We’re left un-Mark-ed

 

From wikipedia.org / © Steven Friederich

 

I’m not particularly superstitious, but I can’t help wondering if when Kurt Cobain picked up a shotgun in his Seattle home on April 5th, 1994, he set in train a curse that would strike down the singers of all the great grunge bands.  Following the Nirvana frontman’s suicide, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains died in 2002, Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots died in 2015 and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden died in 2017.  And now this grim list has been extended by the death last week of Mark Lanegan, vocalist with the Screaming Trees.  One can only hope that Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Mark Arm of Mudhoney get to see their sixties.

 

Mark Lanegan’s death came as a blow because both the band he fronted in the 1980s and 1990s, the Screaming Trees, and his own solo career, which began in the 1990s, seemed to go from strength to strength.  Unlike many rocks acts, they didn’t just peak after a couple of albums and then tail off in quality.  The Trees’ later albums, Sweet Oblivion (1992), their biggest commercial success, and Dust (1996), were great and bore a slew of classic singles, like Nearly Lost You, Dollar Bill, All I Know and Sworn and Broken.  For me, though, their finest moment was the first track on Sweet Oblivion, the urgent, pulsating Shadow of the Season, powered like all of Lanegan’s music by his husky, old-man’s-voice-in-a-young-man’s-throat vocals.  Lanegan had originally signed up with the Trees as a drummer but claimed he was so useless at drumming that his bandmembers ended up forcing him to sing…  Surely one of the most fortunate career-changes in modern music.

 

© Epic Records

 

Before the band broke up at the end of the 1990s due to the not-uncommon ‘differences among bandmembers’ – differences that were fuelled in part by Lanegan’s industrial-level booze and drug consumption – Lanegan had also contributed to the grunge ‘supergroup’ Mad Season, which as well as members of the Trees contained members of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, and whose lone album Above (1995) I’ve always considered rather wonderful.  Later, he was associated with alternative / stoner rock band Queens of the Stone Age, whose founder Josh Homme had joined the Trees as a guitarist following the release of Dust.  He contributed to the Queens during the glory years of their albums Rated R (2000) and Songs for the Deaf (2002).  Plus, he was one half of the Gutter Twins (the other half being Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs), who recorded the 2008 album Saturnalia.

 

Meanwhile, his solo career, which had begun with The Winding Sheet in 1990 and had already won critical acclaim with Whiskey for the Holy Ghost in 1994, gathered a head of steam.  By the time of his death, he’d released a dozen solo albums, of which Bubblegum (2004) and Blues Funeral (2012) are my favourites.  Bleeding Muddy Water off Blues Funeral is the sort of song you’d consider having played at your funeral.  Inevitably, with Lanegan’s gruff, mournful voice, and with his worldview coloured by a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, his canon evokes a long and honourable tradition of world-weary American troubadours chronicling the seedy side of life: Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and countless old blues singers.  Indeed, the blues influence was never far away from Lanegan’s music.  He once worked with Kurt Cobain on a never-released album of cover versions of songs by the legendary bluesman (and several-times convict) Leadbelly.

 

Lanegan was a prolific collaborator, working with everyone from Moby to the Breeders, Melissa Auf der Maur to the Eagles of Death Metal, Tinariwen to Hey Colossus, Cult of Luna to the Manic Street Preachers…  Though because of my Scottish-Irish background, and because in my less violent musical moods I’m something of a folky, I have to say I like his work with Isobel Campbell, the Scottish chanteuse of Belle and Sebastian, most of all.  Lanegan and Campbell were responsible for three records, Time is Just the Same (2004), Ballad of the Broken Seas (2006) and Sunday at Devil Dirt (2008), and their combined sound is gorgeous in its understated way.  The Celtic beauty of Campbell’s singing meshes hauntingly with the grungy old American beast that is Lanegan’s voice.

 

© V2

 

I did not have much success when I first attempted to see the great man perform live.  During the Edinburgh Festival sometime in the ‘noughties’, he did a gig at Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms, but I made the mistake of trying to cram too much into my Festival-going schedule that day.  I misread the start-time for Lanegan’s gig and also bought a ticket for comedian Reginald D. Hunter at the Pleasance, believing I had a few minutes after Hunter’s show ended and before Lanegan’s began to get myself from one venue to the other.  When I steamed into the Liquid Rooms, Lanegan was already on stage, singing Shadow of the SeasonWell, I thought, it’s nice of him to treat the audience to a classic Screaming Trees song so early in his set.  However, a few minutes later, he said, “Thank you and good night!” and left the stage, and I realised I’d actually arrived exceedingly late in his set.  I was so annoyed that when I walked out of the Liquid Rooms again, I almost crashed into a towering, tousle-haired figure who was being interviewed on the pavement by a small scrum of journalists – yes, it was Lanegan himself.  So at least he belongs to the Pantheon Of Famous People I’ve Been Within A Yard Of (alongside John Cleese, Irvine Welsh, Mark E. Smith and, er, John Otway).

 

But a couple of years after that, I managed to see a full Lanegan concert at, if memory serves me correctly, the now-defunct HMV Picture House on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road, and that was brilliant.

 

In the 2010s Lanegan became pals with globetrotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain.  Following Bourdain’s death in 2018, Lanegan penned a tribute in the Observer that described him as an “important voice for the positivity of exploring different cultures all over the world.  He’s someone we really need now, especially in a country where our shambles of a president wants to vilify people of colour and stoke the fires of the ignorant…  He made the world a better place.”  It was Bourdain who encouraged Lanegan to pen an autobiography, finally published in 2020, called Sing Backwards and Weep.  Hitherto, Lanegan had been reluctant about tackling such a project because, in his words, “The last thing I wanted to do was write some stupid f*cking rock bio.”

 

I haven’t read Sing Backwards and Weep, but a Scottish mate of mine who has tells me it’s great, if pretty intense – which isn’t surprising given some of the dark things that happened to Lanegan during the troughs of his addictions in the 1980s and 1990s.  These included a period of being homeless, which ended when Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s missus, rescued him and got him into rehab.  Sing Backwards and Weep also recounts the massive spat Lanegan had with leading Britpop gobshite Liam Gallagher when the Screaming Trees had the misfortune to support Oasis on their 1996 American tour.  Lanegan was not in a forgiving mood at the time and didn’t take kindly to Gallagher referring to his band as ‘the Howling Branches’.  Lanegan was still in a fighting mood a quarter-century later when the book was published: “I would still kick the f*cking shit out of that guy the first moment I got a hold of his hands because he’s a f*cking idiot.”  Quite right too.

 

The past year had been especially rough for Lanegan.  Having relocated to Ireland, he contracted Covid-19, which resulted in him having breathing difficulties, becoming deaf, losing the use of one leg, hallucinating, suffering from insomnia, falling down a flight of stairs and being put in a medically induced coma.  It was the impact of all that, presumably, which finally pushed Lanegan off this mortal coil.  Mind you, he wrote a second book called Devil in a Coma, published just in December last year, which described the ordeal he’d been going through with the virus.  An artist till the very end, Lanegan managed to extract a creative work from even the process of dying.

 

News of Lanegan’s death left me feeling frustrated as well as sad – frustrated because I felt the world had been cheated out of much more, excellent music that surely he would have produced had he been allowed to live another couple of decades.  The next day, I remarked on this to a friend, saying that Lanegan had been ‘on course to be a great renaissance man like Nick Cave’.  But as my friend pointed out, he’d been so phenomenally prolific that, by his death at 57 years old, his output was probably as large as, if not larger than Cave’s already.

 

Still, it’s tragic.  These days, 57 is no age.

 

© 4AD

Don’t Look Up is worth looking up

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

Before I start, a warning – many spoilers ahead!

 

Appropriately for a year that was fairly grim, the final movie I watched in 2021 was the recently released, apocalyptic sci-fi satire Don’t Look Up, which tells the story of how two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet hurtling on a course that in six months’ time will bring it smashing into the earth and wiping out all life here.  But their warnings about what’s coming are muffled by a trivia-obsessed media, chiefly represented by fatuous talk show hosts Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, which refuses to take them seriously.  They’re also thwarted by duplicitous politicians, most notably Meryl Streep as the American president, who are reluctant to take decisive action and blow the damned comet out of the sky because, it transpires, it’s loaded with priceless minerals.

