A happy one hundredth to Harryhausen

 

From facebook.com

 

I’ve just discovered that today would have been the 100th birthday of filmmaking and special effects titan Ray Harryhausen.   Without the presence of Harryhausen’s movies in my childhood, I suspect I would have developed into a very different, though possibly much more normal, human being.  Anyway, to mark the great man’s centenary, here’s what I wrote about him on the sad occasion of his death, back in March 2013.

 

This week saw the passing of the movie special-effects veteran Ray Harryhausen.  Younger filmmakers have been swift to pay tribute to Harryhausen, as they should do – the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, Nick Park and Terry Gilliam owe him a huge debt in terms of inspiration.

 

Ray Harryhausen wasn’t just a special-effects technician – he was a special-effects titan, a man who turned the process of stop-motion animation into an art-form and became arguably the greatest backroom wizard in cinematic history.  Harryhausen discovered his vocation when, as a kid in 1933, he was taken to a screening of King Kong.  Obsessed with the movie, the young Harryhausen learned how the special-effects man and stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien had used small, intricately-jointed models of Kong to bring the ape to life.  Slowly, methodically, incredibly painstakingly, O’Brien made slight adjustments to those models in between shooting them one frame of film at a time.  The result of these countless tiny adjustments was that when the footage was played back you had Kong moving onscreen with life-like fluidity.

 

Harryhausen was soon making his own stop-motion models and eventually he became apprenticed to O’Brien.  Before they won an Oscar for 1949’s Mighty Joe Young – a sort of King Kong-lite, about a giant gorilla who instead of swatting biplanes at the top of the Empire State Building rescues children from burning orphanages – O’Brien advised Harryhausen to work on giving his creations characters, not just mechanical movement.  He even suggested that the the budding animator go and study anatomy.

 

Harryhausen took O’Brien’s advice and he strove to invest his animated figures with soul.  As a consequence, in this modern era of CGI-drenched fantasy movies, critics commonly complain that today’s computer-generated monsters ‘lack the personality’ of Harryhausen’s creatures.  At the news of Harryhausen’s death, the author and critic Kim Newman tweeted: “It now takes 500 pixel-wranglers to do what Ray Harryhausen did better singled-handed.”

 

My childhood and adolescence in the 1970s and early 1980s coincided with the final decade of Harryhausen’s film-work – Golden Voyage of Sinbad appeared in cinemas in 1973, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1977 and Clash of the Titans in 1981.  Such was the success of Golden Voyage of Sinbad that his original Sinbad movie, 1958’s Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, was subsequently re-released, so I saw that on a big screen too.  Meanwhile, Harryhausen’s earlier movies from the 1950s and 1960s, such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1952), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1959), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years BC (1966) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), had become fixtures on TV.

 

For some annoying reason, ITV insisted on showing many of these films on weekday afternoons, so that they started while kids like myself were still at school.  I remember on one occasion I lied to my teacher so that I could get out of school early, run back to my house and catch the beginning of Jason and the Argonauts at half-past-two.

 

Though I liked monster movies, I quickly became critical of how their special effects were done.  I hated films where the giant creatures were clearly men in suits, stomping on model cities composed of shoebox-sized buildings, as was the case with the Japanese Godzilla movies.  I was also unimpressed by dinosaurs that were glove-puppets (see 1974’s The Land that Time Forgot) or magnified real-life lizards (as in 1960’s dreadful remake of The Lost World – “It’s a mighty tyrannosaurus!” cast-members would cry at the sight of something that was obviously a blown-up iguana with additional warts and frills glued onto it.)

 

But Harryhausen’s creatures were different.  Their shapes were uniquely monstrous, so that they couldn’t have special-effects men operating them from the inside, and they moved with a strange, graceful autonomy.  Furthermore, his dinosaurs were recognisable dinosaurs – brontosaurs, allosaurs, triceratopses – which was important when you were ten years old.

 

The movies were sometimes less-than-great in other departments.  Most notoriously, One Million Years BC, which Harryhausen made for Hammer Films, wasn’t scripted with much attention to paleontological science.  It had Raquel Welch and other Playboy Bunny-like cavewomen in fur bikinis living alongside dinosaurs in the Calabrian Stage of the Pleistocene Epoch.  Nonetheless, Harryhausen’s work elevated such films into the realms of low art.

 

© Hammer Films / Seven Arts

 

Harryhausen came to Edinburgh a dozen years ago and gave a talk at the (now closed) Lumiere Cinema at the back of the National Museum of Scotland.  Recently, a literary magazine called the Eildon Tree had published a story of mine that was about growing up in a small town in the 1970s and being dependent on the local fleapit cinema for escape into more exciting and more glamorous worlds.  Because of the story’s theme and setting, Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies got mentioned in it a few times.  So not only did I attend Harryhausen’s talk, but I brought along a copy of the magazine in case he was doing a signing session afterwards.

 

Although he was over 80 years old by then, Harryhausen was sharp-witted and good-humoured and he remained in good form despite some stupid questions from the audience.  (“Why didn’t you make a movie about the Loch Ness Monster?”)  The next day, Peter Jackson was flying him to New Zealand so that he could visit the set of the first Lord of the Rings movie, which was maybe why he was so jovial.  There were a lot of kids present and they were entranced by the jointed monster-models from various films that he’d brought with him.

 

Afterwards, a long queue of people assembled before Harryhausen’s podium with movie memorabilia for him to sign.  He observed drily that much of that memorabilia consisted of posters for One Million Years BC, in which Raquel Welch was displayed prominently in her fur bikini – so much for stop-motion animation.  Finally, it was my turn.  I handed over my copy of the Eildon Tree, open at the page where my story started, and asked if he could autograph it.

 

“It’s something I’ve had published,” I explained.  “It name-checks your Sinbad movies.”

 

Harryhausen looked at me, chuckled and said, “You know, son, you look a bit like Sinbad yourself!”

 

That didn’t just make my day – it made my month.

 

Anyway, to finish, here are my five all-time-favourite Ray Harryhausen monsters.

 

© Morningside Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

The Cyclops in Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

With its single eye, horn, squashed nose and fang-filled maw, the Cyclops in Harryhausen’s original Sinbad movie was a Satanic-looking thing.  During the scene where he lashed one of Sinbad’s crew to a spit and started to roast him over a fire, I seem to remember him licking his lips with hungry anticipation.  So evil did the Cyclops seem, in fact, that my ten-year-old self was quite pleased when Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) finally thrust a flaming torch into his eye and blinded him, and then the bastard plunged over a cliff edge to his death.

 

© Morningside Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Talos in Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Everybody raves about the fight with the skeletons at this film’s climax, which is indeed spectacular.  But it’s the earlier episode on the Isle of Bronze where the massive statue of Talos comes to life and goes lumbering after the crew of the Argo that’s my favourite part of the film.  In particular, the moment where Talos awakens is wonderful.  Hercules stands with the supposedly lifeless and inanimate Talos looming high in the background – but suddenly Talos’s head creaks around to look at him.  It’s the stuff that childhood nightmares are made of.  But I mean that in a good way.

