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Posts Tagged ‘autobiography’

Mad Dog Killers: The Story of a Congo Mercenary, Ivan Smith (Helion / 30° South Publishers 2012)

War is one of the most intense experiences a human being can undergo. Films or computer-games might give you a good idea of what war looks like and sounds like, but they can’t yet tell you what it feels like. This book can. Ivan Smith is a natural story-teller but not a polished writer. That adds to the authenticity of Mad Dog Killers. He’s an ordinary man who saw, did, heard, felt, and smelt some extraordinary things.

But that suggests he’s not so ordinary after all. He had to be tough to fight and survive in the Congo as a mercenary in the Armée Nationale Congolaise during the 1960s. But he isn’t a psychopath, because he’s still haunted by some of the deaths he dealt out or witnessed. Some of his fellow mercenaries were definitely psychopaths. On his own account, he owes his life to one of the worst, a “nerveless and totally ruthless man” called Boeta, who befriended him and watched his back in the barracks and on the battle-field. Boeta comes alive on the page thanks to death. He enjoyed dishing it out and was never happier than in the middle of a fire-fight. He could make night-clubbing go with a bang too:

Boeta eventually signed up for four contracts in a row and on the second one, some months after I had returned to a normal life, he visited a nightclub in Leopoldville [now Kinshasa]. The jazz band refused to play the music he requested. It was in the early hours of the morning so he would have been very drunk. He opened fire on the offending band with an FN [machine-gun]* on automatic fire and killed them all, as well as a couple of other patrons. The one band member turned out to be a relative of a high-ranking government official so Boeta was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. A week later he was back with his Commando; the funds he had accumulated from looting had allowed him to buy his way out of it all. (ch. 4, pg. 43 – *FN = Fabrique Nationale, the Belgian arms-manufacturer)

Later in the book, Boeta makes a visit to a “tatty café” go with a bang too: “The pistol came up and stuck in the waiter’s ear. The shot was muffled and blood and brains sprayed from the exit wound and splashed the wall and roof.” (ch. 11, pg. 155) What had the black waiter done? He’d jokingly claimed to be a “Simba”, or one of the rebels against whom the mercenaries were fighting. So Boeta casually murdered him. Earlier, he and another mercenary had casually murdered a black stranger because no-one could understand what he was saying after he was left with them by some white soldiers from an unknown unit:

“Hey, Harry, you speak Frog, what is he saying?” I asked.

“No, man, it is not French. The bugger is giving me a headache. Wish he would shut up.”

“Good idea. Watch this. Stupid Simba, you should have been quiet.” Boeta got up and beckoned the loudly complaining man over. “Stand over there, you dumb fucker.” He pointed to the edge of the bridge and waved the man to stand there.

Pete, one of the commandos who happened to have been at school with me, but was two years my junior, got up and went to join Boeta.

“Man, I can’t believe that nutcase. Surely the bloke can see it coming?” Harry puffed blue clouds of smoke.

“Don’t think they will do it, will they?” was my anxious complaint.

Boeta and Pete suddenly put up their rifles and fired from the hip, on automatic, long bursts. The complaining man was smashed forward and then lifted by them and thrown over the edge into the swift water below.

“Is that not better?” Boeta called. “No more fucking whining.” (ch. 10, pg. 137)

As Smith notes wryly at the beginning: Boeta became a mercenary because “in the Congo there was no law.” Did the two of them become friends because there was some echo of Boeta’s psychopathy in Smith? I’d assume so, although Boeta nicknamed Smith “Smiler” because of “my sometimes fixed smile” when frightened (pg. 44).

Smith was frightened a lot at the beginning and you can understand why. His childhood and education in South Africa had taught him to shoot and his work in a copper-mine had taught him to face violent death. Or so he thought: “This memoire is … a brief record of a few months in the life of a cocky young man who thought he was afraid of nothing, but who soon learned all about fear.” (Introduction, pg. 6) If the Simba had been better shots or less superstitious, he might not have got out alive. But they were bad shots and reckless fighters, because they often believed that the spells of “medicine-men” had rendered them invulnerable to bullets. Big mistake. In The Godfather (1969), men “sleep with the fishes”. In Mad Dog Killers, they lie with the butterflies:

At the scene of the first contact with the medicine man and company, a fluttering vibration filled the air over the bodies, which were oozing dark blood from multiple gunshot wounds. Busy clouds of brilliant butterflies were whirling over the scene and dense concentrations of the insects sat sipping the oozing blood. The salts in the blood attracted them and the green flies. The butterflies always appeared in a very short time after blood was spilt in the tropical forest. The still moist air quickly took up and conveyed the smell of fresh blood. That cloying scent along with the sharper reek of cordite was filling my lungs as I watched the fluttering insects; they took me back to childhood, to the happy hunting of the earlier days. Then it was back to here and now. (ch. 5, pg. 55)

That’s a surreal description worthy of J.G. Ballard. Africa is a cruel and beautiful place, and the Congo is the dark heart of Africa. The mercenaries often behaved badly in the Congo, but the Simba and the black soldiers in the official Congolese army were usually far worse. Both the Simba and the Congolese army routinely “liberated” towns and villages by murdering the men and raping the women. As Smith says, he spent only “a few months” fighting there, but they’ve stayed with him for the rest of his life. Regrets? He has many. Killing in the hot blood of a fire-fight was one thing, but killing in cold blood was another. Sometimes he’s not sure why he remembers some deaths and not others: “Whatever it was that bothered me about that line of running men still haunts me more than fifty years on. Yet they were just a few of the many I killed.” (ch. 8, pg. 99) Unlike Smith, Boeta enjoyed killing anyone anywhere anytime. That’s why he stayed in. Smith got out.