 

Don’t Look Up is interesting in that while it enjoys a healthy 7.3 / 10 approval rating from users of the online film database IMDb, and an even healthier ’82% liked this film’ rating among Google users, the reviews by film critics have been less enthusiastic – approval ratings of 54% and 50% on the critical aggregates Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic respectively.  Among those unimpressed critics were the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who called it ‘laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed’, and Rolling Stone’s David Fear, who described it as ‘a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire’.  Meanwhile, in the Independent, Louis Chilton went the whole hog and penned an article entitled WHAT GOES UP, MUST COME DOWN: WHY IT’S OKAY TO HATE ‘DON’T LOOK UP’.  In this, he opined, “the execution is too broad and condescending… And for a comedy, perhaps its greatest offence is that there are almost no laughs.”

 

So Don’t Look Up has received contrasting levels of appreciation from ordinary viewers and from the critics.  Interestingly, one faction that’s whole-heartedly praised the film has been environmental journalists and scientists.  Climate scientist Peter Kalmus wrote in the Guardian that as someone “doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s also the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.”  Meanwhile, in the Guardian too, environmental journalist George Monbiot declared, “The movie is, in my view, a powerful demolition of the grotesque failures of public life.  And the sector whose failures are most brutally exposed is the media…  it seemed all too real.  I felt as if I were watching my adult life flash past me.  As the scientists in the film, trying to draw attention to the approach of a planet-killing comet, bashed their heads against the Great Wall of Denial erected by the media and sought to reach politicians with 10-second attention spans, all the anger and frustration and desperation I’ve felt over the years boiled over.”

 

Well, I have to say I come down on the side of Joe Public (and the environmentalists) and not on the side of the critics who, as part of the mainstream media, were perhaps not best pleased by how the film portrayed that media.  I liked Don’t Look Up and, despite what Louis Chilton claimed in the Independent, enjoyed several hearty laughs during its running time.  There are a few problems, which I’ll talk about in a minute, but generally I’m happy to give the movie the thumbs up.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

Much of what works in the movie is due to its impeccable cast.  DiCaprio and Lawrence make a good double-act as the astronomers.  DiCaprio is a timid character, at times a bundle of nerves, cerebral but inarticulate when he comes under pressure.  Lawrence is the opposite, ready to forcibly speak her mind when she sees others obfuscating.  As events unfurl, it’s the bumbling DiCaprio who unwittingly becomes a media star, probably because he matches public perceptions of what scientists should be like – cuddly, eccentric Albert Einstein types.  Meanwhile, the abrasive Lawrence is banished from the limelight.  DiCaprio plays along with this and ingratiates himself with the media and political establishments, believing he can exert a positive influence over the people in power who are dealing with the comet.  He can’t, as it turns out, and while he compromises his principles his private life up-ends and he becomes estranged from his wife and children.

 

Perry and Blanchett are simultaneously amusing and chilling as the shallow talk-show hosts, though Blanchett is allowed a sliver of character development later when we learn she has three master’s degrees, meaning that her lack of acumen onscreen is merely an audience-pleasing act.  The sequence where DiCaprio and Lawrence go on their show, The Daily Rip, to break the bad news about the comet to the world, and find the hosts more interested in interviewing a pop-poppet (played by Ariane Grande, no less) about her split with her pop-poppet boyfriend, is a masterclass in cringe comedy worthy of Ricky Gervais or Armando Iannucci.

 

Meryl Streep, meanwhile, is majestically horrible as the president.  It would have been easy to portray her as a female Trump, but she’s smarter and smoother than the blustering, orange-skinned, cunning-without-being-smart property tycoon.  “I say we sit tight and assess,” is her initial reaction to DiCaprio and Lawrence’s warnings, which she justifies with the observation, “You cannot go around saying to people that there’s 100% chance that they’re going to die.  You know?  It’s just nuts!”  When she’s faced with a potentially explosive scandal and needs something to divert the media’s attention, however, she changes her tune.  She suddenly plays up the comet and amid much patriotic hoopla marshals the US’s nuclear firepower in an effort to annihilate it before it reaches the earth.  Her tune changes again when a major donor to her party persuades her to cancel the plan to destroy the comet, because it’s a goldmine of precious metals, and proposes a different way of handling it.

 

The donor is a Silicon Valley billionaire played by Mark Rylance, who believes his company has the capability to send a fleet of rocket-powered robots to the comet and seed it with explosives.  These will break it into small, non-cataclysmic fragments that can be retrieved and put to lucrative use when they fall to earth.  Stiff, eternally smiling, generally weird, Rylance comes across as a creepy mixture of Elon Musk, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.  Incidentally, the character’s fondness for having children onstage with him when he’s unveiling his company’s latest high-tech gadgets reminded me faintly of Jackson’s disastrous performance of The Earth Song at the 1996 Brit Awards in London, when he had a crowd of child actors in tow.  Rylance leaves you wondering if the character is a genius or just some arrested-development man-child who’s been extraordinarily lucky.  Due to his wealth, of course, the establishment believe he is a genius and happily go along with his comet-breaking scheme.  You can guess how it ends.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

The best performance, though, comes from Jonah Hill as the White House Chief of Staff, who also happens to be President Streep’s son.  If writer-director-producer Adam McKay doesn’t satirise Donald Trump directly with Streep, he certainly skewers the Trump White House with Hill’s character, a smug, obnoxious, entitled arse with all the characteristics of the promoted-beyond-their-abilities Trump kids (and Jared Kushner).  Hill makes a meal of the role. “You’re breathing weird.  It’s making me uncomfortable,” he whines at DiCaprio when the latter gets worked up describing the mile-high tsunamis that’ll crash across the planet when the comet hits.  And when DiCaprio tells him the chance of this happening is ’99.78 percent’, he reacts, “Oh, great!  So it’s not 100 percent.”  McKay also uses the character to take a swipe at Trumpism’s biggest coup, that of convincing masses of ordinary, often hard-up people to support a wealthy, right-wing elite by demonising another part of America, the part that’s liberal, urban and educated.  We hear Hill declare at a rally: “There’s three types of American people.  There are you, the working class.  Us, the cool rich.  And then them!”

 

On the minus side, I’d say Don’t Look Up is about half-an-hour too long.  Its unnecessary length means the satire gets a bit samey and the jokes get stretched a bit thin towards the end.  Also, late on, there are jarring tonal shifts.  We have solemn moments where DiCaprio tries to make peace with his loved ones and enjoy some final, life-affirming time with them, even while the gigantic tsunamis surge out from the comet’s strike-point.  This put me in mind of another movie about a collision of celestial bodies, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), even though for the most part it’s a million miles removed from Don’t Look Up in mood.  However, intercut with the DiCaprio scenes are ones where the satire continues, with Streep, Rylance and a super-rich select few escaping from the earth, in suspended animation, on board a specially-prepared spaceship, which’ll take them to another earth-type planet 23,000 years from now.  While I enjoyed both sub-plots, having them unwind side-by-side made me feel I was watching two different films.

 

Also, for a movie that’s about the disparagement of science, Don’t Look Up could have been more scientifically accurate in places.  The initial operation to completely destroy the comet involves sending an astronaut (Ron Perlman) up into space on a suicide mission.  He’s in a recommissioned space shuttle and shepherding a flock of rockets carrying nuclear bombs, all on a collision course with the comet.  But the real space shuttle could never get beyond a low-earth orbit because it couldn’t carry enough propellant to go further.  How is Perlman going to reach the comet, which is still a few months away at this point?  Couldn’t they just launch the rockets, without the shuttle, and guide them from the ground?  The ‘sleeper’ spaceship that appears at the end and transports a lucky few to a planet in a faraway solar system sets up a good final gag, but it troubled me too.  If the elite, which includes Rylance’s character, have the technology at their disposal to create a spaceship like that – officially, manned interstellar space travel and suspended animation are beyond human know-how at the moment – couldn’t Rylance have put that fabulous technology to more immediate use and made a better job of his comet-breaking operation?

 

Although people have interpreted Don’t Look Up’s comet as a metaphor for climate change and society’s hopeless attempts, or non-attempts, to address it, I think the film is making broader comments about the scientific community, the media, politicians and their responses to crises generally.  It’s not as if the politicians spend the whole film denying the existence of the comet, as some real-life ones still deny that climate change is happening.  Fairly early on, it’s established that, yes, the comet is heading our way (although we see instances of ‘comet-deniers’ among the general public later on).  It’s more about how self-interest and opportunism get in the way of necessary and meaningful action.

 

When Streep gives Rylance’s daft plan to harvest the comet the go-ahead, I found myself thinking of a real-life, down-to-earth and non-American parallel.  During the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government frequently handed out lucrative contracts for making personal protective equipment (PPE), establishing tracing programmes, setting up testing centres and so on to private companies that lacked medical experience, but were sympathetic to or connected with the Conservative party.  Often, the results were disastrous.  But hey, if you have access to power and can make a fast buck during a catastrophe, why not?

