and trudging around a grouse moor, and seemed perplexed that the half-dozen local Catholic and Protestant terrorist organisations and the mob of unruly local politicians wouldn’t play by Queensberry Rules.

 

Whitelaw wouldn’t be the first Secretary of State to look ill-at-ease in a province where though the two native communities were at each other’s throats, they had one thing in common, which was that they both hated his guts.  Nationalist Catholics saw him and his successors as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to oppress them and keep them imprisoned in the United Kingdom.  Unionist Protestants saw them as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to betray them and abandon them to a united Ireland.

 

From Polldaddy.com

 

Actually, I recall seeing, when I was a wee boy in Northern Ireland and just after Whitelaw’s appointment, satirical posters pasted everywhere depicting him as a grim-faced Wild West sheriff stalking nervously into an unsavoury-looking establishment called The Dead-End Saloon.  However, unlike many of his successors, Whitelaw’s political career didn’t come to a dead-end after Northern Ireland.  He served as British Home Secretary from 1979 to 1983 and became a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, who once said of him gruesomely, “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie.”

 

I also remember from my boyhood some political satire involving another 1970s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – the Labour Party MP Roy Mason, who served there during James Callaghan’s three-year tenure as Prime Minister.  The Belfast Telegraph featured a cartoon caricaturing him as Henry II while the Reverend Ian Paisley loomed behind him caricatured as Thomas Beckett.  Mason lamented, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  However, unlike Thomas Beckett, who was murdered by knights soon after Henry II made this plea, Paisley lived until 2014 and made life a misery for a further 14 secretaries of state.

 

After the Conservatives had returned to power under Margaret Thatcher, Northern Ireland had as its Secretary of State the luckless Jim Prior.  Prior was a leading member of the ‘wets’ – the moderates – in the Conservative Party and when he dared to question his boss’s economic policies, his fate was sealed.  Empress Thatcher had him banished to Devil’s Island.

 

I also remember – for the wrong reasons – Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the early 1990s.  One day in 1992, an IRA bomb slaughtered seven construction workers.  That evening, Brooke appeared on Raidió Teilifis Éireann’s chat show The Late Late Show and unwisely allowed its host, the twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer Gay Byrne, to talk him into singing Oh My Darling Clementine live on air.  And with that, Brooke’s political credibility was gone.  To quote the song: ‘lost and gone forever / Dreadful sorry, Clementine.’

 

When Tony Blair entered Number 10 Downing Street and 1998’s Good Friday Agreement was on the cards, Northern Ireland finally got a Secretary of State of some substance: Mo Mowlam, also the first woman in the role.  The down-to-earth and bluntly-spoken Mowlam helped to knock heads together in the run-up to the agreement, although she earned herself the displeasure of the Protestant politicians and was eventually side-lined by Blair.  When Bill Clinton flew in to grab a piece of the glory, she grumbled to him that her role had become that of ‘tea lady’.

 

© BBC

 

The Good Friday Agreement paved the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being while Peter Mandelson was the province’s Secretary of State.  An operator best described as an oil-slick in a suit, Mandelson had been a key ally and advisor of Tony Blair but he’d fallen from grace thanks to a scandal involving a dodgy home loan.  To rehabilitate himself, he had to do the political equivalent of donning sackcloth and ashes and beating himself with a scourge, which meant taking the Northern Ireland portfolio.  I imagine that Mandelson, a gay man, had his patience stretched to the limit by having to deal with Ian Paisley, who in 1977 had launched the infamous Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.

 

With the Assembly up and running and its members responsible for the province’s governance, Mandelson’s successors as Northern Irish Secretary of State had less to do.  However, the Assembly collapsed early in 2017 because of a spat between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein and since then London has had to administer things again.  The Secretary of State on whose watch this happened was James Brokenshire, who surely had the most appropriate surname of anyone ever to take on the job: broken shire.

 

Brokenshire stood down at the start of this year for health reasons – not, as you might expect, mental health reasons, but because he needed to have an operation on his lung.  And this brings me to his replacement, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley.

 

Last week Bradley hit the headlines when she confessed in an interview that she accepted the Northern Irish brief whilst having a knowledge of Northern Irish politics that was less than encyclopaedic.  “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.  I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought… people who are Nationalists don’t vote for Unionist parties and vice-versa.  So, the parties fight for the election within their own community.  Actually, the Unionist parties fight the elections against each other in Unionist communities and Nationalists in Nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.”

