Don’t play it again, Salm

 

© Slainte Media / RT / From archive.org

 

On March 26th, six weeks before the elections for the Scottish Parliament, former Scottish First Minister and former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond launched his new Alba party to contest those elections.

 

In response to the news, George Galloway – a man with a lengthy political CV himself, having been Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and Bradford West and leader of the Respect Party, and now leader of the Alliance for Unity party, which he launched last year in anticipation of the Scottish parliamentary elections too – tweeted: “So it’s me and Alex Salmond in the ring.  Heavyweights.  Him for separatism, me for the union.  Seconds away…”

 

In the event, neither Salmond’s Alba nor Galloway’s Alliance for Unity got enough votes to send any of their representatives to the Scottish Parliament.  The former amassed 44,913 votes and the latter managed 23,299 out of a total of 2,716,547 votes cast.  So that tweet, as they say, aged well.  Both heavyweights got their arses kicked.

 

I’m not shedding any tears over Galloway’s humiliation.  He’s a politician whose couple of good deeds – his involvement with the Scotland United campaign for the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in the early 1990s; squaring up to a US Senate committee investigating the Food for Oil programme in the aftermath of the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2005 – have been obliterated in the public memory by the tsunami of crap things he’s done in his endless quest to promote himself.  These include dishing religious-related dirt on his political opponents during his campaigns with the Respect Party; defending the execution of a gay man by the Iranian government whilst working for Press TV, funded by the same government, in 2008; climbing onto the Nigel Farage bandwagon by endorsing a vote for Brexit in 2016; hugging extreme right-wing strategist and evil incarnate Steve Bannon in 2019; and, let us never forget, pretending to be a cat slurping cream off Rula Lenska’s lap on the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother.

 

Meanwhile, lately, Galloway’s antics during his doomed campaign to get into the Scottish Parliament via the second-vote / proportional-representation ‘list’ system have included him urging voters to give their first vote to the Conservative Party (the former left-wing firebrand had declared a few years earlier, “If you ever see me standing under a Union Jack shoulder-to-shoulder with a Conservative, please shoot me”); causing a twitter pile-on, intentionally or unintentionally, against Scots-language poet Len Pennie; making unsavoury references to the ethnicity of Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf (“You are not a Celt like me”); making a hilarious video where he sucked up to the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and promised to end Green Party ‘tyranny over rural communities’ whilst resembling a cast member from Last of the Summer Wine (he obviously believed gamekeepers had short memories considering that in 2002, as an MP, he’d supported a hunting ban); and generally trying to reinvent himself as a true-blue, Union Jack-waving, Churchill-and-spitfires-obsessed slab of gammon.

 

Now that he’s torched every left-wing principle he once professed to have for the sake of self-promotion, it’d be nice to think that this beyond-disastrous election result will make Galloway slink off beneath a rock and never show his face again.  But of course he won’t.  He’ll be back.  The creature knows no shame.

 

I’m not shedding tears for Alex Salmond either, but I’ll admit to feeling at least slightly conflicted.  For the last 35 years, since the dark days when Margaret Thatcher ran Scotland with the imperious disregard one would give a colonial possession, Scottish politics have felt like a rollercoaster with both giddy peaks and despairing troughs.  And Salmond has been a constant presence on that rollercoaster.  I know plenty of people who loathe him but I’ve seen him as a force for both the good and the bad, the good earlier on and bad more recently.  It’s the memory of the good things that gives me a twinge of sadness to see him end up like this, even if he brought most of it upon himself.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

I remember when I first saw him.  One afternoon in early 1987, while a fourth-year undergraduate student, I was nursing a pint in the Central Refectory building at Aberdeen University.  I noticed from the corner of my eye a group of students whom I knew as members of the campus branch of the SNP – Alan Kennedy, Val Bremner, Gillian Pollock, Nick Goode – enter and wander over to the counter.  They were in the company of a young, round-faced bloke in an un-studenty suit, shirt and tie.  I identified him as an up-and-coming SNP politician whom Alan Kennedy, a good mate of mine, had told me was standing in the next general election in nearby Banff and Buchan against the incumbent Conservative Party MP Albert McQuarrie.  He’d come to the university that day to address the SNP group and this was the SNP students showing their visitor some post-talk hospitality.  The politician, I’d been assured, was one to watch.  Indeed, Alan said something along the lines of: “He’s going to do great things.”

 

A few months later, on June 11th, the general election took place and this rising SNP star wrestled Banff and Buchan away from Albert McQuarrie and became its new MP.  I recall McQuarrie, a doughty old-school Scottish Tory MP who revelled in the nickname ‘the Buchan Bulldog’, bursting into tears during a subsequent interview at what he saw as the unfairness and indignity of losing his beloved constituency to an SNP whippersnapper.  He was perhaps the first politician, but certainly not the last, to have his nose put out of joint by Alex Salmond.

 

By the early 1990s, Salmond was SNP leader.  I lived in London at the time and occasionally I’d drink with a Labour Party spin doctor, also from Scotland.  He had no inhibitions about telling me, at every opportunity, what a detestable creep he thought Salmond was.  With his appropriately smart-Alec manner and habitual smirk, which frequently expanded into a Cheshire-cat grin, and a general arrogance that no doubt came from knowing he was intellectually streets ahead of the numpties making up the majority of Westminster’s Scottish Labour MPs, you could understand how much of an annoyance Salmond was to his opponents.  But back then the SNP had just three MPs, so at least he could be dismissed as a minor annoyance.

 

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

 

Then in 2007 the sky fell in.  Salmond’s SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament and he became Scotland’s First Minister.  The SNP have remained in power there during the 14 years and three Scottish parliamentary elections since.  They also won the majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats in the UK general elections in 2015, 2017 and 2019.  They lost the independence referendum in 2014 – an event that led to Salmond resigning as First Minister and making way for his deputy and supposed protégé Nicola Sturgeon – but the percentage of the vote they got, 45%, was still far more than what anyone had expected at the campaign’s start.  They upended the cosy old tradition of Scottish deference to the London-based overlords.  Thank God for that, in my opinion.

 

© William Collins

 

This stuck in many craws. Not just in those of the Scottish Labour Party, with its historical sense of entitlement, but in those of the majority of Scotland’s newspapers, whose hacks had enjoyed a close relationship with the old political clique and liked to see themselves as part of Scotland’s establishment. It must have horrified them to discover that, no matter how negatively they reported the SNP and its performance in government, a significant proportion of the Scottish public ignored them and kept on voting SNP.  Meanwhile, the grin of Alex Salmond, the bastard who seemed emblematic of their good times coming to an end, grew ever wider, his mood grew ever merrier and his girth grew ever more Falstaffian.

 

However, from 2017 onwards, Salmond’s many foes scented blood.  2017 saw him lose the Westminster seat that, after quitting as Scottish First Minister, he’d been elected to in 2015.  That same year, he put on at the Edinburgh Festival a chat-show called Alex Salmond: Unleashed, which from all accounts was a graceless, self-indulgent and ego-driven mess.  Soon after, he developed his stage-show into a programme called The Alex Salmond Show, which was broadcast on RT, Russia’s international English-language news channel.  Associating himself with Vladimir Putin’s televisual voice to the world was not a wise move.  Salmond hadn’t just given his detractors ammunition to use against him.  He’d handed them a whole arsenal.

 

I’d always assumed there was no dirt to dig up on Salmond, for the simple reason that if there had been, his enemies in the old Scottish establishment would have dug it up and used it to wreck his reputation long ago.  Thus, it was a surprise in 2018 when the Daily Record newspaper reported that Salmond faced allegations of sexual misconduct while he’d been First Minister.  This had lately been the subject of an inquiry by the Scottish government and its findings had been passed on to the police.  Although Salmond made sure there was a legal review of this, which resulted in the Scottish government admitting that its investigative procedures had been flawed and paying him half a million pounds in legal expenses, the police still charged him with 14 offences, including two counts of attempted rape, in 2019.

 

One year later, Salmond was cleared of these charges. The prosecutors dropped one charge, the jury found him not guilty of 12 more and the final charge was deemed ‘not proven’.  Nonetheless, Salmond’s defence admitted he’d acted inappropriately, been overly ‘touchy feely’ with female staff and ‘could certainly have been a better man’.

 

Meanwhile, the Scottish government and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, now totally at odds with Salmond, were subject to both an investigation by a Scottish Parliamentary committee and an independent investigation by Irish lawyer James Hamilton about how they’d handled, or mishandled, the affair.  The committee concluded there’d been both individual and corporate incompetence but these conclusions weren’t enough to topple Sturgeon.  Hamilton judged that Sturgeon hadn’t breached the ministerial code, something that Salmond and his supporters, convinced of a conspiracy against him in high places, maintained she had.

 

From facebook.com

 

Salmond claimed his new Alba Party, supposedly more gung-ho in its desire for Scottish independence than the cautious SNP, was not another attempt to undermine Sturgeon.  But it was generally perceived as an effort to diminish her party’s vote in the May 6th Scottish election – Salmond’s revenge as a dish served cold, a year after his acquittal.  Whether Alba’s purpose was malevolent or benevolent, it didn’t succeed.  The SNP ended up with 64 seats in the new parliament, with the Greens bumping up the number of pro-independence MSPs to 72, compared with the Unionist parties’ tally of 57 MSPs and Alba’s tally of zero.

