Technical hitch

 

From tvtropes.org

 

My apologies to anyone who’s tried to access this blog in the past week.  They would have encountered either a blank, basic WordPress template devoid of any of the 500+ entries I’ve put on Blood and Porridge since 2012; or a signing-in page from WordPress demanding user names, passwords, etc.  Thankfully, those good people in the technical support department at my web-hosting provider have managed to solve the problem and, not for the first time, have saved my blogging bacon.

 

Unfortunately, in the process, the most recent entries I’ve put on Blood and Porridge have been lost (and as some time has elapsed and they’re no longer topical, I see no point in reposting them).  However, the issue seems now to be sorted and normal blogging will resume shortly.

 

A story of Scotland’s independence referendum: ‘Mither’

 

From www.derekthomas.wordpress.com

From www.sodahead.com

 

Today, September 18th, is the first anniversary of 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence. 

 

That’s right – a year has now passed since the Scottish electorate voted, by a majority of 55% to 45%, in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.  A year has passed since the circuses of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns were in full swing, which brought with them all manner of spectacles and happenings: interventions in support of the ‘no’ camp from personages as mighty as Barack Obama, the Pope, the Queen and J.K. Rowling; George Osborne threatening Scots that he wouldn’t let them continue using the pound if they voted ‘yes’; Alex Salmond losing his cool at Nick Robinson and the BBC; Jim Murphy getting struck by that dastardly egg; and the mainstream newspapers assuring us that a ‘yes’ vote would cause the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to gallop across Scotland spreading war, conquest, famine and death.

 

One narrative that the media peddled back then was that Scotland had become a divided country.  Families were in turmoil.  Parents and children, brothers and sisters, who’d previously lived together in harmony, had changed into rabid yes-sers and no-ers who were suddenly at each other’s throats.  For instance, last summer, the journalist Jenny Hjul wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “In Scotland… politics has become deeply personal.  We might have friends who are nationalists but they aren’t speaking to us at the moment…  The coming referendum has rendered such cross-party camaraderie inconceivable and it’s hard to see the day when things will return to normal.”  To be honest, considering the anti-independence poison and bile secreted by Hjul and her husband, the Telegraph’s Scottish editor Alan Cochrane, into their writings over the years, I’m amazed that they ever had nationalist friends in the first place.

 

Anyway, the Scottish-families-divided-by-independence theme inspired me a while ago to write a short story that took the idea to its logical extreme.  And seeing as it’s September 18th again, I thought I’d take this opportunity to post the story here.  So I now give you…  Mither.

 

***

 

I must have dozed while I sat in the office and read the literature that’d landed on our porch floor that morning.  I hadn’t heard her go out.  I only heard the porch door scrape open and shut as she came back.

 

‘Mither,’ I said when she entered the office.  ‘You were outside.’

 

She settled into the armchair with the tartan-patterned cushions that’d been her seat – her throne, we called it – when she ran the business by herself.  Now that I was mostly in charge, I had my own seat in the office but I kept the throne there should she want to use it.  She smoothed her skirt across her knees.  She was a modern-minded woman – at times too modern-minded because she had some ideas you’d expect more in a giddy teenager – but she avoided trousers and stuck to old-fashioned long skirts.  ‘Aye, Norrie.  I’ve been out and about.’

 

I didn’t like the sound of that but before I could quiz her she leaned forward from the throne and took the leaflet out of my hand.  ‘What’s this you’re reading?  Don’t say they’ve shovelled more shite through our door.’

 

It pained me to hear her genteel voice soiled by coarse language.  But I stayed patient.  ‘It’s actually interesting, Mither.  It’s an interview with a normal young couple, a professional young couple, about what might happen if the referendum result is…’  I searched for a word that’d cause minimum offence.  ‘Unexpected.’

 

Mither sighed and her eyes swivelled up in their sockets.

 

‘Now I ken you’re sceptical, Mither.  But they seem decent.  He’s called Kenneth and she’s called Gina.  And they’re worried about the effect independence would have on them.’

 

Mither’s eyes swivelled down again.  Then I saw them twitch from side to side while they scanned the text on the leaflet.

 

I pressed on.  ‘It wouldn’t have a good effect, Mither.  It’d be bad for them.’  Why did my voice tremble?  Why was I afraid?  ‘The financial uncertainty. How would decent hardworking people like them – like me – cope if all the business fled south and the prices shot up?  And the banks…  Why, I read in the paper the other day about an expert who said the bank machines would stop dispensing cash if the vote was yes!’

 

‘Does,’ asked Mither, ‘this say what Kenneth does for a living?’

 

‘And even if we still have cash, Mither, what would our currency be?  We won’t have the pound – George Osborne and Ed Balls down in Westminster won’t allow it!  We’ll have to make do with some banana-republic-type currency.  Or worse, the euro!’

 

From mairnorarochwind.wordpress.com

 

‘Norrie,’ said Mither, ‘calm down.  Does this leaflet actually say what Kenneth’s job is?’

 

‘Aye, of course it does.’  I faltered.  ‘Well, no. Maybe it doesn’t.’

