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.

Knuckling down, part 2

 

 

I began my second day in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains early.  I’d been told that the ‘sky camp’ – where I’d spent my first night in the mountains – was an excellent spot for observing the sunrise.  So I and three other guests staying there (an Englishman and two Australian women who were making a separate, two-day trek) emerged from our tents at about 5.30 AM, a quarter-hour before the sun was supposed to come up.  Already the night had given way to an eerie early-morning twilight.   The mountaintops directly across the valley were still black silhouettes.  However, further along and presumably due east, distant peaks were visible in a haze of grey.  Higher up, the greyness segued into a glimmering strip of pink and then into pale, barely blue sky.

 

We went a little way down the road from the camp to a place where a new hotel was under construction.  This had been recommended to us as the best vantage point and there was even a concrete platform in front of the hotel buildings that seemed to have been designed for this purpose.  Gradually, the eastern sky became brighter, revealing patterns of streaky clouds.  The grey haze underneath lightened to show more mountaintops, covered in a fur of trees, and even the glint of a distant lake.  Then a wan red bead rose into view out of the haze – the sun, not quite appearing from behind the horizon but suddenly materialising over it.  At the same moment, the area of sky above the sun suddenly resembled a pool of fiery lava.  So the day had an inspirational start.

 

When I got up, my boots, shorts and other gear were still damp from the previous day’s wet weather, but they dried out in the early-morning sunshine and I was ready to leave the sky camp at 9.30 AM.  Asela, my trekking guide, and I soon encountered an abandoned tea plantation that’d been installed long ago by the British.  Some tea-plants remained, growing wild.  Later, we came across a ruined stone bungalow that’d been the home of the plantation’s superintendent.

 

At another point in the morning, our path took us to a pool below a slope, fed by a boulder-choked stream.  Here, we met the Englishman and Australian women – who’d left the sky camp a short time before us – and their guide.  They were under attack from leeches.  The pool-area was hoaching with the creatures and the Westerners were busy picking them off each other.  Already, one of the ladies’ woollen socks was polka-dotted with blood.

 

 

To digress a little…  A few years ago, I went walking in the Udawattakele Sanctuary above Kandy, where my ankles became the site of a major leech pile-on.  Their bites bled for hours afterwards.  Not wanting to undergo that again, before leaving Colombo for the Knuckles Mountains, I’d gone to a camping shop on Galle Road and invested in a pair of ‘anti-leech’ socks.  These were big tubes of canvas-like material that you put over your feet and roll up your legs to your knees, fastening them at various points with lengths of cord.  However, before the start of our trek the previous day, Asela had pointed out that the leeches would simply climb up my boots, then climb up the anti-leech socks, and then climb onto my exposed thighs and start feeding.

 

“Wouldn’t the leeches,” I asked hopefully, “be too tired to bite after they’d climbed all that way?”

 

“No,” he said.

 

Instead, Asela advised me to rub Dettol into my feet and legs before we set out each morning.  Leeches aren’t hot on the taste of Dettol, apparently.  And that seemed to do the trick because I wasn’t much bothered by the little bastards during our four days’ trekking.  Incidentally, I continued to wear the anti-leech socks – over my feet and socks, under my boots, and rolled down above my boots – as a way of keeping my feet dry.

 

This Knuckles Mountains expedition was the first time I really noticed leeches in their skinnier, non-blood-swollen form.  Everywhere on the ground, it seemed, they squiggled out from under fallen leaves, like animated little slivers of evil; and then probed insatiably upwards, desperate to clamber onto your boots and onto your flesh.

 

 

Anyway, after trudging upwards for a time, we came to a pine forest – presumably also the handiwork of the British.  The forest looked aesthetically pleasing as we approached it but, once we entered, we saw how the forest floor was carpeted with dried brown pine-twigs and almost devoid of life.  The only vegetation was an occasional clump of broad-bladed grass.  By way of contrast, when there was an interruption by indigenous trees among the pines, there was also a great eruption of green foliage underneath them.

 

After leaving the pine forest, we crossed a ridge and came within sight of a valley on the other side.  This was possibly the most spectacular view I’ve seen in Sri Lanka.  Various mountains stood in towering rows, which receded and became blurred, misty and ephemeral.  Everything in the valley beneath them – roads, dwellings, fields – was insignificant and puny-looking.

 

Then we ended up on a path whose surface was a mixture of broken asphalt, stones, pebbles, occasional smooth rocks, sand, grit, puddles and, for one stretch, a shallow stream.  A forest of low indigenous trees grew around the path and a froth of grass, weeds, ferns and creepers crowded against its sides.  So far today the weather had been reasonable but there came a point, while we were making our way around a bend, when the air suddenly turned cold.  Thereafter, the weather alternated between mist, drizzle and relentless, miserable rain.

 

It was on this path that we discovered a centipede that was a good seven or eight inches long.  It had a black body, dozens of pairs of yellow legs and two longer red antennae at the end that served as its head.  It was the strangest specimen of wildlife that we saw today.  The wildlife also included a big green chameleon perched on top of a fencepost, a couple of woodpeckers, more freshwater crabs and several monkeys.

 

The path finally took us to a village inhabited by tea-plantation workers.  Our lunch – though we didn’t eat it until the mid-afternoon – was served up in the biggest and fanciest house in the village, a white, two-storey block with a balcony that was decorated with stone doves and bas-reliefs showing ancient chariots.  The house’s owner ran his own trekking company, apparently, but also supplied other companies’ customers and guides with refreshments and food when they  passed through.  I suppose the meal I received there was standard Sri Lankan fare but, with my appetite whetted by hours of trekking, it seemed absolutely delicious.

 

 

Because the electrical sockets in the sky camp hadn’t been compatible with our chargers, neither Asela nor I had powered up our phones the night before.  We were able to do this in the white house, although it meant hanging around for a while.  In the meantime, rain began to bucket down outside.  I was at the front doorway, gazing out at the downpour, when suddenly a tuk-tuk came barrelling into the front yard.  A diminutive Sri Lankan guy clambered out of the front of the tuk-tuk – not, it transpired, the driver, but another guide.  Then the driver got out too.  They lifted one of the side-flaps that’d been fastened down against the pounding rain and five Westerners struggled out of the back: a father, mother, teenaged daughter and little boy and girl.  So that tuk-tuk had arrived with seven people on board.

 

Everyone was bedraggled, but especially the two young kids.  They were whisked into the house, dried with towels and plied with hot tea.  The family were British-Israelis who’d been visiting a waterfall when it started to rain torrentially.  They’d been stranded there for a time, until their guide managed to phone and summon an emergency tuk-tuk.  They said they were staying tonight in a local campsite, which sounded similar to the one Asela had described to me as our next port-of-call.

 

The rain finally relented and the family and their guide set off on foot for their campsite.  Asela and I departed from the house a quarter-hour later.  We followed a path out of the village that took us alongside a river and then through another tea-plantation village – a smaller and decidedly poorer-looking village than the one we’d recently left.  By now the rain had resumed and was almost as severe as before.  As we tramped past a little shop in the middle of the second village, we glanced through its doorway and saw the British-Israeli family huddled inside, in front of the counter.  They looked utterly bedraggled again.

 

About ten minutes after the second village, we arrived at our campsite.  It was part of a conglomeration of recreational facilities in the middle of the mountains – we’d just walked past some fancy wooden chalets and an enclosure with holiday-huts and a garden.  Our place consisted of a central dining area, under a big V-shaped roof held up by eight wooden columns embedded in a concrete wall about three feet high – above that wall, there was nothing to block out the wind; a nearby cabin where the campsite staff and guides could prepare food; two family-sized tents contained in big, garden-shed-like huts overlooking a greenish pond that was stocked with carp; and, up a slope, a terrace of four concrete-walled, iron-roofed huts containing four tents that was similar to the arrangement in the sky camp.  There was no wi-fi or telephone signal and the only electricity was provided by a generator each evening until about 9.30.

 

Shortly after we arrived there, while I sat in the dining area with a much-needed cup of hot tea, the British-Israeli family came charging in out of the rain.  Their guide ran in with the little girl perched on his shoulders.  Their walk from the white house to here had gone badly.  The little boy and girl had fallen prey to leeches and when Asela and I had seen them in the village shop, their parents had been buying disinfectant and plasters to apply to their bites.  Thank God, I thought, for Dettol.

 

 

Later, one of the campsite staff lit a fire in a big brazier at the end of the dining area, just under the edge of the roof so that it wouldn’t be doused by the still-falling rain.  I placed my sodden boots and hung my sodden clothes near to it and by the next morning they’d dried out – just about.

 

That evening, I suffered the only real annoyance of my four days in the Knuckles Mountains – by annoyance, I mean an avoidable, human one, not an unpreventable fact-of-life like bad weather.  On the other side of the carp pond was the enclosure with the holiday huts that I mentioned earlier.  It was under different ownership from the campsite.  Early in the evening, a group of people, mostly men, started playing music loudly over a sound system – warbly, sometimes dance-y Sri Lankan popular songs, latterly accompanied by drunken live singing.  It was fully audible in the campsite and was going strong when I ate dinner.  It was still going strong at about 10.00, when I decided to call it a night.  And it was still thumping away an hour later when I was lying in my tent.

 

Finally, I checked the time, saw that it was 10.55 and resolved that, if the music continued after 11.00, I would go to that enclosure myself to tell them to shut the f*** up.  At 11.01, yes, it was still playing and so I got up, dressed and left the tent.  I’d was halfway across the campsite when I encountered a guide – not Asela, but one who’d accompanied a couple of other tourists staying there – and he tried to talk me out of breenging across and making a scene.  “They’re local people,” he explained, “but I am sure they will stop soon.”  I point out that I, and the campsite’s other guests, had paid good money to have a peaceful sojourn out in Sri Lanka’s remote countryside.  Spending the night next door to a disco-from-hell was the last thing we wanted.

 

In the middle of our discussion, the music cut out.  This was probably connected with the approach of a minibus on the road, presumably hired to ferry the revellers home.  (The following day was one of Sri Lanka’s monthly, alcohol-free Poya Days, and I wondered if the noise was being made by some arseholes having a blow-out prior to 24 hours of enforced sobriety.)  The music didn’t resume after that and so I returned to my tent – my complaint and a potential scene unmade.

 

The next day, Asela told me that he’d gone across to the enclosure that evening and asked the revellers to turn the music down for the sake of the folk on our campsite.  His request wasn’t well received.  He was abused for being an upstart ‘Kandy boy’ and one drunkard even challenged him to step outside for a fight.  I suddenly felt relieved that I hadn’t breenged across there.  Getting involved in a bare-knuckles brawl in the Knuckles Mountains?  That wouldn’t have impressed my employers.  Nor, indeed, the Sri Lankan police force.

 

 

To be continued…

Knuckling down, part 1

 

 

A while back, I found myself with a spare week on my hands and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to do some hiking in Sri Lanka – or as they call it in this part of the world, ‘trekking’.  I decided to get out of Colombo for a few days and explore part of the island’s famous Hill Country on foot.  I’d always wanted to do this during the five years I’d lived in Sri Lanka but, somehow, had never got around to it.

