39 Things about The 39 Steps

1.  The credits are all at the beginning. Which seems like a chore, until you think that nowadays you have to wade through a half dozen production company logo animations – and then the same production names in simple black and white – even before you get to the main actors and whatnot, and then the obligatory looking-down-from-a-drone-on-New-York-at-night, even if it’s a film about turtles or whatever. So all in all, I think The 39 Steps wins on that. 

The 39 Steps, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1935

2.  Maybe they put the credits at the beginning because people were still in the lobby buying cigarettes. When it’s over, they wouldn’t wait for the credits, because they’d be rushing out to buy more cigarettes. In the film, EVERYONE smokes. EVERYWHERE. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a baby toss a rattle out of the pram and reach a hand out for someone to pass it a Woodbine. Maybe that could’ve been an early Hitchcock cameo. He’d be a shoe-in for the role of: ‘sinister smoking baby in pram’. 

3.  The production crew is pretty limited, given today’s enormous list. Back in 1935 they made a film with about ten people, including wardrobe, lighting, sound and fish handler (there’s a lot of fish in The 39 Steps). 

4.  I read a little about the film before I saw it. Apparently they blew most of the budget on Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, so that explains a lot of the shade and fog, stock footage of trains, people pretending to be sheep &c.  

5.  The film starts in a music hall. Hannay goes in to watch the show in an enormous great coat. He’s GOT to be hot in that, but he doesn’t seem bothered. I’d want to roll it up and stuff it under my seat, whether or not it got covered in ash. No doubt people then were used to things being covered in ash. No doubt at the end of an evening out you’d have to beat yourself off with a carpet brush before you went in the house. Which sounds more fun than it probably was.

6.   Everyone in the film talks either RP or cockney. It’s a handy device. You can tell immediately what class they are. The middle class detectives try to talk proper but no-one’s fooled. They talk poshney, which is basically cockney, but with your chin up.  

7.   Almost immediately the MC comes on the stage with Mr Memory. They’re both dressed and move like robot butlers with worrying, clip-on moustaches. The MC has some banter with the audience, who are rowdy in a beery, knees-up, cor blimey kinda way. 

8.  There’s some chippy shit about whether Mr Memory has prodigious feet, or whether he is capable of prodigious feats of memory. (It’s the latter).

9.  The questions are all pretty low class, about football and horse racing and whatnot. One elderly guy wants to know what causes pip in poultry (I think that’s what he says – I don’t know anything about chickens). His wife digs him in the ribs because she doesn’t want to look common. Too late. They smoke.

10.  Every time Mr Memory answers a question he does a little shoulder-duck, finger-pointy thing and says ‘Am I right, sir?’, which is quite cute and v quotable. You can use a catchphrase too much, of course, although shooting to death is probably an over-reaction.

11.  The gig ends with someone firing a gun and everyone scrambling for the exit. There’s a fight, too. ‘Gentlemen, please! You’re not at home…’ says the MC. Says more about him, I think.

12.  Out in the street, Hannay is just about to light up (because it’s been at least five minutes and he’s gasping; I’m guessing his great coat is stuffed full of cigarettes; he’s like a walking kiosk). He’s grabbed by a Dietrich wannabe who’s mysteriously direct: 
‘May I come home with you?’ she says.
‘What’s the idea?’ says Hannay. 
‘Well – I’d like to’ she says.
‘It’s your funeral’ says Hannay.
They jump on a bus that takes him straight to his front door.

13.  The Mysterious Woman doesn’t like the fact that there are no curtains in Hannay’s flat. I’m guessing he’s decorating, although maybe he’s just an exhibitionist (which might explain the coat). 

14.  ‘Would you think me very troublesome if I asked for something to eat? I’ve had nothing all day.’ says the Mysterious Woman. Hannay gets out a haddock and a loaf of bread. Starts frying the haddock, standing over the pan with a fag on. (Again – they were probably all used to a quantity of ash in their food back then; they didn’t have much in the way of seasoning). 

15.  The Mysterious Haddock-Eating Woman tells him her story, all about spies and stolen secrets, professors with missing digits and whatnot. She says there are some spies down in the street if Hannay doesn’t believe her. He goes back into the lounge to check. There are – a couple of them – standing under a streetlamp, which is like Chapter 1 in the basic handbook for spies. Hannay is smoking (of course). When he comes back into the kitchen to see how The Mysterious Woman is doing with the haddock, and does she need another loaf, he puts the lit fag in his pocket. No joke. I replayed it a couple of times. So of course the rest of that scene I’m waiting for him to burst into flames.

16.  This is a plot point I don’t get. Later that night The Mysterious Woman ends up staggering into Hannay’s bedroom with a knife in her back. Hannay spends the next few scenes wondering how to leave the flat without being caught by the spies. But they’ve already been in the flat! They killed The Mysterious Woman! Why didn’t they get him then?

17.  Hannay has to think quickly. He grabs a milkman down in the lobby (ouch), and tells him the truth – there are spies after him, a woman has been murdered, he’s completely out of haddock. The milkman doesn’t believe him (especially about the haddock – it’s 1935 after all). Hannay changes tack. Says he’s been seeing a married woman and her husband and brother are waiting outside. ‘Why dincha say so!’ says the milkman, giving Hannay his hat and coat. ‘Leave the pony round the corner…’

18.  Hannay makes it to the train station. He’s sitting in a carriage halfway to Scotland (The Mysterious Woman had given him a map with Scotland circled). The other people in the carriage are underwear salesmen, so there’s some gratuitous flashing of bras and corsets for a minute or two, to lighten the tone. Hannay couldn’t act more suspiciously if he was wearing a huge badge on his lapel that says: Looking for a Murderer? Stop me and I’ll Confess. He borrows the salesmen’s newspaper to read about himself, then stares anxiously over the top at them. They stare back. One of them smokes a pipe, which is different. 

19.  About a hundred police and a couple of detectives get on at Edinburgh. They go from carriage to carriage, looking for Hannay. In desperation he climbs out of one carriage and into another where he tries to persuade a glamorous blonde woman that he’s not a murderer by kissing her. Of course, she shops him to the cops. Someone pulls the emergency stop and the train screeches to a halt on the Forth Bridge. Hannay hides behind a girder. The train and the plot moves on. 

20.  Hannay walks about a hundred miles whistling annoyingly till he comes to a crofter’s place. The Crofter, (is Crofter a word? What’s a Crofter? I’ve said it too much now. It’s lost all its meaning). The Crofter is a crazy looking geezer with lowering brows who rolls his eyes suspiciously at everything – especially the croft – but despite that seems quite happy to take a stranger in off the moor at night, no questions asked, all in for 1 and 6. 

21.  The Crofter is married to Peggy Ashcroft, who tells him all about Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, and how full of life it is there, and how she’d like to know if London women paint their toenails, as she gets out a pan the size of a small paddling pool ready to cook some herring. 

22.  Before they tuck in, The Crofter says Grace like a warlock casting a death spell. Then he goes outside to peer at them through the window.

23.  Hannay tells Peggy Ashcroft everything (in mime). The Forth Bridge is tricky, but he improves with a coat hanger. 

24.  Peggy Ashcroft wakes Hannay up in the night. The police are coming and he has to go. She gives him The Crofter’s coat, because she knew as soon as she saw him that here was a man who appreciates a really big coat. 

