About admin

Ian Smith was born in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, but at the age of 11 he moved with his family to the town of Peebles in the Borders region of Scotland. His family still lives there now. Since then, he has spent time in England, Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, Libya and a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very much. At the moment, he is in Tunisia in northern Africa, working as an academic manager. He writes, pseudonymously, short horror, fantasy and Scottish fiction. He has also published non-fiction on topics ranging from linguistic relativity to amateur-league Scottish football teams, to vampires. This blog will no doubt be as unstructured as everything else about him.

Dambulla Caves

 

 

As with several other famous tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, the advice we’d received regarding the Badulla Caves Temple had been “Go early.”  We duly got up at the crack of dawn and by seven o’clock had arrived at the ticket office below the site.  In fact, the office’s window was still shuttered, and an old fellow had to shuffle out of an adjoining building to attend to us.  Then we were directed upwards, for there were steps to climb.

 

 

Even if we hadn’t been able to enter the temple, which dates back to the first century BC and is recognised as the biggest and most impressive cave-temple complex on the island, I think it would have been worth going there just for the ascent up the steps.  Filtering between the branches and fronds of the trees growing on the lower slopes, the hazy, dreamy morning light gave the stone staircases and the sections of pathway between them an enchanted look.  Later, when we emerged above most of the trees, we had a gorgeous view.  The land below was carpeted in now-bright and sun-drenched treetops, which parted close by to reveal long clay-tiled rooftops, while a high beehive-shaped mountain rose up across the way.

 

 

During our ascent we encountered monkeys.  People who’d put comments about Dambulla Caves on Trip Advisor had warned about those monkeys, portraying them as brigands hellbent on ambushing and robbing visitors.  But we waded through a squad of them and were treated with indifference.  No doubt it helped that we weren’t carrying any food – which according to Trip Advisor is the thing they’re determined to steal.  At one point, three monkeys became visible sitting on the steps ahead, and I half-expected their three pairs of hands to clamp over their eyes, ears and mouth in a see-no-evil / hear-no-evil / speak-no-evil pose.

 

 

The highest steps are smooth, worn slots that long ago were carved out of the rock and are more awkward to climb.  These take you up onto a big flat surface with the temple-entrance on the left and a hut containing racks for visitors to leave their shoes on the right.  The entrance is a white building with doors and a tiled roof, while the steep line of the hillside – actually a huge, sheer bulge of rock – rises behind it.

 

 

Having passed through this building we went down a flight of wide steps into the temple grounds.  These consist of a long, narrow compound covered in rectangular stones no bigger than bricks.  The compound’s features include a broad tree wallowing within a stone dais, surrounded by incense sticks, candle-cups, little figurines and multi-coloured Buddhist flags and exuding long, low branches; and a horseshoe-shaped pond whose circumference-wall is made out of boulders and whose surface has floating canopies of water-lilies with purple water-flowers poking up between them.  However, the real attraction of the temple is along the compound’s right-hand side.

 

 

At the bottom of the wall of rock – whose height the temple’s Wikipedia entry puts at 150 metres – runs a veranda with diamond-shaped flagstones, white walls, arched glass-less windows and a long roof.  This veranda gives access to the caves, which burrow into the rock’s base.  Where each cave-entrance opens at the back of the veranda-structure, a corresponding stone staircase leads up to a doorway with an arched top and pillared sides at the front of it.  There are five caves in total, the biggest one more than 50 metres across and almost 25 metres deep.

 

 

Wikipedia states that the caves house some 160 statues, mostly ones of Buddha.  There are rows of them seated in a lotus position, with long earlobes, broad shoulders, hands cupped on their laps, gowns rippling around their legs and torsos and left shoulders – their right shoulders bare.  In one cave, a ring of eight of them surround a miniature stupa.  There are also many upright figures, right hands raised to give blessing; and occasionally a giant reclining Buddha, the wedge of daylight that makes it through the entrance and the dark shadows elsewhere meaning that only a small section of the figure is properly visible.  Other items in the caves include flowers garlanding the surfaces in front of the images, and cauldron-sized, cauldron-shaped pots, and blue-painted metal donation boxes set at strategic positions.

 

 

Despite the considerable dimensions of some of the caves, I always got a faintly claustrophobic vibe from them because of the lowness of their ceilings and the obvious, tremendous weight of the rock above.  These rock ceilings are painted and illustrated and, though the murals have faded with time, they remain impressively intricate.  (When I entered the first cave, my immediate impression was that the temple-monks had covered the cave-roof with some fancy but now-aged wallpaper.)

 

 

At the same time, however, the caves are wonderfully atmospheric – dim, shadowy and full of mysterious dark recesses and corners.  The fact that the statues often loom up half-seen in the gloom, their outlines, proportions and details hinted at by the meagre light creeping in through the doorways (and very occasional windows) just adds to their grandeur.  Conversely, when I turned on my camera’s flash and took pictures, the images that appeared in the artificially-lit photos looked slightly flat and not quite as exotic as I’d hoped.

 

 

As we emerged from the final cave, we saw a just-arrived package-tour crowd seeping in through the entrance, down the steps, onto the far end of the veranda and into the first cave.  And as we walked back past the first cave, we heard a multitude of voices babbling and saw a frenzy of camera-flashes popping inside it.  We’d had that cave to ourselves an hour earlier.  Its stillness and quiet had added immensely to its atmosphere.  So getting there early, before the main influx of tourists, had been a good decision.

 

 

There followed an interlude on the temple steps, during which my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, spent a few minutes befriending the temple cat, a which was a charming white creature with tawny face-patches and a tawny tail.  Then we descended from the temple by a route different from the one by which we’d come up.  This took us to a site at ground level where a giant golden-skinned Buddha statue sat on a building containing a museum.  A sign informed us that this was the largest statue in the world – 30 metres high – depicting Buddha in the ‘Dhammachakka’ posture.

 

 

A stone ridge extended off from the statue’s left side and along this stood a line of human-sized statues, swathed in red robes, presumably meant to be queuing to pay homage to Buddha.  Bald-headed and blank-faced, these adherents bore a slight but unfortunate resemblance to plastic shop-window dummies.  Meanwhile, the museum building that served as the statue’s pedestal had turrets at either end, had pink, red and blue lines of flower-shaped ornamentation along each of its three tiers, and generally looked like an over-iced wedding cake.

 

 

We didn’t hang around there for long.  This modern site – the statue had been built between 1997 and 2000 – felt a bit too Disney-fied after the majesty and ambience of the ancient temple complex in the giant rock above.

 

 

The Tarantino device

 

© Colombia Pictures / Bona Film Group

 

Finally, some three-to-four months after it was released in America and Europe, I’ve managed in Sri Lanka to catch up with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the new film – or as it’s more portentously known, the ninth film – directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Before I offer my thoughts on the latest of Mr Tarantino’s opuses, which is set in Los Angeles in 1969, I should warn you that spoilers lie ahead.

 

I felt some trepidation when I sat down to watch Once Upon a Time because I’ve had mixed feelings about Tarantino’s output in the 21st century.  Parts – but certainly not all – of the Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) worked for me.  I found the first half of Deathproof (2007) tedious.  While I generally had a good time with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), both had serious lapses in logic that annoyed me.  In fact, I’ve only unreservedly enjoyed his previous movie, The Hateful Eight (2015), perhaps because it was restricted to one setting, had a relatively small cast and seemed more like a stage play, which actually suited Tarantino’s style.  (While he frequently gets dumped on for being shallow and interested only in trashy movies, Tarantino is really very literary.  He delights in dialogue, writes reams of it for his characters and isn’t afraid to give the actors playing those characters inordinate amounts of time to speak it, long after most other directors would have cut away.)

 

Once Upon a Time is the antithesis of The Hateful Eight.  It sprawls across Hollywood, Los Angeles and beyond and has a cast of thousands – well, hundreds, anyway.  But it worked for me.  Not only is it an exhilarating piece of cinema, but it also takes a dark and dispiriting topic and, through the magic of movies, manages to fashion something touching and even uplifting out of it.

