10 scary pictures for Halloween 2016

 

From crafthub.com

 

Once again it’s the final day of October – which was known to Irish pagans as Samhain, was known to medieval Christians as All Hallow’s Eve and is known to pretty much the whole world now as Halloween.  As is my custom at this time of year, I will showcase ten paintings and illustrations that I feel convey the creepy, sometimes downright macabre, vibe of the season.

 

Firstly, here’s something memorably eerie by American Bill Crisafi, whose Facebook page describes him as a ‘multidisciplinary artist roaming the fog-drenched New England forests’.  (His website, meanwhile, is here: http://billcrisafi.bigcartel.com/.)  At first glance, the figures in the picture, Keepers of the Moon, suggested to me the three witches or ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth.  At second glance, somehow, they suggested a dark version of the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men, who arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.  It’s as if they’ve popped out of an evil mirror-image universe where Halloween has usurped Christmas and taken over the Nativity.

 

 

Also American, but tackling an Italian subject, is the Milwaukee-based artist Jessica Seamans, whose work can be viewed at http://landland.net.  As its title suggests, her picture here is inspired by the masterful 1976 Italian horror film Suspiria, which was directed by Dario Argento.  In fact, she created it for a Halloween screening of the movie in London back in 2012.  Suspiria was memorable not only for its scariness but also for its baroque, at times quite barmy, set design, something that Seamans captures nicely here.  She also captures the film’s level of bloodletting with a colour scheme that’s suitably red.  Suspiria, incidentally, isn’t the only movie that’s received the Jessica Seamans treatement.  Her take on Gremlins (1984) is pretty good as well: https://mondotees.com/products/gremlins-poster?variant=12664541507.

 

 

Suspiria was a film about witches and a witch features at the centre of the tumultuous supernatural mayhem depicted in The Sorceress, which is now housed at the RISD Museum in New England (http://risdmuseum.org).  This engraving is the work of the 17th century Dutch painter Jan van de Velde II, who was also well-known as a landscape artist and who has been cited as an influence on Rembrandt.  The text accompanying The Sorceress on the RISD website identifies in the foreground some cards, die and tobacco, which serve “to warn that life is fleeting and that temporal pleasures should be avoided.”

 

 

In these Halloween entries I commonly feature something by the Irish artist Harry Clarke, largely on the strength of his acclaimed black-and-white illustrations for an early 20th-century edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination.  However, Clarke also made a name for himself by working in stained glass – he was responsible for the stained-glass windows in the famous Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin.  So this year I thought it would be good to celebrate Clarke’s stained-glass art.  Here is a detail from the Dempsey Memorial Lancet Window of St Maculind, which Clark crafted for St MacCullin’s Church in Lusk – and yes, the nearer face looks worryingly zombie-like.  The detail was photographed by Kelly Sullivan and used for an illustration for the following online article: https://publicdomainreview.org/2016/10/12/harry-clarkes-looking-glass/.  

 

 

From Ireland to Norway now.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen was one of his country’s most celebrated painters.  His specialities included illustrations for legends and fairy stories and he had a particular affinity for drawing that most Scandinavian of mythological creatures, the troll.  No wonder his work has been much in demand as sleeve art by Norwegian heavy metal bands like Burzum and Empyrium.  His foglight-eyed Water Spirit, though, has something of the panels that used to be found in 1950s American horror comics like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.  This image comes from Kittelsen’s entry on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Kittelsen).

 

 

Someone else from the non-English-speaking world who liked to use local folklore as an inspiration for his pictures was the 19th century Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai, who was responsible for the following depiction of a sleeping red-robed lady surrounded by hordes of rather jolly-looking animated skeletons.  It’s known as Hell Courtesan no 9 of the Kyosai Rakuga Series.  Although Kyosai’s folkloric art often had a macabre tone, it was probably less stressful for him than his main line of work, which was as a caricaturist.  In fiercely hierarchical Japan, his political caricatures didn’t always go down well and got him arrested on several occasions.  To view more of Kyosai’s work, check out this webpage: http://wsimag.com/art/16772-from-mad-to-dawn.

 

 

Not many Halloween pictures make me think of Britain’s eternally young, wholesome, Christian and Daily Mail-approved pop singer Cliff Richard, but I can’t look at this next item without thinking of Cliff’s 1976 hit Devil Woman.  (“She’s just a devil woman / With evil on her mind / Beware the devil woman / She’s gonna get you…” etc.)  Even the picture’s title, La Femme de Satan, sounds like a very loose French translation of the name of Cliff’s song.  Actually, Devil Woman was covered in 2004 by County Suffolk’s Goth / black metal band Cradle of Filth and I suspect La Femme de Satan is closer in spirit to that particular rendition of the song.  It was painted by the Russian Nikolai Kalmakoff who, it’s said, got heavily into the occult whilst living in Paris in the mid-1930s.  It’s also said that later he became a recluse and then a pitiful inmate of an indigents’ hospital, so if he made any deals with the devil he clearly got a bum deal.  The macabre art blog Monster Brains devoted an entry to Kalmakoff’s works a little while ago: http://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/2015/01/nikolai-kalmakoff.html.

