Thursday 30 April 2009

Our Girl in Havana!

I love to travel. I’ve been going to one place or another since I was very young. My parents are quite wealthy, so we always went on exotic holidays. Latterly I’ve been going away with friends, usually twice a year, sometimes more, when money and time allow.

Last summer I was in Havana . Yes, I was. What a fascinating place it is, full of life, of music, of dance, of sex…and of danger. The American embargo-a great error of judgement-has kept the place preserved in a kind of time-loop, somewhere in the early 1960s. Everywhere there are cars, American classic cars, fashionable over fifty years ago, that somehow have been kept going. The city itself, large parts of it, are crumbling, as if just emerging from a war or a great natural disaster. The old city-Habana Vieje-is still in reasonably good condition, as are large parts of the more affluent suburbs, but the intermediate core, and areas along the Malecon, are in a fairly dire state.

I was there with some girlfriends from university. We stayed in the old city, in a hotel called Ambos Mundos, a wonderful eccentric pink palace, where Ernest Hemingway lived briefly in the 1930s. His room-511, I think-is still preserved as a museum.

As always I tried to get to know the local people; but it’s not easy. The grey-shirted police are everywhere, absolutely everywhere, and they clearly have instructions to intervene when local people, other than those in the tourist industry, engage with visitors. There also, it seems to me, on the basis of some superficial observations, to be a racial element in this process. It always seemed to be the case that if we talked to black boys, or were with black boys, the police were quick to intervene. I was sitting with a guy in Parque Central, opposite the Hotel Inglaterra, when the police appeared and took him away. Yes, with virtually no explanation. I tried to intervene, but my Spanish simply is not good enough, and they speak too fast, so I was left helpless.

But I will not be put off by things like that; I simply got more careful. We did make contacts, in bars and clubs, with some really cool people. It was because of this that I was able to go to a Santeria gathering. It was in an old building, a real warren, in terrible condition, and full, really full, of people. The ceremony itself was held in a large room, with an alter at one end, consisting of various figures, Catholic saints and the representation of West African gods. There were drummers and people were drinking rum and dancing. The whole thing was so strange, like nothing I’ve ever experienced, really energetic, really wild. One woman went into a trance, undergoing a kind of possession.

I should stress that I do not believe any of this was put on for my benefit. ! paid nothing, part from a small offering we made to the saints and gods. I had so much rum, and I was dancing so wildly myself, that I could feel that I was being absorbed, if that makes sense, into the group and into the moment; as if I was losing all sense of myself.

I did not go back to the hotel that night: I stayed and I slept with a beautiful guy called Jorge. :-))

Osculum Infame, or Kiss my Devilish Arse!

Now here is something about a form of satanic worship you may never have heard of, unless you have any knowledge of the history of witchcraft. You will know, of course, that that the Black Mass, as commonly conceived, is a perversion of the Catholic rite. Throughout the high Middle-Ages people, mostly women, accused of witchcraft were also charged taking part in a form of Devil worship known as the Sabbat. As part of this they were said to have performed a ritual greeting known in Latin as the osculum infame-literally the ‘kiss of shame.’ What this meant was that the witches lined up to greet Satan, either by kissing his backside or, more intimately, kissing his anus!

When I first came across a reference my reaction was what the hell would Satan need an anus for, when I remembered a passage in one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where sinners-senior clerics mostly-are taken in at one end and ejected at the other!

Anyway, the kiss was seen not just as an act of adoration and submission but a perversion of the kiss of peace performed in the Catholic Mass. One can find loads of contemporary illustrations showing witches performing the osculum.

Hey, there are some things a girl will not do!

The Witches of Warboys

I’m going to tell a story that those who are familiar with the Salem Witch Hunt might find eerily familiar. In many ways it probably reveals the consistent underpinning to mass witch persecutions; that the accusations were without objective proof; that the accusers were often children; that hysteria spread to more and more ‘victims’; that the spectacle of the ‘collective fit’ was one of the features of the trial.

Anyway, the setting is the village of Warboys in the county of Huntingdonshire in the fen district of the east of England. The date is 1593. Three members of the same family stand accused of witchcraft: Alice Samuel, John, her husband, and Agnes, her daughter.

Now standing on trial for their lives, the accusations against Alice and her family date back to 1589, when Robert Throckmorton and his family moved into the local manor house. Throckmorton was very well-connected, numbering one Sir Henry Cromwell, one of the wealthiest commoners in England, amongst his friends. The Samuels, in contrast, were among the meanest of the ‘mean folk’; poor, badly educated and with nothing at all in the way of social influence.

