Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A View From Over the Water: Interview with Scottish author Steven Porter

Steven Porter is a writer from Scotland who now lives in the Basque Country, which I'll say is in Spain, though the locals might not thank me for that.

Porter is a perceptive and sensitive writer whose novel 'Countries of the World' was released at the end of 2011. A treasure trove of period detail from the Scotland of the 1970s and 80s, the book (reviewed HERE), uses football as a vessel to reflect on matters as wide ranging as the Falklands War, Poles who support Rangers and childhood bereavement.

A sensitive meditation on growing up in Scotland, there are hints of a gentle Scottish Nationalism in the pages here. This is no tartan call to arms for a proud Jacobite Fianna to march south though. In contrast, Porter's nationalism is so gentle that you have to look twice to make sure it's there.

I spoke to Porter about his views on Scotland, Scottish football and other things, and found him as engaging in his answers as his work would suggest.

My first question to him regarded the term '90 minute patriots', a phrase coined in frustration by a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) at how many Scots seemed to be fierce patriots while the national football team was playing, and then not really care after the final whistle had gone.

A twist on the term came with '90 minute bigots', a phrase used to describe the sectarian elements which plague aspects of Scottish football.

"Was it Jim Sillars who first mentioned ‘90 minute patriots’?" Porter asked, rhetorically.

"It has been used as a rallying cry by some within the SNP although I haven’t heard it for a while. Sense of national identity, whether in Scotland or elsewhere, is obviously more complicated than that. 

"I think that most Scots think of themselves as Scottish first and foremost, whether or not they also feel British. But speaking for myself, I don’t think of myself as a patriot, even though I’m very open to the possibility of Scotland becoming an independent country again. 

"If you are for the status quo, does it make you a patriot or nationalist of the British variety? That’s the alternative, isn’t it? Seems to me that it comes down to you would like a defined area to be governed, whether it’s Scotland, UK or Europe we are talking about. 

"But national issues include things like defence and how taxes are spent and I think people do care about these things. And there are a lot of other aspects of national identity that go beyond political administration or constitutions. 

"Regarding the 90 minute bigots, I suppose you’re hinting at sectarianism which seems to go hand in hand with the word ‘bigotry’ in Scotland, although it should by no means be seen to have a monopoly on it. It’s interesting nowadays, because I feel things have gone almost full circle, where some fans of certain clubs (Celtic and Rangers especially) play up to the bigoted role. They are taking religious and political small-mindedness, which grew out of the society in the first place, and recycling it. 

"I’m not sure they would be so vocal or rabid in their prejudices if it didn’t suit their fan identity. That’s something I try to explore in 'Countries of the World':  football, politics and society frequently mix and there is no getting away from that, no matter how much one wants to see football as an innocent game.

"In reality, the view that football is just 22 players running around after a pig’s bladder or whatever is usually put forward by people who have no understanding or interest in the game, its widespread appeal and how it affects and mirrors society as a whole. Often, they have never even stepped inside a stadium to see the mechanism at work. 

"Although it’s fine not to like football or to fail to see the attraction, they are only saying that it doesn’t mean anything to them and are missing the point about the many outside factors surrounding the game."

Porter himself follows Hibernian, a club which was founded by Irish immigrants to Edinburgh. Unlike many football fans, but like more people than the game itself would care to admit, he has no born and bred allegiance to any particular team.  


"I was 20 when I started following Hibs, shortly after moving to Edinburgh," Porter explains.

"I’m lucky I didn’t become a Jambo (imagine!) as there had been a few Heart of Midlothian supporters on my Mum’s side of the family. I wasn’t sure which team to watch but I had a few mates who lived near Easter Road and we went along to a pretty forgettable game there.  I was still wavering about whether to watch Hibs or Hearts the next time, but opted for Easter Road in the end and a 5-0 Scottish Cup gubbing of East Fife. 

"The bug took hold and the rest is history. Of course I would never describe myself as a dyed-in-the-wool Hibby. 

"For the first couple of years I still felt a bit of a fraud, even though I was attending most home games. When Hibs won the League Cup in 1991 I felt part of it, but was aware that it meant much more to folk who’d been watching Hibs all their days. But was I any less of a fan at that point than those who only rarely go, except for cup finals and the like? 

"This was the club’s first trophy of note since 1972. I remember a guy encouraging people to sing and saying, 'Come on, it might be another 20 years before we’re in this position again'.. He wasn’t far off. 

"When I saw Hibs lift the 2007 League Cup, I felt more part of it, having endured some highs and many lows on the Easter Road terracing throughout the 90’s. I grew up watching Highland League Football and only saw big games or highlights from down south on the telly. My local team, Forres Mechanics, might have won the Highland League this year and narrowly lost out to Rangers in the Scottish Cup, but I’d be lying if I said their result has always been the first one I’ve looked out for on a Saturday. 

"So this view is reflected by the COTW narrator when he says: 'Clubs come and go in my life; the national team remains constant...'

"I’ve moved around a lot over the last 15 years and am lucky if I can attend a Hibs game once a season. Therefore the Scotland national team is the only way in which I can relate to being a born and bred fan. But I rarely attend their games either."

Hibernian are an interesting club. Formed before their fellow Irishmen Celtic FC, they never  acquired the huge and overtly Irish Catholic support of their Glasgow rivals. Celtic have become a focus of support for the worldwide Irish diaspora, yet Hibs remain very much more an Edinburgh, or even a Leith, team.
"Well, I have a couple of theories," Porter explains, when asked why this might have happened.

"When Celtic formed in 1888, they took a number of Hibs’ best players through from Edinburgh. The Hibees had just beaten English club Preston North End in a match billed as the ‘Championship of the World’ but went downhill from there. 

