Here Comes A’body

Visitors flocking to the sleek new V&A in Dundee who opt to explore the city further may, depending on the childhood they had, be bemused by the statues in the city centre. A stout cowboy, striding along the Nethergate and hauling a recalcitrant bulldog, is about to be ambushed by a catapult-wielding adolescent girl. A few streets away, and therefore needing further exploration to find, a schoolboy sits on a wall near the city’s High School, an upturned bucket by his side.

Desperate Dan, figurehead of The Dandy, and Minnie the Minx of The Beano are probably better-known to the wider UK audience than Oor Wullie, the boy with the bucket. All are products of DC Thomson publishers, whose impressive red sandstone building dominates the city centre skyline as their comics once dominated the kids’ market. Home of the obstinately old-fashioned People’s Friend (your granny reads it) and Scots Magazine, Thomson also publish The Courier, one of the biggest-selling local newspapers in Britain1.

While The Dandy went digital-only a few years ago, The Beano is still published, selling just shy of 40,000 copies every week: half of what it sold in 2006, but an improvement on the early years of this decade, no doubt aided by various TV incarnations of Dennis the Menace. Oor Wullie and his stablemates The Broons, although they appear in The Sunday Post each week2, are generally associated with Christmas, when the annuals still appear under the tree of thousands of kids across Scotland and beyond.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Caledonian cultural artefact, Oor Wullie (“our William”) is a black & white comic strip, of roughly 20 panels across 5 rows. Wullie is a cheeky and imaginative ten-year-old boy who always wears dungarees and boots, and sports spiky blonde hair. Each strip starts with him sitting on his trademark bucket, excited at the onset of the school holidays (or conversely, miserable about their end), looking forward to snowy weather, or simply coming up with a ploy for his own amusement or financial gain3.

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The final panel usually shows him either well satisfied with the day’s adventure, or else bitterly regretting it’s failure. In the 20th century, it was typical to see him sitting with cushions on his bucket to protect his backside, which had been liberally skelped by his father’s slipper for some misdemeanour. The corporal punishment, as in Dennis the Menace, has long been phased out.

His constant companions are Fat Boab, Soapy Souter and Wee Eck. Typically for kids, although the best of friends (for over 80 years), they fall out regularly. Wullie also has a mouse – Jeemy – and more recently a West Highland Terrier, Harry. His parents (Ma and Pa) and local policeman PC Murdoch are the only other longstanding figures, though recurring character Primrose Paterson (a smart girl whose romantic overtures to Wullie may well just be a calculated wind-up) has in recent years become a regular, in order to deliver some overdue gender balance. Periodically, members of The Broons may also feature (and vice-versa).

The characters speak in (a sentimental and – certainly in older strips – inauthentic version of) Scots, though middle- and upper-class characters – and, interestingly, Primrose – tend to speak with Received Pronunciation, thus placing Wullie in a traditional Scottish working class. The location of Wullie’s home town (only in recent years named Auchenshoogle) is never specified: the geography is wonderfully flexible; lochs and braes are within easy reach. As a Fifer, I always had him pegged as coming from the east coast (mindful of the strip’s Dundee origins). But nothing really ties him to any locality: he’s just universally (or generically) Scottish.

The strips have no title, only a couthy rhyming couplet at the top. Each adventure is self-contained; there are no two-parters or story arcs. Everything is reset at the first panel. The Broons follows similar rules, and that strip’s conservatism is obvious in its plots: any attempt by a family member to better themselves will end in shame and/or disaster. That’s one of the strip’s two storylines, of which there have been eight decades of variations on a theme. The other, brilliantly spoofed by Viz’s note-perfect The McBroons, is where a family member is overheard, and the entire clan rushes to prevent shame and/or disaster, only for it to transpire that they’d been misheard in the first place.

In Oor Wullie, for me, the formal conservatism is part of the attraction. Yes, he breaks the fourth wall at least twice in each strip, but there is no attempt, ever, to change the structure. I’m reminded, oddly, of Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig’s comment on Kraftwerk, a major influence on him: “they were so stiff they were funky”. Oor Wullie is so structurally consistent it’s hypnotic. Although his asides to readers, and the meta- and inter-textual references (see below) are oh-so-postmodern, critical theory was probably not in the mind of his legendary creator, cartoonist Dudley D Watkins. We should see such traits instead as an example of parallel evolution.

