Archive for July, 2010

The enduring joys of Hammer Horror

When I am asked what my guilty pleasures are, I often mention Hammer horror films. But I shouldn’t really, as I don’t feel remotely guilty about them.

I knew about these films in considerable detail long before I had watched any. Back when I was about nine or ten years old – that’s the late 60s and the very early 70s – Scottish Television used to show these films late night on Fridays, and my parents, being responsible and taking their parental duties somewhat more seriously than I at the time considered appropriate, would not allow me to watch them. But I used to read with keen attention the programme notes in TV Times, and, at play-time on Monday mornings, my friend – Terence, I remember his name was – whose parents were clearly more liberal than mine,  would fill me in on all the details. And marvellous details they were too. There was the creature whose very look could turn people into stone, and who had to be decapitated; there was the vampire-hunter who, having been bitten in an old windmill, has to cauterise his wound with red hot metal before dispatching the vampire by chucking holy water into his face; and so on. Violent? Yes, I suppose they were, and, in retrospect, I can see that my parents were perfectly right to guard me from such nightmares. But really, they were no more violent than the books I was reading, such as Treasure Island; or the Grimms’ fairy stories I had been told when I was even younger. These films, even before I’d seen them, stirred my imagination with the same disturbing intensity. And by the time I came to actually seeing them, I was already a teenager, and they had all the attraction of fruit hitherto forbidden.

Of course, all that was many years ago, and no, these films don’t frighten me any more. But I enjoy still entering these dream-like fantasies; I enjoy still that evocation of childhood nightmares, as haunting and as vivid as the Grimms’ fairy tales. To see what I mean, look no further than the first of Hammer’s Dracula films – entitled simply Dracula in the UK release, but re-titled Horror of Dracula in US – in which the little girl Tania is led by the hand by her Aunt Lucy, who, unknown to Tania, has now become a vampire. No blood and gore, no exploding heads or special effects – merely a simple image of a little girl walking outside in the night, hand in hand with a young lady who is dead. And yet a scene like that has a resonance that I can’t quite bring myself to describe. I am not frightened by it as such – not these days, anyway – but I know that had I seen this back in the days when I wasn’t allowed to, this simple image would have scared me far more than any of the gore-fests that pass for horror these days.

No, I am not claiming that these films are great masterpieces of the cinema: we’re not talking about La Grande Illusion here, or Wild Strawberries. But for all that, there was considerable craftsmanship in these films, bordering at times, I think, on genuine artistry. At the very least, if terms such as “cinematic genius” can be bandied about when talking about something so pedestrian as Kubrick’s The Shining, I don’t see why similar terms should be inapplicable here.

One of the first things to note about these films is their visual splendour. Unlike something such as The Shining, these films were made on shoestring budgets, but the images throughout are magnificent. I was tempted to put up some stills on here to illustrate my point, but really, I can do no better than to direct you to this site, where you may survey at leisure what I think are some of the most striking images of cinema. (And may I mention here my cyber-friend Stuart Hall – hmmm, there’s something that sounds vaguely sinister about that term “cyber-friend”, isn’t there? – who is responsible for many of these excellent screen grabs?)

The Hammer studios seem to me to be among the very first to make creative use of colour. As we look through the films of the 40s and 50s, we find that cinematographers had achieved a very high level of sophistication in black and white photography. But then, colour came in, and commercial considerations demanded that more films be made in colour. But in most of these early colour films, the cinematography is simply bland. The cinematographers, who could put black and white cinematography to such superb expressive use, didn’t quite know for a while what to do with colour. But look at those Hammer films: has colour ever been put to such expressive use, I wonder? Look at the dream-like fairy-tale quality of something like The Gorgon, or at that beautiful pinkish light colouring so much of Brides of Dracula. Who would have thought that horror, of all genres, could be so lyrical? Cinematographers such as Jack Asher or Arthur Grant or Michael Reed may not be the best known of cinematographers, but their work in these Hammer films was tremendously imaginative, and they don’t, I think, often get the credit they deserve.

With a big budget, it’s no great trick to achieve the visually spectacular, but with the kind of budgets that Hammer used to work on, a greater imagination was required. In The Plague of the Zombies, for instance, in that splendid graveyard sequence, we see in passing a puddle that is coloured blood red; at the end of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, we find one of the most striking of all images, as Count Dracula weeps tears of blood. You don’t need a multi-million dollar budget for that sort of thing – merely an imagination.

