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

 

Staying power

 

 

Back in July I was exploring Dalry Cemetery, which is a little way west of the centre of Edinburgh, when I discovered a tombstone for one George Cupples – a ‘novelist’ , ‘critic’ and ‘philologist’ who died in 1891 at the age of 69.  The stone had been erected by “a few of his very oldest friends in recognition of the various literary gifts and attainments of the author and in loving memory of the simple, upright and reverent character of the man.”

 

George who? I thought.

 

A search for George Cupples on the Internet didn’t yield much information.  (There was slightly more about his wife, Anne Jane Cupples, who’d been a children’s author and who’d corresponded with Charles Darwin.  Anne moved to New Zealand after George’s death and I assume she’s buried there.)  According to www.victorianresearch.org Cupples “wrote dozens of nautical novels, such as The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856), The Two Frigates: or, Captain Bisset’s Legacy (1859) and Captain Herbert: A Sea Story (1864).”  An entry on another site, www.bartleby.com, which appears to have been written in 1917 and is pretty purple in its prose, describes Cupples thus: “a happy combination of the genuine and most agreeable traits of that hearty and outspoken variety of man, the literary Scotchman.”  It also calls The Green Hand ‘one of the best sea stories ever written’.

 

So – with his many seafaring adventure novels, George Cupples could have been a Victorian equivalent of Patrick O’Brian, whose books about Captain Jack Aubrey and physician Stephen Maturin on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars are so beloved today.  But who remembers Cupples in 2015?  I hadn’t heard of him.  I only know his name now because I found myself by the gates of Dalry Cemetery the other month and decided to take a look inside.

 

Fame is elusive in the literary world – and even if you’re one of the few who manage to achieve some fame, there’s no guarantee that you’ll hold onto it for long.  A case in point is the early 20th-century thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who in his heyday could boast that he’d written a quarter of all the books being read in England at the time.  Yet today, he’s forgotten.  Well, not quite forgotten.  There’s a pub named after him on Essex Street in London and a website dedicated to him at www.edgarwallace.com.  And in remote corners of the Internet I’ve discovered lovers of obscure movies enthusing about the Krimi films – a set of stylistically-distinctive movie adaptations of Wallace’s stories, filmed during the 1960s in Germany (where Wallace had also been a big deal).  Oh, and trivia experts will identify Wallace as the man who co-wrote Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong back in 1933.

 

From www.travelswithbeer.com

 

But who actually reads Edgar Wallace nowadays?  Very few folk, I’d say.  Which is a big comedown for a man who, less than a century ago, provided the English public with a quarter of its reading matter.

 

Another name that springs to mind when discussing the here-today-gone-tomorrow fickleness of literary fame is that of Dennis Wheatley, whose wartime, espionage, historical and black-magic thrillers were ubiquitous in Britain between the 1930s and 1970s.  However, Wheatley’s books seemed to drop off the radar the moment that he died in 1977.  Twenty years later, I remember the British Film Institute Companion to Horror dismissing Wheatley with a withering comment along the lines of “hugely popular in his day, terribly unfashionable now.”

 

Actually, Wheatley seems slightly better remembered than Wallace is.  I doubt if many people are perusing a Wheatley novel at this moment in time, but there are things written about him on the Internet.  And they’re nearly all in regard to one part of his oeuvre – the clutch of novels he wrote about Satanism and the occult, most famously The Devil Rides Out (1935) and To the Devil a Daughter (1953).  That was the stuff by Wheatley that I read as a kid – potboilers crammed with things that seemed cool to me, such as astral projection, demonic possession, revived corpses, evil slug-like elemental beings from other planes of existence, diabolic homunculi needing virginal blood to come to life, chalk pentacles offering protection from the powers of darkness, and blasphemous sabbats climaxing in the summoning of the Goat of Mendes (that’s the Devil to you and me).  An additional attraction for my 12 / 13-year-old self was that in the 1970s Wheatley’s occult thrillers were published by Arrow Books in a variety of saucy covers.  Each book was adorned with a picture of a naked, big-breasted lady dancing around a flame while some Satanic-looking artefact (a skull, a ghost’s head, a broken cross, a devilish-looking African mask) hovered in the foreground.