Celebrities have occasionally turned up: Ewan Macgregor on a motorbike, and in a unique instance of colour (the blue of the saltire plays a role in the story), First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in a 2015 strip. These imply that Wullie is known about, that his fame is implicit in his escapades, which adds a metatextual level that it would be interesting to play with5. One strip even has him hide a severe haircut under a wig which had been used as a prop in a play about his own adventures. I had visions of him eternally frozen at ten years old, with his family and friends in some kind of bubble, sealed off from time while the rest of Auchenshoogle moves on around them. Think Peter Pan meets the Truman Show, and the whole thing becomes infinitely sadder.

Though token mentions are made of phones and devices and other 21st century paraphernalia, the relationships and activities are far closer to the 1950s, yet were probably as much of a fantasy then as now: how many kids in urban Scotland spend as much time as Wullie and his pals do outside, or have that level of recognition among the locals?

As I mentioned above he was created and drawn for thirty years by Dudley D Watkins, a one-man comic factory within DC Thomson. Upon his death (at his desk) in 1969, the publishers rotated his old strips for a full seven years before engaging a new artist. Several (Ken H Harrison, Tom Morton, Peter Davidson) have had a spell in the role, and for all the consistency the different eras are recognisable. There was a particularly poor period (I forget under whose stewardship, and don’t have a representative annual to hand) in which the panel count was almost half what it was under Watkins, the scripts basic and the artwork uninspired: Wullie had a round face and huge chin, and the pencilling line was finer than normal; the strip lost its essential roughness.

In 2004 Wullie was voted “Scotland’s favourite son”, ahead of Sean Connery himshelf. What does this scamp tell us about how we see ourselves? Wullie is no hero: no Dan Dare or even Roy of the Rovers, though he’s handy with a football. Indeed he’s (to use a west coast word) gallus, in the way we once liked our footballers. He’s not a troublemaker in the mold of Dennis or Minnie. Anne Hoyer, in Cultural Specifics of a Scottish Comic, sees him as an exemplar of the “Improvising Scot”: a cultural stereotype whose resourcefulness “in direct contrast to England’s wealth” is a response to “the scarcity of Scottish resources”. For far too long, Scots’ self-perception was entirely negative: we were whatever we judged the English not to be. That attitude, thanks in part to devolution, is on the wane. Oor Wullie though, is not, and as long as he reflects back to us an idea of who we think we are, we’ll always find him on his bucket, ready for whatever the day throws at him.

 

 

1 For a company whose conservatism is practically a founding principle, perhaps recognising that Dundee was one of only four council areas in Scotland to record a majority vote for independence in 2014, The Courier tries very hard to be neutral on the issue, unlike most of the Scottish media.

2 “Couthy, conservative, and sentimental” in Iain Macwhirter’s description. Tom Nairn memorably declared that “Scotland will never be free until the last kirk minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post.”

3 Wullie is neither avaricious nor aspirational: enough cash to keep him in fish suppers and sweets is all he asks.

4 It’ll never happen. I seem to recall the annual Macallan/Scotsman short story competition having a winner in the late 90s which DC Thomson took extreme offence at, and it was never published. Featured a thinly-disguised Wullie in later life having gone off the rails. Trainspotting-style. The internet is silent on this. Does anyone else remember?

 

Sources:

  • Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Mark Berninger, Jochen Ecke, Gideon Haberkorn (Editors), McFarland
  • Oor Wullie (various editions), DC Thomson

All images absolutely and completely copyright DC Thomson, make no mistake.

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Other people’s nostalgia

If I could visit any place and time in history, among my choices would be Paris around 1960. It was a time of great societal tension, with events in colonial Algeria at the forefront of events. But it was the time of the nouvelle vague, the nouveau roman and jazz music, and it was a golden era for cycle racing.

I have a copy of Pilote magazine from April 1961, and a copy of Look-In from June 1981. 20 years and La Manche separate these publications, and while there are similarities, the differences are interesting.

The two magazines are not, it becomes clear, doing exactly the same thing, so this cannot be a direct comparison. Look-In was marketed specifically as the “Junior TV Times“, and to that end its features, weekly TV listings and (often superb) comic strips are ITV-centric, though with strong features on pop music and topical sporting events it was more than just a listings magazine. But as the product of a commercial broadcaster, at root it’s selling things.

