Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

During the previous incarnation of this blog, before it had to be rebooted due to hacking issues, I published a series of posts under the title Cinematic heroes.  This was about actors whom I admired, ranging from craggy action men like Rutger Hauer and James Cosmo to beloved old-school character actors like Terry-Thomas and James Robertson-Justice.  Aware of a gender imbalance, I’d also intended to launch a parallel series of posts called Cinematic heroines, dedicated to my favourite actresses.  But I never got around to it.

 

Anyhow, a week ago saw the death of the actress Barbara Shelley following a Covid-19 diagnosis.  When I was a lad of 11 of 12 and a nascent film buff, Shelley was perhaps the first actress I developed a crush on.  Thus, sadly and belatedly, here’s Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley.

 

As well as being my first movie crush, Shelly starred in the first horror movie I saw that properly horrified me, 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  Before I watched it, and before I reached my second decade, I’d seen some quaint old black-and-white horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, including a couple that featured John Carradine as Count Dracula.  Carradine played Dracula as a gentlemanly, well-spoken figure who could change from bat-form into dandified human-form complete with a top hat.  This hardly prepared me for Dracula, Prince of Darkness, made two decades later in colour by Hammer Films.  It was a decidedly more visceral experience…  Almost traumatically so for my young sensibilities.

 

Cloaked in an atmosphere of dread from the word ‘go’, it has four English travellers getting lost whilst holidaying in Transylvania and spending the night at the seemingly empty Castle Dracula.  There, an acolyte of Dracula strings one of them up over a tomb containing the dead vampire’s ashes, slashes his throat and sends blood splashing noisily onto those ashes to bring the monster back to life.  And monster he certainly is.  Played by the great Christopher Lee, Dracula lurches around, hisses and spits, and glowers through red contact lenses like a literal bat out of hell.

 

Barbara Shelley is the second-billed actress in the movie, after Suzan Farmer, but she’s as memorable as Lee is.  She plays Helen Kent, a stereotypically repressed and prudish Victorian housewife who, the traveller least enamoured with the apparent comforts of Castle Dracula, comes out with the prophetic line: “There’ll be no morning for us!”  Later, bitten by the Count, she transforms from Victorian housewife into voluptuous sexpot, tries to seduce the surviving members of the group and bares her fangs animalistically at the sight of their naked throats.  However, Helen’s sexual awakening is shockingly punished near the film’s end when another memorable actor, Lanarkshire-born Andrew Keir, playing a very Scottish Transylvanian monk, re-asserts the puritanical and patriarchal status quo.  He and his fellow monks tie her down and bang a metal stake through her heart in a scene that evokes the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

After all that, my eleven-year-old self was shaken – but also stirred, into a lifelong fascination with horror movies.  And thanks to Barbara Shelley’s performance as a saucy vampire, I was probably stirred in more ways than one.

 

Born in London in 1932 as Barbara Kowin, Shelley took up modelling in the early 1950s and by 1953 had appeared in her first film, Mantrap, made by Hammer Films, the studio that’d later become her most important employer.  However, she subsequently spent several years in Italy, making films there.  It wasn’t until 1957 that she got a leading role in the genre that’d make her famous.  This was the British-American cheapie Cat Girl, an ‘unofficial remake’ of Val Lewton’s supernatural masterpiece Cat People (1942).  Cat Girl’s director was Alfred Shaughnessy, who’d later develop, write for and serve as script editor on the British television show Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75), essential TV viewing during the 1970s and the Downtown Abbey (2010-15) of its day.

 

Slightly better remembered is 1958’s Blood of the Vampire, a cash-in by Tempean Films on the success that Hammer Films had recently enjoyed with gothic horror movies shot in colour.  Indeed, Hammer’s main scribe Jimmy Sangster moonlighted from the company to write the script for this one.  Shelley isn’t in Blood long enough to make much impact, although her character is allowed to be proactive.  Hired as a servant, she infiltrates the household of the mysterious Dr Callistratus (played by legendary if hammy Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit), who runs the prison in which her lover (Vincent Ball) has been incarcerated.  Callistratus, it transpires, is harvesting the prisoners’ blood to sustain and perhaps find a cure for his secret medical condition – for he’s actually a vampire.  An uncomfortable blend of mad-doctor movie and vampire movie, Blood at least gets a certain, pulpy energy from its lurid storyline and Wolfit’s OTT performance.

 

The same year, Shelley got her first substantial role in a Hammer movie, although this was a war rather than a horror one, The Camp on Blood Island (1958).  A half-dozen years later, she’d appear in its prequel, The Secret of Blood Island (1964), a film whose policy of casting British character actors like Patrick Wymark and Michael Ripper as Japanese prison-camp guards prompted the critic Kim Newman to write recently: “Even by the standards of yellowface casting – common at the time – these are offensive caricatures, but they’re also so absurd that they break up the prevailing grim tone of the whole thing.”

 

Before making her first Hammer horror film, Shelley appeared in 1960’s sci-fi horror classic Village of the Damned, based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos.  She plays Anthea Zellaby, while the impeccable George Sanders plays her husband George.  Like all the inhabitants of the village of Midwich, Anthea becomes unconscious when the district is stricken by some inexplicable cosmic phenomenon.  And like every woman of childbearing age there, she discovers that she’s pregnant after she wakes up again.  The result is a tribe of sinister little children with blonde hair, pale skins, plummy accents, super-high IQs, glowing eyes and telepathic powers who resemble a horde of mini-Boris Johnsons (well, without the IQ, eyes or powers).

 

These are cinema’s first truly creepy horror-movie kids.  Child-actor Martin Stephens is particularly creepy as David Zellaby, Anthea’s son and the children’s leader.  Still effective today, the original Village knocks spots off the remake that John Carpenter directed in 1995.  It was also amusingly sent up as The Bloodening (“You’re thinking about hurting us…  Now you’re thinking, how did they know what I was thinking…?  Now you’re thinking, I hope that’s shepherd’s pie in my knickers….”) in a 1999 episode of The Simpsons.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Columbia

 

After making a horror-thriller called Shadow of the Cat (1961) for Hammer, about the murder of a wealthy old lady (Catherine Lacey), a conspiracy by inheritance-hungry relatives and servants, and a supernaturally vengeful pet cat, Shelley got her meatiest role yet in the same studio’s 1963 horror film The Gorgon.  This was directed by the man who’d make Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Terence Fisher, and also featured that film’s star, Christopher Lee.  In addition, it featured Hammer’s other horror legend, Peter Cushing.  Atypically, Lee plays the good guy here rather than the bad one, and Cushing plays the bad guy rather than the good one.  The Gorgon is about a mid-European village terrorised by an unknown person who’s possessed by the spirit of Megaera, one of the three monstrous Gorgons from Greek mythology.  (In fact, in proper Greek mythology, Megaera was one of the Furies.)  Her victims are regularly found transformed into stone.

 

Since the Gorgon’s female, and since Shelley plays the only prominent female character, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that she turns out to be the possessed villager.  Oddly, Shelley doesn’t get to play the character in Gorgon form.  That honour goes to actress Prudence Hyman, sporting a headful of very unconvincing rubber snakes.  While the monster is a big disappointment, and isn’t a patch on cinema’s scariest representation of a Gorgon, the Ray Harryhausen-animated Medusa in 1981’s Clash of the Titans, The Gorgon makes partial amends by having some wonderfully atmospheric moments.

 

In 1966, besides appearing in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Shelley appeared in Rasputin, the Mad Monk, which was shot back-to-back with the Dracula film and used many of the same sets and cast, including Christopher Lee as the titular character.  Despite some good performances, I find this film a confused, half-baked affair.  Happily, two years later, Shelley’s final movie for Hammer was also her best one.  This was 1968’s sci-fi horror film Quatermass and the Pit, based on an original 1958 BBC TV serial of the same name.  Both the film and serial were written by the same man, Nigel Kneale.

 

Pit has an ingenious premise.  Workers on a London Underground extension project dig up some skeletons of prehistoric ape-men and what proves to be an alien spacecraft full of dead, horned insect-like creatures.  The insects are identified by the film’s scientist hero Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir again) as inhabitants of the now-lifeless planet Mars.  Five million years ago, they came to earth and staged an invasion by proxy.  Unable to survive themselves in the earth’s atmosphere, the insect-Martians programmed the apes they encountered to become mental Martians.  Since these apes were the ancestors of modern human beings, Quatermass memorably exclaims, “We are the Martians!”

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Seven Arts Productions

 

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Martians, in both insect and surrogate-ape form, conducted occasional culls whereby those with pure Martian genes / programming destroyed their fellows who’d developed mutations and lost their genetic / programmed purity.  When the spacecraft is reactivated by a power surge from the cables of some TV news crews, it triggers a new cull.  London becomes an apocalyptic hellscape where the human inhabitants who retain their Martian conditioning roam around, zombie-like, and use newly awoken telekinetic powers to kill those who no longer have that conditioning.

 

Shelley plays an anthropologist called Barbara Judd, a member of a team headed by Dr Roney (James Donald) studying the apes’ remains.  They join forces with Andrew Keir’s Quatermass – sartorially striking in a beard, bowtie, tweed suit and trilby – who’s a rocket scientist come to examine the spacecraft.  Shelley, Donald and Keir are endearing in their roles.  It’s refreshing to see a film where the scientists aren’t cold-blooded, delusional, self-serving or plain weird.  Instead, they’re decent human beings, working with an eager curiosity, a sense of duty and a very relatable sense of humour.  Indeed, the film has a poignant climax, when the member of the trio who’s least affected by the influence emanating from the spacecraft makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to stop it.

 

Thereafter, Barbara Shelley made only a few more film appearances, most notably with a supporting role in Stephen Weeks’ Ghost Story (1974), a film with an unsettling atmosphere – perhaps because although it’s supposed to be set in the English countryside, it was actually filmed in India.  It’s also interesting because it offered a rare screen credit for Vivian MacKerrell, the actor who was the real-life inspiration for the title character of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987).  However, she kept busy with appearances on stage, courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and on television.  Fans of British TV science fiction of a certain vintage will know her for her appearances in the final season of Blake’s Seven (1981) and in Peter Davison-era Doctor Who (1983).

