Jim Mountfield serves up some meat


© Sirens Call Publications


March 2022 is proving to be a purple patch for Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror fiction.  Already this month he’s had a short story, Never Tell Lies Out of School, featured in Volume 16, Issue 26 of the online publication Schlock! Webzine, and another short story, Mermaid Fair, included in the new anthology Fearful Fun.  Now a third Mountfield short story, Liver, is served up in the pages of the spring 2022 edition of the fiction and poetry ezine The Sirens Call.


Like much of my fiction, Liver takes as its starting point an incident that happened to me in real life, but then develops things in a different direction – a wildly different direction – from how they actually developed.


The incident that inspired Liver happened about 15 years ago while I was living with my dad, on his farm in Scotland, and I was earning a little money by working in a supermarket in a nearby town – in the story it’s Tesco, back then it was Sainsbury.  One evening I arrived home from work and, in the farmhouse’s kitchen, discovered a huge, red, glistening thing heaped on a platter in the middle of the table.  This, it transpired, was the liver of a cow that’d just died in an accident.  The local butcher had promptly chopped up the carcass as a favour to my dad…  Well, why let all that meat go to waste?  Obviously, as Liver is a horror story, I’m glad the events that subsequently befall its main character didn’t happen to me in reality.


The spring 2022 edition of The Sirens Call is proof that the best things in life are free.  It consists of 198 pages and contains 143 pieces of short fiction, flash fiction, micro-fiction and poetry, and yet costs nothing to download.  You can get a copy of it, as well as copies of its back issues, here.

It’s time Putin’s pals were put in the bin (Part 2)


© Cold War Steve


Continuing my rant about miscreants who support Putin and / or are generally making arses of themselves during the current crisis in Ukraine – this time miscreants in the United Kingdom.


Vladimir Putin – presently stuck in a big, bloody hole he’s dug for himself in Ukraine, but still determinedly digging, using thousands of Ukrainian and Russian lives as his shovel-blade – has never been short of pals in Britain.  Back in 2001, soon after Putin had won his first presidential election in Russia, and not long after the start of the second Chechen war, which saw the deaths of at least 25,000 civilians, a third of Chechnya deemed a ‘zone of ecological disaster’, and most Chechens left suffering ‘discernible symptoms of psychological distress’, then-British Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair jetted out to Moscow and cosied up to Putin.  El Tone praised him for showing ‘real leadership’ and giving ‘strong support’ in the ‘fight against terrorism’.


Even today, Blair is hero-worshipped by certain centre-right politicians and commentators in Britain.  Ironically, while later Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is commonly loathed and belittled as a traitorous, anti-Western, lefty scumbag, it’s worth recalling what Corbyn said about Blair’s visit to Moscow in 2001.  “When the Prime Minister… meets President Putin this evening, I hope that he will convey the condemnation of millions of people around the world of the activities of the Russian army in Chechnya and what it is doing to ordinary people there.  When images of what is happening are translated into other parts of the world, many people are horrified…”  Exchange ‘Ukraine’ for ‘Chechnya’ and you realise how Corbyn’s words resonate in 2022.


No doubt nowadays Blair keeps his mouth shut about Putin’s supposed statesmanship.  But another well-known British politician is less reluctant to express his admiration for the warmongering Russian ogre.  Right-winger, Europhobe and wannabe broadcaster Nigel Farage has said of him: “I wouldn’t trust him and I wouldn’t want to live in his country, but compared with the kids who run foreign policy in this country, I’ve more respect for him than our lot.”  Meanwhile, the donkey-faced, and full-of-donkey-shit, Farage has made copious appearances on Russia Today, coming out with such gems as the claim that Europe’s modern democracies have been run ‘by the worst people we have seen in Europe since 1945’.  Worse even than Putin?  Yes, I’m sure Nige thinks so.


By the way, let’s not forget Aaron Banks, Farage’s compadre in the Vote Leave campaign that managed in 2016 to tear the UK out of the European Union, possibly helped by a wee bit of Russian funding.  In 2017, Banks did his bit for the Putin cause by tweeting: “Ukraine is to Russia what the Isle of Wight is to the UK.  It’s Russian.”


