Scorpion tales

 

From wikipedia.org / © Eva Rinaldi

 

Here’s a hypothetical question I’ve heard many times. If you had a time machine, would you travel back in time, find the young Adolf Hitler and kill him?  In Stephen King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone, for instance, the hero puts this question to an old man who lost his son in World War II.  The old man replies that he’d stick a knife in Hitler’s heart “as far as she’d go… and then I’d twist her… But first, first I’d coat the blade with rat poison.”

 

Recently, whilst looking at the dire state of the world and feeling fearful about the future, I’ve wondered about a variation on the time machine / Hitler question.  In the future, after manmade climate change has decimated the environment and pig-ignorant ‘populism’ (i.e., fascism) has run society into the ground, who would the remnants of humanity choose to eliminate if they had a time machine and could send an assassin back to, say, the late 20th century?  Who would they remove from the timeline in the belief it’d change history for the better?  The young Donald Trump?  The young Vladimir Putin?

 

Neither.  I suspect those guys would be considered small beer compared to the guy the time-travelling assassin from the future would really go after… Rupert Murdoch.

 

Murdoch’s media operations have, over the last five decades, caused massive damage to human well-being.  He promoted the voracious, greed-is-good, market-über-alles destructiveness of neoliberalism with his support for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.  He’s done his best to ignore, distort and discredit the overwhelming scientific evidence for manmade climate change.  Via Fox News, he’s created in the USA a paranoid, xenophobic, extreme-right-wing ecosystem whose millions of inhabitants believe Donald Trump’s lies and will probably vote him again, or someone even worse, into power in 2024 and turn the world’s biggest superpower into an authoritarian state.  Yes, Murdoch has seemingly had a finger in everything shit that’s happened in modern history, in everything’s that propelled humanity further down the road to hell.  No wonder Murdoch’s son James resigned from the board of News Corp in 2020, sick of the oceans of toxicity created by his father.

 

It says little for Britain’s newspaper industry that Murdoch owns a swathe of its national titles: the Times, Sunday Times, Financial Times, Sun and Sun on Sunday.  These played a prominent role in influencing the 2016 vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union, which led to the economic, diplomatic and cultural shambles of Brexit.  No surprise there, either.  The ghoulish old Antipodean tycoon once famously remarked that he could intimidate one country’s leader, in No 10 Downing Street, into following his wishes, whereas he couldn’t intimidate the combined might of 28 countries’ leaders represented in Brussels.

 

From dailysabah.com / © Sun

 

But Murdoch constitutes just one head of the hydra that is Britain’s predominantly right-wing press.  Among the newspapers sold nationwide, only the Guardian, Daily and Sunday Mirrors and Sunday People could be described as having a political stance leaning any way towards the left.  Elsewhere, the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, right-wing and totally honking mad, are owned by the billionaire Frederick Barclay.  Resident on the island of Brecqhou, which is administered by Sark in the Channel Islands, Frederick and his late twin brother David once tried to avoid Sark’s tax-inheritance laws by having Brecqhou declared independent of it.  That’s ironic considering the Telegraphs’ vehement opposition to Scottish independence.

 

Another billionaire, the non-domiciled Viscount Rothermere, owns the equally right-wing Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.  About the Mail, I once wrote: “…you might just view the never-ending diet that the newspaper serves up of ignorance, prurience, grubbiness, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, small-mindedness, snobbery, racism, misogyny, Little Englander-ism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, immigrant-bashing, anti-intellectualism, tittle-tattle, curtain-twitching, pseudo-scientific quackery, petty-bourgeois fulmination and general all-round barking right-wing insanity and conclude there’s no hope left for the human race and try to book yourself a one-way passage on the next space probe to Mars.”

 

And let’s not forget the Daily and Sunday Express, near-clones of the Mail titles, though aimed at an even more demented readership who are additionally obsessed with Madeleine McCann, Princess Diana and the British weather.  These used to be owned by millionaire and one-time porno magnate Richard Desmond, but are now the property of Reach plc, which publishes the Mirror.  Presumably, Reach hasn’t tinkered with the Express formula because it’s decided to milk those barmy readers for money while they’re still alive.

 

Over the past few months, Britain’s right-wing newspapers have been fighting the corner of Boris Johnson, ever since they realised the fragility of his premiership.  As PM, Johnson hasn’t been so much skating on thin ice as clog-dancing on it.  It’s transpired that during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the UK had been put in lockdown, Johnson and his cronies turned No 10 Downing Street into an endlessly partying, boozing frat-house that paid zero heed to the strict non-socialising rules imposed on everyone else.  (Intriguingly, Murdoch’s Sun, usually the gobbiest of Britain’s tabloids, has kept relatively quiet about ‘Partygate’, as it’s been dubbed.  This may have something to do with James Slack, the Sun’s deputy editor, being Johnson’s Director of Communications at the time when No 10 was boogieing away the lockdown blues.)

 

The self-serving, scurrilous, mendacious Johnson is a creature of the self-serving, scurrilous, mendacious British press. He started off working at the Times, until he was sacked for fabricating a quote, then found employment as the Telegraph.  Max Hastings, then-Telegraph editor, has since said of Johnson: “…he is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”  As the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Johnson wrote wildly exaggerated pieces on how the evil EU was imposing spiteful and stupid regulations on plucky little Britain.  These helped fuel the Euro-scepticism that birthed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and eventually won the 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit.  No wonder the right-wing press barons love Johnson – he’s one of their own.

 

From twitter.com/bbcnews / © Daily Mail

 

Unsurprisingly, their coverage of Partygate, in which they’ve tried to defend and big up the lawbreaking blond oaf, has been nauseating.  First, there was the insistence, made most forcibly by the Daily Mail, that Johnson’s breaking of his own Covid laws was unimportant because Russia had just invaded Ukraine and, well, DON’T THEY KNOW THERE’S A WAR ON?  More recently, they’ve dedicated their front-page headlines to ‘Beergate’, the hoo-ha over the Labour Party leader Keir Starmer – or, as he’s known in the right-wing press, ‘HYPOCRITE STARMER’ – having a beer and curry at a constituency office in Durham last year while lockdown rules remained in force.  Starmer claimed no rules were broken, but the local police have, under pressure from the media, launched an inquiry into the incident.  The assumption in the editorial offices of the Mail and the rest is that if Starmer is found to have broken lockdown rules too, their beloved Boris will get off the hook for his own, proven misdemeanours.  (He’s already had to pay one fine for a lockdown breach and more fines are likely on the way.)

 

Starmer has just declared that he’ll resign as Labour Party leader if the police do issue a fine to him over Beergate.  This was evidently intended to put some clear, blue, moral water between him and Johnson, already fined but not resigned.  However, if he thought this would earn him some credit from the newspapers, he was mistaken.  The Mail promptly responded with the headline: STARMER ACCUSED OF PILING PRESSURE ON POLICE.

