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A Radical New Interpretation of the Christian Message

Jesus.

Who was He?

The Christ.

What was He?

A carpenter.

Whence was He?

From Galilee.

Let us take His attributes one by one and see what clues they offer to the true nature and purpose of the King of Kings and so-called Lord of Lords. First, Jesus was the Christ: in Greek, ho Khristos, the Anointed One, translating the Judaic term maashiah, from the Hebrew verb maashah, meaning “to smear or rub over with oil”.1 And during His ministry, He would be closely associated with Olivet, the Mount of Olives. The key concept here is oil.

Second, Jesus was a carpenter: in Greek, tektōn, the skilled worker in wood mentioned in this New Testament text:

Matthew, xiii, 55. Is this not the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary?

And during His ministry, His teaching would often make literal or symbolic use of trees: the fig, the sycamine, the “mustard”, those trees bearing good fruit, those bearing bad.2 The key concept here is wood.

Third, Jesus was from Galilee, the hilly region of northern Palestine that took its name from the Hebrew verb gaalal, “to roll, to go round”. And at the end of His ministry, He would be crucified at Golgotha, the Aramaic form of the Hebrew gulgōleth, “a round, rolling thing or skull”, also from gaalal. The key concept here is roll.

And so we have oil… wood… roll… and stand trembling on the brink of a paradigm shift in terms of our perceptions of the nature and purpose of Jesus Christ and the religion He founded. One more text will suffice to tip us over:

John, xix, 33. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs … 36. For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.

Oil… wood… roll… And a divine promise that Jesus would never break a bone… There is only one conclusion to draw: that Jesus the Anointed, Jesus the Carpenter, Jesus the Galilean was a skateboarder. A skateboarder who built His own ’boards of wood, lubricated their wheels with oil, and then rolled atop them with such skill that He never broke a bone even on the unsuitable road surfaces of first-century Palestine.

Straw Power

Though He occasionally had to get by — literally — with a little help from His friends:

Matthew, xxi, 6. And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7 and brought the ass, and the colt[, and] set him thereon. 8 And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. 9 And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

This is clearly a description of Jesus skateboarding into Jerusalem between cheering crowds who have “strawed”, or strewn, a particularly bumpy road surface with clothing and foliage to ensure Him a smooth ride. This interpretation even enables us to solve one of the greatest puzzles of New Testament scholarship: Matthew’s seemingly inexplicable misreading of the poetic parallelism of Zechariah’s prophecy of this event:

ix, 9. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.

Zechariah refers here to one animal in two different ways, and  Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, has long been thought to have misinterpreted him and supposed that Jesus was, grotesquely, riding two asses into Jerusalem.

But if we realize that “ass” — onos — was in fact a first-century slang term for “skateboard”, we clearly see that Matthew was merely recording something that Mark and Luke overlooked: a trick performed by the skateboarding Jesus in which, for some part of the journey, He rode simultaneously atop two boards. Today, part of such a routine can be referred to as a

Daffy duck: one person rides two boards — doing a tail wheelie [sic] with the front one and a nose wheelie with the back one.3

It is a difficult trick, part of the repertoire only of an advanced skater, even with hi-tech, easy-to-manage modern ’boards.

Jesus the Divine Skateboarder

But that, surely, is a fatal objection to the theory of Jesus the Divine Skateboarder, is it not? After all, first-century technology could not have met the engineering requirements of skateboard construction, which relies on a precise working in both wood and metal that was surely beyond the capacity of ancient carpenters and metalworkers. Surely? Not so, in fact:

The National Archaeological Museum of Greece in Athens possesses corroded fragments of a metallic object found by sponge-divers near the island of Antikythera in 1900. Complex dials and gears of the mechanism were unlike any [other] artifact from ancient Greece. From the inscription on the instrument and the amphorae found with it, a date c. 65 B.C. was ascribed to the object.4

The artifact was first misidentified as an “astrolabe” and only later realized to be “a computing machine that could work out and exhibit the motions of the sun and moon and probably also the planets”.5

Skateboards, then, would have been well within the technological grasp of the first century. But one might ask again: would the first century have realized they were there to be grasped? For it seems highly unlikely that skateboards would appear spontaneously in any culture, regardless of whether it was capable of building them to an advanced standard. In our own culture, for example, they appeared like this:

In the ’60s, Californian surfers bolted roller-skate wheels to old surfboards and used them to ride down hills when conditions at sea were against them.6

In other words, the first skateboarders were surfers. So did Jesus surf before He skated? Seemingly He did:

Matthew, xiv, 24. But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. 26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit, and they cried out for fear.

Clearly this describes Jesus introducing His apostles to surfing as the first stage of their journey to the higher truths of skateboarding. They are astonished and fearful as He seems to “walk” towards them over the surface of the water, shifting His feet on the surfboard to adjust His balance as He prepares to give the most adventurous of His apostles a first surfing lesson:

Ibid., 27. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. 28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. 29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. 31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

And here we understand why Jesus recruited so many fishermen at the beginning of His ministry. Skateboarding would have been too dangerous for the apostles to undertake without an apprenticeship as surfers, but surfing likewise would have been too dangerous if some of them had not been able to swim and, when necessary, rescue themselves or their less natatorially inclined fellows as they all acquired the necessary skills of balance and footwork.

From Sea to Land

Once they had acquired these skills, they could transfer them to the more demanding conditions of “surfing” on land, where a fall or loss of control would mean not a soaking but a severe bruise, graze or even broken limb. The apostles’ apprenticeship at sea with surfboards meant that they took up skateboarding with insight and experience, neither over-cautious nor over-confident, but well able to fulfil the mission Jesus had mapped out for them: to introduce skateboarding to the world. In token of this, they were twelve in number, symbolizing on earth the heavenly skateboard wheel of the Zodiac. Here is the list of twelve given by Mark, for example:

iii, 16. Simon he surnamed Peter; 17 and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder: 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphæus, and Thaddæus, and Simon the Canaanite, 19 and Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him …

Notice again how our new interpretation of Christianity solves another long-standing puzzle of New Testament scholarship: the precise significance of Boanerges, “The Sons of Thunder”. After all, what more appropriate name could be given to a pair of young and adventurous skateboarders?7

And perhaps it was even a nickname, given to James and John by Jesus because the two were such enthusiastic ’boarders that they were inclined to neglect the oiling of their wheels. Another nickname is certainly present in the list of apostles: that of Judas Iscariot. Many suggestions have been made as to the significance of his surname, including:

(1) From Kerioth (Josh. xv. 25) … (2) From Kartha in Galilee (Kartan, A.V. Josh. xxi. 32). (3) From scortea, a leathern apron, the name being applied to him as the bearer of the bag, and = Judas with the apron.8

The Oxford English Dictionary supports the first of these, deriving Iscariot from the Hebrew ’iish-qeriōth, “Man of Kerioth”. Kerioth comes from the Hebrew verb qaaraah, meaning to “to frame, build”. Does this suggest that Judas “had the bag” (John xii, 6; xiii, 29) because he carried tools therein and was in charge of repairing Jesus’s and the apostles’ skateboards?