Elsewhere, there’s multiple evidence suggesting that Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, if not totally in love with Putin’s habit of inflicting atrocities on neighbouring countries that annoy him, is certainly in love with the wealth of the Russian oligarchs who surround the man.  Recent claims about the amount of donations the Conservative party has received from such oligarchs have ranged from 1.93 million to 2.3 million pounds.


Johnson seems particularly enamoured with members of Russia’s mega-wealthy elite.  In 2018, while he was serving as Theresa May’s foreign secretary, he was seen stumbling about an Italian airport suffering from a hangover, and lacking his security detail, after attending a shindig thrown by Russian media magnate Evgeny Lebedev at his castle near Perugia.  Lebedev subsequently received a peerage and now, technically, is ‘Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond on Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation’.  Johnson has sheepishly denied allegations that he used his influence to secure the peerage for his buddy.


© Private Eye


Though late last week the British government announced it was freezing the assets of seven Russian billionaires (including Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich) with close ties to Putin, this only came after weeks of prevarication.  Originally, it looked like the UK wouldn’t be clamping down on dodgy Russian money until late in 2023, which would have given those likely to be affected a good year-and-a-half to sell their assets and move their money off British soil.  Even with this new change of heart, Abramovich and co. have already had a fortnight’s grace-period to shift some of their wealth.  Basically, Johnson’s regime is reluctant to do anything that might sully London’s reputation as a haven for dodgy money.


Summing up the absolute state of the Conservative Party on this issue is its wretched co-chairman Ben Elliot.  Simultaneously, Elliot’s been sourcing donations from super-rich Russians and been offering services to them in Britain through his ‘concierge’ company, Quintessentially.  “Quintessentially Russia has nearly 15 years’ experience providing luxury lifestyle management services to Russia’s elite and corporate members…”, ensuring that from “restaurant bookings to backstage concert access, a bespoke lifestyle is at our clients’ fingertips.”  So drooled the blurb on Quintessentially’s website until recently.  Then, suddenly and mysteriously, this obsequious drivel was deleted from it.


While we’re heaping abuse on the British government, we shouldn’t overlook the smirk-faced Priti Patel, who – until another apparent U-turn last week – seemed determined that the Ukrainian refugees Britain was allowing in should be vastly outnumbered by the Russian oligarchs it was welcoming with open arms.  At one point, while other European countries had taken in Ukrainian refugees in the tens of thousands, the UK had dished out a mere 50 additional visas to them.


Besides Patel, it’s worth castigating government minister Kevin Foster, who advised people fleeing Ukraine to apply to Britain’s ‘seasonal worker scheme’, which would allow them to spend their time in the country picking fruit.  Such humanity, Kev!  Also, some hatred should be directed towards whatever nasty piece of work in the Home Office complained to the Daily Telegraph that Ireland had allowed in too many Ukrainian refugees.  All those shifty Ukrainians, claimed the anonymous source, would “come through Dublin, into Belfast and across to the mainland to Liverpool”, thus creating “a drug cartel route.”


Needless to say, Britain’s resident community of publicity-seeking, rent-an-opinion gobshites have fastened onto the Ukrainian crisis like flies fastening onto a cow-plop.  George Galloway, that fedora-wearing gasbag whose rhetoric seems to weave between old-school socialism (when he’s in England) and hardline British nationalism (when he’s in Scotland), and who’s a fixture on the Russian-owned Sputnik radio channel, tweeted recently: “Me, Farage, Hitchens, Carlson and Rod Liddle are a pretty broad front of people who think NATO expansion to the borders of Russia was a pretty bad idea.  Maybe pause and think about that?”  When I paused and thought about it, my immediate thoughts were: “George Galloway, Nigel Farage, Peter Hitchens, Tucker Carlson, Rod Liddle…  Wow, what a team!  Couldn’t Marvel make a superhero movie about them?  Maybe call it Arseholes Assemble?”


Hilariously, Galloway’s Putin-sympathetic stance has ended all unity in the All for Unity party, the staunchly pro-UK outfit he set up in Scotland prior to the last Scottish parliamentary elections.  Jamie Blackett, the party’s former deputy leader, and also the Deputy Lieutenant for Dumfriesshire and a Daily Telegraph writer, recently disowned his old boss and announced the disbanding of the party.


