About this time in 2010, the run-up to the general election had a bit of a 1992 feel to it. Back then, when the protagonists were Kinnock and Major, was the last time that people had seriously talked about hung parliaments and coalitions. We’d had nothing of the sort since 1974, and so the idea of one party not gaining a Commons majority was, by 2010, something completely new to almost two generations of voters. In Britain, anyway – many countries in Europe have been used to them for some time. Now, it’s almost the reverse – talk of any party having a Commons majority seems like pure fantasy.
Shortly before the 2010 election, I wrote this blog post on the subject, explaining whom I was voting for (Greens in the locals, Liberal Democrats in the general) and why. On re-reading it, I noticed the following:
…without the Green option, it [voting Lib Dem] appears to me to be the best way to try to bring some better politics into Britain – even if we get a hung parliament
When I first read that, I had to laugh at how stupid that seemed, in retrospect. But then I realised it was correct, although not in the way I’d intended it to be. The political landscape has changed massively, and that (at least partially) is thanks to the Lib Dems – unfortunately it was bad politics that did so.
The reason for the change is easy to see. People of my age (born late seventies) will be used to seeing a major party hold onto power for at least a decade, whereby the electorate would become sick of them, and they’d vote the other major party in. The Liberal Democrats would make some gains here or there, and remain the stock protest vote. However, the coalition’s seriously bad politics have worn down the popularity of not only the senior partner in the coalition, but also the junior partner. And they can still recall how much they disliked Labour. So for once, people are looking away from even the traditional protest party. And fringe parties have become a big thing, so much so that a “rainbow coalition” is a serious possibility.
That, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing – a good coalition is better than a bad majority government. How successful a coalition is depends on what each partner can offer the electorate and how hard they fight for it. And this is how I’d see each of the main parties in their likely coalitions:
The Conservatives have been the school bullies of the coalition. They’ve picked on the weakest in society, with very little care for what their junior partners wanted. And I’ve no doubt they’d do it again. Their likely coalition partners are either the Liberal Democrats, once more, or UKIP. The former would be five more years what we’ve just had, but the latter, I think, dangerous. I can’t see UKIP being as willing to bend to Tory will as Nick Clegg’s party, and I fear that some very right-wing concessions would need to be made by the Tories to allow this coalition to happen. It could be very bad for the country.
Labour will, I’m sure, take back votes from floating voters that they lost in 2010. But for me, they have not changed enough to be what they’re supposed to be – a party that represents the workers. If we’re to continue the school playground analogy, Ed Miliband seems to be the kid who wants to be in with the in crowd, but somehow just tries a bit too hard to be cool and likeable, and comes across as bumblingly false as a result. But even so, there’s a very good chance of a Labour/SNP coalition. Miliband has ruled this out, but I’m sure that if the job of Prime Minister hung on it, he’d take it like a shot. A coalition with the Lib Dems, or with a whole group of other parties (The Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru and SDLP has been suggested) stands within the realms of possibility, but I do wonder about the possiblity of Labour/UKIP. That’s a very scary one, and could be a nail in the coffin for the party, given that its grassroots are so much more to the left than its parliamentary contingent.
The Liberal Democrats have spent five years being the kid who hangs out with the school bully, basking in reflected menace. The Lib Dem likes the apparent power, but has no personal power to wield – and when caught out, is always not to blame, as bigger boys made him do it. Will happily go into any coalition, but will never want to take the flak for their own spinelessness.
UKIP – The class clown and loud-mouthed bigot, often not in the playground due to truancy. No apparent care for doing a decent job, or for the welfare of anybody not in their circle of friends. I despise this party, and I can’t see any coalition with them as being anything other than a disaster for the country.
The SNP, or more accurately Nicola Sturgeon, has been the star of the TV debates. In our political playground, she’s the strong-minded one that the wannabe-cool kid fancies, even though he never admits it, but we all see how glum he looks when she gets together for a group hug with her mates. It’s likely that SNP will have a landslide in Scotland, and that they’ll end up in some form of coalition with Labour. There are some saying that this could be the start of the independence debate again, and that it could ruin the Union, or that they’ll only think of Scotland, and such. Are those big problems? For one thing, I think they’re untrue. And I think a Scottish voice in Government could represent people of the North-East much better than the Lib Dems have done in the previous coalition.
Finally, to the Greens. Many reading this blog will know I’m a member of that party. Obviously I’m biased and want you to vote for them. Many say that’s a wasted vote, I feel not. There’s every chance that if Labour gain a plurality, they’d need SNP seats as well as others to get a majority. The Greens could be part of that. Plus, I want to vote where my beliefs lie than tactically. However, I know that all of you are waiting for me to say who Natalie Bennett is in our fictional school. Natalie is the girl who might not be the most popular (although she’s recently had a massive surge in friends), but is highly intelligent and respected – although the boys won’t admit to it. They’re especially annoyed that while they were doing their PPE GCSEs, she was doing science, and therefore knows what she’s talking about. Also, she’s had a proper job, and has some actual working class integrity, which even daddy’s money can’t buy.
