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A Forger’s Tale: Confessions of the Bolton Forger, Shaun Greenhalgh (Allen & Unwin 2017)

Was I was one of the many people fooled by the Bolton Forger? I think so, because a few months ago I read a book on Leonardo da Vinci that contained an attractive profile of a young woman. I liked it and even thought of finding it online and putting it on Overlord-of-the-Über-Feral.

I’m pretty sure that the same drawing, entitled La Bella Principessa, opens the photo-section of this fascinating and well-written autobiography. The caption underneath runs:

I saw this drawing in Milan in 2015 and despite all the frenzy in the press, it is my work of 1978. Although it looks to have been gone over or ‘restored’ by a better hand than mine. But, like me, no Leonardo!

In his final chapter, “Postscript”, Shaun Greenhalgh (pronounced Green-alsh or similar) gives more details. He says that he made the drawing in imitation of Leonardo, then sold it “for less than the effort that went into it to a dealer in Harrogate in late 1978 – not as a fake or by ever claiming that it was something it wasn’t.” More than 30 years later, he learned that his drawing had risen higher in the world than he could ever have guessed:

I received [an art book from an anonymous donor and] the picture on the cover was immediately familiar, but better-looking than I remembered it. […] [The] title [of the drawing] was rather grand and pompous – La Bella Principessa – the beautiful princess. Or, as I knew her, ‘Bossy Sally from the Co-Op’. (pg. 354)

From the sublime to the ridiculous! The Co-Op is a supermarket chain in northern England. Greenhalgh continues:

I drew this picture in 1978 when I worked at the Co-Op. The ‘sitter’ was based on a girl called Sally who worked on the check-outs in the retail store bolted onto the front of the warehouse where I also worked. Despite her humble position, she was a bossy little bugger and very self-important. If you believe in reincarnation, she may well once have been a Renaissance princess – she certainly had the attitude and self-belief of such a person.

You see the girl in the drawing differently when her label changes. But the drawing itself hasn’t changed. Now that I think back on my first sight of it, I remember being half-aware that it was remarkably clear and bright by comparison with the other art in the Leonardo book. It definitely stood out, but I didn’t suspect anything. After all, it was in a book by an expert on Leonardo, so I accepted its attribution without question.

And so, without knowing it at the time, I had an important lesson in the way art often works. Our appreciation of it can be affected much more than we might like to think by the labels and reputations that go with it. Greenhalgh says here more than once than we should enjoy art without worrying about whether it’s genuine or not. And what is “genuine” anyway? That’s one of the fascinating questions raised by this book and by the phenomenon of forgery in general. Here’s more of what he says about the drawing:

I’m a bit unsure how to talk about this because the book was written by an eminent Oxford professor and must have been quite an effort. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers or cause problems but I nearly swallowed my tongue on reading of its supposed value – £150 million! It would be crazy for any public body to pay such a sum. So I feel the need to say something about it.

He goes on to describe how he created the drawing and made it look old. It was a good effort but he says there are “umpteen reasons for not thinking this drawing to be by Leonardo.” (pg. 357) One of the most important, for him, is that it isn’t skilful enough: “I couldn’t match how Leonardo would have rendered it [a section of cross-hatching]. But I have a good excuse. He is he and I’m just me.”

Well, Shaun Greenhalgh isn’t impressed by Shaun Greenhalgh, but lots of other people have been. If you read this book, you’ll probably join them. He tells the remarkable story of how an apparently ordinary lad from the Lancashire town of Bolton fooled the art world again and again with work in a great variety of mediums and styles. Sometimes he meant to fool people and sometimes, as with La Bella Principessa, he didn’t. And he says he’s sorry that Bolton Museum, “my favourite childhood place”, was duped by a “15 minute splash of light and colour” he’d done “in the style of Thomas Moran”, an American artist originally born in Bolton.