 

The more I think about these rags, the more I think of the fable about the frog and the scorpion.  The scorpion stings the frog to death, even though this will condemn it to death too, because it’s in its ‘nature’.  It’s what it does.  It can’t not sting.

 

The poisonous right-wing nature of much of Britain’s press is a headache for the Labour Party.  How can they ever get a fair hearing when those newspapers are programmed to blindly support their Conservative opponents no matter how corrupt, venal and idiotic they become?  A quarter-century ago, Tony Blair’s policy on this was to cosy up to them.  He got so thick with Rupert Murdoch, the Scorpion King himself, that he became godfather to one of Murdoch’s kids.  In return, the headline THE SUN BACKS BLAIR appeared on the front page of Murdoch’s number-one British tabloid prior to the 1997 general election, which saw Blair win power.  But such sycophancy has its downside.  If you get too close to the likes of Murdoch, you end up either stung to death, like the frog in the fable, or with so much poison in your own system that you become toxic yourself.  The latter outcome happened to Blair.  I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind describing ‘El Tone’ as a paragon of virtue in 2022.

 

Still, I don’t have much sympathy either for the supporters of the last Labour Party leader, the atypically left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, who blamed negative British press coverage for all their hero’s woes.  Yes, aware that Corbyn represented a threat to the wealthy, powerful interests of their owners, those newspapers bombarded Corbyn with every slur going, that he was a terrorist sympathiser, an anti-Semite, a traitor, whatever.  But Corbyn, whom I’ve always regarded as a decent bloke, engineered much of his own bad luck.  He was a hopeless communicator.  He seemed to be living still in the 1970s, when he’d been a compadre of old school socialist Tony Benn, and never responded to the attacks made against him with the imagination and agility necessary in the changed media landscape of the early 21st century.

 

Actually, there’s proof close at hand that, to be successful, a political party doesn’t need to be backed by the majority of newspapers, and can triumph despite most newspapers stinging at it continuously with their scorpion-tails.  In Scotland, only one newspaper, the National, supports the Scottish National Party’s policy of Scottish independence.  The other Scottish newspapers – north-of-the-border editions of the right-wing ones I’ve just discussed, such as the Scottish Sun and Scottish Daily Mail, and locally published ones like the Scotsman, Herald and Daily Record – oppose the SNP and leap at any opportunity to excoriate it and its leader Nicola Sturgeon.  (It’s noticeable how, in the headlines of the utterly wretched Scottish Daily Express, the British PM is always referred to as ‘BORIS’ whereas the Scottish First Minister always gets a contemptuous, misogynistic ‘STURGEON’.)

 

From bbc.com/ © Daily Express

 

Yet the SNP have been in power in Edinburgh for the past 15 years and have topped the polls in eight Scottish elections in a row, most recently the council ones on May 3rd that saw them increase their number of councillors by 22.  A large part of this is surely down to Nicola Sturgeon herself.  Whatever you think of her politics, it’s hard to deny that – unlike Johnson – she speaks like a normal human being, communicates her meaning clearly and generally exhibits some semblance of empathy and integrity.  Obviously, this influences a sufficiently large number of Scottish voters, who choose to believe the evidence of their own eyes and ears over the crap they read in the newspapers.

 

Let’s hope that, when the time comes, British voters as a whole choose to do the same.

Student politics

 

© Profile Books

 

I’ve just read a review in the Guardian of Simon Kuper’s new book, Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK. Chums tell the real-life story of student politics at Oxford University during the 1980s, a world whose inhabitants would often become well-known public figures in the 21st century.  On the Labour side there were ‘the Miliband Brothers, Dave and Ted, and Eddie Balls and Yvette Cooper’, who were busy ‘organising rent protests at their respective colleges’.  However, it was some Conservative student politicos at Oxford in the 1980s who’d become particular big-hitters and who’d handle – or mishandle – the levers of power in Britain during the 2010s and 2020s.

 

They included Michael Gove, whom Kuper says was bought, wearing a kilt, for 35 pounds at a charity-fundraising ‘slave auction’ at Oxford Union in 1987.  Even in 2022 and even after three-and-a-half decades of inflation, 35 pounds seems rather more than Michael Gove is worth, though maybe the kilt bumped up his value a bit.

 

They also included Britain’s current Prime Minister, the walking disaster area that is Boris Johnson.  Recently, the Mail on Sunday claimed that Johnson’s ‘Oxford Union debating skills’ were so formidable that, during debates in the House of Commons, Labour’s working-class, comprehensive-school-educated deputy leader Angela Rayner had to resort to crossing her legs like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992) to distract him.  According to Kuper, the young Johnson’s debating strategy was ‘to defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments’ and rely instead on ‘carefully timed jokes, calculated lowerings of the voice, and ad hominem jibes’.

 

Also spicing up life in 1980s Tory Oxford University was David Cameron, though he was ‘rich enough and connected enough to feel himself above the “hackery” of student politics’; the BBC’s future political editor Nick Robinson; Daniel Hannan, NHS-basher, Enoch Powell fan, arch-Brexiteer and now in the House of Lords as Baron Hannan of Kingsclere, who, it’s been said, ‘may have contributed more to the ideas, arguments and tactics of Euroscepticism than any other individual’; and the future spin-doctoring Svengali behind Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings.  Cummings, apparently, was a protégé of Dr Norman Stone, the historian, lecturer, author, advisor to Margaret Thatcher and student-groping pisshead from Glasgow.  One obituary published after Stone’s death in 2019 hilariously noted that he ‘hated Oxford, which he thought… was full of Marxists.’  Actually, I can’t imagine Stone and Cummings together without thinking of Saruman and Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings movies (2002-04).

 

© New Line Cinema / WingNut Films

 

Incidentally, Kuper acknowledges that Oxford University educated and employed not only J.R.R. Tolkien but also Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis.  He notes how ‘the timeless paradise of Oxford inspired its inhabitants to produce timeless fantasies like Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, Narnia and, incubating from the late 1980s, Brexit.’

 

Anyway, apart from making me mightily glad that I didn’t attend Oxford University during the 1980s, reading about Kuper’s book has got me thinking about the place where I was a student during the 1980s, Aberdeen University.  What about the student politicians I encountered there?  Did any of them ever get near – remotely near – those all-important ‘levers of power’?  There follows a heavily revised, fully up-to-date version of a piece about this subject I first posted in 2014.

 

To be honest, I wouldn’t have encountered any student politicians at all if I hadn’t got involved with Aberdeen University’s student newspaper and co-edited it for a term in 1986.  The newspaper office was located in the same building as the offices and meeting rooms where the members of the Students’ Representative Council did their business.  And obviously, those student politicians also figured in a lot of the stories we reported on.  So, I got to observe the species close up.