"Within a few years they actually went out of existence altogether for a time. Hibernian had to start life again in the newly formed Scottish Second Division. It was debatable if they were even the biggest or best club in the local community at this point because their league place had been taken by Leith Athletic. 

"When Hibs reformed, it was not as an exclusively Irish Catholic club. They had lost ground to Celtic and took a few years to work their way back towards the top of the Scottish game. 

"Edinburgh had a significant Irish community, but it would not have been on the same scale as the one in the Glasgow area. But in the years after WW2, there was no gulf between Celtic and Hibs. The Edinburgh side won the championship three times and finished runners up three times between 1947-53, as well as attracting over 65,000 to Easter Road for a new year’s derby against Hearts in 1950. 

"Celtic were in the doldrums by their standards at that time, but pulled away again after poaching Jock Stein away from Easter Road in the mid-60’s. Of course, the European Cup success and nine consecutive championships followed and they’ve been the more successful club pretty much ever since." 

Moving away from football, I was interested in what Porter had to say about his living in exile in Spain. Moving away from Scotland is a thing many Scots seem to have done over the years, often out of choice rather than any economic necessity, at least in recent times. Yet they tend to never quite shake the attachment to the homeland, and often pass it on to the next generation of their family who might be born elsewhere.

 I wondered how living away from Scotland had affected Porter's writing, and whether he feels differently about the country when he does return for visits.

"It’s a good time to ask that as I’ve been in Scotland for about a month," he said.

"I always get the same feeling now. I’ve been living in Spain so long that moving back to Scotland seems like starting from scratch, even though life here is still very familiar.

"I’ve said a few times recently that I couldn’t envisage myself moving back but I’ve ended up here for a while and didn’t expect it, so you never know what’s round the corner. 

"Does it change my writing? I just see it as part of life. Hopefully my writing evolves anyway."

Some of Porter's work is written in Scots, the Germanic language of much of Scotland (as opposed to Gaelic), which some state is a language in its own right, while others assert it is a dialect of English. Porter would be open to the possibility of writing a whole novel in what he considers his mother tongue.

"I wouldn’t rule it out," he said.

"One of the most important things is to write in a voice that I feel comfortable with and that sounds convincing. I did it for instance with Unlovable Jambo, which appears in Blurred Girl and Other Suggestive Stories. 

"So I don’t see why not if it felt right and I had the inspiration and desire to try something much longer. Probably it would have to be a first person voice. The voices are more important than the language of the narrative."

Lastly, I wondered if Porter would prefer to have played for Hibernian or to enjoy the success of a bestselling book.

 "Even hypothetically speaking I’m a bit old to play for Hibs now!" he joked.

"In my early 20’s I still dreamed of being a footballer but there is much more to it than technical ability (which I was often told I didn’t lack). 

"You need a lot of physical and mental strength as well and I probably wasn’t aggressive or competitive enough. I could have done with putting on a couple of stone and might have needed a different personality as well.

"In terms of a bestselling book, I think I’d need to make a lot of concessions to the market in order to have any hope of achieving that. I can’t see that happening, but selling more books, earning some decent money and getting acclaim out of it would be nice.

"I don’t know if I’d be happier even as a professional author making inevitable compromises. I come at things from an artistic perspective, not a commercial one."

Steven Porter's novel 'Countries of the World' is available from Amazon and other retailers.

He was talking to Zack Wilson, the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Spaghetti Western Film Review: The Great Silence

Another spaghetti western review. This film really is a true great. Originally appeared at:

And please remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Sergio Corbucci's masterpiece is certainly a candidate for the greatest Spaghetti Western ever made, with Klaus Kinski and Jean-Louis Trintignant on form.


 'The Great Silence' sounds much better in its Italian title: 'Il Grande Silenzio'. Often hailed as perhaps the greatest Spaghetti Western, it is certainly one of the most pessimistic films ever made, and shows a cynical, heartless vision of what usually happens when people stand up to the men of violence.

Sergio Corbucci's Spaghetti Westerns

Director Sergio Corbucci's Spaghetti Westerns had been a pretty impressive, though certainly inconsistent bunch up to this stage. What is clear throughout his Westerns from 'Django' onward that his sympathy is with the downtrodden. It is how they go about achieving liberation from the men of Law that really interests him, and his portrayal of the revolution and his action man revolutionaries who spark often solitary uprisings.

There are some bravura acting performances here, despite the at times inconsistent quality of the English audio and dialogue. Jean-Louis Trentingant is awesome as the eponymous hero, in a role which he only agreed to play if he had nothing to say.

Klaus Kinski as Loco

Whilst the Frenchman's acting is superb and sparse, it is Klaus Kinski who really steals the show. The German plays a bounty hunter who is far more Gestapo than Desperado, with his pencil licking, lists and rational totting up of numbers killed and dollars due. His cool good manners and insistence on always acting "all according to the law" add to the image of Teutonic exterminator, despite his Spanish name of Loco.

What perhaps helps exaggerate that perception somewhat is the snowbound, mountain setting, more reminiscent of Poland than the usual deserts of the Spaghetti West. The villagers here are maltreated by Loco and the bounty hunters, whilst a band of ragged rebels subsist in the wilderness near the town, holding out for an amnesty which never arrives. The poor steal as they starve in the town and are branded outlaws, and as such fair game for the bounty hunters. So the cycle of oppression continues in a film which, typically for Corbucci, is a direct attack on capitalism and exploitation.

It is hinted that the outsiders may be Mormons, although that doesn't somehow ring true. What is clear is that they are rebels who are regarded as sub-human by Loco and his gang. Loco also demonstrates a mercenary racist streak when he comments ruefully that the world must be a pretty poor place when a black man's life costs as much as a white man's.