 

She sighed.  ‘It certainly doesn’t, Norrie.  And I’ll tell you why.’  She raised the leaflet so that I could see a picture of Kenneth, Gina and their children on it.  She placed a fingertip against Kenneth.  ‘It’s because he’s Kenneth Braithwaite, who’s one of our local councillors.  One of our Conservative Party councillors.  But that fact isn’t mentioned here.  It pretends that he’s an ordinary unbiased person like you or me.’

 

I chuckled nervously.  ‘Now Mither.  I wouldn’t say you were unbiased.’

 

Mither rose from her throne.  ‘I am unbiased.  My mind’s open to facts and I form opinions and make decisions based on those facts.  Facts, mind you.  Not the propaganda and smears and scaremongering that’s poured out of the political and business and media establishments during the last year.  Not the drivel that’s clogged and befuddled your impressionable young mind!’

 

Before I could reply, she tore the leaflet down the middle and returned it to my hands in two pieces.  Then she hustled out of the office and shut the door behind her with enough force to make a stuffed owl wobble and almost fall off a nearby shelf.  I heard her shoes go clacking up the stairs and then another door slam, presumably the one leading into her room.

 

I seethed.  How I hated, how I loathed this referendum!  Setting family members against one another day after day!  I looked at the leaflet again and realised that by a creepy coincidence Mither had ripped it down the middle of the family-picture.  Now Kenneth and a little boy occupied one half of it while Gina and a little girl were sundered and apart in the other half.

 

And they seemed such a nice family.

 

*

 

I hated the referendum but I couldn’t wait for the day of it, September 18th, to come – and take place and be over with.  The problem was that the time until then seemed to pass very slowly.  And during this time it felt like a war of attrition was being waged against me.  I grew more tired and depressed the longer those separatists raved in the media and on the streets and from the literature they popped through the slot in our porch door.  A rash of yes stickers and posters spread along the windows in the street-fronts of our neighbourhood.  Some of them even appeared on the houses of people I’d thought were decent and sensible.

 

I began to panic.  God, could it happen?  I had visions of the doors padlocked and the windows boarded up on the old family business and Mither and I living in poverty alongside hundreds of thousands of other suddenly-penniless Scots.  While around us, food prices and fuel prices skyrocketed, the banks and financial companies whisked all their offices away to London, the housing market disappeared into a giant hole, the hospitals became like those in the developing world, and terrorist cells congregated in Glasgow and Edinburgh and prepared to attack England across the new border.

 

But worst of all was the madness this referendum campaign inspired in Mither.

 

She sensed when I was worn out.  While I was napping, or dozing off behind the desk in the office, or slumped in a stupor in front of the TV, she’d leave her room and creep down the stairs and do things.

 

These might be wee things.  If I wasn’t in the office, she might use the computer and I’d discover hours later that it was open at frightful separatist websites like Bella Caledonia or National Collective or Wings over Scotland.  The day’s Scottish Daily Mail might disappear from the kitchen table and turn up, scrunched into a ball, in the recycling bin in the corner.  Or if the Mail was left on the table, any photographs in it of Alistair Darling or George Osborne might have shocking words like tosser or bampot graffiti-ed across them in Mither’s curly handwriting.

 

More worrying was her tendency sometimes to sneak outdoors.  It would’ve been bad enough in normal times because she was too old and frail to be wandering the streets alone.  But in these dangerous times – who knew what she was up to and who she was associating with?

 

The evidence disturbed me.  When I visited her room I found a growing collection of things that she could only have acquired during trips outside – little Scottish saltire and lion-rampant flags, booklets of essays and poems written in support of independence, brochures for events with sinister titles like Imagi-Nation and Yestival, posters where the word can’t had the t scrawled out so that they read can instead.  She’d amassed badges, stickers and flyers with the word yes emblazoned on them.  What a disgusting-sounding word yes had become to me.  I’d contemplate Mither and imagine that horrible word spurting from her lips –

 

‘Yes!  Yes!  Yes – !’

 

And she’d argue.  Goodness me, what had got into the woman to make her so bloody-minded?  In between quoting names of people I’d never heard of, but who were undoubtedly up to no good, like Gerry Hassan and David Greig and Lesley Riddoch, she’d taunt me mercilessly.

 

‘So go on.  Tell me.  Explain.  Why can we not be independent?’

 

‘Because… We can’t!  We just can’t!  We’re too… too…’

 

‘Too wee?’

 

‘Aye!  Well, no.  Not that, not only that.  We’re also…’

 

‘Too poor?’

 

‘Aye, that’s true, Scotland’s too poor to be independent.  But the main reason is that we’re…’

 

‘Too stupid?’

 

‘Och stop it, Mither!  Stop!  You’re putting words in my mouth!’

 

‘But you agree with that basic proposition?  Scotland can’t be independent because it’s too small, its economy’s too weak and its people aren’t educated enough?’  She sighed.  ‘That’s what we’re up against.  A mass of our fellow Scots, yourself included, brainwashed by the establishment into believing their own inferiority!’