 

Oh, come on.  Bradley was born in 1970, which means she grew up in a Britain where the Northern Irish Troubles raged continually in the background – and sometimes in the foreground, for the IRA also set off bombs in England, including the Brighton one in 1984 that killed five members of Bradley’s Conservative Party and nearly took out Margaret Thatcher.  And she makes a living as a politician.  You’d expect her to be aware of political arrangements in the UK’s four corners and have some inkling who the Alliance Party, DUP, Official Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein and their supporters are.  Especially as her party has been propped up in government by ten MPs from Ian Paisley’s old outfit the DUP (in return for a 1.5 billion-pound bribe) since the 2017 general election.

 

Are we really to believe she flew to Belfast to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ignorant of such facts as most Protestant households don’t have framed, signed photographs of Martin McGuinness sitting on their mantelpieces and Roman Catholic support for Arlene Foster’s DUP is somewhat on the scant side?

 

© The Irish Examiner

 

Then again, Bradley’s ignorance is no worse than that displayed by many members of the Conservative Party these days, especially Brexiters like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.  These are people whose attitudes towards the post-Brexit condition of the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border – all squiggly, wriggly 310 miles of it, crossing towns, farms, fields and loughs and crossed itself by more than 200 public roads – suggest I.Q.s that are at basement-level.  They proclaim that the border isn’t important enough to worry about, or it can be policed the way it was back in the days of the Troubles (and what happy days those were), or – Boris Johnson’s opinion – all the immigration and customs issues on the border arising from Brexit can be solved with technology.  Maybe Johnson is proposing using drones.   Or maybe he’s thinking about using toy airplanes with cameras fixed to them that can be piloted by leprechauns.  He’s probably heard that there are still a few leprechauns on the go in Ireland.  And what jolly little fellows they are too.

 

The selection of Karen Bradley to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must have been because she sings from the same hymnbook as many of her fellow Tories.  And that’s a hymnbook from the Church of Stupid.

 

The last of Sherlock Holmes

 

© Penguin Books

 

A few posts ago, I mentioned how I was working my way through an 1800-page volume containing all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short-story collections about Sherlock Holmes.  Well, I’ve completed the job.  The other day I finished reading the volume’s final instalment, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which contains the last 12 Holmes stories Conan Doyle published between 1921 and 1927 and which was itself originally published in 1927.

 

I thought I’d write something here about those dozen stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes because, by the normal standards of Conan Doyle and Holmes, they constitute a strange body of work.  I should add that by the same standards they aren’t a terribly good body of work.  Case-Book has often been dismissed as an end-of-the-road raggle-taggle written by Conan Doyle when he’d run out of both ideas and enthusiasm for his most famous creation.  Indeed, when the writer (and later filmmaker) Nicholas Meyer wrote his celebrated Sherlock Holmes pastiche-novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in 1974, he had his narrator – Dr Watson – denounce four of CaseBook’s stories, The Adventures of the Creeping Man, the Lion’s Mane, the Mazarin Stone and the Three Gables, as forgeries and ‘drivel’.  Meyer evidently regarded the four as being so substandard that they were unworthy of their places in the canon.

 

Conan Doyle himself seemed relieved that Case-Book marked the end of his association with Holmes.  He furnished the collection with an author’s introduction, something that to the best of my knowledge he didn’t do with the earlier books, and in it he makes some revealing comments.  He opines that Holmes, whose first adventure appeared back in 1887, was by the late 1920s well-and-truly past it, “like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences.”  (No doubt those over-the-hill operatic tenors in the 1920s were the equivalent of the many over-the-hill rock stars still performing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.)  And Conan Doyle voices his impatience with the reading public and their apparent obsession with the character: “decrepit gentlemen who approach me and declare that his adventures formed the reading of their boyhood do not meet the response from me which they seemed to expect.”

 

While he concedes that writing the Holmes stories didn’t prevent him from devoting time to the sort of writing and research he was genuinely interested in – “history, poetry, historical novels, psychic research, and the drama” – he insinuates that the character had prevented him from being taken as seriously as he would have liked: “Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have a stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.”

 

The ‘psychic research’ he mentions touches on a fascinating conundrum much discussed by Holmes scholars over the years.  Conan Doyle had always been interested in the paranormal and esoteric and after World War One such things greatly preoccupied him.  He was heavily into spiritualism and contacting the dead, no doubt spurred on by the deaths of his son and brother during the 1918-20 Spanish flu epidemic.  Due to their shared interest in this, he befriended Harry Houdini, though their friendship floundered when an increasingly sceptical and disillusioned Houdini started exposing phony mediums and seances.  And he publicly and embarrassingly believed in the veracity of the ‘photographs’ of the Cottingley Fairies in 1920.  Of course, such fanciful notions went against everything that Sherlock Holmes, the great practitioner of deductive reasoning – thought strictly speaking it was abductive reasoning – stood for.  If Holmes had been flesh-and-blood and in Conan Doyle’s company, you could imagine the romantic-minded Conan Doyle really not liking him or his no-nonsense rationalism.