Pilote is a more educational publication, a mash-up of Look-In‘s strips and World of Knowledge or Look and Learn‘s historical and scientific features, and is therefore far more Reithian (or whatever the French equivalent is) in it’s outlook. It reflects the post-war optimism: many of the features are on expanding horizons (the space race1, futuristic car designs, the spread of the American railroad in the 1860s). There’s a two-page illustrated retelling of the death of Charles the Bold (Charles le Téméraire), and a colour spread across the centre pages detailing the Zeebrugge Raid in April 1918. Outside the femmes fatale or damsels in distress of the comic strips, I’m not sure there are any females, though.

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The adverts are by and large for edifying things such as Caran d’Ache pencils2; stamps; a map of Europe with stick-on flags; cameras and watches. There’s a puzzle page with chess problems and spot-the-difference. But to leaven this somewhat worthy mixture there are comics, as only continental Europe can do them.

For, if Pilote is known outwith the Francophone world, it’s as the birthplace of Asterix the Gaul. I love Asterix: I did when I was a kid, and now my son reads the books I enjoy them all over again, getting so many jokes and references that went over my 10-year-old head. They’re funny and clever and beautifully drawn.

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Not Asterix

Alas, the creative team of Goscinny and Uderzo were between adventures in my copy. Their other contribution – Jehan Soupolet (also known as Jehan Pistolet) a pirate story whose Uderzo artwork is far sparser and rougher than his lovingly detailed work for Asterix – is some consolation, but evidently behind the scenes they were working on Asterix and the Goths, serialisation of which would begin the following month. Goscinny also illustrates Tanguy et Laverdure, an (I assume) exciting air force pilot adventure series.

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Away from comic strips, Goscinny’s droll Petit Nicolas stories (with thumbnails by Sempé), whose translations into English I enjoyed as a child, is one of the serialised stories along with “Alamo”, a cowboy tale: cowboys were hugely popular in the 50s and 60s, in France no less than the Anglophone world. But that was before we realised that the Indians were not, perhaps, the baddies after all…

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Asterix wasn’t the reason I bought this issue, though: the cover star Rik Van Looy was.

Who? Why?

Another love of mine is the cycling culture of Belgium. Flanders (the northern, Dutch-speaking part) is obsessed with bikes and bike racing. The greatest cyclist ever is a Belgian, Eddy Merckx3. But before Merckx, one of the sport’s biggest stars was another Belgian, Van Looy: “The Emperor of Herentals”. I saw this copy on ebay and wanted to a taste of the contemporary coverage of Van Looy’s career; a period artefact.

Van Looy, a stocky sprinter who therefore lacked the physiology that would allow him to compete with the best in the high mountains, never won the Tour de France but, crucially, is still the only man to have won every major one-day “classic” race. He was world champion three times, and the Pilote cover shows him resplendent in the world champion’s rainbow jersey. It was the photo that attracted me: the faded colour and the texture of the image so evocative of the early 1960s.

The photo is slightly misleading, though: I expected a major interview with the Emperor, but instead there’s a report on his recent Paris-Roubaix victory and a quick recap of his career. With a reference which dates the magazine perfectly, Van Looy is described as “the H-bomb of cycling”. The sport was a big draw in France at the time4, and at least two other Pilote covers from 1961 show famous cyclists, so his appearance on the cover was clearly a big draw. Presciently, another Belgian is the other feature on the sports page, where a long international career is (correctly) predicted for the 17-year-old footballer Paul Van Himst, who would play for the Red Devils until 1974.

There are no doubt dozens of references that fly over my head because of cultural differences (and my limited French). I’m sure Pilote triggers all sorts of nostalgic memories in a certain demographic of French baby-boomers, in the way Look-In does for me, as I’ve mentioned before. Nostalgia is fed by the recovered memory of ephemera such as these magazines.

This particular copy of Look-In is from June 1981. Technological advances are no doubt partly responsible for the greater use of colour and higher production values than Pilote (though the paper Look-In is printed on is flimsier).

Despite this, the headline sounds a weary note – “James Bond is back – again!” – as if pitying poor old Roger Moore having to creak his eyebrow into gear once more in For Your Eyes Only. The promised “colour feature” amounts to an extended promo piece, with some photos and a list of all the previous Bond films to date. A cut-out-and-blu-tac-to-your-wall (and I did) “Collect-a-Page” later in the issue has Moore as its focus, and I remember being stunned at the time to learn that he was 52.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of comic strips. First up is The Elvis Story, mercifully only a page long and while beautifully illustrated, as I mentioned here, quite how much the King would resonate with a readership keen for Toyah, Adam and the Ants, and Spandau Ballet is unclear. Worzel Gummidge’s hapless adventures get a two-page b&w spread, as does the period drama Smuggler, in which buckles are swashed and swash is buckled.