 

It didn’t help Alba’s cause that it attracted a lot of fringe-dwelling dingbats in the independence movement, dingbats whom I’m sure Sturgeon’s SNP will be glad to see the back of.  These included one vocal faction who seemed to spend all their time baiting and frothing against trans people.  It also didn’t help that Salmond showed little contrition for his past misbehaviour.  Fair enough, that misbehaviour hadn’t been enough to warrant a court conviction and prison sentence.  But it did make him come across as a sleazebag whom no young woman would want to be around.

 

One thing I will say in Salmond’s defence.  While I find claims of a conspiracy against Salmond in the upper echelons of the Scottish government, legal system and police force fanciful – conspiracies imply objectives, strategies and clear thinking, and to me the messiness of Salmond’s investigation and trial simply suggests witless blundering – I agree with his supporters that the Scottish press was pretty disgraceful in how it reported the case.  From columnist Alex Massie trumpeting at the investigation’s outset that ‘whatever happens, it’s over for Salmond’, to the Herald previewing the trial with a ‘Big Read’ feature that it illustrated with pictures of the Yorkshire Ripper, Fred and Rosemary West, the Moors Murderers, Dennis Nilsen, Charles Manson and Adolf Eichmann, to a dodgy, nod-and-a-wink post-trial documentary by the BBC’s Kirsty Wark, the tone of the coverage didn’t suggest that a person is ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  Rather, it suggested that a person is ‘guilty because we want them to be guilty’.

 

But that’s the only thing I’ll say in his defence.

 

Meanwhile, post-election, Salmond has announced his intention to become an influential Twitter presence, just as a certain former US president once was.  “I am going to unleash myself on Twitter,” he said the other day, “now that Donald Trump has created a vacuum for me.” No, Alex, don’t.  Just don’t.  Call it a day for Christ’s sake.

 

It isn’t so much that the Salmond Rollercoaster has reached the bottom of the deepest dip yet.  It’s more that the Salmond Rollercoaster has run out of track.

 

From the Jersey Evening Post

Rab Foster gets perspective

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

I still remember the moment when I discovered Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories and, by extension, the joys of sword-and-sorcery fiction.  I was ten years old and my family had just boarded the ferry at Larne on the east coast of Northern Ireland.  We were heading across the Irish Sea to Stranraer in southwest Scotland, where we planned to spend a week’s holiday.  (In years to come, we would be on that ferry many more times.  However, by then, we’d moved to Scotland permanently and were travelling in the other direction, back to Northern Ireland to visit family and friends.)  Anyway, the ferry-trip took about two-and-a-half hours, which seemed like an eternity to a restless ten-year-old like me.  To escape the prospect of extreme boredom, I went straight to the ferry’s little onboard shop and bought a slim paperback from a bookrack there.

 

The book was Conan the Freebooter (1968), which caught my eye because its cover featured the titular barbarian engaged in a bloody fight with a giant ape.  It contained five short stories about Conan’s exploits in the Hyborian Age, a mythical era of forgotten civilisations, magic, monsters and romance that’d supposedly existed tens of thousands of years ago between the destruction of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history.  Actually, only three stories of the five were proper Conan ones written by Robert E. Howard – Black Colossus (1933), Shadows in the Moonlight (1934) and A Witch Shall Be Born (1934).  The other two, Hawks Over Shem and The Road of the Eagles (both 1955), were actually non-Conan stories by Howard that’d been set in Egypt in 1021 AD and the Ottoman Empire in 1595 respectively.  However, another author, L. Sprague de Camp had sneakily rewritten them years after Howard’s death, resetting them in the Hyborian Age and replacing their original heroes with Conan.

 

Anyway, as I sat on that ferry reading that particular book, my enthusiasm for the sword-and-sorcery wing of fantasy literature was kindled.  Warriors, knights, sorcerers, witches, kings and queens, princes and princesses, goblins, trolls, ogres and dragons, populating castles, fortresses, palaces, citadels, gladiatorial arenas, mysterious forests, mist-shrouded lakes, dark caves and foreboding mountain passes, involved in the casting of spells, the summoning of demons, epic quests to locate mystical objects with fantastical powers, Machiavellian court intrigue, battles, sieges, swordplay, derring-do and much, much bloodshed…  How could the imagination of a ten-year-old not be fired by all that?  Admittedly, I found the busty, lascivious wenches who kept popping up in the Conan stories a bit boring, although needless to say I appreciated their presence more when I was a few years older.

 

Of course, decades have passed since then and my opinions of Robert E. Howard and his oeuvre have changed somewhat.  Yes, I still respect him for knowing how to tell a proper story.  But it’s difficult to read the average Conan story now without wincing at least half-a-dozen times at the barbarian’s swaggering sexism – those aforementioned busty, lascivious wenches had little to do apart from throw themselves adoringly at their hero’s feet – and the general undercurrents of racism and ableism.

 

And there are plenty of other sword-and-sorcery stories by other writers I’ve discovered since then that I prefer.  For example, there are the Jirel of Joiry stories, a swashbuckling fantasy series written both about a woman (Jirel) and by a woman (Catherine L. Moore), which appeared in the 1930s at the same time as the Conan ones, their polar opposite in the sex-war stakes.  There’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (1958-1988), which wittily rip the piss out of the genre.  And there’s the Kane novels and short stories (1970-1985) written by the underrated Karl Edward Wagner, which feature an immortal swordsman who’s as violent and immoral as Conan but whose adventures are described with considerably more intelligence.

 

Anyway, this is all a preamble to saying that Rab Foster, the alias under which I write my own fantasy fiction, has a new sword-and-sorcery story called Perspectives of the Scorvyrn published in this month’s edition of Schlock! Webzine.  I see it as a back-handed tribute to Robert E. Howard.  The two main characters are opportunistic warriors in the mould of Conan and have a similar swing-your-sword-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude to life.  Unfortunately, their lack of scruples and imagination leads them into serious trouble.  And that’s trouble with a feminist tinge…   Moreover, much of the story is written in the present tense and, as its title suggests, it’s told from multiple perspectives.  That’s a style and approach that I’m sure a writer as traditional and old-school as Howard would have absolutely bloody hated.

 

For now, Perspectives of the Scorvyrn is available to read here, while the homepage of the May 2021 edition of Schlock! Webzine can be reached here.

 

© Lancer Books / John Duillo

A sad day for the Sisters

 

© Merciful Release

 

When American music composer and producer Jim Steinman died last week, the tributes paid to him made heavy mention of two titles: 1977’s Bat Out of Hell, the album by Meat Loaf, and 1983’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, the ballad by Bonnie Tyler.  Steinman wrote the songs, played keyboards and percussion and provided ‘lascivious effects’ on the former and wrote and produced the latter.  He was not a man who did things by halves in his orchestrations, in his lyrics or in the performances he encouraged from his singers.  Thus, both Bat and Eclipse are synonymous with bombast, histrionics, chest beating, garment rending, howling at the moon and general wildly over-the-top melodrama.

 

Which makes my experiences with Steinman’s two most famous pieces of work strange.  Because when I hear Bat Out of Hell nowadays, the images that it conjures up in my head are of the summer landscapes of bucolic Country Tyrone in Northern Ireland: of hayfields, barley-fields and pastureland populated by herds of cattle and flocks of sheep.  Whereas if I hear a burst of Total Eclipse of the Heart, I’m immediately transported to the wolds of equally bucolic County Lincolnshire in England, during the early springtime, with freshly ploughed fields undulating off into the soft morning mist.

 

To elaborate. In the summer of 1982 I worked on the farm of my Uncle Annett, in the Clogher Valley in County Tyrone. My cousin there was a big Meat Loaf fan and when we weren’t toiling in the fields and were back in the farmhouse, Bat Out of Hell never seemed to be off the stereo. The farmhouse reverberated with the vrooming of motorcycles and Meat Loaf hollering about screaming sirens, howling fires, evil in the air, thunder in the sky, being all revved up with nowhere to go, praying for the end of time, glowing like metal on the edge of a knife, etc.  Stirring stuff, but it was incongruous background music for my life at the time, which consisted of lugging around bales of hay, mucking out cowsheds, feeding pigs, thinning turnips and holding down sheep while they had their fleeces sheared.

 

Admittedly, I did ride a motorbike that summer.  My cousin had recently graduated from riding a motorbike to driving a car and his old motorcycle was stashed in an outhouse on the farm. My uncle took it out and taught me how to ride it.  I didn’t venture out onto the roads, though.  Instead, I’d ride it up the surrounding slopes and across the surrounding fields when I had to check on my uncle’s sheep.  So no doubt while I cruised past those woolly flocks, Meat Loaf was roaring in my brain about hitting the highway like a battering ram on a silver-black phantom bike and so on.

 

© Sony / Epic / Cleveland International Records

 

Fast-forward eight months from then to March 1983 and I was employed in a different job in a different part of the world. I was working as a volunteer houseparent and classroom-assistant at a residential school for ‘maladjusted boys’, which was the un-politically correct 1980s parlance for what today would be termed ‘boys with behavioural issues’.  The school was on the outskirts of the town of Louth in Lincolnshire, in the English Midlands. Walk one way from the school and you’d end up in the town, walk the other way and you’d soon be among the gently curving Lincolnshire wolds.  The school’s older boys stayed in their own residence, with its own kitchen and living room, and I was doing an evening shift there one Thursday when Top of the Pops started on the living-room TV. The show aired a newly released song and video by Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart.