 

(c) Arrow

 

With those books, Wheatley had, possibly unwittingly, tapped into the zeitgeist – because by the countercultural 1960s, many people were fascinated by magic, mysticism, meditation, transcendence and any sort of esoterica that was going.  Indeed, Wheatley is said to have based the character of Mocata, the villain in The Devil Rides Out, on the notorious English occultist and magician Aleister Crowley.  By 1967, the younger generation considered Crowley such a dude that he was one of the figures depicted on the cover of the legendary Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

 

Yet Wheatley wasn’t embraced by the generations that came after him and he didn’t achieve any large, lasting measure of fame.  (His meagre legacy is in contrast to that of another writer who dealt in dark and macabre subject-matter, H.P. Lovecraft, who by the late 1960s had a psychedelic rock band named after him and whose influence today seems to be everywhere: in books, films, music and gaming.)  Wheatley’s fiction simply wasn’t built to last.  No matter how intrigued he or she might be by the occult stuff in Wheatley’s books, a modern reader would surely be turned off by his stuck-up and reactionary tone.  His heroes were crusty right-wing aristocrats and his villains were revolting foreigners and / or anybody whom he disapproved of politically.  For instance, he has trade unionists, pop musicians and lesbians in league with the Devil in The Satanist (1960); and the civil rights movement aligned with Auld Nick in Gateway to Hell (1970).  All in all, the snobbishness and crankiness that permeates his writing has dated it very badly.

 

Incidentally, one thing that’s helped Wheatley to be remembered – faintly – is the fact that a few of his books were filmed.  Most notably, The Devil Rides Out was turned into a well-regarded movie by Hammer Films in 1968.

 

The impermanence of literary fame was recently the subject of a blog entry by the writer Christopher Priest: http://www.christopher-priest.co.uk/journal/2605/you-dont-know-what-it-is-do-you-mister-jones/.  Priest presents a list of names of bestselling authors from the 1930s and asks how many of them are known today: Hervey Allen, James Hilton, Dorothea Brande, Alexis Carrel, Hans Werfel and Munro Leaf.  Well, you might know Hilton as the creator of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon (1933) and the world’s saintliest schoolmaster in Goodbye Mr Chips (1934), but that’s about it.

 

Then Priest lists some bestselling writers from the 1970s – Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Michael Crichton, Jacqueline Susann, Frederick Forsyth, Mario Puzo, Len Deighton and the lately-departed Jackie Collins – and asks how well they’re lasting in the posterity stakes.  “Most of those names are admittedly more familiar than those of Hervey Allen and his contemporaries, but I suspect their familiarity rests on the fact that popular films were made of their novels and are still being shown on TV.  I also wonder how many people are still actually reading The Valley of the Dolls (1966) or The Dream Merchants (1949) or The Odessa File (1972)?”

 

To that second list I could add more names: Morris West, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, Leon Uris, Alastair MacLean…  God, what has happened to Alastair MacLean?  His action-adventure books about World War II and the Cold War seemed to be regulation reading for schoolboys in the 1970s.  During my schooldays, I’d see lads everywhere with their noses deep in dog-eared copies of, say, Ice Station Zebra (1963) or Where Eagles Dare (1967).  Nowadays, though, his books seem to have slipped into the ether.  When MacLean’s name does come up in conversation, it’s usually in relation to the movies made out of his books – the two I’ve mentioned were both filmed in 1968 by John Sturges and Brian Hutton – rather than the books themselves.  (The fact that the people having those conversations are invariably aging men like myself, who remember seeing the movies on TV when they were kids, doesn’t suggest that MacLean will survive much longer in the popular consciousness.)

 

(c) Fawcett Crest

 

Priest goes on to speculate about how long the names of our current crop of bestselling authors will be remembered.  Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t expect future generations to be poring over the works of E.L. James, or Stephenie Meyer, or Jeffrey Archer, or Dan Brown on their 22nd-century versions of the kindle.  