You’ll have your own views on everything, of course, and you’re well entitled to them. One thing I think we’ll all agree on, though, is that this election is very difficult to call, and should be the most exciting for a long while. But whereas last time, I said I’d vote Lib Dem but would back the Greens in spirit, this time, at least I have the choice. And that’s what’s so great about it, we all have more choice, whatever our political views.
It’d been a while since I’d attended one of FifteenSquared.net‘s meet-and-greets, and a while since I’d visited Cambridge. My previous two visits had been flying ones, spent mostly in pubs. Granted, I’m not complaining about that, but some extra time to look around what was clearly a beautiful city would have been a bonus. So when I heard that the next gathering of cruciverbalists would be held there, the chance was leapt upon.
But with train prices being as hideous as they are, and coach journeys taking around 10 hours to get there via Birmingham, the car was the only viable option. The A1 isn’t the most inspiring drive, especially when you have four hours of it, but at least that could be punctuated by a stop at the Friendly Farmer, just off the junction of the A1 and A17. It’s a cafe and farmshop that I’ve been to before. The breakfasts are a topping hangover cure, though today I availed myself only of a sausage roll. A very nice one, at that. And a few bits and bobs from the shop before I left (looking forward to the Lincolnshire Poacher).
An hour or two later I was in my guest house, Tudor Cottage. Four star, and worthy of the rating – even better, £50 a night isn’t bad for Cambridge. Comfortable room with all the things you’d expect – TV, tea & coffee. But it’s the little things that make a difference. Free Wi-Fi offered by hotels or B&Bs is often intermittent, or only works in the lobby, or only works when it’s in the mood. No problems here. The tea choice was very good, too – as well as the usual, there were also others from the Twinings stable, one of mine being salted caramel green tea. Not unpleasant, but I’m not sure I’d consider my life incomplete if I never experience it again. The breakfasts too, were worth it, with plenty of choice on the menu. Proprietors were helpful and friendly, to boot.
So the Friday night was left over to a wander around Cambridge. Tea was a fish pie in The Eagle, former haunt of Crick and Watson. Expensive, but enjoyable. Then off to the Cambridge Arts Theatre for A Mad World, My Masters, adapted from the original Thomas Middleton text and set in 1950s Soho. Adapted, that is, by throwing in loads of knob gags and set in Soho by virtue of looking anywhere vaguely iniquitous. Ham acted, but it seemed to have been directed like that, so it was underwhelming to say the least. And that’s the RSC.
Saturday had more promise. Because of the insistence of some museums and galleries in Cambridge to stay closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays, I was going to have to do some of that on the Saturday. Except the God of Laziness had other plans, and so I only had time for a bit of a wander and a cup of tea before heading out to the crossword meet-up. That particular event was to be held at the Castle Inn, an Adnam’s pub with an apparently good reputation for food. A deserved reputation, one would say, from the quality of their Castle Burger. And a fine selection of real ales, too. The beer and crosswordy talk flowed for hours, culminating in a quiz mastered superbly by John Henderson, setter for the Guardian among others.
I chose to leave after the quiz and venture forth to find some theatre or other entertainment, and found it at the ADC Theatre, in the guise of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’s verbose but much-acclaimed classic. This was an amateur production by the Combined Actors of Cambridge, and a very well-worked one. The action of the play is mostly carried by three characters – Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy – who all have a scary amount to do and say. And they did it superbly. The technical side of things was equally impressive. Given what I experienced the previous night, I can only reiterate what I’ve said many times before – that often, the difference between amateur and professional theatre is that amateurs simply don’t get paid.
Sunday brought me even more time to mooch about, seeing sights. Which is good, because if I was seeing sounds, or smells, or tastes, I’d be worried. Cambridge is a beatiful place to look at, but one must be careful of just staring at the lovely tops of buildings for too long, lest a stray temporary road sign gets caught under one’s foot and sends them tumbling over. Thankfully, I had my wits about me and just about managed to keep my footing, though passing motorists probably had a chuckle. In the afternoon, I met up with my old friends Steve and Sarah, now residents of Cambridgeshire. Both are fans of the ale, so it was inevitable that our meeting would involve a trip to a local hostelry. About four or five of them in fact. Or six. After a while, it was hard to keep count. But much real ale was enjoyed.
Somehow I managed to end up where I needed to be for that evening’s entertainment – Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman at Cambridge Junction. I’ve seen Sean’s brother Seth a few times; they’re from a Cornish musical family who have a great line in folk music and have always been very much worth watching (and crucially for musicians, worth listening to). This was no exception, despite being a smaller-scale concert than Seth’s shows – but where folk music’s concerned, scale is hardly a major factor. Hattie Briggs, the support act, put on a fine show, too.