 

As you’d expect from a Tarantino film set in Hollywood, Once Upon a Time is loaded with references to famous people – Joseph Cotton, Patty Duke, Ann-Margaret, Jim Morrison, George Pepard, Telly Savalas, John Sturges and Brian Wilson to name a very few.  But for me the most interesting name-check is that of celebrated science fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury.  (Bradbury’s 1951 short-story collection The Illustrated Man was made into an anthology movie in 1969, which in Once Upon a Time is heard being advertised on a car radio.)  Significantly, Bradbury wrote a story in 1965 called The Kilimanjaro Device, about a man who goes off in a time machine to find Ernest Hemmingway before he commits suicide and to rescue him from that sad fate.  Once Upon a Time is basically Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device.  It’s a means by which he travels back in time, searches out someone who came to a tragic and premature end and tries to save them.  But though his mission is a serious one, he also has a lot of fun along the way.

 

Fun especially comes from the double-act at the movie’s heart, the characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth played respectively by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  Rick is a supposed tough-guy actor whose career reached its peak in the 1950s when he played the hero of a TV western series called Bounty Law.  Since then, he’s been steadily descending the slope on the far side of that peak, taking guest-slots as villain-of-the-week in other stars’ TV shows, a downward trajectory aided by the fact that he’s a pisshead and something of a narcissistic, self-pitying arsehole.  Meanwhile, Cliff is a Hollywood stuntman who’s somehow ended up working for Rick as his driver (Rick was busted for drunk driving), minder, handyman and general dogsbody.  Cliff is the yang to Rick’s yin, being easy-going, amiable and effortlessly cool.  For example, he’s tolerant of and holds his own among the teenaged hippies who’ve become a feature of LA in the past year or so – whereas the prematurely grumpy-old-mannish Rick just hates them.  Actually, such is Cliff’s magnetism that he could have become a star like, or indeed bigger, than Rick, but Tarantino inserts a disturbing piece of backstory explaining why Cliff is persona non grata at the Hollywood studios.

 

I’ve been indifferent to the acting abilities of DiCaprio and Pitt in the past, but they’re both terrific here.  Despite, or possibly because of, his character’s arsehole-ery, DiCaprio manages to make Rick entertaining and even endearing.  Mind you, nothing makes me feel so depressingly old and past it as seeing a film in which the brat from 1997’s Titanic plays a character who’s constantly moaning about being old and past it.  As Cliff, Pitt not only is likeable but invests the character with a surprising vulnerability.  At the film’s climax, we worry about him when he stares danger in the face with his laid-back nonchalance, while the effects of an acid-dipped cigarette he’s just smoked start to kick in.

 

© Colombia Pictures

 

As you might expect from someone so famously addicted to pop culture, Tarantino goes to town in depicting the late-1960s Hollywood milieu that Rick and Cliff inhabit: the music, fashions, hairstyles, cars, building facades, neon signs and, of course, movies.  You could probably watch Once Upon a Time a dozen times and still not catch all the films seen on posters, hoardings and cinema-fronts or mentioned in radio ads and conversations, but here are a few I picked up: Valley of the Dolls (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Romeo and Juliet (1968), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Lady in Cement (1968) and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969).  Plus we get to see parts of 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, one in a series of 1960s cash-ins on the James Bond craze that featured Dean Martin as a secret agent called Matt Helm.  The Matt Helm movies were set in a cool, groovy, youth-orientated 1960s world in which the middle-aged Dean Martin, try as he might, couldn’t help but look out of his depth – which makes him resemble Rick and Cliff, two slightly over-the-hill blokes trying to survive in a world that’s gone youth-crazy.

 

Then there are the imaginary 1960s movies that Rick supposedly appears in.  We see him torching Nazi officers with a flamethrower (“Anybody order fried sauerkraut?”) in the credibly 1960s-esque World War II actioner 14 Fists of McCluskey.  Later, he jets off to Italy at the behest of his agent (played by Al Pacino) and stars in some fabricated spaghetti westerns like Nebraska Jim (directed by the real-life Sergio Corbucci) and fabricated Euro-spy epics like Operazione Dyn-o-mite (directed by the equally real-life Antonio Margheriti.)  Rick’s Italian career-move, of course, was one that another star of another old TV western series, Clint Eastwood – Rowdy Yates in Rawhide from 1958 to 1966 – had profitably made earlier in the decade.

 

© Renato Casaro / From wiki.tarantino.info

 

And then there’s the cinematic fusion of the real and imaginary, such as when a lachrymose Rick imagines himself starring in a certain, much-loved 1960s war movie.  Apparently, he was in with a shout of getting the lead role when, for a time, Steve McQueen wasn’t interested.

 

Though Once Upon a Time is a cinephile’s dream, I like the fact that it doesn’t forget the larger and less glamorous culture underpinning Hollywood’s moviemaking one – television, which offers performers and crewmembers employment when they aren’t making films.  Indeed, Rick is primarily a TV star rather than a cinematic one and we see much more of him on TV sets than on film ones.  Television helps pay the rent for folk who are both on the way down, like Rick, and on the way up, like Bruce Lee, who starred in the 1966-67 show The Green Hornet and who’s depicted in a flashback meeting and falling out with Cliff.  Lee’s family were upset about his portrayal in Once Upon a Time, which suggests he was an arrogant dickwad.  However, later, we do glimpse him behaving graciously with an actress whom he’s training in the martial arts.

 

Something that surely reinforces Rick’s inferiority complex about being a second-rate TV star rather than a first-rate film star is the fact that his new next-door neighbours on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon are prestigious up-and-coming movie director Roman Polanski – fresh from making 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby – and his wife, glamorous up-and-coming movie star Sharon Tate.  And it’s here that Once Upon a Time gets its injection of darkness: for we know that in the real world on August 8th, 1969, while Polanski was overseas, Tate and her houseguests were brutally murdered by some followers of crazed hippy-cult leader Charles Manson.  At least, that’s what happened in reality.  With Rick and Cliff on the scene, blundering into events unknowingly, the script of Once Upon a Time diverges somewhat from the proper historical script of 1969.  This is, after all, Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device.

 

Manson and his disciples don’t get much screen time.  Manson, played by Damon Herriman, turns up in one short scene and his followers are only in the limelight during an unsettling and claustrophobic sequence set at the Spahn Movie Ranch, which was their hangout at the time and which, as its name indicates, was officially used as a film set, mainly for westerns.  And a few of them obviously feature in the film’s last, brutal 20 minutes.  Manson and co have received much attention in popular culture in the last half-century and, in some misguided quarters, have acquired a morbid retro-cool.  So it’s good that in Once Upon a Time they’re portrayed as a pack of pathetic but dangerous psychos / losers who deserve no empathy whatever.

 

It’s also a relief that Roman Polanski, whom time has proven to be a Grade A creep and who’s played here by Rafal Zawierucha, gets little screen time too.  When we see him briefly, he’s togged out in a silly, velvety, frilly outfit that makes him look like Austen Powers.

 

With Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, Tarantino has been criticised for having her do and say little of consequence.  She watches one of her own movies, she buys a book for her husband – in a bit of cinematic foreshadowing, it’s Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1891) – she hangs out with her friends, she becomes pregnant and shows off the nursery she’s prepared for the little ‘un, she’s kooky and charming, and that’s it.  Which I think is Tarantino’s point.  She doesn’t have to be or do anything outstanding.  He just wants to show her as an attractive, talented human being.  That’s the way she should be remembered, not as a tragic footnote to the horrible business of the Manson murders.

 

Also earning Tarantino criticism for Once Upon a Time is his being, well, Tarantino-esque.  The film is long (two hours, 40 minutes) and shows his usual disregard for the rules of restrained filmmaking.  Show, don’t tell?  No, Tarantino tells everything, through voiceovers, exposition, montages, flashbacks, fantasy sequences that illustrate what characters are thinking.  Be economical and cut all extraneous fat from the plot?  To hell with that – there are loads of scenes here, of people walking and driving and talking, talking, talking, that do nothing to propel the story forward and that any other director would have saved for the ‘extras’ on the DVD release.

 

But to be honest, I don’t care.  Firstly, while making this film, Tarantino got a lot of toys to play with – he had fake retro-facades fitted over the businesses along Hollywood Boulevard to make it look like 1969 and had a section of the Hollywood Freeway closed off so that he could populate it with vintage automobiles – and I don’t blame him for taking time to show off those toys.  Secondly, we only see the guy once every four years.  And when the portal finally opens again, so to speak, I don’t mind stepping through it and spending the most of three hours exploring the newest part of the Quentin-verse.  Especially not when it’s as textured, fascinating and generally stunning as this.