 

Barbara Shelley’s death on January 4th led to her being described in the media as a ‘scream queen’ and ‘Hammer horror starlet’, but both labels don’t do her justice.  For one thing, her characters rarely screamed – the impressive scream she produced in Dracula, Prince of Darkness was actually dubbed in by her co-star Suzan Farmer.  Also, the ‘Hammer starlet’ moniker implies she found fame due to her looks and physical attributes rather than her acting abilities.  The moniker is frequently applied to actresses like Ingrid Pitt, Yutte Stensgaard, Madeline Smith and Kate O’Mara who worked with the studio in the 1970s, when relaxed censorship rules allowed more bare flesh to be shown onscreen.  But working in a less permissive time, Shelley projected sexuality when she had to, as in the Dracula film, the same way she projected everything else – through sheer acting talent.  It was a talent that fans of the classic era of British gothic filmmaking, like myself, have much to be thankful for.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

My 2020 writing round-up

 

© Schlock Webzine

 

I’m sure few people will be sad to see the back of 2020, although towards its end it did provide two glimmers of hope for the future.  These were the development of vaccines against Covid-19, the main reason for the year’s horribleness, and the defeat in the US presidential election of Donald Trump, the Clown-Master General who’s supervised a four-year circus of corruption, cronyism, disinformation, racism, culture wars, environmental destruction, denial of science and pandering to right-wing terrorism in the world’s most powerful nation.

 

On a personal note, 2020 wasn’t so bad for me in one way.  I did get a number of stories published.  These appeared under the pseudonyms Jim Mountfield (which I use for my horror fiction) and Rab Foster (for my fantasy fiction) and, a couple of times, under my real and boring name Ian Smith.  Here’s a round-up of those stories and details of where you can find them.

 

Firstly, as Jim Mountfield:

  • Back in January, The Path, a cosmic horror story inspired by some rainy season trekking I’d done in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains, appeared in Issue 30, Volume 15 of Schlock! Webzine. The issue can be accessed here.
  • Witch Hazel, a folk-horror story playing on one of humanity’s most basic fears – there’s something following you! – was published in the February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine and can still be accessed here. It also appears in the Spring 2020 hard-copy edition of The Horror Zine, which can be purchased here.
  • March saw a story inspired by the many frustrations of working in an office, The Away Day, appear in Issue 2, Volume 16 of Schlock! Webzine, a kindle edition of which can be downloaded here. Come to think of it, The Away Day is probably already dated.  Will there be such a thing as an office culture once the Covid-19 pandemic has passed and companies realise it’s cheaper and more practical to have their employees working at home?
  • In spring 2020, just as most countries were waking up to the seriousness of the pandemic, my violent sci-fi story New Town Tours was included in the aptly dystopian collection Midnight Street Anthology 4: Strange Days, published by Midnight Street Press. It can be purchased from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.  Also, you can find a clip of me (as Jim Mountfield) talking about the story and reading an excerpt from it here.  I know, the clip looks and sounds like it was filmed by John Logie Baird in 1926, but I was subject to a Covid-19-inspired curfew at the time, didn’t have access to proper video equipment and had to record it in a dark room at the back of an apartment building.
  • In June, my story The Four-Legged Friend, set in Bangkok, inspired by a visit I once made to a Thai surgical museum and tapping into the same fear as Witch Hazel, appeared in Issue 5, Volume 16 of Schlock! Webzine. A kindle edition of it can be downloaded here.
  • Having had cosmic horror and folk horror published in 2020, I was pleased to get some body horror published in it too. In September, my story The Nuclei was included in a new collection called Xenobiology: Stranger Creatures.  It’s a sci-fi body-horror story set in Edinburgh after an apocalypse.  Now that’s a sentence you don’t get to write very often.  Xenobiology can be purchased here.
  • Don’t Hook Now, a nasty sci-fi story I wrote about perverts using future virtual-reality technology to interact with saucy scenes from old movies, was published by Horrified Magazine in October 2020 and can be accessed here.
  • My ghost story First Footers, set as its title suggests in Scotland on New Year’s Eve, has been included in a recent collection of spooky tales entitled Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 1): Christmas, again courtesy of Horrified Magazine. Available as a digital eBook, it can be purchased here.

 

 

As Ian Smith:

  • In March, my slightly Roald Dahl-esque story The Yellow Brick Road was published in Volume 2, Issue 2 of the Sri Lankan literary magazine Write. The last time I looked, copies of this issue of Write were still on sale in the Barefoot Shop at 704 Galle Road, Colombo.
  • To keep its contributors motivated during the March-May curfew that the Sri Lankan government imposed in response to Covid-19, Write started putting up stories on its social media platforms. These included my flash-fiction story Ferg’s Bike, which can be accessed here.

 

As Rab Foster:

  • October saw my fantasy-horror story No Man’s Land, inspired by the works of Ambrose Bierce, published in Issue 9, Volume 16 of Schlock! Webzine. Its kindle edition is available here.
  • Finally, my quaintly named story Pockets of the Janostovore is featured in the December 2020-January 2021 edition of Aphelion. It can be read here.  Gratifyingly, it’s been listed as one of Aphelion‘s picks of 2020 for long fiction.

 

So 2020 has been a productive year for me in terms of my writing even if, in most other respects, it’s been as shit for me as it’s been for everybody else.  Let’s hope 2021 sees me retain that productivity, while generally offering a better experience for all of us.

 

Anyway, with fingers crossed, I bid you…  Happy new year!

 

© Midnight Street Press

Goodbye to all that

 

From unsplash.com / © Andy Newton

 

So adieu, EU.  Boris Johnson has finally achieved an agreement by which the United Kingdom can withdraw from the European Union at the end of 2020.  During the painfully protracted negotiations it looked like Johnson was going to end up with a ruinous no-deal withdrawal, but no doubt he was deliberately prolonging the negotiation process until Christmas.  This was so that (a) when he agreed to a deal on Christmas Eve, he could spin himself as Santa Claus delivering the UK a bumper Christmas present, and (b) members of Britain’s parliament would have hardly any time to scrutinise the 1246 pages of the agreement’s details before voting on its approval on December 30th.  Meanwhile, the more the agreement does receive scrutiny, the clearer it becomes how shit it is, for everything from Britain’s financial services sector to its fishing industry.

 

One thing the agreement closes the door on is Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which had allowed 15,000 British students annually to study in European universities without paying fees.  Johnson has spouted some bollocks about it being replaced by a British-run scheme to be named after the British mathematician and computing genius Alan Turing.  If such a thing ever gets off the ground, I’m sure it’ll be run by some private company headed by a member of Johnson’s ‘chumocracy’, it’ll farm British students out to eye-wateringly expensive universities in the USA and it’ll be affordable only to the offspring of Britain’s privileged, moneyed classes.

 

This reminds me of a lengthy entry I put on this blog in 2017, about the first time I ever left the British-Irish Isles and entered a non-English-speaking country.  I did this thanks to the European Economic Community (EEC), which became later the European Community (EC) and then the EU we know today, and through a small programme that existed five years before Erasmus came into being.  Anyway, it seems timely to post that entry again….

 

In the spring of 1982 I was about to finish high school and I resolved to take a year out before I went to college.  No one else in my school year intended to do this.  Those with plans to go to college were doing so six months later in the autumn.  And everybody around me, especially my parents, seemed to believe I was mad for postponing entry into college by a year-and-a-third so that I could do absurd things like…  Well, what exactly was I going to do?  I had vague dreams of travelling and seeing something of the world, and of funding this travel by doing short jobs here and there, hopefully abroad.  But as the end of high school neared, my year-out plans remained worryingly nebulous.

 

Incidentally, nowadays, it seems you’re considered mad if you don’t take a year out, or a gap year as it’s called in modern parlance, between school and college.  Indeed, employers expect it to see it on graduates’ CVs as an indicator of boldness and initiative.  I was just 38 years ahead of my time but didn’t know it.

 

Eventually, I went and tormented my school’s careers advisor for ideas and she suggested a programme I could try for part of my year out.  The EEC was funding young people in its member countries to visit other EEC countries and conduct short projects about some aspect of life in them.  The thinking was that this would give young people a better understanding of their EEC neighbours and thus create better, more empathetic EEC citizens.  All you had to do was complete and send off an application form, which if accepted got you a grant of about £250.  Then you made your own travel and accommodation arrangements, headed for the EEC country of your choice, did your research, wrote a report and submitted it a few months later.

 

I decided to go to France, because apart from the Republic of Ireland it was the closest EEC country to the UK and hence the cheapest one to get to.  Also, I’d studied French for six years at school and shouldn’t have too many communication problems.  Or so I thought.

 

© histoiredeçinema.canalblog.com

 

For my French base, I decided to use the town of Soissons, about 100 kilometres northeast of Paris.  This was because my high school in Scotland ran a student-exchange programme with a school in Soissons, some of my teachers kept in touch with the teachers there, and I’d heard that the Soissons school had rooms on its campus that could be temporarily rented out.  So I asked the head of the French Department at my school if he could drop one of his Soissons counterparts a line and arrange something on my behalf.

 

I was dubious if anything would actually come of this.  But to my surprise, in May 1982, I received a letter from a Soissons teacher called Monsieur Masson confirming that he’d booked me a room for me for three weeks the following month.

 

And what would my project be about?  I didn’t know what career I wanted to follow, but if people asked me I usually told them I intended to be a journalist, because I read a lot of newspapers and liked writing.  It was this journalistic predilection that made me propose going to France, doing research into French newspapers and investigating how they covered the big stories that were affecting Britain at the time.  How different would the French perspective on such stories be from the British one?

 

© Le Figaro

© Le Monde

 

Actually, about half-a-year after I’d typed up and sent off the report, I was in Waverley Station in Edinburgh one day when I saw, at a newsstand, a whole rack of newspapers on sale from other countries, including France.  Among them were most of the newspapers I’d consulted for my project, like Le Monde and Le Figaro.  I realised then that such newspapers were sold in Scotland in places like Waverley Station because lots of foreigners passed through them.  And, guiltily, I realised that I could have stayed in Scotland and done the exact same project by buying those French newspapers in Edinburgh.  Thankfully, the EEC never cottoned onto this and never demanded their £250 back.  (With the Internet, of course, you could do the whole project today without ever leaving your house.)

