The Nasty Taste of War

Before Ukraine, I thought the following kind of writing from a European standpoint might remain in the realm of historical fiction. THE MAN WHO FEEDS THE SWANS is a completed novel, as yet never offered to any publisher. In my lifetime, Hitler was still alive. To think another despot of such callous ambition could rise again in Europe seemed stupid. But the stormy years of the Third Reich will always be a fertile orchard for writers with a yen for history, and I’m such a writer. So my imaginary horrors now step from the fictional shadows via Moscow and Kyiv. I feel despondent and almost ashamed.

The Man Who Feeds The Swans Prologue/Chapter 1

“If there is a sin superior to every other,

it is that of wilful and offensive war. . .

He who is the author of a war

lets loose the whole contagion of hell,

and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”


P R O L O G U E:

They always thought, and they were usually correct, that the wave of death and destruction they generated encompassed every living enemy. They were the blowtorch battalion, and did not fire consume everything? So it seemed. To them, their victims were simple entities, biologically the same as the animals they kept, of scant use to this coveted landscape. Their houses were considered as little more than highly inflammable pig-stys. It was an easy prospect; day after long, hot day, rolling forward across the endless corn, through dark woods, scorching, destroying. The smell of burning petrol, the crackle of blazing thatch, the smoke, the hot, comforting  barrels of their guns, the joy, the close camaraderie as night fell, sharing a mess tin, smoking a cigarette, ignoring the twisted, blackened cadavers on the side of the road.

There had, of course, been some stiff resistance. Some comrades had died. The enemy had an army of sorts, yet it was ill-led, its ranks filled with the same sub-humanity which seemed to occupy every hovel they had torched. Yet they were retreating, dispirited, stunned by the ultra-efficient bulldozer of death which crushed them like ants. 

In the first faltering hours of their historic mission their task had sent a shock through their ranks, perhaps, in those youngsters who still harboured a pale, illicit trace of conscience, even a glimmer of shame or discomfort, but this would pass. Killing was undemanding, and as the glorious, victorious days turned into weeks, their training and indoctrination triumphed. Conquest was easier without pity. They would survive and those in their path would not. It was a simple rule. They were fire, they were steel, and fire destroyed, steel dealt death. Was there an easier, more primeval and joyous way to spend one’s young manhood than this? They did not seek love. They sought fear, and the more they had it, the headier a brew it became.

On the fifteenth day, in a village of about twenty dwellings called Kharitzelov, after an early muster and breakfast they began their work again. It was the last house they planned to burn, a more distinguished, more sturdy, stone-built, edifice than usual, yet it would be the exception to the rule of destruction. They shot the old woman, her stout daughters, their father, the two pigs and three bullocks. They took the chickens and rang their necks – a treat for the camp fire that night. But as they ranged confidently through what they imagined might be the home of the village elder, they heard the crying of children and entered a darkened room where two small boys, possibly under five, and a girl of around 8 years old, were cowering beneath a tiny window by the side of a tall, wide wardrobe. It was a fine piece of furniture which seemed incongruous in this primitive peasant world. For the quartet of young conquerors who faced these innocent infants, this was a test of nerve. Their superior pointed to the whimpering trio, then looked at his men. He spoke their names, one by one, thorough, clear and deliberate.

“Well? You know the orders.”

The oldest of the three invaders could see the slight flicker of indecision on his younger comrades’ faces. This was obviously to be a re-evaluation of their courage. They had been used to killing at a distance. Yet this was close-up, a scenario where the true horror of their presence was reflected back at them in the faces of their victims. The older member steeled himself, the dark, wide innocent eyes of the children blinking in terrified anticipation. He raised his MP-40 machine gun, pressed the trigger and gasped in shock as the shattering noise filled the room, the bullets raking across the children’s chests, blood gushing through their cotton shirts.

            The quartet stood back from their handiwork; three crushed, crimson-spattered broken dolls, lying in a heap like a trio of ragged, collapsed puppets. In silence they left the house. Outside, the warm June sunlight sliced through the smoke and dust. Flies were already swarming around the corpses on the dry earth road. Their unit was in motion, moving on. Why no-one had torched the house, or thrown a grenade inside, did not concern the young victors. They were making history, moving like laughing, chattering gods across their imagined pages of glory. Nothing before this mattered, nothing this day, or tomorrow; they revelled in the moment, in each new progressive, promising day. As they marched away from the stone house, how could they ever realise that this lapse in total destructive thoroughness, this strategic error, had been such a bad mistake?

When darkness fell that night, the summer heat had given way to the chill blanket of night, and the mechanised, clattering rumble of the conquerors had subsided; they were now another five miles to the east of smouldering, destroyed Kharitzelov. As the bitter moon rose over the silent remains, in the stone house of the murdered children something moved. It was hard for Andrey Shiropilov, pushing the wardrobe door open. His limbs ached and he was exhausted, his mouth and lips dry with dehydration. In that dark, polished wooden box, constructed with pride by an unknown craftsman, perhaps a century earlier in some unfamiliar city many miles away, breathless terror had ruled for several hours, a dread so great as to prompt involuntary urination and defecation.  As he pushed yet harder, something was blocking the way. He shoved harder and then stepped out in the darkness onto the lifeless head of Josef, his youngest son. Stiff and short of breath from their cramped confinement, Andrey’s wife, Natasha, unwound herself from her constricted, agonising posture. She tumbled out through the wardrobe door onto her husband’s arched back.

They lit a candle, and threw caution to the wind. Their sobs of abject grief could well be heard miles away, yet they no longer cared. Perhaps death would be a relief. Their shame was part of their tragedy; why had they not had time to try and cram the children into the wardrobe? Why had they survived? Yet Andrey had been convinced that they’d be safe, that true men at arms would never harm tiny children. This would now be a stupidity he would have to live with for the rest of his bitter days.

Natasha sat by the wardrobe, cradling her dead son’s head in her lap. Andrey held the candle over his crumpled daughter’s face. To his utter amazement, her eyes flickered.

“Katya? Katya? – Natasha – she’s alive!”

Markenburg 1989

The swan, like the soul of the poet,

By the dull world is ill understood.

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

Markenburg sits on the north bank of the Mosel River between Koblenz in the north and the ancient city of Trier in the south. There is a special quality to the sun here, its soothing warmth trapped above the flowing river, pleasingly imprisoned in this deep, abundant valley.  Here the lush vineyards stretch up the lofty hillsides, various shades of vibrant green, clinging in the genial sun to patches of fertile soil which nestle between the rugged, dark brown outcrops of rock. The wine comes late in its Reisling autumn from tight, hard tiny grapes, their eventual essence bursting with floral flavour.

In such a place of natural beauty the rigours of history and mechanical advance can sometimes seem irrelevant. Perhaps it is only electricity and traffic which separate Markenburg from its simple past. Where horses and coaches once clattered along the black cobbles, sleek Mercedes, Audis and BMWs are parked. The dark green, metal street lamps are ornate, Parisian in style, and along the promenade red and white banners bearing the town’s crest flutter in the balmy breeze. Markenburg is a tourist postcard, a colourful rectangle of pastoral German beauty to send around the world.

            Below the tranquil, bee-buzzing verdant vineyards, the town trades on its medieval memory, a magnet for visitors who arrive each summer in their thousands to stroll down narrow, cool cobbled streets shaded by towering timbered houses. The brochures tell no lies; this is, indeed, a classic Mosel wine town, and has probably looked this way for centuries. As summer turns to autumn the annual wine harvest is celebrated with a week-long festival, a noisy riot of brassy, oompah-driven music and ceremonial parades wherein this year’s Wine Queen is elected, forever a pretty young Teuton, not necessarily catwalk thin, more of child-bearing hips, fresh of face and bright in personality. On the afternoon of the last Saturday in August, preceded by lofty proclamations by the Burgomeister, her appearance is heralded by the primeval drumbeats of a troop of guards bearing lances, their red and green 17th century costumes all adding to the colour of the spectacle.  Following behind, like ageing vestal virgins in flowing white gowns, come the wine queens of previous years, from the still attractive twenty-somethings to those, now matronly, who once matched their beauty, now portly mothers or ancient grandmothers. After toasting the crowds with her green wine glass, the fulsome Wine Queen stands behind the microphone on the bandstand and impresses everyone by making her inaugural speech in German, French and English. It has been this way in Markenburg for as long as anyone can remember.

High on the hills above the town stands the castle, from which Markenburg takes its name. It was in this towering, turreted monument that ancient kings and Teuton knights fought and squabbled over blood-stained local valleys. Today, with its silent cannons, colourful flags and reproduction suits of armour, it exists to prove to tourists that when it comes to elaborate, embellished history, Germany has the real thing – no-one needs the ersatz Disneyland pastiche.

            A popular highway, the B49, runs from the town of Wittlich all the way north to Koblenz, hugging the banks of the Mosel for almost 70km. As it passes through Markenburg, it comes closer to the river bank than anywhere else along the route. Along this 2km promenade the Mosel pleasure boat jetties jut out into the placid water upon which hundreds of pleasure seekers will cruise on the numerous triple-decked boats. On board they are served good, cold German beer, bottles of fine Rhine and Mosel wine to accompany their schnitzel, wurst, frites and sauerkraut. On the larger boats, at night, beneath festoons of multi-coloured, twinkling light bulbs, the river revellers will be regaled with musical selections provided by a variety of live acts, some young and disco-flavoured, others specialising in that peculiar middle-aged brand of German popular music, a mix of stein-raising jollity and sentimental ballads about sailors missing their loved ones.  These ships of sheer delight share the ancient waterway with long, low and slow cargo vessels plying their trade from Trier all the way to the mighty Rhine and beyond. This is a waterway where pleasure and profit cruise side by side. However, there is one small Markenburg jetty, which the boats no longer call at. At nine in the morning and around seven at night, a broad assortment of river fowl, ducks and swans, assemble here. They know that at these times someone will appear at the end of the old, rusting pier with two large paper bags of bread. He is an old man. His hair is thick and white with the odd streak of blonde, a reminder of his youthful days.