Not long after the family had settled in the village, Jane Throckmorton, Robert’s nine-year-old daughter, fell ill. Her symptoms are described in the only source of information we have about the events that followed, a pamphlet published three years after the trail, entitled, The most strange and admirable discoverie of the three Witches of Warboys, arraigned, convicted, and executed at the last Assizes at Huntington, for the bewitching of the five daughters of Robert Throckmorton Esquire, and divers other persons, with sundrie Divellish and grievous torments,

“About the 10th of November in the year 1589 Mistress Jane, one of the daughters of the said Master Throckmorton being near the age of 10 years [she was in fact 9 years and 3 months] fell upon a sudden into a strange kind of sickness of body, the manner whereof was as followeth. Sometimes she would sneeze very loud and thick for the space of half an hour together, and presently as one in a great trance or swoon lay quietly as long; soon after she would begin to swell and heave up her belly so as none was able to bend her or keep her down; sometimes she would shake one leg and no other part of her, as if the palsey had been in it, sometimes the other; presently she would shake one of her arms, and then the other, soon after her head, as if she had been infected with the running palsey.”

The sickness was believed to be epilepsy, until Jane accused seventy-six year old Alice Samuel of bewitching her. Soon after this other children in the area started to show the same hysterical symptoms in a chain reaction, blaming the same source for their afflictions. Now a conflict began, between the powerful Throckmortons, on the one hand, and the disempowered Samuels, on the other.

The Throckmortons were aided by Lady Cromwell, wife of Sir Henry, who arrived at the manor in early 1590 on a visit. She, too, accused Alice of witchcraft, taking a lock of the old woman’s hair by force and ordering it to be burned, a folk remedy to weaken a witch’s power. In anger Alice is alleged to have said, “Madam, why do you use me thus? I never did you harm as yet.” It was this ‘as yet’ that was to prove fatal for Alice in the end. That same night Lady Cromwell had nightmares about Alice, later falling ill, finally dying in July, 1592.

After this the accusations, which tended to come and go, became more hysterical than ever, with the children now accusing Alice of the death of Lady Cromwell. The matter finally came to the attention of the Bishop of Lincoln. In April 1593 Alice and her family were finally tried on a charge of witchcraft and murder. The author of the pamphlet claims that some five hundred people were in attendance. As at Salem a hundred years later the children provided a dramatic chorus of accusation. Joan Throckmorton, Jane’s older sister, spoke of spirits named Blue, Pluck, Catch and Smack sent by Alice to control her fits. She was aided by the chorus, who all broke down into a collective fit. Alice’s words to Lady Cromwell were also cited as evidence. All three were found guilty and hanged.

The irony here is that Lady Cromwell was the grandmother of Oliver Cromwell, who was to inflict a greater curse on England, exercising far more malign power than had ever been at the disposal of poor Alice Samuel.

Wednesday 29 April 2009

A Queen for All Seasons

Poor Jane; a woman for all seasons...and none. A plaything for her time, and a plaything for posterity. There is not really enough material to construct a proper, source-based, biography, but that has not stopped people filling the gaps with the fruits of imagination.

The story begins with Elizabethan ballads, a tale of innocence betrayed. In one Jane, in denouncing her executioner declares "For Popery I hate as death/and Christ my saviour love." Jane is now not only an innocent but a martyr to the Protestant cause, and appears as such in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. She was also idealised in another way by Roger Ascham as noble and scholarly, on no certain evidence, it has to be said. But the greatest Elizabethan tribute to her came in Thomas Chaloner's Elegy, published in 1579. Here she is peerless in her learning and beauty, comparable only with Socrates for her courage and quiet resignation in the face of death. He even suggests that she was pregnant at the time of her execution, an assertion that appears nowhere else, presumably to make Mary, the great villain of the piece, appear all the more heartless.

From martyrology and poetry, Jane finally made it on to the stage in the early Jacobean period in Lady Jane by John Webster and Thomas Dekker, where she and takes on the role of a tragic lover. This theme was taken up later in the century by Joan Banks, a Restoration playwright in his Innocent Usurper: or, the Death of Lady Jane Grey. Here Jane is only persuaded to accept the crown after her husband, Lord Guilford Dudley, threatens to commit suicide if she does not. And if you believe that you will believe anything! First performed after the Glorious Revolution, there is also a strong anti-Catholic dimension to Bank's play, which must have appealed to the audiences of the day.

More plays and poems followed in the eighteenth century, when a small Janeite industry began to take shape. In the early Hanoverian period she takes on the role of political heroine as well as martyr, scholar and tragic lover, putting down her Plato and taking up the crown only to save English Protestantism. Her popularity as a subject for tragic romance increased even further in the nineteenth century, an age of mass printing, where her story appears in a variety of media, including popular magazines and children's books.