 

I set off for France at the start of June.  I was 16 at the time, unused to travelling, ignorant of foreign cultures and generally utterly naïve.  The experience that followed was so intense that I really only remember certain moments of it where my impressions were either strongly positive or negative.  Here, I’ll describe the bad stuff first and then relate the good stuff.

 

I didn’t enjoy the journey.  I’d booked seats on the night-train from Edinburgh to London.  As well as being my first time in continental Europe, this was also my first time on a train and my first time to travel to London.  Then I was scheduled to use a coach service that ran from Bedford Square in central London to the Gare du Nord in Paris, with the cross-channel part of the trip being made by hovercraft.  Needless to say, this was my first time in a hovercraft too.

 

When I got off the train at six o’clock in the morning at King’s Cross Station in London, I immediately decided that the station, and by extension London itself, was bloody horrible.  I know that today’s King’s Cross Station has been done up and is a site of pilgrimage for young foreign tourists who worship the Harry Potter books and want to see Platform 9½ there, where Harry, Hermione and Ron would board the Hogwarts Express.  But back then the station was shabby, dank and disreputable.  It was populated by vagrants, most of whom were pissed even though it was only six a.m. and most of whom, disconcertingly, seemed to be Scottish.

 

My opinion of King’s Cross Station didn’t improve three weeks later when, during the journey home, I traipsed through one of its entrance doors and a pair of skinheads promptly ordered me to shut the door behind me.  Tired and not thinking properly, I assumed they were employed by the station and did as they said.  I turned around and spent a minute trying to get the door to shut, until I realised it was an automatic one and wouldn’t shut until I stepped off its pressure sensor or moved out of the way of its motion sensor.  Then those skinheads guffawed and ran off.

 

The Gare du Nord in Paris, from which I planned to get a train to Soissons, was less grungy.  But it was here that I made a shocking and embarrassing discovery.  I couldn’t speak French.  At least I couldn’t speak real-world French, as opposed to classroom French.  With hindsight, all I had to say to the lady in the ticket booth was “Soissons s’il vous plait.  Aller simple.”  But I tried to word my request as a sentence – “I’d like to buy a…” – and it came out as gibberish.  Then I didn’t understand what the lady asked me in reply.  Finally, after a nightmarish minute of miscommunication whose memory still haunts me to this day, and while a queue of impatient Parisian rush-hour travellers lengthened behind me, she managed to identify the name ‘Soissons’ amid my gibberish and gave me the necessary ticket.

 

From unsplash.com / © Moiz K. Malik

 

It was nearly dark when I arrived in Soissons.  By the time I got to the lycée Monsieur Masson had long since gone home and I had to deal with a bemused caretaker.  He found me a room where I could spend the night, although it hadn’t been inhabited for a long time and was full of cardboard boxes, dust and stale-smelling air.  I lay on the bed wondering if this grim place would be my abode for the next three weeks.  (It wouldn’t, of course.  When the administrative staff came in the next morning, they saw to it that I was put in a different room, a clean one that even had a balcony and a view.)

 

Despite it being June, I was wearing a big bulky coat with loads of pockets, handy for carrying things in.  My grandmother had been visiting my family in Scotland when I set off and she’d given me a giant bar of Dairy Milk chocolate to eat on the journey.  I hadn’t had dinner that evening but at least in my fusty room I could snack on that.  I stuck my hand into a pocket to retrieve the bar and discovered it’d dissolved, messily, thanks to the intense body heat I’d exuded all day inside that unseasonably heavy coat.  Then I noticed some big brown smears on the back of my coat.  How had the molten chocolate leaked out there?  Then I noticed the odour coming off those smears and realised they were dogshit.  At some point, I’d accidentally set my rucksack down on some pavement-poo.  When I’d hoisted the rucksack onto my back again, I’d transferred the poo to my coat.

 

But thinking about it now, I see how most of the bad moments related to getting to Soissons.  When I was in Soissons, however, the good moments began to happen.

 

Firstly, it soon dawned on me how kind and helpful people were, even if my communication skills were so woeful that I must have appeared as a gurning, inarticulate man-child.  Particularly hospitable was my contact in the teaching staff, Monsieur Masson, who with his stylish clothes and immaculately trimmed beard reminded me of the French actor Michael Lonsdale when he’d played Hugo Drax in the 1980 Bond movie Moonraker.   As well as checking up on me regularly to ensure I was okay, he and his family invited me to have dinner and stay at their charming Soissons home the night before I returned to Scotland.  Happily, there was enough of my £250 left for me to buy him a bottle of Scotch whisky as a thank-you gift.  To my surprise, he immediately drank a measure of it out of a glass stuffed with ice cubes.  What, I thought, you can drink whisky with ice cubes?  Nobody I knew in Scotland did this.  They just drank it neat or with tepid tap-water.  And kept drinking it.  Until they fell over.

 

Then there was the pleasure of discovering a place very different from what I was used to.  I’d wander through residential areas of modern blocks of flats that were colourfully painted and had flowers growing out of pots and window-boxes.  Where I came from, blocks of flats were associated with failed 1960s planning, urban deprivation and vandalism.  Most of the shops were no larger than those in my home town but they looked unfeasibly smart and chic.  As part of my arrangement with the lycée, I got breakfast and an evening meal there every day and I also discovered the French dining experience.  Breakfast wasn’t about stuffing yourself with Weetabix and fried egg and bacon.  It was a simple but delicious ritual of dunking pieces of fresh baguette into a bowlful of coffee.  Dinner didn’t come with everything piled willy-nilly on one plate but as a series of little courses – hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, a main course, some salad, desert.  Bewildering but somehow very civilised.

 

© PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Universal

© Kennedy Miller Productions / Warner Bros

 

It was also strange seeing cultural items you were familiar with through a French prism.  I spent ages in Soissons’ bookshops, wanting to find out which of my favourite novels had been translated into French and what their French titles were.  I went to the cinema one evening to watch Costa Gavras’ newly released political thriller Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek and set in Chile after the Pinochet coup of 1973.  It was dubbed into French, but by this time my French-comprehension powers had improved and I understood about half of it.  What puzzled me was why the French had decided to give Costa Gavras’ deadly-serious movie a Woody Woodpecker cartoon as its supporting feature.  Also, they showed the trailer for Mad Max II, with the consequence that even today when I watch that Mel Gibson post-apocalyptic action-classic, I hear a solemn French voice intoning, “Mad MaxDeux!”

 

I was unhappy with the report that I finally submitted.  It seemed crude and slipshod and not remotely how I’d envisioned it being.  But its topic was certainly a good one to be focused on during a sojourn in a foreign country.  Studying how the French press depicted Britain was an eye-opener.  As Robert Burns wrote wisely in his poem To a Louse, “To see oursel’s as ithers see us / It wad frae mony a blunder free us…

 

One story I covered in the French newspapers was Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Britain, which was happening while I was in France.  It was the first time a reigning pope had ever been on British soil and the visit had sparked protests by such predictable figures as the Reverend Ian Paisley and his Glaswegian Mini-Me, Pastor Jack Glass.  Although John-Paul II was a socially conservative pope and France seemed a very liberal Catholic country, French commentators were surprised and upset that anyone in Britain could object to his presence.  Not very scientifically (or geographically, since the protestors were Northern Irish or Scottish), one writer in Le Figaro explained it thus: “In the north of England, they still believe in ghosts.”

 

© thepapalvisit.org.uk

From historyimages.blogspot.com

 

However, the biggest British news-item during my three weeks in Soissons was a war.  Britain was fighting Argentina over possession of the Falklands Islands.  Coming from Britain, where the Falklands War had sent most of the newspapers into a bellicose, jingoistic frenzy, the detachment and scepticism on display in the French press were discombobulating.  Many French commentators, even in Le Figaro, which was supposed to be conservative, seemed to echo the famous remark by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that the conflict was like “two bald men fighting over a comb.”  Meanwhile, a gruesome cartoon in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné that depicted a naked Margaret Thatcher making love to a missile and wailing, “C’est bon!  C’est bon!” has been etched on my memory ever since.

 

Thus, it was a project about newspapers that first induced me to leave Britain and start exploring the rest of Europe.  And during the rest of my year out, I would build on that Soissons trip.  By the time I got to college in the autumn of 1983, I’d been in Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Belgium and Holland too.

 

Ironically, newspapers were now been instrumental in building barriers between Britain and the rest of Europe.  The British newspapers owned by a cadre of right-wing magnates, like Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and the two Barclay Brothers, did much to create the hysterical, xenophobic atmosphere that led to a small majority of the British public voting for Brexit in 2016.

 

I find it sad to think that the EU, in its old EEC incarnation, gave me my first opportunity to travel; and travel, as they say, helps to broaden the mind.  In modern Britain, where many minds could do with broadening, such opportunities have been considerably reduced.  75% of British voters in the 18-to-24 age group voted to stay in the EU, but young Britons will now find it harder to study in Europe, work in Europe and even travel in Europe.  The Brexit vote, largely the responsibility of an older and more reactionary electorate, has put a damper on such aspirations.

 

Back in 1982, I didn’t know how lucky I was.

 

From unsplash.com / © Adam Wilson

So un-macho

 

© Library of Congress / From unsplash.com

 

An extremely right-wing author and essayist recently caused an uproar by saying something offensive on social media.  That’s hardly news these days.  Anyway, impelled by morbid curiosity, I checked out said author and essayist’s blog.  No, I’m not going to provide a link to it because the dribbling jackanapes has already received enough free publicity.  One remark on that blog caught my eye and made me think, though.  It was a description of President, soon-to-be ex-President, Donald Trump as  ‘the alpha-male of alpha-males’.

 

Let me get this straight.  Donald Trump is not only an alpha-male, but is the most alpha-male going?  You’ve got to be kidding.