The watercolour is reproduced in the photo-section, labelled “© Metropolitan Police”, because Scotland Yard – or “the Yardies” as Greenhalgh disdainfully calls them – now have a lot of what he’s created. They raided his home, carried away much of the contents, then slowly got around to prosecuting him. In the end, he got four years and eight months in jail for his artistic endeavours. The art-critic Waldemar Januszczack condemns the length of that sentence in the introduction. Januszczack was someone else fooled by the Bolton forger. In his case it was a Gauguin Faun “[d]one in three parts and authenticated by the Wildenstein Institute of Paris”. Januszczack waxed lyrical about the faun in a Gauguin biography he did for the BBC, but says that “[i]nstead of hating Shaun Greenhalgh for fooling me, I immediately liked him for pushing my button and being a clever rogue.” (Introduction, pg. 4)

Greenhalgh wouldn’t agree that he’s either clever or a rogue, but he’s definitely wrong about the first thing, at least. He’s a self-taught expert on a dazzling range of art from a daunting stretch of centuries. Or millennia, rather, because his forgeries included an attractive “Amarna Princess” in alabaster, supposedly from the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th Century BC. Like many of his other works, the princess was coveted by an “expert” who thought he could get it for much less than it was apparently worth. After all, the statue was being offered for sale by a family of thick northerners – Greenhalgh and his parents – who had no real idea of what it was. In fact, they had a much better idea than the expert – or the experts, rather, because the “Amarna Princess” was probed and pondered for months. Greenhalgh never expected it to withstand the scrutiny, but: “In late October 2003, we were paid half a million for the Amarna Princess, less taxes. So $440,000.” It ended up in Bolton Museum again and Greenhalgh says again that he wasn’t comfortable about that and didn’t touch most of the money.

And is he still trying to assuage his conscience when he insists the Princess clearly wasn’t pukka?

The first problem with the Amarna figure was that it was not done to a proper proportion, something fundamental in all ancient Egyptian sculpture, even with the radical designs of the court of Akhenaten. […] The left arm, or what’s left of it, was cut ovoid in section, which is again un-Egyptian. Part of the robe extending into the negative space to the figure’s left is also totally wrong. […] One other mistake about it was that I put a ‘contrapposto’ into the torso that was totally out of place. That’s the slightly slouchy pose you first see in Greek art of the classical period, post-fifth century BC. It isn’t found at all in Egyptian sculpture. (pg. 346)

Maybe he’s trying to assuage his conscience or maybe he’s re-living his triumph over the experts. Or maybe he’s doing both. Whatever it was, his next major forgery, a bas-relief of an Assyrian priest, was meant for the British Museum down south. And this was a forgery too far. The experts rumbled him this time and the police came knocking. Then he began a slow legal journey towards conviction and custody. Prison is where he wrote this autobiography, but he doesn’t devote much space to it. Instead, he describes how an apparently ordinary lad from Bolton, born in 1960, acquired such a love for and knowledge of art from all over the world and right through history, whether it’s ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy or Mayan Mexico. Unlike most of us, though, when Greenhalgh liked the look of something he wanted to make something like it for himself. And he wanted it to be as authentic as possible. That’s why he learned about the chemical composition of Roman metalwork and Chinese porcelain.

Most art experts learn through their eyes, by looking at art and reading about it. Greenhalgh did that, but he stepped into a third dimension because he learnt with his hands too. And he stepped into a fourth dimension, because he learnt about the role of time and patience in artistic creation. By doing all that, he won insights that few others possess. As he says: “I’ve always found it strange that art, unlike most professions and trades, has as its experts and explainers people who can’t do that of which they speak.” (pg. 311) For example, how many Egyptologists know what it’s like to carve a statue for themselves? Very few. But Greenhalgh does and he acquired even greater respect for ancient sculptors by discovering how difficult the stone they worked with was. But that’s the way he wants it: “I like to do things that are difficult. Easy isn’t a challenge, is it?” (pg. 293)

However, he discovered that the effort he put into some forgeries was wasted, because art-dealers often didn’t know what to look for. And often didn’t care. They took what they thought they could sell. At other times, they did care what they were buying – a lot. But they tried hard to conceal their interest, because they thought they had a gullible and ignorant seller to rip off. A lot of Greenhalgh’s work is still out there, sailing proudly under false colours. He’s seen some of it but kept shtum, he says. That’s partly because he doesn’t want to spoil the new owners’ enjoyment and partly for his own protection. He doesn’t want to go back to jail.

