This is the second issue of The British Esperantist. It's what I do now. If you want one, you should get one now, as we don't have many left, probably because it is a. extremely entertaining and b. really cheap.
I’ve been blogging for about five years now. I have enjoyed
it immensely, and it has created great opportunities for me, not least in terms
of engaging with really interesting people, some of whom have become very good
friends. I’ve decided that I need a new challenge, however, so I’m going into
publishing: yes, the good old fashioned hold it in your hand type publishing.
You can find out more details about this very 20th century venture at ‘The British Esperantist’: I think it’s going to be GREAT.
What does this mean for this blog? Well, I’m going to
suspend it for now. I may come back to it – I may have to. I will maintain an
online presence at ‘The British Esperantist’ and will continue to post over at ‘The Pseudoscientific World of TOMTIT’– TOMTIT have a LOT of stuff in the pipeline.
Thanks so much for all your interest and support over the
years – it is hugely appreciated. I hope you’re going to like what comes next,
so please stay in your seats – we're not quite finished yet.
It’s impossible for me to think about Northern Ireland for
any length of time without hearing the wonderful music of The Undertones in my head. One
of my favourite groups of all time, ever, The Undertones did that supremely
difficult thing of mixing pop tunes with crunching rock music: hard coated,
soft centred stuff filled with life and energy and joy and excitement. I’ve
been in a few bands in my time and tried to emulate this confection,
and haven’t even got close.
If you want to know what being young feels like at its best,
listen to the joyous ‘Here Comes The Summer’ – if you want to know what it
feels like at its worst, then listen to ‘Teenage Kicks’, a timeless razor sharp
pop song filled with yearning. The Undertones simply wrote great songs,
seemingly artless, almost naïve things that, nevertheless, were full of emotion
and profundity. They were clever, too – and funny - they called the
opening track on their second album ‘More Songs About Chocolate & Girls’, after all.
All the best group’s progress, of course, and, with each release, The Undertones’
sound evolved into something more subtle and considered. Their songs became more complex and
layered, and began to be about things other than chocolate and girls, quite often the situation in
Northern Ireland. The band never became self-indulgent, but they did become
slightly self-conscious, and their later records try a little too hard to be
diverse. Surprised by their success and the sort of lifestyle it afforded them, the band lost their unity too soon, and split up (initially) in 1983.
It’s hard (and slightly pointless) to try and pick out The
Undertones finest moment from their marvellous back catalogue but, if pushed, I
would nominate the astonishing garage rock of ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t
You Use It?)’, a jet propelled pop art vignette fuelled by hooks and oomph, as played by brilliant yobs in half mast trousers.
Feargal's red polo neck and shooting jacket combo remains the outfit I'd like to be buried in.
After ‘The Sandbaggers’ hasty conclusion, the likeable
and capable Ray Lonnen starred inthe critically acclaimed and hugely downbeat ‘Harry’s Game’, a programme about 'The Troubles' (a euphemism which seems a bit like calling World War One 'the big tiff') originally broadcast in 1982.
The programme begins with the ruthless
assassination of a British cabinet minister by an IRA hitman (played by Derek
Thompson, in-between ‘The Long Good Friday’ and his never ending stint in ‘Casualty’).
The government can’t let this very public act stand, of course, so they send army officer and
undercover specialist Harry Brown (Lonnen) to Belfast to track down Thompson - not to arrest him, not to bring him to justice - but to kill him, publicly, so everyone knows that the powers that be pay their debts.
Brown was born in Northern Ireland, so
it’s a homecoming of sorts for him and he can (almost) do the accent. He is
also recovering from a complete nervous breakdown and doesn’t seem to care whether
he lives or dies. He does, however, understand the rules of ‘the game’: in war,
an eye for an eye is everything, no matter how futile it might be.
Thompson’s IRA man is a much more
reluctant player. He does what he is told, even though he hates it, and retains
a core of unpredictable humanity (he loves his family; he can be kind; he refuses
to kill a child). Brown is more detached, a hollow man who does what he has
been trained to do because it is the only thing he really understands. He has a
wife, a family, but he doesn’t give them a second thought, refusing to withdraw
time and time again in order to see out the game. For what it’s worth, the end result is a
pointless draw, leaving both players dead in the street like so much human rubbish.
In hindsight, the Northern Ireland war seems
incredible, unbelievable, impossible: if it wasn’t for the dead and the
disappeared and the ongoing repercussions for those left behind, we might even be
able to dismiss it as a terrible nightmare we once had. Neither side emerges
with any credit: the British overlords are shown as arrogant and spiteful, men
who believe the Irish are savages who need to be beaten into submission – the enlisted
men are brutish and thick – and happy to wield the whip.
The IRA treat each
other like shit, motivating their soldiers with the threat of further violence.