 

You can sense this tension between the imaginative creator and his hard-headed creation in a passage in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, Case-Book’s final story (actually the third-last one written chronologically).  Holmes sends Watson off on a reconnaissance mission and when the doctor returns he attempts to describe an important building to the detective:

 

“’Right in the middle… lies this old house, surrounded by a high sun-baked wall mottled with lichen and topped with moss, the sort of wall – ’

‘Cut out the poetry, Watson,’ said Holmes severely.  ‘I note that it was a high brick wall.’”

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Many stories in Case-Book stray from the template of the earlier Holmes adventures.  One is a rarity in the canon in that it’s not narrated in the first person by Dr Watson but is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator.  (The only other story to share this distinction is the title story of the 1917 collection His Last Bow.)  Two other stories here are even more radical – they dispense with the character of Watson altogether and are narrated by Sherlock Holmes himself.

 

A couple of Case-Book’s stories involve little or no sleuthing.   Indeed, one takes the form of a deathbed confession, wherein somebody who was a participant in a mysterious case that years earlier Holmes hadn’t been able to solve summons him and explains to him what really happened.

 

And then there is Case-Book’s heavy reliance on the macabre.  Three stories have Holmes tackling cases that appear to involve monsters – one monster from the natural world, one the result of scientific meddling and one a fixture of popular supernatural fiction.  In only one of these cases does the monster turn out to be a hoax.  There’s also a troubling focus on facial disfigurement, with two deformed characters in two stories living in hiding like Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910).  A third story culminates with a villain getting disfigured, thanks to a packet of ‘vitriol’ being thrown in his face by a vengeful ex-lover.

 

And the very last Holmes story that Conan Doyle wrote sees Holmes and Watson rooting for clues and signs of skulduggery in a crypt, “dismal and evil-smelling, with ancient crumbling walls of rough-hewn stone, and piles of coffins, some of lead and some of stone, extending upon one side right up to the arched and groined roof which lost itself in the shadows above our heads.”  By now Holmes has stepped out of the pages of detective fiction and into those of gothic fiction.

 

But as I’ve said, this unconventionality doesn’t make Case-Book a particularly good collection.  The pair of stories narrated by Holmes, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier and The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane, feel unsatisfactory because hearing them told in Holmes’s voice strips the character of his mystique – the distance provided by the mostly-admiring, occasionally-exasperated Watson is sorely missed.  “Ah!  Had he been with me,” says Holmes of Watson, “how much he would have made of so wonderful a happening and my eventual triumph against every difficulty!  As it is, however, I must tell my tale in my own plain way…”  And unhappily, the results are plain rather than wonderful.  The Lion’s Mane also makes a quaint read nowadays because the mystery that propels its narrative is one that in 2018 could be solved in 30 seconds with a search on Google.  .

 

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, the story written in the third person, was originally a one-act play called The Crown Diamond, penned by Conan Doyle in 1921.  Because Holmes’s cerebral reasoning was presumably too un-dynamic to portray on a stage, it focuses instead on some shenanigans involving a dummy that are a little more visual.  On the page, though, the result is perfunctory.

 

Elsewhere, a couple of the stories are marred by depictions and sentiments that even by the standards of 1920s Britain are unpleasantly racist.  The Adventures of the Three Gables, which qualifies as one of the collection’s worst stories anyway, is encumbered by a non-funny comedy-relief black character (“Look at that, Masser Holmes!”), while the otherwise reasonable The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place has an in-debt character who, we’re told repeatedly, faces ruin at the hands of ‘the Jews’.

 

Nonetheless, there is some good stuff here.  The conceit behind The Problem of Thor Bridge is quite clever, as is that of the light-hearted The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – even if it’s unlikely that, as happens in the story, a foreign confidence trickster who’s lived in Britain for years would give himself away so readily with a misunderstanding of British English.  And The Adventure of the Creeping Man, about an elderly academic who suddenly starts to behave in a strange, out-of-character, downright frightening manner, conveys a genuine chill.  It’s reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) even if the final denouement has more in common with a hoary old 1940s horror movie starring Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist.