But his first and so far only stretch in jail was worth it in one way, because it produced this book. He says that “A good faker, just like a good artist, has to be a close observer.” (pg. 296) And there’s a lot of close observation here about both art and life. Greenhalgh lost his wife-to-be when she died of a brain tumour and says that marriage would have taken him down a different path. He would have stopped forging and never gone to jail. Nor would he have written A Forger’s Tale. That makes you look at the book in a new way. Literature is even more about perspective and labels than art is. A clever writer like Michael Connelly knows that, which is why he wrote a crime novel, Blood Work, with such a clever twist at the end that I re-read it at once, marvelling at the way the text had suddenly changed.

A Forger’s Tale isn’t a novel and I won’t be re-reading it immediately. But I would like to read it again sometime. Greenhalgh isn’t a professional writer but he obviously could have been if his inclinations had lain that way. As it is, the occasional naivety of his prose adds to the appeal. He’s an ordinary lad with some extraordinary talents for what he’d call imitation, not creation. And he has extraordinary knowledge too. There is a lot of information here about art and the brief definitions in the glossary make me think of the Latin phrase Leonem ex ungue – “You can recognize the lion by his claw”. Here’s Greenhalgh’s definition of “Reducing atmosphere”, for example: “An atmospheric condition need to achieve specific ceramic effects, in which oxidation is prevented by the removal of oxygen.”

But any self-respecting ceramics expert could tell you what a “reducing atmosphere” is. Greenhalgh knows more: how to create one. Here’s his top tip:

You can use any combustible material [in the kiln], but most burn with some debris landing on the pot, causing imperfections. Mothballs splutter and vaporise instantly, starving the kiln of oxygen. (pg. 294)

So there’s everything here from mothballs to the Mayans, from lanxes of silver to Lowry of Salford. Crime captures life in all kinds of ways and the forger Shaun Greenhalgh has some very interesting things to write about.

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The End of Night by Paul BogardThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

Night + light = bad. Interesting subject + poor prose = disappointing. And those are the formulae that govern this book. Artificial light destroys one of the most beautiful and inspiring sights in nature: the night sky. In proper darkness, we can see thousands of stars with the naked eye. In a brightly lit city, we’re lucky to see any at all. And we certainly don’t see any unless we’re looking straight up. That’s why artifical light is like amplified music and traffic noise: it’s one of the great barbarisms of modern life. So I was glad to come across this book.

I wasn’t glad for long, because it’s over-written and dull, despite the interesting topics it covers: the biology and ecology of darkness, the wonders of astronomy, sleep and dreams, the journey from candles to gas to electricity, from night as source of mystery and beauty to night as perpetual light. Paul Bogard “studied Literature and Environment” at the University of Nevada and now “teaches writing at James Madison University” in Virginia. And it shows. If he were British, he’d be a Guardianista. And sure enough:

That we don’t notice glaring lights anymore has direct ramifications for light pollution, of course, but in terms of safety and security, because we are so used to bright lighting, we won’t notice if anything out of the ordinary is taking place. (ch. 7, “Light That Blinds, Light That Enlightens”, pp. 75-6)

I’d like to agree with his argument that light at night doesn’t deter crime as most people imagine it does, but he makes a glaring oversight:

Asked in one study what factors deterred them from targeting a house, criminals listed “belief that house is occupied,” “presence of alarms or CCTV/camera outside the property,” and, to a lesser extent, the “apparent strength of doors/window locks.” Nowhere did they mention the presence of lighting. (Ibid., pg. 76)

Light and its absence are implicit in “belief that house is occupied”, aren’t they? And how good is “CCTV/Camera” when it’s dark? That’s why I gave up this book by chapter 7, which was actually the third chapter in the book. That was a nice touch, paying tribute to the “amateur astronomer John Bortle”, who created a “scale on which he described various levels of dark skies, ranking them 9 to 1, brightest to darkest” (“Introduction”, pg. 9). So the deeper you get into the book, the darker it gets, until the final chapter, chapter 1, is about “The Darkest Places”.

I’d like to have got that far and I wish Paul Bogard well in his campaign for less light and more night. But on this first attempt, at least, I got bored and gave up.

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Ruthless by Geoff SmallRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

Because Geoff Small is black he can say things in this book that would have been called racist if they had been said by a white journalist. For example, he tries to explain differing levels of violence in the island nations making up the West Indies by the differing natures of the African tribes who were enslaved and transported there. Some tribes were peaceful, some warlike, and Jamaica, birthplace of the Yardies, was populated by representatives of the warlike ones.

