Book Review: Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans

Nothing is simple about this novel, not even its title. “Against Nature” is the one the translator of the edition I own went for, but it has also been known as “Against the Grain”. Some English speakers, if required to refer to it, just throw their hands up in despair at translation and use the original French title, “A Rebours.”

It was written in 1884 by a Frenchman with a Dutch name I have never been able to pronounce, Joris-Karl Huysmans, about another Frenchman with a Spanish (?) name I also tend to pass over quickly, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes (bless you!). If you’re thinking, “Oh, no, a Victorian novel – must be a doorstopper with a hideously involved plot and a cast of thousands”, then be reassured. It’s about 200 pages, des Esseintes is for all practical purposes the only character and as for the plot, well, here’s the plot of “Against Nature”.

Arty French aristo decides modern life is rubbish, locks himself away with a bunch of art and books in a house outside Paris, thinks a lot about things and suffers from an ill-defined disease that’s implied to be mental in origin at some points and venereal at others, although the symptoms don’t sound much like either to me. Eventually those symptoms get bad enough that his doctor decides that if he doesn’t go back to living a normal life he faces “insanity speedily followed by tuberculosis” (which isn’t how TB works either, but whatever). Lamenting his fate, des Esseintes returns to the lamestream. That’s it. Really, the weird and unexplained disease is about all “Against Nature” has in common with a writer like Dickens, who des Esseintes, incidentally, doesn’t rate.

People who write about literature call des Esseintes an aesthete (true). They call him a Decadent, also true in that he comes from a novel which is part of the Decadent movement of the 1880s-90s, all purple prose and self-conscious reaction against Victorian morality in favour of aesthetics. If you’ve ever read “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, you may remember the nameless “novel without a plot” which obsesses Dorian so. That novel’s based on “Against Nature”, Oscar Wilde being a huge fan, and there are elements of des Esseintes in Dorian.

However, if I wanted to describe des Esseintes for the internet generation I’d put it this way – he is the Ur-Hipster, the ancestor of every pretentious twerp who claims you’ve probably never heard of his favourite band because it’s so obscure and complains how “mainstream” his hobbies are getting. Popular things that des Esseintes doesn’t like, largely because they are popular, include Oriental rugs, Nature, democracy, diamonds, pearls, roses, “the rising generation” -*shakes fist* “Millennials!” – Moliere, Voltaire, Cicero, newspapers and the colour blue.

At the same time, though, des Esseintes is also the Best Hipster. He may be an elitist misanthropic snob, but he does have the intellectual weight to back up his eccentric opinions. He’s exactly the sort of classy gent that the guys in fedoras in all the mocking image macros wish they were.  Huysmans is also a good enough writer to keep you reading his character’s extended rants about what he hates (and loves) and why, primarily by way of lashings and lashings of purple prose.

For example, des Esseintes dislike of blue comes out in the four or so detailed pages that Huysmans devotes to his decisions on what colour to paint his living room and how to furnish it. Des Esseintes takes thirteen pages over his opinions on Latin literature, nineteen or so over his views on French literature, eleven on making perfume and (I swear I am not making this up) four on how exactly to gild and bejewel the shell of his pet tortoise so that it makes just the right contrast with his rug.

Well, it really ties the room together.

I have to admit, though, that I have a personal reason for liking this novel and this character, in spite of the absence of everything I would normally say is important in a work of fiction – character development, a plot and so on. Leaving aside his aesthetic opinions, des Esseintes faces a lot of the same struggles I face all the time. Can I live  with the people around me, and if I can’t, whose fault is that? Is the society I live in as big a mess as it looks, and if so was it ever better in the past? Can I really accept the Christian faith or not, and if I accept it, can I live up to it? Des Esseintes, in theory an atheist but highly attracted to Catholic artistic traditions, agonises about the last one a lot, probably reflecting Huysmans’ own struggles ahead of his eventual conversion a few years later.

Des Esseintes’ own solution to his problems, retreating from the world, is one I have found tempting in the past. It doesn’t work for him, but I can identify with the desire. I could see myself doing what he does if I had the money, the classical education and the fantastic art collection (I don’t), and I’m honestly not sure if “ending up like des Esseintes” would be an apotheosis or a terrible mistake.

Every time I read “Against Nature” I’m faced with this question of whether the main character is me at my best or me at my worst, and I suspect that’s what draws me back to it. Nothing makes for great art like ambiguity, and “Against Nature” is a book towards which I have a lot of mixed emotions.

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Video game review: Code: Realize – Guardian of Rebirth

How do you solve a problem like “reviewing video games whilst at the same time being terrible at playing them”? Well, I suppose you could, in theory, just lock yourself away in your room for weeks and play like crazy until you’re a true ace. But life is short, gameplay is long and I have a day job to do. Then, there’s always the George Wood approach – be an amazingly terrible reviewer (look up “Gaming in the Clinton Years” for the entertaining results). In spite of all evidence to the contrary, though, I would still claim that I prefer to avoid making a complete idiot of myself if I can at all avoid it.

Here’s my solution – review a visual novel, the genre where story is everything, gameplay is minimal, and if you’ve seen someone’s video of it on YouTube, you might as well have played it yourself. Such is “Code:Realize – Guardian of Rebirth”, and before going any further I’d like to thank ChorpsAway, Devious Vacuum and Dirili, who all did Let’s Plays of this game and thus saved me having to work out where the hell to actually buy it.