Meanwhile, Neil Oliver, the alleged Scottish historian and talking head on right-wing outlet GB News, lately delivered a bewildering monologue, the gist of which was: “I’ll be honest.  I don’t know what’s happening in Ukraine.  I don’t understand it either.”  Oliver’s professed ignorance of the situation didn’t stop him talking about it for nine minutes, however.  It’s also strange that when it comes to Putin and Ukraine Oliver is so hesitant to climb off the fence, considering how quick he’d been in the past to condemn, say, the Scottish National Party (‘disastrously incompetent’, ‘small’, ‘not worth bothering about’), or the Black Lives Matter movement (‘anarchists and communists’ eating ‘into the built fabric of Britain’).  Very strange indeed.


One other thing bugging me about Putin’s current horror show is how certain people have pounced on it and tried to use it to promulgate the right-wing agendas they’ve been pushing for years already.  Take the ‘culture wars’, in which Putin’s ‘anti-woke’ position had until recently won accolades from Western pundits on the right of the spectrum.  Well, now that Putin is officially a Bad Lad, they can’t praise him directly anymore.  Instead, they’re pushing the narrative that woke stuff no longer matters during the crisis that good old Vlad, sorry, bad new Vlad has created.


Here’s the absurd Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, recently opining: “The outbreak of war has shone an unflattering light on our society… Watch issues like LGBT, net-zero, Partygate, Black Lives Matter and farcical ‘Stay Safe’ Covid restrictions all fade into well-deserved insignificance now that war is back.”  According to Pearson, in other words, now that Putin’s behaving like a c*nt, we should all stop fretting about being civil to our fellow human beings, about preventing them from dying of Covid, about preventing the planet from burning up, and about our leader Boris Johnson being a lying, unprincipled sack of shite.


And here’s the barmy Spectator pundit Lionel Shriver, writing: “Decolonisations, contextualisations, gender-neutralisations – it’s all a load of onanistic, diversionary crap, and the West having shoved its head up its backside is one reason that Putin feels free to do whatever he likes.”  Though I suspect Putin would still have attacked Ukraine if fewer people on Western social media had been using the pronouns ‘they’ / ‘them’ in their profiles.


One last thing for which Britain’s right-wingers must be thanking Putin is the attention he’s diverted from the looming issues of manmade climate change and the dire state of the environment.  Thanks to the headlines being dominated by Ukraine, not much attention has been given to, for instance, the apocalyptic floods that have stricken Queensland and New South Wales.  And, somewhat inevitably, the afore-mentioned Nigel Farage is currently trying to relaunch his political career by demanding a new national referendum – this time, not about the UK’s membership of the European Union, but about the British government’s supposed adoption of Net Zero policies to combat climate change.  Farage, of course, wants us to vote against them.


I wonder why he’s doing this.  Could he be thinking of a country that helped finance his previous, successful referendum campaign?  Or could he be thinking of an oil-exporting country that would stand to gain if Britain gave up on green energy and became wholly dependent on fossil fuels again?


I can’t possibly think of a country that falls into both categories.


© The Jewish Chronicle / twitter / @ VirendraSharma

Mountfield, mermaids and mindless violence


© Thurston Howl Publications


Mermaid Fair, a short story I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, is featured in the recent anthology Fearful Fun from Thurston Howl Publications.  The stories in Fearful Fun are all set in fairgrounds, carnivals, amusement parks, circuses, Halloween haunted-house attractions and the like but, as the word ‘fearful’ in the anthology’s title implies, their protagonists encounter dark and macabre goings-on at these supposedly ‘fun’ places.  In fact, ‘creepy fairground’ stories have constituted a popular sub-genre of horror fiction and cinema.  Its most famous examples include the 1932 Tod Browning movie Freaks, the 1962 Herk Harvey movie Carnival of Souls and, published the same year that Carnival was released, the Ray Bradbury novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.


In part, Mermaid Fair was inspired by a practice in the 19th century whereby carnival-sideshow operators would graft together pieces of stuffed fish and stuffed apes and pass them off to gullible punters as ‘mermaids’.  Obviously, these looked nothing like the mermaids of folklore and popular culture, the luscious, long-haired, bare-breasted young ladies with fishes’ tail who’d sit alluringly on remote ocean rocks.  Fake though they are, I’ve always found pictures of the sideshow mermaids creepy and grotesque – especially now that the passage of time has left the things more than slightly decayed.