 

 

Mainly associated with sensual imagery that manages to be both brightly shiny and droopingly languid, the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt nevertheless produced the occasional bit of dark stuff.  I like this one, Life and Death, which on one side has some of Klimt’s usual figures rippling and billowing down the canvas in the usual patchwork of summery colours; but has a rather different figure looking on, and grinning starkly, from the other side.  It now resides in the Leopold Museum in Vienna: http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/leopoldcollection/masterpieces/41.

 

 

A skull also plays a prominent part in this composition which I found on a site called Tomb of Insomnia.  Alas, the site no longer seems to exist and I’m afraid I don’t know who the artist is.  It does, though, look like a still from the most terrifying possessed-devil-child movie never made.

 

 

And finally, here’s an illustration from Virgil Finlay, best known for his work in the American pulp-fiction magazines of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, where his handsome and atmospheric pictures accompanied many a tale of horror, fantasy and science fiction.  However, this item – which I found at http://www.munchkinpress.com – was drawn for a poem by H.P. Lovecraft called Halloween in the Suburbs.  And thus it brings this entry to an appropriate close.

 

 

Happy Halloween!

 

Stand by for Action

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

For me, 1976 was a transitory period when I finished with primary school and started attending high school.  It was also a period when I remember one topic regularly dominating the conversations I had with my mates in the playground and on the school-bus: what was happening in that week’s edition of Action comic.

 

We’d read comics before, of course.  We’d read kids’ ones like the Beano, Dandy, Sparky, Topper and Beezer.  And we’d read slightly more mature ones that were labelled ‘boys’ comics’, like the Hotspur, Battle, Warlord, Valiant and Victor.  But Action was different.

 

Those other comics provided entertainment that, no matter how kid-centric or boy-centric it was and no matter how much we enjoyed it, had a vibe that suggested it’d been devised by adults and it’d been passed down to us through a filter of what adults believed was acceptable for children.  The stories in Action, though, had a different vibe.  They felt like they’d actually been devised by twelve-year-old boys – or at least, by someone who knew exactly what twelve-year-old boys wanted and were only too happy to serve the stories up that way.

 

And what do twelve-year-old boys want?  Mayhem, basically.  Blood and guts.  Violence.  Nastiness.  No wonder William Golding’s Lord of the Flies still resonates – once those schoolboys had been stranded on the desert island, what else could they become but savages?  Or as Roald Dahl once mused, kids are bloodthirsty monsters because they haven’t been trained to be civilised yet.

 

I was in the Boy Scouts, which meant I was supposed to be a nice, mannerly boy, doing a good deed every day and all that.  Yet I doubt if I’ve heard anything more appallingly gruesome than the horror stories my fellow scouts and I would tell each other around the campfire.  At least, after the adult Scoutmaster had called it a night and retired to his tent.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

The comic-strip stories in Action were certainly gruesome.  They weren’t, however, original.   Death Game 1999 was clearly a rip-off of the recent science-fiction movie Rollerball (1974).  Hellman of Hammer Force, about a tough but noble German Panzer commander on the Russian Front, owed a lot to the vicious World War II novels of Sven Hassel, which in the 1970s were avidly read by young males who’d otherwise never consider looking at a book.  Hellman had the distinction of being the first-ever German hero of a British World War II comic strip; though he despised the SS and the Nazi Party and regularly reminded the readers, “I am a soldier, not a butcher!”

 

Dredger was about a secret agent who plays dirty – ultra-dirty – and its title character was often likened to the one played by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies, though I always thought he was more like a psychotic version of Jack Regan, the tough, craggy police officer played by John Thaw in the popular TV crime show The Sweeney (1975-1978).  And unless your IQ was below room temperature, you’d have no difficulty linking the killer-shark story Hook Jaw to a certain movie directed by a young Steven Spielberg, also about a killer shark, that was doing rather well at the box office at the time.