 

The one who probably did best for himself was Stephen Carter, who served as SRC President from 1985 to 1986.  I found Carter lacking in warmth, humour and character and at one point, in a fit of naughtiness, I published in the newspaper a spoof article depicting him as an aloof Roman Emperor in the manner of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels.  The article was entitled I, Carterus.  We didn’t get on very well, though not because I’d likened him to one of the Caesars.  Near the end of my editorship, I wrote a front-page article that made several criticisms of his reign as student president, which infuriated him.  To be fair, I later discovered that I’d made an error with a financial figure I’d quoted, so at least part of his anger was justified.  Being bawled out by the bland, automation-like Carter was a strange experience.   The abuse didn’t seem to emanate from a real human being.  It was like being scolded by an indignant speak-your-wait machine or a cranky elevator voice-recording.

 

From gov.uk

 

Decades later, in 2008, Carter served as Gordon Brown’s Downing Street Chief of staff.  Also, from 2008 to 2009, he was Brown’s Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting.  As he wasn’t a member of either house at Westminster at the time, which would have barred him from taking on a ministerial position, he was quickly ennobled.  He was made Baron Carter of Barnes and entered the House of Lords.  I didn’t hear much about how that he got in on those roles, except for claims that his relationship with Brown’s notorious spin-doctor Damian McBride was ‘fractious’.  Actually, McBride was such a scumbag that it’s to Carter’s credit that the pair of them didn’t get along.

 

Coincidentally, days before Stephen Carter – sorry, Baron Carter of Barnes – ended his stint as Brown’s Chief of Staff, I found myself a full-time student again.  In October 2008 I started an MA course at the University of East Anglia.  The students there had mounted a protest against student debt, with hundreds of them sticking fake cheques to a campus wall.  On each cheque was written the sum of money that each student expected to owe by the time of his or her graduation.  To me (who’d graduated in 1987 with an overdraft of £1,500, which I paid off within two years), some of those sums were eye-watering: £40,000 or more.  What, I wondered, would we have thought at Aberdeen University in the mid-1980s if we’d known that our student president would one day be a key figure in a government presiding over levels of student debt we wouldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares?

 

Another student politician from that era who’s done well is Katy Clark.  She was a leading light in Aberdeen University’s Labour Party and in 2005 became Labour Member of Parliament for North Ayrshire and Arran.  Her career as an MP ended in 2015 with the virtual wipe-out of Scotland’s Labour seats that happened under the kamikaze leadership of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy and spin-doctor John McTiernan.  However, she kept busy, working as a strategist for Jeremy Corbyn and authoring for him a review of the Labour Party’s democratic structures. Then, in 2021, she got elected to the Scottish Parliament as a Labour MSP for the West of Scotland region.

 

From wikipedia.org / © The Scottish Parliament

 

When I co-edited the student newspaper, Katy came to our attention when she led protests against Aberdeen University’s then-rector, the former Scottish National Party MP Hamish Watt.  At a debate during Freshers’ Week, Watt had made some supposedly-jovial comments in which he compared the young female students who’d just arrived on campus to ‘unbroken fillies’.  Now, while Watt undoubtedly deserved to be strung up by his sexist testicles, I didn’t enjoy having to speak to Katy about the incident.  I found her to be intense, one-note, lacking in personality and devoid of humour.  Actually, looking at what I’ve just written about Stephen Carter, a theme seems to be emerging in that regard.

 

Despite that, I felt some admiration for Katy because, unlike many other student politicians, she stuck by the left-wing principles she’d had as a university student and didn’t drift rightwards as she started to earn money.  During her career as an MP, she voted against the introduction of ID cards, against the renewal of the Trident missile system and against bombing campaigns in Iraq.  However, in 2020, that admiration was dampened by the fact that she accepted a peerage and entered the House of Lords as Baroness Clark of Kilwinning.

 

What were you thinking, Katy?  I don’t know how any socialists could debase themselves by becoming members of the archaic, undemocratic and embarrassing Lords.  It’s a place where you rub ermine-clad shoulders with the likes of Baroness Michelle Mone of Mayfair (who’s just had her home raided by police as part of a fraud investigation into her links with a dodgy PPE company); and Baroness Dido Harding of Winscombe (who got where she is today through cronyism and blew 22 billion pounds of taxpayers’ money on a failed Covid-19 track-and-trace system); and Baroness Claire Fox of Buckley (the former Revolutionary Communist Party member, Bosnian genocide denier and IRA supporter, now swivel-eyed Brexiteer and enthusiast for all things right-wing); and the afore-mentioned Baron Daniel Hannon of Kingsclere… and many more.

 

While she was there, I wonder if Katy ever bumped into her old Aberdeen University compadre Lord Carter of Barnes and they reminisced about their days on campus in the 1980s. (“What was the name of that hairy, beer-swilling prick with the Northern Irish accent who used to edit the student newspaper?”  “Can’t remember…”)

 

I should add that while running for the Scottish Parliament, Katy promised to ‘stand down’ from the House of Lords; and, according to her Wikipedia entry, on becoming an MSP she took ‘a leave of absence’ from the decrepit institution.  That, though, isn’t the same as ‘quitting’ it.  Also, I notice that on Wikipedia she’s still billed as ‘Baroness Clark of Kilwinning.’

 

From wikipedia.org / © The Scottish Parliament

 

To the rightward end of the spectrum, meanwhile, I have to mention someone else from my old alumni – Murdo Fraser, who’s in the Scottish Parliament as an MSP for the Mid-Scotland and Fife region and was once deputy leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.  That Murdo became a big name in Tory circles surprised me because he’d seemed an unprepossessing character in Aberdeen.  The detail I remember most about him was that he wore a Glasgow Rangers scarf 24/7, to the point where I wondered if it’d been stitched on.  A good friend who knew him a little, the late Finlay McLean, told me once that he had ‘the personality of a deep-frozen Cyberman’.  Then again, for an ambitious politician, not having a personality seems to be part of the course.

 

Murdo’s political ascendancy happened despite the fact that he was once associated with the notorious Federation of Conservative Students, an organisation that by the 1980s had become more right-wing than the Conservative Party of which it was the university branch.  At the time the Conservative Party was led by Margaret Thatcher, so being more right-wing than her was quite an achievement.  In 1986, after a string of well-publicised incidents – wherein FCS members had abused ethnic-minority staff at student bars, brayed their support for the Contras in El Salvador, sang the Special AKA song Free Nelson Mandela with the words changed to ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’, and so on – this extreme-minded group was disbanded by Tory Party Chairman Norman Tebbit.  And yes, being disbanded by Norman Tebbit for being too extreme was quite an achievement too.