 

He’s also dismissive about the prospects of those practitioners of ‘the modern literary novel, at least in Britain’: “Although they enjoy critical admiration and (one gathers) impressive sales figures, the books by Ian McEwen, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes are unlikely to survive much beyond their authors’ physical demise.  McEwen is a skilful stylist but he has an unoriginal mind and an unadventurous approach to fiction.  Barnes is a writer of middle-class dilettantism…  Amis is a more complex problem because he is ambitious and committed, and probably more intelligent than the other two, but as a novelist he peaked more than thirty years ago with his novel Money (1984)…”

 

Actually, I’d disagree with Priest here because I think McEwen’s work is likely to stay popular longer than the aloof, disdainful and stylistically up-its-own-arse oeuvre of Amis.  For example, I found McEwen’s Atonement (2001) readable and engaging, even if it was somewhat unoriginal and free in its ‘borrowings’.  (In 2006, McEwen had to answer allegations of plagiarism about Atonement.  It was claimed that he’d grafted into the novel material taken from a 1977 memoir by the romantic novelist and wartime nurse Lucilla Andrews: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/28/books/28aton.html?oref=slogin&_r=0.)  Also, I think that McEwen’s early fiction – the short stories in Last Love, First Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978) and the novel The Cement Garden (1978) – is so unsettling and bizarre that it’ll continue to be read in the future, at least, by a small number of aficionados of literary weirdness.

 

(c) The Independent

 

On the other hand, Priest predicts longevity for the works of Stephen King, whose best efforts he considers “intelligent, unexpected, personal, original in concept and told with ruthless skill.”  He expects the same for J.K. Rowling, whose books will be passed from parents to children: “It’s worth pointing out that that generation of first Harry Potter readers is now approaching the age of their own early parentage – the wheels of posterity are turning smoothly.”  And he thinks the works of Sir Terry Pratchett will survive too.  Indeed, he believes Pratchett’s books “a dead cert for long-term classic status. They are written for a popular audience…  They have been commercially successful, not just in Britain and the USA, but in languages and countries all around the world.  The books are not liked by many: they are loved and admired by millions.”

 

So if you’re an author who yearns for immortality, what do you need to do?  Obviously, first of all, be popular – and properly popular.  You’re not just aiming at a highbrow readership.  You have to write for the plebs too.  As Priest says at the start of his piece, “(f)rom the plays of William Shakespeare, through the novels of the Bronte sisters, the social novels of Charles Dickens, the scientific romances of H. G. Wells, virtually every work of literature that becomes recognized as a classic was conceived and written in the first place for a popular audience.”

 

Also, if you want people to at least remember your name — even if they no longer read your books — get your work turned into films.  I’m sure the reason why some people have a vestigial memory of Dennis Wheatley is because of the film version of The Devil Rides Out, which still turns up regularly on TV.  The same reason helps explain why Edgar Wallace and Alastair MacLean are still talked about (though admittedly in small doses).  And if that’s the case, the long-term prospects for Stephen King and J.K. Rowling must be good.

 

And if you want your name to survive after your death even a tiny bit, make sure your readership has survived into the era of the Internet.  Thanks to the Web, fans of obscure and fading writers – no matter how dispersed they are physically – can hook up with one another, and converse, and form communities.  That’s why a sliver of Edgar Wallace remains, just about, at www.edgarwallace.com.

 

Alas, that wasn’t an option for poor George Cupples, who was dead, buried and forgotten long before the advent of modern communications technology.

 

*

 

Anyone interested in authors who’ve been badly treated by posterity, who for one reason or other have faded into the fog of the past, should read the fascinating Invisible Ink columns penned for the Independent newspaper by another literary Christopher, the crime and horror writer Christopher Fowler.  You’ll find many of them collected here: http://neglectedbooks.com/?page_id=834

 

From www.tolkiengesellschaft.de

 

Was there anything this man couldn’t do?

 

(c) WingNut Films

 

For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.

 

The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?

 

I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.

 

From @joancollinsobe

 

Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.

 

Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)

 

Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.

 

Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”

 

Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.

 

In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.

 

In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.

 

Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).

 

(c) Fox News

 

Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.

 

Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).

 

He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.

 

(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker

 

Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)

 

Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.

 

(c) Compton Films

 

In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.

 

Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.

 

The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.

 

From @sybildanning

 

Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!

 

From zimbio.com

 

When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.

 

Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.

 

(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.

 

And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-christopher-lee

http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/joe-dante-and-john-landis-remember-christopher-lee-20150612

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/alice-cooper-dedicates-his-legend-award-to-sir-christopher-lee/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ9se8i4ujs

 

(c) Seven Keys

 

Peebles gets booked up

 

 

Here are some photographs taken at four o’clock last Sunday afternoon, one hour before the end of the book sale held in Peebles Burgh Hall by the local Peace Group.  The hall was quiet by this point, but earlier in the weekend it’d seen dense, bustling crowds.