 

Having trekked before in Thailand and Laos, I was surprised at how rarely it was offered as something for tourists to do in Sri Lanka.  Most activities advertised here involved making safari-like tours of the country’s wildlife reserves or were sea-based things like surfing, snorkelling and whale-watching.  But I found online half-a-dozen locally based holiday companies who offered trekking among their activities and fired off emails to them specifying what I wanted to do, where, for how long and for how much.  I have to say I got some propositions back that bore no resemblance to what I’d requested.  One company, obviously cutting and pasting information from an international brochure, offered me a four-day trip around central Sri Lanka’s tourist hotspots, staying in top-class hotels, with most of the travelling in between done by train or car and with barely a mention of hiking, all to the tune of 1,300 US dollars.

 

However, one company, Sri Lanka Trekking, suggested a four-day package in the Knuckles Mountains east of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city, for 70 dollars a day.  This covered transport, accommodation, food and my own private trekking guide.  It was exactly what I’d been looking for and I accepted and headed for Kandy.

 

Unfortunately, my week’s break took place during Sri Lanka’s rainy season, and it was early on a damp and grey Kandy morning that I was picked up outside my hotel by my guide from Sri Lanka Trekking.   He was a young guy called Asela with a tall, lanky build and long hair tucked up in a topknot.  He wore a fair amount of bling and a pair of flip-flops, which didn’t look very hiker-ly, although during the next four days he seemed to have zero problems traversing the often-awkward terrain.

 

 

We spent the next couple of hours in a yellow tuk-tuk with a Bob-Marley-themed interior (and a driver who looked slightly Rastafarian as well) heading eastwards towards the mountains, making a few stops on the way to pick up provisions like packed lunches and bottles of water.  Eventually, Asela and I were dropped off at a grassy track and began walking.  Ahead of us was a 12-mile trek to the spot where we’d camp for the night.  Initially, the weather was wet and blowy, but after a half-hour, things calmed and the sun appeared.  I entertained hopes that the rest of the day would stay pleasant.  Futile hopes, as it turned out.

 

The trek’s first leg took us below the curved, rocky crest of a mountain where, Asela told me, a bushfire had broken out a month earlier.  The cliff-face was now a smoky-grey colour while underneath a belt of trees retained their green treetops but had trunks that resembled burnt matchsticks.  The ground beneath them was a scorched red-brown.  We learned later that the conflagration had been caused by a small fire getting out of hand.  It’d been lit by some people trying to smoke out a colony of bees so that they could take the bees’ honey.

 

 

Asela also told me that this area was currently roamed by three elephants who a while ago had accidentally ‘migrated’ from a nearby, official ‘elephant zone’.  Nobody quite knew where the elephants were and they were said to emerge from the surrounding forest only at night.  He showed me evidence of their presence – a wrecked jackfruit tree, whose fruit elephants are partial to, at the side of the track; and a big, flat, pale patch of old elephant poop on the ground.  In addition, the farmsteads bordering the track had strands of barbed wire slung along their perimeters.  Dangling at intervals from the wire were clusters of empty cans that, if the elephants brushed against them, would clang noisily and hopefully scare the giant trespassers away.  The cans included some that’d contained 8.8% proof Lion Strong Beer, possibly powerful enough to stun an elephant.

 

Near lunchtime, the weather changed again and grey, clammy rain descended.  We made our way down a slope with semi-circular terraces of rice paddies carved onto it.  The tracts of water, seams of mud between them and sprouting green rice-shoots made the hillside look like an old mirror that’d been smashed and then stuck together again – the water like the slivers of glass, the mud like the lines of glue and the rice-shoots like specks of mould on the glass.

 

 

The weather became increasingly cantankerous.  We struggled along muddy tracks and up and down treacherous steps, and even tightrope-walked for a while along one of the concrete ridges lining a deep manmade drain, until we finally found a place to eat lunch.  This was a tiny farmer’s hut that was no more than a wooden-slatted roof held up by a few posts.  The wind blew through it but nonetheless it felt cosy and welcoming after what we’d been exposed to outside.

 

 

Similarly, lunch was just a pack of fried rice and chicken but, after the past few hours’ exertions, it tasted delicious.

 

Afterwards, we emerged onto a stretch of winding concrete-surfaced road.  Asela got talking to a girl of 12 or 13 years who was walking a few yards ahead of us and discovered that she knew a short-cut that would save us having to follow a long, monotonous loop in the road ahead.  She led us up a rough, steep path to the side, which was basically a course of mud and wet, slippery, vaguely step-like rocks.  Armed with an umbrella, the girl pranced in front of us as agilely and daintily as a gazelle.  We reached the top of a hill where she lived with her parents in a square, bunker-like farmhouse and were passing the side of the house, about to descend the slope on the other side, when suddenly the rain and wind swelled and became a furious tempest.  The girl’s father kindly allowed us to shelter under the porch outside his front door for the tempest’s duration.

 

 

Indeed, the father joined us under the porch and spent the next 20 minutes blethering with Asela, while I stared out dumbfoundedly at the storm.  Nearby palm trees seemed almost to bend 90 degrees in the middle.  The ground in front rapidly became a lake – a green garden-lizard started off sheltering below a bush, then had to shin up the bush to avoid being washed away.  A few times the man eyed me bemusedly – by now I looked like I’d just been fished out of a river – no doubt marvelling that foreigners were willing to pay money to be subjected to this.

 

Finally, the storm abated and the girl offered to lead us the rest of the way along the short-cut, which involved traversing more mud and rocks.  Again, she pranced effortlessly ahead with her umbrella.  We reached the concreted road and after that it was simply a matter of going up, up, up – till we arrived at the place where we’d spend the night.  This was an establishment known as ‘the sky-camp’ and consisted of two terraces of concrete huts with green, V-shaped aluminium roofs, along with a communal dining area, a kitchen, a storeroom and a block with toilets and a shower-room.

 

 

Actually, each hut contained a tent – so that you stayed inside a tent that was inside a hut.  The huts were open at one end, positioned away from the direction that the wind usually came from, which was also where the tents’ entrance flaps were located.  (Asela explained that if the tents had stood alone, they’d soon have been blown away.)  The tents’ guy-lines were attached to the huts’ interiors and, with some fiddling and adjusting, could be converted into washing lines for hanging wet clothes.

 

 

Mindful that it was the rainy season, I’d made sure when I’d packed my rucksack that everything inside it was enclosed in plastic bags.  When I got into the tent I’d been allocated, and unpacked, I discovered that one bag had been ‘compromised’ by the wet.  Unfortunately, it was the bag holding my money.  I had about forty notes of 20, 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5000 rupees in it that were now soaking and almost completely stuck to each other.  My solution was to carefully peel the notes apart; spread half of them across the bedding inside the tent; lie down on top of them, fully clothed; nap for half-an-hour; and let my body heat dry them out.  Then I did the same with the other half of the notes.  It worked, sort of.  My money looked almost as good as new.

 

It’d been a day of extremes – moments when I’d felt extremely wet and tired, but other moments when I’d felt extremely happy.  There were times when I wondered, “Why am I doing this to myself?”: whilst scrambling up steep, endless-seeming tracks that slithered with mud and oozed with rainwater; or straining my venerable joints as I struggled up or jolted down flights of steps that were basically haphazard arrangements of rocks.  And I hated it when the rain got inside my windcheater, and in particular got inside the windcheater’s sleeves – freezing water would pour down from my elbows to wrists whenever I let my arms hang at my sides.

 

But what was good?  Well, after spending so long in the city, it felt great to be out amid nature.  When I look at the notes I wrote in my journal that day, I’m pleasantly reminded of all the animals we sighted: ‘a big snail with a pointed, shiny, red-purple shell’; ‘a golden-headed fowl, off to the side of the path among some bushes’; ‘butterflies swooping majestically about a pool’; ‘a furtive freshwater crab extending its claws from under the edge of a rock’; ‘a green tree-snake’; ‘a water buffalo, tethered halfway up a slope of terraced paddies’; ‘a bright blue kingfisher taking off from a tree’; ‘a couple of strange, black-winged storks’; and ‘a male peacock dragging his glossy plumage across the bottom of a slope’.

 

 

Also, by the time I reached the sky-camp, the weather had cleared and I was allowed a glorious view of the countryside through which and up which I’d just trekked.  The camp was high on a mountainside and overlooked a mostly forested valley, whose far side rose and twisted up to brownish-green peaks.  I felt so elated that my first action was to stand in front of this view and do something that I very, very rarely do, which was take a selfie.

 

However, drenched in sweat and plastered with Knuckles Mountains dirt and muck, I looked ghastly in the selfie, so I’ll spare you the horror and not post it here in this blog-entry.  Enjoy this shot of a nice water buffalo instead.

 

 

To be continued…

 

The essence of Pleasence

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Today is October 5th, 2019.  Donald Pleasence, one of my all-time favourite actors, was born on this day exactly 100 years ago

 

The distinctive Pleasence, with his domed and usually hairless head, his popping eyes and unsettling stare, and his alternatively smooth and sepulchral voice, was a peerless character actor.  Though he’s mainly remembered for his sinister roles, he could effortlessly inhabit a range of personas – characters who were pathetic, tragic, eccentric, obsequious and, occasionally, virtuous.

 

In celebration of the great man’s 100th birthday, here are 15 of the performances that for me most memorably capture the essence of Pleasence.

 

1984 (1954)

Controversial in its day, with questions raised about it in Parliament, the BBC’s mid-1950s version of George Orwell’s 1984 still has impact.  That’s largely due to its performances, most notably that of Peter Cushing playing Winston Smith.  But Pleasence is good too as Syme, the lexicographer enthusiastically working on Newspeak.  (“I’ve reached the adjectives at last!”)  Despite – or perhaps because of – his zeal for the Party, Syme ends up becoming an ‘unperson’.

 

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends is the cinema’s best take on the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke and Hare, who in the early 19th century started selling cadavers to the dissection rooms of Edinburgh Medical School.  The problem was, Burke and Hare’s cadavers had had some assistance in dying.  Pleasence is loathsome as Hare, with atypically long, lank tresses, a battered stovepipe hat, a smirk and a maniacal gleam that shows he gets a perverse thrill out of murdering people.  As with the real-life Hare, following his arrest, he turns King’s evidence against his partner and gets released, though director Gilling adds an apocryphal scene where he’s blinded by torch-wielding vigilantes the moment he leaves the jail.

 

© Triad Productions

 

Hell is a City (1960)

For someone who made a lot of horror movies, Pleasence had surprisingly little to do with Britain’s Hammer Films, the studio most associated with the horror genre at the time.  Hell is a City is a Hammer movie, but ironically isn’t a horror one but a crime one – and by the standards of British cinema then, is surprisingly gritty.  Pleasence plays Gus Hawkins, a shady but sympathetic bookmaker whose wife gives him the run-around while she attends to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a murderous criminal fleeing the law.  In the role of the duplicitous Mrs Hawkins is Billie Whitelaw, whom Pleasence killed in The Flesh and the Fiends, so I suppose there’s justice in that.