Over the years he has become such a regular fixture that local people no longer notice him. In fact, according to some of the much older Markenburgers,  this aquatic wildfowl attendant is simply part of a ritual which goes back further than they can remember. Someone has always fed the swans. The legend is that the custom was initiated by some kind of mythical river maiden, her identity lost in the mists of time. Although slightly stooped, his frame bears a hint of a once powerful body. His eyes are icy blue, his jaw square, and his face ruddy from an outdoor life. Morning and evening, he is there. He may be seen occasionally in one of Markenburg’s shops, yet he rarely speaks. Sometimes, on summer afternoons, he can be spied half way up the hill in his quiet corner of the castle’s beer garden, enjoying a cold Bitburger pils and smoking a cigarette. Only a few people know his name, yet they never engage him in conversation. He is known only as ‘the man who feeds the swans’.

            Tourists staying in the nearby Promenade hotels often come out onto their balconies when the old man appears. The swans lead the charge, surrounded by a flotilla of noisy ducks. The elegant, snowy beauty of the swans with their long, undulating necks is contrasted by the scurrying, busy brown flock of raucous mallards as they dip, dive and fight for  tasty, man-made morsels. The old man plunges his strong hand into his carrier bags and spreads the carefully portioned bread far and wide around the pier with a gentle wave of his arm, reminiscent of a man sowing seed in a field. The tourists, shielding their eyes against the low rays of the setting sun, holding their glasses of chilled wine, make comments.

            “Ah…how nice…” and “Oh…. look at that kind man…” Whether or not they ever stop to wonder if there is anything beyond a love of wildlife or kindness in this continuing convention seems immaterial. Like a carving, a statue, a famous waterfall or any other tourist attraction, the man who feeds the swans is simply … there.

Chapter 1:

Munich, 1978

The Cog

‘Life can only be understood backwards;

but it must be lived forwards.’

Sren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

In Germany they used to call  prisons Gefängnis or Knast. Later, they became known as Justizvollzugsanstalt, which, roughly translated, means ‘institute for the execution of justice’, known simply by their initials, JVA. However, to the gaunt, elderly prisoner waiting in the draughty, echoing corridor outside the Governor’s office on the cold, late October day in 1978 such semantic niceties were of scant interest. Some of the later inmates had expressed their view that compared to the jails of old, this place was a hotel. Yet to the lone waiting man, a prison was a prison, an encirclement of impregnable walls where life ebbed away and liberty remained as a cherished daily dream.

In Giesing, just south of Munich, Stadelheim prison had cast its brooding shadow over Stadelheimerstrasse since 1894. Many of its inmates knew a little about Stadelheim’s history.  Dark places breed curiosity. The area is surrounded by two fences: a 3 meter high outer wall to prevent break-ins, and an inner fence to prevent break-outs. On each corner is a watch tower.  In 1,033 single cells and 177 doubles, all manner of miscreants have spent their time. Rowdy drunks from the annual Oktoberfest, paying for their excess with a vomit-stained night, a fine and a stiff lecture; burglars, fraudsters, murderers, misguided political extremists, and others, long-time internees whose records were far more complicated. Like most penitentiaries, Stadelheim exceeded its official capacity for inmates. Very few had the privilege of a single cell. However, the character in the corridor, one of the ‘complicated’, was one of these.

            Today was a day he had long dreamed of, yet he wondered, after 20 years, how he would handle the sudden break in his daily routines. Breakfast served at 6.30am, white bread, butter and marmalade. Lunch at the unorthodox hour of 10:30am and dinner between 3 and 4pm. Everything washed down with watery tea. Lights out at 10pm. Way back in 1958 he had thought that this manner of incarceration could never be his fate. Things had gone too well. Yet a man’s past is like his shadow; it never leaves him. He’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those distant days still haunted him.

Now the undercurrent of cold air wafted around his ankles as he stood patiently at attention outside the Governor’s office, waiting to be called in. The dullness of the iron grey late autumn sky outside had made Stadelheim’s interior seem even more dark, bleak and doom-laden than usual, yet he was relieved that the cold harshness of the night-time fluorescent lighting was absent.  He hated those lights, their stark, inhuman, economic functionality, the way they made him feel as if life was being spent in a warehouse full of bankrupt human stock. Other thoughts ran through his head – if this is the day I have dreamed of, then what will the rest of the dream – the unwritten, obscured chapter, be like? What was life like out there in Germany? Could that alien, gaudy landscape he’d seen on television, that place where strange rhythmic music pulsed, where girls now showed their thighs, where outlandish men in peculiar clothes had shaggy hair, offer him anything at all?  How would he cope with the sudden end of the unrepentant rhythm of Stadelheim life? Who would provide the white bread, butter and marmalade?

From his cell window he had been able to see the stark, skeletal black treetops surrounding adjacent cemetery in the Perlacher forest. With its neat rows of tombstones and carefully tended graves, all accessed by a latticework of radiating paths, the cemetery seemed to go on forever. He saw it as a symbol; perhaps his cell was God’s waiting room; perhaps there wasn’t any Germany out there at all, just that forbidding graveyard. Maybe he was in some kind of paranormal borderland between what had once been life, with all its hopes, joys, past and potential future, and that waiting desert of death beneath the groves of spidery trees. The cold fingers of other dark thoughts often encircled and gripped his mind. Prisons were also places of exit. Although there had been unforgettable times in his life when the daily possibility of sudden death in a blaze of glory had seemed invigorating, the thought of an anonymous end within these walls seemed to offer the ultimate insult. His only consolation was that the ice-cold, churning world of his distant past had softened. It was a small comfort to know that his would not be the fate of many who had met their end here. He had had the time and the curiosity to learn about them all. He had immersed himself in history, yet the deeper he delved the more he agreed with Voltaire; “History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead.” And the dead were all around him, their ghosts not only in the prison confines, but roaming in their eternal grief across Europe.

Stadelheim’s cells were the bloody pages of a grim chronicle compressed between brick and concrete covers. It had been here, between June 24th to July 27th, 1922 that Adolf Hitler was imprisoned for breach of the peace. Stadelheim had also loomed prominently on the so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives’. In cell 70, Hitler’s brown shirt comrade, Ernst Röhm, former Sturmabteilung Chief of Staff, refusing to commit suicide, was shot on 1 July 1934. Career Nazi Peter von Heydebreck was imprisoned and murdered here by the SS here during the same so-called ‘Röhm-Putsch’. Hans and Sophie Scholl, both members of the White Rose resistance movement were guillotined on 22 February 1943.

The man waiting in the corridor knew all their names. He often thought about what that day in 1943 must have been like. Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Kurt Huber, Willi Graf, all sadly misguided members of the White Rose. How could these kids have been so naïve to think they could stand in the path of the juggernaut which was the Third Reich?  He knew that some of their graves were out there beyond the perimeter fence. As he stood in the corridor, shifting his weight from foot to foot, he recalled the previous year, 1977, when Ingrid Schubert of the Bader-Meinhof gang had hung herself in her Stadelheim cell. Despite his own dread of an incarcerated death, he had vivid memories of how her suicide had inspired him. Her expectation of Germany was so empty that life itself had no further value. He had no sympathy for her cause, yet envied her courage and the utter sense of release her death must have brought.

The office door opened, causing him to flinch from his reverie back to reality. The guard looked him up and down and gestured with a wave of his hand.

“He will see you now. Enter.”

The prisoner was familiar with the Governor’s office. The broad, oak, leather-topped desk, the green filing cabinets, the electric typewriter, the telephones, one green one red, the hefty glass ashtrays courtesy of the Lowenbrau Brewery, the collection of  pens in an old Bavarian bier stein. The previous governor, Herr Gluckmann, was old enough to understand the plight of this quiet lifer. It had been Gluckmann who had arranged the single cell, and helped with his charge’s academic rehabilitation. He’d even allowed him a TV set, and praised his work in the prison workshops. Yet the new governor, Franz Drecker, was too young to appreciate the history of the silent figure that stood before him. Drecker was one of the new Germans, born in 1943, not in the greater Reich but to emigrant parents in faraway Canada. The Drecker family’s heritage was light years away from that of his older prisoners. Astute, ambitious and highly educated, the new governor’s lofty moral grasp of his parents’ homeland’s history set him bitterly at odds with the morose individual who had entered his domain. The prisoner was tall, square jawed, blue-eyed, with thinning steel grey hair and a two day stubble. His shoulders were broad and Drecker wondered what this man would have looked like three decades earlier. Today, as if to impress the governor, with admirable discipline, he stood to attention as rigidly straight as he could.  Drecker studyied the prisoner’s file, a bulky manila folder containing many pages of yellowing documents.

“You may sit down.”

The man dragged the tubular steel chair into position and sat there quietly waiting as Drecker traced a well-manicured finger across lines of typed text. He looked up.

            “So. Your day has come. How does it feel?”

The prisoner shrugged. “I feel nothing. Not yet.”

            “Not … yet?”

            “How will I know what I feel until I am free? I am still sitting here, in Stadelheim. My feelings are the same as they were when the bell rang at six this morning.”

The governor looked bemused and nodded slowly.

            “And what are your plans?”

The man shook his head.

“Plans? What plans can a man of 71 have after twenty years in this place?”

            “Well, you are educated now. For a man of your age, I’m impressed with the amount of time you’ve spent in the gym. You are remarkably fit. You could enjoy another 20 years and make something of yourself.”

The prisoner laughed gently.

“The optimism of youth. ‘Make something’ of myself? What – a vegetable in a wheelchair? I am old, Herr Drecker. The only exercise which has kept me supple has been within the confines of Stadelheim. I know how long it takes, how many steps, to walk from one end of the compound to the other. But out there the roads go on forever. I am old and I feel it. I relish neither aspect of the future; the slow march to death in here, the slow march to death out there.”

Drecker shook his head and sighed.

            “Such unwarranted negativity. This is a land of opportunity. We have found you a hostel, and your rehabilitation officer will help you to find ways to run your life. Surely liberty is something to be celebrated?”

The prisoner looked past the governor through the large barred window, where a hefty black crow was hopping along the top of the high perimeter wall.

            “Yes. As you say, liberty is a cause for celebration – that is, of course, if liberty is the reason for this meeting.”

            “Ever the damned pessimist. You know quite well it is.”

Drecker snapped the file shut, stood up and walked around the desk, then perched on its edge looking down at the morose figure before him.

            “I suppose you heard about Peiper?”

            “Yes. I heard.”

            “Does his fate concern you?”