25.  About a hundred cops and two detectives chase Hannay across the moors. Mostly in silhouette, mostly speeded-up. Some of the cops fall into streams, some into bogs. It’s fair to say they’re not at their best in the country. No doubt if they were chasing Hannay through Piccadilly they’d be on him in a second. 

26.  Hannay knocks on the door of an isolated mansion. There’s a cocktail party going on where all the women have names beginning with H. It’s quite niche. Maybe a country thing, who knows. 

27.  Hannay talks to The Professor, a sly, slow-talking man who is missing a digit – exactly as The Mysterious Woman had said. Hannay suddenly has the same expression on his face as he had on the train. Think constipated llama. With a tache.

28.  The Professor produces a teeny tiny gun that looks about as threatening as a cigarette lighter, shoots Hannay in the chest, and Hannay falls down dead. Which seems to throw the film off a bit. I mean – what?  

29.  Next thing you know, we’re back in The Crofter’s croft. He’s furious because he can’t find his bible. The bible was in the breast pocket of his jacket. His jacket isn’t on the hook. Peggy Ashcroft admits she gave it to Hannay when he ran away. The Crofter’s eyes pretty much roll out of his head and off down the street. 

30.   Cut to: Hannay in an office saying how the crofter’s bible stopped the bullet. Apparently, after Hannay was shot, The Professor dragged him into another room and left him there whilst he went away to attend to something or other. I don’t know what. I’m guessing The Professor isn’t a Professor of anything medical, because it turns out Hannay was only stunned like a …. like a herring. He came to, jumped in a car and drove to Edinburgh? Glasgow? I’m not sure. The thing is, he went straight to the authorities – which was a bad move, as they immediately called the police. About a hundred cops come through the door with two grumpy detectives. 

31.  Hannay jumps through the window. The next thing you know he’s giving an impromptu political speech at the town hall, which goes down well with everyone but the police. For some reason the blonde from the train – whose name is Pamela – is there, too. Hannay appeals to her to ring the Consulate and warn them about all the spy stuff, but she says no. She’s probably come all the way to Scotland in the hope she might run into him again so she can say No. The police take them both away for questioning in Stranraer (I think – can’t be bothered to check). 

32.  The two cops who take them both away aren’t cops at all but spies. One of them punches Hannay in the mouth for being smart, which confirms his suspicions, although of course normal police will do that, too. When the car gets stopped on a bridge by some sheep – although what the sheep are doing out on a bridge at night in the fog is anyone’s guess. The spies handcuff Pamela & Hannay together. So naturally, as soon as the spies have got out of the car to confront the sheep, the two of them haul it out of there. 
‘Where the devil could they have gone?’ says one of the spies, looking over the side of the bridge. In the dark. In the fog. Surrounded by sheep. 

33.  Pamela and Hannay check into a hotel as Mr & Mrs Henry Hopkinson of The Hollyhocks, Hammersmith. More H’s. Maybe this is a Hitchcockian thing. Haddock. Herring. All these are probably clues but really I’ve no idea. 

34.  After eating an enormous sandwich and drinking some milk and whisky, and after a long and chippy monologue about how Hannay is related to pirates and how he’ll end up in Madame Tussaud’s and whatnot (where’s the punchy spy when you need him?) Pamela ends up totally believing his story. They have to get to London to stop the plan from working! Although I still don’t get how they know to go there. I was never good on plot. Or fish. But in my own defence, I’m not as dumb as The Professor, who shoots a guy then doesn’t bother to check if he’s wearing kevlar, or a bible, or both. 

35.  Back at The London Palladium. Somehow, the police know that Hannay will try something (see no. 34). They’ve flooded the place with about a hundred cops, some of them lounging in the expensive boxes, laughing at the comedy dancers, generally oblivious to the fact that Hannay is sitting in the stalls wearing the giant badge that says: Looking for a Murderer? Stop me and I’ll Confess. With a spotlight on him. Pamela, who’s only just come into the theatre, sees him straight away. So I take back what I said in point no. 25

36.  Mr Memory is brought back onstage – to the tune Hannay has been whistling all this time! Hannay borrows someone’s opera glasses to look up at the top box. He sees a hand on the balcony with a missing digit! The Professor!

37.  Just before the cops arrest Hannay, he shouts out ‘Where are the 39 Steps?’. Mr Memory glazes over (which I totally sympathise with) and starts saying something about secrets, whereupon The Professor shoots him (not that we think he’s any good at THAT), then leaps down onto the stage, where he’s surrounded by about a hundred cops, who finally and miraculously get their man.

38.  Instead of giving poor Mr Memory any kind of first aid, he’s dragged backstage, where Hannay asks him again about the 39 Steps. Mr Memory reveals that he memorised a bunch of plans about a new kind of jet engine, says Am I right, sir? then dies. 

39.  The last scene is a close-up of the handcuff hanging from Hannay’s wrist. I’m expecting Pamela to grab his hand fondly, but she doesn’t. I guess she’s not that fond of haddock after all. 

The thing itself

Last night we watched the 1951 film The Thing from Another World. We’d all seen the remakes, but not the thing itself, er-hem. And a drama about a bunch of people under lockdown running around with axes felt about right.

So we settled in, and all in all liked it a lot, with a few caveats. Here’s a point by point response (in no particular order, because I must admit I became a little deranged, and had nightmares, and at this point who cares):

1: The Title. The Thing from Another World. I think the remakes were right to drop the subtitle. It’s clunky. You may as well call it The Thing (It’s Not From Round Here). Like the producers were scared you wouldn’t watch it if you thought there was a chance it was just the kind of Thing you’d see in a MAGA hat buying duck tape at the thrift store. To cut them some slack, though, and put it in context, I think UFOs were an expanding market in the 50s, what with the Russians and everything, so maybe it was just a marketing ruse that hasn’t aged well. We’ve had so many aliens since you can’t move for them. I could name fifty right off, and that’s not even touching the box sets

2: It’s mostly guys. Guys in big coats, guys in big trousers. Guys in flying hats and cute leather jackets. Guys holding guns, axes, Geiger counters, hands of cards. Guys smoking or talking very very very quickly with no punctuation or pauses for intonation or inflection and talking over each other too because there doesn’t seem to be time for anything other than guys saying guy things and giving and receiving orders and taking care of business. Or talking about wild nights in Singapore. Or blowing shit up.

3: Even the alien turns out to be a guy. Except he’s the logical extension of ‘guy’, being 100% vegetable – but not in a wholesome, Vegan way – and only able to communicate through irritable grunts. How Grumpy Alien Guy ever got round to building a sophisticated space ship and making the trip in the first place we never get to know. You just have to imagine back on his planet everyone’s like that, 100% vegetable and just enough brains to run when they’re attacked by dogs or on fire. Mind you, it’s clear he landed the flying saucer with very little finesse, ploughing it bonnet-first into the North Pole so only the fin sticks out of the ice when the guys get there. I can imagine Grumpy Alien Guy, legs up on the console, flicking through a potato magazine, bored out of his gourd, watching the gauges after a five millenia commute, then grunting fuck it that’ll do.