 

So actually, you don’t have to look up.  Just look around you instead.  It’s happening everywhere, this moment.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

My 2021 writing round-up

 

© Midnight Street Press

 

On this blog one year ago, I remember writing a post that bid an unfond adieu to the outgoing hellhole plague-year of 2020.  However, the post also welcomed 2021 with some expressions of mild optimism.  After all, vaccines were being developed against Covid-19, the main reason for 2020’s hideousness.  And that man-slug of evil, Donald Trump, had just been defeated in the US presidential election.

 

Well, I’m not making that mistake again.  I’m not expressing even faint optimism about 2022, seeing as 2021 was nearly as dire as its predecessor.

 

While the vaccines arrived – and having been double-jabbed and boosted courtesy of Sri Lanka’s healthcare system, I’m feeling a lot safer personally – it’s depressing that much of the world’s population remains unvaccinated.  Economics and politics have denied many people access to vaccines in the Global South.  Gordon Brown isn’t someone I normally agree with, but he’s absolutely right when he argues that the estimated 23.4 billion dollars it’d cost to roll out vaccines to everyone would be a wise investment for the world’s rich countries.  (It’s also a fraction of what’s been spent on certain recent wars.)   Meanwhile, anti-vaxxers continue to boggle the mind with their stupidity.  It takes unfathomable levels of dumbness to believe that getting a vaccine means having Bill Gates seed your body with micro-transmitters.  As a result, for years to come, unvaccinated humans will provide a giant petri dish for new Covid variants to mutate and develop.

 

As for the USA, it looks increasingly likely that the Republican Party, with Trump quite possibly at its head again, will be back in control of the White House in 2024.  They won’t win the popular vote, but the voter suppression, voting-law changes and replacement of election officials they’re currently enacting by stealth in the crucial ‘swing’ states will get them over the line.  At which point, the world’s most powerful nation will become a totalitarian state.

 

Anyway, enough of the gloom.  For me, 2021 wasn’t a disappointment in one respect, at least.  During the year I got a fair number of stories published, under the pseudonyms Jim Mountfield (used for my horror fiction) and Rab Foster (used for my fantasy fiction).  There follows a round-up of those stories, with information about where you can find them.

 

© DBND Publishing

 

As Jim Mountfield:

  • In January 2021, my story Where the Little Boy Drowned was published in Horrified Magazine. A ghost story (with a smidgeon of J-Horror), it was about a flooded river, a forgotten childhood tragedy and – appropriately for January – a New Year resolution that goes wrong. It can be read here.
  • February saw The Stables – another ghost story, this time about three girls on holiday in the countryside who enter a seemingly deserted farmstead searching for a riding school – appear in Volume 16, Issue 13 of Schlock! Webzine. Kindle and paperback versions of the issue are available here.
  • Later in February, When the Land Gets Hold of You, another story set on a farm, was featured in an anthology from DBND Publishing called The Cryptid Chronicles. As its title suggests, the stories in this collection concerned cryptids, that pseudoscientific category of animals that some people claim to exist but nobody has ever conclusively proven to exist, such as Chupacabra, the Jersey Devil and Nessie.  The cryptids in my story were based on redcaps, the malevolent fairies that legends say inhabit the peel towers of Scotland’s Borders region.  The Cryptid Chronicles can be bought here.
  • Shotgun Honey, a webzine devoted to the ‘crime, hardboiled and noir genres’, published my story Karaoke in March 2021. The story is about – surprise! – karaoke and it can be read here.
  • In July, I was pleased to have my story Ballyshannon Junction included in the collection Railroad Tales, from Midnight Street Press. The stories in Railroad Tales involved both ‘railroads, trains, stations, junctions and crossings’ and the ‘horrific, supernatural or extraordinary’.  Ballyshannon Junction met this brief by being set in an abandoned railway station in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and featuring a main character who’s plagued by possibly supernatural visions.  It also allowed me to use as inspiration the real-life Bundoran Junction station-house and grounds in County Tyrone, where my grandparents lived when I was a kid.  Railroad Tales can be purchased from Amazon UK here and amazon.com here.
  • A story inspired by a very different period in my life – when I worked in Libya – appeared in Volume 16, Issue 21 of Schlock! Webzine in October. The story was called The Encroaching Sand and the issue is available in kindle and paperback forms here.
  • Also in October, my story Bottled Up was included in the anthology Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 2): Folk Horror, published by Horrified Magazine. Folk horror is defined by Wikipedia as “a subgenre of horror… which uses elements of folklore to invoke fear in its audience.  Typical elements include a rural setting and themes of isolation, religion, the power of nature, and the potential darkness of rural landscapes.”  Accordingly, Bottled Up was set in that rural and folkloric part of England, East Anglia, and featured the remnants of a cult that worship a pagan sea deity.  The anthology can be purchased here.
  • Finally, my story Problem Family – about, unsurprisingly, a problem family, but also with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft – appeared in Horla in December. Currently, it can be read here.

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

As Rab Foster:

  • In May, Perspectives of the Scorvyrn was published in Volume 16, Issue 16 of Schlock! Webzine. This tale attempted to subvert the more macho, musclebound, boneheaded conventions of that sweaty sub-genre of fantasy fiction, the sword-and-sorcery story.  For one thing, it was told from multiple viewpoints and, for another, it was written in the present tense.  Conan the Barbarian would not have approved.  Kindle and paperback versions of the issue can be obtained here.
  • In July, my 13,000-word story The Theatregoers appeared in the Long Fiction section of Aphelion. It can be accessed here.
  • October saw The Orchestra of Syrak, a story inspired by the phantasmagorical (if overly verbose) work of pulp writer Clark Ashton Smith, appear in the 116th issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine.  You can read it here.
  • And in November, Parallel Universe Publications unveiled a collection entitled Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy, Volume 3, which included my story The Foliage.  An extremely handsome volume (thanks to its illustrations by the talented artist Jim Pitts), kindle and paperback copies of it can be ordered from Amazon UK here and amazon.com here.

 

© Aphelion

 

And that’s that – proof that 2021 wasn’t so bad for me writing-wise, even though it sucked on most other levels.

 

I shan’t tempt fate by making any optimistic predictions about 2022, but let’s just hope it turns out to be better than its two predecessors.  And yes – I’m touching a large wooden surface as I write this – a Happy New Year, everyone!

Tears of an ermine gown

 

From the Daily Record

 

For reasons of preserving my sanity, I’ve avoided writing about politics lately.  That includes the politics of my old homeland, Scotland.  However, I feel compelled to type a few words on the topic thanks to the coverage given to a recent interview with Jack McConnell.  Oops, sorry, I’ve misnamed him.  It should be Baron Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale.  The twitter handle he’s given himself is @LordMcConnell, so evidently these titles are important to him.  Baron McConnell was First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007 and the last First Minister to belong to the Scottish Labour Party.

 

Last week, Baron McConnell was interviewed in the Scottish current affairs magazine Holyrood and had plenty to say about the current state of Scottish politics which, since he was nudged out of power by Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party in 2007, have been dominated by the SNP.  The Baron is not happy at what he sees.  He laments that nothing has changed in Scotland since the 2014 referendum on independence (which, of course, his side won), laments that modern Scottish politics has ‘no public debate and no public accountability’, and pines for the good old days ‘of ministers doing their jobs well’.

 

Indeed, so strongly does he feel that at one point the interviewer notes, “McConnell’s voice starts to break and his eyes well up.”  “Sorry,” he says, “I’m feeling quite emotional about it right now…  I genuinely feel like we are stuck in treacle and I don’t know how we get out of it.”

 

Commentators in Scotland’s (heavily unionist) mainstream media have seized upon the article as both an articulation and confirmation of all that’s ghastly about modern-day Scotland, which has had the SNP in power for the past 14 years now and is currently under the First Ministership of Nicola Sturgeon.  In the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times, for instance, pundit Kenny Farquharson wrote, “I challenge anyone, of any political stripe, to read this interview with Jack McConnell and not find themselves agreeing with at least some of his analysis of where Scotland finds itself right now.”  And in the New Statesman, Chris Deerin opined about Jack – sorry, Baron! – McConnell’s outpouring, “Coming from a politician who is known for his optimism and problem-solving approach, and who rarely lacks a twinkle in his eye, the anguish is all the more powerful.  And it is very hard to disagree with anything.”

