Cinematic heroes 2: James Robertson Justice

 

© Rank Organisation

 

This weekend saw the funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who passed away on April 9th at the age of 99.  Anyone who’s read the political entries I’ve put on this blog won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not a monarchist, at least as far as Britain is concerned.  I’ve got nothing against the Queen, who seems boundlessly dutiful and decent as she pushes her 95th birthday.  I’ve even got nothing against the concept of a monarchy itself, if it means having a symbolic head-of-state who deals with all the ceremonial stuff like opening supermarkets and attending banquets while the government gets on with the actual business of running the country.  Elsewhere in Europe, small-scale monarchies like this seem to work perfectly well in the Low countries and Scandinavia. 

 

Unfortunately, I don’t think a country as dysfunctional as Britain, so neurotically obsessed with its past, and where the institution seems to bring out the worst in many people – obsequiousness, snobbery, jingoism, culture-warring and my-patriotism’s-bigger-than-your-patriotism flag-shagging – could cope with having a small-scale monarchy.  So I think in the long run it would be better for Britain to just dispense with the monarchy and become a republic.

 

Anyway, enough of the political talk.  This seems an opportune time to repost this tribute I once wrote about one of Prince Philip’s close friends – the gruff, pompous acting marvel James Robertson Justice, whom the late prince once described as “a large man with a personality to match” who “lived every bit of his life to the full and richly deserves the title ‘eccentric’.”

 

Forgive the pun, but in a brief blog entry it’s impossible to do justice to James Robertson Justice.  By the time he embarked on an acting career – his first screen appearance was in the Charles Crichton-directed wartime propaganda movie For Those in Peril (1943), with his first substantial role coming four years later in Peter Ustinov’s comic fantasy Vice Versa – he’d already amassed a professional CV that would put, say, Jack London’s to shame.

 

In London, he’d worked as a journalist at Reuters (alongside a 20-year-old Ian Fleming).  Then he’d upped and gone to Canada, where he’d tried his hand at selling insurance, teaching English at a boys’ school and being a lumberjack and gold-miner.  He’d worked his passage back to Britain on a Dutch freighter and during the 1930s served as secretary and manager to the British ice-hockey team.  He’d also had a go at being a racing driver, served as a League of Nations policeman and fought for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.  In World War II he’d been invalided out of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve because of a shrapnel injury.

 

On top of his decidedly varied working experiences, James Robertson Justice was a polyglot.  According to whom you believe, the number of languages he could speak were four, ten or twenty.  He was also a keen birdwatcher and falconer – the latter enthusiasm earning him the friendship of Prince Philip – a raconteur and bon viveur with an eye for the ladies and a penchant for fast and expensive cars, and perhaps most passionately of all, a would-be Scotsman.  Although he’d been born in Lewisham in London in 1907, to a Scottish father, Justice told everyone that he’d been born in the shadow of a distillery on the Isle of Skye.  People believed this and it was only in 2007 that a biographer, James Hogg, discovered his birth certificate and his non-Scottish origins.

 

To cement his Scottish credentials, Justice served as rector of Edinburgh University from 1963 to 1966 and in the 1950 general election he ran unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate for the Scottish constituency of North Angus and Mearns.  Despite his friendship with the Queen’s husband and his taste for fine living, Justice’s politics were firmly of the left.  One of the languages he could speak was Scottish Gaelic.  And he must have been proud that he starred in the most charming of old Scottish comedy movies, 1949’s Whisky Galore.

 

© Rank Organisation

 

A larger-than-life character in reality, it’s unsurprising that fame, when it arrived for Justice, was a result of him playing a larger-than-life movie role.  1954’s Doctor in the House, based on the comic novel by Richard Gordon, follows the mishaps of four medical students (Kenneth More, Donald Sinden, Donald Houston and soon-to-be-a-star Dirk Bogarde) while they bumble, philander and idle their way through their studies at the fictional St Swithin’s Hospital.  Its irreverent tone struck a chord with British cinema audiences, whose patronage made it the biggest grossing film of the year.  That’s ‘irreverent’ in strictly a 1954 sense, however.  Bogarde and co seem a pretty mild bunch of rebels even by the standards of the 1950s, which a couple of years later would see the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.  And as biting and unruly medical satire goes, Doctor in the House isn’t exactly on par with, for instance, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* (1970).

 

In fact, the film would seem flat and stodgy today if it wasn’t for Justice’s turn as the chief surgeon at St Swithin’s, the hulking, pompous and delightfully ogre-ish Sir Lancelot Spratt.  The scenes involving Spratt are still capable of prompting guffaws – particularly the one with the famous ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ joke.

 

Steamrollering through the hospital wards and corridors and dragging a dazed trail of matrons, nurses and junior doctors in his wake, treating his underlings like dirt and so disdainful of the working-class patients that it’s debatable whether or not he considers them capable of thought, Spratt could be seen as the socialist-leaning Justice’s piss-take of a pompous upper-crust Tory doctor, one who’s been thrust against his wishes into the brave new Labourite world of Britain’s fledgling National Health Service.  The truth is simpler, though.  Justice was simply playing himself, or at least the side of himself who liked fancy cars, caviar and royalty.

 

The success of Doctor in the House and the popularity of Spratt meant that he was immediately typecast.  He’d spend the remainder of the 1950s, and the 1960s, playing variations on the role – comically-blustering aristocrats and authority figures who believed themselves entitled to behave any way they pleased and who didn’t give a tinker’s cuss what other people thought about it.

 

One exception to the rule was the memorable John Huston-directed, Ray Bradbury-scripted film version of Moby Dick in 1956, in which he played Captain Boomer.  Also, in the 1961 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, he played the commodore at Allied Command who rounds up Gregory Peck, David Niven and the gang and sends them off to blow up the big German guns of the title.  Otherwise, comedies and pomposity were the order of the day.  Justice played Spratt in six more Doctor movies, where the quality inevitably went down each time, and played many more Spratt clones.  His performances, however, were never less than hugely entertaining.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

One of my favourites is his turn as the unbearably bear-ish aristocrat Luther Ackenthorpe in 1961’s Murder, She Said, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington, which starred the venerable Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple.  The lady detective takes on a job as a maid in the Ackenthorpe household in order to investigate a possible murder, and predictably she and Justice spend the film getting on each other’s nerves.   Miss Marple receives a shock at the end because Justice, despite the antagonism that’s existed between them, has concluded that she’s just the woman to share his matrimonial bed.  His proposal of marriage hardly sweeps her off her feet, though.  “You’re a fair cook,” he tells her, “and you seem to have your wits about you and, well, I’ve decided to marry you.”  Unsurprisingly, Miss Marple manages to turn down his proposal without much soul-searching.

 

Justice is also good in the 1962 comedy The Fast Lady.  It has a great cast – Julie Christie, making only her second film appearance, the marvellously-suave Leslie Philips and the legendary Glaswegian comic performer Stanley Baxter.  Mind you, when I saw part of it on YouTube recently I found its humour a lot less sophisticated than how I remembered it from multiple TV viewings when I was a kid.  Justice plays a rich and arrogant sports-car enthusiast, a role that was obviously no leap for him, who runs gormless cyclist Baxter off the road.  When Baxter tracks Justice down to his country manor to complain, he falls in love with Justice’s daughter, Christie, while Robertson, chugging around on a riding lawnmower, mangles Baxter’s bicycle into his lawn.  There follows a romantic comedy of manners, with Baxter trying to win Christie’s hand and earn her father’s respect.  I remembering seeing an interview with Baxter wherein he reminisced about the film and, adding yet another string to Justice’s bow, recalled how his co-star had been an authority on butterflies.

 

Shortly after playing yet another cantankerous and wealthy old bugger, Lord Scrumptious, in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – based on the children’s book by his old Reuter’s colleague Ian Fleming – Justice suffered the first of several strokes that would hobble and then finish his film career.  By the time of the last Doctor film, 1970’s Doctor in Trouble, his appearance as Sir Lancelot Spratt had been reduced to a cameo.  His final role was an appropriately Scottish-themed one, 1971’s The Massacre of Glencoe.  As the work petered out, so did his money, and in 1975 he died a sick and bankrupt man.  All in all, it was a sad and undignified end for one of the British cinema’s most flamboyant and gloriously imperious figures.

 

From worldoffalconry.co.uk

Bungle in the jungle

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros.

 

Godzilla versus Kong.  The King of the Monsters versus the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The supreme clash of the titans, the ultimate showdown between the royalty of kaiju cinema.  In the left corner, we have King Kong, the giant simian star of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic that created the template for movies wherein prehistoric monsters rampage through human metropolises.  And in the right corner, we have Godzilla, the massive radioactive-breathed lizard who first surfaced in 1954, courtesy of Toho Studios, to flatten Tokyo as a thinly-disguised metaphor for the atomic bombs that’d flattened real Japanese cities a decade earlier – although, while he appeared in dozens of subsequent movies battling against similarly-sized monstrous adversaries, he gradually morphed from being the destroyer of Japan to being the unofficial champion of it.

 

Having this pair square up to one another – an event that’s only happened once before, in the ultra-ropey but endearingly goofy 1962 Toho movie King Kong vs Godzilla – should be an epic cinematic experience, the kaiju equivalent of Muhammed Ali versus Joe Frazer or Ali versus George Foreman, of the Thrilla in Manilla or the Rumble in the Jungle.