 

The FCS at Aberdeen University were particularly obnoxious.  Among other things, they had a penchant for insulting gay people and taunting them about AIDS.  The start of my term as newspaper editor coincided with an incident wherein a bunch of FCS students invaded and disrupted a health-and-welfare talk being given to an audience of new students.  Their motive for disrupting the talk seemed to be because it covered safe sex for gay as well as straight students and was therefore, somehow, encouraging AIDS.

 

Later, after the newspaper had published an article about the society for gay students, Gay Soc, we received a letter from one deranged FCS member accusing us of furthering the interests of ‘the plague rats of the 20th century’.  We published his letter in the belief that by allowing the FCS to air their views publicly, we were letting people see what arseholes they were.  Give them enough rope and they’d hang themselves, we felt.  However, at least one gay friend of mine was deeply upset that the letter had appeared in our newspaper.  Today, 35 years on, I’d think twice about publishing it.

 

In Murdo Fraser’s defence, I’ll admit that he seemed aware of what a squad of bampots he was having to keep company with in the FCS.  He kept his mouth shut when the rest of them were being as offensively vocal as possible, and whenever I saw them strutting about the campus en masse he seemed to trail silently and reluctantly along at the back, rather like Eddie Bunker’s Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs (1992).  Actually, being Mr Blue was appropriate given his footballing allegiances.

 

Having dissed the Labour and the Conservative Parties, I suppose in the interest of balance I should say something about Aberdeen University’s 1980s Liberal Party, the Liberal Democrats as they are now.  The Liberals’ most visible representative was one Dan Falchikov who, with his excitable and eccentric manner and his striking dress sense (a psychedelically-coloured sweater), possessed something that other people I’ve mentioned lacked: a personality.  And I think Dan was a genuinely well-meaning guy even if he wasn’t endowed with a great deal of common sense.  However, he was also an easy target for us unscrupulous hacks at the student newspaper and we spent a lot of time poking fun at him, calling him ‘Dan the Man’, ‘Desperate Dan’ and (when he was being particularly off-the-wall) ‘Dan F**k-me-off’.

 

From the Sutton & Croydon Guardian

 

Out of curiosity, I googled his name a while ago and discovered that, in 2010, while he was a Liberal Democrat activist in the London constituency of Kingston-upon-Thames, Dan got himself embroiled in controversy.  He was overheard boasting on a train that he’d managed to ‘plant’ a story, a false story, in the Evening Standard newspaper about the Labour Party having plans to close Kingston Hospital.  Unbeknownst to Dan while he blabbed about this into a mobile phone, a train-passenger sitting nearby was none other than the journalist Kevin Maguire, political editor of the Daily Mirror.  Maguire not only tweeted about what he was overhearing but also sneaked a camera-phone picture of Dan and posted it online.  Thus, it was a bit unsettling to find the eccentric, psychedelically-sweatered Dan the Man of Aberdeen University dabbling in the political dark arts and establishing himself as the bad boy of local politics in Kingston-upon-Thames.

 

I should add that since then Dan seems to have ditched the Liberal Democrats and joined the Green Party.  Considering that the Lib Dems were part of David Cameron’s discredited, austerity-obsessed coalition government from 2010 to 2015, and were disastrously led by Jo ‘nuke-’em’ Swinson in 2019, this suggests he has more sense than I’d credited him with.

 

I don’t think any of the student politicos I knew in the Scottish National Party went on to have political careers.  Probably having to deal with Hamish Watt, the university rector, ex-SNP MP and vocal admirer of young unbroken fillies, put them off politics for good.

 

I’ve tried to keep this account of student politics at Aberdeen University light-hearted, but there were some goings-on I found pretty unsavoury.  For example, before I graduated, some nasty rumours circulated in the SRC building about one student politician making another one pregnant.  There wasn’t actually a pregnancy but this didn’t prevent two SRC people, from two different political parties, both of whom had axes to grind with the guy involved, from approaching me and assuring me it was true.  One even swore that she’d seen the results of a pregnancy test.  Presumably, I was fed this false information in the hope that, as a student journalist, I’d spread the word to the detriment of the guy’s reputation.  Never mind what distress it’d cause him or the woman.  None of the people I’ve mentioned above, I should say, were involved in this saga.

 

Some student politicians I did genuinely like.  Indeed, if I ever bumped into the likes of Graeme Whiteside, Tim Morrison, Alan Strain or Stuart Black again on the High Street of Old Aberdeen, I’d invite them into the St Machar Bar and buy them a pint.  However, with regard to those people, there’s a sobering point to make.  None of those decent sorts, as far as I know, pursued their political careers any further than university.  None of them ended up becoming real politicians.

 

It reinforces Douglas Adams’ famous comment in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) that “it is a well-known and much lamented fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”

 

From wikipedia.org / © Nick Bramhall

A threadbare future

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

I can’t imagine what has prompted me to repost in April 2022 this entry about Threads, the BBC’s terrifying 1984 drama about a nuclear strike on Britain, which I’d originally put on this blog four years ago to coincide with a remastered version of it being released on Blu-ray.  I mean, it’s not as if anything is happening in the world at the moment to kindle fears of a holocaustic nuclear war breaking out.  Is there?

 

It’s said that everyone remembered where they were and what they were doing on November 22nd, 1963, when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.  Likewise, I remember where I was and what I was doing on the evening of September 23rd, 1984, when BBC2 broadcast the apocalyptic drama Threads.

 

I was staying in the youth hostel in Aberdeen, with my second year as an undergraduate at Aberdeen University due to begin in a fortnight’s time.  Having worked abroad for the summer, I was now back in the city trying desperately to arrange accommodation for myself for the year ahead.  I’d spent the past few days trudging around flat-hunting without any luck and, to make matters worse, I’d just been informed that I wouldn’t be eligible for a student grant for the next year either.  So I was feeling pretty low about my residential and financial situation that evening when I wandered into the youth hostel’s lounge and sat down among a crowd of hostellers who were about to watch something on television called Threads, a much-anticipated documentary-drama showing what would happen if a nuclear conflict broke out between America and the Soviet Union and the UK was struck by 210 megatons of nuclear weaponry.

 

It’s fair to say that by the time Threads ended 112 minutes later, my mood had not improved any.  Mind you, nobody else in the lounge looked like they were bursting with joie de vivre.  Bill Dick, the hostel’s usually easy-going and affable head-warden who’d been in the audience, couldn’t have looked more down in the dumps if he’d been buried to his neck in garbage.  (I got to know Bill four years later when I spent a summer working at the hostel as a warden and had him as my boss.)

 

A while ago, something compelled me to view Threads again. Here are my thoughts on it from a 21st century perspective. I should warn you that the remainder of this blog-entry will contain spoilers, though you’ve probably gathered already that in Threads absolutely nothing good happens.

