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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Spiders are special. Like cats among the mammals, there’s a magic and a mystery to them that make them unique among the arthropods or the arachnids. Scorpions are simply sinister: spiders are simultaneously sinister and special.

Why so? It’s their webs and their waiting. Spiders that don’t spin webs still have something special about them, but that’s partly because of their web-spinning cousins. The web is the key. And Eleanor Morgan begins this book as she will go on: writing about the key to the web:

In the late summer of 2004 I began to collect the silk of spiders. These are the gossamer days, the time of year when every bush, railing, gap and crevice seems to sparkle with threads of spider web. (Introduction, pg. xv)

She’s an “artist and writer”, not a biologist, and in 2013 she completed a “PhD on the human uses of spider silk at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Department of Anthropology, University College London”. That was not a good sign, but this isn’t a pretentious, verbose or po-mo-polluted book. The first epigraph is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and there’s no ugly jargon from cultural theory. Instead, she tells interesting stories from around the world about spiders and the human beings who have collected their silk and tried to create things with it.

It has amazing properties after all, and although silk-worms have proved much easier to harvest, some garments have been made from spider-silk. And so have some gun-sights: spider-silk was once used for cross-hairs:

At the Vickers’ optical instruments factory in York, boys were still being sent out in the 1960s to look for spiders. They searched early in the morning, while the dew was still on the ground and on the spider webs, so that they were easier to spot. Each spider was placed in a separate pillbox to avoid them eating each other. […] After the silk had been collected, the spiders were returned to the common and new ones collected next morning. (pg. 44)

That’s from chapter 2, “Lining”, which has an epigraph from Euclid: “A line is a length without breadth.” Spider-silk was once the closest approach to that abstract ideal, combining extreme fineness with great strength. And great elasticity too: in chapter 5, “Vibrating”, Morgan looks at spider-silk as a form of telegraph, alerting spiders to edible captures in their webs. There are also legends about spiders being attracted by other kinds of vibration: music and singing. But did they really and regularly descend from the ceiling to hear the singing at a girls’ school in Victorian London? It doesn’t seem so, but it’s a good story and another example of the threads that human weave about spiders.

Other chapters including “Weaving”, “Transforming”, “Lining” and “Layering”. In “Layering”, Morgan writes about visiting the Science Museum in London and viewing a sinister “smothering hood” fashioned from spider-silk on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The hood was used to “suffocate widows immediately after the deaths of their husbands, so that they might continue their ‘wifely ministrations’ in the next world.” (pg. 85) Or so old records at the Museum say. In fact, the smothering hood she looks at is nothing of the kind: it’s really “a spider web headdress worn in male initiation ceremonies” (pg. 88). Spiders often appear in magic, myth and religion, and here’s an unusual example. Were the male initiates pretending to be spiders? Again, it doesn’t seem so, but wearing the headdress was a way of smothering oneself in the specialness of spiders.

Metaphorically speaking, so is this book. It has many more strange and interesting stories and ideas, plus some strange and interesting drawings and photographs. The biggest flaw is the lack of an index. And it’s a bigger flaw than usual here. After all, an index is rather like a spider at the centre of a web, registering the vibrations in its threads. Without an index, you don’t know what’s caught in the text-web. And I would have liked more images of real spiders and their webs: the beautiful pencil-sketch of Araneus diadematus on page 4 seemed to promise more, but more didn’t come.

I assume the sketch was by Eleanor Morgan herself. If so, she draws as she writes: clearly and compellingly. Gossamer Days is a special book about special creatures. But it should be read in conjunction with a more scientific text, because spiders and their silk have more secrets and specialness than Morgan has room to describe here.

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Moon: From 4.5 billion years ago to the present: Owners’ Workshop Manual, David M. Harland (Haynes 2016)

It was a clever idea: to put out a guide to the Moon in the same format as one of Haynes’ famous car-maintenance manuals. And the execution matched the idea. This is a detailed and interesting history of selenological speculation and lunar exploration, all the way from the ancient Greeks to the Apollo missions and beyond.

