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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

RSPB Handbook of the Seashore, Maya Plass (Bloomsbury 2013)

Possibly the best short guide to the seashore I’ve ever seen. There’s a good balance between informative text and attractive images. And while the photos are good for identification, the detailed and attractive line-diagrams by Marc Dando are good for understanding, whether it’s the internal anatomy of the green sea-urchin (Psammechinus miliaris) or the life-cycle of the common prawn (Palaemon serratus).

You don’t get so much interest so easily on land. Apart from insects, the strangest and most interesting terrestrial life tends to be microscopic. That’s not true of marine life and the seashore, where the outré is almost everyday. It’s a Lovecraftian place, from surreal sea-slugs and seductive sea-anemones to highly intelligent octopuses and highly idiosyncratic crabs. There’s beauty, like star ascidians (Botryllus schlosseri) and jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis), and grotesqueness, like sea-spiders (Nymphon gracile) and their relatives the barnacles (which are crustaceans, not molluscs). As Darwin wrote of barnacles: “The probosciformed penis is wonderfully developed… when fully extended it must equal between eight and nine times the entire length of the animal!” That quote begins the section on “Echinoderms” and Maya Plass has found a similarly quirky or enticing quote for every other section, whether it’s poetry by an obscure Victorian naturalist or prose by Dickens and Shakespeare.

Plass is not only writing in a long tradition of natural-history guides: she’s paying homage to that tradition. And I was glad to see a a chrestomathic crustaceologism from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) heading the section on lobsters. His book celebrates the variety and variousness of water and the life it nourishes. More than a century later, the RSPB Handbook of the Seashore does exactly the same.

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Britannia Obscura: Mapping Britain’s Hidden Landscapes, Joanne Parker (Vintage 2014)

An excellent and unpretentious guide to a subject that can go sadly awry in the wrong hands: psychogeography. Whether she’s writing about stone-circles or ley-lines, Joanne Parker keeps an open mind but never allows her brains to fall out. Her message is: “Here’s what people have thought and done – now make up your own mind.” Or maybe that should be: “Now go and see for yourself.” This book is both a guide and a goad, because after reading it you’ll want to look at what it talks about.

But stone-circles, in chapter two, and ley-lines, in chapter four, are esoteric excursions amid earthly or aerial realities. Chapters one and two are devoted to caves and canals. Then the book takes to the air for a look at flight-paths in the fifth and final chapter. Parker must have planned that journey from the underground to the aerial, from the subterranean to the celestial. The themes of the book are firmly established in that first chapter: there’s much more out there than readers may have supposed.

In fact, there’s a whole new world beneath your feet. Caves are fascinating places both physically and psychologically. Merely knowing about them alters the way you view a landscape. When you enter and explore them, another landscape changes – your own mind. But caving isn’t just about exploration: it can also involve excavation. Cave-systems can be extended or brought together by digging. It’s tough and dirty work and the cavers who undertake it are running risks like those faced by their mining fathers and grandfathers before them.

But one big difference is that they aren’t being paid for the risks they run. One of the genetic legacies of agriculture may be a propensity to enjoy activity for its own sake, because a farmer’s work is never done. Hobbies are a kind of work and our conscious motives for them may be no more than rationalizations for urges that literally uncoil from our DNA. But the urge to compete must be older than anything agricultural:

When Nixon discovered Titan, reducing Gaping Gill to the second largest cave in Britain, he was, he confesses, “delighted to steal the crown, as it were” from Yorkshire. While sprawling underground passages may stretch underground like colossal sleeping dragons, with a prehistoric disregard for county borders and human rivalries, one spur to diggers is certainly local pride. […] The connection of Lancashire’s Ireby Fell caverns to Rift Pot in Yorkshire was celebrated proudly with Eccles cake, Lancashire cheese, Black Sheep beer and Yorkshire teacakes, as the Three Counties system took its penultimate step towards deposing Ogof Draenen. And for many other cavers, making their local caverns deeper, longer or more complex than caverns further afield becomes a challenge akin to the race between medieval parishes to build church spires ever closer to the heavens. (ch. 1, “Underground, Overground: The Caver’s Map of Britain”, pg. 26)

So that chapter delves deep into the earth; the next delves deep into history as it looks at “Prehistoric Patterns: The Megalithic Shape of Britain”. But the caving chapter has prepared the way, because caves were among the first places occupied in prehistory: “The Torquay cave also boasts a human jawbone, dated between 38,000 and 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest fossils from modern man ever to have been found in Europe” (pg. 16). No stone-circle is as old as that and maybe human beings weren’t capable of creating them so long ago. In some cases, matching a stone-circle would be a big challenge even today, with the full resources of our technological age. The architectural expertise and astronomical alignments of sites like Avebury and Stonehenge should stir the stolidest mind.