The men portrayed here are not comrades, or proud, principled revolutionaries,
these are desperate, violent men who will do anything to further their cause,
so much so that they terrify the people they are fighting for to the extent
that they would rather commit suicide than cross them. It’s an appalling, depressing
The production was (understandably) filmed
not in Belfast but in a condemned part of Leeds and, yes, the accents are all
over the place, but it has an enormous power in that it conveys an almost
surreal situation (as seen from the relative safety of mainland Britain*) in
sharp, horrible relief. At the centre of it, Harry Brown drifts around the
streets, always under scrutiny, waiting to kill or to be killed, delaying the inevitable by an ill-fated liaison with a local widow. It’s a tragic, haunting programme, and one that makes you feel vaguely ashamed.
*England wasn’t unscathed, of
course. I can remember armed troops on the streets and hearing the dull boom
of the car bomb that blew a soldier’s legs off a mile away, but then I lived in a garrison
town, so the IRA brought the war to us. I can’t imagine how terrible life in Belfast must have been.
What can one say about ‘The Sandbaggers’ that can adequately
describe what a superlative programme it is? My friend and colleague, Fearlono,
once called it ‘televisual heroin’, which comes very close, but still doesn’t convey
all of its intelligent but savage genius.
Lasting three series from 1978 to 1980, ‘The Sandbaggers’ is
about the British secret service. There are no James Bond type characters, no
nights at the casino, no pointed bon mots, no arched eyebrows, no super villains with mountain retreats or space stations; nobody has sex. Instead,
an agent dies in agony in a crummy bedsit in Poland, lying alone in his own
mess with a bullet in his spine; an intelligence chief who has been passing
secrets to the Russians apologises profusely to a colleague and then bites down
on a cyanide capsule; the department head has his own fiancée assassinated
rather than risk her giving away national secrets. It’s a tough, supremely
unsentimental show – and utterly compelling.
The cast is superb, but Roy Marsden dominates as
intelligence chief Neil Burnside. Burnside is a man possessed, willing to cut
any corner, ignore any order, make any deal to achieve his goal. He drinks only
coke and coffee and almost never goes home. His top man is Willie Kane
(Ray Lonnen), an easy going, likeable guy who just happens to be a world class
undercover man and assassin. Kane is not
a hero, and he hates violence, but he is supremely good at his job, even if he
knows the best case scenario for his prospects is an obscure retirement on a pittance of a
These spies are very much part of the Civil Service, and
their work is complicated by departmental squabbling, uncomprehending
superiors, complicated approval processes and penny pinching (they are allowed
to fly to missions first class, to keep them fresh; coming back they are crammed into the
cheap seats). Most of the time, their assignments, which are enormously
dangerous, seem to be almost meaningless outside of the framework of the Cold
War, a deadly comedy of manners; much of their work revolves around favours
owed to other intelligence agencies. If they are caught they will be either imprisoned
or put against a wall and shot and the UK
government will deny all knowledge of them. Only now and again do we really feel
that the missions matter, the rest is simply part of a chess game where half
of the board is obscured.
Halfway through the third series, creator and writer (and
alleged former spy) Ian Mackintosh’s light aircraft disappeared somewhere in
Alaska. No trace of him or the plane has ever been found. Writers were called in
to complete the series (Mackintosh had already written the final episode), and the producers decided to call it a day without Mackintosh, leaving the narrative arc unresolved. It’s a real shame, as it’s an incredible series that could have gone on twisting and turning for years.
‘Womaneater’ is an enjoyably daft tale of a mad
scientist (George Coulouris) and his obsession with bringing the dead back to
life. He hopes to achieve this morally equivocal task by using a huge,
malevolent plant that he has transplanted from the Amazon jungle. He feeds it
women, then, after it’s had time to digest its dinner, he milks it, puts the
residue through some complicated looking scientific apparatus and the result is
a drug which can (briefly) bring things back to life.
The obvious issue is an ethical one, i.e. is it worth taking
a human life to be able to reinvigorate a dead heart for a few seconds? The
obvious answer is ‘no, of course not, don’t be stupid’. Then there are other
questions: why does the plant only eat women? And why do they have to be young
and attractive? Only the savage misogynistic Plant-God knows, and he’s saying
nothing, just waving his arms about and growling.
50’s starlet Vera Day makes for an attractive and down to
earth heroine (elocution lessons haven't quite taken the edges from her working class accent) and the scene where her magnificent cantilevered bosom distracts her fiancée
from fixing a car is priceless.
Relatively brisk at seventy minutes, I thoroughly and wholeheartedly recommend
this ridiculous frippery, especially if you’re interested in gardening and/or reanimating
Peter Wyngarde plays Oberon, King of the Fairies*, in a 1964
ITV production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Never quite the crass,
commercial machine the BBC made them out to be, ITV had a fine tradition of
drama and the arts, although putting Benny Hill’s name above the title (he was
playing Bottom, using his Fred Scuttle voice) and the rest of the cast underneath was, in the words of one contemporary commentator, ‘putting the arse
before the court’.