Monday morning saw me leave the guest house and head back up north – but not before some further tourism. It’s a lesson I should have learnt a long time ago,but checking when museums are actually open is not my strong point, so I left Huntingdon having more experience of the local pie shop than the Cromwell Museum. So I wouldn’t say my time there was wasted. From there I headed to Peterborough, hoping to see their museum. Before that, however, I chose to have a look at their cathedral, knowing nothing of it. A beautiful building, as one expects from cathedrals, but I wasn’t expecting to see the grave of Catherine of Aragon, bearing the pomegranates (her symbol) put there by well-wishers. I’m no Monarchist, but to see the grave of someone of such importance to England’s history was moving.
After finding that Peterborough’s museum was also closed, Lincoln was the next stop. Steve and Sarah had given me tips – a whisk(e)y shop and a cheese shop were among its attractions. Hence the Cheese Society and the Lincoln Whisky Shop both got a little extra custom that day. I had a brief look at the castle, whose modernisation in parts made it feel tacky, and also at the cathedral, who wanted £12 for me to look at it. It didn’t get it. The Usher Gallery at The Collection was the first chance I’d had to visit a gallery all weekend, and despite being fairly small, didn’t disappoint.
But that was it for me, and soon I was back on the A1 after a memorable weekend.
July this year will see the 60th anniversary of the last hanging of a woman in the United Kingdom. The woman was Ruth Ellis, a London nightclub hostess, divorcée and mother of two. Her crime was murder; she shot her lover, David Blakely, four times. The crime attracted a great deal of press attention, and her death sentence provoked angry protests by those wanting abolition for the death penalty.
At the time, and often since, Ruth Ellis has been painted as nothing more than a jealous, cold-hearted strumpet, who shot her boyfriend – the well-to-do, promising young racing driver – in a pique of jealousy. But that is to only give a blinkered view of the situation, to not look at Ruth’s life and what might have prompted a woman – who ran a high-end nightclub, who had celebrity friends and who’d even had a minor role in a Diana Dors film – to throw away a promising future when she would have known the penalty that faced her.
In truth, the domestic violence that Ruth suffered at the hands of David Blakely, only the latest in a string of abusive men in her life, was a crucial side of the case that many either failed to see or chose to ignore. So too were the personal tragedies Ruth suffered in the months before the shooting, which must surely have affected a usually calm and level-headed woman in a way many of us would find hard to imagine. There’s no doubt that she committed the crime – but what we can doubt is whether the abuse and mental suffering was ever given the attention it deserved.
In 1955, nobody really spoke about domestic violence or mental heatlh. Even in what we like to think are enlightened modern times, people still close their eyes to them – on the rare occasions they can be seen. Ruth’s story is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.
And this is where the shameful plug comes in. Amanda Whittington’s play, The Thrill of Love, looks at Ruth’s story with all due sensitivity – showing, from her perspective, the troubled private life that led her to commit murder. I’m directing this play at The Royalty Theatre, Sunderland, with performances from 23rd to 28th March 2015. This paragraph might seem like cynical commercialism, but it’s an amateur production, not for profit, and for the reasons given above, it’s a story I believe needs to be told. Please come along if you can.
The Scottish Referendum interests me greatly. My generation of fellow Englanders has only usually seen borders rearranged from a distance; they’re something that usually only happens to ex-Communist nations and war-torn parts of former empires. So it’s a breath of fresh air to see this happening close to home – in fact, only about 50 or 60 miles from my home.
From a moral point of view, I think it’s the right thing to do. The Scots should all have a chance to air their preferences, and the majority preference should be honoured, whatever that is. Personally, were I Scottish and had a vote, I’d probably vote yes – for the opportunity to have a government that’s more likely to understand me, my culture and my heritage. A number of people have suggested that all in the British Isles should have a vote, which I can understand, but having no Scottish heritage that I know of, I’d feel as though I were interfering by exercising that vote.
That aside, I’m looking forward to seeing what would change if we did vote yes. For instance, what would happen to the title of “Duke of Edinburgh”, and indeed its present holder? We’re told that we’d keep the Union Flag in its present form, but then we’d have a flag that represents Scotland, but not Wales. When Gibraltar come over to play Scotland in European Championship qualifiers, the Mediterraneans will be my compatriots, and the Scots the foreigners. Bizarre.
Would I need a passport to get to the Edinburgh Festival? How would that sit for Berwick Rangers’ travelling army of supporters? I’m told by a Shetlander that Shetlanders don’t consider themselves Scottish, and that there are some who would prefer being part of Norway (that being closer) in the event of a yes vote. At the very least, English barmen may no longer have to listen to cries of, “but it’s legal tender” when being offered a Scottish banknote.
