Ray of light

 

© Alan Light

 

I’ve just realised that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the stupendous American writer Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012.  So, in recognition of the great man’s centenary, here is a slightly revised version of what I wrote on this blog eight years ago when I heard of his passing.

 

The death a few days ago of American writer Ray Bradbury drew tributes, to both the man and his remarkable fiction, from everybody from Barack Obama to Stephen King.  It seems a bit pointless for the author of a lowly and obscure blog like Blood and Porridge to say more about Bradbury and his oeuvre on top of what’s been said already.  But of course, I’m going to say it anyway.

 

Bradbury I would definitely classify among the top ten writers, and quite possibly among the top five, to have most influenced me – not just as a writer (or an attempted one) but in my whole outlook.  Only last weekend, I was having lunch with a colleague and our conversation somehow got around to what our favourite flowers were.  Promptly and automatically, I quipped, “Dandelions, because Ray Bradbury wrote a book about them.”  This indicates how deeply the venerable author of Dandelion Wine (1957), The October Country (1955), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The Illustrated Man (1951), The Small Assassin (1962) and so on had penetrated my psyche.

 

Unfortunately, in the obituaries written about Bradbury during the week, several things were said that I’d regard as misconceptions.  Here are three such misconceptions and my responses to them.

 

Misconception number 1: Ray Bradbury, science fiction writer…

William Shakespeare featured a ghost in Hamlet and three witches in Macbeth, but that didn’t make him a horror writer.  Similarly, Bradbury’s stories contained the odd dystopian future, the odd adventure set on Mars or Venus, and the odd rocket-ship, but that didn’t mean he was a writer of science fiction – certainly not if you define the term using proper ‘science’, because Bradbury plainly didn’t give a hoot about making his settings and plot devices in any way scientifically feasible.  His dystopian futures and alien planets might have been fairy kingdoms where he could let his imagination off its leash and his rocket-ships might have been magical spells that transported his characters to those places.

 

In fact, his supposed science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s has dated far less than that written by his peers, many of whom had engineering or scientific backgrounds and tried to restrict their plots to what the science of the time deemed possible.

 

Two of his most famous works, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, are often cited as key works in science fiction literature, and they do have a plethora of sci-fi trimmings, like mind-controlling totalitarian regimes, populations of citizens kept passive by drugs, wall-sized TV screens, space colonies, alien civilisations, robots.  But I actually find them among his less interesting works.   It’s telling that the most evocative moment for me in The Martian Chronicles comes in the final segment, The Million-Year Picnic, when the human father introduces his family to the Martians by pointing into a canal.  Looking down, they see their reflections in the water – an echo of the famous remark by J.G. Ballard, another great writer who got pigeonholed as a practitioner of science fiction, that the only truly alien world is our own one.

 

I much preferred it when Bradbury threw scientific caution to the wind and just got on with things – never more so than in his short story The Kilimanjaro Device (1965), where the hero travels back in time to prevent Ernest Hemingway from committing suicide.  To do this, he employs a time machine that’s actually a truck.

 

© Panther Books

 

Misconception number 2: Ray Bradbury, whose sentimental, nostalgic stories recalled his 1920s and 30s boyhood…

There was obviously a lot of sentimentality and nostalgia in Bradbury’s stories, many of which seemed to be set in small mid-western towns with neatly trimmed lawns and white picket fences and porches where people sat in the evenings and courteously hailed their neighbours as they strolled past on the street – and occasionally the tone of these stories threatened to tip over into twee-ness.  But it would be unfair to dismiss him as a literary Walt Disney because on closer inspection you’ll find a great deal of darkness lurking around those lawns, picket fences and porches.  And incidentally, many of Disney’s cinematic visions contain more darkness than first meets the eye too.

 

Take, for instance, the small town in Bradbury’s short story The Handler (1947) where the inhabitants mock and belittle the local undertaker – who secretly gets his revenge on them after they die, by burying them in gruesome conditions that match the foibles they had when they were alive.  He fills the veins of the town drunkard with alcohol rather than embalming fluid and stuffs the corpses of a couple of inveterate chatterboxes into the same coffin.   Or the fate of the nagging wife in another short story, The Jar (1947), who is not amused when her simple-minded farmer husband buys the titular vessel at a carnival because it has something strange and indescribable and yet fascinating floating inside it.  The husband eventually snaps at her nagging and what ends up floating inside the jar at the story’s close is not what was inside it at the beginning.  Even Bradbury’s rosiest evocation of his childhood, Dandelion Wine, contains a serial killer among its pages.

 

Perhaps the darkness in many of Bradbury’s stories eludes readers because he imbues his characters, even the very worst ones, with an ordinariness and even innocence.  They’re not the twisted psychopaths that stalk the pages of modern horror fiction.  Rather, they’re believably everyday characters who, somewhere along the line, often through gullibility or unfortunate circumstances, take the wrong turn, with grisly consequences.  Yet the innocence of those characters serves only to make the stories more disturbing.

 

© Panther Books

 

Misconception number 3: Ray Bradbury, with his unique writing style…

And yes, Bradbury was a stylist, but it does him an injustice to imply that that was all there was to his writing.  In fact, his stories would have counted for nothing if there hadn’t been ideas, brilliant ideas, propelling them along while his prose-style brought them vividly to life.

 

In fact, his work contains hundreds of lovely notions and sparks and fancies.  For example, there’s the short story A Season of Calm Weather (1957), where Pablo Picasso takes a walk along a beach in southern France, then stops and uses a stick to spontaneously draw a masterpiece in the sand – much to the delight of an art-lover who watches the creation of this masterpiece from a distance.  However, the art-lover’s delight turns to agony after Picasso walks away again and the tide starts to creep in…  Or there’s the vignette The Foghorn (1951), where the baleful horn sounding from a lighthouse gets answered by a roar out in the mist, which proves to be a last surviving dinosaur mistaking the horn for a mating call.   Or the short story The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1958), where a group of poor Mexican lads of similar build and height pool their money and buy an expensive white suit that they believe will improve their chances with the ladies.  Then, however, they have to figure out how they’re going to share the suit and keep it clean…

 

Even reading those stories when I was 13 or 14,  an age when I was trying my hand at writing myself, I found myself subconsciously cursing Bradbury.  I knew these were all wonderful story ideas but the old bugger had thought of them first.

 

At the time of his passing Bradbury was 91, so he certainly enjoyed a good innings.  Mind you, he’d lived for so long and his fans had become so used to him being around that I’d begun to wonder if he was like a character in one of his stories – someone with so much imagination, exuberance and enthusiasm for life that he’d managed to transcend such things as ageing, mortality and death.  I had a notion that he’d be around forever, kept going by the joie de vivre that was so apparent in his fiction.  But life, alas, is never as magical as it is in a Ray Bradbury story.

 

© Panther Books

Britain’s number-one pub argument answered

 

© Eon Productions

 

A news story printed last week raised a few eyebrows.  It even raised some ultra-stiff, Roger Moore-style eyebrows.  It transpired that the Radio Times magazine had just announced the results of a poll in which its readers were asked to identify the best actor to have played James Bond.

 

While the overall winner of the poll was hardly a surprise, many people were shocked at who ended up in second place – and indeed, at who didn’t manage to get into the top three.  Thus, this seems an opportune time to update and re-post the following meditation, first published on this blog in June 2016, on how I’d rank the six cinematic James Bonds.

 

Sean Connery.

 

There.  That’s conclusively settled the argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  (Well, it flares up in pubs whenever they’re allowed to open during the current Covid-19 pandemic.)  It’s Sean Connery.

 

The argument, of course, centres on the question, “Who is the best James Bond?

 

Actually, I’ll go further and offer a ranking of all the actors who’ve played James Bond over the years, from best to worst.  I’ve limited my ranking to the Bonds of the official franchise made by Eon Films, by the way.  I’ve made no mention of Bond actors from ‘rogue’ productions such as Barry Nelson, who played 007 in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale for the CBS TV anthology show Climax!, or David Niven, who played him in another adaptation of Casino Royale, the dire, zany, swinging-sixties comedy released by Columbia Pictures in 1967.  Or for that matter, God help us, the endearingly naff TV quiz-show host Bob Holness, who played Bond in a 1956 South African radio adaptation of the third Bond novel Moonraker (1955).

 

So in descending order, we have:

 

  1. Sean Connery
  2. Timothy Dalton
  3. Daniel Craig
  4. Pierce Brosnan
  5. George Lazenby
  6. Roger Moore

 

To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Connery is the best Bond needs his or her head examined.  He swaggered in at the start of the film series, dark and Byronic but equipped with that inimitable Scottish burr, and made the role his own.  He invested Bond with a ruthless but suave lethalness, a threatening but graceful physicality, a cruel but entertaining laconicism.  In fact, 58 years ago, Connery was such a revelation in the role that even Bond’s literary creator Ian Fleming, still alive and still writing at the time, was sufficiently inspired to put a bit of the brooding ex-Edinburgh-milkman into his spy-hero.  No doubt Fleming had Connery in mind when he ended his final Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun, published posthumously in 1965, with Bond turning down the offer of a knighthood.  “I am a Scottish peasant,” he retorts, “and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.”

 

It has to be said that at the turn of the century when Connery himself was offered a knighthood, he displayed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He took it and promptly became Sir Sean.  (Or Shirrr Sean.)

 

© Eon Productions

 

Yet having just said that Connery is the best Bond, I must confess that he isn’t quite my favourite Bond.  That accolade goes to number two on my list, the Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, who played him in the movies The Living Daylights (1987) and Licenced to Kill (1989).  Mainly this is because I’d read most of Ian Fleming’s novels at an early age, before I saw any of the films; and Dalton struck me as the actor who came closest to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had imagined him and the way I’d first imagined him from the books.  (While researching the role, Dalton read the original literary canon, so this was to be expected.)  His was an edgier and more troubled 007.  It’s fitting that The Living Daylights begins by using the plot of the Fleming short story of the same name, which has Bond refusing to kill an enemy sniper – a woman – and declaring bitterly that the secret service can sack him for all he cares.

 

Alas, Dalton didn’t capture the imagination of the public, who still seemed in thrall to the jokey tone of the previous Bond movies of the 1970s and early 1980s.  He wasn’t helped either by Britain’s fickle film critics.  They’d spent years moaning that the Bond films had become ‘too silly’.  But as soon as someone tried to toughen up the films, they started moaning that the series had lost its lovable silliness.