 

Looking back, I can see how Action had more social comment than was the norm for 1970s British comics.  Dredger contained class tension – Dredger was rough, down-and-dirty working class whereas his sidekick, Simon Breed, was a posh ex-boarding-school type who’d have been the hero in a traditional British spy story (with the oik-ish Dredger as his sidekick).  Ironically, no matter how much Breed disapproved of Dredger’s ungentlemanly way of doing things, it was Dredger who saved the day and saved Breed’s neck at the end of each story.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

Hook Jaw, meanwhile, had an environmental theme.  The humans whom the killer shark confronted and, inevitably, ate from week to week were scumbags despoiling his marine habitat – the roughnecks on an oilrig in the original set of Hook Jaw stories, the shysters running a ghastly-looking island holiday resort in the next set of stories.

 

But obviously, what impressed me back in 1976 was the comic’s in-your-face violence.  It had panels that, 40 years later, I can recall more vividly than anything else I’ve ever seen in a comic-book.  For example, a colour panel in Hook Jaw – much of that strip was depicted in colour, for obvious reasons – where Hook Jaw and his toothy pack of fellow sharks devour the survivors (no longer surviving) of a ditched-in-the-sea airliner.  Or a climactic panel in Dredger where the agent, flying a helicopter, takes out a whole rampart of villains by swooping at them, shredding them with the rotors and turning them into a shower of bloody body parts.  (When I saw a scene in the 2007 horror sequel 28 Weeks Later where a helicopter reduces a bunch of zombies to chop-suey, that Dredger image was the first thing I thought of.)

 

Predictably, almost from when Action debuted in February 1976, the comic was under attack for its content.  Within months, an unholy alliance that included Mary Whitehouse’s sanctimonious Viewers and Listeners’ Association, excitable tabloids like The Sun and the junk newsagent chain W.H. Smith were pressuring its publisher, IPC Magazines, to censor or withdraw it.

 

Two strips that appeared a little later in Action poured fuel on the fire.  Look Out for Lefty was an example of that staple of British boys’ comics, the soccer story; but unlike previous soccer stories, it took as much interest in hooligan activities on the terraces as it did in footballing activities on the pitch.  A scene where Lefty’s skinhead girlfriend ‘takes out’ an opposition player by chucking a bottle at him from the crowd sparked an outcry.  What sort of example was this comic setting our children?  Britain’s Football League secretary Alan Hardaker raged that the writer responsible “ought to be hit over the head with a bottle himself.”

 

Even more inflammatory was Kids Rule OK which, seemingly taking its cue from the nascent – and to the British establishment, terrifying – punk rock movement, posited a near-future Britain where a plague has killed everyone over the age of 20 and gangs of teenagers battle to the death on the nation’s ravaged streets.  An Action cover in September 1976 showing a Kids Rules OK teenager using a chain to attack a man who appeared to be a police constable didn’t go down well with the country’s self-appointed moral guardians either.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

Issue 36 of Action appeared dated October 16th, 1976.  But its 37th issue, dated October 23rd, never went on sale.  IPC Magazines surrendered to the comic’s many critics and pulped almost all 200,000 copies that’d been printed of issue 37.  (Only about thirty copies of it survived and they’re worth a fortune today.)

 

After a six-week hiatus, Action reappeared at the end of November, but in the meantime IPC Magazines had replaced its editor, John Sanders, and drastically toned down its content to make it as innocuous as every other British comic on the market.  I remember buying a few copies of the revamped Action and being dismayed by the fact that (a) Hook Jaw was no longer in colour, (b) the shark now only ate about one person each week, and (c) the eating now mostly occurred ‘off-panel’.

 

Without the blood, gore and anarchy that’d made the original Action so thrilling, sales of the comic fell.   It limped on until November of the following year, when it was merged with and subsumed into another comic, Battle.  I didn’t even notice its disappearance.  By then I’d stopped reading it.

 

Still, Action’s legacy endures.  In 1977 much of its creative team – particularly the brilliant Pat Mills and John Wagner – were responsible for the launch of the immensely influential 2000 AD, the self-styled Greatest Comic in the Galaxy, which today is one of the very last survivors from Britain’s once huge and lucrative comics industry.

 

Pat Mills, 2000 AD’s first editor, had clearly learnt lessons from the Action debacle.  2000 AD was violent too, but because its violence took place in unreal, science-fictional settings, it was deemed less offensive.  It also helped that much of 2000 AD’s violence was wreaked by that fascistic lawman of the future, Judge Dredd, a policeman – so that was okay, then.  Actually, some of 2000 AD’s early stories had Action connections.  Shako, about a murderous polar bear, was basically Hook Jaw with fur and claws; whereas Flesh, a time-travelling story about cowboys trying to harvest dinosaurs, was originally planned as an Action strip.