 

The Great Escape (1963)

Pleasence’s performance in The Great Escape culminates in one of the saddest scenes in cinema history.  He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel but unfortunate prisoner-of-war in the high-security Stalag Luft III who goes blind just before the inmates stage the mass break-out of the title.  However, Blythe has been befriended by an American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, who agrees to take him along when it’s his turn to escape from the camp.  All goes well and Hendley and Blythe manage to steal a German airplane and fly it towards Switzerland and freedom.  They get to within yards of the Swiss border when the plane suffers engine trouble and crashes.  Then, while the bloodied Hendley tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless and disorientated Blythe stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol.  One of the German soldiers raises his rifle…  I get a tear in my eye even thinking about what happens next.

 

Cul-de-sac (1966)

The Roman Polanski-directed Cul-de-sac has a surprisingly svelte Pleasance playing an artist shacked up with his gorgeous young wife (Francoise Dorleac, who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve and who died in a car accident in 1967) on an island off the English coast, which is actually Lindisfarne off Northumbria.  Their idyll ends one day when two criminals-on-the-run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) show up.  Things then become positively Beckettian as the villains wait, futilely, for their superiors to appear and rescue them.  Cul-de-sac is overlong, but is a haunting experience thanks to the gorgeous bleakness of its location and its black-and-white photography.  It also contains the bloodcurdling sight of Pleasence, whilst involved in some kinky horseplay with Dorleac, hurtling around in lipstick and a frock.

 

© Compton Films / Tekli British Productions

 

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Your IQ must be lower than your shoe-size if you haven’t worked out within ten minutes that Pleasence is the foreign-agent saboteur among the crew in this colourful sci-fi epic about a submarine of medical experts being miniaturised and injected into the body of a dying scientist so that they can perform internal surgery on him.  Still it features a delightful scene near the end where Pleasence is devoured by a hungry white blood cell.  (Other great Donald death-scenes: getting mauled to death by a bear that’s obviously a stuntman wrapped up in a shaggy rug in 1960’s Circus of Horrors, and being ingested by a monster that’s half-human and half-Venus flytrap in 1974’s startlingly tacky The Mutations.)

 

You Only Live Twice (1967)

The James Bond film where we get to see Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time, You Only Live Twice has Pleasence playing him with all the accoutrements that popular culture associates with Blofeld – bald head, white jumpsuit, white cat, pool of piranhas for dropping incompetent minions into.  Mind you, the filmmakers immediately abandoned the template and cast two actors with very different appearances and personas, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray, as Blofeld in the next two Bond movies.  That, of course, didn’t stop Mike Myers from using the original Pleasence / Blofeld blueprint for his Dr Evil character in the later Austen Powers movies (1997-2002).

 

Wake in Fright (1971)

Nick Cave reckons Wake in Fright is the greatest Australian movie ever and I wholeheartedly agree.  It’s the tale of a young, bright and ambitious teacher (Gary Bond) who becomes increasingly desensitised and degenerate the longer he’s stranded in the macho outback town of Bundanyabba.  Pleasence plays Doc Tydon, an educated man who’s already plumbed the depths of ‘the Yabba’ and who becomes Virgil to Bond’s Dante, guiding him through the town’s various levels of hell.  The scene where a drunken Tydon sits on the porch of an outback pub and raves about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear”, before going berserk and smashing up the place, shows the mighty Donald at his most unhinged.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Deathline (1972)

Gary Sherman’s grisly and ahead-of-its-time horror movie Deathline has Pleasence playing Inspector Calhoun, a working-class copper investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on the London Underground.  (Clue: it’s something to do with the last-surviving, cannibalistic descendent of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.)  Calhoun isn’t really a nice character.  He’s sly, cynical, irascible and, as a boozy scene involving his only friend (Norman Rossington) shows, a nightmare to get out of the pub at closing time.  However, when he finally discovers the cannibal’s hideous subterranean lair, his exclamation – “What a way to live!” – suggests a feeling of empathy, even of kinship with the lonely creature.

 

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

1970s children’s television in Britain featured many short public-information films that used harrowing and graphic images to convince kids that it was not a good idea to play on railway tracks, inside electrical sub-stations, next to farm slurry pits, etc.  Pleasence lent his doomy tones to The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, which warns the little ‘uns to keep away from rivers, canals and ponds and is the most harrowing film of the lot.  He voices the titular spirit, a black, cowled figure who lurks in the misty background while a succession of stupid children – “the unwary, the show-off, the fool” – are lured to watery graves.  So memorably ghoulish is Pleasence’s narration that, 45 years on, I can still recite every word of it.  (“Sensible children!” he spits.  “I have no power over them!”)  And to make it even creepier, when he dematerialises at the end and leaves his cowl floating on some murky water, we hear his voice echoing out of the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!”

 

© Amicus Productions / Warner Bros.

 

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

The best of the horror anthology movies produced by Amicus Films, Hammer’s biggest rival during the 1960s and 1970s, this features Pleasence in one story as an old soldier called Underwood, reduced to selling matchsticks and shoelaces on the street.  Underwood is adopted by a mediocre, frustrated man called Lowe (Ian Bannon), who’s trying to win respect for himself by lying about imaginary heroics he performed during the war.  Despite having a wife and child, Lowe gradually becomes enamoured with Underwood’s weird daughter – and we realise that it’s Underwood, not Lowe, who’s doing the manipulating.  In a neat piece of stunt casting, the daughter is played by Pleasence’s real-life daughter, Angela.  Meanwhile, wonderfully, in the role of Lowe’s ten-year-old son is the future comic writer and Labour Party activist John O’Farrell.

 

Telefon (1977)

Pleasence plays a Soviet scientist who, during the darkest days of the Cold War, helped to ‘seed’ the USA with deep-cover Soviet agents.  These brainwashed agents don’t know they’re agents, but when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost, they become zombie-like, grab some explosives and carry out kamikaze-style attacks on nearby military installations.  Pleasence goes rogue and travels to America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents.  Thereafter, there are many explosions and much reciting of poetry by Pleasance: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists

 

Halloween (1978)

In 1978, planning a horror movie called Halloween about a murderous psychopath on the loose on October 31st, director John Carpenter decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital from which the psychopath escapes.  After offering the part of Loomis to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, without success, Carpenter approached Pleasence and the great man bagged his second most-famous role (after Blofeld).  I have mixed feelings about the massively influential Halloween.  It has a hackneyed script, but benefits from Carpenter’s masterly direction, an endearing turn by Jamie Lee Curtis as the resourceful ‘last girl’ and, obviously, Pleasence’s gravitas.  That said, I’m sure when Pleasence signed up for this, he didn’t expect to appear in four of the film’s five, increasingly ropy, direct sequels.

 

Blade on the Feather (1980)

A TV movie written by the brilliant Dennis Potter, Blade on the Feather has Pleasance playing a wealthy and stuck-up novelist who’s discombobulated when a young stranger, played by Tom Conti, arrives one day, ingratiates himself into his household and starts asking awkward questions – questions to do with some long-ago espionage skulduggery, which resulted in the death of Conti’s secret-agent father.  Stylishly directed by Richard Loncraine and excellently acted by Pleasence, Conti and Denholm Elliot, Blade on the Feather was no doubt Potter’s disgruntled response to events of the previous year – when Anthony Blunt had finally been unmasked as the ‘fourth man’ in the Guy Burgess / Donald Maclean / Kim Philby spy scandal that rocked Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.  Despite confessing to treason in 1964, Blunt’s crime was kept secret for the next 15 years and he was allowed to enjoy a respectable and privileged life at the heart of the British establishment, working as curator of the Queen’s art collection.

 

Escape from New York (1981)

Working again with director John Carpenter, Pleasence plays in Escape from New York a future US president who’s trapped in a hellish version of New York after his plane crashes there.  The city has become so anarchically crime-ridden that the authorities have simply sealed it off, left it to its own devices and turned it into a huge, unstaffed prison into which they dump all their felons.  An ultra-violent, dystopian United States with a president called Donald?  Thank heavens that prediction didn’t come true.

 

Anyway, a century on…  Happy birthday, Mr P.

 

© Central Office of Information

 

Nostalgic wallows 1: Bill McLaren

 

From bloodandmud.com

 

We’re now ten days into the Japan-hosted 2019 Rugby World Cup and my mental health feels more kicked around than the ball in the matches.  One of the two teams I support is already in danger of making an early exit from the tournament.  Meanwhile, the other team I support seems to have haplessly manoeuvred itself into a position where it’ll face New Zealand’s steamrollering All-Blacks in the second stage.

 

But aside from the anguish…  The tournament reminds me yet again of how much I miss being able to watch an international rugby match and at the same time listen to the knowledgeable and dulcet tones of Bill McLaren.

 

Although McLaren, who died in 2010 at the age of 86, worked as late as 2002, it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that he was indisputably the voice of British rugby union.  This was an era when sport, if you weren’t at the live event itself, was viewable only on a handful of terrestrial TV channels.  It was common for one channel to have a monopoly on broadcasting one sport and, by extension, for one commentator to have a monopoly on talking about that sport.  Hence, in my youth, it was almost impossible to see horse racing without hearing of the posh but eerily robotic tones of Peter O’Sullivan, or boxing without hearing the excitable Harry Carpenter, or Formula One without hearing the gaffe-prone Murray Walker, or rugby league without hearing the indescribable-sounding Eddie Waring.  McLaren fulfilled this role in the world of rugby union and for me was the best sports commentator of the lot, though I’m undoubtedly biased.  Rugby has always been my favourite team sport.  Plus McLaren came from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, the rugby-daft region where I spent many of my formative years.

 

There were three reasons for McLaren’s greatness.  Firstly, he knew his stuff.  I remember watching a McLaren-commentated game on a pub TV in Aberdeen sometime in the 1980s.  I was in the company of my good friend, the late Finlay McLean, and at one point, Finlay turned around to me and marvelled, “He’s just steeped in the game, isn’t he?”

 

When a try was scored, McLaren didn’t just tell you the name of the player who’d crossed the line.  No, he’d also observe how the player was the great-great-nephew of the man who’d kicked the winning points in the legendary Hawick-Galashiels derby of 1937, or a direct descendent of the tight-head prop with the great Western Province team that’d dominated South Africa’s Currie Cup in the 1890s.  It wouldn’t have surprised you if he’d identified the player’s granny as the stylist responsible for grooming J.P.R. Williams’ sideburns in the 1970s.  He seemed to know everything about rugby.

 

McLaren’s knowledge was encyclopaedic, but this was backed by a conscientious and professional attitude to research.  I read somewhere that when preparing for a game, he’d cover a full sheet of foolscap with notes about each player.  This meant that in the commentator’s box he was constantly shuffling around some 30 sheets of paper.