So could the subject of chapter three, the “Hidden Highways” that form “The Lost Map of Britain’s Inland Navigators”. In other words: canals. They were the veins and arteries of the Industrial Revolution. Then thrombosis and gangrene set in, because advancing technology made roads and railways more economical, so the canal network is much smaller than it used to be. Economics expanded it, then choked and contracted it.

But canals had become part of psychogeography, so their decline hasn’t been irreversible. Water has always been an esoteric element, as John Buchan conveyed in one of his best short-stories, but canals were a new variation on an ancient them: they were river-like, but they didn’t flow and they didn’t swing or swerve. Sometimes they dove straight through hills. The strangeness and romance of canals are well-summed up for me in the fact that Robert Aickman, one of England’s greatest macabre writers, was the founder and early vice-president of the Inland Waters Association. And people who love canals don’t like to see them disappear:

The Wey and Arun Canal Trust are working piecemeal on the canal, in the hope that some day its full length might be revived. Many other canals around the country are, similarly, waiting for their second coming, trusting to the undiminished enthusiasm of optimistic volunteers – to the successors of men like the late David Hutchings, who, after his groundbreaking restoration of the Stratford Canal in 1958, proclaimed simply, “Fortunately none of us were experts, or we should all have known that it was impossible.” (ch. 3, pg. 89)

Hobbies can be hard work. For some people, they wouldn’t be fun if they weren’t. But the ley-hunting of chapter four is usually more leisurely than caving or canal-recreation. Ley-lines are earthbound, but they capture the imagination in a special way. The man who introduced them to the world, Alfred Watkins, had the right name: earthy and English. And he chose the right string of monosyllables for the title of the book he published about ley-lines in 1925: The Old Straight Track. His theory was the British landscape still bore the signposts used by ancient traders in salt, flint, furs and other necessities of prehistoric life. By using hill-tops, stone-circles and churches built on ancient sites, he mapped what he called ley-lines, or the routes used in ancient times to travel in the most direct way across the landscape.

But there’s one of the difficulties with his theory right away: the most direct way across a landscape is rarely the easiest or most convenient. Why climb up and down a hill or wade through a marsh when it’s quicker to go around it? And are the alignments that Watkins identified really deliberate? In some ways it didn’t matter: ley-lines captured the imagination of countless people and have inspired countless expeditions. And adaptations of his theory have slipped the surly bonds of ergonomics: some people say that ley-lines are about earth-currents, not economics. There’s a lot of speculation, insubstantiality and even UFOlogy to ley-lines today. I don’t know what Joanne Parker herself thinks. She presents all sides of the arguments and chapter four becomes part of the camera obscura offering an overview of the wildness, weirdness and wackiness of British psychogeography.

Then, after the UFO flight-paths of chapter four, the book takes to the wing for the real flight-paths of chapter five. Except that the earliest human aeronauts in Britain weren’t on the wing: they were under the basket. Balloons were the first stage of man’s conquest of the air. They’ve never gone away: like canals, although they’re obsolete in strictly practical terms, there’s something special about them that invites and sustains serious devotees. But the planes that replaced balloons, like the trains that replaced canal-boats, have more devotees. Maybe Parker should have included a chapter on trains and their tracks, but I don’t think the book misses them. This is Britannia Obscura and trains aren’t obscure. I like them, but I can read about them elsewhere.