 

Ironically, Daniel Craig has approached the role in a similar way – a minimum of silliness, a maximum of seriousness – and won much acclaim in recent years.  Today’s world just happened to more ready for Craig’s approach.  It was less ready when Dalton did the same thing 30-odd years ago.  Anyway, I’d put Craig third in my list of Bonds, while fourth place goes to that genial Irishman Pierce Brosnan.  I like Brosnan as an actor and at his best he brought a believable toughness to the role; but overall his version of Bond was a bit too bland for my tastes.   He also was unlucky with the quality of some of his films.  His swansong in the role, 2002’s Die Another Day, is a particular stinker.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Fifth, and second from the bottom, is Australian George Lazenby, who definitely wasn’t much cop as an actor.  Ironically, his single Bond movie, 1968’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is perhaps the best one of the lot.  It’s arguable that because it’s very different from the usual entries in the series – wistful in tone and tragic in its ending – the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits the bill nicely.  Here Bond appears vulnerable and wounded and Lazenby is believable in terms of what the character has to go through.  I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ breenging through the movie in his usual insouciant manner and having the same emotional impact.

 

And in last place…  Well, I’ll say one thing for the late Sir Roger Moore, which is that his Bond movies were massively popular in their day.  (In fact, I’ll say two things – offscreen, he was clearly a good guy.  He did masses of work as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF on behalf of the United Nations Children’s Fund.  He was also involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome processes used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.)

 

During his reign as 007 the franchise flourished and made millions.  So even if I didn’t think much of old Roger as James Bond, or of most of the Bond films in which he appeared, vast numbers of other people evidently did.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The above-mentioned Radio Times poll saw Sean Connery secure first place in the battle of the Bonds.  Surprisingly but gratifyingly, Timothy Dalton finished in second place, while Pierce Brosnan finished in third.  (I’d ranked Daniel Craig third, but I shan’t begrudge Brosnan his success.)  So that’s Connery, Dalton and Brosnan: a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman.  For the Radio Times’ readers, the Celtic Bonds are evidently the best ones.

Flash… Ah, feck off

 

© Dino De Laurentiis Company / Universal Pictures

 

Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if I’m the only person who’s still sane in a world that’s gone mad.  And this time what makes me feel that everyone else has lost their marbles is the amount of praise and adulation being heaped on Mike Hodges’ sci-fi / comic-book movie Flash Gordon at the moment – this being both the 40th anniversary of its original release in 1980 and the occasion of its re-release on modern-day streaming platforms.

 

In the Guardian recently Peter Bradshaw awarded it four out five stars, hailed it for its supposed expressionism (its ‘operatic theme’, its ‘bizarre 2D studio sets’ and its ‘eyeball-frazzling colour scheme’) and made a somewhat dubious claim that it’d inspired ‘every 21st-century Marvel movie’.  Meanwhile, the Standard’s Charlotte O’Sullivan also gave it four out of five stars and described it as a ‘marvellously terrible romp’ – well, in my opinion, you could argue that she was half right there.  And the venerable sci-fi / fantasy media magazine Starburst recently published a list of the best 80 sci-fi / fantasy movies of the 1980s, in which Flash Gordon was placed ahead of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1986), Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1980) and Brazil (1985).

 

The sound you hear is the sound of my teeth grinding.

 

I’ll be blunt.  I thought Flash Gordon was rubbish when it came out in 1980 and 40 years later, despite what often happens when you have both the benefit of hindsight and the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, I still think it’s rubbish.   The beef I have with the film is that it makes a joke of its two sources of inspiration, the Flash Gordon comic strip created by Alex Raymond in 1934 and the three movie serials based on the strip and starring Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe that were made in 1936, 1938 and 1940.  Tasked with putting Flash Gordon onto the big screen in 1980, the filmmakers took the easy route of playing the character for laughs.

 

This is regrettable because during the same period other filmmakers took their inspiration from similar old comic strips and movie serials but made an effort to adapt them into films that, while poking some knowing fun at their subject matter, did so in an affectionate and proportionate way and were still mightily entertaining at the end of the day.  I’m thinking here of the first two Superman films (1978 and 80) with Christopher Reeve and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980).  In fact, those films remind me of something Mark Gatiss once said about Billy Wilder’s mildly tongue-in-cheek 1970 movie The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes: that it gently takes ‘the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way you can only do with something that you really adore.’

 

© Dino De Laurentiis Company / Universal Pictures

 

There wasn’t much evidence that Flash Gordon’s producer, the old-school Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, adored or, indeed, knew anything about the original comic strip and movie serials.  However, Flash‘s fate was sealed when old Dino – who, thanks to a CV that included Death Wish (1974), King Kong (1976), Orca: Killer Whale (1977), Amityville II and 3-D (1982 and 83), Dune (1984) and Maximum Overdrive (1985), was known in some quarters as ‘Dino Di Horrendous’ – signed scriptwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr onto the project.  Semple Jr was responsible for the 1966-68 TV version of Batman, which had sent up the Caped Crusader in an extremely camp fashion.  Incidentally, I’m not using ‘camp’ here in the 1909 Oxford English Dictionary definition of it, as meaning ‘ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, effeminate or homosexual’.  No, I’m using ‘camp’ in its simpler meaning of ‘so bad it’s good’.

 

This camp approach meant that the Batman TV show was ridiculous, but with the intention that kids wouldn’t recognise the ridiculousness and would merely enjoy the derring-do, while adults would recognise it and would have a good time laughing at it.  Hence, ‘so bad it’s good’.

 

(Ironically, most films that are regarded as classic entries in the ‘so bad they’re good’ category, from Ed Wood’s oeuvre in the 1950’s to Tommy Wiseau’s epic 2003 clunker The Room, were actually intended to be proper, serious movies.  They were never meant to be bad, but ended up so because of their makers’ entertaining incompetence.)

 

I assume it’s largely because of Lorenzo Semple Jr that Flash Gordon turned out the way it did.  Mind you, Dino already had form in the camp stakes for in 1968 he’d produced sci-fi / fantasy movie Barbarella, directed by Roger Vadim and based on the comic strip by Jean-Claude Forest.  With its baroque sets, garish costumes and lurid skyscapes, it’s obviously a visual influence on the later Flash Gordon, but it also blazes a trail by being intentionally and supposedly-hilariously silly.  I have to say I find Barbarella excruciating.  It’s painfully unfunny in nearly all its parts and also grotesquely sexist, with Vadim’s camera leering over the naked and near-naked flesh of its star (and Vadim’s then wife) Jane Fonda.  Plus it’s imbued with an irritating swinging-sixties smugness that makes me want to punch a hole in the wall.

 

© Dino De Laurentiis Company / Universal Pictures

 

I don’t think Flash Gordon is as bad as Barbarella, but when I saw it as a teenager, and any time I saw bits of it on TV afterwards, I always found it a grim experience.  It’s depressing how scenes that were meant to have the viewer chuckling at the glorious silliness of everything just left me cringing.  The worst moment is when Flash (Sam Jones) takes on a squad of red-armoured goons employed by the villainous Emperor Ming (Max Von Sydow) in a brawl in Ming’s throne-room that morphs into an American football match.  Flash and Professor Zarkov (Topol) pass a ball-sized metal orb between them,  Flash charges into the goons and scatters them like ninepins, and Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) does a cheerleading routine (“Go, Flash, go!”) on the side.  Oh, and any time a goon gets too close to the delegation of Hawkmen led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed), Vultan goes, “Ho-ho-ho!” and bonks the goon on the head with his metal staff.  Funny, eh?  Well…

 

I’m not blaming the director Mike Hodges, who was responsible for the gritty British crime classic Get Carter (1970).  I assume that with Flash Gordon, for reasons of his own sanity, Hodges just pointed his cameras in the right direction and didn’t think too much about what was ending up in the can.  However, I wonder what might have happened if the visionary director Nicolas Roeg, who’d originally been signed to make Flash Gordon and had spent a year working on its pre-production, had actually been given a chance to direct it.  The results might have been astonishing…  But on the other hand, considering how another big sci-fi collaboration between Dino De Laurentiis and a visionary director, David Lynch, created the turgid shambles that was Dune (1984), I suppose the Dino-produced, Roeg-directed Flash Gordon could have been shite too.

 

I’ll stop the Dino-bashing for a moment to point out that he did subsequently produce Lynch’s excellent Blue Velvet.  Credit where it’s due and all that.

 

To be fair, Flash Gordon does have a few good scenes, for example, when Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) forces Flash to stick his arm into a hollow tree-stump that’s infested with poisonous alien creepy-crawlies, or when Vultan forces Flash and Barin to fight each other on a platform that has lethal spikes popping out of it at random places and at random moments.  The latter scene was choreographed by the late, legendary fight arranger William Hobbs.  it’s telling, though, that these good bits are ones that are played straight rather than for laughs.

 

And although I can’t say the central performances of Sam Jones, Melody Anderson and Topol made much impression on me, I’ll happily praise the efforts of the supporting cast – Von Sydow, Dalton, Omella Muti as Princess Aura, the splendidly silky Peter Wyngarde as Ming’s sidekick Klytus.  Also, a number of familiar faces make welcome appearances in smaller roles, such as playwright and occasional actor John Osborne (who played the key villain in Get Carter), sinewy character actor John Hallam (who wasn’t in Get Carter but was in a lot of other British crime movies at the time, like 1971’s Villain, 1973’s The Offence and 1975’s Hennessey), and Richard O’Brien, who co-created The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1976).

 

Of course, one performance in Flash Gordon that’s memorable, if not exactly noted for its subtlety, is that of Brian Blessed as the Hawkmen’s leader Prince Vultan.  As portrayed by Blessed, Vultan is half-Viking, half-turkey, and 100% pure ham.  I wonder if Blessed regrets attacking the role with such exuberance.  He must get fed up nowadays, 40 years after the event, when people still approach him and ask him to recite, or more accurately bellow, his most famous line in the film: “GORDON’S ALIVE!”  Indeed, if you’re to believe Blessed, no less a personage than Queen Elizabeth II once asked him to shout the line for her royal pleasure.