 

Incidentally, Deerin has form in lambasting Scotland’s prevailing political orthodoxy.  In 2015, in the right-wing online news outlet CapX, he wrote that the place “has become a soft and sappy nation, intellectually listless, coddled, a land of received wisdom and one-track minds, narrow parameters and mass groupthink…  It is certainly the viewpoint that dominates our polity and media – an unholy alliance of Nationalists, Greens and socialists. I’m sure many consider themselves to be all three.”  I find it mind-melting that the left-leaning New Statesman saw fit to make him its Scotland Editor.

 

Baron McConnell apparently bewails a lack of vision in modern Scottish politics, though I’m surprised that someone with his broad vision doesn’t acknowledge the fact that in the last decade, by way of being part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has had to deal with the austerity cuts imposed by David Cameron and George Osborne, and then the vote to leave the European Union (powered by anti-European votes in England – every part of Scotland voted to remain in the EU) and its ongoing, toxic legacy, and the Covid-19 epidemic.  Not to mention that the UK as a whole is currently governed by a set of Conservative politicians whose moral compass seems to be the same one that Al Capone referred to in the 1920s.  I doubt even a Scottish government with impeccable Unionist / Labour credentials headed by the noble Baron himself would appear particularly dynamic having all that to contend with.  So, it seems a bit myopic of him to overlook it.  Unless, of course, he’s just being disingenuous.

 

From angelfire.com

 

Also, when I think back to the supposed golden age of public debate, and public accountability, and ministers doing their jobs well, and not being stuck in treacle – i.e., Baron McConnell’s tenure as First Minister – I can’t remember much that was outstanding.  Well, apart from the ban on smoking in public places, the first such ban implemented in one of the constituent nations of the UK, which made life pleasanter and healthier for non-smokers like myself who liked to visit the pub sometimes.  But otherwise, I just remember him making an arse of himself by wearing a pinstriped kilt to a charity fashion show in New York in 2004.  (Even my old Dad, not normally one to get worked up about Scottish politics, exclaimed, “Christ, what an embarrassment!”).  Oh, and a stushie about him and his family holidaying in Majorca with Kirsty Wark, a senior journalist at the supposedly impartial BBC.  And his enthusiasm for promoting Public Finance Initiatives which, by 2016, were projected to cost Scottish taxpayers some 30 billion pounds during the decades to come.  And the fact that one year he returned 1.5 billion pounds of devolved money to the London treasury, when there were clearly things in Scotland he could have spent it on.

 

Still, Baron McConnell must have fond memories of those years.  A staunch Blairite, he had the satisfaction of knowing his smiley, warmongering hero was ensconced in Number Ten, Downing Street.  Also, the Labour Party was massively powerful in Scottish local politics, and it held the lion’s share of Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament too.  Labour were the top dogs in Scotland.  This was their territory.  No wonder political commentators joked that Labour votes in Scotland were weighed rather than counted; and in Glasgow you could stick a red rosette on a monkey and it’d get voted into Westminster.

 

Actually, looking at the evidence, the red rosette / monkey scenario must have actually happened in a number of cases.  I’m thinking of such specimens as Lanark and Hamilton East’s one-time Labour MP Jimmy Hood, who once declared he’d oppose Scottish independence even if it made the Scottish people better off – the fact that as an MP he was busy claiming £1000-a-month second-home expenses in London no doubt had something to do with his keenness to keep Westminster running the show.  And Midlothian’s David Hamilton, who in 2015 did his bit for the battle against sexism by describing Nicola Sturgeon (and her hairstyle) as “the wee lassie with a tin helmet on”.  And Glasgow South West’s Ian Davidson, who charmingly predicted that after 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence the debate would carry on only “in the sense there is a large number of wounded still to be bayoneted”.  This shower became known as the ‘low-flying Jimmies’ because of their lack of ambition in anything other than being cannon-fodder for Labour at Westminster and enjoying all the perks that came with being MPs.  And with numpties like these populating the Westminster opposition benches during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s no surprise Mrs Thatcher’s Tories had a free run to do whatever they liked in Scotland.

 

Yes, I know, in 1999, early in Blair’s premiership, Labour did set up the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.  But I’m sure it was seen as a means of keeping additional numbers of loyal Scottish Labour Party hacks in lucrative employment and was designed not to rock the boat in any way for London.  The Scottish parliament was organised so that no party (i.e., the SNP) could never win an outright majority in it and its ruling executive would always have to be a coalition.  And the biggest party in any coalition, Blair and co. assumed, would always be the Scottish Labour Party.

 

It was a shock for Labour when in 2007 the SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament, eschewed coalitions and ran Scotland for the next four years as a minority administration.  It was an even bigger shock for them when in 2011 the SNP achieved the impossible and managed to win an overall majority of seats there.  Hadn’t Labour’s finest minds arranged things so that this would never happen?  And things got even worse in 2015 when, with the Scottish party led by the hapless Jim Murphy, Labour lost 40 of its 41 MPs to the SNP in a Westminster election.  Yes, it must’ve been tough for poor old Labour to witness all that.  There’s nothing worse than having a sense of entitlement and then not getting what you believe you’re entitled to.

 

From unsplash.com / © Serena Repice Lentini

 

Baron McConnell is a good example of a particularly rotten aspect of the Scottish Labour experience.  Secure a seat in the London or Edinburgh parliaments, follow orders, doff your cap to your masters, and after a few decades of loyal service you’ll get the ultimate reward – a peerage.  Scotland was meant to be not only Labour’s stomping ground, its fiefdom, but also its station of departure for a gravy train running all the way to the House of Lords.  These days, in the Lords, the second largest legislative chamber in the world after the Chinese National People’s Congress – which is about as democratic – the good Baron of Glenscorrodale gets to rub ermine-clad shoulders with such other Scottish Labour luminaries as Baron George Foulkes of Cumnock, Baron George Robertson of Port Ellon and Baron Alastair Darling of Roulanish.

 

No doubt he also enjoys a chinwag with the Margaret Thatcher-worshipping former Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth, who was supposedly booted out of power in 1997 – I can’t remember his title, but I assume it’s something like Lord Freddy of Krueger – and another of Chris Deerin’s heroes, the former Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson, whom I believe nowadays calls herself Baroness Colonel Davidson of Jar-Jar Binks.  Obviously, there are plenty of former Conservative Party treasurers to fraternise with as well.  Accountability, eh?

 

In the Holyrood interview Baron McConnell talks about how in the Labour party “there was an absolute commitment to the redistributive nature of the UK.”  But isn’t that the real reason for mediocrity and poverty of imagination in Scotland?  Isn’t it the message that Scots have to stay in the UK because their country is a basket case and their wealthy neighbour – well, part of it, London – has to continually redistribute money to them?  Wouldn’t it be wiser in the long run to remove the dependency set-up, through independence, and give Scots the powers to make their own decisions, implement their own courses of action, make their own mistakes and hopefully learn from them?  But that would necessitate dismantling the cosy British constitutional system that the Baron and his friends currently do so well out of.

 

Ironically, there is a part of the UK where the local Labour Party doesn’t feel obligated to kowtow to London and is prepared to do its own thing.  I refer to the Labour Party in Wales, whose leader Mark Drakeford bucked the dismal losing trend set by Labour in England and Scotland and won the biggest number of seats in the Welsh Senedd election earlier this year.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, Drakeford has won plaudits by refusing to work in lockstep with London – which I suspect Baron McConnell would have done, had he still been Scottish First Minister.  Instead, Drakeford has followed his own instincts and implemented health measures he thinks are appropriate for Wales.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions

 

Just the other day, it was announced that Drakeford’s party has come to an agreement with Plaid Cymru, the Welsh pro-independence party, so that legislation can be passed smoothly in almost 50 policy areas.  Could you imagine a similar agreement being reached in Edinburgh?  No way.  Not with the idiotic ‘Bain Principle’ still holding sway, and Scottish Labour being so obsequious to their head office in London, who would frown on any moves by Labour in Scotland that might not play well with voters in England.   Plus, some Scottish Labour members would sooner chainsaw off their legs at the knees than have anything to do with the hated SNP, those frustraters of their sense of entitlement, those derailers of their gravy train.

Richard Matheson – he was legend

 

© Orion Publishing Co

 

Something has got me thinking about Richard Matheson, the science-fiction and horror author and screenwriter who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.