“Code:Realize” is a steampunk anime romance in which you play Cardia, a girl who has been hidden away in a secluded mansion in Victorian Wales by a scientist father who has told her that she is a monster who must be kept away from others. Given that she has dangerously corrosive acid for blood and a weird glowing jewel-thingy called the Horologium for a heart, he’s got a point.

At any rate, Cardia is rescued from her prison by Arsene Lupin (gentleman thief and famous literary character) and Impey Barbicane (genius engineer, rather less famous literary character and, in this game, the comic relief and thus a bit of a prat). They all head off to Steampunk Alternate History London, most of whose technology was invented by Cardia’s dad before he mysteriously disappeared. There they hook up with several other famous literary characters and/or real-life historical figures in an effort to find Cardia’s father (spoilers – he’s not a nice guy when found), solve the mystery of who or what she is and, inevitably, save the world along the way.

Oh, and because it’s a romance game, Cardia also gets to work out which of the several guys around her will be her One True Love, and those choices have consequences for the story. Victor Frankenstein, Abraham van Helsing and the Count Saint-Germain, all looking a lot younger and prettier than the source material or real life, are the romantic options along with Lupin and Impey.

It should be fairly obvious from even this cursory summary that “Code:Realize” doesn’t have an earth-shatteringly original plot. Alan Moore did “famous characters from novels team up to do good” in “The League of Gentlemen”; a Japanese descendant of Arsene Lupin was the central character of the “Lupin III” anime decades ago; at its climax, the “true” route even has vague overtones of “Return of the Jedi”.

However, it does make its plot work and most of our heroes are likeable or at least tolerable, or you get reasons for the less likeable things they do. Our villains are – well, you could call them proper villains. Let’s just say that if you like your bad guys to laugh evilly and act hammy, you will not be disappointed. Some of the ham deployed by the voice actors here transcends the language barrier, and possibly the time-space continuum.

The very nature of the medium means rather heavy demands are put on the suspension of disbelief. As always with visual novels, the artist only drew so much, and what they didn’t draw isn’t there, so the same backgrounds tend to come up repeatedly regardless of whether or not they’re supposed to show the same places. For the same reason, particularly epic battles have a habit of happening off-screen (or you just have to take the narrator’s word about the intense combat going on against an empty background) and there’s an awful lot of dialogue instead of action. You suspect that most real-life antagonists would have killed these heroes several times over given their habit of stopping to have long conversations with each other in the midst of fighting.

However, if you can keep disbelief suspended, there are rewards. Everyone gets some character development, especially Cardia, who begins as a girl with little knowledge of the world and a crippling lack of self-confidence caused by her belief that she is a monster, and ends as one who believes in herself as a human being. This mostly works through the power of true love rather than her own actions – although Cardia does get her moments as an action heroine – but then, this is a romance game.

It is rather old-fashioned in that way, with quite a bit of Cardia being a damsel in distress for the boys to sweep in and rescue. If you find that scenario problematic beyond belief, you won’t like “Code:Realize.” If it’s your favourite romantic fantasy, you’re probably the target audience.

The writers also seem to have done enough research into English history to make the setting convincing. It goes without saying that everyone looks and acts very anime, but at least this isn’t just Japan under another name. It’s fairly obvious that the real Queen Victoria wasn’t either the inspiring heroine or the megalomaniac villain that she gets to be at different points in this game. Real 19th-century Welsh people probably weren’t a bunch of superstitious peasants subject to regular famines and willing to form torch-wielding mobs at the drop of a hat either, but then what would a monster game be without a mob or two of angry villagers?

In the end, I was entertained by “Code:Realize”, and if you can turn off your inner cynical meanie and stop nit-picking, so will you be, and that in the end is what matters. Apparently the game has now been turned into an anime, which at the very least should show the action sequences more fully, so if you’re committed enough that too is presumably available somewhere.

 

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Not The Nostalgia Chick: “Della says: OMG!” book review

It’s got a black cover, it’s got internet references in the blurb (“WANT ❤ AND LOL?”), it’s got a content warning about “strong language” – “Della Says: OMG!” is clearly aiming to be an edgier piece of teen fiction than “Avalon High”…

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Well, maybe not quite that edgy. However, this is a novel where the 16 year old heroine, both in her narration and in conversations with her best friend, mentions sex quite a lot and indeed eventually gets to do the wild thing with the object of her affections, so it definitely goes further on that front than Meg Cabot does. The author, Keris Stainton, is British – maybe our publishers are a bit more comfortable with grungy realism in their teen romance than American ones.

Ms Stainton was apparently a book blogger before she wrote this, her first novel, and she seems to have made a career out of writing afterwards, having published several more since it came out in 2010. “Della Says: OMG!” is the tale of the eponymous girl and her twin quests (a) to get together with Dan Bailey, the boy she’s had a crush on since primary school and (b) solve the mystery of who stole her diary and is selectively leaking particularly embarrassing pages of it. Is it bitchy rival girl Gemima Lee? Is it Della’s bitchy rival sister Jamie? Is it Mr Malone, the old guy from the store, but wearing white bedsheets and a ghost mask (“and I would have got away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”)?