 

While I marvel at the unfathomable love people feel for this dire film, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by another thing that Blessed has claimed about the Queen.  Apparently, she’s told him that Flash Gordon is her favourite movie and she makes a point of watching it with her grandchildren every Christmas.  In other words, in Britain at least, the Flash Gordon rot extends right to the top.

 

© Dino De Laurentiis Company / Universal Pictures

An appointment with Willow’s Song

 

© Silva Screen

 

This is a revision of an entry that first appeared on this blog on – appropriately – May 1st, 2014.  Be warned that it’s packed with spoilers about The Wicker Man (1973).

 

The Scottish-American singer and actress Annie Ross died last month at the age of 89.  Even if she hadn’t been a celebrated jazz chanteuse, she could boast of leading a varied life.  She worked as a child actress in the USA, became a jazz artist in Europe as an adult, became a familiar face on British TV in the late 1970s, and finally re-established herself in the USA and got citizenship there in 2001.  She was both the sister of the well-known Scottish comedian and actor Jimmy Logan (whose performance as Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer I was lucky enough to see at Aberdeen’s His Majesty’s Theatre in the mid-1980s) and the one-time lover of a rather different type of comedian, Lenny Bruce.  And she acted in films as wildly assorted as Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning (1972), Richard Lester’s Superman III (1983), Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma from the Train (1987), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) and, yes, Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case 2 (1990) and Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991).

 

She was also tasked with the unusual job of making Britt Ekland sound Scottish in my all-time favourite horror movie, 1973’s The Wicker Man.  Yes, whenever Ekland opens her mouth in the role of Willow Macgregor, the landlord’s daughter at the portentously titled Green Man Hotel on the remote Scottish island of Summer Isle, it’s not actually her Swedish-inflected tones you hear but those of Annie Ross instead.

 

Curiously, despite Ross’s famous singing talent, she didn’t get to voice Ekland during the scene that required her character to break into song.  At that point, supposedly, Ekland was dubbed by another singer, Rachel Verney.  (I’ve heard claims that Annie Ross did perform the song as well, but the weight of evidence seems to be against that.)

 

Anyway, this gives me a chance to talk about the song sung in that scene, Willow’s Song, sometimes known too as How Do.  The luscious Willow Macgregor sings it one night when she’s trying to lure the Green Man’s current guest, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) into her room for some hanky-panky.  Howie, a policeman sent to Summer Isle to investigate the disappearance of a local schoolgirl, is a devout Free Presbyterian and is already unimpressed at finding that everyone on the island is a practising pagan.  His strict Christian principles prevent him from answering Willow’s call.  Just about.

 

© British Lion Films

 

14 years ago, I was working in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, whose small enclave of expatriates, mostly diplomats and aid workers, held a weekly cinema evening.  Noticing that the next such evening fell on October 31st, i.e. Halloween, I dusted down my DVD of The Wicker Man and persuaded Pyongyang’s little cinema society that this would be a good time to watch a classic horror movie.  For most of its running time, the audience seemed pleasantly bemused by the film.  They enjoyed a good chuckle at how the pagan islanders led the stick-up-his-arse Howie on a merry dance around Summer Isle, taunting him with their innuendo-laden folk songs and their unconventional sense of public decency (e.g. organising mass couplings in the local graveyard, dancing naked through flames in the centre of stone circles).  But the people sitting closest to me kept leaning over and whispering, “Isn’t this supposed to be a horror film?”

 

Then the film’s final ten minutes arrived.  Howie discovers what the islanders have planned for him at the climax of their May Day celebrations – it involves ‘an appointment with the wicker man’ – and the room fell silent.  The silence continued for several minutes after the film ended, broken only by the voice of a Scotswoman who worked at the British Embassy.  She kept wailing to everyone around her, “Scotland isn’t really like that!  Scotland isn’t really like that!”

 

Later, a Dutch lady whose husband headed the Red Cross and Crescent’s operations in Pyongyang came over to me with big smile on her face.  “I really liked that,” she said.  “But you know, most of the film felt like a musical to me.”

 

And indeed, one reason why The Wicker Man is so special to me is its music.  Willow’s Song is the centrepiece of its soundtrack but the film is choc-a-bloc with gorgeous and haunting folk tunes.  Meanwhile, the lack of music is a reason why the 2006 American remake directed by Neil Labute and starring Nicholas Cage sucks, although, to be honest, there are many reasons why it sucks.

 

The man responsible for the original Wicker Man’s music was New Yorker Paul Giovanni, who assembled a number of songs, some self-composed, some traditional folk songs, and performed them with the folk-rock band Magnet.  Clearly a renaissance man, Giovanni was also a playwright and actor during his career.  Tragically, in 1990, he died from pneumonia, a complication caused by an HIV/AIDS infection.

 

© British Lion Films

 

As well as showcasing the film’s most famous song, the sequence in which Willow Macgregor sings has some notoriety because it shows her performing a nude dance as well.  (Having withstood Willow’s saucy enticements, Howie discovers later that the episode was arranged by the crafty pagan islanders to determine whether or not he’s a virgin and hence suitable sacrificial material.)  This is probably Britt Ekland’s greatest cinematic moment.  Mind you, her only other well-known major role is in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), so there isn’t much competition.

 

Come to think of it, though, Ekland was pregnant during the shooting of The Wicker Man, so it isn’t her naked body that we see cavorting during the scene.  The filmmakers hired a stripper to act as her ‘body double’ and, in at least one interview with her I’ve read, Ekland has remarked cattily about the size of the double’s bum.  So with Rachel Verney (or possibly Annie Ross) doing her singing, and a stripper doing her dancing, Britt’s greatest cinematic moment doesn’t actually have much Britt in it.

 

It was ignored at the time of its release but, over the years, the prestige of The Wicker Man has grown.  And as I’ve said, much of its mystique is due to its music.  Willow’s Song in particular has received much attention and a number of artists have had a go at covering it.  The most famous version is probably that by cinematically inspired electronica band the Sneaker Pimps.  It appears on their acclaimed 1996 album Becoming X, for which they recruited female singer Kelli Dayton (now Kelli Ali) to do vocals.  Afterwards, the band ungentlemanly gave Dayton the shove, claiming ‘her voice was no longer considered suitable for their new music’.  And has anyone heard anything of the Sneaker Pimps since then?  No.  Thought not.  Incidentally, if you have the right edition of Becoming X you’ll find as a bonus track a version of Gently Johnny, the second-best song that Paul Giovanni / Magnet recorded for The Wicker Man.  The scenes with Gently Johnny were chopped out of the film’s original print but years later were restored to the Director’s Cut of it.

 

The Sneaker Pimps’ version is still recognisably the movie’s Willow’s Song, although it has a lush, synthesised sheen.  Filmmaker Eli Roth liked their take on it so much that he incorporated it into the soundtrack of his notorious 2006 ‘torture porn’ epic Hostel – the Wicker Man reference signifying that Something Bad is going to happen to Roth’s own hapless protagonists.  I don’t find Hostel as objectionable as other people do, but nonetheless I feel that the delicate, pleading tone of Willow’s Song is incongruous in a movie that’s basically about dumb American backpackers getting tortured to death.  Interestingly, both The Wicker Man and Hostel go against the philosophy of conventional, conservative horror movies, like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1980), which holds that only characters who hang onto their virginity escape being victims, while promiscuous characters die horribly.  In The Wicker Man, it’s the only adult virgin on the island who goes up in smoke at the end, while in Hostel, it’s the randiest backpacker who survives the carnage.

 

From genius.com

 

Before the Sneaker Pimps’ version, in 1991, indie band the Mock Turtles did a take on Willow’s Song – I haven’t been able to find an online recording of it to link to – while a dozen years later soulful British rock band the Doves attempted it too.  Both versions are distinctive thanks to the fact that a man, not a woman, does the singing.  The song was also covered in 2006 by Scottish folk singer Isobel Campbell (best known for her collaborations with Mark Lanegan), who unsurprisingly took a more traditional, folky approach to it, and in 2007 by indie-dance-hip-hop group the Go! Team.

 

Definitely worth mentioning is a version of Willow’s Song by the eerie, theremin-loving combo Spacedog, who decided to go for it and deconstructed  it.  They mixed in a sample from another classic British horror film, the ‘power of the will’ monologue delivered by actor Charles Gray while he played the villain in 1968’s The Devil Rides Out, and the results are impressively phantasmagorical.

 

Willow’s Song has a Wikipedia entry that lists a dozen other versions, which isn’t bad for a song that accompanies a scene in which a woman tries to seduce an older, unprepossessing man but is rebuffed, and in a film that baffled its studio, got chopped to pieces before its release and was, initially, financially unsuccessful and critically shunned.  Perhaps it’s the strange juxtaposition of elements that makes the song memorable.  Its sound is gorgeously ethereal and delicate but, when you listen to the lyrics, you realise it’s pretty bawdy too.  Willow promises Howie “a stroke as gentle as a feather,” and later boasts, “How a maid can milk a bull!  And every stroke a bucketful.”

 

Come to think of it, the contrasts in the song are similar to the contrasts in The Wicker Man itself, a film packed with humour, music and cheerful lewdness but ending with a horrific act of cruelty – contrasts that have ensured the movie lives on in Britain’s cinematic consciousness.

 

© British Lion Films

Exit Q

 

© Bauer Media Group / Q Magazine

 

This week saw the publication of the final issue of Q, the British monthly music magazine that’d been on the go since 1986.  You could argue that it’d been as much a victim of Covid-19 as, say, Terence McNally, John Prine or Tim Brooke-Taylor.  In recent years Q had struggled financially and the lockdown in Britain caused by the virus and consequent lack of sales dealt the killer blow.  Its editor since 2017, Ted Kessler, reflected in its last issue, “We’d been a lean operation for all of my tenure, employing a variety of ways to keep our head above water in an extremely challenging print market.  Covid-19 wiped all that out.”

 

That’s a shame because for a decade-and-a-half, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Q was a fixture in my life.  Buying it every month was both an ingrained habit and something I looked forward to.