 

The Lincolnshire lads in the residence were either sharp-footed Michael Jackson wannabes or bequiffed rockabilly types who’d been influenced by the Elvis albums in their dads’ record collections. Their immediate reaction, and my immediate reaction, was: “What the f**k are we listening to?”  For Ms Tyler’s tonsil-rattling performance, caterwauling about falling in love, falling apart, living in a powder keg, giving off sparks, forever going to start tonight, etc., was unlike anything we’d heard before.

 

It was also unlike anything we’d seen before.  The video, directed by Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy, and full of fluttering candles, billowing lace curtains, slow-motion flapping doves, dancing ninjas, nocturnal fencers, indoor American football players, acrobats in bondage gear and glowing-eyed demonically possessed choirboys, was pretty far-out too.

 

The song immediately went to number one in the British singles charts so I heard a lot of it in the ensuing weeks.  In particular, it got played a lot in Louth’s top – only? – post-pub nightspot of the time, which was the social club for the local branch of the Liberal Party.  Thus, while its dance floor quaked to the bellowing of Bonnie Tyler, I’d be sitting having a pint with some regulars who were proudly telling me for the umpteenth time how they’d ‘had David Steel in here just the other year.’

 

Today I don’t mind Bat Out of Hell too much, but I could happily live the rest of my life – and any future lives, if reincarnation is a thing – without ever hearing Total Eclipse of the Heart again.  For one thing, Eclipse’s success spawned a zillion hideous 1980s and 1990s power ballads, sung under the misapprehension that the louder and shriller you are, the greater the emotion you convey.  The biggest culprit here is Celine Dion and yes, it was Jim Steinman who penned her interminable 1996 ballad It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

 

From jimsteinman.com

 

And yet…  I can forgive Steinman for any crimes he indirectly committed against music by encouraging the growth of the power ballad.  That’s because for a couple of years at the end of the 1980s he worked with the Goth-rock band the Sisters of Mercy and made them sound like the mightiest group in the universe.  In 1990 he co-wrote and co-produced the storming tune More with the band’s frontman Andrew Eldritch, while in 1987 he produced two Sisters songs, Dominion / Mother Russia and This Corrosion.  The latter is surely one of the greatest Goth anthems ever.

 

Although This Corrosion was written by Andrew Eldritch, it has Steinman’s aural fingerprints all over it, most notably the Wagnerian squalls of guitar and the use of the 40-strong New York Choral Society to provide a celestial choir at the beginning.  Sweetly, the first comment below the song’s video on YouTube claims that “When a Goth dies, their voice gets added to the choir at the intro.”

 

Eldritch once told Sounds magazine that “It’s about the idiots, full of sound and fury, who stampede around this world signifying nothing… about people who sing about the corrosion of things while they themselves are falling apart.”  Supposedly, the sound-and-fury-filled idiots he had in mind were his former colleagues Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams, who quit the Sisters of Mercy in 1985 and formed their own band the Mission.  Elsewhere, in Q magazine, he likened the relationship between the Sisters of Mercy and the Mission to that between China and Taiwan.  It was obvious which band Eldritch considered the equivalent of the massive, nuclear-armed superpower.

 

Now I like the Mission.  However, in 1998, a 36-song compilation of 1980s and 1990s Goth, industrial, synth and dark indie music was put together under the title of Nocturnal and it had This Corrosion as its opening track and then the Mission’s song Deliverance as its second one.  And when I heard the two played together, I realised that with their Steinman-produced opus the Sisters of Mercy blasted the Mission out of the water.  Incidentally, This Corrosion is used to great effect in the finale of Edgar Wright’s underrated 2013 sci-fi / horror / comedy movie The World’s End.

 

Despite having a reputation for being a bit of a dick to work with, Eldritch spoke generously of Steinman.  For instance, he said that Steinman “really knows how to make a wonderfully stupid record.  Totally outrageous.  Every time you think to yourself, do we really want to go this far, and you say to Jim, ‘Jim, are sure about this?’ and anybody else will go, ‘Don’t do it!’, Jim goes, ‘More!  More!  More people singing!’  It works.”

 

That’s the spirit.  And here, for anyone wishing to really immerse themselves in Jim Steinman’s glorious bombast, is a link to the 11-minute remix of This Corrosion.

 

From marktracks.blogspot.com / youtube.com

Cinematic heroes 2: James Robertson Justice

 

© Rank Organisation

 

This weekend saw the funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who passed away on April 9th at the age of 99.  Anyone who’s read the political entries I’ve put on this blog won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not a monarchist, at least as far as Britain is concerned.  I’ve got nothing against the Queen, who seems boundlessly dutiful and decent as she pushes her 95th birthday.  I’ve even got nothing against the concept of a monarchy itself, if it means having a symbolic head-of-state who deals with all the ceremonial stuff like opening supermarkets and attending banquets while the government gets on with the actual business of running the country.  Elsewhere in Europe, small-scale monarchies like this seem to work perfectly well in the Low countries and Scandinavia. 

 

Unfortunately, I don’t think a country as dysfunctional as Britain, so neurotically obsessed with its past, and where the institution seems to bring out the worst in many people – obsequiousness, snobbery, jingoism, culture-warring and my-patriotism’s-bigger-than-your-patriotism flag-shagging – could cope with having a small-scale monarchy.  So I think in the long run it would be better for Britain to just dispense with the monarchy and become a republic.

 

Anyway, enough of the political talk.  This seems an opportune time to repost this tribute I once wrote about one of Prince Philip’s close friends – the gruff, pompous acting marvel James Robertson Justice, whom the late prince once described as “a large man with a personality to match” who “lived every bit of his life to the full and richly deserves the title ‘eccentric’.”

 

Forgive the pun, but in a brief blog entry it’s impossible to do justice to James Robertson Justice.  By the time he embarked on an acting career – his first screen appearance was in the Charles Crichton-directed wartime propaganda movie For Those in Peril (1943), with his first substantial role coming four years later in Peter Ustinov’s comic fantasy Vice Versa – he’d already amassed a professional CV that would put, say, Jack London’s to shame.

 

In London, he’d worked as a journalist at Reuters (alongside a 20-year-old Ian Fleming).  Then he’d upped and gone to Canada, where he’d tried his hand at selling insurance, teaching English at a boys’ school and being a lumberjack and gold-miner.  He’d worked his passage back to Britain on a Dutch freighter and during the 1930s served as secretary and manager to the British ice-hockey team.  He’d also had a go at being a racing driver, served as a League of Nations policeman and fought for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.  In World War II he’d been invalided out of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve because of a shrapnel injury.

 

On top of his decidedly varied working experiences, James Robertson Justice was a polyglot.  According to whom you believe, the number of languages he could speak were four, ten or twenty.  He was also a keen birdwatcher and falconer – the latter enthusiasm earning him the friendship of Prince Philip – a raconteur and bon viveur with an eye for the ladies and a penchant for fast and expensive cars, and perhaps most passionately of all, a would-be Scotsman.  Although he’d been born in Lewisham in London in 1907, to a Scottish father, Justice told everyone that he’d been born in the shadow of a distillery on the Isle of Skye.  People believed this and it was only in 2007 that a biographer, James Hogg, discovered his birth certificate and his non-Scottish origins.

 

To cement his Scottish credentials, Justice served as rector of Edinburgh University from 1963 to 1966 and in the 1950 general election he ran unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate for the Scottish constituency of North Angus and Mearns.  Despite his friendship with the Queen’s husband and his taste for fine living, Justice’s politics were firmly of the left.  One of the languages he could speak was Scottish Gaelic.  And he must have been proud that he starred in the most charming of old Scottish comedy movies, 1949’s Whisky Galore.

 

© Rank Organisation

 

A larger-than-life character in reality, it’s unsurprising that fame, when it arrived for Justice, was a result of him playing a larger-than-life movie role.  1954’s Doctor in the House, based on the comic novel by Richard Gordon, follows the mishaps of four medical students (Kenneth More, Donald Sinden, Donald Houston and soon-to-be-a-star Dirk Bogarde) while they bumble, philander and idle their way through their studies at the fictional St Swithin’s Hospital.  Its irreverent tone struck a chord with British cinema audiences, whose patronage made it the biggest grossing film of the year.  That’s ‘irreverent’ in strictly a 1954 sense, however.  Bogarde and co seem a pretty mild bunch of rebels even by the standards of the 1950s, which a couple of years later would see the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.  And as biting and unruly medical satire goes, Doctor in the House isn’t exactly on par with, for instance, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* (1970).

 

In fact, the film would seem flat and stodgy today if it wasn’t for Justice’s turn as the chief surgeon at St Swithin’s, the hulking, pompous and delightfully ogre-ish Sir Lancelot Spratt.  The scenes involving Spratt are still capable of prompting guffaws – particularly the one with the famous ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ joke.

 

Steamrollering through the hospital wards and corridors and dragging a dazed trail of matrons, nurses and junior doctors in his wake, treating his underlings like dirt and so disdainful of the working-class patients that it’s debatable whether or not he considers them capable of thought, Spratt could be seen as the socialist-leaning Justice’s piss-take of a pompous upper-crust Tory doctor, one who’s been thrust against his wishes into the brave new Labourite world of Britain’s fledgling National Health Service.  The truth is simpler, though.  Justice was simply playing himself, or at least the side of himself who liked fancy cars, caviar and royalty.

 

The success of Doctor in the House and the popularity of Spratt meant that he was immediately typecast.  He’d spend the remainder of the 1950s, and the 1960s, playing variations on the role – comically-blustering aristocrats and authority figures who believed themselves entitled to behave any way they pleased and who didn’t give a tinker’s cuss what other people thought about it.