I’ve never read about Britain’s “Flight Paths and Regions” before. Air has always been an emblem of fluidity, but there’s a lot of rigidity up there now:

The practical problem with so much free airspace being gobbled up [by commercial aviation] is that it makes routes across the country more and more difficult for general aviation. “Where I live in the south-east,” Brian Hope says, “you can fly between airports at the moment to get north or west. But if Farnborough and Southend airports both get controlled airspace, that would block those routes.” It’s a little like a gated community suddenly being built in the middle of the Pennine Way or halfway round the South West Coast Path. And it’s not just close to London that these problems exist. The controlled airspace around Birmingham and Manchester is also notoriously difficult to avoid, and Bristol’s controlled airspace has recently joined up with Cardiff’s to create a vast impasse in the west. (ch. 5, “Highways in the Air: The Map of Britain’s Skies”, pg. 151)

I hadn’t thought about any of that before, but I hadn’t thought about a lot of the things in this book before. It’s been a mind-expander and an eye-opener, teaching me a lot and prompting me to look for more information elsewhere on everything from Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, “one of the seven wonders of the canal world” (pg. 70), to the Belinus Line, a ley that stretches the entire length of the British Isles and seems to connect Inverhope, Inverness, Carlisle, Birmingham, Winchester and Lee-on-Solent.

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The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness, Leif Bersweden (Short Books 2017)

Was this book inspired by Patrick Barkham’s excellent The Butterfly Isles (2010), in which the author sets out to see all native species of British butterfly in a single year? I assume so. It has a similar premise — “52 species of wild British orchid… one summer to find them all” — and contains a similar mixture of natural history and autobiography. But The Orchid Hunter is a good book in its own right and maybe Barkham was inspired by a find-against-time book I don’t know about.

Either way, if you read both books they’ll enrich and illuminate each other. Butterflies and orchids are both eye-catching, but orchids are much stranger in their subtler, stiller, photosynthetic way. One of the chapter headings here is a quote from the great orchidologist Jocelyn Brooke: “There is, about all orchids, something rather perverse and ambiguous, something even a trifle sinister.” (ch. 10, “The Curse of the Coralroot”, pg. 179) You can see that particularly well in an orchid that doesn’t, in fact, photosynthesize:

The Bird’s-nest Orchid is one of the weirdest plants I’ve ever seen. Completely brown, it appears at first glance to be dead, but a closer examination proves otherwise. Each flower is velvety caramel and has two feet that look as if they’ve been drawn by children: big, clumsy and sticking out sideways. Some plants are still in bud, looking like bizarre trees covered in peanuts. This orchid never produces chlorophyll – the green pigment used in photosynthesis to help produce sugars […] (“Swords of the Hampshire Hangers”, pg. 110)

Instead, Bird’s-nest Orchids, Neottia nidus-avis, parasitize an underground fungus that’s a symbiont of beeches and other trees: “One end of the fungus is attached to the tree, receiving carbon produced by photosynthesis; the other end is attached to the orchid, which is siphoning off this carbon.” Leif Bersweden calls the orchids “outlaws, sneaky thieves who execute their criminality with perfection.” But you could say that the original thief is the tree, whose branches and leaves steal the sun from the sky of smaller plants that try to grow beneath it. Because the Bird’s-nest Orchid isn’t dependent on sunlight, it can grow in the deepest shade.

So can the Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, which is a fungus-feeding sciophile that’s even stranger than its relative. But it’s called the Ghost Orchid not just because it’s pale and haunts the shadows, but also because it’s elusive, short-lived and “seldom reappears in the same spot” (pg. 308). Bersweden went “Ghost Hunting”, as he puts it in the title of chapter 18, but the Ghost Orchid got away. He doesn’t succeed in finding one and Epipogium aphyllum is missing from the “Gallery of Gotchas” in the photo section. If it had been there, it still might not have been the strangest orchid on display. It certainly wouldn’t have been the most salacious:

Early Spider Orchids are one of the four species of the genus Ophrys that can regularly be found growing in Britain, the others being Bee, Fly and Late Spider. Their flowers are remarkably insect-like and have a fascinating, yet diabolical sex life. While most plants attract pollinators with the promise of nectar, these orchids lure them in with the promise of bee sex. This deception is accomplished by imitating the scent, appearance and texture of virgin female bees. (“Shakespeare’s Long Purples”, pp. 34-5)