 

It was launched in the mid-1980s by David Hepworth and Mark Ellen – the latter’s claims to fame include playing bass for a short time in the 1970s Oxford University band the Ugly Rumours, which had one Tony Blair as its singer.  You mightn’t have expected Hepworth and Ellen to start up something like Q, aimed at older music fans, because previously they’d edited the shiny, teen-pop weekly Smash Hits.  However, they’d also spent the 1980s hosting the BBC’s long-running highbrow rock-music show The Old Grey Whistle Test (1971-88) and on July 13th, 1985, helped to present the BBC’s coverage of the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium.  Indeed, it was in response to something Hepworth said during the broadcast that Bob Geldof made his famous “F*ck the address!” outburst on live TV.

 

Hepworth and Ellen angled Q towards an older readership because they realised that pop and rock music were no longer just a young person’s game.  By the mid-1980s, folk who’d spent their teen years listening to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the like were well into their forties and those who’d been old enough to enjoy the soundtrack of the Summer of Love were pushing middle-age.  Furthermore, a new innovation, the compact disc, was causing many older records to be reissued in a new format and older people were spending money on older music again – buying on CD what they already owned on vinyl, a technology that suddenly seemed obsolete.  Unsurprisingly, the ‘reissues’ review section in Q was almost as long as its ‘new releases’ review one.

 

At the same time, the existing British music press seemingly offered nothing to anyone who was older than their mid-twenties.  The teenybop magazines, pursuing an audience interested only in New Romantic bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Wham – a movement I have to say I found unspeakable, as well as unlistenable – certainly didn’t, and the ‘serious’ music weeklies like the New Musical Express and the Melody Maker treated anything recorded before the advent of punk rock in the mid-1970s as the music of boring old farts.

 

No doubt reading Q in the late 1980s marked me out as a boring old fart too (I recall the NME once describing Q as a ‘living death of a magazine’), but I preferred its more measured, less partisan and less pretentious style and its willingness to cover with an open mind a range of musical genres from a range of eras to the attitude of the highbrow weeklies.  The NME particularly got up my nose, its scribes broadcasting their musical preferences (and personal politics) in such an annoying, self-conscious, stuck-up and patronising way that I sometimes wondered if they were all clones that’d been grown from the cells of Rik Mayall’s character in the TV sitcom The Young Ones (1982-84).  I actually enjoyed much of the music that the NME championed, like punk, new wave and indie, but my two favourite musical genres at the time were heavy metal and goth music, both of which the NME loathed and ridiculed, dismissing their fans as gormless morons.  So yes, by 1986, I was ready for Q.

 

That’s not to say Q was toothless.  Some of the most scathing pieces of musical journalism I’ve read appeared in its pages, though they were effective because the writer simply recorded was seen and heard and allowed the ‘stars’ in question to talk and string themselves up with their own words.  I’m thinking of an article about an American tour attempted by late 1980s teen heartthrobs Bros, in which the brothers comprising the band, Matt and Luke Goss, came across as delusional and out-of-their-depth plonkers.  Or a piece about Simply Red doing a concert in Cuba, in which the Q journalist had to deal with the mood-swings of a megalomaniacal, self-pitying and generally bloody awful Mick Hucknall.  Or an encounter with the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, in which Corgan’s behaviour was such that the interview’s strapline was Marvel at the horribleness of Billy Corgan!

 

This ‘give-them-enough-rope’ approach, along with a strong dose of sarcasm, was evident in what for me was Q’s best regular feature, Who the hell does… think he / she is?, which ran until the late 1990s and was often but not always written by the late Tom Hibbert.  This involved a unflattering interview with one of the ‘characters’ who were fixtures of British popular culture at the time – prominent in British TV, radio, comedy, sport, music, publishing, journalism or politics, but not showing much evidence of the talent that, in a rational world, would have secured them that prominence.  The rogue’s gallery getting the Who the hell… treatment included Jeffrey Archer, Bananarama, Simon Bates, Jeremy Beadle, Gary Bushell, Barbara Cartland, Jeremy Clarkson, Edwina Currie, Jim Davidson, Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards, Samantha Fox, Hale and Pace, Neil and Christine Hamilton, Benny Hill, David Icke, Bernard Manning, David Mellor, Michael Winner and not one, but two Starrs, Freddie and Ringo.

 

The interviews with those last two people were particularly memorable.  An unhinged Freddie Starr ended up raving, “Jesus Christ tried to please everyone.  And look what happened to him.  Am I right?  Am I right?”  Whereas Ringo Starr, taking umbrage that in 1992 Hibbert still wanted to talk about the Beatles, raged: “That was 30 years ago, man.  I’m still making records and you can hear that I’m a great musician on the new record, Time Takes Time, if you can ever be bothered to mention it.  This is an actual bloody legend in front of you.”.

 

And it’s fascinating, if extremely disturbing, to note how many of the Who the hell… interviewees were later revealed as paedophiles and  sexual abusers: Max Clifford, Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris and, worst of all, Jimmy Savile.   Of Savile, Hibbert wrote: “People are loath to speak ill of Sir James.  The man is a saint, millions raised for charity; he is the kiddies’ friend, ever on the telly placing a Jim’ll Fix It gong around the neck of some abashed youngster who’s just been a hovercraft pilot for a day.  It is churlish, cynical beyond belief, to suggest there might be something untoward about the benevolent one.  But isn’t there, perhaps, some oddness afoot.  You hear tales, entirely uncorroborated, of course, whispered in sniggers at dinner parties…”  To which Savile retorted that there were no skeletons in his closet because “I got knighted and that proves it, doesn’t it?”  The wizened old monster then started bragging about his promiscuity with the ladies:  “You can’t be in a disco with 600 birds in Aberdeen and stopping overnight and faithful to one f*ck in Leeds…”

 

Incidentally, an interview Hibbert did with Savile’s good friend Margaret Thatcher also appeared in Who the hell…  Asking her what her favourite sort of pop music was, she professed to liking How Much is that Doggie in the Window?

 

© Paul Rider

 

Q was lucky in its timing, for the anodyne, superficial music that dominated the charts during the early and mid-1980s was later, partly at least, dislodged by Madchester and grunge.  And then the Britpop phenomenon hit the country in the mid-1990s.  In other words, music got rockier again, and with bands around like the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Oasis and Blur, Q had proper rock stars, displaying proper rock star attitudes, as material for entertaining articles and interviews.  During the 1990s, the magazine also established the yearly Q Awards Ceremony, which became famous for the raucousness and rudeness of certain invitees.  For example, John Lydon heckled Phil Jupitus and Johnny Vegas as ‘Teletubbies’, and Liam Gallagher called Chris Martin of Coldplay a ‘plant-pot’ – quite right too.

 

I spent a good part of the 1990s living in the Japanese city of Sapporo, and between 1993 and 1998 I bought every issue of Q from my local branch of Tower Records.  Just before I left Sapporo, I donated my collection of back issues to my mate, Steve Burrow.  I hope he’s still got them, as they would be worth a fortune today.  A little later, I went to Ethiopia and worked there for the Voluntary Service Overseas organisation, and my brother in Scotland was kind enough every month to post me the latest copy of Q after he’d finished reading it.  I think those Q back issues, from 1999 to 2001, ended up sitting on the shelves of the volunteers’ library in the central VSO Office in Addis Ababa.  Who knows?  Maybe they’re still there now.

 

But I lost interest in Q in the early noughties, partly because every issue seemed to indulge in that most pointlessly bloke-ish of things, compiling lists: ‘The 100 best albums of all time’, ‘the 100 best gigs of all time’, ‘the 100 best drummers of all time’, and so on and so forth.  I know I’m guilty of putting the occasional list on this blog, but at least I don’t charge people money to read them.

 

In truth, Q was running out of interesting things to write about.  By now the popular music scene had become a lot duller, thanks in part to the rise of identikit pop stars spawned by TV reality shows like Pop Idol (2001-2003), The X-Factor (2004-present) and The Voice (2010-present).  These non-entities were products of what I like to think of as ‘the Simon Cowell conveyor belt of karaoke’.

 

That’s not to say that there wasn’t good music still around, but people were accessing it on the Internet and making the discovery and enjoyment of that music a much more disparate and individual experience.  The days when large numbers of people suddenly hooked onto the same musical craze, which the old-style music magazines would then cover and capitalise on by selling loads of copies, were dead and gone.  The Internet too was where people were increasingly turning to for information about music.  Indeed, it was ironic that Q, a magazine partly created by new technology, the CD, was scuppered by new technology too.

 

That’s said, I’ve heard good things about Q under the editorship of Ted Kessler during the past three years, and I wish I’d dipped into it again while it was still there.  But it’s too late now.

 

That’s not to say, of course, that good writing about music doesn’t exist anymore.  It does, but you’re more likely to find it online than on the (ever-thinning) magazine racks of your local newsagent.  That’s why I recommend you click onto – and if you like it, donate to – the Quietus.

 

© Bauer Media Group / Q Magazine

George, where did it all go wrong?

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

Last Thursday saw the Prime Minister of England – sorry, Prime Minister of Britain – Boris Johnson arrive in Scotland for a one-day charm offensive.  This was intended to remind Scottish people of how lucky they were to be part of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the ‘mighty’ union as Johnson grandly put it, and dissuade them of any mad notions of voting for Scottish independence, which, according to recent opinion polls, 54% of them are now minded to do.  Determined to press the flesh with the maximum number of Scottish people during his visit, Johnson flew into the bustling Caledonian metropolises of the Orkney Islands and RAF Lossiemouth.  A little unfortunately, the Orcadian mainland is home to a small settlement called Twatt, which led to some unkind quips being made on social media about there already being ‘one Twatt in the Orkneys’.  It was also slightly unwise for the PM to parley with some local fishermen and pose for photographers holding a pair of clawed, antennae-ed crustaceans, as social media was soon heaving with comments about how he ‘had crabs’.

 

But Johnson isn’t the only British political chancer to have foisted himself upon Scotland recently, proclaiming the message that red, white and blue unionism is good while Saltire-waving indie is bad.  For July 2020 has seen the return to Scottish soil of one George ‘Gorgeous’ Galloway.  Or to give him the title that immediately appears when you type his name into Google, ‘George Galloway cat.’

 

It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time I considered Galloway one of the good guys.  Well, one of the goodish guys at least.  This was while he served as Labour Member of Parliament for Glasgow Hillhead, later Glasgow Kelvin, from 1987 to 2005.  For many years Labour MPs formed the bulk of Scotland’s representation in the House of Commons, but apart from a few high-fliers like Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson, destined for cabinet jobs under Tony Blair, they were an uninspiring lot – a big, grey Scottish-accented blob whose only function was to shamble through the voting lobbies at their party’s bidding.  They were nicknamed the ‘low-flying Jimmies’, though to my mind they were a living, if barely sentient, definition of the Scots word ‘numpties’.

