dubiously true stories and cartoons

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


In 1963 my mother took me to the cinema twice. The first time was to see Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Anderson, a completely fabricated biopic of the famous writer of fairy tales which contained lots of jolly songs and bad acting coupled with a puerile and inane story which told the audience absolutely nothing about the man himself. Since then, the only film I have had the misfortune of seeing that told me nothing about the central character was Ron Howard’s ridiculously overrated A Beautiful Mind, a supposed true story about the mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. At the start of the film you know that he is a mathematician and a schizophrenic and at the end of the film you know that he is a mathematician and a schizophrenic. In between you find out absolutely nothing whatsoever about him, and as I left the cinema listening to the hordes of cretins going on and on about how clever it was I couldn’t help thinking about how much it reminded me of Hans Christian Anderson.

The original poster for "Hans Christian Anderson"

The second film my mother took me to see was Summer Holiday starring Cliff Richard, Una Stubbs and the Shadows and their guitars. Cliff Richard was once touted as the British Elvis and my mum thought (incorrectly) that he was better than Elvis. The fact is that Cliff was too clean cut to be anywhere near as interesting or as down and dirty as The King and apart from one or two catchy tunes the songs in Cliff’s films were rubbish. Let’s compare Summer Holiday with Viva Las Vegas – well, actually, let’s not, because there is no comparison. Like Hans Christian Anderson, Summer Holiday is puerile and inane, whereas Viva Las Vegas is puerile and dynamic!
You can see a pattern emerging already with the types of films my mother liked. Have you spotted it yet? Yes, that’s right – she liked musicals. As a child I had to sit through My Fair Lady, The King and I, South Pacific, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Calamity Jane, Annie Get Your Gun, Carousel, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, Oliver, and countless others. At the time I didn’t appreciate the films my mother made me watch with her. In fact, I thought they were stupid – what reason did the characters have to burst into song and why did they sing so many? Where was the orchestra hiding, and what the hell was the point of it all? I was around thirty before I began to appreciate what had drawn my mother to these films. The film that changed my opinion is still, not only my favourite musical, but also one of my favourite films. It was the rather marvellous Singing in the Rain, which was recently remade brilliantly (and silently) as The Artist. As I started to rediscover and enjoy the films I had watched with my mother all those years ago I started to wonder if I was turning gay. My fears were short-lived when I discovered that there was a whole strata of straight men who secretly loved musicals and while we argued about which were the best musicals ever made we were all unanimous in agreeing that Summer Holiday and the rest of Cliff Richard’s films were pointless, puerile and piss poor.

Back when I was a child I preferred going to the cinema with my granddad. He took me to The Tivoli to see real films. We went to see grown-up films, war films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Longest Day (1962), The Great Escape (1963), Zulu (1964), Guns at Batasi (1964), The Hill (1965), Khartoum (1966) and my favourite war film of all time, Ice Cold In Alex (1958).
The Tivoli on Talbot Road was established as a cinema in 1913, the interior being redesigned with a sound system in 1930 following the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927. A fire swept through the cinema on 8th October 1964 and granddad and I had to go to the Odeon, where it was more expensive, until it re-opened in April 1965 with a reduced seating capacity. It was finally closed in the mid 70’s when it became the Talbot Bingo Club (see my previous story Why I Hate Bingo).

Although The Tivoli was a dump (mum would never have taken me there) granddad liked it because it showed old films as well as new ones. It was there that I came across the back catalogue of such influential cinema giants as Alfred Hitchcock – Strangers on a Train, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window and his masterpiece Vertigo, one of the most ambiguously brilliant films ever released. I also discovered the great French clown Jacques Tati’s marvellous comedies Jour De Fete, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle.

The Odeon Cinema, Blackpool

Granddad took me to see one film at the Odeon, however, that has stayed with me all my life. I was ten years old and the film was an ‘A’ certificate, which meant that I could go and see it as long as I was accompanied by an adult. It was the best film I had ever seen but grandma was shocked when she found out that granddad had taken me to see it. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing taking him to see a film that’s full of sex and violence?” grandma complained. “How do you think his bloody mother’s going to feel about that?”

“She’ll be all right with it?” granddad said, rolling a cigarette and showing no concern whatsoever.

“It were bloody brilliant grandma!” I enthused. “It were fantastic! It had a car that had machine guns and an ejector seat in it! Can we see it again, granddad? Can we?”

“See what you’ve done,” moaned grandma, “don’t be surprised if he ends up murdering someone when he gets older.”

“Get away with ye,” said granddad.

“You’ll see; he’ll be in court and the judge’ll ask him if he has any extenuating circumstances and he’ll tell him that it all started when his granddad took him to see James bloody Bond before he were old enough.”