Repairing… and Wrecking

If so, it provides an excellent explanation for why Judas was the apostle selected by the high priests to be suborned, to become the betrayer of his master. If Judas was in charge of repairing the skateboarders, he was also very well-placed to sabotage them and thereby end Jesus’s previous immunity from harm. Jesus’s enemies had tried to kill Him previously, but He had always escaped from them in some mysterious way that has, until now, been difficult to explain:

Luke iv, 28. And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, 29 and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. 30 But he passing through the midst of them went his way.
John viii, 59. Then they took up stones to cast at him: but Jesus … went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.
x, 31. Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him … 39 … therefore they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand.

If Jesus was on a skateboard and His enemies on foot, it becomes easy to understand how He escaped, particularly in the first case, when He had a good slope to pick up speed on. His enemies would have swiftly been left far behind, raging impotently at His speed and skill.

And vowing to find some means of turning it against Him. Hence the bribe they offered to Judas to sabotage Jesus’s skateboard: thirty silver coins symbolizing the way in which its glittering wheels bore its owner to and fro on every day of the month. By this stage in His ministry Jesus had begun to introduce the apostles to:

DOWNHILL: the easiest and deadliest form of skateboarding … Though anyone can ride down a hill at high speed, it requires considerable experience to do it safely.9

This is clearly described in the Gospels:

Mark ix, 2. And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain by themselves: and he was transfigured before them … (cf. Matthew xvii, Luke ix)

Remember that Peter was the first to try surfing, and James and John were the “Sons of Thunder”: these three were the most enthusiastic and confident skaters amongst the apostles, and obvious candidates for this initial introduction to the potentially deadly delights of downhill, in which the lithe, darting, alinear movements of ordinary ’boarding are transfigured into a headlong linear rush of pure speed.

Jesus in a Jam

In downhill, then, the ’boarder relies even more heavily on his equipment than usual, and a jammed or otherwise malfunctioning wheel renders him liable to a very serious case of

Road rash: bruises, gashes and other skateboarding wounds.10

In other words, the scourging and other maltreatment Jesus undergoes before His “crucifixion” are in fact allegorical of wounds suffered by Him in a downhill ’boarding accident that takes place after the Last Supper in

Gethsemane … the name of a “garden” or enclosure on the Mount of Olives, scene of the agony of Jesus11

Jesus has brought the apostles here to practise downhill ’boarding on the slopes often seen in traditional portrayals of the Garden of Gethsemane. The apostles, however, become exhausted and retire for a time, leaving Jesus to skate on alone, well aware that the ’board He is using has been sabotaged by Judas. We see this described, partly in allegorical terms, by Luke:

xxii, 41. And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, 42 Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done. 43 And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

“Kneeled down” is a literal description of the position adopted for downhill ’boarding and “prayed” is allegorical of the ’boarding itself, a holy act that renders homage to God. But the prayer is cut short when disaster strikes: Judas’s sabotage is consummated, a wheel jams or falls off, and Jesus, sweating heavily from His exertions, is flung to the ground, splattering it with blood.

Rock and Roll

And now, finally, badly injured, unable to escape on His disabled ’board, He can be seized by His enemies and taken away for execution:

Luke xii, 54. Then they took him, and led him, and brought him to the high priest’s house.

Jesus’s trial proceeds, He is condemned to death, and led out for… what? Crucifixion? Nailing to a cross? So readers of English translations of the New Testament might suppose, but in fact there is no direct reference in the original to a “cross”: New Testament Greek uses the nouns stauros and xylon, meaning a “pale, stake or pole” and a “stick or piece of wood”, respectively.12

The conclusion? That the high priests sadistically and sardonically ordered Jesus to be executed with His own skateboard: injured though He is, He is forced to ride His repaired ’board again and again on the hill called Golgotha, “The Round, Rolling Place”, under the supervision of brutal Roman soldiers who force Him on with prodding spears and draughts of sour, re-invigorating vinegar. The result? That after a day of this enforced ’boarding, He “cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost” (Mark xv, 37).

And so Jesus passed from the Mount of Olives, the oil-trees, to execution with a piece of wood on a place named from the Hebrew-Aramaic verb to roll, and we have each of the three key concepts enunciated at the beginning of this article. The third, final, and most important of them will shortly appear again in the closing act of the Synoptic Gospels, when Jesus’s grieving female followers come to His tomb to perform the final rites of burial:

Mark xvi, 4. And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had brought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. 2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun … 4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. 5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. 6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified [ton estaurōmenon]: he is risen: he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. 7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee

In Greek, “rolled” is -kekylistai,13 the same verb as is used for these stone-rolling episodes in the Septuagint, an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament into Greek:

Genesis xxix, 10. … Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth
Proverbs xxvi, 27. Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him.

In the original Hebrew, the verb in Genesis and Proverbs is gaalal, and the play on words in Mark between “rolled” and “Galilee” would have been obvious to the apostles, as would its meaning: that Jesus had conquered death, recovered from His wounds, and gone away to skateboard on the rolling hills of Galilee. The Risen Christ is the Risen Skateboarder, King of Kings, and Lord, quite clearly, of ’Boards.


NOTES

1. Discussion of Hebrew words is based on Benjamin Davidson’s The Analytic Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, Samuel Bagster & Sons, London, 1970.

2. See, respectively, Luke xxi, 29; Luke xvii, 6; Matthew xiii, 32; Matthew iii, 10.

3. John Blake, The Complete Guide to Skateboarding, Phoebus Publishing, London, 1977, “Glossary”, pg. 62

4. Andrew Tomas (sic), We Are Not the First, ch. 17, “First Robots, Computers, Radio, Television and Time-Viewing Machines”, pg. 162 of the 224-page 1973 Sphere paperback.

5. Ibid., pg. 163, words of the English scientist Dr Derek J. de Solla Price in Natural History, March, 1962.

6. The Complete Guide to Skateboarding, “Sidewalk Surfin’”, pg. 6

7. One previous suggestion: “the nickname ‘Sons of Thunder’ has been shown by Rendel Harris to be connected with the cult of twins. The sons of Zebedee were probably twins” (Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, notes to Mark iii, 17).