Vonetta McGee Blaxploitation flicks

That remark is delivered after he has killed the husband of Pauline, played wonderfully by Vonetta McGee, a later star of Blaxploitation films. She delivers a performance here of great sadness and subtlety, acting opposite Trintignant in scenes which show a budding trans-racial love affair made all the more poignant by the incessant cold, which the audience can almost feel through the screen.

What is certain is that director Sergio Corbucci is very much on the side of the outsiders, expressing his revolutionary sentiments, albeit jaded ones here, once again. This film tells the story of so many real revolutions, literally iced by the men with the warrants and the weapons. Corbucci would present solutions in some of his later Westerns, such as 'The Mercenary' and 'Companeros'.

The duality of the relationship between Kinski and Silence makes interesting viewing. They are so similar, these men of violence. Both act according to interpretations of a code, with neither firing first in confrontations. Both also accept the same amount of money, $500, from patrons for undertaking to kill each other.

There is good dose of revenge, of course, linked to Corbucci's general anti-capitalist position, with Luigi Pistili's villain justice of the peace, Pollicutt, being a an intensely revolting man, as well as providing Silence's ultimate motivation for his involvement in the film's concluding violence.

Clint Eastwood, Jesus, Martin Luther King and Che Guevara

Clint Eastwood tried to steal the guts of the film for his vapid imitation 'Joe Kidd', a film whose lack of commercial success contributed, Alex Cox speculates, to 'The Great Silence' being given only limited release in English language speaking markets. 'Joe Kidd' is certainly no masterpiece, but many would argue that 'The Great Silence' certainly is.

There are some typical Corbucci trademarks here: the disabled hero, the revolutionary politics (the film was dedicated by the director to Jesus, Martin Luther King and Che Guevara) and the misogyny and racism of the villains. But there is also perhaps a greater sensitivity and depth to the direction than there is some of his more action orientated works.

Saddest film ending ever

Without giving too much away about the ending of the film, it is wise to be prepared: this is not a film that is going to leave you feeling that your faith in human nature has been reaffirmed. You should probably also know that the ending was considered far too brutal and hopeless for some Asian and North African audiences, for whom an alternative, highly contrived and unrealistic ending was constructed (see below).

But it is a film from which one can take messages of great truth, and is a film which ultimately works so well because of its beautifully realised pessimism and its statement that even if a hero sacrifices himself it does not very often change the world.

 Zack Wilson's debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Monday, 26 November 2012

Poem: Plantations


Would these placards 
bend so feebly in febrile hands
if the song of Gaza 
was a chant of "Tiocfaidh Ár Lá"?
If the rockets Hamas fired
landed in Brum pubs 
     or Shankill shoppers' streets?
When Sands was starved
or the blood ran down Derry's Walls
did these opportunists goose-jerk
their English knees in protest?

Not that some of us remember.
Irish names, Irish blood,
Irish bombs and bullets
ballot boxes, Bogside battles
     between saints and scholars

seem and smell not the same to you

Not the same struggle you see
here in a Holy Land. On television.

It was too hard
for your heart to turn
to see any truth in your own tin pot
troops taking casualties
Shoot to kill, shoot on sight
all slid by when it was
for your protection.
'Sniper at work here'
the sign warned in a sunny 
section of Ulster's pleasant 
Orange and Green land.
You were shocked
because the sign was a warning for you
     who doesn't even know what 
     a Philistine really is.

One man's freedom fighter
is another's terrorist,
whether on rainy sod or desert road,
crowded camp or green lane.
If you choose to choose sides
then you have to take your share
of the burden of blood.

How does the heft of a rifle feel
in your hand?
Care to carry one home?

Pacifists praying for peace in these plantations.
Failing to see 
conscience creeping out of a killer's eyes.
Swords only have double edges
when the devil doesn't live next door.


Copyright Zack D. Wilson 2012.

Zack Wilson's  debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Spaghetti Western Film Review: Return of Ringo

This review of a spaghetti western classic first appeared at:

Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Il ritorno di Ringo (to give the film its Italian title) begins with some truly spectacular use of a typical Spaghetti Western theme song, in this case delivered by the sublime voice of Maurizio Graf. Not only is the music the perfect balance between overblown theatricality and serious drama, but the opening shot of an empty plain, defined only by the black figure of a horseman in the distance, provides a useful metaphor for the film's themes of a returning avenger.

Not that this should really be seen as a 'Return' for the Ringo character Gemma played in the earlier A Pistol For Ringo. This character is completely different, and indeed is only called 'Ringo' when the actor speaking the name has his or her back turned, which probably means the references were dubbed in later when it was decided to cash in on the success of the earlier film.

What makes the issue a little more confusing is that the two films share an almost identical cast. However, Gemma's portrayal of this Ringo in the first five minutes of the movie makes it clear we are dealing with an entirely different character.

Una Pistola Per Ringo

His Union blue uniform may be a little costume store, but Montgomery Brown's white hair, accentuated scar and trembling cheek mean that Gemma is portraying a character who is carrying some amount of trauma around with him. The efficient way he outwits two would-be assassins in the opening scene of the film in the tavern also shows that this is less childlike, much more sinister character than the original Ringo of 'A Pistol For Ringo'.

It's clear he likes a drink too, lying on a bunk when we next see him, slumping languidly and dangerously with an empty bottle in his hand. That bottle then gets smashed on the floor. This is a soldier with issues: anger, disappointment and violence have clearly taken their toll, despite Gemma's natural jauntiness and good humour informing aspects of his performance.