 

Secondly, although he was a Scotsman and often commentated on games involving the Scottish rugby team, he was never biased.  On the contrary, he always applauded good rugby, no matter who was playing it and even if Scotland was on the receiving end of it.  McLaren’s neutrality was especially admirable when you compared him with the international football commentators on the BBC at the time (and indeed still now), who seemed incapable of narrating an England World Cup match without speculating every second minute about whether ‘we’ could win the World Cup just like ‘we’ won it back in 1966.

 

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, his commentaries were laden with poetry.  McLaren had an amusing, fanciful, frequently wonderful talent with language.  Admittedly, he could be a tad unflattering in the turn of phrase he used to describe the over-sized players on the field.  English prop Colin Smart – famous for getting stomach-pumped after drinking a bottle of aftershave as a post-match lark – consisted of ‘considerable acreage’; English captain and lock Bill Beaumont looked ‘like someone who enjoys his food’; Welsh forwards Scott and Craig Quinnell were ‘two well-nourished individuals’; Scottish flanker Finlay Calder had ‘hands like dinner plates’; and Calder’s gangly fellow-Scot Doddie Weir was ‘the lamppost of the line-out.’  As for the legendary and frankly massive New Zealand flanker Jonah Lomu, running into him was like ‘trying to tackle a snooker table’.

 

© BBC

 

He had a fondness to likening players to animals.  They might behave like ‘a demented ferret’ or ‘a bag of weasels’ or ‘a raging bull with a bad head’ or ‘a whirling tsetse fly’ or ‘a runaway giraffe’ or ‘a slippery salmon’.  The Scottish scrum-half Roy Laidlaw (whose nephew Greig plays in the same position in the current Scottish team) was as elusive as ‘a baggy up a Borders burn’ – a baggy being, to quote the Dictionary of the Scottish Language, ‘a species of large minnow.’  Unsurprisingly for a Borders man, Scotticisms were common in his delivery.  Rugby balls were likened to ‘three pounds of haggis’, the famously square-shouldered Scottish skipper Peter Brown was like ‘a coo kicking over a milk pail’ and an injured player sitting dejectedly at the side of the field whilst sucking on a mint was at least ‘enjoying his sweetie.’

 

When it came to describing the turbulent passions and physical violence often unleashed on the pitch, McLaren was amusingly euphemistic.  Cheating was frequently described as ‘jiggery-pokery’ and punch-ups were dismissed as ‘a bit of argy-bargy’.  I remember how when fists started flying in the middle of one scrum, he commented: “It’s getting a bit unceremonious in that front row.”  And when Scottish centre Jim Renwick – whom McLaren had coached as a schoolboy – missed a kick and was caught by the camera mouthing the F-word, McLaren diplomatically remarked that he was ‘muttering a few naughty Hawick words.’

 

Some of his sayings became catchphrases.  When a player prepared to kick a conversion and half the stadium made disparaging noises in the hope of distracting him and making him fluff it, McLaren would invariably remark: “There’s some ill-mannered whistling.”  And when a conversion-kick made it between the posts despite being taken from a torturous angle, he’d declare: “It’s high enough, it’s long enough and it’s straight enough!”

 

Aware that in the Borders towns local players who’d made it onto the national team were seen as heroes, he’d often serenade the scorer of a Scottish try with the lines, “And they’ll be dancing in the streets of…” or “And they’ll be drinking his health down in…” – Hawick, Galashiels, Kelso, Melrose, Selkirk, wherever – “…tonight!”  As an honorary Borderer, I’d say they were more likely to be drinking his health than dancing in the streets.

 

McLaren’s manner and delivery were immensely relaxed and comforting, but his early life had been no bed of roses.  As a young World War II serviceman, he had to endure the Battle of Monte Cassino, of which one eyewitness said, “The men were so tired that it was a living death.  They had come from such a depth of weariness that I wondered if they would quite be able to make the return to the lives and thoughts they had known.” McLaren himself described Monte Cassino as a ‘vision of hell on earth.’

 

After the war, he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, which put a prompt end to any hopes he had of becoming a rugby internationalist.  TB was then considered incurable and he wasn’t expected to survive, but he and four fellow sufferers agreed to be guinea pigs for the trials of a new drug, streptomycin.  Thanks to this treatment he recovered, but three of the four other volunteers died.  It was while he was convalescing that he produced his first sports commentaries – describing table-tennis matches over the hospital radio.

 

McLaren was passionately attached to his hometown and famously said, “A day out of Hawick is a day wasted.”  A few years ago I visited Hawick for the first time since the 1980s and was upset to see how much it’d deteriorated.  Its high street was run-down and riddled with derelict properties – thanks to an economy weakened by the closure of local woolen mills, and also thanks no doubt to the opening of branches of Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Lidl, which’d sucked the retailing life out of the place.  My first dismayed thought was: “What would Bill McLaren have said about this?”

 

McLaren’s commentaries were emblematic of an earlier, more innocent age, when rugby was still an amateur sport and because of that it was incredibly accessible – especially if you lived in a rugby-centric place like the Borders, where the guys you saw performing heroic deeds for Scotland on TV on Saturday afternoons existed during weekdays as mortals like everyone else.  As a kid living there, I was delighted when the man from the electricity board who came to our house to check on a power outage was none other than Jim Renwick.  Meanwhile, Scottish fullback Peter Dods was a joiner down the road in Galashiels and my old man, a farmer, was on nodding terms with Scottish flanker John Jeffrey, who farmed in Kelso – Jeffrey’s teammates had nicknamed him ‘the Great White Shark’ but to Bill McLaren he was just ‘the big Kelso farmer’.  And let’s not forget local electrician Roy Laidlaw, whom legend has it had to rewire the public toilets in Jedburgh the Monday morning after the 1984 Scotland team he was part of won the Grand Slam in Paris.

 

Yes, Bill McLaren’s voice evokes a simpler time in rugby, before professionalism, sponsorship, corporatism, razzmatazz and a profit-driven need to win at all costs took over.  But homespun though his persona was, I don’t believe there’s been a sports commentator in the years since who’s come close to matching him.

 

© From rugbyrelics.com

 

Deighton classified

 

© Harper Collins

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a James Bond buff.  Because of this, I’d wanted for a long time to get my hands on a copy of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy novel The Ipcress File – my interest in it being that it’s often touted as the anti-Bond.

 

Whereas 007 is a posh ex-public schoolboy with oodles of money and charm at his disposal, Harry Palmer, spy hero of The Ipcress File, is an unprivileged and ordinary-seeming bloke with only his working-class wits to help him negotiate the hazardous, occasionally dangerous world of espionage.  Whereas Bond swans around in glamorous international locations enjoying the finest in cuisine, liquor and cars, Palmer trudges the lugubrious streets of London peering at the rain and the pigeons through an oversized pair of glasses.  Whereas Bond wins ladies’ hearts with his unflappable insouciance, Palmer gets dumped on by his superiors for his insolence, which to them signifies that he’s a troublesome oik who doesn’t know his place.

 

That, at least, was the impression I always had of Deighton’s character thanks to seeing the 1965 film version of The Ipcress File, which featured in its lead role that impeccably deadpan man of the people Michael Caine.  (At least, he was a man of the people until the 1970s, when he started moaning about his tax bill.)  It was a surprise, then, to finally open the original novel a few weeks ago and discover that it wasn’t what the film version had led me to believe.  It wasn’t quite as different from the Bond novels as I’d expected.

 

I should qualify that by saying I’m talking in terms of characterisation, not in terms of plot.  For unlike the straightforward, action-adventure plot dynamics of the average Bond novel, the narrative of The Ipcress File is a twisty, at times head-scratching thing that produces plenty of surprises about who’s working for and spying on whom.

 

Anyway, firstly, forget about Harry Palmer.  The hero of Deighton’s novel goes through its 250-odd pages without ever revealing his name.  Early on, somebody calls him ‘Harry’, but he immediately muses: “Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever has been.”  All we have is an anonymous narrator recounting events with a laconic turn of phrase whilst giving few clues about his personality and background.  In other words, the main character in The Ipcress File is a cypher, an empty space into which readers can project their own personalities and so imagine themselves at the centre of the intrigue.

 

A cypher was pretty much what James Bond was too – not so much a properly-rounded character as a device for drawing in the reader.  His creator Ian Fleming was careful not to give him too much individuality.  This policy extended from his bland name (famously borrowed from the ornithologist who wrote the book Birds of the West Indies) to his lack of a life-history – it was only in You Only Live Twice (1964), the last novel published in Fleming’s lifetime, that we learn much about him and even then it turns out that Bond was orphaned at an early age, i.e. denied anything as character-forming as a family background.

 

Being a blank canvas isn’t the only thing that Deighton’s protagonist has in common with Bond.  Both their jobs involve some globe-trotting.  Now this came as a shock to me after seeing the film The Ipcress File, which determinedly confines its action to the British capital.  However, the book sees him pursue a kidnapped scientist to Lebanon – resulting in a deadly blunder that the film has happening in a London car-park – and later being posted to a Pacific atoll that the American military have commandeered in order to observe and measure the explosion of a neutron bomb.  The Pacific episode, set in a remote and inhospitable fragment of the tropics that the Americans have converted into a base containing “two athletic fields, two movie theatres, a chapel, a clothing store, beach clubs for officers and enlisted men, a library, hobby shops, vast quarters for the Commanding General, a maintenance hangar, personnel landing pier, mess hall, dispensary, a PX, post office, a wonderful modern laundry and a power plant”, is at times so odd and surreal it doesn’t so much resemble a spy story as something by J.G. Ballard.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

And like Bond, the hero of the literary Ipcress File has refined taste buds.  We variously see him tucking into ‘Russian tea and apple strudel’, ‘Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice and cooked with celery)’, ‘totem poles of lamb, aubergine, onion and green pepper’, ‘iced Israeli melon’ and ‘fine lobster salad and carefully-made mayonnaise’.  Even his sandwiches seem classy by 1962 standards, consisting of ‘cream cheese with pineapple, and ham with mango chutney… with rye bread’.  Admittedly, this appears too in the film, which has a scene where Caine’s Harry Palmer bumps into a superior in a shop and is chided for paying “ten pence more for a fancy French label” of button mushrooms.  The disdainful superior adds: “You’re quite a gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?”

 

However, where Deighton’s hero and Fleming’s hero part ways is in their relationships with their employers.  Whereas Bond seems at ease in the secret service, Deighton’s character lacks the wealthy and privileged background that most of his colleagues and superiors have.  And he isn’t impressed by what that background has produced.  He begins the novel working for Military Intelligence under a man called Ross, “a regular officer, that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat.”  Ross, we hear, has given him plenty of ‘toffee-nosed dressing downs’ and at one point he rambles at inordinate length about his huge and lavish garden.  “Ross,” the perplexed narrator breaks in, “Mrs Laing and Dorothy Perkins are roses, aren’t they?”