 

Interestingly, one of the weakest stories here – The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone – and one of the strongest – The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – were combined for an episode in the final series of TV adaptations featuring the great Jeremy Brett as Holmes, 1994’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  What makes this odd combination even odder is the fact that Holmes hardly appears in the episode – no doubt because Brett was in declining health at the time.  As a result, Dr Watson (Edward Hardwicke) has to solve the Three Garridebs on his own, while Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (played by the wonderfully supercilious Charles Gray) is drafted in to sort out the Mazarin Stone.  And still on the subject of Holmes screen adaptations, The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane provides us with a glimpse at Holmes in his post-Baker Street retirement, living near some cliffs on the Sussex coast with only a housekeeper and some hives of bees for company – which forms the setting for Bill Condon’s melancholy 2015 film Mr Holmes starring Sir Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock.

 

© BBC Films / See-Saw Films / FilmNation Entertainment

 

Another kiss from Jim Mountfield

 

From expedia.com

 

Ae Fond Kiss, my short horror story that managed to be inspired both by a love song by Robert Burns and by the marvellous Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, is featured in the September issue of the webzine The Horror Zine.  The story first appeared in The Horror Zine’s summer 2018 paperback edition and, as usual with my horror fiction, it bears the pseudonym ‘Jim Mountfield’.  (Unfortunately, ‘Ian Smith’ is about the most boring name ever.)  The story can be read here.

 

The Horror Zine requires its contributors to submit mugshots of themselves, so be warned.  You may find the strained, painful-looking selfie that accompanies Ae Fond Kiss more disturbing than anything in the story itself.

 

Also featured in The Horror Zine’s September edition is a story by the prolific, seemingly indefatigable Edinburgh-born author Graham Masterton.  Among the more-than-100 books written by Masterton is 1978’s horror novel Charnel House, which gave me the creeps when I read it as a kid (and which, coincidentally, was set in San Francisco).  However, he’s probably best known for the 1976 novel The Manitou, which was made into a movie two years later with Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara and Burgess Meredith – the film isn’t a classic, but with its enjoyably dated, disco-y 1970s special effects, it’s still good fun.

 

So all in all, I feel honoured to have my work featured this month in the same fiction section as that of the Father of the Manitou.

 

© Sphere Books

 

Cosplay in Colombo

 

 

It’s a typically hot, humid Sri Lankan afternoon and I’m walking along an avenue in the quaintly-named Trace Expert City, a business park west of Fort Railway Station and Beira Lake in central Colombo.  Ahead of me, beneath the trees that mercifully cast a little shade over the avenue, I spy a gathering of people.  What’s going on?  What are they crowding around to see?  Intrigued, I draw closer…

 

…And discover that everyone’s attention is focused on Spiderman, who’s strutting his funky Spidey-stuff while he engages in a dance-off with his sinister, black-costumed, alien-symbiote nemesis Venom.

 

 

For yes, I have just arrived at Lanka Comic Con 2018, Sri Lanka’s annual convention for enthusiasts of comics, films, TV shows, anime, games and books in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror (and anything else that’s suitably weird and quirky).

 

At this year’s Comic Con, which was held on August 25th and 26th, Spiderman and Venom were just the first of many cosplayers I saw, i.e. fans who devise their own costumes, make-up and accessories in order to impersonate their favourite characters from the more fantastical reaches of popular culture.

 

This year the impact of Marvel Comics’ commercially and critically successful superhero movie Black Panther (2018) was evident.  I noticed a couple of folk clad as characters from the film’s fictional African setting of Wakanda, including an effective-looking Okoye, the warrior lady played in the film by Danai Gurira.  And Marvel’s big rival DC Comics had influenced more than a few Sri Lankan cosplayers in 2018 too.  Here’s someone having their picture taken with DC Comics’ nautical superhero Aquaman and his lady pal – what’s her name?  Aqua-Girlfriend?  No, I believe it’s actually Mera, ‘daughter of the king of the Atlantean tribe of Xebel’, who’ll be played by Amber Heard in the new Aquaman movie to be released at the end of this year.

 

 

All right, not all the cosplayers could quite capture the exact look of their characters.  But still, they should be applauded for the work that’s gone into assembling the necessary bits and pieces for their costumes – not always an easy feat when you’re on a budget and you live on the slightly out-of-the-way island nation of Sri Lanka.  It’s fascinating to see their ingenuity – how, for instance, a pair of sawn-off wellie-boots and a lick of paint were used to create footwear for an Elven warrior from the Kingdom of Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings.

 

For me, this year’s cosplay winner was the bloke in the following photograph.  As I laid eyes on him, I found myself singing to myself, “If there’s something strange… In your neighbourhood…  Who ya gonna call…?  Ghostbusters!”  Because he was dressed in an outfit worn by Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, complete with a fabulously intricate Ghostbusters backpack.  I’ve also posted a diagram of the original backpack from the original film, so you can compare them.