            “No. It was justice of some kind. Cruel but inevitable.”

            “What do you think now, looking back over your life – has it been wasted?”

The prisoner bridled at what he regarded as sanctimonious moralising.

            “No more than yours.”

A flash of annoyance passed over Drecker’s face.

            “But we are not here to discuss my life. We’re here to establish your release. What about your family? Do you have someone to contact?”

            “I had a brother.”

            “Are you in contact? Do you know where he is?”

            “No. I don’t even know if he’s alive. Even if he is, I doubt if he’ll give me a warm welcome. It’s been what … over thirty years since he visited me in Landsberg.”

Drecker took a packet of Pall Mall cigarettes from his pocket and offered one. The prisoner took it eagerly and they lit up. The blue smoke swirled around the room, inducing a more relaxed atmosphere. Drecker exhaled, went back around the desk, sat down and opened the file again.

            “I see they released you from Landsberg in 1949. You were free for nine years. It must have been quite a blow when they arrested you again. Surely, during that time you were free, you must have developed some friendships, some acquaintances. Are you in contact with anyone from that time?”

            “No. ”

Drecker sighed and closed the file again. He sat back, took a long draw on his cigarette as he regarded the taciturn man who was once again staring past him at that persistent crow on the wall.

            “In a few minutes you can go down to the main office and collect your belongings. They’ll provide you with some funds and the hostel’s address. Your rehabilitation officer is a nice woman – Helga Lorenz. She’ll meet you there.”

The prisoner savoured the cigarette and tried to imagine what lay ahead. A woman, trying to guide him to rehabilitation. It all seemed like a pointless exercise. Drecker leaned toward him and with narrowed eyes said                                                             

“Of all the cases in this establishment I have always found yours one of the most fascinating. I suppose, in the final analysis, you only had the good of Germany in your heart of hearts.”

The prisoner stared long and hard at the governor, stubbed out his cigarette in the Lowenbrau ashtray and gave a sardonic chuckle.

            “Huh. Heart of hearts … I only had one heart, unfortunately.”

“But, misguided or not, you gave it to Germany.”

“What could you possibly know about Germany, growing up in Canada? Your parents must’ve been crazy, bringing you back here.”

            “Well, the fatherland is always the fatherland.”

The prisoner turned his head to one side and grimaced as if he’d smelled something bad.

“I’ve heard that somewhere before. The ‘fatherland’. Hah! Some father. Some land. Look where it got me.”

 “Well, I’m sure you’ve had time to reflect on it all and twenty years adds up to a lot of redemption. But before you go, I’m curious; looking back, how do you feel about your former life and your incarceration? Do you still have any guilt?”

The man stood up and pushed the chair away, then leant on the desk, both hands spread out on the rich leather. He looked long and hard at Drecker.

            “You remind me of a little kid who looks at a racing car or a helicopter and thinks ‘how does that work?’ You think that people like me are some kind of workshop manual to help you discover how the history machine functions. Well I’m not. I’m a piston ring, a carburettor, maybe a spark plug, a cog in the works. Can a cog feel guilty? Oh, yes. Does a spark plug experience remorse? Damn right I do.        I was in the wrong engine, the wrong vehicle, on the wrong autobahn. But I wasn’t driving. Guilt? Guilt?  You have no understanding of the word. You probably feel guilty if you fart in company, or steal someone’s parking space. But that’s not guilt. Real guilt is toxic, corrosive – it eats into your heart, it shreds your conscience, steals your sleep. The cardinal points of my life’s compass were branded upon my aching brain with the hot iron of youthful stupidity and crass ignorance whilst you were still shitting your diaper in Toronto. Yet there were others with much more guilt than mine who have not paid this price. They’ve had abundant lives behind their smokescreen of re-invented history. Ask them the same question and see what answer you get. Now – issue my release documents and let me get away from here.”

            Thirty minutes later the heavy gates of Stadelheim opened and the tall figure in an ill-fitting, dark blue double breasted overcoat, carrying a leather hold-all, stepped into freedom. He glanced at the buff card the warden had given him.      Helga Lorenz, 148b Jacob-Geld-Platz. Catch the U-Bahn from St. Quirin Platz to Candidplatz. These were civilian activities he’d only seen on his TV screen.

The oppressive October sky had cleared, and he stood on the pavement casting a long shadow in the bright autumnal sunlight. He flinched at the passing traffic, his mind awash with competing emotions. He began to feel like a drowning man. Old and deeply-buried memories were materialising. His past, sealed away, locked down and subdued in his prison cell, now began a steady cranial parade which he could not stop. Kharkov. Bullingen. Honsfeld. Ligneuville. Why this torture, why now? With each faltering step forward, his heart raced. Above him, high on the wall, the crow was still there; it made a cackling sound, as if some evil witch was casting a spell. He began to walk a little faster now, as if to escape his own conscience, and then realised; despite the card and the instructions, in the greater scheme of things, he had no idea where he was going. 


The Tentative Poet

See the source image
An inspiration: ASJ Tessimond


One winter night in 1974, shortly after my 32nd birthday, I saw an entry in the Radio Times for a radio programme on the life of a forgotten poet, A.S.J. Tessimond. (1902-62). The entry included lines from his poem Portrait of a Romantic.

He is in love with the land that is always over

The next hill and the next, with the bird that is never

Caught, with the room beyond the looking glass.

He likes the half-hid, the half-heard, the half-lit,

The man in the fog, the road without an ending,

Stray pieces of torn words to piece together.

I listened to the programme. Years later I hoped it might still be in the BBC archives, but the tapes had been wiped. However, I recently discovered a recording, made back then on a cassette by a YouTube contributor called Evpman[1]. I searched for Tessimond’s books but they were out of print. These verses had proved so inspirational that I snipped them from the Radio Times and kept the cutting in my wallet, where it remained for 24 years until I finally became a full-time writer in 1998. Tessimond fired my imagination; perhaps one day I too could attempt poetry. Or could I?

      On 9 October 1746, in a letter to his son, Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773)[2] said, “I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by culture, care, attention, and labour, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet.” By adding the adjective ‘great’ to this observation his Lordship would appear to preserve poetry in the aspic of literary haughtiness which marked his times. As a writer bereft of an academic upbringing who came to the trade later in life, I certainly regarded ‘serious’ poetry, inspiring though it is, as the quantum physics of literature. Yet all writers have distant flickering beacons, and as I grew older, I was drawn like a moth to such bright candles as Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot. However, as it was with the music of Vaughan Williams, Holst or Mahler, reading poetry always stirred the same question: how do they do that?   The counting of stresses, syllables, what is the alchemy of turning words into emotional gold? What is Iambic pentameter, what’s a sonnet, a villanelle, a haiku, what’s the difference between an ode, a ballad and an elegy, and what about alliteration, assonance, anaphora? Were these the arcane things you only absorbed at Oxbridge? Did Philip Larkin sit down to write with a semantic toolkit?

     As a failed rock star and a one-time folk musician, I had written a few songs. Re-visiting those naïve compositions was underpinned by the old argument about Bob Dylan – were his lyrics poetry or just songs? Then, in 2005, I struck up a close friendship with an authentic, award-winning poet and playwright, Kevin Fegan. He’d been commissioned by the Arts Council to write a prose and poetry history of  Ironville, a town on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border. I was staggered when Kevin asked me if I would co-author the work with him. I said “Are you sure about this? I’m no poet”. He replied that he’d read my published works and that some of my phrasing indicated that I might easily intrude into the field of verse. Nine months later Kevin and I launched the book, Iron in The Blood,[3] at Ironville’s town hall to a full and eager audience. We shared the readings equally and the positive response inspired me to go further. In 2009 I entered a competition run by a British website, Poetcasting, run by Alex Pryce of Leicester University. The challenge was to submit a poem to accompany a project entitled Altered Land, by the Asian photographer, artist and writer Ernest Goh. The subject was the devastation in Aceh, Indonesia, following the terrible Tsunami disaster. The prize was to be a signed Ernest Goh print, and the publication of the winning poem in Singapore’s Straits Times. To my utter amazement, I won the competition with a poem entitled Against Those Gods. Sadly, although I was published in the Straits Times on December 26 2009, I’m still waiting for my signed print.

    By winning the Altered Land competition I imagined that might lead to a flicker of wider recognition. I assembled a small anthology based on my time in the Merchant Navy. I was quite proud of Tiger Heart, Velvet Paw: Poems and Nautical Bearings[4]. A small local publisher took the risk of publishing the 72-page book. At a Leicester University literature weekend I presented a copy to Alex Pryceof Poetcasting and I haven’t heard from them since. I began to think my winning poem had been a fluke – a random stroke of luck.

No-one goes into the poetry game for money. You’ll spend more writing poems than they’ll ever earn. I proved this by drifting into self-publication. I began publishing my own short collections and there have been five issued over the past decade. I road-test the poems on FaceBook and see how many ‘likes’ I get. In 2018 I appeared at two poetry festivals with Kevin Fegan in Nottinghamshire and was privileged to share the stage with the writer, poet, TV and film producer, Henry Normal. Book sales from such events were in single figures.

I celebrated my 78th birthday in April this year. I’ve written all the books I wanted to write. Some were published. I’ve made a meagre, fame-free living in magazine feature writing, the music industry and general copywriting. The calendar ahead of me is much shorter than the one behind. All that seems left to create is … poetry. Have I learned much about meter, similes, metaphors, personification, allegory, and irony? Perhaps not. I simply write lines inspired by what’s happening in the world around me. If they activate an emotional ripple, balance out and scan, if I can read them aloud, that will suffice. That said, I agree with Don Marquis: “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”


The thin gauze of summer

Slips from the season’s shoulders

As Winter’s heavy cloak

Is taken from the autumn locker.

The late shaft of leaf-blown sun

Cuts across the table

And illuminates my hands.

There stand the veins of the years,

The brown spots of age

And in those arthritic fingers

Throbs the memory of a life

The work; the lifting, the carrying,

The stroking, the cradling of past joys.

As the sun glints on the wedding ring,

I ponder; when shall we all shake hands again?