He then changes himself, disguising himself as a Mexican for the purposes of outwitting the Fuentes brothers who have taken over his hometown of Mimbres, appropriating the town's gold for themselves and telling the Anglo inhabitants that it's on Mexican territory.

His friend the barman obtains the herbs for the disguise from a Native American, who looks more like a Hippie, dispensing potions and dried herbs from a mountain retreat. In fact, given the film's 1965 date, one can speculate (with tongue firmly in cheek) whether this is perhaps the first depiction of a Hippie on the silver screen.

Nieves Navarro & Fernando Sancho

Our introduction to the Mexican gang is where things start to get Spaghetti Western interesting though. Fernando Sancho is in typically excellent form, infusing the role of Esteban Fuentes with his usual gusto and Latin bombast. His brother, played by George Martin, is a blue-eyed bully whose suaveness works well alongside the more bestial Sancho.

Nieves Navarro, meanwhile, is as sexily vulpine as her name suggests; the beauty spot on her cheek forming an interesting comparison with Ringo's own scar, prompting thoughts that perhaps her character, Rosita, not Hally Montgomery, is Ringo's true match. Not that the drunken Ringo welcomes her attentions and her foxy invitation to read the Tarot for him. Rosita appears to be Esteban Fuentes' girlfriend, but her attitude to monogamy is apparently much the same as the Fuentes' attitude to human life.

Sancho and Martin are such perfectly arrogant Latin pseudo-aristocrats that one sometimes cannot help but admire them , their post-funeral ambush of an assassination attempt being one such occasion. The film's conceit of Mexicans oppressing Anglo-Americans would be absurd to anyone without nutty far-right tendencies, but Sancho and Martin never make it absurd within the context of the film. They are more Old World than New though, and they more resemble something from Franco's Spain rather than 19th Century New Mexico.

It can sometimes be difficult to suspend disbelief about the film being set in America, the settings look so European to a knowledgeable eye, with the showdown scenes at the mansion occasionally resembling a violent garden party rather than an Old West shootout. But the film is realistic to itself and in its own contexts, so the shortcomings of setting do not jar as much as they can in other European Westerns.

Callous violence and flower arranging

There is plenty of callous violence from the oppressors to keep us interested, whilst another surreal twist sees the disguised Ringo working as a florist's assistant whilst hanging about not really plotting his revenge. Indeed, there is a lot of aimless hanging around from the eponymous hero, with him at one stage even whining: "It's too much for just one man. And I've got a broken gun hand!"

Tellingly, Rosita is the person who provokes him into action, reading the Tarot cards and saying, "A man who hopes, fears." She shows him a card, adding, "You see? Now you're afraid." The gunfighter then begins his one handed target practice, his determination restored by his knowing that he was afraid of fear itself.

Rainbow Coalition

The coalition Ringo puts together to beat the Fuentes is such a collection of misfits and the oppressed that perhaps we are given a glimpse into the film's true political message. A bar tender, a Native American, a flower arranger and a prostitute all work together under Montgomery Brown's direction to foil the Fuentes' savage plans for Mimbres, with even Ringo's impossibly cute daughter lending a hand to bring about a conventionally happy ending.

Keen eyed viewers will spot nods to 'Frankenstein' as well as Shakespearean attitudes to disguise along the way, and there is some admirably skilled direction and camera work in what is a very satisfying Spaghetti Western all round; a film which completists should own and everyone interested in film should see at least once.

Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Sheffield Fragments

This were originally published by Laura Hird at her showcase. I like them...


-Shut tha face nob ead, Ah’m thinking.

-Thinkin? Thee? Abaht fuckin wot?

-Tha doesn’t need to knaw.

-Well, what’s tha doing ere den? This is no fun, dahn t’pub wi a fuckin depressive.

-Ah’m not a fuckin depressive! Just got things on me mind.

-What mind?

-Aa fuckin aa.

-Well, that’s it fo me. Ah’m gooin, Ah’m not fuckin sittin ere any longer wi thee.

-Aw, dorn’t be a cunt!

-Ah’m fuckin not!

-Orreight, Orreight. Fancy a peint?

-Aa, goo on then.

 Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from


Ah’m fuckin sick on all this shit. It’s on t’telly evry fuckin day at t’minute. All t’fuckin Septics gooin on, whittling abaht t’Twin fuckin Towers. They neva fuckin learn. Ah mean, ma parents ad to move ouse twelve times during t’war cause o’t’fuckin Krauts. Mosta them cunts in them buildings were criminals anyway, robbin workin folk.

Ah fuckin ate Muslims too, mind. Cept Rafeeq, but e as a peint nah and then.


Winter fuckin Olympics! Why tha fuck is that on t’fuckin telly? Ah mean, speed skating. Ow many speed skaters does tha knaw round ere?

Mind you, look at t’ass on er! Ah do like a fit bird wot looks after ersen.


Orreight? Ow’d Wednesday do? Ow many?! Ere, Stan, t’Pigs got done foar nowt! At Hillsborough! WAAaaay! Sometimes, tha knaws, Ah think Ah fuckin ate them moar than Ah love Uneited.


Rainin! Fuckin rainin agean. Does mean we can’t do any work on that roof though. Ivry cloud…

Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Film Review: Seraphim Falls

As this was on the telly the other night, it seemed a good time to re-post this review of what is a fairly good western. It was originally published at:

Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

'Seraphim Falls' (2006) was co-written as well as directed by David Von Ancken. Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan give the film a real bite of quality acting, in their respective portrayals of opposing duo Carver, a former Confederate officer, and Gideon, who fought for the Union.