 

I stormed out of the room at that point.  What horrible people had she been talking to?

 

(c) The Independent

From www.yeshighland.net

 

A few weeks before the referendum-day, her madness reached what I assumed was its peak.  After the last guests had left the premises and after I’d washed and put away the breakfast things, I took the vacuum cleaner into the porch and started on the carpet there.  It took me a minute to notice something odd about the rack on the porch wall where I stored leaflets about local attractions that our guests might be interested in: Rosslyn Chapel, Abbotsford, Traquair House, Melrose Abbey and so on.  The leaflets in the rack had changed.  The tourist ones had disappeared.  In their place were different ones.  Political ones.

 

I put down the vacuum-hose and approached the rack.  Crammed into it now were leaflets I’d seen in her room advertising those sinister-sounding events like Imagi-Nation and Yestival and other ones promoting the unsavoury websites she’d consulted on the computer like National Collective, Bella Caledonia and Wings over Scotland.  Also there were leaflets for organisations with different but strangely-repetitive names: Women for Independence, Liberals for Independence, Polish for Independence, Asians for Independence, English for Independence, Farmers for Independence…  One organisation, whose leaflets were merely sheets of A4 paper that’d been photocopied on and folded, was even called Hoteliers for Independence.

 

I couldn’t help reading that Hoteliers for Independence leaflet.  It ended with the exhortation, ‘Please contact Hoteliers for Independence for more information at…’ and gave an address.  My insides turned cold as I read the address.  I found myself pivoting around inside the porch and facing different internal doors that led to different parts of the guesthouse.  I half-expected one door to have hanging on it a sign that said HOTELIERS FOR INDEPENDENCE – THIS WAY.

 

Then I peered up towards where a certain bedroom was located on the first floor and lamented, ‘Oh, Mither!’

 

*

 

One afternoon, close to September 18th, I woke from an unplanned doze at the desk in the office.  I’d been dreaming.  A voice in the dream had droned about – what else? – that ghastly referendum.  Disconcertingly, back in the conscious world, the voice continued to talk to me.  I realised it came from a shelf above me, where the radio was positioned between a stuffed gull and a stuffed pheasant.  The radio was tuned in to a local station and the voice belonged to a newsreader.  He was explaining that a politician, a Labour Party MP, was visiting our region today.

 

This MP had toured the high streets and town centres of Scotland lately.  To get people’s attention he’d place a crate on the pavement, stand on top of the crate and deliver a speech from it.  He’d speak bravely in favour of Great Britain and the Union of Parliaments and denounce the separatists and their vile foolish notions of independence.  And I’d heard from recent news reports that the separatists hadn’t taken kindly to his tour – well, as bullies, they wouldn’t.  They’d gone to his speaking appearances with the purpose of heckling him and shouting him down.

 

(c) BBC

 

Then the newsreader named the town the MP was due to speak in this afternoon.  It was our town.

 

And immediately I felt uneasy because I realised I hadn’t seen or heard anything of Mither for the past while.  I went upstairs and knocked on her door.  There was no reply.  The guesthouse was empty that afternoon and so I hung the BACK SOON sign in the porch-window, went out and locked the door after me.  Then I headed for the middle of town.

 

It wasn’t hard to find where the Labour MP was speaking because of the hubbub.  The MP seemed to have turned his microphone to maximum volume so that he could drown out the heckling and shouting from the separatists in his audience.  I emerged from a vennel and onto the high street and saw the crowd ahead of me.  It contained fewer people than I’d expected.  Some of them wore no badges and carried no placards – among them, I thought I glimpsed Kenneth and Gina from the brochure that Mither had ripped up – and some had badges and placards saying yes.  Looming above everyone was the MP on his crate.

 

The separatists present were trying to make themselves heard – without success, thanks to the MP’s bellowing voice and the amplification provided by the microphone.  It wasn’t until I reached the edge of the small crowd that I could understand what they were saying.

 

‘Answer the question, Murphy!’

 

‘He won’t answer the question!’

 

‘Quit shouting, man, and answer the question for God’s sake!’

 

Then I saw a figure standing at the back of the crowd a few yards along from me.  The figure wore a long flowing skirt, a woollen cardigan and a lacy Sunday bonnet that obscured its face.  A handbag dangled from one of its elbows and a small egg carton was clasped in its hands.  As I watched, the figure prised the lid off the carton,  lifted one of the six eggs inside and stretched back an arm in readiness to throw it –

 

I rushed at her and shouted, ‘Mither! Oh my God!’

 

(c) STV

 

What happened next is confusing.  I remember reaching her and knocking the carton from her hands so that eggs flew in all directions.  I remember not being able to halt myself in time and crashing into her so that she fell and I fell too, on top of her.  But then, somehow, I found myself lying alone on the ground.  Mither had disappeared.  She must’ve been sprightlier than I’d thought.  She’d gathered herself up and hurried away and left me there.

 

One of the eggs had made its way into my right hand.  Now it was a ruin of flattened broken shell.  Meanwhile, the yolk, white and shell-pieces of other eggs formed a gelatinous mess on the front of my woollen cardigan.

 

Then I was being helped to my feet.  Around me, I heard voices:

 

‘Who is it?’

 

‘Some auld lady.’

 

‘No, wait… Christ!  It’s a man!’

 

‘It’s young Bates.  You ken, Norrie Bates?  Him that runs the Bates Bed and Breakfast?’

 

‘Why’s he togged out like that?’

 

Someone took my arm and led me away.  Behind us, the MP, who seemed not to have noticed the commotion with Mither and me, kept roaring into his microphone.  We turned a corner into a side-street and paused there.  I identified the man steering me as Charlie Massie, who was the proprietor of another B and B in the town, a few streets away from ours.  He’d always seemed a gentle friendly type and it surprised me to see a yes badge stuck to his jacket lapel.

 

Charlie looked perplexed.  He scanned me up and down as if my appearance was a puzzle he wanted to solve.  ‘Norrie,’ he said at last.  ‘I think you need to go home.  As fast as you can manage.’

 

My head ached.  Something was squeezing my skull, which in turn was squeezing my brain.  I raised a hand and found my head enclosed in a lady’s bonnet.  It exuded two ribbons that were knotted under my chin.  In a final gesture of spite Mither must’ve fastened it on my head before she’d escaped.  ‘Aye,’ I whispered.  ‘I’ll go home.’

 

‘By the way,’ added Charlie, who seemed greatly troubled now.  ‘How’s your mither?  I haven’t seen her for a while.’

 

*

 

It was the morning of September 19th.  The radio had disappeared from the office and I guessed it’d travelled upstairs to Mither’s room and informed her of the result.  Still, in case she hadn’t heard, I felt obliged to go to her room and let her know.

 

She looked very small, thin and frail as she huddled there amid the paraphernalia she’d acquired, the flags, placards, badges, posters, leaflets and booklets.  On the floor around her, in a serpentine coil, there even lay a blue-and-white woollen scarf with a pair of knitting needles embedded in one unfinished end of it.  That was another lark she’d been up to.  Knitting for independence.

 

Because she looked so weak and unwell now, I understood that she knew.  The result seemed to have drained the life from her, leaving her a husk.

 

But I repeated the news.  ‘Mither.  It’s a no.’

 

She didn’t answer.  No sound came from her mouth, which was stretched back in a rictus – if I hadn’t known she was grimacing in pain and dismay, I’d have thought she was grinning.  I looked into her eyes, trying to find a glimmer of acknowledgement for me, a spark of recognition that I was standing before her.  But the eyes were blank and gaping, almost like they weren’t eyes at all but two dark holes.

 

And although I was relieved and delighted about the result, I suddenly and inexplicably felt as though a part of me was dead.

 

(c) Paramount

(c) Paramount

(c) Paramount

 

The Time Traveller checks out

 

(c) MGM

 

Another day and the news that yet another actor or actress whom I was a fan of during my formative years has passed away.  This blog is in danger of becoming little more than a string of obituaries.

 

This time the deceased was the Australian actor Rod Taylor, who last Wednesday left the building at the age of 84 – his death, unsurprisingly, received little coverage at the time thanks to the media’s attention being focused on events in Paris.  Tall, solid, square-jawed and projecting an image of complete dependability, Taylor starred in three movies that had a big impact on me when I was a kid.

 

Firstly, there was his performance as the Time Traveller who travels to the year 802,701 AD in the 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, directed and produced by the celebrated sci-fi-movie impresario George Pal.  Wells’ original story is a gloomy, melancholy and understated affair but Pal predictably gave it the full Hollywood treatment.  Taylor plays a time-travelling beefsteak who’s handy with his fists and takes no shit from anyone, least of all from that future race of cannibalistic, subterranean ghouls, the Morlocks.  Also, he wastes no time in trying to teach the wimpy, wishy-washy Eloi – the humanoid race living on the surface whom the Morlocks use as livestock – the American way, which is that they shouldn’t take any shit from anyone either.

 

But despite Pal’s simplifications I loved – and still love – The Time Machine.  Most of all, I adore the sequence where Taylor tries out his ornate time-travelling device, which looks like a cross between a mass of clock innards and Santa Claus’s sleigh.  Viewed today, the time-lapse photography and stop-motion-animation special effects by Gene Warren and Tim Barr seem almost as antiquated as Taylor’s time machine, but they remain immensely charming.  I particularly like how the female mannequin in the clothes shop across the street from Taylor’s laboratory dons costume after costume while Taylor fast-forwards through the years and fashions change in the blink of an eye.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVlr24zD_KQ

 

Actually, thinking about it, the time-travelling section of The Time Machine retains some of the melancholia and pessimism of Wells’ original vision.  First, when Taylor stops off in 1917, he learns of the fate that’s befallen his dear and loyal friend David Filby (played by Alan Young, who later became the cartoon voice of Scrooge McDuck and is still on the go at the age of 95); a fate that befell countless men at the time.  And then, when he reaches 1966, he sees civilisation succumb to a cataclysmic nuclear war.  Never mind the fact that when I first saw the film, 1966 had already been and gone with no outbreak of nuclear war – this bit chilled me to the bone.  In fact, it still chills me now.

 

Three years later, Rod Taylor appeared in a very different sort of fantasy film, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which for my money is still the scariest movie in which Mother Nature suddenly turns around and starts giving humanity hell.  Here, the agents of Mother Nature’s revenge are the titular birds – lots of them, including seagulls, sparrows, crows and ravens.  Hitchcock wisely follows the example of the material on which the film is based, Daphne Du Maurier’s short story of the same name from 1952, and offers no explanation for why the birds have suddenly started to attack people en masse.

 

(c) Universal Pictures

 

The film is more expansive than Du Maurier’s low-key, Cornish-set original – it opens out the story to allow for a series of tense set-pieces that demonstrate how far ahead of his time Hitchcock was – but it retains the same sense of claustrophobia and doom.  Even the presence of Taylor in the film doesn’t make you feel any more hopeful at the end.  With his solidness and reliability, Taylor might be a useful guy to have on your side when the feathered world starts pecking human civilisation to pieces, but even he is unlikely to tip the balance in your favour.

 

Finally, Taylor turned up in Jack Cardiff’s 1968 African-set action movie The Mercenaries, which was based on a book by – who else? – Wilbur Smith.  When I saw this on TV in the 1970s, I was in my early teens and I decided that it was surely the grittiest and most realistic combat movie I’d ever seen.  No doubt I felt this way because it was the first combat movie I’d seen that had a (relatively) contemporary setting and didn’t take place during World War II.  Thus, it had an immediacy that those WW2 movies didn’t have.  Mind you, the film did also feature Peter Carsten, playing a mercenary who’d served with the Nazis a quarter-century earlier and was, predictably, a thoroughly bad egg.  Also in the film was Yvette Mimieux (who’d starred alongside Taylor in The Time Machine), Jim Brown and that dear old British acting cove Kenneth More, playing an alcoholic doctor who got killed off two-thirds of the way through.  Phew!  Hardcore!

 

Probably if I saw The Mercenaries now, it would seem no more gritty or realistic than 1978’s The Wild Geese, that notorious turkey (or goose) of a movie wherein Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris play a trio of loveable former-public-schoolboy mercenaries leading a team to rescue a saintly Mandela-like politician from a central African prison.  Then again, I’ve read that both Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese consider The Mercenaries to be one of the best action movies ever, so maybe it would hold up to a viewing today.  (And no doubt that’s why Tarantino lured Taylor, then in his late 70s, out of retirement in 2009 and got him to play Winston Churchill in Inglourious Basterds.)

 

One thing that definitely is brilliant about The Mercenaries, though, is its poster-work by Frank McGrath.  In my mind, when it comes to action movies, there was no better poster-artist than McGrath.  And although McGrath did sterling work on posters for other 1960s action classics like The Great Escape (1963) and Where Eagles Dare (1968), nothing quite compares with the bravura of what he came up with for The Mercenaries, depicting Taylor, Mimieux and Brown perched on top of a crazily-tilting train carriage while other carriages explode, planes attack and villains drop to their doom down the sides of a vertiginously-high bridge.

 

(c) MGM

 

Anyhow, the next time that The Time Machine appears on television – and it invariably does during the Christmas / New Year season, one morning on a TV channel somewhere – that sequence where the Time Traveller ventures forth into the future will feel a wee bit more sombre now that Rod Taylor is no longer with us.

 

Books and films: The Thirty-Nine Steps

 

(c) Gaumont-British

 

In late August, the Eastgate Theatre in Peebles, my hometown, gave a showing of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  That was the 1935 movie adaptation, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, of the novel of the same name written by John Buchan and published in 1915.  Although he was born in Perth, Buchan had strong links with Peebles and there is now a John Buchan Museum doing business on its High Street.

 

Before the film began, the audience received a short talk from Buchan’s granddaughter, Lady Deborah Stewartly, about the several film versions of The Thirty-Nine Steps – of which Hitchcock’s was the first.

 

It turned out that Lady Stewartly’s opinions of those films accord with my own opinions of them.  The 1935 one, which had Robert Donat in the role of the book’s adventurer-hero Richard Hannay, is the best, but there’s considerably more Hitchcock in it than there is Buchan.  The second version, made in 1959, directed by Ralph Thomas and starring Kenneth More as Hannay, is basically a colour remake of the Hitchcock movie and is pretty piss-poor.  I liked Kenneth More when he was older, with sufficient grey hairs, wrinkles and gravitas to make him an impressive character actor, but I could never understand his appeal as a young leading man in the 1950s – back then I found him dully stiff-upper-lip and wearily earnest and he was, I thought, miscast as Hannay.  The third and final movie version to date was made in 1978 by the prolific, workmanlike and underrated director Don Sharpe and starred Robert Powell as a credible Hannay.  It’s more faithful to Buchan and is fairly good, although it’s botched by an over-the-top ending, which has Powell dangling from a giant hand on the clock-face of Big Ben.

 

Having seen Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps again, and on a big screen, I thought it’d be interesting to dig out Buchan’s novel, re-read it and compare book and film.  I originally read the novel when I was twelve years old and wasn’t very impressed by it.  Possibly this was because at the time I’d just read four or five of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and The Thirty-Nine Steps couldn’t help but seem creaky and low-key in comparison.  With hindsight, this was a bit unfair of me, considering how Hannay is now considered one of the main prototypes for Bond and generally Fleming owes Buchan a big debt.  (It should be also noted that The Thirty-Nine Steps, with its plot about an innocent man on the run, accused of a crime he didn’t commit and pursued by police and villains alike, provides a blueprint that’d serve Hitchcock well in his later films like Saboteur, North by Northwest and Frenzy.)

 

(c) Penguin 

 

My second reading of The Thirty-Nine Steps got off to a good start, for Buchan’s opening paragraph is a cracker.  It perfectly sets the scene for what’s to follow: “I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.  I had been three months in the Old Country and was fed up with it.  If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that, I should have laughed at him, but there was the fact.  The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun.  ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’”

 

In fact, those opening lines establish a theme that none of the film versions really capture.  When we first encounter Hannay, who has spent the past years living in Bulawayo in Rhodesia, he’s desperately bored.  He’s had a bellyful of London and its supposed sophistications and he’s desperate to return to the wide open spaces of the veld.  “I would give,” he says on page 2, “the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape.”

 

No sooner has he decided this, of course, than he is fitted into something.  His American neighbour and spy-on-the-run Franklin Scudder turns up at his door and confides in him about a massive anarchist plot to plunge Europe into chaos and war.  (Actually, Scudder’s initial claim is that it’s a plot directed by the Jews – but later, and in time to save the story from accusations of anti-Semitism, it transpires the real villains are the Germans, itching to invade Britain before World War I gets properly going.)

 

Before long, Scudder is slain “with a long knife through his heart, which skewered him to the floor”, Hannay is under suspicion for his murder and, knowing that the bad guys are coming after him too, he jumps on a northbound train and attempts to go to ground in Dumfries and Galloway in south-west Scotland.  There, Hannay admits that he “actually felt light-hearted.  I might have been a boy out for a spring holiday tramp, instead of a man of thirty-seven very much wanted by the police.  I felt just as I used to feel when I was starting for a big trek on a frosty morning on the high veld.”  Dire though Hannay’s predicament is, it’s at least provided him with the adventure that he’s missed for so long.

 

The adventure in Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps is strictly of the boys’ adventure variety.  The novel is sexless and women barely get a mention.  The only female characters who appear are the wife of a cattle-herd – she and her husband allow Hannay to stay in their cottage for a night and occupy the narrative for two paragraphs – and later on an old woman, another herd’s wife, who lets Hannay sit by her kitchen fire and gives him “a bowl of milk with a dash of whisky in it”.  She’s also in it for two paragraphs.

 

Predictably, this changed in 1935 when Hitchcock got his hands on the property.  Franklin Scudder becomes the attractive lady spy Annabella Smith, played by Lucie Mannheim, who picks up Robert Donat’s Hannay following a shooting incident at the local music hall – though before romance can blossom between the two of them, she’s murdered (the knife being administered to her back rather than through her heart).

 

In Hitchcock’s film the action shifts from the Southern Uplands to the Highlands, and the cattle herd who takes Hannay in for the night becomes a crofter, a flinty and untrustworthy one played by John Laurie, who later wrote the rulebook for playing dour Scotsmen when he portrayed Private Fraser in the legendary TV comedy show Dad’s Army.  His wife, meanwhile, is a young and innocent creature played by Peggy Ashcroft, who’s obviously drawn to Donat’s dashing version of Hannay – to the point where she gives him her husband’s coat just before he has to flee the police again.  The crofter’s coat contains in its breast pocket a Presbyterian hymn-book, which, later, handily stops a villain’s bullet.

 

Of course, the biggest example of Hitchcock sexing up Buchan’s story comes with the addition of a new character, Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who ends up handcuffed to Hannay for part of the manhunt in Scotland.  The scene where Pamela has to remove her stockings and Donat’s shackled hand gets trailed up and down her legs is a typical flourish from the plump and famously pervy director.

 

In the book Hannay is no lady’s man, but he’s certainly adept at the art of disguise.  In the fifth chapter, Hannay persuades a Scottish road-worker to change places with him and, when the bad guys arrive on the scene, he successfully fools them into thinking that he’s just a manual-labouring local, not the man they’re pursuing.  As he rubs road-dust into his boots, trouser-legs, neck and eyes, scrapes away the edges of his fingernails, and breaks and reties one of his boot-laces, he reflects: “I remembered an old scout in Rhodesia, who had done many queer things in his day, once telling me that the secret of playing a part was to think yourself into it.  You could never keep it up, he said, unless you could manage to convince yourself that you were it.”  That may be so, but I can’t see how the well-to-do Hannay, whose family supposedly left Scotland when he was six years old, can give his pursuers a convincing mouthful of working-class Scots when they interview him in his road-worker’s guise: “I wasna up very early…  Ye see my dochter was merrit last nicht, and we keepit up late…”

 

The theme of disguise resurfaces later in the book when the villains display their skills at method-acting as well.  One of them infiltrates a top meeting of defence officials at St Anne’s Gate in London disguised as Lord Alloa, the First Sea Lord.  When Hannay reveals the ruse, someone splutters, “Do you mean to tell me that that man came here and sat beside me for the best part of half an hour and I didn’t detect the imposture?”

 

And at the end of the book, instead of the expected action-packed climax – Hitchcock has it happen back in the London music hall, where it turns out that the villains are using the photographic-memory act, Mr Memory, to store top-secret information – there’s an unsettling episode where Hannay bursts into a middle-class household on the southern-England coast, by the top of thirty-nine steps that descend to the sea.  Hannay believes that Britain’s military secrets will be conveyed down those steps, from the house, to a rendezvous with a German ship.  He finds himself in the presence of three men who appear to be respectable, golf-and-tennis-loving English businessmen with names like Bob and Percy and who wear “the colours of some club or school”.  Indeed, he begins to wonder if they are the villains in disguise and not authentic members of the middle class: “It couldn’t be acting, it was too confoundedly genuine.  My heart went into my boots, and my first impulse was to apologize and clear out…  There was nothing in their appearance to prevent them being the three who had hunted me in Scotland, but there was nothing to identify them.”

 

(It doesn’t help Hannay’s mission here that he professes himself entirely ignorant of the English middle class: “A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower…  But what fellows like me don’t understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folk that live in villas and suburbs.”  To be uncharitable to Hannay, you might say he doesn’t understand the layer of society that isn’t as wealthy as he is, but also isn’t poor enough to have to work as his servants.)

 

For me, this recurrent theme of disguise, play-acting and deception is what gives Buchan’s book a special flavour and, nearly one hundred years on, makes it seem a little more than a run-of-the-mill adventure yarn.  However, Hitchcock – who in 1960 would direct one of cinema’s most cunning essays about the art of disguise, Psycho – ignores this theme and concentrates on making his Thirty Steps purely an adventure yarn, if a very good one.  He does, I have to say, invest the plot with a little more logic than Buchan did.  I may have missed an important piece of information in the book, but I can’t for the life of me understand how Hannay, on the run for days across the moors of south-west Scotland, can suddenly stumble across a farming estate that’s actually the villains’ headquarters, compete with a storeroom full of explosives and “an oval of green turf… like a big cricket field” that’s used as a secret airfield.

 

In Hitchcock’s movie, Annabella Smith expires clutching a map of Scotland with a particular location on it encircled, and it’s to this area that Hannay makes his way.  Thus, we know that the foreign agents are hiding out there.  In the book, the fact that Hannay – who could have holed up in any part of Britain – discovers their lair seems like a colossal coincidence.

 

Buchan strains credibility further by inserting another wild coincidence into the story (which again isn’t in the Hitchcock film).  Whilst on the run, Hannay bumps into an acquaintance called Marmaduke Jopley – “a sort of blood stockbroker, who did his business by toadying eldest sons and rich young peers and foolish old ladies”, and who “was an offence to creation.”  In fact, Jopley’s touring car appears “by an amazing chance” on a lonely moorland road just after Hannay’s been in disguise as the road-worker, and he has no qualms about hijacking the car for a couple of pages.  All these coincidences leave one with the impression that a century ago Dumfries and Galloway was quite the happening place.

 

Jon Finch: 1941 – 2012

 

I don’t want to turn this blog into a series of obituaries, especially after last month when I wrote about the recently departed Sir Patrick Moore and Gerry Anderson.  I was, however, saddened to hear last week about the passing of the excellent film and TV actor Jon Finch.  Finch, who hadn’t worked for seven years, had been living quietly in the English town of Hastings and his death in December seems to have gone undiscovered for a time.  Furthermore, word of his funeral wasn’t announced until this month.  For that reason, obituaries for him in the British media have been intermittent and patchy and I thought I’d write a few words here.

 

Finch began his career in television, went into films and ended up back in television.  For a couple of years in the early 1970s, while he was doing film-work, he had the opportunity to become massive, but that didn’t happen.  Finch, who valued his privacy and had a low opinion of the whole celebrity circus, may well have preferred it that way.

 

He began acting on television in 1964, appearing in ITV’s notoriously dire soap opera Crossroads.  In 1970, like many a British TV actor at the time, he got his break in movies thanks to Hammer Films – who were always looking for cheap acting talent to appear in their low-budget but cheerfully sensationalist horror movies.  He duly provided vampire-hunting support to Peter Cushing in Roy Ward Baker’s okay The Vampire Lovers and appeared too in Jimmy Sangster’s dreadful Horror of Frankenstein.  Then Roman Polanski hired him to play the title role in his version of Macbeth and Finch’s career trajectory suddenly swung upwards.

 

(c) Columbia Films 

 

Polanski’s take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play was bloody, dark and bleak – everything that a good production of Macbeth should be, in my opinion.  In this film, what works in favour of Finch as Macbeth, and of his co-star Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, is the fact that they’re both so young.  The audience therefore feels they have little power over their destiny.  Rather, they’re swept to their tragic ends by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth got an unsympathetic appraisal from many critics, who couldn’t see beyond the film’s high level of violence and who linked it with what Polanski had gone through in August 1969 – when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered at his house in Beverly Hills by acolytes of hippie-cult nutcase Charles Manson.  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had orchestrated.  In fact, the film’s screenwriter, celebrated theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, is reputed to have challenged Polanski about the amount of blood displayed in this scene, to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

From Roman Polanski, Finch moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and he landed the lead role in 1972’s Frenzy.  Although Frenzy hardly represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistry, it’s by far and away the best of the director’s last clutch of films, which include Torn Curtain, Topaz and Family Plot.  It also shows Hitchcock at his most disturbing.  The murder sequence involving Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who plays Finch’s ex-wife, is the most brutal thing he ever did, and the potato-truck ride (where serial strangler Barry Foster tries to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse he’d concealed earlier inside a huge sack of potatoes) is pretty gruelling too.

 

Playing an innocent man accused of and hunted down for Foster’s murders, Finch bravely refrains from making his character sympathetic.  Indeed, he’s something of a shit and has a violent streak, and for a period at the start of the film we think he really is the strangler.   (By the time it becomes clear that Foster is actually the culprit, Hitchcock – a master manipulator of his audience’s emotions – has presented him as a chirpy, likeable chap.  Thus, we find ourselves siding more with Foster than we do with Finch.)

 

(c) Universal Pictures

 

Having worked with two of the world’s greatest directors, Finch seemed destined for major fame and indeed he was soon offered the chance to replace Sean Connery in the James Bond series.  Finch, however, declined and the role went instead to the somewhat less invigorating Roger Moore.  (Around this time he also turned down the role of Aramis in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers, which would have seen him acting alongside another actor with a low opinion of movie stars and movie stardom, Oliver Reed.)

 

In fact, in 1973, Finch did play a vaguely James Bond-like character when he took the role of Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which was based on the first of the four Cornelius novels written by Michael Moorcock, set in a surreal, 1960s-esque and science-fiction-tinged world where the fabric of reality is definitely beginning to fray.  I’ve never seen The Final Programme, though from all accounts Fuest did a pretty cack-handed job of it.  In the stills, though, Finch at least looks the part of Moorcock’s enigmatic hipster-cum-secret-agent hero.  Moorcock himself disapproved of the film adaptation, although he liked Finch’s performance and paid tribute to him on his website / discussion forum Moorcock’s Miscellany the other day (http://www.multiverse.org/fora/showthread.php?t=27663).

 

Towards the end of the 1970s, Ridley Scott lined Finch up to appear in his ground-breaking sci-fi horror film Alien.  Finch was supposed to play Kane, a character who doesn’t last long in the movie’s script but is certainly pivotal to it.  He’s the unfortunate crewmember who goes exploring the mysterious crashed spaceship and ends up with an alien egg inside his chest.  Two days into filming, however, Finch became too ill to work – either from bronchitis or from complications caused by his recently-diagnosed diabetes, depending on which story you believe – and was replaced by John Hurt.  Thus, he missed appearing in the infamous ‘canteen’ scene where Kane expires and the alien makes its first appearance, one of the most (literally) explosive scenes in horror-movie history.

 

From there on, it was through his television work that Finch remained in the public consciousness.  In the late 1970s, he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare, a series featuring adaptations of all the Bard’s plays.  Though they were criticised for the conservative manner in which they were brought to the screen and for their general staginess, the adaptations certainly couldn’t be faulted for the top-notch acting they contained.  In Richard II, Finch played Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi’s Richard and John Gielgud’s John of Gaunt.  With Bolingbroke elevated to monarch, he then played the title role in the sequels Henry IV Part One and Part Two, with Anthony Quayle as a jovial, red-cheeked Falstaff and David Gwillim as Henry’s offspring, Prince Hal.  (In reality, Gwillim was only six years younger than Finch.)

 

Still picky about his roles, he passed on the opportunity to play Doyle in Brian Clements’ hugely popular espionage / action series The Professionals.  Ironically, the role eventually went to Martin Shaw, who’d played Banquo to Finch’s Macbeth.  On the other hand, out of loyalty to Hammer, he starred in the first episode of the studio’s 1980 anthology series The Hammer House of Horror.  And for a quarter century he gave guest turns in popular shows like The New Avengers, The Bill, Maigret, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and New Tricks.

 

Finch’s final appearance was a film one, in Ridley Scott’s 2005 crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, so at least he got to work with that director nearly three decades after his gig in Alien fell through.  Thereafter, he kept a low profile in Hastings, in declining health but seen now and again in some of the town’s public bars.  I wonder if the regulars in those Hastings pubs were aware that old ‘Finchy’, as he was known, had once headlined films directed by Hitchcock and Polanski and had come within a whisker of being 007.