CHiPS and (my favourite) Buck Rogers both get the colour treatment. Surely IPC or whoever owns the rights could release a compendium of these strips: the old Daily Express James Bond, Modesty Blaise, etc. have all been compiled, and The Beatles Story from Look-In was itself smartly repackaged recently (see link above). Some of the strips lasted only a few months and so probably don’t merit a stand-alone volume each, but a Look-In comic compilation would certainly sell to a certain demographic (me).

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There are competitions – conspicuous by their absence from Pilote, and no doubt reflecting the commercial background of Look-In – and reader celebrity photos, fan club information, factoids and quizzes. There’s even a recipe for scones. The feel is a snappier publication geared to shorter attention spans than Pilote. Pilote‘s age target was 10-15, and I suspect Look-In‘s was slightly younger (I was 7 in 1981 but I suspect it was aimed at 9-13 or so).

As for sport, Wimbledon gets the 4-page centre feature, with a hero/villain piece about John McEnroe and a brief history of the tournament. I remember a copy which previewed the Milk Race, which would have been my first exposure to cycle racing. It would have appeared as a one-off, as neither editors nor readers would likely have had the knowledge of the sport that a continental reader would have possessed.

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The closest to Europe Look-In comes is in a feature about – and two-page strip featuring – those little blue Belgians, the Smurfs, though any hint of their Euro-ness is absent. And I think that’s the interesting thing about the difference between these publications. Look-In, for all the fond recollections I have of it, is a strikingly parochial magazine; entirely anglocentric, yes, and as an ITV publication it doesn’t even mention TV coverage of Wimbledon (which would, of course, have been on BBC). Look-In contains no news – even in a safe, kid-friendly form – other than whatever is current in pop and TV. Pilote, by comparison, is a publication that looks beyond the hexagon of France to other countries and, indeed, space (a realm which, after the end of the Apollo program, was largely left to space opera rather than as a destination for mankind’s future).

I admitted earlier that I’m comparing apples et des oranges, and I know I’m stretching a point, but it’s telling that French kids (albeit of an earlier generation – what Pilote was like in 1981 I don’t know) were absorbing developments from across the world, while in the ever-insular UK we were – pardon the pun – just being fed Bucks Fizz.

 

1 Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok flight took place the week before and features as news on page 2.

2 Amusingly, the advert for this shows a cross-hatched map of Europe which misses the UK entirely.

3 Merckx has a cameo in Asterix in Belgium, though it was 20 years before I realised: my interest in Asterix probably waned a little before I discovered the Tour de France.

4 Despite the popularity of the Tour, it’s decades since the sport in general was held in such high regard in France.

A nail to hang a place on

Or, me talking about maps again.

Names change as both language and places change. The village I grew up in has a name – Newburgh – which it has borne since the 12th or 13th century and clearly no longer merits. Some town names’ spelling – and meaning – alter over the centuries, but this one hasn’t.

Local example: there’s a tiny village in Fife near Cupar, called Moonzie: a curious enough name, but until the 13th Century it went by the wonderful moniker of ‘Urhithumonesyn’. You can see the modern name in the old, as if waiting to be birthed: that –monesyn becoming Moonzie.

Historically, most settlements took their name from either a prominent geographical form, or the name of a figure of authority. At root, place names across Europe can be strikingly similar: for instance, many Flemish place names end in -beke or -gem, which correspond to the English language -beck or -ham. Other examples just from Flanders are Eikenberg = Oak Hill and Valkenberg = Falcon Hill, either of which might plausibly appear on a British map.

Not all changes are organic. Ben Nevis, for instance, is an anglicisation of Beinn Nibheis. These largest of geographical forms were important enough to need named on the new Ordnance Survey maps of the wild and treacherous Highlands in the 18th century. An outcrop or glen that wasn’t notable retains the original gaelic to this day. Brian Friel’s play Translations explores this in an Irish context. Sometimes place names are not merely chiselled to fit the ruling language, but are changed outright for ideological reasons: St Petersburg > Petrograd > Leningrad (and back).

But back to Fife. Maps, as ever, don’t always tell the true story. A little huddle of houses on the A913, where it forks towards Auchtermuchty1, appears on maps as Den of Lindores, but no-one ever calls it that: it’s Glenburnie.