 

Alas, the recently released Godzilla vs Kong, the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse franchise, isn’t so much the Rumble in the Jungle as a Bungle in the Jungle.

 

Of its three predecessors, the first instalment, 2014’s Godzilla, directed by talented Welshman Gareth Edwards, is the one that stands as a quality film.  It had some truly cinematic sequences and a memorably sombre tone, embodied in the apocalyptic clouds of ash and dust that swirled around Godzilla while he went about his city-demolishing business.  However, it wasn’t the big, enjoyably dumb monster-on-the-loose movie that many people expected and in some quarters it was met with disappointment.  And I have to say that while I admired Godzilla, I didn’t massively enjoy it.

 

Edwards’ downbeat film was the antithesis of the second film in the franchise, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, which arrived three years later.  Set in the early 1970s, this was a brash, colourful rollercoaster of a movie that managed to balance crowd-pleasing action with enough smart touches to engage the more cerebral members of the audience – smart touches ranging from jokes about Richard Nixon to an outrageous sequence where Kong takes on what is basically the fleet of helicopters from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though to the accompaniment of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid rather than Richard Wagner’s Ride of the ValkyriesKong: Skull Island also benefitted from having a cast of veteran character actors like John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman chew up any scenery that Kong wasn’t stomping on.

 

By the third movie, though, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), the rot had set in.  The kaiju remained magnificent, but too much screen-time was devoted to the human characters, most of whom barely qualified as two-dimensional let alone three-dimensional.  Also, between the film’s set-pieces were sections where screenwriters Dougherty and Zach Shields couldn’t be bothered plotting in any credible or meaningful way.  You got ridiculous sequences like, for example, the bit where 12-year-old kid Madison Russell (Milly Bobby Brown) strolls out of the heavily fortified, heavily guarded lair of master-terrorist Jonah (Charles Dance) carrying a vital piece of technology that can communicate with and summon the monsters.  She then manages to set up the device and operate it in Kenway Park, home-ground of the Boston Red Sox.  Wow.   When I was 12 years old, I was still having problems tying a knot correctly in my school tie.

 

© Toho Studios

 

Brown’s Madison Russell character is, unfortunately, back in Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs Kong and the chasms in plot logic are as gaping as they were before.  Here, she and a couple of conspiracy-theory-obsessed associates infiltrate, no, wander into the premises of a secretive corporation called Apex, which they suspect is up to no good.  With almost no visible effort, this motley collection of teenagers / conspiracy nuts discovers and breaks into a series of secret subterranean levels that are full of futuristic technology.  Apex might be the bees’ knees when it comes to developing high-tech gizmos, but they are evidently shit at hiring competent security staff.

 

The human characters involved in the film’s other main storyline, played by Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall (who, by accident or design in this movie, looks a bit like New Zealand premier Jacinda Ahern), fare no better.  They’re saddled with a don’t-even-try-to-think-about-it subplot where they join an expedition, sponsored by that shifty Apex corporation, to travel to the fabled ‘hollow earth’ alluded to by previous movies in the franchise.  To get there, they need to use King Kong to lead them, like a giant homing pigeon or upstream-swimming salmon, through the labyrinthine tunnels that connect it with the earth’s surface.  The hollow earth, which looks like the planet in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) with some gravity-defying upside-down bits, is not only the home of Kong’s ancestors but also the location of a new energy source that Apex are keen to procure.  Once they find the energy source, they promptly download it to a computer in Hong Kong.  Yes, download it.  Don’t ask me how.

 

But I’ll try to be positive.  What did I like about Godzilla vs Kong?  Well, the first battle between the kaiju is a cracker.  Godzilla erupts out of the waves to confront Kong, who’s chained to the deck of one of a fleet of battleships and aircraft carriers, and the two beasties then slug it out while hopping from one beleaguered ship’s deck to another.  The sequence put in mind slightly of the 1974 Bond film Live and Let Die, in which Roger Moore escapes to safety by using some bobbing alligators as stepping stones.

 

Also, I liked the character of the little girl who learns to communicate secretly with Kong via sign language.  Played with a charming simplicity and straightforwardness by Kaylee Hottle, who in real life is a member of the deaf community, she wins more of the audience’s sympathy than all the synthetic, going-through-the-motions adult characters put together.

 

And I liked Milly Bobby Brown’s nerdy friend Josh, who gets unwillingly roped into her scheme to infiltrate Apex.  This is partly because he’s played by Julian Dennison from Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and partly because when we first meet him he’s listening to Breaking the Law by Judas Priest.

 

And I liked how, two-thirds of the way through, a third classic kaiju, one who made his debut in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, suddenly shows up to give Kong and Godzilla a common foe.  It’s just a pity that the ensuing stramash, which takes place in Hong Kong, feels a bit second-hand.  Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) has already featured giant organic monsters and giant robotic ones beating the crap out of each other in Hong Kong.  Also, the final denouement, involving a heavily foreshadowed flask of whisky, is stupid even by the recent standards of this franchise.

 

At the end of the day, I can’t say I liked Godzilla vs Kong any more than Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  The earlier film at least treated us to spectacular re-imaginings of some of Toho Studio’s kaiju heavyweights, including the vicious three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, the scaly giant Pteranodon Rodan and the vast gorgeous lepidopteran Mothra.  The new film doesn’t have that level of interest, seeing as we’ve already met Godzilla and Kong in previous films.

 

At least I managed to see Godzilla vs Kong on a big screen, for this was my first outing to a cinema during the Covid-19 pandemic since I saw Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) in one last summer.  That no doubt made the film appear more spectacular than if I’d seen it, streamed, on a domestic-sized screen.  And I have to say that in this large-sized format the film certainly held the attentions of the Sri Lankan kids and teenagers whom I watched it alongside.

 

I’m not, however, in any rush to see a fifth instalment in the MonsterVerse franchise.  Unless they figure out a way of getting Gamera into Movie Number Five.

 

© Daiei Film / Kadokawa Daiei Studio

My life as a tape-head

 

From unsplash.com / © Tobias Tullius

 

I was surprised to hear the news last month that the inventor of the audio cassette, Lou Ottens, had passed away at the age of 94.  Surprised because the audio cassette seemed such an elderly piece of technology to me that I’d assumed its inventor had been dead for many years, indeed, many decades already.

 

I used to love cassettes.  They were small, light and portable whilst at the same time durable and not vulnerable to the scratches and occasional breakages that bedevilled my vinyl records.  Though of course when their tape got caught in the tape-heads of a cassette player, having to free and unravel the ensuing tangle was a pain in the neck.  Much of my music collection consists of cassettes and I suspect I must have something in the region of a thousand albums in that format.  But, like most of my worldly possessions, they’ve spent the 21st century occupying boxes in my Dad’s attic in Scotland.

 

Cassettes seemed old-fashioned even in the days before the appearance of the compact disc, a type of technology that itself must seem prehistoric to modern youngsters brought up in a world of Internet streaming.  I remember in 2019 entering a second-hand record shop in Edinburgh and being amazed, and delighted, to find that it still had several shelf-loads of cassettes on sale.  (The shop was the Record Shak on Clerk Street and sadly, due to its owner’s death, it’s closed down since then.  But at least the Record Shak managed to outlive most of the other record shops that once populated south-central Edinburgh, like Avalanche, Coda Music, Ripping Records and Hog’s Head Music, so in its humble, durable way it was like the retailing equivalent of a cassette.)

 

I was such a tape-head that even during the 1990s, when the CD was supposed to have achieved market dominance, I still indulged in that most cassette-ish of pastimes – creating cassette compilations of my favourite music of the moment, which I’d then inflict on my friends.

 

I also made party cassettes.  For much of that decade I lived in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, was something of a party animal and would hold regular shindigs in my apartment.  My home was a typically modest, urban-Japanese one, consisting of two normal-sized rooms plus a little bathroom and toilet, but that didn’t prevent me from piling in the guests.  During one do, I did a count and discovered I’d squeezed 48 people into the place.  I even managed somehow to set aside one room as the ‘dance floor’.  And before each party, for the dance-floor room, I’d compile a few cassettes of songs that I judged likely to get the guests shaking a leg.  How could anyone not shake a leg when, in quick succession, they were subjected to the boisterous likes of the Cramps singing Bend Over I’ll Drive, the Jesus and Mary Chain doing their cover of Guitar Man, Motorhead with Killed by Death, the Reverend Horton Heat with Wiggle Stick, AC/DC with Touch Too Much and the Ramones with I Wanna be Sedated?

 

At the party’s end, if somebody complimented me on the quality of the music, I’d simply give them the party cassettes and tell them to keep them as souvenirs.  By the time of my next hooley, I’d have discovered a new set of tunes and slapped them onto some new cassettes.  Who knows?  Maybe those 1990s party cassettes are still being played at gatherings in Sapporo, where the partygoers are no longer young and wild, but grey and arthritic instead.  Surely they’d be considered priceless antiques today – the cassettes, not the partygoers.

 

Anyway, feeling nostalgic, I thought I would list here the most memorable cassette compilations that other people have given to me over the years.

 

© Factory

 

Untitled compilation – Gareth Smith, 1991

I never imagined that in 2021 I’d still be humming tunes performed by the now-forgotten New Jersey alternative rock band the Smithereens or the equally forgotten 1980s Bath / London combo Eat.  The fact that I am is due to a splendid compilation cassette that my brother put together and sent to me while I was working in Japan. Actually, the reason why I’m humming those tunes today is probably because they weren’t actually written by the Smithereens or Eat.  The Smithereens’ track was a cover of the Who’s song The Seeker, while the Eat one was another cover, of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City.