8. William Smith, LL.D., Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Fleming H. Revell, Old Tappan, N.J., 1977, entry for “Judas Iscariot”.

9. The Complete Guide to Skateboarding, “Superskating”, pg. 50

10. Ibid., “Glossary”, pg. 63

11. Oxford English Dictionary, which derives “Gethsemane” from the Aramaic gath shemani(m), meaning “oil-press”.

12. Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon.

13. In full, apo- or anakekylistai, the prefix apo- or ana- supplying the sense of “away” or “from”.

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Battleground: The Greatest Tank Duels in History, ed. Steven J. Zaloga (Osprey Publishing 2011)

A big, solid book about a big, solid weapon: the tank. But tanks are mobile too. Their contradictions are part of what’s so fascinating about them. On the one hand, they’re terrifyingly powerful. They can crash through houses, wreak havoc with a single shot and grind human beings to bloody pulp. On the other hand, they’re horrifyingly vulnerable. The same armour that protects the crew can trap them:

On the defensive side, the T-72’s armor was vulnerable to the Abrams 120mm gun and its unshielded ammunition meant that penetrations usually led to catastrophic fires which incinerated the tank, often too quickly for the crew to escape. These spectacular explosions were profoundly demoralizing to the crews of neighboring tanks, who sometimes abandoned their own vehicles after witnessing such frightening conflagrations. (“M1 Abrams vs T-72: Desert Storm 1991”, “Analysis”, pg. 355)

That’s from the final section of the book, which covers the confrontation between American and Iraqi tanks in the Gulf War of 1991. Before that, the expert contributors discuss “T-34 vs Panther: Ukraine 1943”, “Tiger vs Sherman Firefly: Normandy 1944”, “M26 Pershing vs T-34-85: Korea 1950” and “Centurion vs T-55: Golan Heights 1973”. This is a work of serious military history and there’s a lot of technical, technological and tactical detail. But tanks aren’t just interesting: they’re exciting too and this book is also about the “mortal danger and adrenaline rush of combat” (pg. 119), whether that’s explicit or not.

And the first two sections are about the dark glamour of Nazism. Aesthetics and associations always mattered to Hitler’s death-cult, which is why exotic Panthers were fighting utilitarian T-34s in Ukraine and menacing Tigers were fighting feeble-sounding Fireflies in Normandy. German weapons and uniforms looked good too, as you can see in the short biography devoted to the “Tiger tank ace” Michael Wittmann:

… Wittmann served in the bitter defensive stands the Germans enacted in and around Caen during July [1944]. Yet on August 8 – by which time the now SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Wittmann had claimed 139 combat kills – the Panzer ace met a warrior’s end during a desperate counterattack launched against numerically superior Allied forces. (pg. 133)

Tanks are the modern equivalent of cavalry and the glamour that went with the latter now goes with the former. Like cavalry, tanks can transform battles in a single sudden burst of speed and violence. But cavalrymen were often thought of as gallant but stupid, as Conan-Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard proves. Tankmen have to be clever and courageous. And cool under pressure. As technology advances, the minds of the men who use it have to adapt. Those who adapt best, fight best and survive best.

War has always been about technology and technological advance, whether it was iron weapons surpassing bronze weapons millennia ago or computer viruses wrecking centrifuges in the 21st century, but tanks were a particularly big innovation. They combine the killing power of artillery with the mobility of cavalry and the toughness of fortifications: what could Alexander, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus or Napoleon have done with them? As it was, they appeared in a war whose generals are generally regarded as buffoons, not geniuses. That was the First World War, which this book acknowledges but doesn’t discuss at length. Tanks weren’t a perfected weapon then, after all.

They still aren’t, but they had got a lot closer by 1939 and the Second World War, which was their first great chance to show what they could do – or rather, what they could be. And what could they be? The difference between victory and defeat in battle. They were the basis of the Wehrmacht’s initial success, then of the Allies’ fight-back and eventual triumph. After that came the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, and Desert Storm. All of these are covered here and all have their lessons for the military historian and their excitement for the tank-buff. The text enlightens and the graphics illustrate. You even get to look through the gunsights. If you like tanks, you should like this book.

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The Collector’s Cabinet: Tales, Facts and Fictions from the World of Antiques, Marc Allum (Icon Books 2013, paperback 2015)

“A regular on [the] BBC’s Antiques Roadshow”, Marc Allum knows a lot about antiques and history and can write compellingly about what he knows, from mudlarks in Victorian London to the names of drinking-vessels in ancient Greece by way of the formula for the value of diamonds (Wt2 x C). Antiques are inanimate, but part of the point to them is that they’re tokens of life. People don’t last for centuries, but their playthings and practicalities do. Some antiques were valuable from the moment they were made, because of the skill or the precious materials that went into them. Others acquire value by their associations. Ordinary things like toothbrushes and hats can take special power from being associated with extraordinary people:

Napoleon’s toothbrush. On display at the Wellcome Collection, Euston, London, Napoleon’s silver-gilt and horsehair toothbrush is engraved with an ‘N’ under a crown. Apparently, he used opium-based toothpaste.

The Spear of Destiny, also known as the Holy Lance, is the lance that pierced the side of Jesus while [he was] hanging on the cross. There have been several contenders over the centuries, but the main one is the example displayed in the Imperial Treasury of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, which has a long and fascinating history. It also contains an object that has been tested scientifically and is thought to be consistent with a 1st-century Roman nail. (pg. 117)

The entry before that is about Star Wars and Darth Vader dolls: it’s impossible to guess what will turn up next as you turn the pages of this book, which makes it like a cellulose version of Antiques Roadshow. But books make you think much more than TV does. Antiques raise all sorts of fascinating philosophical, aesthetic and sociological questions. Are they like secular relics, for example? In lots of ways they are. One way is that that many of them aren’t what they claim to be. Allum writes a lot about fakes and forgeries. As value rises, so does the need for verification.

Or the need to obfuscate on verification. Dealers can collude with forgers or not care whether they are. The world of antiques is the world full stop, because every aspect of human behaviour, endeavour and interest is represented there. If human beings use something, it can become an antique, from toys to microscopes, from stamps to swords. This is a good short introduction to a very big subject.

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Still William, Richmal Crompton (1925)

An early and excellent entry in the William canon. Like P.G. Wodehouse and J.P. Martin, Richmal Crompton is an author who inspires me to ration myself. I stop myself reading too much at one sitting, because it’s easy to be greedy when the pleasure of reading is so great. But it’s the prose and the playfulness of Wodehouse and Martin that are pleasurable. Their writing is so light and inventive that it makes me feel happy just to read it.