 

From pinterest

 

You’ll notice in the same photo a sweet little girl who seemed to be having the time of her life while she dashed around waving a wand and wearing a Harry Potter-style Hogwarts scarf and gown.

 

Then I saw this fearsome character.  Who was he?  Was he one of the many scary and grotesque villains who’ve menaced Batman in Gotham City during the last eight decades?  But then I realised he was ambling towards one of the snacks and refreshments tents erected at the head of the avenue and I understood who he really was: Pringles-man.

 

 

While I wandered around Lanka Comic Con, two things occurred to me.  Firstly, I loved the idea that Sri Lankan kids wanted to dress up as characters who’d originated in a wide spectrum of cultures – from Black Panther, Marvel Comics’ pioneering attempt to create a superhero who’d appeal to an African-American readership, to a plethora of characters rooted in the manga and anime cultures of Japan.  It’s cultural exploration, the very opposite of cultural appropriation.  And it nicely illustrates how far science fiction, fantasy and comic books have travelled since the days when they were seen as the preserve of nerdy middle-class white kids – white boys – in the USA and Britain.

 

But at the same time, I’d like to think that in years to come, as Sri Lankan writers and artists get more opportunities and recognition, there’ll be a big roster of Sri Lankan characters for them to impersonate too.

 

Secondly, I couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous.  These geeky kids today don’t know how lucky they are.  When I was a kid and into geeky stuff, reading geeky Marvel and DC comics, reading geeky fantasy paperbacks by the likes of Michael Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard and watching geeky TV shows like Doctor Who (1963-present), the original Star Trek series (1966-69) and Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970), I had to keep extremely quiet about my geeky enthusiasms for fear I’d be ridiculed or even roughed up by the normal, sensible kids around me.  And even when I was older and at college, I felt too embarrassed to advertise my geeky interests in front of cool college-associates who claimed to be into Albert Camus and The Smiths.  (I still remember my horror when a mischievous younger sibling blurted out in front of a couple of my college friends how, when I’d been a wee boy, I’d persuaded my granny to knit me a super-long Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf.)  But youngsters nowadays don’t have to be afraid.  It’s quite acceptable for them to gather together and dress up as their (super)heroes in public.  They can wear their geekiness proudly.

 

Alas, it’s too late for me now.  I’m way too old to be part of this cosplay scene.  Pretty much the only character I could cosplay convincingly at my age would be Captain Teague from Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End (2007) – who was played by Keith Richards.

 

© Walt Disney Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

 

Le Cirque de Salmond

 

© Daily Record

 

I’d always assumed there was no dirt to dig up on Alex Salmond, ex-leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland from 2007 to 2014.  I assumed this for the simple reason that if there had been, his countless enemies in the old Scottish establishment and the Scottish press – the latter largely a sub-set of the former – would have dug it up and used it to wreck his reputation long ago.

 

Thus, it came as a surprise when last Thursday the Daily Record reported allegations of Salmond sexually harassing two female Scottish government employees while he was First Minister, which have recently been the subject of an inquiry by the Scottish government and have now been passed on to the police.

 

What didn’t surprise me was the absolute circus in Scotland’s newspapers that followed the disclosure of these allegations.  ‘SALMOND SCANDAL,’ screamed one headline.  ‘ECK SEX PROBE,’ barked another.  ‘BOOZED-UP SALMOND “TOUCHED WOMAN’S BREASTS,”’ brayed a third.

 

You got the impression the hacks were throwing so much muck at Salmond because they hoped that, even if the allegations against him weren’t proven, the muck would still stick and besmirch his reputation forever after.  Occasionally the coverage went beyond even that.  From some headlines, you’d have thought Salmond wasn’t just under investigation but had been already tried, found guilty and sentenced.  The Scottish Sun claimed that he was in a ‘Shakespearean play’s final act’ and had ‘gone from national hero to laughing stock’.  In the Times, a piece by Alex Massie bore the headline, ‘WHATEVER HAPPENS, IT’S OVER FOR SALMOND’.  No wonder some people on Twitter likened the sentiments to the old approach for detecting witches, i.e. by chucking them into the river.  If you float, you’re a witch, and you’re dead.  Whereas if you sink, you’re not a witch, but you’re still dead.

 

Before I continue, let me warn that, like most of the press coverage, this post is going to be all about Salmond.  There’ll be little reference to the women who’ve made the allegations, even though they may well be the victims in this ugly affair – but they’re difficult to focus on as they’re currently staying anonymous.   Also, let me say that if Salmond is proven guilty of harassment, I believe he deserves everything he gets.  Politically, legally and reputationally, he should be strung up by the balls.