The hill behind my childhood house, where the fields break against a whin-smothered cliff, has an area known as ‘Susie’s Planting’. I never questioned, or knew, what a ‘planting’ might be. The maps have an answer: it’s ‘Susie’s Plantation’ after a historic witch (who was hanged from the Scots Pine that stands here), but the local elision rolls more easily off the tongue.

The hill itself is “Ormiston Hill” but of course to the locals it’s just “the hill”. The summit  is “the Black Cairn” (and marked as such on maps), and the area just beyond, on the south-facing slope is known to all (delightfully) as “The Fox’s Playground”. But this appears on no map.

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1930s map of Newburgh. There’s an awful lot going on.

Near the bottom of the High Street, for all the years of my early childhood and until refurbishment in the late 1980s, stood a huge derelict townhouse. Although only two storeys high, it was (in my memory, until I found the image linked above) set further back from the road than its neighbours, was broader than them too and had a pathway running up the side, all of which gave it a muscular presence.

This was “The Bad Man’s”.

There were rumours. A bad man lived here; had lived here; hid out here when he wasn’t abducting children. I have a memory of walking up the street from a friend’s party, aged 7 or 8 and (possibly suffering the effects of too much sugar) seeing a cackling, bearded face in an upper window which scared the life out of me. And yet the rumours stemmed from nothing, because the house – or, more accurately, the pathway beside it and the expanse of wasteground it led to – was called The Back Manse. Chinese Whispers bred nightmares.

I imagine most places, from the smallest hamlet to a corner of the largest city, have areas whose names appear on no map, nor in any official document, and which only a communal attempt at mapping (a “parish map“) may reveal to the outside world.

We’re all familiar with new streets named after what was bulldozed for their construction, and so it is that an early 90s housing development in Newburgh, in honour of the orchards that used to cover the slopes of the town, bears the name Aippleyairds. Yes, that’s how the Fife accent would say “apple-yards”. But the name has always sounded a false note to me. Pretentious is not a word I use pejoratively, but Aippleyairds sounds pretentious, aspiring to some sort of authenticity. It’s a name to draw tourists; it’s a name for a cafe. It’s not a name, I don’t think, that would have come from common usage. And with all place names now indexed and logged, and new streets created by trans-national construction firms, what scope is there for the continual organic evolution of place names?

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Newburgh right now.

 

1 A name to conjure with, if ever there was one. Home to The Proclaimers and known to all in Fife as just Muchty. The neighbouring village of Strathmiglo is just Strath, and (another name whose weirdness you take for granted as a child) Kingskettle is Kettle.

 

Further reading: Fife Place-name data

Vintage maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Meta-nostalgia: “The Beatles Story” by Arthur Ranson & Angus Allan (1981/2018)

This is a follow-up to my previous piece on nostalgia. Not because the world needs any more writing on The Beatles: it really doesn’t.

The book is a collection of the serialised strips which appeared in Look-In from 1981-1982. There was also a similar strip covering Elvis’ rise to fame. I remember them (vaguely) from the days when I got Look-In, though I suspect I flicked past them on the hunt for something more fun. They probably felt too much like a history lesson, something worthy.

Elvis, then, was four years dead but The Beatles had imploded more than a decade ago: before most of the readership of this strip were born. They belonged to your parents. Although much of Look-In was black and white anyway, there was no way these strips could be in colour: they were documenting history.

Ancient history. As Mark Fisher has written, the 1960s are closer to us now than they were in 1979. At the time of serialisation, the Fab Four existed only on records, cassettes and old magazines, discolouring over time. They were the past, when the past was less retrievable than it is now. Which made this an elegy of sorts, an exercise in nostalgia for an audience who could not know what nostalgia was, nor feel it anyway (at any rate, not for something your Mum and Dad listened to).

This re-publication (nicely done by Rebellion), then, is a curious thing. The story – focussing largely on their early years – is well told, and the artwork beautiful1. It deserves to stand on its own as a quirky piece of Beatles merchandise, appealing to anyone interested in the Fab Four.

What it does, though, coming from the pages of Look-In, is make readers of that magazine nostalgic about a story which was itself nostalgic. A hall of mirrors; mise-en-abyme. There are illustrations – to evoke the mood of Beatlemania – of some of the wacky Beatles merchandise of the time: ephemera within ephemera; nostalgia triggers for the Look-In reader’s parents.

Many of the panels are evidently drawn from photos, which, though stunning, can make the storytelling clunky as the writer fits expository speech into posed images2. But this creates a distillation; a poetic truth rather than a literal one:

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Paul, looking uncannily like a Walrus, moans at George.