I probably shouldn’t be treating stalking and harassment so lightly, but that’s one of the major problems with “Della Says: OMG!” At no point do you really get a sense that the stakes are particularly high, in either of the main plots. Dan kisses Della in the first chapter, and from then it’s really more a case of the relationship gradually developing than of “will they or won’t they?” Dan’s your typical wish-fulfilment boyfriend. A nice kid, sensible, emotionally mature – everything most teenage boys aren’t. He’s never going to belch loudly at an utterly inappropriate moment for a laugh or tell Della he can’t come out for an obviously made-up reason so he can play video games with his mates all evening instead.

As for the stalker, they seem to specialise in sending pages from the diary either to Della herself or to other people who either turn out to be predictably supportive (like Dan) or in ways Della can intercept. For a stalker, they’re amazingly considerate/incompetent, and thus totally lacking in real threat. And whilst you might not be able to guess who, you will probably be able to tell from the beginning that’s it’s one or other of the bitchy girls, because having a bitchy girl rival as the baddie is one of the oldest tropes of media for teenage girls.

Which takes us on to the other biggest problem with the novel – the characters. Only Della, Dan and Della’s friend Maddy really get a lot of characterisation – Dan’s nice if unrealistic, and Della herself, although generally a sympathetic and likeable character, comes across as a borderline nutter for having a crush on Dan from her first day in primary school until the age of 16 (11 years!), without doing anything about it, even talking to him.

What the hell is wrong with this broad? If you’d asked me at 16 who I’d met on the first day of primary school, I wouldn’t even have been able to tell you. Keris Stainton also apparently believes that you notice who the cutest boys in class are “even at that age”, which, to be honest, is not at all the way I remember sexual maturation working. To be fair, Della does frequently describe her lack of confidence, and a lot of shy people have crushes they never worked up the nerve to ask out, but this is extreme.

You also have to wonder what teenager in 2010 was still keeping a written diary, as opposed to using some form of social media. Again, to be fair, Stainton does try to explain this away, but it all makes a lot more sense when you read in the acknowledgments a mention that she herself lost her diary at a party thrown by her sister (it’s not clear whether this was as an adolescent or an adult).

The novel being partly autobiographical, like a lot of first novels, might explain some otherwise rather weird bits, such as Della and Dan’s apparently shared love of 1980s music like “Madness, Simple Minds, the Cure.” Whilst I can’t but sympathise with characters who admire the fine ska sounds of the Nutty Boys, it’s still a stretch to believe this would be true of most modern teenagers.

It makes more sense if this is really a version of Keris Stainton’s early life, and this autobiographical aspect might also explain why she occasionally seems to forget her characters’ exact age. Maddy wears “High School Musical” pyjamas “ironically”, which makes her sound more like a twenty-something hipster than a teenager. She says “I’m a social smoker and this is a social occasion.” I too, have met that person, but it wasn’t until university. And some of her and Della’s conversations include the sort of comments the thirty-somethings in “Sex and the City” might make.

The minor characters are pretty much all either unbelievable or annoying in some way. The bitchy girls are just bitchy – no real explanation needed. Della’s sister Jamie does get explained as, basically, an insecure attention-seeker, but that’s all done via narration from Della (“Show, Don’t Tell”). A lot is made of Della’s mum being a model in the 80s, but given that she ended up as a housewife up North, my guess is it was more like “C & A catalogue model” than the Cindy Crawford Della seems to think she was. In fact, Della finding that out might have been a more interesting plot than the ones she gets.

Della’s dad is supposed to own a chain of delicatessens, one of which Della works at part-time, but he’s a dire stereotype – a sitcom dad who exists to be bumbling and make unfunny jokes that his daughter can be embarrassed by. He comes off as so committed to being a full-time prat that it’s hard to believe he could be a successful businessman who married a model. His suppliers probably love him though. If you want shot of some past-their-prime horsemeat-based sausages, this berk will pay top dollar. Bob, Della’s co-worker at the shop, is (I think) meant to be the sort of gay best friend the “Sex and the City” characters pal around with, but since the gayness is only implied the level of interest he shows in a teenage girl’s love life honestly make him come across as more of a sexual predator.

A final point – the setting for this novel is Lancashire, which is where Keris Stainton lives. Given that the town appears to have a cathedral, and trips to Blackpool, Lytham and Manchester are all no big deal, I think it’s meant to be Blackburn. But you wouldn’t really guess if you weren’t told this in the narration. About the only distinctly Lancastrian thing the characters do is go on a day trip to Lytham (truly, they are the young and the reckless). So, whilst you have to give the author credit for setting it somewhere a bit unusual, it might as well have been London for all the good it does.

 

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Not The Nostalgia Chick: “Avalon High” book review

Up till now, all my book reviews have been of works which might be called stereotypically male: macho lit. Well, I got bored of ploughing my way through novels about crooks and commando raids, so I thought I’d change tack. I’ll be reviewing a few stereotypically female/girly books, to shake things up. Hence the title – I suspect some of what I review will be remembered nostalgically by someone, but I’m not female and I’m not Lindsay Ellis (you’ll never find me dabbling with “being funny”, “being successful”, “making some money” or “being in a much-posted gif where I get sausages thrown in my face”).

“Avalon High”, which was published in 2006, is by Meg Cabot, who’s written a string of novels aimed at teenage girls. She’s probably best known for “The Princess Diaries” series, which were so successful they got turned into theatrically-released films starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. Apparently there’s a film of this one too, albeit only a Disney Channel movie.