 

Early in The Ipcress File, though, he’s transferred from Ross’s unit to a civilian intelligence department of the Home Office called the WOOC(P).  Not that he’s much happier with the person in charge there, a character called Dalby who’s “an elegant languid public-school Englishman of a type that can usually reconcile his duty with comfort and luxury.”  When Dalby asks him if he “can handle a tricky little special assignment,” he retorts, “If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.”

 

Having to work with people from moneyed backgrounds presents him with another problem.  His superiors don’t seem to appreciate the fact that he needs a steady income and regular payment of expenses to survive.  When he switches from Ross’s outfit to Dalby’s, he wonders how long he “would have to make the remnants of this month’s pay last before the new scale began.”  Later, he complains that he’s “still two months behind with pay and three with allowances” and that “a claim for £35 in overseas special pay” was “overdue by ten and a half months.”

 

This also surfaces in the film, with Ross and Dalby (played by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green) depicted as a pair of condescending bowler-hatted toffs who view Palmer as an irritant with ideas above his station.  But the unflattering commentary about Britain’s class system is diluted slightly by the addition of a military theme.  Ross and Dalby are both of upright army-officer stock while Palmer, we hear, had an inglorious time in uniform.  (I assume that as an ordinary soldier he was caught up in illegal black-market activities in Germany, though I could be wrong.)  Anyway, he’s spent time in a military prison and might be thrown into one again if he gets on the wrong side of his employers.

 

Thus, Palmer’s insolence isn’t just the result of a general social resentment – it comes too from a particular resentment against an institution, the army, that’s blighted his past and could potentially blight his future.  Meanwhile, the film plays down his financial frustrations and shows him protesting instead against the needless bureaucracy of his work.  Dalby, for instance, insists on a lengthy report being written after every excursion he makes ‘into the field’.

 

Incidentally, James Bond gets the best of both worlds.  He’s well-bred enough to know his way around a flashy casino or exclusive golf club, and is choosy about what he eats, drinks and drives, but he knows how to avoid coming across as an arse when mingling with ordinary working folk.  Note how easily he gets into conversation with a pub landlord in Moonraker (1955), say, or with Tiffy, the bargirl at the bordello in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965).  As Henry Chancellor puts it, he’s a ‘snob about things’ but not ‘about people’.

 

To sum up then, I found the hero of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File rather more Bondian than I’d anticipated.  But what distinguishes him from Ian Fleming’s master-spy is class.  One has an ample supply of it.  For the other, it’s the bane of his bloody life.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

Dave back from the grave

 

© William Collins

 

The events of the past month have hardly been a good advertisement for the education system through which the children of Britain’s rich, privileged few have traditionally passed.  I’m talking about the training offered by England’s fee-paying public schools – ‘public’ being the English term for them, though in Scotland they’re more accurately known as ‘private’ schools – such as Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse and Rugby, followed by a sojourn at Oxford or Cambridge Universities.

 

No, the recipients of such elitist training have definitely not distinguished themselves recently.

 

Firstly, of course, there’s been the less-than-glorious start to the UK premiership of Boris Johnson, former pupil of Eton and graduate of Oxford University, where he played ‘rugger’ for Balliol, served as Union President and was a member of the Bullingdon Club, which Wikipedia pithily describes as an ‘upper-class drinking society known for vandalism’.  In his first few weeks as prime minister, the hapless Johnson has lost half-a-dozen votes in the House of Commons; reduced his party’s majority in the House of Commons from +1 to -43; seen his younger brother Jo Johnson resign as a Conservative Party MP, launching a fleet of jokes about how he was the first politician in history to stand down from politics in order to spend less time with his family; and been judged by the Scottish Court of Session to be unlawful in his prorogation of parliament, which, since Johnson briefed the Queen to get her approval of this prorogation, raises the possibility that he lied to Her Majesty – the bounder.

 

Meanwhile, Johnson hasn’t exactly shown the grit, fibre and fortitude that you’d expect from someone raised amid the cold baths and cold showers and on the wintry, muddy playing fields of Eton.  When he turned up at Nicola Sturgeon’s residence in Edinburgh in July, he was so feart at the presence of a crowd of protestors going “Boo!” outside the front entrance that, later, he ignominiously sneaked away through the back entrance – earning himself in the Scottish press the icky-sounding sobriquet ‘Back-door Boris’.  And just the other day, the presence of another crowd of protestors going “Boo!”, plus the presence of the PM of that big scary country Luxembourg, caused him to chicken out of doing a press conference.  Unfortunately for Johnson, he’d preceded this latter act of cowardice by likening himself to the Incredible Hulk.  The Johnson version of the Hulk, apparently, doesn’t so much roar “Hulk smash!” as whimper “Hulk shit pants.”

 

Johnson’s antics haven’t been the only recent evidence suggesting that a public-school education, plus Oxbridge, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.  See too the behaviour of famously monocled, top-hatted retro-toff Jacob Rees-Mogg.  During a key Commons debate about a no-deal Brexit, Rees-Mogg displayed his contempt for the oiks (i.e. all of humanity who aren’t him) by reposing across a Commons bench like a languid, foppish refugee from an Evelyn Waugh novel being punted down the River Cam.  Having jumped the shark with his Commons slouching, Rees Mogg then proceeded to nuke the fridge by comparing an NHS consultant, Dr David Nicholl, who’d raised concerns about patient mortality in the event of Britain leaving the European Union without a deal (and without access to certain medicines), to the disgraced and discredited anti-vaccine campaigner Andrew Wakefield.  Rees-Mogg was later forced to issue a grovelling apology.

 

From rte.ie

 

So has the reputation of Britain’s elitist, establishment education system been damaged enough?  Not yet, apparently.  For on top of the punishment inflicted on it by Johnson and Rees-Mogg, it has still to endure the return of David Cameron, freshly risen from the political grave to remind us of how much havoc a posh-boy with a colossal sense of entitlement can wreak if placed in a position of power.

 

Unlike the bumbling Johnson and the grotesque Rees-Mogg, David Cameron, British PM from 2010 to 2016, exhibited the slickness and charm you’d expect from a product of Britain’s supposedly finest educational institutions.  He was smooth and at ease enough to be able to project himself as a regular, matey (if obviously well-heeled) bloke.  He was like a bank manager who comes across as your personable and supportive friend, even if the moment you step out of his office you realise he’s just turned down your plea for a loan and doomed your firm to going out of business.  Also, he knew how to show some affectations of social and environmental concern – witness his blather about ‘hugging a hoodie’ or his photo op with huskies in the Arctic – although I suspect he was as sincere in this as a chancer who gate-crashes a Friends of the Earth meeting in the hope of getting into some female activists’ knickers.

 

Anyway, underneath the cuddly veneer, Cameron was not a nice piece of work.  He lived up to his nickname of ‘Flashman’ (after the bully in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays) and no doubt all the ruthless, materialistic, Sunday-Times-reading, Jeremy-Clarkson-type wankers in the land recognised him as one of their own.   As John Harris pointed out in a recent article in the Guardian, Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, once installed in Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street, set about imposing a brutal regime of cuts on the country.  They “commenced the decade of fiscal savagery that has left some of the most fundamental parts of the public realm hanging for dear life” and created a Britain where now “austerity is part of the everyday ambience, all shut-down pools and libraries, broken-down parks, and once-a-day buses.”

 

Having saved the United Kingdom in 2014 by securing a ‘no’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum, Cameron then breezed into the 2016 vote on Britain remaining in or leaving the European Union assuming it would be a shoo-in for ‘remain’.  It would also, handily, sort out the anti-EU faction in his party, which had bedevilled it for years.  But of course the Brexiteers narrowly won.  And Cameron was immediately toast.

 

The years of austerity he’d presided over had turned around and bitten him on the arse.  Partly led to believe by the likes of Nigel Farage that the EU and EU-related immigration were the source of their woes, and partly just wanting to give the establishment as exemplified by Cameron a kicking, people in worse-off parts of Britain voted ‘leave’.  Yes, by voting for an economically ruinous Brexit they were bringing yet more hardship upon themselves.  Then again, you could probably bear cutting off your nose to spite David Cameron’s oleaginous face when Cameron had spent the previous half-dozen years grinding your own face into the dirt, to  the point where you hardly had a nose left.

 

Now, three years later after the Brexit vote and his political demise, Cameron has shambled zombie-like into the limelight again.  He’s currently trying to flog his autobiography For the Record, which he wrote in a £25,000 designer ‘shepherd’s hut’ with ‘a wood-burning stove, sofa bed and sheep’s wool insulation’ specially purchased for the task and installed in his garden.  That’s right, he managed to turn even the basic process of transcribing words onto a sheet of paper into an epic statement about his posh-ness.

 

Supposedly, For the Record – which recently ranked at a somewhat low 335 in the Amazon pre-order charts – has some uncomplimentary things to say about Boris Johnson, who betrayed Cameron when he threw his weight behind the ‘leave’ campaign in a move calculated to boost his support among the anti-EU brayers and frothers in the Conservative Party.  Yip, I can empathise with Cameron’s sense of betrayal.  I mean, you’d expect Cameron and Johnson, both veterans of that virtuous, upstanding society the Bullingdon Club, to exhibit more loyalty to one another.  You’d expect there to be more honour among posh thugs who smash up restaurants and allegedly stick their dicks into the mouths of dead pigs.

 

Still, it’s disingenuous to blame all of Britain’s troubles on a privileged, moneyed clique, including the likes of Cameron, Johnson and Rees-Mogg, who finished their education school with a zillion contacts and astronomical levels of self-confidence and self-importance, though not necessarily with corresponding amounts of knowledge and ability.  The 93% of the British population who weren’t privately educated, weren’t endowed with fantastic connections and weren’t trained to superbly bullshit their way through life – to talk the talk even if they hadn’t a clue about how to walk the walk – are complicit in this too.  Myself included, I should say.  I did my share of cringing and wilting in front of cut-glass accents in the past, before I came to know better.  Through a culture of deference, cap-doffing, ‘knowing your place’, crippling inferiority complexes and imposter syndrome, through the kneejerk belief that the important jobs should be left to those who sound like they know what they’re doing (though often they don’t), we’ve allowed ourselves, the majority, to become prisoners of a minority.

 

After all, the British public saw fit to vote Cameron back into power in 2015, believing his smooth, Etonian hands were a safer pair than those of poor old Ed Miliband, a man so gormlessly dorky he couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich without making it look like a Norman Wisdom slapstick routine.  And Cameron’s second term as PM ended well, didn’t it?

 

Such is the glamour that the privately educated exert over the rest of us – that’s ‘glamour’ in its old Scottish definition, meaning ‘spell’ or ‘bewitchment’ — that we’ve allowed them to fill ridiculously disproportionate swathes of our top jobs: 65% of senior judges, 52% of diplomats, 44% of newspaper columnists, 44% of ‘top actors’ and 39% of cabinet ministers.  We have, as a nation, surrendered en masse to a class-based version of Stockholm Syndrome.  The unwelcome reappearance of the discredited David Cameron is a small reminder of this.