 

What thing?  Well, the news that the anti-Covid-19-vaxxers in America, determined to plumb the depths of stupidity to find new reasons for not getting vaccinated, have found the stupidest reason yet.  Speculation is rife that the vaccine could turn you in a zombie.  You know, like one did in the 2007 sci-fi / horror movie I am Legend, with Will Smith, which was based on Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name.  This has prompted one of the movie’s scriptwriters, Akiva Goldsman, to step up and announce on social media: “Oh.  My.  God.  It’s a movie.  I made that up.  It’s not real.” In fact, the source of the contagion in the movie wasn’t a vaccine but a virus, genetically reprogrammed by Dr Emma Thompson to combat cancer, going spectacularly rogue.

 

In Matheson’s novel I am Legend the monsters are vampires, not zombies.  Also, what turns people into those vampires isn’t the movie’s lab-reprogrammed virus, but a mysterious pandemic.  However, the book’s premise of the world being suddenly and nightmarishly turned upside down and a small number of uninfected humans finding themselves menaced by those who’ve been infected and turned into monsters, including their own loved ones, was one that a young George Romero appropriated for his seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.  In doing so, Romero made it the blueprint for at least 80% of the zombie movies that have lurched across cinema and TV screens ever since.

 

In the novel, the number of uninfected humans is small indeed: just one, Richard Neville, who is alone in the world during the daytime and then under siege in his fortified house at night, by the vampires that everyone else has turned into.  Gradually, Neville, researching the plague, stumbles on scientific explanations for the vampire-like symptoms of its victims, why they drink blood, why they can only be killed by stakes through the heart, and why they have an aversion to sunlight, garlic and crucifixes.  I am Legend also ends with an unnerving psychological twist.  Neville, who’s spent his days roaming the surrounding city and staking the slumbering vampires, realises that the vampires are now the normal ones and he’s become the monster of everyone’s nightmares, the deadly legend of the title.

 

It’s a pity that though I am Legend was filmed on several occasions, and though Matheson lived to a venerable age, he never got to see a satisfactory celluloid version of it.  The novel received its first film treatment in Italy, where Rome unconvincingly stood in for Los Angeles, with the cheaply and incompetently made L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth).  Neville was played by Vincent Price, whom Matheson admired as an actor but thought was miscast in the role.  L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra was at least fairly faithful to the book, unlike the subsequent film versions, 1970’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, and the 2007 one.  In The Omega Man the vampires have become a group of demented albino mutants called, with an unsubtle reference to Charles Manson, the Family.  In the Will Smith version of I am Legend they’re even less impressive, a bunch of bald, hyperactive zombies animated by some shoddy CGI.

 

Both the later movie versions lack the courage to portray Neville as being totally alone and eventually have him encounter other, as yet uninfected survivors.  They also lack the courage to include Matheson’s game-changing ending.  Instead, they close with Heston and Smith depicted as Christ-like figures who nobly sacrifice themselves for the good of what’s left of humanity.  Neville was a more interesting character when he discovered he’d become a bogeyman.  Still, disappointing though all three film versions are, there’s at least a good graphic-novel adaptation of I am Legend available.

 

© Gold Medal Books

 

The more I reminisce about Matheson, the more I realise what a wonderful and influential writer he was.  His other big – though ‘big’ perhaps isn’t the most appropriate adjective – novel of the 1950s was The Shrinking Man (1956).  Its hero, an archetypal middle-class American male called Scott Carey, is exposed to a radioactive cloud that causes his body to shrink at the rate of a seventh of an inch every day.  Thereafter, Carey’s world turns nightmarishly upside down too, though at a more gradual rate than Richard Neville’s.  First, he experiences psychological and sexual humiliation as he finds himself increasingly dwarfed by his normal-sized wife.  Following an assault by the family cat, no longer a loveable moggie but a carnivorous monster, the now-tiny Carey loses all contact with humanity and finds himself trapped in his house’s basement where the dangers facing him become formidable indeed.  A common spider, for instance, takes on elephantine proportions.  And Carey’s shrinking doesn’t stop, let alone get reversed.  At the book’s close, he muses, “If nature existed on endless planes, so also might intelligence.”  Thereafter, he dwindles away into infinity.

 

A year after its publication, the novel was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Jack Arnold and with Matheson providing the script.  Matheson was unhappy with how Arnold structured the film.  He told the story in linear fashion, whereas Matheson wanted it to begin with the shrunken Carey in the basement, reliving what had happened to him via a series of flashbacks.  However, it’s still one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s.  It crucially retains the novel’s bleakly philosophical ending.  I can remember seeing the film on TV as a kid and being genuinely upset when the ending defied my expectations that things would finish on an upbeat note.  The Incredible Shrinking Man was, incidentally, one of the great J.G. Ballard’s top ten favourite sci-fi movies.

 

© Sphere Books

 

As well as novels, Matheson was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were collected in four books called the Shock series.  Shock 1-4 were published in Britain in the 1970s by Sphere Books, who decorated the covers with lurid and gory images – the antithesis of the unsensational, non-violent and thoughtful works inside.  The stories I remember best include Long Distance Call, about a woman plagued by mysterious phone calls that, she discovers, emanate from a local cemetery into which the telephone wire has blown down; The Children of Noah, about a motorist who finds himself in Kafkaesque predicament when he breaks the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit of a tiny American town called Zachary; and the brilliant The Splendid Source, in which a man embarks on a quest to find out where dirty jokes really come from.

 

Long Distance Call was one of several Matheson stories that were turned into episodes of the celebrated TV anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  The best of these, adapted by Matheson himself, was of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  In this, William Shatner essayed his second-most-famous role, that of a just-released psychiatric patient who’s on board a plane and, looking out of the window, sees a gremlin dismantling one of the engines on the wing.  Whenever he tries to alert the crew and fellow passengers, the beastie inconveniently disappears from view.  Particularly memorable is the moment when the traumatised Shatner dares to peek through the window again and discovers the gremlin pressing its face, which resembles that of a hare-lipped teddy bear, against the outside of the glass and staring in at him.  The episode was remade as a segment of the movie version of The Twilight Zone in 1983, with John Lithgow in the Shatner role, and ten years later it received the ultimate accolade – it was spoofed in a Treehouse of Horror edition of The Simpsons, with Bart Simpson the only passenger on the school bus able to see a gremlin sabotaging its engine.  This version was called Nightmare at 5½ Feet.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Other episodes that Matheson penned for The Twilight Zone were also influential.  A World of Difference is about a businessman who makes the mind-blowing discovery that he’s a fictional character and his life is actually a movie.  Furthermore, the movie has just had its production halted, meaning he’ll have to live in the ‘real’ world as the declining, drunken movie star who’s been playing him.  This clearly informs Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.  Meanwhile, Little Girl Lost tells the tale of a child who, one night, falls from her bed and into another dimension, a mysterious, misty void from which she can hear her parents’ concerned voices but can’t escape.  A young Steven Spielberg no doubt saw and remembered this one, because the same idea features in 1982’s Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, though this time the little girl is sucked into the other dimension through the household TV set.  And yes, The Simpsons spoofed it too in Treehouse of Horror.

 

Steven Spielberg has much to thank Matheson for.  Matheson’s short story Duel, based on an experience he had on November 22nd, 1963 – of driving home depressed at the news of Kennedy’s assassination and being harassed by a large, tailgating truck – was filmed as a TV movie in 1971 by Spielberg and gave the young director his first big critical success.  Again, Matheson wrote the script.  Duel-the-movie has motorist Dennis Weaver and the psychopathic driver of a 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck get into a deadly game of cat and mouse around the roads and highways of rural California.   We never see the truck driver himself, just his immense, bellowing, dinosaur-like vehicle.  Duel is the archetypal man-versus-machine story and, again, has been influential.  Stephen King basically rewrote it (but upped the ante by adding lots of malevolent vehicles) with his short story Trucks, which he later filmed as Maximum Overdrive (1986).

 

The made-for-television movies that filled American TV schedules in the 1970s kept Matheson busy.  As well as Duel he scripted The Night Stalker (1972) about a reporter called Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) who investigates a series of killings in modern-day Los Angeles and discovers that the perpetrator is a vampire.  The Night Stalker was successful enough to eventually spawn a TV show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), also starring McGavin, in which Kolchak investigated other strange cases involving monsters and supernatural phenomena.  Though short-lived, the show was a major inspiration for Chris Carter, whose massively popular The X-Files (1993-2018) had a similar theme.  Carter acknowledged his debt to Kolchak by having Darren McGavin guest-star in two X-Files episodes.