My fear, however, is that people don’t listen to their own heads and hearts when deciding which way to vote. It’s not your standard election for a regime that will only last four or five years; it’s to all intents a lasting choice. Whether you think Salmond or Cameron is the right person to represent you is of no consequence – odds are in ten years neither will be any great shakes. Twenty, fifty, a hundred years down the line, even less so. Arguments about how good/bad either choice will be for the economy are specious – politicians have loved to use such arguments in recent years, hoping that there are enough people who don’t understand economics who’ll simply take their word for it. Even if either vote has a bad effect on the economy, that won’t last forever, and I repeat – this is a vote for the long term, not the short term, which ever way you vote. I really don’t want this to end like the AV referendum – bad politics on both sides, which leaves many voters confused and undecided, and simply voting for the devil they know, or abstaining altogether.
The short-term parliamentary impact is nevertheless another interesting aspect. Scotland currently has 59 Westminster MPs – 41 Labour, 11 Liberal Democrat, 6 Scottish National Party and a lone Conservative. Should a yes vote come through, independence would only happen in March 2016. If Labour win the general election in 2015, odds are that their Scottish MPs would make up a large part of their majority. It’s therefore possible that ten months into a new government, we’d need another general election – something which, again, few of my generation have ever seen.
So I’m supporting a yes vote, more for the moral reasons, but also from a sort of morbid curiosity. But I think it’s more important that people have a good think about their choice, whatever it is, and understand that it should be about Scotland’s WHOLE future, not merely about the next few years. Because that’s just voting for your own interests, and not for your country’s – whatever you consider your country to be.
Interesting developments in US sport. The US Patent Office has, as of June 18th 2014, annulled all trademarks of the Washington Redskins NFL team, stating that their name was “disparaging to Native Americans”. This covers all references to “redskins” that they own, including the intersectionality-tastic name of their cheer squad, the Redskinettes.
This probably doesn’t come as any surprise, regardless of which side of the fence you take in arguments about political correctness. Indeed, the real surprise to me is that this has taken so long. It’s been a constant source of morbid wonder to me that a team in the 21st century was still allowed to carry such a moniker. We’re all very sensitive these days, and rightly so, about using racial slang, often just in case it’s considered offensive.
It seems, though, that there’s been a movement for a name change for some time. It’s interesting to note that numerous polls have been conducted on the issue, often with a majority of Americans not favouring a change. the majority, one assumes, would not be Native American. In polls exlusively among the latter, however, it seems that the name and logo of the Washington Team have long caused upset to Native Americans. That’s something that really shouldn’t be ignored.
How the team will react to this, especially with (I assume) no further control over use of their names and logos and therefore their corporate identity, remains to be fully seen. It would interest me, however, if a name change would open the doors to further changes in American sport. You might not consider the Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves to be as extreme as this example, but that might not be your choice.
I’d also be interested to see if this affected the Cleveland Browns – their name being a reference not to one of their early owners, Paul Brown, but to boxer Joe Louis, nicknamed by the white press of the day as “The Brown Bomber” – one of a number of sobriquets applied to him that included “Chocolate Chopper” and “Mahogany Mauler”. Again, you’ll have your own opinion on the acceptability of that case.
But it’s ironic that the sport which just drafted it s first openly gay player is still, in parts, stuck in Blazing Saddles-era America. I hope that the Washington franchise responds positively to this, listens to the concerns of the Native American community and thereby shows that American sport can be fully progressive.
The usual end-of-year roundup. And not a bad one.
January: Performance of The Day after the Fair at The Royalty, directed by little old me. Supremely proud of the production and the response it got.
February: Saw The Mousetrap. Baffled as to why it’s so famous.
March: Trip to York to see Tara Fitzgerald in The Winter’s Tale. Worth the trip.
April: Performed in Proof at The Royalty, playing a Mathematician with mental issues. Worth seeing the film if you can.
May: Trip to Manchester for poetry, art and theatre. And real ale and and Hats. That’s like a holy pentanity, or something.
June: In the tech box for once, running lights for Deathtrap with Washington Theatre Group.
July: A camping and swimming trip, around the Northumbrian Coast. Swam at Low Newton and Sugar Sands, freezing cold but worth every penny of the wetsuit. Became vice-chair of the Royalty Theatre.
August: A break in the Lake District, firstly staying in Keswick and seeing some of the finest theatre I’ve ever witnessed, at the Theatre by the Lake. This was followed by some camping in Grizedale, now becoming a favourite camping haunt. And some swims in Grasmere and Rydal water, on warm sunny days in beautiful surroundings. Played the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland with Washington Theatre Group.
September: Another North-East Skinny Dip, preceded by an evening swim around the Farne Islands surrounded by seals. Easily the best experience of the year. Also, a trip to Brighton.