 

© Morningside Productions / Warner Bros – Seven Arts

 

Gwangi in The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

“Not as good as The Valley of Gwangi,” was my disappointed reaction after watching Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993.  The earlier film, which has cowboys discovering a lost valley in Mexico where prehistoric life has somehow survived to the present day, was originally an unrealised project by Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien.  The scene where the cowboys, on horseback, manage to lasso an allosaurus — the Gwangi of the title — is a brilliant cinematic moment that’s been stuck in my head ever since.

 

© Morningside Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Kali in Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

The second of the Sinbad movies has John Philip Law in the title role.  He’s up against a villainous sorcerer, played by Tom Baker, who was subsequently picked to play Doctor Who on the strength of his performance here.  Baker’s villain, like Harryhausen himself, specialises in bringing inanimate objects to life.  In the film’s best scene, he animates a statue of the many-armed Hindu Goddess Kali, equips her with half-a-dozen swords and sends her into battle with Sinbad and his men like a giant, whirling lawnmower of death.

 

Medusa in Clash of the Titans (1981)

Clash of the Titans was Harryhausen’s final film and also one of his most underrated.  Indeed, I’ve read that the hostile reviews given to Clash were one reason why he decided to retire at this time.  (“An unbearable bore of a film,” bitched Variety, “that will probably put to sleep the few adults stuck taking the kids to it.”)  Actually, in the years since, it’s become one of his best-remembered pictures and a little while ago it was remade, though inevitably with loads of crap CGI.  Its highlight is the scene where Perseus blunders into Medusa’s darkened lair, which is grotesquely populated by the figures of her turned-to-stone victims, and tries to outwit the serpent-haired, serpent-tailed and asthmatic-sounding monster.  And with that memorably scary sequence, the great Ray Harryhausen bowed out of film-making.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists

We need to talk about Winston

 

© unsplash.com / Vincent Creton

 

With his bronze statue in London’s Parliament Square getting daubed in some uncomplimentary (but to be honest, accurate) graffiti during the anti-racism demonstrations on June 8th, and then being unceremoniously closed up inside a giant box to protect it from further protests, and then being the subject of a scurrilous and rabble-rousing campaign by the Daily Mail whereby people were urged to sign a petition to stop it being removed – as if there was actually one iota of political willpower in Britain to get rid of it – Winston Churchill and the question of whether he was a good guy or a bad guy are back in the news.  In fact, Churchill and all things relating to the British experience of World War II seem more prominent than ever with the death on June 18th of wartime ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’ Dame Vera Lynn.  With impeccable timing, Dame Vera died 80 years to the day that Churchill delivered his ‘finest hour’ speech.

 

Therefore, it seems timely to dust down and repost this blog entry about Churchill, which first appeared here in January 2019 while a high-profile bust-up about Churchill’s moral standing was taking place between Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament Ross Greer and Good Morning Britain presenter / gobshite Piers Morgan. 

 

I know it’s wishing for way too much, but it’s a pity there hasn’t been less heated and more nuanced debate about Churchill, about the opinions he held and decisions he made, and about the influence he’s had since his death.  This is especially so as Churchill has seemingly become a totemic figure for the half of the British electorate who in June 2016 voted to leave the European Union.  Indeed, in this era of all-pervasive social media, when everybody seems to have a twitter and Facebook account, if not a website and a blog, I suspect there’s been more written about the man since the Brexit vote that was ever written about him before it.

 

So what to make of Churchill?  A hero?  A villain?  Or something in between?  Well, here are the facts as I see them for the prosecution and the defence.  Those for the prosecution are numerous and varied.  Those for the defence are brief, but weighty.

 

In his correspondence as a young man attached to the Malakand Field Force, which fought Mohmand rebels in the Swat Valley in Northwest India in 1897, Churchill comes across as racist and bellicose.   He said of the Pashtun tribespeople: “in proportion that these valleys are purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased, and the progress of mankind accelerated.”  Admittedly, the tribespeople were brutal towards anyone who antagonised them, but the British more than matched them for cruelty.  In a letter in September 1897, Churchill wrote approvingly that: “After today we begin to burn villages.  Every one.  And all who resist will be killed without quarter.”  Later, in his autobiography, he noted how “every tribesman who was caught was speared or cut down at once.”

 

A decade later, when he was British Home Secretary, one of Churchill’s more alarming enthusiasms was for eugenics.  He wrote about his fear that the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes… constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate” and advocated sterilization as a solution.  Writing in a departmental paper in 1910, he suggested the solution of labour camps alongside that of sterilization: “I propose that 100,000 degenerate Britons should be forcibly sterilised and others put in labour camps to halt the decline of the British race.”

 

Predictably, Churchill’s views on sexual equality were no more enlightened.  Of the suffrage movement, he once commented: “Nothing would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise.  I am not going to be henpecked into a question of such importance.”

 

From britishbattles.com / painting by Charles Dixon

 

Churchill saw World War I, when he was in charge of the British Admiralty, as an opportunity for glory: “I have it in me to be a successful soldier,” he boasted.  “I can visualise great movements and combinations.”  Unfortunately, the great movement he visualised – sending the fleet up the Dardanelles and grabbing Constantinople and the waterways that linked the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, thus enfeebling the Ottoman Empire, improving access between the Allies and Russia and drawing Greece, Romania and Bulgaria into the war on the Allies’ side – resulted in the bloody, nine-month stalemate of Gallipoli in 1915.  This ended with a death toll of 65,000 Turks, 26,000 Britons, 8,000 French, 7,800 Australians, 2,445 New Zealanders and 1,682 Indians.  Churchill stayed unrepentant about what he’d tried and failed to achieve at Gallipoli: “The Dardanelles might have saved millions of lives.  Don’t imagine I am running away from the Dardanelles.  I glory in it.”  However, the site historyextra.com gives his scheme a damning assessment: “…far from being a brilliant, potentially war-winning strategy, it was a piece of folly that was always likely to fail.”

 

One thing I’ll give Churchill credit for.  After the Gallipoli fiasco, he joined the British Army, became a battalion commander and served with the Grenadier Guards and Royal Scots Fusiliers.  According to his Wikipedia entry, this included 36 ventures into No Man’s Land.  If only every politician who made a military blunder was forced to pay for it by becoming a soldier in a warzone.  There’d surely be fewer military blunders by politicians.  In fact, there’d be a hell of a lot less military adventurism by them in the first place.

 

1917 saw the Russian Revolution and no sooner had the 1918 Armistice been signed than the British establishment had something new, Bolshevism, to worry about.  Churchill was dismayingly inclined to blame this on a Jewish conspiracy: “With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews.  Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders…  Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews ever whit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing.”

