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?
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. 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.” 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 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. ”
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.” 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.” 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.
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 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.
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. 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.
ANNE BOLEYN’S HEART
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 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.
THE REMAINS OF THOMAS PAINE
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. 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, 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 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 …
St. FRANCIS XAVIER’S TOE
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. 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.
THE MAORI HEADS
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 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.
SANTA’S STICKY BONES
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 and is said to cure various illnesses.
THE KING’S HEAD GOES HOME
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…” 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 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.
 Weir, Alison The Lady in The Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn Vintage, 2010.
 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 http://query.nytimes.com/memo/archive-free/pdf?
http://jezebel.com/5797973/a-visit-with-napoleons-penis 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.
Himmler knew a thing or two about separating kids from parents. Hard to believe they’d do it today in the USA, but Donald Trump just loves the idea.
DON’T MENTION THE NAZIS: AMERICA’S CHILD ABDUCTION AND HUMAN RIGHTS
There’s a tried and tested rule on the extreme fringes of political debate; it states that once you mention the Third Reich and the Nazis, you’ve lost. However, in America this rule has been tested to destruction. The experience of distraught parents in Texas is a modern echo of this Polish comment from 1941: “I saw children being taken from their mothers; some were even torn from the breast. It was a terrible sight: the agony of the mothers and fathers, the beating by the Germans, and the crying of the children.” (1)Perhaps, now that the White House has cleared the way, the Nazis can enter the debate after all.
Child abduction or child theft (let’s call it what it is) is the unauthorized removal of a minor (a child under the age of legal adulthood) from the custody of the child’s natural parents or legally appointed guardians. Late in 1939, following the invasion of Poland, as part of his ‘racial register’ which set out to liquidate the Poles, Heinrich Himmler wrote: “I think it is our duty to adopt their children, to remove them from their surroundings, if necessary to steal or kidnap them.” (2)
On Tuesday June 19th 2018, Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, issued the announcement that the US was pulling out of the UN Human Rights Council, describing it as a “cesspool of political bias not worthy of its name”. The announcement was carefully and cynically timed, as the full horror was unfolding of what was happening on the Mexican border. The true number of children forcibly separated from parents, and apparently undocumented, is not known. Despite Donald Trump’s disgraceful doubling-down conjuring trick with his ‘Executive Order’ which ostensibly halts his administration’s deliberate and callous cruelty, it looks doubtful that many of the estimated 2,500 missing children will ever see their parents again. Although there may be cages filled with unfortunate toddlers and babies in the much-publicised Texan tent camps, an abandoned Walmart and a warehouse, hundreds more children have been secretly spirited away to locations throughout the USA, with over 250 revealed to be at a secret location in New York.
This 21st century American ‘authorized’ version of mass child abduction has been sold to the country as official immigration policy. Yet grim historical comparisons to this mass child kidnapping will no doubt be conveniently overlooked by the placard-waving MAGA maniacs at Trump’s regular ego-massaging rallies. As the POTUS’s ratings go up, America’s once-proud mantra ‘home of the free’ goes down like the Hindenburg. The sadistic underlying ransom message in Washington seems plain: fund ‘the wall’ and we’ll free the kids.
Heinrich Himmler chose the city of Zamosc, near Lublin, as the administrative hub of his hideous project to destroy Polish life and culture. As mass deportations were organised by the SS, approximately 30,000 children were expelled from the Zamosc area. Himmler’s bizarre racial plans led him to select many children who the SS thought had ‘German’ characteristics; blue eyes, blonde hair. Thousands were torn from their Polish families and sent west into the Reich where they would be placed for ‘Germanisation’ with Nazi families.
The families they were separated from mainly died in the death camps or as forced labourers. Yet many Poles fought back in an attempt to protect the removal of more children, issuing the statement “You may have bombed our Warsaw, you may imprison and deport us, but you will not harm our children.” Ordinary people took great risks in rescuing children from trains bound for the west. In Bydgoszcz and Gdynia, Poles actually bought children at 40 Reichsmarks apiece. So forceful and aggressive were the Polish women in their aim of saving children that the Nazis changed the deportation rail routes.
Despite the brave efforts at rescue, after the war only 10 to 15 percent of those abducted returned home. Almost 14,000 inquiries over missing children yielded nothing. Even today there are thousands of people descended from these kidnapped children, who were taught to forget their own country and heritage, and given new identities.
There may not be death camps in Texas, but it is amazing that the same level of blatant psychological cruelty is being utilised against innocent minors in order to satisfy the draconian whims of politicians in Washington. The west may not be ‘the good guys’ any longer, but this malice – using kids for ransom – is global.
In Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria on the night of 14–15 April 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped from the Government Secondary School. Responsibility for the kidnappings was claimed by the extremist terrorist organization Boko Haram, based in north eastern Nigeria. A further 750 children have been snatched by the same terrorists. Hundreds of children disappear in China every week. Children, it seems, for many purposes, are assets, highly charged emotional bargaining chips for ransom, and those who indulge in this crime cause nothing but life-changing heartbreak and misery. Therefore the revelations of what depths the Trump organisation is prepared to sink to ought to make his bedazzled rallies wonder if this behaviour will ‘make America great’. Sadly, they believe what Fox News tells them, so it has no effect, and neither did the Nazi’s similar behaviour prick Germany and Austria’s mass conscience in the 1930s.
The Trump Administration may well have proudly demonstrated its grim inhumanity but despite dropping out of the UN Human Rights Council, they are still acting against legal norms. The Hague Conference has currently 83 Members: 82 States. It features many regulations on the abduction of children. For example, the Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction includes Article 7:
Central Authorities shall co-operate with each other and promote co-operation amongst the competent authorities in their respective States to secure the prompt return of children and to achieve the other objects of this Convention.
In particular, either directly or through any intermediary, they shall take all appropriate measures to discover the whereabouts of a child who has been wrongfully removed or retained. Other reports by organisations such as UNICEF reveal that child abduction is a regular occurrence around the world.
In the USA and Europe voices have been raised about the resurgence of fascist activity. But the anger is nowhere near as loud as it should be. As Britain pulls away via Brexit from 70 years of post-war European stability, much to the delight of dictators like Vladimir Putin, the new populist leaders like to keep it simple. As his desires to become ‘President for Life’ are fulfilled, perhaps Donald Trump might sum up his success with a tweet on these lines: “I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached. Our political problems appeared complicated. The people could make nothing of them. … I, on the other hand … reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me.”
Sadly, such cynical eloquence might evade him; those were the words of Adolf Hitler.
CURBING YOUR ENTHUSIASM
I hope I’m not alone when I suggest that writers with a passion for history can get so carried away with a story they imagine the whole world needs to read it. It has an epic backdrop and a cast of colourful characters. The dusty archives have served you up a handful of diamonds. It has all the human elements for ‘a good read’. Surely, this could be more than a book? Possibly a movie, a radio programme, and most of all, a TV documentary.
