Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Withnail and Me

That's I on the left.

Withnail and, well, Me

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of cult Britcom Withnail and I. Various events are being planned to mark this important moment, which is especially poignant for me - because it marks 20 years since I had a very strange curry with the film's onlie begetter: the writer Bruce Robinson.

I was a callow student at the time. I hadn't even seen Withnail and I. But a friend of mine was raving about this crazy new film. "I know where the writer lives," my friend said, "let's just go and see him '

Being incredibly young and brazen, that's exactly what we did. One drizzly October evening we fetched up at a large Wimbledon house. The door was opened by Robinson himself. He cut quite a figure. He was forty something. Handsome. He was wearing football shorts. And he was inhaling from a clear plastic mask attached to a wheeled oxygen tank. He never told us why.

Despite the fact Robinson didn't know us from Adam, he was taken by our chutzpah, and invited us in. He fed us the finest wines known to humanity, decanted by his much younger wife. We discussed the film, his career, and his previous girlfriends: including actress Lesley Anne Down (with whom he eloped when she was 15).

Robinson took us for a boozy and hilarious curry around the corner, then we all staggered back to his house, where he showed us the lectern where he wrote his scripts - standing up. As we left him he was inhaling from the oxygen mask, and glugging more wine. And he was writing hard.

Since then I have seen Withnail many times. Every viewing reveals some new felicity, some inexplicable cleverness. The only thing that never mystifies me is the movie's charm. I know exactly where that comes from.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Popular in Vladivostok

Yes, my book is now available in Moscow, St Petersburg and possibly Vladivostok. I wonder how you say the word hootermania in Russian?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gordo the First

Gordon Brown, yesterday.

Political Analogies

Whenever British politics are especially fluid and capricious, pundits and thinkers seek out historical echoes, so as to gain some intellectual purchase.

Right now, the parallels for Gordon Brown's brief but troubled premiership seem obvious. The brooding Brown took over from his charismatic Labour colleague Tony Blair, so surely he is a Labour version of John Major, the stiff and unexciting Tory who assumed power after the iconic Margaret Thatcher.

Alternatively, some see a parallel with Labour PM James Callaghan, who succeeded the mercurial Howard Wilson. This comparison is apt, as Callaghan turned down the opportunity of a winnable election. Just like Gordon Brown this month.

But there is a much better comparison, deeper in British history. Consider the hapless James II, who took the English throne after his debonair brother, Charles II.

Here's one historian, talking of this succession:

“James II seems in every way a startling contrast to his brother Charles II. Where Charles was personable, witty, and popular, James was stiff, formal, and not well liked. Both brothers sought to increase their personal power, and both faced powerful opposition, but where Charles employed patience and subterfuge, James sought open confrontation. James frequently appeared arrogant or haughty.”

The analogy is closer the more you examine it. Just as tensions grew in the Blair camp, when it became obvious he had no obvious successor but Brown, so anxieties intensified in Charles’ court, when everyone realised the king would produce no legitimate heir.

Similarly, the reign of Charles II was notorious for its Blairite laxity and hedonism, epitomised by the "merry monarch" himself; Charles was also, like Blair, quite happy to lie to parliament.

James, by contrast, was a prickly and forbidding puritan, with a powerbase in Scotland. Just like Brown.

The moral of the story? James II lasted just three years, then lost the throne to a popular young newcomer.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Stone Heads

One of the "joke" heads of Harby.

The Great Stone Head Mystery

It's got the whole of Yorkshire talking (quite a feat in itself): just who is leaving the stone heads?

For a fortnight now, an artistic prankster has been depositing finely carved stone heads in various moorland villages in North Yorks - like Kilburn, Goathland and Selby. The stone heads have been dropped overnight in patios, phone boxes, and gardens. Occasionally they are retrieved - with equal invisibility.

Who is to blame? Locals talk of guerilla sculptors, others accuse diabolists. Some think it is all a joke.

But there is one aspect to this bizarre incident that is going unnoticed. The prankster seems to have a historical bent. Because the north of England has been associated with mysterious stone heads for two thousand years.

The ancient Celts who once lived around Lancashire and Yorkshire had a cult of heads: they would cut off the heads of their vanquished enemies and display them as bloody trophies. Eventually they began carving stone heads as a magical emblem of their victories. Modern archealogists working in the North regularly dig up these sinister items. Some of them are said to be cursed. They bear an uncanny resemblance to the "joke" stone heads of Selby and Kilburn.

The northern head motif has continued into this century. In the 1970s two small weird stone heads were dug up in a garden in Hexham, Northumberland. They were taken to the home of Anne Ross, an expert in Celtic history - and Celtic stone heads. Immediately her family was visited by hideous apparitions; her children reported seeing a wolfman in the bedroom. The Hexham heads disappeared soon afterwards.

Of course it is possible the head-carving riddler knows nothing of these historical echoes. Latest rumours claim the heads might belong to a hoaxing local sculptor, Billy Johnson, who is merely seeking publicity. If so, that only makes the synchronicity more intriguing.

A Celtic stone head.