 

In February 1919, the fear that Britain was on the cusp of a workers’ revolution helped Churchill, as Secretary of State for Air and War, and his cabinet colleagues decide to send 10,000 troops into Glasgow to deal with striking workers.  Churchill already had form in this area.  As Home Secretary in 1910 he’d sent in troops to deal with striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales.  Unsurprisingly, today, Churchill is not quite as widely revered among the Scots and Welsh as he is among his fellow Englishmen.  His disdain for the labour movement hadn’t abated by the time of the General Strike in 1926.  While the Prime Minister Lord Birkenhead tried to reach agreement with the Trade Unions, he was strongly opposed by Churchill, who was desperate for an all-out fight with them.

 

Elsewhere on these islands, Churchill is not remembered with much affection in Ireland.  In 1920, he oversaw the deployment in Ireland of the Black and Tans, the police force who soon became notorious for their unrestrained brutality and whose memory poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for decades afterwards.  Churchill ignored warnings that the damage that the Black and Tans were doing.  Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson commented: “I warned him again that those Black and Tans who are committing very indiscriminate reprisals will play the devil in Ireland, but he won’t listen or agree.”  As for the Tans’ habit of killing suspected troublemakers without bothering to arrest them and put them on trial, Wilson said, “Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me.”

 

From historyireland.com

 

Unsurprisingly, Churchill is better thought of among the pro-British Protestant community of Northern Ireland.  But this wasn’t always so.  It’s said that in 1912, when he visited Belfast, thousands of Protestant workers from the Harland and Wolff shipyard lined the streets wanting to pelt his car with rivets, on account of his support for Irish Home Rule.  And though Ulster Protestants often express pride about Northern Ireland taking part in the UK’s war effort from 1939 to 1945 while southern Ireland opted to remain neutral, it must rankle that Churchill offered Eamon De Valera a united Ireland if he agreed to bring his country into the war on Britain’s side.

 

Churchill also found time to leave his mark on Iraq: not in a good way.  As convener of a conference in Cairo in 1912 to draw up the boundaries of Britain’s Middle Eastern mandate, he unwisely lumped together three warring factions, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, within the borders of the new country.  And when Shiites and Sunnis rebelled against British colonial rule there in 1920, Churchill ordered military oppression and retribution on par with what he’d seen in the Swat Valley 23 years earlier – villages burned, civilians as well as combatants killed – and employed some deadly new technology too.  He approved the use of chemical weapons against Iraqis, having opined earlier: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.  I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…  It will cause great inconvenience and spread a lively terror.”

 

Also causing great inconvenience and lively terror was his use of ‘aerial policing’, i.e. getting the RAF to bomb Iraqi villages.  Unsurprisingly, these bombings, still within living memory, didn’t put the Iraqi population at ease when in the early 2000s British troops arrived again in their country thanks to the actions of Tony Blair and George Bush Jr.

 

Churchill also sent planes and chemical weapons to attack Bolsheviks in northern Russia in 1919.  Again, he was unrepentant about waging chemical warfare: “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell that makes the said native sneeze?  It is really too silly.”

 

The biggest stain on Churchill’s record is surely his role in the Bengal Famine of 1943 that claimed three million or more lives.  Let me quote the Indian writer and politician Dr Shashi Tharoor: “Not only did the British pursue its own policy of not helping the victims of this famine which was created by their policies.  Churchill persisted in exporting grain to Europe, not to feed actual ‘Sturdy Tommies’, to use his phrase, but to add to the buffer stocks that were being piled up in the event of a future invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia…  Ships laden with wheat were coming in from Australia, docking in Calcutta and were instructed by Churchill not to disembark their cargo but sail on to Europe.  And when conscience-stricken British officials wrote to the Prime Minister in London pointing out that his policies were causing needless loss of life all he could do was write peevishly in the margin of the report, ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’”

 

Another charge against Churchill during World War Two is that in 1944 he basically threw the Greek resistance movement, i.e. the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and the National Liberation Front (EAM), under the bus.  Previously, they’d fought alongside the British, against the Nazis.  However, afraid of the Communist Party’s influence within the resistance, and wanting to restore the monarchy and general pre-war status quo in Greece, he opted to abandon the partisans and place British support behind elements who’d collaborated with the Nazis.  These included officers in the Security Battalions and SS-affiliated Special Security Branch and they were soon incorporated into the post-occupation army, security forces and judiciary.   The result was the gunning down of unarmed protestors in Athens on December 3rd, 1944, which marked the beginning of the five-week conflict in the city known as the Dekemvriana; which in turn helped lead to the three-year Greek Civil War, estimated to have cost some 158,000 lives.

 

From greekreporter.com

 

Churchill was voted out of office in 1945 but returned for a second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955.  It was on this watch that he responded to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in a characteristically sledgehammer manner.  By the uprising’s end, it was calculated that colonial forces had killed 10,000 Africans, roughly four times the number killed by the Mau Mau.  Indeed, if you were a white settler in Kenya, you stood a better chance of dying in a road accident than at the hands of the rebels.  The techniques employed by British troops for dealing with the Mau Mau included mass arrests, mass trials, mass hangings, torture, whippings, mutilations, the burning of villages, ‘free fire zones’ where any African person could be a target, forced labour and huge detention camps where disease and maltreatment were rife and conditions were scarcely any better than they’d been in German and Japanese camps a decade earlier.

 

It’s no surprise that when Barack Obama became US president in 2008, a miniature act of statue removal was carried out in the Oval Office.  Obama, whose Kenyan grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama had been among those arrested and tortured during the Mau Mau uprising, saw it that Churchill’s bust disappeared from his workplace.

 

That’s a damning charge-sheet.  What’s to be said in Churchill’s defence?  Well, it’s a trite observation, but though the man’s opinions and decisions were frequently rotten, they weren’t as rotten as those offered by the opposing side between 1939 and 1945.  No doubt Churchill’s idea of utopia was a British Empire where the sun never set.  There’d be a catastrophic famine here, and a bloodily put-down insurgency there, but he’d regard that as the regrettable but unavoidable price of the White Man having to shoulder his civilising burden… And the White Man continuing on the side to fill his pockets with the trade and plunder of his colonies.  Among the Empire’s ‘subjects’, life for many would be humiliating and wretched, and for some pretty hellish.  But compare that with Adolf Hitler’s idea of utopia, which frankly doesn’t bear thinking about.

 

And he was in possession of good qualities – courage, determination, intellect, a rhetorical flair – that enabled him to galvanise the British population to make a stand against Nazism and prevent all of Western Europe from falling under Hitler’s influence.  Of course, saying he won the war for Britain is different from saying he won the war full stop, which is what many of his modern-day fans in Britain seem to believe he did.

 

As the saying goes, cometh the hour, cometh the man.  That the man happened to be an asshole in most other ways doesn’t denigrate his achievements during the hour itself.  I’d like to think that if I’d lived in Britain during World War II, and I’d known about Churchill what I know about him now, I wouldn’t have let the old git into my house.  But I’d have been secretly and grudgingly relieved that he was running the country at the time.