4: The set-up is pretty clear. Some kind of army base in Alaska. A reporter goes there looking for a story – although you’d have to think he must be desperate, choosing such a remote location. Maybe he specialises in snow. Maybe he had relatives in the area so was combining the trip. Anyway, almost as soon as he gets there Hero Captain – an actor with such deeply heroic grooves down the side of his face you could lie him on the ground and park your bike – Hero Captain and his band of guys are ordered to fly to the North Pole to help with a plane that went down, or something. So they fly off in a plane with snowboards for wheels, and end up in another godforsaken snowy outpost, where everyone shouts ‘Shut the door’ as soon as you walk in. You get to meet the people there – a guy who looks like a rockabilly DJ, someone tall with a small voice who looks like Lurch from the Addams Family, an old guy chuffing on a bendy pipe, a bunch of interchangeable characters with no dialogue who are there to make up numbers and maintain body heat, and a Professor type in a sinister smoking jacket and white roll-neck jumper and hair and goatee made of Italian meringue who takes every opportunity to make a portentous speech – the human race… rah rah … evolution rah rah …. with everyone gathered round, one hand in his pocket (to be clear, it’s the professor who has one hand in his pocket – not everyone else – the professor doesn’t have a pocket big enough for that, and anyway, it’d be difficult to choreograph).

5: There are two women in the film. One is a secretary at the first outpost, with weaponised breasts and an arch manner with a pencil, who has some kind of history with Hero Captain, only he’s got a drink problem and doesn’t remember. Singapore? Anyway, when they fly to the second post they need a secretary, and she soon realises her value by making coffee. Twice. Although Hero Captain doesn’t take her up on the offer, presumably because it doesn’t involve alcohol. The other woman is a scientist at the outpost. You can tell because she has plaits.

6: When Hero Captain and his guys make it out to the crash site they realise they’ve got a bonafide flying saucer on their hands. Stuck in the ice, fin-up. They decide the best way to proceed is to blow the shit out of it with ‘thermite’, which I think went on to be used in the manufacture of gloves. Anyway, surprise surprise, it doesn’t work that well, accidentally completely destroying the ship. Although – weirdly – what happens is that Grumpy Alien Guy is blown out of the ship, then instantly refrozen in the ice. (Which doesn’t improve his mood). To be fair, Hero Captain learns from his mistakes. They won’t use thermite again. This time they’ll chip him out with picks, and load him onto the plane in a block of ice like so much tuna.

7: Back at the outpost, they put iced GAG (Grumpy Alien Guy – it takes too long to type) in a storeroom. The Professor wants to defrost GAG immediately, but Hero Captain says no, the military authorities have to say it’s okay, and for now the radios are out, so they’ll have to wait. Instead they post a guard to keep watch over frozen GAG, breaking a window to keep the place cold (although why they couldn’t just open the window I don’t know). They give the guard an electric blanket to keep him warm, which is nice. But the guard is spooked by the way GAG is sneering at him through the ice, so he puts the blanket over the ice so he doesn’t have to put up with so much attitude. (In retrospect, not the brightest guard to sit there in the first place). Turns out the electric blanket is very effective at defrosting aliens, not shorting out in all that water, because no-one’s having any luck at all in any of this, especially not the alien. When GAG climbs out the guard shoots him six times and runs away. GAG doesn’t follow him, quite sensibly, I think. The signs aren’t good he’ll be well received. GAG runs out into the snowy storm and immediately gets set on by the huskies. He fights them, killing a few and only losing an arm. Then he runs off into the night.

8: The guys (plus The Secretary and Plait Woman) realise that GAG is dangerously grumpy and is bound to come back for his arm. They stand around as The Professor dissects it (presumably there’s a blooper reel – the actor under the table making some unscheduled gestures). The Professor is very impressed by the level of vegetableness. He makes another portentous speech about venus fly traps and carrots and things. There starts to be a measure of disagreement between The Professor and Hero Captain. The Professor wants to learn from our strange, highly-intelligent visitor; Hero Captain wants to blow the shit out of it

9: They all split up to search for GAG. The Professor and his team go to the laboratory, which is basically a fancy greenhouse. They find the bloodless corpse of a husky in a storage bin and guess that GAG put it there, for some reason . The Professor asks two guys from his team to hang around whilst he goes off to do some other shit. Fairly soon after, they’re hung upside down by GAG and have all their blood drained, too, which is a shame. The Professor is pretty sanguine, though. He’s prepared to give GAG the benefit of the doubt, especially as GAG’s new to all this, and probably jet-lagged.

10: Hero Captain and the guys (and The Secretary, and Plait Woman) get ready for GAG’s next attack by hiding in another room, nailing posts against a door that opens the other way, so that’s not great. They know you can’t shoot a carrot with any degree of effectiveness, so maybe they should burn it instead, like they did with the thermite, and how well that ended. Plus, they’re in a wooden building, so… Anyway, they go ahead with this plan. When GAG breaks in, the idea is one person chucks a bucket of kerosene over it while another tosses a cigarette or a pipe or something. The Secretary offers round coffee, then hides behind a mattress. GAG runs in, rah, rah, rah, fire, flames, terrible…. runs out again… Hero Captain and the guys put out the fire and wonder what to do next, and reminisce about Singapore.

11: Turns out, GAG isn’t so stupid after all . He’s disabled the outpost’s heating system, so they’ll all freeze to death, especially The Secretary, as she only has a light summer jacket and a pair of driving gloves. They decide to rig up a trap and electrocute him.

12: Meanwhile, they find out The Professor has been growing some GAG pods, a bit like pulsating alien cannabis, except with blood plasma instead of hydroponics. The Lurch character listens to the pods with a stethoscope and weirds everyone out by saying they sound like mewling children, which is an insight into his parenting experience. The Professor wants to grow lots of these pods; Hero Captain wants to blow the shit out of them. The Secretary is worried GAG has only come to Earth to make more of itself and take over the world, treating us all like so many cabbages. The Professor shrugs. It’s a risk he’s prepared to take.

13: They’re all standing in the corridor. GAG one end, holding a piece of wood, Hero Captain and the guys (and The Secretary – I’ve lost track of The Plait) holding axes and guns at the other. Just before GAG rushes them, the Professor breaks through and stands in front of the monster to make a speech, appealing to his better nature, which is a brave move, considering. GAG shows his appreciation by knocking him halfway through a wall. Then he rushes the team, and immediately gets flash-fried. Although they overdo it with the heat and he ends up completely inedible.

14: The film ends with the reporter on the radio to somewhere else, everyone gathered round to listen except for Hero Captain and The Secretary, who are canoodling on a bench in the background. ‘Watch the skies!’ says the Reporter. ‘Keep watching the skies!’ Which is good advice, although you might want to glance down now and again, for health & safety reasons.

The Doll

No-one knows anything about The Doll, who brought her in, and why. My guess is she was a discarded present in a Secret Santa. She’s been here as long as me, which is a complete coincidence, of course.

The Doll hasn’t got a name. She’s been called a lot of things over the years – The Thing, No Face, Heidi Horror, Nurse Hellenback and so on. Maybe a real name would bring some responsibility, an admission of ownership, but then again, maybe it would break the terms of a fiendish contract and invoke a deeper horror. I just don’t know. It’s probably not worth the risk.

It’s hard to communicate just how hideous The Doll is. She’s a cloth nurse about so-high; black curly hair spilling from under an old time nurse’s cap; a ridiculous, ruched gingham skirt with a little white pinny; stockinged legs and strap sandals. Her face is as nub and blank as a hangman’s thumb, with two pinpoint black eyes and no other features. She’s exactly the kind of nurse you’d find sitting on your bed when you open your eyes from a fever – so you’d pull out your IV lines, rush across the ward and throw yourself headfirst through the window. (Later on The Doll would be sitting back of the Coroner’s Court, listening to the verdict – Whilst the balance of his mind was disturbed… Waiting to be picked up. Look at this cute little thing? Let’s take it to the ward…)

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, The Doll is fucking musical.