Crompton is different: her prose isn’t particularly good, but her characters and humour certainly are. As I said in my review of William in Trouble (1927), she’s very good at capturing the psychology of children. She’s also very good at capturing dialogue and bringing characters to life by the way they speak:

“So this is little William,” said Uncle Frederick, putting his hand on William’s head. “And how is little William?”

William removed his head from Uncle Frederick’s hand in silence then said distantly:

“V’ well, thank you.”

That’s from “William’s Truthful Christmas”, in which William is inspired by a Christmas sermon to “cast aside all deceit and hypocrisy” and speak only the truth. The consequences are predictable: William does what he always does and introduces chaos into the well-ordered and well-regulated adult world. He might be small in stature, but he’s big in influence.

So is Violet Elizabeth Bott, the angelic, lisping and iron-willed six-year-old who makes her debut here in “The Sweet Little Girl in White”. William has no defence against her ability to conjure tears at will, as she does in that story, or against her threat to “thcream and thcream and thcream until I’m thick”, which first appears in “William the Match-Maker”. But if William can’t control Violet Elizabeth, nor can his family control him. After he’s plunged his beautiful elder sister Ethel into more embarrassment with his match-making, Ethel makes a plaintive request:

“Mother,” she said, “can’t we do anything about William? Can’t we send him to an orphanage or something?”

“No, darling,” said Mrs. Brown calmly. “You see, for one thing, he isn’t an orphan.”

“But he’s so awful!” said Ethel. “He’s so unspeakably dreadful!”

“Oh, no, Ethel,” said Mrs. Brown, still darning placidly. “Don’t say things like that about your little brother. I sometimes think that when William’s just had his hair cut and got a new suit on, he looks quite sweet!”

Anyone who knows William will also know that “sweet” is not the mot juste, but Mrs. Brown always tries to see the best in her children. She represented calm and William represented chaos in 1925, when this book was first published, and they still represented calm and chaos forty-five years later in 1970, when William the Lawless, the last William book, was published. They never aged and their world never took on any more solidity. Geography and landscape didn’t interest Crompton: character and dialogue did. William is one of the best characters in children’s literature and he’s at his best here.

But today he’s no longer at his most popular. That’s why I’m glad that my copy of Still William is older than I am. My battered hard-back was awarded as a prize in 1951 to “Michael Weatherill” at the Jesmond Road School, overseen by the “West Hartlepool Education Committee”. He won it for “Perseverance”, which is very appropriate. William perseveres, always trying to extract fun and excitement from an often difficult world. Fun isn’t guaranteed, but excitement always is. Without William, life would be duller for both his fictional family and his fiction’s fans.

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Headlong Hall (1816) / Nightmare Abbey (1818)

Dubious disciple of Tarzan expresses proud ornithophilia (6,4,7)

I’m no good at cryptic crosswords. I’d like to think this is because I didn’t do them as a kid, but then I never felt any inclination to do them as a kid. Where there’s no inclination, there’s often no ability. Either way, it’s a pity, because cryptic crosswords can be great fun. The fun lies in playing with words and ideas in a light-hearted way.

Rather like reading the books of the writer this review is about. His name is concealed in the cryptic clue above. If you haven’t worked it out, don’t worry, because I wouldn’t have either if someone else had invented the clue. So let’s take it a step at a time. Who was a dubious disciple? Well, he was a bit more than a disciple, but “apostle” didn’t alliterate (among other things). My saying that should allow you to work out that the first word is THOMAS. Now, forget about the bit in the middle and concentrate on the bit on the end. “Ornithology” is bird-study, so “ornithophilia” must be bird-love. And it’s proud. But is that “proud love” or “proud bird”? My asking that should allow you to work out that the third word is PEACOCK. Now let’s try the bit in the middle. A disciple of Tarzan called Thomas is expressing his love for peacocks. How might he go about it? Well, how did Tarzan go about expressing the same emotion? Tarzan love Jane. My explaining that should allow you to work out that the full answer is THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK.

He sounds like a ’sixties psychedelic band, doesn’t he? Maybe he was – if he wasn’t, he should have been. First and foremost, though, he was a writer, born in 1785, died in 1866. In Weymouth and London, respectively. He was only a minor literary figure even in his day, but that’s part of what I like about him. That and his name. And his books.

Well, two of them, anyway. He wrote seven-and-a-bit: Headlong Hall (1816); Melincourt (1817); Nightmare Abbey (1818); Maid Marian (1822); The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829); Crotchet Castle (1831); Gryll Grange (1860); and Calidore (which he never completed). I’ve tried four of them, and given up with two. The two I gave up with were The Misfortunes of Elphin and Crotchet Castle. The two I didn’t give up with were Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey.

Those two are also his most famous books, which suggests that they’re his best. And his best is very good. Headlong Hall is a satire on, among other things and other people, the Romantic Movement and figures like Shelley and Byron; Nightmare Abbey takes a narrower view and satirizes the Romantic Movement through just Shelley and his hopeless love-affairs. For a flavor of the first, here is Mr Foster, the perfectibilist, who believes that the human race is getting better with every generation:

“In short,” said he, “everything we look on attests the progress of mankind in all the arts of life, and demonstrates their gradual advancement towards a state of unlimited perfection.”

Foster and his perfectibilism are adamantly and absolutely opposed by the deteriorationist Mr Escot, who believes that, on the contrary, the human race is getting worse with every generation:

“[T]hese improvements, as you call them, appear to me only so many links in the great chain of corruption, which will soon fetter the whole human race in irreparable slavery and incurable wretchedness: your improvements proceed in a simple ratio, while the factitious wants and unnatural appetites they engender proceed in a compound one; and thus one generation acquires fifty wants, and fifty means of supplying them are invented, which each in its turn engenders two new ones; so that the next generation has a hundred, the next two hundred, the next four hundred, till every human being becomes such a helpless compound of perverted inclinations, that he is altogether at the mercy of external circumstances, loses all independence and singleness of character, and degenerates so rapidly from the primitive dignity of his sylvan origin, that it is scarcely possible to indulge in any other expectation, than that the whole species must at length be exterminated by its own infinite imbecility and vileness.”

But Escot and Foster are opposed, or perhaps balanced, by Mr Jenkison, the statu-quo-ite, who believes that the balance of good and bad remains the same from generation to generation:

I have often debated the matter in my own mind, pro and con, and have at length arrived at this conclusion – that there is not in the human race a tendency either to moral perfectibility or deterioration; but that the quantities of each are so exactly balanced by their reciprocal results, that the species, with respect to the sum of good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, happiness and misery, remains exactly and perpetually in statu quo.