 

Directed by Mick Jackson and written by the late Barry Hines, author of the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave that a year later established Ken Loach as a cinematic force when he filmed it as Kes, Threads consists of three sections.  There’s an initial 45 minutes showing life during the build-up to the cataclysmic nuclear strike.  Then there’s another 45 minutes showing the strike and its immediate aftermath.  And lastly there’s a 25-minute epilogue chronicling Britain a year, a decade, ultimately 13 years into the future when, with its natural environment, economy and social infrastructure pulverised, the country reverts to the Middle Ages.  That’s the Middle Ages minus the chivalry, balladry and pageantry, but with plenty of fallout, nuclear winters, depleted ozone, ultraviolent radiation, cataracts, skin cancer and genetic damage.

 

The gruelling central section imprinted itself on my 19-year-old memory.  I’ve carried its images around in my head ever since: milk bottles melting on doorsteps in the heat of a nuclear detonation, a charred cyclist (still on his bike) lodged amid the branches of a burning tree, cats igniting, dolls melting, a crazed woman squatting amid the rubble cradling her baby’s burnt corpse, a traffic warden with a bandage-swathed face holding off a starving mob with a rifle, doctors in an overrun hospital sawing away a leg while the un-anaesthetised patient screams through a gag, and several dozen other things involving flames, rubble, cadavers, rats, blood, wounds, excrement, vomit and general mayhem and horror.  In particular, I’ve never forgotten the moment when a mushroom cloud rises terrifyingly above the skyline, causing one poor woman to wet herself in the middle of a street – something that led to the actress Anne Sellors having the briefest and most poignant entry ever on IMDb.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

But having seen Threads again, I now appreciate the queasy effectiveness of the opening section too.  Here, Hines and Jackson establish the focus of their story, two families in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield.  These are the working-class Kemps and the middle-class Becketts.  The Kemps’ eldest boy Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) has been courting the Becketts’ daughter Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Ruth has just realised she’s pregnant.  Jimmy and Ruth resolve to get married and start renovating a flat to live in while their families uneasily make each other’s acquaintance.  Interestingly, this reflects the uneasy working relationship between Hines and Jackson themselves.  According to ThreadsWikipedia entry, the working-class Hines saw Jackson as something of a middle-class prat.

 

Meanwhile, ominously, news reports chatter in the background about escalating superpower tensions in the Middle East.  The characters are initially oblivious to what’s brewing.  Early on, we see Jimmy fiddling with his radio, wanting to get away from some boring news bulletin about the crisis and find the latest football results.  Apathy gradually changes to shoulder-shrugging helplessness, something summed up by Jimmy’s workmate Bob (Ashley Barker).  In the pub, he declares that they might as well enjoy themselves now because there’s bugger-all else they can do.  Plus, if things do kick off, he hopes he’ll be ‘pissed out of his mind and straight underneath it.’  Ironically, Bob survives after nearly everyone else has perished and we last see him tucking into the raw and probably irradiated flesh of a dead sheep.

 

By the time the characters try to respond to what’s coming, it’s too late.  The bomb goes off while the hapless Kemps are still assembling a fallout shelter comprised of a couple of doors propped against a living-room wall.  The Becketts, being posher, have a cellar to retreat into.  Not that they fare any better in the long run.

 

For me, it’s this opening section that brings home what Threads is about.  A preliminary narration talks about the economic threads necessary for a society to function: “…everything connects.  Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others.  Our lives are woven together in a fabric.  But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”  However, my impression is that the truly important threads – which are obliterated once the missiles hit their targets – are the ones between people, of feeling and compassion, which have been refined by centuries of civilisation and, today, are the essence of what it means to be human.

 

Thus, we see Jimmy (whom we know has been cheating on Ruth and is a bit of a tosser) standing in the aviary in his family’s back garden, doting over the birds kept there.  We see Mr and Mrs Beckett (Henry Moxon and June Broughton) trying to look after an ailing relative discharged from hospital after the NHS is ordered to clear its wards in anticipation of a flood of war casualties.  We see Clive Sutton (Harry Beety), the local government official put in charge of an emergency team that will run things from a bunker underneath Sheffield City Council, attempting to reassure his nervous wife.  But empathy for our fellow creatures rapidly disappears as, in the war’s aftermath, humanity degenerates into a shell-shocked, zombie-like rabble fixated only on its own, scrabbling-in-the-dirt survival.

 

This is made explicit in Threads’ final stages when, years later, we’re introduced to Jane (Victoria O’Keefe), the daughter of Ruth and Jimmy.  When Ruth dies, sick, exhausted, blinded by cataracts and looking decades older than her true age, an impassive Jane reacts by stealing a few items from her mother’s corpse and then clearing off.  The few kids born post-holocaust are a scary bunch, by the way.  Their language is limited to phrases like “Gizzit!” and “C’mon!” and they generally act like feral mini-Neanderthals.

 

Threads came in the wake of the bleak 1983 American TV movie The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, which depicted the effects of a nuclear strike on Kansas City and caused a considerable stir on both sides of the Atlantic.  But while I like The Day After, I think the altogether more graphic and relentless Threads beats it to a bloody pulp.  For one thing, Meyer’s film is disadvantaged by its cast of familiar actors like Jason Robards and John Lithgow, which means you can’t ever forget you’re watching a dramatic fabrication.  In Threads, the cast is comprised of unknown performers, which adds to its harrowing sense of authenticity.

 

That said, saddoes like myself might recognise David Brierley, who plays Ruth’s father, as the voice of K9 in the 1979-80 series of Doctor Who; and a couple of voices heard from the early blizzard of news reports are familiar, like Lesley Judd from the BBC’s famous kids’ magazine programme Blue Peter, and Ed Bishop, star of the Gerry Anderson sci-fi show UFO (1970).  I’m glad Jackson decided not to go with his original casting idea, which was to use actors from the venerable north-of-England TV soap opera Coronation Street – disturbing though the sight of Jack and Vera Duckworth puking their guts up in a makeshift fallout shelter would have been.

 

Threads also contains the sonorous tones of the great voiceover actor Patrick Allen, whom the UK government had hired to narrate its Protect and Survive public information films that would be broadcast if nuclear war looked imminent.  By 1984, the media had got hold of these films and discussed them at length and they’d been derided for their epic uselessness if Armageddon really happened.  (At one point in Threads we hear Allen crisply and matter-of-factly advising the public on how to deal with corpses: “…move the body to another room in the house.  Label the body with name and address and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets.”)  Earlier in 1984, Allen’s Protect and Survive voice-work had been sampled in Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s hit single Two Tribes – for which he sportingly added the lines: “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear.  Do not be alarmed.”