 

As well as featuring those, the cassette contained the epic six-minute club mix of Hallelujah by the Happy Mondays.  No, this wasn’t a cover version of the Leonard Cohen song, but the Mondays’ impeccably shambling dance track that begins with a falsetto voice exclaiming, “Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!” and then proceeds with Shaun Ryder intoning such lyrical gems as, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re here to pull ya!”

 

On the other hand, the cassette contained the hit single Right Here, Right Now by Jesus Jones, which I thought was quite good and which induced me to buy their new album when I saw it on sale soon afterwards in my local Japanese record shop.  Big mistake.

 

Songs from Brad’s Land – Brad Ambury, 1991

Around the same time, I received a compilation cassette from a Canadian guy called Brad Ambury, who worked on the same programme that I was working on but in a different part of northern Japan.  I think Brad saw it as his mission to convince me that there was more to Canadian music than the then-popular output of Bryan Adams.  He must have despaired when several years later Celine Dion popped up and usurped Bryan as Canada’s number-one international musical superstar.

 

Anyway, he made this cassette a smorgasbord of Canadian indie and alternative-rock bands with quirky names: Jr. Gone Wild, Blue Rodeo, the Northern Pikes, Spirit of the West, the Doughboys and so on.  During the rest of the 1990s, whenever I was introduced to Canadian people, I’d waste no time in impressing them with my encyclopaedic knowledge – well, my shameless name-dropping – of their country’s indie / alt-rock musical scene.  All thanks to that one cassette.

 

Actually, stirred by curiosity 30 years on, I’ve tried Googling Brad and discovered he has a twitter feed that’s headed by the logo for the Edmonton ‘punk-country’ band Jr. Gone Wild.  So it’s good to know he hasn’t succumbed to senile old age and started listening to The Best of Bryan Adams just yet.

 

© Jr. Gone Wild

 

A Kick up the Eighties – Keith Sanderson, 1993

I must have received dozens of cassette compilations from my music-loving Scottish friend Keith Sanderson and this one was my favourite.  It even looked distinctive because, for a sleeve, he packaged it in a piece of flocked, crimson wallpaper.  As its title indicates, A Kick up the Eighties was a nostalgic collection of tunes from the then recently departed 1980s. These included pop hits, new wave and indie classics, Goth anthems and lesser-known tunes that were both ruminative and raucous: the Associates’ Party Fears Two, Blancmange’s Living on the Ceiling, Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick, Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives, Bauhaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood, Aztec Camera’s Down the Dip and Girlschool’s Emergency.  The collection was disparate yet weirdly balanced, and even songs I hadn’t particularly liked before, such as Rush’s Spirit of Radio and UFO’s Only You Can Rock Me, seemed good due to their calibration with the music around them.

 

However, when I played this cassette at parties, I had to make sure I stopped it before it reached the final track on Side A.  For my friend Keith had sneakily inserted there, like a street-credibility-destroying booby trap, Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran.

 

Japanese and English Guitar Pop – Yoko Koyama, 1994    

By the mid-1990s I was lecturing in a university in Sapporo.  My Japanese students there gradually come to the realisation that, despite being a curmudgeonly git, I had one redeeming quality, which was that I was into music.  So a steady stream of them presented me with cassettes of tunes they’d recorded, which they thought I might be interested in.  I can’t remember who presented me with a recording of the Flower Travellin’ Band, but well done that person.

 

A smart indie-kid in one of my classes called Yoko Koyama gave me a cassette compilation of what she termed ‘modern guitar pop’, i.e. melodic pop-rock stuff with lots of pleasantly jangly guitars.  Apparently, this was a sound that a few Japanese bands of the time, like Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five, were into.  She’d interspersed their tracks with ones by what she described as four ‘English’ practitioners of the same sub-genre.  These were Teenage Fanclub and the BMX Bandits, from Bellshill near Glasgow; Aztec Camera, from East Kilbride in Lanarkshire; and the Trash Can Sinatras, from Irvine in North Ayrshire.

 

© Polystar

 

I expressed my thanks but observed with some bemusement that the four so-called English bands on the collection were actually all from Scotland.  Yoko smiled politely but said nothing.  However, a year later, she wrote a feature about this type of music for our faculty’s English-language students’ newspaper (which I edited) and made a point of talking about ‘Scottish guitar pop’.  So despite my multiple failings as a teacher, I managed at least to teach one fact to one person during the 1990s.

 

Guns N’ Roses bootlegs – the guy who collected my Daily Yomiuri payments, 1996

While living in Sapporo, I subscribed to the English-language newspaper the Daily Yomiuri, which is now the Japan News.  One evening every month, a young guy would arrive at my apartment door with the newspaper’s monthly bill, which I paid in cash.  (Direct debits didn’t seem to be a thing at the time.)  When I opened the door for him one evening, The Spaghetti Incident by Guns N’ Roses happened to be playing on my stereo.  The guy’s face immediately lit up and he exclaimed, “Ah, you like Guns N’ Roses?”  We then had an enthusiastic ten-minute conversation – well, as enthusiastic as my rudimentary Japanese would allow – about the gloriousness of Axl Rose, Slash and the gang.

 

A month later, when the guy came to collect my next Daily Yomiuri payment, I was immensely touched when he presented me with two cassettes, on which he’d recorded two Guns N’ Roses bootleg albums.

 

Okay, strictly speaking, these weren’t compilation cassettes.  But I’m mentioning them here as a testimony to the power of the audio cassette.  They allowed the Japanese guy who collected my newspaper-subscription money and I to bond over a shared love of Guns N’ Roses.

 

Yeah, beat that, Spotify.

 

From pinterest.com

Jim Mountfield rides shotgun

 

© Shotgun Honey

 

Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write fiction of a (usually) dark hue, has just had a short story published in the webzine Shotgun Honey, which is dedicated to the ‘crime, hardboiled and noir genres’.

 

The story is called Karaoke and is inspired by the seven years I spent living in Japan – seven years during which, astonishingly, I spent a lot of my free time hanging out in bars.  The majority of those bars were frequented by suited salarymen, staffed by immaculate hostesses and equipped with karaoke machines.  Although I was always too shy to sing at the start of an evening, I’d have somehow overcome my shyness by the end of it – a dozen Kirin beers might have had something to do with it – and I’d be up there warbling into the microphone with the best, or worst, of them.  This was in the 1990s and the English-language selection on the machines was pretty middle-of-the-road and non-raucous – Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Pat Boone and the early Beatles – which meant I was usually crooning stuff like Fly Me to the Moon or Love Letters in the Sand.  Eek.

 

As Shotgun Honey is about crime, however, the story features yakuza gangsters as well as karaoke-singing.  Incidentally, the three main characters are named after three people I knew in Japan.  Mr Ashikawa and Mr Hiraizumi were both teachers at the high school where I worked for the first two years – Mr Ashikawa was a calligraphy teacher and he’d answer the staffroom phone with a memorably singsong cry of “Ashikawa desu!”  Maybe that’s why I made his fictional namesake a talented singer.

 

The character Umeki, meanwhile, is named after a lovable rogue I had in one of my university classes in Sapporo, where I spent the subsequent five years.  Let’s be tactful and just say he wasn’t the hardest working of my students.  A week before I left Japan, the real-life Umeki invited me out for a few drinks and we ended up in one of his haunts, a bar whose interior resembled Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s penthouse in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  I think he was keen to create the impression that he lived the lifestyle of an international playboy, but I can’t help suspecting that today he’s become a grumpy and greying Kacho-San (‘Section Chief’).

 

For now, Karaoke can be read here.  This story comes with a trigger warning for lovers of alcohol, who may be traumatised by the fate that befalls a 21-year-old bottle of Hibiki Whisky.

 

From unsplash.com / © Alex Rainer

Soft power? No, soft in the head

 

From unsplash.com / © Jannes Van Den Wouwer

 

“And our hard power, conference, is dwarfed by a phenomenon that the pessimists never predicted when we unbundled the British Empire, and that is soft power – the vast and subtle and pervasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having the language that was invented and perfected in this country, and now has more speakers than any other language on earth.

 

“And up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth there go the gentle, kindly gunboats of British soft power, captained by Jeremy Clarkson – a prophet more honoured abroad, alas, than in his own country – or J.K. Rowling ,who is worshipped by young people in some Asian countries as a kind of divinity, or just the BBC.  And no matter how infuriating and shamelessly anti-Brexit they can sometimes be, I think the Beeb is the single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values.”

 

So spoke Boris de Piffle Johnson at the Conservative Party conference in 2016 on the subject of soft power and the United Kingdom’s ability, at least back then, to project it.  The term ‘soft power’ was coined in the 1980s by Joseph Nye, who described it as ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want’ on an international level. With sufficient soft power, a country can influence other countries through them ‘admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness’ rather than by ‘threatening military force or economic sanctions’ against them.

 

According to Nye, a country’s soft power comes from its culture, political values and foreign policies and its success in communicating and marketing these to an international audience. The UK had several historical advantages here. It was the original exporter of what is currently the world’s most popular international language, a language that, handily, it shares with the world’s number-one superpower.  It was also once a superpower itself, a ruthlessly imperial one, which left a legacy of connections around the world with its former colonies.  And, before 2016, it enjoyed a position as one of the main players in the European Union.