 

But I can’t see how the reporting of the story so far, reeking of score-settling, vendettas and political partisanship, is going to help anyone involved.  Not only Salmond, who’s still supposed to be innocent until proven otherwise; but also the women making the allegations.  If there’s substance to what they are saying – and again there may well be – then they’ll surely want the process of the investigation to appear measured and impartial.  They’ll want Salmond to be convicted after a fair hearing.  They’ll not want biased press coverage giving it the shrill trappings of a witch-hunt, because that’ll leave people believing the guilty party isn’t really guilty but is the victim of a stitch-up.

 

It’s long been obvious that many influential citizens in Scotland have hated Salmond’s guts.  I remember living in London in the early 1990s after Salmond had been made SNP leader, and drinking occasionally with a Labour Party spin doctor, also from Scotland.  He had no inhibitions about telling me, at every opportunity, what a detestable creep he thought Salmond was.  With his smart-Alec manner (ouch) and his habitual smirk, which frequently expanded into a Cheshire-cat grin, and his arrogance that no doubt came from knowing he was intellectually streets ahead of the numpties making up the majority of Westminster’s Scottish MPs, you could understand how Salmond was an annoyance to his opponents.  But back then the SNP had just three MPs, so he at least could be dismissed as a minor annoyance.

 

How long ago that seems now.  In those far-off days, the Labour Party controlled much of Scotland at council level, provided the lion’s share of Scottish MPs for Westminster and, when it arrived in 1999, dominated the Scottish parliament too.  If their party also happened to be in power at Westminster, which it was occasionally, Scottish Labour-ites must have felt like lords of all they surveyed.  If the Conservatives were in power at Westminster, which they were most of the time, those Scottish Labour-ites grumbled a bit, but diplomatically kept their heads down while right-wing Tory policies were imposed on Scotland.

 

This suited Scotland’s newspapers, owned by magnates and companies that were sympathetic to either the Labour party or the Conservative one.  The Tory papers could rest easy because although Scotland was a Labour fiefdom, they knew the party’s Scottish branch wasn’t going to kick up a big fuss about Scotland’s political will being kept subservient to that of London.  Meanwhile, the relationship between Scottish journalists and Scottish politicians was ickily close.  As Iain Macwhirter observed in his book Disunited Kingdom (2015), “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”  And if you were a columnist in a Scottish newspaper, you could have a high conceit of yourself indeed – luxuriating as a big, opinion-forming fish in a safe, wee political pool.

 

Then in 2007 the sky fell in.  Salmond’s SNP won the biggest majority of seats in the Scottish parliament.  They’ve remained in power there during the 11 years and two Scottish parliamentary elections since.  They also won the majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats in the UK general elections in 2015 and 2017 (admittedly a lower number in 2017, but still more than all the other parties’ Scottish seats put together).  They lost the independence referendum in 2014 – an event that led to Salmond resigning as First Minister – but the percentage of the vote they got, 45%, was still far more than what anyone had expected at the campaign’s start.

 

This stuck in a great many craws – not just in those of the Scottish Labour Party, with its historical sense of entitlement, but in those of the majority of Scotland’s newspapers, who discovered to their horror that no matter how negatively they reported the SNP and its performance as the new Scottish government, a significantly large proportion of the Scottish public ignored them and kept on voting SNP.   All that, plus a catastrophic drop in Scottish newspaper sales during the 21st century – the Herald, for instance, declining from a circulation of 85,000 in 2003 to one of 30,000 in 2016.  Scottish journalistic teeth gnashed frenziedly while their influence dwindled.  Meanwhile, the grin of Alex Salmond, the bastard who seemed emblematic of the good times coming to an end, grew even wider, his mood grew ever merrier and his girth grew ever more Falstaffian.

 

 From twitter.com

 

Of course, Salmond’s media and political foes have been desperate to get back at him and he’s looked increasingly vulnerable since he lost his Westminster seat in the middle of 2017.  To be honest, lately, Salmond hasn’t just given his detractors ammunition for this.  He’s handed them a whole arsenal.  In August 2017, he put on at the Edinburgh Festival a chat-show called Alex Salmond: Unleashed, which from all accounts was a graceless, self-indulgent and ego-driven affair.  Mind you, those accounts were mostly published in the Scottish press, so they weren’t ever going to be positive.

 

Soon after, to cries of outrage, he developed his stage-show into a programme called The Alex Salmond Show, which was broadcast on RT, Russia’s international English-language news channel.  The show has featured some interesting guests, including Charles Puigdemont, Alastair Campbell, Bertie Ahern, Mary McAleese, Peter Tatchell, Brian Cox, Doddie Weir and Jackie Stewart.  And there’s been plenty of stone-throwing in glass houses among the show’s many political critics – after all, both Conservative and Labour MPs have accepted payments to appear on RT in the past, and UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has happily shown his face on Iran’s notorious Press TV, and former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Lembit Opik still hosts a show for the same outfit.  Nonetheless, despite all the humbug, associating himself with Vladimir Putin’s televisual voice to the world was neither a wise nor ethical move on Salmond’s part.