Jane's growing reputation, it's worth stressing, was not just a popular phenomenon. Gilbert Burnet, Whig historian and self-publicist, described Jane, with considerable exaggeration, as 'the wonder of the age' in his History of the Reformation, a phrase subsequently taken up by Oliver Goldsmith his History of England, published in 1771. Even the sober and unromantic David Hume was seduced by the tragedy of Jane and Dudley. It was not until the early nineteenth century that John Lingard, a Catholic historian, ventured a word or two of counter-adulation, saying that she 'liked dresses overmuch', and reminding her promoters that she was only sixteen.

She was recast time and again to suit the inclinations of her audience. After the French Revolution the new evangelist movement alighted on her as a symbol, marked not for her romance but for her piety. In 1828 The Lady's Monitor declared that she inherited "every great, every good, every admirable quality, whether of mind, disposition, or person." Remarkably the radical thinker and philosopher William Godwin wrote his own hagiography of Jane under a pseudonym, though this owed less to his admiration for her virtues and more to his need for ready cash! For Godwin ( or, rather, for Theopilius Marcliffe!) she was "the most perfect young creature of the female sex to be found in history." Enter Mrs Godwin stage right!

And so it went on, right into the twentieth century, when Jane finally made it on to the screen in Tudor Rose directed by Robert Stevenson, which appeared in the States as Nine Days a Queen. Once again Mary is the cold-blooded fanatic, while Jane and Dudley are the tragic lovers. More recently the nine-day-queen appeared as Lady Jane, staring Helena Bonham Carter and directed by Trevor Nunn, a romance set against the political intrigues of the day.

Jane is now beyond history. She belongs to legend, the stuff of which dreams are made on.

The Voodoo Pantheon

The pantheon consists of a varied and fascinating set of figures, combining elements of West-African deities and Catholic saints.

Maman Brigitte, as I have said, is the wife of Baron Samedi. Like her husband she has the power to save those hexed to the brink of death. She also likes to dance, in a highly sexual and provocative fashion.

Legba is the master of passageways, one who has the power to open the door between the natural and the supernatural worlds. Depicted as a crippled wanderer, he is also known as Papa la Bas. As with other voodoo spirits he can be both benevolent and malign. He can show the way to the lost or he can loose them still deeper.

Damballah, or La Grande Zombie, is the supreme snake deity and master of the sky, given to represent creation out of chaos. Represented by a snake biting its own tail, Damballah also represents the dualities of death and rebirth, sickness and health, and male and the female forces. His wife is Ayida Wedo, a rainbow spirit.

Marasa or The Twins represent the union of day and night, earth and sky. The Twins are also known as the Marasa Three, representing love, truth and justice. They are also associated with birth and children.

Erzulie Dantor is the dark-skinned, matriarchal Love Goddess, most often represented by the Black Madonna. She dresses completely in red and smokes unfiltered Camels! But, notwithstanding this small vice, Erzulie Dantor is the voodoo equivalent of the Virgin Mary.

Ogou is the warrior sprit and the god of steel and iron. Considered to be of great strength, he is invoked not just in war but in all sorts of physical and legal battles. It was Ogou who is believed to have led the Haitian slaves to victory in their War of Independence.

Zaka, or the Farmer, the god of agriculture, is depicted as a machete-wielding peasant, who is usually shown wearing denim and a red scarf.

Agwe, the Master of the Sea, provides protected passageway through water.

Djab, or the Wild Spirits, are entities summoned by means of ritual, becoming the dedicated servants of a houngan-a priest-or a mambo-a priestess. They have a magical rather than a religious purpose. People will apply to a houngan or mambo to invoke their particular djab to take revenge on enemies or business competitors.

Over an above all of these deities and spirits stands Gran Met, the one God, all powerful and all knowing, but essentially remote and distant from human affairs. The Iwa, or lesser entities, offer a far more immediate presence, again recalling the function of the saints in Catholicism.

Baron Samedi

Baron Samedi, also known as Baron La Croix, the Loa or spirit of the dead in Haitian voodoo. A laughing, dancing, cane-wielding and foul-mouthed skeleton, he is most often depicted wearing a top hat and a cloak. The Baron also has other attributes, being the Loa of sex and resurrection. I find it of particular interest that the Haitians have linked sex, death and resurrection in a trinity.

So, there Samedi stands at a crossroads, where the souls of the dead pass on their way to Guinee, the final resting place, perhaps recalling Guinea in West Africa, from where many of the original slaves who created the voodoo tradition came, and where they hoped to return. Standing a little like Osiris in Egyptian mythology, Samedi is the judge of the dead; it is only with his permission, and guidance, that they can pass on to Guinee.

He is by far the most powerful of the voodoo spirits, at one and the same time a benevolent and dangerous force, who’s magic can offer protection or destruction, depending on his mood. He is responsible for both the procreation of the living-he is sometimes symbolised by a phallus-and the putrefaction of the dead. As a last resort he is invoked to help those driven to the point of death by malign magic. They will not die if the Baron refuses to ‘dig their grave.’