Someone has vainly and urgently tried to end the horror of this particularly demonic aspect by snapping off the key, but somehow she carries on. A spindly, spiderly, trinketty blinketty little tune, the sound a glass spider would make scuttling across the floor of a morgue. The distorted tune you’d hear playing out of an Ice Cream van as it drove through Hell, a bloody knife instead of a cornet rotating on the roof. The Doll in the driving seat, staring straight ahead. No, no, no.

So The Doll is the de facto, Aeternus Malus office mascot, not because she’s loved, but because no-one’s brave enough to chuck her out. There have been attempts to lose her, of course. She was put into Alan’s bag when he left the office on a week’s annual leave (he brought her back). She was stuffed in a box when the office temporarily relocated down the hill (she walked back). She’s been shoved in every cupboard, cabinet, drawer and desk you can imagine, but somehow she manages to resurface, struggling up to some prominent spot – by moonlight – ready to shake her head from side to side when you catch her eye next morning. Did you think it would be that easy? Oh no, no, no.

What makes the whole thing worse is that we work in the converted ward of an old hospital. The Doll seems right at home here, spiritually at least. It’s all too easy to imagine her stitching herself into existence from the rotten bedding of some dreadful death here sometime around The Great War. An act of bloody revenge distilled into a stuffed toy.

For a time we tried to make her part of the team. We sat her on one of the monitors on the Coordinator’s desk, included her in conversations, passed her crumbs of biscuit. It didn’t work. She’s too ruthlessly focused on the job in hand (one thing you have to admit about demonic possessions – they’ve got great energy and a formidable work ethic).

You can’t ignore her. It’s like those innocent bathroom mirrors in spooky films, where you know you shouldn’t look but you do anyway, and something runs past in the background, and the jolt from the soundtrack is like being stabbed through the heart with a toothbrush.

There’s an aura about The Doll, too, something that goes deeper than the look. It’s like a phantom pheromone, a poisonous perfume. If I could bottle it I’d call it Miasma (her picture on the front, posing on a skull). Top-notes of Spite, Fright & Primal Fear, rounded on a base of Palpitations & Flop Sweat.

I think I made her worse by standing her on her head in a desk tidy for a while. I thought it would dilute her power. It didn’t. It made it worse. She has a new focus, which is me.

My only hope is The Rumour.

They’re thinking of tearing the old hospital down. They’ve been talking about it for years, but still, miracles sometimes happen.

The trouble is, I can imagine how it would go. The contractors walking on the site, hard hats, fluorescent jackets, rolls of plans under their arms, mugs of tea (obviously I’ve got no idea how these things work). Walking into the empty ward. One of them sees The Doll lying amongst the dead flies on the window ledge.
‘Hey! Look at this!’ he laughs.
Picks it up.
The Doll stares at him.

When he opens his eyes again, he’s sitting at the wheel of a digger. He’s an architect. He doesn’t drive diggers. It doesn’t matter. The Doll is on the dashboard. He turns the engine over, and with a strangely blank expression on his face, advances, and lowers the bucket…

a rose by any other name

When I was about ten my older brother Mick asked me a question. It was a hot, aimless, endless summer day. Dad was marching up and down the lawn with that ancient and electrically suspect mower he had; I was playing my usual game of standing in the snaking cable coils and leaving it as long as I could till I jumped free. I was surprised when Mick suddenly appeared. He was usually upstairs studying, and anyway, he didn’t usually have all that much time for me. We fought a lot – mostly over wall space, things like that. It was a small house, too many kids, not enough money. A solid, semi-detached kind of pressure cooker with a garden and a garage full of bikes. Mick wanted to ask me a question, and I could tell from the way he asked it – fidgeting from side to side, hardly able to wait for me to answer – that there was a lot more riding on this than just science. He had a point to make and scarcely needed me there to do it. I was below him in the pecking order. It was the way these things went. 

This was the question he asked me:

What are roses for?

‘I don’t know. To be colourful. And beautiful. And attract bees.’

I added the bees to make myself seem smarter and less of a target.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Roses are there to make other roses.’

He stared at me, daring me to say he was wrong. And I wanted to, I really wanted to. Only… I didn’t know how. It sounded crazy. What did he mean? Was he right? Was that really it? One long line of roses, from the beginning of time to the end? I mean – Why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier just to never have roses? 

Recently it all came back to me, that little front garden, Dad shouting, tripping over the wire, as me and Mick tried to kill each other among the roses.

It came back to me recently because I got stuck in the same way, trying to understand what a virus was, what it meant, what it was for. For making other viruses. Really?

Of course, one of the essential questions about viruses – the most basic, Mick-type question – is whether they’re alive or not. And I suppose using Mick’s rose protocol, you’d have to say they were alive. Virus begets virus. The life principle satisfied. That’s it. The sucker punch school of philosophy.

Only – that’s not it. 

The accepted view is that a virus is non-living. Which is not the same as saying it’s not alive. As always, there’s a hinterland of meaning and ideas behind these words, and they quickly lose their patency. 

Technically speaking, though, a living organism is supposed to have seven characteristics: Movement, Sensitivity, Respiration, Nutrition, Excretion, Growth and Reproduction. A virus only has one of these – and even that in a qualified way.

A virus is not capable of independent movement, relying instead on sneezes or random hook-ups, the innocent winnowing of tracheal villi down a particular respiratory tract. 

It’s only sensitive to its environment in that it’s vulnerable to UV light or excessively dry conditions, for example. But some viruses are tougher than that. An extinct form of giant virus – ‘giant’ in microscopic terms – was recently revived after being dug out of the Siberian permafrost 30,000 years after it went in. Another virus was discovered biding its time inside bacteria that live around deep ocean thermal vents. 

A virus doesn’t breathe, eat or excrete waste products because it doesn’t need to – which is a pretty useful adaptation, when you think of it. As humans, we need energy to live. We do that by metabolising oxygen and food to create ATP, the chemical compound that powers our complex systems. A virus simply taps into that, using our energy reserves and our cellular machinery to replicate itself. 

Neither does it grow, designed instead to float around until it finds a host cell to make copies of itself, cookie-cutter style, each version a clone of the original. 

But not exactly. Because although this isn’t reproduction in the usual sense, some genetic change can happen – and in some cases, like flu, very quickly and often. Sometimes you get two similar viruses with slightly different RNA or DNA that recombine in the host cell to produce a genetically novel virus – which either does well or it doesn’t, in the evolutionary way of these things. Which is why viruses are so successful, or such a problem, depending on your viewpoint. 

So is a virus alive or ‘non-living’? And if it’s really ‘non-living’, does that put it into the same category as – say – a rock?

The question is more nuanced. A rose is made of atoms arranged in a particular molecular way, as am I. Some of those molecules are repurposed into genetic material, determining whether we grow thorns or thumbs. So in that respect a virus is the same – made of atoms, some of them bent into intricate RNA / DNA ladder strings, determining whether they invade human lung cells or thermal vent bacteria. The only difference between the rose, me, a virus and that rock, is that whilst we’re all made of atoms, me, the rose and the virus have that specialised genetic material and the rock doesn’t. A rock is a passive expression of molecular stuff, sculpted by geological processes into the thing you pick up to chuck at your brother. 