The two are intimately connected by their respective parts in a terrible, but also unfortunate, atrocity committed at the end of the American Civil. Set in Nevada, three years after the end of the American Civil War, the film centres around the pursuit of Gideon by a posse led by Carver. The story is simplistic and enjoyably uncomplicated, though it is shaded by the back story of Neeson's motivation for his single-minded pursuit of Brosnan.

Captain Ahab & Clint Eastwood

It turns out that what turned Carver into this demented, laconic Ahab of the West was an act of post-Civuil War brutality committed in the name of the Union by troops under the command of Gideon, when Carver's family were burned to death.. By the time film ends, even the shocking nature of this atrocity pales in the hot white desert light of the feud between the two men.

This recent western was said at the time if its release to owe much to Clint Eastwood's 1970s classic 'The Outlaw Josie Wales'. However, with its desert journeys, flashbacks to fill in narrative gaps, its surrealism and its cynical violence, the movie owes much more to Eastwood's 1960s spaghetti westerns, and viewers will be reminded of some of 'The Good, the bad and the Ugly's desert scenes.

Although the narrative is uncomplicated, it is not shallow. Camera shots which rely on space and emptiness help convey the film's existential themes, the idea of man or men, against the unforgiving emptiness of nature and life.

The film references more Italian westerns than just Sergio Leone's work, however. There are hints of 'The Great Silence', both in Brosnan's gruff, almost inaudible portrayal of Gideon, and also in its early snowbound settings. The small child in the cabin in the mountains could almost be Loco the bounty killer as a child with his blonde hair and wide eyes, witnessing the trauma which set him on the road to violence.

The desert shots also recall the Almeria landscape used in many spaghetti westerns, and the individualistic, materialistic motivations and aims of the characters reflect the hard-bitten attitudes of many of the great Italian outings.

The use of colour in the film is evocative and effective. The dream-like transition from mountain to desert is handled with a dawn which drains all the colour from the landscape, leaving the characters moving through the landscape of a dream.

Cormac McCarty's 'Blood Meridian'

There is more dream-like surrealism too, recalling occasionally Cormac McCarthy's novel 'Blood Meridian' as characters spring out of the desert to strike existential bargains with Neeson and Brosnan. Anjelica Houston is a dark lady, appearing like death in her funeral wagon to barter for the essentials of life in the desert as the pursuit reaches its peak. Wes Studi turns in a typically high-quality performance as a wry Native American, dispensing dark desert wisdom along with his take-it-or-leave-it deals on water and horseflesh.

The baseness of the pursuit of Gideon by Carver is exemplified by the minimalist setting of the desert, its white spareness overcut with the panting grunts of the struggling duo, trying to outwit each other like some Old West Spy vs Spy, until the pursuit reaches its sudden denouement.

Revisionist Westerns

'Seraphim Falls' has been described as 'revisionist', an overused term which can often be used to cover inept and violent uses of what have become stereotypes every bit as much as the Hollywood staples they sought to replace in recent years. This film's cynical brutality is actually fresh and spare, sudden in its impact, despite the Hollywood action stereotypes of its opening sequences in the snow.

Certainly there is something of a twist to the traditional western ending in the film's conclusion, when a cliche is turned ninety degrees to the left when we are treated to two protagonists striding, or in this case, weaving, off into the white hot sun. Tthe knife, such a recurring iconic image in the film, the blade on which frontier existence rests, has been spiked in the ground. A hatchet buried, but it was all in the end for nothing, the war just men grubbily clawing at each other's faces in the dirt.

What we are left with is a sense of the uncomplicated nature of life when it is boiled down to its essence. But there is redemption in its conclusion too, and a sense that perhaps life's essential meaninglessness could also be humanity's salvation.

Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

'All Time Top Three' by Steve Ely

Following on from the excellent interview with South Yorkshire poet Steve Ely, here's some of his work. I'll let it speak for itself, but remind you that his new book 'Oswald's Book of Hours' is available for pre-order from Amazon.

All Time Top Three

In reverse order:

Away, Kirkby Independent, 1993:
taking a long ball from Wack,
over my shoulder and onto my chest
in the channel by the right hand edge of the box,
with Popeye screaming for it square
and the centre half closing and jostling,
I let it bounce once
then took it on the full
and watched incredulous
as it screamed thirty diagonal yards
rising all the way
over the keeper into the top left corner of the net.

At home against the Harlequin, 1997:
I sprung the offside trap,
nipping in on a dinked ball from Growler.
The keeper dashed out into the ‘D’
making himself big
and leapt at me, a reckless imminent impact.
I did the only thing I could
and sliced across the waist high-bouncing ball,
sending it high and vertical over the keeper
before taking the clatter
and picking myself up
to see the topspin I applied
drop the ball into the net
and Benno diving on me and shouting 
“Who’s this fucking Brazilian we’ve got playing for us?”

Away, Spion Kop, 1987:
the ball broke towards their centre half
with plenty of time, but looking complacent,
so I sprinted at him
made it a 50/50 and won it,
the ball spinning loose
ten yards further towards their goal.
I jumped up and went after it,
two-footing the covering full back
sending the ball squirting
to the edge of their box
where I emptied the lunging keeper
and smashed the ball into the unguarded net
for my second and last goal
of the game, nevertheless completing my hat-trick
(Guy Marley, who scored a header
from a corner in the first half
was unregistered,
so Jamie, our manager and press liaison
credited his goal to me, incidentally bestowing
the back-page headline, 'Ely Hat-Trick Sinks Kop'
on the back page of the Hemsworth and South Elmsall Express.)


 Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Monday, 19 November 2012

Steve Ely: Poet of Sunday Leagues and Sainted Rebellion

Steve Ely is a poet and author from Yorkshire, England. When I first came across his work, thanks to social media, it struck as very different indeed from much of the poetry that was being written. Consciously intellectual, with historical subject matter and archaic language, it celebrated an England of northern saints and doomed peasant rebellions.

It also challenged the reader to understand the references. It was poetry to be read, rather than consumed in seconds and forgotten. The work had gravity.

From my point of view, Steve's viewpoints on history and culture seemed to resonate with some of my own. When I first read Steve's work, I had just read the late Mick Imlah's 'The Lost Leader'. Imlah's book, with its reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie in its title, was a poetic treatment of Scotland's history. Often obscure in its references, it used poetry to both inform and make wider historical and contemporary points. It used the past to illuminate the present.

Steve's work seemed similar to me, certainly in some of its textures and fundamentals, its stating points and attitudes. He writes about football players as well as monks, Falklands War heroes as well as medieval saints.

This is ambitious poetry, stimulating work which goes far beyond the merely observational or solipsistic. I spoke to Steve about his writing, his sporting passions and what drives him to express himslef in the way he does. Of particular interest to me were his references to sport in literature, and how playing and watching sport had contributed to his work.

Firstly, your writing seems to indicate an intriguing and, to many people, probably baffling mix of the archaic and the radical. You use Catholic faith, Anglo Saxon language and archaic forms in your writing, as examples, but you are also a socialist and a self-professed hater of Tories, as well as liberals. How do you reconcile what seem to be such competing instincts? Is it hard work to make a coherent whole out of such varied and seemingly competing instincts?

 In a word, yes!  I’m a former socialist – I was in and around the left for large parts of the early eighties and early nineties (with an interlude in the Green Party) and I retain some of the atavisms of the left, such as a knee jerk animus to Conservatism.

But I haven’t been a member of a political party since 1996 and my political activism since then has been non-existent.  However, since my second, unpublished, book of poems, JerUSAlem, which was an exploration of American extremism and concepts of the American Dream, pretty much everything I’ve written has had a political edge.

Over the last four years I’ve been exploring the roots of England in my work and my embracing of Catholicism is part of that.

But I’m a poet, not a politician, and although you’re right to suggest I’m working to a synthesis of sorts, I’m not looking to reach a manifesto position – I don’t see that as being my job.  I want to raise important themes through my work and challenge my audience.  But most of all I want to create striking and evocative work with a powerful affect.

You have written about war as well as sport. What do you make of Orwell's 'war without the shooting' reference to sport?

I think Orwell’s statement is often understood in the simplistic sense of, ‘young men used to go to war and sow their wild oats of allegiance and violence but now there aren’t as many opportunities to fight in wars, so playing and supporting sport is a surrogate outlet for the same emotions’.

It’s an interesting perspective, with some truth in it, but ultimately obfuscatory.  If you’re part of a team – as player or supporter – you inevitably get that electric sense of belonging, mutual responsibility, support and communal striving in which your individual identity is harnessed in, and to some extent subsumed, in a greater whole.

Given that sport, by definition, involves asserting yourself against an opponent in a context of physical exertion and high emotion (competition), violence and aggression will never be far beneath the surface.  When overlaid by aggravating factors of politics, religion or long standing rivalry (Celtic-Rangers, Fenerbache/Galatasary), for example, it can be seen as analogous to war. But I wouldn’t push it beyond an analogue. Sport isn't war.

So, if sport cannot be called 'war', can it be called 'art' with any justification?

At its best, sport is an art form, or a thing of beauty at any rate. The movement and grace of Barca in the 2010-11 season, the vision, technical accomplishment and audacity of Ibrahimovic’s last goal against England the other night, Bergkamp’s goals against Argentina, Leicester & Newcastle, Carlos Alberto’s winner in the 1970 world cup final – these things take the breath away – like Lawrence says about the ‘shout’ of the tortoise - ‘it sounds on the plasm direct’ - not just an aesthetic, physical or intellectual impact – the moment impacts whole body.

What do you think watching sport offers writers in the way of inspiration or understanding?

Having played team sport all my life, the thing sport has brought me is an appreciation of the importance of what might simplistically be called team spirit – that the individual is always part of a larger collective and has a responsibility to fulfil a role in that collective that is reciprocated in the care and support the individual receives from the team. 

Or, as we used to say when I played for the Travellers FC - ‘one in - all in’.  That’s what Camus meant when he said, "all that I know of morality and obligations I owe to football." Bill Shankly and Brian Clough called it socialism. It’s certainly Catholic Social Teaching in a brightly coloured shirt.

The other week saw a great clash in Glasgow between Celtic and Barcelona. Both those teams have strong religious/ethnic/nationalistic identities, albeit in Celtic's case that of a non-native tradition. Do you think that attaching such strong cultural significance to sports teams is healthy?

The fervour generated in the Old Firm matches can provide legitimisation for psychopaths – there was a horrible incident a few years ago when a Rangers ‘fan’ slit the throat of a Celtic fan outside Ibrox in an unprovoked attack, purely because the latter was wearing the hooped shirt. 

That was exceptional, but there’s no doubt that this ‘sectarianism’ gets more or less routinely out of hand.  But, for better or worse, Rangers and Celtic have become emblematic of the identities of many of their supporters, and the affective power arising from that, alongside the context of wider politico-religious conflict, is what makes the Old Firm. 

You regret the excesses, but ultimately, would you have it any other way? 

Barca is different.  For the almost forty years of Franco's dictatorship, Barca was the only expression of Catalan identity and nationalism the Catalans could get away with, and it is why Barca is ‘mes plus un club’.