 

With these channels in place, all the UK needed were effective agents to facilitate the flow of its soft power and it had these in abundance too.  Not so long ago, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development (DFID), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the British Council (BC) did a great deal to promote the UK abroad in the fields of, respectively, diplomacy, development, broadcasting and education.  It helped too that the UK had many world-famous educational, cultural and sporting brands it could draw on, ranging from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and William Shakespeare to Manchester United and the Beatles.  Though Johnson, never one to let the fear of appearing crass get in the way of what he thinks is a jolly joke, claimed that much of the UK’s soft power was due to foreign petrolheads getting off on Top Gear.

 

It’s been a long time since I felt any affinity for the UK as a political entity.  I would, for instance, be happy to see Scotland become independent of it.  But I still feel I have a dog in the fight over the issue of British soft power because for most of the last quarter-century I’ve worked for various organisations and institutions in the fields of education and development that, directly or indirectly, have helped to promote British soft power abroad.  This hasn’t bothered me too much.  The days of the imperialist British Empire mentality were, I thought, long gone.  And although there have been a few catastrophic foreign policy errors, such as Tony Bliar’s decision to involve the UK in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I thought that the ‘values’, ‘examples’ and ‘openness’ Britain promoted abroad weren’t negative ones.  At least, in the early 21st century, they could have been worse.  I wouldn’t necessarily say the UK was one of the good guys as far as countries went, but it seemed one of the better guys.

 

That, however, was before the disaster of 2016’s Brexit referendum vote and the decision by voters in Britain – well, in England and Wales – to amputate the country from the European Union and embrace a parochial Little Englander nationalism.  This was promulgated by an array of shameless opportunistic chancers like Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan, Aaron Banks and of course Johnson himself.  Cheering them on was Britain’s right-wing press, owned by the billionaire likes of Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers.

 

Johnson’s government, and that of Theresa May before him, have done their best to play to a gallery of xenophobes, reactionaries, gammons and flag-shaggers, making decisions that right-wing tabloid headlines construe as sticking up for plucky little Blighty whilst giving Johnny Foreigner one in the eye.  In fact, what they’ve succeeded in doing is eroding the once-impressive edifice of British soft power on the international stage.  You can read about Britain’s decline in the world’s soft-power rankings here.

 

One example of this, perhaps small in the general scheme of things but telling in its malignant stupidity, is how the decision by Johnson’s government to cut UK overseas bilateral aid by at least 50% has impacted on the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) organisation.  VSO is dependent for half its budget on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which is the unwieldy result of DFID being amalgamated with the FCO in 2020.  With the foreign aid budget decimated, VSO is now preparing to shut operations in 14 countries, wind down its Volunteering for Development scheme and end its Covid-19 response initiative, which supports four-and-a-half million people in 18 countries.  This follows on from the demise of VSO’s International Citizen Service in February.

 

 

I worked as a volunteer with VSO in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001.  Now, thanks to some of my experiences there and elsewhere, I’m cynical about much of what goes on in the international aid and development industry and I agree with criticisms of it made in books like Graham Hancock’s The Lords of Poverty (1989) and Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid (2010).  In Ethiopia, where I worked as an instructor at a teacher-training institute, I went into primary school classes containing 40 or more pupils who often had to share one textbook in groups of three or four and had to sit on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs.  Classrooms often had gaping holes in their floors, broken furniture and no electricity.  Meanwhile, officials at the local Regional Educational Board luxuriated in carpeted, air-conditioned offices equipped with computers, printers and projectors.  The money given to the region’s educational budget by a Scandinavian aid organisation had never percolated down past the hands of the middle-class bureaucrats into which it’d been entrusted.

 

The campus I worked on featured its own monument to aid-industry inefficiency.  It contained a language laboratory that’d been gifted by French money.  I’m not sure if that language lab had ever worked but it certainly wasn’t in use while I was there.  It was full of big, dust-covered consoles that, like computers in a flashy 1960s spy thriller, used clunky spools of tape.  Whoever had signed the original cheques hadn’t done any research.  They hadn’t realised that the language-teaching world’s preferred medium for giving students practice in listening, especially in a rough-and-tumble environment like 1990s Ethiopia, was the humble, durable and portable audio-cassette tape.

 

But VSO’s modus operandum was not about spending money that was vulnerable to being misappropriated by corruption or incompetence.  It recognised that the key was training.  Transferring skills from one person to another, so that the recipient is able to do his or her job better, leads to sustainable positive changes.  Accordingly, the people who volunteered to work for VSO were experienced professionals in their home countries. By doing a similar job in the same field in what was then termed ‘a developing country’, they could contribute to improving the training and performances of the local people they worked beside.  This wasn’t because they were better professionals than their local peers.  They’d just had the advantage of having trained and worked in more developed countries.

 

One important feature of VSO was that its volunteers earned the same salary as their local colleagues.  This meant they shared the same working and living conditions as the locals did – unlike employees of other aid agencies, there was no living in fancy compounds, working in high-tech offices or travelling in supersized 4x4s for them.  Therefore, the problems faced by local professionals during their jobs were as much of a headache for the VSO volunteers too, and together they had to devise solutions to these problems that drew on local knowledge, were realistic and would actually work on the ground.

 

In my criticisms of foreign aid, then, I’m not arguing that budgets should be slashed.  If necessary, they should be recalibrated so that training and sustainability are at the fore, if those things aren’t already.  As the old proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

 

 

I knew from the responses of Ethiopian friends and colleagues that VSO’s work in their country earned much respect for Britain at the time.  Meanwhile, my VSO experiences did a lot for me personally, helping me to become more organised, practical, resourceful, confident and diplomatic.  So Britain and the VSO volunteers benefitted as much as the local folk did.  It was a win-win-win situation.

 

The fact that government cuts have subjected VSO to this crisis shows what hot air Boris Johnson’s words about the value of British soft power, quoted at the start of this entry, really were.  He clearly has no interest in how the rest of the world perceives and interacts with the UK, other than it providing a few post-Brexit trade deals and being somewhere that he and his moneyed cronies can escape to for their luxury holidays.

 

Government actions elsewhere underline this.  The plug has already been pulled on Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which allowed 15,000 British students annually to study in European universities without paying fees.  The BBC seems to stagger from one government-induced crisis to another and its main instrument of international influence, the once-admired BBC World Service, has been in freefall from budget cuts since the Tory government of David Cameron.  Other organisations that promote Britain overseas are in similarly dire straits and the current Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation even worse.  But Johnson and company obviously don’t care if they wither on the vine.

 

Yes, as the Conservative government develops its new blueprint for the country as a giant sweatshop where the majority work for peanuts and without protections, and where a political / economic elite make a fortune and pay as little tax as possible, the drawbridge is being pulled up between Britain and the outside world.  It’s a tragedy that an exemplary organisation like VSO looks like being the latest victim of this mindset.

 

© Voluntary Service Overseas

A wide open space odyssey

 

© Pan Books

 

So it’s farewell to the author Larry McMurtry, who passed away on March 25th at the age of 84.  Here’s what I wrote on this blog about Mr McMurtry’s most famous opus after I finished reading it early last year.

 

The cowboy-herding, dust-churning, all-mooing-and-lowing cattle drive may not be the biggest trope in the western genre.  That accolade probably belongs to the High Noon-style showdown.  But it’s surely a major one.

 

Most famously, a cattle drive figured in the classic 1948 Howard Hawks / John Wayne western movie Red River and as late as 1972 Wayne was still herding cattle across the prairies in Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys.  Elsewhere, cattle drives have been the basis for eight seasons of the western TV series Rawhide (1959-65), been subjected to revisionism in the raw-edged film The Culpepper Cattle Co (1972), been lovingly parodied in the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers (1991) and even been reimagined in a bucolic British setting in Richard Eyre’s Singleton’s Pluck (1984).  That last movie, written by Brian Glover and starring Ian Holm, told the tale of a poultry farmer who’s forced by a transport workers’ strike to walk his thousands of geese to market, all the way from Norfolk to London.

 

However, the above cattle drives last within the timeframes of films or TV episodes and take up no more than a couple of hours of your time.  By the time you get through the 843 pages of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove (1985), you almost feel you’ve taken part in a cattle drive.  I started reading it at the beginning of 2020 and by the time I’d finished it the most of three weeks later, I felt mentally as saddle-sore as its characters felt physically after riding from the parched plains of southern Texas to the wintry uplands of Montana.  Though, like those characters when they arrived in Montana, the feeling was accompanied by a buzz of fulfilment and satisfaction too.

 

To be fair, the cattle drive in Lonesome Dove doesn’t take all of 843 pages.  There’s a leisurely preamble whereby McMurtry sets up his characters and prepares them, and the reader, for the odyssey ahead.  The characters belong to the Hat Creek Cattle Company, based at the south Texan town of the title, Lonesome Dove.  The company’s proprietors are two former Texas Rangers, the garrulous, witty, warm-hearted and philosophical Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae and the stiff, unsociable, emotionally repressed and work-driven W. F. Call.  Gus reminds Call early on: “You was born in Scotland…  I know they brought you over when you was still draggin’ on the tit, but that don’t make you no less a Scot.”  Obviously, Call never recovered from his early exposure to Calvinism.