I’ll be honest with you – people tend to read/watch internet reviews for amusing snark at the expense of bad movies, books or whatever. However, once you get past the awful pink-and-purple cover clearly designed to minimise the risk of any cootie-ridden male buying it, “Avalon High” is basically a good and enjoyable book, within its genre limits. The 16-year-old protagonist, Ellie Harrison, is mostly believable, relatable and, frankly, a breath of fresh air after all the over-the-top macho dipshits from the military fiction I’ve previously written about. She’s supposed to be a nice girl from Minnesota (“Oh ya!”)who’s moved to Annapolis in Maryland, and I buy that. You’re supposed to be on her side, and I was. If you care about role models in kid’s fiction, she’s a fairly good one.

I’m pretty sure that a teenager in 2006 wouldn’t use “Not!” at the end of her sentences quite as often as Ellie does. That was the sort of thing that I used to do as a teenager in 1992 (note for kids – please don’t do that sort of thing) and it must surely have been dead fourteen years later. However, that’s a minor gripe.

I’m also not as convinced as she is that “being tall” amounts to a colossal personal flaw and definitely means she can’t be pretty, but since there are real women who seem to believe the same, I’ll let it pass.

Perhaps the most surprising thing  about the book’s plot is that Meg Cabot makes no real attempt to try to make much of what I would have regarded as the biggest plot twist. Ellie moves from Minnesota to Maryland with her academic parents, and at the titular high school falls in with hunky quarterback, Will, his cheerleader girlfriend Jennifer, Will’s sidekick, Lance and Will’s stepbrother and rival, Marco. As soon as I read the title and saw those names (and bear in mind, Will’s full name is A. William Wagner, as the book constantly reminds us), I thought “this is going to be a modern spin on the legend of King Arthur, isn’t it?” And blow me down if that isn’t just what it is.

Now, admittedly, I’m older and (perhaps) more widely read than the intended audience, but Cabot really hammers the King Arthur stuff home before the formal “reveal” that each of the main characters are the reincarnation of someone from the legend. Or at least, that their eccentric English teacher who’s possibly Merlin and possibly also close kin to Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer believes they are, because the ending deliberately leaves whether this is all true or not as an open question.

Ellie’s parents’ specialist subject is mediaeval history. Her mother is specifically an expert on Arthurian legend. Ellie floats around in swimming pools a lot. Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallott” gets quoted at the start of every chapter. We’re told on p.7 that she’s named Elaine after said Lady…I can’t believe even teenagers would not pick up on this at a fairly early stage. I’m fairly sure I knew about the tales of King Arthur, mostly courtesy of Rosemary Sutcliff, by the time I would have been old enough to read “Avalon High.”

To be fair to Cabot, there are a couple of twists within the twist, as it were, so being fairly up-front about this doesn’t kill the dramatic tension. But I still think it’s odd not to keep the whole “reincarnation of the court of Camelot” thing a bit more under wraps and go lighter on the foreshadowing. The other big problem I have with “Avalon High” is the characterisation of Will and Marco.

OK, Will is supposed to be King Arthur reborn, and he is being portrayed through the eyes of Ellie, who fancies his pants off. He is, inevitably, going to look heroic, insofar as an upper-middle class American teen in a fairly realistic world can look heroic. However, even taking this into account, he still behaves so impeccably that he edges towards being a Mary Sue. This kid never puts a foot wrong. His stepbrother’s a sociopath, and he tries to reason with him. His girlfriend cheats on him, and he’s calm and rational about it. Men decades older than him have been known to flip out in the same position (including the actual King Arthur, who declared war on Lancelot for his adultery), but not Will.

I’ll admit that some of the Mary Sue-dom is a bit hard to determine. Cabot is, on the whole, good at making her teenagers sound and act like convincing teenagers. For instance, to a man and woman, they do not believe the Arthur thing when they are told about it. Will is treated as profound for saying things like “unless you’re Native American, I don’t think you can go around telling other people to go back to their country” or “I want to make a difference in the world. I really do. But I don’t want to do it by blowing people up”. That’s exactly the sort of simplistic stuff you would think was pretty deep at that age, so I can’t quite tell if that’s because he’s one teenager talking to another (who fancies him rotten), and thus great writing, or because Meg Cabot still thinks that’s pretty deep, and thus bad writing.

As for Marco – well, he essentially behaves like a one-note bad guy from start to finish. We find near the end that he does have genuine reasons for resenting Will’s father, at any rate, but most of it just comes off as brattishness maturing into something even worse. Again, he is the reincarnation of Mordred, and thus pre-destined to be evil, but as with Will, it is a bit black-and-white to believe.

I mentioned earlier that “Avalon High” is set in a fairly realistic world, and with a few exceptions that could mostly be explained as non-magical if you wanted to, there isn’t really any magic in this tale of King Arthur. That’s true of a lot of the original legends too, which is a nice touch, and one thing I do like about the novel is that in manages a more-or-less realistic level of drama with a subject where you could easily go much further. The big climax involves one character pointing a gun at another. In real life that would indeed be an enormously dramatic moment, but in a lot of films or TV shows happens about every five minutes. No-one escapes underground terrorist bases single-handed in this book.