You could say that the Ophrys orchids manufacture floral sex-dolls. Male bees are drawn in by the “alluring female scents”, fooled by the appearance and feel of the flower, and attempt “to mate with the ‘female’, often vigorously and for long periods.” In the process, the male bee acquires “two tiny, sticky pollen sacs”, which he’ll carry off to another Ophrys sex-doll when he gets tired of humping his present partner. At least, that’s what the Ophrys intends. Not that intention is the right word: this botanic deception was created blindly and slowly by natural selection. But nervous systems were definitely involved. And perhaps consciousness was too. The male bees have to smell, see and feel the floral sex-doll, which must have been fine-tuned over evolutionary history to become a better and better mimic of a buxom mate.

The nervous systems of insects and other animals have had a decisive influence on the evolution of mindless plants. Most flowers use shape, scent and colour not to fool insects, but to invite them to a draught of nectar or munch of pollen: “Within minutes of the sun dropping below the horizon, the orchids release an overpowering fragrance into the warm evening air that moths find irresistible” (“Finding the Fragrants”, pg. 201) That’s the Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which grows on “calcareous soils” in the south of England.

Each species of orchid has its own preferences of light, moisture and soil chemistry. Sometimes they’re very particular preferences. This book is almost as much about geology and meteorology as it is about botany. When the cover says “52 species of wild British orchid”, it really does mean “British”. Bersweden visits all five nations of the British Isles, travelling as far south as the Isle of Wight, as far north as the Outer Hebrides to find and photograph orchids, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where he searches for Early Purple Orchids, Orchis mascula, on the Burren, a “barren sea of pale limestone” rising “lunar and desolate, in the north of County Clare.”

At least, it looks barren and desolate from afar. Appearances are deceptive, as one of the best passages in the book reveals. I think it’s an excellent encapsulation of the appeal not just of botany but of natural history in general:

There were plants everywhere. Every crack in the limestone was sprouting green. Common bird’s-foot trefoil, rue-leaved saxifrage, heath dog-violets, milkworts and hawthorn. The snowy-white flowers of mountain everlasting sprang from the pavement, spring gentians bejewelled the grass with an electric blue, and I was left speechless by the sheer number of Early Purple orchids. There were thousands of them, speckling the slope.

Lying down on my stomach, I gazed greedily into a deep crevice and encountered a miniature jungle. Hundreds of plants thronged every crack and root-hold. There were plantains, crane’s-bills, ferns, trefoils and saxifrages. Mosses and liverworts encased the smooth limestone, tiny sporophytic stalks peering upwards like periscopes. They grew over and under one other, making it difficult to distinguish one plant from the next. This was chaotic, unadulterated wilderness. (“Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”, pg. 52)

You can almost see the plants and feel the limestone beneath your feet. And the plant-names, common and scientific, are almost as rich and strange as the reality. Biology is about nomenclature, not just about nature. As the sub-title of this book reveals, Bersweden is still a “Young Botanist”, so he’s still training his eyes and other senses to make the sometimes minute distinctions between one species and other. In chapter two, he’s “Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”. But in chapter nine, he’s after an orchid that’s instantly recognizable even to a complete amateur: Cypripedium calceolus, the Lady’s Slipper. It’s the Empress of British orchids, once thought to have been driven into extinction by collectors, then re-discovered in 1930 by the Jarman brothers, two cotton-weavers who worked at a factory in the Yorkshire town of Silsden.

The precise location of their discovery, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, has been kept secret ever since. And the original orchid is still alive, guarded by fences and an on-site warden. Other specimens have been re-introduced to the wild, propagated from domesticated Lady Slippers, and Bersweden visits one of these in the “Gait Burrow Nature Reserve on the Lancashire-Cumbria border”. He’d never seen one in the flesh before:

It’s difficult to describe the emotional impact. Over the years, I’ve read a lot about [these] orchids and ogled hundreds of photos of their unmistakeable flowers, but nothing could have prepared me for that first glimpse of the fragile, jaw-dropping beauty of the Lady’s Slipper. (ch. 9, “The Lady’s Slipper, pg. 169)

But that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to find the only known truly wild specimen in its secret, security-ringed location. “It might be futile,” he says, “but I had to try. […] Somewhere out there, hidden in the secluded folds of the Dales, the Lady’s Slipper was waiting.” He succeeds in his quest – “Suddenly I saw it: a flash of gold between two hazels” – but as he stands “gawking” over the fence at an orchid he “could only just see”, he’s joined by the watchful warden, who regretfully declines to allow him any closer. “Defeated”, he retreats, dreaming of other truly wild specimens that may still lie undiscovered somewhere in the Dales.