At least, his body got out, but his mind has often returned. Decades later, he written this book about it, trying to exorcise his demons. The old black-and-white photos add to the sense of another place and another time, but the Congo is still at war and horrors are still taking place there. First come the bullets, then the butterflies.

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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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Will This Do by Auberon WaughWill This Do? The First Fifty Years of Auberon Waugh, Auberon Waugh (Century 1991)

If the Holocaust continues to increase its hold on the hearts and minds of all right-thinking folk, it seems quite possible that Auberon Waugh’s body will one day be dug up and put on trial for the disrespect shown by its former occupant, before being ritually burnt and scattered to the four winds.

Unless, that is, other professional victims get their hands on it first. AW told jokes about the most inappropriate subjects, from the “three million years of persecution” suffered by the Jews to the graves of still-born West Indian infants, and remarked of himself that his “own small gift” was for “making the comment, at any given time, which people least wish to hear” (pg. 215). Contemplating his use of this gift and “all the people I have insulted”, he later admits to being “mildly surprised that I am still allowed to exist” (229).

But it is the august author of his existence who will concern more readers, and certainly no aficionado of Evelyn Waugh can afford to neglect the autobiography of his eldest son. Waugh père put on a performance for the world and even for his friends, and this book is rather like seeing behind the scenes at a play. Readers will see EW from the wings, as it were, though they should always remember that AW inherited his father’s love of fantasy as well as much of his literary talent. Of one episode from his military service AW remarks: “I have told the story so often now that I honestly can’t remember whether it started life as a lie” (105).

This may also apply to the infamous “three bananas” devoured with sugar and “almost unprocurable” cream by his father under the “anguished eyes” of his children, to whom the fabled fruit had been sent in the depths of post-war austerity (67). The story is a dramatic way of illustrating AW’s judgement that EW’s “chief defect was his greed” and of explaining why AW “never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.” It may be untrustworthy for that very reason.

It may also have been an act of posthumous revenge, working off some of the resentment and even dislike AW felt for his father before leaving home. In 1944, dragged away from his games to meet EW, who was home on leave, AW “would gladly have swapped him for a bosun’s whistle” (30); later, he faced the problem of living with a father who set the emotional climate of his entire household:

The dejection which was liable to seize him at any moment — sparked off by little more than a bad joke, a banal sentiment, a lower-middle-class epithet — made him awkward company at times. When he was in the grips of a major depression, or melancholy as he called it, he was unendurable. (36) … He was a small man — scarcely five foot six in his socks — and only a writer, after all, but I have seen generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quail in front of him. When he laughed, everyone laughed, when he was downcast, everyone tiptoed around trying to make as little noise as possible. It was not wealth or power which created this effect, merely the force of his personality. (43)

But he did not think his father could have been “pleased by the effect he produced on other people”, and concluded that he “spent his life seeking out men and women who were not frightened of him” — and then usually getting drunk with them, “as a way out of the abominable problem of human relations” (43). Their own relations were marked by “distinct cordiality” (112) in the last five years of EW’s life: after suffering a near-fatal accident on National Service in Cyprus, AW even wrote “a maudlin, deeply embarrassing letter telling him how much I admired him” and sent it to his bank to be released “in the event of my predecease” (112).

Despite this, EW’s death “lifted a great brooding awareness not only from the house but from the whole of existence” (186). That presence played encores, however, as when AW experienced misgivings about his apostasy from Catholicism:

It is hard to believe that these kindergarten assemblies bear much relation to the ancient institution of the Church as it survived through the Renaissance. The new Mickey Mouse church … is surely not a reduction of the old religion. It has nothing to do with it, being no more than an idle diversion for the communally minded. Or so it seems to me. But whenever I have doubts, it is my father’s fury rather than Divine Retribution which I dread. (pg. 187)

These passages will reinforce the image of EW that readers bring to the book; elsewhere, AW may contradict it. It’s surprising to read how EW entertained the “Stinchcombe Silver Band” every Christmas at Piers Court and got “great roars of laughter out of them as he ribbed them about their tipsiness” (49). But AW claims that while the “common touch was certainly not something he cultivated … in rather a surprising way, when he needed it, he had it”. He then defends EW against the accusation, levelled by the real-life model for “Trimmer” of the War trilogy, that EW had been “detested by the men who served under him”. Not so: the reverse was true, according to correspondence AW received after reviewing Trimmer’s autobiography for Books and Bookmen.

The mischief-making apparent in that choice of reviewer is something else that readers may find enlightening, because Will This Do? is describing a particular British class and culture. On his National Service AW saw two Wykehamists rejected by their school-fellows after failing the War Office Selection Board. He noted “the ruthlessness of the British establishment” and the “cruelty” that “flourishes in the law and wherever public school Englishmen are given power over each other”.

AW reveals the limitation of his perspective here, perhaps, because ruthlessness and cruelty are not a monopoly of public school Englishmen, but his readers’ understanding of his father’s novels may be deepened by his descriptions of those things in action, his own amongst them.