Except that there hasn’t been much beyond the Apollo missions. As the book’s final page notes:

On 31 December 1999 National Public Radio in the United States asked Sir Arthur C. Clarke, renowned for forecasting many of the developments of the 20th century, whether anything had happened in the preceding 100 years that he never could have anticipated. “Yes, absolutely,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. “The one thing that I never would have expected is that after centuries of wonder and imagination and aspiration, we would have gone to the Moon… and then stopped.” (“Postscript”, pg. 172)

And we’ve been stopped for some time. Neil Armstrong died in 2012, forty-three years after that “small step for a man” and “giant leap for mankind” in 1969. But David M. Harland ends on an optimistic note: he thinks that “The Moon is humanity’s future.” It will be our gateway to the rest of the solar system and perhaps even the stars.

But it will be more than just a gateway. There is still a lot we don’t understand about our nearest celestial neighbour and big surprises may still be in store. One thing we do now understand is that the scarred and pitted lunar surface got that way from the outside, not the inside. That is, the moon was bombarded with meteors, not convulsed by volcanoes. But that understanding, so obvious in hindsight, took a long time to reach and it was actually geologists, not astronomers, who promoted and proved it (ch. 5, “The origin of lunar craters”). It was the last big question to be settled before the age of lunar exploration began.

Previously scientists had looked at the Moon with their feet firmly on the ground; at the end of the 1950s, they began to send probes and robotic explorers. Harland takes a detailed look at what these machines looked like, how they worked and where they landed or flew. Then came the giant leap: the Apollo missions. They were an astonishing achievement: a 21st-century feat carried out with technology from the 1960s, as Harland puts it. Yet in one way they depended on technology much earlier than the 1960s: pen and paper. The missions relied on the equations set out in Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687). Newton had wanted to explain, inter multa alia, why the Moon moved as it did.

By doing that, he also explained where a spacecraft would need to be aimed if it wanted to leave the Earth and go into orbit around the Moon. His was a great intellectual achievement just as the Apollo missions were a great technological achievement, but he famously said that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Harland begins the book with those giants: the earlier scientists and mathematicians who looked up in wonder at the Moon and tried to understand its mysteries. Apollonius, Hipparchus and Ptolemy were giants in the classical world; Galileo, Brahe and Kepler were giants in the Renaissance. Then came Newton and the men behind the Apollo missions.

Are there more giants to come? The Moon may be colonized by private enterprise, not by a government, so the next big names in lunar history may be those of businessmen, not scientists, engineers and astronauts. But China, India and Japan have all begun sending probes to the Moon, so their citizens may follow. Unless some huge disaster gets in the way, it’s surely only a matter of time before more human beings step onto the lunar surface. Even with today’s technology it will be a great achievement and more reason to marvel at the Apollo missions. And the Apollo photographs still look good today.

There are lots of those photographs here, with detailed discussion of the men and machines that allowed them to be taken. The Moon is a fascinating place and this is an excellent guide to what we’ve learned and why we need to learn more.

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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 Magic of Uri Geller, as revealed by the Amazing Randi (1982)

Uri Geller is a luftmensch with chutzpah. It’s no coincidence that two Yiddish words sum him up, because Jews have been as disproportionately successful at fraud as they have been in other professions requiring high intelligence and quick wits. Chutzpah, or brazen arrogance, probably won’t need defining, but a luftmensch, for those who haven’t come across the word before, is literally an “air-man”: someone who makes a living from nothing. Geller has achieved world-wide fame and made large sums of money principally by bending spoons and keys and starting “stopped” watches. Compared to the atom bomb or the moon-landings, it’s hardly the stuff of legend, but the difference is that the men behind the atom bomb and the moon-landings didn’t put a dishonest label on what they did. Geller does and that’s why he’s been successful.

Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In fact, it wouldn’t: it’s well-established in psychology that labels can affect emotion and sensation. The label doesn’t even have to be verbal:

The direct relationship between the quality of a product and the colour of its container is again demonstrated by an American test in which 200 women were invited to judge the flavour of a coffee served from brown, red, blue and yellow coffee pots. Although the same coffee was served in each case, almost three quarters of those tested found the coffee from the brown pot to be too strong, whereas nearly half of the women found the coffee from the red pot to be rich and full-bodied. The coffee from the blue pot was regarded as having a milder aroma, while that from the yellow pot was judged to be made from the weaker blend of bean. (The Colour Eye, Robert Cumming and Tom Porter, BBC Books, London, 1990, “Colour and Quality”, pg. 147)