 

That said, after the film had finished and I found myself back in the real world, as opposed to Tarantino’s world, I felt a certain melancholia when I remembered it’d all been pretend.  Which was also how I used to feel as a kid after I’d finished reading the latest book by Ray Bradbury.

 

© Octavio Terol / From wiki.tarantino.info

 

Killer Jo

 

From evolvepolitics.com

 

It’s fair to say I’m not enjoying the current British general election campaign, especially not with Boris Johnson’s Conservatives showing a consistent and sizeable lead in the opinion polls – a whopping 19% lead over the Labour Party according to the latest Opinium poll commissioned by the Observer newspaper.  I mean, for God’s sake.  It’s Boris Johnson.  A man with a proven record of being a liar, a racist and an idiot.  Donald Trump’s comedy English butler.  And yet a majority of the Great British public are willing to entrust him again with the keys to Number 10.  Is the country being swept by a virus that turns people’s brains to mince?

 

Still, the campaign has had one silver lining.  It’s shown Jo Swinson, who’s been Member of Parliament for Dunbartonshire East for 12 of the last 14 years and who became leader of the Liberal Democrats amid much fanfare in July this year, to be a busted flush.

 

Swinson belongs to the political tradition of former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg – and by extension that of Tony Blair, David Cameron and George Osborne.  It’s the tradition of the privileged and entitled, the oily and smooth, the professional politicians and suited technocrats whose unspoken maxims are “We know best” and “Leave everything to us.”  Osborne referred to practitioners of this particular style of politics as ‘The Guild’ and it was nicely described by commentator Chris Deerin in a piece in the Sunday Post last weekend: “These guys were masters of the soundbite, of the polished promise that was in reality no such thing…  They operated to a kind of professional political code: pledge A, which voters liked, when you really intended to deliver B, which they were less keen on; spin the media; control and beguile the national debate. Calculation, misdirection, cynicism.”

 

Swinson, who graduated from the London School of Economics in 2000, who was running for parliament as early as 2001, and whose real-life (i.e. non-political) working experience was restricted to a couple of years in marketing and public relations, obviously believed her destiny wasn’t to remain among the ranks of the great unwashed but to rule over them with the same glib condescension as Blair, Cameron and co.  Predictably, there have been massive disconnections between the platitudes that have come out of her mouth and the things she’s actually done in her political career.  Yet we, the oiks, are supposed to be too dazzled by her rhetoric, too awed by her wonderfulness or just too thick to notice.

 

In the run-up to this election she’s positioned the Liberal Democrats as the great anti-Brexit party.  Indeed, she’s declared that they would cancel Article 50 and do away with Brexit altogether.  How ironic, then, that she served as Under-Secretary of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs in the coalition government that her then-leader Nick Clegg formed with David Cameron in 2010.  Clegg, Swinson and their Liberal Democrat comrades enabled Cameron to become Prime Minister and his premiership resulted in the Brexit referendum six years later.  They also played a role in implementing Cameron’s policies of austerity that, by 2016, had left a large part of the population so disgruntled that they voted for Brexit as a way of raising a middle finger to the establishment.

 

Incidentally, back in 2008, Swinson declared in Parliament that her party “would like to have a referendum on the major issue of whether we are in or out of Europe,” which also makes a nonsense of her stance on the issue now.

 

Her record during the Cameron-Clegg coalition makes damning reading – especially for someone who spoke to the Guardian at the start of this year about how “we need to radically change things and have much more equality.”  She refused to ban zero-hour contracts and was reluctant about increasing the minimum wage.  She supported the massive increase in university tuition fees even though, famously, her party had previously vowed not to increase them.  Welfare cuts, the bedroom tax, reducing corporation tax – she backed them all.  And the enthusiasm she expressed in the Mail on Sunday last year about erecting a statue of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square doesn’t suggest someone with much respect for ‘equality’, either.

 

She’s yakked on about introducing green taxes and promoting energy conservation.  Yet as her Wikipedia entry notes, her environmental credentials are tarnished by the fact that between 2017 and 2018 she “received political funding from Mark Petterson, the director of Warwick Energy Ltd, which has fracking licences across England” and she “has also voted against plans to ban fracking in the UK.”

 

Mind you, I don’t think the earth’s environment can be that important to Swinson, given her recent professed keenness for launching nuclear missiles, vaporising tens of thousands of people and damning hundreds of thousands of others to lingering deaths from radiation sickness – and presumably triggering a nuclear winter that’d hardly help the planet’s wellbeing.  “Would you ever be prepared to use a nuclear weapon?” an interviewer asked her.  “Yes,” she replied without an iota of hesitation.  Swinson, of course, is eager to tilt her party towards the right in the hope she can hoover up a few votes among Brexit-opposing Conservatives.  Hence her nuclear machismo, her presenting of herself as ‘Killer Jo’.

 

Actually, should Boris Johnson and his party find themselves short of an overall majority in the next parliament, it wouldn’t surprise me if Swinson follows the example of her old master Nick Clegg and plugs the Liberal Democrats into another coalition with the Tories.  We don’t get a Bojo government then, but a Bo / Jo one.

 

A fair number of jibes have been fired at Swinson about things such as her manner (which is like that of the officious, full-of-herself prefect or head girl who used to get on your wick at school) and her accent (which is sometimes weirdly anonymous and at other times sounds like Miss Jean Brodie gargling phlegm).  This has prompted some of her supporters to complain that people only make nasty remarks about her because she’s a woman.  Well, for me, it isn’t a matter of sexism.  I dislike her almost as much as I dislike Johnson not because she’s a woman but because she’s a patronising shyster with the disreputable track record that I’ve described in the paragraphs above.  Incidentally, female politicians like Diane Abbot and Nicola Sturgeon have received industrial amounts of abuse on social media over the years but I can’t remember any of Swinson’s defenders expressing indignation about that.

 

Anyway, even though it became airborne only four months ago, the Swinson bubble seems to be bursting already.  Her party have sunk in the opinion polls and she was dreadful on the BBC’s party-leaders’ edition of Question Time last Thursday, which is ironic considering that she’d threatened legal action against ITV when they’d excluded her from their debate, and limited it to Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, a few days earlier.

 

As one wit commented on Twitter following the Swinson meltdown, “Lib-Dems now considering legal action against the BBC for allowing Jo Swinson to take part in tonight’s debate.”

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 13

 

One of the best films I’ve seen in the past year has been Widows, the 2018 American movie directed by Steve McQueen and based on an old British TV drama series written by Lynda La Plante.  The opening minutes of Widows show a gang of bank robbers getting blown to kingdom come when their latest operation goes badly wrong. Thereafter, the film focuses on three of the dead robbers’ wives, played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki.  They discover the plans for what would have been their late husbands’ next robbery and decide to carry it out themselves, recruiting as their getaway driver a fourth lady, a beautician and babysitter played by Cynthia Erivo.  What follows is a bracing heist movie with a feminist slant, featuring great ensemble performances from the quartet of actresses heading the cast.

 

Anyway, the other day, I was in my regular DVD store in Colombo when I noticed this DVD case for Widows sitting on a shelf.  I don’t know…  I can’t quite explain it, I can’t quite put my finger on it but…  Somehow, I think there’s something missing in the way this DVD has been packaged for the Sri Lankan market.   What do you think?

 

© Regency Enterprises / Film 4 / 20th Century Fox

 

Burgess gets his Kit off

 

© Vintage

 

I have to admit that when I first opened Anthony Burgess’s 1993 novel A Dead Man in Deptford, a fictionalised account of the life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, I knew next to nothing about its subject.

 

What did I know of Marlowe?  Well, I’d heard of his plays but never read them.  When I studied literature at university, I’d busied myself reading Shakespeare, and a little Ben Jonson, and even The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, who plays a supporting role in Dead Man.  But I didn’t get around to reading any of Marlowe’s plays and my only experience of seeing one was Derek Jarman’s post-modern movie version of Edward II, with gratuitously added Annie Lennox, from 1991.