AW also offers insights into Catholic psychology. When he reveals one of his father’s secrets, he has to cover up his role after the secret finds its way into the papers:

‘It was not I who sold you to them, although I have a theory as to who did.’ Readers will observe how, with typical Catholic casuistry, there is no actual untruth in this letter, as I had not actually sold the information to Rose, merely told it to him by way of passing the time of day. (127-8)

And he muses on what might have been had he taken a different degree:

My exhibition [scholarship examination] had been in English, but my father advised me that this was a girl’s subject, unsuited to the dignity of a male. Lord David Cecil had been rather upset when I told him this, staying at Portofino before my first Oxford term. I had forgotten he was Professor of English at Oxford. … Perhaps I should have stayed the course in English, instead of finding myself lumbered with this rubbishy PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics]. (148)

For the immediate future, however, the most significant passage in the book may be a description from AW’s National Service during the Cyprus emergency of 1958, when the island’s Greek inhabitants wanted union with Greece and its Turkish inhabitants wanted secession. A party of Greeks were “dropped on the Nicosia-Kyrenia main road” to make their way home after “questioning and document-checking”. Unfortunately, they were dropped near a village of Turks, who mistook them for a war-party:

The Turks poured out of the village and quite literally hacked them to pieces. It was a very messy business. Nine Greeks were killed and many others mutilated. Hands and fingers were all over the place and one officer wandered around, rather green in the face, holding a head and asking if anyone had seen a body which might fit it. (103-4)

EW ended his preface to Alfred Duggan’s Count Bohemond (1964), set during the Crusades, with the claim that “It is highly appropriate that this, his last work, should end with the triumph of Christian arms against the infidel.” His own son saw the conflict beginning again, as predicted by Hilaire Belloc, the “terrifying old man with a huge white beard” (16) whom AW met in extreme youth in his maternal grandmother’s house at Pixton. Will AW’s maturity prove to have fallen in the sun-lit patch between the shadows of the Second World War and serious racial and religious conflict in Europe?

If it does, EW’s shade may raise a shadowy glass in Elysium. As Britons can see from its vigorous survival in Northern Ireland, religion thrives on hatred and conflict and, Machometo adiuvante, the Church may yet throw off the leaden cope of The Second Vatican Council. Despite the despair such reforms brought to his father before his death, AW’s final, objective judgment is that “Evelyn Waugh detested the modern world but did rather well out of it” (123).

He himself, blessed with a more equable temperament and unridden by the demon of “melancholy”, could be said to have done even better but to have left a less enduring mark. Nevertheless, one of the charms of his autobiography is that it preserves some Evelynian ephemera: had they not been recorded here, history might have lost the handwritten Augustan prose instructing visitors on the vagaries of a lavatory at Piers Court and the Yardley’s Lavender Hair Tonic that EW put on his head when he changed for dinner (43).

EW writes in The Loved One (1948) of how death strips “the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence” from the body, leaving it “altogether smaller than life-size”. Will This Do? preserves a few tufts of his own pelt and although as the years pass the book will, alas, be read increasingly out of an interest in the father, not the son, AW had no illusions about his own importance in the scheme of things. It’s true that he may have laid booby-traps of fantasy and exaggeration in the stories he tells about his father, but what more appropriate rite of filial pietas could he have performed?

[A review first published in 2006.]

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Front cover of A Mathematician's Apology by G.H. HardyA Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy (1940)

The World Wide Web is also the Random Reading Reticulation – the biggest library that ever existed. Obscure texts and ancient manuscripts are now a mouse-click away. A Mathematician’s Apology is neither obscure nor ancient, but it wasn’t easy to get hold of before it became available online. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. And now I have.

Alas, I was disappointed. G.H. Hardy (1877-1947) was a very good mathematician, but he’s not a very good writer about mathematics. And in fact, he didn’t want to be a writer at all, good, bad or indifferent:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds. (Op. cit., Section 1)

But is philosophy of mathematics work for second-rate minds? At the highest level, I don’t think it is. The relation of mathematics to reality, and vice versa, is a profoundly interesting and important topic, but Hardy doesn’t have anything new or illuminating to say about it:

It may be that modern physics fits best into some framework of idealistic philosophy — I do not believe it, but there are eminent physicists who say so. Pure mathematics, on the other hand, seems to me a rock on which all idealism founders: 317 is a prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is, because mathematical reality is built that way. (Section 24)

He experienced and explored that mathematical reality, but he can’t communicate the excitement or importance of doing so very well. I wasn’t surprised by his confession that, as a boy: “I thought of mathematics in terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively” (sec. 29). He says it wasn’t until he had begun his degree at Cambridge that he “learnt for the first time … what mathematics really meant” (ibid.).

In this, he was very different from someone he helped make much more famous than he now is: an unknown and struggling Indian mathematician called Srinivasa Ramanujan, who sparked Hardy’s interest by sending him theorems of startling originality and depth before the First World War. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England, but barely mentions his protégé here. All the same, his respect and even perhaps his affection are still apparent:

I still say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people, ‘Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both [J.E.] Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.’ (sec. 29)

Very few people could have done that: a mere handful of the many millions who lived at the time. So it would be wrong to expect that Hardy could both ascend to the highest peaks of mathematics and write well about what he experienced there. He couldn’t and A Mathematician’s Apology supplies the proof. That’s a shame, but the text is short and still worth reading. Hardy had no false modesty, but he had no delusions of grandeur either:

I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

It was valuable: that is why Hardy is still remembered and celebrated, sixty-seven years after his death. He is also still famous as an atheist, but you could say that he spent his life in the service of Our Lady – Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics Mistress of the World.