Given over to exchanging bawdy jokes with other spirits, including Maman Brigitte, his wife, the Baron also enjoys smoking cigars and drinking rum, which are almost invariably included among the offerings to the spirit made by his devotees. It is as well to keep on the good side of the dark Baron; for if one does not he may decide to dig one’s grave too early And if he is in a really foul mood, well you probably know as much about zombies as I do!

Monday 27 April 2009

Reading Algernon Blackwood

I’m discovering Algernon Blackwood for the first time, though I read one of hi stories, Running-Wolf, some years ago in the Everyman Book of Ghost Stories, a book that father once bought when he was going up to school for the first time.

It’s an astonishing discovery for me. Blackwood has a wonderful and atmospheric style, entirely captivating. I’ve loved all of the stories so far, but I must make special mention of The Willows and The Wendigo. Now, I realise that if you know Blackwood at all you must know these particular tales. But have you read them in the same way as I? I have a deep reverence for the Great God Pan and for all his works in Nature. There is, however, a dimension here of Pan that I had not fully explored; one of awesome and angry power. This is a very particular and pe4rhaps eccentric reading, though true for me.

There is another quality to Blackwood that incites my admiration; he never makes the horror palpable. It’s there but in a mysterious and oblique fashion; it is felt rather than seen. I contrast him in this regard with H. P. Lovecraft, who cannot resist revealing his horrors, which in the process of epiphany become somewhat ridiculous, laughably so in some cases.

I rather suspect that Blackwood’s atmospheric stories are so brilli8ant because he reaches down to deeper levels of consciousness; beyond reason into intuition, a place where the shadows still lurk.


The current modish obsession with the significance of 2012 caused me to wing through past apocalypse literature; of catastrophes predicted and anticipated; of dates that came…and went! And what wonderfully bizarre stuff one comes across, what grossly bizarre people.

Let me give you the example of Chizuo Matsumoto, a failed Japanese herbalist, who in 1984 founded the Aum Association of Mountain Wizards, also known as Aum Shinriko. This individual’s sources of inspiration were eclectic and wide-ranging, embracing Hindu deities, Nostradamus, and Isaac Asimov all in one! Matsumoto recreated himself as Shoko Asahara, a reincarnation of Imhotep, the builder of pyramids.

It was while meditating on a beach that it came to Asahara that the world was going to end by the turn of the century. His organisation published books with titles like The Day of Annihilation, predicting when the disaster would come, giving various dates for the event, ranging from 1997 right through to 2001. The only way to avoid this-yes, it seemingly was avoidable for some-was to seek shelter with Aum communities…of course! Not only would his sect stockpile provisions but it would arm itself with all sorts of fantastic weapons, from lasers and particle beams to a new generation of nuclear bombs.

So far so loopy; but as the day of judgement came ever closer Asahara achieved even greater heights of self-deception. He was, so he said, Jesus Christ himself, the last messiah, but not a forgiving and gentle Christ, oh no: he was the Christ of Armageddon and the Last Judgement. Into his prophetic mish-mash he introduced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, saying that the Jews, already responsible for mass murder in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda, planned to kill off the rest of the world’s population by the year 2000. And who were these Jews? Why, the most prominent included the Emperor of Japan, the Reverend Moon, President Clinton and-wait for it-Madonna. Madonna?! Our own dear Queen was identified with the Anti-Christ.

Of course it’s hilarious. It’s difficult to accept that such a character could function outside a mental institution, let alone attract some 50,000 followers world-wide. But people need faith to fill the often terrible emptiness in their lives, even when faith came in the shape of a Messiah of the Grotesque. It is funny and it’s sad, but the particular outcome in this case was also tragic.

Although he took hope from the Los Angeles earthquake of January 1994, Asahara was frustrated that so many were still ignorant of the truth of his revelations. So, he decided it was time to bring the Mountain to Muhammad by having his followers attack the Tokyo subway with sarin gas, killing eleven people and affecting thousands more. There was to be no apocalypse but a new horror had entered the world; the horror of bioterrorism.

The point is that there will always be people like Asahara, false prophets who come like ravening wolves. There will always be predications of catastrophe, always anticipations of destruction. Be strong enough not to believe. Not to be deceived. Yes, there will be disasters, in 2012 as in any other year, but they are always piecemeal, never cumulative. The end is not yet. Please, when you hear the deceivers bring Shelly to mind;

The world’s great age begins anew,

The golden years return,

The earth doth like a snake renew

Her winter weeds outworn…

Lighthouses: a Mystery and a Tragedy

I love serendipity, the process whereby one discovers something by chance while looking for something else. I also enjoy mundane incidents leading to darker things, to mystery and to tragedy.