My favourite panel is the central one below (apologies for the reproduction): a drawing of a young John Lennon. I find the white space hugely evocative: these panels look back twenty years to a precise moment in time, at which point the future of these four boys was utterly unimaginable. The area around the solitary, foregrounded Lennon (whose death would still be fresh in the memory at the time of writing) is nonetheless full of the  history to come, and full of the loss of it.

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The bulk of the story is taken up by their ascent: the Liverpool childhood, The Quarrymen, Hamburg, the Cavern Club, Brian Epstein. Once they’ve made it big, the narrative skates rapidly over what for many is their most interesting aspect: their astonishing (and astonishingly fast) musical development. But a kid’s comic strip would sink under the weight of anything much heavier than “striving young moptops”, and anyway (as noted by Rob Power in the book’s afterword) “this was not the place to talk LSD”.

An unfortunate side-effect that it shares with the Elvis story is that it implicitly imposes on its young readers a hierarchy: that These Artists Matter. Contemporary bands had their own frothy strips in Look-In: Madness and Haircut 100, for example, had weekly Hard Day’s Night-type adventures. All of which only reinforces a sour point (which conveniently ignores the cultural detonation that was punk): Elvis and The Beatles built the template for all your favourites, and there will never be anything like them again.

 

1 I loved Ranson’s artwork for Look-In: he drew many of their other strips including the fabulously eerie Sapphire & Steel, and my favourite at the time: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Someone please republish these!

2 Reminding me of Kyle MacLachlan’s in-case-it-had-escaped-you line in Oliver Stone’s The Doors: “we took drugs to expand our minds, Jim!”

 

1990: summer of cinema

This piece was an unsuccessful competition entry. The brief was “memories of cinema-going”.

Not for us the spurious joys of cider by the fountain, or Tennent’s behind the hut in the top park. The summer my friends and I turned sixteen we marked this coming-of-age by getting into the cinema to watch 18-rated films. With the benefit of a quarter-century’s distance, I can see now that all we were doing, in trying to collapse the two years between our actual age and our ascension to adulthood, was highlighting our immaturity and youth. The mere act of trying to pass as an adult only spotlights the fact that you aren’t one.

The summer and autumn of that year – 1990 – saw the release of four films that we, as long-standing horror fiction addicts, awaited with excitement: Robocop 2, Total Recall, Hardware and Nightbreed. That only the latter is technically horror is by-the-by: the others were “genre”, and by definition we were sympatico; fellow travellers.

 

Roll up, roll up

My friend Will, at six feet, could easily pass for someone older. Rick and I, though, had the build and the look of sixteen year-olds, and young ones at that. Surely wearing a baseball cap and standing in line on tiptoes outside the ticket kiosk wasn’t going to fool anyone? And yet it did.

Holding the soft paper ticket (containing neither film nor screen information, merely a serial number), I expected at any moment to hear a shout from behind me:

“Wait just a second!”

“There’s been a mistake!”

“What’s your date of birth?”

But no. At the time, it felt like we’d pulled a fast one on the adult world whose number we aimed to join. But with hindsight, the demographic for these films would wait until the evening showing; at that late hour we would have been laughed out of the building. But for a 2.30 showing in a quiet county town, what ticket-seller was going to turn away a few more bums-on-seats? Maybe we’d even buy some popcorn.

 

The cinema in question was the Perth Playhouse. Perth was, and would be until our schooldays ended and we went our separate ways, our Saturday afternoon destination: there was no other realistic choice. Dundee was too far; neither Glenrothes nor Kirkcaldy held any attraction; Edinburgh may as well have been abroad. Will, travelling from outside our village, would come to Rick’s for lunch; I’d meet them on the bus up to Perth. We’d go to the record shops, the bookshops and the indoor market where pulp horror paperbacks could be picked up for as little as 25p; and, if anything good was in town, we’d go to the Playhouse. Afterwards we’d get a chip butty while we waited for the bus home; I’d go to my paper round and we’d convene at Rick’s in the evening. So routine, so circumscribed, so safe; everything about these actions showed up how far from adulthood we were.

Until I went to university, the Playhouse was – barring a trip to Glenrothes to watch Return of the Jedi – the only cinema I’d ever been to. It was entirely typical of its kind and even in its small size generated an unmistakable aura. When I later worked at the ABC (now Odeon) on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road I got a frisson when sticking the little white plastic letters which spelled out the films and the showtimes onto their hole-studded board. Never mind that the job was done in a dusty, chilly basement last decorated in the 1970s; I was like one of Santa’s elves. I was, in however small a way, helping to create the magic.