Throw in more philosophers and scholars attached with equal fervor to other, and odder, world-views, mix with absurd incidents, absurder love-affairs, and season with genuine learning and wit, and you have the recipe with which Thomas Love Peacock has appealed to a small but select audience ever since Headlong Hall was first published in 1816. Two years later, in 1818, he followed it with Nightmare Abbey, which is less a feast than a single dish, but no less delicious for that. Even better, you can buy both for a pound in the Wordsworth series at a bookshop near you now.

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The Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

I first read this as an old paperback picked up in a charity shop. It was a book-of-the-film with a photograph of Peter Ustinov as the protagonist on the back cover. I couldn’t remember ever seeing the film and I wasn’t expecting much from the book. Why should I have been? It was just another cheap paperback bought out of idle interest.

It turned out to be one of the best and most interesting books I’ve ever read. The first-person narrator is Arthur Simpson, a neurotic, devious tourist-guide and petty crook living in Athens. He’s in his fifties and has bad breath and a paunch. He bears grudges, steals from his clients whenever he can, and has no redeeming qualities except his candour. But the more he reveals about himself and his past – from the anonymous notes he sent to get teachers in trouble at school to the indigestion he suffers whenever he foolishly gets himself into trouble again – the more you’re on his side. He’s a highly flawed but sympathetic character. You’ll finish this book not just wishing him well but wishing there were more books to read about him (according to the introduction, he appears again in Dirty Story, 1967).

He reminds me of two other flawed but sympathetic characters: George MacDonald-Fraser’s Flashman, a cowardly Victorian war-hero, and Anthony Burgess’s Nabby Adams, an alcoholic policeman in British Malaya. Flashman cheats and scampers his way through a long and entertaining series. Adams appears in only one book and like Arthur he leaves you wanting more. Burgess intended him to stand for the human race: he’s like our sinful, suffering forefather Adam, who is a prophet, or nabi, in the Muslim tradition. But Nabby lives to drink; Arthur isn’t sure why he lives at all:

I have often thought of killing myself, so that I wouldn’t have to think or feel or remember any more, so that I could rest; but then I have always started worrying in case this after-life they preach about really exists. It might turn out to be even bloodier than the old one. (ch. 7)

He muses like that half-way through the unwanted adventure that takes him from life as a tourist-guide in Athens to life as a criminal conspirator in Ankara. He’s being blackmailed, you see, by a tourist he tried to cheat and rob. The tourist, who’s going under the name Harper, turns out to be much cleverer and more dangerous than he seemed. He catches Arthur in the very act of stealing traveller’s cheques from his luggage, beats him up a little, then forces him to write a confession for the Greek police. Unless Simpson follows orders, the confession will put him in jail.

The orders are that he must drive a large American car to Ankara on behalf of a Fräulein Elizabeth Lipp, who will meet him there and pay him for his work. Of course, he suspects that he’s being used to smuggle something into Turkey, so he carefully checks the car before he tries to cross the Turkish border. He finds nothing and tries to cross the border. That’s when his unwanted adventure really turns unpleasant: by the end of chapter two, Ambler has skilfully brought a petty crook into a big criminal conspiracy.

Or rather: he’s skilfully brought the reader into realizing, with a sudden shock, that the petty crook is in a big criminal conspiracy. Arthur was entangled as soon as Harper caught him with the traveller’s cheques at the end of chapter one. Ignorance, deception and self-delusion are important parts of this book: that’s why it’s called The Light of Day. Arthur often reveals more than he means to about himself, but he stays sympathetic. So do the other characters in the book: like Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959), you understand why everyone acts as they do. And like Passage of Arms, exotic cultures are brought to life for English-speaking readers. Ambler seems to know Turkey and Greece from the inside.

And Egypt too. That’s where Arthur was born, as he reveals at the beginning:

My correct name is Arthur Simpson.

No! I said I would be completely frank and open and I am going to be. My correct full name is Arthur Abdel Simpson. The Abdel is because my mother was Egyptian. In fact, I was born in Cairo. But my father was a British officer, a regular, and I myself am British to the core. Even my background is typically British. (ch. 1)

No, he’s not British to the core: he’s selfish to the core. But you understand why and you sympathize with his rootlessness and his failures. After his father dies an army charity pays for his education in England, then he returns to Egypt to work with his mother in the restaurant she apparently owns. Things go wrong and he ends up in Athens, married to Nicki, an attractive younger woman who he thinks will leave him sooner or later. She’s attractive by his standards anyway, but not by Harper’s, as Arthur learns when he takes Harper to the club where his wife is still working as a dancer:

They have candles on the tables at the Club and you can see faces. When the floor show came on, I watched him watch it. He looked at the girls, Nicki among them, as if they were flies on the other side of a window. I asked him how he liked the third from the left – that was Nicki.

“Legs too short,” he said. “I like them with longer legs. Is that the one you had in mind?”

“In mind? I don’t understand, sir.” I was beginning to dislike him intensely.

He eyed me. “Shove it,” he said unpleasantly. (ch. 1)

Arthur’s dislike helps explain why he decides to try and steal some of Harper’s traveller’s cheques: as he says elsewhere, he always likes to get his own back. He also needs money because he’s struggling to pay the rent on his and Nicki’s flat.

But he badly underestimates Harper, which is why he ends up in Ankara. The conspiracy under way there is to steal jewels from the Topkapi, the museum in the old Sultans’ palace that gave its name to the film version of this book. The conspirators – Harper, his lover Fräulein Lipp and a boorish German-speaker called Fischer – are staying in an old house on the Bosphorus while they complete their plans. Arthur, who has acquired another and worse blackmailer by now, persuades them to employ him as a driver and guide to Ankara. They think the signed confession keeps him safely under their thumb. In fact, he’s under someone else’s thumb, which is why he has to spy on them.

But while he’s spying on them, he’s also observing the other servants in the house: an old Turkish couple called the Hamuls, who work as caretakers, and a Turkish-Cypriot chef called Geven. After Arthur himself, these three are in some ways the most interesting characters in the book. Like Evelyn Waugh, Ambler could make characters live and breathe on the page. But Waugh wouldn’t have been interested in Turkish-speaking servants in Ankara. Ambler definitely is and so is Arthur, partly because Geven, although “a good cook”, also “gets drunk and attacks people.”

Arthur doesn’t want to get on Geven’s bad side. He knows about Geven’s prison sentence for wounding a waiter before he meets him, but Harper and Company don’t. All the same, Harper guesses, with his usual perception, that Geven has been upset by Fischer’s high-handed treatment of him and is not cooking as well for his employers as for his fellow servants: “I’ll bet Arthur eats better than we do. In fact, I know damn well he does.” Arthur is eavesdropping as Harper and Fräulein Lipp are in bed together, making “the beast with two backs” (ch. 8). He’s already frightened of Harper; now he’s jealous too, because Fräulein Lipp is very attractive, with “long legs and slim thighs”.