Consider lighthouses, rather boring and functional now but once a fertile source for the Gothic imagination. Anyway, I came across a reference to the complete disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the remote Flannan Islands off the west coast of Scotland over a hundred years ago. In December 1900 the crew of the Hesperus, a lighthouse supply ship, found the place totally deserted. The subsequent investigation concluded that the keepers must have been swept from the cliffs in a storm. The bodies, though, were never discovered.

There were, however, some intriguing and unexplained facts. The iron railings on the west platform were badly twisted, leading to some speculation that some ‘unearthly’ force was involved. The coat of one of the keepers, moreover, was found inside the lighthouse.

Human imagination, hating a void, has filled the gaps in the story, according to the fashion of the times: that they had been taken by the Devil; that one of the keepers murdered the other then killed himself; that all three had been abducted by enemy agents. Local legend also makes much of the Phantom of the Seven Hunters, the name for the island group in the Middle Ages. More recently-and predictably-the disappearance has been put down to alien abduction!

Lighthouses did not always have three keepers in the British Isles, oh no. Until the early nineteenth century two men were considered all that was necessary….until a gruesome incident at Smalls Lighthouse to the west of Saint David’s Peninsula in south Wales.

The two keepers, Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffiths, were known to be quarrelsome, so when the latter died in a freak accident Howell, fearing that he might be accused of murder, decided to keep the body, lashed to the outside railing after decomposition set in. The makeshift coffin was destroyed by the wind, leaving the body fully exposed. The arm fell in such a way that, moved by the wind, it gave the impression to passing vessels that the dead man was beckoning. When relieved the surviving keeper was unrecognisable, having gone completely mad.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Titanic Tales

I saw an interesting drama-documentary recently on the Titanic, this April marking the ninety-seventy anniversary of its sinking. It would seem that, amongst other things, some of the rivets were faulty, made from poor quality iron, the heads of which sheered off under the strain of impact. The programme also touched on the pathology, so to speak, of the iceberg in question, which seemingly had been at sea for up to two years prior to the fatal impact.

But I really wanted to focus on some of the mythology surrounding the disaster. I suppose it's to be expected that lots of people were said to have premonitions after the event, or subsequent significance was read into particular things. In 1898 Morgan Robertson, an American writer and psychic, published a novel entitled Futility, in which a gigantic liner called the Titan collides with an iceberg and sinks mid-Atlantic.

One of the passengers on the Titanic, William Thomas Stead, a prominent English journalist, drowned in the sinking, was alleged to have secretly carried a mummy of an Egyptian priestess of Amon-Ra, on board, replete with curse on all. The mummy, so the story goes, appeared on deck at the moment the iceberg struck. In fact it never left the British Museum! But Stead himself had previously a short story in 1892, entitled From the Old World to the New, in which a liner picks up the survivors from another ship sunk by an iceberg. Another coincidence, of course, but the captain of his liner was called E. J. Smith, the same name as the captain of the Titanic.

After the event premonition tales were manifold, stories of people intending to sail but deciding against on the basis of some foreboding. Among the best of these is that of Colin McDonald, the second engineer, who refused to sign on for the voyage because he-so it was claimed-knew something terrible was going to happen. A number of prospective passengers refused to sail for the same reason. One suspects that mundane reasons for not going required a retrospective justification; for, as always, the owl of Minerva only ever flies at dusk! Oh, and the band did not play ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ at the last but a jaunty ragtime dance. Now, if I were to face death that is exactly what I would want to hear. :-))

A Forgotten Serial Killer

There are certain periods of history, and certain societies, that are, it might be said, defined by criminality. Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany are good examples of systems of governance where law, as it is commonly understood, only serves to demonstrate how little protection people have from the state that follows no objective moral standard.

Let me put this another way or, rather, let me pose a question: is it possible to conceive of ordinary crime, everyday crime, if you like, as opposed to political crime, in a place like Nazi Germany? Clearly no society is ever free of crime, no matter how much it may pretend to that absolute standard; so objectively theft, murder and all of the other aspects of social crime must have been present, disappearing almost behind much grander outrages. Well, it was some fascination that I read an article by Roger Moorhouse in one of the history journals I subscribe to, an article entitled The Nazi Serial Killer.

It tells the story of one Paul Ogorzow, a Berlin railway worker, who was convicted and executed in 1941 for the serial murder of eight women. He was known at the time as the S-Bahn (urban railway) murderer, whose victims were invariably dumped on the city’s train tracks. The murders themselves were no more than ugly sex crimes. However, the investigation by the Kriminalpolizi-the Kripo-was weakened by political and racial preconceptions.

There were plenty of clues implicating Ogorzow. He worked for the railways; he was already known to the police; four of his victims were found within a mile of his home, and one of his intended victims reported that her assailant had been wearing the overcoat of the German Railways. But the Kripo, blinded by ideological bigotry, reached for theory and speculation rather than unbiased detective work; the perpetrator was variously thought of as a Jew, a foreign migrant worker and even a British agent!