 

Do I remember the first time?

I don’t remember now which of the two – Robocop 2 or Total Recall – was released first. I think it was Robocop 2, but it doesn’t matter. I could easily check IMDB or Wikipedia and find out, but that would miss the point. The narratives we create about ourselves, our tiny mythologies, are created as much from memory’s failing as from its assiduity.

I’ve not seen Robocop 2 since then, and by all accounts it’s much poorer than the original. My only memory of it is that we whooped when Chris Quentin (Coronation Street’s Brian Tilsley) appeared in a minor role. Other than that – if indeed it came out before Total Recall – its only significance in my life is that it was my first cinema “18”.

I’d seen 18-rated films before, of course. As a horror fan, it would have been neglectful of me if I hadn’t. Videos were passed around the playground, and late night TV at the weekend would often have something worth recording (furtively, hoping my parents had gone to bed before the VCR kicked noisily into action). But a cinema door is something different. It’s a liminal zone, but one where the crossing of which, as soon as you’re old enough for the entertainments within, is taken for granted and then never considered again.

 

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Disney’s live action “The Cat From Outer Space”, which my aunt and uncle took me and my cousins to. They went back the following day to see it again, and I can still remember being faintly bemused that you’d go and see something you’d already watched. The cinema “bug” had not bitten me and in a way it never did: my parents were infrequent cinema-goers, so it wasn’t part of the fabric of my youth like it was for others. But the rarity of my visits made each one a major event. My Dad is tall and finds the seating uncomfortable, and to this day I have never been inside a cinema with him. Besides, we had a Betamax VCR and anything that came out on the big screen would eventually be available for the small one, no?

I had also had a deeply disappointing experience which perhaps instilled a basic mistrust of the big screen. The local community centre, one Saturday, converted its main hall into a makeshift cinema, with rows of seats and a reel-to-reel projector. They were showing, my aunt told me with great fanfare, Star Wars. I loved Star Wars; loved everything about it, yet had never actually seen the film. You can imagine my excitement that day; I expect I was a handful for my parents. So imagine, also, my disappointment at reaching the centre and finding the blackboard outside bore the words Star Trek.

No doubt it was all the same thing to my aunt: “space film”; very different to me. Nonetheless, we went inside to give it a go. I know Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not actually the longest film ever made, but on some deep, suppressed level you’ll never convince me.

 

What do we want?

Total Recall was controversial at the time, for the levels of violence and in particular the unprecedented number of onscreen deaths. Unlike Robocop 2, it’s a film I’ve re-watched and enjoyed since. It’s as over-the-top as you’d expect of anything involving Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven. There was no sex to speak of in any of these films, nor was the subject matter too mature for our immature minds, nor were they too complex in structure. No; we were prevented by age and the BBFC from viewing them legally because of the violence and the blood. And that was the attraction, of course. I don’t remember being bothered by the bodycount; it wasn’t gratuitous in context: any less of it would have affected the internal credibility of these films. Were the films themselves gratuitous? Of course they were, but very few are not: that’s entertainment. As I said at the beginning, we were bookish teenagers (not nerds: nerds didn’t read Clive Barker or listen to the Pixies; and we’d never have encountered the term geek), unworldly despite our aspirations. Our thrills were vicarious, and if that meant messy celluloid deaths, so be it. But the posters for the films in question were not lurid or grotesque; these were neither video nasties nor experiments in grand guignol. The Robocop 2 poster was “what it says on the tin”; Total Recall featured a moodily-lit Schwarzenegger and a Martian horizon, which was pretty classy by Arnie standards, even if it barely hinted at the Philip K Dick mindfuck that was the source story. Hardware gave less away: a menacing chunk of robot. As for Nightbreed, well, we’ll get to that.

Yes, we revelled in the violence; maybe what critical faculties we had were surrendered the moment we obtained the forbidden ticket. We pretended to maturity, like wearing an older sibling’s clothes: always conscious that the cuffs flapped, and the legs needed rolling up, and the belt had to be taken in another notch.