 

However, the Scottish Labour MPs contained a small but interesting awkward squad.  The squad included the admirably his-own-man Tam Dalyell; and the very leftward Ron Brown (who shocked the British establishment by heading off to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and then on his return warning that it probably wasn’t a good idea for the West to fund the Mujahideen, later to morph into the Taliban); and the trio of Dick Douglas, John McAllion and Dennis Canavan, all of whom would later end up estranged from the Labour Party and end up supporting the cause of Scottish independence.  Plus, of course, the ultra-awkward George Galloway.

 

Galloway was too left-wing for traditional mainstream Labourites’ liking, which was fine by me.  I also approved of his constitutional stance.  Though he didn’t go as far as espousing independence for Scotland, he advocated a large measure of home-rule for the country within the framework of the UK.  And when John Major’s Conservative Party won the British general election in 1992 and dashed hopes of a devolved Scottish parliament being set up for at least another half-decade, and a campaign movement called Scotland United was formed to maintain pressure for the creation of such a parliament, I wasn’t surprised when Galloway became one of the movement’s leading lights.

 

From twitter.com/thoughtland

 

To keep the issue in the public consciousness, Scotland United held rallies in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  I participated in a couple of these, though I can’t remember Galloway addressing the crowds.  I do remember, however, one Saturday marching down to Leith Links in Edinburgh where, after speeches, we were treated to a gig by the Scotland United-supporting pop / soul band Deacon Blue.  At one point, singer Ricky Ross pointed out the nearby premises of Leith’s Conservative and Unionist Association and started singing a cover of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, which contains the pertinent lyrics, “…how does it feel / To be on your own, with no direction home / A complete unknown…?”  The memory makes me nostalgic.  Trying to establish a Scottish parliament by having Deacon Blue sing Bob Dylan at the Tories.  Those were the days.

 

Still, it was already clear that Galloway had a dodgy side.  From 1983 to 1987 he’d served as general secretary of the British charity War on Want and stories of his antics during a conference in Greece – Galloway confessed to getting to know some local ladies ‘carnally’ – led to embarrassing tabloid coverage.  I seem to remember one newspaper reporting his attempts to justify his behaviour with the headline I BONKED FOR BRITAIN.  This presumably helped give rise to Galloway’s nickname ‘Gorgeous’.  Meanwhile, his simultaneously smooth and self-righteous manner caused a lot of people I knew, even ones who shared his politics, to profess that they hated his guts.

 

During the next two decades, following Galloway’s exploits was a seesawing experience.  He’d do something crap, then redeem himself by doing something impressive, then blow his restored credibility by doing something crap again.  At the crap end was his grovelling to the Iraq despot Saddam Hussein, which in 1994 saw him utter the famous line, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”  Later, Galloway claimed, not very convincingly, that he’d aimed this line at the long-suffering Iraqi people rather than at Saddam himself.

 

But he deserved kudos for his opposition to George Bush Jnr and Tony Blair’s misguided, mendacious and ultimately catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.  He denounced Bush as a terrorist, got himself expelled from the Labour Party, sued and won against the Daily Telegraph after it claimed Iraqi agents had secretly paid him with cash from the United Nations Oil for Food programme, and then squared up to a US Senate committee investigating the Food for Oil programme in 2005.  The senate confrontation was probably his finest hour.  He gave those senators a mauling.  “…(I)n everything I said about Iraq I turned out to be right,” he declared, “and you turned out to be wrong.  And 100,000 have paid with their lives, 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies.”

 

Though he’d  torched his bridges with the Labour Party, Galloway managed for a time to defy Enoch Powell’s famous adage that ‘all political lives… end in failure.’  He formed the Respect Party, stood for election in the London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and won it from Labour.  He stood down as MP there following a schism in the Respect Party, but in a 2012 by-election pulled off a similar stunt by winning Bradford West from Labour.  Both constituencies had sizable Muslim communities and there were copious allegations about Galloway dishing religious-related dirt on his opponents – that in Bethnal Green he’d played up the fact that the Labour incumbent, Oona King, had a Jewish mother; that in Bradford West he’d raised the issue of the Labour Party’s Muslim candidate drinking alcohol; and that in the run-up to the 2015 general election he’d accused his Labour challenger, another Muslim, Naz Shah, of supporting Israel and lying about an arranged marriage.  But Shah had the last laugh because she won Bradford West back for Labour.

 

© Channel 4

 

True to form, Galloway’s 2005 triumph in Bethnal Green was soon negated by his idiotic decision to take part in the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother.  This resulted in such colossally cringy moments as George, no longer so gorgeous, dancing in a leotard beside the late Pete Burns of the band Dead or Alive, or pretending to be a cat and licking cream off the lap of actress Rula Lenska.  Hence the word ‘cat’ popping up beside his name on Google searches.

 

More seriously, Galloway secured a job as a host on the Iran-government-funded Press TV in 2008 and that same year earned himself the ire of gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for claiming that a gay man executed in Iran was punished for ‘sex crimes’ rather than for being gay.  He landed himself in more hot water in 2012 when he defended Julian Assange against rape charges by describing having non-consensual sex with a sleeping woman (after consensual sex with her when she was awake), which Assange was accused of doing, as ‘bad sexual etiquette’ but ‘not rape’.

 

Galloway’s support for Assange was evidence that, as the 2010s progressed, he was increasingly happy to clamber onto any bandwagon that he thought would boost his profile.  So he campaigned vociferously for a ‘no’ vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence – ‘just say naw’.  Mind you, he was scathing of his ex-comrades in the Labour Party who’d joined forces with the Conservatives in the anti-independence Better Together movement.  “If you ever see me standing under a Union Jack shoulder-to-shoulder with a Conservative,” he told Prospect magazine, “please shoot me.”  Remember those words.  Prior to the referendum, I watched him in a televised debate and discovered that, like a cartoon character, he’d now acquired a costume, a rarely-off-his-head fedora, and a catchphrase: “That is nonsense on stilts!”

 

© The Jewish Chronicle / twitter/@VirendraSharma

 

Perhaps upset that his contribution to saving the United Kingdom didn’t result in ennoblement by a grateful David Cameron – he could have been Lord Galloway of Nonsense-on-Stilts – George then threw his lot in with the Brexiteers and campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in 2016’s referendum on that matter.  This spawned some nauseating photographs of him, a supposed socialist, posing with Nigel Farage, ex-City of London spiv, immigration dog-whistler and Donald Trump’s biggest British fanboy.  That said, pictures of Galloway embracing the extreme right-wing nutjob Steve Bannon at a debate in Kazakhstan in 2019 were even more mind-melting.

 

The increasing number of causes that Galloway hitched himself to seemed in inverse proportion to the number of votes being cast for him in elections.  A 2011 attempt to get into the Scottish parliament saw him win a less-than-awesome 3.3% of the vote in Glasgow.  His performance in the 2016 London Mayoral contest was even worse (1.4%) and attempts to run in English constituencies in the 2017 and 2019 general elections had equally dire results.

 

Now George has a new wheeze, which is to run in next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections as head of something called Alliance for Unity, of which he says: “We have only one goal – to get the SNP out.”  To this end, Galloway has declared himself willing to work with even the Conservatives.  Yes, this is the man who a half-dozen years ago invited folk to shoot him if they ever saw him do that.

 

He intends to stand in the south of Scotland, a rural, down-to-earth area where I can’t see many people falling for his self-serving, narcissistic brand of bullshit.  Maybe he figures he stands a chance because he shares a name with one of the regions there, Dumfries and Galloway.  And who does he really expect to vote for him?  Not Scottish independence supporters, obviously.  Labour supporters will hardly vote for someone so willing to climb into bed with the Tories.  And the hard-line loyalists / British nationalists who increasingly form the main support for the Scottish Conservative Party these days will hardly be enamoured with someone who’s said of Northern Ireland: “There is no Northern Ireland.  It is six counties in the north of Ireland.  It should have never been in the British state in the first place.”  Nor will his urging of Arabs to kill British troops in Iraq in 2003, one of the final straws that got him chucked out of Labour, win him their admiration either.

 

George Galloway may still look, talk and act like the cat that’s got the cream.  But I suspect he’s now used up the last of his nine lives.

 

© The Sunday Mail / From pressreader.com

Morricone no more

 

© enniomorricone.org

 

The death of legendary film composer Ennio Morricone a fortnight ago shouldn’t have been a surprise since he was at the big age of 91.  But he’d shown such a cussed approach to life and art, still composing music, going on world tours and quarrelling with young whippersnappers like Quentin Tarantino while he was in his ninth decade, that you assumed he was going to continue living and composing forever.  Anyway, a heavy workload earlier this month prevented me from penning a tribute to the great man at the time of his passing.  Here’s my belated tribute now.

 

Ennio Morricone was the first film composer I knew.  I recognised his work well before I recognised that of John Barry, Bernard Hermann, Leonard Bernstein or Henry Mancini and even before the blockbuster themes of Jaws (1976) and Star Wars (1977) acquainted me with the name of John Williams.  As a boy I was daft about western movies and as soon as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns started showing up on TV I realised that Morricone’s exhilarating music, soaring and swooping along the soundtracks with twangy acoustic guitars, electric guitars, whistles, chimes, bells, flutes and aah-ing choirs, was as much a character of the films as Clint Eastwood’s cigar-smoking Man with No Name.  Remove Morricone’s music and they wouldn’t be the same.  There’d be a gaping Clint-sized hole in them.

 

Morricone’s music for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the film that put him, Leone, Eastwood and spaghetti westerns on the map, is great but I think his theme for the sequel For a Few Dollars More (1965), with added Jew’s harp and ocarina, is greater still.  Maybe I’m biased since the film is my favourite of Leone’s Dollars trilogy.  It has Eastwood, the Man with No Name, team up with the splendid Lee Van Cleef, the Man in Black, and take on Gian Maria Volonté as evil scumbag bandit El Indio.  The climax sees Van Cleef facing up to Volonté in a duel whereby the participants can only draw their guns on the final chime of a musical pocket watch, which had belonged to Van Cleef’s murdered sister.  It’s absolutely epic, thanks largely to Morricone’s music, which climbs majestically and drowns out the plaintive tones of the pocket watch, then plunges and dies away again a few palm-sweating seconds before the watch stops and the shooting starts.