 

What else?  I knew he’d been killed in a pub brawl – stabbed in the eye – in Deptford in London in 1593.  I knew he was the topic of the only joke I can remember from 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, which comes when a Thames boatman remarks to Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.”  And I knew John Hurt played him as a 400-year-old vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 horror movie Only Lovers Left Alive.  Being an immortal bloodsucker evidently isn’t the glamorous, forever-youthful escapade it’s made out to be, because the real Marlowe was 29 when he died while in Only Lovers John Hurt looked all of his then 73 years.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

No, the reason I started reading Dead Man wasn’t because of Marlowe, but because I wanted to see Anthony Burgess, an author famous for his rumbustious verbosity and love of language, tackle the minutiae of life in the Elizabethan era.  As you’d expect, Burgess doesn’t just dip a cautious literary toe into the 16th century milieu.  He strips off – gets his Kit off, so to speak – and dives into it headlong and takes to it like a duck to water.  Or to use a cruder simile, like a pig to shit.  Not that I’m comparing Burgess to a pig, of course, but there’s certainly plenty of shit present.

 

Yes, you can almost hear him smacking his lips with relish as his prose records the hurly-burly in all its glory and grottiness.   The bars, booze and burping (“Kit… drank deep and belched on the yeasty froth…”); the brothels (“…roars and screams and the rapture of dying…”); the food, both hearty (“…a baked pigeon with a forcemeat of saffron and dried rosemary…) and hideous (“Pickled herrings and mouldy bread…” and “…wormy cheese…”); the vagabonds (“…rufflers, abram-men, high-pads, buff-knappers, rattling mumpers, tat-mongers, wiping-drawers, kidlays and moon-cursers…”); the oaths (“By the six ballocks of the Trinity and the cheese of the milk of the Magdalen and the hundred prepuces of circumcised Jesus…”); the gore of the public executions (“…the prick and ballocks exposed then sliced away, the first blood healthily flowing, then the cross-cut along the belly so that the bowels gushed out…”); the gore of the stage (“…pig’s blood gushed from bladders hidden…”); the torture (“…a nail or two had been pincered out before the cracking of bone…”); the lack of dental hygiene (teeth that “showed their rotting waists…”); the fingernails (which “harboured the grease he scratched from his lousiness…”); the disease and plague (“…noxious urine spouting from mouth, nose and ears and all holes else…” and “…buboes… clear in his naked armpits…); the carcasses (“…a dead pied dog that lay with swollen belly ripe to burst…”); the snot (“…the hairs in his skewed nose had trapped scraps of dry mucus…”); the puke (“…in green and yellow coposity…”); the piss (“She sat in a pool of wet…”); and the general squalor (“…the dunghill that festered at the corner of Hog Lane…” and a nearby “…raintub on which flowers of filth were afloat…”).

 

In fact, Dead Man isn’t the first Anthony Burgess book I’ve read that’s set in Elizabethan times, for in 1964 he published a novel about Shakespeare called Nothing Like the Sun.  Will Shakespeare inevitably turns up in the later stages of Dead Man, though the Bard seems pragmatic and restrained compared to the incendiary and multi-layered Kit Marlowe (whose complexity is symbolised by the uncertainty and elasticity of his surname – he introduces himself as “Christopher,” but adds, “The other name is unsure.  Marlin, Merlin, Marley, Morley.  Marlowe will do.”)

 

Indeed, the contrast between the playwrights reminded me slightly of Burgess and his great contemporary, the novelist Graham Greene.  Both hung out in south-eastern France towards the ends of their lives but had little to do with each other.  Apparently, the ebullient, publicity-loving and self-mythologizing Burgess grated on the aloof, reserved and ascetic Greene, who disapproved of Burgess appearing on TV to “talk about his books.”

 

Actually, I enjoyed Dead Man much more than Nothing Like the Sun which, with a lengthy opening section in Stratford-upon-Avon before the action finally moved to London, took its time getting going.  In comparison, Dead Man doesn’t hang around.  After a brief preamble in which we meet the book’s narrator – who identifies himself as “a small actor and smaller play-butcher who observed him (Kit) intermittently though indeed knew him in a very palpable sense”, and muses philosophically about the impossibility and absurdity of telling the story of a man’s life without being present during every moment of that life, and even alludes to Schrödinger’s cat (“There was a philosopher who spoke of the cat that mews to be let out and then mews to be let in again.  In the interim, does it exist?”) – Burgess cuts to the chase.  We glimpse Kit as a student at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, before he crosses paths with poet Thomas Watson, who invites him to London and introduces him to Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

 

Walsingham immediately signs Kit into Her Majesty’s secret service and despatches him to the English College at Rheims in France on the pretence that he’s disillusioned with Protestantism and wants to explore the possibility of joining the priesthood.  His real purpose, though, is to spy on a cabal of English Catholics there who may be plotting to replace Queen Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.  At the same time that he’s recruited by Sir Francis, he encounters Sir Francis’s young relative Thomas Walsingham and immediately becomes smitten with him.

 

From www.roseplayhouse.org.uk

 

The remainder of Dead Man’s 270 pages is a stew of spying and political intrigue – determined to make the most of Kit’s services, the older Walsingham sends him to the Low Countries and then to Scotland, where the skulduggery involves King James VI, regarded by just about everyone as “a drunkard, a sodomite and a coward” – and Elizabethan men, mostly Kit and Thomas Walsingham, indulging in ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.  Oh, and there’s a fair bit of playwriting and versifying too.

 

Adding further kinks to the plot is Sir Walter Raleigh, who draws Kit into his clique of aristocrats, thinkers and hangers-on.  Sir Walter and his gang are dangerous to know because their opinions and musings run the risk of being considered atheistic and heretical which, with Queen Elizabeth I the head of the English church, translates into treason.  The sneaky Raleigh reels Kit in by getting him addicted to tobacco – of which Raleigh, “the keeper of many keys”, is London’s main supplier.  Burgess cleverly attributes feminine qualities to the plant.  The otherwise completely male-orientated Kit describes it as a “delicious nymph” and his smoking habit as “daily ravishing of the nymph”.  His lover Thomas Walsingham later complains, “Your body does not smell as it did.  There is a rankness…” and adds, both jealously and ominously, “Yes, you are one of Raleigh’s tribe.”

 

With grim inevitability, the story leads towards the fatal events of 1593.  Kit, now in serious trouble with the authorities, heads for Deptford on the south bank of the Thames with the intention of boarding a ship and fleeing England.  First, however, he has a rendezvous in a local tavern with some shady associates of the now-dead Sir Francis Walsingham and the now-married Thomas Walsingham, who’s clearly begun to see his relationship with Kit as an embarrassment and encumbrance.

 

With his arrogance, his predilection for boozing and brawling, and his spying activities that contribute to a number of people dying horrible deaths, Kit is no angel.  But Burgess imbues him too with qualities like loyalty, conscience and self-doubt that make him relatable and likeable.  Also, Burgess – who’d previously featured gay heroes in books like Earthly Powers (1980) and Honey for the Bears (1963) – treats Kit’s homosexuality with sympathy and avoids making it a source of shame or torment for him even though, by the beliefs of the time, it guarantees him eternal damnation.  Kit is unapologetic about it.  He sees his orientation as being nobler than the instinct-driven sexuality of men and women that causes reproduction: “Male and female are grossly conjoined following nature’s words that they breed.  There is an airier or more spiritual mode of conjunction.”  He also rejects heterosexuality on the grounds of his relationship with his sisters and mother: “To bed a woman, which I have never done, has a strong stench of incest.”

 

That said, some might find a lack of subtlety in how Burgess seemingly juxtaposes Kit’s sexuality with the phallic imagery of knives and daggers.  When Dead Man isn’t getting excited about gay love scenes, it’s getting excited about blades.  Taking on a villain called George Orwell (who, Burgess claims in his postscript, was a real-life hoodlum in 16th century London), Kit “slashed Orwell’s daggering wrist, making Orwell howl and seek to drink the blood to stem its flow.”  Tangling with another villain called Cutting Ball, “his sword whistled as it dove to nick Ball’s wrist.”  Elsewhere, “his sword point pierced a fat buttock,” while his friend Thomas Watson gets caught “most bitterly in the brow with dagger”, leaving “a wound like a mouth that spoke blood.”  This imagery reaches its finale in the Deptford tavern when poor Kit receives a lethal eyeful: “The dagger point was too close to his eye for his eye to see it.”  Just to drive the association home, Burgess describes Kit’s first meeting with Thomas Walsingham as being “like the sharp knife of a sort of truth in the disguise of danger.”