From emilyjessicaturner.com

© The Trustees of the British Museum


A rather different source of inspiration for Mermaid Fair was ‘the Shows’, a motley assortment of fairground rides, stalls and amusement arcades that would come – and still do come, as far as I know – to my Scottish hometown of Peebles every June while it was staging its annual Beltane Festival.  When I was a kid, the Shows were great fun, surely the highlight of my Peebles year.  By the early 1980s, however, when I was a bit older and in my mid-to-late teens, I was more trepidant when I ventured into the Shows.  This was because they’d become an arena where gangs of youths from Peebles, and from neighbouring country towns like Biggar and Galashiels, would try to batter the crap out of each other, and I didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire.  Yes, lots of hormonally-charged young men lived in the region’s small towns, which admittedly didn’t have a great deal to offer them socially.  Desperate for ways to banish their boredom, vent their frustrations and release their energies, they adopted the custom of battling each other at popular public gatherings such as the Shows.


I have to say, 40 years on, I find it amusing when I see Peebles blokes of a certain age complaining on Internet forums about anti-social behaviour by young people.  Hold on, I think.  Don’t you remember what you were getting up to at 17 or 18?


Thus, Mermaid Fair has gangs of young men, from rival towns, descending on a travelling fair to stage a good old-fashioned barney, and also has a fairground exhibit featuring some alleged mermaids.  I hope the two plot-strands come together convincingly at the story’s end.  Rather than set it in the south of Scotland, where Peebles is, I set it in the East Anglia region of England, another part of the world I know well.  Indeed, it references a well-known piece of East Anglian folklore, the Wild Man of Orford – which, despite the name, isn’t about a ‘wild man’ but about a mer-creature. 


Mermaid Fair, incidentally, is a reprint, not a story I wrote originally for Fearful Fun.  Previously, in 2010, it’d appeared in an edition of the now-defunct webzine Death Head’s Grin.  But I’d written it several years before that, in 2005, and back then I’d submitted it to the editors of another anthology that was going to feature stories about fairgrounds, carnivals and the like.  The anthology’s editors not only rejected the story, but returned it to me with five paragraphs of brutal comments.  They dissed the opening (“…too long, convoluted, difficult to understand… I ALMOST stopped reading there…”), the general prose (“…lost its flavour…”), the ending (“…didn’t have much punch and didn’t answer the big question…”) and the amount of violence (“What’s the term they use nowadays?  Gratuitous violence?  Gratuitous…”).  I felt so deflated that I set aside Mermaid Fair and almost never looked at it again, convinced it was terrible.


I don’t know why I dusted it down for Death’s Head Grin, but I’m glad that I did.  And to be fair to the editors of that 2005 anthology, I did try to amend a few things in the story that they’d objected to, before submitting it again.  This included toning down the violence, which I suppose had been somewhat over-the-top in the original version.  Nonetheless, I didn’t appreciate their tone…


Anyway, in 2022, Mermaid Fair has been published again and – hurrah! – this time I’ve been paid for it.  I guess the story’s history holds two lessons for aspiring writers.  When you receive a rejection message from an editor with some comments included, you should: (1) yes, pay attention to the editor’s opinions about what could or should be improved; but (2) if he or she’s been snarky or condescending, no, don’t let it get to you.


Copies of Fearful Fun can be ordered here.

It’s time Putin’s pals were put in the bin (Part 1)


From the New European


Yes, folks, it’s time for a rant…


There’s nothing I can say in response to Russia’s Vladimir Putin-orchestrated invasion of Ukraine – at the time of writing in its 16th day – that hasn’t been said already by decent-minded and properly-informed people the world over.  The invasion has been brutal and wholly unjustified and by masterminding it Putin has shown himself to be a vile, despotic thug.  Although the evidence for that summation of Putin’s character had been overwhelming already.


Yet, over the years, Putin has acquired in the West a faithful coterie of groupies, toadies and sycophants.  And now, post-invasion, no matter how hard they try to backtrack and dissociate themselves from him, they shouldn’t be allowed to escape their status as Putin fanboys and fangirls.  Instead, they should be treated with the contempt they deserve.  Though even if Putin hadn’t existed, I’m sure they would have developed into horrible people anyway.