Roy Bainton


[2] Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) English statesman, wit [Philip Dormer Stanhope]

Letter to his son (9 Oct 1746)

[3] Bainton, Roy, Fegan, Kevin Iron in The Blood (2007) Artery, (Amber Valley Borough Council)

[4] Bainton, Roy Tiger Heart, Velvet Paw EMc Press Ltd. Mansfield (2009)

[5] From my next collection INVISIBLE BY DAY Putilov Press, Hull, to be published July 2021.



See the source image

Until 2009, Jerome Charyn was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris. He had much to say about Hollywood, such as “We’re the country of movie stars because the stars, like ourselves, represent a kind of extended infantilism, beauties waiting for the big chance.” The beautiful infants needn’t wait any longer; their dream comic book Hollywood is up and running.

     Prior to the tragedy of 9/11, about three superhero films per year were produced, such as Superman and Batman. That figure has increased to 20. The effects of 9/11 would reverberate throughout the movie industry during the first decade of the 21st century. On September 11 2001 cinemas were running a trailer for Spider-Man, due for release in May 2002.It featured Spider-Man spinning a web between the Twin Towers, trapping a helicopter of criminals. This promotional clip and accompanying posters, featuring the towers reflected in Spider Man’s eyes, was quickly pulled out of circulation. Yet since the advent of comic books in the 1930s, superheroes had come to mean something therapeutic. They were the very opposite of the evil which had crashed planes into New York’s skyline. Superheroes appear as our much-needed saviors, wrapped in the stars and stripes. The plotlines of the new wave of movies reflect a safe resistance to sinister modern threats, a protection acted out in capes, spandex and helmets by a breed or human we may aspire to be; fair, thoughtful, considerate and invincible. As well as a growing creative infantilism, they also represent the largest profit figures ever for the film industry.

     The highest paid millionaire screenwriters today, men like Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have 24 movies between them. Most of the titles tell it all; Avengers: Endgame, Captain America: Civil War (plus 2 more in the franchise) Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Infinity War and more of the same. Like George Lucas, the author of the limitless Star Wars franchise, these well-heeled scribes specialize in superhero fantasy; American heroes punishing the sinister enemies of the American Way. Comic book men (and women) in tights are big business. In 2020, such films including Wonder Woman 1984, The Birds of Prey, Joker, Black Panther and Iron Man brought in immense box office revenues[i]. Marvel Comics lead the way with high production budgets. Avengers: Endgame (2019) cost 356 million U.S. dollars, earning nearly 2.8 billion dollars worldwide – over seven times its budget. Some box office takings for Marvel movies such as Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3 can reach a billion dollars. DC Comics have also reaped rich rewards with films such as Aquaman and  Wonder Woman, which grossed over 410 million dollars.

    Of course, we’ve always had childish movie-going. For children. Walt Disney led the field and today the Disney Corporation owns Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm. Today superheroes dominate tinseltown’s output whilst grown-up stories with texture and character are more likely to end up streamed via Netflix, Amazon or Sky on TV.

On November 17, 2018, the US comedian Bill Maher, an astute and often acerbic critic of US culture, on his HBO show Real Time[ii], in a feature entitled ‘Adulting’ commented, “twenty years or so ago, something happened — adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.  I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.” Of course, the outraged Twitterati villagers lit their torches and chased him off the cliff, accusing him of disrespecting Marvel Comics hero Stan Lee.

Perhaps we can’t entirely blame men who wear their Y-fronts on top of their tights for our dumbing-down. Since 9/11 the Smartphone, no longer a device of simple communication, has blotted out the brains of vast swathes of humanity who wander zombie-like through the world, permanently transfixed by this expensive device welded to their outstretched hand. Along with the unhinged platforms of batshit conspiracy web sites and the increasing nastiness of social media, it’s a wonder if any meaningful thoughts pass through addled craniums at all. Once again, America’s Bill Maher succinctly sums things up:

“I’m not saying we’ve necessarily gotten stupider. The average Joe is smarter in a lot of ways than he was in, say, the 1940s, when a big night out was a Three Stooges short and a Carmen Miranda musical. The problem is, we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff.”[iii]



[iii] IBID.


Euro 1

2021: Nil Points. Justified or not, the writing’s clearly on the wall for any efforts the UK might make in entering this quasi-‘musical’ version of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. The pan-European competitors had already made it obvious that we were persona non-grata in the immediate years following Tony Blair’s support for the second Gulf War in 2003. Had the Beatles re-formed and written their best ever song they would still have been trounced by some two-chord Scandinavian death-metal outfit in horror masks, or a pair of lycra-clad grandmothers on a trapeze. Still, this annual slap in the face is another of the many ‘benefits’ of Brexit. And let’s face it – if you rejected membership of the EU Brussels club with all the ‘hate Johnny Foreigner’ disdain you could muster, then the bouncers at Club Eurovision are not going to let you in. So, we may have got ‘nil points’ but at least we’ve ‘got our country back’.

What used to be a ‘song’ contest is now just a cabinet of ear-splitting spangled circus acts supported by what appears to be a flag-waving deluge of cretinous patriots. The compositions, in the main, are vacuous formulaic set-pieces. Dramatic, slow tempo opening, then an explosive multitude of sub-Beyonce beats accompanied by fireworks. These songs are so facile that the only way they can be framed is with the inclusion of a quintet of sequined leotard-wearing dancers, each prancing troupe possessing more actual artistic talent than the featured ‘star’. As for the show’s presenters, where, oh where, do they come from? Bizarre, stilted tele-prompted announcements by a trio of shimmering non-entities in dresses which probably cost the price of an Amsterdam houseboat stare vapidly into the camera stunned by the fact that at last, they are actually talking to several million Europeans rather than giving the weather forecast in Minsk or hosting a shopping channel in Romania.

Perversely, the UK is as much to blame for its own Eurovision disasters as any low-scorers. Britain is the country which gave the world Bowie, The Beatles, Stones, Peter Gabriel, The Police, Dire Straits, acts which have filled Europe’s biggest mega-stadiums down the years. The general lingua-franca of the contest is still English. But do we employ the finest, chart-tested composers and performers to represent us? No. We book someone who’s ‘written a song’ and had a bit of often anonymous success, someone mainly unknown who will rarely be heard of again after the usual Brit-kicking debacle.

Since the death of Terry Wogan as our commentator, surely the last great reason to tune in, we now have to rely on the latest tongue-in-cheek Irish wit of Graham Norton. There are flashes of acerbic brilliance, but they are no palliative to the overall bombastic doom of an over-glamorous gathering of mainly one-night stand upstarts who frequently imagine they’re in Los Angeles, not some stately European capital. Yet we’ll keep watching. Not because Eurovision might improve, but for the opposite reason. Sometimes things are so bad we start to imagine they’re good.   


The Bizarre Mystery of the Somerton Man

I remember walking through Somerton Park, a suburb of Adelaide in South Australia, back in the early 1960s. The mainly residential seaside suburb is home to the Somerton Park Beach, and whilst enjoying a cold beer there that hot day, I had no idea that this was the location of what remains as the most perplexing mystery in Australia’s criminal cold case records; the enduring enigma of the ‘Somerton Man’, or as they refer to him down under, the ‘Unknown Man’.

In an age of high-tech CSI, DNA and advanced forensic science, we like to think we’re pretty clever at solving murder cases. There’s usually a clear motive, a list of potential suspects soon builds up. Was it the wife/husband? Was there a girlfriend/boyfriend? A mugger, a robber? The starting point is usually the identification of the victim. Yet what happens when absolutely no-one knows whose body it is? This is a mystery laden down with curious clues, hints and false leads, none of which provide an explanation or a conclusion.

Perhaps no-one noticed the smartly dressed middle aged man who stepped from the Melbourne train at Adelaide station at 8.30 am on the morning of November 30th 1948. It had been a long journey. He bought a one-way ticket for the 10.50 am train to Henley Beach, but the ticket was never used. He was carrying a small brown suitcase which he deposited in the station’s left luggage room at around 11 am. At 11.15 am he bought a 7d (seven pence) bus ticket outside the station for a bus going to Somerton, but he got off somewhere along the route. Some researchers suggest that he alighted at Glenelg, close to the St. Leonard’s Hotel. Between 7pm and 8pm that night several witnesses claimed to have seen the man. He stopped somewhere to buy a pasty. This much is known so far. Now the mystery kicks in.

December 1st in southern Australia is regarded as the first day of Summer. It was warm on the evening of Tuesday November 30 when a couple decided to take a stroll along Somerton Beach. John Bain Lyons was a local jeweller and as he ambled along the sands in the direction of Glenelg with his wife at 7 pm, 20 yards away (18.22 m)   they spotted a smartly dressed man reclining on the sand, his head propped up against the sea wall. He seemed quite relaxed with his legs outstretched and crossed. Mr Lyons had the impression that the man might be drunk, as the reclining figure lifted up his right arm which then fell back down. It seemed as if he may have been attempting to light a cigarette, but abandoned the idea. Half an hour later, a young couple were out for a walk along the Esplanade, and they had a view of the beach from above, and the reclining figure was still there with his left arm laid out across the sand. His shoes were clean and well-polished, his suit looked immaculate, yet it seemed an odd sartorial choice as beachwear. He appeared to be sleeping, but with a swarm of mosquitos around his face, inspiring the young man to comment “He must be dead to the world not to notice them…”

But the man on the beach was in the deepest sleep of all. He was dead. The following morning, when the jeweller John Lyons emerged from the sea after a cooling swim, he was joined by two men and a horse as they gathered around the dead man, still in the same position as Lyons had seen him the night before, legs crossed and outstretched. There was an un-smoked cigarette behind his ear, and a half smoked stub resting on his collar. There were no signs of violence.

Three hours later the body was taken to the  Royal Adelaide Hospital, where Dr. John Barkley Bennett estimated the man had died, possibly from heart failure, at around 2 am. There was a dramatic twist, when the Doctor announced that he suspected the man had been poisoned. The dead man’s pockets were emptied but did not reveal much. To begin with he had no cash or wallet. What was found were two combs, a box of matches, a pack of chewing gum, a pack of Army Club cigarettes and seven Kensitas cigarettes. But there was another puzzle. Any maker’s name labels or tags in his clothing had been carefully cut away, and one of his trouser pockets had been stitched with orange thread.