 

In fact, this two-day sale has become a yearly institution in my home town of Peebles.  The one held in 2013, for instance, saw some 21,000 books brought into the Burgh Hall, attracted about 1000 visitors and raised £8,200.  I suspect that for many folk in Peebles, the sale is the one occasion during the year when they buy books.  They acquire a wheelbarrow-load of them, spend the next twelve months reading them and then re-donate them to the following year’s sale.

 

The lengthy table in this photograph supports a collection of books that the organisers had deemed ‘Scottish’.

 

 

And this particular picture taken at the Scottish table might cause concern about an unhealthy lack of diversity in the current Scottish book-publishing scene.  Aye, 60% of those books are by Ian Rankin.  The remaining 40% are by Alexander McCall Smith.

 

 

However, another photograph suggests there’s more to Caledonian publishing than books about craggy middle-aged Fife men investigating mur-r-r-ders in Edinburgh and lady detectives being sweet and life-affirming in Botswana.  As you can see, there’s room too for books about Mary Queen of Scots and books called Ye Cannae Shove yer Grannie aff a Bus.  And you’ll notice in the picture’s bottom right hand corner that Ian McEwan now qualifies as a Scottish writer, no doubt because his surname begins with ‘Mc’.  So I guess Scotland literature can lay claim to Patrick McGrath, Patrick McCabe, Carson McCullers and Cormac McCarthy as well.

 

 

Elsewhere, I was pleased to see this novel by the late, great Norman Mailer.  Its title became one of my catchphrases when I was young.  Whenever I found my way into an occasional nightclub (which in those days was the only way I could buy a drink at one or two o’clock in the morning) and someone there was daft enough to ask me for a dance, I’d snap back, “Tough guys don’t dance!”  I liked the clever literary allusion in my response, although to be honest the other person usually thought I was a dick.

 

 

I also stumbled across some long-forgotten books written by the prolific and once-massively-popular Dennis Wheatley.  I didn’t think much of Wheatley as a writer – apart from, perhaps, those old black magic potboilers he penned like The Devil Rides Out – but somehow I find it reassuring that the likes of Unholy Crusade and Vendetta in Spain can still surface at a book sale in 2014.

 

 

Meanwhile, here’s someone else I haven’t seen for a while.  Yes, it’s Wilbur Smith!  While I was at college I had a flatmate who became totally addicted to Wilbur Smith.  So serious did his addiction get that he did nothing but lie in his bed all day long, reading his way through Wilbur’s hefty paperbacks.  As a result, he failed his exams at the end of the year and got thrown out of his course and I never heard of him again.  So remember kids, Wilbur screws you up.  Choose life, not Wilbur.

 

 

And here’s Alastair MacLean – whatever happened to him?  I hardly ever see anyone these days reading one of old Alastair’s pulpy war novels, although when I was 13 half the male population of my school-year seemed to have their noses stuck in Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone between classes.  That was the more normal and squarer half of the male school-year, I should add.  The weirder and less savoury half had moved on to Sven Hassel and James Herbert by then.

 

 

At this year’s book sale I tried to behave myself.  When I popped in on Saturday, I bought only 17 books, which is about a dozen less than I’ve bought at previous sales.  But then I popped in again on Sunday, ostensibly to take a few photographs, and ended up buying a dozen more.  At this rate, by the time I ever get around to owning property, I’ll be able to line the walls of my living room with all the books I’ve bought at the Peebles Peace Group Book Sale.

 

The only depressing thing about it was the fact that very few of the people poring over those laden tables seemed to be under the age of forty.  I suppose nowadays you could compress the contents of the thousands of books on display in the Burgh Hall into electronic form and store them in some tiny device that could be carried around in your back pocket.  This must make the bulk and weight of an old-fashioned book seem quite illogical to the younger generation.  But it’s their loss.  I’d like to see them line the walls of their living rooms with kindles and memory sticks.

 

Fifty shades of ick

 

When I was 12 or 13 years old, you couldn’t keep me away from the novels of Dennis Wheatley – more precisely, away from Wheatley’s occult novels, such as The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter, They Used Dark Forces and Gateway to Hell, which coincidently are the only books in Wheatley’s huge catalogue that anyone remembers today.