 

One day, a familiar face appears on their property.  This is Jake Spoon, another ex-ranger and an old friend of theirs but someone who makes a living by gambling rather than cattle-dealing.  It transpires that the charming but unprincipled and fickle Jake is on the run because he accidentally killed a man after a card game turned ugly in the Arkansas town of Fort Smith.  The victim managed to be the town’s dentist, and the town’s mayor, and the brother of the town’s sheriff, July Johnson.  Also, Jake brings with him stories about the opportunities offered by the newly opened-up, barely explored and still unpopulated territory of Montana.  This prompts Call to gather together the company’s livestock, employees and physical possessions, such as they are, and abandon Lonesome Dove and embark on an epic journey north.  The hope is that their business will prosper on Montana’s seemingly limitless grazing lands.

 

To bolster their supplies of cattle and horses before they leave, Call and Gus embark on a raid across the border and steal some herds from a wealthy Mexican rancher called Pedro Flores.  They do this without any moral qualms, since the unscrupulous Flores does the same thing regularly in the other direction, from Mexico into Texas.

 

Also, they increase their crew by hiring for the drive a motley collection of cowpokes, misfits and youngsters.  Jake tags along too, taking with him a young prostitute called Lorena from Lonesome Dove’s saloon, who’s fallen, temporarily at least, for his oily charms.  But the workshy Jake keeps his distance from the Hat Creek gang and sets up a private camp for himself and Lorena.  They quickly lose their enthusiasm for camping and the outdoors as it becomes apparent that pampered, saloon-loving cardsharp Jake is no Bear Grylls.

 

And so our heroes hit the trail.  There follow hundreds of pages featuring sandstorms, thunderstorms, blizzards, hazardous river crossings, run-ins with bad ’uns and encounters with unfriendly wildlife such as locusts, snakes and bears.  Other characters appear, including Sheriff July Johnson and his hapless deputy Roscoe, rival cattle baron Mr Wilbarger, murderous renegade Indian Blue Duck, the no-better trio of white outlaws the Suggs Brother, and feisty Clara Allen, once courted in her youth by both Gus and Jake.  Clara now runs a horse ranch in Nebraska and Gus, still carrying a torch for her, intends to visit her during the drive.  Larry McMurtry sub-plots furiously, with characters constantly hiving off from the drive or running into it.  His characters encounter one another, part company with one another, are reunited with one another and, occasionally, kill one another.

 

One thing that’s striking about Lonesome Dove is the underlying randomness and arbitrariness of it all.  Big events happen but often the reasons causing them to happen are fleeting whims, snap decisions or simple happenstance.  The pragmatic and unimaginative Call isn’t normally taken in by Jake’s bullshit but, somehow, he falls for his tales about Montana, with the result that the Hat Creek Cattle Company uproots itself and goes.  The bemused Gus tells him, “I hope it makes you happy…  Driving these skinny cattle all that way is a funny way to maintain an interest in life, if you ask me.”  Elsewhere, July Johnson didn’t particularly like his dead dentist / mayor brother (“Once when he had pulled a bad tooth of July’s he had charged the full fee”) and regards his death as an accident, but is bullied into going after Jake by his widowed sister-in-law.

 

What sets all these things in motion is the fact that in the Fort Smith saloon where Jake got himself into trouble, someone unwisely left a loaded shotgun propped against the wrong part of the wall.  If this was how the West was won, Lonesome Dove suggests, it was by accident rather than design.

 

Similarly, the subplots often don’t resolve themselves in the way you expect, or don’t resolve themselves at all.  The long-awaited showdown between Jake and July, for example, never happens because both characters get distracted by other events – Jake falling in with the Suggs brothers and soon being party to worse things than the accidental shooting of a dentist, and July learning that his dissatisfied wife has taken advantage of his absence to run away from Fort Smith and setting off in pursuit of her instead.  And the expected subplot whereby the vengeful Pedro Flores pursues the Hat Creek Cattle Company to get his animals back never materialises for, soon afterwards, Call and Gus receive word that Flores has suddenly died.  (“I never expected that…”  “I never either, but then I don’t know why not.  Mexicans don’t have no special dispensation.  They die like the rest of us.”)

 

Meanwhile, the mid-point of the book is shocking for how the plot-threads of three characters, in whom the reader has invested a lot of time and sympathy, are abruptly terminated.  I’d like to think McMurtry did this for dramatic effect, though I suspect he just realised his plotting was becoming too tangled and he needed to prune it.

 

©Picador

 

Talking of being shocking, there are times, especially when Blue Duck and the Suggs Brothers are centre-stage, when Lonesome Dove veers off into the gruelling, blood-soaked territory inhabited by another famous western novel that appeared in 1985, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  However, despite its occasional darkness, Lonesome Dove contains much more humanity, warmth and optimism than McCarthy’s nihilistic gorefest / prose-poem.

 

It also isn’t afraid to evoke the conventions that were staples of the westerns of yore and I wonder how a young 21st century readership would react to some of those conventions today.  The western was traditionally a genre where ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ and it paid little attention to feminist sensibilities.  Accordingly, some may find the character of Lorena problematic, since she starts the novel as a hard-assed grifter but steadily becomes more dependent on the men around her.  First, she falls for Jake, and then she falls for Gus, who rescues her after she’s been abducted by Blue Duck.  That said, the rancher Clara Allen is one of the toughest and wisest characters in the book.  Near the end, she gets a chance to speak her mind to Call, somebody she’s always had a low opinion of: “You men and your promises: they’re just excuses to do what you plan to do anyway, which is leave.  You think you’ve always done right – that’s your ugly pride, Mr Call…  You’re a vain coward, for all your fighting.  I despised you then for what you were, and I despise you now, for what you’re becoming.”

 

Another old Western convention that’s less palatable nowadays is that of having native Americans as the bad guys.  And in Lonesome Dove, Blue Duck and his henchmen are particularly and memorably vile.  But in McMurtry’s defence, I’d argue that more often the natives featured in the novel are impoverished, pitiful and dispossessed due to the remorseless encroachment of the White Man.  At one point, for instance, Call donates a few of the company’s steers to a band of starving Wichita tribespeople.  It’s insinuated that if people are treated cruelly, some at least will come to behave cruelly too.  Interestingly, Clara shows no concern about a Sioux chief called Red Cloud who’s on the warpath in her neighbourhood because, she explains to July, her late husband behaved honourably to Red Cloud and his people once.  “I know Red Cloud…  Bob was good to him.  They lived on our horses that hard winter we had four years ago – they couldn’t find buffalo…  Bob treated them fair and we’ve never had to fear them.”

 

Also, though Call and Gus’s earlier line of work as rangers frequently involved them killing native Americans who violently objected to the US government’s policies towards them, Gus at least questions the wisdom of what they did.  This is especially so now that the White Man’s ‘civilisation’ – as epitomised by ‘the bankers’ – is moving in and taking over.  “Does it ever occur to you that everything we done was probably a mistake…?” he asks Call.  “Me and you done our work too well.  We killed off most of the people that made this country interesting to begin with.”

 

Later, he speculates that a time will come when the bankers will need to kill the likes of him off too.  Which, in a roundabout way, makes this densely plotted and ruggedly entertaining novel a forerunner to David Mackenzie’s excellent modern-day western movie about cowboys versus bankers, 2016’s Hell or High Water.

 

From facebook.com

The comedian with nine-and-a-half fingers

 

© BBC

 

I’m still too busy with work commitments to put any new material on this blog.  However, here is a slightly updated version of something I posted a few years ago.  Appropriately for today, March 17th and St Patrick’s Day, it’s a tribute to the greatest Irishman of the late 20th century.

 

16 years after his death, I still regard the Irishman Dave Allen as the best stand-up comedian ever.  Allen was known to many British TV viewers during his heyday in the 1970s as ‘the comedian with half-a-finger’, although he once pointed out that he was actually ‘the comedian with nine-and-a-half-fingers’.

 

When I was a kid living in Northern Ireland and when the Dave Allen Show (1968-86) was at the height of its popularity on BBC1, he was the undisputed King of Comedy for me.  I didn’t always understand the jokes and stories he told his studio audience, though my parents invariably guffawed at them.  However, I loved it when the glass of whisky he sipped from at the side of his chair – despite being a ‘stand-up’ comedian, he spent most of his time sitting down – reached a low level and he said, “It’s time for some sketches.”  Those sketches were packed with slapstick and surreal absurdity and were perfect fodder for a ten-year-old.  After they’d shown the sketches and the programme returned to Allen in the studio, his whisky glass would be full again.

 

However, when I look back at the show now, I realise the sketches have weathered the passage of time least well.  Rather, it’s the sections where Allen simply sat and chatted to his audience, marvelling at life’s ridiculousness and telling jokes, anecdotes and yarns, that seem timeless now. These tapped into a tradition of storytelling he was familiar with from his boyhood in Firhouse, Dublin, where his father worked as general manager of the Irish Times.

 

Allen’s formative years were schizophrenic ones.  From all accounts, he had a loving and cultured family at home, but he received his schooling from a succession of priests and nuns who had no compunction about beating their young charges and threatening them with eternal hellfire.  “People used to think of the nice, sweet little ladies,” he once said of those nuns.  “They used to knock the f**k out of you, in the most cruel way that they could.  They’d find bits of your body that were vulnerable to intense pain…  The priests were the same.”

 

It’s fair to say that during his professional career Allen got his revenge on the Catholic clergy who’d persecuted him in his schooldays, both through his verbal routines in the studio and through his sketches, which provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gags about priests, nuns, monks, altar boys, bishops and, occasionally, the Pope himself.