 

Any other reservations about the book?  Well, the plot gets somewhat confusing with the number of characters called ‘Thomas’.  In addition to Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson and Thomas Walsingham, there’s the playwright, poet and pamphleteer Thomas Nasche and the astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot.  Though of course the existence of so many Thomases in Marlowe’s life isn’t Burgess’s fault and at one point he has his narrator exclaim, “…“all these Toms, a world of toms like a night roof top…”  And talking of narrators, it feels a bit of a cop-out when on the very last page Burgess abandons his fictional narrator and reveals himself as the true chronicler of events: “Your true author speaks now…  I put off the ill-made disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as it all happened yesterday.”

 

But those are only quibbles.  On the whole, I found A Dead Man in Deptford a splendid book, a pleasure to read while Burgess’s exuberant prose captured both the complexities of Christopher Marlowe and the rough and tumble of the world around him, without – as I’ve occasionally found elsewhere with Burgess – becoming hard to follow.  Given that the book was the last thing Burgess had published in his lifetime, before his death the following year at the age of 76, it’s retrospectively cheering to note that the book showed no sign of decline in the great man’s abilities.

 

To use the unavoidable pun – he remained at the peak of his earthly powers.

 

© The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

 

Watch out, we’re mad!

 

© Yahoo News

 

Watch Out, We’re Mad! was the title of a 1974 Italian-Spanish slapstick comedy movie starring Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, whose films during the 1970s were the sort of thing kids – kids in the UK, anyway – would graduate to when they grew too old to enjoy the slapstick comedy movies of Norman Wisdom.  Its plot had something to do with bearded, burly Bud and slim, handsome Terence having an escalating battle of wits, and fists, with some property-developing gangsters after the gangsters wrecked the duo’s beloved dune buggy.  No shit.  I saw it as a kid at my local cinema as part of a double bill with the re-released The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958).  When you were ten years old, that was a double bill made in heaven.

 

However, Watch Out, We’re Mad! could also be the title given to the Daily Telegraph during the period leading up to and since Boris Johnson becoming British Prime Minister.  As soon as a Johnson premiership looked likely, the venerable newspaper decided to be that premiership’s number one cheerleader in the British media.  The November 6th edition of the Telegraph, for example, headed its front page with a quotation by Johnson saying of the opposition Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn: “…they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.”

 

In my youth, the British tabloids were as idiotic and mean-spirited as they are today.  On the other hand, there seemed to be some constancy and balance at the upmarket end of the nation’s press.  You had three newspapers that were commonly, and for the most part deservedly, referred to as the ‘qualities’: the Guardian, catering for those people whose political sympathies lay on the left; the Times, catering for those who were in the middle; and the Telegraph, catering for those who tended towards the right.

 

Unfortunately, these days, ‘quality’ is the last word you’d apply to the Telegraph.  It has untethered itself from reality and sanity.  It has transformed itself into a printed pantomime of pro-Johnson loopiness.  And since the announcement that Britain will have a general election on December 12th, that loopiness has increased by the power of ten.

 

Before I continue, I should explain that I don’t live in Britain at the moment and my only access to the Telegraph is via its website; and as its articles exist behind a paywall, and as I’m not going to shell out cash to an organ so dementedly devoted to Johnson, and to Brexit, and to all causes championed by right-wingers, I can only gawp at its headlines.  It’s often said that newspaper journalists and columnists aren’t responsible for the sensational headlines topping their work, which are the creations of sub-editors.  But as the names I’m about to mention seem very comfortably ensconced at the modern-day Telegraph, I doubt if the headlines over their articles disturb them greatly and I assume those headlines are fair summations of their opinions.

 

Firstly, there’s the Telegraph’s coverage of Johnson himself, which brown-noses the man with an intensity reminiscent of the state-controlled North Korean media reporting the mightiness and infallibility of Kim Jong Un.  On October 20th, columnist Tim Stanley likened him to a certain bulldog-spirited British wartime leader: “It’s time critics saw Boris for the Churchillian figure he is.”  Ex-Telegraph editor Charles Moore attributed miracles on August 25th:  “Boris has brought a miraculous change to the political weather, as the remainer world falls apart.”  Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in early October was widely derided for being brief and perfunctory, but the Telegraph’s American columnist Janet Daley heard qualities in it that nobody else did: “Good-humoured Boris just gave the best speech of his career.”  And while stories have circulated about Johnson getting over-familiar with ‘the ladies’, Telegraph hack Alison Pearson dismissed these on October 1st.  Apparently with a direct telepathic link to the minds of the entire British public, she declared: “Normal people don’t give a monkey’s about ‘Gropegate’ – they’re still backing Boris.”

 

To the Telegraph’s current editor Allister Heath, Johnson is practically an Arthurian warrior-king, taking arms against a sea of Corbynites, anyone who still likes Tony Blair, EU remainers and general evildoers: on November 6th, “Wake up, Middle England.  A Corbyn victory would be a genuine catastrophe… This election is a binary battle between Boris and a Labour Party bent on the destruction of our freedom”; on October 30th,  “Boris Johnson’s historic mission is to save Britain from Corbyn and the Blairites”; and on August 28th – insinuating Johnson is Maggie Thatcher with a sex change – “This is Boris Johnson’s Falklands War, and he will do everything to win it.”

 

Johnson and his Conservative Party are generally reckoned to have had a shit start to the election campaign.  Their Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns resigned ‘after being accused of lying over an aide’s sabotaging of a rape trial’.  Tory MP Ross Thomson, Johnson’s most vocal supporter in Scotland, announced he wasn’t running for re-election after allegations of him drunkenly groping people.  And the famously aristocratic, arch-Brexiter Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was condemned for making crass, ignorant remarks about the victims of the Grenfell Fire disaster.  But the Telegraph – surprise! – disagrees.

 

Its parliamentary sketch-writer Michael Deacon insisted on November 7th that the fiasco was actually one big, brilliant Boris plan: “A bumpy start for the Tories?  Actually, it’s a PR masterclass.”  Deacon apparently believes that whatever happens during the campaign has been mapped out in advance and will end in a big win for Johnson, for on October 30th he wrote: “The election campaign hasn’t even begun – but the Tories’ cunning plan is already clear.”  Oh, and let’s not hear any bad words about Jacob Rees-Mogg either.  Back on July 27th, Charles Moore gushed: “Jacob Rees-Mogg makes a fine case for the revival of the archaic.”

 

Boris Johnson might in the eyes of the Telegraph be heroic, noble, wise and infallible, but few adjectives are negative enough to describe his opponents, especially those who also oppose Brexit.  “Remainers have turned parliament into an anti-democratic monstrosity” (Heath on September 25th); “Euphoric Remainer snobbery has become a fanatical religion” (Sherelle Jacobs on October 18th); “Fatuous remain MPs have just become the useful idiots of the Leave cause” (Jacobs on October 24th).  And don’t even mention the unspeakable European Union itself.  “To survive the new global Dark Age, Britain must leave the tyrannical EU” (Jacobs yet again on August 8th); and “Our democracy is being overthrown by the EU’s Hideous Strength” (Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP and Fox News’ go-to guy when they need a British commentator to assure right-wing Americans about the horribleness of the British National Health Service, on September 14th).

 

It says something about how utterly Loony Tunes the Telegraph has become that the editor of its Scottish version almost sounds reasonable in comparison.  This is Alan Cochrane, a man famous for his fulminations against supporters of Scottish independence.  Aware that in more left-leaning Scotland, any success the Scottish Tories have enjoyed in recent years has been due to them being perceived as ‘moderate’ – as epitomised by their former leader, the supposedly moderate Ruth Davison (who promptly resigned when Johnson became Prime Minister) – Cochrane has written pieces warning how badly the Boris Johnson Show plays north of the border.  These include “It’s not just what Boris Johnson says, it’s the way he says it that alienates Scotland” (October 4th) and “Crass Downing Street jibe at judges unites Scottish politicians” (September 12th).  You nearly feel sorry for Cochrane when you read the unhinged, xenophobic, Scotland-bashing comments his articles attract from English Telegraph readers in the threads below them.