 

One exception to the rule was the memorable John Huston-directed, Ray Bradbury-scripted film version of Moby Dick in 1956, in which he played Captain Boomer.  Also, in the 1961 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, he played the commodore at Allied Command who rounds up Gregory Peck, David Niven and the gang and sends them off to blow up the big German guns of the title.  Otherwise, comedies and pomposity were the order of the day.  Justice played Spratt in six more Doctor movies, where the quality inevitably went down each time, and played many more Spratt clones.  His performances, however, were never less than hugely entertaining.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

One of my favourites is his turn as the unbearably bear-ish aristocrat Luther Ackenthorpe in 1961’s Murder, She Said, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington, which starred the venerable Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple.  The lady detective takes on a job as a maid in the Ackenthorpe household in order to investigate a possible murder, and predictably she and Justice spend the film getting on each other’s nerves.   Miss Marple receives a shock at the end because Justice, despite the antagonism that’s existed between them, has concluded that she’s just the woman to share his matrimonial bed.  His proposal of marriage hardly sweeps her off her feet, though.  “You’re a fair cook,” he tells her, “and you seem to have your wits about you and, well, I’ve decided to marry you.”  Unsurprisingly, Miss Marple manages to turn down his proposal without much soul-searching.

 

Justice is also good in the 1962 comedy The Fast Lady.  It has a great cast – Julie Christie, making only her second film appearance, the suave Leslie Philips and the legendary Glaswegian comic performer Stanley Baxter.  Mind you, when I saw part of it on YouTube recently I found its humour a lot less sophisticated than how I remembered it from multiple TV viewings when I was a kid.  Justice plays a rich and arrogant sports-car enthusiast, a role that was obviously no leap for him, who runs gormless cyclist Baxter off the road.  When Baxter tracks Justice down to his country manor to complain, he falls in love with Justice’s daughter, Christie, while Robertson, chugging around on a riding lawnmower, mangles Baxter’s bicycle into his lawn.  There follows a romantic comedy of manners, with Baxter trying to win Christie’s hand and earn her father’s respect.  I remembering seeing an interview with Baxter wherein he reminisced about the film and, adding yet another string to Justice’s bow, recalled how his co-star had been an authority on butterflies.

 

Shortly after playing yet another cantankerous and wealthy old bugger, Lord Scrumptious, in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – based on the children’s book by his old Reuter’s colleague Ian Fleming – Justice suffered the first of several strokes that would hobble and then finish his film career.  By the time of the last Doctor film, 1970’s Doctor in Trouble, his appearance as Sir Lancelot Spratt had been reduced to a cameo.  His final role was an appropriately Scottish-themed one, 1971’s The Massacre of Glencoe.  As the work petered out, so did his money, and in 1975 he died a sick and bankrupt man.  All in all, it was a sad and undignified end for one of the British cinema’s most flamboyant and gloriously imperious figures.

 

From worldoffalconry.co.uk

Bungle in the jungle

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros.

 

Godzilla versus Kong.  The King of the Monsters versus the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The supreme clash of the titans, the ultimate showdown between the royalty of kaiju cinema.  In the left corner, we have King Kong, the giant simian star of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic that created the template for movies wherein prehistoric monsters rampage through human metropolises.  And in the right corner, we have Godzilla, the massive radioactive-breathed lizard who first surfaced in 1954, courtesy of Toho Studios, to flatten Tokyo as a thinly-disguised metaphor for the atomic bombs that’d flattened real Japanese cities a decade earlier – although, while he appeared in dozens of subsequent movies battling against similarly-sized monstrous adversaries, he gradually morphed from being the destroyer of Japan to being the unofficial champion of it.

 

Having this pair square up to one another – an event that’s only happened once before, in the ultra-ropey but endearingly goofy 1962 Toho movie King Kong vs Godzilla – should be an epic cinematic experience, the kaiju equivalent of Muhammed Ali versus Joe Frazer or Ali versus George Foreman, of the Thrilla in Manilla or the Rumble in the Jungle.

 

Alas, the recently released Godzilla vs Kong, the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse franchise, isn’t so much the Rumble in the Jungle as a Bungle in the Jungle.

 

Of its three predecessors, the first instalment, 2014’s Godzilla, directed by talented Welshman Gareth Edwards, is the one that stands as a quality film.  It had some truly cinematic sequences and a memorably sombre tone, embodied in the apocalyptic clouds of ash and dust that swirled around Godzilla while he went about his city-demolishing business.  However, it wasn’t the big, enjoyably dumb monster-on-the-loose movie that many people expected and in some quarters it was met with disappointment.  And I have to say that while I admired Godzilla, I didn’t massively enjoy it.

 

Edwards’ downbeat film was the antithesis of the second film in the franchise, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, which arrived three years later.  Set in the early 1970s, this was a brash, colourful rollercoaster of a movie that managed to balance crowd-pleasing action with enough smart touches to engage the more cerebral members of the audience – smart touches ranging from jokes about Richard Nixon to an outrageous sequence where Kong takes on what is basically the fleet of helicopters from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though to the accompaniment of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid rather than Richard Wagner’s Ride of the ValkyriesKong: Skull Island also benefitted from having a cast of veteran character actors like John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman chew up any scenery that Kong wasn’t stomping on.

 

By the third movie, though, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), the rot had set in.  The kaiju remained magnificent, but too much screen-time was devoted to the human characters, most of whom barely qualified as two-dimensional let alone three-dimensional.  Also, between the film’s set-pieces were sections where screenwriters Dougherty and Zach Shields couldn’t be bothered plotting in any credible or meaningful way.  You got ridiculous sequences like, for example, the bit where 12-year-old kid Madison Russell (Milly Bobby Brown) strolls out of the heavily fortified, heavily guarded lair of master-terrorist Jonah (Charles Dance) carrying a vital piece of technology that can communicate with and summon the monsters.  She then manages to set up the device and operate it in Kenway Park, home-ground of the Boston Red Sox.  Wow.   When I was 12 years old, I was still having problems tying a knot correctly in my school tie.

 

© Toho Studios

 

Brown’s Madison Russell character is, unfortunately, back in Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs Kong and the chasms in plot logic are as gaping as they were before.  Here, she and a couple of conspiracy-theory-obsessed associates infiltrate, no, wander into the premises of a secretive corporation called Apex, which they suspect is up to no good.  With almost no visible effort, this motley collection of teenagers / conspiracy nuts discovers and breaks into a series of secret subterranean levels that are full of futuristic technology.  Apex might be the bees’ knees when it comes to developing high-tech gizmos, but they are evidently shit at hiring competent security staff.

 

The human characters involved in the film’s other main storyline, played by Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall (who, by accident or design in this movie, looks a bit like New Zealand premier Jacinda Ahern), fare no better.  They’re saddled with a don’t-even-try-to-think-about-it subplot where they join an expedition, sponsored by that shifty Apex corporation, to travel to the fabled ‘hollow earth’ alluded to by previous movies in the franchise.  To get there, they need to use King Kong to lead them, like a giant homing pigeon or upstream-swimming salmon, through the labyrinthine tunnels that connect it with the earth’s surface.  The hollow earth, which looks like the planet in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) with some gravity-defying upside-down bits, is not only the home of Kong’s ancestors but also the location of a new energy source that Apex are keen to procure.  Once they find the energy source, they promptly download it to a computer in Hong Kong.  Yes, download it.  Don’t ask me how.

 

But I’ll try to be positive.  What did I like about Godzilla vs Kong?  Well, the first battle between the kaiju is a cracker.  Godzilla erupts out of the waves to confront Kong, who’s chained to the deck of one of a fleet of battleships and aircraft carriers, and the two beasties then slug it out while hopping from one beleaguered ship’s deck to another.  The sequence put in mind slightly of the 1974 Bond film Live and Let Die, in which Roger Moore escapes to safety by using some bobbing alligators as stepping stones.

 

Also, I liked the character of the little girl who learns to communicate secretly with Kong via sign language.  Played with a charming simplicity and straightforwardness by Kaylee Hottle, who in real life is a member of the deaf community, she wins more of the audience’s sympathy than all the synthetic, going-through-the-motions adult characters put together.

 

And I liked Milly Bobby Brown’s nerdy friend Josh, who gets unwillingly roped into her scheme to infiltrate Apex.  This is partly because he’s played by Julian Dennison from Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and partly because when we first meet him he’s listening to Breaking the Law by Judas Priest.

 

And I liked how, two-thirds of the way through, a third classic kaiju, one who made his debut in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, suddenly shows up to give Kong and Godzilla a common foe.  It’s just a pity that the ensuing stramash, which takes place in Hong Kong, feels a bit second-hand.  Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) has already featured giant organic monsters and giant robotic ones beating the crap out of each other in Hong Kong.  Also, the final denouement, involving a heavily foreshadowed flask of whisky, is stupid even by the recent standards of this franchise.

 

At the end of the day, I can’t say I liked Godzilla vs Kong any more than Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  The earlier film at least treated us to spectacular re-imaginings of some of Toho Studio’s kaiju heavyweights, including the vicious three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, the scaly giant Pteranodon Rodan and the vast gorgeous lepidopteran Mothra.  The new film doesn’t have that level of interest, seeing as we’ve already met Godzilla and Kong in previous films.