 

© Redskyshepherdshuts.co.uk

 

Clipping Pinochet’s wings

 

© Debasers Filums

 

I’d like to say a few nice things about Nae Pasaran, a 2018 documentary written and directed by Felipe Bustos Sierra that recounts how some workers in the Scottish town of East Kilbride in 1974 made a gesture of defiance towards fascist Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.  It was a gesture that ultimately had more consequences than they’d imagined.

 

The workers – Bob Fulton, Stuart Barrie, Robert Somerville and John Keenan – were employed by Rolls Royce and tasked with servicing and repairing engines from Hawker Hunter airplanes.  Their East Kilbride plant was the only place in the world where such work could be done.  One day they noticed that some engines they’d been assigned belonged to the Chilean Air Force and made sure, via their trade union, that the none of the workforce touched them.  Instead, the engines ended up rusting in crates in the plant’s back yard.

 

This was because the previous year had seen the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile overthrown by the military, who then set up a dictatorship under Pinochet and during the next 17 years, according to official figures from the Chilean government in 2011, engineered the murders and disappearances of 3,095 people and the torture and political imprisonment of 36,948 more – although other estimates are much higher.  The Chilean Air Force got the coup going by bombing La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, on September 11th, 1973.

 

The first part of the documentary – which I was lucky enough to see the other day as part of the Jaffna Film Festival in northern Sri Lanka – is amiable enough, with the now retired Fulton, Barrie, Somerville and Keenan meeting up with Sierra in a Scottish pub (“Don’t start with they war stories,” someone tells the venerable Fulton, a veteran of World War II, “we gottae be hame before eight o’clock!”) and recalling events in East Kilbride back in 1974.

 

But later Sierra travels to Santiago and speaks to people who were on the sharp end of the 1973 coup and, with stories of executions, torture and seemingly boundless cruelty, Nae Pasaran delivers a stark reminder of what the Scottish workers were protesting against.  A senior civil servant whom troops dragged out of the just-bombed La Moneda, for example, remembers how he and fifty others were made to lie in a line on the street.  A tank would have then driven over the top of them if there hadn’t been so many civilians on the street yelling at the troops to stop.

 

One prisoner, later exiled to Britain, claims to have been told by an official that the reason he hadn’t been executed was because the British government had offered to get the Hawker Hunter engines back to the Chilean Air Force – his life and the lives of six others constituted the Chilean side of the bargain.  Nobly, Sierra doesn’t accept this as gospel truth, even though it would have provided the documentary with a stirring feel-good moment.  He qualifies it by also quoting representatives of Amnesty International and the UK government at the time, who are unsure or dismissive of such a deal being made.  But the possibility remains that the actions in East Kilbride did save seven lives.

 

More tangibly, being deprived of those engines took its toll on the Chilean Air Force, as is admitted by its former commander Fernando Rojas Vender.  Although the engines were eventually, and very mysteriously, spirited away from the factory in 1978, and although it was rumoured that future repairs and servicing were carried out in Israel and India, the planes and their engines clearly suffered from the lack of Scottish expertise and there were multiple groundings and crashes.

 

While obviously a considerable tosser, Vender was at least game enough to let himself be interviewed by Sierra.  He dismisses Fulton, the original instigator of the engine boycott, as being like a radical ‘Islamist’.  In his view, Fulton – who’s a Christian as well as a World War II combatant – couldn’t possibly have acted of his own accord, but had been brainwashed by leftist agitators.

 

The film’s finale, where Fulton, Barrie and Keenan are brought south to a grand, plush building in London in 2015 – a world away from the Scottish boozer we saw them in at the beginning – and in front of an admiring audience are awarded the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins, the highest order that Chile’s government can bestow on foreigners, is both touching and uplifting.

 

© Debasers Filums

 

Incidentally, the men make one or two comments about how their actions, facilitated by a powerful trade union, probably wouldn’t have happened today.  Nae Pasaran doesn’t mention it, but there’s a brutal irony in how the person who later on did most to emasculate the unions in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was also a great admirer of and buddy to the fascist Pinochet.  Thatcher’s actions against the unions, admittedly, had a lot of public support at the time – support fuelled by the disastrous, strike-ridden Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, when the British trade union movement and the then Labour government didn’t so much shoot themselves in the foot as blow both their feet away with a sawn-off shotgun.

 

Still, I wish that British working-class people who voted for Brexit in 2016 on the grounds that they were ‘better off’ in the 1970s before Britain joined the European Union, or the European Economic Community as it was then, would realise that the real reason why they were better off was because they had things like a functioning welfare state and proper trade unions to support and defend them.

 

From globalresearch.ca

 

On Target with Terrance

 

From youtube.com

 

If you were to draw up a list of great children’s authors of the 20th century, you’d no doubt end up with names such as Roald Dahl, Alan Garner, Tove Jansson, Clive King, C.S. Lewis, Astrid Lindgren, A.A. Milne, Philip Pullman and Rosemary Sutcliffe.  But you probably wouldn’t think of including Terrance Dicks, who passed away late last month at the age of 84.

 

Dicks made his name on television as a scriptwriter and script editor.  He was involved in TV shows like The Avengers (1961-69), Moonbase 3 (1973), Space 1999 (1975-77) and ITV’s dreadful but (almost) never-ending soap opera Crossroads (1964-88) and also a raft of TV adaptations of classic literary works that the BBC broadcast on Sunday evenings and included Great Expectations (1981), Beau Geste (1982), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982), Oliver Twist (1985), David Copperfield (1986-87) and Vanity Fair (1987).  But his most famous TV work was with the BBC’s long-running science fiction / fantasy show Doctor Who, which kicked off in 1963 and is still with us today – though it had a 16-year hiatus between 1989 and 2005 – and is now a massive franchise on par with Star Wars and Star Trek.  Yet I suspect it was as a writer of books, not TV shows, that Dicks left his greatest legacy.  He had a huge but unsung influence on the reading habits of British kids during the 1970s and 1980s.

 

Dicks served as script editor on Doctor Who from 1970 to 1974, when the title character was played by Jon Pertwee as a gloriously imperious, pompous, vintage car-driving, cape-and-bowtie-wearing, karate-chopping man of action, and also contributed the occasional script to the show during the tenures of Pertwee’s immediate predecessor (Patrick Troughton) and successors (Tom Baker and Peter Davison).  However, it’s for his role as novelist-in-chief for Target Books’ Doctor Who series that perhaps Dicks is most important.

 

© Target Books

 

The Target series turned most of the Doctor Who TV adventures from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s into neat, collectible paperbacks, with attractive and colourful covers that were often courtesy of fantasy-artist Chris Achilleos.  Now if you were a Doctor Who fan back then, as I was, there were no such things as whole-season box sets, Internet streaming or BBC iplayers, or indeed, DVDs or even video cassette tapes, to allow you to catch up with missed episodes: ones you’d missed recently because you’d been doing something else at the time – the show was broadcast early on Saturday evenings, which always made it a bugger to catch up with – or ones you’d missed because they’d been broadcast before you were born.

 

Also, the BBC was decidedly uninterested in repeating past episodes of Doctor Who. In fact, the corporation had wiped many of the early episodes featuring the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, assuming that the tapes served no financial or cultural function and only took up unnecessary space in their archives.  Considering how the BBC has made millions since then selling the show and its memorabilia to worldwide audiences, they must be really kicking themselves about that act of brainless destruction now.

 

So, in those days, if you were a ten-year-old wanting to experience past adventures with past Doctors, your only option was to buy the Target novelisations, the majority of which were penned by Dicks in his simple, no-nonsense, fast-moving prose.  Admittedly, I think their quality tailed off a bit in later years as demand for them increased, and the backlog of un-novelised adventures grew greater, forcing Dicks to churn them out at a faster rate, but the some of the ones he wrote in the 1970s were great and, even without the TV show behind them, would have stood up as excellent children’s books in their own right: for example, The Auton Invasion (1974), The Abominable Snowmen (1974), The Terror of the Autons (1975), The Three Doctors (1975), The Genesis of the Daleks (1976) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977).

 

© Target Books

 

The only problem with Dicks’ books was that they made the stories seem much more spectacular on the page than how they’d appeared on the screen.  Actually, one of Dicks’ paragraphs, coupled with a child’s imagination, could make them seem very spectacular indeed.  What in the books were teeming utopian cities, vast gladiatorial arenas and huge bustling spaceports were on television poky little BBC studio-sets – bare, blank, shaky, obviously low-budget.  Meanwhile, immense alien deserts, wastelands and battlefields were invariably a big quarry outside London where the show seemed to do 80% of its outdoor filming.  So years later, when you finally got to see those old TV episodes that you’d previously only known through reading the novelisations, they were inevitably an anti-climax.

 

At ten years old, and as a budding writer, I decided to follow Dicks’ example and write my own Target Books Doctor Who novelisation.  I made up my own TV adventure in my head and then wrote it as a book, by hand, in a hundred-page jotter.  I even added my own black-and-white illustrations every dozen pages or so.  The cover (again drawn by me) showed a giant, gauntleted fist grabbing hold of planet Earth.  The book was called Bloodlust of the Sontarans.  (The Sontarans were war-like, potato-headed aliens who at that point had appeared on the show a couple of times to menace Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors.  When it was relaunched in 2005, the Sontarans were reintroduced during the Doctor-ship of David Tenant and one of them, played by Dan Starkey, even became a semi-regular character while Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi occupied the lead role.)

 

Two years later, I decided to produce my second Doctor Who novelisation, and for this one I became positively hi-tech.  My parents had given me a typewriter for Christmas, so with that I banged out about 130 paperback-sized pages and then taped them together.  There were no illustrations in this volume, but I drew a vivid, hopefully Chris Achilleos-style cover showing Tom Baker getting his head fried by a futuristic brain-washing machine.  This I titled Destruction of the Daleks and, yes, it featured the show’s number-one villains, the demented, eye-stalked, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot-shaped space-Nazis, the Daleks.  The premise of my novel was that the Daleks had started to be killed off by a newly evolved virus and were going to extreme lengths to locate a cure for it.  I was rather peeved when, several years later, the BBC seemed to nick my idea and used it as the basis for an official Doctor Who TV adventure, Resurrection of the Daleks, which starred Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor.  I should have sued.

 

© Target Books

 

As I said, I’m positive Dicks’ books got a lot of kids (who otherwise would have been glued to their TV sets all the time) reading, even if it was the TV connection that got them to open the books in the first place.  And as I’ve suggested in the previous two paragraphs, he was also a big influence on kids who wanted to become writers themselves.  Decades later I still write stuff, and get the occasional thing published, and when I use certain words I’m reminded of Dicks, who originally showed me how to use those words in certain ways.  For example, ‘croak’ used instead of ‘said’, as opposed to just describing the sound that frogs make – that came from Dicks using it in reference to the Daleks.  (Predictably, the word that the Daleks were croaking was “Exterminate!”)  Or ‘wheezing’, to describe a peculiar type of sound, not just people with a bad cold – that adjective Dicks commonly used to evoke the noise made by the Doctor’s space / time-ship, the Tardis, when it was materialising or dematerialising.