Even when Ogorzow came within their purview they let him go because, well, he was a member of the Party and the SA, an upstanding German who could not possibly have been guilty of such outrages. It was only after his name kept coming up in a trawl of railway employees was he arrested for a second time. In the interrogation that followed Ogorzow not only admitted to the eight murders, but a further six cases of attempted murder and thirty-one of assault.

During his trial Ogorzow even tried to draw on the ideological climate of the day as part of his defence, saying his murderous behavior only began after he had been treated for gonorrhea by a Jewish doctor using an unconventional treatment. But justice, for once, was done to one of history’s least remembered serial killers, cast into the shadows by a far greater one.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Oh, How I Hate Feminism!

I would much, much rather be a Strong Female than a Strong Feminist. I hate so much feminist theory; hate all those dreadful harridans who followed in the wake of Betty Frieden and her kind. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to all feminist texts, and I’ve read and enjoyed both Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir. It’s the puritans I loath, those who rob life and love of all fun.

I’m intelligent, probably more so than most of the guys I know, but I still like to flirt and tease. More than that, I like being perceived as a pure sexual entity, an object, if you will, because I have a tendency to perceive other people, both guys and girls, in exactly the same way! Objectification is part of the human condition; it always has been, from classical art to contemporary advertising. I quite like seeing sexy girls and sexy guys on bill hoardings!

I’m also going to repeat something else I have said before: I don’t believe the sexes are equal; I never have. There are some things I can do better than any guy; there are some things I can’t. I’m completely hopeless when it comes to technical matters, and always glad to seek help where I can, even at the price of my self-esteem. And to answer your question, yes, I love it when guys stand back and open doors, I love to be treated like a lady, love to be treated as someone special, not just another one of the ‘herd.’ And if a guy asks me to dinner and then expects me to pay for my share, he won’t even get a peck on the cheek as I make my way to the door and the nearest taxi. Jeez, what a cheapskate. :-))

Beards; a Cycle of Fashion

In writing recently about the Emperor Julian, the so-called Apostate, I called to mind Misophogon, or Beard Hater, his satirical essay written after his adverse experience of living among the Christian communities of Antioch. Julian’s beard, grown in the style of a Classical philosopher, was mocked by those hostile to both the old fashions and the old practices.

Amway, the beard, like most things, has a history. Perhaps it might be better said that it moves in cycles, one period bearded, the next period not. Sometimes fashions can change with remarkable rapidity. Communist parades used to be accompanied with the various figures from their pantheon, usually paraded in some form of apostolic succession, beginning with Karl Marx. Salvador Dali, both artist and comic genius, noted this, took one such depiction and labeled it The Rise of Marxism Corresponding to the Decline in Facial Hair. See for yourself; see how much humour can be taken from the least expected things. :-))

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Life and Art: My Thoughts on H. P. Lovecraft

Nietzsche once wrote that philosophy is just another form of auto-biography, or words to that effect. This is also true, I suspect, of literature, though some perhaps more than others. I’m thinking specifically of the work of H. P. Lovecraft, which reveals, intentionally or not, so much about him.

Do you know anything of his life, that strange, horribly claustrophobic existence he led with his aunts and his mother, above all, his mother, in Providence, Rhode Island, living through ever downward spirals of gentile poverty and psychological tension to outright breakdown? I suspect that, in the end, the death of his mother in 1921 came as something of a relief to him, if my reading of his 1933 story, A Thing on the Doorstep, is correct. Edward Derby, the protagonist, a weak-willed character, very much in the shape of Lovecraft himself, professes shock-as the author did himself-at the death of his mother-but afterwards this initial emotional purge “…he seemed to feel a sort of grotesque exhilaration, as if of a partial escape from some unseen bondage.” Later he would write to one of his friends that “My health improved vastly and rapidly, though without any ascertainable cause, about 1920-21.” He is giving away much more than he suspects.

What do I think of Lovecraft as a writer? This is a difficult question for me, conjuring up some quite mixed emotions. He is not my kind of writer; his prose is far too flowery, bombastic and overblown for my taste. For me he is to the craft of words what Antonio Gaudi is to architecture; grotesque, over-decorated and over-ornate. Consider this passage from The Call of Cathulu, generally reckoned to be one of his best stories;

The Thing cannot be described-there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immortal lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad, and poor Wilcox raved with fever at that telepathic instant? The Thing of the idols, the green sticky spawn of the stars, had wakened to claim his own…After vigilations of years great Cathulu was lose again, and ravening for delight.

I simply can’t read that without laughing!

In essence Lovecraft’s prose is like an overstuffed Victorian drawing room; a place where longs for a breath of crisp air. I contrast him with Maupassant, whose style is taught, precise and stark, a real economy of words that makes the overall effect of his horror story, The Horla, that much the greater.