 

Although Cochrane’s work appears regularly on the online Telegraph’s opinion page, he isn’t even mentioned on the page listing its columnists (alongside such veteran eye-swivellers as Julie Burchill and Nosferatu himself, Norman Tebbit).  Which shows how much importance the newspaper attaches to Cochrane, its Scottish edition and Scotland generally.

 

Of course, the Daily Telegraph is fixated with Boris Johnson largely because he’s been involved with the newspaper since the late 1980s – when it hired him as a journalist after he’d been sacked from the Times for fabricating a quote.  (Then-Telegraph editor Max Hastings has since said of Johnson that “he is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”)  During the 1990s, as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Johnson made his name publishing widely exaggerated pieces on how the beastly EU was imposing spiteful and stupid regulations on plucky little Britain, helping fuel the Euro-scepticism that birthed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and eventually won the 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit.  Johnson still writes for the Telegraph and its online opinion page gives pride of place to a set of articles with the oxymoronic title The Best of Boris.

 

Mindful of the dynamics between President Donald Trump and Fox News in the USA, the Telegraph clearly hopes to enjoy a similar relationship with Prime Minister Johnson – supporting him with a fervour unlike any other media outlet, whilst enjoying a symbiotic relationship where he uses his name to promote it and it has influence over him and his policies.

 

Yet all cannot be well in Telegraph-World because its owners, billionaire twins David and Frederick Barclay, have just decided to put the newspaper up for sale for 200 million pounds – less than a third of what they paid for it in 2004.  Officially, it’s said that the sale is due to the newspaper’s declining profits.  However, I’d like to think that the Barclay brothers are worried that their Boris-worshipping newspaper has turned into a Frankenstein’s monster and they want to get rid of it before their reputations are damaged by association.  That they’re no longer saying, “Watch out, we’re mad!”, but “Hold on, we’re not that mad.”

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2019

 

From craftshub.com

 

Today is October 31stSamhain as it’s known in Ireland and Halloween as it’s known elsewhere.  As is my annual custom, I will celebrate the occasion by putting on this blog ten of the creepiest or most disturbing pieces of artwork that I’ve come across during the past year.

 

To start this year’s round-up, here’s a haunting picture by American artist Aron Wiesenfeld, who seems to specialise in depicting frail, vulnerable-looking figures stuck in the middle of bleak, supernaturally threatening landscapes.  This one evokes the ‘trapped in the woods’ trope that’s been common in modern American horror films from The Evil Dead (1981) to The Blair Witch Project (1999), and to The Cabin in the Woods (2012).  It also gets power from its ambiguity.  We don’t know if there’s something lurking in that dark gap between the trees, but we certainly don’t want the lady to venture in and find out.

 

© Aron Wiesenfeld

 

Next, I’d like to pay tribute to an artist who passed away earlier this year.  David Palladini was well known for his ornate, colourful and imaginative versions of the Tarot cards and Zodiac figures, but the work that I’m most familiar with is this poster he designed for Werner Herzog’s stylish 1979 gothic horror movie Nosferatu the Vampyre, featuring Klaus Kinski in the role of a bald-headed and be-clawed Count Dracula.  The look of the poster is decidedly Art Nouveau, which nicely captures the sense of tragic and doomed romanticism underlying Kinski’s physical grotesqueness.

 

© Werner Herzog Filmproduktion / 20th Century Fox

 

From vampires to werewolves – and I was delighted to discover this image recently because I remember it vividly from my boyhood.  The picture, by prolific British horror / fantasy artist Les Edwards, once adorned the cover of a paperback novelisation of the 1975 British horror movie The Legend of the Werewolf.  I read the novelisation when I was 11 and too young to see the film itself in the cinema.  Three years later, I caught up with the film on TV, and even at the age of 14 I found it pretty unremarkable.  (Though it benefited from having a good cast, including Peter Cushing, Ron Moody and, in the role of the werewolf, Scottish actor David Rintoul.)  The novelisation was actually much better than the film deserved.  Not only was Edwards’ cover art memorable, but it was written by the distinguished British fantasy author Robert Holdstock under the pseudonym Robert Black.

 

© Les Daniels / Sphere Books

 

Here’s an illustration from another book, though one whose contents are rather more acclaimed than the storyline of The Legend of the Werewolf.  It’s from the 1912 Hodder and Stoughton edition of The Bells and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe.  The illustrator is French-British artist Edmund Dulac, who also applied his talents in less fantastical, more everyday areas, for example, by designing banknotes and postage stamps.  Dulac even created a stamp to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, although by a cruel irony he died just one week before the coronation took place in 1953.

 

© Hodder and Stoughton

 

I find skulls creepy, especially when juxtaposed with the living, so I have included this item by the Japanese artist Takato Yamamoto.  The positioning of the skull and the adjacent face, and the amorphous background that seems to swallow the bodies of the subjects, makes it resemble a dark and grim version of the famously spangly works of Gustav Klimt.  (Klimt actually did once produce a sinister painting featuring a skull.)  What gets me is the black, shaggy material surrounding the skull.  Is it a hairy coat?  A hairy blanket?  Is it fur covering a body and pair of arms?  Are we looking at a skull-faced, black-pelted demon from Japanese folklore?  (Yamamoto comes from Japan’s Akita prefecture, home of the famous Namahage ogres.  So I wonder if this is meant to be a zombie Namahage.)

 

© Takato Yamamoto

 

Also shaggy in places is this demonic creature beautifully drawn in black and white by Hannes Bok who, like the better-known and more prolific Virgil Finlay, illustrated the contents of American pulp-fiction sci-fi, horror and detective magazines in the 1930s and 1940s.  Obsessed with the occult, Bok became increasingly reclusive in later life and died in poverty in 1964.  But he at least had the honour of winning one of the first Hugo Awards (for best cover art) when those now-venerable awards were inaugurated in 1953.

 

From monsterbrains.blogspot.com

 

What next?  I like this detail taken from the bottom right-hand corner of The Last Judgement, painted between 1525 and 1530 by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  Cranach was apparently a mate of Martin Luther, which may explain the baleful relish with which he depicts sinners being stuffed by vile demons into a pit populated by even viler demons.

 

From grecosghosts.com

 

Here’s something I found on a now-defunct website called Tomb of Insomnia.  I have no idea what its title is, or who the artist is, or what it’s meant to represent.  But it looks hideous.

 

From Tomb of Insomnia

 

I started this blog entry with a picture of a female figure eerily contrasted with a dark space and here’s another one, courtesy of the South Korean illustrator Yoonji Lee – although there’s less ambiguity about what’s occupying that dark space.  The piece’s title, With Her Demon, gives some clue as to what we’re looking at.  I haven’t been able to find much information about Yoonji Lee and only discovered this picture on the Twitter account 41 Strange.  She’s not to be confused with wholesome-looking Korean TV actress Lee Yoon-ji, whose name kept cropping up when I tried to Google her.

 

© Yoonji Lee

 

Finally, here’s a picture to connect Halloween with the next big festival on the calendar, which is of course Christmas.  The caption, if you can’t read it, says: “Bring in another!”  It’s the work of the celebrated cartoonist, artist and author Gahan Wilson.  To me, Wilson always seemed like the missing link in the cartoon world between purveyors of classic gothic macabre-ness like Charles Adams and Edward Gorey, and the more modern oddness of Gary (The Far Side) Larson.  Sadly, Wilson is not in good health these days and his stepson recently launched a fundraiser to help pay for his care and medical bills.  Donations can be made here.

 

© Gahan Wilson

 

And that’s my ten for October 31st this year.  Happy Halloween!

 

Rab Foster gets antsy

 

© Blood Moon Rising Magazine

 

In the last few years, nearly all the fiction I’ve had published has belonged to one of two genres: horror and fantasy.  The horror stuff has appeared under a pseudonym I use, Jim Mountfield.  The fantasy stuff has borne another pseudonym, Rab Foster.  (I generally use pseudonyms for my writing because ‘Ian Smith’ is one of the most boring names in the world.  Also, it risks me being confused with the white supremacist prime minister of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, who unilaterally declared independence from the UK in 1965, or with the bloke who used to play Harold Bishop in the never-ending Australian soap opera Neighbours.)