For example, TV, from Channel 5 through to BBC4, Discovery, Yesterday and History appear to have an insatiable demand for new angles on everything from WW1 to the Third Reich. As for the latter, it is amazing that the Reich lasted a mere 13 years yet the Nazis have been goose-stepping across our screens for almost 80. Hitler promised ‘a 1,000 year Reich’. Well, in entertainment terms, he seems on target. So, with the absence of the Waffen-SS, how does a writer delving into other epochs convince producers that his yarn is a possible gem?
In 1999 I was asked over to Kalmar in Sweden to discuss the possibility of scripting a TV documentary about wrecks in the Baltic. I was shown footage of a series of wrecks which had all been sunk by one British submarine, HMS E19. Five had been sunk in one day, October 11 1915. Back in the UK I checked this with the RN Submarine Museum in Gosport. They sent me a one page document outlining the career of HMS E19’s commander, Francis Cromie. I had inadvertently discovered a true ‘Boys Own’ charismatic naval hero. The editor of Saga magazine, Paul Bach, went for my proposal for a feature, which would run in two episodes. Saga funded a trip to Russia accompanied by the photographer Graham Harrison. After a lot of research my agent landed a book deal with Airlife of Shrewsbury. The story had everything. Submarine warfare, the Bolshevik Revolution, an illicit love affair, byzantine espionage with the ‘Ace of Spies’, Sidney Reilly, all culminating in Cromie’s murder in the British Embassy in Petrograd on August 31 1918. As I have quipped facing up to many potential backers – ‘What’s not to like?’ Nothing, it seems.
Hailing from Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Francis Newton Allen Cromie CB DSO RN (1882-1918) was one of the pioneers of the Royal Navy’s submarine service. Handsome, tee-total, non-smoking, he was a watercolour artist, a musician, brilliant orator and mediator. He was commanding a submarine in his 20s when he received the Royal Humane Society’s medal for saving a sailor from drowning. He was sent in charge of 5 subs in 1915 to support the Russians and join Commander Max Horton’s successful Baltic flotilla based in Reval, Estonia (today’s Tallin). 200 British sailors shared their accommodation with the Russian navy on board a decommissioned Russian battleship, the Dvina. During the winter, when the Baltic froze over, action was impossible. But before the ice arrived, Cromie had sunk a dozen vessels, including the German Cruiser, Undine. He was decorated by Tsar Nicholas, invited to dine on the royal train. He soon mastered the Russian language and although married with a child at home, he was the consummate ladies’ man, seen regularly with other women, including a Baroness Schilling, and the mysterious Moura Budberg (ex-Liberal leader Nick Clegg’s aunt and later mistress to H. G. Wells.). During the Russian winter he was feted wherever he went, making this speech to artists, writers and musicians at the Duma in Moscow:
“Gentlemen; you are creators. What you create will live long after you. I am only a simple sailor. I destroy, but can say truthfully that I destroy in order that your works may live.”
This impressed Britain’s envoy in Moscow, Robin Bruce Lockhart.
Cromie toured the Russian front line and became increasingly aware of the growing tensions between the aloof Russian officer class and the ill-equipped, ill-fed ordinary soldiers. Back in Tallin, after months of tension between the oppressed, jealous Russian sailors and their well-treat British counterparts, revolution was in the air. During this fraught period Cromie spent time at the British Embassy in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). There he fell in love with a beautiful young socialite, Sonya Gagarin.
When the revolution began in March 1917, the Russian navy mutinied, killing hundreds of officers overnight. Cromie had a difficult task in keeping his own men apart from Russian politics, whilst he often intervened on behalf of hapless Russian ratings who had been accused and condemned by the sailors’ revolutionary committees of failing to support the struggle. In Moscow, Bruce Lockhart was joined by master spy Sidney Reilly (the original inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond). A plan was hatched to depose Lenin.
By 1918 with the Revolution in full swing, Britain’s embassy staff in Petrograd, led by Sir George Buchanan, feared for their lives and returned to Britain, leaving Cromie as acting Naval Attache in the embassy. He could have gone home, but his love for Sonya Gagarin kept him there. With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia was no longer fighting the Germans. Cromie’s submarines and men were no longer required. His sailors were sent home via Murmansk. Cromie, out of his depth in espionage, made a fatal mistake of joining Reilly and Bruce Lockhart’s plans to bring an Allied force to Russia to defeat the Bolsheviks. Cromie met with representatives of Lenin’s Praetorian Guard, the Latvian regiment, who promised to join the Allies against Lenin – for a price. But Cromie, Lockhart and Reilly had been duped; the Latvian approach was a sting organised by the Cheka, the fore-runner of the KGB.
On August 30th 1918 Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Petrograd Cheka was assassinated. This was an excuse to round up anyone involved with the Allies, especially the British. The following day, Saturday August 31st, Red Guards raided the British Embassy. Cromie, aged 37, revolver in hand, went down fighting. He is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Petersburg. Sidney Reilly vanished until 1925 when he was shot dead in Russia.
In the 16 years since I completed Cromie’s biography, Honoured by Strangers, I’ve given lectures on Cromie at various venues including the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but I have lost count of the meetings with TV companies. Many of them feigned enthusiasm. Between 2016 to the present the Cromie package has gone out to 18 production companies, but none could sell it to the networks. It’s also been lodged with various history figureheads such as Dan Snow, Max Hastings, Michael Palin, Melvyn Bragg, Ian Hislop and even Jeremy Clarkson. To their credit, both Palin and Hislop had the manners to reply and turn it down. “Too busy”.
Cromie was awarded a CB posthumously by King George. Churchill referred to him as ‘a man of great ability’. And I always like to think, in cinematic terms, of the melodramatic coda to an imaginary movie (yes, I even wrote a screenplay). The heartbroken Sonya Gagarin left Russia in 1927 and emigrated to America, where she married a Russian émigré called Rovskosky. She died, childless and alone in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1979. She never visited Russia again.
Churchill also said ‘success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.’ However, as the unsung centenary of a heroic death sails silently by, at last my enthusiasm has been curbed.
As a writer who still feels a little unsure about writing poetry, I was pleased to be invited on Saturday April 21st by the poet and playwright Kevin Fegan to join him and Henry Normal for Henry’s Poetry Hour, where I got to read the poem (below). This is from my small book of verse which came out last week, POCKET LOVE, which is a 6” x 4” pocket sized tome containing 34 verses on the subject of love, passion, lust and longing. Naturally, being less than confident as a poet has always meant that I’ve avoided submitting any collections to a bona fide publisher. The prospect of dismissive ridicule looms large. But what the hell! I read this poem and the crowd seemed to enjoy it. Onwards and sideways!
Never appreciated Byron,
No comprehension of Neruda,
My clumsiness had one effect;
It made my craving cruder
I remained unsure of Shelley,
Perplexed with Dylan Thomas
Shakespeare I almost understood
His verse offered promise
I felt, as all young lovers,
That I deserved a ration,
A brief insight to all these names
To supplement my passion
Yet the chains of youthful ignorance
Were bound tight around my soul
So I expressed my love for you
With lines from rock’n’roll.