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Poems and ParachutesA Hell for Heroes: An SAS Hero’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness, Theo Knell (Coronet 2012)

I Am A KameraMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe., David Kerekes (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Where’s the Beef?Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler (1925)

No Plaice Like OlmEuropean Reptile and Amphibian Guide, Axel Kwet (New Holland 2009) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of A Hell for Heroes by Theo KnellA Hell for Heroes: An SAS Hero’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness, Theo Knell (Coronet 2012)

The title and sub-title suggested that this book would be heavily sentimental or highly warnographic or both. But it turned out to be one of the most interesting, enlightening and well-written war-books I’ve ever read. If it’s not ghosted – and it doesn’t seem to be – Theo Knell must be a very intelligent man. More unusually still, he can write good prose and help you understand what war and soldiering are like: loud, frightening, mind-and-marriage-destroying. I’m not so sure about the vers-libre poems that end some chapters. They’re interesting to read, but they aren’t as skilful or understated as the stories that precede them.

His first stories are about his childhood, which was disturbingly violent and loveless. Lots of children wouldn’t have survived it. In some ways he didn’t, but it made him tough and good at fighting, so he chose the army as a career. Like many others, he was also looking for family and comradeship: there is no bond like the bond of facing death together. Knell has come close to dying many times and can give you some idea of what it’s like. One of the earliest times was on what seemed at first like a routine armoured patrol through a country district in Northern Ireland. An armoured car got a puncture and the patrol stopped while it was repaired. Then a Land Rover drove up from behind carrying technicians on their way to repair a TV mast. They received permission to proceed and carried on up the road. A few seconds later, there was a huge explosion. When the patrol went to investigate, they found a twenty-foot crater in the road:

Although they had initially been invisible, as I now looked around me it became apparent that what I had thought were pieces of rubble were in fact human body parts, arms, legs and chunks of raw flesh. As I took in what lay before me the corporal said something that shook me to the bone:

“That landmine was meant for us. The Ferret getting a puncture and that Land Rover coming along the road when it did was the best bit of luck we’ll ever have, though the same can’t be said for them.”

… There were few visible signs of blood, considering that five men had been literally blown apart, but the smoke, with its smell of iron mixed with cordite, had now invaded my nose, mouth and throat and still hung mercilessly all around us. (“Like a Demon at My Shoulder”, pp. 84-5)

You don’t have to be a psychopath to be a soldier, but it must help at times. Knell isn’t a psychopath, but he’s done things that are very cold and callous from the civilian point of view. Later, in “No Second Chances”, he describes sniping against a sniper, who’s rumoured to be a “Russian or East German” brought in by the IRA to kill a difficult target. It’s a real version of Ian Fleming’s short story “The Living Daylights”. He also writes about the hardships of training and selection, a vomit-inducing practical joke on a parachute jump, serving as a mercenary in Africa, working as a bouncer and saving someone’s life as a medic. It was a difficult job and required all his skill. But he was warned not to do it:

“Don’t work too hard, mate. He won’t thank you for taking him home in that state. Although his wife and kids will initially thank you, he will never forgive you.” Sadly he was right. Although I managed to keep the injured man alive, albeit confined to a wheelchair, he never did forgive me, and although he didn’t die until some years later, he never spoke to me again. (“Angel of Death or Mercy?”, pg. 193)

You have to experience war to fully understand it, but this book will take you as close as paper can go.

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I Am A Kamera

Front cover of Mezzogiallo by David KerekesMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe., David Kerekes (TransVisceral Books 2014)

August 1956. Teenage anti-communist Mirima Kerekes flees to the West as Soviet tanks rumble into Bucharest to crush a desperate popular uprising. A month later, Mirima is in the sea-side town of Bootle, north-west England, finding her feet in a new country and a new culture. Soon she will have a son, David, future editor of Headpress Journal and author of acclaimed counter-cultural texts Killing for Culture (1992), Sex Murder Art (1998) and Backstage Bootle (2011).

But Mirima left a brother behind in Bucharest, also called David. He remains a distant enigma, a mysterious, rarely mentioned figure throughout his nephew’s childhood and teens. It is not until thirty years later, following the fall of feral dictator Antonin Ceauşescu, that the British David Kerekes is able to travel to Eastern Europe and meet his uncle for the first time.

Mezzogiallo is the story of that momentous meeting and its continuing consequences, an extended meditation on fate and free will as the British David struggles to come to terms with the horrific family secret he uncovers behind the former Iron Curtain. As he writes in his introduction:

Once I gained my uncle’s confidence he began to open up to me, but it was not till near the end of my initial stay in the country that he finally revealed the truth about his life under communism. I was aghast to discover the reason for my mom’s silence about her brother all those years: my namesake, my uncle David, had worked for the secret police throughout the years of Ceauşescu, photographing and recording people without their knowledge for the files of the brutal regime that had crushed private life without remorse or conscience. He told me that he had once driven 150 kilometres to look inside someone’s bathroom and take some hairs from their comb. But there was worse to come – a confession that shook me to my core.

Despite himself, my uncle revealed, he had enjoyed the spying and the prying and the sense of power they gave him. In stumbling words, racked by a deep sense of shame and futility, he confessed to me that photographing people, recording their private conversations, keeping files on their quotidian activities, had given him serious thrills. He described how he had once quivered with excitement as he hid under the floorboards of a private home, listening to someone exercise on a rowing machine. In short: he had been a dedicated voyeur, filling the emptiness of his own life by spying on the lives of others.

Securitate archive

Securitate archive


My horror was unbounded. Anyone who knows Headpress, the Journal of Strangeness and Necrophilia, knows that I have devoted my life to offering a fiercely intelligint, passionately non-normative alternative to the ever-increasing voyeurism of the British mainstream – the spying-and-prying peddled by The Daily Mail, by the über-ennui’d teens who take secret photographs and videos of others, then exchange them online with their like-minded peers. And yet here was my mom’s brother doing the exact same thing as had horrified me for so long in Britain. But could I condemn him for it? What if I myself had been born under communism? Might I too not have worked for the secret police? Might I too not have become a dedicated voyeur, gloating over secretly obtained photographs and recordings, relishing the sense of power they gave me?