 

At least I managed to see Godzilla vs Kong on a big screen, for this was my first outing to a cinema during the Covid-19 pandemic since I saw Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) in one last summer.  That no doubt made the film appear more spectacular than if I’d seen it, streamed, on a domestic-sized screen.  And I have to say that in this large-sized format the film certainly held the attentions of the Sri Lankan kids and teenagers whom I watched it alongside.

 

I’m not, however, in any rush to see a fifth instalment in the MonsterVerse franchise.  Unless they figure out a way of getting Gamera into Movie Number Five.

 

© Daiei Film / Kadokawa Daiei Studio

My life as a tape-head

 

From unsplash.com / © Tobias Tullius

 

I was surprised to hear the news last month that the inventor of the audio cassette, Lou Ottens, had passed away at the age of 94.  Surprised because the audio cassette seemed such an elderly piece of technology to me that I’d assumed its inventor had been dead for many years, indeed, many decades already.

 

I used to love cassettes.  They were small, light and portable whilst at the same time durable and not vulnerable to the scratches and occasional breakages that bedevilled my vinyl records.  Though of course when their tape got caught in the tape-heads of a cassette player, having to free and unravel the ensuing tangle was a pain in the neck.  Much of my music collection consists of cassettes and I suspect I must have something in the region of a thousand albums in that format.  But, like most of my worldly possessions, they’ve spent the 21st century occupying boxes in my Dad’s attic in Scotland.

 

Cassettes seemed old-fashioned even in the days before the appearance of the compact disc, a type of technology that itself must seem prehistoric to modern youngsters brought up in a world of Internet streaming.  I remember in 2019 entering a second-hand record shop in Edinburgh and being amazed, and delighted, to find that it still had several shelf-loads of cassettes on sale.  (The shop was the Record Shak on Clerk Street and sadly, due to its owner’s death, it’s closed down since then.  But at least the Record Shak managed to outlive most of the other record shops that once populated south-central Edinburgh, like Avalanche, Coda Music, Ripping Records and Hog’s Head Music, so in its humble, durable way it was like the retailing equivalent of a cassette.)

 

I was such a tape-head that even during the 1990s, when the CD was supposed to have achieved market dominance, I still indulged in that most cassette-ish of pastimes – creating cassette compilations of my favourite music of the moment, which I’d then inflict on my friends.

 

I also made party cassettes.  For much of that decade I lived in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, was something of a party animal and would hold regular shindigs in my apartment.  My home was a typically modest, urban-Japanese one, consisting of two normal-sized rooms plus a little bathroom and toilet, but that didn’t prevent me from piling in the guests.  During one do, I did a count and discovered I’d squeezed 48 people into the place.  I even managed somehow to set aside one room as the ‘dance floor’.  And before each party, for the dance-floor room, I’d compile a few cassettes of songs that I judged likely to get the guests shaking a leg.  How could anyone not shake a leg when, in quick succession, they were subjected to the boisterous likes of the Cramps singing Bend Over I’ll Drive, the Jesus and Mary Chain doing their cover of Guitar Man, Motorhead with Killed by Death, the Reverend Horton Heat with Wiggle Stick, AC/DC with Touch Too Much and the Ramones with I Wanna be Sedated?

 

At the party’s end, if somebody complimented me on the quality of the music, I’d simply give them the party cassettes and tell them to keep them as souvenirs.  By the time of my next hooley, I’d have discovered a new set of tunes and slapped them onto some new cassettes.  Who knows?  Maybe those 1990s party cassettes are still being played at gatherings in Sapporo, where the partygoers are no longer young and wild, but grey and arthritic instead.  Surely they’d be considered priceless antiques today – the cassettes, not the partygoers.

 

Anyway, feeling nostalgic, I thought I would list here the most memorable cassette compilations that other people have given to me over the years.

 

© Factory

 

Untitled compilation – Gareth Smith, 1991

I never imagined that in 2021 I’d still be humming tunes performed by the now-forgotten New Jersey alternative rock band the Smithereens or the equally forgotten 1980s Bath / London combo Eat.  The fact that I am is due to a splendid compilation cassette that my brother put together and sent to me while I was working in Japan. Actually, the reason why I’m humming those tunes today is probably because they weren’t actually written by the Smithereens or Eat.  The Smithereens’ track was a cover of the Who’s song The Seeker, while the Eat one was another cover, of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City.

 

As well as featuring those, the cassette contained the epic six-minute club mix of Hallelujah by the Happy Mondays.  No, this wasn’t a cover version of the Leonard Cohen song, but the Mondays’ impeccably shambling dance track that begins with a falsetto voice exclaiming, “Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!” and then proceeds with Shaun Ryder intoning such lyrical gems as, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re here to pull ya!”

 

On the other hand, the cassette contained the hit single Right Here, Right Now by Jesus Jones, which I thought was quite good and which induced me to buy their new album when I saw it on sale soon afterwards in my local Japanese record shop.  Big mistake.

 

Songs from Brad’s Land – Brad Ambury, 1991

Around the same time, I received a compilation cassette from a Canadian guy called Brad Ambury, who worked on the same programme that I was working on but in a different part of northern Japan.  I think Brad saw it as his mission to convince me that there was more to Canadian music than the then-popular output of Bryan Adams.  He must have despaired when several years later Celine Dion popped up and usurped Bryan as Canada’s number-one international musical superstar.

 

Anyway, he made this cassette a smorgasbord of Canadian indie and alternative-rock bands with quirky names: Jr. Gone Wild, Blue Rodeo, the Northern Pikes, SNFU, Spirit of the West, the Doughboys and so on.  During the rest of the 1990s, whenever I was introduced to Canadian people, I’d waste no time in impressing them with my encyclopaedic knowledge – well, my shameless name-dropping – of their country’s indie / alt-rock musical scene.  All thanks to that one cassette.

 

Actually, stirred by curiosity 30 years on, I’ve tried Googling Brad and discovered he has a twitter feed that’s headed by the logo for the Edmonton ‘punk-country’ band Jr. Gone Wild.  So it’s good to know he hasn’t succumbed to senile old age and started listening to The Best of Bryan Adams just yet.

 

© Jr. Gone Wild

 

A Kick up the Eighties – Keith Sanderson, 1993

I must have received dozens of cassette compilations from my music-loving Scottish friend Keith Sanderson and this one was my favourite.  It even looked distinctive because, for a sleeve, he packaged it in a piece of flocked, crimson wallpaper.  As its title indicates, A Kick up the Eighties was a nostalgic collection of tunes from the then recently departed 1980s. These included pop hits, new wave and indie classics, Goth anthems and lesser-known tunes that were both ruminative and raucous: the Associates’ Party Fears Two, Blancmange’s Living on the Ceiling, Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick, Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives, Bauhaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood, Aztec Camera’s Down the Dip and Girlschool’s Emergency.  The collection was disparate yet weirdly balanced, and even songs I hadn’t particularly liked before, such as Rush’s Spirit of Radio and UFO’s Only You Can Rock Me, seemed good due to their calibration with the music around them.

 

However, when I played this cassette at parties, I had to make sure I stopped it before it reached the final track on Side A.  For my friend Keith had sneakily inserted there, like a street-credibility-destroying booby trap, Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran.

 

Japanese and English Guitar Pop – Yoko Koyama, 1994    

By the mid-1990s I was lecturing in a university in Sapporo.  My Japanese students there gradually come to the realisation that, despite being a curmudgeonly git, I had one redeeming quality, which was that I was into music.  So a steady stream of them presented me with cassettes of tunes they’d recorded, which they thought I might be interested in.  I can’t remember who presented me with a recording of the Flower Travellin’ Band, but well done that person.

 

A smart indie-kid in one of my classes called Yoko Koyama gave me a cassette compilation of what she termed ‘modern guitar pop’, i.e. melodic pop-rock stuff with lots of pleasantly jangly guitars.  Apparently, this was a sound that a few Japanese bands of the time, like Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five, were into.  She’d interspersed their tracks with ones by what she described as four ‘English’ practitioners of the same sub-genre.  These were Teenage Fanclub and the BMX Bandits, from Bellshill near Glasgow; Aztec Camera, from East Kilbride in Lanarkshire; and the Trash Can Sinatras, from Irvine in North Ayrshire.

 

© Polystar

 

I expressed my thanks but observed with some bemusement that the four so-called English bands on the collection were actually all from Scotland.  Yoko smiled politely but said nothing.  However, a year later, she wrote a feature about this type of music for our faculty’s English-language students’ newspaper (which I edited) and made a point of talking about ‘Scottish guitar pop’.  So despite my multiple failings as a teacher, I managed at least to teach one fact to one person during the 1990s.

 

Guns N’ Roses bootlegs – the guy who collected my Daily Yomiuri payments, 1996

While living in Sapporo, I subscribed to the English-language newspaper the Daily Yomiuri, which is now the Japan News.  One evening every month, a young guy would arrive at my apartment door with the newspaper’s monthly bill, which I paid in cash.  (Direct debits didn’t seem to be a thing at the time.)  When I opened the door for him one evening, The Spaghetti Incident by Guns N’ Roses happened to be playing on my stereo.  The guy’s face immediately lit up and he exclaimed, “Ah, you like Guns N’ Roses?”  We then had an enthusiastic ten-minute conversation – well, as enthusiastic as my rudimentary Japanese would allow – about the gloriousness of Axl Rose, Slash and the gang.

 

A month later, when the guy came to collect my next Daily Yomiuri payment, I was immensely touched when he presented me with two cassettes, on which he’d recorded two Guns N’ Roses bootleg albums.