So just like Jackie Wilson,
You became my Reet Petite,
I raved on like Buddy Holly
My heart Chuck Berry’s beat
Little Richard joined Gene Vincent
With Elvis in the lead
Thus Hound Dog, Bebopalula
Satisfied romantic needs.
But that was many moons ago
Before I understood the truth
Behind the passion of great poets,
The conundrum of my youth
With age comes understanding
The years bring clarity
So I thank you Shelley, Dylan Thomas,
For what you gave to me, and
To Neruda and Will Shakespeare
All pouring passion from your hearts
Now this aficionado understands,
Although he didn’t at the start
Yet in my young pursuit of passion,
I still satisfied my soul,
If great poetry is perplexing,
There’s always rock’n’roll.
And regarding passion and lust, I saw this from the website This Day in History,- a little gem:
April 22 1886 Seduction is made illegal
Ohio passes a statute that makes seduction unlawful. Covering all men over the age of 18 who worked as teachers or instructors of women, this law even prohibited men from having consensual sex with women (of any age) whom they were instructing. The penalty for disobeying this law ranged from two to 10 years in prison.
Ohio’s seduction law was not the first of its kind. A Virginia law made it illegal for a man to have an “illicit connexion (sic) with any unmarried female of previous chaste character” if the man did so by promising to marry the girl. An 1848 New York law made it illegal to “under promise of marriage seduce any unmarried female of previous chaste character.” Georgia’s version of the seduction statute made it unlawful for men to “seduce a virtuous unmarried female and induce her to yield to his lustful embraces, and allow him to have carnal knowledge of her.”
These laws were only sporadically enforced, but a few men were actually prosecuted and convicted. In Michigan, a man was convicted of three counts of seduction, but the appeals court did everything in its power to overturn the decision. It threw out two charges because the defense reasoned that the woman was no longer virtuous after the couple’s first encounter. The other charge was overturned after the defense claimed that the woman’s testimony–that they had had sex in a buggy–was medically impossible.
On some occasions, women used these laws in order to coerce men into marriage. A New York man in the middle of an 1867 trial that was headed toward conviction proposed to the alleged victim. The local minister was summoned, and the trial instantly became a marriage ceremony.
‘What is the matter that you don’t speak to me? … I’d be better satisfied if you would talk to me once in a while. Why don’t you look at me and smile at me? I am the same man. I have the same feet, legs and hands, and the sun looks down upon me a complete man. I want you to look and smile at me.’
Goyathlay (Geronimo) to General George Crook, US Army.
Crazy Horse never had his picture taken, so here’s one of Red Cloud.
In the summer of 1866, the great Sioux War Chief Red Cloud made his position clear with regard to the influx of white men into his sacred territory. At a special council he told the gathering;
“The white man lies and steals. My lodges were many, but now they are few. The white man wants everything. The white man must fight, and the Indian will die where his fathers died.”
It’s a sobering thought, but my grandfather was about six years old when Red Cloud called his meeting. He was born in Bielefeld, Germany, and sadly died two years before I became Crazy Horse. He left us in 1947 when I was just four years old. He’d left Germany as a young man and worked as a ship’s cook on the route between Liverpool and New York. The misty myth in our family has it that whilst living briefly in America, he married a Native American girl whilst working as a manservant to Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the now defunct High Street stores. Damn right I want to believe it, although I realise it’s probably untrue. This is because I can’t see the sense of abandoning a potential career in New York City for the life of a railway clerk in Sculcoates, Hull. How the hell did Granddad end up in Hull after such an American existence? It would be like swapping a life in St. Tropez for one in Middlesborough. But if it was true – and when I was a mewling kid it always was true – then I imagined
I had some extremely tenuous connection to the free men of the Black Hills, the Great Plains, or the forest, Monument Valley – wherever Hollywood suggested the Indians lived. Yes; it was so genetically obvious – that was why I went red in the sun and not brown like my little mates. I was a Sioux warrior, and I would accept no other identity. And Granddad, as Aryan as they came, had his truck with the white man, too. The breed in question were the whiter than white variety – the Nazis, whose ascendance had changed his mind about returning to Germany in 1932.
He’d been a railwayman, a cook, a baker, a manservant. He was tough, square, angular, and blue-eyed with a shock of white hair which had once been Nordic blond. He liked listening to Beethoven and Brahms on the radio, kept chickens in the back yard at Queen’s Terrace off Portland Street in Hull, just a stone’s throw from the bus station. People liked old Karl – at least before the war came along. For a while he had a small baker’s shop in Convent Lane. Even then, before I was born, he was very old and sometimes absent minded, yet people loved his bread and they spoke well of him. Even when Mrs. Clutterbuck returned a loaf one day, its fluffy white interior displaying the bizarre grin of the old man’s lower set from his false teeth, he exclaimed “Mein Gott! I have been looking for those since yesterday!” Yet the exchanged banter was humorous and good natured, sweetened by a new, denture-free replacement loaf and some cream buns. That was, until the war. In the first war, they had locked him up with his fellow ‘Enemies of The King’ in a camp on the Isle of Man. This time, with the Luftwaffe ascendant, it was different. The man who once sold bread to his talkative neighbours had bricks thrown through his window, and we were not admitted to the air-raid shelter. We’d become the nasty Krauts, the ‘enemy within’, a situation Granddad, still measuring out his flour and yeast, found quite puzzling. His dough was British, but it was kneaded with German hands. Yet his three sons were risking their lives for England in the Atlantic Convoys and the ranks of the British Army.
“Vy? Vy are they so crazy?” He would ask; “I am the same man!” Such is the fear and incomprehensible effect of war.
But for me, the brief Granddad days were days of joy.
When the sun shone on those immediate, peaceful post-war mornings I would awake to the smell of freshly baked bread, and on the landing outside my bedroom would carefully avoid looking at the smirking Laughing Cavalier who stared sinisterly down from the frame on the wall at the top of the stairs. The lure of fresh bread nullified the fear engendered by the Cavalier’s follow-you-everywhere eyes.
Downstairs in the kitchen, in front of the cast iron Yorkist range where the fire flickered, Granddad would serve me a hot muffin oozing with melting butter. The daily baking of bread was – even in his 80s – the heartbeat of his life. It began at ¬6.30 am every day; first rising of the dough, a concentrated kneading followed by a second rising at 7.30, then into the oven by 8.15. Sometimes he would mutter along in German as he worked, others he would hum some ancient, indecipherable Teutonic song.