 

Still, now, it would be edifying if Scotland’s politicos and pundits could stand back and quietly allow the police investigation of Salmond to run its course, so that the truth can be finally and convincingly arrived at – and if there’s been criminal behavior, it gets punished, and if people have suffered from criminal behavior, amends are made to them.  A lot of folk would do well to wind their necks in for a while.  But that won’t happen, will it?  The next few months in the Scottish media are going to be a circus of lurid Alex Salmond headlines – le Cirque de Salmond.

 

Great unappreciated films: Breakfast on Pluto

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

A few months ago I posted something on this blog about The Company of Wolves, the classic 1984 gothic fantasy movie directed by the Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan.  I thought it was time to pen a few words in praise of a more recent and less well-known Jordan movie, 2005’s Breakfast on Pluto, which was based on a 1998 novel of the same name by Jordan’s fellow Irishman, the County Monaghan author Patrick McCabe.

 

Both film and novel recount the adventures in early 1970s Ireland and London of the transgendered and cheerfully outrageous Patrick, later ‘Kitten’ Braden (Cillian Murphy).  (In McCabe’s book she’s given the more sexually charged name of ‘Pussy’.)  These adventures are overshadowed by the Troubles that at the time were erupting bloodily in Northern Ireland and were making their presence felt in London too, thanks to pub-bombings carried out there by the IRA.

 

The movie incarnation of Breakfast on Pluto didn’t set the box office alight.  With its mix of transgender comedy, camp-ness and kitsch-ness on one hand and Irish terrorism, religious intolerance and violence on the other, it’s perhaps not hard to see why.  Indeed, after I acquired a DVD of Breakfast on Pluto in the noughties, I lent it to a conservative-minded Irish friend, who later returned it saying she enjoyed the Irish stuff but couldn’t relate to the camp stuff.  I then lent it to a gay friend, who told me he quite enjoyed the camp stuff but found the Irish stuff deeply depressing.

 

It wasn’t until I lent it to a third friend, another lady, that I found someone who enjoyed Breakfast on Pluto as much as I had.  Mind you, she confessed to feeling slightly put-out because she thought Cillian Murphy “looked better as a woman” than she did.

 

Kitten starts life as Patrick Braden, a foundling reared by an unsympathetic foster mother in a village called Tyrellin just south of the Republic of Ireland / Northern Ireland border.  Despite some behaviour that’s out-of-kilter with the local Catholic culture, like wearing make-up and asking the school priest for advice on how to get a sex change, young Patrick seems popular enough and has a gang of friends including Charlie (Ruth Negga), Irwin (Laurence Kinlan) and Lawrence (Seamus Reilly).  Then just as Patrick is reinventing himself – herself – as Kitten, the Troubles kick off.  Tyrellin experiences tragedy early on when Lawrence is killed by a car bomb.  (Poor Lawrence, who has Down’s Syndrome, is a Doctor Who fan and likes trundling around the village inside a homemade Dalek, sees the bomb-disposal robot at the car and runs towards it thinking it’s another Dalek.)

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

Meanwhile, Kitten is having a romance with Billy, the impressively sideburn-ed singer of a glam-rock band called Billy Hatchet and the Mohawks (played by Gavin Friday, real-life singer with post-punk / Goth band The Virgin Prunes).  Their romance ends when Kitten discovers that Billy is smuggling guns for the IRA.  After destroying Billy’s weapons-stash, Kitten heads for London, resolving to track down her long-lost mother.  It transpires that Mum was impregnated by Tyrellin’s randy priest, Father Liam (Liam Neeson), and disappeared off to England after giving birth.

 

In London, Kitten falls in with a fellow Irish person called John Joe (Brendan Gleason) and they work as children’s entertainers, members of a troop cavorting around Wimbledon Common dressed as the Wombles.  The job falls through when John Joe loses his temper and batters a snooty park official whilst in a Great Uncle Bulgaria costume.  Kitten then embarks on a career as a prostitute, which almost ends fatally when she’s picked up by a murderous customer (Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry giving a truly nasty performance).  From there, she becomes the assistant of a lugubrious but kindly magician called Bertie Vaughan (Stephen Rea), but things take another turn for the worse when she finds herself in a London pub one night when an IRA bomb goes off.