Yet, for all that, there is a quality to Lovecraft uniquely his own. His ideas on science and life in general were old-fashioned, even for his own time, but there are still deep wells, perhaps even new modes of understanding. Above all, his pseudomythology, expressed in the so-called ‘Cathulu Mythos’, shows a universe where people are not at the centre, and where the gods, such as they are, care nothing for human existence, which is a mere incident in the great cycles of creation…and of destruction.

Monday 20 April 2009

Highgate-the City of the Dead

I recently touched on the subject of London’s Highgate Cemetery in a discussion elsewhere and thought I would just say a word or two more about this fascinating kingdom of the dead, a place that I think that people who do not know the city would find completely beguiling; I certainly do.

It’s not that old, though parts of it are so overgrown that it gives the appearance of something ancient. Also, a lot of the memorials are built of stone, allowing moss to gain a purchase, unlike marble. As far as I am concerned moss, trees, death and stones all make perfect partners!

Anyway, the cemetery was opened in 1839 in the Highgate district to the north of the city as part of a plan to deal with the overflow of the dead. There were other cemeteries created under the same plan but Highgate soon became the most fashionable, the final home of many wealthy people, whose Gothic memorials now provide a perfect insight into Victorian attitudes towards death. The Egyptian discoveries of the day also led to a new fashion in grave architecture, reflected in the so-called Egyptian avenue. Parts of the cemetery are now considered of such outstanding historical and architectural value that they are only opened to tour groups. If you have an image of an eerie and haunted graveyard in your mind then Highgate is probably the closest you will ever come to the reality!

Most of its denizens, no matter how important they were in their day, no matter how impressive their tombs, are now beyond memory, that final stage when death at its most complete; but there are a large numbers of the great and the good who haunt its groves…and the imagination. The most famous is Karl Marx, joined in death by Herbert Spencer, the philosopher and sociologist who provided the foundations of Social Darwinism. His rather modest memorial lies adjacent to that of Karl Marx, bombastic in every degree, a little piece of the old Communist Europe in North London. I like to imagine the kind of dialectics in death that these two have!

There is also, to mention but a few, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Jacob Bronowski, scientist and television presenter, who wrote The Ascent of Man; Mary Ann Evans, better known under her pen name of George Eliot, one of the greatest Victorian novelists; Michael Faraday, the physicist; Stella Gibbons, another English novelist, best remembered for Cold Comfort Farm; Radclyffe Hall, now something of a lesbian icon, author of The Well of Loneliness; Christina Rossetti, one of my favourite Victorian poets, and her brother, William Michael Rossetti, co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, all of them among the good. Among the no so good is Adam Worth, an American master criminal, once nicknamed as the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, and thought to be the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, the arch enemy of Sherlock Holmes.

Inevitably a place like Highgate also has associations with the occult. The best known story is probably that of the Highgate Vampire. This urban myth took off in the early 1970s, when it was reported that a ‘grey figure’, variously described, was seem flitting amongst the tombs. It was eventually claimed, and reported in the press, on no certain evidence, it has to be said, that this was the ghost of a Medieval nobleman from Walachia, a practitioner of black magic, whose remains had been brought to England, Dracula-style, in the eighteenth century. It was claimed that his spirit had been raised by Satanist; and thus the Highgate Vampire was born! He’s still there for all I know.

Hitler-the Making of an Anti-Semite

Here is a piece I wrote earlier, which I am now publishing here. Well, it is the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of his birth after all; I had to mark the occasion in some way!

The precise origins of Adolf Hitler's Anti-Semitism is a fascinating and complex question to which it is probably impossible to provide a defining answer, because it owes as much to psychology and personal circumstances as to recorded history; to factors now unknown and forever unknowable. There are great gaps in our knowledge here into which all sorts of pseudo-scholarly nonsense has been poured, none more so than the truly ridiculous Wittgenstein thesis. Pathological hatred, of the kind demonstrated by Hitler, cannot be traced to alleged schoolboy rivalry.

However, what I can do is to build a picture based on such historical information we do have. The crucial text here is, of course Mein Kampf, arguably one of the most honest books ever written by a politician, one which reveals, if properly read, far more, perhaps, that the author ever cared to allow. And, contrary to what you may have heard, the book is quite readable, if clumsy and ill-organised.

Now, to begin with, the first definite proof of Hitler use of anti-Semitism as a political weapon comes in 1919, just after the War when he joined the German Worker's Party. By the time he came to write Mein Kampf several years later he systematized a personal ideology that had become one of the great motive forces of a refashioned NSDAP. What is taking shape here is a combination of political opportunism, the realisation that there was political capital to be made out of hatred of the Jews in post-War Germany, and aspects of Hitler's personal experience which came, as he confesses, from his time in Vienna. There is no evidence at all of any anti-Jewish feeling on his part prior to this time, despite what August Kubizek says in his unreliable memoir.