Take that away, and all you’ve got is Man City, or Chelsea.  You can’t separate politics and sport, because sport is not just about entertainment – it’s about allegiance, activism, commitment, engagement and identity. So often, sporting teams emerge from very specific communities and are the flagship of those communities.

Every time Nottingham Forest play at Oakwell, chants of ‘scab’ echo around the ground – and the thing is, they used to before the 1984-5 strike – the folk memory of the terraces was remembering the aftermath of the 1926 strike, when the Spencer’s bosses union split Cook’s NUM. 

‘Politics’ in sport ramps up the intensity and makes for a more electrifying experience – but you’ve got to rein in the nutters.

What sports do you like? Who are your sporting heroes and why?

Football is my main sport.  I played to a decent standard Sundays (and sometimes Saturdays as well) for over twenty years. 

I was a striker.  I began as a Stan Bowles-type dribbling inside left, evolved into a Steve Claridge type workhorse and ended my career as a Grant Holt style lump. 

As a kid I supported Sheffield United and saw them play River Plate in 1978 just after Argentina had won the World Cup. United had just bought Alex Sabella (now the coach of the Argentinian national team) from River and the pre-season friendly was part of the deal. 

Leopoldo Luque, Daniel Passerella and Ubaldo Filliol of the cup winning team played. United won three-two, with Alan Woodward scoring the winner from the spot.

Aged about sixteen, I switched teams and started watching Barnsley with my mates, largely because I was sick of going to Bramall Lane on my own – nobody else I  knew supported United.  I had a season ticket at Oakwell for six or seven years but I haven’t been for ages now. 

I never really felt an emotional connect with Barnsley, because I was a latecomer to them, I suppose. 

I also watch a lot of Rugby League on Sky. I used to play league as a young kid. 

At middle school we had a teacher, Mr Milnes, who was from Featherstone, and he introduced the game to the school. We were very good at that age – we used to beat sides from Cas and Fev, who were not hapy that a team from outside the league heartlands was besting them. 

I love the mercurial geniuses: Maradona, the greatest of all time, Messi, who will supercede him, Best, Gascoigne, Rivaldo and Dennis Bergkamp, for his purity.

From League I like Rob Burrow and Sam Tomkins, for the same reasons.

Your own English nationalism is very different from that of groups like the EDL. You also have an Irish connection. What made you think of yourself as English? Is being from Yorkshire more important that being English to you?

My concept of England is based on the concept of the people in the land and the corollary opinion that, over centuries, the people have been expropriated and the land degraded and destroyed.

I suppose I’m a utopian in the tradition of William Morris - my project is heuristic and archaeological, seeking to bring to light neglected aspects of Englishness – the Anglo-Danish heritage, the pre-reformation English Catholic Church, the traditions of resistance running through the silvaticii rebels against the Norman occupation, the Peasant’s Revolt, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the radicalism of the English revolution, the nineteenth and twentienth century working class movements and the particular experience of ‘the North’, as well as the wider heritage.  

From these, to use Eliot’s idiom, I assemble the fragments ‘I shore against my ruins’.  

It is a tragedy that discourse of Englishness, or of English nationalism, is pre-sullied by the reactionary racist populism of the EDL or the fascist successors of Moseley’s BUF from the NF to the BNP.  

It’s up to the rest of us to wrest the discourse of identity and nationality away from those motivated by confusion, fear and hatred.  And a precondition for this is engagement with the past to re-discover the wellsprings. 

For all our alleged national obsession with ‘heritage’, (the ‘mad parade’ of the Sex Pistol’s in God Save the Queen), there is probably no developed country in the world in which the person on the street is more ignorant of even the basics of the history of the nation to which they belong, not to mention their local history.  There has certainly been no European nation quicker to throw it away. 

Yorkshire is important to me as county and regional identity should be to everyone - but ultimately, county identity should find its place in that wider polity of the nation. 

I’m also, for better or worse (sometimes better, often worse), very class conscious, almost instinctively so. At the core of my developing, incoherent worldview is what might be called transcendental parochialism.

I vision a time when people can name the birds and animals in the farmland near their town, know the significance of the funny old building on the corner and the gnarly old tree in the town square, understand why the river running through their village is straight and not meandering, know who the guy on the statue was, why they’re living in a tower block, their local and national history (etc) – as well being engaged in current affairs and global issues. 

I suppose I’m tacitly proposing a kind of informed civic engagement in which people secure in their identity and interests and with a sense of solidarity with their corporate community, are empowered to assert their interests and shape their world.

In my recent work, I use archaic forms – Old and Middle English, quotations, epigraphs and references from/to ancient and neglected texts, the spellings and syntax of the Wyclif and King James Bibles, for example – to emphasise my vision of the essential continuity of England and the English. 

Historical and literary studies impose a series of arbitrary disjunctions – Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Mediaeval, etc. 

This has the effect of severing ‘the past’ from the present, resulting in its neglect. The very term ‘History’ in the popular conception implies something definitively past, therefore irrelevant and thus something that can with good conscience be ignored. My forthcoming book Oswald’s Book of Hours (February 2013 – available for pre-order on Amazon!) and my work in progress, Englaland, are synchronic and synoptic looks at England. The tributaries flow into a single stream.

Lastly, would you have preferred to write a bestselling book or to be a sports star yourself?

Well past the time when it was a clearly a pipe-dream, I clung to the forlorn hope that I could ‘make it’ as a professional footballer, go on to play for England, score in a Cup Final and so on. 

It was never my ambition to write a bestselling book, as such, because that seems to imply a certain pandering to the audience which inevitably compromises artistic vision. 

I write what I have to, what I’m driven to and if anyone else likes it, that’s a bonus.  So professional footballer it is.  I could’ve written in the afternoons when the rest of the lads were playing snooker.