October: Playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men at The Royalty; easily the biggest acting challenge I’ve ever had. Still surprised that I got through it.
November: Finish playing Lennie. Suprised I got through it.
December: Crosswords turn 100. Well, it’s a big deal to me.
Just realised I forgot to post this in August. I apologise sincerely to those whose lives have been irretrievably ruined by the transgression, and will undertake to have myself ritually flogged with an electric eel as soon as I can be bothered.
I’ve been visiting the Lake District regularly (at least once a year) for the past few years now, though only for camping trips to Grizedale, set nicely between Coniston and Windermere in the South Lakes. Last year, the trip was memorable for the wrong reasons – it was abandoned after half of the campsite nearly ended up as part of Morcambe Bay after a downpour that even surprised the local farmer. This year we decided on August instead of June in the hope of better weather, but I’d decided to test the humour of the weather gods by adding a stay in the North Lakes – Keswick, to be precise. I’d been once before, but then only for an afternoon about fourteen years previously – and a town with its own pencil museum cannot be disregarded so lightly.
The journey from Sunderland began with the A1 south as an entrée that I’m quite used to by now, nothing spectacular there. The main course of the A66 over the Pennines was still familiar, but much more beautiful as the Backbone of England rose on either side. Once into Cumbria, dessert was sumptuous. Huge green hills and valleys to the left and right; I have to admit that I was keeping somewhat under the speed limit to be able to appreciate it all (while keeping eyes on the road, obviously). Past Penrith and heading toward Keswick, all else seemed dwarfed by Skiddaw and other local peaks. Just before hitting Keswick centre, I stopped at the Castlerigg stone circle – a prehistoric site of the Stonehenge sort, just with smaller stones and no crossbars (which changed prehistoric football forever). But of more interest is the view – mountains all around: Causey Pike, The Catbells, Blencathra, Castlerigg Fell and Helvellyn – the best name of an English mountain ever.
That evening saw the first of three trips I’d planned to the Theatre by the Lake – this for See How They Run, a classic farce by Philip King with the standard mistaken identities and fast-paced comings and goings. Plus a bishop who looked a little like Bishop Brennan. A very good production, and a humorous way to begin the holiday.
Wednesday morning saw a trip to the Pencil Museum, Keswick having been the first pencil-producing place on the planet. Small, but perfectly formed, which is more than you could say for the Puzzling Place – a small museum about optical illusions. Probably more for kids, to be fair. The weather put the kibosh on plans to do a bit of walking, but another trip to the theatre later on proved a treat – Vincent in Brixton, a studio play about Van Gogh’s early adulthood in London, has to be one the finest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen – acting spot on, set perfectly detailed and a captivating story.
Thursday’s weather was a lot better, so I took a trip to Ullswater in the hope of seeing those daffodils of Wordsworth fame – failed there. Maybe the wrong time or the wrong place, but I wandered lonely as a cloud around Glenridding anyway. Stunning views around Ullswater in the bright sunshine. I really need to go back to the lakes at some point and do some proper fell walking. The evening saw a walk around the Derwent close to sunset, before a final trip to the theatre – this time for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore – a revenge tragedy in the Shakespeare mould, but with more sex and violence. And blood. I’m sure that was a real heart and blood in the final scene, though we’ll assume not human. But effective nonetheless.
So, that was three plays in three nights, all excellent productions drawing upon similar casts (six plays to choose from over the week; a good number of their actors appeared in three shows each). If I’m ever back in Keswick, I’ll have to visit again.
On Friday I checked out of the hotel, and headed for Grizedale, with some Wordsworth tourism on the way. Grasmere is home to his grave, as well as those of a number of his family, including his noted sister Dorothy. I saw those, and then headed to Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, both worth a look if you’re a fan of the poet, or even of Dorothy. Grasmere is also home to Sarah Nelson’s Gingerbread shop. I’m no gingerbread connoisseur, but it was fine, fine gingerbread. Then, onto Grizedale to hope for great weather, which the BBC was not promising.
But the BBC weather people once again proved as useful as a sundial in Castle Dracula. Saturday was nice and sunny, so it was back off to Grasmere for a swim in the lake. Not too cold – certainly better than the North Sea was the previous month, and made all the better by beautiful mountainous surroundings. An hour’s dip was followed by pub lunch in the Eagle’s Head at Satterthwaite – the game pie there is one of the miracles of the modern world. It was the highlight of our ill-fated trip last year, and was no less wondrous this time around.
The downpours forecast by the BBC even stayed away on Sunday, when the weather was even better – only one cloud in the sky, wandering as lonely as Wordsworth. Thus a second swim in Rydal was enjoyed, again with mountains and trees and pastures and other assorted greenery all around. And again, followed by a pub lunch, and finally, the trip home. A wonderful few days spent in what I believe is the most beautiful part of the country.