 

These were crammed with things that at the time seemed utterly cool to me, things such as astral projection, demonic possession, revived corpses, evil slug-like elemental beings from other planes of existence, diabolic homunculi needing virginal blood to be brought to life, chalk pentacles offering shelter from assaults by the powers of darkness, unholy talismans with the potential to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and devil-worshipping sabbats climaxing in the summoning of the Goat of Mendes (who was basically Old Nick himself, in the form of a goat-headed man).  Admittedly, there was some tedious stuff too in those books, such as Wheatley’s prose style, which even at the age of 12 or 13 I realised was pretty bad, and the large number of boring-seeming Satanic orgies that went on – though I was prepared to wade through those orgies so long as the Goat of Mendes was guaranteed to make an appearance at the end of them.  Of course, I now realise that I was the only adolescent boy in the world who wasn’t reading Wheatley’s potboilers for the orgy scenes.

 

There was a problem with getting hold of Wheatley’s novels, however.  In the 1970s, his occult thrillers were published by Arrow Books in a variety of saucy covers – each book was adorned with a picture of a naked, big-breasted lady dancing about a giant flame while some Satanic-looking artefact (a skull, a goat’s head, a broken cross, a devilish-looking African mask) hovered in the foreground.  With the amount of naked female flesh displayed on them, I felt extremely awkward as a 12 or 13-year-old boy buying those novels in Whitie’s, which at the time was the main bookshop on Peebles High Street.  In fact, when I bought my first Wheatley novel – The Devil Rides Out – I remember Mrs Whitie, a formidable old lady who could probably have taken on a coven of Wheatley’s evilest devil worshippers and kicked their heads in, staring over the counter at me with a withering mixture of pity and contempt, and then sighing and saying, “I suppose we’d better stick this in a brown paper bag for you.”  What I could really have done with in the 1970s, I realise now, was a Kindle, so that I could have downloaded any novel I wanted without worrying about smutty covers and the disdain of terrifying bookshop owners like Mrs Whitie.  (Of course, back then, I would have also needed an Internet from which to download those novels…)

 

(c) Vintage Books

 

Which brings me in a roundabout way to Fifty Shades of Grey.  Unless you’ve spent the last few months living on the moon, with a serious communications-satellite malfunction disrupting contact between you and the earth, you’ll know that this is a massively fast-selling novel by British novelist E.L. James.  Apparently, it’s already sold in such quantities that it makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows look like a minority read in the category of Finnegan’s Wake or Tristram Shandy.  Part of Fifty Shades’ phenomenal success has been attributed to the discretion with which it can be downloaded onto e-reading devices – quite simply, you can get hold of it without anyone else knowing you’ve got hold of it.  And the reasons why you might want to keep your acquisition of Fifty Shades of Grey a secret are as follows:

 

1.  It’s full of descriptions of BDSM.  (That’s bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, if you’re not familiar with such naughty acronyms.)  Indeed, the book’s supposed graphicness, and its popularity among women over the age of 30, has caused the media to label it ‘mummy porn’.  I should say that I know loads of women over the age of 30, both mummies and non-mummies, whom I don’t think would touch this book with a bargepole – not out of prudishness, but because it comes across as being totally, well, lame.

 

2.  It has already become infamous for the low quality of its writing, so it’s not the sort of book you should wave around if you want people to think you possess any sort of brain

 

3.  And its origins are embarrassing.  Originally, James wrote the story as fan fiction involving the two main characters in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, and put it on a Twilight fan website.  (Only later did the protagonists turn into those featured in Fifty Shades of Grey, a college student called Anastasia Steele and a successful Seattle-based entrepreneur called Christian Grey.)  Needless to say, reading a book that was initially about Bella and Edward in Twilight is unlikely to enhance any adult person’s street credibility.

 

Now I have nothing against BDSM – if that’s what floats your boat and if you find a consulting adult to do it with.  And I have nothing against bad writing – after all, I still harbour a soft spot for Dennis Wheatley and his prose was turgid to say the least.  And I even have nothing against fan fiction.  (For the record, I should say that the first book I ever wrote was one composed at the age of 11, written by hand and self-illustrated, which was inspired by the then-popular Target-Books novelisations of adventures from the classic Doctor Who series.  It was titled Doctor Who and the Blood-Lust of the Sontarans.  However, I think even my 11-year-old self would have drawn the line at writing stories about wimpy, spangly Mormon vampires.  And by my calculations James was writing those when she was in her forties.)