There are a great many names that should feature in a roll-call of honour: James Bernard, who provided so many of those wonderful scores; directors such as Don Sharp, John Gilling, and, of course, the great Terence Fisher (and not forgetting Freddie Francis, quite rightly acknowledged as amongst the greatest of all cinematographers, who took his hand to directing and came up with such gems as Dracula Has Risen From the Grave). And there were the casts, of course. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were the mainstays, obviously, but there were also Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Andre Morell, Ingrid Pitt, Jacqueline Pearce, Noel Willman, and, of course, Michael Ripper, everyone’s favourite landlord … names that roll of the tongue of any aficionado of the genre. Let us not get too involved in compiling lists of the great Hammer names: we’d be here all day, and there are bound to be important names missed out. And in any case, I am a novice when it comes to knowledge of British horror films: for real expertise, you should try some of the contributors on the British Horror Film board.

So what are the best ones? I think it is fair to say that not all Hammer horror films are up to the same high standards, and while a consensus of sorts does emerge, there is, nonetheless, considerable disagreement on this question. The two series that formed the backbone of Hammer’s output are the Dracula series, and the Frankenstein series, and, it’s fair to say, I think, that it’s the latter that is the more intelligently scripted, while the former is the more iconic in visual terms. What is remarkable, though, is the way they kept re-inventing the myth. Thus, the first Dracula film re-treads (with, admittedly, a great many alterations) the route mapped out by Bram Stoker’s novel; but thereafter, with each resurrection of the Count, they try to do something different with the elements of the story. After the first two Dracula films, (the second of which – Dracula Prince of Darkness – is possibly my personal favourite of all Hammer films), director Terence Fisher left the series, but Freddie Francis picked it up with the visually splendid Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, while Peter Sasdy took on the next one, the marvellously titled Taste the Blood of Dracula, which re-created the myth to fine effect in a completely different dramatic context. After that, it must be admitted, the series declined, and some of the later attempts to bring Dracula into 1970s London were only partially successful. Nonetheless, the first four films in the series are among the very best of all vampire films. And we must add to these the two vampire films Hammer made that don’t feature the Count – Brides of Dracula and Kiss of the Vampire: anyone wanting to know what attraction Hammer horror has to aficionados could do no better than start here.

For many, the Frankenstein series is even better. There are, strictly speaking, five of these – all directed by Terence Fisher: The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. (Hammer made a few other Frankenstein film as well, but they were not directed by Fisher and aren’t anywhere near the standard of these five.) The most famous film version of Frankenstein is, of course, the old Universal film directed by James Whale, with Boris Karloff unforgettable as the monster, and while I think Hammer’s Dracula films eclipse the Universal Dracula films, the same cannot be said for Frankenstein: if the very name Dracula conjures up pictures of Christopher Lee, it is still Boris Karloff we first think of when we hear the name Frankenstein. Nonetheless, Hammer put their own unmistakable stamp on the myth. After the first in the series – which, as with the first Dracula film, treads more or less familiar ground – the Hammer studios began to re-imagine the myth in all sorts of ways. Thus, in the second film, The Revenge of Frankenstein, the monster is played, quite superbly by Michael Gwynn, without make-up: here, the monster is an ordinary man who knows his brain is deteriorating and that there is nothing he can do about it. There is projected a surprising pathos, and the climactic scene, in which the monster crashes through the French windows into an aristocratic society event, and, in despair, begs Frankenstein to help him, is one of Hammer’s most effective set-pieces. The third in the series, Frankenstein Created Woman – a great favourite of Martin Scorsese’s, by the way – the story is re-imagined yet again, as Frankenstein succeeds in isolating the essence of our individual existence – the “soul”. The fourth, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, is perhaps the most adventurous film the Hammer studios ever made, and is, in the opinion of many, the best. It features an intelligent script, and, also, two of the finest performances in all Hammer films – that of Peter Cushing, increasingly ruthless and obsessive and crazed by the power he wields, and that of Freddie Jones as the “monster”, projecting an emotional depth one would not have thought possible given the context. A gruesome but nonetheless highly effective Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell finishes off the series – a series that seems to me to be among the finest achievements of British cinema.