Geller attributes his trivial tricks to mysterious powers, helped by a simple equation that has been at work for many thousands of years: ignorance + emotion = the supernatural. When human beings can’t understand something and are excited by it, they have always been prone to seek a supernatural explanation (or rather, non-explanation: the supernatural explains nothing, merely allows us to conceal an epistemological gap in a psychologically satisfying way). When Geller, a master of psychological manipulation, creates emotion by bending a thick key in a way his audience can’t understand, it’s easy for him to convince the gullible that he has special powers. And we are much gullible than we’d like to believe. The Amazing Randi, the author of this debunking book, reproduced Geller’s feats before an audience of scientists, having explicitly stated he was using trickery. Maurice Wilkins, who won a Nobel prize for his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA, then told him: “Mr. Randi, you’ve told us that what you did was accomplished by trickery. But I don’t know whether to believe you or believe in you!”

After all, one of the most important points this book makes is that scientists, for all their priestly prestige and status, are not the right people to investigate Geller’s claims:

Certain prominent American scientists have said, concerning the criticisms of their acceptance of Geller, that their detractors are calling them either liars or fools. (ch. 16, “Geller in England”, pg. 256)

And since prominent American scientists are obviously neither liars nor fools, Geller must be genuine. Randi points out the false logic:

Neither is correct, so far as I am personally concerned. I call them simply “unqualified” – in this particular field – to pass judgment on such matters. (pg. 256)

A clever magician can fool a clever scientist, because deception is a magician’s stock-in-trade. Geller and Randi are both masters of deception, but Randi is honest about what he is, Geller isn’t. Randi is also a master of readable prose: I enjoyed this book a great deal, and not just because it remains highly relevant, even thirty years after Geller’s heyday. Luftmenschen with chutzpah are still with us and Geller reminds me a lot of Tony Blair. Blair isn’t Jewish, isn’t as intelligent, and hasn’t lasted as long, but the mass psychology behind both men’s success seems similar. Randi quotes the Latin saying Homo vult decipi; decipiatur: “Man wishes to be deceived; let him be deceived.”

Like Blair, Geller didn’t have to do much to convince large numbers of people that he was special, but then another important point the book makes, in Geller’s case, is that failure can even be helpful. If Geller were successful all the time, he’d look more like a fraudster who uses trickery. Occasional failure not only makes him look honest but heightens the effect of his successes too, and Randi describes how magicians sometimes exploit this aspect of human psychology by deliberately failing on something small before succeeding on something big.

And not all of Geller’s genuine failures are reported. In one of the funniest anecdotes in the book, Randi describes how, on his triumphant tour of England in the mid-1970s, Geller told a pregnant journalist that she would have a girl in three days’ time:

She had the baby, all right – a boy, a month later. Determining that the lady was expectant was all that Uri had done. And just about anyone could do that, at that stage! But what if he’d been right? The press would have trumpeted it to the world. As it was, no attention was directed to the prediction. (ch. 16, “Geller in England”, pg. 253)

Yes, it would have been trumpeted to the world, even though predicting the sex of a baby, at least, is no more difficult than predicting the fall of a coin: a 50% chance of success is hardly unfavorable. But the general public’s ignorance of probability was another factor in Geller’s success. When he appeared on a television or radio show with a large audience and predicted strange happenings among his viewers or listeners, he got a a lot of people ringing in to report exactly that: strange happenings. According to Randi, so did a “psychic” called Jim Pyczynski when he appeared on a radio show in New York: lights flickered or went out; a container of milk burst; mirrors “cracked”; pictures fell off walls; cats became agitated; and a clock that had been stopped for years started working again (ch. 12, “The Old Broken Watch Trick Revealed”, pp. 191-4).

But in fact Jim Pyczynski was Randi’s “full-time assistant” and was merely proving a statistical point: “strange happenings” are inevitable when enough people look out for them, and large audiences will also contain liars and fantasists, as well as honest people who, when prompted to do so, will notice what they had previously overlooked. Did the mirrors crack during Pyczynski’s broadcast or sometime before and without being noticed?