 

© Produzioni Europee Associati / United Artists

 

The third and final movie of the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), confused me when I saw it as a kid because although Lee Van Cleef starred in it alongside Eastwood again, this time he played a different character from the one in For a Few Dollars More and was as evil as Volonté had been in the previous film.  I assumed he was the same guy and couldn’t figure out why he’d suddenly become so bad.  Morricone’s theme here is perhaps his most famous work – I still hear blokes in the pub, after a few pints too many, going “Na-Na-Na-Na-Naaah….  NA-NA-NAAAH!” for no good reason.  But it’s perhaps the accompaniment he provides for the Ecstasy of Gold sequence, in which an increasingly delirious Eli Wallach spends four minutes running around a cemetery while Leone’s camerawork becomes correspondingly frenzied, that’s the film’s musical highlight.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Of course, we hadn’t heard the last of Morricone as far as Leone’s westerns were concerned, because in 1968 he contributed to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a movie that regularly gets mentioned in ‘best film of all time’ lists.  (It’s certainly in my top three.)  Morricone’s magnificent score ticks all the boxes.  At times, it does the customary soaring and swooping.  At others, it’s playful and jaunty.  And at other times, it’s marked by a haunting and pained-sounding harmonica.  Like Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volontè and the musical pocket watch in For a Few Dollars More, we discover the tragic significance of that harmonica at the end when hero Charles Bronson has a showdown with villain Henry Fonda.  Ironically, the film’s most breath-taking sequence, the lengthy opening where three gunmen played by Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock await, with murderous intent, the arrival of Bronson at a remote, rickety train station, unscrolls without Morricone’s music (and indeed, without any dialogue) until nearly ten minutes in when that melancholy harmonica strikes up.

 

Morricone toiled away on many other Italian, and occasionally American, westerns and his CV surely makes him one of the great figures in the western genre.  His work appears in Duccio Tessari’s The Return of Ringo (1965), Franco Giraldi’s Seven Guns for the MacGregors (1966), Carlo Lizzani’s The Hills Run Red (1966), Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1966), Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1967), Don Taylor and Italo Zingarelli’s The 5-Man Army (1969) and Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970).  He also contributed to a few westerns like Navajo Joe (1966),  The Hellbenders (1967), The Mercenary (1968) and The Great Silence (1968) that were directed by another Sergio, Sergio Corbucci, who was honoured in Quentin Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) when Al Pacino described him as “the second best director of spaghetti westerns in the whole wide world!”  Meanwhile, Morricone was reunited with the first best director of spaghetti westerns in the whole wide world with Leone’s late-period western Duck You Sucker (1971), a movie that I like but don’t consider in the same league as Leone’s earlier efforts.  (James Coburn’s Irish accent doesn’t help.)

 

By the early 1970s Leone had shifted from spaghetti westerns to another staple of traditional Italian cinema, the giallo – the horror-thriller hybrid wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (whose identity is revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most stylish, glamorous, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.

 

Morricone’s giallo music is frequently mannered, genteel and dreamy, at odds with the bloody events happening onscreen but matching the well-upholstered lifestyles of the doomed protagonists.  He contributed to Elio Petri’s supernaturally tinged A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), Paolo Cavara’s slick but dodgy Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), Aldo Ladi’s rather brilliant Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), Massimo Dallamano’s fairly reprehensible What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and Umberto Lenzi’s lovably barmy Spasmo (1974).   He also did the music for Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), but I haven’t seen that one, so I can’t provide it with suitable adjectives.

 

© Seda Spettacoli / Universal

 

He also worked on three movies directed by the man who’s arguably the maestro of the giallo, Dario Argento: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971).  He didn’t, however, supply the music for Argento’s giallo masterpiece Deep Red (1976).  That role went to the German prog-rock band Goblin and I have to say, with apologies to Morricone, that I think their baroque, intense Deep Red score just about pips his work as the best giallo music of all time.

 

By then, of course, Hollywood had discovered Morricone and his scores for such prestigious productions as Terence Mallick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Rolande Jaffé’s The Mission (1986) won him international acclaim.  A digression here – I remember reading an interview with Will Carling, the nice but dull skipper of the England rugby team in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Carling told the evidently bored interviewer that before games, to settle his nerves, he listened to ‘The Mission’.  The interviewer thought Carling was talking about the 1980s British Goth band the Mission and, believing he’d discovered something interesting about Carling at last, that he was a Goth, asked him if he liked Gene Loves Jezebel too.  “No,” retorted a perplexed Carling, “The film The Mission.  The music from The Mission!”

 

Morricone also enjoyed a final reunion with his old comrade Sergio Leone, creating a majestic but wistful score for Leone’s Hollywood gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

 

Leone didn’t just provide the music for good films.  He also plied his trade with many bad ones and often the music coming out of the cinema speakers and what was happening on the screen seemed to belong to two different aesthetic universes.  I’m thinking of Reagan’s Theme, the haunting guitar-and-choir piece he composed for John Boorman’s much-derided Exorcist II: The Heretic (1978), or the soulful, religious sounding theme he provided for Michael Anderson’s Orca: The Killer Whale (1977), totally at variance with the ridiculous plot that has Richard Harris going Captain Ahab against a vengeful cetacean.

 

© Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

Among Leone’s Hollywood scores, I particularly admire the one he did for John Carpenter’s excellent remake of The Thing (1982).  At the time, disdainful mainstream critics (who also hated the film generally) dismissed his work as being like one of Carpenter’s own, pulsating synthesiser scores ‘slowed down’ or ‘played at the wrong speed.’  Heard today, its doomy sound encapsulates the film’s claustrophobic and literally under-the-skin horror, whilst reminding you that, yes, this is a John Carpenter film but it’s a special John Carpenter film.  I also like his subtle, creepy score for Mike Nichol’s underrated Wolf (1994), wherein a tired, middle-aged and downtrodden publisher (Jack Nicholson) gets bitten by a werewolf and discovers that his newly acquired lupine powers actually serve him well in the aggressive, cutthroat world of the 1990s New York publishing industry.

 

© FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

One of Morricone’s last major commissions was for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).  The two men had previously fallen out over Morricone’s contribution, eventually non-contribution, to Tarantino’s 2012 western Django Unchained, but Morricone was back on board for this and contributed an urgent and ominous main theme.  Appropriately, seeing as The Hateful Eight and The Thing feature the same star (Kurt Russell) and a similar scenario (a stranded group trying to identify an enemy hiding among them), Morricone also donated some pieces he’d created for but hadn’t used in the 1982 John Carpenter film.  And as extra icing on the cake, Reagan’s Theme from Exorcist II: The Heretic was borrowed to accompany a brief, arty sequence of coach-horses making their way through the snow.  So it was gratifying that near his life’s end Morricone got an opportunity to show his mastery again of the genre that established his name, the western.

 

From open.spotify.com

Social distancing at the Greenlands Hotel

 

 

During the last half-dozen years, one of my favourite places in Colombo to retire to after a busy day’s work and relax with a couple of beers has been the liquor bar at the Greenlands Hotel, which stands just off a street with the quaint name of Shrubbery Garden.  No, the hotel doesn’t have any connection with Greenland (although the interior walls of its liquor bar have been painted a pale, minty-looking shade of green) and there isn’t much sign of a garden, with shrubbery in it, in the immediate neighbourhood.

 

The bar adjoins a venerable restaurant that sells South Indian vegetarian dishes like dosai and rice and meat-free curry.  I’ve heard this restaurant described as a Colombo institution, although I suspect its glory days are behind it and it’s regarded now as something of a museum piece.  The Sri Lankan review website YAMU says that it ‘still holds a place in people’s heart for sheer nostalgia’ but adds a little cruelly that ‘the staff of Greenlands seem as old as the establishment itself, sporting hair as white as their crisp white dhoti and shirt’.  When the restaurant staff don’t have anything to do inside, which seems often, you’ll see these elderly geezers sitting on its front steps, watching the world pass by – at least, the tiny sliver of the world that passes the hotel gates on Shrubbery Garden.

 

 

The main fellow tasked with the running of the liquor bar seems a veritable youngster in comparison with his colleagues in the restaurant, but the clientele are hardly what you’d call spring chickens.  (Not that I’m a spring chicken myself, of course.)  They appear mainly to be professional and reasonably well-off blokes in their middle age who find pleasure in snatching a quick bottle of Lion beer and / or a quick glass of arrack during that little oasis of evening-time when they don’t have to worry about the responsibilities of their workplaces or the responsibilities of their households.  The bar counter and shelves are contained in a narrow room at one end, from which the barman provides a waiter service.  The clientele sit in a series of small square rooms extending one after another along the rest of the premises.  The rooms are spartan, with their bare minty-green walls and hard burgundy-coloured floors, but look extremely clean despite their basicness.

 

One pleasant touch was that whenever I appeared there and sat down, the barman would put an English-language Sri Lankan newspaper in front of me before fetching my first drink.  As a foreigner living in Sri Lanka it’s easy to get cocooned in your own affairs and not pay attention to the society around you, so those visits to the Greenlands Hotel helped keep me informed with what was happening locally.  That was my main reason for going there, obviously.

 

 

Early in 2020, I was alarmed when I went into the Greenlands Hotel one evening and was told by a restaurant waiter (while he sat on the steps, of course) that the liquor bar was ‘closed for repairs’.  I know from bitter experience that when one of Colombo’s surviving, old-style, spit-and-sawdust pubs gets closed down, it tends to stay closed down – often because the premises are to be demolished to make way for some soulless new development.  Then, when Covid-19 forced the government to impose a curfew starting on March 20th, and the pubs went into hibernation for God knows how long, I seriously wondered if I’d ever see the inside of the Greenlands Hotel liquor bar again.