 

Taking pops at organised religion and at any kind of authority (for Allen was no fan of politicians either) was brave for a stand-up comedian on British TV in the 1970s, when the safe targets were considered to be mothers-in-law and ‘wimin’ generally, and blacks, Pakistanis, homosexuals and, indeed, Irish people.  However, in the history of British comedy, Allen wasn’t just important for his anti-authoritarian streak.  Although some of material consisted of traditionally structured jokes and punchlines, some of it too was based on his observations of everyday life and its absurdities.  In fact, he was doing observational humour long before the Alternative Comedy boom of the 1980s turned such humour into a stand-up staple.

 

Allen’s mocking of Catholicism earned him a TV ban in the Irish Republic.  This made me feel almost privileged to be living in Northern Ireland, where I could watch his show on the BBC.  Also, of course, I felt privileged to be a Northern Irish Protestant, so that I could laugh at all those gags about the Pope doing stripteases and performing somersaults down the aisles of Vatican chapels, bishops lusting after sexy nuns, priests sprinkling holy water over their ironing, altar boys breaking wind, confession boxes turning into dodgem cars, etc., without suffering Catholic guilt and fearing I’d be damned to eternal hellfire.  Though in the interests of religious equality I should say that I remember him cracking a lot of jokes about the Reverend Ian Paisley too.

 

Predictably, Allen also earned the ire of clean-up-TV campaigner Mrs Mary Whitehouse, head of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, Britain’s equivalent of the Moral Majority.  She once described one of Allen’s sketches, involving a post-coital conversation between a husband and wife, as ‘offensive, indecent and embarrassing’.  Incidentally, when I did some research on Mrs Whitehouse recently, I discovered that in 1977 her organisation gave an award for ‘wholesome family entertainment’ to Jimmy Savile.

 

Allen was said to have received death-threats from the Provisional IRA for putting the nose of Ireland’s Catholic establishment out of joint.  However, Danny Morrison, the former IRA man and editor of the Republican News, has claimed that Dave Allen was actually a big hit with his old terrorist colleagues, especially when they were incarcerated.  “Dave Allen was a major hit with Republican prisoners.  We all loved his show.  We particularly loved his anti-clerical material.  You have to remember that Dave Allen was a subversive in the Seventies.  He was anti-establishment, and you couldn’t get more anti-establishment than us, so we identified with him.”  So it sounds like during the 1970s the inmates of the Republican section of Long Kesh were laughing at those stripping and somersaulting Popes, lusty bishops, sexy nuns, comical priests, farting altar boys, bumping confession boxes, etc., as heartily as us Protestants were.

 

As well as his comedy shows in the 1970s, Allen hosted a documentary series where he would track down and interview eccentrics, oddballs and people who generally lived their lives not giving a toss about what other people thought of them.  Though they aren’t remembered today, Allen’s documentary programmes created a blueprint for later programme-makers like Louis Theroux.  Unlike Theroux’s trouble-seeking, if-I-give-them-enough-rope-they’ll-hang-themselves approach, however, Allen was genuinely interested in and respectful of his subjects’ eccentricities.

 

Dave Allen should have thrived during the 1980s.  After all, this was when a younger generation of comics made British comedy less about traditional joke-telling and more about lampooning authority and observing life’s absurdities, stuff Allen had been doing for years.  But his TV appearances became less frequent.  He did, however, enjoy an acclaimed run doing a comedy show in London’s West End.  I heard people claim at the time that Allen was such a genius he went onstage each evening without any script and simply talked about whatever came into his head.  From what I’ve learned subsequently, things weren’t quite so freeform.  Allen worked with scriptwriters and those writers sat in the front row of the audience holding up cards with keywords written on them, to keep his mind running in the right direction, if not exactly on track.

 

Dave Allen made his final TV series, of purely stand-up material, in the early 1990s.  I know some fans of his shows twenty years earlier who felt uncomfortable with these later performances.  Allen, now noticeably greyer, saggier and wrinklier, sounded a lot more acerbic than he had when he’d been perched on that 1970s chair with his whisky-glass, his slapstick sketches and his congenial Irish charm.  The routines were more observational than ever but were invested now with an old man’s cantankerousness, with Allen venting his spleen on monosyllabic teenagers, supermarket queues, dog-lovers, retirement and the aging process generally.

 

One of Allen’s most memorable tirades at this time went: “You wake to the clock, you go to work to the clock, you clock in to the clock, you clock out to the clock, you come home to the clock, you eat to the clock, you drink to the clock, you go to bed to the clock, you get up to the clock, you go back to work to the clock… You do that for forty years of your life and you retire. What do they f**king give you? A clock!”  As the F-word was still a big no-no on British television at the time, questions were raised about him in the House of Commons.

 

And that was pretty much it for Allen’s public appearances until his death in 2005.  His later low profile was due partly to ill-health and partly to his desire for a quiet and stress-free retirement.  And he managed to take with him to the grave the true story about what’d happened to his missing half-finger, although over the years he’d teased reporters, interviewers and audiences with tall tales about it.  He once told Clive James that his brother had knocked him on the jaw while he had the finger in his mouth, causing him to chomp it off.  And I seem to recall him telling a journalist for Loaded magazine that it’d been devoured by his own arsehole one night when that orifice was feeling particularly hungry.

 

Here’s some Youtube footage of Allen, a self-described ‘practising atheist’, subjecting the Book of Genesis to his own, inimitable scrutiny.

 

© BBC / From the Daily Telegraph

The full Fulci

 

From amiddleagedwitch.wordpress.com

 

Today, March 13th, 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of Italian director Lucio Fulci.  Here’s a reposting of a lengthy treatise I wrote about the mighty Fulci back in 2014.

 

Nowadays, satellite television can beam any subject matter, however adult, into our living rooms.  Thanks to this, the whole family, from grandma and grandpa down to the pre-school infants, can now sit together in front of the TV and enjoy, communally, such splendid sights as the bit in season three of The Walking Dead (2012-13) where Danai Gurira grabs a big jaggy chunk of glass and rams it in extreme close-up into David Morrissey’s eyeball.  Even better, a few minutes later, they can enjoy the sight of David Morrissey, again in extreme close-up, pulling the jaggy glass out of his eyeball.

 

This wasn’t always the case.  Audiences didn’t always have easy access to images of extreme eyeball abuse.  Indeed, three decades ago, a scene where a person got a humongous wooden splint stuck in her eye while being dragged through a hole in a door by a mouldering zombie was enough to cause outrage amongst the powers who decided what British film-fans could and couldn’t watch.  The scene belonged to the 1979 Italian horror movie Zombie Flesh Eaters, directed by the inimitable Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci.  And it was the gory content of this and movies like it that led to Britain’s Video Nasties scare of the early 1980s.

 

By 1983, the Department of Public Prosecutions, cheered on by the likes of public-morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse and the right-wing British tabloid press, had drawn up a list of 72 films deemed liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’ and thus open to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act.  39 of the 72 were successfully prosecuted.  The remaining 33 weren’t prosecuted or were subject to unsuccessful prosecutions, but at the time you had little chance of seeing them through legitimate means.

 

Now that the hysteria has long passed, the majority of these films are available in uncut versions in Britain.  A couple of them, like Don’t Go into the Woods (1981) and Contamination (1980), have even suffered the ultimate humiliation.  They’ve been awarded wussy ‘15’ certificates.

 

Among the movies Lucio Fulci directed, two, Zombie Flesh Eaters and 1981’s The House by the Cemetery ended up on the list of 39 prosecuted titles; while a third, 1981’s The Beyond, was on the list of 33 that escaped successful prosecution.  A fourth, 1980’s City of the Living Dead, didn’t make the Nasties list, but British police seized videos of it nonetheless.  A fifth, 1982’s The New York Ripper, wasn’t classified as a Nasty either but still got banned from British cinemas.  For this achievement alone, I think Lucio Fulci deserves respect.

 

I have a complicated relationship with Fulci.  I doubt if I’ve ever seen more than one or two things he’s directed that I’d classify as good films, but I have to admit that when I encounter a new Fulci title in a DVD store or see one scheduled for broadcast on the Horror Channel, my pulse speeds up.  I get a prickly, sweaty sense of excitement.  I tell myself, I have to see this.  Although the end result is usually the same.  After the damned thing has finished, I sit back and feel a strange combination of bemusement, queasiness and disappointment, while a voice nags at me: “What the hell was that about?”  Although to be fair to Fulci, there’s usually been at least one sequence in the film that’s made me think: “Wow!”

 

Lucio Fulci didn’t find fame, or infamy, in the English-speaking world until the late 1970s, but he’d been a staple of Italian cinema for a long time before.  He started as a scriptwriter, first of all working on the 1954 comedy Un Giorna in Pretura.  In 1959, a dozen film-scripts later, he began directing.  One of his earliest directorial efforts was Ragazzi del Juke-Box, a musical starring the soon-to-be 1960s pin-up Elke Sommer.  During the 1960s and 1970s, Lucio beavered away making comedies and spaghetti westerns.  He also tried his hand at directing giallo movies, those twisted, kinky, violent and macabre Italian variations on the thriller genre: 1969’s Unna Sull’atra, 1971’s A Woman in a Lizard’s Skin and 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

Of Fulci’s giallo films, I’ve only seen Don’t Torture a Duckling and it’s surely one of the best things he did.  It has none of the excess and goofiness of his later horror films and it benefits from its distinctly un-giallo-like setting.  While most examples of this sub-genre take place in an affluent urban world inhabited by high-fliers in the creative industries (photographers and fashion models are common), Duckling is set 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 the setting allows Fulci to take pot-shots at the institutions of conservative, traditional Italy, his cameras film the countryside there sumptuously.