February 11th, 1990, 16:15 (GMT+2), I know where I was. Because it was a major, major event – in my part of the world somewhat more than most. Being only 11 at the time, I didn’t quite understand why, or who this person really was. All I’d had to go on was what little I’d been told about him and the group he’d worked for, and that wasn’t terribly flattering to him.
My family had moved to South Africa when I was three. From what I can remember of the first few years there, I was aware that there were white people, and that there were black people. I was vaguely aware that there was little interaction between the two. At the two nursery schools I attended, there were no black children. I think there were black menial staff at those places, but no black teachers. I would see black people in the street, though never seemingly as affluent as white people. My family had a black maid for a time – it was not at all unusual for white people to have black domestic staff. This was what Apartheid created – not merely a system of racial segregation, but a racialised class system, too.
In March 1985, we moved north of the border to Botswana. In Botswana, there was not even a sign of apartheid. In fact, the first President of that country, Seretse Khama, had been exiled from the country in the early 50s when it was still the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, for the “crime” of marrying a white woman he’d met while studying at Oxford. The South Africans had complained to the British about the marriage. Britain, not wishing to compromise mineral trading with the South Africans, weakly submitted to the complaint. Thankfully, the exile lasted only five years.
But the inequality between black and white that I saw in South Africa was simply not there in Botswana – the black and white stripes on the country’s flag, in fact, are there to symbolise that very equality. There was still something of a racial class system – the white ex-patriates tended to be the more affluent and have the better jobs – but wealth and power were by no means the preserve of the whites. The country, and indeed the town, were run by native Batswana people. Before moving there, I recall my parents telling me that there would be black and white students in my school, which seemed like an odd thing at the time – something I hadn’t experienced. But we got there, and sure enough – black and white kids running around the playground not really caring (for the most part) whether their playmates were black or white. The only separation was languages – when the white kids went off to learn Afrikaans, the Batswana kids went off to learn their first language, Setswana.
So on that day in February 1990, I think I’d only known what apartheid was for a short period of time; maybe less than a year. If memory serves, we’d all known that this Mandela guy was going to be released in the run up to it, and I’d only known his name for a matter of weeks, maybe days. And all I knew of him was that he was a terrorist with the African National Congress. I’m not sure if I understood why such a person was being released. But there I was, watching a major event in African history, from the living room floor of D66, Tshkudu Crescent, EU III, Jwaneng, Botswana. An event that was to cause all sorts of turmoil in South Africa, until it seemed to settle (to a degree) in 1994, when Mandela became President.
As the years have gone, of course, I’ve grown older and gained a greater understanding of what happened in South Africa over those years. The world at large has come to see Mandela as less of a terrorist and more of a figurehead of a civil rights movement – and that includes me. Not everybody has this opinion, of course. I have to say that being a person who disagrees with terrorist methods (which I’ll loosely define as political violence against civilian rather than military targets), this does cause some conflict with me. The terrorist vs. freedom fighter debate is an old one, and you’ll all have your own views about which category Mandela falls into.
For my part, I don’t believe that what he did with Umkhonto we Sizwe was right, even if as a means to justify an end. But does that mean that I should ignore what he’s done since his release from prison? His leadership of the civil rights movement that smashed apartheid and brought some equality to South Africa, his charity work, his role in international diplomacy? Of course not. After all, other figures in history have done much worse, and for some reason still have a pristine press to the majority. There was, for instance, the genocidal maniac who, in a fit of impatience, decided to indiscriminately slaughter 2,700 men, women and children after the fall of Acre in 1189. Nowadays, we call that person “Richard the Lionheart”.
As such, all of the tributes paid to Mandela since his death are not unjustified – though I get the impression that some are purely for show. It would be wrong for history to forget why he was put in prison, but it would also be wrong to forget what he did after he was finally released. So let us remember him for the good that he did, but likewise, let us learn from his mistakes, and try to quosh oppression by non-violent means where there’s even a chance it’s possible.
I doubt I could really do this sort of thing for all movies, as there are just too many I wouldn’t fancy leaving out. So I thought I’d just do horror movies this time – my favourite film genre, and it leaves it open for me to work on another genre when ideas for the Desert-Islandy things begin to dry up.
But the seasoned film buff may sense a problem here, and that’s the openness to interpretation that the term “horror movie” attracts. Father Dougal, we must recall, found “a Volkswagen with a mind of its own” to be the stuff of nightmares, after all. However, here you’re just going to have to make do with what I decide is a horror movie. Let’s face it, it’s an unlikely enough scenario that I’d suddenly have to grab ten of my favourite horrors before being cast away on a desert island that presumably has a fully-working home cinema system and power supply, without having to add the notion of a customs official testing each film against a list of pre-ordained criteria. Let’s just leave reality out of this, okay?