 

Well, my new story The World Builder has just been published in the October 2019 edition of the ezine Blood Moon Rising and it’s something of an anomaly.  It’s a horror story inspired by a visit my partner and I made a while back to the historical / cultural site of Polonnaruwa in north central Sri Lanka, where we observed some big, abandoned anthills that looked worryingly… organic.  Blood Moon Rising is a publication that specialises in horror stories and articles about the horror genre, and I’m especially pleased that my story has become available to read just before Halloween.  However, the pseudonym it’s been attributed to isn’t Jim Mountfield, but Rab Foster.

 

This is because when I started to develop the story, which involves a, shall we say, special type of ant, I quickly realised I couldn’t set it in the ‘real’ world.  It would just seem too far-fetched.  And to my mind, a story that strays beyond the boundaries of believability can never be properly scary.  So it made sense to set the story in an ‘unreal’ world, in a fantasy setting where the rules of what’s plausible and implausible are less rigid, and let its horrors unfold there.  Thus, it became a Rab Foster story instead.

 

Actually, in the middle of putting together the story, which as well as featuring super-powerful ants features an Emperor of Games of Thrones-style viciousness, I realised I could link it to another Rab Foster story I’d had published.  That story was called The Water Garden.  It appeared back in 2010 in a now-defunct publication called Sorcerous Signals and was about an evil Emperor cultivating some deadly gardens in which he can discretely get rid of his political rivals.  Part of the inspiration for The Water Garden had come from the bizarre ‘Garden of Death’ that Ernst Stavro Blofeld installs at his hideaway in Japan in the 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice.

 

So I set The World Builder in another quarter of those gardens, adjacent to the one in The Water Garden, and called this new quarter the ‘Earth Garden’.  That makes 2019’s The World Builder a sequel to 2010’s The Water Garden.

 

In fact, the way is now open for two more sequels – stories set in further quarters named after the remaining elements, the Air Garden and the Fire Garden.  Rest assured that Rab Foster will be working on them shortly, as soon as he can figure out what hideous, horrible things to place in those gardens.

 

For the time being, the October 2019 edition of Blood Moon Rising is available here, and The World Builder itself – the issue’s featured story – can be accessed here.

 

Knuckling down, part 4

 

 

The weather had been less than splendid during my first three days in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains.  Would my fourth and final day see some improvement?  It did.  The sun made a welcome appearance.  This was fortuitous because this morning was the first time I started trekking in clothes and boots still damp from the day before.  Only three guests had stayed at the campsite the previous night, the staff hadn’t bothered to light a fire and I hadn’t had any way of drying them out.  But dry out they did in the morning sunshine, after I’d trudged uncomfortably in them for a short time.

 

My guide, Asela, kept apologising about the bad weather we’d put up with during this trek.  He maintained that the conditions a month earlier, before the rainy season started, had been brilliant.  Unfortunately, back then, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was still reeling from the impact of the Easter Sunday bombings and there’d hardly been any visitors to go trekking.

 

First, we went through the nearer of the two tea-plantation villages in the vicinity.  Rather than continue along the path to the second village, however, we took a sudden turning that led into the tea plantation itself.  At one point, we went up behind some sort of plantation-related building with a big, steep-sided roof, which resembled a Victorian warehouse and was presumably another lingering trace of British rule.  Later, crossing a plantation slope, we passed a half-dozen white goats as they roamed amid the shrubbery.  Goats are allowed to wander there, Asela explained, because they don’t care for the taste of the valuable tea-plants.

 

 

Then we traversed a forest.  Asela sometimes takes tourists on birdwatching tours and often during our trek he spotted distant specimens of wildlife that otherwise I’d have walked past without seeing.  He was also extremely knowledgeable when he talked about them.  In the forest’s undergrowth he pointed out a horned (male) ‘barking deer’, named because of the noise it makes when something frightens it.  He also showed me an example of Sri Lanka’s indigenous brown squirrels.  These are very different from the grey palm squirrels that are ubiquitous in the cities and towns and, indeed, in any place inhabited by humans – I’d seen several of them scuttling around the campsites in recent days, but they shun the unpopulated forests.

 

We emerged into an area by a river where attempts had been made to build another accommodation / recreational complex.  Some fancy timber holiday cabins stood up on a bank, while nearby an empty concrete water-slide ran down a slope and ended at the bottom with a worryingly small and shallow-looking concrete pool.  (Surely, I thought, you could bash your head in or break a leg if you went whizzing into that pool too fast?)  From there we walked for a time alongside the river, which was actually down in a small gorge, its course clogged with boulders.

 

As we walked in the direction of Kandy and out of the Knuckles Mountains, our path gradually descended.  This made for a fairly easy trek and it felt like compensation for the previous day, which had contained some stretches that I’d found hardcore.

 

Surrounded by tall, deciduous forest, we saw more wildlife.  At one spot, the path passed between two trees where two varieties of stinging insects lived as neighbours.  One tree had a big hornets’ nest, shaped like a rugby ball, suspended from a branch while the other was home to a sagging, faintly V-shaped wasps’ nest.  We spotted another barking deer, this time a non-horned female.  And Asela identified a bird called a ‘hanging parrot’.  As if to meet our expectations, the hanging parrot promptly hung itself upside-down from its tree-branch so that it could peck at a dangling blossom.  The hanging parrot, incidentally, is the green-winged, orange-headed bird that’s pictured on the Sri Lankan 1000 rupee note.

 

From leftovercurrency.com

 

The path took us past the site of what had been a former coffee – as opposed to tea – plantation.  It also took us to the scene of a recent landslide, where the way was blocked by the mingled wreckage of two trees that’d toppled off the slope above.  One tree lay on top of the other and we had to climb over them.  The upper tree-trunk seesawed alarmingly when I put my weight on it.  Meanwhile, a gorgeous view gradually unfolded ahead.  Our route wound down between spurs of steep, wooded mountainside and the sky was, for the first time in four days, a clear, almost cloudless blue.

 

We stopped for a breather on top of a giant boulder overlooking the ever-descending path.  In the foliage surrounding the boulder, we saw a water buffalo, which Asela said was a ‘wild’ one – I’m not sure if it was deemed ‘wild’ because there are herds of untamed water buffalo roaming loose in the Knuckles Mountains or because it just happened to be untethered.  Meanwhile, as we sat there, two different trekking parties came up the path, in the opposite direction that we were heading, and joined us for a few minutes.  We’d already encountered a party before the giant boulder and would meet another one a short way after it.  The route, apparently, is commonly used for one-day treks.  The trekkers are driven out of Kandy, get dropped off at a place ahead that’d be our eventual destination today, hike up the path, and are picked up again at the site of the holiday cabins and concrete water-slide.

 

 

The final trekking party we met were a five-strong French family and their guide.  All the French people wore anti-leech socks, tightly fastened, encasing their legs up past their knees.  (They reminded me a little of King George IV during his famous visit to Scotland in 1822, wherein the obese monarch wore a kilt, but with grotesque flesh-coloured tights covering his legs under it.)  I was tempted to play devil’s advocate and ask, as Asela had asked three days before, what they would do when the leeches climbed to the top of their socks and then moved onto their thighs.  But, diplomatically, I kept my mouth shut.

 

Then we came to a bridge across a gorge, consisting of three steel girders spanning the chasm and a layer of wooden planks placed across the girders.  Asela warned me to walk only on the parts of the planks that had solid steel underneath them.  This was wise – as I crossed the bridge, I realised how flimsy those planks looked and wondered if they’d have supported my weight by themselves.  After the bridge, the landscape became more domesticated and we walked past rice-paddy terraces and small farming settlements.  For a time, a labyrinth of paths – some earthen, some concreted over – and stone steps took along the backs and down the sides of people’s houses.  We also went down flights of concrete steps next to a terraced slope where some of the terraces hadn’t been planted on and had been left fallow, due to the wretchedness of the recent weather.

 

 

Finally, we arrived at a villa with a pleasantly shady veranda – the sun was quite strong now – where we ate a mid-afternoon lunch.  The villa was also the end-point for my four days of Knuckles Mountains trekking.  Parked nearby was a pick-up, ready to shuttle me back to Kandy.  The driver was none other than Ravi, one of the leading lights in the Sri Lanka Trekking company with whom I’d booked this expedition.

 

When we got back to the hotel in Kandy where I’d spend the next night, I settled my bill with Ravi and made sure Asela was tipped for his excellent work as my guide – as well as being observant and knowledgeable, he’d been a very affable companion during those four days.  “Here’s some hanging parrots,” I said as I passed him the money.