 

In 2016, the 40th anniversary of both its appearance and disappearance, Action is recognised as a ground-breaker in British comic history – basically because it attempted to give kids, or at least boys, what they really wanted.  It seems fitting that filmmaker Ben Wheatley should grant Action a cameo appearance in this year’s High Rise, his kaleidoscopic adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard.  From the doghouse in 1976 to the arthouse in 2016.  How times change.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

For further Action, check out:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/21/action-70s-kids-comics-violence-magazine-publishing

http://lewstringer.blogspot.com/2016/10/this-week-in-1976-action-is-suspended.html

 

Favourite film websites

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

At some point during my formative years I realised I was obsessed with films.  Unfortunately, my formative years occurred at a time when being a film obsessive was expensive. 

 

It meant shelling out money to see the things at the cinema or, a little way into the 1980s, rent them from the video-shop – the alternative was waiting for what seemed like 25 years before they turned up on one of the UK’s four terrestrial TV channels.  But it also meant paying serious money for film magazines to get background information about them.

 

Actually, from the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s I must have spent an amount equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of some developing-world countries on film magazines.  At one time or other I was purchasing Cinefantastique, Cinema, Empire, Fangoria, Fantastic Films, House of Hammer, Monster Mag, the Monthly Film Bulletin, Premiere, Sight and Sound, Starburst, Starlog, Stills and Total Film.

 

How different it is today.  Thanks to the Internet, a million websites devoted to movies old and new are available at a click of the mouse or a tap on the touch-pad; and most of them are free to read.  The magazines above – at least, the ones that’ve survived to the present day – have their own sites but many more movie-websites are creations of the Internet era alone.  Here are a few of my favourites.

 

© DEFA / BBC

 

According to its blurb 366 Weird Movies is a site dedicated to “the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!”  Hence, it provides articles on everything from 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild to 1955’s Night of the Hunter, from 1990’s The Reflecting Skin to 1973’s O Lucky Man!  Covered here is work by all the cinematic mavericks you’d expect, like David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell and Lars von Trier.

 

http://366weirdmovies.com/

 

One reason why I’m kindly disposed towards this website is because I’m quoted on it.  At the bottom of each film-entry is a What the Critics Say section and my thoughts have been published about, of all things, The Singing Ringing Tree – the freaky 1957 East German fairy-tale movie that was chopped into episodes and broadcast as a children’s TV series by the BBC.  Of which I wrote (originally on this blog): “for pure weirdness you couldn’t beat The Singing Ringing Tree…  (It) resembled a Brothers Grimm story directed by David Lynch.”

 

© Sol Lesser Productions / RKO

 

More weirdness appears at Atonal Cinema for Zombies, which focuses on ‘strange black and white American films’ from the 1930s to 1960s.  It gives brief but droll accounts of items like Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), Teenage Doll (1957), The Maze (1953), I Married a Witch (1942) and Island of Doomed Men (1940), i.e. all those monochrome movies that long ago would be broadcast on TV as filler for the then-graveyard-slots of the late morning, mid-afternoon and late-evening; movies that, even when I saw them as a kid, I found memorably odd.

 

http://atonalcinemaforzombies.blogspot.co.uk/

 

Meanwhile, the splendidly-titled Jollygood Babylon looks at old British movies.  And not the ones that get celebrated in expensive coffee-table tomes about the history of the British film industry.  It deals with British exploitation movies of yore – all those cheap, unsavoury crime, horror, sex and sex-comedy movies that respectable British critics at the time liked to pretend didn’t exist.  Thus, you get entries on the gloriously tacky likes of 1982’s Xtro (killer aliens, killer toys, slime, sleaze), 1971’s Revenge (child murders, vigilantism, Joan Collins in her underwear) and 1970’s Groupie Girl (swinging London, drugs, foursomes, decadent rock ‘n’ roll bands with names like Orange Butterfly whose music actually sounds more like “Brotherhood of Man than Led Zeppelin”).

 

http://jollygoodbabylon.blogspot.co.uk/

 

Over the decades, horror movies have formed much of the British film industry’s output.  For coverage of older examples of these, i.e. from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, check out British Horror Films.  Alas, this site has been inactive for a few years and its extensive film-review section has become harder to access, although the following link should get you there:

 

http://www.britishhorrorfilms.co.uk/films.shtml

 

The site’s creator Chris Wood tackles his subject matter with a fond but faintly mocking tone.  Thus, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1970) gets the endorsement, “Brush up on ‘O’ Level English and watch some extreme violence at the same time” (which were certainly the reasons why I watched it as a teenager); whereas Nicholas Roeg’s much-praised Don’t Look Now (1973) is brought down a peg or two by the observation, “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”

 

© British Lion Films

 

For modern British horror movies – products of a boom that began in the late 1990s and continues to the present, helped immeasurably by indie filmmakers churning out movies that bypass the cinema-screen and reach an audience via DVD and Video on Demand – look no further than the blog M.J. Simpson: Film Reviews and Interviews.