 

A while ago, the Times columnist Alex Massey penned an article on the subject.  Though I find Massey a bit right-wing and fogeyish, I agree with his article’s title: CHURCHILL WAS A GREAT BRITON, NOT A GREAT MAN.  I don’t, however, agree with some of Massey’s sentiments.  He claims that it’s wrong to apply the value judgements of the 21st century to a historical figure whose views were typical of and acceptable among the British ruling class of his time.  But in fact, there were plenty of people alive when Churchill was alive who detested him too.  However, they tended to be Indians, Kenyans, Greeks, Irish, Iraqis, etc.  People whose opinions rarely get much coverage in British history books.

 

Come to think of it, Britons would find it enlightening if they got their history from sources in a wider and more international pool than they do now.   In these Brexiting times, unfortunately, with World War II the only bit of history that many British people seem to care about, and with British politicians talking misty-eyed about creating a trading ‘Empire 2.0’ after withdrawal from the EU, I don’t think British awareness of history is going to get any wider.

 

It’s going to get even narrower, which won’t be good for Britain’s future place in the world.

 

© unsplash.com / Arthur Osipyan

Locked-down Colombo

 

 

A few weeks have now passed since Colombo, the city where I live, emerged from Covid-19 lockdown.

 

Even now, walking about the city has a slightly eerie feeling of unreality.  The traffic isn’t quite as heavy as it was, though it’s gradually returning to the standards of the congested bad old days.  But some business premises remain closed, fewer pedestrians are using the pavements and nearly everyone is wearing a mask.

 

Not that I’m complaining about the masks, of course.  When it comes to the wearing of these, I’m in agreement with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who memorably tweeted the other day, “The science is unanimous – if we all wear masks, we slow down the spread and can open safely.  It’s not a political issue.  Anyone making it a political issue is an absolute moron…”  That sounds even better if you read it aloud in the Terminator’s accent.

 

I say ‘lockdown’, but in fact what we had for nearly two months in Colombo was a curfew, where you stayed indoors and supposedly weren’t even allowed to nip outside for a spot of exercise.  Hence, whenever I went down to the front door of our apartment building to pick up a delivery, I’d be greeted by the sight of our neighbour from upstairs burning off calories by riding her bicycle around and around the building’s small concourse.  Sri Lankan people seemed generally to accept and put up with the inconvenience of this.  I suppose it’s partly due to unhappy past experiences.  Events like the 30-year civil war, the 2004 tsunami and the Easter Sunday bombings last year have made them appreciate the importance and necessity of emergency security measures.

 

The curfew was imposed on Friday, March 20th.  There was an experimental half-day lifting of the curfew four days later, which gave folk a chance to get to the shops and stock up on supplies.  (By this point, Colombo’s food retailers hadn’t yet set up a coherent online system whereby people could order things from their homes and have them delivered.)

 

On March 24th, curfew-lifting day, I got up and headed out at about 7.00 AM, my goal being do some shopping at the nearest supermarket, Food City on Marine Drive.  When I arrived at Food City, I discovered that a queue had formed outside, which was slowly being threaded into the premises by a group of shopworkers and policemen.  I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.  The queue actually turned 90 degrees at the far corner of that block and continued up a side street, and by the time I reached the end of the queue I’d counted 173 people.  Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a long queue of 173.

 

 

The queue inched along and more than two hours passed before I got into the supermarket.  The shopworkers and police at the entrance were making sure that only a couple of dozen people were inside the shop at any one time, to enable social distancing.  But I’d expected a long wait and brought a book along and I spent those hours in the queue reading.  In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1975 gothic opus Interview with a Vampire.  Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems pretty bearable.

 

 

The people I saw outside and inside Food City behaved responsibly, but March 24th’s curfew-lifting didn’t seem to be a success.  Later that day, I saw reports in the media about crowded shops, markets and vehicles across the city and the country where the infectious and opportunistic Covid-19 virus would have enjoyed a field day.  Afterwards, when the authorities re-imposed the curfew, they kept it in place for a long, long time.

 

In fact, the only time I ventured beyond the edges of our premises during the next seven weeks was one day when I realised that I needed to get cash.  By now Colombo’s retailers had managed to set up a working delivery system, but not everything could be paid for online and / or with cards.  Sometimes you needed to pay the deliverers with physical money when they arrived at your door.  So off I trudged to the nearest ATM, not knowing what to expect.

 

This experience did make me feel like I was journeying through a city in the grip of a pandemic – a pandemic portrayed in an apocalyptic sci-fi / horror movie.  Traffic on Marine Drive was no more than a trickle.  The only people I saw who weren’t in vehicles or uniform were the staff at the Lanka Filling Station – a few vehicles were nosing onto their concourse to get petrol – and a couple of guys on the far side of the road, next to the sea, loading white Styrofoam boxes of fish onto the back of a delivery truck.  All the businesses along the road looked like they’d been shut for an eternity.  Oddest of all was the sight of our local branch of the KFC, which I’ve rarely seen not busy.  There was something utterly grim about the sight of all its chairs upturned and set on top of its tables, their jutting chair-legs forming a prickly metallic forest in the shadowy, unlit eating area.

 

Despite its close proximity to our building, the ATM I was heading for was actually in a different district of Colombo, across the Kirillapone Canal that forms the boundary between Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya.  And a security checkpoint staffed by three armed soldiers and ten police officers and consisting of a tent, desk and wheeled metal barriers had been set up by the canal bridge.  I noticed how this had also become the gathering point for the local population of crows, who usually assemble hungrily and hopefully where human beings assemble too.  So I had to traverse this checkpoint, show them my passport and explain where I was coming from, where I was going to and why.  I was allowed to continue to the ATM on the strict proviso that I returned home immediately afterwards.

 

During April and into May rumours about when the curfew would be lifted were plentiful, but it wasn’t until the week beginning May 11th that a modicum of normalcy returned in Colombo.  Not only were businesses allowed to have some ‘essential’ employees back at their workplaces (as opposed to ‘working from home’), but the general public were permitted outside on one weekday according to the final digit of their ID card number.  If that last digit on your ID card (or, if you were a foreign resident, your passport) was a 1 or 2, you were allowed out on Monday; if it was a 3 or 4, you were allowed out on Tuesday; and so on.  For me, this meant I could finally escape house arrest on Thursday, May 14th.

 

I was actually working from home for most of that day, so I didn’t get to venture out until late in the afternoon, which in the pre-Covid-19 era would have coincided with Colombo’s homeward-heading rush-hour.  This time the experience felt nowhere near as desolate as when I’d trudged to the ATM the previous month.  Most of the city remained closed, however, and considering what time of day it was, the lack of traffic on Marine Drive was astounding.  I was also shocked when a train rolled past along the nearby coastal railway tracks.  In the normal world, the train would have been stuffed with end-of-the-day commuters.  The more adventurous ones would be hanging out of the doorways while Colombo whooshed past below them.  But some carriages in this train barely contained a soul.