 

Meanwhile, the TV anthology movie Trilogy of Terror, from 1975, was based on three of Matheson’s short stories.  The first two segments are unmemorable, but the third one, which Matheson scripted from his story Prey, is great.  It stars Karen Black as an insecure woman who tries to shore up her relationship with her boyfriend, a lecturer in social anthropology, by buying him an antique ‘Zuma fetish doll’ as a birthday present.  The doll is a hideous-looking thing and sports a many-fanged grin resembling a Venus flytrap.  Before she can give the doll to its intended recipient, it comes to violent, gibbering life and she spends the evening fighting it off in the confines of her apartment.  Black’s plight is the inverse of the shrinking man’s.  She’s normal-sized and the threat she faces is tiny, but terrifying.  This also creates the template for Joe Dante’s movie Gremlins in 1984.  In particular, the scene in Gremlins where Frances Lee McCain fights off a horde of the sneering, reptilian mini-monsters in her kitchen, employing a blender and a microwave oven as weapons, is very reminiscent of Trilogy of Terror.

 

When he wasn’t writing novels, short stories and television scripts, the ever-industrious Matheson was writing for the cinema.  In the early 1960s, he scripted several of the movies based on works by Edgar Allen Poe that were made by American International Pictures and directed by Roger Corman: The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963).  All told, Matheson did a good job of preserving the original stories’ gloomy, clammy spirit, whilst meeting the commercial demands of a studio and a director who were already famous for their exploitation movies, and keeping engaged a star – Vincent Price – whose performances tended to slip into the knowingly hammy when his material bored him.  The movies aren’t the most faithful adaptations of Poe, but they’re surely the most fondly remembered ones.

 

© Academy Pictures Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Matheson also worked on British movies.  For AIP’s trans-Atlantic rival, Hammer Films, he scripted The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and managed to turn Dennis Wheatley’s bloated, reactionary novel about upstanding Anglo-Saxon aristocrats fighting a bunch of ghastly Satan-worshipping foreigners into something rather good.  And in 1973, he adapted his haunted-house novel Hell House for the screen.  The result was The Legend of Hell House, directed by John Hough and starring Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Gayle Hunicutt as psychic investigators trying to get to the bottom of terrifying supernatural manifestations in the titular mansion.  The movie’s ending, which has the surviving investigators finding a hidden sanctum where the psychic forces are emanating from an embalmed body, played by a very un-embalmed-looking Michael Gough, is pretty stupid, which Matheson himself admitted.  Still, John Hough directs the film’s scary set-pieces with vigour and there’s an unsettling electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.

 

Matheson was a modest soul and in interviews he usually seemed puzzled that so many people could be so inspired by his work.  He might have ended up a very rich man if, like his famously litigious contemporary Harlan Ellison, he’d bothered to sue every filmmaker and writer who’d ripped off his ideas.  Mind you, he’d probably have spent all his time in court, so I’m glad he just turned the other cheek and devoted that time instead to writing his marvellous stories.

 

© Cayuga Productions / CBS Productions

Here we no-go again

 

 

Sri Lanka is currently in the middle of another Covid-19-inspired lockdown. This is a 24/7 lockdown with nobody but police, health-workers, delivery staff and other essential service workers allowed to move around outside, so it’s a curfew basically.

 

This curfew was imposed by stealth. Originally, it was meant to last from the night of May 13th to the morning of May 17th, keeping people off the streets for a weekend.  Afterwards, for the rest of the month, people whose National Identity Card numbers (passport numbers if you were a foreigner) ended in an odd digit would be allowed out on odd-numbered days and those whose numbers ended in an even digit would be allowed out on even-numbered days.

 

However, another weekend lockdown was imposed from May 20th until May 25th and we were warned that a further one was planned from the 25th to 28th, which would keep people indoors during the Vesak Festival on May 26th.  Then it was announced that this lockdown would be extended until June 7th, with a couple of days along the way designated as ones when people could nip out to buy provisions. And then it transpired that those days when lockdown would be lifted wouldn’t actually happen, leaving the population with a 12-day stretch of home confinement until June 7th.

 

Who knows?  It wouldn’t surprise me if this lockdown gets extended again beyond the 7th36 people died of Covid-19 yesterday, a fairly typical daily number during the past few weeks, so the emergency remains.

 

Generally, since the Covid-19 epidemic began, my partner and I felt quite fortunate to be in Sri Lanka because, overall, the island seemed to have done a reasonable job of dealing with it.  After a strict initial lockdown last year, from March to May, the virus seemed to be contained. For months afterwards, while the virus wreaked havoc in supposedly more developed countries like the UK and USA, the Sri Lankan death toll remained static with fatalities only in the teens.

 

This changed in early October 2020 with the appearance of a major cluster at the Brandix garment factory in Minuwangoda, 35 kilometres north-east of Colombo.  By now, clearly, Covid-19 had got onto the island and wasn’t going away.  Still, however, the situation seemed manageable.  The island’s tropical climate helped.  People could go out and gather in relatively safe outdoor spaces – for instance, restaurant terraces and gardens – at times of year when in other regions of the world they’d be forced into hazardous, crowded, badly-ventilated, virus-friendly spaces indoors by cold weather.

 

Unfortunately, on Sunday, April 18th, at the end of a holiday week celebrating the Buddhist and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka, we realised things were going to take a serious turn for the worse.  We went for dinner and a few drinks in a hotel bar we frequented. During our previous visits, the bar had been no more than 25 percent full, so that there was plenty of space for social distancing, and the punters were careful to wear masks whenever they left their tables.  This Sunday night, however, the bar was mobbed, social distancing was non-existent and faces were unmasked as folk wandered from group to group.  We lasted about two minutes there.  Then, feeling extremely uncomfortable, we retreated to a sparsely populated restaurant in the same hotel.  I suppose most of the clientele in the bar had just returned from their New Year holidays and were enjoying a final boozy night out before they went back to work.

 

In fact, the New Year festivities had been allowed to take place without any restrictions. People visited families and friends across the island and, the wealthier ones at least, crowded into the beach and mountain resorts as they would in any ordinary year.  This had predictable consequences.  As one journalist recalled, “cases began to rise rapidly, overwhelming the state’s mandatory quarantine care facilities.  Soon, the intensive care units of a delicate hospital system were at full capacity.  By May, hospitals were inundated.”

 

As I mentioned, May 25th was the last day when people could go outside, although strings had been attached to this ruling. Firstly, only one person per household was allowed to be out at any one time.  Secondly, ‘vehicular’ movements were not permitted and you had to walk.  This would presumably ensure that people visited only their local shops and strayed no more than a mile or two from home, thereby lessening risks of infection.  I ventured out in the late morning, to get some money out of an ATM and then hopefully buy a few supplies in a non-mobbed supermarket.

 

 

When I emerged onto Galle Road, Colombo’s main thoroughfare, it was devoid of traffic and disconcertingly silent and still for a minute. Then a set of traffic lights behind me must have changed from red to green because I was passed by a small fleet of cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles heading north towards the city centre.  But after they’d gone by, silence prevailed for another minute.  That was how things continued while I trekked along Galle Road to the ATM.  Every so often there’d be brief spurts of traffic that the lights had accumulated and then released.

 

 

Only shops selling food or medicines were allowed to open today.  Thus, there was activity around the little grocery / general-purpose shops that cluster near the entrance to Kathiresan Pillayar Temple on the eastern side of Galle Road in Colombo’s Bambalapitiya district.  One shop-sign there I hadn’t noticed before was the luridly coloured one for the ‘Irissh’ Super – which sounds like it’s owned by an Irishman who slurs a bit when he’s had too much to drink.  Further along, small queues of about half-a-dozen people waited to get inside the street’s pharmacies, like UniChemist, and mini-supermarkets, like Sathosa.

 

 

Having got cash from the ATM, I thought I would try the branch of Keells Supermarket on Marine Drive, which runs along the coast parallel to Galle Road.  I have to say that by this time I was starting to suspect that not everyone was following the rules.  As those knots of traffic passed me, I would notice the occasional middle-aged couple riding together on a motorbike, which made me wonder how strictly the police were enforcing the rule about only one member of each household being allowed out.  Though perhaps what I was seeing on those motorbikes were two mature, but still horny, members of different households taking advantage of the situation to pursue an illicit love affair.  Meanwhile, while I approached Keells, I noticed a suspicious number of cars pulling into its forecourt – this on a day when you weren’t supposed to travel by car.  Still, the tuk-tuk drivers seemed to be toeing the line.  The whole time I was outside, not one slowed and stopped and asked if I needed to go anywhere.