 

The last four years and, indeed, most of the past 74 years that Trump has been on the planet are peppered with instances that show him to be not so much an alpha-male as an alpha-wuss.  Indeed, the past month-and-a-half since the US presidential election, when Joe Biden handed Trump his arse on a plate by massively winning both the popular vote and the electoral college, has shown him to be even more pathetic than normal.

 

Seeing Trump react to defeat with a display of whiny, shrieky, stamping-his-little-feet, waving-his-little-fists, chucking-his-toys-out-of-the-pram petulance doesn’t make me think of some muscled, lantern-jawed, bare-chested, testosterone-oozing specimen of maleness swaggering his way through a Hollywood action movie.  Rather, it makes me think of the obnoxious Violet Elizabeth Bott, the lisping little girl in Richmal Crompton’s William books (1922-70) who, when anyone refused to let her have her way, would threaten: “I’ll thcream and thcream and thcream till I’m thick!”  Or of Veruca Salt, the monstrously spoilt little girl in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), who proved so unbearable that Willie Wonka’s squirrels ended up throwing her down a garbage chute to the factory’s incinerator.

 

Ironically, the right-wing dingbats who support Trump often lament the decline of good old-fashioned masculine values, thanks to, as they see it, assaults in recent decades by feminists, liberals, socialists, gay rights activists, trans activists, etc.  In fact, if you look at the best-known embodiments of traditional masculine values, as portrayed on the cinema screen, you’ll see that their hero Trump displays none of those values himself.  He falls laughably short in comparison.  Imagine how he’d react and behave if he were in the shoes of Hollywood’s most famous macho-men during their most famous movies.

 

© Gordon Company / Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

Take Bruce Willis, for example – an actor who’s well-known for his conservative leanings but who hasn’t, despite scurrilous rumours, shown much enthusiasm for Trump.  As Detective John McClane in Die Hard (1988), Willis attends a Christmas party being held in a skyscraper by the company that employs his estranged wife.  There’s an unwanted festive surprise when a gang of German terrorists show up, seize the building and hold the partygoers hostage.  McClane, who blames the company for his marriage’s break-up and wasn’t feeling comfortable at the party, nonetheless ducks into the nearest ventilation shaft and spends the film crawling around and picking off the terrorists one by one until order has been restored.  You couldn’t imagine Trump selflessly doing any of that.  Actually, someone of his orange bulk would manage to crawl about two inches along the ventilation shaft before getting stuck.

 

No, Trump, the self-proclaimed master of ‘the art of the deal’, would be more like the character of Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner).  Ellis is a sleazy company executive who thinks he can bargain with the terrorists and get them to agree to a plan to lure McClane out of hiding.  “Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast!” he brags in Trumpian fashion.  “I think I can handle this Eurotrash!”  Too late does the hapless Ellis realise that the terrorists have been stringing him along and don’t intend to honour their side of the bargain.  Inevitably, their leader, Vladimir Putin… sorry, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) puts a bullet through his head.

 

Or take Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who’s publicly dissed Trump for his appalling record on the environment.  In Schwarzenegger’s most famous role, as the reprogrammed-to-be-good Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Schwarzenegger realises at the movie’s finale that the central processing unit in his head is the last remaining piece of technology that might enable the machines to take over the world.  So, nobly, he decides he has to be destroyed for the good of humanity and asks Sarah and John Connor (Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong) to lower him into a vat of molten metal.  Could you imagine Trump being so self-sacrificing?  “I am NOT going in that vat of molten metal!  There’s no CPU in my head!  That’s fake news!  This is the most corrupt decision in the history of my country!  This never happened to Obama…!”  And so on.

 

Probably Trump would prefer to model himself on the bad Terminator played by Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator movie (1984), since that character has traits that the Gross Orange One admires: zero empathy, total ruthlessness, no qualms about using its arsenal of heavy-duty weaponry to blow away anything that defies it.  However, with Trump as the Terminator, the movie would last five minutes.  The Trump-Terminator arrives in 1984 Los Angeles…  Naked, it approaches a group of street-punks (including good old Bill Paxton, who exclaims, “This guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack!”)…  Then the street-punks beat it to death.

 

© The Malpaso Company / Warner Bros

 

Who else?  Clint Eastwood, yet another Hollywood Republican who’s been muted about Trump (and in 2020 promised to support Mike Bloomberg if he became the Democrats’ presidential candidate)?  Eastwood built up his iconic macho persona during Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy in the 1960s.  Not only was he The Man with No Name, but he was a man of few words.  He’d squint, keep his jaws clamped around a cigar and unnerve his opponents with a contemptuous silence.  You couldn’t imagine a brash, loud gobshite like Trump, someone whose mouth is five minutes ahead of his brain, doing that.

 

In fact, Eastwood in his other most famous role, as Detective Harry Callaghan, aka Dirty Harry,  offers advice in Magnum Force (1973) that Trump would have been wise to heed: “Man’s got to know his limitations.”

 

John Wayne?  In Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966), Wayne plays a town sheriff who’s loyal to and protective of his staff – Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan in the earlier film, Robert Mitchum, James Caan and Arthur Hunicutt in the later.  Even when Mitchum develops a severe alcohol problem in El Dorado, Wayne puts up with his drunken bullshit and does his best to straighten the guy out.  It’s impossible to imagine the same of Trump, whose four-year tenure in the White House has seen a parade of cringing and crooked underlings being recruited and then, the moment they displease their master, being dumped again.  The loyal-only-to-himself Trump would have pointed a finger at Mitchum and sneered, “You’re fired!”

 

© Armada Productions / Warner Bros

 

Steve McQueen?  McQueen’s most famous role was as the prisoner of war Hilts in The Great Escape (1963), which would have earned him Trump’s disgust immediately.  As he once notoriously declared of John McCain, “He’s a war hero because he was captured.  I like heroes who weren’t captured!”  In fact, McQueen breaks out of the POW camp in Escape but then gets recaptured when his motorbike fails to clear a barbed wire fence on the Swiss border, which I suppose makes him a double loser in Trump’s eyes.

 

In fact, Trump is devoid of the qualities I recognised in the masculine icons with whom I grew up: being loyal, being selfless, doing the right thing, playing fair, saying only things that are worth saying, sticking up for the underdog, being magnanimous in victory, being graceful in defeat.  Then again, this is unsurprising when you see the Neanderthals who support him signalling their masculinity by gathering in mobs outside state legislative buildings, clad in combat fatigues and totting automatic rifles, to protest the implementation of safety measures against Covid-19.  These would-be warriors are too wimpy to countenance wearing small pieces of cloth over their mouths and nostrils to protect their fellow citizens.  Clearly, their notions of masculinity have nothing to do with the qualities I’ve listed above.  Rather, they’re all to do with intimidating, bullying and hurting people.

 

If that’s what masculinity is about, I’ll be glad to see the back of it.  And I’ll be especially glad to see the back of its biggest proponent, the one in the White House – who on January 20th goes from being the alpha-male to being the alpha-fail.

 

© Stewart Bremner

Merry Krampus-day

 

In the last decade, English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, rolling-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic mythology who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he appeared in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.

 

Only recently, though, did I discover that mainland Europeans have had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus that are often charming in their colours and visual designs.  They even include some bawdy cards where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  However, it’s the ones showing naughty kids getting punished – something depicted with a pleasing Roald Dahl-style directness – that I like best.

 

 

So Merry Christmas.  I trust Santa has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.

From sci-fi to Sri-fi

 

© yudhanjaya.com 

 

During the half-dozen years I’ve lived in Sri Lanka, I’ve read a  fair number of novels and short story collections by local writers, including works by Martin Wickramasinghe, Romesh Gunesekera, Shyam Selvadurai, Carl Muller, Ashok Ferrey, Ameena Hussein and Michael Ondaatje.  The latter is probably the best known internationally, though ironically for a novel that doesn’t have much to do with Sri Lanka.  Their output is what snobby literary critics would describe as ‘mainstream’ literature.  I’ve seen none of them associated with ‘genre’ fiction, although Muller’s work contains a lot of humour and labelling it ‘comedy’ certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

 

On the other hand, I didn’t expect to encounter anything in the past six years that could be classified as ‘Sri Lankan science fiction.’  But, to my surprise, I have.  Romesh Gunesekera’s 2002 novel Heaven’s Edge is set in a surreal future Sri Lanka where the Civil War hasn’t ended but gone on and on, with the country becoming increasingly authoritarian and its environment increasingly despoiled.  An uneasy mixture of dystopian fiction, allegory and magical realism, with flashes of J.G. Ballard and William Gibson, I have to say I find Heaven’s Edge the least impressive of Gunesekera’s books that I’ve read.

 

Better is the 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke.  Although Clark was in many ways a very English Englishman, Fountains is for me a very Sri Lankan book.  Clarke had lived in Sri Lanka for decades by the time it was published and the fictional island the story takes place on, Taprobane, is simply Sri Lanka with a few tweaks, for example, with Sigiriya Rock and Adam’s Peak being near neighbours when in the real Sri Lanka they’re 175 kilometres apart.  Set mostly in the 22nd century, though with some bold flashbacks to 2000 years earlier in Taprobane / Sri Lanka’s history, Fountains is about the construction of a giant ‘space elevator’ linking the earth’s surface with a space station in geosynchronous orbit.  Geographical factors necessitate the elevator being built from a mountaintop in Taprobane / Sri Lanka, which coincidentally happens to be the island’s most sacred location.  The book meditates on the conflict between preserving heritage and culture and pushing on with scientific and technological progress, with Clarke treating both causes sympathetically even if it’s obvious which one will ultimately prevail.

 

Now, I’ve discovered the 28-year-old Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and recently read two of his novels, Numbercaste (2017) and The Inhuman Race (2019).  While neither book is entirely to my pernickety tastes, I’d say they make a good case for Wijeratne being hailed as the potential future of Sri Lankan science fiction.