Combine that with dire poverty and illegal drugs, add the intense rivalries of local politics and asinine interference by the CIA, and you have a recipe for some very violent and dangerous gangs: the Yardies, named after the Jamaican word “yard”, meaning a neighbourhood or district. They started to come to the attention of the media and the general public in the 1980s, as they broke their way into the drugs market in the United States and United Kingdom, and the word used of them then is still being used of them now: “ruthless”. If you have a quarrel with the Mafia, the Mafia will kill you. If you have a quarrel with the Colombians, the Colombians will kill you and your wife. If you have a quarrel with the Yardies, the Yardies will kill you, your wife and your children.

With anyone else who happens to be in your house or on the street or in the nightclub at the time. In fact, “ruthless” is hardly strong enough: another word that Small uses comes closer to the truth: “nihilistic”. The Yardies seem to cultivate a complete disregard for human life. Anyone who wonders if their bark is worse than their bite is likely to stop wondering when he reads about this kind of thing:

In terms of utter ruthlessness, the killing of Cassandra Higgins ranks high on the list. A Jamaican visa overstayer, she was certainly no angel. Still, her demise was shocking by any standards. The nineteen-year-old was stripped naked by five Rude Boys in an eighteenth-floor crack-house on the Cathall Road Estate in Leytonstone, east London. Then, to the horror of those who looked on, she was thrown out of the window 160 feet to the ground. Higgins’s death, in September 1993, was thought to have been the result of a rudie drug deal double-cross on her part. The brutal murder was witnessed by several people, but true to form the mouths of those assembled were welded shut by the force of the posse code: ‘See and blind, hear and deaf’; in fact, not one person was willing to go to court to testify against the killers.

Gangs and gang-warfare have long been fashionable on screen and in print, and this book offers many satisfying fixes for the aficionado of other people’s thuggery as it describes how the Yardies or Rude Boys – “rude” meaning “lawless” or “aggressive” in Jamaican English – invaded expatriate Jamaican communities in the US and UK. Their intent was to take over the drugs-markets there and they succeeded through a combination of extreme violence and use of a Jamaican patois that local police forces often found impossible to understand during phone-taps or surveillances.

An often fascinating, sometimes frightening book, Ruthless seems to me more proof of the harm done both by mass immigration and by the illegality of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Yardies do not kill and terrorize people just for the fun of it: they do it because there are huge sums of money to be made from the illegal sale of drugs and huge amounts of excitement and satisfaction to be had from confronting and outwitting the authorities. Small describes Jamaicans as naturally rebellious, ambitious and aggressive, making a mark on the world in international fields like music and sport out of all proportion to their numbers. The Yardies are another example of Jamaicans making their mark in an international field: that of crime. If we legalized drugs, that field would get much smaller. And if Jamaicans had not been allowed to immigrate in such large numbers into Britain and North America, their criminality would not have inflicted so much misery and imposed so much expense.

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The Reversal, Michael Connelly (2010)

As you’d expect from Michael Connelly, the chronicler of Californian crime who now lives in Florida, this book is another detailed examination of the importance of the White Heterosexual Able-Bodied Male, or WHAM. But this time you get a double-dose – in fact, a doubled double-dose. There are pairs of WHAMs on the side of both Good and Evil. The two righteous righters-of-wrong are Harry Bosch, Connelly’s LAPD murder-detective, and his half-brother, the defense attorney Micky Haller, who’s accepted an offer to appear for the prosecution in the re-trial of a child-murderer called Jason Jessup. The murderer doesn’t sound melanin-enriched, does he? But you don’t need his name to know that he isn’t: his crime is enough to ensure he can’t be anything other than a white male, in the Connelly cosmos. And it’s apparent long before the end of the book that he is guilty, although he’s been released on bail and wants to sue the state of California for a false conviction. He was found guilty in the 1980s partly on DNA evidence, when a trace of semen was discovered on the victim’s dress and shown to belong to his blood-group. But it’s turned out that it wasn’t in fact his. Twenty-first-century technology has proved the depraved deposit belonged to someone else – but still a white male, of course.