Well, that’s “Avalon High” for you. Sadly, as I am Not the Nostalgia Chick, you don’t get a sketch now. I also resisted the temptation to visit http://www.megcabot.co.uk (if the site’s still up) as urged by the cover, so I can’t bring you the “cool princess fashion tips” or “great e-cards and comps” it promises. You’ll just have to imagine me in a battered tinsel crown, probably getting bratwurst thrown into my face.

 

 

 

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Armchair Detective: The Tamam Shud case

Like many people, I love a good unsolved mystery. Don’t get me wrong, not enough to actually go and do in-depth research about them (the very thought!), but certainly enough to waste time playing Sherlock Holmes and coming up with half-baked theories about them. Actually, whilst I wouldn’t generally defend half-arsed amateur theorising based on limited knowledge in most areas of human endeavour, I do think there’s a place for it in the investigation of decades-old mysteries.

After all, the well-informed experts on solving crime – the police, forensic scientists, courts and so on – will already have tried and failed long before the amateur turns up on the scene. If they hadn’t, it wouldn’t be a decades-old mystery. More importantly, a lot of well-known mysteries tend to attract such bonkers suggestions as to their solution that, whilst an armchair detective certainly isn’t going to solve the mystery, they might at least have a shot at knocking some of the accumulated crud of bonkers suggestions off it, using no more than common sense. And that’s really what I’m trying to do here.

The mystery in question is the Tamam Shud case . No, that isn’t how Jabba the Hutt told Han Solo he might have been a good smuggler, but now he was just Bantha fodder. It’s actually Persian for “ended” or “finished”, and those were the words found on a scrap of paper torn from a book in the pocket of a man found lying dead on Somerton beach in Glenelg, near Adelaide in South Australia, on 1 December 1948, his head leaning back on the seawall.

In fact, strictly, they were in a pocket within his pocket, and despite a lot of investigation in the years since, the man has never been identified, nor his cause of death established. The doctors who did the autopsy suggested he might have been poisoned, largely because his organs appeared inflamed, but since they couldn’t establish that there was any kind of poison in the body, that seems guesswork at best and later researchers have said that there are illnesses that might create similar symptoms.

He wasn’t a local, though. From the evidence of tickets found on the body, he appeared to have turned up in Glenelg by bus the day before he was found, and in Adelaide by train on the morning of that day (although it has never been clear from exactly where in Australia he came).

Nor has anyone ever been able to work out why he was carrying an oddly-apposite quote torn from the last page The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with him when he died, although the police were able to track down the actual copy of the book that the scrap came from, which either the man or someone else had dumped in an unlocked car in a nearby road. The book’s back inside cover had faint indentations in of five lines of meaningless all-caps text that most people have concluded was some kind of code, and of the unlisted telephone number of a local, soon to be married, nurse called Jessica Ellen Thomson. Very local, in fact – she lived only 400 metres away from where the body was found.

When contacted, Thomson denied knowing the man. She continued to do so until she died a few years ago, although in a way that apparently failed to convince police officers then or years later, or independent researchers who interviewed her, or even her own daughter, that she was telling the truth.

As for the “code” – well, in spite of various attempts by professional code-breakers, no-one’s ever been able to make sense of it. Really, then, it’s the book and the evidence related to it that has led to the mystery enduring. It isn’t that unusual for unidentifiable dead people to turn up, and even for it to be impossible to work out exactly how they died (especially after they’ve been dead a while). It is unusual for such deaths to be associated with unbreakable codes, people who vehemently deny knowing the dead person and mid-Victorian romantic poetry loosely translated from Persian.

And it’s really this evidence that’s led to the theory about this case that I think even an armchair detective can knock holes in – that it was somehow connected to espionage. Who uses codes? Spies, of course! And a spy would, of course, make sure that their origins were untraceable and, if you’d been working with them, you wouldn’t want to admit you knew them. And, of course, spies always have plenty of professional enemies who’d bump them off at the drop of a hat, and probably leave an apposite poetic quote in their pocket to send a message as well. Huge drama queens, those intelligence people.

It’s at this point that I start theorising, and I start from the point of “what’s more inherently likely? That what happened here is something common, or something exotic and unusual?” It’s the former, of course. And dead spies, especially the murdered kind, are exotic and unusual.

In 1948, espionage basically meant Communist Russia and its satellites v. “the West” (including Australia). Let’s assume that the dead man was some kind of Eastern Bloc agent because (a) that seems to be what the espionage theorists think (much gets made of Jessica Thomson having “Communist leanings” and “being able to speak Russian”, points to which I will return later) and (b) openly murdering a Western intelligence agent in a Western country seems like crazily risky behaviour even for the Stalin-era KGB. So what exactly would there be for an Eastern Bloc agent to spy on in 1948 Adelaide?

Well, Australia was a Western ally, was contributing military forces to various parts of what was becoming the Cold War and was part of an intelligence-sharing agreement with the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand that still exists. On the other hand, none of that seems like something you’d particularly need to go to Adelaide to spy on, still less employ some kind of local agent there, if that it what Jessica Thomson is supposed to have been. It’s also hard to see how a nurse would have access to such secrets (and, since she had a 16-month-old son, it is not clear Thomson was even working as a nurse at the time). By the mid-1950s, the British were carrying out nuclear testing at Maralinga in South Australia. It’s still hundreds of miles from Adelaide, but the whole espionage scenario might make a bit more sense if the dead man had been found in 1956. However, he wasn’t.