 

On his website Wijeratne identifies himself as a member of a ‘Data, Algorithms and Policy’ team working for a thinktank called LIRNEasia.  This background obviously helped shape Numbercaste.  Its narrator, Patrick Udo, is recruited by a tech company called NumberCorp in the 2030s and gets involved in a project with revolutionary consequences for humanity.  Its purpose is to collate every human being’s data – salary, bank balance, credit card rating, police record, social media profile and a thousand things more – and distil it into a single score, an all-important ‘number’ that determines the social and professional options open to him or her.  As Udo says near the book’s end, “Every morning I’d check Number News on my phone.  Tap, tap.  There, just above the news and the social gossip and the who-checked-in-wheres, was my score.  My score was critical.  It got me the best tables at restaurants I went to, all simple but pricy affairs.  It got me into the VIP section of any club where I wanted to party.  It got me first class tickets on the airplanes.”

 

A person’s number isn’t immutable.  It can rise or fall.  As Julius Common, NumberCorp’s visionary founder and leader, argues, this makes it a positive force because it rewards good behaviour and punishes bad.  For example, police officers who blot their records with corruption or brutality will see their numbers drop below the threshold required for them to remain employed.  Thus, they’ll be replaced by less crooked cops with better numbers.  That, of course, is Common’s spin on the system and the question throughout the book is if it’ll actually become a tool of oppression, locking everyone into their own social and professional cells on different tiers of society and keeping everyone in line with the threat of demotion to lower tiers if they don’t obey orders.  Will Common and NumberCorp lead the world to utopia or dystopia?  In the book’s afterword, Wijeratne notes that China has tried doing something like this in real life with its social credit project.

 

Much of Numbercaste details Udo’s Boswell / Dr Johnson-like relationship with Common.  This relationship sees Udo play the role of humble employee, then trusted lieutenant and finally fallen-from-favour outcast.  Although it’s largely set in California, a culture where the names Zuckerberg, Musk, Gates and Bezos are intoned as if they’re ancient but all-powerful deities, Sri Lanka makes an appearance along the way as an early test lab for Common and his scoring system: “We need a sort of guinea pig to test this stuff.  A small population that we can monitor and test and retest the bulk of our SEA algorithms on… This place is perfect…  Highly connected, almost everyone’s online, and the government will let us do whatever the hell we want as long as their ministers are happy.”

 

© Harper Collins

 

As I’m a relative luddite with information technology, and an avoider of most social media, Numbercaste isn’t a book that automatically appeals to me.  Also, I suspect more could have been done to humanise Common whilst chronicling his inexorable rise.  Perhaps he could have been given some Citizen Kane-style foibles that taint his success with bitter unhappiness.  Nonetheless, a lot of Numbercaste impressed me and Wijeratne’s prose style is spot on.  It provides just enough detail to give a firm sense of time and place, but never overdoes it and doesn’t get in the way of the fast-moving narrative.

 

Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the world have made a lot of science fiction published before 2020 but set a short time after it seem dated.  In the real future, people in 2025, 2030 or 2035 will presumably talk about the 2020 pandemic in the way that we still talk about 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis now.  In the near-futures of pre-2020 science fiction, the characters aren’t talking about it because the writers had no idea it was going to happen.  The 2017-published Numbercaste gets around this credibility problem by accident rather than design.  It alludes to something called ‘the TRS-8I superbug’, which ‘hit Asia hardest’ and ‘had done in millions of people’.  Among its victims were ten million Sri Lankans, who presumably perished from it sometime in the 2020s.  So that’s why nobody mentions Covid-19 in Numbercaste.  The TRS-8I pandemic was so traumatic that it erased the earlier virus from the collective memory.

 

The Inhuman Race, meanwhile, takes place in an alternative universe, in a version of Sri Lanka in 2033 where, to quote the book’s back-cover blurb, “The British Empire never fell.  Communism never happened.  The flag of the Commonwealth still flies over its colonies, which lie stripped bare in the name of British interests, powerless to resist.”  The story begins with gangs of feral children scrabbling for survival amid the ruins of the Colombo seafront.  This is a legacy of the Chinese Emperor deciding to give the British a bloody nose: “having won the might of a united China,” he “brooded over his navy from his darkened throne-room.  The white devils that flew the Union Jack ruled too much of the ocean for his liking.  Dimly, he remembered Fa-Xian’s accounts of Ceylon, the Buddha’s blessed island…  And thus the British Empire’s first direct contact with China in two hundred years was when the Chinese warships pulled into Colombo port and began their assault.”  In the ensuing carnage, Colombo’s ‘Galle Face Green became Galle Face Brown.’

 

While the novel’s first part offers some good post-apocalyptic fun, with the different gangs using as their headquarters the shells of the different luxury hotels that used to do business along Galle Face, such as the Shangri La, the Taj and the Cinnamon Grand, and with a gigantic mountain range of garbage separating the city’s devasted seaboard from its more habitable parts inland, I enjoyed the later chapters more.  Here, the action switches to the island’s still-intact administrative centre, the mountain city of Kandy.  At the same time, the book’s main theme emerges, which is about how much robots built to emulate living beings should be regarded as living beings themselves.  This is hardly a ground-breaking theme in science fiction – though you might think it is if your name is Ian McEwan.  But Wijeratne explores it well, through the eyes of a sympathetic character called Dr Kushlani de Alemeida.  She’s an employee of a company manufacturing and using robots for dubious entertainment purposes.  Though these products look ‘a lot like what God would have made the humans to look like had he been limited to metal and cheap plastic’, Alemeida uncovers evidence that they’re more sentient than anyone had imagined.

 

What I really like about the book’s Kandy sequences are the glimpses it gives of Sri Lankan society in this weird, alternative-universe scenario where the British Empire is still a thing.  Order is maintained by ‘British’ soldiers, actually Indians and Gurkas, and by a fearsome outfit called the Inquisition that consist of ‘hooded monk-like figures’, from whom ‘a pale face with ruby lenses for eyes’ occasionally appears.  The economy has been portioned off to the control of several rich houses, the Ratwatte, Madugalle, Rambukpotha and Bandaras.  The judiciary is staffed by Buddhist monks, which leads to some interesting debate when Alemeida tries to convince a court that the robots should be treated like living creatures.  The British themselves, apart from a mention of a Governor, are invisible – though evidently creaming off the country’s wealth at the top.

 

In this way, The Inhuman Race reminds me of certain works of Sri Lankan literature set when the country was under British rule, like Martin Wickramasinghe’s Ape Game (1940) and Madol Doova (1947) or Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913).  (Okay, Village wasn’t penned by a Sri Lankan but by an Englishman, Virginia Woolf’s husband no less, while he worked for the Ceylon Civil Service.  But it was written from a native’s point of view, not from a colonialist’s.)  In those books too, the British are barely around.  The administrative machinery they’ve set up is run by the locals, which gives a semblance of Sri Lankan autonomy.  But again, up above, the Brits are discretely pocketing the profits.

 

One small but nice touch in The Inhuman Race’s is when a character refers to the words of ‘the great Pratchett’: “There is no justice… there is just us.”  So not only has Terry Pratchett churned out Discworld novels in this alternative universe too, but he’s even more revered than he is in our one.

 

I was slightly frustrated that The Inhuman Race didn’t show more of its future-imperialist / Buddhist society or, indeed, of the secretive Chinese Empire that pulverised Colombo at the novel’s start.  But The Inhuman Race is supposedly the first part of a trilogy, so hopefully Yudhanjaya Wijeratne will supply more details in the instalments to come.

 

© Harper Collins

Out of pocket with Rab Foster

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

I’m pleased to report that a story of mine, the quaintly named Pockets of the Janostovore, has been published in the long-fiction section of the December 2020-January 2021 edition of the webzine Aphelion.  As its title suggests, Pockets of the Janostovore belongs to the fantasy genre and so it’s attributed to Rab Foster, the pseudonym I put on my fantasy writings.

 

When it comes to fantasy literature, perhaps the writer I admire most is the author, poet and artist Mervyn Peake, who penned the trilogy of Gormenghast novels in 1946, 1950 and 1959.  The influence of Peake and Gormenghast seeps through into Pockets of the Janostovore, though there’s one important difference.  The characters in the massive, labyrinthine edifice in Gormenghast are prisoners of centuries of feudal and ritualistic existence.  They’ve been conditioned to follow the same daily ceremonies appropriate to whatever level of the hierarchical society they inhabit.  This includes the aristocrats living at the top of the pile.  However, the inhabitants of the massive, labyrinthine city in Pockets are governed by a different sort of feudalism and hierarchy – one powered by relentless trade and commerce.  Yes, there are aristocrats at the highest tier of this world too but, as the story mentions at one point, they’re mostly nouveau riche who’ve been able to buy their titles.

 

© mervynpeake.org

 

One writer who might appear to have influenced the story, but didn’t, was the American Gene Wolfe, who passed away just last year.  While I worked on the story, I found myself inserting more and more references to those mainstays of the economies of medieval cities, the merchant and craft guilds.  Hence, in Pockets, you get mentions of such obscure groupings as the cutlers (knife-makers), the bowyers (bow-makers) and the girdlers (belt-makers).  After I’d submitted the story to Aphelion at the start of the summer, I then read Wolfe’s excellent 1980 fantasy / sci-fi novel, The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), which turned out to be choc-a-bloc with references to guilds.  It even features a torturers’ guild, to which the title character belongs.  So now somebody will probably accuse me of ripping off Gene Wolfe.  But no, I wrote Pockets before I knew of his novel.  Honest!

 

One thing I definitely did rip off for Pockets was the corny old British sitcom about life in the Roman-era environs of Mount Vesuvius, Up Pompeii (1969-70), which starred the incomparable comedian and comic actor Frankie Howerd.  Specifically, I stole from Up Pompeii one of Howerd’s most memorably groan-inducing jokes.  I wonder if any readers of Pockets will spot it?

 

For the next two months, Pockets of the Janostovore can be read here, while the main page of the December 2020-January 2021 edition of Aphelion can be accessed here.  And incidentally, the long-fiction editor of Aphelion has named Pockets as one of his picks of 2020, which makes its publication extra-pleasing for me.