Apart from these two series, there are a great many other delights: there’s The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing and Andre Morrell as Holmes and Watson, and still, to my mind, the best screen adaptation of this story; there are those two splendid films directed back to back on the same sets (Hammer was never one to waste good money!) by John Gilling – The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile; there’s Christopher Lee’s exuberant, no-holds-barred performance in Rasputin, the Mad Monk; there’s the delicate Grimms’ fairy tale atmosphere of The Gorgon; there’s the highly successful venture into Dennis Wheatley’s world of satanic rites in The Devil Rides Out (and featuring the by now legendary threat of the villain Mocata – played with tremendous menace by Charles Gray: “I won’t be back … but something will”); there are those vampire hunters led by religious maniac Peter Cushing in Twins of Evil, who institute their own reign of terror by burning at the stake those they think are in league with the Devil; and so on, and so forth.

We all have our favourites. So when, at the end of the week, one wants to relax and unwind, what better way that slipping into one’s dressing gown and slippers, pouring oneself a glass of one’s favourite malt whisky, and curling up in one’s favourite armchair to watch something classy like Taste the Blood of Dracula! Now, there’s a pleasure I most certainly don’t feel guilty about.

Literary standards and “prolefeed”

One can’t, of course, read all the books that get published, and neither, of course, would one want to. But I generally like to keep up with what’s going on in the books world, and to that end, I often browse through the various titles on the shelf in bookshops. There will be those who will say that this is hardly sufficient, that one cannot hope to get the essence of a book merely from a casual glance. This is certainly true for certain kinds of books: obviously, if we are talking about a book of substance, or even a book that might be of substance, one has to read the whole book carefully before presuming to pass judgement. But crap one can tell at first glance. Quite often, a few paragraphs, or even a few sentences, are more than enough.

Why is so much utter crap inflicted on the public, I wonder? I look at the best writers of popular fiction from the past – from Wilkie Collins to Arthur Conan Doyle, from Jerome K Jerome to PG Wodehouse – and find in their works a concern for craftsmanship, an excellent ear for a well-turned sentence, a care for pacing and for construction – indeed, a respect for the reader. But most books I browse through nowadays seem to display the most undisguised contempt for the reader. The overriding ethos behind the writing seems to be “It’s only the popular market – who cares?” And the sad thing is that readers don’t care. Or, rather, vast numbers appear not to. No matter how much crap is thrown their way, they seem to lap it all up. And then they label as snobs and elitists anyone who does care for literary standards.

Literary standards never have been the preserve merely of “literary writers” – of the George Eliots and the James Joyces. I am currently reading one of those marvellous Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser, and at every page, am marvelling at the extraordinarily high quality of Fraser’s writing. (It is tempting to go into details here, but let’s not get sidetracked!) Someone such as Macdonald Fraser would have felt insulted, I think, and rightly so, by the suggestion that literary standards don’t matter just because one is writing for a popular market: he had sufficient respect for his art – yes, art – and for his readers to set himself the most exacting of literary standards. The same can be said, I think, for all good writers of popular literature. And yet, it is those of us who insist on high standards for popular literature, who insist that the intelligence of the readership ought to be respected, who are labelled snobs and elitists.

Someone was telling me recently how gratifying it is that Orwell’s dire predictions in Nineteen Eighty-Four haven’t come true. On the whole, I agree, but with one major proviso: it seems to me that there is one prediction that actually has come true, but which no-one appears to notice – and that is Orwell’s prediction of “prolefeed”. Nineteen Eighty Four is, after all, not merely a satire of totalitarianism, but is also a projection of various aspects of Orwell’s own society that concerned him; and one aspect that particularly concerned Orwell was the debasement of popular culture. So, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he depicts masses of utter mind-rotting garbage churned out for consumption by an undiscerning and undemanding public. And this he called, with withering derision, “prolefeed”. 

In Orwell’s novel, “prolefeed” was produced by an all-powerful state, whereas the “prolefeed” of our own society is the product of private enterprise. But other than that, I can’t say I see any great difference. In this respect, Orwell’s nightmare vision actually has come true, and the sad thing is that no-one seems to notice. Or, perhaps, those who do notice tend to keep quiet because they would prefer not to be called names.