 

The futility of Protect and Survive and officialdom’s attempts to deal with the holocaust generally are embodied in Threads by Sutton and his team, who utterly fail to provide leadership and control once the bombs have gone off.  Trapped in their bunker under the rubble of the flattened council building, with insufficient training, malfunctioning equipment and limited supplies of food, water and air, they succumb to bickering, despondency, hysteria and – finally – asphyxiation.  Predictably, when order is re-established in Sheffield, it’s pretty brutal in nature.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

Brutal too is the narrative as it moves forward in time, with Telex-type captions flashing up on the screen giving statistics about fallout levels, the nuclear winter, the ozone layer, epidemics and an ever-rising death-toll.  Things climax with the now-teenaged Jane giving birth after she’s been raped by another of the feral kids.  The baby is stillborn and deformed, and Threads’ last image is a freeze-frame of Jane’s face as she recoils in horror from it.  Early on, Jimmy’s kid brother Michael (Nicholas Lane) had embarrassed his parents by asking, “What’s an abortion?”  Threads ends with the implication that humanity has unwittingly aborted itself.

 

It isn’t perfect.   Thanks to budgetary restrictions, there’s a reliance on stock footage and stills from previous wars and conflicts, which don’t necessarily look like they’re occurring in Sheffield in 1984.   And despite valiant efforts by the make-up department, the actors playing the long-term survivors are a bit too plump and healthy-looking – by then they should have resembled death-camp inmates.  Additionally, the fact that Threads takes place in a pre-Internet, pre-social media world gives it a quaint distance now.  Imagine the reaction if the equivalent events happened today.  While the first warheads exploded over Britain, Twitter would be babbling with idiots blaming everything on immigrants or Muslims or woke-ism or the Covid-19 vaccine.  But, as a traumatic account of what might engulf us if our political leaders are possessed by a moment of trigger-happy madness, it’s still unbeatable.

 

And, in April 2022, with Vladimir Putin making threatening noises about nuclear retaliation against NATO for helping to thwart his military campaign in Ukraine, Threads seems no less relevant than it did 38 years ago.  That’s a sentence I take no pleasure in writing.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

Yellow cinema (Part 2)

 

© Rizzoli Film / Seda Spettacoli / Cineriz

 

Continuing my list of favourite giallo movies – a giallo being an Italian “horror-thriller hybrid”, mostly made in the 1970s, “wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (identity revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most glamorous, stylish, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.”

 

All the Colours of the Dark (1972)

Like the stereotypical London bus, you spend all day waiting for a London-set giallo and then two arrive at once.  Hot on the heels of Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) came All the Colours of the Dark, directed by Sergio Martino who, though not as acclaimed as Fulci, Mario Bava or Dario Argento, is to my mind the fourth master of the genre.

 

Colours features several performers who were regulars in Martino’s movies, including George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov and the droopy-eyed, lushly-haired and slightly feline-featured Algerian-Maltese-Sicilian actress Edwige Fenech, considered by many to be the Queen of Gialli.  Its story is about a woman (Fenech) who, traumatised after a miscarriage, becomes involved with a London-based and apparently murderous Satanic sect.  Thus, it veers towards supernatural territory.  It finally transpires, however, that the killings in the film are part of a non-supernatural conspiracy to relieve her of a family inheritance.  As with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Colours is too long and ultimately loses momentum, but Martino orchestrates some impressive scenes along the way.  Surprisingly for a genre fond of beautifying its characters and settings, a Satanic orgy that Fenech finds herself participating in at one point is determinedly unglamorous.  In fact, the gormless-looking, frankly pug-ugly Satanists around her seem to have wandered in from the set of a leery 1970s British sitcom like ITV’s On the Buses (1969-73).

 

© Lea Film / National Cinematografica / C.C. Astro / Interfilm

 

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is a cheap and cheerful retread of Mario Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace (1964), with another series of murders taking place in a fashion house.  This time, though, the setting is Bavaria, not Rome.  While the plot references the legend of an evil Red Queen who’s said to come back from the dead every 100 years to commit seven murders, the real killer proves to be a human one.  What particularly endears this film to me is the histrionic cackle, supposedly emanating from the Red Queen herself, that we hear on the soundtrack following each murder.  Playing the film’s heroine is German actress Barbara Bouchet, who that same year would appear in the next film on this list.

 

© Phoenix Cinematografica / Cineriz / Cannon Films

 

Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

Don’t Torture a Duckling is Lucio Fulci’s other great giallo movie.  Indeed, it’s one of the best things he ever did. It has none of the excess and goofiness of his later horror films and it benefits from its distinctly un-giallo-like setting.  For a change, it doesn’t take place in an affluent urban world inhabited by high-fliers. Duckling is set instead in a rural and backward south Italian village, its separation from modernity symbolised by the nearby highway where traffic rumbles past oblivious to its existence. While Fulci uses the setting to take pot-shots at the institutions of conservative, traditional, Catholic Italy, his cameras make the most of the sumptuous local countryside.

 

That said, 21st-century viewers will be bothered by some early scenes, seemingly played for laughs, which show Bouchet teasing the village’s young boys by brazenly exposing herself to them.  I doubt if Fulci would have entertained the idea of having hero Tomas Milian expose himself to the village’s young girls, but surely Bouchet’s behaviour is just as bad.  It’s a clumsy foreshadowing of the film’s themes, which are the threat an immoral world poses to childhood innocence, and a serial killer’s determination to preserve the innocence of the children around him by any means necessary.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

Torso (1973)

Sergio Martino made several gialli in the early 1970s, but I think All the Colours of the Dark and Torso are his strongest.  Torso is certainly his most troubling.  Even culture-warring, anti-feminist, male-chauvinistic reactionaries will find its plot, wherein a succession of nubile young ladies are ogled by various, creepy men before being murdered by a masked killer, pretty distasteful.

 

Nonetheless, I admire Torso for its audacious shifts in plot and mood.  It begins in traditional giallo fashion with a serial killer stalking the picturesque, historical city of Perugia.  However, when a group of female students decide to avoid becoming the killer’s next victims by leaving Perugia, travelling into some remote countryside and holing up in a mountaintop villa, and the killer, predictably, follows them and lurks stalkily in the undergrowth and darkness outside the villa, it becomes a prototype for the American slasher / body-count horror movies of the 1980s, epitomised by Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).  And the final 20 minutes see an abrupt change of tone again.  The film’s ‘final girl’ – Suzy Kendall from Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) – wakes up after a long sleep in a bedroom, her leg disabled by an injury and her senses dulled by anaesthetic, and realises she’s sharing the villa with the killer… who isn’t aware of her presence there… yet.  It makes for a splendidly Hitchcockian finale.