 

I ended up with an impressive, colourful row of Target / Doctor Who novels on my bookshelves.  I assumed it was just me who was geeky enough to possess such a collection, but then one day in the late 1980s I happened to be in the Edinburgh flat of one Dougie Watt, whom I knew fairly well back then and who is now an established novelist and historian, and I noticed a similar row of Target books on his bookshelves too.  However, as Doctor Who was definitely not considered cool at that point in time, and labelling yourself a Doctor Who fan was about as damaging to your street credibility as announcing that you took a shower once a month or your all-time favourite musical act was Rick Astley, I tactfully pretended I hadn’t noticed them and avoided Who-shaming my friend.

 

With its relaunch in the 21st century, Doctor Who – suddenly cool again – has had many writers of books, comics, television and films falling over themselves to write either TV-show episodes or spin-off novels for it: for instance, Dan Abnett, David Bishop, Eoin Colfer, Jenny Colgan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Paul Cornell, Neil Cross, Richard Curtis, Neil Gaiman, Mark Gatiss, A.L. Kennedy, Jamie Mathieson, James Moran, Patrick Ness, Kim Newman, Simon Nye, Robert Shearman and Toby Whitehouse.  In addition, the three ‘showrunners’ who have helmed Nu-Who so far, Russell T. Davies, Stephen Moffat and, currently, Chris Chibnall, all made their names as writers originally.  So it’s a writers’ show through and through.  And I suspect a good number of these people were influenced, at least in part, in finding their calling as writers by reading Terrance Dicks’ books back in their childhoods.

 

Meanwhile, Chris Chibnall, if you’re reading this and fancy commissioning a script for the next season of Doctor Who with the title Bloodlust of the Sontarans, give me a call.

 

© Target Books

 

The dark mastery of Stephen Volk

 

© PS Publishing

 

Constructing a work of art around a real and well-known person who existed within living memory is a hazardous business.  You’re immediately open to criticism from those who disagree with your portrayal of that person or, indeed, who think it wrong to attempt a portrayal in the first place.  To give a recent example, I’ve seen both an author and an academic slam Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on social media because, supposedly, (1) it depicts Bruce Lee unflatteringly, and (2) it depicts Charles Manson, who shouldn’t be depicted at all.  Neither author nor academic had actually seen the film so that they could make proper, evidence-based judgements about it.  But in true Mary Whitehouse fashion (i.e. acting on hearsay) they were happy to denounce it anyway.

 

Come to think of it, it isn’t just hazardous writing books or plays or making films about real people within living memory.  There’s plenty of folk in Scotland who’ll happily bend your ear about how William Shakespeare got it all wrong about Macbeth.

 

Someone who lately plunged into these dangerous waters is novelist and scriptwriter Stephen Volk, whose credits include the screenplay of the ground-breaking supernatural TV movie / pretend documentary-investigation Ghostwatch (1992), which according to IMDb “earned the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children.”  Volk’s 2018 collection The Dark Masters Trilogy contains three novellas and features no less than four real-life figures who, in the 20th century, loomed large in the cultures of film, fiction and the esoteric.

 

The first novella, Whitstable, concerns the English horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Although he passed away a quarter-century ago, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his trademark gentlemanliness, good manners and charm seem utterly extinct in the bad-tempered, Brexit-coarsened Britain of 2019, Cushing still commands much affection among film-buffs of a certain age.  Indeed, he made the headlines in 2016 when the makers of the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One controversially used CGI technology to resurrect his Grand Moff Tarkin character from 1977’s original Star Wars movie.  (Objectors claimed it was disrespectful to Cushing’s memory and set worrying precedents, but I have to say I was just delighted to see the old boy back on the screen, even if it wasn’t really him being him.)

 

© Hammer Films / Warner Bros

 

The second novella in The Dark Masters Trilogy is called Leytonstone and describes a (mostly) imaginary episode from the London childhood of that great director of suspense movies, Alfred Hitchcock.  Incidentally, I recently read a 1967 interview with Orson Welles (conducted by Kenneth Tynan), where the stout bearded one said confidently of Hitchcock: “I honestly don’t believe that Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now.”  Well, Orson, we’re now in 2019 and people seem as fascinated by ‘Hitch’ as ever.  So you have 48 years left for your prediction to be proven right.

 

The final novella, Netherwood, offers an unlikely team-up.  It has the occultist Aleister Crowley, the notorious self-styled ‘Great Beast’ and ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ whose antics in the early 20th century terrified clean-living, God-fearing people who believed everything they read in the British popular press, joining forces with Dennis Wheatley, the one-time bestselling author of adventure and thriller novels, most notably black-magic potboilers such as 1934’s The Devil Rides Out, whose villain was supposedly inspired by Crowley.

 

All three are splendid, but the Cushing one is my favourite.  It’s set in 1971 during the darkest period of the actor’s life.  His beloved wife of 28 years, Helen, has just died of emphysema.  Devastated, he shuts himself away from the world in his home in Whitstable, the Kent seaside town of the title.  One day, however, he forces himself out for a walk along the beach and encounters a boy who’s daft about horror films but still slightly too young to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Having seen the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula, where Cushing plays the learned vampire-slayer Van Helsing, the boy assumes Cushing is Van Helsing and asks him for help.  He believes his mother’s boyfriend is a vampire because the boyfriend enters his bedroom at night and does things to him that leave him feeling physically and spiritually drained. “Afterwards, I feel bad,” he explains, “like I’m dead inside.”  Horrified by what he’s discovered, Cushing has to set his own emotional turmoil aside and figure out how to help the boy.

 

A story that pits someone like Cushing, a monster-hunter in the comfortable world of old gothic horror films, against a genuine monster who sexually abuses children could have been a disaster if it hadn’t been done properly.  But Volk achieves the appropriate tone, writes with delicacy and pulls the trick off.  Particularly good is the finale, where Cushing confronts the mother’s boyfriend in Whitstable’s cinema during a matinee showing of one of his recent horror epics, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers.  What’s happening on the screen contrasts ironically and memorably with what’s happening in the stalls.

 

Clearly, Volk has been meticulous in his research and doesn’t put a foot wrong in his portrayal of Cushing – his habits, idiosyncrasies and speech patterns, his deeply-felt Christianity and his love for his wife, whose death cast a shadow he never escaped from afterwards.  And there are enough knowledgeable references to his movies to keep fans happy.  Also spot-on are Volk’s descriptions of Whitstable and his evocation of the sights and sounds of a typical south-east England seaside town – pleasant (waves, seagulls, boats and the ramshackle, antiquated charm of the seafront) and unpleasant (small-town gossip, nosiness and parochialism, tourist tat and the often-neglected neighbourhoods set back from the areas frequented by holidaymakers).

 

From tvtropes.org    

 

Leytonstone begins with an incident from Alfred Hitchcock’s boyhood that the director himself mentioned in later life.  One day his father sent him to the local police station with a note instructing the policemen to lock him in a cell.  The policemen obliged, much to the lad’s horror and bewilderment since he didn’t know what he’d done wrong.  It transpired that his father merely  wanted to show him what happened ‘to naughty boys’.  As I remember the story, Hitchcock’s incarceration lasted only a few minutes.  In Leytonstone, however, it goes on for a whole night.

 

I’d assumed that the police-cell ordeal would form the bulk of Leytonstone, so I was surprised when it finished early on in the story.  Volk is more interested in what happens afterwards and spins a tale whereby the now screwed-up little Alfred does something horrible to a schoolgirl he’s become obsessed with (a blonde, obviously).  In turn, the consequences of his misdeed rebound on his doting mother and involve the scheming policeman who’d originally locked him up.

 

Leytonstone skilfully manipulates the readers’ emotions.  We feel sorry for the hapless, juvenile Hitchcock when he’s the victim of his father’s perverse ideas about instilling discipline.  Later, he becomes a little monster who deserves our contempt, but we still find ourselves rooting for him when his schoolmasters and the police start to close in on him.  This manipulation, of course, was characteristic of Hitchcock himself as a filmmaker.  Witness, for example, 1973’s Frenzy, where we start off believing that Jon Finch is an unpleasant loner and possibly a serial killer while Barry Foster is a likeable chirpy Cockney chappie who loves his mum; but then have to radically rearrange our sympathies when we discover that Finch is really the hero and Foster is the villain.

 

Lastly, Netherwood is set in post-World War II England and has the ailing Aleister Crowley enlisting Dennis Wheatley’s help to fight what he claims is a monstrously evil scheme involving the sacrifice of a child and the coming of a new demagogue on par with Hitler.  The pair invoke occult forces in an effort to thwart this and there’s an ambiguous conclusion that leaves Wheatley wondering just what’s happened.  Has the infamously slippery Crowley pulled a massive joke on him?  The story is engrossing and the interplay between the two men is delightful.  In lesser hands, Wheatley could have become a figure of fun, reacting priggishly to Crowley’s constant, gleeful provocations, but Volk makes him surprisingly sympathetic.  He’s tortured by feelings of class inferiority – he thinks he’s married ‘above himself’ – and by guilt that, middle-aged, he couldn’t physically fight for his country during the war.  (But I’ll say more about Wheatley’s sympathetic-ness in a minute.)  Crowley is engaging too.  Scoundrel though he is, he seems to be trying to do the right thing here.

 

From  en.wikipedia.org  

 

Quibbles?  Well, I felt the epilogue to Leytonstone, where we see the elderly Hitchcock looking back on a life of fame and fortune, was a tad unnecessary – the story made all the points it needed to make while Hitchcock was still a child.  And I suspect some readers will find the conclusion of Netherwood slightly disappointing after all the build-up.  I suppose Volk had to pull his punches.  If what Wheatley went through in the story had had more tangible results, I imagine he’d have written books very different from the ones he did write during the next three decades till his death in 1977.

 

Meanwhile, those familiar with Wheatley may raise an eyebrow at how Volk generally avoids referring to the man’s unpleasantly right-wing politics – which in 1947, with Clement Attlee’s Labour government busy setting up a cradle-to-grave welfare state, he’d have been spouting at every opportunity.  Indeed, according to his Wikipedia entry, he penned at this time a ‘letter to posterity’ wherein he denounced the government’s reforms as something ‘bound to undermine the vigour of the race’ and advocated the ‘ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials.’  His reactionary views increasingly surfaced in his occult works, where the forces of Satan were found to be in league with things that Wheatley disapproved of, like trade unions, feminists, pop music and – least forgivably, in 1973’s Gateway to Hell – the black civil rights movement.

 

To be fair to Volk, today Wheatley is the least well-remembered of his ‘Dark Masters’.  He and his books seemed to disappear off the public’s radar the moment he died (something that’s cleverly foreshadowed at one point in Netherwood) and his persona is the least well-known.  Presumably Volk had to work on his character to make it sympathetic and interesting enough to draw the readers through the story, which meant smoothing off some rough edges.