The girl’s stepfather, in fact. But he hadn’t actually been abusing the girl: she had borrowed the dress from the actual victim of abuse, her slightly older sister. Then she got snatched off the street by Jessup and strangled. Is there no limit to WHAM evil? Not in the Connelly cosmos. But the book raises a related question: Is there no limit to non-WHAM saintliness? If I didn’t know better, I’d almost start to suspect Connelly was taking the piss in one part of The Reversal, when the discoverer of the victim’s corpse testifies at the new trial. The Bosch sections of the book are written in the third person, the Haller sections in the first. Haller describes the witness being brought to the stand:

As I had gone to the lectern Bosch had left the courtroom to retrieve [William] Johnson from a witness waiting-room. He now returned with the man in tow. Johnson was small and thin with a dark mahogany complexion. He was fifty-nine but his pure white hair made him look older. Bosch walked him through the gate and then pointed him in the direction of the witness stand. (pg. 220)

The “dark mahogany complexion” and “pure white hair” are the first stages in the character’s canonization. Here are some more, as the witness identifies himself to the court and describes what he does for a living:

“…I am head of operations for the El Rey theater on Wilshire Boulevard… I make sure everything works right and runs – from the stage lights to the toilets, it’s all part of my job.”

He spoke with a slight Caribbean accent but his words were clear and understandable. (pg. 221)

So he’s Caribbean and highly competent. The saintliness is solidifying, but Connelly isn’t done. The murdered girl was callously dumped in a rubbish-bin by her WHAM killer. Haller projects a police photograph of the scene onto a screen and asks the competent Caribbean to clearly confirm that it is accurate:

“Okay, and is this what you saw when you raised the top [of the bin] and looked inside?”

Johnson didn’t answer my question at first. He just stared like everyone else in the courtroom. Then, unexpectedly, a tear rolled down his dark cheek. It was perfect. If I had been at the defense table I would have viewed it with cynicism. But I knew Johnson’s response was heartfelt and it was why I had made him my first witness.

“That’s her,” he finally said. “That’s what I saw.”

I nodded as Johnson blessed himself. (pg. 220-4)

I, on the other hand, retched. I think writing like that counts as emotional pornography, but this example has an interesting feature: the black saint who is offered for liberal self-gratification isn’t an American black but a foreign one. Is Connelly suggesting that a Caribbean is credible when weeping over the death of a white child, but a native black wouldn’t be? I don’t know, but I do know that the book, like many of Connelly’s previous books, is meant to be titillating in other ways. The details of Jessup’s known and suspected murders – he proves to have floated like a butterfly and stung like a WASP – remind me of something George Orwell said in his essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944):

It is important to note that by modern standards Raffles’s crimes are very petty ones. Four hundred pounds’ worth of jewellery seems to him an excellent haul. And though the stories are convincing in their physical detail, they contain very little sensationalism – very few corpses, hardly any blood, no sex crimes, no sadism, no perversions of any kind. It seems to be the case that the crime story, at any rate on its higher levels, has greatly increased in blood-thirstiness during the past twenty years. Some of the early detective stories do not even contain a murder. The Sherlock Holmes stories, for instance, are not all murders, and some of them do not even deal with an indictable crime. So also with the John Thorndyke stories, while of the Max Carrados stories only a minority are murders. Since 1918, however, a detective story not containing a murder has been a great rarity, and the most disgusting details of dismemberment and exhumation are commonly exploited. Some of the Peter Wimsey stories, for instance, display an extremely morbid interest in corpses.

That was written at the end of the Second World War. Plus ça change, eh? But something that has definitely changed in detective fiction is the attitude to the societies built by whites in Europe, America, and other parts of the world. Liberal writers like Connelly now attack them constantly: they’re racist, they’re oppressive, they’re evil. The Reversal re-treads a constant Connellyean theme. In several of his previous books, evil WHAMs have committed sex-crimes and hapless non-WHAMs have been unjustly accused instead. In The Reversal, an evil WHAM has committed a sex-crime and a saintly non-WHAM is weeping over the victim. That’s how it works, in the world of Bosch and Haller. But they’re WHAMs too and they’re examples of how, in liberalism, only WHAMs have free will to choose between good and evil. Bosch and Haller choose good and side with the saintly oppressed; Jessup and the stepfather choose evil and commit the oppression against the saints. But the WHAM Connelly and his WHAM fans may soon start to see that their collusion with their critics will not lead to a better world. They may even realize that sex-crimes are not always and everywhere committed by white males. But I suppose that’s what makes Connelly an imaginative writer and The Reversal a work of fiction.

Pre-previously posted (please peruse):

All Bosched-Up

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