 

 

I realise that in my blog posts about this trip, I’ve written a lot about the inclement rainy-season weather and about how some parts of the treks were tough going.  But overall, I finished those four days feeling invigorated and inspired.  I’d been able to do something that I really enjoy, hiking, that unfortunately I don’t have much opportunity to do nowadays.  I’d also been able to see a part of Sri Lanka, the wild, natural part of it, that I also don’t have much opportunity to see – having got into the habit of going to historical attractions and beaches that are usually swarming with visitors.  So, if you’re in Sri Lanka and you fancy exploring its remote mountains, why not drop Sri Lanka Trekking a line?  They provide an excellent service, and with the Easter Sunday bombings still sending a chill through the local tourism industry, I’m sure they’d be grateful for your custom.

 

And while we’re on the topic of recommendations, I suppose I should give a shout-out to the Dettol company, whose disinfectant I applied to my feet and legs before setting off every morning in an effort to make my flesh unpalatable to the Knuckles Mountains’ leech population.  While other trekkers I met were having a terrible time with the little bastards, I remained unmolested by them.  Dettol may not make everyone’s skin leech-proof, but it certainly seemed to do the trick for mine.

 

© Dettol®

 

Knuckling down, part 3

 

 

My first two days in the Knuckles Mountains had seen much bad weather – unsurprisingly, since my visit coincided with the middle of Sri Lanka’s rainy season.  However, there’d been times during both days when the sun appeared, the air warmed up, the landscape dried out and the views became crystal-clear.  I had no such luck on my third day.  It was wet, windy and (as my photographs will show) misty throughout.

 

Asela, my guide, planned to take me to the top of a local mountain.  We set off at ten o’clock, walking back along the route we’d followed to the campsite the afternoon before.  This meant that after ten minutes we passed through the little tea-plantation village again.  Consisting of a few terraces of one-storey stone buildings, whose rusted corrugated-iron roofs often had loose sheets that were weighted down by boulders, blocks and logs, it looked pretty impoverished and represented a side of Sri Lanka that most foreign tourists, cooped up in plush seaside-resort hotels, never see.

 

But still, it was somebody’s home, and they made the best of it – a fact underlined by the presence of some village kids playing cricket with basic, improvised cricketing equipment in a nearby field.  (By this point it was damp and misty, but not raining.)

 

Asela mentioned that most of the people living here were ‘Hill Tamils’, i.e. descendants of folk whom the British had moved from Tamil Nadu in South India to work in Sri Lanka’s high-altitude tea plantations.  A blue-painted statue of the Hindu elephant-god Ganesha standing at the village’s entrance was evidence of this.

 

A little later, we entered the second – and bigger and richer – tea-plantation village in the area, where we collected packed lunches for the trek ahead.  Then Asela led me on a twisting-and-turning route through the village that a couple of times involved us walking along people’s verandas and right past their front doors and windows.  We left the village behind us and started up a mountainside.  Along the way we passed a herd of goats that, apart from a couple of parakeets, were the only animals we sighted today.

 

The path we followed underwent several permutations.  For a time it was a track of wet sand, pebbles and crystal-y pieces of quartz.  Later we passed through a roughly triangular tunnel of bamboo.  Then there was an awkward-to-walk-on course of mud, rotted leaves, slimy rocks and many twisting, intermeshing tree-roots.  Finally we emerged into an open area that was shrouded with mist and where visibility lasted only a few metres.  The ground was covered in sheets of exposed rock separated by seams of grass, moss and muck.  I felt I’d suddenly strayed onto Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

 

 

As I said, the intention had been to scale one of the local mountains, but now Asela confessed that we were unlikely to see anything from its summit, given today’s weather.  So he proposed a change of plans.  Plan B was to cut off from this route and visit a couple of waterfalls instead.  Apparently, there were four notable waterfalls in the area, which the trekking guides simply called Numbers One, Two, Three and Four.  He reckoned we had time to take in two of them: Number Four first, and then Number One.

 

Getting to Waterfall Number Four involved descending a high, steep riverbank.  We went down a helter-skelter of mud and rocks and under a claustrophobically low canopy of branches, creepers and bamboo.  It was tough going.  For the first time, I felt like I really was in the jungle.  When we got to the river, the waterfall was veiled in mist but just about discernible.  It made a ghostly but still majestic-looking sight.

 

 

We then had to go back up the steep riverbank, which proved even more gruelling than going down it.  Scrabbling upwards, but having to crouch all the time so that my head and backpack wouldn’t get caught in the roof of foliage we were passing under, was murder on my knees and back.

 

We emerged alongside a higher stretch of the same river and walked along it, treading carefully on flat, wet stones next to the gushing water.  They were treacherously slippery, but this part of the trek still felt much pleasanter than the punishing ascent we’d just made.  When we got to Waterfall Number One, it also proved to be mist-shrouded and mysterious-looking, but more detail was visible than at its predecessor.  Short, white, pointed rivulets that resembled shimmering icicles trailed from the cracks, ledges and fissures in the rock behind the waterfall.  Meanwhile, the boulders lying below the fall had been so eroded by the constant cascade of water that they looked like a townscape of steep, sharp roofs.

 

We had lunch sitting on some rocks at the far end of the pool in front of the waterfall.  Two other trekking parties were there tucking into lunch when we arrived.  We’d already encountered another trekking party up on the misty, Hound of the Baskervilles area so, despite the weather, there was evidently heavy traffic on the trekking routes today.

 

The climb up the bank from Waterfall Number One was also tough, involving much scrabbling, clutching at jutting rocks and tree-trunks and hauling ourselves upwards.  But again, it was preferable to the ascent from the previous waterfall, because this time there wasn’t a low canopy crushing down on us.

 

Later, our route from Waterfall Number One linked up with the route we’d taken from the second tea-plantation village, so we ended up going back the same way that we’d come.  When we arrived in the village again, we stopped off at the big white house where we’d had lunch the day before and ordered some tea.  This tea was very necessary in my case – in order to get some of my energy back, I stoked my cup with four or five teaspoons of sugar.

 

Just as we were about to enter the house, the grey clouds parted overhead and a shaft of brilliant sunshine pierced through.  “Aha,” I said to Asela.  “Decent weather at last!”

 

A split-second later, the clouds clamped shut again, the sunshine vanished and it never reappeared during the remainder of the day.

 

 

The campsite tonight seemed much quieter because (a) the adjacent enclosure didn’t mount a repeat of the previous night’s song-dance-and-booze party and whoever was staying there went to bed at a civilised hour; and (b) the five-strong British-Israeli family had departed, leaving just me and two other guests staying there.  (The family had planned to do another day’s trekking but the two little kids, following their ordeal by leeches the previous day, understandably didn’t fancy that.  So their guide got hold of a vehicle and they went off on a ‘safari’ instead.  They’d dealt with the previous day’s misfortunes with admirable cheerfulness and good humour, so they deserved to have everything go well for the rest of their Sri Lankan holiday.)

 

The other remaining guests were a New Zealand couple whose company I really enjoyed.  They’d been ravaged by Sri Lanka’s leech population as well.  The previous day, when they’d arrived in the camp, the man’s arms had been weirdly covered in splotches of grey and orange.  It transpired that he’d suffered a number of leech-bites and, to staunch the bleeding, their guide had tried out a couple of traditional remedies.  First, he’d rubbed fragments of burnt paper into the wounds.  When the paper-ash hadn’t worked, he’d then rubbed in turmeric powder.

 

When I say the camp was ‘quiet’, I mean in terms of human activity.  However, it certainly wasn’t quiet in terms of the weather.   That night the wind generated an epic amount of noise.  Sometimes, it made a hurtling, booming noise, as if there was a huge express train going hell-for-leather through the middle of the campsite.  At other times, it sounded like the rumble and crash of tumultuous sea-waves – so that although I was inside a tent, I felt like I was on board a little ship pitching about on those waves.  Meanwhile, the metal roofs of the campsite’s huts and sheds strained and groaned and clattered so much that there might have been a giant animal scrambling on top of them.

 

It finally occurred to me to roll up two pieces of toilet paper and use them as earplugs.  And with loo-paper inserted in my ears, I got to sleep.

 

 

To be continued…