These are a few of my favourite things…

Who hasn’t wanted to appear on Desert Island Discs? Or on Private Passions? Who hasn’t wanted to fill in a questionnaire all about one’s own self? Well, when one has one’s own blog, one can. Can’t one? So, without any apology or preamble, I shall take a leaf out of the blog Somewhere Boy, and press ahead. (And I would encourage anyone else out in Blogland to put up something similar: it’s fascinating finding out about other peoples’ tastes!) 

1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

One’s taste is always evolving, but even so, there are some constants. Mozart is my desert island composer: those three da Ponte operas, the wind serenades (I particularly love that very dark C minor serenade), the late symphonies, the piano concertos (especially the slow movement of the 17th), the divertimento for string trio, the clarinet quintet, the sinfonia concertante, etc. etc. – I adore them all.

As for other works I adore – the ones that immediately come to mind, in no particular order, are Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the 4th symphony of Brahms, Bartók’s 4th string quartet (with that haunting nocturnal movement at its centre), Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations,  Verdi’s Requiem Mass, Schubert’s G major string quartet, Mussorgsky’s epic opera Boris Godunov… I suppose I could go on and on, but that’s enough to be going on with, I think.

“What about Bach?” I hear you ask. Well, frankly, much of the time, he intimidates me. But when I do get his music, there’s nothing quite like it, and I wouldn’t think of leaving for Roy Plomley’s desert island without a recording of those wonderful Brandenburg Concertos.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

Perhaps I love good singing more than anything else – there’s nothing quite to match a beautiful voice, combined with imaginative phrasing and colouring. And when all this is in the service of music that I love, that’s just heaven. Just listen to that ethereally beautiful voice of Gundula Janowitz singing the role of the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro: is there really anything better than that? (Indeed, that whole recording is pretty damn good!) Or to Stuart Burrows singing Don Ottavio in Colin Davis’ recording of Don Giovanni. Or Lucia Popp singing the title role in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Or Janet Baker singing the finale of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in that live recording conducted by Rafael Kubelik, Or, if you want emotional intensity, try Jon Vickers as Tristan, or Plácido Domingo as Otello, or Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert’s Winterreise. And for sheer unmitigated pleasure, Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles in Thomas Beecham’s recording of La Bohème. Yes, these are all famous recordings – and they’re all famous for good reason.

Even in instrumental music, it is often the singing quality of the playing I enjoy most – Yehudi Menuhin’s fiddle singing ecstatically in the recording of Beethoven’s violin concerto conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler; or Evelyn Rothwell on the oboe and Adolf Busch on the violin making their instruments sing like angels in the slow movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto; or Pablo Casals phrasing that melody at the start of the slow movement of Schubert’s B flat trio; and so on.

I suppose I should mention a few much loved recordings of a different type: Mravinsky’s searingly intense recordings of the last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky are high on most people’s lists of greatest classical recordings, and one can see why; the Hungarian Quartet’s recordings of Schubert’s late quartets and the string quintet aren’t quite that famous, but surely deserve to be; and finally – the most jaw-droppingly beautiful orchestral sound I’ve ever heard is in that wonderful recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

I think I’d best stop there.

3. Favourite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:

As I was growing up, my parents played Bengali music at home. And mostly, this meant Rabinrasangeet – i.e. songs by Rabindranath Tagore, which constitute, in effect, the national music of Bengal. Of course, it is mandatory for teenagers to reject their parent’s values, and I rebelled by conforming to this pattern. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, and I now find myself moved by the same songs I had once rejected. And I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia for childhood: these songs really are quite wonderful.

Another record I remember from childhood is a collection of Bengali folk songs sung by Nirmalendu Choudhury, who is little-known outside Bengal, and, from what I gather, seems now to have been largely forgotten in Bengal also. That is inexplicable, as he was an extraordinary singer: his intonation was immaculate in even the most complex of passages, his breath control and  dynamics things to wonder at, and he could put a smile in his voice, or express the most profound melancholy, with apparently the greatest of ease. I am fortunate enough to have got hold of a few CDs of his recordings (they’re not easy to get hold of), and they are very dear to me. Particularly remarkable, I think, is his singing of bhaitali – which are traditional boatmen’s songs (Bengal is situated on the Ganges delta, and the river is a significant presence): the adjective “soulful” could almost have been invented specially for these.