In the end, it will be Harper who wishes he’d never met Simpson, but Arthur isn’t counting his blessings on the final page. He’s too neurotic for that and too full of resentments and grudges. I didn’t think the final page works. Nor does the climax of the book, as Arthur unwillingly joins the jewel-robbery. What worked for me were the glimpses into both the high politics and the low culture of Turkey: the importance of Atatürk, on the one hand, and the boozing of an unstable Turkish-Cypriot chef on the other. Arthur knows little Turkish, but Geven speaks English because of his time in Cyprus:

He drained the glass again and leaned across the chopping table breathing heavily. “I tell you,” he said menacingly; “if that bastard says one more word, I kill him.”

“He’s just a fool.”

“You defend him?” The lower lip quivered.

“No, no. But is he worth killing?”

He poured himself another drink. Both lips were working now, as if he had brought another thought agency into play in order to grapple with the unfamiliar dilemma my question had created.

The Hamuls arrived just then to prepare for the service of the evening meal, and I saw the old man’s eyes take in the situation. He began talking to Geven. He spoke a country dialect and I couldn’t even get the drift of what he was saying; but it seemed to improve matters a little. Geven grinned occasionally and even laughed once. (ch. 8)

The country dialect isn’t enough, as Geven shortly demonstrates. But Ambler has created a world that lives on the page. Like Burgess he was interested in foreign languages, not just foreign cultures, and he could use them to heighten the realism of his stories. Arthur is a hybrid man who’s always on the outside of what he’s observing, because he doesn’t truly belong anywhere: not Egypt, not England, not Greece or Turkey. He starts this sentence like an Englishman, but the memory he reveals isn’t at all English:

The day Mum died, the Imam came and intoned verses from the Koran: “Now taste the torment of the fire you called a lie.” (ch. 10)

Ambler knew about Islam too and in some ways The Light of Day is even more relevant today than it was when it was first published in 1962. Turkey is still a land of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, but the balance of power has shifted drastically. Arthur is told something that Atatürk is supposed to have said shortly before he died: “If I can live another fifteen years, I can made Turkey a democracy. If I die sooner, it will take three generations.” That was in 1938 and three generations have passed now. Atatürk’s dream is dead: Islam has re-asserted itself and Atatürk is no longer a Turkish hero.

So there’s even more irony in The Light of Day than Ambler intended. I think he would have liked that. History and human beings are complex. There isn’t just one world: there are as many worlds as there are people. Lives and cultures are both separate and interwoven. At their best, Ambler’s books convey all that better than any other books I know. And this may be the best of the best: The Light of Day is a very clever, entertaining and thought-provoking novel. As I said about Passage of Arms: it’s good that this edition was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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The Voynich Manuscript: the unsolved riddle of an extraordinary book which has defied interpretation for centuries, Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill (Orion paperback 2005)

Many things that fall under the Fortean label – they’re supposedly strange, anomalous, mysterious – dwindle under further investigation. There’s less to them than meets the eye. The Voynich Manuscript isn’t like that. It’s a hand-written book, heavily illustrated and annotated, that is genuinely mysterious and interesting. What is it about? Who wrote it? Why? After decades of analysis, we’re no nearer answering those questions.

Even if there’s no real language behind the script it uses, as statistical patterns seem to indicate, it’s still a fascinating object. Someone went to a lot of trouble to create it, whether it or not it’s full of gibberish, and a completely mad creator might be even more interesting than a rational one. Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, the authors of this detailed study, look at all the main candidates for authorship, from the friar Roger Bacon to the occultist John Dee and the bookseller Wilfred Voynich.

Voynich gave his name to the manuscript because he discovered it. Or so he said. Some have claimed that he created it instead, but they’re certainly wrong. It really is centuries old, as proved by both carbon-dating and provenance, and it’s been defeating the best efforts of cryptologists for centuries too. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher seems to have been baffled by it in the mid-seventeenth-century. In the early twenty-first century, cryptologists are still baffled. Is there a real language there, artificial or otherwise? Probably not:

[S]ome very unusual patterns of words … can be found in the manuscript. On most pages of the manuscript strings of the same words are repeated up to five times, or on other occasions, even longer strings of words with only the odd change to individual letters. This would be like writing the word that five times in succession in a phrase in modern English, or producing a sentence along the lines of Brought bought bough, though tough, through trough. It is almost impossible to conceive of a language where this would happen regularly, if at all. As Mary D’Imperio says, reporting the words of several Voynich researchers, “the text just doesn’t act like natural language.” (ch. 5, “The Cryptological Maze – Part II”, pg. 155)

But why would anyone write gibberish for so many pages and accompany that gibberish with so many strange drawings? There are plants, charts and naked women in baths. Is it a botanical text or an alchemical treatise? Or did a hoaxer want people to think that it was? Most researchers think that it was created with a serious purpose. I agree, but in one important way that doesn’t matter. The Voynich Manuscript may never be deciphered, but it’s already given us some valuable lessons in wishful thinking. As with Egyptian hieroglyphs, which Kennedy and Churchill also discuss, researchers have claimed successful decipherments of the Voynich Manuscript that turned out to be nothing of the kind. William Newbold saw microscopic variations in the symbols that weren’t really there; James Feeley thought they were Latin shorthand.

Both of them announced their decipherments with great confidence; both of them were completely wrong. No-one else has been any more successful and the Voynich Manuscript has defeated researchers with much more expertise and much more powerful analytical tools. This book is an excellent introduction to a genuinely mysterious object. Theories about it will continue to multiply, but it may never reveal its secrets. Perhaps that would be for the best.