 

© Compagnia CInematografica Champion / Interfilm

 

Deep Red (1975)

And now for my favourite giallo ever, Dario Argento’s Deep Red.  This has David Hemmings as a musician who witnesses a murder.  The victim is a psychic who recently claimed to have picked up murderous thoughts from a mysterious somebody in her vicinity – and that somebody evidently decided to silence her before she acquired any clues to his or her identity.  As with the hero of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Hemmings is troubled by the notion that he saw something at the crime scene that is a clue to the culprit’s identity, but can’t figure out exactly what.  And while Hemmings struggles with this, the murders continue and the killer starts to home in on him…

 

Deep Red contains some of the best set-pieces in the history of giallo cinema and some hardly-vital-for-the-plot but disturbingly barmy details, such as a cackling clockwork doll that totters into view just before the killer strikes.  There’s also a baroque, pulsating score by the German prog-rock band Goblin that, in my opinion, just manages to pip the work of Ennio Morricone to earn the title of Greatest Giallo Music Ever.

 

© Rizzoli Film / Seda Spettacoli / Cineriz

 

And Deep Red boasts a wonderful performance by Daria Nicolodi as kooky journalist Gianna Brezzi. For me, Brezzi is up there alongside Jean-Pierre Marielle’s Arrosio in Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) as one of the most memorable characters featured in a giallo.  Nicolodi – who, alas, passed away in 2020 – was married to Argento while he enjoyed his filmmaking heyday during the second half of the 1970s and she made a big contribution to the scripts of his supernatural classics Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980).  I suspect it wasn’t a coincidence that Argento’s movies rapidly went downhill in quality after the mid-1980s, which was when their marriage ended.

 

I love Deep Red, then, but…  It’s evidently not to everyone’s tastes. When I showed it to my partner last year, she professed to finding it ‘dull’ and dismissed Goblin’s soundtrack as being ‘like something from a 1970s disco.’  So that was me told.

 

The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

Like Don’t Torture a Duckling, this film benefits from being set far away from the usual giallo environment of lavish lifestyles, expensive apartments and cosmopolitan cities. Unlike Duckling, it’s set not in the rural south of Italy but in its rural north, in the damp, squelchy lagoon area of Valli di Comacchio in the province of Ferrara.  Pupi Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows has a restorer (Lino Capolicchio) arriving in a village to work on a crumbling fresco in a church and learning that the artist responsible for the work was a madman who got inspiration for his images of martyred saints from torturing and killing people.  When a new wave of murders sweeps the village, it seems that someone is carrying on with the artist’s gruesome traditions. The gloomy, marshy setting helps the film’s atmosphere immeasurably, and its ending is as pessimistic and disturbing as that of Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971) five years earlier.

 

© A.M.A. Film / Euro International Films

 

Honourable mentions?  Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), the middle entry in Dario Argento’s ‘animal’ trilogy, doesn’t have the gusto of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Four Flies on Grey Velvet, the films that bookend it, but it’s still worth catching up with. Meanwhile, Argento’s 1980s gialli Tenebrae (1982) and Opera (1987) have their moments but aren’t as involving as his 1970s work – due, I suspect, to their lack of engaging characters.

 

Also of interest are Sergio Martino’s other two gialli, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971) with Martino regulars Edwige Fenech, George Hilton and Ivan Rassimov, and the fabulously titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) with Fenech and Rassimov, plus Luigi Pistilli from Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (1971) and Anita Strindberg from Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s SkinYour Vice is memorable for having some of the ghastliest characters to ever appear in a giallo, and for its plot basically being an outrageous reworking of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story The Black Cat.  But it’s spoiled by Martino’s inexplicable insertion of a dirt-motorbike race that seems to go on forever.

 

Elsewhere, Fenech and Hilton turn up in the decent, meat-and-two-veg giallo The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972), directed by Giuliano Carnimeo. I have a soft spot too for Umberto Lenzi’s agreeably shonky Spasmo, with music by Ennio Morricone and a cast that includes Suzy Kendall, Ivan Rassimov and Robert Hoffman, star of the fondly remembered French-German children’s series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1964).  And I can’t possibly finish a piece about giallo movies without mentioning Giulio Questi’s mad 1968 epic Death Laid an Egg, which boldly places its beautiful giallo characters in the glamorous, stylish world of… intensive poultry farming.

Yellow cinema (Part 1)

 

© International Apollo Films / Les Films Corona / Atlantida Films

 

Not so long ago, I caught up with Edgar Wright’s 2021 movie Last Night in Soho.  I generally liked it, though I thought its first half was more successful than its second.  During the first half the film is very much a fantasy, with a lonely young woman (Thomasin McKenzie), who’s fixated on 1960s British fashion and culture, arriving in unglamorous, modern-day London and falling victim to weird, time-travelling regressions.  These send her back six decades and put her soul in the body of an early-1960s starlet (Angela Joy-Taylor) who’s trying to make her name in Soho, the London district that embodied the era’s combination of carefree glamour and shady decadence.  Halfway through, however, the movie shifts gears.  The 1960s scenes become sourer and darker and the fantasy gives way to horror.  This transition didn’t quite work for me and I ended up feeling the movie was neither fish nor fowl.

 

One thing I thought was cool about Last Night in Soho’s second, macabre half, however, was how Wright invests it with the aesthetics of Italian giallo cinema.  There’s bright, lurid lighting and colours, and swirling camerawork, and lots of splashy, slashy blood and grue.  Wright has obviously studied the works of old giallo maestros like Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento.  And it’s giallo movies that I’d like to spend this entry talking about.

 

What is, or was – because, informed by a certain time, place and set of attitudes, the genre is surely obsolete in 21st century cinema – a giallo movie?

 

Previously on this blog, while I was paying tribute to the late Ennio Morricone, whose music embellished the soundtrack of many a giallo in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I described it as a “staple of traditional Italian cinema” that was a “horror-thriller hybrid wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (identity revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most glamorous, stylish, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.”  Incidentally, the word giallo is Italian for ‘yellow’ and, according to Wikipedia, the cinematic term “derives from a series of cheap paperback mystery and crime thrillers with yellow covers that were popular in Italy.”

 

There follows a list of my favourite gialli.  I should point out that I’m a purist about what constitutes and doesn’t constitute a giallo.  In my mind, the ’killer’ element is important.  It’s got to be a human doing the killing, not a monster or supernatural agency.  So, though I’ve seen other people’s lists of gialli include films like Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and Lisa and the Devil (1974), Emilio Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), I’m steering clear of them because their plots contain ghosts, witches, devils and other supernatural elements.  I’m also avoiding Francisco Barilli’s Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), which isn’t so much supernatural as Kafkaesque-ly strange.  For me, a proper giallo doesn’t contain the impossible.  Just, usually, the highly improbable.

 

Anyway, there’s only one movie to start with…

 

© Emmeni Cinematografica / Les Productions Georges de Beaurgard

 

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Director Mario Bava was to Italian horror cinema what John Ford was to westerns or Alfred Hitchcock was to suspense movies.  The form would have been utterly different without him.  His splendid 1960s trilogy Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1964) and Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) indelibly shaped Italy’s tradition of gothic horror shockers.  Black Sabbath and Kill, Baby, Kill were also shot in colour and showcased Bava’s eye for baroque lighting, gorgeous colour palettes and elaborate set design, which proved the frights didn’t have to come at you from a monochrome world of darkness and shadows.  They could come at you from a brightly and lushly phantasmagorical world too.