I could not deny the truth: perhaps I might. Shaken and disturbed, I constantly pondered the words of the great Romanian philosopher Eric Hoffer: “A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”

Did this not help explain my uncle’s behaviour? Had not communism, by destroying his individuality and sense of purpose, rendered life meaningless to him and forced him, in compensation, to become the voyeur he confessed he was? Deep questions. Dark ones, also. I knew that it would be years, even decades, before I could process them to my own satisfaction and write the book that they deserved. (Introduction, pg. viii)

Mezzogiallo is the book in question. David goes on to describe how, on future trips to Eastern Europe, he was able to examine the thousands of files created by his uncle for the secret police using cameras and microphones hidden not only in private homes, but also in libraries, banks, courts, schools, hospitals and more. He will be shocked by both the detail and the futility of his uncle’s activities – the prolonged, obsessive recording of the most minor details of everyday life. Yet David points out that capitalist society has gone in the exact same direction, both at the level of the state and at the level of the ordinary voyeuristic citizen. All David Kerekes’s books are characterized by feral intelligence and fetid honesty. But Mezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe. is arguably his ferallest, fetidest interrogation of the human condition to date…


Coming soon on Papyrocentric Performativity…

• A review of Nekro-Feral: The David Kerekes Story, David Slater (TransVisceral Books)

Press Release: Divided into three throbbingly thrilling thanato-themed sections – “Nekro-Kid”, “Nekro-Teen” and “Nekro-Dult” – Nekro-Feral is an intimate and revealing portrait of a transgressive icon by the man who was his simul-scribe on Killing for Culture, inarguably the most sizzlingly seminal survey of snuff-stuff ever set to cellulose…


Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

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Front cover of Outsider II by Brian SewellOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

I’m slipping. When I said I hoped that the art-critic Brian Sewell would live to write the second volume of his autobiography and say more about Salvador Dalí, he had already written it and devoted an entire chapter to Dalí. Further, as a committed Guardian-reader, I’d already read a review of the book in Britain’s premier purveyor of progressive performativity. My memory must be suffering from all the drink, drugs and debauchery. I think the recycled title confused me too. I also think this is the better half of the autobiography. For one thing, it explains more clearly why Sewell matters and why so many people admire him, including me:

I am one of the brave brotherhood of those who have been publicly insulted by Norman Rosenthal. By a Bond Street dealer who thought his stock and reputation impugned I have been beaten about the head and shoulders with a wet umbrella – clammily unpleasant but, unfurled, an ineffective weapon. I have been punched in the right eye by a young painter, the blow so heavy that it disrupted sight for several weeks and the bruise spread over my cheek and neck before it faded, pummelled by a lesbian clad from top to toe in black leather (for me an occasion of almost helpless laughter), and jostled from their exhibition by video artists who shut down their contraptions and turned off the lights as soon as I entered their room in the Camden Arts Centre. These small events, the screams of feminists and the low booing of billiards players in the Chelsea Arts Club, are expressions of rage easier to tolerate than the closing of ranks by those who run the art establishment, whose defensive refrain “He’s only an art critic” they believe excuses them from taking notice of anything I write or say. Even Nicholas Serota once felt it proper to terminate a discussion with “I’m a museum director and you’re only an art critic” when he thought he’d lost an argument. To compliant critics, however, serving their purposes, these panjandrums are quite prepared to drop to the low kowtow. (ch. 11, “The Venomous Critic”, pp. 205-6)

If Sewell had been compliant, he’d almost certainly have been knighted by now. But he’ll go to his grave as plain “Brian Sewell” and that is undoubtedly the way he wants it. At eighty-one and in poor health, he knows his grave isn’t far off: the sixteenth and final chapter is entitled simply “Death”. He describes the failure of his flesh – “My spine crumbles, my hips creak, and like most men of my age I have had the dreaded slippery finger of the urologist probing my prostate gland” (pg. 272) – but says he fears dementia even more than impotence and incontinence. He doesn’t fear being dissected after death, however, or the irreverence of medical students:

Ideally, what is left of me should be buried in the garden with the bones of the dozen dogs already there, nourishing the roots of yet another tree. (Loc. cit., pg. 274)

Dogs appear a lot in this book. So does buggery, both active and passive: “I give as good as I get and I don’t have to pay for it” he says he once said to an offer of sexual service (pg. 134). That’s in chapter eight, “The Blunt Affair”, which is devoted to the unmasking of Sewell’s friend and lover Anthony Blunt as a Soviet agent. Not that Sewell admits to being Blunt’s lover: for all the candour elsewhere about bath-houses (ch. 5, pg. 74), bumming in barracks (ch. 3, pp. 46-7) and banging one out for Salvador Dalí (ch. 4, pp. 54-5), he’s discreet about his sex-life when he wants to be.