 

 

I felt melancholy walking around Colombo that day because I passed a few businesses to which I’d given my custom in the past – okay, pubs – and they looked practically derelict.  I wondered if they’d ever reopen.  One example was the Western Hotel, which’d optimistically put potted palm trees out along its façade shortly before the virus and curfew arrived.  Another was that mainstay of Sea Avenue, the Vespa Sports Club, its colonial-era bungalow standing silently in the middle of its empty courtyard.

 

 

More encouragingly, I happened to pass my favourite Chinese restaurant, the Min Han on Deanstone Place, just as one of its owners, Mo, materialised at its doorway.  So I was able to enjoy a socially distanced blether with him.  He told me that the restaurant was taking orders and providing takeaways and money was thankfully starting to trickle in again.

 

 

Now, a month later, the Min Han seems to be fully back in business and I’d advise all Colombo-based lovers of authentic Chinese food to head there immediately.  It’s highly recommended.

 

One other feature of traversing this strange, semi-deserted version of Colombo was how, in places I’d walked through practically every day of the past six years, I noticed things in the quietude that I’d never noticed before.  For example, there was a flowery Christian shrine near the Seylan Bank on Duplication Road.  Or a depiction of Mariah Carey, lurking sinisterly in the undergrowth near the entrance of the disused Indra Regent building, a little further south along the same street.

 

 

So those are my memories of locked-down Colombo between March and May 2020.  It was an economically brutal experience for the city and for the country as a whole.  But I think it was a necessary experience because three months after Covid-19 appeared here, the total number of cases have been kept below 2000 and there’ve been only 11 deaths.  Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis that went on in the UK, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.  Or worse, what happened in the USA with Donald ‘Drink Bleach’ Trump at the helm.  Let’s just hope that, after all the sacrifices made, and with life making a hopeful return to normal, Sri Lanka doesn’t have to deal with a resurgence of that bloody microbe in the near future.

Edinburgh’s statues – keep, erect or chuck in the Forth?

 

 

It’s been an exciting week for Britain’s civic statues.  Normally, these often antiquated, discoloured and birdshit-splattered lumps of sculpted stonework, which adorn town and city centres across the land and commemorate important figures and events of bygone eras, go cruelly unnoticed by 99.9% of the folk who trudge past them.  Well, that’s changed after what happened a week ago.

 

On June 7th, in Bristol, a statue of the 17th-century Bristolian merchant and Tory politician Edward Colston got hauled down by a crowd protesting the police’s murder of George Floyd in the USA and was tossed into the drink at the nearby harbour.  It’s ironic that this monument of Colston’s time on earth should end up underwater, for that was where many of the victims of Colston’s business activities ended up too.  During his involvement with notorious slave-traders the Royal African Company, the company shipped an estimated 84,000 Africans across the Atlantic and 19,000 of them died en route and were thrown overboard to the waves and sharks.

 

Suddenly, everybody’s eyeing up the statues that, at some time or other and for some reason or other, have been erected in Britain’s public spaces.  Suddenly, everybody’s wondering about the virtue, or lack of virtue, of those statues’ subjects.  Do they deserve to occupy public space?  Or, like the representation of Colston, do they deserve to be dumped in the nearest body of water?

 

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the city I know best, Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh, and the chunks of stony civic artistry that decorate it.  In the manner of the old, risqué question-and-answer game kiss, marry, kill? (which was known in the less genteel parts I hail from as shag, marry, kill?), here’s an evaluation of Edinburgh’s existing statues and potential statues under the options keep, erect or chuck in the Firth of Forth?

 

The first statue many people see when arriving in Edinburgh – when they walk out of the bus station into St Andrew Square – is a strong candidate for being chucked into the chilly waters north of the city.  Perched on a 150-foot-high column in the middle of the square is a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville.  Melville started off as a lawyer and became Lord Advocate (Scotland’s chief public prosecutor) at the age of 33, but then moved into politics.  It was as Secretary of State for Britain’s Home Department in the 1790s that he was responsible for delaying the abolition of the slave trade.  By the time it was abolished, a decade-and-a-half later in 1807, a huge additional number of Africans had ended up in slavery, a half-million according to Dundas’s Wikipedia entry.

 

According to his descendent Bobby Dundas, 10th Viscount Melville, Henry Dundas was actually an abolitionist who’d been forced to be pragmatic.   He’d supposedly “provided the word ‘gradual’” so that abolition “would get through legislation and became law, and without that, it wouldn’t have passed for decades.”  But while there is something good to be said about Dundas during his time as a lawyer – which I’ll describe later in this entry – by the time of his political career I doubt if he was anything more than what J.M. Barrie described as ‘a Scotsman on the make’.  He saw his fortunes bound up with the rise and reputation of the ‘second’ British Empire and spent, for example, eight years as Director of the Board of Control over the East India Company.  Concern for the hundreds of thousands whose lives were blighted or ended by slavery was surely not high in his list of priorities.

 

I suppose you could make a case for Dundas remaining in St Andrew Square (with a giant plaque providing information about his misdeeds) as a rebuff to those Scottish nationalists, still too many in number, who kid themselves that Scotland was only ever a subject, a victim even, of the British Empire.  As the historian Tom Nairn memorably put it in 1968: “Scotland is not a colony, a semi-colony, a pseudo-colony, a near-colony, a neo-colony, or any other colony of the English.  She is a junior but (as these things go) a highly successful partner in the general business enterprise of Anglo-Scots imperialism.”  Dundas’s statue is an uncomfortable reminder of this.

 

From the Brown digital repository at Brown University Library

 

Meanwhile, another statue I’m not fond of stands close by, that of George IV at the intersection of George Street and Hanover Street.  This annoys me because it embodies the grovelling, forelock-tugging attitude that a certain, bourgeoise section of Scottish society has always shown to the British Royal Family.  In 1822 George arrived in Edinburgh on what was the first visit to Scotland by a British monarch in two centuries and was greeted by a grotesque, over-the-top display of kilts, bagpipes and tartanry stage-managed by that great Caledonian romanticizer Sir Walter Scott.  This helped cement the tartan-swathed Brigadoon image that the outside world has had of Scotland since (though of course Scott’s novels helped cement it too).

 

The fact that it went bonkers over a king as unappealing as George IV is rather humiliating for Edinburgh in retrospect.  George is best-known today as the vain, idiotic Prince Regent character played by Hugh Laurie in the TV comedy series Blackadder the Third (1987).  (“Someone said I had the wit and intellect of a donkey.”  “Oh, an absurd suggestion sir, unless it was a particularly stupid donkey.”)  However, Hugh Laurie was at least slim.  By 1822 George had become grotesquely obese after years of gluttony and drunkenness.  His vanity remained, though, and according to the artist David Wilkie would spend three hours getting dressed and corseted up but still resembled ‘a great sausage stuffed into the covering’.

 

Of course, the depiction of George IV on George Street / Hanover Street is a highly flattering one.  Perhaps the absurdity of 1822’s pageantry should be highlighted by having the current statue of George replaced with a more accurate one.  I’d like to see a statue of him as he really was during the visit – crammed into Highland dress with, under his kilt, his swollen gout-stricken legs wrapped up in flesh-coloured tights.  A sight for sore eyes, in other words.