The war was a huge tragedy for my Mam and Granddad. In the mid 1930s she had met a German sailor, Rudolf. A merchant navy engineer, apparently he was the consummate Bremen gentleman, and by all accounts good looking to boot. Mam’s brothers, my uncles Laurie and Frank, however, both well-travelled sailors, knew what was going on in the Reich, and had a strong inkling of what was coming. When he docked in Hull, Mam would invite Rudolf to visit, where he had the added bonus of being able to converse in his native tongue at will with Granddad. However, if Laurie and Frank were ashore at the same time, things became frosty. This was a pity, because Rudolf had serious reservations about the Nazis. He said he preferred being away at sea to get away from all the ‘Heil Hitler’ stuff back home. Yet Laurie and Frank were having none of this. Laurie knew how many ordinary Germans had been sucked into Hitler’s charismatic honey trap, and as his sister Freda’s big brother, he felt he had a certain responsibility.
“There’ll be a war,” he would say, “and where would you be then – a collaborator! There’s thousands of good Englishmen out there and you choose a German!”
This attitude always puzzled Mam, especially with our German ancestry. Yet in later years she understood Laurie and Frank’s attitude. As the prospect of war loomed they had both attempted to join the Royal Navy, yet were turned down. Laurie always maintained that it was something to do with the family surname, Kohler. This had produced a bitterness which was overcome by a burning desire to prove their absolutely British credentials, a mission they would complete with honour during the inevitable conflict.
The things Rudolf told Granddad about Hitler and his goose-stepping empire made the old man laugh. He’d already seen it with Mussolini’s pompous fascism, and he considered everything about the Third Reich to be nothing more than an end-of-the-pier music hall show. He was very sad when he realised he was wrong, but not as heartbroken as Mam was when Rudolf was called into the U-Boat service. After the spring of 1939 she never saw him again.
When the war eventually ground to a bloody halt, Granddad laughed out loud when he heard that Hitler was dead. There was no time for der fuhrer in our house.
“Ach! I said it would happen! That dumkopf! I knew he would ruin Deutschland and he has done it! Now I can never go back!”
Meanwhile, in 1942, Freda, my Mam, had married a British soldier; an act of honour which she hoped would impress her fighting brothers. Sadly, as time would tell, honour was a characteristic missing from my father’s arcane, albeit British character.
In the long, pre-school afternoons I would watch the clouds scudding by over the broken, bombed and toothless landscape of Hull as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – or one of the other eight – boomed out through our chipped Bakelite radio as Granddad hummed along to the main themes. Mam would dust and sweep and polish, take the rag rugs out into the yard, hang them on the line and beat them with a carpet beater. After an hour, they would be brought back in and, like a playful puppy
smelling his first horse manure, I would roll on those rugs absorbing the freshness of the air in which they’d hung. Then I would watch Granddad feed the chickens, and wonder about his long life and all the things which had happened in the world since he left Germany as a young man. If only I had been older, and known which questions to ask. But it was too late, I suppose.
My biological father, originally a miner from Barnsley, was still in the Army, serving as a Private in the Lincolnshire Regiment. I’m not sure what wartime battles he fought in, but I do know that one of his duties was guarding what was left of the pier at Withernsea. Presumably Rock Bob’s novelty confectionery emporium must have been a major target for the Panzer Divisions. Anyway, I didn’t see much of him. In fact, I can’t recall seeing him at all until I was probably about three and a half, and the occasion was a catastrophe which would shape our lives for years to come. The storm broke one sunny afternoon in Queen’s Terrace.
I had been across for a treat at the house of Mrs. Moses, an aged neighbour whose name suited her seemingly Methuselah years. She was, looking back, an obvious survivor from Victoria’s reign. The only sound behind the delicate lace curtains of her pristine dwelling was the dull, rhythmic ‘clunk’ of her grandfather clock, and when it struck loudly on the hour I always jumped out of my tiny skin. It was the kind of house where Edgar Allan Poe would have spent his time with his ear clamped to the wall, listening for the agonised, coffin-bound scratching of a premature burial. Yet for a curious toddler, with its potpourri fragrances of faint carbolic, mint, molasses and surgical spirit, it was weirdly irresistible.
Her tall, mahogany sideboard supported an array of glass domes, beneath which were a stuffed cat and two long-dead paragons of the taxidermist’s trade, the motionless parrots
Captain Billy and Mr. Pedro. Often she would talk to these rigid, silent corpses as if they were still about to flutter into some kind of cackling vocal life. In fact, not fully understanding death, I sometimes put my ear to their glass
coffins and expected a response. But Mrs. Moses was a kind old lady with a hobby most boys could admire; she made her own sweets. She had all those characteristics you’d expect for a lady of her Victorian vintage; a hair-sprouty wart on her chin the size of a nipple, pince nez spectacles, lace shawls, and as she passed close there was a distinct aroma of lavender. Pride of place in her confectioner’s art was her cough candy. It nestled on a lace doyley in a nickel-silver bowl, all chunky, brown, sugar-dusted translucent rough cubes of it, piled up like the abandoned masonry of an Assyrian tomb, a delight to crunch in tiny trainee teeth despite its tongue-splitting menthol after burn. She had a glass case with shelves in her kitchen and I would ask her to read to me the mysterious labels on the jars there, because they had funny names; something called ‘squills’, ‘tincture of tolu’ ‘ipecac’ and ‘oil of gualtheria’. No doubt had Mrs. Moses, in the company of her black cat, Alastair, lived a couple of centuries earlier, she would have spent every Friday on a ducking stool on the banks of the Humber. But that product of her geriatric alchemy, cough candy, was something else. It never seemed to cure coughs, but it beat the hell out of my Junior Liquorice Smoker’s kits, complete with sweet cigarettes and coconut tobacco.
On that hot afternoon I had made it back across the terrace to our house with my mouth stuffed with cough candy and enough of the rugged delicacy stuffed into my pockets to provide ballast for a trawler. Once inside, with Granddad snoozing in his chair, I was accosted by Mam who barked “Open your mouth!” No doubt the viscous brown gunge I displayed looked like something from a sewer, although my breath did undoubtedly have all the fragrance of a recently disinfected orthopaedic ward. She was about to tell me to spit it all out and chastise me for once again pestering Mrs. Moses
when she suddenly stopped and looked into the middle distance, listening. I heard it, too; the steady marching rhythm of hobnail boots clattering down the terrace. My father was in the back yard, feeding the chickens, when there was a loud knock on our front door. Mam wiped her hands on her apron
and went to open it, and I stared down the passage to see two stocky, tall military men wearing red caps. I couldn’t hear the conversation clearly, but they were both invited in and, as was the custom with visitors, installed in the front room. Granddad snoozed on, I stood in the middle of the kitchen still digesting my candy, as Mam cruised past, called Father from the yard, after which they both disappeared into the front room. I beat a hasty retreat upstairs, carefully averting my eyes from the omnipresent Laughing Cavalier, and hid my surplus cough candy in the old biscuit tin under my bed, where it clattered into place between several platoons of lead soldiers.