I’m not a scientist. I quickly get out of my depth. All I’m left with is an overwhelming sense of the universe’s richness and complexity. It seems to be reaching out over trillions of years from one critical moment of expansion through the arcane laws of thermodynamics to some other state,a statistically driven force scattering infinite manifestations of energy through everything, every last particle of existence, until some kind of balance is reached and nothing further is possible. So you get viruses, and roses, and two brothers fighting on a front lawn, and that kind of endless summer day when nothing seems to happen, and everything does. 

five litres of tranquil depths

Painting & Decorating.

About as enticing as Diarrhea & Vomiting. I’m being melodramatic, of course. The thought of it is always worse than the thing itself (unlike D&V, which I’d say is the exact opposite).

But like chores the world over, once you’ve run out of excuses, and through bad planning or bad luck you suddenly and unaccountably find yourself with the time to do it, then actually – it’s not too bad. A bit like going to prison. Don’t think about freedom. Keep your head down, your nose clean, and do your bird (which I’m pretty sure is prison slang for rubbing down).

All of which is to say that I’m not a fan.


The paint store we go to is on a small industrial estate on the outskirts of town. We make a special journey here because last time the woman who served us was so nice and helpful. It’s been a while, but that’s the thing about good service. It stays with you.

It’s the hottest day of the year. We stand outside the paint store, reading the notice.
One customer at a time. Wait to be let in. Wear a mask.
So we wait, slowly cooking on the concrete walkway. There’s no shade to be had, and we can’t go back to the car and shelter there because we’d lose our place in the queue.

Eventually, a customer comes out and we’re waved through.
‘Nice and cool in here!’ I say to the guy who let us in.
‘No it isn’t,’ he says. I laugh, but I’m not sure why.

He doesn’t acknowledge us, but strides back behind the perspex shield in front of the till, where he plants his arms right and left and then stares at us over his mask, like a giraffe about to drink at a waterhole but unsure whether we’re logs or crocodiles. He doesn’t say anything else or make any other sign. We go up to the till.
‘We’ve come to buy some paint for the kitchen,’ we say.
‘Well!’ he says, slumping deeper between his arms. ‘It’s a paint store.’
Kath tells him about the colour we want for the kitchen. She points it out on the colour chart. Tranquil depths. It feels wrong to say it out loud. Like we’re being ironic.
‘What sort of finish?’ he sighs, looking over our heads. ‘Matt? Eggshell? Soft Sheen…?’
‘Matt,’ says Kath.
‘No you don’t,’ he says. ‘Not for a kitchen. One wipe and it’ll come off. You want Satin.’
‘Okay! Satin, then!’
Kath hands him the drawing of the kitchen we made, with all the dimensions. Last time we were here the woman had worked out how much paint we needed in no time at all. Made it seem fun, like a game. This time, the guy stares at us, then down at the drawing, then at us again.
‘I bet we’re the kind of customer you dread,’ I say.
He drops his chin and looks over his mask at me, Billy the Kid sizing up the cowboy who just insulted his horse.
‘Honest answer…?’ he says.
‘Yes!’ I say. ‘I like a bit of honesty.’
‘Yes, then,’ he says.
I laugh. The shop seems a degree cooler. I look around, wondering where the nice woman is. I’m worried she’s gaffer-taped to a chair out back, rocking from side to side, desperately trying to warn us.

The man taps out the figures on a calculator. It looks like a toy, big enough to drop on the floor and dance on. Which he looks like he’d much rather do. With his heels.
‘Five litres,’ he says, tossing it to the side. ‘So that’s what you want, is it? Five litres of Tranquil Depths?’
‘Thanks. That’d be great.’
He shakes his head, turns and goes into the back of the shop, about a thousand miles, to the mixing machine there. He jabs a few buttons, waits a moment, walks back.
‘We haven’t got the base,’ he says. ‘I could order it.’
‘How long would that take?’
He shrugs.
‘Maybe Wednesday,’ he says. ‘Maybe longer.’
‘Yeah – but – the thing is, we need it now. I’ve got the time off work.’
‘You could always try the paint shop the other side of town,’ he says. ‘Five minutes away.’
‘I’m sure there’s some other colour we could use. I’m not married to Tranquil Depths.’
Kath unfolds the paint chart.
‘What about Cornflower Bunch? That’s not far off Tranquil Depths. Can you do us a Cornflower Bunch?’
It doesn’t look like the kind of bunch he wants to give us. He shakes his head.
‘Same base’ he says.
‘Would it be quicker if you said what colours we can choose from?’ I say.
He turns to look at me, his head tilting a little to the right, as if just that small movement was all it took to slacken the bolt.
‘We’ve got about a million bases,’ he says. ‘You want me to go through them with you?’
I feel like saying yeah – but you didn’t have the base we wanted, though, did you? but of course I don’t.
‘No!’ I say. ’You’re alright!’
‘I’m guessing it’s the lighter tones that need that particular base,’ says Kath. ‘What about Blue Babe? I think Blue Babe would go? Do you?’
She shows me the chart and points.
‘Yeah. I could live with Blue Babe. Definitely,’ I say.
The man stares at us, neutral as a camp guard.
‘Blue Babe,’ he says. ‘Five litres. Satin.’
‘Yep. That’s it. Fingers crossed. Blue Babe.’
It makes me think of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. That anticipatory shiver of music falling to a general thrum, pending the answer. But if this is WWTBAM, Chris Tarrant is having an off day.
‘Yes. I can do Blue Babe,’ he says.
‘Great!’ says Kath. ‘We’ll take it!’

And we look at each other, flashing our eyes.

We’ve yet to ask about ceiling paint.


a virus by any other name

Naming a virus has always been tricky. People want something they can talk about easily, not a long string of letters and numbers. Like saying Red Car rather than reeling off a whole licence plate. Storms do better. They get homey names, like Brendan or Hugh. Accessible, friendly names. The kind of names you can relate to whilst they tear the roof off your shed. But I’m sure even Brendan – mad as he is – would baulk at having a haemorrhagic disease named after him. (Hugh, on the other hand….)

The trouble is, if the name gets left to the media, things quickly get bent out of shape, politically-speaking.

Take Spanish Flu, for example. It wasn’t actually Spanish. It was just that after WWI, most countries suppressed news of the virus because they worried it would damage morale. Spain had been neutral, though, and had a more independent media. In fact, ironically, the Spanish people initially called it French flu, because they thought that’s where it had come from.

It’s not even as easy as naming a virus after a place. The people who live there might object to being associated with a dreadful disease (ask Hugh). This was tried for a while, though. For example, Ebola was named after a nearby river (although it wasn’t actually the NEAREST river; the Congo had already been taken); the Marburg virus was named after Marburg, in Germany, and my favourite (name, not disease) coxsackievirus, commemorating the small town on the Hudson river, upstate New York, where the virologist collected his first fecal specimens. (I  very much doubt there’s a statue in the market square.)

I’m sure virologists get twitchy when they read the news. They’re painfully and pedantically conscious of the tendency to confuse the virus with the general group it comes from, or the disease it causes. In the current pandemic, people talk about coronavirus (which is actually the virus’ family name, covering everything from SARS to the common cold) or Covid-19 (short for coronavirus disease 2019 – 2019 being the year it was identified). The actual name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2 (short for Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). All of which is a bit much to handle when all you want to say is that you’re feeling a bit Derek.