 

 

However, come May and the easing of the curfew, I made a point one evening of strolling down Shrubbery Garden and looking into the Greenlands Hotel to see what the situation was.  I was delighted to find that both the restaurant and the liquor bar were functioning again – although as usual, most of the restaurant staff were warming the steps with their behinds.  In the bar, changes had been made to safeguard the clientele against the new virus.  Long tables, surely meeting the recommended 1.5-metre standard for social distancing, had been arranged with a chair at either end.  There were two tables in each room, meaning each room accommodated just four drinkers.  To be honest, I don’t think the reduction in seating capacity had done anything to damage the bar’s ambience, as even at the busiest of times it seemed a very peaceful little place.

 

One other safety precaution, to reduce the possible spread of infection by minimising the number of objects that folk touch on the premises, had resulted in a sad loss.  On the evening that I returned there, the barman told me apologetically, “I’m sorry.  I can’t give you a newspaper anymore.”

 

No worries.  I was just happy to see this unabashedly old-fashioned drinking establishment on the go again.

 

Detours into dystopia

 

© Polaris Productions / Hawk Films / Warner Bros.

 

The world is in a dystopian condition at the moment.  It’s being ravaged by a deadly virus that’s especially rampant in countries run by authoritarian, anti-science, right-wing clowns like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (and not forgetting the UK’s own right-wing pipsqueak Boris Johnson).  Meanwhile, propelled by manmade climate change, temperatures continue their remorseless rise.  Much of Australia was in flames at the start of this year while the recent record-breaking heat in the Arctic Circle indicates that ecological catastrophe could be bearing down on us rather sooner than we’d expected.

 

I feel glad that I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction.  I’ve read so many books set in dystopian futures over the decades that now, when I actually find myself living in the dystopia of 2020, I don’t feel in the least bit surprised.  None of this came as a nasty shock for me.

 

I’ve also been thinking about dystopian fiction recently because I’m currently halfway through Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994), which as its title suggests takes place in an authoritarian society where memory itself is policed.  Gradually, everyday items like flowers, perfume and photographs are deleted physically, from people’s everyday existences, and mentally, from their memories.  As the world loses its precious details and becomes drabber and greyer, the body enforcing these deletions, the Memory Police of the title, becomes ever-more oppressive.  I don’t know if Ogawa will manage to keep this premise interesting for the novel’s full 274 pages, but so far I’ve been impressed.

 

I’ve thought about it too because of the death last month of French author Jean Raspail, known for his apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints (1973).  I haven’t read Camp and don’t intend to, because from all accounts it’s the nightmare fantasy of an ultra-right-wing, ultra-Catholic, ultra-privileged white French male and is a bucket of racist slime.  Let me quote from its synopsis on Wikipedia.  Camp depicts France being swamped by a tidal wave of immigrants from India, who have names like ‘the turd eater’, have ‘monstrously deformed’ children, indulge in public fornication, are ‘filthy’ and ‘brutish’ and ‘flout laws, do not produce and murder French citizens’.  They’re aided and abetted in their takeover of France by lefty aid workers, journalists, politicians, ‘charities, rock stars and major churches’.   Needless to say, the book is much admired by the likes of Steve Bannon and Marine Le Pen.  I only hope that, before he croaked, Raspail took a look at the rankings of the world’s strongest economies.  Because he would find that India, source of his racistly sub-human bogeymen in Camp, is now in fifth place, which is two places above his precious France.    Maybe one day an Indian author will write a reply to Camp, in which an affluent India is invaded by hordes of starving, third-world Frenchmen.

 

Anyway, all this has set me thinking.  If I had to name my favourite dystopian novels, what would they be?

 

© Penguin Books

 

I’d better start by defining my terms.  By dystopian fiction I mean a story set in a society that’s gone seriously off the rails, either because of hellish political oppression of some sort, or because of a natural or man-made cataclysm that’s turned life into a scramble for survival.  It has to be set at least a little way into the future, not in the present.  And there’s the issue of location.  The horribleness described in a proper dystopian story, for me, has to be widespread, if not global.  Therefore, books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975), where the societal breakdown takes place respectively on an island and in a tower block, don’t qualify because they’re too localised in scale.

 

I will also disqualify novels where the setting for the story is pretty grim, but that’s all the dystopian element is – a setting, a backdrop against which the plot takes place.  We gets glimpses of bad stuff in the background, but we’re more interested in the narrative and in the psychology of the characters.  So for that reason I will exclude William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).  In a proper dystopian story, the world is in an awful state and that state has to be at the forefront, so vivid that it becomes an important character itself in the story, if not the most important character.

 

And I will leave out novels where, yes, present-day society has met its nemesis and collapsed, presumably bloodily and destructively, but where the narratives take place so far in the future that they feel like fantasy or fairy stories.  The settings are so distant and fantastical that there’s little or no link with our own world, and the reader isn’t disturbed by the thought of what happened to civilisation between now and then.  So that means H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962) are both out.

 

I’ve seen lists of dystopian novels that include ones set in alternative universes, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005).  But I’m excluding them too because, for me, a properly effective dystopian novel has to take place in a universe that’s recognisably our own one.  The thought, “This could happen to me or to my children, grandchildren or descendants” has to be prominent in the reader’s mind.

 

Finally, I’ve left out Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) because, although it’s set in a future New York that’s largely underwater thanks to global warming, and although it impressed me with its scale and ambition, I found it a bit too hopeful to qualify.  To hit the required nerve, dystopian fiction has to be depressing and pessimistic.  There’s no room on my list for nice dystopian fiction.  Sorry, Kim.

 

© Vintage Books

 

Right.  I’ve just disqualified nine or ten commonly cited classics of dystopian fiction.  Is there anything left to go on my list?  Well, actually, there is.  I’d have liked to present an alliteration-friendly number of titles, such as a ‘top ten’ or a ‘dystopian dozen’ or a ‘first fifteen’, but I’ve ended up with sixteen.  These are:

 

Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood.

Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood.

The Drowned World by (1962) J.G. Ballard.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury.

A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess.

The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher.

Make Room!  Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison.

Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley.

Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) by Doris Lessing

The Iron Heel (1907) by Jack London.

I am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson.

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy.

1984 (1949) by George Orwell.

Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) by Christopher Priest.

Day of the Triffids by (1951) John Wyndham.

 

A few books that are regarded as classics of dystopian writing aren’t on the list because, simply, I haven’t read them yet.  They include P.D. James’s Children of Men (1992), about a near-future world where mass sterility means that no children are being born and society is destabilising as the population ages.  A similarly-themed book is on the list, though, Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard, which takes the scenario further and imagines a future England where nobody is under 50, nature is quickly wiping out traces of human civilisation and the oldsters are finding it increasingly hard to distinguish reality from senility-induced fantasy.  Actually, the sci-fi writer Adam Roberts, who wrote the introduction to my copy of Greybeard, reckons it’s a better novel than the more acclaimed Children of Men.

 

© Signet Books

 

Some of my inclusions are predictable – Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, McCarthy.  Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood is the only person on the list with two entries, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, so Madge is officially the Queen of Dystopian Literature as far as I’m concerned.  I was tempted to include a couple of J.G. Ballard’s other works like The Drought (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), but I opted for The Drowned World because it’s the first and most famous of his surreal, psychological and hallucinogenic novels set during or after a global catastrophe.  And irrespective of their individual merits, The Drought and The Crystal World do feel like variations on a Ballardian theme.  Whereas with Atwood, the nastily patriarchal and reactionary society envisioned in The Handmaid’s Tale and the ecological disaster zone described in Oryx and Crake are two very different creations.

 

Many people would argue that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is actually a horror novel, a vampire one, but the apocalyptic plague Matheson describes is given a scientific rationale; so it could happen, just about.  It was also a massive influence on George A. Romero’s zombie movies, which in turn gave rise to the zombie-apocalypse trope that’s now a major sub-genre of dystopian fiction, TV and cinema.

 

Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock Day of the Triffids because of the middle-class cosiness of its characters.  Their personalities manage to remain decent, upstanding and Radio 4-ish even after 99% of the population have been blinded and giant, mobile, flesh-eating plants have invaded the streets.  And even some of Wyndham’s admirers might argue that The Chrysalids (1955) and The Kraken Wakes (1953), both of which feature dystopias of their own, are better books.  But I think Day of the Triffids deserves its place in the list because of its impact on popular culture.  The word ‘triffid’ has entered the English language.  I’ve heard it used to describe everything from a noxious-looking weed growing in somebody’s garden to the state of Helena Bonham Carter’s hair.

 

On the other hand, I’ve picked John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island because they offer an antidote to Wyndham’s cosiness.  Both books have characters who start out as respectable middle-class English types whose personalities undergo a breakdown as violent and frightening as the disasters – a plague that destroys cereal crops in Death, a refugee crisis caused by a limited nuclear war in Fugue – rocking the societies around them.

 

One novel I feel really deserves its place on the list is Harry Harrison’s disturbing meditation on the dangers of human overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room!  It just annoys me when people compare Make Room with its 1973 film version, Soylent Green, and pontificate that the book isn’t as good because it doesn’t have the film’s two big gimmicks.  These are a euthanasia clinic, to which the character Sol (Edward G. Robinson in the film) goes when he decides that he can’t handle any more of the world’s ghastliness, and the film’s twist ending when it’s revealed that the mysterious foodstuff Soylent Green, a major component of the future human diet, is… people!  (You have to shout it in Charlton Heston’s voice.)

 

© Penguin Books

 

However, as Harrison pointed out, and unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are a bit of a cliché in science fiction.  (Not so long ago, I read Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, published back in 1895, and it had something called a ‘government lethal chamber’ in it.)  And Harrison had researched Make Room meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he knew that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible.  Human beings don’t fatten up quickly and require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a form of livestock to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea.  And as this study shows, they’re not even that rich in calories.

 

On the other hand, one novel that nearly didn’t make my list was Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor because it feels rather dated now.  The problem is that the feral kids and gangs of violent youths that populate the novel seem a bit, well, hippy-ish.  Sorry, Doris, but when I try to imagine a Mad Max-style dystopia I don’t normally see crowds of hippies running at me with chainsaws.  Of course, Memoirs was written in the early 1970s when memories of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, flower power, etc., were still fresh.  It’s a pity Lessing didn’t write it a couple of years later, after the much more dystopia-friendly punk rockers had appeared.  Still, I like the novel for its psychological depth, with the narrator escaping from the claustrophobic confines of her apartment by concentrating on a wall until she’s able to ‘pass through’ it into an imaginary realm.  And considering that dystopian novels are frequently dominated by male characters, it’s good to see one where female characters are at the forefront.