As for Indian classical music – the term is a bit of a misnomer: the very concept of “classical music” is Western, and its application to the music of India is approximate at best. What is usually referred to as “Indian classical music” is the system of ragas, and although I love listening to them, I do wish I understood them a bit better. As it is, I can’t tell one raga from another, and have difficulty distinguishing even between types of raga. But for all that, I treasure the recordings I have of the likes of Bhimsen Joshi, Bismillah Khan, Vilayat Khan, etc etc. And if I had to choose the most exhilarating piece of music-making I have ever heard, I would unhesitatingly choose a live recording from New York, 1972 of Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Alla Rakha (tabla) playing Raga Sindhi Bhairavi.

4. Music that makes you cry – any genre:

I don’t think I cry physically, but I do often find myself very moved by music. I find this increasingly the case as I become older. And also, when I go through emotionally difficult times, it is in music that I tend to find a focal point for what I feel. Just about all the music I have mentioned so far moves me in some way or the other.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):

There are certain major works by major composers that seem surprisingly little known. Mozart’s divertimento for string trio, say. Or, for that matterm anything by Handel except Messiah. (How many recordings are there of Samson, say, or of Belshazzar? How frequently are they performed? And yet, they’re supreme masterpieces!) As for lesser-known composers, I don’t know that I know the works well enough to comment, although, after watching the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I’ve developed a great affection for Miklós Rózsa’s violin concerto (the music from this concerto was recycled for the soundtrack of that film). But I wouldn’t make any claim for it other than that I personally enjoy it.

6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):

I have not had a musical education, and am happy to defer to those whose understanding of music exceeds mine. There is much that is highly rated that has little effect on me, or which I find myself disliking, but if musicians of the calibre of Lenny Bernstein, Yevgeny Mravinsky, Rostropovich, Haitink, etc. admire, say, the symphonies of Shostakovich, then who the hell am I to say they were wrong? I’m happy to put it down as a blind-spot. Other musical blind-spots include Berlioz, French baroque (Rameau, Couperin, Lully), Liszt, minimalist composers, etc.

7. Live music performance(s) you attended – any genre – that you’ll never forget:

Goodness!- where do I start? There’s Pierre Boulez conducting the LSO in Mahler’s 6th symphony; the concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Edinburgh Festival featuring Robert Holl as Hans Sachs and a then relatively unknown young tenor called Jonas Kaufmann as Walther; Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden with Carol Vaness and Thomas Allen, and with Jeffrey Tate conducting; an equally good Figaro at Covent Garden a couple pf decades later, this time featuring Barbara Frittoli and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, and with Charles Mackerras conducting; a phenomenal sarod recital by Ali Akbar Khan at Queen Elizabeth Hall; Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO in Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony; Tatiana Nikolayeva playing Bach’s preludes and fugues at the Wigmore Hall; the Belcea Quartet playing all six Bartok quartets over three concerts spread out on a single day; Maurizio Pollini playing the Hammerklavier Sonata; Claudio Abbado conducting Die Zauberflöte …  

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

I’m very much out of sympathy – and, consequently, out of touch – with modern films. That is not to say there aren’t any good modern films: just that there is too much that is mediocre or worse that is highly acclaimed, and I don’t really have the time or the patience to wade through them all to dig out the few good ones. Every now and then I’ll see something that has been highly acclaimed, and wonder why I bothered. So I think I’ll pass on this one.

9. A few films you consider classics:

For me, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar) – based on two quite wonderful Bengali novels by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji – is among cinema’s finest artistic achievements: they move me possibly more than I think I could explain. These three films do, however, overshadow other films by Ray of comparable artistry – most notably Charulata, Aranyer Din Ratri (aka Days and Nights in the Forest) and Ashani Sanket (aka Distant Thunder).

But my greatest love is Laurel and Hardy. With a couple of exceptions (Way Out West and Sons of the Desert), they were at their best in the two-reelers. When we first acquired a DVD player, my first priority was to get myself those classic Stan & Ollie pictures, and when I finally am invited on to Desert Island Discs and Kirsty Young asks me what my luxury is, I won’t hesitate.