The police had no leads as to the corpse’s identity. The local press reported that the man found on the beach was ‘E. C. Johnson’, but Johnson turned up alive on December 3rd[1]. A full autopsy and a post mortem were carried out. John Dwyer, the pathologist, found a quantity of blood mixed with the remains of the pasty in the man’s stomach. Further examination revealed the dead man had unusually small pupils, his liver was distended with congested blood, and the spleen was three times normal size. With these results, suspicions of poisoning arose. Yet no cause of death was found, and expert chemical analysis on the man’s organs revealed nothing. So who was this dead man? At the subsequent Coroner’s inquest, the evidence of one expert, who had inspected the man’s legs and feet, suggested his well-developed calf muscles and oddly shaped, pointed feet hinted that this man may have even been a ballet dancer.  The cadaver was preserved with formalin and a cast was made of his bust for future examination. The corpse’s fingerprints were taken and circulated around the world, but with no result.

Christmas 1948 came and went with the Unknown Man resting in the morgue. Then, in January 1949, the suitcase he had left at the railway station was discovered. When police opened it, the mystery deepened. There was a reel of orange thread. Of the few items of clothing, the name tags had been removed, but on three the name ‘Kean’ and ‘Keane’ remained. There was a stencil kit, the kind of thing used to stencil names on packing crates, a coat, stitched with a peculiar feather stitching, and a table knife with the shaft cut down, and six pence. Although the names ‘Kean’ and ‘Keane’ looked like good leads, the police could trace no-one, and the local press suggested that the labels were deliberately left as red herrings. Once again the investigation was stalled.

But the strangest evidence, which would give this case its mysterious title, came when the Emeritus Professor of Pathology at the University of Adelaide, John Cleland, was brought in during April 1949 to examine the corpse. Sewn into the waistband of the trousers was what has been referred to as ‘a secret pocket’. It contained a tightly rolled, small piece of paper bearing the printed words, ‘Tamám Shud’.  A reporter for the Adelaide Advertiser, Frank Kennedy, recognised the words as Persian. They were from a popular work written in the 12th century, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The two words come at the very end of the English translation by Edward Fitzgerald of this popular book of poetry, after the final verse, and mean, literally, ‘It is over’. The slip of paper appeared to have been torn from a book, and the seemingly fruitless hunt for the original copy began. The police began to suggest that this may have been a suicide. But there was much more yet to come.

In June 1949 the body was buried in a plot of dry ground and sealed under concrete, a precaution in case it needed future exhumation. On July 23rd a man from the Glenelg area visited the Adelaide Police station and presented a a very rare first edition copy of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám published in 1859 by Whitcombe and Tombs in New Zealand.. His odd story was that the book had been tossed into the back seat of his car by persons unknown. The torn extract matched the ripped space in the book. The identity of the man who found the book was kept secret, and has remained so.  In the back of the book police found five lines of letters written in pencil, and a telephone number. The number was that of a 27 year old nurse who had trained in Sydney’s North Shore Hospital and now lived not far from where the body had been discovered.  Soon local media began to refer to the mysterious lines of letters as ‘code’. Was our man a spy?

Attention now focused on the new lead, the nurse. Her real name was Teresa Powell, but was referred to by the media as ‘Jestyn’. She appears to be as mysterious as the rest of the case, as her real name was not revealed until 2002. In 1949, when police interviewed her she gave a false surname, ‘Mrs. Thompson’, although it turns out that she wasn’t actually married. When shown the plaster cast of the deceased man’s bust, she thought that it might be a man she knew called Alf Boxall, yet wasn’t certain, although she claimed she once gave a copy of  The Rubáiyát to Boxall at the Clifton Gardens Hotel in Sydney in 1945 when he was serving as a lieutenant in the Water Transport Section of the Australian Army. Apparently she behaved very oddly when questioned, and almost fainted[2]. She need not have worried, because Boxall turned up, very much alive, and he brought his copy of  The Rubáiyát, a 1924 Sydney edition, with him. He knew nothing of the dead man and had no connection to him.

The extensive international publicity[3] rolled on as detectives around the globe investigated, but the man remains, to this day, unidentified. Yet as the Cold War developed, the attention focused on the possibility of poisoning, a favourite weapon in espionage circles,  and the strange ‘codes’ written in the back of The Rubáiyát.  The Adelaide coroner, Thomas Cleland, was informed by an eminent professor, Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks[4] that it was possible that a very rare poison had been used which would have decomposed ‘very early after death’. When Hicks appeared at the court hearing, he stated that the poisons he had in mind were so deadly and secret that he would not speak their names out loud, so jotted them down on a slip of paper and passed them to the coroner. They were digitalis and strophanthin. Hicks suggested the latter as the culprit. It originates from Ouabain, a Somali “arrow poison” which is also named            g-strophanthin,  poisonous cardiac glycoside. Extracts containing Ouabain have long been used by Somali tribesmen to poison hunting arrows[5].

So, who was the Unknown Man and was he a spy? At Woomera, they were testing missiles and gathering intelligence. Our man died in Adelaide, which is the closest Australian city  to Woomera. Many see this as a connection. It is also possible that he caught his train at Port Augusta, which is much closer to Woomera. Then there is the bizarre pencilled ‘code’ in the back of The Rubáiyát. What does it mean?






Code specialists around the world, including some of the best intelligence experts, even astrologers, have been wrestling with these random characters for decades, so far, without success.  

There is still an aura of uncertainty around the nurse, ‘Justyn’ and her relationship with Alf Boxall. It seems that Boxall’s army career may also have involved military intelligence. Justyn died in 2007 and some believe that her real name was kept under wraps as it (or perhaps even her nickname) may have been a key to decryption of the ‘code’. Also, according to a 1978 TV documentary[6], when she gave Boxall her copy of The Rubáiyát she had written out verse 70:

Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before

I swore—but was I sober when I swore?

And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand

My thread-bare Penitence a-pieces tore.

 Just a young, romantic gesture – or something more cryptic?

In 1947, the year before the mystery man alighted in Adelaide, the United States Army’s Signal Intelligence Service was carrying out Operation Venona, during which they discovered that the Soviet embassy in Canberra had been in receipt of top secret information leaked from Australia’s Department of External Affairs. In 1948 U.S. banned the transfer of all classified information to Australia. Spies would have had to work much harder that year.

The more you dig into the murky undergrowth of Tamám Shud the denser the tangled roots become. For example, three years prior to the death of the ‘Unknown Man’ the body of Joseph (George) Saul Haim Marshall, a 34 year old from Singapore, was found in Ashton Park, Mosman, Sydney in 1945, with an open copy of the The Rubáiyát (reported as a seventh edition by publishers Methuen) laid on his chest. It was recorded that he’d committed suicide by poison. However, Methuen only issued 5 editions of The Rubáiyát, so either this was a reporting error or a copy of the NZ Whitcombe and Tombs edition. It may be some kind of synchronicity or simple loose association, but a quick look on Google Earth reveals that Sydney’s Ashton Park is a short walk from Clifton Gardens. It was in Clifton Gardens, just two months after the dead Marshall was found with a copy on his chest that Jestyn gave Alfred Boxall a copy of The Rubáiyát. So who was Joseph (George) Saul Haim Marshall? It transpires that his brother was the famous barrister and Chief Minister of Singapore David Saul Marshall. Joseph Marshall’s inquest was held on August 151945. A woman testified at the inquest. She was Gwenneth Dorothy Graham. Within a fortnight of testifying,  she was found naked and dead in a bath face down, with her wrists slit. Omar Khayyám seems to have had a lot to answer for.

Also in 1949, as the Adelaide police were still scratching their heads over the Unknown Man, at Largs North, just 12 miles (20km) along the beach from Somerton, where he’d been found, another bizarre case unfolded. A two-year old boy named Clive Mangnoson was found dead, his body in a sack, on 6 June 1949. It was established that the child had been dead for 24 hours. Keith Waldemar Mangnoson, his unconscious father, was lying alongside him. The man was taken to hospital suffering from exposure and weakness, then ended up in a mental institution. Father and son had been missing for four days. It gets even weirder; the two were discovered by Neil McRae, who said he had established their location in a dream the previous night. As with the Unknown Man, the coroner did not believe the boy had died from natural causes.

Then came the revelation by the boy’s mother, Roma Mangnoson, that she’d been threatened by a masked man who almost ran her down outside her house in Largs North’s Cheapside Street. The man was driving a battered, cream coloured car, saying that “the car stopped and a man with a khaki handkerchief over his face told me to ‘keep away from the police’ or else.'” She believed this to be connected with the fact that her husband had been to identify the Unknown Man at Somerton, who he believed to be someone he had worked with in 1939 named Carl Thompsen. Local dignitaries, including the mayor of Port Adelaide, A. H. Curtis, and J. M. Gower, the Secretary of the Largs North Progress Association received some strange, anonymous phone calls, threatening an ‘accident’ should they ‘stick their nose into the Magnonson affair’. The distraught Mrs. Magnonson was so affected by her meetings with the police that she required subsequent medical attention.

South Australia’s Major Crime Task Force still regard this as an open case. The Unknown Man’s bust is held by The South Australian Police Historical Society, and it contains strands of the man’s hair. Unfortunately, after being embalmed the chemicals used may have destroyed much of the DNA. In any case, a recent request to exhume the body was refused. Witness statements appear to have disappeared from police files, and the suitcase found at Adelaide Station and its contents were destroyed in 1986. There have been approaches from people in Eastern Europe who believe the Somerton man might be one of many missing from the area during the Cold War. But it looks as if we may never know who he was and how he came to die on that beach. So let’s give the last word to our 12th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyám;

‘They change and perish all – but He remains…’ Tamám Shud; ‘It is ended.’


3,000 WORDS


ON LINE: As this is an Internet cause célèbre with dozens of links a simple Google of Tamam Shud will give you all you need.


Feltus, Gerald Michael The Unknown Man, Klemzig, South Australia, 2010, ISBN 978-0-646-54476-2.

Greenwood, Kerry Tamam Shud – The Somerton Man Mystery, University of New South Wales Publishing, 2013 ISBN 978-1742233505

Stephen King frequently refers to this case in his novel The Colorado Kid, which in turn inspired the series Haven.


[1] By early February 1949, there had been eight different “positive” identifications of the body. Some thought it was a missing stablehand and two men from Darwin thought the corpse was of a friend of theirs, and others suggested he was  a sailor or a Swedish man. Police from Victoria suggested the man was from their state, as his the laundry marks were similar to those of dry-cleaning firms in Melbourne. Following publication of the man’s photograph in Victoria, 28 people claimed they knew his identity.