Granddad finished rolling his cigarette, lit it and blew a ring of smoke into the air. “Aye,” he replied, “and he’ll say that just before he sees all them pink elephants flying round his bloody head.”

The film my granddad took me to see was, of course, Goldfinger. It was exciting and funny and sexy and it even managed to make golf look interesting. It also contained the best exchange of dialogue of any Bond film in the history of Bond films. You know the one:

You don’t expect me to talk, do you?


I saw Goldfinger at a time when ushers in cinemas wore uniforms and the kiosks only sold chocolate covered nuts and raisins. It was also a time when the people who worked in cinemas were knowledgeable about films and about new releases.

Compared to the cinemas of my youth the modern multiplex is a ghastly experience, especially if you are accompanied by children who want popcorn and coke. I don’t know whether it’s true or not but apparently the multiplexes don’t make any profit from the films they show; they make their profits from the overpriced popcorn and coke and other sundries they sell.

It always amazes me when I look at the tubs of popcorn people take into the cinema with them; they come in a variety of sizes, as do the cups of coke. Below is a handy table which will help you understand the difference in the scales of measurement used by the multiplexes and the real world.



Too much for one person. You will have finished your coke and your mouth will be dry before you get to the bottom of the tub.


If you’ve eaten all the pies and are still hungry then this is for you. Otherwise, this is enough to feed a family of five.


Fat Bastard
Roughly the size of a household bucket, there is enough popcorn in this container to feed an entire village in East Anglia for a whole day.

Why anyone would want to eat that much popcorn and drink that much coke is beyond me. More importantly, how can anyone can afford to pay for these ridiculously overpriced items? A large popcorn and a large coke costs you almost as much as the GNP of a small third world country.

In 2006 I went to the Cineworld in Yeovil and didn’t buy any popcorn and coke. Instead, I bought drinks, chocolate and sweets for normal prices in a shop in town and then smuggled them in the secret pockets of a special designed raincoat. As well as going to see one the many brainless blockbusters they were showing I wanted to find when Letters From Iwo Jima was going be released.

A spotty faced youth bearing a badge that declared that his name was Craig was at the receiving end of my enquiry. He gave me a gormless look and asked, “Ermm . . . is it a . . . Bollywood film?”

“No,” I replied, “it’s Clint Eastwood’s latest film; you know – the one that’s been nominated for several Oscars.”

“Oh . . .” Craig said vacantly, “it’s a western, then.”

“No, the clue to the type of film is in the title.”

I briefly considered using the word genre instead of the more protracted type of film, but I quickly realised that Craig would probably thought that it was some form of tropical disease. He looked at me vacantly.

“Iwo Jima!” I said.

Craig continued to look at me vacantly.

“It’s a war film.”

“Isn’t Clint Eastwood a bit old to be in war films?”

“He’s not in it.”

Craig looked confused. “But . . . you just said he was.”

“No, I said it was a Clint Eastwood film. He’s not in it but he directed it.”

“Clint Eastwood has directed a film? Really?”

I was beginning to lose my patience with Craig. “Look, do you know when it’s going to be on or not?”

He looked up at the ceiling and rubbed his chin. “Mmmm, October,” he said. “Probably October.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, it’ll be on in April.”

“That’s good,” I said, “because the multiplexes don’t show that many foreign language films.”

A look of horror passed over Craig’s face. “What?”

“It’s in Japanese with English subtitles.”

“But you told me it was a Clint Eastwood film.”

“It is a Clint Eastwood. It’s about the Japanese defence of Iwo Jima.”


It was at that point that a thought struck me; as gormless, ill-educated and badly dressed in his colourful uniform as he was, this wasn’t Craig’s fault. This was the fault of management employing people like Craig who haven’t the faintest idea about the product they’re selling or the rich history behind it. I mean, you wouldn’t employ a librarian that didn’t know anything about literature, would you.
“Can I help you with anything else, sir?” asked Craig, without a hint of irony in his voice.

“One for The Da Vinci Code, please.”

Little did I know when I walked into Screen 1 with my secret stash of drinks and sweets that my brief exchange with Craig would be nothing compared to the disappointment I would experience over the next two and a half hours in the unbelievably dull company of Tom Hanks as the thickest cryptographer the world has ever seen.

Friday, March 15, 2013


I haven’t ironed an article of clothing for over four years now. I haven’t made a bed or hoovered the floor and I didn’t discover where the petrol cap on my car was for at least six months.