 

After seeing the small queues outside the minor supermarkets on Galle Road, I expected to have to wait for a time outside Keells, but I got in immediately.  It was busy, but not too busy.  The shelves and trays in the produce section had mostly been scoured clean, but there were reasonable stocks of everything else.

 

 

I carried my shopping home along Marine Drive, which was busier with traffic than Galle Road.  The police stations of Colombo’s coastal districts, south of the city centre at least, are positioned along Galle Road and the drivers were probably using Marine Drive instead because they figured there was less chance of them being stopped and checked. However, Marine Drive’s pavements were practically deserted and the shops along its seafront were almost all shut.  My local off-licence, the Walt and Row Association Wine Store, was shuttered – it was only food and medicine on sale today, strictly no booze.  Similarly silent was the Westeern Hotel, the passageway leading to Harry’s Bar at the back of the premises sealed by doors with rusty metal bars. Actually, the nation’s pubs had been ordered to stop doing business as early as May 3rd.

 

 

It proved a melancholy walk and I couldn’t help but feel melancholy about the situation overall.  Not just in Sri Lanka, where the authorities had taken their eye off the ball and a lot of people had acted selfishly and / or foolishly in April, resulting in this current crisis.  In countries like India, Brazil and the USA – where ridiculous things have happened, like Republican politicians getting vaccinated on the quiet so as not to upset the brainlessly delusional anti-vaxxers who make up a large part of their support – arrogance, complacency and both wilful and genuine stupidity have resulted in massive Covid-19 spikes and huge but avoidable death-tolls.  In Britain, despite a successful vaccination programme so far, there looks likely to be a third wave of infections while Boris Johnson’s hapless government dithers on whether or not to end Covid-19 restrictions later this month.

 

The sad thing is that the Covid-19 pandemic, serious though it is, doesn’t constitute the end of the world.  However, manmade climate change is making itself felt in our lives now and threatens to transform the planet in ways that could be catastrophic to our civilisation later this century.  If people generally, and politicians in particular, can’t get their act together to deal with Covid-19 in 2021, what hope is there for the decades ahead when we’ll really need to get our act together?

So un-macho

 

© Library of Congress / From unsplash.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Gordon Company / Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© The Malpaso Company / Warner Bros

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Armada Productions / Warner Bros

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Stewart Bremner

From sci-fi to Sri-fi

 

© yudhanjaya.com 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Harper Collins

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Harper Collins

It’s Biden and bye-Don

 

From twitter.com/chrissteinplays

 

Last month, despite what all the opinion polls were forecasting, I predicted gloomily that Donald Trump would probably win a second term in the American presidential election on November 3rd.  My gloom was largely rooted in what I called the ‘shy Trumper’ hypothesis, the notion that many people were lying to the pollsters about their voting intentions because they were too embarrassed to admit they were going to vote for a scum-bucket like Trump.

 

I already knew what I would write about on this blog in the likely event, as I saw it, of Trump’s re-election.  I planned to refer to the satirical 1981 novel Hello America by the late, great J.G. Ballard, which is set in 2114 and postulates an ecologically devastated and almost uninhabited United States of America.  An expedition from Europe arrives in the wasteland formerly known as the USA and discovers there, among other things, a madman claiming to be both the American president and Charles Manson.  I suspected another four years of Trump, whose penchant during the Covid-19 pandemic for summoning his adoring, mask-rejecting, non-distancing supporters to mass campaign rallies suggested a deadly cult-leader on a far greater scale than Manson, would send the USA well on its way to becoming the surreal, dystopian badlands that it is in Ballard’s novel.

 

© Granada

 

Well, as it turned out, the polls did severely underestimate Trump’s support.  At the time I write this, he’s accrued more than 70,900,000 votes.  Thankfully, however, Joe Biden received even more than that.  He’s got just over 75,400,00 votes at the moment and has crossed the 270 college-vote threshold necessary for winning the presidency in the USA’s electoral college system.  So Trump seems to be toast.  That said, the Orange Malignancy has spent the past few days tweeting and speechifying that he actually won the election, whereas Biden cheated, and has vowed to overturn the results in the courts.

 

However, that’s unlikely to come to much if the competence displayed so far by Trump’s finest legal minds is anything to go by.  At the weekend, for instance, Trump’s lawyer-in-chief Rudy Giuliani and his team flew into Philadelphia intending to hold a press conference to outline their forthcoming legal challenges.  Through some mind-melting balls-up, they ended up holding the conference not in the city’s Four Seasons Hotel, but in the parking lot of a gardening centre called Four Seasons Total Landscaping in its outskirts.  This was symbolically located between a crematorium and a porno bookstore called Fantasy Island Adult Books.  Watching news footage of the conference, I almost expected the centre’s manager to emerge in the middle of it, reveal himself as Borat and exclaim, “Very nice!”

 

Now while nobody is happier than I am to see Trump ousted from the White House, and I can fully understand why on Saturday when Biden was officially declared president-elect great numbers of people took to the streets of New York, Philadelphia, etc., and started dancing as joyously as the Munchkins did in The Wizard of Oz (1939) after Dorothy’s house landed on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, I’m afraid things are still looking pretty grim for the USA’s future as a democracy. The fact is that nearly half the American electorate, after four years of exposure to the vile, tangerine-skinned creature, were still willing to vote for him.

 

Let that sink in.  Almost half of voters opted for a man who’s presided over the deaths of 237,000-and-counting fellow citizens due to Covid-19 while insisting that it’s just ‘the flu’ and it’ll magically ‘go away’, who’s speculated about how said virus could be neutralised by injecting yourself with disinfectant, who’s contracted the virus himself but still insisted on holding a flurry of superspreading rallies where thousands of his supporters were jammed together in close, virus-friendly proximity.  Who’s displayed a complete ignorance of and disregard for science, who’s trashed his country’s environment, who’s helped trash the environment on a global scale too through his lucre-obsessed climate denialism.

 

Who’s bragged about grabbing women by the ‘pussy’, who’s mocked disabled people, who’s condoned violence against journalists, who’s dismissed whole countries as ‘shitholes’ and whole nationalities as ‘drug dealers, criminals, rapists’.  Who’s applauded the supposed fineness of white supremacists, who’s instructed fascist militias to ‘stand by’, who’s emitted a barrage of racist dog-whistles that in Biden’s words are as loud ‘as a foghorn’.  Who’s happily played along with the insane conspiracy theories of QAnon whenever he thought it might bolster his support among the extreme-right-wing, tinfoil-hat-wearing fruit-loop brigade.

 

Who’s cosied up to authoritarian thugs like Putin, Erdogan, Mohammed Bin Salman and the familicidal Kim Jong-Un whilst insulting leaders of long-term democratic allies and showing a particular misogynistic vehemence for female ones like Angela Merkel.  Who’s sneered at his country’s war-dead and derided former prisoners of war for the failing of getting ‘captured’, whilst using his family’s influence to escape doing military service himself. Who’s managed to wriggle out of paying any net federal income tax at all in 11 recent years, whilst in 2016 and 2017 paying the laughably meagre sum of $750 per annum, considerably less than what a citizen earning the minimum wage would pay.  Who’s continually boasted about his business acumen, whilst according to Forbes magazine in October 2020 owes more than a billion dollars in debt…

 

And so on, and so forth.

 

Although some commentators have claimed that the willingness of millions of Americans to vote for a character like Trump, devoid of anything resembling a shred of moral fibre, shows how badly they’ve been ‘left behind’ in this, the era of globalism, I can’t say I find this argument convincing.  You’d have to be extremely left behind, and in absolutely dire circumstances, to believe that Trump is your friend and saviour – when it’s obvious to anyone with a quarter of a brain that he despises the poor, whatever their political creed, and is intent only on lining his own pockets and the pockets of his hideous family.  I’m afraid that Trump’s massive election turnout is more an indication that a great swathe of the American electorate either has zero moral compass and zero empathy for others or is as dumb as a sack of cement powder.

 

Into that latter category I’d put the Trump supporter who, since the election went Biden’s way, has been tweeting angrily about the anomaly of five million votes being cast in Georgia despite ‘Georgia’ having a population of only 3.7 million.  So far he’s ignored the people who’ve pointed out to him that he’s confusing Georgia the state with Georgia the country.

 

Unfortunately, President-Elect Biden has his work cut out if he intends to heal the nation and somehow get those millions of Trump fans on board with concepts like decency, fairness, science, working for the common good and loving thy neighbour.  Meanwhile, I suspect that the Republican Party, impressed by how Trump’s unrepentant-bastard approach to politics earned him 70 million votes, the second biggest tally by a presidential candidate in US history, will decide to really go for it in 2024 and field as a candidate some 21st century reincarnation of Benito Mussolini.