 

http://mjsimpson-films.blogspot.com/

 

I don’t agree with all of M.J. Simpson’s opinions – there’s a hint of reverse-snobbery that makes him uncomfortable with anything mainstream, big-budget, critically-acclaimed or directed by Ben Wheatley – but I admire his courage, strength and indefatigability when it comes to reviewing just about everything that appears, no matter how obscure, cheap, nasty or bizarre.  We’re talking items like Devil Dog Shuck Returns (2016), Killer/Saurus (2015), Fluid Boy (2015) and Where Seagulls Cry a Song (2010).  Never heard of those?  Don’t worry, neither had I.  With his ‘someone made it, so someone ought to watch it’ ethic, Simpson is to modern British horror films what the late John Peel was to alternative music, and there’s no higher compliment than that.

 

© 88 Films

 

Now from Britain to Italy, home to two of my favourite movie sub-genres.  If you admire the way the Italians reinvented the western, that most American of film-forms, in the 1960s – introducing squinty-eyed heroes, bearded villains, monosyllabic dialogue, shonky dubbing, operatic violence, Catholicism, cigar butts, ponchos, twangy musical scores and the landscapes of Andalusia and Lazio pretending to be the US / Mexican border – then The Spaghetti Western Database is for you.

 

www.spaghetti-western.net

 

I don’t know how many films’ details are stored here, but there are a lot; running from 1910 to 2009, with an obvious glut around the glory years of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Productions are listed not just from Italy but also from Spain, Germany, France and Turkey.  British-made Westerns don’t count as spaghetti westerns, though, so there’s no mention of Carry On Cowboy (1965).

 

The Giallo Files, on the other hand, is an invaluable guide to the Italian horror / thriller form known as giallo – Italian for ‘yellow’, after the colour of the pulp crime paperbacks that were once popular in the country.  The site helpfully defines what constitutes a giallo, narrowing it down to four essentials: being European, being stylish, having (preferably multiple) murders and being mysterious.  “In a giallo, the killer may be a deranged psycho with or without a motive, but his identity is kept a mystery until the end of the movie.” 

 

http://giallofiles.blogspot.com/

 

There’s also a helpful checklist of things common to giallo movies: ‘murders’, ‘attempted murders’, ‘fake murders’, ‘inept police’, ‘main character in a creative profession’, ‘scene in a cemetery’, ‘bad 1970s art’ (“Apartment and houses in gialli are usually decorated with awful, amateurish abstract art”), ‘spiral staircase’ (“Maybe they symbolise the twisting plot…  Maybe they’re just cool”), ‘red phone’ (“I don’t know why this is a thing but it is”) and J & B Whisky (“The drink of choice for giallo characters”).

 

Back to horror films now.  A general site about scary cinema that I like is Brutal as Hell which, despite its in-your-face title, manages to be intelligent, thoughtful and balanced.  It tries to review new releases, no matter how gruelling they are, with an open mind; whilst treating old movies (which are usually reviewed when they come out on Blu-ray) with respect and affection.   Mind you, from what I can tell about the site’s contributors, they’re all young enough to qualify as being my offspring.  And when they grumble, occasionally, about the undemanding horror-movie tastes of ‘kids today’, I feel really old.

 

http://www.brutalashell.com/

 

© Kadokawa Pictures

 

And finally, my favourite movie website at the moment.  To get to Breakfast in the Ruins you first have to navigate a Content Warning by Google, which is nonsensical.  You’ll see the odd bare boob or splash of blood there (usually from some 1970s schlock-fest that’s tame by today’s standards); but I’ve viewed far worse on more mainstream movie websites. 

 

http://breakfastintheruins.blogspot.com/

 

A skim down the site’s sidebar shows what sort of films are featured heavily.  For instance, you get German krimi movies, 1960s crime thrillers based on or inspired by the writings of Edgar Wallace.  You get Japanese pinky violence movies, 1970s action films emphasising sex as well as violence but with tough female characters.  You get Japanese movies about Zatoichi, the fictional blind swordsman who made his first cinematic appearance in 1962.  You get movies from the Spanish director Jess Franco, who made all sorts of weird and wonderful (and admittedly sometimes terrible) stuff at an industrial rate.  You get movies from the French director Jean Rollin, who, though his filmography contains about 60 titles, was only a fraction as prolific as Franco.

 

This eclecticism and internationalism are what make the site so enjoyable.  I check it practically every day in the hope that something new and fascinating has been posted.