 

Meanwhile, Blood and Black Lace is an early landmark in giallo films.  Its tale of a series of murders in a Rome fashion house – invariably of young, beautiful models, which meant gialli were open to the charge of misogyny from the very start – created the template for the form.  Moreover, thanks to Bava’s inimitable visual style, it’s a stunning film to watch.  For my money, it’s up there with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) as one of those movies that’s simply a feast for the eyes.

 

© Seda Spettacoli / Titanus / Constantin

 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Blood and Black Lace made the giallo mould, but The Bird with the Crystal Plumage directed by then-new kid on the block Dario Argento – this was his directorial debut – showed that this type of movie could win both popular success and critical acclaim.  It also inspired a glut of gialli in Italy during the early 1970s.  The story begins with a young American (Tony Musante) witnessing a near-deadly attack on a woman in a Rome art gallery – he gets trapped between two glass doors and is unable to run to her aid.  While more violence occurs, seemingly as a result of the attack, he agonises over what he thought he saw.  He can’t put his finger on it, but there was something not quite right about it…  This ‘missing-piece-of-the-jigsaw’ trope became a common one in giallo films.  Providing Bird’s music is the peerless Ennio Morricone, while in the role of Musante’s girlfriend is English actress Suzy Kendall, who would notch up more giallo credits.  She even appeared as ‘special guest screamer’ in 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland’s ‘sort of’ tribute to 1970s Italian horror movies.

 

© Nuova Linea Cinematografica

 

A Bay of Blood (1971)

A Bay of Blood feels like Mario Bava’s grumpy riposte to Argento, who the previous year had made giallo films almost respectable with The Bird with the Crystal PlumageA Bay of Blood is the polar opposite, a nasty, mean-spirited and ultra-violent effort, surely the most violent thing in Bava’s CV.  It’s about a community of conniving scumbags who murder one another in their desperation to secure an inheritance, which is the expensive property around the titular bay.  Even at the film’s end, when only the last two, husband-and-wife scumbags (Luigi Pistilli and Claudia Auger) remain alive, Bava hits upon a novel way of killing them off too.  What makes A Bay of Blood fascinating is an extended section that’s barely connected with the rest of the film.  Here, a quartet of teenagers break into the mansion at the centre of the murders and are themselves, gratuitously and bloodily, murdered.  This part is less like a giallo and more like a prototype showreel for the ‘slasher’ movies, such as the Friday the 13th ones, that dominated American horror cinema in the 1980s.

 

© Doria G. Film / Dunhill Cinematografica / Jadran Film

 

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

An atypical giallo, Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls benefits from its Prague setting and a plot that features a murderous conspiracy rather than another contrived-killer-on-the-loose scenario.  Downbeat endings aren’t unusual in gialli, but the grim fate that befalls the journalist hero (French actor Jean Sorel) is genuinely affecting and disturbing.  Also in the movie is Ringo Starr’s future missus Barbara Bach, who that same year would appear in a second giallo, Paolo Cavara’s The Black Belly of the TarantulaShort Night boasts music from Ennio Morricone too.  As does…

 

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

The final instalment in what would become known as Dario Argento’s ‘animal’ trilogy, which began with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and continued with Cat O’ Nine Tails (made earlier in 1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet is about a Rome-based rock drummer and his wife, played by Michael Brandon and Mimsy Farmer, another Anglophone actress who became something of a giallo star.  They get involved in a series of murders after the drummer seemingly, unwittingly kills a man who’s been stalking him.

 

© Seda Spettacoli / Universal Productions France

 

One of Four Flies’ pleasures is the wonderful performance by French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle as Gianni Arrioso, a camp, incompetent and tragic private investigator hired by Brandon to figure out what’s going on.  When the inevitable happens and Arrioso gets bumped off by the killer too, the dying PI consoles himself with the thought that at least, for once, he guessed the culprit’s identity correctly: “I was right,” he sighs, “I did it this time.”  In another supporting role, as one of Brandon’s mates, is the great Bud Spencer, taking a break from the spaghetti westerns and comedies he was making at the time with his acting partner Terence Hill.

 

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

Much loved by horror-movie buffs for his schlocky, gory, no-rational-thought-required opuses like Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981), director Lucio Fulci was, once, a maker of surprisingly stylish gialliA Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is also that fascinating beast, a giallo set in London, meaning that life in early 1970s Britain – hardly the most glamorous time or place – is depicted intriguingly, if improbably, through a more fashion-conscious, Mediterranean lens.  Joining the London scenery here is the impeccable, no-nonsense Welsh actor Stanley Baker, playing a police detective investigating the killings that invariably happen.  Meanwhile, there’s more Morricone goodness on the soundtrack.

 

Alas, Lizard suffers from being half-an-hour too long and runs out of steam towards its end.  Nothing in it quite compares with its opening sequences, in which the repressed wife (Florinda Bolkan) of a high-flying lawyer (Jean Sorel again) dreams about fleeing through a packed train, whose passengers then morph into enthusiastic participants in a gigantic hippy orgy being held in the house of her real-life neighbour (Anita Strindberg, another giallo regular).  The saucy dreams climax – ouch! – with a murder, and when a real murder is committed in the real house, we’re left wondering what’s actually dream and reality in Bolkan’s head.

 

Though the film slackens in its later stages, Fulci still manages some memorable moments, such as a set-piece chase through Alexandra Palace in north London, where Bolkan ends up in the building’s roof-space and is swarmed by a disturbed colony of bats; or an unhinged scene set in a high-security sanitorium where she blunders into a laboratory-room full of partly-dissected dogs.  The dogs in the lab scene weren’t real, but the special effects, courtesy of effects-man Carlo Rambaldi (who would later create ET), seemed so realistic by the standards of the time that Fulci got threatened with a prison sentence for animal cruelty.

 

© International Apollo Films / Les Films Corona / Atlantida Films

 

More of my favourite gialli will appear in a future blog-entry!

Jim Mountfield serves up some meat

 

© Sirens Call Publications

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

© Cold War Steve

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Private Eye

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© The Jewish Chronicle / twitter / @ VirendraSharma

Mountfield, mermaids and mindless violence

 

© Thurston Howl Publications

 

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

 

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

 

From emilyjessicaturner.com

© The Trustees of the British Museum

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Copies of Fearful Fun can be ordered here.

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

 

From the New European

 

Yes, folks, it’s time for a rant…

 

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

 

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

 

Let’s take a look at some of them.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What a bawbag.

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From twitter.com/campbellclaret

Jim Mountfield’s playground of horrors

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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