Will and I went to see the low-budget Brit-horror Hardware; perhaps Rick was unavailable, or didn’t fancy it. Either way the pair of us made up exactly half of the audience that afternoon. Some films leave you able to recall entire scenes; others maybe isolated images. Hardware, which again I haven’t seen since, leaves me with just an atmosphere. A dystopian shade of amber and a production design that evoked The Crystal Maze after a nuclear accident. However, I am backed up by a contemporary review in Starburst magazine which described it as a film to “enjoy immensely for what it is…and then immediately forget about”. Even so, you don’t go to watch films – or do anything – at that age with the purpose of retaining them for posterity (“anticipatory nostalgia”). The present moment is all; the fascination is with immediacy and surface glamour. That changes as you age. The self-consciousness of the adolescent is not the same as self-awareness. I’ll no doubt watch Hardware again at some point, but it won’t be in the cinema. However, though I may later remember more of the film, I’ll not remember the act. Watching a DVD is not the same experience.

 

The one that got away

Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy adaptation came out that summer and my younger brother was keen to see it. Buoyed by the ability to get into a film for which I wasn’t old enough, I told him I reckoned he could get in to watch it with me. Excited, he naturally ran off to tell our parents. I don’t remember it word-for-word but the conversation which followed with my Dad probably ran like this:

“What rating is Dick Tracy?”

“Fifteen.”

“How old is your brother?”

“Seven. And a half.”

Still never seen Dick Tracy. But the real film that got away that year was, agonizingly, the one we wanted to see the most: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. Adapted from his own novella Cabal, this was going to be “the Star Wars of monster movies”. The creatures – the ‘Breed – looked awesome, and still do. But the studio got wind of what was coming (“what’s that? Redneck humans are the bad guys? The outcasts are goodies? Get out of here!”), savagely edited it and marketed it as a slasher thriller. To do this they played up the role of David Cronenberg as an urbane psychiatrist-cum-serial killer, and downplayed the whole “monster” element. The proposed poster by Les Edwards was a wonderfully enticing monster montage above the Nightbreed’s necropolis refuge; the actual poster was a badly cut and paste line-up. Neither one thing nor the other, the film flopped. A lopsided beast to be sure, but posterity has offered it a rebirth: a Director’s Cut was released in the US a few years ago, giving it a chance of some redemption. But that came far too late for a posse of Fife teenagers.

Despite our requests Perth Playhouse, perhaps sensing a dud, passed on the opportunity of showing Nightbreed. Scouting the listings in the local paper showed that Dundee’s Steps Theatre showed it, but a trip to Dundee was beyond the limits of an evening paper round, and was logistically difficult. Surely it’d arrive in Perth at some point? I was unaware of the realities of film release schedules. It was “out”, in the way a book was “out”, wasn’t it: available on the shelf forever?

The film as yet unseen is, of course, far better than the real thing. None of the flaws exist. Nightbreed was therefore going to be amazing. When I finally saw it ten years later, recorded late at night off a tiny combined TV & VCR unit, it looked awful. The 16-year-old me may have been blind to the flaws, but the 26-year-old me wasn’t. I look on it more fondly now, and for all the good work by the SFX team of Image Animation, wish only that it had come out late enough to have benefitted from the Jurassic Park CGI boom.

Nightbreed’s non-appearance helped open my eyes to the small stature of Perth’s cinema; helped me grow up in the sense that when you’re young your immediate environment seems to be the whole world, when in reality it was just a small corner of rural east-central Scotland. Not that big a deal.

 

Roll credits

Total Recall (or Robocop 2, whichever was the latter release) may have seemed to herald an exciting age of cinema-going for us but was really an ending: the last time all 3 of us went to the pictures together. Saturday jobs and (whisper it) girlfriends intervened; within a year the cracks were showing in our friendship and though we remained together until the last days of high school, it was largely through lack of any alternative.

We left genre behind, to an extent. Its film and literature had given us the rush our hormone-flooded bodies craved. Where it was reactionary (“expel the Other!”) it soothed our anxieties; where it was transgressive (“embrace the Other!”) it opened our eyes to new possibilities. But now journeys had to be made. My four years studying literature at University involved little that you’d find in the genre section of Waterstones. However, long after disowning these films and books in favour of Romantic poetry, the nouvelle vague or post-colonial narratives, their tug pulled me back. Not (solely) for the questionable balm of nostalgia, but because what other mode lets us frame a world becoming increasingly, well, weird? It’s too big a claim for our experience of the cinema that summer to say that it equipped us with the mental tools to process the world; but if it didn’t give us the tools, maybe it showed us where they could be found. And that, at any rate, is part of growing up.