 

Over in Edinburgh Old Town, within the precincts of Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find another statue that’s problematic.  This is of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of World War One, who was born in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square in 1861.  Haig’s reputation as a military commander and tactician has taken a battering posthumously, notably with the publication of Alan Clark’s damning historical volume The Donkeys in 1961 and the release of Richard Attenborough’s equally damning film Oh, What a Lovely War! In 1969.  These helped create the present-day image of Haig as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent, worthy of the nicknames ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’.  His reputation also got a kicking in 1989’s Blackadder Goes Forth, in which Geoffrey Palmer appeared as Haig, using a dustpan and brush to nonchalantly sweep up fallen toy soldiers from a battlefield diorama and toss them over his shoulder.  Yes, Edinburgh has cornered the market for statues of people who were in Blackadder.

 

But I wouldn’t throw Haig’s statue into the Forth.  It really belongs in a museum – a museum that illustrates the historical ebbs and flows of reputation as time moves on, events become distant, viewpoints shift and opinions change.  It’s easy to forget today that up until his death, Haig was massively popular among the British public, which included the many ex-soldiers who’d served under him, and his funeral in 1928 was marked by a day of national mourning.

 

And problematic too is the statue in Parliament Square, behind St Giles’ Cathedral, of King Charles II.  After he came to the throne in 1660, Charles and his brother, the future King James II, set up the Royal African Company of which Edward Colston was a key member.  During its operations, the company was responsible for the transportation of more slaves than any other institution – an estimated 212,000, of whom 44,000 died before they reached the Americas.  However, Charles II’s statue has just been the subject of a thoughtful article by Alan Ramsay in the web magazine Bella Caledonia, so I won’t say any more about it.  Here’s a link to the article.

 

However, not far away, in the New College Quadrangle on the Mound, you’ll find a statue of a slave.  The subject of this statue spent two years toiling in a galley.  According to his Wikipedia entry, he and his fellow slaves ‘were chained to benches and rowed throughout the day without a change of posture while an officer watched over them with a whip in hand’.  Wow, you’re probably thinking, well done, Edinburgh!  You made the right choice with one of your statues!  Well, don’t get too excited.  For that slave was none other than the minister and theologian John Knox, who led the Reformation in Scotland and founded the Church of Scotland.  Earlier, from 1547 to 1549, he’d been a galley slave under the French.  Obviously, Knox is someone whose views on women (in 1556-58 he penned the memorably titled treatise First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women) and on practitioners of other religions (he described the Catholic church as ‘a synagogue of Satan’ and a ‘harlot’ that was ‘polluted with all kinds of spiritual fornication’ and full of ‘pestilent papists’) are ones most people find unpalatable today.

 

From the National Library of Wales

 

I really don’t know about Knox’s statue in Edinburgh.  He established Scotland’s national church and indirectly shaped the nation’s character for centuries to come, so you can’t really not have a statue of him there.  But it’s like have your reactionary and slightly Alzheimer’s-addled granddad at the table for Christmas dinner.  He may be coming out with a stream of racist inventive, but you know you owe your existence to him.  So you just smile at him and pretend not to hear what he’s saying.

 

To be more positive – there are statues in Edinburgh I like too.  Unexpectedly but pleasingly, the Old Calton Cemetery on Calton Hill has one of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, the man who delivered the Gettysburg address and preserved the American Union during the Civil War, and surely a contender for the title of Most Awesome US President Ever.  (Not that he’s had much competition for that title recently.)  Honest Abe’s statue stands magisterially atop a memorial to Scottish-American soldiers.  Nearby in the cemetery is an obelisk – okay, not quite a statue – erected in memory of the members of a universal suffrage group called the Friends of the People, who were persecuted in 1793.  Nowadays, of course, their ideas are seen as the stuff of basic Human Rights, but to the establishment of the time the Friends of the People were unspeakable subversives.

 

I like the fact that Edinburgh has some statues of writers.  So it should do, as it was designated the first ever City of Literature by UNESCO in 2004.  There’s one of Sir Walter Scott on Princes Street, at the bottom of the Scott monument, and one of Robert Burns at Leith (in addition to the Burns Monument on Calton Hill), and one of Robert Louis Stevenson at Colinton, and one of Sherlock Holmes commemorating the Edinburgh-born Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Picardy Place.  A few less well-known scribblers have statues too.  For example, the poet Robert Fergusson has one pacing past the entrance to the Canongate Cemetery, the poet and playwright Allan Ramsay has one in Princess Street Gardens, and the 19th-century children’s novelist Catherine Sinclair has a gothic, tapering structure in her memory standing on the corner of North Charlotte Street and St Colme Street.

 

 

I’m also glad the city has paid tribute to its most famous philosopher David Hume, who has a statue on the Royal Mile, to its most famous economist Adam Smith, who has a statue on the Royal Mile too, and to its most famous mathematical physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who has one on George Street.  And let’s not forget James Braidwood, who created Edinburgh’s – and the world’s – first municipal firefighting service and is honoured by a statue in Parliament Square.

 

And what statues should be erected?  Well, it seems a no-brainer to have a statue somewhere in Scotland’s capital city commemorating the man who established the illegality of slavery in the country.  This was Joseph Knight, an African slave purchased in Jamaica by the sugar-plantation owner Sir John Wedderburn of Ballendean, 6th Baronet of Blackness.  Wedderburn brought Knight back to Scotland as a servant in 1769 and when Knight protested his freedom, the pair of them ended up in court.  A final decision went in Knight’s favour in the Court of Session in 1777, when it was decreed that slavery was not recognised under Scots Law.   Indeed, a statue of Knight in Edinburgh might even improve Henry Dundas’s reputation by a smidgeon, for it was Dundas, Lord Advocate at the time, who acted as Knight’s counsel in the Court of Session.  According to the famous lawyer and biographer James Boswell, Dundas gave a stirring speech in support of Knight’s cause.  Which makes his subsequent actions regarding the abolition of the slave trade seem even more depressing.

 

From the statues I’ve listed so far, there’s obviously a dearth of female ones in Edinburgh.  So I’d also like to see a statue of Elsie Inglis, the Edinburgh-educated, late 19th century / early 20th century doctor and surgeon who founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and did much to improve healthcare for female patients.  She was also involved in the Suffrage Movement and during World War I set up Scottish Women’s Hospital units to care for injured soldiers in Belgium, France, Russia and Serbia,  That last country awarded her the Serbian Order of the White Eagle a year before her death in 1917.

 

© Penguin Books

 

The great Edinburgh novelist Muriel Spark should be honoured too.  Why not have a statue of her most famous literary creation, Miss Jean Brodie, swanning around Marchmont, where Spark went to school and supposedly got some of her inspiration for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) from a teacher there?  Mind you, I could see people objecting to the statue on account of Brodie’s politics, for in the novel she was a fan of Benito Mussolini and an admirer of fascism.  Finally, I don’t see why the much-missed parliamentarian Margo MacDonald shouldn’t be commemorated with a statue outside Easter Road Stadium in Leith, home of her favourite football club, Hibernian.