And again, the supernatural label helps create emotion that reinforces the appearance of the supernatural. Geller’s tricks are trivial, but we can be taken in by trivial things. Part of Randi’s animus against Geller is perhaps explained by jealousy, but then Randi does seem to be a better magician who, with less honesty, could easily have achieved what Geller has achieved. It’s easy to be a psychic, because people don’t understand how easily they can be manipulated or how predictable human psychology can be. This book or Randi’s website will tell you more about how fraudsters like Geller manipulate and exploit us. For the other side of the story, see Geller’s website, where you’ll find his chutzpah as strong as ever.

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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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Passage of Arms, Eric Ambler (1959)

After I’d read Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962), I knew he was a very good writer. But I didn’t know how good until I read this book too. It wasn’t his prose or his plotting that struck me, competent as they were: it was his ability to think himself into other people’s heads. People in different jobs from different cultures speaking different languages in different parts of the world.

In The Light of Day, he got into the heads of a Greek-Egyptian tourist-guide and a Turkish secret-policeman. In Passage of Arms, he did it with Chinese businessmen, Indonesian soldiers and a Bengali accountant living in Malaya. I was surprised: he’d shown such intimate knowledge of Greece, Turkey and Egypt in the first book that I’d never guessed he could show the same about a whole new region. And not only that: Passage of Arms proves that he knew a lot about the arms trade and shipping too. And about running a bus-service.

Arms and buses come together through the Bengali accountant Girija Krishnan, a clever, observant and ambitious young man who works on a rubber-plantation in British Malaya. His father, killed during the Second World War, had once been on a tour of a factory in London that made buses. Girija has inherited the “bus body manufacturer’s catalogue” that his father picked up as a souvenir. He’s pored over it until he knows it by heart and is now obsessed with managing his own bus-service.

But he would need a substantial sum of money to start it. He sees his chance to get the money after a British army-patrol ambushes and kills a party of communist guerrillas on the rubber-plantation where he works. He has to supervise the burial of the bodies and works out, using clues in what the guerrillas were carrying, that there must now be an unguarded arms-dump near a village called Awang. He searches for it, finds it, secures it, and sets about selling its contents.

It takes him three years, because what he’s doing is highly illegal and he’s proceeding with extreme caution. Girija is an engaging character, brought to life with many small details, from the bus-catalogue he treasures to “the lentil soup” he re-heats as he’s pondering how to find the arms-dump at the beginning of the book. I remember being disappointed on my first reading of this book when new characters came in and he took a smaller role, then left the stage altogether. But everything that follows was set in motion by him, because the new characters are Chinese businessmen, three brothers who are trying to find a buyer for the arms he can supply.

Tan Siow Mong, the oldest brother, is based in Kuala Pangkalan in Malaya, Tan Tack Chee, the middle, in Manila, and Tan Yam Heng, the youngest, in Singapore. Ambler brings them and their psychology to life with small details too. Yam Heng is the “disreputable brother”. He likes gambling, but doesn’t gamble well. That will prove important, as the brothers begin plotting to get the arms out of Malaya and sell them to the Party of the Faithful, a group of anti-communist Muslim insurgents in Indonesia. It’s a complicated business and, like Girija’s bus-service, very important to them. But it’s not important to the world at large or to one of the men who are part of their scheming:

Kwong Kee was a square, pot-bellied man with a cheerful disposition and a venereal appetite bordering on satyriasis. He was not greatly interested in the commercial reasons Mr. Tan gave him for switching the Glowing Dawn temporarily to the Singapore run. Nor was he interested in the cargo she carried. And if Mr. Tan’s young brother [Yam Heng] was foolish enough to want to go home by sea instead of comfortably by train, that was no business of his either. He was quite content to do as he was told. It was some time since he had sampled the brothels of Singapore. (ch. 4, pt. 3)

That’s all we learn about Kwong Kee, but it’s enough to bring him and another aspect of Eastern culture to life. As with all his other characters, Ambler doesn’t judge: he simply presents. And after Girija and the Tan brothers he has two more big characters to present: an American couple called Greg and Dorothy Nilsen from Wilmington, Delaware, where Mr. Nilsen is “owner of a precision die-casting business”. They’re on a cruise of the Far East and they’re about to be drawn into the plot set in motion by Girija. Mr. Tan in Malaya has asked his niece’s husband in Hong Kong to be on the look-out for a foreigner who can get around local restrictions by becoming nominee for “a shipment of arms” to Singapore. Thanks to his job, the husband meets a lot of foreigners:

Khoo Ah Au liked American tourists. He found them, on the whole, generous, easy-going and completely predictable. They were rarely ill-tempered, as the British often were, or eccentric in their demands, as were the French. They did not harass him with questions he had not been asked before, and listened politely, if sometimes inattentively, to the information he had to impart. They used their light meters conscientiously before taking photographs and bought their souvenirs dutifully at the shops which paid him commission. Above, all, he found their personal relationships easy to read. It was probably a matter of race, he thought. His own people were always very careful not to give themselves away, to expose crude feelings about one another. Americans seemed not to care how much they were understood by strangers. It was almost as if they enjoyed being transparent. (ch. 3, pt. 3)

He reads and exploits the relationships between the Nilsens and Arlene Drecker, a lone American tourist who has attached herself to them, to Mr. Nilsen’s increasing displeasure. He carefully introduces news of the arms shipment to Mr. Nilsen and manoeuvres him into becoming the nominee for a percentage of the profits. Mr. Nilsen sees it as an adventure and as a way of striking back at communism, because the arms are going to be sold to those anti-communist insurgents in Indonesia (or Sumatra).

What he doesn’t bargain for is that he will have to go to Indonesia himself to get a signature on the shipment from the insurgents, who don’t fully trust their agent in Singapore. But he sees it as part of the adventure and goes there with his wife:

Their first impression of Labuanga airport was the smell of steaming mud.

It was the most favourable impression they received. (ch. 6, pt. 2)

The officials at the airport are surly and unpleasant, and it takes a long time to clear customs. Then they encounter some of the local wildlife: “a thing like a soft-shelled crab with black fur flopped onto the floor at their feet and began to scuttle towards the wardrobe”; large grasshoppers that “crunched sickeningly underfoot” after invading the Nilsens’ hotel-room at night. In this new environment, the woman who is guiding them, a beautiful Eurasian called Mrs. Lukey who is married to the insurgents’ agent in Singapore, has “suddenly become more Asian than European … It was a disconcerting transformation.”

Then things get much worse. Although Mrs. Lukey is travelling on a passport in her maiden name, the Indonesian authorities have worked out why she’s been visiting the town of Labuanga with so many foreigners. This time they’re ready: the delay at the airport was deliberate, allowing them to put the Nilsens under surveillance. The Nilsens meet the insurgent chiefs, including a Polish called Voychinski who served in the Wehrmacht and has fought communism in “Russia and Italy and Viet-Nam”. Now the authorities pounce and everyone is arrested.

The adventure has turned into a nightmare. General Iskaq, who commands the Indonesian military in Labuanga, is a “cunning and ambitious man” who hates whites because of the way his father, a “Javanese coolie”, was treated by them in colonial days: “All through his childhood, the General had seen his father kicked, bullied and shouted at by white men, or mandurs working for white men.” (ch. 6, pt. 3) If not for his hatred of whites, the General would have gone over to the insurgents, who are commanded by one of his former army comrades. But the insurgents are financed and supported by whites, so the General remains loyal to the communist government for the time being and appoints a sadistic communist as his personal aide: “Major Gani was an able and astute officer with a glib command of the Marxist dialectic and a keen eye for the weaknesses of other men.”

Gani thinks he understands General Iskaq and can control him, but he’s wrong. After the arrests and jailing of the prisoners, the General does not like seeing “his old friend Mohamed Sutan lying on the stone floor in a pool of bloody water, moaning and choking with blood running from his mouth and nostrils.” Ambler supplies another small and telling detail to the beating: “the proudly smiling men” who had carried it out. From bus-catalogues to brutality: Ambler understood the world and could re-create it.

Later on Voychinski, who, unlike the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey, has no consulate to defend his interests, is beaten to death during interrogation. The Party of the Faithful then strike back and the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey manage to get out and fly back to Singapore. Then there’s a twist rather like the twist in The Light of Day, when a manipulated man turns the table on his manipulators. Finally, Girija is back on stage, ready to start his bus-service. Would he have tried to sell the arms if he’d known the death and suffering that would result? Of course he would: they were arms and he knew they were destined for use. One way or another death and suffering would follow.