Those same virologists would probably put the paper down, take a breath, and turn wistfully in the general direction of London – home since 1966 to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. I don’t know what the building looks like (even though I could easily Google it), but I’m guessing it’s a gigantic, green, geodesic dome covered in spikes. Either way, I’m sure it’ll have a good supply of hand sanitizers on the way in and out.


space wars & skeleton bones

We were a family of two adults and seven kids in a small, three bedroom house. It was such a tight fit you had to lean against the front door to close it, like an overstuffed suitcase. And the pressure of that – the fairness or otherwise of who got what and why – really showed itself in the fights we had over space.

Take the walls. Me and my two brothers shared a room. One wall was taken up by the windows that overlooked the front garden, which left the wall space above each bed free for our posters. Which was clearly demarcated, so it should have been fine.

I was about eleven when my eldest brother Pete was studying to go to medical school. He had one huge chart above his bed, a waxed cotton banner with an annotated human skeleton on the left and the musculature / vasculature on the right. I liked it. It gave me a kick to lie there and be reminded what we were like under our blankets, under our skin. Like those medieval tombs, where the knight sleeping on the top has a wormy skeleton carved underneath, to remind everyone that you can’t be a knight all your life, that you’d better make your peace with God and party while you can. And anyway, it was cooler than my sisters’ David Cassidy posters.

Mick, in the bed to my right, was into Astronomy. He had star charts and photos of the moon landing. He said he was going to be an astronaut, but I couldn’t see it. Not with his eyes. He’d be squinting at the console somewhere over the Sea of Tranquility, push the wrong button and they’d all fly out of the hatch. Mick was also into war gaming at that time. Now and again he’d recreate a famous battle on a large sheet of ply he’d covered in chicken wire and plasticine. Sometimes we’d let him set it all up on the table under the window, which was a concession in the space wars, but sometimes you had to give a little to get a little.

My wall was covered in a mural of motorbike pictures I’d cut out of Superbike magazine and Motorcycle News. It was pretty extensive. I was as proud of it as the army surplus jacket with the Harley Davidson patch on the back I wore to my Saturday morning market job .

One night, I went up to bed and found that someone had ripped the front wheel off one of my Laverda Jotas. I thought it was Mick, exacting revenge because he thought I’d been playing with his tanks and screwing up the Battle of El Alamein. So in the spirit of tit-for-tat we followed ruthlessly at that time, I tore off a chart he had on the wall – Stars of the Northern Hemisphere – and threw it in the bin. Then forgot all about it. The next day when I came home from school, I found he’d ripped down about half of all my pictures. And I was so blinded with rage I tore ALL his posters off the wall – Neil Armstrong, Patrick Moore, the lot – then found a big sheet of paper, wrote the word CUNT across it in black marker, and stuck that up instead. He came into the room, saw it, punched me full in the mouth. I went downstairs crying to mum. She came upstairs and swept all his tanks and soldiers onto the floor, which was how the North African campaign ended, in our family, at least.


When Pete came home from Guy’s that first term he brought a skeleton with him, which seemed to make sense. I thought it would be like the comedy skeleton in the student doctor’s room in Rising Damp. Instead, it was stowed inside a compact wooden box, the kind of thing you might keep a nautical instrument in, or maybe a french horn. It was too big to go under his bed, so it went under mine instead.
‘You don’t mind, do you?’ he said, shoving it in.
I shrugged, trying to look cool. I was terrified, though. A skeleton? Under my bed?
‘Yeah. Whatever.’

That night, I dared myself to take out the box and look through it by torchlight.

I was nervous, but in the end it was a strangely flat kind of exhumation. Instead of taking a shovel into a graveyard, all I had to do was hang over the side of the bed, slide the box out, and then haul it up onto the covers. The box had an easy-flip, brass catch top and bottom. The bones inside felt like old plastic toys, surprisingly light and dry, all jumbled up. The skull took up most of the box. In fact, it looked a little like a box itself, the top of the cranium neatly sawn through, the bony lid loosely held in place with two brass clasps where the ears would have been. I put the skull carefully to one side.

The bones of the hand were wired together. I tipped my head back, rest it on my face for a minute, then put it with the skull and carried on rifling through the box, like a mechanic looking for a wrench.

The spine was incredible, like a weighty, articulated snake. I couldn’t believe I had such a thing in me. It just didn’t seem possible.

I turned to the skull. Rest it on my knees. Shone my torch into the sockets, then took off the top and looked inside. Felt the smooth inner surfaces, the grooves and notches, the little holes like burrows where the nerves and blood vessels had snuck in and out. It felt oddly intimate, like breaking into a house when the people had left. This was what life was all about, I thought. This was the actual control room, where the soul of this person used to live, where they looked out on the world. And after all that – all those hopes and plans and dreams – what had it come to? A dry teaching aid in the hands of a kid with a Pifco torch.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I put the bones back in their box. This wasn’t a toy. This was the mortal remains of a real person, someone like me, who climbed trees and played football, who could sing the entire opening credits of Hong Kong Phooey. Someone who lived a while, thought about stuff, did or didn’t do stuff. Watched their eldest brother go off to university, come home a couple of times, then never again. Wore a combat jacket with a Harley Davidson patch.

I shut off the light.
Went to sleep.
It took a while.


the trouble with old triffids

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 12.09.53 PMThe Day of the Triffids, 1962, dir. Steve Sekely.

Now, a Sci-Fi horror film that’s almost sixty years old deserves cutting a little slack. These days we’ve got CGI, green screen, motion capture and all those other things I know absolutely nothing about. But setting aside the limitations of technology and special effects, and the difficulty of seeing a film without the baggage and preconceptions of a thousand other films I’ve seen, still – I think it’s fair to say that The Day of the Triffids is pretty terrible.

It’s a fun watch, though. Here’s how it goes, in case you’re not sufficiently motivated or medicated to bother:

  1. There’s a male voiceover at the beginning. He talks very authoritatively about carnivorous plants (‘or eating plants’ he adds, helpfully). He mentions the Venus flytrap, and we get a close up of a rubber version where the jaws clap together like toothy castanets. ‘How these plants digest their prey has yet to be explained…’ (Erm – I think it’s juices, mate.) Then he mentions the hero of the story, Triffidus Celestus, brought to earth on … da-da-daaaaah … The Day of the Triffids.’ Cut to an endless credit roll of actors I’ve never heard of, except maybe Howard Keel, who was either a singer, or on Dallas, or both.
  2. The meteor shower is nice to look at (which I suppose was half the problem). Splodges of colour, whites, yellows and reds, and a noise like someone drawing curtains on a rail, open and shut. Cut to a nightwatchman at Kew Gardens. You can tell he’s a nightwatchman because he has a torch, a flask of tea and a hard boiled egg. He goes into the Palm House for lunch. A triffid plant detaches itself from one of the beds and starts sneaking up him. Despite being a nightwatchman – whose main function is to watch, FFS – he can’t bear to turn round and see what’s making all those alarming squelching noises. When he does, he sees something that he and the hyperactive orchestra find absolutely terrifying but which actually looks ridiculous – an ‘orrible, great big wobbly thing with hairy tentacles waving about on levers and a rotten tulip expression on its maw. It looks about as dangerous as a drunk waddling up to the mic on karaoke night. The triffid eats the watchman more neatly than the watchman ate his egg. Triffids 1, Humans 0.
  3. We meet the hero, Howard, sitting up in a hospital bed (private room, natch), with what looks like pants on his head, his ears sticking out at the side like satellite dishes. He’s had an operation on his eyes, so he can’t see ‘the light show of the century’ – the meteorite shower that will blind everyone on earth and have them all walking around with their arms straight out in front of them, tripping over suitcases, trying to fly planes and so on. But back to the room. Howard’s talking to the doctor, a man in a three piece suit with creases sharper than his manner, and a nurse, who helps Howard light his cigarette, and then puts it out the moment the doctor leaves the room. She also lowers the head-end by cranking a handle at the foot end, which isn’t very dignified, but she does her best.
  4. When Howard wakes up next morning the hospital is quiet. He’s suspicious. Where’s the nurse with his cigarette? He presses the call button, which doesn’t work. Then he takes the pants off his head and – after a blurry moment the cameraman obviously enjoyed – sees that the hospital is trashed. He meets the doctor, who is talking very, very calmly and staring without blinking (much as he was before). He gets Howard to test his eyes with a torch. ‘The optic nerve is gone’ he says, then after warning Howard (and the audience) that ‘you’ll see things you wished you hadn’t’, throws himself out of the window.
  5. Turns out, the doctor’s right. London, post-apocalypse, is strewn with badly parked cars and extras wandering around with their hands straight out in front in the approved way, or feeling their way along railings, coming to a corner, meeting other people feeling in the other direction, making their apologies, tripping over suitcases, and so on. Like London today, then, only with less litter and no congestion charge.
  6. Howard has very noisy shoes – the kind with clips on. He’s basically pretty military in bearing. He wears a cap, too, which rounds the look off nicely. When he removes the cap, his hair is slicked down so hard it makes Action Man’s head look wild.
  7. Howard goes to the railway station, where everyone is blind but still hopefully waiting for a train, which is quite authentically British, I suppose. There’s a man at the ticket office who’s come in to work despite being blind. An old woman falls backwards over a suitcase. Howard helps her up, then goes out onto the platform. Seconds later, a train hurtles in and crashes in a spectacularly cheap and off-camera kinda way. Cut to lots of people screaming and falling out of the doors with their hands straight out in front of them. One of the extras, a middle aged man in a middle aged suit, is staggering towards the camera carrying a teddy bear, which is a tender little detail, and no doubt got the extra fired. There’s a girl in a school uniform, fake pigtails and fake smile, who jumps down out of a carriage and is almost immediately identified as being sighted (why she didn’t watch the meteor show like everyone else we’re not told – but I’m guessing a ketamine addiction). Anyway, a rough sort grabs her. Howard intervenes and takes her with him instead, but he’s got a cap, solid hair and noisy shoes so that’s okay. The girl explains she’s run away from boarding school, her parents are dead and so she’s pretty much a free agent. They jump in a car and go off to France, for some reason.
  8. Cut to a lighthouse. A scientist and his wife. They’ve gone to live there for six months because the scientist can’t get his shit together and finish his study of sting rays or something. He drinks and is very, very grumpy. The boat is late and he’s running out of whisky. Meanwhile, his wife wanders around looking sad and gorgeous and does a lot of mournful peering into goop-filled beakers. She wishes their marriage was better. They stand together at the top of the lighthouse. He looks out to sea with his binoculars and all he sees is sea. It doesn’t improve his mood. The radio announcer comes on with an urgent message. (I’m guessing the announcer is actually Steve, the director, but that’s only a guess. As the film goes on and the announcer makes more announcements, it’s a feature that he says everything twice. I suppose they want to make it sound more urgent, but actually the announcements are never that difficult, so it ends up having the opposite effect). The message goes something like: Everyone’s been blinded by the meteor shower, and now giant, man-eating plants are wandering about. So watch out, and keep listening for more encouraging messages like this one. I repeat…). The scientist looks around for whisky.
  9. Howard and the girl have pulled up at a luxurious convent where the everyone’s blind – natch – except the husband and wife who run the place (we’re not told why they didn’t watch the meteor shower, but the man looks permanently stunned, so that’s some kind of clue, I suppose). They want Howard to stay and help them look after all the blind nuns and so on, who are trailing round the house doing a very tentative conga. Howard is sympathetic but firm. They’re all going to die, he says. *Shrug*. The radio comes on. Important information it says. The triffids are everywhere and eating shit. Stay in the house. I repeat. Stay in the house. ‘See what I mean?’ says Howard (he probably doesn’t say that, but I can’t be arsed to google the script. Watching the film was bad enough. Reading it might be fatal)
  10. Howard and the stunned husband drive off into the French countryside, for some reason. Supplies, maybe? Anyway, they find a huge crater with lots of baby triffids, seeds blowing all around. ‘That’s how they spread!’ says Howard, showing the same level of horticultural knowledge as the announcer at the beginning of the flick. Bigger triffids lunge after them. Howard takes a shot at one. It runs like you do when the phone rings and you’re still wet from the shower. Turns out – guns are no use. The stunned husband trips and fractures his contract. Howard slings him over his shoulder, which turns out to be a good move, as the triffids fling something deadly and the stunned husband gets it instead of Howard. There’s a tender moment when Howard lies him on the ground, toes him with his clippy shoes and then hurries on. Meanwhile, back at the convent, a bunch of drunken extras have taken over, dancing to Jazz and swigging from empty bottles. Howard rescues the stunned husband’s wife (let’s call her Sheila) by pretending to dance with her, then hundreds of triffids gatecrash the party, so Howard and Sheila and little KK escape in the prison van.
  11. The lighthouse scientist and his glam / morose wife are being attacked by a triffid. He pokes at it with an improvised harpoon whilst his wife bites her knuckle and screams a lot. Turns out the triffid has very poor tendril-stamen coordination, so it’s not that difficult to cut it to pieces. (You have to think – if the night watchman at Kew had shown a little more gumption – and maybe not stuffed himself so full of egg – he might’ve stood a chance. He could’ve clouted it with his tea flask and done a runner. But then again he’s a Night watchman. Not a Fight watchman.) The scientist dissects the triffid. Apparently if they learn more about it they might stand a better chance of killing it, which seems fair. He scoops out a great deal of goop, which his wife collects in another beaker. Then they go upstairs to sleep (which is obviously part of a longer and less tractable problem). Meanwhile, the triffid reanimates – slithers up the spiral staircase – an obvious hand in a decorated sock – the wife screams, bites her knuckle. The scientist wakes up, battles the sock on the stairs, and wins again, somehow, I’m not sure. They barricade the front door with planks, nails and a hammer that the scientist orders his wife to fetch. I’m not sure if the scientist is aware of just how close he comes to being brained with the hammer. She could always blame it on the triffid.
  12. Howard, Sheila & KK end up in Spain, somehow, travelling across country in what looks like a joke ice cream van. How or why they go to Spain is not explained, but Waze is still years off, so fair play. They arrive at the villa of a couple who act like mannequins operated by tiny motors. Turns out the wife was always blind, and the husband is learning as he goes along. They’re both very happy to see them (er-hem). The wife is pregnant, about to give birth even though there’s no bump whatsoever. Sheila is happy to have a go delivering it. I’ve got every confidence in Sheila. Her hair is even slicker than Howard’s, which explains their obvious chemistry. Meanwhile, Millions of triffids are massing outside the villa. Howard knocks up an electric fence, but when that fails, he finds a fuel truck and sprays them all with fire. The triffids look particularly woebegone at this point, a whole line of them, in flames, wilting at the wire. A bit like Glastonbury, but hotter.
  13. The triffids have regrouped at the lighthouse, and a load of them gloop their way up the spiral stairs towards the scientist and his screaming wife. As a last ditch effort he sprays them all with seawater from a hose, which immediately turns them into something that looks like a healthy kale & kiwi smoothie. ‘Three fifths of the earth’s surface is covered by seawater, so we should be alright there,’ says the scientist. His wife hugs him, even though her shoes are ruined.
  14. Howard leads the triffids away from the villa by driving ahead of them in the ice cream van, which is so poignant I almost weep. At the last moment he dives out of the van and I think the triffids just carry on after it optimistically holding out for a 99, until they all plunge over the cliff ( you don’t see that, mercifully). A few minutes later Howard is diving off the cliff himself,  after recklessly flinging his cap away. He’s keen to make a rendezvous with the submarine that’s evacuating people like him and leaving in five minutes (As the announcer announced on the radio, if you were listening. Twice.)
  15. Cut to the closing scene. Howard, Sheila and KK going into church. Howard takes his cap off (Who rescued his cap from the sea? Who?) The announcer says something about the battle having been won… man’s ingenuity, the benefits of salty water yaddah yaddah.