 

And now for a few more personal choices…  If his hometown of Salford doesn’t get around to honouring him with a statue, why can’t Edinburgh stick up a statue of Mark E. Smith, the driving force behind the great punk/post-punk band the Fall?  Smith lived in Edinburgh in the late 1980s, wrote a song about the city, 1991’s Edinburgh Man, and is rumoured to have supported Heart of Midlothian Football Club.  Meanwhile, two of Edinburgh’s greatest bands, the Exploited and Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, could be jointly honoured by a statue of the man who played in both of them (as well as performing briefly with Nirvana), guitarist Big John Duncan.  Yes, a statue of Big John would be… imposing.  I’d also like to see a statue in Morningside of the Scottish trade unionist Alec Kitson and the young Sean Connery delivering milk on a cart together, as they famously did there in the 1940s.  And while I hate the man’s politics, I’d like to see a dynamic statue of Nigel Farage fleeing into the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile in 2013, to escape protestors who were chanting, “Nigel, you’re a bawbag.”

 

However, for visitors to Edinburgh, there’s one statue that’s famous above all others.  This is of course the one of loyal wee Scots terrier Greyfriars Bobby, which stands on the corner between Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge, outside Greyfriars Kirkyard.  Poor Bobby has had it rough lately because a modern custom has evolved whereby sightseers rub his bronze nose to bring themselves good luck.  As a result of continued, countless rubbings, the nose has been gradually eroding away.  If Henry Dundas is ever removed from the top of his column in St Andrew Square, we’ll know where to move Greyfriars Bobby for the sake of his health.

 

Cinematic heroes 1: Jon Finch

 

© Goodtimes Enterprises / Anglo-EMI Film Distributors

 

The film and TV actor Jon Finch died seven-and-a-half years ago.  At the time of his passing, late on in 2012, he hadn’t worked for several years and had lived quietly in the English town of Hastings and his death had apparently gone undiscovered for some time.  Word of his funeral wasn’t announced until January 2013.  For that reason, obituaries for him in the British media were intermittent and patchy.  I decided to pen a few words of tribute on this blog and the resulting post seemed to rank high on Google searches about Finch – as I’d said, obituaries for him were intermittent and patchy.  Gratifyingly, a number of people who’d known Finch over the years came across my post and left comments on it.  In fact it was one of this blog’s most commented-on entries.  (And I’m kicking myself that, because this blog had to recently get a post-hacking reboot, those comments from Finch’s friends have now been lost.)

 

Anyway, I thought I’d revisit, rewrite and update what I originally wrote about Finch in 2013 and repost it.  Annoyingly, though, I still haven’t managed to see 1973’s The Final Programme

 

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

 

He began acting on television in 1964, appearing in ITV’s notoriously dire soap opera Crossroads.  In 1970, like many a British TV actor at the time, he got his break in movies thanks to Hammer Films – who were always looking for cheap acting talent to appear in their low-budget but cheerfully sensationalist horror movies.  He duly provided vampire-hunting support to Peter Cushing in Roy Ward Baker’s okay The Vampire Lovers and appeared in Jimmy Sangster’s dreadful Horror of Frankenstein.  Then Roman Polanski hired him to play the title role in his version of Macbeth, released in 1971, and suddenly Finch’s career trajectory had become exponentially steep.

 

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

 

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

 

From Roman Polanski, Finch moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and landed the lead role in 1972’s Frenzy.  Although Frenzy hardly represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistry, it’s by far and away the best of the director’s last clutch of films, which include Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969) and Family Plot (1976).  It also shows Hitchcock at his most disturbing.  The murder sequence involving Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who plays Finch’s ex-wife, is the most brutal thing he ever did, and the potato-truck ride (where serial strangler Barry Foster tries to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse he’d concealed earlier inside a huge sack of potatoes) is gruelling too.

 

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

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Having worked with two of the world’s greatest directors, Finch seemed destined for international fame and indeed he was soon offered the chance to replace Sean Connery in the James Bond series.  Finch, however, declined and the role went instead to the somewhat less invigorating Roger Moore.  Around this time he also turned down the role of Aramis in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) which, tantalisingly, would have seen him acting alongside another actor with a low opinion of movie stars and movie stardom, Oliver Reed.

 

In fact, in 1973, Finch did play a vaguely James Bond-like character when he took the role of Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which was based on the first of the four Cornelius novels written by Michael Moorcock, set in a surreal, 1960s-esque and science-fiction-tinged world where the fabric of reality is beginning to fray.  I’ve never seen The Final Programme, though from all accounts Fuest did a pretty cack-handed job of it.  In stills, though, Finch at least looks the part of Moorcock’s enigmatic hipster-cum-secret-agent hero.  Moorcock himself disapproved of the film adaptation, although he liked Finch’s performance and paid tribute to him on his website / discussion forum Moorcock’s Miscellany when he heard of his passing: “I was very fond of Jon and was sorry we lost touch…  He was genuinely modest.”

 

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

 

From there on, it was through his television work that Finch remained in the public consciousness.  In the late 1970s, he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare, a series of adaptations of all the Bard’s plays.  Though they were criticised for their staginess and the generally conservative manner in which they were brought to the screen, the adaptations certainly couldn’t be faulted for the top-notch acting they contained.  In Richard II (1978), Finch played Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi’s Richard and John Gielgud’s John of Gaunt.  With Bolingbroke elevated to monarch, he then played the title role in the sequels Henry IV Part One and Part Two (1979), with Anthony Quayle as a jovial, red-cheeked Falstaff and David Gwillim as Henry’s offspring, Prince Hal.  (In reality, Gwillim was only six years younger than Finch.)

 

Still picky about his roles, he passed on the opportunity to play Doyle in Brian Clements’ hugely popular espionage / action series The Professionals (1978-81).  Ironically, the role eventually went to Martin Shaw, who’d played Banquo to Finch’s Macbeth.  On the other hand, out of loyalty to Hammer, he starred in the first episode of the studio’s 1980 anthology series The Hammer House of Horror, in which he played a modern-day composer haunted by a witch who’s popped forward through time from the 17th century (a role performed with memorable relish by Patricia Quinn).  And for a quarter century he gave guest turns in popular shows like The New Avengers, The Bill, Maigret, New Tricks and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

 

Frustratingly, Finch’s role in a 1994 episode of Sherlock Holmes, a combined adaptation of two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone and The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, didn’t see him appear alongside Jeremy Brett, the actor widely regarded as the screen’s best-ever Holmes – Brett had to be written out of most of the episode due to health problems.  However, as a villain, Finch did get to face up to the almost-as-good Charles Gray, playing Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.

 

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

 

© Playboy Productions / Columbia Productions

Hello, yellow brick road

 

 

I suspect that the editors and publishers of Colombo’s Write magazine, which features poetry, short fiction and literary articles by Sri Lankan and Sri Lankan-based writers, must have felt cursed recently.