But he remains a sympathetic character. Everyone in the book does, from the satyr-like Kwong Kee to the “proudly smiling” thugs in the Labuanga jail. As I said, Ambler doesn’t judge: he presents. This is an imperfect world with imperfect people acting on imperfect knowledge. But it’s also a rich and fascinating world. Ambler can convey that too. When the book was first published in 1959, it captured the present. Now it captures the past. But the past is also the present: Muslim insurgents are still in the news.

So are plots and intrigue in Turkey, which Ambler wrote about in The Light of Day. I enjoyed that book more than this one, partly because the most interesting character is centre-stage throughout, but this one is even better at portraying the complexity of the world and the role that chance and judgment play there. After reading these two I was badly disappointed by some of Ambler’s other books, like A Kind of Anger (1964). But « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” At his best Ambler is very good.

Much better than Graham Greene, who’s the obvious comparison. Amblerland is much bigger than Greeneland. Much richer and more detailed too: in languages, cultures, races, ideologies. In objects too. Even “the wheels from an old [child’s] scooter” have a small but important part to play in Passage of Arms. Ambler had a male eye for mechanism and a female eye for psychology. It’s good that this edition of Passage of Arms was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, who says that Ambler was trained as an engineer. Stalin said that writers were “engineers of souls”. It’s an ugly term, but it works well for this book.


Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Sympathetic SinnerThe Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

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Cover of The Maximum Security Yoga Club by Mikita BrottmanThe Maximum Security Yoga Club, Mikita Brottman (TransVisceral Books 2017)

(This is a guest review by Dr Rachel Edelstein)

June 2015. Anglo-American academic Mikita Brottman sets off in her eco-friendly Honda Hopi to the Jessup Correctional Facility on the outskirts of Baltimore. It will be her first day running a yoga club for prisoners at the notorious maximum-security jail — and her hopes are high. For the next eight months those hopes seem to be fully realized. That first session goes very well and those succeeding it go even better. Dozens of new prisoners are soon clamoring to join the club.

Then Mikita introduces her by now tight-knit group of eager students to a new asana – a posture she has invented herself with just them in mind…

The following day her yoga club is abruptly canceled by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (MDPSCS). Mikita reaches out in an increasingly bewildered and desperate attempt to uncover why the authorities have taken this harsh and completely unexpected step, cutting her off from all contact with prisoners with whom she has bonded deeply and whose personalities and psychology she has been observing with an incisive but compassionate eye. As she writes in chapter four:

The MDPSCS at first refused to return my calls or answer any of my letters and emails, but I finally managed to get an “unofficial” response from one of the prison-guards with whom I had worked, and with whom – so I thought – I had forged a mutually respectful and considerate professional relationship. I had to read his email several times before its meaning fully sank in, so disconnected, incoherent and (frankly) illogical did it seem to my disbelieving gaze. I quote here an extract: “Your so-called club has killed two prisoners and left three others paralyzed for life. You can count yourself lucky that the Department is not suing your pasty-white posterior to Alaska and back. And you have the effrontery to ask why the club has been canceled? Please, Dr Brottman: give me a break!”

I was deeply disturbed by the tone and dismissiveness of this communication. Yes, there was a grain of truth in its assertions: the new asana had not gone as well as I might have liked. And yes, five members of the club did break their necks, of whom two died on the spot and three were, in the email’s cold and clinical phraseology, “left paralyzed for life.” But was this any reason to cancel a club that had been fatality-free on no fewer than forty-six previous occasions? To my mind, it was not. I continued to probe for the true reason behind the MDPSCS’s abrupt and shocking decision. (chapter 4, “Orwell’s Shadow”, pg. 124)

Her efforts are unavailing – but worse is to come for the mild-mannered literary scholar and yoga-enthusiast. As the US presidential campaign begins and the appalling rhetoric of Donald Trump incites the most reprehensible elements of so-called white America, Mikita finds herself adopted as an “alt-right icon” by vile racists who believe that the unfortunate events at that final session of her yoga-club were no accident. She quotes a typical email: “Way to go, girl! You should get a Congressional Medal for smuggling yourself into the jail and tricking all them dumb n*****s into trusting you like that! 88!”