 

No, what riles me about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is the manner in which it is so obviously a huge marketing exercise – not about nurturing and disseminating story-telling talent but about shifting units of lucrative product.  During the book’s inception, you can imagine a boardroom of guys in suits obsessing over a Microsoft Power Point presentation detailing the targeted demographic – a few million Daily Mail-reading ladies of a certain age who have a secret yen for getting flogged with a riding crop.  The fact that Mills and Boon, which is to women’s romantic fiction what McDonald’s is to cuisine, has recently jumped on the Fifty Shades bandwagon by launching a new, laughable-sounding series of erotica called Twelve Shades of Surrender says it all.

 

The website buzzfeed.com has done the discerning reading public a favour by printing the fifteen worst (or possibly, depending on your viewpoint, best) lines from Fifty Shades.  In other words, you can get a flavour of it without having to read the whole damned thing.  I can only say that prose such as “The muscles inside the deepest, darkest part of me clench in the most delicious fashion…” or “Desire, acute, liquid and smouldering, combusts deep in my belly…” or “My insides practically contort with potent, needy, liquid desire…” doesn’t really bring to mind taboo-breaking sex games in Seattle.  Rather, it makes me think of sitting on a toilet in Delhi with a severe dose of the runs.  Anyway, you can subject yourself to more of this by visiting http://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/the-15-bestworst-lines-from-erotic-bestseller-fif.

 

*

 

Meanwhile, another recent book by a female author that, if you can’t download it onto your Kindle, you might want to remove from the bookshop hidden in a brown paper bag – in Tunisia at least – is Ma Verite by Leila Trabelsi.

 

(c) www.france24.com

 

Ms Trabelsi, of course, is a former hairdresser and the wife of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  She, her husband and most of her family had to flee Tunisia on January 14th, 2011, when the Tunisian Revolution – caused largely by people’s rage at the shameless manner in which the Trabelsi clan had helped themselves to the country’s wealth since her marriage to Ben Ali in 1992 – reached critical point.

 

Leila and her husband have spent the past 18 months in exile in Saudi Arabia.  I assume that life in Saudi Arabia, which is not supposed to be exciting, has provided her with the free time necessary to pen this book and put forward her side of the story.

 

Attitudes towards the Trabelsi family in Tunisia can best be described as vitriolic.  For many years the Trabelsis were effectively the country’s constitutionalised Mafia.  They had a finger, or several fingers, in every possible financial pie – services, property, construction, tourism – and their overall wealth was rumoured to be to the tune of £3.5 billion.  And while they led lives of luxury, they showed no qualms about squashing anyone who got in their way.  Right up until January 14th, I heard a few Tunisians muttering that they even felt sorry for Ben Ali, since he was married to the grasping old dragon.   He might even be able to remain in office, they speculated, “if he divorces his wife now.”

 

I’d heard that Ma Verite was obtainable in Tunisia, though booksellers were only stocking it behind their counters.  Thus, it was a surprise to walk into a shop last weekend and see it openly on display – though when I picked it up and thumbed through it, I started to feel unpleasantly conspicuous, as if I was sniffing my way through a hard-core porn magazine in a public place.  Because the book is written in French, I was unable to absorb much of it.  I can only wonder how Leila presented her version of now-infamous events like, for instance, the day before her family’s hurried departure when she removed 1.5 tons of gold bars – half of the country’s gold reserves – from the Central Bank of Tunisia.  “I absolutely had no idea.  I was sitting on the plane to Jeddah and just happened to open my handbag and there it was!  I must’ve accidentally placed the gold in my handbag while I was in the bank vault…”

 

I wonder too how she described her first and no-doubt passionate meeting with Ben Ali – back in 1992, when he was a dictator who obviously needed the love of a good woman, and she was a humble and from all accounts crass-minded and badly-educated hairdresser.  Were there any echoes of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey in her prose when she recalled how she felt her first stirrings for Zine El Abidine?  “I rubbed the Grecian 2000 into his lustrous and virile locks and, meanwhile, my insides clenched and contorted as desire, acute and liquid, flooded through them…”

 

In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey and Leila Trabelsi’s life story have surely one thing in common.  They both contain large amounts of BDSM.  Leila and her brood kept their country in Bondage for nearly twenty years, ran it with ruthless, self-serving Discipline, and displayed plenty of Sadism in order to stay on top of the pile.  And having to put up with the Trabelsis for so long was surely a joyless form of Masochism for the Tunisian people.