His refusal to abandon Blunt is another example of his failure to be compliant and earn himself a knighthood. I’m less sympathetic with it than I am with his disdain for modern art and female artists, but it’s another example of Sewell, as a homosexual, putting loyalty to another homosexual above his loyalty to humanity. I don’t think that’s putting it too highly: communism was an evil and ugly system and Sewell has to pretend that Blunt was naïve in his politics, “drifting”, “uncertain” and “trapped by affections and unwise personal loyalties” into becoming “a Communist spy of sorts” (loc. cit., pg. 147). And it is true that Blunt led a detached and unworldly life:

One episode particularly amused Michael [Kitson] – in search of a restaurant we passed a McDonald’s and Anthony murmured, “How strange to find a Scottish restaurant in Düsseldorf.” (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 127)

But Blunt spied on behalf of a system that did not allow people, scholars or otherwise, to lead detached, unworldly lives. Under Stalin, even poached eggs were subordinated to politics:

…for many years practically every work published in the Soviet Union or its dependencies was studded with references to Stalin and his glorious intellect. This applied even to manuals of physics, cookery books, and so on, though it was still possible to distinguish between ritual homage and genuinely Stalinist works: there was not really any such thing as “Stalinist physics”. (Main Currents of Marxism: Volume III, The Breakdown, Leszek Kołakowski, ch. vii, “György Lukács: Reason in the Service of Dogma”, pg. 254, Clarendon Press, 1978)

But there was definitely a Stalinist art-criticism and Blunt would have had to conform to it. And conformity might not have saved him from arrest, torture and execution: Stalinism destroyed countless innocent people, because terror was the fuel it ran on. Sewell notes that Blunt turned the Courtauld Institute “from a finishing school for witless girls into a seminary with a worldwide reputation”, then regrets his failure to do the same elsewhere:

The pity is that his political life was not subject to such a transformation … It is difficult to believe so intelligent a man … At heart he had no politics … he was touched by Britain’s evident poverty in the Thirties, touched by the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, touched by the inevitability of conflict with Germany, but it is to be doubted that he had any profound interest in the political reasons or remedies for them … How then could so scrupulously scholarly a man, so dry, precise and considered in everything he wrote of art and architecture, be such a fool as to put his scholarship at risk for a political philosophy in which he had virtually no belief? (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 147)

And Sewell’s answer? It was all down to “Guy Burgess, with whom he perhaps never went to bed but who won from him undying loyalty”. For “Burgess” read “Blunt”, for “Blunt” read “Sewell”. Sewell, of course, didn’t embrace Blunt’s politics, but if Sewell had been Blunt’s age, would he too have become “a Communist spy of sorts” and worked for Stalin? It seems entirely possible. There’s food for homophobic thought there, alas, as there is elsewhere in the book for Islamophobic and antisemitic thought. Sewell is no more an Islamophobe or antisemite that he is a homophobe, but he may supply material for bigots in his descriptions of homosexual gang-rape and cruelty to animals in Muslim countries (ch. 7, “Turkey”, passim) and in catty remarks about members of another much-oppressed group:

… Norman Lebrecht, [big-time Mahler-booster and] former music critic of the Daily Telegraph. … Never was a favourite so puffed-up with amour-propre, so arrogant and so thick-skinned; never was a man so loathed by those with whom he worked and sought to oversee. (ch., “The Evening Standard”, pg. 198) … [I] accepted [the] invitation knowing nothing of the programme but expecting it to be an evening of Schubert or Richard Strauss. It was not; it was an exquisite punishment knowingly inflicted – entirely of Sondheim unrelieved. I would rather have had a tooth drawn. (ch. , “Loose Ends”, pg. 255)

His remarks about Salvador Dalí’s halitosis and projectile-mastication, on the other hand, are candid, not catty. Sewell says “I wished he farted more and breathed less” (pg. 57), but Dalí himself “knew his breath was foul and claimed that [it] kept flies from perching on the wings of his moustache; when one once did it was made immortal in a photograph” (ibid.). That’s in chapter 2, “Salvador Dali in Cadaques”, which is perhaps the most interesting and entertaining part of the book. Dalí is one of my favourite artists, but I’d never seen him in quite the light cast by Sewell’s recollections:

He was one of only two men I have known capable of sputtering, not only on himself with a napkin tucked below his chin, but over every neighbour at a table for four with napkins on their laps. The other man was Bernard Crick, founder of the Orwell Prize for political journalism, who, on the occasion of giving it to me, ruined a favourite tie in plain green silk, bought because it it perfectly matched (or so I thought) the green of Dali’s velvet [suits]. (pg. 57)

Sewell met Dalí because, having adopted “two beach dogs, Scipio and Hannibal”, on holiday in Catalonia, he was cutting up “the windpipe and lungs of a sheep, complete, intact and very bloody” outside a café. Dalí and Gala “whispered to a stop” near him in a “great green pre-war Cadillac” (pg. 51). Dalí, “dressed top to toe in velvet of a dark green to match the car”, then approached Sewell, who he supposed had been waiting for him:

“Do you know who I am?” he asked, his attitude imperious. “Of course. You’re Dali,” I replied – and to this day I do not know whether he was flattered that I knew or disappointed that he had been denied another opportunity to announce to all in earshot, “I am Dali.” “And you’ve been waiting for me” – half question, half accusation. He seemed surprised when I said that I had not. To me, but not apparently to him, it was a preposterous notion that anyone would lie in wait for him with the dogs, the blood, the knife, the windpipe and the lungs as an elaborate ruse to draw him into conversation, but this is indeed what he supposed. (Loc. cit., pg. 51)

This chance encounter produced an invitation to Dalí’s house, with its giant egg and phallic swimming-pool, and a Debris Christ in whose “left armpit” Sewell was invited to “masturbate (again the excessive rolling of the r)”. He nonchalantly obliged while Dalí “clicked” a “camera” and “fumbled in his trousers” (his own, that is, not Sewell’s) (pp. 54-5). Sewell doubts that there was film in the camera, suspecting mere “camouflage for a voyeur who, though brazenly addicted to the habit, was still, at his age, both embarrassed by residual shame and unwilling to admit to homosexuality” (pg. 56).