 

Okay, strictly speaking, these weren’t compilation cassettes.  But I’m mentioning them here as a testimony to the power of the audio cassette.  They allowed the Japanese guy who collected my newspaper-subscription money and I to bond over a shared love of Guns N’ Roses.

 

Yeah, beat that, Spotify.

 

From pinterest.com

Jim Mountfield rides shotgun

 

© Shotgun Honey

 

Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write fiction of a (usually) dark hue, has just had a short story published in the webzine Shotgun Honey, which is dedicated to the ‘crime, hardboiled and noir genres’.

 

The story is called Karaoke and is inspired by the seven years I spent living in Japan – seven years during which, astonishingly, I spent a lot of my free time hanging out in bars.  The majority of those bars were frequented by suited salarymen, staffed by immaculate hostesses and equipped with karaoke machines.  Although I was always too shy to sing at the start of an evening, I’d have somehow overcome my shyness by the end of it – a dozen Kirin beers might have had something to do with it – and I’d be up there warbling into the microphone with the best, or worst, of them.  This was in the 1990s and the English-language selection on the machines was pretty middle-of-the-road and non-raucous – Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Pat Boone and the early Beatles – which meant I was usually crooning stuff like Fly Me to the Moon or Love Letters in the Sand.  Eek.

 

As Shotgun Honey is about crime, however, the story features yakuza gangsters as well as karaoke-singing.  Incidentally, the three main characters are named after three people I knew in Japan.  Mr Ashikawa and Mr Hiraizumi were both teachers at the high school where I worked for the first two years – Mr Ashikawa was a calligraphy teacher and he’d answer the staffroom phone with a memorably singsong cry of “Ashikawa desu!”  Maybe that’s why I made his fictional namesake a talented singer.

 

The character Umeki, meanwhile, is named after a lovable rogue I had in my classes while I taught at a university in Sapporo, which was my job for the subsequent five years.  Let’s be tactful and just say he wasn’t the hardest working of my students.  A week before I left Japan, the real-life Umeki invited me out for a few drinks and we ended up in one of his haunts, a bar whose interior resembled Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s penthouse in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  I think he was keen to create the impression that he lived the lifestyle of an international playboy, but I can’t help suspecting that today he’s become a grumpy and greying Kacho-San (‘Section Chief’).

 

For now, Karaoke can be read here.  This story comes with a trigger warning for lovers of alcohol, who may be traumatised by the fate that befalls a 21-year-old bottle of Hibiki Whisky.

 

From unsplash.com / © Alex Rainer

Soft power? No, soft in the head

 

From unsplash.com / © Jannes Van Den Wouwer

 

“And our hard power, conference, is dwarfed by a phenomenon that the pessimists never predicted when we unbundled the British Empire, and that is soft power – the vast and subtle and pervasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having the language that was invented and perfected in this country, and now has more speakers than any other language on earth.

 

“And up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth there go the gentle, kindly gunboats of British soft power, captained by Jeremy Clarkson – a prophet more honoured abroad, alas, than in his own country – or J.K. Rowling ,who is worshipped by young people in some Asian countries as a kind of divinity, or just the BBC.  And no matter how infuriating and shamelessly anti-Brexit they can sometimes be, I think the Beeb is the single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values.”

 

So spoke Boris de Piffle Johnson at the Conservative Party conference in 2016 on the subject of soft power and the United Kingdom’s ability, at least back then, to project it.  The term ‘soft power’ was coined in the 1980s by Joseph Nye, who described it as ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want’ on an international level. With sufficient soft power, a country can influence other countries through them ‘admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness’ rather than by ‘threatening military force or economic sanctions’ against them.

 

According to Nye, a country’s soft power comes from its culture, political values and foreign policies and its success in communicating and marketing these to an international audience. The UK had several historical advantages here. It was the original exporter of what is currently the world’s most popular international language, a language that, handily, it shares with the world’s number-one superpower.  It was also once a superpower itself, a ruthlessly imperial one, which left a legacy of connections around the world with its former colonies.  And, before 2016, it enjoyed a position as one of the main players in the European Union.

 

With these channels in place, all the UK needed were effective agents to facilitate the flow of its soft power and it had these in abundance too.  Not so long ago, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development (DFID), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the British Council (BC) did a great deal to promote the UK abroad in the fields of, respectively, diplomacy, development, broadcasting and education.  It helped too that the UK had many world-famous educational, cultural and sporting brands it could draw on, ranging from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and William Shakespeare to Manchester United and the Beatles.  Though Johnson, never one to let the fear of appearing crass get in the way of what he thinks is a jolly joke, claimed that much of the UK’s soft power was due to foreign petrolheads getting off on Top Gear.

 

It’s been a long time since I felt any affinity for the UK as a political entity.  I would, for instance, be happy to see Scotland become independent of it.  But I still feel I have a dog in the fight over the issue of British soft power because for most of the last quarter-century I’ve worked for various organisations and institutions in the fields of education and development that, directly or indirectly, have helped to promote British soft power abroad.  This hasn’t bothered me too much.  The days of the imperialist British Empire mentality were, I thought, long gone.  And although there have been a few catastrophic foreign policy errors, such as Tony Bliar’s decision to involve the UK in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I thought that the ‘values’, ‘examples’ and ‘openness’ Britain promoted abroad weren’t negative ones.  At least, in the early 21st century, they could have been worse.  I wouldn’t necessarily say the UK was one of the good guys as far as countries went, but it seemed one of the better guys.

 

That, however, was before the disaster of 2016’s Brexit referendum vote and the decision by voters in Britain – well, in England and Wales – to amputate the country from the European Union and embrace a parochial Little Englander nationalism.  This was promulgated by an array of shameless opportunistic chancers like Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan, Aaron Banks and of course Johnson himself.  Cheering them on was Britain’s right-wing press, owned by the billionaire likes of Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers.

 

Johnson’s government, and that of Theresa May before him, have done their best to play to a gallery of xenophobes, reactionaries, gammons and flag-shaggers, making decisions that right-wing tabloid headlines construe as sticking up for plucky little Blighty whilst giving Johnny Foreigner one in the eye.  In fact, what they’ve succeeded in doing is eroding the once-impressive edifice of British soft power on the international stage.  You can read about Britain’s decline in the world’s soft-power rankings here.

 

One example of this, perhaps small in the general scheme of things but telling in its malignant stupidity, is how the decision by Johnson’s government to cut UK overseas bilateral aid by at least 50% has impacted on the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) organisation.  VSO is dependent for half its budget on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which is the unwieldy result of DFID being amalgamated with the FCO in 2020.  With the foreign aid budget decimated, VSO is now preparing to shut operations in 14 countries, wind down its Volunteering for Development scheme and end its Covid-19 response initiative, which supports four-and-a-half million people in 18 countries.  This follows on from the demise of VSO’s International Citizen Service in February.

 

 

I worked as a volunteer with VSO in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001.  Now, thanks to some of my experiences there and elsewhere, I’m cynical about much of what goes on in the international aid and development industry and I agree with criticisms of it made in books like Graham Hancock’s The Lords of Poverty (1989) and Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid (2010).  In Ethiopia, where I worked as an instructor at a teacher-training institute, I went into primary school classes containing 40 or more pupils who often had to share one textbook in groups of three or four and had to sit on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs.  Classrooms often had gaping holes in their floors, broken furniture and no electricity.  Meanwhile, officials at the local Regional Educational Board luxuriated in carpeted, air-conditioned offices equipped with computers, printers and projectors.  The money given to the region’s educational budget by a Scandinavian aid organisation had never percolated down past the hands of the middle-class bureaucrats into which it’d been entrusted.

 

The campus I worked on featured its own monument to aid-industry inefficiency.  It contained a language laboratory that’d been gifted by French money.  I’m not sure if that language lab had ever worked but it certainly wasn’t in use while I was there.  It was full of big, dust-covered consoles that, like computers in a flashy 1960s spy thriller, used clunky spools of tape.  Whoever had signed the original cheques hadn’t done any research.  They hadn’t realised that the language-teaching world’s preferred medium for giving students practice in listening, especially in a rough-and-tumble environment like 1990s Ethiopia, was the humble, durable and portable audio-cassette tape.

 

But VSO’s modus operandum was not about spending money that was vulnerable to being misappropriated by corruption or incompetence.  It recognised that the key was training.  Transferring skills from one person to another, so that the recipient is able to do his or her job better, leads to sustainable positive changes.  Accordingly, the people who volunteered to work for VSO were experienced professionals in their home countries. By doing a similar job in the same field in what was then termed ‘a developing country’, they could contribute to improving the training and performances of the local people they worked beside.  This wasn’t because they were better professionals than their local peers.  They’d just had the advantage of having trained and worked in more developed countries.

 

One important feature of VSO was that its volunteers earned the same salary as their local colleagues.  This meant they shared the same working and living conditions as the locals did – unlike employees of other aid agencies, there was no living in fancy compounds, working in high-tech offices or travelling in supersized 4x4s for them.  Therefore, the problems faced by local professionals during their jobs were as much of a headache for the VSO volunteers too, and together they had to devise solutions to these problems that drew on local knowledge, were realistic and would actually work on the ground.