So here we go, in no particular order (until the top three). Unlike my last couple of these things, no reserves, just a top ten.
There aren’t too many American movies that are at least partially set in the Yorkshire Moors, which really helps this one. You’ve got the classic dumb American teenagers who stumble into the Slaughtered Lamb pub (a great name if ever there was one), full of not entirely welcoming people who suddenly become bad at darts. But the intrepid young explorers are at least told to stay away on the roads. That’s the last thing they do, obviously, and it’s not long before they both become a midnight snack for some hideous toothy beast. One of them dies, the other ends up having a fling with Jenny Agutter, which is a good recommendation for lycanthropic savagery in anybody’s book. However, he soon realises that he’s become a werewolf, and we’re treated to one of the better werewolf scene changes that cinema has produced. The film ends with his alter-ego going on the rampage in central London, where surprisingly, people actually notice, and the Met police actually try to do something about it. Look out for a young Rik Mayall playing chess in the pub scene at the beginning.
Theatre of Blood (1973)
If you like your horror colourful, melodramatic and with Vincent Price in, look no further. Our Vinnie, the chap who gave us the creepy voice in Michael Jackson’s Thriller, plays Edward Lionheart, a has-been Shakespearean actor who has faked his own death, and plots revenge on the local critic’s circle who have not looked favourably upon his work. And the best part – he kills them all in the manner of Shakespearean deaths. There are lovely gory moments, like the surgical beheading of Captain Mainwairing, and the realisation of what’s happened to those poor, innocent poodles. Being melodrama, it’s camp and over the top, but knowingly so, which makes everything all right. Diana Dors is in it too, which helps any film. A must for any actor who has ever felt that they’d fancy shuffling a critic off their mortal coil. So a must for any actor.
We’re talking James Whale’s version here, from 1931. This is the film that gave us the iconic imagery we always associate with Frankenstein – The lumbering, square-headed creature with bolts in his neck that turned Boris Karloff into a movie legend, the electronic lab equipment and Colin Clive’s manic screams of “It’s Aliiiiiive!” on realising that his creature was aliiiiiive. Karloff is brilliant as the docile creature, though, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him – even after the very controversial scene with the girl and the flower, which even today you can’t watch it with feeling some sense of utter dread. The sequel Bride of Frankenstein, is almost as good, and even has Katie Nana out of Mary Poppins as the creature’s intended. Odd that those are the two roles she’s best known for. Like many of Universal’s 1930s flagship horrors, it spawned numerous other sequels that weren’t nearly as good, but always either referred to a relative of the monster (“Aunt of Dracula!”) or some unlikely combo (“The Invisible Man Meets Frankenstein Meets The Wolfgirl!”). Best watched drunk, those ones.
Carry on Screaming (1966)
Okay, fair enough. Not really a horror. But I’m on a desert island, and some comedy now and then would be welcome, what with all the horror stuff I’ve brought along. This just about fits the bill as horror – It’s a spoof mostly of Hammer movies, but with nods to Universal horrors and one or two others. Here the villains – Kenneth Williams and (swoon) Fenella Fielding, are running a beastly operation to turn pretty young girls into mannequins, before selling them off to shops. The girls are abducted by Oddbodd – a boiler-suited half-Frankenstein’s-Monster-half-werewolf halfwit, whose body parts can regenerate with an electrical charge. Inspector Sidney Bung takes on the case of the missing women with his foolish sidekick, Slowbottom. It’s full of the usual Carry On stuff – pretty ladies, lusty fellas, innuendo and silly jokes. Oddly, no Sid James in this one, but Harry H. Corbett makes up for it in the role of the downtrodden Bung.
The Omen (1976)
Both The Omen and The Exorcist were gamechangers in the Horror world when they came out, being set in the modern day, with spooky music, and having an element of Satanism within. Excuse me for a moment while I shoot myself in the face for having used the word “gamechangers”.
Okay, done. Boy, did that hurt. Anyway – The Spawn of Satan is born, and some fool does the old switcheroo with the Prince of Darkness and a US diplomat’s kid. You initially wonder how anyone would notice, but it soon becomes strikingly obvious that he’s a bit odd – when he goes to church, he screams. When he visits the zoo, the monkeys scream. When he has a birthday party, his nanny hangs herself. Gregory Peck, the diplomat in question, realises something is wrong (you don’t say), and investigates it with the help of a photographer. In truth, this movie is best remembered (by me at any rate), for the crazy death scenes that fans of the Final Destination series should enjoy. There’s a priest impaled by a church lightning rod, and the photographer is decapitated by a pane of glass. Gritty and gory in a way that Hammer or Universal would never have dared. The 2006 sequel had its charms, but this original will always stand out.