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That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People, Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead (Bloomsbury 2016)

It would have been worth reading this book for this single pithy summation of religion’s appeal:

Colin Haycraft, the atheist husband of the fervently reactionary Catholic writer Alice Thomas Ellis, used to say that “religion is for women and queers” […] (ch. 3, “Gays and Evangelicals”, pg. 39)

In fact, there’s more than that to make reading worthwhile, but “women and queers” are usually at the heart of the story. Sometimes in very funny ways, like the encounter between the Nigerian Bishop of Enugu and Richard Kirker, “the general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement” outside the Lambeth Conference in 1998. As Kirker squeaked in indignation, the Bishop of Enugu tried to exorcise him: “I can deliver you! God wants to deliver you! In the name of JESUS! Father, I pray that you deliver him from homosexuality in the name of JESUS! Father, I deliver him out of homosexuality, out of gay!” (pg. 138)

That’s in chapter 8, “Dreams of a Global Church”, which describes the Church of England’s ludicrous attempts to become a big player on the world stage by harnessing the almost entirely imaginary power of the Anglican Communion. Everything the Church of England does is ludicrous, but the sight of two sacred minorities – the Black Community and the Gay Community – clashing like that is especially so. Not that the Bishop of Enugu really belongs to a minority, but that’s how he would have been seen by Guardianistas in the UK. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead are certainly Guardianistas, so they think the Church of England’s decline has been caused by its failure to become liberal fast enough:

[T]he biggest casualty of the battle over women was the continuing support of ordinary English women, and their willingness to pass on the faith. The timing could not have been worse. The first generation of women to be both highly educated and still committed to the Church of England in large numbers was precisely the one the battle did most to alienate. (ch. 5, “The Trouble with Women”, pg. 89)

Apparently the Church should have accepted women priests immediately and not alienated that vital generation. To me that’s nonsense. Decline was inevitable and the only parts of the Anglican Communion flourishing today are the evangelical ones in the West and the conservative ones in the Third World, neither of whom accept women priests or want to be welcoming to gays. Christianity is declining in America too and the Episcopal Church’s rush to embrace gay and women priests has done it no good.

And “Blacks vs Gays” isn’t the only funny clash of Guardianista favourites: the Gay Community doesn’t always get on with women either. One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters says this about Anglo-Catholics in Brideshead Revisited (1945): “They’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents.” That isn’t so far from the truth: Anglo-Catholics are the “smells and bells” wing of the CofE and this book says they control a training college called St Stephen’s House, or “Staggers”:

Some of the handful of women unwise enough to go to St Stephen’s ended up being transferred to other colleges by compassionate DDOs [Diocesan Directors of Ordinands], and the handful who stuck it out learned to live with routine cruelties and humiliations. One year, at the end of their time in training, they sent the customary Petertide ordination cards to their brother students asking for their prayers, only to find them torn up into small pieces and returned to their own pigeon-holes. (ch. 2, “Cuddesdon: where the mild things are”, pg. 24)

Bitchy? Well, yes: St Stephen’s was famous for a culture “in which men called each other by girl’s names like ‘Doris’ and ‘Betty’ and got excited by lacy cottas and embroidered chasubles.” (pg. 23) That camp culture wasn’t at all welcoming to real girls. But how can self-professed Christians, gay or otherwise, behave like that? A quote at the end of the book suggests an answer: “Christian hatred is powerful because it arises out of deep convictions which really matter to the haters.” But the deepest Christian conviction of all should surely be devotion to and obedience of Jesus, who told his followers: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew v:44; Luke vi:27).

There’s little sign of those divine commands being followed by any side in this book, but the twisted psychology of religion is part of what makes it so fascinating. The best argument against belief is the behaviour of believers. But conservative believers do at least keep Christianity alive. Liberal believers kill it by trying to make it acceptable to the Guardian. Liberal Christianity is often just as irrational as evangelical, but less interesting and entertaining for all involved, whether true believers or sceptical outsiders:

Andrew has had it seriously explained that the only reason God does not resurrect the dead at English ecclesiastic events the way that frequently happens in Africa (if we are to judge by the evidence of evangelical DVDs) is that the English don’t have enough faith. (ch. 7, “Charismatic signs and wonders”, pp. 127-8)

It takes enormous faith to believe that the Church of England will ever be a popular church again, in any sense of the word. I think Christianity will revive, but it will be the crazy and conservative kinds, not the kinds favoured by the authors of this book.

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The Voyeur’s Motel, Gay Talese (2016)

(This is a guest-review by Headpress CEO Dr David Kerekes)

Wow. I was simultaneously fascinated and sickened by this toxic tale of septic scopophilia. Yup – you could done say I was fascickened. American social historian Gay Talese tells the sizzlingly sleazy slime-story of this guy called Gerald Foos, right, who sets up a motel business specifically so that he could spy on his own guests – I mean, like actually watch them having sex and stuff through observation vents (wow) he had installed in the ceilings of certain rooms of the motel.

And he seriously got off on his secret spying, trust me. Yup – you could done say it was Foos’ Gold. Said spying stretched over an extended time-period from the 1960s to the 1990s, generating copious notes made by Foos to enhance his enjoyment and permanentalize his pleasure. So, the $23,000 question: Was he a voyeur? Are you kidding me?! You’re damn right he was a voyeur. And for me (Headpress CEO Dr David Kerekes) voyeurism is an absolute no-no under any and all circumstances. There are three core reasons for these strict anti-voyeurism principles of mine:

  1. My Mom was a refugee from the 24/7 surveillance state of communist Romania and instilled in me from my earliest days a deep abhorrence of spying and scopophilia (in short – voyeurism).
  1. I am (thanks, Mom!) a proud and passionate member of the Gypsy Community. I am (thanks again, Mom!) all too well aware of the centuries-long history of police surveillance and harassment directed against My People. This awareness has reinforced my deep abhorrence of spying and scopophilia (like I said – voyeurism).
  1. So I need a third reason, already?

But in fact, I do have a third reason to abhor voyeurism root and branch on a permanent, non-negotiable basis. Beside being the son of a communist refugee and a proud Gypsy (thanks, Mom!), I am also (as you may be already aware) a keyly committed core component of the counter-cultural community. Voyeurism is totally – but totally – against core counter-cultural principles of individual autonomy and non-interference in the lives of others.

This, then, explains why I was so sickened by The Voyeur’s Motel. But fascinated, also (don’t get me wrong). I could see putrid parallels between my Mom’s experiences in Romania and the behavior of Gerald Foos in America. As a government, communist Romania was rejecting core moral principles and trampling on individual autonomy at the exact time-periods during which, as an individual, Gerald Foos of the Voyeur’s Motel was also rejecting those core moral principles and trampling on individual autonomy. Reading this book, I could see those temporal and behavioral parallels very clearly, thus adding to the fascickening impact of the book on my core sensibilities.

And today? Well, is not clear that we see voyeurism on a massive scale at both governmental and individual levels? But not from me (no sir!) or from anyone else in the world-wide Headpress Community (no sir neither!). If you belong to the Headpress Community or any affiliated grouping, The Voyeur’s Motel will not be an easy read in the moral sense. It will disturb and distress all who have an ounce of esoteric ethicality in them, buddy. But it will also inspire them to fight on against the scourge of scopophilia and the virus of voyeurism. So, yeah, if you spot a copy, grab a read. It coulda done with more corpses, mind you.