 

The other ‘N’ word

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions / Channel 4

 

When, near the end of last week’s Scottish National Party conference, party leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to open a new Scottish trade base in Berlin and so strengthen Scotland’s ties with the European Union, I had a depressing thought. 

 

“Who,” I wondered, “will be first to make a reference to the Nazis?”

 

You see, Berlin is the capital of Germany.  And Germany is where the Nazis used to live.  Meanwhile, many anti-Scottish independence, pro-United Kingdom posters on social media would have you believe that the Scottish National Party is where the Nazis live now.

 

That might seem a bit harsh on the SNP, considering that lately Nicola Sturgeon has gone out of her way to stress her party’s inclusiveness and promote a vision of Scotland that is welcoming to refugees and “progressive, open, outward-looking”.  This was in contrast to the recent Conservative Party conference, at which some shockingly xenophobic rhetoric was spouted – none worse than when UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd promised to get British firms to publish lists of their non-British employees.  (A promise, incidentally, that was dropped after the backlash it provoked.)

 

But the SNP, its detractors claim, wants Scotland to be independent of the United Kingdom, which means it doesn’t like English people, which makes it racist.  And if you’ve read your history books, you’ll know that racism was one of the Nazis’ main hobbies.

 

In fact, the first person I saw make that Nazi reference was Mike Elrick, who at various times was an advisor to the late Labour Party leader John Smith, to the former Labour cabinet minister Dr John Reid and to the former Scottish Labour Party leader Wendy Alexander.  “To think,” he tweeted two days ago, “75 years ago some Nats were looking forward to permanent trade representation in Berlin too.”

 

I was surprised to read this comment because only a week earlier Mike Elrick had lambasted the SNP MP Mhairi Black for making another Nazi analogy.  Black had described the mood of the aforementioned Conservative Party conference as being “reminiscent of early 1930s Germany.”  At the time Elrick tweeted indignantly: “MP Mhairi Black thinks Tory policies like Nazis.  Insulting, pathetic, juvenile and just plain wrong on every account.”  Obviously, getting one over on your political opponents overrides taking a principled stand on an issue.

 

(For the record, I should say that I knew Mike Elrick slightly, through a mutual acquaintance, while I lived in London in the early 1990s.  We had several furious arguments but overall I thought we were on reasonably friendly terms – at least, when we were talking about films and music and not talking about politics.  He may not have felt the same way about me, though.)

 

But then, in turn, Mhairi Black has had the ‘N’ word directed at her.  In February 2015, before she became an MP, she was described in a tweet as “the wee Nazi candidate in Paisley” by Ian Smart, a lawyer, blogger, political pundit and staunch supporter Labour Party supporter.  Smart has also called the SNP ‘racist’, ‘fascists’ and ‘fascist scum’ on Twitter.  A year-and-a-half before 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence he even tweeted: “Better 100 years of Tory rule than the turn on the Poles and the Pakis that would follow independence failing to deliver.”

 

Well, in 2014, the Scots voted to stay in the UK, which now looks like it will be ruled by the Tories for a hundred years, especially as Smart’s Labour Party is such a dire shambles.  So the Poles will be relieved about that.  It meant that nobody turned on them.  Oh…  Oh wait.

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/09/killing-polish-man-shook-town-harlow-could-more-trouble-be-coming

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/27/brexit-polish-centre-london-reeling-after-graffiti-attack

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/sep/14/four-teenagers-arrested-attack-polish-man-leeds

 

(c) Scottish Political Archive

 

Fuelling much of Elrick and Smart’s SNP / Nazis invective is the historical case of Arthur Donaldson, who joined the Scottish National Party in 1934 and led it from 1960 to 1969.  In May 1941, Donaldson was arrested and imprisoned for six weeks for activities subversive to Britain’s war effort – he argued for Scottish neutrality and opposed conscription.  More seriously, an MI5 informant alleged that Donaldson had been earmarked by Nazi Germany to be head of a puppet Scottish government once it’d invaded and conquered the UK.  Also, MI5 claimed that it’d unearthed a cache of weapons at Donaldson’s home.

 

His Wikipedia entry notes that “Donaldson was never charged, and no evidence for the MI5 allegations has ever been produced.”  Nonetheless, many of the SNP’s detractors still cry: “Their former leader was in cahoots with the Nazis!  He was a Nazi!  So all SNP supporters are Nazis now!”

 

Well, I certainly think Donaldson was stupidly naïve in not, for the sake of the common good, setting aside his political principles and joining the struggle against Hitler.  But if Donaldson really had been conspiring with the Germans and hiding weapons at his house, wouldn’t the authorities have kept him banged up for an awful lot longer than six weeks?  Actually, wouldn’t they have hung him for treason?