When I came back downstairs, I was puzzled to see the two red caps escorting my father, complete with his army kitbag, from the house. It would be over twenty years before I would see him again. Although he had often referred to me as his ‘precious little lad’, it transpired that he was a bigamist, already married before the war to a lady in Barnsley, where he already had several other precious little lads and lasses he had conveniently forgotten about. Going up to bed that night, leaving my mother in the kitchen in floods of tears, I finally faced up to the Laughing Cavalier. You don’t scare me, I thought. Grin all you like. Even though I couldn’t quite understand it, I’d just experienced a shaft of reality. Even today, every time I see his enigmatic face, I sneer back at him. Piss off, go and frighten somebody else.
Hitler had taken one of our families – my Mam’s younger brother, Stanley, who, although he’d survived D-Day, had been shot dead by the SS in the Falaise Pocket in Normandy in August 1944. But now, in our house, down our little terrace which had stubbornly dodged the Luftwaffe’s bombs, the war seemed as if it was far from over.
Vileness in the Vatican A delve into Catholicism’s delinquent past to expose some peculiar Papal proceedings.
Film Director Ron Howard made a curious statement: “I have very close friends who are very devout Catholics, and I talked to them before the Da Vinci Code, and it was very difficult for them, but I talked to them before Angels and Demons, and they said the scandal, abuse of power and violence was part of church history, which you can read about in the Vatican bookstore.” I’ve not been in the Vatican bookstore, but based on available evidence, he could well be right. Separating all the piety, prayers, marble, frescoes, satins, silk and gold of Catholicism’s HQ from a sinister past is a heavy historical curtain, behind which lurks tales of events so bizarre, so breathtakingly irreligious they would have propelled the first Pope, St. Peter, straight back into his old job as a Galilee fisherman.
Roman Catholicism is one of the most historically catalogued, recorded and selectively written about faiths in the world today. At the time of writing there have been 266 Popes. Many of the very early Popes, beginning with St. Peter himself, were martyred, but since then at least 15 have been assassinated. Murder, poisoning, arrest and imprisonment, starvation and strangling by rivals may seem at odds with the gentle ‘turn the other cheek’ creed of a simple Judean carpenter and his disciples, but that’s just the standard doctrine for the congregation. For Bishops, Primates and Cardinals it takes political guile, guts and cunning to get on the Vatican ladder, and only the most calculating among the higher clergy make it to the top. How well or badly you perform when you get there will go down in ecclesiastic history. And here’s a necessary note of crudity; if you do make it to the Pontifical throne, as we shall see, you’ll also need balls.
The vicarious versions of Vatican lore and legend down the centuries are the work of numerous dedicated religious scribes and monks. Many reports are highly cautious, seeking not to disturb the ecclesiastic hierarchy of their time. However, some spice up their texts by daring to include much older rumour and speculation. Therefore, although from the first century AD to the present, there is a long, varied chronicle which aims, often somewhat imprecisely, to record the Church’s progress, between its chapters are tumultuous periods, such as that in the 10th and 11th centuries, the saeculum obscurum, a ‘Dark Age’ as described by Caesar Baronius in 1602. With its sexual profligacy, corruption, murder and nepotism, this age is known today as ‘The Pornocracy’.
Baronius (1538-1607) was an Italian Cardinal and Roman historian, famous for his Annales Ecclesiastici which appear in twelve folio volumes. If Baronius and some other scribes are to be believed, many religious misdemeanours were hidden or written out of the Holy ledgers. What remains reads like propaganda designed to preserve the pious image of the Church of Rome. However, those monks or priests were the tabloid media of their time, and knew a good story when they heard one. One 13th century scribe known by his Latin name Martinus Ordinis Praedicatorum, which means ‘Brother Martin of the Order of Preachers’ , found some yarns irressistible. He came from the Silesian town of Opava. Today it’s better known by the German name, Troppau. So the Czechs call him Martin of Opavy, and to the Germans he’s Martin von Troppau. We don’t know when he was born, but he died in 1278, leaving behind at least one particular anecdote which still sends the church into denial overdrive.
Whether or not you’re religious, if you’re visiting the Eternal City, Rome, a tour of the Vatican might be high on your agenda. Some tours of the Papal domain show you more than others. For example, in the Vatican’s museum known as the Gabinetto delle Mascheren you’ll see a curious, throne-like chair originally known as the sedia stercoraria.
It looks like a commode. Some guides will tell you it’s a Papal toilet. Yet there’s a more colourful possibility. It has been reported down the ages that in this chair (and apparently there’s more than one) before being elected, the new Pope, minus his pants and with his holy vestments hitched up, was required to sit on this peculiar seat with his naked genitalia hanging through the hole. Priests especially selected for the task would then kneel at the rear or side of the chair and through a special opening would plunge their hand to feel for the Pontiff’s meat and two veg. Once it was established that the Papal candidate had balls, the priests would announce to the rest of the inspection party “Testiculos habet et bene pendentes” (“He has testicles and they are hanging well.”). Relieved, the gathered cardinals would loudly praise the Lord, reassured that the election could proceed. The origin of this dubious ceremony is said to be connected to one of the Church’s most denied chapters in history – that for two years, 855-857, the Pope was a woman. Back to Brother Martin of Troppau.
One of Martin’s other famous works, the Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum was probably intended for young students as a history of the Papacy. Hugely influential, over 400 manuscripts of this work are known. It was ground-breaking in its graphic lay-out; each double page had fifty lines representing fifty years. The left-hand pages show the history of the papacy, with one line per year, and the right-hand pages give the history of emperors. It’s here, ‘reading between the lines’ that the legend of Pope Joan (also referred to as John VIII) appears. Catholic scholars, however, are keen to point out that Martin, who referred to her as Johannes Angelicus, is writing over three centuries after the fabled event.
This is the story according to Martin of Troppau;
“After Leo IV., John Anglus, a native of Metz, reigned two years, five months, and four days. And the pontificate was vacant for a month. He died in Rome. He is related to have been a female, and, when a girl, to have accompanied her sweetheart in male costume to Athens; there she advanced in various sciences, and none could be found to equal her. So, after having studied for three years in Rome, she had great masters for her pupils and hearers. And when there arose a high opinion in the city of her virtue and knowledge, she was unanimously elected Pope. But during her papacy she became in the family way by a familiar. Not knowing the time of birth, as she was on her way from St. Peter’s to the Lateran she had a painful delivery, between the Coliseum and St. Clement’s Church, in the street. Having died after, it is said that she was buried on the spot; and therefore the Lord Pope always turns aside from that way, and it is supposed by some out of detestation for what happened there. Nor on that account is she placed in the catalogue of the Holy Pontiffs, not only on account of her sex, but also because of the horribleness of the circumstance.”