The Wolfman (1941)
Often considered by the first werewolf film by people who’ve never seen the earlier Werewolf of London, this Universal Horror from the early forties is the more famous of the two, and features Lon Chaney Jr. as the transmogrifying terror. He play Larry Talbot who, thanks to a gypsy curse – one of those gypsies being Bela Lugosi – becomes very hairy and toothy, with a taste for liking his steaks very rare, at a full moon. Like any good werewolf flick, at first he doesn’t realise it’s him committing all the weird murders going on – making the goodie also the baddie, and making film students wonder just how they analyse the conflicts between protagonist and antagonist. The film also stars Claude Rains of The Invisible Man fame, making it one of the early horror ensemble casts.
The Nanny (1965)
Okay, so this doesn’t sound like a horror, especially as Bette Davis is the title character. But it’s one of the most interesting Hammer movies about – perhaps because it doesn’t look at all like Hammer. In fact, had I not known it was a Hammer, I’d have thought it was Hitchcock. Possibly more suspense/thriller than horror, then, but it seems to deserve inclusion here.
We begin with a young boy being taken back home after a stay in some sort of institution for kids with behavioural problems. We don’t know quite what these were, but it’s clear that there’s some serious animosity toward the family’s nanny from the boy. He considers here evil. He’s considered a troublemaker. We don’t know quite what to believe. But as the film’s plot opens up, we begin to see why the tension’s there. We slowly discover who IS the malign influence. In some quite shocking detail, for a film of that age (and in black and white). A cinematic gem, but an unfortunately little-known one.
But now, we come to the top three. I’ve found it too difficult to rank these three, so I won’t put them in any sort of order. Oddly enough, they all star Christopher Lee. Which is only right.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
It’s Tim Burton. And it stars Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and Christopher Lee. Plus Uncle Monty, Emperor Palpatine, Dumbledore (v2.0), Alfred the Butler (v2.0), Queenie from Blackadder, Winona Ryder’s dad out of Beetlejuice, Darth Maul and the guy out of Pulp Fiction who kept the watch up his arse. And more. How’s that for a cast?
It’s a looser-than-loose interpretation of Washington Irving’s story, putting Depp’s Ichabod Crane in the role of a detective sent to investigate some beheadings in upstate New York. Crane is a man of science, and disbelieves stories of ghosts and a Headless Horseman. But after he finds a strange tree that can only be a Tim Burton creation, and sees the horseman appear, he has other ideas. All this while he’s falling in love with Christina Ricci (who wouldn’t?) and she’s falling in love with him (who wouldn’t?), and the townsfolk are losing patience with him, as one or two others lose their heads, literally. And it’s filmed with a slightly blue tinge to give it even more of a gloomy, macabre look. It basically has everything – great cast, great direction, great script, and a big spider.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
You’ve got to love Christopher Lee for this movie, not just because he’s the definitive Count (sorry, Bela), but also because he steadfastly refused to say any of the lines given to him – as he thought Bram Stoker would never have written them. It’s Christopher Lee’s second Hammer Dracula, and bears all of the hallmarks of the studio – filmed in that nice bright Eastman colour, with Bernard Robinson’s grand, lush sets and James Bernard’s cracking score. The plot is also very typical – four travellers in Transylvania end up at the mysterious castle that the locals (all from the West Country, it seems) refuse to acknowledge. It is, of course, Old Pointy Tooth’s castle, and when they’ve been told they can stay for dinner, they’re clearly misreading the signals. One throat-slitting and smoky transformation later, Drac’s out of his coffin and ready to sink his fangs into Barbara Shelley – you can’t dispute the man’s taste. But one fellow gets away and brings back a priest to sort out Dracula once and for all, at least until the next sequel that Hammer did. To my mind, it’s the best film Hammer ever did – and if you presume yourself to be a fan of Hammer, and haven’t seen it, then you can get out of my blog right now, thank you.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Often considered the best British horror film, The Wicker Man is certainly different in horror terms. Nothing supernatural, a soundtrack of folk music, and religious ideology that’s more about pleasing the old gods than summoning Satan. Rowan Morrison has apparently gone missing from the Scottish island of Summerisle, and Edward Woodward is the copper sent from the mainland to find her. But what he finds is the locals denying her very existence, despite everything pointing to the fact that she does, or has existed. His inner Christian is further enraged by the pagan rituals, often involving sex or nudity, that prevail on the island. The seemingly affable Lord Summerisle, a part written for Christopher Lee, allows him the wherewithal to continue his investigations, but…no, I’m not going to spoil it. Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee are excellent, and we have Ingrid Pitt (mmmmm) and Britt Ekland (mmmmm) too. The music is beautiful, being all folky and appearing out of place in such a sinister plot. And that final scene is just frabjous – The Wicker Man in full glory, the setting sun, and the Summerisle citizens singing joyously.
And if, before reading this, you thought I was on about a Nicholas Cage film of the same name, get the Hell out of my internet.