For Hitler, the time he spent in Vienna prior to the War was by far the worst period of his life. He was young, an orphan, with no qualifications whatsoever; nothing to make him 'saleable', beyond a limited artistic talent, in the great polyglot metropolis, so different from the provincial Linz of his boyhood. It was in Vienna that he sunk lower and lower down the social ladder, descending into what Karl Marx termed the 'lumpenproletariat', those clinging on to the outer margins of society. Indeed, if it had not been for the war it is possible that Hitler would have died in some doss house in Vienna or Munich, just another among the legions of the lost.

This was particularly bad when one remembers that he came from a comfortable middle-class background, which made his social descent all the more bitter. He never, at any time, lost his petty-bourgeoisie attitudes, even when sleeping in common lodging houses, attitudes that demanded he look outside of himself for the author of his misfortunes. And, of course, in the end, he alighted on the Jewish community for all that was wrong with his life, the most convenient and most obvious scapegoat of all, knitting together so many different strands in his psychological and political outlook.

It was in Vienna that Hitler became the 'outsider' in his own world, surrounded by so many things he feared, from Marxism to prostitution. Vienna, as Mein Kampf, makes clear was Hitler's real university, where he learned his politics and discovered his capacity for hate. The city had a quite poisonous atmosphere at the time of Hitler’s sojourn, where the large Jewish community was an object of hate for the right-wing press; where there was already a vibrant anti-Semitic political force at work, represented by the likes of Karl Luger and Georg Ritter von Schönerer; where 'solutions' were being offered to the Jewish question by the likes of the eccentric and bizarre Lanz von Liebenfels; where some even advocated that a watch should be kept on the Jewish community around Easter, to prevent ritual child murder. It is difficult to believe that such notions could make their way into a European capital in the twentieth century, but, yes, it is perfectly true.

This was a time when Hitler was able to read in the Deutsches Volksblatt, his favourite newspaper, that the Jews were the agents of corruption, linked with all sorts of sexual scandals and perversions. Vienna was also a city with a powerful Marxist Social Democratic Party, with many prominent Jewish members. For the young Hitler, déclassé and socially vulnerable, the Marxists came to represent the most dangerous force of all; dangerous to his own sense of status and dangerous to his 'nation', as he came to understand it. And behind the Marxists came the Jews; always the Jews.

For Hitler, hatred of the Jews came to be, as Ian Kershaw points out, a rationalisation of his own personal circumstances in Vienna, rather than a thought-out 'world view'. He was just a bitter and resentful man, who, at the age of twenty-five, was going nowhere but down; resentful of those whom he blamed for his failure and rejection; a Frankenstein monster in the making. But what give these inner demons a unique drive and purpose was the circumstances of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war, an atmosphere even more poisonous that that of Vienna. Hitler found that there was ground to be made in a strong anti-Semitic message; that in a world upside down he could at last make a personal impact. He had the talent to deliver that message, and a mind-set that would ensure that hatred of the Jews was not political opportunism but the defining essence of his movement; the defining essence of Adolf Hitler himself

Sunday 19 April 2009

No, I Will NEVER move to Revolutionary Road

I saw Revolutionary Road earlier this year. It’s an excellent adaptation of Richard Yates' novel of the same name, with the lead characters brilliantly caught by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, it’s brilliant but also quite unsettling.

Frank and April Wheeler have it all: a comfortable home, children and a secure and reasonably affluent life, a lower middle-class version of the American dream. But there is a terrible emptiness and futility to their lives and they have the intelligence-or the misfortune-to recognise it. Frank hates his job and April hates the numbing routine into which they have been seduced, a path, in the end, that leads to nothing at all.

April, the stronger of the two, suggests a way out: the family should move to Paris, where Frank can find his true inner potential-as a writer, perhaps-while April supports the family by taking secretarial work. It’s a moment of hope; yes, it is possible to escape with the right will and the right determination. But Frank, in the end, has neither; he talks about freedom but he is unable to live for freedom. The distance between the two grows; cracks become chasms. Their love dies, April dies, and Frank goes on to a living death.

No, I will never marry, I will never move to Revolutionary Road.

This is my First!

Well, here I am, in my very own blog! This is just by way of a very brief introduction. What I intend to do over the next few weeks is to centralise pieces I have written elsewhere before beginning to write some new stuff. I want a complete record of my work, my best work, which covers everything from dissertations on subjects as varied as history, books, philosophy, art, witchcraft, as well as some personal biographical pieces. I love writing, I always have, and I play with words for the sheer pleasure of doing so. This will be my online journal, a true insight into what I am and how I think. I'm here; yes, I am!