And that’s it. Day of the Triffids.
It felt considerably longer than a day.

My daughters both pointed out that you’d never guess Psycho was made two years earlier – which is such a great & interesting thing to say, it made me think all this film watching might really be paying off.



don’t worry about the chocolate

The car was getting low so I went to the local garage to fill up. It’s a busy, do-everything kind of place. Not only can you buy fuel, groceries, beer, wine, newspapers, magazines, but there’s an MOT, exhaust and tyre workshop right next door, too. They also run an internet shopping returns business. If you buy something online and it doesn’t fit, you can print off a ticket and they’ll take care of the rest. There’s always a lot of people at the garage, wandering in and out of the shop, pushing tyres across the forecourt. A lot of hanging around chatting and so on. With the railway station just opposite, it has a wild west, frontiers kind of atmosphere. The kind of place where if you saw a bison pull up you’d just think ‘Oh, so they’re doing that, now.’

Like everywhere else these past weeks, though, the garage is eerily quiet. I’m the only one at the pumps, and for the first time ever the workshop doors are shut. I take the parcel from the backseat and go to pay. There’s a sign at the door: Coronavirus Emergency: One customer at a time – but as I’m the only one around, I go straight in. There’s a big line on the floor and a decal of a pair of boots, so I stand on that, say hello, and wait for the woman at the counter to call me over, which she does, immediately, with a big laugh and a theatrical wave of her hand.

I haven’t seen her before. She’s a riot of colour, purple eyeshadow, scarlet lipstick and enormous, fried yellow hair roped in place by a headband. Her face slants down to the left, so I’m guessing she had a stroke at some time. She’s as vibrantly positive as her makeup, though, and we swap the usual conversational stuff with more of a buzz than normal.

I pay for the fuel, then hand over the parcel.

‘Have some chocolate,’ she says, waving to the tiers of bars and snacks to the right.
‘That’s kind, but I’ve eaten so much of that stuff lately I think I’ll explode.’
She laughs.
‘Nice way to go.’
She fusses around with the parcel, flipping it over, turning it around, flattening the label, almost hitting it with the scanner.
‘There’s a problem with your barcode,’ she says.
‘It’s a jacket,’ I say. ‘That’s all I know.’
‘I don’t care what it is, honey. I jus’ need to know where it’s going.’
She stops, and looks into the air for a second.
Eventually she says, in a distracted way: ‘That’s it! The nineteenth of March, 2018.’
‘Erm – I think it’s the second of April. Twenty twenty.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘Not today. I mean the day I dreamed all this.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘All this,’ she says, waving the barcode checker at the window. ‘The pandemic.’
‘Oh! Wow! What happened in your dream?’
‘I saw it all. The virus. The way it snuck in. The way it spread among everybody. I saw how people were at the beginning, how they laughed about it, then got more serious, then started panic buying. How they helped each other, then got angry, started climbing over each other to get what they needed.’
‘That’s amazing.’
‘All of it. I saw it all. And you know what? There were two things they were fighting for. One of them was water…’
‘And the other was chocolate.’
‘No,’ she says, widening her eyes at me. ‘But I tell you what. This store here? Picked clean. There weren’t nothing left. And when the store was empty, d’you know what they started to eat? You know, don’t you? You know what they turned to?’

There’s a woman just finishing at the pump outside, getting ready to come inside and pay. I don’t want to be standing two metres away from the counter talking about cannibalism when she comes in, so I try to move the conversation along.
‘Worrying times,’ I say, blandly.
‘They certainly are,’ she says. ‘Ah! Now! The barcode’s gone through!’
She tosses it behind her into a sack.
I can’t resist asking her one more thing about her dream before I go.
‘What happened afterwards?’ I say. ‘But if it’s bad, don’t tell me.’
She shrugs.
‘What d’you think happened?’ she says. ‘And where d’you think everybody went when they needed comfort? Yep. You got it. That’s right. The church.’
She puts the barcode reader aside, and tightens her hairband.
‘You have a nice day,’ she says. ‘And don’t worry about the chocolate.’

shark attack

There are worse things to worry about in the world. You don’t need me to list them. Log-on to any newspaper, any day of the week, and see how long it is before you sigh, swipe, and check for the hundredth time that day if you’d had any likes on that picture of your dog in sunglasses.

And you don’t need me to tell you that life goes on, regardless. There’s no fairness to it. One person obsesses about ear hair, another gets batoned in a street riot. In the same street.

So – bearing that in mind – let me tell you about this terrible hoovering tragedy I suffered today.

It was all going so well. I’d pretty much finished downstairs and was ready to start the stairs. I like the hoover we’ve got. Of course, it’s not actually a hoover. Hoovers never are. This one’s got a much snappier name – the Shark. It’s sleek, snappy. An upright with more attachments than a Space Marine. I love it. I came to the bottom of the stairs with absolute confidence. Unsnapped the handheld carpet device. Decoupled the cylinder from the floor head. Began my ascent.

The cord is just long enough to let me reach the top step. Then I throw the tube forwards to act as a kind of anchor, balancing the cylinder well enough to let me go back downstairs, unplug and bring all the attachments upstairs to start the cleansing operation there.

This time, though, the cylinder was full of dust. And the thing about the Shark is – it’s bagless. Which I like. It means you can lift away the dust container, take it to the bin, flip a catch, and empty the whole thing. Thank you, Shark. I’ll do that.

Sidenote: Sometimes you get sudden, unexpected and terrifying insights into the chaos that underlies your life. Things you’ve taken for granted that turn out to be laden with hazard. Things you’ve done a hundred times safely that reveal themselves to have been fraught with danger the whole time. Like walking down the street and one day finding out it’s built over an abandoned tin mine (and the pavement is made of old biscuits).shark hoover

You see, the lift-away body of the Shark comprises two halves: the dust chamber and the body it snaps into. What I didn’t realise is that there’s a dust filter sitting inside the body. When the dust chamber is released and lifted away to be emptied, this dust filter sits loosely in the body. There’s nothing to hold it in. Nothing at all. So when I accidentally trod on the cable on my way back down the stairs, and the Shark body toppled over and crashed down the stairs after me, the dust filter was thrown clear, bouncing down on every stair, scattering explosions of dust everywhere, on the treads, the walls, the skirting boards….

I caught it at the bottom, in one final cloud of dust, covering me as completely as if I’d stood underneath a dust silo, given the thumbs-up, and someone somewhere pulled a chain.

There are worse things. Of course, at that moment, I couldn’t think what.