 

Production problems meant that their latest edition, Volume 2 Issue 2, was delayed for over a year.  Then, in March 2020, just as the new edition was about to go on sale, the Covid-19 virus made its unwelcome but inevitable appearance in Sri Lanka.  As a result, the authorities declared a curfew and the outlets that would have sold the magazine were temporarily closed down.  Not that potential customers would have been able to venture out to buy it, anyway.

 

This was a wee bit frustrating for me, as my short story The Yellow Brick Road was due to appear in that issue of Write.  (Well, I am a Sri Lankan-based writer…)

 

Happily, I can now report that the curfew has been eased somewhat and many Sri Lankan workplaces, businesses and retailers have reopened.  This includes the Barefoot Shop at 704 Galle Road, Colombo, which is the best-known outlet where you can pick up a copy of Write.   I popped in there the other day and saw the magazine’s newest issue, containing The Yellow Brick Road, stocked on its shelves.

 

In addition to some 40 general poems and stories, the issue features a section with poignant tributes to the victims of last year’s Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.  It also has articles remembering three major figures in the contemporary Sri Lankan literary and arts worlds who sadly passed away in 2019: the poet and writer Jean Arasanayagam, the theatre director and producer Vinodh Senadeera, and the writer, poet and journalist Carl Muller.  (I was particularly a fan of Muller, whose work, besides being very amusing, served as an invaluable record of the minutiae of traditional life in Sri Lanka’s Burgher community.)

 

The Yellow Brick Road isn’t attributed to my usual nom de plume Jim Mountfield, as it doesn’t contain any of the grim, macabre stuff that Mountfield specialises in – for example, children with worm-like and super-intelligent conjoined twins growing out of their shoulders, or elderly farmers’ wives with Alzheimer’s who are haunted by the ghosts of the husbands they murdered and fed to their pigs 30 years ago, or Tunisian medinas in alternative universes that are inhabited by vampires who inhale blood-fumes out of shishas.  Instead, it’s published under my real, ordinary and boring name, Ian Smith.

 

While it isn’t a horror story, The Yellow Brick Road was slightly inspired by those dark gambling stories that Roald Dahl liked to write, such as Taste (1945), Man from the South (1948) or Dip in the Pool (1952), wherein someone gets involved in a highly unusual wager, with potentially ruinous consequences.  However, unlike Dahl’s protagonists who, if they lose, face marrying off their daughter to a complete creep, or having a finger chopped off, or parting with their entire life savings, the main character here is an unhappy and superstitious man who simply makes a bet with himself – one night when he’s alone on Colombo’s Duplication Road and a little bit the worse for drink.

 

Handsomely printed, and containing some gorgeous colour illustrations, Volume 2 Issue 2 of Write is a bargain at 500 Sri Lankan rupees.  The magazine’s Facebook page can be accessed here.

Jim Mountfield hears the patter of tiny feet

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

Here’s a plug for another short story by Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym I use for works of horror, supernatural and generally dark fiction, which has been published this month.

 

The story’s called The Four-Legged Friend and it’s featured in Volume 16, Issue 5 of Schlock! Webzine.  It’s set in modern-day Bangkok – well, Bangkok until a couple of months ago, when tourists were still able to go there – and is inspired by a visit I once made to an antiquated surgical museum at one of the city’s hospitals.  My horror writer’s antenna started buzzing (and I started thinking, “Hey, I could use this idea in a story!”) when I noticed how little shrines consisting of flowers, pictures, toys and other knickknacks had been set up around some of the exhibits.  These were in honour of the people who’d donated their bodies, or parts of their bodies, that’d become those exhibits.

 

Surgical museums in the Western world are usually clinical, dispassionate affairs.  With its shrines, however, this one in Bangkok seemed to remind its visitors of two things: that the exhibits had human origins and that there was a spiritual aspect to them too.  What you were looking at in those glass cases once belonged to people who’d had souls.  Indeed, depending on your belief system, you might argue that those souls were still present…

 

As well as being inspired by something I saw in a Thai museum, The Four-Legged Friend is influenced by one of the greatest of all ghost story writers, M.R. James, and in particular by the paranoia that James was able to evoke in stories like Casting the Runes (1911) and Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904).  James skilfully exploited the basic human fear of being followed.  His characters frequently aren’t just haunted – they’re being hunted.    I should say too that after I finished the story and read it through, I was surprised at how much it reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s masterly, Venice-set novella Don’t Look Now (1971), with the protagonists being tourists, the presence of a child-like apparition and the references to water – some of the action takes place on board Bangkok’s river ferries.

 

A quick word of warning, however, to manage expectations: my story may not be quite as good as M.R. James or Daphne du Maurier!

 

For the rest of June 2020, The Four-Legged Friend can be accessed here.  The main page of Volume 16, Issue 5 of Schlock! Webzine, in which the story appears, is available here.

Jim Mountfield looks ahead to strange days

 

© Midnight Street Press

 

Jim Mountfield, the name under which I write much of my fiction, has a new short story called New Town Tours featured in Strange Days, a 500-page, 36-author anthology that’s just been published by Midnight Street Press.

 

The writers submitting work to this anthology were asked to consider and build stories around the following theme: “The world is in a mess.  It seems that from a human perspective, we’re pretty well screwed…  Greed, political imperatives, narrow-minded thinking, poverty, ignorance…  we are experiencing very strange days.  There’s a mass extinction happening and it may well include our species.”  Thus, the fiction featured in its pages should “reflect the strange times we are living in and… sum up the precariousness of modern existence.”

 

Ironically, the deadline for submissions to Strange Days at the end of February coincided with the growing international panic over the Covid-19 virus.  It came just before many governments imposed lockdowns and curfews to thwart the virus’s spread.  Thus, the three months between that deadline and the publication of the anthology itself, in late May, have witnessed some strange days indeed.

 

To promote Strange Days, its editor Trevor Denyer has invited the contributors to record themselves introducing and reading extracts from their stories.  The resulting film clips have been placed on a webpage that is accessible here.

 

You can hear me – as Jim Mountfield – talking about how New Town Tours, my dystopian contribution to Strange Days, was based on experiences I had years ago living in Edinburgh.  Scotland’s capital city has always struck me as a perplexing place because it has a famously grand, affluent, historical and cultural city centre but also a periphery of housing schemes “which were built in recent history… suffer from a lot of poverty, from a lot of social problems, and for a lot of the people living on them, they’re not easy places.”  And I point out that Edinburgh was, appropriately enough, “the hometown of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde… it always seemed to me like a Jekyll and Hyde town.”  I also mention that when I stayed in Edinburgh, I was working on what would be called today a zero-hours contract, I wasn’t a particularly happy bunny at the time and New Town Tours was coloured by the negativity I felt.  It takes a bleak view of humanity and none of the story’s characters, whether they’re from the poor side of the tracks or from the rich side, come out of it well.

 

Midnight Street Anthology 4: Strange Days is now on sale.  It can be purchased from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.