Let’s take a look at some of them.


When it comes to Putin worshippers, where else can you begin but with that human slough of venality, mendacity, crassness and pig-ignorance Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States and, sadly, quite possibly its 47th one in 2024 too?  The romance between Trump and Putin was always one-sided.  Basically, Trump wanted to have Putin’s babies, whereas it was obvious to everyone (apart from Trump himself) that Putin regarded Trump as a contemptible but highly useful moron.


Donnie and Vlad first became an item in 2013 when Trump was lined up to host the Miss Universe competition in Moscow.  He tweeted: “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?”  Puke.  According to the dossier compiled by British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, while Trump was in Moscow Russian intelligence spied on and recorded him romping with local prostitutes.  If this actually happened, then Trump became Putin’s new best friend whether he wanted to or not.


After that, Trump’s sycophancy towards Putin was relentless.  In 2014, he enthusiastically backed Putin’s annexation of Crimea.  Putin, he claimed, was “absolutely having a great time.”  By 2015 he was nosing around for a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.  As president, in 2017, he reacted to news that Putin was forcing a cut in personnel at the US Embassy in Moscow by commenting jocularly: “I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down on payroll… I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people, because now we have a smaller payroll.”


Meanwhile, according to former White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, Trump envied Putin’s ability to kill off his critics and opponents.  Thanks to checks and balances in the US constitution, Trump wasn’t allowed to do this himself, though of course if he gets a second crack at the American presidential whip in 2024, those checks and balances might not exist much longer.  Grisham has stated her belief that Trump “admired him greatly.  I think he wanted to be able to kill whoever spoke out against him.”


Trump’s starry-eyed attitude towards Putin and Russia contrasts with his attitude towards Ukraine.  When the Russians were widely accused of meddling in the 2016 presidential election that brought him to power, his former campaign manager Paul Manafort glibly turned the accusations on their head and blamed the Ukrainians for hacking into Democratic National Committee computers.  In 2019, Trump delayed sending Ukraine 400 million dollars’ worth of military aid, which had been approved by Congress, because he wished to exert pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.  He wanted Zelensky to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden, son of his presidential-election foe Joe Biden.


And late last month, when Putin’s forces rolled across the Ukrainian border, Trump was initially awestruck in his response.  “I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’  Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine…  Putin declares it as independent.  Oh, that’s wonderful.”


What a bawbag.


© Stewart Bremner


Of course, Trump’s grovelling before Putin is representative of the American far right, who see Putin as a virile embodiment of values the West has sadly lost and should be aspiring to regain.  After all, the  super-manly Vlad hates gays and transexuals, believes a woman’s place is at the stove, goes to church regularly (but obviously pays no attention to that wimpy, hippy New Testament stuff about loving thy neighbour and the like), has black belts in judo and taekwondo, is pals with Steven Seagal, wrestles with bears, and poses for totally non-embarrassing photo shoots on horseback naked from the waist up.


No wonder that at a recent American white nationalist conference, which was also attended by Republican Party nutjob Marjorie Taylor Greene, white supremacist commentator Nick Fuentes implored the crowd: “Can we get a round of applause for Russia?”  Other far-right American brown-nosers of the Putin derriere have included Ku Klux Klan leader David Dukes (Russia is the “key to white survival”), Ann Coulter (“In 20 years, Russia will be the only country that is recognisably European”) and Steve Bannon (“Putin ain’t woke…”  Well, bully for him, Steve!)


One malignant thread that’s woven through the rancid tapestry of American right-wing thought is the QAnon conspiracy theory.  Predictably, QAnon’s adherents have swiftly incorporated Putin, Ukraine and the invasion into their warped belief systems.  Putin, they’ve claimed, is really on the side of the angels.  His forces in Ukraine are trying to take out biolabs that the US has placed there.  And in these biolabs, the US President’s Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci, Dr Evil himself, is attempting to create a new, deadly virus that’ll replace Covid-19.  I don’t so much despise people who buy into the QAnon cult as feel sorry for them, though I feel sorrier for their unfortunate families.  But I feel sorriest of all for the mild-mannered Dr Fauci.  The poor guy’s had to put up with garbage like this for the past two years for the sin of simply trying to do his job.