 

All in all, I’m afraid, there are still plenty of opportunities for the USA to go completely J.G.

 

Anyway, for now at least, I’m relieved it’s over.  I’m truly fed up with having the past few weeks of my life dominated by a 24/7 obsession with American politics.  My partner especially will be relieved that she no longer has to listen to me mansplaining the Byzantine workings of the US electoral college: “…Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes, so if Biden can get that, it’ll carry him to the 270 threshold he needs to win, but even if Trump gets Pennsylvania in the end, he can still sneak it by winning Nevada, which has 6 votes, and Georgia, which has 16…”

 

And she’s American.

 

© Ayrshire Daily News

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2020

 

© Alex Barnard / From twitter.com

 

Thanks to Covid-19, Halloween this year is likely to be shorn of its normal traditions, like trick-or-treating, or guising as it’s known in my part of the world.  However, the virus won’t stop me from indulging in my traditional activity on Halloween, which is to post on this blog ten of the most interesting creepy pictures, paintings and illustrations that I’ve come across in the past year.

 

I recently watched the much-admired 1989 TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s grim 1983 ghost novel The Woman in Black, directed by Herbert Wise and scripted by Nigel Kneale.  I was put in mind of The Woman in Black when I saw Listen from Salem, a lushly gothic picture by the American painter, illustrator, comic-book artist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Menton J. Matthews III.  In particular, it evokes those disturbing shots of the woman standing distantly but ominously on the flatlands around the haunted Eel Marsh House.  The figure in Listen from Salem is rather more glammed-up than Hill’s spectre, and has a touch of Helena Bonham Carter about her, but it’s still chilling.

 

© Menton J. Matthews III

 

The stories of Edgar Allan Poe have been illustrated by many people over the years, but for my money the most distinguished work was done by Irishman Harry Clarke, who provided pictures for an edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination in 1923.  Here’s Clarke’s depiction of the climax of The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, one of Poe’s most transgressive stories.  It has a mesmerist hypnotising a dying man and keeping him ‘alive’ in an ongoing hypnotic state for seven months after the supposed moment of his death.  The experiment ends when the mesmerist finally decides to lift the spell, at which point the patient promptly decays on his deathbed into a ‘nearly liquid mass of loathsome… detestable putridity.’  And presumably leaves a terrible mess on the sheets.

 

© Brentano’s

 

I’ve always been interested in Scottish folklore and particularly in the bestiary of fabulous creatures that populate old Scottish folk and fairy tales: kelpies, selkies, redcaps, bean nighe, the Blue Men of the Minch and so on.  Surely the most hideous of these legendary creatures is the Orcadian sea monster the nuckelavee which, part humanoid and part horse, has something of the appearance of a centaur.  However, it’s a centaur – eek! – without any skin.  According to Wikipedia, its “black blood courses through yellow veins” and “pale sinews and powerful muscles are visible as a pulsating mass.”  Plus, it has “an enormous gaping mouth that exudes a toxic smelly vapour, and a single giant eye like a burning red flame.”  Here’s a depiction of the dreaded nuckelavee by the St Peterburg-based illustrator and digital artist Artem Demura.  Though it dispenses with the cyclopean single eye, Demura’s imagining of the nuckelavee gives its humanoid and equine parts fleshless (as well as skinless) skull-faces and is pretty disturbing.

 

© Artem Demura

 

Still on the subject of Scottish folkloric creatures, here’s the Edward Atkinson Hornel painting The Brownie of Blednoch, inspired by an 1825 poem by William Nicholson.  The Australian-born, Scottish-reared Hornel was part of the Glasgow Boys circle of painters in the late 19th century and was best known for his renditions of flowers, trees and children.  Thus, The Brownie of Blednoch, which hangs in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, is atypical of his work.  However, despite its subject being a frightful thing with mud-brown skin, Spock ears, three-fingered claws and a long tangling beard, it’s actually benevolent.  As a brownie, a type of fairy that does chores for human beings, it’s depicted here performing a public service, which is guarding the local shepherds’ flocks at night-time.

 

From Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

A popular theme in religious art since the Middle Ages has been the Temptation (or Torment) of Saint Anthony.  This supposedly took place while the saint was living as a hermit in Egypt’s Eastern Desert.  At one point, demons came to him disguised as beautiful, amorous young women and tried to corrupt him.  At another point, a squadron of demons ambushed him while he was in mid-air, being borne along by angels.  The scenario has allowed artists over the centuries to let their imaginations run riot in depicting the misshapen and monstrous beings attacking Anthony.  I only found out lately that the earliest known painting by Michelangelo dealt with the demons attacking the saint while he was aloft in the skies.  Painted sometime in 1487-88, Michelangelo’s The Torment of Saint Anthony is now housed in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

 

From the Kimbell Art Museum

 

Ivan Albright was an American artist who, in the 1940s, was hired to provide a rendering of what is surely the most famous painting in the horror genre, the one featured in Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890).  For the 1945 movie adaptation of this novel, which stars Hurd Hatfield in the title role, two artists were actually commissioned.  Portuguese portraitist Henrique Medina did a normal painting of Hatfield that appears early in the film, while Albright did the utterly repulsive, debased version of it that appears later, after all of Dorian’s sins have manifested themselves on the canvas.  Although the film is mainly in black and white, it switches to colour during close-ups of the portrait.  I saw the movie on TV in the late 1970s as a supposedly hardened teenager – but I leapt out of my skin when the camera suddenly cut to a colour close-up of the hideous, wizened, festering creature that Albright had created.  Incidentally, the painting now resides in the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

From the Art Institute of Chicago

 

Still on a cinematic theme, here’s a poster designed by the British artist Graham Humphreys for a film-club screening of Night of the Hunter (1955), the masterly southern gothic horror-thriller starring Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters, directed by Charles Laughton and based on the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb.  Prominence on the poster, of course, is given to the smirking and definitely not-to-be-trusted Mitchum.  His performance as the serial killer and alleged travelling preacher the Reverend Harry Powell, dressed in black, with the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, is possibly the most memorable one of his career.

 

© Graham Humphreys

 

The Australian-American artist Ron Cobb died last month at the age of 83.  He was well known for his work as a designer and concept artist on science fiction and fantasy movies such as Dark Star (1974), Star Wars (1977), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Back to the Future (1985), The Abyss and Total Recall (both 1989), with his most famous cinematic commission being Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).  While the disturbingly organic extra-terrestrial spaceship in Alien, and indeed the alien itself in its various life-stages, were designed by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, Cobb designed the futuristic human hardware in the film, i.e. the exterior and interior of the Nostromo, the spaceship whose crew are unfortunate enough to encounter the movie’s titular, acid-blooded beastie.  Away from the movies, Cobb was also a general artist, cartoonist, designer of ‘speculative technology’ and, once in a blue moon, a painter of album covers.  Here’s his pleasantly schlocky and ghoulish cover for the ultra-obscure record Doctor Druid’s Haunted Séance which, as far as I can find out, was a weirdo compilation of spoken word performances and spooky music released to tie in with Halloween in 1973.

 

© Electric Lemon

 

This gorgeous illustration is by the British artist Ian MacCulloch (not to be confused with Ian McCulloch, the Liverpudlian singer with Echo and the Bunnymen, or indeed Ian McCulloch, the Scottish actor who played the unflappable hero of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1979). It isn’t frightening or disturbing as such.  But with its wind-lashed trees, overgrown pastures and swirling flocks of black birds, it is very atmospheric and evokes the folk horror sub-genre that many (often British) horror stories, films and TV shows belong to, emphasising natural landscapes and the dark side of old myths and legends.  Actually, this picture reminds me of the opening sequence of a seminal work in the British folk horror canon, the 1970 film Blood on Satan’s Claw.

 

© Ian MacCulloch

 

Finally, I’ve recently discovered the work of Richard Tennant Cooper.  This English painter was commissioned as a war artist during World War I and also made money designing adverts for the London Underground, painting signs for the Automobile Association and illustrating motoring magazines.  But Cooper had an unusual side-line.  In addition, he created paintings inspired by diseases like leprosy, cholera and syphilis, depicting those diseases as malignant phantoms tormenting or looming over their stricken victims.  Here’s one of tuberculosis that Cooper likely painted in 1912, which I believe is now the property of the Wellcome Collection in London.

 

From the Wellcome Collection

 

And on that pestilent note, appropriate in the year of Covid-19, I shall sign off.  Happy Halloween!