 

Because of its focus, The Dark Masters Trilogy is somewhat restricted in its appeal.  You probably need to be my age or older to fully appreciate it.  I remember my boyhood as being an era when BBC1 showed Hitchcock seasons on Friday nights and BBC2 showed horror-movie double bills (often featuring Cushing) on Saturday nights; when buying Wheatley’s black-magic epics was something you did furtively because their 1970s covers, courtesy of Arrow Books, were illustrated with pictures of topless, big-breasted ladies dancing around flames; and when the bookshops where you bought your Wheatleys were crammed too with sensationalist books about the occult, esoteric and supernatural, cashing in on a fad for such subjects that’d been created in part by Crowley (who by 1967 had garnered enough street credibility to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album).  I doubt if Volk’s heroes and anti-heroes figure much in the memories of people younger than me.

 

But if you’re in the target demographic and remember the above things fondly… Then you’ll love this book.

 

© Allan Warren / Creative Commons

 

Ruthless

 

From headtopics.com

 

And now, goes a popular song, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…  A lot of things in British politics have faced the final curtain recently.  For example, the premiership of Theresa May, and the credibility of the Change UK Party – finished as a political force by a dismal showing in the European elections even though, cruelly, the curtain had only come up on it a few months earlier.

 

Thanks to the arrival of Boris Johnson as prime minister, the final curtain is falling on any last shreds of respect that Britain might have commanded on the international stage – a humbling new role awaits the country as pageboy to Donald Trump.  And this week’s plot by Johnson, involving the Queen, to prorogue Parliament and thwart opposition to a no-deal Brexit has shown that it’s curtains for any pretence that Britain is a functioning democracy.  And it increasingly looks like curtains for any hope that Britain might depart the European Union in a fashion that stops its economy from imploding.

 

North of the border, the curtain has fallen too on the tenure of the hapless David Mundell as Secretary of State for Scotland – Johnson ousted him in favour of a posh tweedy hunting-and-shooting non-entity called Alister Jack, who has both shares in and financial support from Jardine Matheson Holdings Limited, the notorious imperialist opium dealers of the 19th century.  Jack probably believes that the best economic future for Scottish people is to work on zero-hour contracts as grouse beaters for visiting aristocrats and oligarchs.

 

And now, it’s just emerged, the curtain has come down on Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.  Scottish politics has become Ruth-less.

 

Predictably, Davidson’s resignation, which she confirmed yesterday, caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Scotland’s right-wing mainstream media.  For instance, Chris Deerin, latterly of the Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday and Daily Mail and now a contributor to the New Statesman, gushed on Twitter about “the energy, charisma and campaigning pizzazz of Ruth…  She is also one of the most determined and gritty people I know.”  Pushing the needle even further up the scale on the vomit-o-meter was Daily Mail and Spectator columnist Stephen Daisley, who wrote, “Adversity has never been far from her path but she has met it with tenacity and good humour…  Personal grit has been in Davidson’s blood from the start but she has been hardened by struggle…” and called her “a 5’5” firecracker’ and ‘Boudicca in a power suit’.  You can almost hear Elton John singing Candle in the Wind in the background.

 

Oh guys, puhlease…  If any adjective describes Ruth Davidson as a politician, it’s not ‘energetic’ or charismatic’ or ‘determined’ or ‘gritty’.  It’s ‘overrated’.

 

Davidson was the great white hope for members of Scotland’s old political, media and civic establishments, where you used to make your name and money promoting the interests of the Conservative Party or Labour Party in a comfortable status quo – i.e. Scotland voted Labour and was ruled by mostly Conservative governments in London and nobody said ‘boo’ about anything – and where your Scottishness, in the form of kilts, malt whisky, golf, Hogmanay, Munro-bagging and so, was something you played up occasionally to make yourself seem slightly exotic.  She seemed the political leader most likely to return Scotland to the sanity of the good old days.  Those days were before 2007 when the Scottish National Party seized power in Edinburgh, turned political assumptions on their heads and made the prospect of Scottish independence the key issue of the day.

 

The hopes attached to Davidson meant she had a ridiculously easy ride in Scotland’s mainstream media – and by extension in the British media, where perceptions of her as that rare beast, a nice Tory, meant she turned up as a guest in Have I Got News for You and The Great British Bake-Off and on the sofa for cosy chats with Andrew Marr.  Instead of pestering her about her party’s brutal austerity policies, Scottish journalists were happy publishing the results of photo opportunities where she’d don Highland dress and attempt to play the bagpipes, or sit on top of a buffalo, or pose on top of a tank, and were happy chuckling, “Good old Ruth!  What a laugh!”  Though the photo op where she rode down some steps in a mobility vehicle backfired when it emerged that, thanks to her party’s social security policies in Westminster, over 50,000 people with mobility issues had lost their right to such vehicles in the past four years.

 

From twitter.com

 

Indeed, Davidson was so accustomed to fawning press coverage that she struggled when a reporter did ask difficult questions.  Witness how she took a huff and stormed off when Channel 4’s Ciaran Jenkins tackled her about the Conservative Party’s alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party – Davidson has been in a same-sex relationship for years while the DUP is notoriously homophobic.

 

Still, her supporters would argue, look at her record as leader of the Scottish Tories!  Didn’t she achieve the impossible?  Didn’t she de-toxify her party in Scotland at a time when the reason why the talentless David Mundell got the job of Secretary of State for Scotland was because he was the only Member of Parliament (out of 59 seats) that the Conservative Party had in Scotland?

 

Well, in the 2016 election for the Scottish Parliament, the Tories did increase their share of the vote to by 8.1% to 22%, making them the second-biggest party in that parliament – though thanks to the vagaries of the Scottish electoral system, they finished seven seats ahead of Labour, who actually got 0.6% more of the vote than they did.  Needless to say, Davidson’s fans in the Scottish mainstream media made such a hullaballoo about it that you’d have thought the Tories, not Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, had won the election.  (THE UNION STRIKES BACK was the headline that accompanied Alex Massie’s piece about it in the Spectator, with a picture of Davidson’s head photo-shopped onto Princess Leia’s body.  Though the folk who did the striking back in the celebrated 1980 sci-fi fantasy movie were the Empire, who were space-Nazis led by Darth Vader – probably not the analogy Massie was looking for.)

 

In the British general election of 2017, Scotland’s army of right-wing columnists, commentators and journalists seemed to collectively come in their tweed breeks when the Scottish Tories increased their number of MPs from one to 13 – helped no doubt by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale urging voters in certain constituencies to vote Tory and stick it to the SNP.  Again, such was the puffery that you’d have thought Davidson was now First Minister of Scotland, not Nicola Sturgeon.  There was much blather about how Davidson’s cohort of 13 MPs were going to exert a moderating and pro-Scottish influence over Theresa May’s minority government.  It came as no surprise when they didn’t.  Indeed, by 2019, most of them were ignoring the wishes of their pro-EU constituencies and voting in parliament to keep open the option of a disastrous no-deal Brexit.

 

One thing that Davidson was good at was conveying a simple message – all her other policies being either nebulous or negotiable – which was, “Vote for me, say no to Scottish independence and say yes to the British Union!”  This appeal to British nationalism helped her party win the support of the hard-line Protestant, Glasgow Rangers-supporting faction of the Scottish population that had strong sympathies with the pro-British Protestant community in Northern Ireland.  It also reeled in supporters of the extremist likes of UKIP and Britain First.  (Webzine Bella Caledonia has an interesting article called 30 Toxic Tories, listing the most racist bampots who ended up in the Scottish Conservative fold under Davidson’s watch.)

 

© Channel 4

 

No doubt the Northern Irish angle was why in 2018 she and her buddy David Mundell threatened they “would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK” in some new Brexit deal.  By November 2018 Theresa May had indeed proposed a Brexit deal that might involve separate arrangements for Northern Ireland, but – surprise! – Davidson and Mundell decided not to resign after all.

 

This brings us to the subject of Davidson’s principles, which have been flexible to say the least.  Prior to the 2016 vote Britain’s membership of the EU, she won praise for taking part in a public debate where she defended the EU and railed against the Brexiting likes of Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom.  “The other side have said throughout this debate that they don’t like experts,” she argued, “but when it comes to keeping this country safe and secure I want to listen to the experts.  So when the head of GCHQ says we are safer in the EU I listen.  When five former NATO chiefs say we are safer in the EU I listen.  When the head of Interpol, who is a Brit, says we are safer in the EU I listen.  When the head of MI5 and MI6 says we are safer in the EU I listen.”

 

But Davidson’s enthusiasm for continued EU membership didn’t survive when the vote went the other way and her new political boss in Westminster, Theresa May, committed herself to Brexit.  (Symbolic of Davidson’s about-turn on the issue were the Conservative Party leaflets distributed during campaigning for the recent Scottish parliamentary by-election in the Shetlands.  They bore a picture of her grinning features above a claim that the Tory candidate was the person to vote for ‘if you want to LEAVE the EU’.)  For a while she made noises about the UK staying in the  EU’s single market, which she said was something Scotland should have “the largest amount of access to.”  But those noises changed too when Theresa May declared that Britain “cannot possibly” remain in the single market because it would mean “not leaving the EU at all.”  On cue, Davidson suddenly poo-pooed the idea because it wouldn’t “allow for independent trade deals to be struck with third countries” and would mean accepting “freedom of movement”.

 

Davidson’s career, in fact, has been a series of instances where she expressed liberal sentiments because they were popular at the time but then fell silent when the wind – and the opinions of her political masters – changed direction.  In 2015, when a certain orange-skinned gobshite looked like he had zero chance of getting anywhere near the White House, she quoted Henry IV Part One and tweeted that Donald Trump was a ‘clay-brained, guts, knotted-pated, whoreson, obscene greasy tallow-patch’.  Inevitably, when Trump became US president and Theresa May jetted over to Washington DC to kiss his arse and beg for a post-Brexit trade deal, she made no further references to Trump’s obsceneness, greasiness, etc.

 

However, the arrival of Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party was too much even for someone of Davidson’s elasticity.  Even she would have problems defending Johnson going full-steam-ahead for a disastrous no-deal Brexit on October 31st – especially as her Scottish parliamentary constituency is in Edinburgh, the most pro-EU city in the UK.  Johnson’s sacking of her good chum Mundell probably didn’t help.  Although rather than seize the moment yesterday and castigate Johnson for all the damage he’s caused, she claimed her reasons for stepping down were family-related ones.

 

So what will Ruth Davidson do now?  Perhaps Boris Johnson will show some magnanimity and give her a seat in the House of Lords, where she can rub ermine-draped shoulders with such former titans of Scottish politics as Baron George Foulkes of Cumnock and Baron Michael Forsyth of Drumlean.  Aye, hanging out with her intellectual equals in an institution of insufferable privilege and entitlement – that’s the best place for her.

 

From caltonjock.com