Martin upset the church in the 13th century by regurgitating this story, but he wasn’t the first to do so. An earlier mention of the female pope appears in the Dominican Jean de Mailly’s early 13th century chronicle of Metz, Chronica Universalis Mettensis, The female Pope isn’t named here, and, surprisingly, the action is set in 1099. So, according to according to Jean: “Query. Concerning a certain Pope or rather female Pope, who is not set down in the list of Popes or Bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man and became, by her character and talents, a curial secretary, then a Cardinal and finally Pope. One day, while mounting a horse, she gave birth to a child. Immediately, by Roman justice, she was bound by the feet to a horse’s tail and dragged and stoned by the people for half a league, and, where she died, there she was buried, and at the place is written: ‘Oh Peter, Father of Fathers, Betray the childbearing of the woman Pope.’ At the same time, the four-day fast called the “fast of the female Pope” was first established.”
In earlier versions Joan is referred to by different names, and especially as Agnes or Gilberta. Marianus Scotus (1028–1083), was an Irish monk and chronicler who spent time in Rome and settled in Mainz, Germany. In his chronicle he inserts the following passage: “A. D. 854, Lotharii 14, Joanna, a woman, succeeded Leo, and reigned two years, five months, and four days.”. Sigebert de Gemblours was a Belgian monk and chronicler, born about A.D. 1030, educated in the convent of Gembloux, and died in 1112. Some scribes had accused Sigebert of inventing the story of Pope Joan yet his insertion of the same story in his highly regarded chronicle is said to be an interpolated passage in the work of Anastasius Bibliothecarius, or Anastasius the Librarian (810 – 878) chief archivist of the Church of Rome. This fits into the time period Joan was supposed to occupy. However, Joan’s many critics and deniers will pinpoint this period as the very proof that the female Pope never existed as she would have ruled between Pope Leo IV and Benedict III, and as Baring Gould points out: “The historical discrepancies are sufficiently glaring to make the story more than questionable. Leo IV died on the 17th July, 855; and Benedict III was consecrated on the 1st September in the same year; so that it is impossible to insert between their pontificates a reign of two years, five months, and four days. It is, however, true that there was an antipope elected upon the death of Leo, at the instance of the Emperor Louis; but his name was Anastasius. This man possessed himself of the palace of the Popes, and obtained the incarceration of Benedict. However, his supporters almost immediately deserted him, and Benedict assumed the pontificate.”
So are we to believe that the usurper, the antipope Anastasius, rapidly imprisoned Benedict, was announced to the faithful, took the throne, occupied the Lateran Palace and was deposed all within the space of six weeks? It could be argued that had the Church suffered the embarrassment of a female Pope who gave birth in the street, any subsequent scribe and chronicler would be duty bound to cook the books and play fast and loose with compressed dates to bury the story. Yet it remains too salaciously enticing to fade away. The story of Joan is Hollywood gold, and indeed two films have already been made; a 1972 version starring Liv Ullman, and 2009’s epic Pope Joan starring Johanna Wokalek and John Goodman.
Of course, come the Reformation and the rise of Martin Luther, any grubby yarn to bash the Catholics with would be eagerly taken up. For example, the radical Czech heretic John Huss (1639-1415) totally believed in Joan’s existence and even took the female pope as an example that the Papacy was a pointless institution. Martin Luther (1483-1546) echoed Huss’s belief in the female Pope, much to the mortification of Europe’s Catholics, whose attitude was summed up thus: “A myth of monstrous growth, a deliberate invention of the Dominicans and Minorites of the fourteenth century. What mockery must not this story excite among the Mohammedans ! ” Whether or not the Muslims had any interest in a female Pope remains unclear.
LOOKING FOR JOAN: THE CLUES
For a serious medieval priest or monk, spending time in Rome was de rigueur. Adam of Usk (1352-1430) was a Welsh priest from Monmouthshire. He spent four years in Rome and in his Chronicle he described a papal procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran;
“After turning aside out of abhorrence for Pope Agnes (sic), whose image in stone with her son stands in the straight road near St. Clement’s, the Pope, dismounting from his horse, enters the Lateran from his enthronement.”
What became of the statue of Joan is unknown, but its presence in Rome was reported by other chroniclers, and was particularly noted by Martin Luther.
At Siena, inside the cathedral is a gallery of terra-cotta busts. They represent the images of 170 popes, in random order. Baronuis, the Vatican librarian, wrote in the 17th century that one of the faces was a female – Joan the female Pope. Baronius recorded that the pope at the time wanted to destroy the statue, but rumour has it that the local archbishop didn’t want it to go to waste. Therefore Joan’s features were chipped away to be remodelled as Pope Zachary (679-752).
At the Basilica in St. Peter’s Square are 17th century carvings by Bernini, which include eight images of a woman wearing a papal crown. These images show the progress of a woman giving birth and the child being born. Is the woman Pope Joan?
The spot in Rome where Joan came off her horse and gave birth is marked today by an ancient portico, where both locals and tourists still leave flowers to this day. It’s just three blocks from the Colosseum, at the foot of the hill leading up to the medieval Quattro Coronati abbey-fortress.
Finally, why is there a card in the Tarot pack which represents hidden knowledge and is known either as ‘The Popess’ or ‘The Empress’? All in all, if the story of Pope Joan is true, it is remarkably sad and does little for the Vatican’s chequered 2,000 year reputation. If Rome venerates the mother of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and if women can become saints, why couldn’t women be priests? The Church tells us one of the main reasons is that Jesus himself chose 12 male apostles. There were many women available that he could have chosen, but he only chose 12 males and they in turn chose men to continue their ministry. The argument therefore is that a precedent was set, which became a rule. However, the early Christian church had no hard and fast rule against clergy being married with children. Some Popes had sons who in turn became Popes themselves. Considered as the first Pope, the fisherman of Galilee, Peter was a married man. Pope Joan, real or mythical, remains buried because of her sex.
However, her story is easily overshadowed throughout history by the often bizarre behaviour and attitudes of Vatican’s male management. Half a century after Pope Joan was consigned to the papal waste bin, a macabre event took place in Rome which would seem to have little to do with Holy Scripture.
SYNODUS HORRENDA: THE CADAVER SYNOD
Born in Ostia, Bishop of Portus in 864, the 111th man to rule the Church of Rome, Formosus (816 – 896) was Pope from 6 October 891 to his death in 896. He seems to be a man who acted on impulse, but during those five years as Pontiff he certainly made some miscalculated moves which guaranteed him unpopularity with the Vatican hierarchy. He became a travelling diplomat for the Vatican, visiting Bulgaria and France, and earlier, in 875 he persuaded the King of the Franks, Charles the Bald, to let Pope John VIII crown him as Emperor. In 1872 Formosus was in the running to be elected as Pope, but against a complicated political background he left the court only to be summoned back by Pope John VIII under threat of excommunication. He doesn’t seem to have been able to put a foot right, being accused of all manner of assorted misdemeanours, such as deserting his own diocese and seeking the Bulgarian Archbishopric, conspiring with ‘iniquitous men and women’ against the Holy See, despoiling Rome’s cloisters, performing a divine service against a Roman Law forbidding him to do so. This list of charges was thrown at Formosus in July 872. Thus he was excommunicated and banned from Rome. Yet his luck would change; it was six years later before the sentence of excommunication was lifted. In 883, John’s successor Pope Marinus I gave Formosus his diocese of Portus back. After the reigns of Marinus, Pope Hadrian III (884–885) and Pope Stephen V (885–891), Formosus was elected Pope on 6 October 891. However, he hadn’t run out of ways to offend Rome. As well as having to fight off the Saracens who were attacking Lazio, Formosus was unhappy that Rome was under the rule at the time of the Spoletan Holy Roman co-emperors Guy and his son Lambert, Formosus approached King Arnulf of the East Franks and invited him to invade Italy and liberate the country from the control of Spoleto. In Rome in 896 Formosus crowned Arnulf Holy Roman Emperor in St. Peter’s Basilica, but while preparing to attack Spoleto, Arnulf was seized with paralysis and returned to Germany. All these machinations had caused a political firestorm in Rome, and conveniently, on 4 April 896, leaving the discord unresolved, Formosus died. He was succeeded by Pope Boniface VI.