Orchids attract obsessive people and Leif Bersweden is definitely one of those: he snatches time during his mother’s fiftieth birthday party to tick the Burnt Orchid, Neotinea ustulata, off his list (ch. 8, “Butterflies and Burnt Tips”, pp. 143-157). Obsession makes for good scientists, but doesn’t necessarily make for good writers. In this case it does: The Orchid Hunter is one of the best natural history books I’ve ever read. It’s also an excellent introduction to what its author calls “the furtive, capricious, enigmatic world of orchids” (pg. 255). That’s in chapter 14, entitled “Queen of the Cotswolds” and devoted to the Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra. But if you want to know exactly what Helleborines are, you have to read the book or look elsewhere: The Orchid Hunter doesn’t, alas, have an index. That’s a big flaw in what is otherwise a very good book.

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Morbid: The Mephitic Memoirs of Miriam B. Stimbers, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2018)

(This is a guest-review by Dr Benjamin H. Rubinberg)

Miriam Stimbers is, in my opinion, the most important psychoanalyst at work anywhere in the world today. When she began her career, the prospects within academia for psychoanalysis must have seemed less than rosy. Unrelentingly vicious and increasingly underhand attacks had been made on Freud’s golden legacy since the end of the Second World War. We had been told that psychoanalysis was irrational and anti-empirical, authoritarian and misogynistic, that it was a pseudo-scientific cult for the superstitious, simplistic and statistically illiterate.

Miriam responded to these attacks by defiantly taking Freudian techniques to new heights of psychoanalytic sophistication and seismographic subtlety. She began her career detecting “Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy” in the seemingly carefree music of Suzi Quatro. She went on to unearth “Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust” in the apparently mild-mannered music of Simon and Garfunkel. More recently, in what is perhaps her greatest triumph to date, she has laid bare “Castration, Clitoridolatry and Communal Cannibalism” in the superficially ‘civilized’ novels of Jane Austen. And anyone who has read a single paragraph in any one of these jaw-dropping studies must have asked her- or himself: What is the back-story of this remarkable scholar?

Morbid: The Mephitic Memoirs of Miriam B. Stimbers is Miriam’s own attempt to answer that question, containing what she describes as “an uncompromising chronicle of my first fifty years on Earth.” The opening fifteen of those years were difficult ones, to put it mildly. Miriam was born in the notoriously rough-hewn Scottish city of Glasgow and had authentically atrocious “Parents from Hell.” Both were alcoholics, both were addicted to violence, both seemed to thrive on chaos and conflict. Miriam admits that she may well have inherited her own “committed contrarianism” from her “tram-conductress” mother, but she says that memories like the following still have the power to chill her blood at several decades’ distance:

Ma stood swaying in the door of the living-room, flushed with a mixture of cheap whiskey and vindictive triumph.

“Weel, Ah’ve done it!” she announced.

“Done whit, ye auld bitch?” responded Pa with a belch, scarcely troubling to look up from where he sat slumped in his armchair, listening to the racing results on our battered 1950s radio.

“Ah’ve joint the fuckin’ Tories!”

That attracted Pa’s attention.

“The fuck ye have!”

“Aye, an’ Ah have at that.”

“Ah’ll no have nae fuckin’ Tory under this roof!”

“An’ there ye’re wrang, ye auld cunt. ’Cos Ah’m a fuckin’ Tory an’ Ah’m under this roof right noo, see?”

“Weel, then, ye can clear yer fuckin’ airse off oot of it!”

“The fuck Ah will!”

“Ye will an’ all, woman, or Ah’ll boot ye oot!”