Needless to say, these unjust, unfair and totally unfounded insinuations are an additional and almost unbearable burden for Mikita to carry. And be in no doubt: The Maximum Security Yoga Club is certainly a tale of trauma and tragedy. But it is ultimately one also of hope, as Mikita finds a chink of light amid the darkness by adopting a false name and starting a Tantric aromatherapy-and-origami club at a maximum-security psychiatric facility (which she leaves unnamed for obvious reasons).

Combining cutting-edge psychoanalysis with deeply personal memoir, The Maximum Security Yoga Club will take you on a roller-coaster ride of extreme emotion and edgy insight as it interrogates a seething underbelly of obstreperous obstructionism right at the heart of Maryland officialdom.

 


STOP-PRESS A TransVisceral Books press-release brings the unhappy news that the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has followed tiny clues in The Maximum Security Yoga Club and unmasked the false identity Mikita used to gain access to the Hyman T. Rubinstein Ultra-Max Mental Hospital. Her Tantric aromatherapy-and-origami club there has been canceled and she is now threatened with prosecution for impersonation, fraud and misuse of federal facilities. Please see the TransVisceral website for further details of this devastating new development.

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Super Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Super Bugs is a big and lavishly illustrated book aimed at children, but I think adults will get the most out of it. It beats film and the internet on their own ground: the images are very powerful and very detailed. In fact, if you’re an arachnophobe or an entomophobe, I wouldn’t recommend opening it. There are spiders here as big as hats and beetles as big as small dogs.

I’m fascinated rather than repulsed by spiders and insects, but I wouldn’t like to meet a vinegaroon in the flesh – or in the oil-dark, glittering carapace. But vinegaroons, or whip scorpions, look more ferocious than they are. They defend themselves by spraying a vinegar-like chemical, hence their name. Not deadly.

Centipedes and real scorpions, on the other hand, are as fearsome as they look. The giant centipede on pages 52 and 53 is magnified to the thickness of an arm, with poisonous fangs as big as fingers. I was uncomfortably reminded of James Bond’s encounter with a giant centipede in Dr No (1958), but the image would probably been more disturbing if it had been life-sized, rather than much bigger.

Then it would have looked more real. A centipede can’t grow as big as an arm and you don’t have to know about oxygen-diffusion and the inefficiency of arthropod respiration to understand that. But we would have understood centipedes and other arthropods quicker if they were so big, because then we would have seen the details of their bodies more clearly. The microscope has been essential to the development of modern science and the giant photos here are a reminder of that.

So are the short but interesting texts that accompany each photo section. There is a world of wonder inside and outside the most ordinary-seeming insect. Not that any insect is really ordinary, but this book collects some of the strangest, from wasps with metal in their ovipositors to beetles that look like violins. Plus peacock spiders, anaesthetic-equipped ticks, and star-shaped-egg-laying tardigrades, which might be called the toughest of the tiniest.

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Butterfly, Thomas Marent (Dorling Kindersley 2013)

The best book on butterflies and moths I’ve ever owned was The World of Butterflies, a translation from the Italian Il Mondo delle Farfalle (1984). It was illustrated by hand and had a lot of serious science in it. This book by the Swiss author Thomas Marent is very good too, but in a different way. It uses big photographs taken by Marent and doesn’t have much text. The photographs are spectacular: far larger than life. And many of them definitely put the λεπιδες into lepidoptera.

That’s the lepides, the “scales” after which this group of insects are named. The colours and patterns of the lepidoptera, or scale-wings, are formed like mosaics, by the arrangement and structure of tiny scales on their wings. Or mostly like that. Some butterflies and moths have transparent wings, like the wasp- and bee-mimics shown towards the end of the book. Before that, Marent covers all the most famous and beautiful varieties of butterfly, from the peacocks and swallowtails of Europe to the birdwings of Asia and the morphos of South America.

There are many obscure ones too, plus some beautiful moths. But a large section of the book is given over to colours, patterns and shapes that aren’t beautiful. Instead, they’re strange or grotesque, because they belong to lepidopteran larvae, not adults. Caterpillars can be garishly coloured or subtly camouflaged. They can have spikes, knobs, horns or irritating hairs. They’re often poisonous and when they are, it pays them to advertise. In some ways, they’re the most interesting part of a lepidopteran’s life-cycle and it’s good that they get a lot of attention here.