There had been riots in Rome but Boniface only lasted 16 days as Pope, dying (some say of Gout). On May 22 896 a new Pope, Stephen VI took the throne. His papacy had been sponsored by the very political ruling faction Formosus had sought to defeat, the powerful House of Spoleto. Formosus may have been mouldering in the grave for almost a year, but Stephen VI was a vindictive pontiff whose irrational rage against a dead man was to lead him to the one act he’d be remembered for.
In January 897 Formosus’s decomposing corpse of was exhumed and put on trial in what has become known as the Cadaver Synod (or Synodus Horrenda) The rotting body, decked out in all his finest papal vestments, had to be propped up on a throne to ‘answer’ questions and accusations, represented by Deacon who acted as a defence counsel (although he had nothing to say). Stephen ranted and raved at the putrefied defendant, accusing him of receiving the pontificate while he was still the bishop of Porto, still acting as a bishop even though he had been deposed, and all the earlier charges laid on Formosus which had led to his excommunication were wheeled out afresh. As the poignant heap of decaying papal power wasn’t able to respond, and no doubt his defending Deacon counsel felt, in this case, that silence meant sense and safety, the trial wasn’t going well for Formosus. (No doubt had he spoken, he’d have uttered the classic “Got me bang to rights, Guv…”)
Needless to say he was pronounced guilty of all charges. All ordinations performed by Formosus were annulled. But the indignity didn’t end there. The three fingers of its right hand (the blessing fingers), were hacked off. His sacred vestments were ripped off and the corpse was clad in the basic clothes of a layman. He was buried once more, but didn’t stay under the soil for long; they dug him up again and threw the cadaver into the River Tiber. Legend has it that some fishermen retrieved the body and eventually he had a proper burial. Another version tells us that when the corpse was tossed into the river,
“During the night there was a great thunderstorm, and the level of the Tiber began to rise. A monk of the monastery of St Acontius near Porto was warned in a dream by the ghost of Formosus that his body would be found along the shore, and so it was. The body was recovered and quietly buried in the monastery.”
Even allowing for the barbaric punitive behaviour of the times, the public of Rome were outraged by Stephen’s behaviour. As if God himself had intervened, following the Cadaver Synod an earthquake hit the Lateran Palace and destroyed the basilica. It was the kind of omen even priests and cardinals respected. Stephen VI’s reign only lasted six more months before he was deposed, his papal insignia torn from him. He ended up in prison, where he was conveniently strangled.
Whether or not you are religious, with two millennia to choose from, Vatican history is packed with fantastic stories for the avid reader. Saints and sinners, miracles, heaven and hell. What you choose to believe will be as challenging as the foundation of the faith. As the author of Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller (1891-1980) wrote: “Moralities, ethics, laws, customs, beliefs, doctrines – these are of trifling import. All that matters is that the miraculous become the norm.”
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
The sun shone through the ornate windows of the Café Delmas and glittered on the cutlery. Sharon gazed out at the Parisians, or perhaps more accurately, the tourists, criss-crossing the Place de la Contrescape. Brian had been right, of course, and as he sat opposite, sipping his coffee, she could see that ‘I told you so’ look in his eyes. His romantic streak had brought them here to the City of Light, and perhaps, after 40 years together, she ought to have recognised what he’d had in mind. Yet dreamy though this all was, as she sat there, she couldn’t help replaying that day of argument a month before …
“Oh, bloody sodding great,” she spat the words out as if ejecting a wayward fly which had entered her mouth.
“Our 40th wedding anniversary, and despite everything I’ve said now you want us to go to Paris?”
“Well,” he said, trying to sound conciliatory, “it’s all about romance, surely?”
“Well it might be, but I know you. You’ve been banging on about Paris and all that period after the First World War ever since you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. You’re not so much thinking about our romantic anniversary as trawling around places where Picasso and all that Bohemian lot hung out.”
“Well, that’s not fair. That’s all part of the romance of Paris, isn’t it?”
“It might well be, but you ignored me when I suggested Tuscany, and then I thought we’d agreed on Sicily. You’re as big a fan of Inspector Montalbano as I am – I wanted to see his apartment by the sea. Now it’s bloody Paris! And there’s the weather to contend with. It’ll be lovely in April in Sicily – but Paris?”
“Well, doesn’t the phrase ‘Paris in the spring’ mean anything?”
“Yes, but Palermo in the spring sounds even better.”
“But Paris is the most romantic city in the world.”
“And it’s full of pretentious French people!”
“Well – what about the Mafia?” he asked, in a quieter voice.
“The sodding Mafia?”
“Yes – the cosa nostra, the mob – Palermo – that’s their headquarters. We might get whacked.”
“Who do you think we are? Tony and Carmela Soprano? Are you some secret ‘made man’ or something? The bloody Mafia – you do talk crap some times.”
He flopped onto the sofa and lit a cigarette.
“OK, let’s do a deal. Three days in Paris, then we’ll fly to Sicily for three days.”
She sighed and shook her head.
“Yeah, right. We barely get unpacked in Paris before we’re packing again for Sicily. Some bloody anniversary holiday this is turning out to be.”
The argument continued. After a good night’s sleep, the next day she had been at the hairdressers. Mavis, the stout, middle-aged happy-go-lucky proprietor listened to the story of Paris vs. Palermo, her voice soaring above the hum of the hairdryers.
“Well, love, if you ask me, Paris is a better bet for an anniversary. I went there with my Jack before he died and it really is as romantic as they say it is. And it’s civilised. You know where you stand in a place like that. You’ve got great transport, the Metro, terrific restaurants, Notre Dame, the Seine … mind you, I don’t know much about Sicily but it looks a bit dilapidated to me. A lot of crime they say. I suppose you can get good pizzas and pasta there, but it’s not what I’d call a top tourist destination. But Paris? Oh, Sharon, you ought to give it a try, honest. You’ll thank me for it. Save Sicily for next year.”