All this sounds great, doesn’t it? I mean, who wouldn’t want someone to do all their ironing for them? But, alas, as human beings an insurmountable problem lies within us – we like to do stuff. After two or three years of doing nothing in the home it suddenly dawned on me one day that I was starting to get slightly bored. I began doing the washing and hanging it out. I loaded the dishwasher and switched it on. I started filling the car with petrol. Ironing, however, is still a chore that I can happily delegate to someone else.

I live on a large compound in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia where a mixture of Indian and Bangladeshi workers employed as gardeners, drivers, admin assistants, security services or houseboys carry out a variety menial tasks in order to make the residents lives more bearable.

The compound has a men’s hairdressing salon and the first barber that was employed there was from India. According to an apocryphal tale he was originally a gardener from another compound and was selected for the position above other, more qualified people, due to his ability to cut grass in a proficient manner. To call him a hairdresser would be a gross misrepresentation of the term and even describing him as a barber would be stretching it. After a couple of weeks and a few bad haircuts he was given the nickname that would stick with him until he left – Cochise.

His prices were cheap – 15 Riyals (about £2.50) for a haircut – and I suppose that’s why people used him. The majority of the men on the compound are single (or of single status) and looking sharp is probably not a priority, especially as going on the pull in the local town of Al-Khobar is out of the question. T-shirts and shorts or cargo pants are generally the fashion here, although there is an element of men who look strangely out of place. Time has effectively stood still for these people and if I look carefully I can usually tell which decade they arrived here. Stepping into any one of the areas of refreshment on the compound can sometimes be like stepping back in time and I have ceased to be surprised when I see a group of men in a corner somewhere who look like they’re just off out to a Spandau Ballet reunion party.

When Cochise was cutting hair you saw a lot of bad haircuts. The more sensible men had their hair cropped or their heads shaved, but there was (and still is) small band of brothers that look like the last thing they watched on telly in the UK was Lovejoy.

As for me – I like to look good, although my wife would dispute me on that. When we first met in 1996 I was still wearing light jackets with the sleeves rolled up, pastel coloured T-shirts and deck shoes with no socks. I’d been in between girlfriends for quite some time and had not realised that they had stopped making Miami Vice some years earlier. She made me buy an entire new wardrobe, informing me in no uncertain terms that although she did really like me she most definitely did not want to be seen out with someone dressed like Crockett or Tubbs.

I’ve always had a fine head of hair, although it’s now going a bit grey and is receding slightly. When I have it cut I like to have it short and spiky on the top with a number 4 on the back and sides. This is me clinging onto the rebellious plastic punk I used to be in my twenties – because I was in the RAF and dying your hair was against regulations, before I went to a gig I used to colour it with cochineal because I could wash it out the next day.

My normal hairdresser, an Egyptian called Amon had closed up shop and moved to new premises. Unfortunately I had no idea where he had moved to and so in desperation to shed myself of increasingly wild looking hair, I made the mistake of visiting Cochise.

He was a strange looking man with jutting teeth, bulging cheeks and a protruding chin. He had a habit, like many men from the sub-continent, of clearing his throat and snorting whilst furnishing his client with one of his famously bad haircuts. I been to India and seen first hand how the men there hawk up great gobs of mucus from the back of their throats, which they then spit out onto any dry piece of roadside. It’s like a national pastime. My family and I were staying in a five star hotel in Kolkata when I pointed out the sign on the reception desk when we were checking in. It read: PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SPITTING ON THE PREMISES.

Cochise did the hawking up thing but he didn’t spit, which begs the question “Where did that mucus go?” I can only assume that he either swallowed it or he stored it up in a special recess in his cheeks so that he could spit it out later. For all I knew he could have been spitting it out into the clear, unlabelled plastic bottles (of which he had many on a shelf beneath the mirror) and using it as hair gel.

His salon was sparse; one wall featured a couple of photographic portraits of impossibly handsome men with pristine hair styles that were way beyond his capability. There was a chair and a small round table in the corner where you could sit and flick through his collection of incredibly dull motorcycle magazines.

After clearing his throat and emptying the snot from one of his nostrils into the sink he pointed to the chair in front of the mirror and I sat down.

He threw a blue cover over me and secured it tightly around my neck. “Yes?” he asked.

“I’d like it short and spiky on the top with a number four on the back and sides, please.”

Now, what you asked Cochise for and what he actually gave you were almost always two completely different things. “Short and spiky on the top with a number four on the back and sides” was roughly translated (in his head) as “make a complete fucking mess of my hair and smile like a twat while you’re doing it.”

After he had made me look like the boy in the film Kes he asked me if I would like him to put some gel through my hair. I looked fearfully at the shelf below the mirror with its terrifying rows of unlabelled clear plastic bottles full of undetermined glutinous fluids.

“No thanks,” I said.