He realizes then that “Dalí, for all the fawning interest of strangers, was alone and could not bear his loneliness – Gala, his anchor in Cadaques since 1930, was not enough” (ibid.). And so, undeterred by his axillary initiation, he accepted Dalí’s hospitality again: that was the first of “four long visits to Cadaques” (pg. 65), which allowed him to observe “a dirty Dali so to speak” and to see “hundreds of drawings that could never be published or exhibited, revealing the depths he had plumbed” (pg. 66). Almost everything in this chapter is quotable, as Sewell describes Dalí’s egomania, eccentricity, neurosis, absurdity, pretension, self-parody and self-mockery. But the chapter ends with the simple, sane judgment that Dalí was “the last of the great old masters” (ibid.).

Sewell has met many other old masters in paint, if not in person, but it isn’t just Dalí who mixes art with absurdity in Outsider II:

At the bottom of the tree were the dozens of dealers who dealt from the back of a van and, in the case of Raymond de Romare, from a caravan; this, badly parked in Duke Street, St James’s, narrowing an already narrow street, was ripped to shreds one day by a passing army lorry, leaving his stock of ghastly paintings lying in the road among the splintered timbers. One of them, on a large sheet of copper, was badly bent; unwilling to pay the cost of a restorer’s attempting to flatten it, he gave five shillings to the driver of a steamroller to drive slowly and ever so gently over it – of which the consequence was a much larger and much thinner sheet of copper with not a flake of paint adhering to it. (ch. 2, “Scratching a Living”, pp. 32-3)

There’s also this, at the end of a section devoted to the charismatic and larger-than-life forger Tom Keating:

On his death in 1984, a partial clearance of his studio gave rise to an outpouring of respect by the art market in the only way it knows – it paid absurd prices at an auction. Christie’s had already held one sale, presumably to settle taxes, the year before, and this second sale was thought to be the last chance to buy a Keating. It was not – sales continued until at last the penny dropped and the salesroom recognised that there must now be a forger of Keatings… (ch. 6, “The Seventies”, pg. 91)

Both halves of Sewell’s autobiography are long and detailed, but they must represent a bare fraction of the memories and experiences that crowd his brain, which “has so long thrilled in wonder at masterpieces of art and architecture” (ch. 16, “Death”, pg. 274). Masterpieces like the mosque converted from a church at Barhal in Turkey, “the masonry as crisp as the day it was cut, the arcaded outer walls as mathematically precise and proportional as any of Bach’s Goldberg Variations” (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 111). Sewell also “fell” into “traps of longing, lust and love” for cars in the days before “art … surrendered their design to the computer” (ch. 15, “Loose Ends”, pg. 269). He says that, at the end of the Second World War, cars returned to the streets of London and Kensington “became an exhibition site of wonders from the Twenties and Thirties, not only of the familiar grandees, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lagonda, but of such now long-forgotten marques as Autovias and Packards, Salmsons, Railtons and Broughs, Hudsons, Cords and Auburns” (ibid., pp. 268-9).

Yet despite his devotion to man’s art and artifice, Sewell says this of the same trip in Turkey on which he saw the church at Barhal:

There were no bears, but at one point I disturbed an eagle on a ledge — and perhaps have seen nothing more beautiful than the one lazy flap of its wings that set it on a seemingly effortless vertical flight up the sun-warmed cliff behind it. (Loc. cit., pg. 112)

I think that is an example of something many people might not associate with Sewell: his humility. He is a far more interesting and erudite man than most of his critics, but he can echo Landor: “Nature I loved, and next to Nature art.” Landor goes on to say that he “strove with none,/For none was worth my strife”. Sewell can’t say the same: he has thought many people worthy of strife, if not in themselves then for the absurdities and pretensions of the art they produce or promote. Sewell’s sharp tongue and sharp pen have won him many victories, because he is cleverer and wittier than his enemies are. That’s why they have resorted to physical attacks, despite controlling so much of the art-world. Sewell has ruled a small corner of it, but he knows that there is much more to the world than art. Important truths like this are not found in art, for example:

Two in the morning is no time to find that the contents of one’s knapsack are sticky with ginger marmalade. (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 104)

That is Sewell in a nutshell: alive to the absurdity of life and able to describe it memorably. If you’d like to learn more about him and the ginger marmalade, Outsider and its Outsider await.


Previously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Mum, Bum and Caravaggio — review of the first volume of Outsider

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Front cover of Outsider Always Almost Never Quite I by Brian SewellOutsider: Always Almost, Never Quite: An Autobiography, Brian Sewell (2011)

Brian Sewell is an English art-critic who discusses works of art using another work of art: his own voice. His articles for The Evening Standard in London can be entertaining too, but Sewell is rather like Cary Grant or Orson Welles: his voice is the most memorable thing about him. Fluting, melodious and absurdly posh, an instrument of both waspishness and wit, it was acquired, he says, from his unmarried Catholic mother during a childhood in which he had little contact with other children. His real father, the composer Peter Warlock, died, possibly by suicide, before he was born in 1931 and he didn’t acquire a stepfather until much later. His mother refused to give him up for adoption, but she found life difficult with an illegitimate child. Sewell also found life difficult with an unmarried mother, which is perhaps part of why he suggests that she supplemented her meagre income by genteel prostitution.