 

In my criticisms of foreign aid, then, I’m not arguing that budgets should be slashed.  If necessary, they should be recalibrated so that training and sustainability are at the fore, if those things aren’t already.  As the old proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

 

 

I knew from the responses of Ethiopian friends and colleagues that VSO’s work in their country earned much respect for Britain at the time.  Meanwhile, my VSO experiences did a lot for me personally, helping me to become more organised, practical, resourceful, confident and diplomatic.  So Britain and the VSO volunteers benefitted as much as the local folk did.  It was a win-win-win situation.

 

The fact that government cuts have subjected VSO to this crisis shows what hot air Boris Johnson’s words about the value of British soft power, quoted at the start of this entry, really were.  He clearly has no interest in how the rest of the world perceives and interacts with the UK, other than it providing a few post-Brexit trade deals and being somewhere that he and his moneyed cronies can escape to for their luxury holidays.

 

Government actions elsewhere underline this.  The plug has already been pulled on Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which allowed 15,000 British students annually to study in European universities without paying fees.  The BBC seems to stagger from one government-induced crisis to another and its main instrument of international influence, the once-admired BBC World Service, has been in freefall from budget cuts since the Tory government of David Cameron.  Other organisations that promote Britain overseas are in similarly dire straits and the current Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation even worse.  But Johnson and company obviously don’t care if they wither on the vine.

 

Yes, as the Conservative government develops its new blueprint for the country as a giant sweatshop where the majority work for peanuts and without protections, and where a political / economic elite make a fortune and pay as little tax as possible, the drawbridge is being pulled up between Britain and the outside world.  It’s a tragedy that an exemplary organisation like VSO looks like being the latest victim of this mindset.

 

© Voluntary Service Overseas

A wide open space odyssey

 

© Pan Books

 

So it’s farewell to the author Larry McMurtry, who passed away on March 25th at the age of 84.  Here’s what I wrote on this blog about Mr McMurtry’s most famous opus after I finished reading it early last year.

 

The cowboy-herding, dust-churning, all-mooing-and-lowing cattle drive may not be the biggest trope in the western genre.  That accolade probably belongs to the High Noon-style showdown.  But it’s surely a major one.

 

Most famously, a cattle drive figured in the classic 1948 Howard Hawks / John Wayne western movie Red River and as late as 1972 Wayne was still herding cattle across the prairies in Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys.  Elsewhere, cattle drives have been the basis for eight seasons of the western TV series Rawhide (1959-65), been subjected to revisionism in the raw-edged film The Culpepper Cattle Co (1972), been lovingly parodied in the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers (1991) and even been reimagined in a bucolic British setting in Richard Eyre’s Singleton’s Pluck (1984).  That last movie, written by Brian Glover and starring Ian Holm, told the tale of a poultry farmer who’s forced by a transport workers’ strike to walk his thousands of geese to market, all the way from Norfolk to London.

 

However, the above cattle drives last within the timeframes of films or TV episodes and take up no more than a couple of hours of your time.  By the time you get through the 843 pages of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove (1985), you almost feel you’ve taken part in a cattle drive.  I started reading it at the beginning of 2020 and by the time I’d finished it the most of three weeks later, I felt mentally as saddle-sore as its characters felt physically after riding from the parched plains of southern Texas to the wintry uplands of Montana.  Though, like those characters when they arrived in Montana, the feeling was accompanied by a buzz of fulfilment and satisfaction too.

 

To be fair, the cattle drive in Lonesome Dove doesn’t take all of 843 pages.  There’s a leisurely preamble whereby McMurtry sets up his characters and prepares them, and the reader, for the odyssey ahead.  The characters belong to the Hat Creek Cattle Company, based at the south Texan town of the title, Lonesome Dove.  The company’s proprietors are two former Texas Rangers, the garrulous, witty, warm-hearted and philosophical Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae and the stiff, unsociable, emotionally repressed and work-driven W. F. Call.  Gus reminds Call early on: “You was born in Scotland…  I know they brought you over when you was still draggin’ on the tit, but that don’t make you no less a Scot.”  Obviously, Call never recovered from his early exposure to Calvinism.

 

One day, a familiar face appears on their property.  This is Jake Spoon, another ex-ranger and an old friend of theirs but someone who makes a living by gambling rather than cattle-dealing.  It transpires that the charming but unprincipled and fickle Jake is on the run because he accidentally killed a man after a card game turned ugly in the Arkansas town of Fort Smith.  The victim managed to be the town’s dentist, and the town’s mayor, and the brother of the town’s sheriff, July Johnson.  Also, Jake brings with him stories about the opportunities offered by the newly opened-up, barely explored and still unpopulated territory of Montana.  This prompts Call to gather together the company’s livestock, employees and physical possessions, such as they are, and abandon Lonesome Dove and embark on an epic journey north.  The hope is that their business will prosper on Montana’s seemingly limitless grazing lands.

 

To bolster their supplies of cattle and horses before they leave, Call and Gus embark on a raid across the border and steal some herds from a wealthy Mexican rancher called Pedro Flores.  They do this without any moral qualms, since the unscrupulous Flores does the same thing regularly in the other direction, from Mexico into Texas.

 

Also, they increase their crew by hiring for the drive a motley collection of cowpokes, misfits and youngsters.  Jake tags along too, taking with him a young prostitute called Lorena from Lonesome Dove’s saloon, who’s fallen, temporarily at least, for his oily charms.  But the workshy Jake keeps his distance from the Hat Creek gang and sets up a private camp for himself and Lorena.  They quickly lose their enthusiasm for camping and the outdoors as it becomes apparent that pampered, saloon-loving cardsharp Jake is no Bear Grylls.

 

And so our heroes hit the trail.  There follow hundreds of pages featuring sandstorms, thunderstorms, blizzards, hazardous river crossings, run-ins with bad ’uns and encounters with unfriendly wildlife such as locusts, snakes and bears.  Other characters appear, including Sheriff July Johnson and his hapless deputy Roscoe, rival cattle baron Mr Wilbarger, murderous renegade Indian Blue Duck, the no-better trio of white outlaws the Suggs Brother, and feisty Clara Allen, once courted in her youth by both Gus and Jake.  Clara now runs a horse ranch in Nebraska and Gus, still carrying a torch for her, intends to visit her during the drive.  Larry McMurtry sub-plots furiously, with characters constantly hiving off from the drive or running into it.  His characters encounter one another, part company with one another, are reunited with one another and, occasionally, kill one another.

 

One thing that’s striking about Lonesome Dove is the underlying randomness and arbitrariness of it all.  Big events happen but often the reasons causing them to happen are fleeting whims, snap decisions or simple happenstance.  The pragmatic and unimaginative Call isn’t normally taken in by Jake’s bullshit but, somehow, he falls for his tales about Montana, with the result that the Hat Creek Cattle Company uproots itself and goes.  The bemused Gus tells him, “I hope it makes you happy…  Driving these skinny cattle all that way is a funny way to maintain an interest in life, if you ask me.”  Elsewhere, July Johnson didn’t particularly like his dead dentist / mayor brother (“Once when he had pulled a bad tooth of July’s he had charged the full fee”) and regards his death as an accident, but is bullied into going after Jake by his widowed sister-in-law.

 

What sets all these things in motion is the fact that in the Fort Smith saloon where Jake got himself into trouble, someone unwisely left a loaded shotgun propped against the wrong part of the wall.  If this was how the West was won, Lonesome Dove suggests, it was by accident rather than design.

 

Similarly, the subplots often don’t resolve themselves in the way you expect, or don’t resolve themselves at all.  The long-awaited showdown between Jake and July, for example, never happens because both characters get distracted by other events – Jake falling in with the Suggs brothers and soon being party to worse things than the accidental shooting of a dentist, and July learning that his dissatisfied wife has taken advantage of his absence to run away from Fort Smith and setting off in pursuit of her instead.  And the expected subplot whereby the vengeful Pedro Flores pursues the Hat Creek Cattle Company to get his animals back never materialises for, soon afterwards, Call and Gus receive word that Flores has suddenly died.  (“I never expected that…”  “I never either, but then I don’t know why not.  Mexicans don’t have no special dispensation.  They die like the rest of us.”)

 

Meanwhile, the mid-point of the book is shocking for how the plot-threads of three characters, in whom the reader has invested a lot of time and sympathy, are abruptly terminated.  I’d like to think McMurtry did this for dramatic effect, though I suspect he just realised his plotting was becoming too tangled and he needed to prune it.

 

©Picador

 

Talking of being shocking, there are times, especially when Blue Duck and the Suggs Brothers are centre-stage, when Lonesome Dove veers off into the gruelling, blood-soaked territory inhabited by another famous western novel that appeared in 1985, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  However, despite its occasional darkness, Lonesome Dove contains much more humanity, warmth and optimism than McCarthy’s nihilistic gorefest / prose-poem.

 

It also isn’t afraid to evoke the conventions that were staples of the westerns of yore and I wonder how a young 21st century readership would react to some of those conventions today.  The western was traditionally a genre where ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ and it paid little attention to feminist sensibilities.  Accordingly, some may find the character of Lorena problematic, since she starts the novel as a hard-assed grifter but steadily becomes more dependent on the men around her.  First, she falls for Jake, and then she falls for Gus, who rescues her after she’s been abducted by Blue Duck.  That said, the rancher Clara Allen is one of the toughest and wisest characters in the book.  Near the end, she gets a chance to speak her mind to Call, somebody she’s always had a low opinion of: “You men and your promises: they’re just excuses to do what you plan to do anyway, which is leave.  You think you’ve always done right – that’s your ugly pride, Mr Call…  You’re a vain coward, for all your fighting.  I despised you then for what you were, and I despise you now, for what you’re becoming.”