Most days, Pa would have thrown something hard and heavy by now, but I could see him squinting and blinking first at Ma in the doorway, then at the bottles sitting on the floor by his chair. He was seeing double again. (ch. 2, “Ye Can Take the Girrul Oot-a Glasgae…”, pp. 23-4)

That episode from Miriam’s home-life is horrifying on many levels, no? But it was not so bad as it might seem. Despite her shocking avowal, Miriam’s mother was being deceitful: she had not in fact joined “the Tories,” that is, Britain’s loathsomely racist and white-supremacist Conservative party. She was merely seeking to provoke her husband into a fight. In this, as so often before and later, she succeeded and the young Miriam was soon once again ringing for a pair of ambulances and mopping blood off the carpet. It is little wonder that Miriam sought a refuge from the violence and vindictiveness of her home-life in the calmer, kinder and caringer world of books and literature, nor that she should have set her heart on winning a scholarship and becoming the first person in her extended family of “boozers and brawlers” to attend university.

The scholarship – “my magic carpet to a better world,” as Miriam calls it – took her to Merton College, Oxford, and introduced her to some of the most exciting and up-to-date developments in literary theory. But she had already lost her heart to a certain roguish revolutionary from Vienna: Herr Sigmund Freud. Miriam has proved unflinchingly faithful to Freud and Freudianism right to the present day. Her move from Britain to the United States has merely strengthened her commitment and deepened her respect. Indeed, on the day that disaster struck her new homeland and a “bouffant buffoon” (as Miriam cuttingly puts it) was elected to the White House, she says that she found herself “literally praying to my wise old Meister.”

Despair was nevertheless an ever-present temptation in the wake of Trump’s “toxic triumph,” but Miriam says that she was determined to remain strong both for the the planet’s sake and for the sake of her life-partner Dr Nigel M. Goldbaum, who is, in her own words, “a proud member of the Black-African Diaspora (despite the racist assumptions made by sickeningly many people on first hearing his name).” Miriam has never taken the comfortable route or sought the quiet life. “It would have been very easy,” she writes of her trans-Atlantic move, “to take advantage of white privilege, to sleep with powerful white men, and to coast to superficial success in America. I could not do that. I will not do that. Hier stehe Ich – Ich kann nicht anders.”

She’s right. She won’t do that. But we can be sure that she will continue to thrust the boundaries of psychoanalysis outward, upward, and downward, just as we can be sure that she will continue to alternately intrigue her adventurous readers and traumatize her timid colleagues. Miriam Stimbers is the psychoanalyst of the century and Morbid is a must-read autobiography for fans old and new alike.


A Seriously Stimbulating Stimbibliography

Penetrating the (Pernicious) Portal: Towards a Pre-Anthropology of the Knock-Knock Joke (Oxford University Press 1992)
Miscegenation, Misogyny, and (Mephitic) Mimesis: Towards a Post-Anthropology of the Lightbulb Joke (O.U.P. 1995)
Can the Cannibal? Aspects of Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy in the Music of Suzi Quatro, 1974-1986 (University of Nebraska Press 2004)
Doubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music of Simon and Garfunkel, 1965-2010 (Serpent’s Tail 2007)
Law of the ’Saw: Terror, Teratology, and Tmetic Tenebrosity in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (U.N.P. 2010)
Kentucky Fried Freud: Candid Confessions of a 21st-Century Psychoanalyst… (TransVisceral Books 2012)
Re-Light My Führer: Nausea, Noxiousness and Neo-Nazism in the Music of Take That, 1988-2007 (U.N.P. 2013)
Base Citizens Raping: Revulsion, Repulsion and Rabidity in the Music of the Bay City Rollers, 1972-2002 (U.N.P. 2014)
Botty: An Unnatural History of the Backside (TransVisceral Books 2014) (reviewed here)
Jane in Blood: Castration, Clitoridolatry and Communal Cannibalism in the Novels of Jane Austen (U.N.P. 2014)
Underground, Jehovahground: Ferality, Fetidity and Fundamentalist Phantasmality in the Music of the Wombles, August 1974-January 1975 (TransVisceral Books 2015)
Komfort Korps: Cuddles, Calmatives and Cosy Cups of Cocoa in the Music of Korpse-Hump Kannibale, 2003-2010 (U.N.P. 2015)

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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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