Other than that, I think I love classic Hollywood best. Of course, there are many European and Japanese films I love dearly – from La Grande Illusion to Bicycle Thieves, Fanny and Alexander to Ran, Fitzcarraldo to Stalker – but ultimately, the films I tend to love best are film noir, the Jimmy Cagney gangster movies, screwball comedies, Marx Brothers, the films of Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard) and of John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, They Were Expendable, My Darling Clementine), and so on. And yes – Citizen Kane, which is wonderful despite everyone saying it is.

I am also a great fan of Chaplin. People queue up to say he isn’t funny, but if that’s the case, I really don’t know why I’m laughing. City Lights and Modern Times, especially, are wonderfully moving films.

I’m not sure why I enjoy being scared, but I do. I grew up with Hammer horror films, and love them still. But the film that unsettles me most, even after multiple viewings, is The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s superb adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

The 70s were really my era. British cinema was in decline by then after a peak in the 60s and early 70s (films like This Sporting Life, Kes, Sunday Bloody Sunday etc.) but outside Britain, directors of the calibre of Ray, Kurasawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Herzog, Fellini, etc. were still active (and often at their best) in the 70s. Meanwhile, from the US, we had films of the quality of The Godfather & The Godfather Part 2, Chinatown, Mean Streets, Five Easy Pieces, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Last Detail, etc. But it all went downhill from the late 70s onwards: the phenomenal success of the Star Wars films, and of the big-budget kiddies’ movies from Spielberg, heralded a juvenilisation of cinema, and we still haven’t recovered. Clint Eastwood continued to make films of distinction, but he was something of an exception: even directors who had done good work in the past seemed to go off the boil (Coppola is a conspicuous example of this). But I’m glad that my teenage years coincided with what, in retrospect, may be seen as a golden era.

 10. A book (or two) that is important to you (and why):

It’s a good job that I’m restricted to “a book (or two)”, otherwise, I’d be here all day. But I’ll take the liberty of extending ithe one or two books to four. The first is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, for reasons that really are too obvious to be stated, and too difficult to articulate; War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, because, as Someone-or-other once put it, it’s about everything that is important in life; The Poems of Rabindranath Tagore because, as a Bengali, I don’t have a choice on the matter; and, finally, The Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories, for what would I read at bedtime otherwise?

 11. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re most proud of:

My extraordinary ability to fold my tongue simultaneously along two perpendicular axes.

 12. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re embarrassed by:

My utter lack of physical co-ordination, which manifests itself spectacularly when, at weddings or at similar functions, I am persuaded against my better judgement to take to the dance floor.

 13. Three things you can’t live without:

Should I embarrass my family by nominating them in this category? Will they be pleased by the nomination, or will they feel insulted that they are nominated alongside my collection of malt whiskies? All right, let’s leave family members out of it. I nominate my library, my CD collection, and my malt whiskies.

 14. “When I want to get away from it all I…”

Get into my dressing gown and slippers, curl up in my armchair with a glass of deep, satisfying malt whisky, and put on a Hammer horror film – something classy, like Taste the Blood of Dracula – on my DVD player. Or I read a Sherlock Holmes story.

 15. “People are surprised to find out that I…”

…genuinely enjoy watching football. I don’t know why that should surprise anyone: maybe I don’t look like a footie-loving person. But I am. (Note: If there’s any transatlantic reader out there, please read “soccer” instead of ”football”.)

 16. “My favorite cities are…”

Having grown up in Glasgow, I shouldn’t really mention Edinburgh here, but I will, as it’s a spectacularly lovely and characterful city. I have also developed an attachment to my adopted city, London. And, having come back from a holiday there, Venice must be high on any list.

17. “I have a secret crush on…”

Doesn’t Kirsty Young have a really sexy voice? The way she says “Time for your fourth record …”  Damn! – it isn’t a secret anymore!

18. “My most obvious guilty pleasure is…”

Malt whisky and Hammer horror films. But I don’t really feel very guilty about either.

 19. “I’d really love to meet – or to have met…”

Kirsty Young, with that sexy voice of hers, interviewing me as guest on Desert Island Discs. Come on Kirsty – what are you waiting for?

 20. “I never understood why…”

… why there is anything at all instead of nothing.


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

Q: Why do you think Tolstoy is the greatest of all novelists?

A: Now, I’m very glad you asked me that … [cont. P 873]