For one thing, it heightens the beauty of the adults and of the pupae and chrysalids from which the adults emerge. A double-page is given over to:

The gleaming, mirror-like sides of the orange-spotted tiger clearwing pupa (Mechanitis polymnia) in Colombia[, which] provide camouflage by reflecting the light and colours of the surrounding rainforest. After rainfall they seem to disappear among the glistening wet leaves. (pg. 140)

Thomas Marent has travelled the world to photograph specimens for this book and his work has definitely been rewarded. And there is some serious science in the captions and the introductions to each section: “Identity”, “Anatomy”, “Transformation”, and so on. A lot of people like lepidoptera and a lot of books get published about them, but this stands out in a crowded field.

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The Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

I enjoyed this book a lot when I first read it a few years ago. This time it was less fun. It didn’t seem as well-written and there was an occasional nasty edge that I didn’t remember from the first read. But I can still recommend it as an entertaining guide to a very strange band.

I’m not a fan of The Fall myself, though I think I can see why so many people are. And why they tend to be so devoted. Mark E. Smith, the “non-musician” who has led the band through decades of line-up changes, is himself a fan of both H.P. Lovecraft and Captain Beefheart. And it shows. Some of his song-titles could stand by themselves without any lyrics or music: “Rowche Rumble”, “How I Wrote Elastic Man”, “Mr Pharmacist”, “Why Are People Grudgeful?”.

The album titles are good too. Live at the Witch Trials was the first Fall album (it wasn’t live). Then there are Hex Enduction Hour, Code: Selfish, Imperial Wax Solvent, Sub-Lingual Tablet. A strange and interesting mind chose or came up with those. Dave Simpson encounters that mind at the beginning of the book, when he spends hours drinking in a Manchester pub with “Mad Mark”, as Mark E. Smith is known in his home-town of Prestwich. Why has Smith fired so many musicians? “It’s like football. Every so often you’ve got to change the centre-forward.”

But there’s more to it than that, as Simpson discovers in the rest of the book. He set out to track down all of The Fall’s many ex-members, from the most famous and long-lasting to the most fleeting and obscure. Even as he’s ticking names off his list, Smith is lengthening it. As the cover of this paperback says: “NOW with Added Ex-Members!” But everything Simpson writes about the Fallen is also telling you something about the Feller (in both senses of the word). Mark E. Smith is at the centre of everything, hiring, firing, drinking, prodding – something he likes to do to musicians on-stage.

It unsettles them, destroys routine and monotony, encourages the spontaneity that Smith thinks is essential to musical creativity and performance. And his unpredictability seems to work: although The Fall have often fallen fallow and released weak albums, they’ve always burst back to life with new members and new material. Or so Simpson says. He’s been a fan for a long time. So was his girlfriend when he started writing the book. They’d broken up before he finished it, which was appropriate.

Was it the Curse of Smith at work? Mad Mark certainly didn’t like being analysed or having light shed on his work and the many misfortunes that have dogged his group. Some of them seem to be have been deliberately engineered. Smith doesn’t want superstardom or great wealth. He wants to remain an Outsider. Lovecraft wrote about one of those and so did Camus. The Fall were named from Camus’s novel La Chute (1956) and perhaps Smith thought he’d die young just as Camus did.

He didn’t. The Fall have always been one of England’s strangest groups; now they’re one of the longest-lasting too. And the only ever-present is Smith. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already read this book. If you aren’t, you may become one by doing so. It’s sometimes very funny and, like a biography of AC/DC I’ve reviewed, has a lot of sociological interest in it. You can’t understand Smith without understanding north-west England and Manchester in particular. And like a biography of Iron Maiden I’ve also reviewed, it teaches you a lot about historiography, or the process of writing and researching history. The Fall were formed in a rich country in peaceful times. But no-one can be sure what exactly happened to who, why, when and how. Some stories come in many different versions. Some stories may reverse the truth. And according to Marc Riley: “There are a lot of skeletons in The Fall cupboard and stories that haven’t been told.”

If Mark E. Smith has his way, they never will be. But I can foresee this book being updated again. And perhaps even again.

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