 

Another old Western convention that’s less palatable nowadays is that of having native Americans as the bad guys.  And in Lonesome Dove, Blue Duck and his henchmen are particularly and memorably vile.  But in McMurtry’s defence, I’d argue that more often the natives featured in the novel are impoverished, pitiful and dispossessed due to the remorseless encroachment of the White Man.  At one point, for instance, Call donates a few of the company’s steers to a band of starving Wichita tribespeople.  It’s insinuated that if people are treated cruelly, some at least will come to behave cruelly too.  Interestingly, Clara shows no concern about a Sioux chief called Red Cloud who’s on the warpath in her neighbourhood because, she explains to July, her late husband behaved honourably to Red Cloud and his people once.  “I know Red Cloud…  Bob was good to him.  They lived on our horses that hard winter we had four years ago – they couldn’t find buffalo…  Bob treated them fair and we’ve never had to fear them.”

 

Also, though Call and Gus’s earlier line of work as rangers frequently involved them killing native Americans who violently objected to the US government’s policies towards them, Gus at least questions the wisdom of what they did.  This is especially so now that the White Man’s ‘civilisation’ – as epitomised by ‘the bankers’ – is moving in and taking over.  “Does it ever occur to you that everything we done was probably a mistake…?” he asks Call.  “Me and you done our work too well.  We killed off most of the people that made this country interesting to begin with.”

 

Later, he speculates that a time will come when the bankers will need to kill the likes of him off too.  Which, in a roundabout way, makes this densely plotted and ruggedly entertaining novel a forerunner to David Mackenzie’s excellent modern-day western movie about cowboys versus bankers, 2016’s Hell or High Water.

 

From facebook.com

The comedian with nine-and-a-half fingers

 

© BBC

 

I’m still too busy with work commitments to put any new material on this blog.  However, here is a slightly updated version of something I posted a few years ago.  Appropriately for today, March 17th and St Patrick’s Day, it’s a tribute to the greatest Irishman of the late 20th century.

 

16 years after his death, I still regard the Irishman Dave Allen as the best stand-up comedian ever.  Allen was known to many British TV viewers during his heyday in the 1970s as ‘the comedian with half-a-finger’, although he once pointed out that he was actually ‘the comedian with nine-and-a-half-fingers’.

 

When I was a kid living in Northern Ireland and when the Dave Allen Show (1968-86) was at the height of its popularity on BBC1, he was the undisputed King of Comedy for me.  I didn’t always understand the jokes and stories he told his studio audience, though my parents invariably guffawed at them.  However, I loved it when the glass of whisky he sipped from at the side of his chair – despite being a ‘stand-up’ comedian, he spent most of his time sitting down – reached a low level and he said, “It’s time for some sketches.”  Those sketches were packed with slapstick and surreal absurdity and were perfect fodder for a ten-year-old.  After they’d shown the sketches and the programme returned to Allen in the studio, his whisky glass would be full again.

 

However, when I look back at the show now, I realise the sketches have weathered the passage of time least well.  Rather, it’s the sections where Allen simply sat and chatted to his audience, marvelling at life’s ridiculousness and telling jokes, anecdotes and yarns, that seem timeless now. These tapped into a tradition of storytelling he was familiar with from his boyhood in Firhouse, Dublin, where his father worked as general manager of the Irish Times.

 

Allen’s formative years were schizophrenic ones.  From all accounts, he had a loving and cultured family at home, but he received his schooling from a succession of priests and nuns who had no compunction about beating their young charges and threatening them with eternal hellfire.  “People used to think of the nice, sweet little ladies,” he once said of those nuns.  “They used to knock the f**k out of you, in the most cruel way that they could.  They’d find bits of your body that were vulnerable to intense pain…  The priests were the same.”

 

It’s fair to say that during his professional career Allen got his revenge on the Catholic clergy who’d persecuted him in his schooldays, both through his verbal routines in the studio and through his sketches, which provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gags about priests, nuns, monks, altar boys, bishops and, occasionally, the Pope himself.

 

Taking pops at organised religion and at any kind of authority (for Allen was no fan of politicians either) was brave for a stand-up comedian on British TV in the 1970s, when the safe targets were considered to be mothers-in-law and ‘wimin’ generally, and blacks, Pakistanis, homosexuals and, indeed, Irish people.  However, in the history of British comedy, Allen wasn’t just important for his anti-authoritarian streak.  Although some of material consisted of traditionally structured jokes and punchlines, some of it too was based on his observations of everyday life and its absurdities.  In fact, he was doing observational humour long before the Alternative Comedy boom of the 1980s turned such humour into a stand-up staple.

 

Allen’s mocking of Catholicism earned him a TV ban in the Irish Republic.  This made me feel almost privileged to be living in Northern Ireland, where I could watch his show on the BBC.  Also, of course, I felt privileged to be a Northern Irish Protestant, so that I could laugh at all those gags about the Pope doing stripteases and performing somersaults down the aisles of Vatican chapels, bishops lusting after sexy nuns, priests sprinkling holy water over their ironing, altar boys breaking wind, confession boxes turning into dodgem cars, etc., without suffering Catholic guilt and fearing I’d be damned to eternal hellfire.  Though in the interests of religious equality I should say that I remember him cracking a lot of jokes about the Reverend Ian Paisley too.

 

Predictably, Allen also earned the ire of clean-up-TV campaigner Mrs Mary Whitehouse, head of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, Britain’s equivalent of the Moral Majority.  She once described one of Allen’s sketches, involving a post-coital conversation between a husband and wife, as ‘offensive, indecent and embarrassing’.  Incidentally, when I did some research on Mrs Whitehouse recently, I discovered that in 1977 her organisation gave an award for ‘wholesome family entertainment’ to Jimmy Savile.

 

Allen was said to have received death-threats from the Provisional IRA for putting the nose of Ireland’s Catholic establishment out of joint.  However, Danny Morrison, the former IRA man and editor of the Republican News, has claimed that Dave Allen was actually a big hit with his old terrorist colleagues, especially when they were incarcerated.  “Dave Allen was a major hit with Republican prisoners.  We all loved his show.  We particularly loved his anti-clerical material.  You have to remember that Dave Allen was a subversive in the Seventies.  He was anti-establishment, and you couldn’t get more anti-establishment than us, so we identified with him.”  So it sounds like during the 1970s the inmates of the Republican section of Long Kesh were laughing at those stripping and somersaulting Popes, lusty bishops, sexy nuns, comical priests, farting altar boys, bumping confession boxes, etc., as heartily as us Protestants were.

 

As well as his comedy shows in the 1970s, Allen hosted a documentary series where he would track down and interview eccentrics, oddballs and people who generally lived their lives not giving a toss about what other people thought of them.  Though they aren’t remembered today, Allen’s documentary programmes created a blueprint for later programme-makers like Louis Theroux.  Unlike Theroux’s trouble-seeking, if-I-give-them-enough-rope-they’ll-hang-themselves approach, however, Allen was genuinely interested in and respectful of his subjects’ eccentricities.

 

Dave Allen should have thrived during the 1980s.  After all, this was when a younger generation of comics made British comedy less about traditional joke-telling and more about lampooning authority and observing life’s absurdities, stuff Allen had been doing for years.  But his TV appearances became less frequent.  He did, however, enjoy an acclaimed run doing a comedy show in London’s West End.  I heard people claim at the time that Allen was such a genius he went onstage each evening without any script and simply talked about whatever came into his head.  From what I’ve learned subsequently, things weren’t quite so freeform.  Allen worked with scriptwriters and those writers sat in the front row of the audience holding up cards with keywords written on them, to keep his mind running in the right direction, if not exactly on track.

 

Dave Allen made his final TV series, of purely stand-up material, in the early 1990s.  I know some fans of his shows twenty years earlier who felt uncomfortable with these later performances.  Allen, now noticeably greyer, saggier and wrinklier, sounded a lot more acerbic than he had when he’d been perched on that 1970s chair with his whisky-glass, his slapstick sketches and his congenial Irish charm.  The routines were more observational than ever but were invested now with an old man’s cantankerousness, with Allen venting his spleen on monosyllabic teenagers, supermarket queues, dog-lovers, retirement and the aging process generally.

 

One of Allen’s most memorable tirades at this time went: “You wake to the clock, you go to work to the clock, you clock in to the clock, you clock out to the clock, you come home to the clock, you eat to the clock, you drink to the clock, you go to bed to the clock, you get up to the clock, you go back to work to the clock… You do that for forty years of your life and you retire. What do they f**king give you? A clock!”  As the F-word was still a big no-no on British television at the time, questions were raised about him in the House of Commons.

 

And that was pretty much it for Allen’s public appearances until his death in 2005.  His later low profile was due partly to ill-health and partly to his desire for a quiet and stress-free retirement.  And he managed to take with him to the grave the true story about what’d happened to his missing half-finger, although over the years he’d teased reporters, interviewers and audiences with tall tales about it.  He once told Clive James that his brother had knocked him on the jaw while he had the finger in his mouth, causing him to chomp it off.  And I seem to recall him telling a journalist for Loaded magazine that it’d been devoured by his own arsehole one night when that orifice was feeling particularly hungry.

 

Here’s some Youtube footage of Allen, a self-described ‘practising atheist’, subjecting the Book of Genesis to his own, inimitable scrutiny.

 

© BBC / From the Daily Telegraph