Steve's novel 'Ratmen' is available from Blackheath Books.

Steve Ely was talking to Zack Wilson,  the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Film Review: Jonathan of the Bears

This is a review of an 'interesting' 1990s film, called 'Jonathan of the Bears'...

Franco Nero and Floyd Red Crow Westerman are the notable names in what amounts to a Russian re-imagining of spaghetti western madness with a nod to Keoma.

Review by: Zack Wilson, the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Franco Nero has done some interesting things in his career, with the Italian starring in the iconic and influential Django as well as helping make acid western Keoma more than just notable. It's probably fair to say though that Jonathan of the Bears (Jonathan degli orsi) will not be remembered as one of his finest moments.

Not that there isn't much one might think one would enjoy in this bizarre Russian/Italian co-production of a spaghetti western from 1993. The film presents a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, and even, perhaps uniquely for a European western, has a real Lakota in it, Floyd Red Crow Westerman.

Enzo G. Castellari's Keoma

Enzo G. Castellari also directs, renewing the partnership with Nero which produced Keoma, viewed by many as the film which brought down the curtain on the spaghetti western era.

The film even looks like it could actually set in America, albeit the pine woods of the North West rather than the Great Plains. But things get a little weirder after that.

The plot is patently absurd, to start with. Nero plays the son of seemingly Eastern European immigrants to the New World, who are ambushed by outlaws. His parents are killed, but the young Jonathan escapes to be raised, or so it appears, by bears. Then he runs into some Native Americans, who seem to raise him as one of their own, though there is an opaque sense to many of the events in the film. Whether this is deliberate or not is hard to decide, but one would guess not.

The film works hard to be true to the genre it is paying homage to anyway. There are flashbacks, theatrical shoot-outs and enough badly-written pseudo philosophical one-liners to keep fans of spaghetti westerns happy in spotting the references. But none of it makes much sense.

Django and Sartana

Nero seems in many ways to be playing a character very similar to the one he portrayed in Keoma back in the 1970s. Indeed, this film could almost be considered a Keoma film, in the sense that Django and Sartana and others prompted hundreds of supposed sequels and prequels that related with varying degrees of specificity to the original movies.

The way the film constructs its flashbacks is also very reminiscent of Castellari's earlier work. Nero's character sees the characters from his memories in front of him, just as in Castellari's 70s cult classic. Jonathan, like Keoma (who was after all followed around by an old woman who turns out to be Death), is also an almost super-natural avenger figure fighting on behalf of the Indians. His line "a man without freedom is dead anyway" clearly recalls the concluding line of Castellari's earlier film.

There is also a nod to Django, with a shoot-out scene set in an Indian burial ground, referred to as a "cemetery" throughout. Jonathan's surname is Kowalski, surely a nod to Nero's role in The Mercenary, especially as the film is dedicated to old master Sergio Corbucci.

Ennio Morricone and Leonard Cohen

The music of the film is a parody of Ennio Morricone by and large, though are some songs with wince-inducing lyrics, with Nero seemingly at one stage emulating his appalling Leonard Cohen impressions from Keoma and singing himself. Navajo singer Knifewing Segura also provides a catchy tune or two along the way, as well as adding some martial arts action to his role as Nero's adopted brother.


Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Sergio Leone-style lingering close-ups of faces are another clear nod to the genre, although to even use the name of the great Italian in relation to this film feels more than a little sacrilegious. Castellari could have done a lot better. There is a sense that he is working too hard on the homage and not hard enough on the originality, although the film's historical references could certainly be construed as original and imaginative.

There is no sense of discernible history in the film at all. There are so many anachronisms in terms of weaponry, clothing, infrastructure, the historical narrative of the West and just about everything else that it is wise to stop counting.

There is a clear political message though. The oil-drilling (yes, oil drilling) capitalists who come to the town to drill offer the oppressed of the town: "a paradise, where money flows with wine and women of all colours and shapes." They are clearly not to be trusted, especially not when it is announced later that "progress will win and they will die" in relation to the Indians.

Spaghetti Western Crucifixion

The townsfolk torture Jonathan, giving us a typically spaghetti western crucifixion/hero as Christ scene, in which Nero's character is eventually freed by a black man dressed in a white suit. Indeed, African Americans are portrayed positively in the film, in another nod to Keoma, in which Woody Strode played an alcoholic who redeemed himself. One of the concluding shots of a man playing a guitar whilst Jonathan rides away into the sunset is a clear reference to Strode's banjo playing wino.

But the fun in the film comes from spotting the references to older films. Much of the camera work, particularly that involving the bears, lacks continuity and has a jerky, hallucinogenic feel, and not in a good way. This is the kind of reality-bending associated with low-grade recreational chemicals, anxious rather than transcendent., although a huge orange explosion towards the end is certainly worth waiting for.

All in all, Jonathan of the Bears is more a footnote to some interesting careers rather than a bold concluding chapter. One for completists of the genre or the obsessively enthusiastic; casual viewers should probably save it until after the pub on a Friday night, with something exotic to smoke as an accompaniment.

The original of this article appeared at Suite101:

 Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Abyss Also Gazes

I went on radio for the first time in the early hours of Saturday morning, with Canadian publisher Wolf Carstens, whose Epic Rites Press recently published by debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'.

It was great to chat to Wolf about various things which went into making Stumbles and Half Slips what it is, and we touched on matters as diverse as The High Chaparral, Trainspotting and Rob Plath, and the vile Jeremy Kyle even got a mention!

Listen here, and hopefully you'll be able to understand what I'm on about...

Listen to internet radio with SHORT FUSE RADIO on Blog Talk Radio

Buy 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from