[2] Retired detective Gerald Feltus interviewed Jestyn in 2002 and found her to be either “evasive” or “just did not wish to talk about it,” He agreed not to disclose her identity or anything that might reveal it. Feltus believes that Jestyn knew the Somerton man’s identity.

[3]  this site offers a selection of press coverage on the case.

[4] Often mis-named as ‘Stanford Hicks’, Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks came to Adelaide in 1926 after an outstanding student career at the University of Otago in New Zealand, war service and a research studentship at Cambridge. He was appointed Professor of Human Physiology and Pharmacology from 1927, a position he retained until 1958 when he became Emeritus Professor. He was knighted in 1936 for his services to medical science.

[5] A sufficiently concentrated ouabain dart can fell a Hippopotamus causing respiratory and/or cardiac arrest. Only one creature is immune to its effects; the Galapagos Tortoise.

[6] Inside Story, presented by Stuart Littlemore, ABC TV, 1978.



Meet Boris Johnson: The UK's controversial new prime minister - ABC News
Liars united in a common cause

It is amazing the way football fans rose up in their angry millions to squash the idea of the Super League. It demonstrated that for the mega-rich and politicians, sport exists as a much-appreciated diversion from the real world which they greedily govern and manipulate. However, beyond the so-called ‘beautiful game’, there is much to be angry about, yet Joe Public, fed daily on an increasing diet of deliberate lies, remains comparatively silent.

After four foul-smelling years of Donald Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ one might expect the people of Britain to realize that the mendacity which spewed from the White House could never have traction here. To use a sporting cliché, that ‘wouldn’t be cricket’. But who cares?

We have a Prime Minister who appears not to know how many children he has. He lied when he told us £350 million was paid to the EU every week. He too used football to create his own aura of controversy. In 2003 as a columnist for the Spectator, he was forced to apologise for falsely blaming drunken Liverpool fans for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, and rubbed salt in that untruth suggesting Liverpool fans were wallowing in their victim status. In the same publication he made up stories with allegations that the EU intended legislation on the shape of bananas, that they were banning prawn cocktail crisps and had plans to introduce same-size “eurocoffins”. He falsely suggested that Turkey was to join the EU, insinuating 80 million Turks could arrive on our shores and cripple our NHS. He waved a vacuum-packed kipper at the Tory Party conference and blamed its packaging on EU regulations as opposed to the truth – they were UK regulations. The ‘fact’ is that he’s in power because the UK public think of him as ‘a character’, a political version of ‘Del Boy’ Trotter, a bit of a lad. That’s why everyone calls him ‘Boris’, rather than the more respectful ‘Mr. Johnson’. He idolizes Churchill, who in reality would have chewed him up and spit him out in disgust.

Politics based on lies is by no means new. 500 years ago, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in his masterpiece The Prince that in political communication, manipulation, callousness and indifference to morality are the road to success. Politics, he wrote, requires ’inhuman cruelty’. Well, we’re certainly receiving plenty of that.

So, if you’re good at making things up, politics might be for you. Remember, it could get you a Baby Bear Sofa for £19,950, an Owl lampshade costing £11,600, a Venus chair, £5,900 and Dianthus wallpaper at only £840 per roll. As Boris reclines on his new sofa, he can relax like Mussolini, Trump and Goebbels. They all knew that lies were the route to luxury.

No Kidding

There are many reasons why writers have dreams. They are often about fulfilment, the acceptance of ideas so precious to your creative energy that you imagine that no-one in the literary/media world can fail to see their commercial viability.

My dream remains unfulfilled after 25 years as a full-time scribe. A screenplay; a movie. There are two projects which always seemed to me to run on solid gold legs. One was a dramatization of my biography of WW1 submarine hero Captain F.N.A. Cromie CB DSO RN (1882-1918), Honoured by Strangers. Submarine warfare, the Russian Revolution, espionage, an illicit love affair and murder – the story has everything. It would make a superb documentary at least. But after 20 years of attempted communication with production companies, directors and studios it seems that my faith and enthusiasm have no value.

    The other great failure is the true story of Captain William Kidd (1654-1701). It was my good friend, artist and writer Mark Chamberlain, who shared his enthusiasm for Kidd’s story with me back in 1998. Kidd is remembered today as a pirate, yet his story is more complicated. He was a trough Scottish navigator and extraordinary seaman who fell for the blandishments of the British establishment in the late 16th century when he was hired by a cabal of the high and mighty on both sides of the Atlantic as a privateer, his mission being to attack pirates and arrest them in the Indian Ocean who were causing havoc to the trade of the East India Company. His mission was financed by members of parliament and the governor of New York, but it went spectacularly wrong. With a mutinous crew, no prizes captured, plus Kidd’s fatal attack against one of his crew, resulting in gunner William Moore’s death, that turned his mission on its head. He turned pirate more or less by accident after attacking a rich Mogul vessel, the Quedah Merchant with the intention of taking it and its valuable cargo back to America. But once the news of  his activities reached Britain, he was listed as an outlaw. His treasure was never found; he was arrested in New York and shipped back to London for trial, where he was hung at Wapping in 1701.  Mark and I completed the first draft of our screenplay entitled Kidd! Late in 1999 and began sending synopses and sample scenes out to various companies. One company, Penumbra Productions in London, invited me down to discuss the project. I recall walking up and down their office acting out various lines of dialogue. Penumbra ‘optioned’ the script for a year while they tried to find finance and a director. Mark and I were over the moon. But nothing happened.

     In 2000, I received a phone call from a gentleman at the Greenwich Maritime Museum. They had planned to recreate Kidd’s trial in their Great Hall to mark 300th anniversary of his hanging. They said that they had heard that we had an available screenplay, and that a film company on America’s eastern seaboard were interested. We asked if there were any ‘names’ involved with this; one name came up: Mel Gibson. Naturally, we were extremely excited. So, we sent 2 copies of the script off. After several weeks of waiting, I called the museum and was told that our ‘unsuitable’ script had too much bad language in it. I remonstrated by outlining that these were cutthroat pirate characters, and in any case, Hollywood screenplays by then were replete with the ‘f’ word. But the project died for a while. I then had an idea; why not try and interest a star directly in the story? Kidd was a 50-something Dundee-born sailor who had spent a lot of time in Glasgow. A portrait of him existed in the Captain Kidd pub in Wapping. When Mark and I stood by that painting, we both exclaimed – ‘Billy Connolly’!

We wrote to Connolly’s management, Tickety Boo, sent the script. They said they’d pass it on. We heard nothing, so we decided to track the man down. He was appearing at the Hammersmith Odeon. We booked in a nearby hotel and went to the gig. We waited in the dark by the stage door. When it opened, we were greeted by none other than Billy’s American friend, Robin Williams. We chatted briefly and then Billy came out. We presented him with the screenplay and he was very generous with his time. We talked for perhaps 45 minutes during which he regaled us with stories about his home in Scotland and asked about the character of Kidd “Does he wear those lovely 16th century shirts wi’ the huge floppy sleeves?” We assured him he did. He said he’d check it all out and Mark and I went away and got drunk. Weeks passed.

Tickety Boo got in touch. Billy had too many commitments and they weren’t interested.

Then, in late 2001, a TV documentary appeared; The Quest for Captain Kidd narrated by … Mel Gibson. So; the Kidd project joined the slush pile with Captain Cromie as suddenly cinemas were alive with the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise starring Johnny Depp. We had been told by some media ‘experts’ that like westerns, pirate films were a commercial  no-go area. Tell that to Jack Sparrow.

I had one last attempt at a screenplay; Wintercount, a comedy about a dying lottery winner in Hull who wanted to blow his millions by making a western based on the life of Chief Crazy Horse … in Yorkshire. It got close, going back and forth to Ken Loach’s Parallax Films for re-writes, until in the end it fizzled out to nothing.

On April 1 2021 I will be 78. The screenplay dream will die with me. So, for those writers who actually made it onto the screen, I take my battered hat off to you. For the rest of us, ponder on this; the story you think is ‘the one’ is worth a try. But in most cases, if you haven’t the energy or the undiluted desire to waste hopeless hours of creative effort, just write what you know and nothing else.

Hate minus Hope

This is a disturbing notification from the NUJ. That we have come to this fearful plateau in the 21st century tells us much about our rapid slide back to the 1930s. What kind of world, once they’ve killed everyone they don’t like, do these people want? What are their policies? How will they run things? Or are death and torture the only platform they have?

  Dear NUJ member, Media reports last week highlighted the growing threats to journalists and journalism in the UK. Hold the Front Page reported threats made to the Liverpool Echo’s Liam Thorp. He shared the contents of an email which referred to his work as “disgusting journalism” and with the warning: “karma is a bitch and you judgment [sic] will be due very soon”. In January 2020, a man who had threatened to mutilate and kill Liverpool Echo staff was jailed for two and a half years. In Northern Ireland last week, another perpetrator was given a three-month jail sentence at Ballymeana magistrates court. He had contacted a Guardian newspaper journalist using Instagram and said: “As a supporter of the Far Right I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I hope you get a bullet to the brain”. The NUJ is taking a leading role in gathering evidence about the different types of threats to journalists and journalism in the UK – the union is unique as the only organisation that can gather evidence from across different media and include all the different employers, staff and freelances. The threats range from online or offline attacks and harassment to tactics designed to stymie and thwart a journalist’s ability to report. The UK government has recently established a National Safety of Journalists Committee, which is tasked with the creation of an action plan to investigate and tackle the increasing number of threats. The NUJ’s general secretary Michelle Stanistreet is a member of the government’s new safety committee.  We want all NUJ members to have an opportunity to engage on these issues and to provide information about their own experiences which then can influence the reforms we will be proposing to help bolster journalists’ safety and allow all our members to do their jobs without fear of interference or threat.  Please take a few moments to complete this confidential NUJ survey –   Follow us on these sites National Union of Journalists
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The Triumph of Ignorance


How interesting that an intelligent right winger like Peter Oborne has such an accurate view of the myriad shortcomings of latest Tory Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.[1] Sadly, everything that’s wrong about Johnson and his bellowing, incompetent parliamentary enablers only represents the severe tip of a very big and murky iceberg. We can forget politics of the old style, the right vs. left bun fights we last saw when David ‘prick in a pig’ Cameron received his own promised toy from Eton – the steering wheel of UK plc in 2010. There were dark forces gathering over that horizon bearing a distinct whiff of the fate of Weimar in the 1930s. Those forces are now pulling all the strings and their UK stage manager is a man who claims not to be a Tory – Dominic Cummings.