Finally, there’s the ultra-right – which isn’t the same as ‘ultra-correct’ – American broadcaster Tucker Carlson, who’s been so enthusiastically pro-Putin that TV outlets like Russia 1 and Russia Today have aired his ravings to the Russian public as evidence that lots of Western folk actually approve of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.  In one plea for Putin tolerance, Carlson lamented, “Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years?  Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination?  Is he making fentanyl?  Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”  Supposedly, the answer to these questions is ‘no’, which makes him fine in Carlson’s eyes.


Tucker Carlson, who appears on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News network, is what in American television parlance is called an ‘anchor’.  He’s also something that rhymes with ‘anchor’.  Come to think of it, he’s something that rhymes with ‘Tucker’ too.


More ranting will be done in a future post, when I move onto the topic of Putin’s British pals.


From twitter.com/campbellclaret

Jim Mountfield’s playground of horrors


© Schlock! Webzine


Jim Mountfield, the penname under which I write horror fiction, has just had his first short story published in 2022.  Entitled Never Tell Tales Out of School, it’s the tale of a middle-aged man who returns to the school where, during his childhood, he suffered horrific bullying – and discovers that, even 45 years later, his ordeal isn’t yet over. The story appears in the latest issue of Schlock! Webzine.


One thing I realised whilst researching and planning the story was just how many techniques existed during my schooldays – the 1970s – if you were a sadist and wanted to inflict pain on a fellow pupil.  There was a wide range of physical torture methods that were deployed in playgrounds the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, making your schooldays not ‘the happiest days of your life’, as some people have claimed, but a theatre of utter cruelty.  These were as varied and horrible as the ones mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 story The Pit and the Pendulum.  Here are some of the torture techniques I remember from back then – a few of which get referenced in Never Tell Tales Out of School.


Dead leg – The act of sneaking up behind somebody and smashing your knee into the back of one of their legs, behind their knee. This invariably caused the person’s leg, then the person him or herself, to buckle and collapse. If you did this in a particular place, for example, at the top of a steep flight of steps or at the edge of a pond, the results could be spectacular.  The upper-limb equivalent of the dead leg was the dead arm, which merely involved smashing your fist into someone’s upper arm.  This was commonly used against kids who’d just received their BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin) vaccination for tuberculosis.  A dead-arm blow against the spot that the vaccination needle had recently penetrated was agony.


Chinese burn – Someone would seize your arm just above the wrist with both hands.  Then one hand twisted the skin and tissue in one direction and the other hand twisted them in the opposite direction.  I don’t know what was particularly Chinese about this but, my God, for a few minutes afterwards, it did burn.


Monkey scrub / Noogie – A hideous cranial torture in which someone gripped you in a headlock and, continually, rubbed their knuckles up and down against the top of your skull.  I’ve also experienced a variation of this whereby somebody held me by the arms and another person rubbed their knuckles up and down, neverendingly, against my sternum – creating the impression that my ribs were being tickled with a red-hot poker.


Camel bite – According to the Urban Dictionary, this was: “When one person squeezes another person’s thigh region hard, resembling the bite of an actual camel.”  Ouch!


Spamming – Slapping someone very hard on the forehead.  Sometimes the simplest techniques are the best… or the worst.


Bog wash – Oof.  This was the 1970s school equivalent of water-boarding.  Basically, someone would shove your head down into a toilet-bowl in the school loos and pull the lever or chain to flush it. At best, your head and hair got drenched while you briefly suffered terrifying claustrophobia.  At worst, your head became stuck in that funnel of porcelain and, well, you were in danger of drowning.


Knockout / The wall of death – And here’s another one that, on occasion, must have been life-threatening.  Someone would ram you back against a wall and drive their shoulder hard into your chest. You remained wedged there, between the unstoppable force of the shoulder and the immovable object of the wall, until you stopped breathing, passed out and collapsed.  Then, out of interest, a count would be made to determine how long it was before you regained consciousness.  If you regained consciousness…


Hardy knuckles – A test of endurance done with a deck of cards, brand new cards that were still stiff and unbending.  You held forward a clenched fist and someone slammed the edge of the deck down against your knuckles and, below them, the lower parts of your fingers. This was repeated, the edges of the cards scraping mercilessly downwards, until your knuckles and fingers were seriously lacking in skin.