 

© Arrow Books

Gun me kangaroo down, sport

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

We’re now in December and, as usual, people are talking about what Christmas movies they’ll be watching on and around December 25th.  So here’s a piece – originally posted on this blog back in 2017 – about my all-time favourite Christmas movie.  It definitely qualifies as a Christmas movie since its events take place during the festive season and against a background of Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  Though if you’re accustomed to the cosy festive cheer of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), you might not be ready for the squalor, drunkenness, brawling, vandalism, vomit, sweat-stains, flies, kangaroo-slaughter and Donald-Pleasence-going-bananas that constitute the Wake in Fright Christmas experience… 

 

It took a while for the 1971 Australian epic Wake in Fright to win some respect, but it finally got there in the end.  It flopped on its initial release, despite being nominated for the grand prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and for a long time afterwards it only existed in heavily cut and low-quality versions.  However, following restoration and remastering work during the noughties, a new version of Wake in Fright was shown at Cannes in 2009 and now, belatedly, the film is seen as an important precursor to the New Wave of Australian Cinema that produced the likes of The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Mad Max (1979), My Brilliant Career (1979) and Breaker Morant (1980).

 

Directed by Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright tells the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a young Australian schoolteacher beset by frustration and a sense of injustice.  He dreams of moving to England, something that many young Australians were doing in real life at the time, most famously Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes.  There, he muses, he’ll become ‘a journalist’.  It has to be said that for someone wanting to write as a career, he spends suspiciously little of the film, none of it in fact, doing any writing.

 

For now, though, John’s stuck in a school in a tiny Outback settlement surrounded by vast expanses of nothingness.  Kotcheff highlights this at the film’s start with a 360-degree panning shot that still looks mightily impressive today.  John’s exile here shows no likelihood of ending soon, because to leave his job he needs to pay off a bond signed with the Australian government to cover the costs of his teacher-training.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Wake in Fright begins with John finishing his final lesson before the Christmas vacation and taking a train to a mining town called Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a plane to Sydney for a few weeks in the company of his glamorous city-based girlfriend.  But his plans go askew when he arrives in Bundanyabba, ‘the Yabba’ as it’s known to its inhabitants, and he spends a night there before the plane flies.  In succession, John enters a drinking establishment that isn’t so much a pub as a pumping station, supplying the Yabba’s thirsty male citizens with industrial volumes of beer; befriends a hulking policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who takes him to a late-night eatery; discovers a gambling den at the back of the eatery where money is bet, won and lost on the tossing of pairs of coins; gets involved in a game; impulsively bets everything he has in the hope of winning enough to pay off his bond; and loses everything.  Thus, the next day, John wakes up penniless, unable to pay for his flight and marooned in the Yabba.

 

By this time, he’s also met local eccentric ‘Doc’ Tydon, who’s played by none other than the great English actor Donald Pleasence.  When you see the crazed, drunken Pleasence tossing the pair of coins on which John’s fortunes depend, you know it’s going to end badly.

 

After losing all his money, John, who was initially disdainful of the macho, swaggering, hard-drinking, hard-gambling mindset that possesses most of the Yabba’s male inhabitants, gradually sinks to the point where the same mindset possesses him.  He’s befriended by a well-to-do man called Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) who brings him home and introduces him to his daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay).  Hynes, obviously seen as a soft touch by his Yabba neighbours, soon has a crowd in his living room drinking his beer and leering after Janette, including the ubiquitous Doc Tydon and a pair of young bogans called Joe (Peter Whittle) and Dick (future Australian movie star Jack Thompson).

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

After a severe all-night drinking session, John, now stained, grubby and worse-for-wear, comes to in Tydon’s shack.  This is a hellhole with kangaroo meat heaped in greasy pans and clusters of dead flies stuck to dangling flypaper strips.  We don’t get to see the outdoor toilet – the Donald Pleasence dunny – but from what we hear it’s even more hideous than the shack.  It transpires that John drunkenly arranged to go on a kangaroo shoot with Joe and Dick, who soon show up at the shack in a vehicle loaded with guns and booze.  All four head into the Outback to hunt ’roo and what follows is Wake in Fright’s most notorious sequence, wherein the quartet blast away a pack of kangaroos and wrestle with and stab to death the wounded ones.  Such is the carnage that even in 2009, during the film’s re-screening in Cannes, a dozen people walked out of it.

 

Now completely deranged, John included, they wreck an Outback pub on their way home.  The next day, after waking up in Tydon’s shack in an even worse condition, John manages to stagger off.  Appalled by his own degradation, he attempts to hitchhike out of the Yabba and the whole way to Sydney, but again things don’t go according to plan.  Finally, despairing and practically psychotic, John hits on another way of escaping from the Yabba, the most drastic way possible…

 

It’s easy to see why, when Wake in Fright was released in 1971, Australian audiences stayed away in droves.  With its scenes of heavy-duty and illicit drinking (“Close the door, mate,” someone shouts when John walks into a pub and finds the entire male population of the Yabba boozing inside, “we’re closed!”) and incessant gambling (men standing robotically at rows of bar ‘pokies’ or acting as a baying mob in a backroom den), and with its depictions of violence, sexism and general macho bullshit, it doesn’t portray Australian culture of the time in a flattering light.

 

One scene sure to bait 1970s Australian viewers takes place in a pub.  The boozers and gamblers suddenly fall silent, stand to attention and face an ANZAC memorial wall-mural while a radio announcer exhorts them to ‘remember the fallen’.  When the silence ends a moment later, they dive back to their beer and slot machines.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Then there’s the gruelling kangaroo shoot where bullets tear bloodily through what are clearly real animals.  That must have traumatised international audiences whose images of Australia in 1971 probably mostly came from the popular, cuddly kids’ TV show Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70).   A statement in the film’s end-credits assures us that the kangaroos weren’t slaughtered for the film.  Rather, Kotcheff and his crew shadowed a group of professional ’roo hunters one night and filmed the shootings, which would have taken place whether Wake in Fright was made or not.  Then this documentary footage was spliced into the film.

 

What the filmmakers did isn’t above criticism, though.  It’s been pointed out that the powerful spotlight they used to film the hunt also enabled the hunters to blind and target their prey.  Kotcheff later described the experience as a ‘nightmare’ because, as the night continued, the hunters became drunk, their shooting grew less accurate and kangaroos ended up horribly maimed.  Things got so bad that the film crew pretended there’d been a power cut so that the spotlight no longer worked and the shooting had to stop.  Most of the footage proved to be so upsetting that Kotcheff decided he couldn’t use it, though what is shown is bad enough.

 

The footage was also shown to the Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals.  They actually urged the filmmakers to include it in Wake in Fright, hoping it’d spark an outcry and help such madcap hunting to be banned.

 

Wake in Fright is a grim watch, then, but its cast is a pleasure.  Gary Bond, with his finely sculpted features, blond hair and sonorous, cultivated voice, achieves a perfect balance between arrogance and vulnerability.  He’s priggish but we still worry about him as his situation goes from bad to worse.  Also effective are Chips Rafferty as the lugubrious policeman Crawford, who partakes of the roughneck culture around him without overdoing it and views John’s gradual succumbing to it with mixed disdain and concern; Al Thomas as Hynes, good-hearted but, wandering around the Yabba in a costume of fedora, shirt and bowtie, baggy shorts and knee-length white socks, sadly pathetic too; and Sylvia Kay as Hynes’s daughter Janette, whom John discovers is less repressed than she first appears.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

But the true star of Wake in Fright is Donald Pleasence.  As Doc Tydon, he explains himself thus: “I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament.  I’m also an alcoholic.  My disease prevented me from practising in Sydney but out here it’s scarcely noticeable.  Certainly doesn’t stop people from coming to see me.”   I wondered how convincingly the man who played Ernst Stavros Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967) would appear in the milieu of Wake in Fright but Pleasence nails it.  He’s perfect whether he’s sober and observing icily how John flinched at the touch of Crawford’s ‘hairy hand’; or drinking beer whilst standing on his head to demonstrate how the oesophagus muscles are stronger than gravity; or slyly taunting John about the ‘open’ relationship he enjoys with Janette; or drunkenly raving on a pub-porch about ‘Socrates, affectability, progress’ being ‘vanities spawned by fear’ while Joe and Dick punch lumps out of each other behind him.

 

Wake in Fright could be dismissed as an expression of middle-class disdain for the lower-brow culture and less-mannered behaviour of the proletariat, but I feel that’s a misinterpretation.  When John complains to Tydon about “the aggressive hospitality” of the Yabba, and “the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are,” Tydon retorts: “It’s death to farm out here.  It’s worse than death in the mines.  You want them to sing opera as well?”  And when John slips down the slippery slope, a slope Tydon has already descended, it’s not because he’s had to become a brute to fight off other brutes around him (like in another 1971 movie, Straw Dogs).  In John’s case, he’s entered an environment so harsh and thankless it can turn anyone into a brute.

 

It’s worth noting too that some people whom John encounters on his dark odyssey, like Crawford and Hynes, exhibit more kindness than he does himself.  Even Tydon, who at times seems beyond all help, reveals some decency at the end.

 

Wake in Fright will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, but it’s a film that hasn’t acquired any middle-aged flab or stodginess.  It still seems as lean, mean, raw and unsettling as it did to audiences back in 1971.  And it’s fitting that Nick Cave, the Victoria-born singer-songwriter and God-like genius whose work has frequently shared Wake in Fright’s bleak, brutal worldview, calls it ‘the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence’.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

Favourite Scots words, A-C

 

From the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

 

Today, November 30th, is Saint Andrew’s Day, the national day of Scotland.  To mark it, I’d like to post something about a favourite topic of mine, the Scots language.  And yes, the way that non-Gaelic and non-posh Scots have spoken for centuries has been classified as a language, a separate one from ‘standard’ English, by organisations like the EU and linguistic resources like Ethnologue.

 

Sadly, I think that Scots is now living on borrowed time.  It’s not likely to expire due to the disapproval of educators who dismiss it as a debased dialect (or accent) of standard English and regard it as the ‘wrong’ way to speak, although their hostility certainly didn’t help its status in the past.  No, the fatal damage to Scots has probably been inflicted by television, exposing Scottish kids to a non-stop diet of southern-England programming and conditioning them to speak in Eastenders-style Mockney or, worse, in bland, soulless ‘Estuary English’.