It may outrage the few of us remaining who still have a fading interest in politics to have to endure the daily litany of lies, obfuscation and bile spewed from the front benches. It may further outrage us that Labour leader Keir Starmer’s erudite and forensic questioning of Johnson is met only by meaningless bluster and cacophonous insult. Johnson, Hancock, Raab and Patel (not to mention such calamities as Chris Grayling) are today’s voices delivering nothing less than a malodourous equivalent of farts in a colander. Peter Oborne seems to think that behind the façade of these hedge fund charlatans some form of valid political efficiency still exists. If it does, it doesn’t stand the chance of a California squirrel in a forest fire. To get a handle on what is really happening on a global scale, much of it emanating from the White House, we need to go down into the darkness of the political engine room and see who’s oiling the pistons of power.

Here’s a quote to open the inspection: “Darkness is good: Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.[2]” Step forward the defrocked Breitbart lieutenant and all-purpose antichrist, Steve Bannon. Our own pound shop Goebbels, Dominic Cummings, Machiavellian though he seems, is admired by Bannon. To get a grip on what drives ‘Sloppy Steve’ (as Trump describes him) we have to dig deep to find out where his warped plan for our world comes from.

He is influenced by Fourth Turning theory, outlined in Neil Howe’s and William Strauss’s [RB1] The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy[3] The Strauss–Howe generational theory, postulates that “historical events are associated with recurring generational personas (archetypes). Each generational persona unleashes a new era (called a turning) lasting around 20–22 years, in which a new social, political, and economic climate exists. succeeding generational archetypes attack and weaken institutions in the name of autonomy and individualism, which ultimately creates a tumultuous political environment that ripens conditions for another crisis. [4]

Crisis. Something we’re experiencing every day now. A simplified view is that any kind of moral or social progress which makes a headway during a generation can change back into something more barren. An example could be holocaust denial and the rise of the conspiracy theory. What was thought to be fair, reasoned and progressive – facts, truth, for example, can be wiped off the board leaving clear territory for darker ideas and schemes, many of which have historically been tried and tested. Such as fascism. Thus Isaac Asimov’s quote of four decades ago now has grim veracity:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. The advance of ignorance has as its infantry in the UK the Daily Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph.

Some of Dominic Cummings’s earlier pre-Brexit quotes, where he suggested that the EU would engender the rise of right wing zealotry seem opposite to Bannon’s, but today he’s the Prince of populism to Bannon’s King. Bannon told journalist Michael Lewis in February 2018, “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall. This was pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.” He added, “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.[5]” The Observer reported in 2018 that Bannon said Cummings was “a brilliant guy… I think Cummings is very smart where he puts his efforts. What I like about him is he has the ability to focus on the main things.” He said that Johnson and Cummings had been “very important” to the drive to get the UK out of the EU, which he backed. Bannon has also suggested that by propagating continuous chaos, lies, falsehoods, that this will cause such confusion amongst the electorate that they’ll eventually vote for anyone we tell them to vote for. As Goebbels remarked, “You can’t change the masses. They will always be the same: dumb, gluttonous and forgetful.”

So whatever Peter Orborne worries over, it’s all too late. History will repeat itself, and men like Dominic Cummings will ride triumphant over the bones of democracy. And the much vaunted ‘Rule of Law’? Johnson has already started dismantling that one. And look at this list of Trump acolytes, most of whom are either released or in line for a pardon”

Rick Gates: Convicted.

Paul Manafort: Convicted.

George Papadopoulos: Convicted.

Mike Flynn: Convicted.

Michael Cohen: Convicted.

Roger Stone: Convicted.

Steve Bannon: Arrested.

Donald Trump: Impeached.

Bannon doesn’t seem to figure much in the smudgy ink of the right wing UK media. But he’s there at Cummings’s shoulder. He seeks to unify populist forces in the “Judeao-Christian west”. He thinks Tommy Robinson is the “backbone of Britain” loves European right-wingers Marine le Pen in France and Hungary’s Viktor Orban in Hungary. Bannon intends to become “the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement.[6]” His view of the UK’s departure from Europe matches Johnson and Cummings: “There is one choice: hard out, no deal. It won’t be disruptive. Boris will adapt his policies to become more populist over time”.

Had it existed in the 1930s, could even the global power of Rupert Murdoch have unseated Adolf Hitler? No. Whatever lies ahead for British politics and the electorate, complicated by the disaster of Covid 19, is a barren new order where day by day what we thought of as civility and fairness is blowtorched away by a mendacious  cabal of greed merchants and the nepotistic cream of Eton and Harrow. They may not be wearing jackboots, but they can goose-step with the right’s champions. I am glad to be 77 and not able to experience that grim future.


[2]  “Steve Bannon: Darkness is Good”. CNN Politics. November 19, 2016.

[3]  Howe, Neil. “Where did Steve Bannon get his worldview? From my book”. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 16, 2017.

[4] See Bannon’s Wikipedia page.

[5] Lewis, Michael (February 9, 2018). “Has Anyone Seen the President?”

[6] “Steve Bannon Is Done Wrecking the American Establishment. Now He Wants to Destroy Europe’s”. The New York Times. March 9, 2018.


Bones of Contention

Bones of Contention

(and other body parts…)

If you’re searching for tangible evidence in the murky fog of conspiracy theories, new world orders and secret societies, facts, figures and names are slippery eels.  However, beyond the myths and legends surrounding the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati  and the Freemasons, in the leafy Ivy League enclaves of  Yale University  there is one  perceptible organisation, obsessed with death, the Skull and Bones Society. This secretive group, dating back to 1832, has been populated by some of America’s most influential industrialists, politicians, bankers and presidents, among them  George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and the failed presidential candidate John Kerry. Whereas their membership list[1] is no secret, their saturnine rituals, performed in The Skull & Bones Hall, otherwise known as the windowless, red stone Newhaven “Tomb” certainly are. One of the ‘Bonesmen’s’ morbid fascinations has been the acquisition of body parts.


In 1986, Ned Anderson, chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona, led a campaign against the Skull and Bones Society for the return of the skull of none other than the great warrior, Geronimo, who died of pneumonia in 1909. The story goes that in 1918, a group of 6 well-heeled ‘Bonesmen’ stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, robbed Geronimo’s grave and removed the chief’s skull and some bones. According to a centennial history of Skull and Bones by a 1923 initiate, Francis Otto Matthessen, there exists a 1919 log book featuring the skull, which is apparently now displayed in a glass case in the Tomb. Matthessen names the grave robbers, among them one Prescott Bush, the father and grandfather of the U.S. presidents. Over the past decade 20 of Geronimo’s descendants have tried desperately through the U.S. Courts to have the skull returned, but in 2010 Judge Richard Roberts dismissed the lawsuit against Skull and Bones and Yale, saying the plaintiffs cited a law that applies only to Native American cultural items excavated or discovered after 1990[2].


The sad theft of Geronimo’s remains is just one example of the melancholic fascination with the possession of purloined body parts. In 2009, for a few hours on E-Bay, you could bid for three glass vials containing a dictator’s brain and blood. The initial asking price was 15,000 euros, or £13,000[3]. At the end of World War 2, after being shot with his mistress Claretta Petacci by anti-fascist partisans,  Mussolini’s body was strung up on a lamp post by a petrol station near Milan. The Americans, no doubt interested in how the mind of a dictator works, removed his remains and kept the interesting bits. Mussolini’s wife, Rachaele, expressed her horror in her memoirs, and in 1966, America returned part of the former Duce’s brain to his widow. Yet the macabre story didn’t end there. Forty-three years later, Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandro discovered what was left of her granddad being peddled on E-Bay and the auction was abruptly aborted.


You could drive through Erwarton in Suffolk and hardly realise you’d been there. The village, in the parish of Babergh, 14km south of Ipswich on the Shotley peninsula has a population of just over 100, and a pub, The Queens Head, which closed in 2009.

      Yet like many seemingly insignificant villages, Erwarton has an interesting little 13th century church, St. Mary’s. The church organ dates from 1912, and it bears a curious attachment; a copy of a drawing by Holbein of Anne Boleyn, together with this legend: after her execution in the Tower of London, 19 May 1536, it was recorded that her heart was buried in this church by her Uncle, Sir Philip Parker of Erwarton Hall. It goes on to reveal that in 1837 a lead casket was discovered in the church, believed to contain the hapless Anne Boleyn’s heart, yet the casket had no inscription. Historian Alison Weir[4]  points out that ‘heart burial had gone out of fashion in England by the end of the fourteenth century’ and identifies the uncle in question as Sir Phillip Calthorpe of Erwarton, who was married to Amy (or Amata) Boleyn, Anne’s aunt. Yet the story of the heart reverberated around the world for decades after the discovery, and an article in the New York Times dated November 13 1881 confirms Weir’s correction and tells us that Erwarton’s parish clerk, James Amner, who died in 1875, was present with the rector, Rev. Ralph Berners, when workmen, restoring the church, found the heart-shaped lead casket behind the north wall. It was opened and contained what appeared to be a pile of dust. It was re-buried in the Cornwallis vault, beneath where the organ now stands.


America’s independence owes much to Thomas Paine, Born in Thetford, England on January 29, 1737. A great revolutionary, the author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, he inspired Washington’s army during the Revolution of 1776. As his service to America had been at his own expense. in 1784 New York State gave him a confiscated Royalist farm in New Rochelle, and Congress awarded him $3000. Paine died in New York City on June 8, 1809, and only six mourners, including two freed slaves, attended the funeral. He was buried on his farm.