There were other horrors I don’t remember the names of.  The one I constantly fell victim to stemmed from the fact that I was a both a big daydreamer and a big tea drinker.  I’d often be sitting in the school canteen daydreaming about such things as, say, how I was going to become rich and famous before I turned 20 by writing an epic fantasy trilogy that was even more popular than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).  Meanwhile, a cup of tea would be resting on the table in front of me, the end of a metal teaspoon sticking out of it, propped against the cup’s rim.  Invariably, some c*nt would creep up behind me.  They’d snatch the teaspoon, whose metal was now heated to the temperature of the surrounding, boiling-hot tea, out of the cup and press it against my face.  This could have been called spoon branding.


The March 2022 edition – volume 16, issue 26 – of Schlock! Webzine can be accessed here, and Never Tell Tales Out of School itself can be accessed here.

We’re left un-Mark-ed


From wikipedia.org / © Steven Friederich


I’m not particularly superstitious, but I can’t help wondering if when Kurt Cobain picked up a shotgun in his Seattle home on April 5th, 1994, he set in train a curse that would strike down the singers of all the great grunge bands.  Following the Nirvana frontman’s suicide, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains died in 2002, Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots died in 2015 and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden died in 2017.  And now this grim list has been extended by the death last week of Mark Lanegan, vocalist with the Screaming Trees.  One can only hope that Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Mark Arm of Mudhoney get to see their sixties.


Mark Lanegan’s death came as a blow because both the band he fronted in the 1980s and 1990s, the Screaming Trees, and his own solo career, which began in the 1990s, seemed to go from strength to strength.  Unlike many rocks acts, they didn’t just peak after a couple of albums and then tail off in quality.  The Trees’ later albums, Sweet Oblivion (1992), their biggest commercial success, and Dust (1996), were great and bore a slew of classic singles, like Nearly Lost You, Dollar Bill, All I Know and Sworn and Broken.  For me, though, their finest moment was the first track on Sweet Oblivion, the urgent, pulsating Shadow of the Season, powered like all of Lanegan’s music by his husky, old-man’s-voice-in-a-young-man’s-throat vocals.  Lanegan had originally signed up with the Trees as a drummer but claimed he was so useless at drumming that his bandmembers ended up forcing him to sing…  Surely one of the most fortunate career-changes in modern music.


© Epic Records


Before the band broke up at the end of the 1990s due to the not-uncommon ‘differences among bandmembers’ – differences that were fuelled in part by Lanegan’s industrial-level booze and drug consumption – Lanegan had also contributed to the grunge ‘supergroup’ Mad Season, which as well as members of the Trees contained members of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, and whose lone album Above (1995) I’ve always considered rather wonderful.  Later, he was associated with alternative / stoner rock band Queens of the Stone Age, whose founder Josh Homme had joined the Trees as a guitarist following the release of Dust.  He contributed to the Queens during the glory years of their albums Rated R (2000) and Songs for the Deaf (2002).  Plus, he was one half of the Gutter Twins (the other half being Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs), who recorded the 2008 album Saturnalia.


Meanwhile, his solo career, which had begun with The Winding Sheet in 1990 and had already won critical acclaim with Whiskey for the Holy Ghost in 1994, gathered a head of steam.  By the time of his death, he’d released a dozen solo albums, of which Bubblegum (2004) and Blues Funeral (2012) are my favourites.  Bleeding Muddy Water off Blues Funeral is the sort of song you’d consider having played at your funeral.  Inevitably, with Lanegan’s gruff, mournful voice, and with his worldview coloured by a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, his canon evokes a long and honourable tradition of world-weary American troubadours chronicling the seedy side of life: Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and countless old blues singers.  Indeed, the blues influence was never far away from Lanegan’s music.  He once worked with Kurt Cobain on a never-released album of cover versions of songs by the legendary bluesman (and several-times convict) Leadbelly.