 

Incidentally, my brother, who works in the building industry, once told me that while he was attending a health-and-safety seminar about the dangers of asbestos, the speaker mentioned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  He said that in 1953, as a publicity gimmick, the publisher Ballantine produced 200 numbered and signed copies of Fahrenheit 451 that were bound in asbestos.  The joke was that in a future society where are books had to be burned, these 200 copies of the novel couldn’t be burned.  Obviously, at the time, people were unaware of the links between asbestos and lung cancer.

 

Now that sounds like a truly dystopian book – one that tells a story about a totalitarian future society whilst having the power to induce a dystopian-style breakdown inside the reader’s body.

 

© Ballantine Books

 

This is an updated version of an entry that first appeared on this blog in July 2014.

Oliver twit

 

© Weidenfeld & Nicolson

 

I’m fairly left-wing in my outlook.  But I’m not a fan of recent strategies like cancel culture and no-platforming as ways of dealing with people who express reactionary and offensive opinions.

 

Partly this is because proponents of cancelling and de-platforming people seem to assume that humanity can be divided neatly into good and bad, with no possibility of various shades of goodness and badness existing in between.  I doubt, though, if any human being can honestly claim that they’ve never said or done anything that, later on, they regretted.  A case in point is novelist Damian Barr, who got Lady Emma Nicholson removed from the vice-presidency of the Booker Prize due to her hostility towards gay rights, which saw her voting against same-sex marriage in the House of Lords in 2013.  Embarrassingly, it then emerged that Barr himself was guilty of tweeting nasty stuff about transsexuals.

 

Also, I was in favour of letting people with obnoxious opinions get up in public and spout those opinions because of the ‘give-them-enough-rope-and-they’ll-hang-themselves’ argument.  Allow them a platform, allow them to speak, and people will realise what offensive tossers they are.  However, in today’s media landscape, where Internet algorithms mean folk can spend their entire lives living in online echo-chambers where they hear nothing but their own political viewpoints and have their own prejudices reinforced, I’m less sure of that argument’s validity.

 

And the dichotomies of cancel culture and no-platforming seemingly leave no room for the potential of human beings to change and improve.  I’m from Northern Ireland and the fact that Northern Ireland in 2020 is a better (if still considerably less than perfect) place than it was in, say, 1973 is in part because during the peace process people had to make a leap of faith and accept that characters who’d been banged up in prison for doing some very bad stuff had mended their ways and were worth trusting and negotiating with.   I’m thinking of the likes of David Ervine, who was put in the Maze Prison for being in possession of explosives and intent to endanger life but who, when he died in 2007, was hailed by Tony Blair as “a persistent and intelligent persuader for cross-community partnership.”

 

That said, however, I’m not feeling much sympathy for historian David Starkey, who in a recent interview on Reasoned UK, a platform set up by right-wing foetus Daren Grimes, came out with such jaw-droppers as “Slavery was not genocide.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there?  You know, an awful lot of them survived.”  During the ensuing furore, Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam College and Canterbury Christ Church University cut their ties with Starkey and HarperCollins announced that it wouldn’t publish him anymore.  Even if Starkey hadn’t expressed himself in such racist terms, I still wouldn’t allow the guy any academic responsibilities because his reasoning suggests that his head’s full of mince.  I mean, there are quite a few Jews around these days too.  But that doesn’t mean they weren’t subjected to genocide in the past, does it?

 

It only surprises me that it took Starkey’s horribleness so long to spark an outcry like this, for he’s been farting out offensive and upsetting comments for years on the BBC and in various newspapers.  In 2011, for instance, he blamed the London riots on whites who had “become black.  A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture…”  In 2009, he dismissed Ireland, Scotland and Wales as ‘feeble little countries’ and in 2015 likened the Scottish National Party to the Nazis and the St Andrew’s Cross to the swastika.

 

From twitter.com/davidstarkeyCBE 

 

But it isn’t Starkey whom I want to grump about here.  It’s another famous tele-historian, Scotsman Neil Oliver (although technically he’s an archaeologist).  He’s best-known for his appearances from 2006 to 2010 in the BBC show Coast, in which he tramped around the shores of Britain talking about its natural and human history whilst looking shaggy-haired and hippy-esque, windswept and Celtic, rather like Bono during his Joshua Tree / Rattle and Hum period.  Oliver has suffered collateral damage from the Starkey debacle.  He was criticised for tweeting Darren Grimes shortly before the catastrophic interview and saying of Starkey, “Tell him I love him, by all means.”  Since then, Oliver has nailed his colours to the mast by retweeting sentiments from right-wing reprobates like Douglas Murray, Laurence Fox and Toby Young, who’s opined that Britain is now in the throes of a ‘Maoist Cultural Revolution’.  (That’s right, Tobe.  Britain, with its Maoist prime minister, Boris Johnson; with its Maoist media publications, like the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Spectator; and with its Maoist media moguls, like Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and the 4th Viscount Rothermere.)

 

Then the other day, Oliver announced that in September this year he would step down from the presidency of the National Trust for Scotland.  The NTS was clearly uncomfortable with Oliver’s association with Starkey and had just issued a statement refuting accusations that their president supported Starkey’s views.  For the record, I should say that while Oliver’s politics frequently get up my nose, I don’t believe he’s a racist like Starkey.

 

I find it peculiar that the NTS made Oliver its president to begin with because it must have alienated a lot of people whom the organisation depends on for support.  A staunch red-white-and-blue British unionist down to the split ends of his flowing tresses, Oliver has never made any bones about his disdain for the Scottish National Party – although unlike his pal Starkey, I don’t think he’s ever likened them to Nazis.  In 2017, the year he became NTS president and while he was filming a programme in New Zealand, he wrote a piece for the Sunday Times with the title, “In New Zealand, I’ve put enough distance between me and the SNP.”  Which was not the most logical thing to say, given that New Zealand is a successful independent country of five million people, which is exactly what the SNP aspire to for Scotland.  In early 2020, he wrote in the Times of Scotland’s SNP government: “It’s embarrassing.  I think of other nations looking at us and our shenanigans, and shudder with humiliation by association.”  This vitriol seems at odds with what Oliver sanctimoniously tweeted two months earlier, on the eve of the December 2019 British general election: “Whatever happens tomorrow, we will still be the same individuals with the same neighbours, living the same lives.  Nothing will have changed, not one jot.  Peace be with you.”

 

Presumably, a good number of people in Scotland who are sufficiently interested in Scottish culture and history to pay for NTS membership and donate to it are also people who believe that Scotland should be an independent country again.  So by appointing President Oliver, the NTS inadvertently flipped those people the middle finger.  If I’m giving money to a cause that suddenly adopts as its figurehead someone who’s very publicly slagged off people like me, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to withdraw my patronage.

 

From twitter.com/N T S

 

Meanwhile, soon after British protests in support of the USA’s Black Lives Matter movement resulted in the statue of notorious Bristol slaver Edward Colston being pulled down and chucked into nearby Bristol Harbour,  Oliver appeared on television and contributed his tuppence worth.  For a worrying moment, I actually found myself in agreement with the guy.  As he pointed out: “I’m using a smartphone to take part in this conversation…  And I know that the cobalt that’s within the battery of my phone and in my laptop computer has almost certainly been mined by a child slave in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  And the people who were taking those videos, are taking videos of statues being destroyed…  the people holding those phones were probably wearing clothes that had been made in sweatshops in other parts of the world by other living slaves.  If this is to be a coming-to-terms with slavery, then I would deal with the plight of slaves who are alive today…”

 

But just before I punched my fist in the air and shouted, “Yeah, right on, Neil!  Smash this globalist capitalist system now!” the hairy bugger went and ruined it.  He veered off into a reactionary rant about the protests possibly being “an attempt by anarchists and communists to eat into the built fabric of Britain and thereby to bring down British society.”

 

In other words, Oliver’s argument about modern-day child slaves was just a piece of whataboutery.  He was angry that Colston’s statue got toppled and thrown into the drink, even though Colston’s involvement with notorious slave-traders the Royal African Company saw an estimated 84,000 Africans shipped as slaves across the Atlantic, with 19,000 of them dying en route. So to obfuscate the issue of Colston’s villainy, he introduced the child-slaves of the DRC into the conversation.  Yes, child-slaves in 2020!  What about them?

 

Actually, Neil, what about them?  Is Boris Johnson and the rest of the gang in charge of the British establishment, which you seem so enamoured with, going to take action against international child slavery anytime soon?  I doubt it.

 

The irony is that the assault on Colston’s statue, which so offended Oliver, a supposed historian, has actually made a lot of people more aware of history.  That includes me.  For example, soon afterwards, someone on social media suggested removing the statue of Henry Dundas from its column in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh, on account of Dundas being the man who delayed the abolition of Britain’s slave trade by a decade-and-a-half.  They also asked whose statue might be put on the column as a replacement.  The suggestions on the following thread included names such as Bessie Watson, Jane Haining and Eliza Wigham – whom I had to look up on Wikipedia, because until that point I didn’t know anything about them.  (All women, incidentally.  Women don’t get much mention in traditional accounts of Scottish history.)

 

But my concept of history seems to be anathema to Neil Oliver and his mate David Starkey, who see it as a fixed and immutable thing, like lava that spewed out of the great volcano of events and immediately solidified and hardened – becoming a giant monument to be stared at and admired and worshipped, with no room for re-interpretation or re-evaluation.  That’s what history is, end of.

 

This strikes me as an ignorant viewpoint because if we accept history as set-in-stone, we ignore not just possibilities for subjective revision but possibilities for objective revision of it too because, with progress, our science and scholarship for examining the past becomes better.  If we didn’t revise our understanding of history from time to time, we’d still be stuck with silly and antiquated notions like, for instance, the Scots being descendants of Scota, daughter of Moses’s Pharaoh, and Geythelos, King of Greece.

 

But the likes of Oliver and Starkey have no interest in history as a fluid, changing, reviewable thing.  No, they’re the contented curators of the dusty, fusty and preserved-in-aspic Museum, or Mausoleum, of Establishment British history.  Then again, I suppose it pays their wages.

 

From commons.wikipedia.org / © William Avery