 

Personally, I love listening to and reading Scots.  Here are my favourite Scots words starting with the letters ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ that I’d be sad to see slip into linguistic extinction.  Most of the definitions given come from my heavily used copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary.

 

Agley (adv) – wrong, askew.  The saying, ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry’ (which provided John Steinbeck with the title of his second-most famous novel) is an anglicised version of lines from the poem To a Mouse by Scotland’s greatest bard Robert Burns: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”

 

Aiblins (adv) – perhaps.  The late, great Glaswegian writer Alasdair Gray borrowed this word for the surname of the title character in his short story Aiblins, which appeared in the collection The Ends of Our Tethers (2003).  This is about a creative writing professor being tormented by an eccentric student called Aiblins who is, perhaps, a literary genius or is, perhaps, just a fraud.

 

Avizandum (noun) – a word in Scots law meaning, to quote the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary, ‘a judge’s or court’s consideration of a case before giving judgement’.  Avizandum is also the name of a bookshop on Edinburgh’s Candlemaker Row specialising in texts for Scottish lawyers and law students.  Not being a lawyer, I’ve never had cause to go into Avizandum-the-shop, but I do think it’s the most majestically titled bookstore in Scotland.

 

 

Bairn (n) – a baby or young child.  I once saw an episode of Star Trek (the original series) in which Scotty lamented, after Mr Spock had burned out his engines in some ill-advised space manoeuvre, “Och, ma poor wee bairns!”  So I guess this Scots word is safe until the 23rd century at least.  Also, the Bairns is the nickname of Falkirk Football Club, so it shouldn’t be dying out in Falkirk anytime soon, either.

 

Bahookie (n) – rump, bum, backside, ass or, to use its widely-deployed-in-Scotland variant, arse.

 

Bampot (n) – a foolish, stupid or crazy person.  During the documentary Big Banana Feet (1976), about Billy Connolly doing a stand-up tour of Ireland, Connolly responds to a heckler with the gruff and memorable putdown, “F**king bampot!”

 

Bawbag (n) – literally a scrotum, but normally, to quote the online Urban Dictionary site, ‘a derogatory name given to one who is annoying, useless or just plain stupid.’  Thus, when former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage steamed into Edinburgh in May 2013 in a bid to raise UKIP’s profile north of the border, he ended up besieged inside the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile by a horde of anti-racism protestors who chanted, “Nigel, ye’re a bawbag / Nigel, ye’re a bawbag / Na, na, na, hey!”

 

Bertie Auld (adj), as in “It’s Bertie Auld tonight!” – rhyming slang for cauld, the Scottish pronunciation of ‘cold’.  Bertie Auld was a Scottish footballer who played for Celtic, Hibernian, Dumbarton and Birmingham City and whose finest hour was surely his membership of the Lisbon Lions, the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967.

 

Bide (v) – to live.  Derived from this verb is the compound noun bidie-hame, which refers to a partner whom the speaker is living with but isn’t actually married to.

 

Blether (v) – to talk or chatter.  Journalist, editor and Rupert Murdoch’s one-time right-hand-man Andrew Neil used this word a lot while he was editor-in-chief at Scotsman publications.  He was forever fulminating against Scotland’s blethering classes – the equivalent of the ‘chattering classes’ in England who were so despised at the time by the English right-wing press, i.e. left-leaning middle-class people who spent their time holding dinner parties, drinking Chardonnay and indulging in airy-fairy political discussion about how Britain should have a written constitution, proportional representation, devolution, etc.  Then, however, Neil started working for the BBC in London and suddenly all his references to blethering ceased.

 

Boak (v / n) – to vomit / vomit, or something unpleasant enough to make you want to vomit.  One of those Scots words that convey their meaning with a near-onomatopoeic brilliance.  In his stream-of-consciousness novel 1982 Janine, Alasdair Gray – him again – represents the main character throwing up simply by printing the word BOAK across the page in huge letters.

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Bowffin’ (adj) – smelling strongly and unpleasantly.  Once upon a time, mingin’ was the favoured Scots adjective for ‘smelly’.  Now, however, mingin’ seems to have packed its bags, left home and become a standard UK-wide slang word – with a slight change of meaning, so that it denotes ugliness instead.  It has thus fallen upon the alternative Scots adjective bowffin’ to describe the olfactory impact of such things as manure, sewage, rotten eggs, mouldy cheese, used socks, on-heat billy goats, old hippies, etc.

 

Breenge (v) – to go, rush, dash.

 

Bourach (n) – sometimes a mound or hillock, but more commonly a mess or muddle.  Charmingly, this has recently evolved into the term clusterbourach (inspired by the less ceremonious ‘clusterf*ck’), which Scottish politicians have used to describe the absolute hash that the London government is making of the Brexit process.

 

Callant (n) – a lad or young man.  The Common Riding festival held annually in the Borders town of Jedburgh is called the Callant’s Festival.  Accordingly, the festival’s principal man is called the Callant.

 

Carlin (n) – an old woman, hag or witch.  Throughout Scotland there are stone circles, standing stones and odd rock formations that are known as carlin stones, presumably because people once linked them to the supernatural and imagined that witches would perform unsavoury rituals at them.

 

Carnaptious (adj) – grumpy, bad-tempered or irritable.  For example, “Thon Belfast singer-songwriter Van Morrison is a right carnaptious auld c**t.”  There’s a lot of carnaptiousness in Scotland and another common adjective for it is crabbit.

 

Chib (n/v) – a knife, or to stab someone.  Considering the popularity in modern times of wearing Highland dress at Scottish weddings, and considering the custom of having a ceremonial sgian-dhu (i.e. dagger) tucked down the side of the hose (i.e. socks) in said Highland dress, and considering the amount of alcohol consumed at such affairs, it’s amazing that Scottish weddings don’t see more chibbing than they do.

 

Chitter (v) – nothing to do with the sound that birds make, this means to shiver.

 

Clarty (adj) – dirty.  A dirty person, meanwhile, is often called a clart.  And a pre-pubescent boy who avoids soap, shampoo, showers and clean socks and underwear, like Pig Pen used to do in the Charlie Brown comic strips, would undoubtedly be described in Scotland as a wee clart.

 

Cleek (v) – to hook, catch or capture.  It’s also a noun denoting a large type of hook, especially the gaffe used by fishermen, and poachers, when landing fish.  At least once, in my hometown next to the salmon-populated River Tweed, a cleek has also been used as an offensive weapon.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Cloots (n) – a plural noun meaning hooves.  By extension, Cloots came to be a nickname for the world’s most famous possessor of a pair of hooves, Auld Nick, a.k.a. the Devil.  In his poem Address to the Deil, Robert Burns not only mocks Auld Nick but brags that, despite his wild and wanton behaviour in this present life, he’ll escape the fiend’s clutches and avoid going to hell: “An’ now, auld Cloots, I ken ye’re thinkin’ / A certain bardie’s rantin’, drinkin’ / Some luckless hour will send him linkin’ / To your black pit / But faith! he’ll turn a corner jinkin’ / An’ cheat ye yet.”

 

Clype (n) – a contemptible sub-species of schoolchild, i.e. the type who’s always running to the teachers and telling tales on his or her schoolmates.

 

Colliebuckie (n) – a piggy-back.  Scottish playgrounds once echoed with cries of “Gie’s a colliebuckie!”

 

Corbie (n) – a crow or raven.  The knowledgeable Australian musician / singer / writer Nick Cave uses this word at the beginning of his gothic novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, which has a couple of ‘sly corbies’ circling in the sky above the dying hero.

 

Cowpt (adj) – overturned, fallen-over.  Often used to describe sheep when they fall onto their backs, can’t get up again and run the risk of breaking their spines.  Around where I live, there’s a story of a young farmer who was about to get married and, just before his stag party in Edinburgh, was collected at his farmhouse by a coachload of his mates.  As the coach was driving away from the farm, someone on board spotted a cowpt ewe in one of the fields.  Jocularly, the young farmer told the coach-driver to manoeuvre the vehicle off the road, into the field and across to the spot where the unfortunate beast was on its back, which he did.  The young farmer got out and put the cowpt ewe on its feet again; but meanwhile all the other sheep in the field, seeing the coach and not knowing the difference between it and a tractor carrying a load of hay, flocked around it expecting to be fed.  That left the stag-party and their transport marooned amidst a sea of woolly white fleeces.

 

I’ll return to this topic in this blog and cover further letters of the alphabet.

 

© Viz Unicorn Entertainment / Brent Walker

Why I love the Jesus and Mary Chain

 

© Mike Laye

 

The Jesus and Mary Chain are an alternative rock band from the Scottish town of East Kilbride who’ve been in existence for 29 of the last 37 years.  They are essentially the brothers Jim and William Reid singing vocals and playing guitars, with a long and ever-changing cast of drummers and bassists, including Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, filling out the rhythm section.  On at least three days of the week, they’re my favourite band of all time.  (I’d say on the other four days of the week, my favourite all-time band are probably the Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones.)

 

However, it wasn’t until four years after their formation in 1983 that I started listening to them. When they first came to prominence, the media focused not on their music but on their habit of delivering gigs just 20 minutes long, something that the Reid brothers later blamed on not having enough decent songs to play.  Also, they’d perform with their backs to the audience and cloak their sound in squalls of feedback.  This didn’t go down well with the punters and resulted in bottles being thrown and much general disgruntlement.  Not having had a rock-and-roll bogeyman to demonise since the days of the Sex Pistols, the tabloid press happily described these gigs as ‘riots’.

 

A mate of mine went to see the band in Aberdeen in 1985, got the 20-minute, backs-turned, wails-of-feedback routine and then wrote a review for a student newspaper in which he called the gig ‘a load of bollocks’.  And for some time afterwards, I felt reluctant to part with my money for the sake of the Jesus and Mary Chain.