You also have to ask yourself – who would kill an Eastern Bloc agent, as such? Logically, either a Western intelligence agency or his own side (if he looked like he might have betrayed them, or be about to). In the first case, you would assume that Western agents would rather have arrested the Eastern Bloc agent and anyone working with him whilst they were all in a friendly jurisdiction, to break up the spy ring and extract as much information as possible about what they’ve all been up to, rather than kill the agent (and only him) and leave his body somewhere very public in a way that was bound to attract a potentially embarrassing police investigation.

Another Eastern Bloc agent, of course, would not have the arrest option. Still, that doesn’t explain why they would leave the body in a public place, leave any evidence at all on it (even if it turned out that it was not evidence that could be used to trace the dead spy) or make sure that he was carrying a poetic message in his pocket. Who’s “tamam shud” supposed to be directed at, in this theory? Other potential traitors connected to this guy? Then why not kill them too, if you’re going down that road? And, of course, we have no cause of death for the man on the beach, and so no clear evidence he was murdered at all, by anyone.

Jessica Thomson, even if she did know the dead man, also comes across as a poor candidate for a foreign intelligence agent’s local asset. She was not in a place or a job that suggests she would have easy access to important secret information. On closer examination, her “Communist leanings” were probably more “kind of bohemian and left-leaning” and the extent to which she could actually speak Russian, or any other foreign language, is heavily disputed.

It also seems unlikely that English-speaking Russian intelligence operatives would waste time teaching their Anglophone agents to speak Russian. It would take ages, not be particularly necessary for the latter to do their jobs and potentially put the whole operation at risk, if a local agent somehow reveals to others that they can speak Russian when there is no particular reason why they should be able to.

It’s probably also worth mentioning again that Thomson’s story didn’t manage to convince various investigators, including the police at the time, which suggests she wasn’t a great liar. Personally, I would say that being a good liar is probably the number one quality you need to be any kind of spy.

Nevertheless, it does seem very likely that the man on the beach was connected to her. He had her phone number, there are the unconvincing denials from her and there is the connection with The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which was clearly an emotionally significant poem for Jessica Thomson. A few years before she had given a copy of it to a former boyfriend just before he was posted overseas on active service in the Second World War. Indeed, when they heard about this, the police suspected the body might be that of the boyfriend, until he turned up, very much alive and still with his copy of the book.

There were a number of reasons why Thomson might not have been wholly forthcoming about what was going on that have more to do with the moral constraints of the time than her involvement in espionage. It is pretty likely that her eldest son (who’s now also dead) was not the son of the man who she was then living with, Prosper Thomson. Prosper was not her husband, although she called him that, and he would soon become so in reality. His divorce was still going through (and divorce itself was less socially acceptable at the time). She also seems to have been concerned about Prosper finding out about the ex-boyfriend mentioned above (and presumably any others too). None of this would be regarded as very shocking now, but taken all together it certainly was not the way “nice girls” in the late 40s were supposed to act.

I mentioned earlier the melodramatic nature of the words on a scrap of paper in the dead man’s pocket, and whilst a murderer might leave melodramatic messages with their victims, it seems far more likely as a suicide’s gesture. Jessica Thomson clearly had men in her life before she was married, one of whom may even have been the father of her son. There’s nothing particularly improbable in the idea that one of them might have turned up at her home one day, with or without warning, been told that it was definitely over, and reacted badly enough to end his life on the spot. Disappointed lovers committing suicide are, after all, a lot more common than spies being murdered.

It has been suggested that the dead man was chronically ill anyway and simply died of natural causes on the beach, which all seems a bit coincidental to be convenient, but (a) that’s on the assumption that the message the man got was “this is definitely over, go away”, which might not have been the case and (b) given the lack of a cause of death, can’t be called impossible.

The failure to establish an identity might be explained by the dead man being a foreigner of some kind, perhaps an Allied soldier formerly stationed in Australia during the war, a migrant or refugee, or simply an orphan or someone else with few family connections and no-one who would particularly miss them. As for the code…well, no-one’s clearly ever established the writing is a code, at least of the formalised, used-by-spies, kind. If it is, it’s surprising it hasn’t been broken yet. The code used by the Zodiac murderer of late 60s California was broken fairly quickly by comparison.

It may be that the writing is some kind of entirely personal and unbreakable shorthand, rather than a code, is the meaningless product of an unstable mind or even that it got indented on the inside back cover from a previous owner using that to support a bit of paper for scrawling meaningless nonsense on. After all, the edition of The Rubaiyat in question was published in 1941, and might easily have had previous owners before the dead man.

I think what we have here is much more likely to have been a private tragedy than a Cold War thriller. As an armchair detective, I can’t tell you what it was, but I’d be very surprised if any spies were involved.

 

 

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A summer of violence

I don’t think it’s being melodramatic to say that, between unexpected and terrifying acts of political violence and the unexpected and terrifying burning down of a West London tower block, it’s already been a violent summer in the UK. And, I would imagine, a pretty profitable one for all kinds of media. Nothing provokes people to buy newspapers, watch TV news, or swarm on to Twitter, Facebook and so on like a good, large-scale human tragedy, except perhaps an election, which of course we also had.