• Headpress CEO Dr David Kerekes is the author of Killing for Culture: Death on Film and the Sizzle of Snuff (Visceral Visions 2012), Mezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe. (Visceral Visions 2014) and Nekro-Vile: Kandid Konfessions of a Korpse-Kontemplator (TransVisceral Books 2016), among other key transgressive texts.

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The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne 1989)

Is Beatrix Potter the greatest of all children’s writers? No, I don’t think so. But she might be the greatest of all children’s authors. She didn’t simply write: she wrote and drew, creating very clever and funny stories that almost have the quality of folk-tales or myths. C.S. Lewis said that Squirrel Nutkin (1902) “troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.” It was his “second experience” of the bittersweet longing that he described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955).

The other Potter books, although he “loved them all”, he found “merely entertaining”. Squirrel Nutkin is one of my favourites too, but I don’t find the rest “merely entertaining”. There is something epic, on a miniature scale, about Peter Rabbit’s adventures in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Those are in the book that began everything, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902). I was disturbed by the fate of Peter’s father – “put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor” – and by the cat staring at the goldfish when I was young, so I’m almost glad that I never read The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912) until I was grown-up. It’s the darkest and deathliest of Potter’s stories and I wonder if she had the German word Tod in mind when she named the eponym, as Evelyn Waugh did when he created a character called Mr. Todd for A Handful of Dust (1934).

The story was certainly meant as something new, as the opening two lines make clear:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.

Tommy Brock, a “short bristly fat waddling person with a grin”, is a badger and Mr. Tod, “of a wandering habit” and detectable by odour “half a mile off”, is a fox. Mr. Tod wanders through the story too: it’s Tommy Brock who’s on stage more often. His affability and his joke about “not hav[ing] a square meal for a fortnight” disarm a rabbit grandfather called Old Mr. Bouncer, who is looking after his “rabbit-baby” grandchildren while his daughter Flopsy and son-in-law Benjamin are out. Mr. Bouncer invites Tommy into the family rabbit-hole “to taste a slice of seedcake” and a glass of his “daughter Flopsy’s cowslip wine”. But he falls asleep as Tommy smokes a “cabbage leaf” cigar, only to wake and discover that both Tommy and his grandchildren have disappeared.

Tommy has carried them off in a sack. When his daughter gets back: “He was in disgrace; Flopsy wrung her ears, and slapped him.” Benjamin sets off to track Tommy, helped by the deepness of his footprints under the weight of the sack. It turns out that Tommy has carried the babies off to one of Mr. Tod’s many residences: “something between a cave, a prison, and a tumble-down pig-stye” that stands in the middle of a wood. Benjamin and his cousin Cottontail see how the “setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame”. When Benjamin peeps through a window, he sees “preparations upon the kitchen table that made him shudder”: “an immense empty pie-dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper”, plus “a plate, a tumbler, a knife and fork, salt-cellar, mustard” – “in short, preparations for one person’s supper.”

But that one person, Tommy Brock, has gone to bed in Mr. Tod’s bed “in his boots”, leaving the rabbit-babies still alive, but “shut in the oven!” There’s a sinister atmosphere in this story and it’s as close as Potter got to the Brothers Grimm. But the sinister atmosphere is part of the black humour, which gets even stronger when Mr. Tod turns up, not at all pleased to discover that Tommy has, yet again, taken over one of his homes. He decides to take revenge on the loudly snoring – and apparently deeply asleep – Tommy, but his cunning plan backfires. That’s why Benjamin is able to get his children back. He, like Flopsy and Cottontail, had appeared before in a Potter story: she created a world, not just individual stories.

Black humour had appeared before in her stories too, particularly in “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, or the Roly-Poly Pudding”. It’s about Tom Kitten, who has a narrow escape when he goes exploring the old house he lives in:

All at once he fell head over heels in the dark, down a hole, and landed on a heap of very dirty rags.

When Tom Kitten picked himself up and looked about him – he found himself in a place that he had never seen before, although he had lived all his life in the house.

It was a very small stuffy fusty room, with boards, and rafters, and cobwebs, and lath and plaster.

Opposite to him – as far away as he could sit – was an enormous rat.

“What do you mean by tumbling into my bed all covered with smuts?” said the rat, chattering his teeth.

“Please sir, the chimney wants sweeping,” said poor Tom Kitten.

“Anna Maria! Anna Maria!” squeaked the rat. There was a pattering noise and an old woman rat poked her head round a rafter.

All in a minute she rushed upon Tom Kitten, and before he knew what was happening–

He’s trussed in string and the enormous rat, Samuel Whiskers, is telling Anna Maria “to make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner”. The text goes perfectly with the drawings and I can read that single line – “‘Anna Maria! Anna Maria!’ squeaked the rat.” – again and again, because it’s so simple and so funny. Tom Kitten, like the rabbit-babies in The Tale of Mr. Tod, escapes his impending doom, but he gets nearer to it than they did: he’s been rolled in dough, with only his head and tail sticking out, when the terrier John Joiner, called in by his mother to find her missing son, manages to interrupt proceedings by sawing through the floorboards under which the two rats are living.

The rats flee, although Samuel Whiskers has first remarked to Anna Maria that he doubts the pudding would have been good: “I am persuaded that the knots would have proved indigestible, whatever you may urge to the contrary.” That’s funny and formal English, not funny and simple: Potter has the same variety and delicacy of touch in her writing as she has in her drawing. There’s another good example of a funny line in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910), when the toad Mr. Jackson encounters another of Mrs. Tittlemouse’s uninvited guests:

He met Babbity round a corner, and snapped her up, and put her down again.

“I do not like bumble bees. They are all over bristles,” said Mr. Jackson, wiping his mouth with his coat-sleeve.

“Get out, you nasty old toad!” shrieked Babbitty Bumble.

Again the line is perfectly set up and very funny. Potter’s animals are antagonistic as well as amicable. Her stories might sometimes be simply written, but they’re not saccharine or soppy. Even in the first, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), there’s comi-tragedy: remember that Peter’s father was “put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor”. Potter had a sad story herself, as the biographical notes and introductions to each story describe: her parents educated her at home and kept her away from other children. She found consolation in art and animals, then the two brought her success and fame through her books.

Then they seemed to bring her a husband too: her publisher Frederick Warne proposed marriage; she accepted; and they became engaged. But he died only a few weeks later of “pernicious anaemia” and although she did eventually marry, she never had children of her own. Instead, she became perhaps the greatest of children’s authors, combining life and death, sunshine and sadness, in stories that have delighted millions of children for over a century. This collection brings all of those stories together, from the famous to the obscure, from the ones that display literary genius to the ones that aren’t so successful.

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