 

The way Donaldson is still talked about contrasts with the case of Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, whom I’ve written about before on this blog.  He was MP for the Scottish town I’m from, Peebles, when it was part of the Peebles and Southern Midlothian constituency.  He stood for the Scottish Unionist Party, which was associated with but not properly a part of the Conservative Party in England and Wales.  (In 1965 it became a regional branch of the Britain-wide Conservative Party.)  During the late 1930s Ramsay was a leading light in various extreme right-wing, anti-Jewish organisations like the United Christian Front, the Nordic League and the Right Club.  In May 1940 he was arrested under an emergency statute and he spent the next four years in Brixton Prison alongside other potential pro-Nazi subversives like Oswald Mosley, founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=1452

 

You never hear much about Ramsay these days – certainly not in Peebles, where local historians seem to suffer collective amnesia regarding their town’s old wartime MP.  But if you’re going to formulate the equation Arthur Donaldson + Nazis = SNP are Nazis now, you could equally formulate the equation Archibald Maule Ramsay + Nazis = Tories are Nazis now.  Actually, you could do something similar with Ramsay’s fellow inmate at Brixton Prison, Oswald Mosley, who prior to leading Britain’s fascists was a Labour MP.  Indeed, by the late 1920s, he was a minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s cabinet.  So there you go: Oswald Mosley + Fascists = Labour Party are Fascists now.

 

I’m sure the SNP has attracted its share of bigots over the decades – Scots who genuinely do hate the English and fantasists who believe in the racial superiority of the Celts.  But then again, nutters occasionally find their way into the ranks of every political party.  And there are other things I could mention in response to the modern-day SNP being called Nazis.  Like the fact that extreme right-wing organisations such as the National Front, the British National Party and the English and Scottish Defence Leagues lined up against the SNP and alongside the Labour and Conservative Parties in their opposition to Scottish independence in 2014.

 

(c) Daily Mirror

 

Or the fact that the day after the Scottish-independence referendum, independence-supporters in Glasgow’s George Square were attacked by a crowd of ‘no’ supporters who, to quote the Guardian, were “draped in Union flags… chanting the words to Rule Britannia.  Some shouted loyalist slogans and racist abuse, and appeared to make Nazi salutes.”  Even the Daily Mail – the Daily Mail! – described them as “Nazi-saluting thugs.”

 

Or the fact that the modern-day Labour Party has been caught in a shit-storm of accusations about that most Nazi-ish of activities, anti-Semitism.  No doubt the likes of Mike Elrick and Ian Smart would retort angrily that this was due to crass remarks made by people on the left wing of the party, such as Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker, who certainly don’t represent their Labour Party.  But hey, surely the distance between them and Livingstone and Walker is no greater than the distance between Nicola Sturgeon and Arthur Donaldson, who’d stepped down as SNP leader before Sturgeon was even born.

 

But maybe it’s simply worth recalling Godwin’s law, the observation made by US attorney and author Mike Godwin that “(a)s an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1”; i.e. in any argument, sooner or later, someone will liken his or her opponents to the gang running the Third Reich.  Which obviously demeans the memory of the millions of people who were victims of that Third Reich.

 

Political discourse in Scotland would be a lot saner and more edifying if commentators, politicians and social-media posters were just banned from using the ‘N’ word and from making ‘N’ analogies.  I say that not just about Mike Elrick and Ian Smart on the Labour Party side but also Mairi Black on the SNP side – I thought the Conservative Party conference was pretty revolting, but nobody there was proposing the Final Solution.

 

Mind you, if the people you’re arguing with really are wearing swastikas (and caps with skulls on them)…  By all means, go ahead and call them Nazis.

 

From matthewjamesbloggs.wordpress.com 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum

 

 

This may look like a sedate and unremarkable, if pretty, house in a leafy neighbourhood in the Texan city of San Antonio.  However, two features suggest there might be more to it than initially meets the eye.  One is a hand-painted sign half-hidden in the foliage outside, announcing the existence of a museum.  The other hints at something stranger – a toilet bowl and cistern parked in its back garden, used as a big porcelain plant-pot, green blades poking out over the bowl’s rim.

 

 

In fact, this is the home of San Antonio’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, created and run by the wonderful Barney Smith who, when a couple of friends and myself visited him a while ago, was 94 years young.  He keeps his museum-collection in a corrugated iron garage.  It’s a big collection and he has a small garage, but Barney has managed to cram the former into the latter in Tardis-like fashion.  