 

It wasn’t until 1987 that I accidentally heard some of their music.  My brother had recorded an album by the Pogues on a cassette tape for me and, to fill some remaining space on the tape, stuck the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Some Candy Talking EP (1986) on it too.  The EP I found surprisingly tuneful, in a lugubrious sort of way.  The following winter, I worked in a ski-resort hotel in Switzerland, where I procured a tape of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s second studio album Darklands (1987) from an alternative music-inclined English girl who was employed in the hotel’s bar.  I liked that enough to track down, soon after, their first studio album Psychocandy (1986) and a compilation album of their B-sides and rarity tracks, the fabulously titled Barbed Wire Kisses (1988).

 

© Blanco y Negro

 

Psychocandy is a combination of abrasive noise and, less expectedly, some wistful, haunted melodising that makes you imagine you’re hearing the ghosts of the Shangri-Las singing through a spirit medium.  Among the songs in the noise category are The Living End, In a Hole, Inside Me and It’s So Hard, while the melodic ones include the opener Just Like Honey, The Hardest Walk, Cut Dead, Sowing Seeds and the aforementioned Some Candy Talking.  Other songs are hybrids that somehow manage to fall into both camps, like Taste the Floor, Never Understand and My Little Underground.

 

Darklands, meanwhile, largely eschews the noise and embraces the melodic but melancholic. Most of its songs fit the mood suggested by its gloomy title but, in spite of themselves, are often exhilarating too.  The standouts for me include the title song and Cherry Came Too, Happy When It Rains and Nine Million Rainy Days, which contains the cheery lines, “As far as I can tell / I’m being dragged from here to hell / All my time in hell was spent with you…” Nine Million Rainy Days, however, veers off in an unexpected direction towards the end when it borrows the famous ‘woo-woo’ backing vocals that grace the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (1969), though here they mutate into ‘woo-woo, woo-woo, woo!’  Evidence, if it didn’t exist already, that the Reid brothers were, for all their modish abrasiveness, happy to ransack the annals of classic rock music for ideas and inspiration.

 

Q magazine, I think, once likened the songs on Darklands to ‘Scottish blues’, though you could also identify the album as a prototype record for the soon-to-be-popular shoegazer movement, but with more drive and focus.  You could even call it an outlier in the already popular goth-rock genre, though without goth’s self-conscious melodrama.  Actually, I suspect if you told Jim and William Reid they were goths, they’d punch you in the face.

 

But it was Barbed Wire Kisses and especially the track Sidewalking that finally made me fall in love with the band. Sidewalking is a massive, swaggering thing that sounds like a bastard child of the Velvet Underground and T. Rex, a combination I found irresistible.  Elsewhere, Kisses reaffirms the band’s love of late 1950s / early 1960s American pop and rock music by offering cover versions of the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA and, particularly good, Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love?

 

By the end of the 1980s, I’d started a job in northern Japan.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s latest album, Automatic (1989), in a Tower Records store in the prefectural capital, Sapporo.  Automatic is commonly regarded as the runt in the litter of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s albums – it made heavy use of a drum machine, which offended a lot of people – although I remember it being enthusiastically received at the time and getting into the ‘albums of the year’ lists of publications like the Melody Maker and New Musical Express.  Personally, it’s my favourite of all the band’s records, with that crunchy Velvet Underground-meets-T. Rex swagger to the fore.  Its tracks that were released as singles, Blues from a Gun and Head On, are great.  Head On even had the honour of being covered by the Pixies in their 1991 album Trompe le Monde.  However, for my money, the best thing on the record is the riff-tastic but overlooked song UV Ray.

 

© Blanco y Negro

 

Although the Jesus and Mary Chain had a signature sound and you were never in doubt about whom you were hearing, they were surprisingly varied.  Just as Psychocandy had that dichotomy of discordant noise and yearning soulfulness, so they’d moved from the exquisite cry-into-your-beer moroseness of Darklands to the strutting, sneering panache of Automatic in the space of two years.

 

For me at least, the Jesus and Mary Chain were on a roll and their next album, Honey’s Dead (1992), was another stormer.  Especially memorable is its opening track, Reverence, whose lyrics provocatively declare, “I want to die just like Jesus Christ / I want to die on a bed of spikes… / I want to die just like JFK / I want to die on a sunny day…”.  The breezy Far Out and Gone and the blistering Catchfire are splendid too.

 

Around this time, not only did the band get invited to take part in the 1992 Lollapalooza Tour in the United States alongside the likes of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Ministry and Pearl Jam, but they mounted their own scaled-down version of Lollapalooza back in the UK.  This was the Rollercoaster Tour, which they headlined.  I was lucky enough to catch a performance of the Rollercoaster Tour at London’s Brixton Academy.  It featured not only excellent support from American alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr and dreamy, swirly shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, but also a chance to sample a new, up-and-coming band called Blur.  I have to say my impression when I saw the youthful Damon Albarn ambling about onstage, cheerfully gormless, wasn’t that he was destined to be an icon of the future Britpop movement but that he resembled a musical version of Norman Wisdom.  Meanwhile, the headliners blew me away.  Promoting Honey’s Dead, the Jesus and Mary Chain played their set as dark silhouettes against a huge blood-red backdrop and were simultaneously glorious, imperious, uncompromising… and a bit terrifying.

 

With hindsight, the early 1990s was when the Jesus and Mary Chain peaked for me and I didn’t enjoy the albums they produced later in the decade as much as I’d enjoyed Automatic and Honey’s Dead.  1994’s Stoned and Dethroned is a comparatively mellow affair, at times almost a Jesus and Mary Chain Unplugged, although it does feature a collaboration with Shane MacGowan, recorded a few years after he’d parted company with the Pogues.  This track is called God Help Me and, given the condition MacGowan was in at the time, it was probably aptly titled.

 

1998’s Munki has a brilliant single, Cracking Up, which yet again shows that the band know what to do when they get their teeth into a memorable guitar riff.  Elsewhere, Virtually Unreal bounces along nicely and I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll is enjoyably caustic, offering such bad-karma lines as “I love the BBC / I love it when they’re pissing on me / And I love MTV / I love it when they’re shitting on me / I hate rock ‘n’ roll / And all these people with nothing to show…’  But there are a few other tracks on the album that go on for too long.

 

© Creation

 

Rather better is the band’s second compilation of B-sides and oddities, 1993’s The Sound of Speed.  Among other things, this features the band having a go at such standards as Smoky Robinson’s My Girl, Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster and Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song.  They also manage a gloriously rumbunctious take on Jerry Reed’s Guitar Man, which was famously covered by Elvis Presley in 1967.  So much did I like the Jesus and Mary Chain’s rendering of Guitar Man, and so unfamiliar was I with Elvis’s oeuvre at the time, that when I subsequently heard the 1967 version the first thought that popped into my head was: “Wow, is that Elvis attempting a Jesus and Mary Chain song?”  And yet another praiseworthy cover on The Sound of Speed is their wonderfully lithe, snaking version of the 13th Floor Elevators’ Reverberation.

 

By the late 1990s the vitriol expressed in the lyrics of I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll had seemingly overpowered the band.  The relationship between Jim and William Reid had often not been easy, especially when they were under pressure onstage or in the studio, and they’d long been known in the British music press as ‘the Brothers Grim’.  Their one-time drummer John Moore once remarked that they’d experienced ‘enough fraternal conflict to make the Gallagher brothers look like princes William and Harry’ and quoted Jim as saying: “It’s like being locked in a cupboard with somebody for 15 years.  If it wasn’t your brother, you could kick him out.”

 

When I saw them in concert again in the summer of 1998, in Edinburgh, it was clear that things weren’t rosy in Jesus and Mary Chain World.  “William, just shut up!” Jim yelled in the front of the audience when his brother started singing a song intro off-key.  In September that year, a bust-up at the House of Blues venue in Los Angeles, wherein Jim was inebriated and William stormed off the stage, resulted in a gig that echoed the chaos at the start of the band’s career by lasting all of 15 minutes.  It was no surprise when, the following year, it was announced that the band had split.

 

I missed the Jesus and Mary Chain during the noughties.  Ironically, during the years when they weren’t around, it seemed you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting some new band that’d obviously been influenced by them – for example, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Raveonettes, the xx and even the Scottish indie rock band Glasvegas.  Meanwhile, I felt a pang when I saw the Sofia Coppola-directed movie Lost in Translation (2003) because, unexpectedly, the song accompanying the final scene when Bill Murray bids farewell to Scarlett Johansson was none other than the first track on the first Jesus and Mary Chain album, Just Like Honey.

 

© Artificial Plastic Records

 

Yet somehow Jim and William managed to patch things up in 2007 and they performed at that year’s Coachella festival in California (with Scarlett Johannsen showing up to provide vocals for Just Like Honey) and Meltdown festival in London.  Since then, the Jesus and Mary Chain have done intermittent tours and gigs and overseen new releases of their old material.  But it wasn’t until 2017 that they finally got around to putting out a new album, Damage and Joy.

 

Their seventh studio album starts off powerfully with a clutch of songs that, in the way the Jesus and Mary Chain of old managed so effortlessly, fuse together the sunny harmonies of late-1950s / early-1960s bubble-gum pop music with some 1980s guitar distortion and general bad attitude – the sinewy Amputation, the meditative War on Peace, the irrepressible All Things Must Past.  Thereafter, among the album’s total of 14 songs, there are a few things that could have been excised to create a leaner package.  But there’s still lots of good stuff.

 

The band remain capable of penning lyrics that are amusingly provocative, as demonstrated by the avantgarde Simian Split.  The song boasts, ‘I killed Kurt Cobain / I put the shot right through his brain / And his wife gave me the job / Because I’m a big fat lying slob’.  Let’s hope this song never finds its way onto Courtney Love’s iPhone, or indeed, her lawyer’s iPhone.  Elsewhere I love the uplifting The Two of Us, the bouncy Presidici (Et Chapaquiditch), and Facing Up to the Facts, which channels part of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues (1959) amid its muscular guitar work.

 

Incidentally, Facing Up to the Facts contains the lyrics, ‘I hate my brother and he hates me / That’s the way it’s supposed to be’.  Which suggests that, at long last, the Jesus and Mary Chain have achieved a dark but stable peace.

 

From nativetongue.com.au