There hasn’t been a war yet, of course, so the media haven’t quite hit the jackpot of revenue-maximising opportunities. But who knows, maybe that can be arranged? After all, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate on whom Citizen Kane was based, is supposed to have told his man in Cuba, who was sceptical about the possibility of a war between the US and Spain, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” (There isn’t actually a lot of evidence that Hearst said this).

If this sounds cynical, well…it is cynical, really. But still not half as cynical as making your living from mass death and unimaginable grief, especially when that living is quite as good as it is for those who own the institutions of the media. And especially when, as has been the case this summer, a lot of the death in question simply would not have taken place if there had been no-one to report on it.

Whatever happened at Grenfell Tower, the media clearly weren’t responsible for the fire (although a lot of what I say below also applies to the reporting of that). Terrorism, however, is a different matter. As a military strategy, the launching of attacks on wholly civilian targets by small groups seeking radical social change simply makes no sense without a mass media to publicise those attacks.  The proof of this is that, before there was something you could call a mass media, there was nothing you could call terrorism, in that sense anyway. The first people to get seriously into throwing bombs in public places as a way to make their point were anarchists and nationalists (like the Irish Fenians) in the late 19th century, which was also, not coincidentally, the first time in history there was a press with a mass readership.

Murder and violent assault are as old as humanity. Regular warfare, assassinations, arguably even genocide, have been around since civilisation began. But committing mass atrocity for publicity can’t work without something to publicise your atrocities, and it’s modern.  There’s been a tendency, in recent years, to treat Islamist terrorist groups of the Al Quaeda/ISIS variety as somehow different from previous terrorists, scary religious maniacs who’ll sacrifice their own lives to inflict as much death as possible more or less without rational objectives. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and so on.

Partly this is because it suits Western governments to portray them as dangerous and beyond-the-pale loonies and partly because it suits these groups themselves to be seen that way. After all, that provokes more fear. However, just like all previous terrorists, they’re pursuing a rational strategy of achieving power by using fear and terror to undermine their opponents and rally their supporters, and no-one can do that without achieving the maximum amount of publicity for what they do.

And that is something that, over the last few months, the British media has seemed perfectly happy to give them. Some of the reporting on the recent incidents, to me, seemed like little more than obsessive slavering over death and misery.

There were relentless attempts to establish exactly how many people had died each time, as if there was somehow a score to keep. Microphones were shoved in front of people who were clearly still in shock and should probably not have been given an international audience in the emotional state they were in. There was a constant quest to see whether blame might be placed, not on the people who actually did the killing, but on the police and government generally for lacking the clairvoyance to know which of tens of thousands of disaffected young men were disaffected enough to actually do something about it.

The coverage went on, in each case, for days, and to the extent where I’m surprised that more of the audience didn’t find it as unbearable as quickly as I did. Actually, this is one of the more depressing aspects of the whole thing; that more people don’t just turn off. After all, it would not be worthwhile reporting these kinds of attacks in this kind of way if it routinely led to the audience plummeting. And it goes further than that. The kind of obsessive coverage that happened was partly made possible because so many participants were willing to whip out their mobile phones at a moment’s notice and film what happened long before any professional camera operator could arrive.

If there genuinely is a huge audience out there for death and violence, that doesn’t say much for us as members of that audience. If we’re prepared to do the media’s work for it, we can’t wholly blame it for the result. Are ISIS the only ones here who “just want to watch the world burn”?

 

 

 

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Poetry Review: Greatest Hits of Sir Henry Newbolt

By “greatest hits”, I  really mean “the three poems by Newbolt that anyone remembers nowadays,” and to give him credit he was a bit more than a one-hit wonder. Newbolt lived from 1862 to 1938, and worked at various times as a lawyer, literary journalist and government adviser-cum-war-propagandist. However, his lasting fame is as “the poet of the British Empire at its peak,” or at any rate “its other poet,” since he was a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling. Naturally, that also makes his work undisputably macho (Newbolt would probably have preferred, “manly”)

Wikipedia also claims that he more or less lived in a harem with his wife, Margaret and her cousin Ella, who was both of their lovers, so no doubt the anime version of his life, Moe Moe, Newbolt-Chan!, in which there are wacky hi-jinks and Henry keeps getting beaten up for accidentally stumbling into the bathroom whilst one or other of the women are naked, will be made eventually.

“Vitai Lampada” (1892) is undoubtedly Newbolt’s best-known poem. It’s also annoyingly difficult to spell, because apparently it isn’t “Vitae Lampada” as I always thought (Latin conjugation, eh?), and should have two dots above the “i”. I have no idea how you make a keyboard do that.

Anyway, the theme of the poem is basically how values of selflessness and team-spirit learned through an English public school, specifically its sport, even more specifically its cricket, goes on to inspire one of its pupils through his life. That life is probably a short one, since the next time we see him he’s on the losing side of a battle in a colonial war in Sudan (apparently based on the battle of Abu Klea in 1885), bravely rallying his troops. “Play up, play up and play the game,” is the refrain, which sounds like the sort of “encouragement” you dreaded hearing from that PE teacher you always hated, as you carefully avoided getting too involved in some rugby match he insisted you play in. Or is that just me?