After that isolated childhood and difficult relationship, he went to a semi-private school in London called Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead School, which was, he says, less exotic than it sounds. He discovered his talent for English and art there, learnt that he could not understand science or mathematics, and experimented with homosexuality. Then he did National Service in the army, where he learnt to drive, grew mentally and physically tougher, and was raped by a corporal on his own bed, his “yelps, if any, muffled by the pillow” (ch. 6, “National Service as a Squaddie”, pg. 83). He then re-entered civilian life to study art history and work under the Gormenghastly roof of the London art-dealer Christie’s, where he participated in traditions like

…Ridley Leadbeater’s circus at the Front Counter, the distribution of Christmas birds to every member of staff. Ridley had a stake in a smallholding or poultry farm near Nether Basildon and had a contract with Christie’s for the delivery of perhaps a hundred geese and turkeys labelled with our names, but in no discernible order, alphabetical or departmental. This disorder led to bad temper, even panic… and the performance, thoroughly Victorian, perfectly encapsulated the hierarchy of the firm, the lordly directors on the stair looking down on the scramble as though the staff were terriers rat-catching in a barn. I wonder if any of them ever noticed Ridley snatching opportunities to grope the upturned bums presented on these occasions? He was an inveterate… groper of both boys and girls behind the counter, his favourite trick the vicious jabbing of a pencil at the anus of a boy leaning forward to attend a visitor… (ch. 11, “Christie’s in 1958”, pg. 221-2)

It sounds an interesting, if occasionally painful, life, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I didn’t find this an interesting book. There are memorable paragraphs and boring chapters. And a lot of grammatical mistakes. Sewell rambles, spends too long on trivia and says little about what was, after his relationship with his mother, the most important relationship in his life: that with the art-historian Anthony Blunt (1907-83), Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and dedicated Soviet agent. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood after he was exposed, but he never lost Sewell’s love and respect. Perhaps that’s why Sewell writes relatively little about Blunt and why he himself has never received a knighthood. But there are other explanations for the lack of honours: Sewell has been a gleeful gadfly to the art establishment for decades, mocking the pretensions of the Turner Prize and deriding the work of “Young British Artists” like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. That’s why I was disappointed by this book: I admire Sewell’s championing of classical art and his old-fashioned disdain for women’s contribution to it. He is indeed an outsider, but I don’t think he’s a misogynist: he’s simply objective and honest. Nor has he been exclusively homosexual. This is from one of the memorable paragraphs amid the longueurs, when he is seduced by a middle-aged American woman in Paris:

I had no wish to tell her I was queer and it says something about the weakness of a young man’s will and the overwhelming strength of his sexual triggers, that she so easily had her way with me. I remember more clearly than all else the interruption of pleasure as her diamanté spectacle frames occasionally plucked a pubic hair… (ch. 9, “Student Life”, pg. 161)

But his sexual will was strong enough to keep him celibate for years after the army, he says, while he considered training for the Catholic priesthood and began his career in art-dealing and art-history. Then he chucked over the Church and plunged into promiscuity, clocking up what he estimates “might amount to a thousand fucks a year” (ch. 13, “Abandoning God”, pg. 263). This candour explains why he writes a warning at the beginning of the book:

I have no doubt that many who admire me – my “doting elderlies” as an old woman friend once dubbed them – will be disgusted. So be it – truth is nothing if not whole. (“Prelude”, pg. xiii)

But Sewell should have remembered another aphorism too: le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire – “the key to being a bore is to say everything”. He writes too much of the truth and doesn’t, in any case, tell the whole truth about his relationship with Blunt. Not that I was very disappointed about that: I would have preferred more about art and artists and less about art critics and art-dealers. But Sewell does convey the genuineness of his scholarship and dedication. Here are two more memorable passages:

In two glass-fronted cupboards flanking the fireplace [at the Courtauld Institute] were his [Roger Fry’s] examples of ancient and ethnic pottery that, for reasons traditional but never understood, the students’ President and Secretary were required once a year to wash. I shall never forget the horror of feeling an unglazed pot of Assyrian antiquity dissolve into a muddy sludge slipping from the fingers of my left hand. (ch. 8, “The Courtauld Institute”, pg. 112)

[The German art-restorer Helmuth Ruheman] believed that cleaning should be thorough and thrust small swabs of solvent into our hands, bidding us swab and swab until we were through the accumulated dirt and varnish and the bright nakedness of the paint layer was revealed. If our swabs were eventually tinged with colour – as they were from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (the tondo version NG. 1033) – he was not in the least perturbed, for his view was that what came off could as easily be put on again. (ch. 10, “A Second Intermezzo: 1957-1958”, pg. 161)

If you wince reading things like that, you will understand why I was disappointed by this book. Sewell himself is interesting and has done and experienced interesting things, but he crowds all that out with trivia and excessive detail. He’s in his eighties now, in poor health, and expresses doubts that he will live to write a second volume of autobiography. I hope he does but if so, I also hope he says more about the encounter with Salvador Dalí I can remember hearing him discuss once on the radio. I had a recording of it, now lost, alas, though apparently he made a TV programme about it for Channel 4 called Dirty Dalí: A Private View (2007). Television has made Sewell nationally famous since I first encountered him in print and on the radio and that is why he has so many “doting elderlies”. I don’t watch TV if I can avoid it, but without his late fame he might never have written this book. Disappointing as it was, I’m glad to have sampled it. The whole truth about Brian Sewell is that he isn’t always entertaining or amusing, but the diamanté pubic plucking, the dissolving Assyrian pot, and the untinctured Botticelli are flashes of his anecdotal skill and help explain why he’s famous. And why people want to read about him.


Proviously post-posted:

Art-BanditOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

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