 

That said, viewers today will be troubled by some early scenes, seemingly played for humour, which show heroine Barbara Bouchet teasing the village’s young boys by brazenly exposing herself to them.  Imagine if the film had had hero Tomas Milian exposing himself to the village’s young girls.  It’s a clumsy foreshadowing of the film’s themes, which are the threat posed to childhood innocence by an immoral world, and a serial killer’s determination to preserve that innocence by any means necessary.

 

Some commentators have noted that Fulci’s sudden interest in giallo movies, and hence in darker, bloodier material, coincided with the death of his wife Maria, who in 1969 committed suicide after discovering she had cancer.  But the director himself never mentioned a connection between this personal tragedy and the darkening tone of his films.

 

The release of Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1979 saw Fulci plant his flag both in horror-movie territory and in the consciousness of impressionable, sensation-hungry teenagers, as I was then.  The film was a success despite critics slamming it as an inferior cash-in on George A. Romeo’s seminal zombie movie from the previous year, Dawn of the Dead. 

 

© Variety Film  

 

Well, Zombie Flesh Eaters isn’t as good as Dawn of the Dead, but it has an undeniable something about it.  The story kicks off with an un-crewed boat drifting towards New York Harbour while a ravenous zombie lurks in its hold.  Then it shifts to the Caribbean island from which the boat originated, where a full-scale zombie epidemic, possibly scientifically induced, possibly supernatural, is underway.  And at the very end it returns to New York, which has now succumbed to a zombie onslaught too.  The stuff in New York is ropey but the scenes on the Caribbean island, depicted as a cursed, pestilent and windswept hellhole, are wonderfully atmospheric.  A sequence where the protagonists stumble into a ‘conquistadors’ cemetery’ and the graves start disgorging some ancient cadavers is especially hard to forget.

 

But even that scene is surpassed by an earlier one where a female scuba diver flees from the predations of a large shark and hides behind a coral reef; only to discover that on the other side of the reef there lurks – eek! – a soggy underwater zombie.  The shark and the zombie then proceed to fight, in a slow, balletic way.  It’s typical of Fulci’s best sequences in that it manages to be simultaneously bizarre, haunting and totally bonkers.

 

The film is helped by the presence of two British performers, Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson, who just ignore the absurdities of the situations and dialogue and get on with some proper acting.  I read an interview with McCulloch a while back and he professed himself bemused by Fulci’s filming techniques in New York. These involved the cast and crew turning up at a spot, filming without any licence, and then clearing off as soon as the police appeared.  This might explain the film’s curiously disjointed final image, which shows an army of zombies shuffling along an elevated bridge whilst below the New York rush-hour traffic trundles back and forth as if it’s just a normal evening.

 

The female lead, played by Tisa Farrow, is bloody awful, though.  Tisa is the younger sister of Mia Farrow, and I’ve often wondered what the pair of them talked about when they met up during this period.  “Oh hi, Tisa.  I’m busy making A Wedding with Robert Altman and Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov.  What are you up to?”  “Well, I’m fighting off a horde of flesh-eating zombies in a conquistadors’ cemetery with Lucio Fulci.”  Mind you, considering what Mia had to endure with Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen, maybe she thought her kid sister had the better deal.

 

Zombie Flesh Eaters is one of my favourite Lucio Fulci movies because it has a story, one where things move from A to B and then to C.  Unfortunately, for his next horror movies, Fulci decided that there’d be a common theme.  Each would take place in a locality that, unknown to the inhabitants, rests on top of a portal to hell.  And if you’re on top of a portal to hell, the laws of physics, of cause and effect, of A leading to B and to C, will be suspended.  All sorts of crazy things will happen.  The dead will rise, furniture will levitate, dogs will go mad, eyeballs will bleed, the sky will rain maggots, demonic winds will blow in your windows and satanic spiders will chew your face off.  But there won’t be anything like a logically sequenced plot.

 

Many film fans have applauded Fulci for doing away with such outdated, bourgeoisie concepts as ‘plots’ in his films, but I have to say I find it a cop-out.  This ‘portal to hell’ stuff was just an excuse for him to make things up as he went along.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

First in this series was 1980’s City of the Living Dead, which centres on strange goings-on in a remote American town that, by bad luck, is built on one of those afore-mentioned portals to hell.  The townspeople are soon falling victim to various forms of supernatural mayhem, which are orchestrated by a ghostly priest and a clutch of zombies who apparently have the power to teleport from one place to another.  City is a shambolic film.  Well, what else can you expect when there’s teleporting zombies in it?  But as usual with Fulci there are scenes that really stick in the memory.  I particularly like one where the protagonists explore some catacombs under the local graveyard, unaware that the cobwebby old cadavers there are stirring into life the moment they pass by.

 

A sequence that all viewers of City remember is one where a girl sits paralysed in a car while the ghostly priest leers in at her and, under his malevolent influence, she starts to vomit up her own entrails.  Lovingly captured on Fulci’s camera, those entrails ooze from her mouth in a slow, slimy mass.  The actress who had the honour of playing this scene was starlet Daniella Doria.  She had to sit before the camera with her mouth crammed full of sheep’s offal, which she then slobbered down her front.  People go on about the pain that Christian Bale inflicts upon himself in his quest for cinematic perfection, starving himself to a skeletal husk for The Machinist (2004) or making his weight balloon to play the slobby hero of American Hustle (2013); but I bet even Bale would draw the line at spewing mouthfuls of cold sheep-guts over himself in a Lucio Fulci movie.

 

Daniella Doria made three subsequent films with Fulci and she died horribly in all of them, via asphyxiation, stabbing and slashing.  “She was one of my favourite actresses,” Fulci reminisced later.  “I killed her so many times.”

 

Many rate the following year’s The Beyond as Fulci’s masterpiece and, indeed, its champions include Quentin Tarantino.  But I have the same problems with it that I have with City of the Living Dead.  There’s no rhyme or reason to it, because the action takes place on top of another of those pesky portals to hell.  Again, though, there are some striking scenes, notably, one where heroine Catriona McColl encounters a spectral figure standing in the middle of a straight, seemingly endless causeway.  The figure is that of a blind woman, played by Cinzia Monreale, who turns out to be a ghost.  Later, though, the blind woman dies when her throat is torn out.  Predictably, Fulci never explains how a ghost, someone who’s already dead, can be killed.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

The Beyond also contains the barmy ‘spiders from hell’ scene, during which a lightning bolt knocks a character off a ladder.  He breaks his back and then lies helplessly while giant spiders emerge from the ether around him, converge and start munching on his face.  The spiders – real tarantulas – look creepy enough as they approach during the long shots; but for the face-nibbling close-ups they become phoney bundles of pipe cleaners that Fulci’s special-effects team probably threw together during the mid-morning tea-break.

 

Another problem is the ending.  It seems that Fulci had intended The Beyond, which takes place in a dilapidated Louisiana hotel, to be a haunted-house movie.  However, his financial backers expected him to make them another money-spinning zombie movie.  I can imagine Fulci’s producer grabbing him one day on the set, after looking at what was already in the can, and waving his arms and ranting in a stereotypical Italian way: “Lucio!  Hey Lucio!  Where-za hell-za zombies?!”  So, although he didn’t want to, poor old Fulci had to insert an incongruous climax into the film where McColl and hero David Warbeck have a shoot-out with a sudden and unexpected bunch of zombies.

 

The final instalment in Fulci’s ‘portals to hell’ series was 1982’s The House by the Cemetery, which has a young family moving into the titular house by the titular cemetery and discovering that they’re sharing it with, down in the basement, something horrible.  But sadly, the film lacks those moments of demented flamboyance that distinguished its two predecessors.

 

Meanwhile, between City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, Fulci tried to do something different.  This was filming a contemporary update of the Edgar Allan Poe story The Black Cat and setting it in England.  I’d hoped that the subject matter would reign in the director’s excesses and impose a little discipline on him.  The focus, after all, isn’t on a portal to hell that makes all things possible, but on a cat.  A pretty evil cat, right enough, but at the end of the day just a cat.

 

Unfortunately, like Fulci’s other films of the period, The Black Cat (1981) suffers from having everything thrown into it bar the kitchen sink.  The cat has somehow picked up subconscious psychic emanations from its owner, who’s a paranormal investigator obsessed with contacting the dead and who’s played by the distinguished Irish actor Patrick Magee.  Imbued with the hatred Magee feels deep down for the untrustworthy yokels who live around him in a rural English village, the cat starts acting out Magee’s suppressed fantasies and starts killing the villagers.

 

© Silenia Cinematografica / Italian International Film

 

But the cat seems to have picked up some other things, including super-intelligence and super-strength, for it can hypnotise its victims, sabotage ventilation systems, set furniture on fire, come back from the dead and even, like those silly zombies in City of the Living Dead, teleport.  You wonder why with all these talents the cat ever bothers to scratch anyone, but it does that too.  Still, the film has a few impressively eerie sequences, such as when Magee totters down to the village graveyard after dark and tests out his new contacting-the-dead wireless equipment.