 

When we telephoned him to say we’d arrived – we’d made an appointment to view the museum a few days earlier – Barney crossed his back garden with the aid of a Zimmer frame, unlocked the big garage door, swung it back and propped it with a stob.  And then it seemed that Aladdin’s Cave had opened, an Aladdin’s Cave of toilet seats.

 

 

Now I should clarify something.  This is not a museum of toilet seats per se, not one of antique toilet seats, or exotic toilet seats, or unusual toilet seats.  What Barney has done over many years is take a huge number of toilet seats, or more precisely, toilet-seat lids, and decorate them according to different themes.  The theme might be a country, city or state, or a profession, or an organisation, or a special occasion, or a newsworthy event.  And he works on each seat with the artistry of a medieval craftsman engraving, gilding, inlaying, embossing and enameling the front of a medieval shield.

 

 

At the time of our visit, he mentioned that he was currently working on six new toilet seats to add to his collection.  I can’t quite remember how many seats he said he’d already completed, though for some reason the number ‘1172’ is lodged in my memory.

 

The interior of the garage is absolutely dense with the things: lining the walls, propped along the floor, dangling from the roof, suspended along rails in tightly-packed rows.  Entering it is like venturing into a congested pocket of rainforest, one where the leaves are all big, solid and shaped like loo-covers.  When he leads his visitors inside, such is the clutter that Barney has to swap his Zimmer frame for a walking stick, which handily doubles as a pointer when he’s indicating the more notable items in his collection.

 

 

Despite the sheer number of exhibits, each one seems to have its own identity – largely due to the bewildering range of bric-a-brac Barney has used in decorating them.  I saw seats adorned with action figures, badges, baubles, beads, buttons, cards, car number-plates, CDs, chains, cell-phones, cocktail sticks, coins, corkscrews, computer keyboards, coral, crosses, dolls, electronic circuitry, feathers, keyrings, keys, Lego, marbles, medallions, medals, miniature flags, neckties, notes of money, pebbles, penknives, pennants, photographs, rocks, rosettes, scent bottles, sections of plumbing, sew-on patches, shells, smokers’ pipes, spectacles, stained glass, stationery, stones, surgical instruments, taps, toy cars, toy trains and watches.

 

Barney is also an accomplished artist and calligrapher and many of the seats, in part or in their entirety, are emblazoned with his drawings and / or inscribed with his handwriting.  Indeed, such is the aesthetic effect that you soon forget that what you’re looking at are, essentially, the top parts of latrines.

 

 

About the only exhibit I remember seeing that had a connection with an actual toilet was one bearing a souvenir that a visitor, an American soldier back from service in Iraq, had given Barney one day: a chunk of porcelain allegedly salvaged from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s personal ‘khazi’.

 

In his time Barney has worked as a plumber, electrician and fireman.  Looking at the exhibits here, and thinking of the many skills that were necessary in fashioning them, I’m sure there are a dozen other professions he could’ve successfully turned his hand to.  He’s also a bit of a publicity hound – clearly, he keeps an eye open for any opportunity to promote himself and the museum.  Thus, the garage comes equipped with a television set and an old VCR, on which he plays footage of his appearances on TV over the years, on programmes like the Tonight Show, Offbeat America and the BBC’s All Over the Place.  As a thank-you for the coverage, those shows have been honoured with their own toilet seats in the collection.

 

 

While I didn’t go to the Toilet Seat Art Museum with the intention of scoffing, I expected to have a good chuckle about it.  Where I come from, at least, toilets are supposed to be funny – hence the expression, ‘toilet humour’.  Yet I went away feeling impressed and oddly inspired.  This was partly because of the time spent in Barney Smith’s company.  Despite his advanced years he seemed as alert, vivacious and energetic as a man a third of his age.  Why, the following week, he told us, he was planning to pop up to Tennessee and visit Dollywood, the theme park devoted to the mighty Ms Dolly Parton.

 

 

And the sheer variety of things displayed in his garage made me admire his curiosity and enthusiasm for the whole rich tapestry of life.  I particularly admired the way his work showed respect for and gratitude towards those many groups of citizens who keep society ticking over and glued together – all those many professions, services, institutions, associations, sports clubs, social clubs, faith groups, youth groups and so on.  You name them, he’s got a toilet seat dedicated to them.

 

 

Tellingly, at a time when the bile, bombast and general ghastliness of the Trump-Clinton race for the presidency have acted as the worst possible advertisement for America, it strikes me that Barney and his eccentric but charming little museum are an advertisement for the very opposite, for America at its best.  Both the man and his creations seem to embody the virtues of a nobler America, virtues such as neighbourliness, civility, loyalty, positivity and all-round decency.