Lanegan was a prolific collaborator, working with everyone from Moby to the Breeders, Melissa Auf der Maur to the Eagles of Death Metal, Tinariwen to Hey Colossus, Cult of Luna to the Manic Street Preachers…  Though because of my Scottish-Irish background, and because in my less violent musical moods I’m something of a folky, I have to say I like his work with Isobel Campbell, the Scottish chanteuse of Belle and Sebastian, most of all.  Lanegan and Campbell were responsible for three records, Time is Just the Same (2004), Ballad of the Broken Seas (2006) and Sunday at Devil Dirt (2008), and their combined sound is gorgeous in its understated way.  The Celtic beauty of Campbell’s singing meshes hauntingly with the grungy old American beast that is Lanegan’s voice.


© V2


I did not have much success when I first attempted to see the great man perform live.  During the Edinburgh Festival sometime in the ‘noughties’, he did a gig at Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms, but I made the mistake of trying to cram too much into my Festival-going schedule that day.  I misread the start-time for Lanegan’s gig and also bought a ticket for comedian Reginald D. Hunter at the Pleasance, believing I had a few minutes after Hunter’s show ended and before Lanegan’s began to get myself from one venue to the other.  When I steamed into the Liquid Rooms, Lanegan was already on stage, singing Shadow of the SeasonWell, I thought, it’s nice of him to treat the audience to a classic Screaming Trees song so early in his set.  However, a few minutes later, he said, “Thank you and good night!” and left the stage, and I realised I’d actually arrived exceedingly late in his set.  I was so annoyed that when I walked out of the Liquid Rooms again, I almost crashed into a towering, tousle-haired figure who was being interviewed on the pavement by a small scrum of journalists – yes, it was Lanegan himself.  So at least he belongs to the Pantheon Of Famous People I’ve Been Within A Yard Of (alongside John Cleese, Irvine Welsh, Mark E. Smith and, er, John Otway).


But a couple of years after that, I managed to see a full Lanegan concert at, if memory serves me correctly, the now-defunct HMV Picture House on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road, and that was brilliant.


In the 2010s Lanegan became pals with globetrotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain.  Following Bourdain’s death in 2018, Lanegan penned a tribute in the Observer that described him as an “important voice for the positivity of exploring different cultures all over the world.  He’s someone we really need now, especially in a country where our shambles of a president wants to vilify people of colour and stoke the fires of the ignorant…  He made the world a better place.”  It was Bourdain who encouraged Lanegan to pen an autobiography, finally published in 2020, called Sing Backwards and Weep.  Hitherto, Lanegan had been reluctant about tackling such a project because, in his words, “The last thing I wanted to do was write some stupid f*cking rock bio.”


I haven’t read Sing Backwards and Weep, but a Scottish mate of mine who has tells me it’s great, if pretty intense – which isn’t surprising given some of the dark things that happened to Lanegan during the troughs of his addictions in the 1980s and 1990s.  These included a period of being homeless, which ended when Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s missus, rescued him and got him into rehab.  Sing Backwards and Weep also recounts the massive spat Lanegan had with leading Britpop gobshite Liam Gallagher when the Screaming Trees had the misfortune to support Oasis on their 1996 American tour.  Lanegan was not in a forgiving mood at the time and didn’t take kindly to Gallagher referring to his band as ‘the Howling Branches’.  Lanegan was still in a fighting mood a quarter-century later when the book was published: “I would still kick the f*cking shit out of that guy the first moment I got a hold of his hands because he’s a f*cking idiot.”  Quite right too.


The past year had been especially rough for Lanegan.  Having relocated to Ireland, he contracted Covid-19, which resulted in him having breathing difficulties, becoming deaf, losing the use of one leg, hallucinating, suffering from insomnia, falling down a flight of stairs and being put in a medically induced coma.  It was the impact of all that, presumably, which finally pushed Lanegan off this mortal coil.  Mind you, he wrote a second book called Devil in a Coma, published just in December last year, which described the ordeal he’d been going through with the virus.  An artist till the very end, Lanegan managed to extract a creative work from even the process of dying.


News of Lanegan’s death left me feeling frustrated as well as sad – frustrated because I felt the world had been cheated out of much more, excellent music that surely he would have produced had he been allowed to live another couple of decades.  The next day, I remarked on this to a friend, saying that Lanegan had been ‘on course to be a great renaissance man like Nick Cave’.  But as my friend pointed out, he’d been so phenomenally prolific that, by his death at 57 years old, his output was probably as large as, if not larger than Cave’s already.


Still, it’s tragic.  These days, 57 is no age.


© 4AD