 

Fulci is remembered for one more ‘major’ horror film, 1982’s The New York Ripper.  A serial killer / slasher effort with a self-explanatory title, this was controversial to say the least and led to him being accused of misogyny.  Even if Britain hadn’t been so jittery at the time about Video Nasties, the fact that it appeared soon after the real-life Yorkshire Ripper killings in northern England probably meant it was never going to get a British cinematic release.  The New York Ripper is a gruelling film and, frankly, a pretty bad one.  The killer’s quirk of performing Donald Duck impersonations during the murders isn’t so much deeply disturbing as deeply stupid.  If nothing else, the film serves as a record of the sleaze and dodginess associated with New York in the 1970s and 1980s.  This, of course, was before the city was cleaned up in the 1990s by its mayor, the totally non-sleazy, non-dodgy Rudy Giuliani

 

Thereafter, Fulci’s output tailed off in both prominence and quality due to a series of misfortunes that included a fall-out with his long-term scriptwriting collaborator Dardano Sacchetti and some serious health problems like hepatitis, cirrhosis and diabetes.  Although ‘quality’ is a subjective concept when you’re discussing his movies anyway.  He soldiered on into the early 1990s, his last directorial effort being the poorly received psychological thriller Door to Silence in 1991.  I’ve watched a single movie from his later years, a 1987 teen-orientated horror film called Aenigma that was apparently filmed in the then-Yugoslavia and is a weak rip-off of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Richard Franklin’s telekinesis thriller Patrick (1978).  One thing I’ll say about Aenigma is that its death-by-snails sequence has to be seen to be believed.

 

Lucio Fulci died impoverished, sick and alone in Rome in 1996.  At least he had the satisfaction of attending, two months prior to his death, a convention in New York organised by the American horror-movie magazine Fangoria.  Much to his astonishment, since he didn’t appreciate his popularity beyond the shores of Italy, he was mobbed at the convention by thousands of American fans.

 

Funnily enough, Fulci’s films make me think of Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi-puppet TV show from 1964, Stingray.  Each episode of Stingray would open with a voice intoning, “Anything can happen in the next half-hour!”  That line would make a suitable opening for a typical Lucio Fulci movie too: “Anything can happen in the next hour-and-a-half!”  Especially if the film takes place on top of a portal to hell.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

The holiest relic in Peebles

 

 

I’ve not had time to write much on this blog recently because of my current work commitments.  Unfortunately, in this era of Covid-19-imposed confinement, none of this work involves me moving away from the laptop on the desk in a corner of my bedroom.  Moreover, because I’ve had quite a few short stories published recently under the pseudonyms of Jim Mountfield and Rab Foster, I’m also trying to keep momentum going with those and am devoting additional time to writing, revising and submitting short fiction.

 

In the meantime, in the absence of new blog entries, here’s a reposting of something I wrote for this blog in 2014.  It seemed to get an enthusiastic response at the time and, indeed, I think someone made the entry into a poster that was put on the wall of – where else? – the Pub in Valetta.  Alas, since this was written, Peter Cassidy, the then-owner of the Crown Hotel, has passed away.  Meanwhile, I assume that the chair is still there.

 

Certain towns and cities around the world can boast of having ancient and holy relics.  In the Christian world, for example, Sienna has the mummified head of Saint Catherine in its Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico.  Paris has what is alleged to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion in its Notre Dame Cathedral.  And in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce, you can see part of the index finger of Saint Thomas, the finger that as a sceptical disciple he poked into the wound in the side of the resurrected Christ to check if it was real.  Some places have relics so special that they are said to have healing or protective powers.  Naples, for instance, is lucky enough to have in its city cathedral the dried blood of St Januarius, which protects it from disasters like earthquakes and plagues.

 

However, my hometown of Peebles in the south of Scotland contains surely the most powerful holy relic of all.  Because in the public bar of the Crown Hotel on Peebles High Street you’ll find the armchair of Oliver Reed.

 

This hallowed item of furniture, on which the legendary hell-raising star of movies such as Hannibal Brooks (1969), Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), The Three and Four Musketeers (1973-74) and Tommy (1975) once rested his butt, is rumoured to have healing powers too.  A pilgrim who reposes against its upholstery will, with time, be cured of certain pernicious ailments.  He or she will be cured of sobriety, for instance.  And common sense.  And dignity.

 

The story behind the chair is that, in the middle of the 1990s, Oliver Reed found himself staying in Peebles whilst doing some location filming for a Scottish movie called The Bruce (1996), a quick, cheap cash-in on Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), which had recently been cleaning up at the box office.  I’ve never seen The Bruce, but from all accounts it’s terrible.  Reed being Reed, of course, he soon managed to sniff out the pub in town containing the biggest number of what are euphemistically known as ‘local characters’, which was the Crown’s public bar.  He then set up camp there for several days, much to the joy of the Scottish tabloid press.

 

At one point, the Scottish edition of the Sun published on its front page a photo of an inebriated Reed passed out against the inside of the Crown’s entrance door, while someone outside tried to push his way in.  No doubt he was thinking, “What the hell’s blocking the door…?  Oh…  It’s Oliver Reed.”  For some reason Reed was clutching a toy sheep at the time so the Sun’s headline was, inevitably, SHAME ON EWE.

 

During his sojourn in the Crown, Reed complained to the hotel owner Peter Cassidy about the hardness of his seats and then thrust a bundle of notes into the hand of a regular called Davie Lees and ordered him to go to the local furniture store, the Castle Warehouse, and buy the pub a properly upholstered, properly comfortable armchair.  Davie obliged, and the armchair now resides against a back wall of the public bar, under a framed photo of a well-refreshed Reed posing with Cassidy outside the hotel.

 

Reed departed for the great pub in the sky back in 1999, when he expired during the filming of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (1999) in Malta.  He keeled over and breathed his last in, appropriately enough, a Valetta bar called the Pub, after he’d taken on a squad of British sailors in a series of drinking and arm-wrestling contests.  However, I have a feeling that the great man’s psychic residue lives on in that armchair in the Crown.

 

Just a few days ago, I’d arranged to meet my Dad for a meal in the Crown’s restaurant.  As the Oliver Reed armchair is aligned with the pub’s front door, I sat down in it so that I could watch the door and spot my Dad as soon as he walked in.

 

Immediately after sitting down, I found myself possessed by strange urges – to drink 104 pints in one sitting and then climb up the nearest chimneystack naked whilst roaring, “I’m Santa Claus!”; to indulge in a nude fireside wrestling match with Alan Bates; to vomit over Steve McQueen; to smuggle an elephant over the Alps; to take the local rugby club on a drinking spree and then organise a naked cross-country run with them through the surrounding moonlit fields; to film a Musketeers movie and stab several stunt-swordsmen during the fight scenes; to insult Jack Nicholson about his height, Richard Harris about his toupee and Raquel Welch about the thickness of her ankles; to arrive drunk at Galway Airport lying on the baggage conveyor; to chase ace snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins around a house with an axe; and to get a bird-claw tattoo done on my willie, which I’d subsequently threaten to whip out and display to the cameras every time I did a TV chat-show interview.

 

But then my Dad came into the hotel, I rose from the seat and the strange spell was broken.  So instead I ordered a half-pint of lager shandy and a plate of supreme-of-chicken with honey-and-mustard sauce, and later washed everything down with a nice cup of coffee.  And then went home to my bed.

 

© 20th Century Fox

The big Gray man

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Today, January 25th, 2021, has been designated ‘Gray Day’ on Scottish social media in honour of the celebrated Glaswegian polymath Alasdair Gray, who died in December 2019.  As my way of marking the occasion, here’s a reposting of a blog entry I wrote shortly after the great man’s death.

 

Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away on December 29th, 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer any new insights on the man or his works.  But he was a huge influence on me, so I’m going to give my tuppence-worth anyway.

 

In 1980s Scotland, to a youth like myself, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use to describe Gray as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s sci-fi ‘B’ movie.  He once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.

 

He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Iain Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) explaining to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.

 

In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and finished my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young, doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and I similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.

 

© Canongate

 

That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as reminiscent of the great Bohemian writer.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

 

The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism.  Fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.

 

With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.

 

Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a devolved Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister.  During this reign, Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.

 

Whilst telling me about Lanark, Iain Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”

 

© Canongate

 

However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.

 

Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off, including Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark but was less enthusiastic about Janine.  However, it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.

 

Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did with his creature.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows a highly entertaining mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads because Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as a witless fantasy and portrays herself not as Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke of male attitudes towards women, especially insecure Scottish ones that are partly possessive and partly, madly over-romanticised.

 

© Canongate

 

Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious, and they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then on his way down in London, but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is really a series of connected short stories and again features much sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990, something he regarded as a huge, missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.

 

Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find the quality of his short fiction variable, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.

 

The fact that Gray was also an artist meant that his books, with their handsome covers and finely detailed illustrations, made decorous additions to anyone’s bookcases.  The illustration by Gray I like best is probably the one he provided for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

 

© Canongate

 

He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised, with their back-cover blurbs, review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)

 

As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I went there with my brother a few years ago to attend a Bob Mould gig, I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer… and forgot to look upwards.

 

I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking with huge animation to a group of friends and admirers.  I was, however, too shy to go over and introduce myself.

 

One writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, it was probably the favourable comparison to Gray that prompted Banks to take me on a session.

 

From austinkleon.com