        In 1819 Britain’s William Cobbett, political activist and author of Rural Rides, another ‘dangerous man’, at one time Paine’s rival who had come to admire him, without permission dug up Paine’s remains and brought them to London with ambitious plans for a memorial which never materialised. Paine’s bones, in a series of boxes, were handed down through the generations of Cobbett’s descendants. What became of them is uncertain, although it is claimed that there is a rib in France, some of his bones were made into buttons and in 1987, a Sydney businessmen bought Paine’s skull while on holiday in London. It was sold to another Australian named John Burgess, reputed to be a descendant of an illegitimate child of Paine’s[5]. The last bit of news on the tale was that Burgess’s wife was trying to raise $60,000 for DNA testing. Is it Paine’s skull? Both Gary Berton, president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association and The New Rochelle Citizen Paine Restoration Initiative have been on the trail. Berton said the skull was  the right size and has some incised markings which are believed to have been made by Cobbett and his son.

However, all that definitely remains in New Rochelle of the great are his mummified brain stem and a lock of hair, kept in a secret location.


He may have ruled Europe with a rod of iron, but as for Napoleon Bonaparte’s physical extremity, much enjoyed by Josephine,  it seems to have suffered the ultimate indignity.  The unkindest cut of all, the removal of Bonaparte’s penis is said to have been carried out by his physician when the Emperor died in exile on St. Helena in 1821. The doctor may have given it to the priest who gave him the last rites. The priest’s descendants, the Vignali family  in Naples,  crop up in an article by Guy Lesser about a rare book dealer, A.S.W. Rosenbach,  in the January 2002 issue of  Harper’s Magazine. Sadly, the fleshy relic does not seem to have been well preserved. Lesser writes:  “Rosenbach evidently had been fond of showing off his collection of Napoleon relics to his most favoured clients, acquired in the mid-1920s, from the Vignali family of Naples, the descendants of Napoleon’s chaplain and last confessor on St. Helena. The relics included hair, cutlery, clothes, and, as the piece de resistance, so to speak, a short length of dried leather, kept by Rosenbach in a small blue morocco box–and delicately referred to, in his day, as ‘Napoleon’s tendon’. The ‘thing’ had been quietly sold by Rosenbach in the mid-1940s”

The wayward Willie has been compared at various times to piece of leather, a shrivelled eel or a bit of beef jerky. In 1927 it went on display in Manhattan, when TIME magazine likened it to a “maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace.” In 1977, John Lattimer[6], of New Jersey, the world’s leading urologist who had treated Nazi war criminals awaiting trial, reputedly  forked out $3,000 for the battered baguette  (some sources claim it was $38,000)  and stored it under his bed where it stayed until his death in 2007. His daughter inherited[7] it as a probably unexpected bonus in her father’s will, and has had offers up to $100,000. At least that’s a more dignified sum for an Emperor …


When the faithful go in search of a miracle, they can have no better reward than a body which refuses to decompose. At the age of 46, the zealous Catholic missionary St. Francis Xavier, worn out from his various Asian sea voyages, died on Saturday  December 3, 1552 on the Chinese island Sancian. The body remained buried – and fresh – for ten weeks in a coffin full of lime. It was then transported on a decorated galleon to Goa as the saint himself had wished to go there. Huge crowds, including the Viceroy himself, accompanied by the nobility, gave the cadaver a royal welcome.

On March 14,1554 the corpse, in a wooden coffin with damask lining, was taken to the Church of Ajuda at Ribandar. Dead or not, Xavier just kept on travelling. Two days later he was delivered to the Church of S. Paulo in Goa on March 16, 1554 and the strange life of a relic began when the little toe on the right foot was bitten off by Dona Isabel de Carom, a Portuguese woman, who claimed she was anxious to have a relic of the Saint. Apparently, it gushed blood. Three other toes were later removed from his right foot. One of the purloined extremities ended up at the saint’s birthplace, the  Castle of Xavier. After 60 years of not mouldering in the grave, the ecclesiastic souvenir hunters were at it again. On November 3, 1614,  Father General Claude Aquaviva instructed that the right arm was to be cut off at the elbow. It arrived in Rome  the following year, where it remains in a silver reliquary in the church of Gesu. Today, St. Francis Xavier is spread far and wide[8]. As well as the toe, displayed in a silver reliquary in a Goa cathedral, one of his hands is in Japan, there’s yet another relic elsewhere in Goa – a diamond-encrusted fingernail, and for all we know, he may have a toe in the door at other clerical locations.


Back in less enlightened times, when Britain, France and Germany had empires, many branches of non-European humanity were seen simply as biological curiosities. Our intervention in such cultures back then must have had all the characteristics of today’s ‘alien abduction’ phenomena.  Even as late as the 1960s, touring fairgrounds, alongside their 2-headed sheep, often had their 10-foot mummified South Pacific Giant or a brace of tiny, unfortunate mummified  little characters doubling as either Polynesian pygmies or even ‘captured leprechauns’. However, the abduction of hapless tattooed Maoris developed into a grisly business for collectors of the exotic. Around the world today about 500 intricately tattooed Maori heads, known as ‘tai moko’ are either hidden away in dusty vaults or stored in boxes in various museum stockrooms. The sad thing about this repugnant trade is that many Maoris were kidnapped from New Zealand, forcibly tattooed, then be-headed. In May 2011[9] the head of one such unfortunate warrior was handed back to the Maoris in Rouen, Northern France, where it had languished in the city’s museum for the past 136 years. According to museum director Sebastien Minchin, up until 1966 the head  had been displayed as part of the museum’s prehistoric collection. Although the Maori committee and the New Zealand Consul were pleased with the hand-over, there are still an estimated 15 of these heads awaiting return throughout France, and in recent years 300 tai mokos have returned home from countries around the world.


In the same dark, colonial collector’s  netherworld which decapitated Maoris lies the story of two opportunistic mid-19th century  French taxidermists, the Verrueax brothers,  who, finding themselves at a burial site in the Kalahari desert, decided to take a break from stuffing lions and rhinos and exhume the body of a recently buried African man.  Soon they had him well stuffed and suitably embalmed, and before long the morbidly curious of Europe were queuing up to see their handiwork. As the two maladjusted stuffers were a bit disappointed with their victim’s light skin, they decided on their own method of making him ‘African’ by adding a layer of black polish. He eventually came to rest in Spain at a Catalonian town called Banyoles, where, known to locals as ‘El Negro’, he resided for a century in the Darder Museum until in 1992, when Alphonse Arcelin, a local Doctor of Haitian descent, raised objections. The town fought to keep the corpse, and even issued boxes of chocolates commemorating his presence, but common sense eventually triumphed, and he was finally laid to rest in a dignified burial ceremony in Botswana in 2000[10].


Traditionally, St. Nick may squeeze down your chimney on Christmas Eve, but the jolly old redcoat’s mortal remains might put Rudolf right off his carrots.

The Middle Ages were the high watermark for the lucrative Christian business of attracting pilgrims to holy body parts and possible miracles. The long-dead, real St. Nicholas was originally lying in peace in a grave in Myra, Turkey. However, in 1087 the wily elders of the Italian town of Bari, looking for a suitable, cash-raising  religious attraction, hit upon the wheeze of hiring a gang of pirates (some called them ‘privileged mariners’) to nip over to Turkey and raid the Myra crypt and bring Father Christmas to Bari. The mission was a success, and the buccaneering blag is celebrated every year with a massive parade followed by a firework display.  Commissioned by Abbot Elia in 1087, the Romanesque basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari now attracts thousands of pilgrims who hope to benefit from the strange liquid called ‘Manna’ which oozes from St. Nick’s casket[11] and is said to cure various illnesses.


King Badu Bonsu of Ghana’s Ahanta tribe  seems to have pushed the invading Dutch over the edge in 1838 when he decided to lop off the heads of two Dutch emissaries  and use them to decorate his throne. When Major General Jan Verveer discovered what had happened, he promptly had the king hung and then decapitated, and took his head back home to Holland. It’s modern location, the Leiden University Medical Centre, was revealed by Dutch novelist Arthur Japin, who was researching his latest work.  For decades, the poor old Monarch had been staring out through the glass from a dusty jar of formaldehyde in a store room in the centre’s anatomical collections department.  In July 2009 the Dutch government received a deputation from Ghana to arrange the head’s return. The ceremony was not a particularly joyful occasion, despite the ceremonial tipple of Dutch gin and the red robes of the visiting Ahanta tribesmen. They were still angry; the King’s great, great grandson,Joseph Jones Amoah exclaiming “I am hurt, angry. My grandfather has been killed…”[12] The party were also displeased as they thought they had only come to identify the relic, not return it, as they would first have to adhere to tribal protocol by reporting back to their chief. However, the king’s head went home a few days later, with the Dutch hoping that they’d righted a wrong.

            The ages of imperialism and colonialism may be long past, but the lamentable enthrallment with bits and pieces of the departed, or even the whole body, is still with us. The frozen cadaver of the ‘Prince of Pop’, Michael Jackson, remains un-buried in a bare brick room in a gold casket encased in a clear fibreglass container. Jackson’s 79 year old mother can’t bring herself to have him buried[13] for fear that grave robbers might moonwalk into the cemetery, and like a scene from ‘Thriller’, make off with a Jacko souvenir.

It’s a pity all those religious zealots, fairground barkers, taxidermists, and Lenin’s 1924 embalmers didn’t know anything about the modern science of cryonics. If the old chestnut about Walt Disney’s frozen noggin is true, saints and sinners could, like baseball legend Ted Williams, whose body was frozen in 2002, become major live attractions in the years to come.


2937 words.

[1] For a full membership list

[2] Los Angeles Times May 3rd 2011

[3] Daily Telegraph July 20 2011

[4] Weir, Alison The Lady in The Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn  Vintage, 2010.

[5] For two engrossing leads on Paine’s remains read Collins, Paul The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine Bloomsbury, 2006. There is also a fascinating article in the New York Times dated May 31st 1914 at

[6]  This site claims Lattimer paid $38,000 for the penis.

[7] This is a video where the writer, Tony Perrottet, author of Napoleon’s Privates, (Harper Entertainment, 2008) visits Lattimer’s daughter to track down the penis. For some peculiar reason, although he verifies its existence in the basement,  the camera is not allowed to film it.

[8] TIME magazine, May 10 2011


[10] “España sólo devuelve huesos del negro de Banyoles” (in (Spanish)).

[11] At you can see a video of priests collecting the ‘Manna’ from the tomb.

[12] Huffington Post July 7 2009