 

Kitten survives the carnage but, shell-shocked, is incarcerated in a London police cell by two hard-nut detectives (Ian Hart and Steven Waddington) who suspect her of planting the bomb and are ready to beat a confession out of her.  Once they realise Kitten’s innocence, however, they show her some unexpected sympathy and entrust her to the care of the female staff at a Soho peepshow.

 

Late on, Kitten’s biological parents reappear.  The repentant Father Liam visits the peepshow and is reconciled with Kitten and they end up living together back in Ireland – along with Charlie, now pregnant with Irwin’s baby.  (Irwin is no longer around, having joined the IRA, turned informer and been executed by his comrades.)  The idyll doesn’t last.  The parochial house is firebombed by Father Liam’s parishioners, outraged that he’s living with an unmarried mum and a transgendered woman.  Kitten and Charlie return to London, where Kitten finally manages to meet her mother, now happily married and with a new family.  She fails to recognise Kitten as the baby boy she left behind in Ireland and Kitten chooses not to reveal her identity.

 

Breakfast on Pluto was a second instance of Jordan adapting a Patrick McCabe novel.  Eight years earlier he’d filmed McCabe’s 1992 work The Butcher Boy, a gruelling tragi-comic horror story about a young man’s descent into madness in 1960s rural Ireland.  Both the book and film of Breakfast on Pluto are more upbeat than The Butcher Boy, though Jordan’s film version is lighter than McCabe’s literary version.  The film makes a few changes to give the story a breezier feel, for example, by making Kitten’s first lover a singer in a rock band.  In the book, he’s a crooked Irish politician in the mould of Charles Haughey.  Also, Jordan adds some enjoyably goofy references to early-1970s popular culture – I don’t recall any Wombles or Daleks in McCabe’s novel.

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

Parts of the film are hilarious, often when we see Kitten nonchalantly thumbing her nose at the macho, patriarchal, Catholic Irish culture around her: like, for instance, fantasising about playing Gaelic football in a frock, or having another fantasy about infiltrating the London HQ of the IRA where, like a cross between Diana Rigg from The Avengers and Stephanie Powers from The Girl from UNCLE, she shimmies around in a slinky outfit and overpowers the terrorists by spraying them with knock-out gas from a perfume bottle.  Meanwhile, the film manages to be inspiring too, in that no matter how rough things get for Kitten – and they get pretty rough – her cheery, romantic indefatigability carries her on.  When the happy(-ish) ending finally comes, you feel she’s earned it.

 

At times, Breakfast on Pluto resembles a package of Neil Jordan’s greatest hits.  Not only do we get an eccentric Irish village like the one in The Butcher Boy, but we see a sordid, sleazy side of London just as we did in Mona Lisa (1986).  And of course, there’s the strange combination of gender confusion and Irish terrorism that also featured in The Crying Game (1992) – the twist being that in The Crying Game Stephen Rea (Jordan’s most regular actor) didn’t realise until late on that the woman he was in love with was biologically male, whereas here, as Bertie Vaughan, he spots Kitten’s male origins immediately and isn’t bothered that he still fancies her.

 

Maybe it’s just me, but I also found Breakfast on Pluto reminiscent of the work of Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, even though its subject matter is light-years removed from Forsyth’s family-friendly movies like Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983).  For one thing, as in Forsyth’s films, the (biologically) male characters such as Patrick, Irwin, Lawrence, Billy, John Joe, Bertie and Father Liam are impractical and distracted, some of them inhabiting their own little fantasy worlds.  It’s the female characters who are grounded in reality.  These include the level-headed Charlie, played by the excellent Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga; the women in the Soho peepshow who become Kitten’s guardians; and a female official whom Kitten encounters in the Central Records Office at the start of her sojourn in London – the quiet concern in the woman’s face and voice shows her awareness that Kitten is ill-equipped to survive on London’s streets.

 

Also Forsyth-esque is the fact that, apart from the psychopath played by Bryan Ferry, nobody in Breakfast on Pluto actually seems like a bad person.  The fickle Father Liam has redeemed himself by the end and even the film’s terrorists don’t appear as out-and-out villains.  While they bumble around comically, you get the impression that any threat they pose is mostly due to their incompetence.

 

To be honest, I wouldn’t say Breakfast on Pluto is a great movie.  As with most episodic films, some parts of it work better than others, and at 129 minutes long it does outstay its welcome slightly.  Kitten, you feel, could be a little quicker in catching up with her parents.  Still, if you’re open to some unconventional entertainment that combines the gloriously camp with the bleakly tragic, that gives you Wombles and IRA bomb atrocities, Breakfast on Pluto is worth checking out.

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé