The boys are back in (the Auld and New) Town

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Finally, nearly five months after it went on cinematic release in the UK and just before it goes on sale there on DVD, I’ve been able to catch up with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting 2 in Sri Lanka.

 

It is, of course, the long-awaited sequel to Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), which somehow caught the zeitgeist of mid-1990s Britain, obsessed with Britpop and all things Cool Britannia.  How long ago that seems now…

 

To be honest, it annoyed me that the original Trainspotting got lumped in with the Britpop / Cool Britannia thing, even if the filmmakers opportunistically loaded its soundtrack with music by bands of the time such as Pulp, Sleeper, Elastica, Leftfield and Underworld.  (Ironically, the song that became the film’s signature tune, Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, had nothing to do with 1990s Britain.)

 

To me Trainspotting sprang from an earlier, darker and less glamorous era than the one of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark, Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress and Blur-versus-Oasis – namely, the mid-to-late 1980s, when a boom in heroin use and a subsequent, resultant HIV / AIDS epidemic in Edinburgh led to the city being dubbed ‘the AIDS capital of Europe’.  This became material for the book that inspired the film, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting (1993), which is an altogether bleaker and rougher-edged work than Boyle’s cinematic version.  Though of course the film isn’t without its bleak or rough-edged moments either.  The worst toilet in Scotland, anyone?

 

Not that I’m complaining.  I think both Trainspotting the book and Trainspotting the movie are great and are classics in their respective fields, 1990s Scottish literature and 1990s British cinema.  So here’s what I thought of the new movie.  A word of warning – there will be spoilers ahead.

 

Trainspotting 2 also has its roots in an Irvine Welsh book, 2003’s Porno.  This reunited the four main characters of Trainspotting, Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie, who in the original film were memorably played by Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle – actors who, in various stages of menopausal gnarliness, are also excellent in the sequel.  Porno was about their efforts to illegally raise money to fund a blockbuster porn movie called Seven Rides for Seven Brothers, which Sick Boy intended to film in the back rooms of the pub he’d just inherited from an aunt.  Its sub-plots included Spud trying to escape his heroin addiction by writing a book and a just-out-of-prison Begbie vowing to get bloody revenge on Renton, who at the end of Trainspotting (book and film) had run off with the all the money they’d made on a drugs deal.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Trainspotting 2 scriptwriter John Hodge retains these basic elements from Porno, but determinedly does his own thing with them.  Sick Boy owns a pub, but instead of wanting to shoot a porn movie on the premises he wants to turn it into a bordello.  Begbie breaks out of prison – in the novel he’s simply released – and first crosses paths with the hated Renton halfway through the movie.  This differs from the book, where Renton and Begbie’s first and last confrontation is saved for the climax.  And Spud, who in the book was attempting a write a history of his hometown Leith, here decides to use his past adventures, good and bad (though mostly bad), as the basis for a novel.  When you see him writing its opening line – “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy” – you realise what he’s doing.  He’s writing the original novel of Trainspotting.

 

I almost expected Trainspotting 2 to end with Spud’s completed manuscript falling through a time warp and ending up in 1993, where it arrives in the hands of Irvine Welsh, who sneakily passes it off as his own work.  Alas, that doesn’t happen.

 

One element of Porno that I’d expected Hodge and Boyle to dump, because it’d be too mysterious for cinema audiences who weren’t Scottish or Irish, surprisingly turns up in Trainspotting 2.  That’s the scam perpetrated by Renton and Sick Boy, whereby they break into and loot the bank accounts of various West-of-Scotland / Loyalist / anti-Catholic Glasgow Rangers supporters because they know what the four-number pin-codes are likely to be: 1690, the year of the Battle of the Boyne, when King William of Orange (King Billy to his fans) defeated the Catholic forces of James II and saved the countries of Britain for Protestantism.

 

In Trainspotting 2 this is compressed into a single sequence where Renton and Sick Boy sneak into a Rangers club in Glasgow to steal bank cards.  When their presence is noticed and they’re asked to entertain the punters with a song, they have to improvise like crazy to save their hides – and if you’re familiar with the culture that Boyle, Hodge and co. are poking fun  at, the result is hilarious.  In fact, I don’t expect to see a funnier scene in a film this year.

 

The great advantage that Trainspotting 2 has over the book Porno is timing.  Taking place in the early noughties, Porno’s characters were starting to realise that they wouldn’t stay young and reckless forever; but they could still act that way.  Set more than a dozen years later, Trainspotting 2 – whose making was delayed for a long time because of a rift between Boyle and Ewan McGregor – sees Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie firmly in the throes of middle age and reacting to it, for the most part, badly.

 

Renton and Sick Boy, when pissed and stoned, tend to retreat into a rosy, nostalgia-distorted version of their pasts where everything was, you know, better.  (This smartly allows Boyle and Hodge to duck the accusation that they’ve made Trainspotting 2 out of nostalgia for the 1990s.  No, they can argue, they’ve made a movie about nostalgia.)  It’s telling that in one scene they start obsessing about the legendary but ill-fated Northern Irish footballer George Best.  When the 40-something Renton recounts the famous ‘George, where did it all go wrong?’ anecdote, it seems he’s rewriting history for his own comfort.  No, he’s arguing, Best didn’t lose it as was commonly assumed.  He still had it – just as Renton himself believes he still has it.

 

Spud relates rather better to the past and his lost youth – he uses them creatively, as material for his writing.   Begbie, a psychopathic dinosaur, seems unable to grasp the concept of time, let alone the fact that it changes.  But even he’s starting to notice that he’s no longer the force he once was, something emphasised by a scene where he nicks a packet of Viagra.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

One difference between Trainspotting and Trainspotting 2 is that the new film makes much more of its Edinburgh setting.  The Royal Mile, the Grassmarket, the Cowgate, Cockburn Street, Harvey Nichols, the Scottish Parliament, the tram system, the Forth Road Bridge and Salisbury Crags are all used to good visual effect and even Edinburgh Bargain Stores and Edinburgh Castle Terrace Car Park look sexy during the movie’s comic and action set-pieces.  Indeed, the Scottish capital has rarely appeared so glamorous and exciting.  The days when ultra-Conservative Edinburgh councillor Moira Knox used to fulminate against Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting phenomenon for giving the city a bad name are long gone.

 

Like James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) – a sequel with which it shares an abbreviated nickname, T2Trainspotting 2 is immensely enjoyable but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original.  It can’t reach them.   The original Trainspotting (like 1984’s The Terminator) was iconically of its time and place and the ideas driving it, by virtue of being fresh and new, gave it a momentum that any follow-up simply can’t manage.  Nonetheless, Boyle and Hodge deserve kudos for resisting the temptation to just rehash the original and for exploring new territory with the characters, even if that territory is more ruminative and melancholic and less cinematically in-your-face exciting.

 

Trainspotting 2 isn’t the classic that its predecessor was, then, but it’s as good a sequel as I could’ve hoped for.  I think the adventures of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie should end here, though.  Just as the Terminator franchise ran out of steam after the second movie, I fear another entry in the Trainspotting franchise would be a sequel too far.  Yes, a Trainspotting 3: Rise of the Machines would probably be shite.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Carry on cabbie

 

© Jonathan Cape

 

Irvine Welsh’s 2015 novel A Decent Ride continues the story of ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson, who previously appeared in the Welsh oeuvre as a major character in the 2001 book Glue and a supporting one in 2002’s Porno.  (Incidentally, Porno was the sequel to Welsh’s breakthrough novel, 1993’s Trainspotting; and, even as I write this, it’s being filmed by Danny Boyle as Trainspotting 2.)

 

When he made his debut in Glue, Terry – arrogant, fickle, devoid of self-awareness, not terribly bright and driven by a desire to shag everything in a skirt in the Edinburgh area – seemed like the book’s least likeable character.  However, later in the book, after Terry had lost his sex appeal, piled on the pounds and turned into a roly-poly Falstaff-like figure, he’d become surprisingly endearing.  Welsh rounded off Glue with a hundred-page tour-de-force of comic writing with Terry, whilst cleaning windows at Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel, somehow befriending a North American singing superstar (inspired by Celine Dion) who was in town for an Edinburgh Festival gig.  He took her on a pub-crawl down some bars in Leith that were definitely off the recommended list for festival-visitors.  The singer’s manager, believing her to have been kidnapped, set off in pursuit.  The episode concluded with Terry wedged upside down between the banisters at the top of a hotel stairwell, reflecting on how a ‘lesser man’ – i.e. one with a smaller beer-gut – would have slipped between the banisters and dropped down the stairwell to his doom.

 

By the time of Porno, Terry had slimmed down again and was back giving it ‘to the ladies’.  His favourite pastime got a boost when he fell in with Trainspotting’s most entrepreneurial character, Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson, who put him to work starring in homemade porn movies he was shooting in the backroom of a pub.

 

In A Decent Ride Terry is still making porn with Sick Boy, but he earns his main living by driving a taxi around the tram-ravaged streets of Edinburgh – the novel is set in 2011-2012 with the city still blighted by the over-budget, behind-schedule tram-works.  Meanwhile, he remains Edinburgh’s number-one Lothario, although with him now in his late forties you wonder for much longer he can, er, keep it up.  The book begins with him giving a taxi ride to Ronnie Checker, an American billionaire-cum-reality-TV-show-star with a terrible haircut who’s planning a dodgy property deal in the Scottish countryside and who can’t possibly be based on anyone in the real world.  Terry ends up becoming Checker’s sidekick and confidant in Scotland.  Perversely, thanks to his apparent ignorance and lack of self-awareness, he appears more trustworthy than all the suited sycophants Checker has working for him.

 

A Decent Ride‘s plot soon becomes tangled.  While Ronnie Checker enlists Terry’s help in securing three fabled and priceless bottles of Scotch whisky, with the success or failure of his quest depending on a game of golf with a billionaire rival, Terry also gets unwillingly roped into minding a ‘massage parlour’ for a local gangster.  And there’s serious stuff going on in his personal life too.  He learns that his hated father Henry – who walked out on his family while Terry was a youngster – is dying of cancer in hospital.  He meets for the first time his half-brother Jonty, a simple-minded but good-natured soul whom Henry sired with another woman (subsequently abandoned as well).  Most importantly, he’s informed that thanks to a just-diagnosed heart condition he can’t have sex any more.  Terry unsurprisingly takes this last thing badly.  It unhinges him to the point where he starts imagining he’s being berated by his sex-starved penis.

 

Into this, Welsh also weaves various real-life goings-on in Edinburgh during 2011 and 2012 – not only the trams fiasco but the 2012 Cup Final between Hibs and Hearts, and also Hurricane Friedhelm, the storm that struck Scotland in December 2011 and was less elegantly but more memorably known to the locals as ‘Hurricane Bawbag’.  Ronnie Checker, with bad memories of Hurricane Katrina, finds Hurricane Bawbag traumatic.  Cowering in his Edinburgh hotel room during it, he thinks: “That castle, that’s where the high ground is, that’s where I gotta be!  I’ll bet that Salmond guy – Jesus, even the politicians are out of shape here – and all those assholes are up there right now, drinking the best Skatch, gorging themselves on sheep’s intestines, safe and secure from this f**king apocalypse!”

 

I admit I started reading A Decent Ride with low expectations.  Terry is amusing in Glue but he’s one of its several main characters; and I was dubious about him sustaining a book on his own.  Perhaps seeing this as a potential problem, Welsh makes his half-brother Jonty the focus of several chapters, but Jonty’s naïve, simple-minded narrative voice is hard to listen to.  I also felt Welsh was recycling too many ideas from his earlier books.  The joke of Juice Terry meeting Donald Trump is lessened by the fact that we’ve already had the joke of Juice Terry meeting Celine Dion in Glue.  And when Terry’s frustrated penis starts talking to him – doing a Mel Gibson impersonation and shouting “Freedom!” – you recall how Welsh had a tapeworm talking out of the hero’s stomach in 1998’s Filth.

 

© The Guardian

 

And yet…  A hundred pages into A Decent Ride, I realised I was hooked.  I couldn’t stop reading it.  Terry is allowed some character development and I was pleasantly surprised to find him both a smarter character – he puts one over on Ronnie Checker – and a nicer one – he takes Jonty under his wing – than I’d thought.  (Thankfully, Jonty’s ramblings become less annoying as the book continues and I came to appreciate Terry’s sense of protectiveness towards him.)   And even if certain plot elements are derivative, Welsh wrings some genuine laughs out of them.  A Decent Ride is never going to be seen as a work of searing realism in the way that Trainspotting was – there are too many absurdities and coincidences – but, taken in the right spirit, it is very funny.

 

At the same time, readers who enjoyed Welsh’s disregard for restraint, subtlety and good taste in earlier novels like Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995) and Filth will savour the moments of visceral hideousness that occasionally crop up in A Decent Ride.  Incidents involving necrophilia, incest, anal rape and a cremation that goes gruesomely wrong (reminiscent of an episode in Iain Banks’ 1992 novel The Crow Road) prove that the beast still has teeth.

 

One nice thing about Welsh is how the characters from his various books wander in and out of each other’s stories, creating the impression that Edinburgh is one big Irvine-verse of junkies, jakeys, gangsters, football hooligans and misfits having overlapping adventures.  Here, as well as a guest appearance by Sick Boy, we get Clifford Blades – the kindly but luckless stooge to the loathsome Bruce Robertson in Filth – making a welcome return as one of Terry’s fellow cabbies.

 

The obvious danger with A Decent Ride is that by having a hero as shag-happy as Terry the book runs the risk of being sexist or misogynist.  When he claims that “F**k off means naw, naw means mibbe, mibbe means aye n aye means anal.  Guaranteed!” he’s hardly in tune with a modern world where there’s been much debate about what constitutes legitimate consent to sexual intercourse and where “No means no!” has become a call to arms.  To avoid this, in part, Welsh cheats.  He has Terry intervening to protect the girls at the massage parlour against some vile gangsters – a plot contrivance showing that, at heart, despite his sexist bravado, Terry is one of the good guys.

 

But mainly, Welsh opts for the view that sex, between consulting adults, is a good thing; and if, like Terry, they want to get as much of it as they possibly can, well, good luck to them.  By a coincidence, I read A Decent Ride at the same time that I read French author Michel Houellebecq’s 2005 novel Platform, which takes a clinical and ultimately sour and pessimistic attitude towards sex and sexuality.  I have to say that I much preferred the simple, straightforward and happily bacchanalian celebration of sex that you get in A Decent Ride.

 

Indeed, it almost makes you proud to be Scottish.

 

Pump up the volumes

 

(c) George Allen & Unwin Ltd

(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films

 

Although I’m someone who loves both books and films, I’m wary when these two art-forms overlap.  If a film appears that’s based on a book I’ve read and liked, I feel reluctant to go and see it.  Or if there’s a new film that’s based on a book that I haven’t read but I hear is good, I usually try to read the book before I watch the film.  And if I enjoy that book, I may not even bother with the film.  This is because I find that the majority of films based on books are – regardless of their quality as self-contained entities – disappointing compared to their source material.

 

Obviously, a film, even a very long film, will never have enough time to represent all the incidents, details, characters and ideas that give a book its richness.  You either end up with a film whose scriptwriter has hacked away chunks of the book – like the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Honorary Consul, which deletes one of the book’s main (and unfortunately for the film, most memorable) characters, the machismo-obsessed Argentinian writer Julio Saavedra – or with a film that becomes cluttered in its efforts to stay faithful to the book.  For film adaptations that try to recreate every twist and turn in the books’ plots, to the point where they become incomprehensible, you need look no further than the Harry Potter movies.

 

Television adaptations of books suffer from this problem too – although in theory TV programme-makers have more time at their disposal to cover everything.  I remember back in 1977 being narked by the BBC’s nearly-three-hour-long Count Dracula, which starred the late Louis Jourdan as Bram Stoker’s vampire count and which supposedly was the most faithful version ever of Stoker’s novel.  However, my twelve-year-old self, already a Bram Stoker purist, was not impressed that two of the characters, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, were for the sake of narrative simplicity compressed into one character called ‘Quincey Holmwood’.

 

A similar thing happened 23 years later, when the BBC unveiled its four-hour adaptation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the first two books in Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy.  Here, the fearsome father-and-son team of Sourdust and Barquentine, the officials who enforce the observation of endless, numbing ritual at Gormenghast Castle, were combined into one character played by Warren Mitchell.

 

Even when a film or TV production manages to reproduce a book’s plot and characters and doesn’t tie itself in knots doing so, it’s still liable to miss something that’s crucial to one’s enjoyment of the book – the author’s voice.  John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979) both stick closely to the Thomas Hardy novels on which they’re based, and both are undeniably good films; but inevitably they lack that flavour that’s uniquely and enjoyably Hardy-esque.  For instance, I like Alan Bates’ portrayal of Farmer Gabriel Oak in Madding Crowd; but his performance didn’t, alas, give me the impression that Oak was capable of smiling so that “the corners of his mouth spread till they were an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared around them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the sun.”

 

Unsurprising, one book that translated smoothly into a film, losing little of its substance in the process, was Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal.  An account of a doomed romance during the Northern Irish Troubles, it was filmed in 1984.  The novel is short and straightforward in plot, so it isn’t diminished when its story is retold in a 100-minute film.  Also, MacLaverty is an author who firmly believes in showing rather than telling – he writes both simply and visually.  Thus, there isn’t a marked literary style that the film misses out on, either.

 

(c) Collins

(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

That’s not to say that I haven’t encountered the odd film, based on a book, which does a better job of telling the story than the book does.  This is usually because writers, typing out hundreds of pages without having anyone to tell them when to stop, can fall into the trap of waffling; whereas filmmakers are usually under pressure to tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end within a time limit.  For that reason, I thought that John Sturges’ 1968 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Arctic / submarine thriller Ice Station Zebra was better paced and structured than its literary predecessor.  MacLean’s novel is basically an espionage whodunit where the characters potter about in a submarine, surface at the North Pole, and then potter about in the submarine again.  The filmmakers wisely confine the submarine stuff to the film’s build-up and use the North Pole for the climax, which they also beef up by bringing in some Soviet paratroopers.

 

Another film-adaptation that I preferred because it cut the flab from its source novel was Steven Spielberg’s shark-epic, Jaws (1976).  Happily, that film abandoned the sub-plots in Peter Benchley’s original book about the Mafia exerting pressure on the local town mayor to keep the beaches open in spite of the shark attacks; and about the affair that develops between the ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Police Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen.  This left more time in the film for proper shark action which, needless to say, my eleven-year-old self was delighted about.

 

More often, though, a film adaptation of a book is successful not because it manages to be better than the book – but because it uses the book as a starting point and then goes off and does something different.  The cinematic result isn’t necessarily better than the book, but it works in its own right.  A classic example of this is Ridley Scott’s transformation of Philip K. Dick’s eccentric, mind-screwing novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into the 1982 movie Blade Runner, which uses Dick’s basic story to create a new cinematic aesthetic with the use of astonishing set-design, cinematography and special effects.

 

However, perhaps the most exuberant instance of a book being incarnated in a new, different-but-equally-valid cinematic form is Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996).  It takes Irvine Welsh’s ultra-dark and very-Scottish source novel and reinvents it a way that captured the mid-1990s zeitgeist in Britain (as opposed to just Scotland).  The film retains enough of the book’s darkness to make it feel edgy, daring and anti-establishment, though Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge leave out incidents that would have been near-unwatchable on screen, such as when a revenge-seeking character mocks up the buggering of a child with a Black-and-Decker power drill; or when psycho-villain Begbie kicks his pregnant girlfriend in the belly to make her miscarry.  At the same time, the film is awash with then-fashionable young British actors (Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald) and then-fashionable Brit-pop music (Blur, Sleeper, Pulp).  It becomes a mission statement, telling the world that British cinema is back (temporarily at least) with a punky new attitude and shed-loads of young directing, writing, acting and musical talent.

 

(c) Minerva

(c) Channel 4 Films / Poly Gram Filmed Entertainment

 

It’s fascinating how Boyle’s version of Trainspotting has to a large extent supplanted Welsh’s version of it – so that by the time Welsh got around to writing a sequel, Porno, in 2002, he seemed to be writing for two audiences, those who’d read the original book and those who’d seen the film.  There are references to things that’d happened in the book, which didn’t happen in the film, but they’re confined to vignettes – for example, there’s a couple of pages where the hero, Renton, tracks down Second Prize, a member of his old gang in the book who was deleted from the movie.  It’s almost as if those vignettes are there so that book-followers can read them and movie-followers can skip them, leaving everyone happy with the continuity.

 

Finally, over the last few years, we’ve seen a new phenomenon, that of the lavish movie series and the lavish TV series, which invariably end up as DVD box-sets that are as thick as sets of encyclopaedias.  This has led to certain book-to-screen adaptations being criticised not for what they leave out, but for what they put in.  The most famous, or notorious, example of this is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, which took J.R.R. Tolkien’s moderate-sized source novel, a prequel to his Lord of the Rings books that’s about 300 pages long, and expanded it into three movies that had a total running time of 474 minutes.  Jackson got flak from Tolkien fans for, basically, taking their beloved and scholarly old author and pumping him full of movie-steroids; for turning what’s essentially a mild-mannered children’s book into a long, loud, testosterone-fuelled, CGI-laden series of blockbusters.

 

Jackson, who’d filmed the three Lord of the Rings novels in the early noughties, argued that he’d merely padded out The Hobbit’s storyline with material from the appendices that Tolkien placed at the back of the third and final Lord of the Rings novel, The Return of the King.  These appendices gave extra information about the history, mythology and culture of the books’ setting, Middle Earth.  Sneakily, though, Jackson also added some characters who’d appeared in his earlier Rings movies who, to be honest, didn’t have any business being in The Hobbit movies – unless it was to please fans of the Rings movies who wanted to see some fond old faces again.  I suppose I didn’t mind the unnecessary presence in The Hobbit trilogy of the likes of Lady Galadriel or Saruman the White, but I could certainly have done without Legolas-the-elf.  Played by the doleful Orlando Bloom, Legolas is surely the most boring elf in Middle Earth.

 

And it’s not just The Hobbit that’s been pumped up during the transition from page to screen.  Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, the first of Harris’s books about suave, cannibalistic serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter, had already been filmed twice; excellently by Michael Mann in 1986 and less excellently by Brett Ratner in 2003.  Now, however, it’s also become the basis for seasons 1, 2 and 3 of the NBC television series Hannibal, whose show-runner is the screenwriter and producer Bryan Fuller.

 

Although Fuller introduced the book’s main characters – serial-killer profiler Will Graham (Hugh D’Arcy), senior FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and the charming, intellectual and suspiciously-culinary Dr Lecter himself (Mads Mikkelsen) – in the first episode, it’s only now, some 30 episodes later, that the show is getting around to the actual meat of Harris’s novel, which is the hunt for the family-murdering, William Blake-inspired serial killer Francis Dolarhyde.  Coincidentally, the actor playing Dolarhyde is none other than Richard Armitage, who in the Hobbit movies essayed the role of the royal dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, “son of Thrór, King under the Mountain” – or as my girlfriend likes to call him, ‘The Hot Dwarf’.

 

One way in which Fuller has extended the story of Red Dragon to almost unimaginable lengths has been to throw in chunks of the third of Harris’s Lecter novels, which is also called Hannibal.  These chunks include the character of Mason Verger, the repulsive meat-packing mogul who plans to feed Lecter to his collection of prize pigs; and Lecter’s escape to the city of Florence at the end of season 2.  Actually, Fuller has described Hannibal as a ‘mash-up’ of Harris’s novels rather than a linear series of adaptations of them, which makes sense.  And I have to say that of Harris’s novels, Hannibal-the-book is the one that most suits the grotesque, baroque and gothic aesthetic of Hannibal-the-show.  (It’s a pity that NBC has just announced the cancellation of Hannibal, as it would have been interesting to see, after another season or two, what Fuller would do when he finally got around to filming the second and most famous of Harris’s Lecter novels, The Silence of the Lambs.)

 

Anyway, I wonder which literary work will be next to be subjected to the pumping-up, as opposed to the trimming-down, treatment.  Perhaps Peter Jackson or Bryan Fuller will treat us to a nine-hour film trilogy or TV adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s hundred-page novella The Old Man and the Sea.  With, hopefully, the big fish played by Richard Armitage.

 

(c) Berkley

(c) NBC

 

Irv hits a nerve

 

From Bella Caledonia 

 

Who’d have thought it?  The man perhaps most famous for penning those charming scenes in Trainspotting, like the one where Mark Renton plunges himself into a toxically shit-stained and shit-encrusted public toilet in pursuit of some opium suppositories, or the one where Davie Mitchell has an accident with some befouled bed-sheets in his girlfriend’s kitchen and splatters her and her parents with excrement and vomit, has written one of the most thoughtful, honest and persuasive articles recently about the Scottish independence referendum on September 18th.  (He’s all for independence, by the way.)  A link to it, as it appears on the Bella Caledonia website, is here:

 

http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/09/08/labour-pains-labour-of-love/

 

Among the things Welsh takes issue with is the assertion – commonly made by politicians in the Labour Party – that voting for an independent Scotland is a betrayal of working-class solidarity among the member-nations of the United Kingdom and the only way the working-class cause can be served is by those nations sticking together.  A welder in Glasgow, the old argument goes, has more in common with a welder in Liverpool or Newcastle than he does with a stockbroker in Edinburgh, so why corral that Glaswegian welder off with the Edinburgh stockbroker through the creation of a new border?

 

Welsh recalls how a dozen years ago he got involved with the dockworkers’ dispute in Liverpool, which “took place to the complete indifference and embarrassment of the Labour Party, who would rather have had everybody just go home.”  Near the end of the dispute, he found himself in discussion with the dockworkers’ leader Jimmy Nolan, Liverpudlian writer Jimmy McGovern and heavyweight American intellectual Noam Chomsky – Nolan told Chomsky that “they had far more support from Larry Bower’s New York longshoremen than the UK Labour Party or senior Trade Union officials like Bill (Lord) Morris.”  So borders, and indeed oceans, are no barrier to working-class solidarity.  And you needn’t expect much of that solidarity from Labour these days.

 

Actually, I’d suggest that a Glaswegian welder has more in common with an Edinburgh stockbroker than he does with the leading lights of the Scottish wing of the Labour party in their later careers – careers that invariably see them end up the House of Lords, where they’re entitled to don ermine, claim 300 pounds a day and give themselves such extravagant titles as Baron George Robertson of Port Ellon, Baron George Foulkes of Cumnock, Baron Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale, Baron Michael Martin of Springburn, Baron John Reid of Cardowan and Baroness Helen Liddell of Coatdyke.  Yes, such veterans of the alleged People’s Party bear more resemblance to Lord Snooty in the Beano than they do to the members of the working class whose votes helped them board the gravy train in the first place.

 

My personal British bucket list

 

From enchantedlearning.com

 

Regular readers will know that, as the referendum on Scottish independence in September draws near, Blood and Porridge is leaning towards a yes-to-independence vote.  (This is largely due to a succession of great – I use that adjective ironically – political minds from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties urging Scots to vote no-to-independence.  If creeps, windbags and knuckle-draggers like George Osborne, George Robertson and Ian Davidson tell you to do one thing, it’s surely sensible to do the opposite.)  However, there’s still a part of my identity that considers itself ‘British’.  And if that sounds like a contradiction, I would direct you to an article that a while ago Edinburgh author Irvine Welsh wrote about this subject for the website Bella Caledonia:

 

http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2013/01/10/irvine-welsh-on-scottish-independence-and-british-unity/

 

In his article, Welsh argues that Scottish independence would allow the Scots to get on with running their country free from the hindrances and injustices (real or imagined) that they see as emanating from Westminster under the current system.  They could also get on with being happy geographical citizens of Britain, or the British Isles, or the British and Irish Isles, and with being good neighbours to the peoples who share the island, or islands, with them.  It’s similar, Welsh says, to how you can be Swedish, Danish or Norwegian and still be a proud Scandinavian and participate in the Nordic Council.  (In fact, there’s a body called the British-Irish Council, which has summits twice a year and has a membership comprised of British Prime Minister, the Republic of Ireland’s Taoiseach, the First Ministers of the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and the Chief Ministers of the Guernsey, Jersey and Isle of Man governments – but as the council exists outside the ‘Westminster Bubble’, it’s entirely ignored by the London-centric British media.)  Welsh even sees no reason why an independent Scotland shouldn’t continue to have Scottish athletes competing within the British team at the Olympics.

 

Anyway, the British part of me was interested to see in a newspaper last weekend an article about a ‘Great British bucket list’ – i.e. a list of fifty British-related activities that everyone should attempt to do before they die.  The list was compiled by the search engine Ask Jeeves and it consisted of the fifty most common ideas that came up in a survey of 1000 British adults:

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/10774840/The-Great-British-Bucket-List-fish-and-chips-and-a-picnic.html

 

I have to say, though, that I was disappointed when I read through the Great British bucket list.  Some of the British things-to-do-before-you-die seemed depressingly lame: “Eat fish and chips on a seaside pier…  Go on a historic London pub tour…  Watch a box-set of Only Fools and Horses.”  Some other things seemed to involve cheesy tourist-tat Britain at its worst: “Attend first day of a Harrods sale…  See Oxford Street Christmas lights in London…  See the trooping of the colour.”  At least one thing was not such much a thing-to-do-before-you-die as a thing-to-do-to-make-yourself-die: “Be at a recording of The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.”  However, it at least gave me the idea of compiling my own bucket-list of things to do before you die, based on my experiences of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

 

Here, then, are thirty (I couldn’t think of fifty) things I would urge you to do, while you still draw breath, in the four nations that – currently – make up the United Kingdom.  As this is my list, the activities are heavily biased towards walking, cycling and pub-crawling.  Also, I’m afraid I don’t know Wales and parts of Northern and Midland England very well, so those places are under-represented or not represented at all – my apologies to any Welsh people, Northern people and Midland people out there.

 

(c) BBC

 

Pay a visit to one of the UK’s cosy little arthouse cinemas – for example, Cinema City in Norwich, or the Tyneside in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, or the Cameo in Edinburgh – and watch a film you wouldn’t normally see in a multiplex.  Have a pint while you’re on the premises too.

 

Visit the scenic island of Barra in the south-western Outer Hebrides and go for a walk along its main road.  Keep walking along that road and you’ll eventually end up where you started from.  If you fly in, you’ll land on the only airport runway in the world that gets washed every day – for it’s actually a beach called An Traigh Mhor.

 

Attend a Borders sevens-a-side rugby tournament.  Melrose Sevens is the most famous one but any of them is worth attending.  I’ll use that as an excuse to plug this year’s Peebles Sevens on April 27th:

 

http://www.kingsofthesevens.net/sevenstournament.asp?town=Peebles

 

Attend a gig at Brixton Academy – preferably a drunken, raucous one.  Primal Scream are always a good bet.

 

After an evening out in Glasgow, eat a chicken tikka masala – the UK’s favourite spicy dish – at an Indian curry house.  Chicken tikka masala, as any good pub-bore will tell you, was quite possibly not invented in India at all, but in the Shish Mahal restaurant in Gibson Street in Glasgow.

 

From sv.wikipedia.org

 

Pay a visit to the Chinese New Year festivities at one of the country’s several Chinatowns, which range in area from the reasonably big (in London) to the tiny (in Newcastle).

 

Take a stroll through Constable Country along the Essex / Suffolk border, taking in such places as Capel St Mary, Dedham and Flatford.

 

Go for a tramp around Dartmoor – and keep tramping until you encounter some wild Dartmoor ponies.

 

Don some black clothes and swig a pint of cider in the Devonshire Arms (alright, I know it’s now called the Hobgoblin, but to everyone who goes there it’s still the Devonshire, or more popularly still, the Dev), the greatest Goth-metal pub in Camden, in London and possibly in the UK.

 

Enjoy a pub-crawl among the countless temporary bars that spring up in and around the venues for the Edinburgh Festival and then disappear again after enjoying a mayfly-like existence of a couple of weeks.  You can, of course, attend a few shows while you’re at it.  You can even, if you’re feeling ironic and post-modern, attend the Edinburgh Military Tattoo as well.

 

Hike up the Eildon Hills, the trio of peaks that provide the Scottish Borders with their most famous landmark.  Watch out for the Eildon Tree, where medieval bard and seer Thomas the Rhymer is said to have encountered the Queen of Fairyland and acquired his powers of prophecy.  And don’t forget to visit Melrose Abbey, either before you go up or after you come down.

 

Set aside any prejudices you might have about Freemasonry and visit the Freemasons’ Museum in London – preferably while a tour of the premises is taking place, so that you get a chance to view the design and symbolism of the most remarkable Art Deco building in London.

 

Drink a pint outside Newcastle’s Free Trade pub, located on a rise above where the River Ouseburn joins the River Tyne.  The elevation allows you to look up the Tyne and over Newcastle’s famous bridges, and it’s one of the best views in northern England.

 

Take a picture of yourself draped over one of the volcanic slabs at Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, like one of those worryingly young and worryingly naked models pictured on the cover of the Led Zeppelin album, Houses of the Holy.

 

(c) Atlantic Records

 

Drive through Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands on a misty day.  Keep your eyes open for the Skyfall Estate, the home of James Bond’s parents, which might just appear through the murk.

 

Play a round of golf at St Andrews.  If you’re an inverted snob, you can thumb your nose at the town’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club and play mini-golf instead.  (That’s what I did.)

 

Take a stroll along the top of one of the remaining sections of Hadrian’s Wall.

 

Ride a bicycle along the A686 east of Penrith, up the Hartside Pass to a height of 1904 feet.  It’s gruelling but you’ll feel a sense of achievement when you reach the top.  Then you can luxuriate in the gradual descent on the other side, all the way to Alston, the highest market town in England.

 

Follow in George Orwell’s footsteps and go hoppicking in Kent.  Although nowadays it might all be mechanised and you can’t go hop-picking in Kent.

 

Visit that wonderful little museum in London, John Soanes’ House, and make sure you’re in the picture gallery at a time when an attendant pulls back the hinged walls and reveals a hidden cache of paintings by William Hogarth.

 

Go to Land’s End in the middle of winter, when it’s rainy, windy and desolate and there’s nobody else there.

 

Go perch-fishing on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

 

Have a look around Aberdeen’s Marischal College, the second-largest granite building in the world.  It was rumoured that Adolf Hitler admired it more than any other British building and planned to move into it once he’d invaded and conquered the UK.  But that was just an urban myth started by some naughty Aberdeen University students.

 

Connect with your inner socialist and attend the yearly Miners’ Gala in Durham.

 

Visit Nottingham’s Newstead Abbey, which was the home of the young Lord Byron, Britain’s greatest romantic poet.  It even has a dress-up-as-Byron corner where you can don a big baggy white shirt and then inspect yourself in a mirror to make sure you look suitably Byronic.

 

 

Taking a walk along the North Norfolk coast – preferably along a route that takes in the eerily desolate salt marshes west of Wells-next-the-Sea.

 

Have a wander around Roslyn Chapel, south of Edinburgh, and see how many pagan green men you can count carved on its walls.

 

Admire the streetmurals in Belfast, surely the UK’s largest (and most contentious) open-air art gallery (http://www.belfast-murals.co.uk/).

 

Get on the Metro in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on a Saturday morning and nip along to Tynemouth Station, where you can check out the antiques, crafts and curios market that every week is arranged across the platforms there.

 

Take a trek along the top of the historic York City Wall, the biggest defensive wall still standing around the centre of a British city or town.  And feel free to drop in on any pubs you see along the way.

 

Worms and pigs: film review / Filth

 

(c) Steel Mill Pictures

 

There were two reasons why I wasn’t expecting much from Filth, the recent film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 1998 novel about a depraved Scottish policeman.

 

Firstly, among Welsh’s books, Filth is the runt of the litter.  From what people have told me, it was written at a period in Welsh’s career when he was, shall we say, distracted by his recreational pursuits.  It was also, supposedly, banged out after the author had fallen foul of the Scottish police (in 1996 he was arrested for drunkenness at a football match) and was intended as his revenge on them.  I don’t know how much truth there is in these tales about the circumstances of Filth’s writing, but I can almost believe them from the end result, which is a rambling, shapeless mess.  It’s not unreadable and it has the occasional effective moment, but it’s obviously not the work of someone who was focused on achieving literary excellence.  Also, it’s a sad comedown for the man who’d written Trainspotting a half-dozen years earlier.  (Thankfully, with his next novel, Glue – which I think is a great book – Welsh got his mojo back.)

 

The second reason for my low expectations of Filth the movie was that the book’s main character, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson of the Lothians and Borders constabulary, is played by James McAvoy.  (Robertson is an attempt by Irvine Welsh to distil all the least desirable traits of the human species into one person: he’s a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a sadist, a drunkard, a coke-fiend, a junk-food glutton, a Machiavellian manipulator of other people and, no doubt worst of all for Welsh, a supporter of Heart of Midlothian Football Club.)

 

Now I admire McAvoy a lot.  I think he has a wonderful, loveable arrogance not seen in Scottish acting since the days of the young Ewan McGregor (and before McGregor threw it all away on Obi-Wan Kenobi and some mediocre film choices).  But I didn’t think there was any way the slim, youthful McAvoy could convincingly play Robertson, who in my mind was a heavy, thuggish-looking bloke in his early middle-age.

 

However, Filth the movie, which has been directed and scripted by Jon S. Baird, is a good deal better than I’d anticipated.  Why?  To address the above misgivings in reverse order, McAvoy actually works very well in the lead role.  Indeed, I’d say that much of the film’s entertainment value is due to him.  Robertson is still the Grade-A bastard that inhabited Welsh’s pages but, somehow, McAvoy manages to invest the character with a certain humour and – very faintly – a likeability that makes it easier to navigate the film in his company than it was to navigate the book.  It helps that the one plot strand hinting at Robertson’s decency, which comes when he tries unsuccessfully to save a man’s life on an Edinburgh street and then, to his surprise, wins the admiration of the dead man’s wife and son, is more prominent on screen.

 

In fact, McAvoy’s youthfulness and good looks – which, admittedly, get increasingly ravaged as the film progresses – work in his favour in one way.  Reading the novel, I couldn’t understand how a character as gross as Robertson could have as many women running after him as he does, and have the stamina to keep up with them all.  In the film, with McAvoy in the role, you can almost believe that he’s romantically and / or sexually involved with the likes of Shirley Henderson, Kate Dickie, Shauna Macdonald and Pollyanna McIntosh.

 

As for the other problem, the poverty of the source material, Baird does a better job than anyone could have hoped for in fashioning a coherent storyline out of the novel.  He’s jettisoned much that made the original so baggy and what’s left gives the film at least some narrative drive.

 

Though many critics have marvelled at the darkness of the finished film, it’s considerably lighter than the novel, thanks to what Baird has omitted.  Gone is the bit where Robertson steals from a crime scene, an old lady’s burgled house, and then bullies the already-traumatised old lady; the bit where he erases the crime-movie screenplay that his commanding officer, D.C.I. Toal (in the film played by an unrecognisable John Sessions) has spent his every waking moment working on; and thankfully the bits describing Robertson’s epidermal problem on his lower abdomen that causes him, for example, to shed dead skin-flakes over the hair and shoulders of a female suspect while she’s forced to orally pleasure him.  Other things have been toned down, including the aforementioned oral-pleasuring sequence and the initial murder that sets the story in progress.  In the book, the murder was carried out with a claw-hammer.  In the film, it’s a slightly off-screen mass-kicking.

 

The item of sustained cruelty that survives from book to film is Robertson’s treatment of Clifford Blades, his meek, trusting friend from the local Masonic Lodge, whom he continually abuses, manipulates and humiliates whilst also tormenting his wife, Bunty, with nuisance phone-calls.  However, with the help of good performances by Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson as Clifford and Bunty, this sub-plot gains a little humanity and even humour on screen and is rather less gruelling.  Indeed, Baird’s whole approach to the blackness of Welsh’s vision is to leaven it with humour, so that we end up with a black – pitch black – comedy.  The historical and slightly gothic city of Edinburgh provides the film with its backdrop (parts of it were filmed around Victoria Street and the Grassmarket) and, as usual, the Scottish capital fits this sort of black humour well.

 

Ironically, the one element that doesn’t work in the film is the element that, for me, was the book’s redeeming feature.  That is the literary device that Welsh used to represent Robertson’s conscience, which is the supposed voice of a tapeworm growing inside his bowels (and presumably causing his skin disorder) – a stream of consciousness that appeared in a strand of rogue text weaving across the bottom of each page, providing a moral counterpoint to the evilness of its host’s thoughts, words and deeds.  In a cinematic attempt to replicate this, Baird swaps the tapeworm for a psychiatrist, played by Jim Broadbent, who pops up at various points to probe Robertson – initially, we assume that Broadbent’s character is real but it becomes clear that he’s a figment of Robertson’s increasingly deranged imagination.  Unfortunately, Broadbent’s appearances are only intermittent and don’t get the opportunity to build up to anything.  In fact, it probably would’ve been better if Baird had left the tapeworm / psychiatrist stuff out completely.  It’s not as if there isn’t enough going on in the film already.

 

Bleak, cynical, funny and boasting a tour-de-force performance from James McAvoy, Filth is a film that’s worth seeing provided you don’t mind having your snout rubbed in the muck for 97 minutes.  It’s also a film adaptation that’s considerably more than what the source novel deserved.