To be honest, I am very late to the snark on “Vitai Lampada.” The poem played its part in inspiring a generation of public schoolboys to volunteer for service in the First World War, and as you can imagine, many those who survived were left with strong and negative feelings about it. I don’t think anyone still accepts the “warfare is just a larky extension of sport” trope that some people pre-1914 do seem to have genuinely believed, and to be fair to Newbolt, the British troops we see are on the point of being wiped out (“the river of death has brimmed his banks”), so it’s not as if he presents war as a jolly jape with few negative consequences.

However, what he does do, like a lot of people at the time, up to and including generals, is suggest that the key factor in war is spiritual, not physical. The crucial thing in the battle he describes is that “the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks”, most likely too late, not that the British are better armed or organised than the Sudanese (even if they are, they’re still losing). That wasn’t particularly true even in the colonial wars of the British Empire, where the British usually won mostly precisely by virtue of having modern weapons that their enemies didn’t. By the end of the First World War, it was very obviously hopelessly outdated.

A more fundamental criticism of the poem, however, is that at crucial points it is, quite simply, far too idealistic to be believable. A cricket team is inspired to win by a desire to “play up and play the game,” not by “the sake of a ribboned coat Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame”, when in practice, most sports teams are precisely driven by the wish to win trophies and have everyone else know they’ve done that.  A posh young officer can rally the working class rank-and-file of a losing army by telling the soldiers to “play up and play the game” according to the values of the good old school, when most of the men he was talking to would (a) have no idea what he meant and (b) not care, since they were more interested in escaping with their lives. And they wouldn’t be wrong, either.

In effect, Newbolt thinks his ideology of selfless duty is universally held and universally true. I can only assume he lived life in something of a bubble if he believed that was the case even in 1892, and it’s worth pointing out that this is a poem about battle written by a man who was never in one. Next to Newbolt, Kipling looks far more of a realist on these matters (and, interestingly, he usually tried to write about them from the ordinary soldier’s perspective).

“Drake’s Drum” (1897) is, as they would have said in Friends, The One Where Drake He’s In His Hammock An’ a Thousand Mile Away (“Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?”). Basically, this is Newbolt’s contribution to the genre of “there’s an old, long-dead, national hero, who will in the right circumstances, come back from the dead to save us.” In this case, the hero is Sir Francis Drake and the right circumstances are “if the Dons sight Devon” and someone beats on his drum. The drum really exists, in Buckland Abbey (or at any rate, that’s where a replica of it’s on display). Newbolt wrote the poem in pseudo-West Country dialect whose accuracy you can debate, and phonetically, which is always pretty corny. Having said that, it can’t be denied that, like Vitai Lampada, it is memorable, and the corny pirate talk helps achieve that. Once you’ve read these poems, they aren’t easily forgotten, and of course they haven’t been.

The main problems I have with the poem are (a) that if Drake is only going to respond to Spanish invasions, as he says he is, then that isn’t much use because Spain hasn’t posed a serious invasion threat to Britain since the early 17th century and (b) he claims to have “drum(med) them up the Channel”, which he didn’t, at least not if he’s talking about the Spanish Armada in 1588. The whole Spanish objective in that campaign was to sail up the English Channel, to meet with their army in what is now Belgium and mount a joint invasion of England.

The English didn’t drive them up it; they went there voluntarily, losing a few ships along the way. Then they anchored off Calais, and the whole plan fell apart, because they couldn’t communicate reliably with the Spanish army and so didn’t know what exactly to do next. All they could do was sit where they were, and it was while they were doing so that the English successfully attacked them and the surviving ships had to go on the run. At best, Drake is shading the facts in his favour here (although I suppose he’s entitled to – it is fiction).

“He Fell Among Thieves” is a poem that would seem supremely dated, but has been given a bit of a new lease of life through the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. British adventurer (exact details of who he is and what he’s up to are kept vague) is somewhere on the North-West Frontier, when he somehow befriends (again, the details are vague), some guys who reveal themselves to be bandits. They slaughter everyone he’s got with him and whilst, badass that he is, he kills five of them, in the end he just hasn’t got enough bullets for all of them.

Although, unsurprisingly, wanting “blood for our blood” for their fallen comrades the bandits, rather more surprisingly, agree to wait until morning before taking it. James Bond would undoubtedly take advantage of this time to escape or something, but Newbolt, this time, is more of a realist. The protagonist spends the night remembering his childhood and youth back in England, which is exactly what you would expect from Newbolt (apparently one of the high-points of his life was winning a race at school) and then the bandits behead him.

The advantage of this poem over the other two, particularly “Vitai Lampada”, is that this time Newbolt isn’t out to prove a point, just tell a story. The title is clearly a reference to the Bible story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps because in this case, there clearly won’t be one and it wouldn’t help if there were. However, the only point at which religion is really mentioned in the poem itself is when the protagonist says some final words to God, just before his death, and they’re phrased so vaguely that it isn’t entirely clear he’s referring to God in the Christian sense at all.

With the return to the world of people who like to behead kidnapped Westerners, and of Westerners getting involved in dangerous situations in the same part of the world, “He Fell Among Thieves” has become a poem that, by and large, could still be written today. The details would certainly differ. Apparently, the only family member that the protagonist bothers thinking about before death is his father, and he takes patriotic pride in having come across in a ship flying a British flag in a way that it’s hard to believe a man facing his death really would even then, let alone now.

However, in this poem Newbolt is a bit less hopelessly a fly stuck in Victorian amber. Perhaps that’s why it’s my favourite of the three.

 

 

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