And so they had agreed. A week in Paris and a week in Sicily the following year. Sharon felt defeated, and Brian was elated. Yet now they were in Paris, and indeed the mild spring was everything she’d hoped it would be, she had to admit that as an anniversary venue, there was none better.
After finishing their coffee they wandered along the crowded Rue Moffetard. Getting in with the ambience, Brian lit up a Gitanes and placed an arm around her shoulder.
“Well, what do you think?”
“All right, smartarse,” she said, “it’s all fine but for one thing.”
“You must be psychic. Yes. What’s it called again?”
“The Hotel Saint Medard.”
“I don’t know who Saint Medard was, but he would have to be a saint to have stayed there. And vertically challenged. It’s a dump.”
“Look, love, just because it’s old, and has historical character, doesn’t make it a dump. I know it’s a tough climb up those stairs to that top room – “
“Room? Hell, Brian, it’s a cupboard! Getting out of bed for a pee last night was an obstacle course. I sat on the edge of the bed and almost scraped my knees on the wall. All that creaky old panelling and floorboards. Our garden shed’s more comfortable.”
“Yes, all right, I get the message. But it’s booked and paid for now, and we only need to be there for bed and breakfast, so it’s not the end of the world. Come on, after we’ve checked out where Gertrude Stein and Cole Porter used to live, we’ll find a restaurant for tonight and get some champagne down our necks. That’s why we’re here.”
As they ambled along Sharon mulled over that last bit – ‘that’s why we’re here’. Of course they couldn’t be in Paris and not see all the artistic places of interest which occupied Brian so much, but if they’d been in Palermo there wouldn’t have been quite this amount of cultural tourism to deal with. She swore to herself that when they got to Sicily, she’d be in charge.
The Hotel Saint Medard was a four-storey ramshackle edifice down an ancient cul-de-sac off the Rue Monge. It seemed to have survived everything French history might have thrown at it. The Revolution, Napoleon, two world wars. It had obviously never been built as a hostelry. Perhaps, in the mists of time, some Parisian artisan family had lived here, but judging by the size of the rooms they could well have been dwarves. The un-carpeted stairs creaked with every step, the staircase winding its way up past the first three floors through narrow, almost Stygian gloom, the width so tight that you had to keep your elbows in to avoid scraping them on the ubiquitous timeworn, dark wood panelling.
After an afternoon of walking old streets and photographing various blue commemorative plaques, they had returned to the hotel to freshen up and get ready for their anniversary dinner.
From the tiny top window of their room, they could at least see the open spaces of the Square Capitan. Sharon gazed over at it as the afternoon sun cut low through the trees. It was an unusual sight, a mix of what appeared to be an outdoor arena and colourful flower beds.
“What’s that place, Brian?” He moved over to the window, his guide book in his hand. He leafed through the pages then began to read.
“Square Capitan. It was when Rue Monge was being built in 1870 that the Arènes de Lutèce were discovered. The inhabitants converted this Gallo-Roman amphitheatre into a cemetery when Lutetia was invaded by barbarians in 285 AD. It was then turned into a square in 1918. Square Capitan next to the Arènes de Lutèce is named after doctor, anthropologist and historian Louis Capitan, who redesigned it in the style of a formal Italian garden in 1916.”
“Thank you, Simon Schama,” she said, as he patted her gently on her derriere.
Whilst she struggled with the throes of ablution in the cramped shower cubicle, Brian pushed open the small window so that he could lean out for a smoke. As he moved into position with his elbows on the window ledge, his trousers became snagged on what appeared to be the head of a nail protruding from the wood panelling on the adjoining wall. As he cursed under his breath, tugging at his pants to release them, he began to thoroughly agree with Sharon. This place was too small for anything but hobbits. He’d begun to regret turning down a deal at the Holiday Inn in exchange for his surrender to a more historical experience. He bent down, yet as he tugged to free himself, suddenly the ancient nail slid out of the corner of the old panel. The wood became loose, and as he disentangled the nail from his trousers, he noticed that the panel was now jutting a good two inches from the wall.
Ever the curious romantic, Brian stared at this and pondered over the potential fact that this panelling had been in place for perhaps two centuries. Like a kid staring into a cave and expecting bats, he wondered what might be there in that narrow margin of blackness behind the loose corner of the panel. The temptation was too much; he tugged at the wood, and other tiny nails around its edges began to pop out until, with a creak and a cloud of grey dust, it fell away and onto his feet.
He was taken aback by what he saw. There, in a cavity about two feet deep, lay what appeared to be a leather suitcase. It was encrusted with dust and old cobwebs. Then a slight wave of panic overcame him. He was in an ancient Parisian hotel and he’d damaged the fabric of the room. What would the manager say, how much would this cost? Yet he calmed down, realising that he could easily put the panel back and perhaps knock the nails in with the heel of a shoe. It was that leather suitcase which began to obliterate any other concerns. He leaned down, carefully thrust his hand into the cavity and grabbed the handle. Whatever was in the case, it was heavy. He pulled it out but the handle had rotted slightly and bits of old leather flaked between his fingers. It was messy, but he still had the copy of the newspaper he’d read on the plane. He found it, spread the pages out to cover the double bed, and hauled the case onto it.
The locks on the case had all but rusted away, but they still held the lid in place. He tried to free them with his thumbs, but they seemed solid. He went over to his shoulder bag and retrieved his Swiss Army knife. He dug the blade into the key slots in the locks and first one, then the second, clicked open.
“What the bloody hell have you got there?”
Startled, Brian looked round to see his semi-naked wife drying herself with a towel, staring in horror at the mess on the bed. She then glanced at the hole in the wall and the panel on the floor.
“Brian! For God’s sake! Have you taken leave of your senses? What a bloody mess – this is a hotel, not a garden shed! Who do you think you are – Keith bloody Moon?” He realised how bad all this looked yet his heart raced with excitement. He raised his hands, palms outwards.
“It wasn’t my fault, love. I caught the panel on my trouser leg and it came away – and this was hidden in that hole.” Sharon tied the towel in a turban on her head whilst glaring at him.
“It’s bugger all to do with us. It belongs to the hotel. Whatever that is, Brian, put it back, stick that bit of wood back on, and clean that mess up, or this is going to cost us a packet. Good God, you’re like a kid sometimes!”
“Don’t you want to see what’s in it?”
She puffed out her cheeks and blew out in exasperation, shaking her head violently.
“No, put it back! For Chrissakes, Brian – it’s our wedding anniversary, not Raiders of the Lost Ark! “
But he was having none of it.
“Sorry, love. I’ll put it back but first,“ he began to prise the case open, “I want to know what this is.” The old leather seemed to crack and groan as the lid was forced back. What appeared to be some crumpled clothing, perhaps silk, formed a top layer. At the side of this was a small leather satchel. He picked it up and opened it. Inside were some small bottles, a bar of soap, a dried-out, rotting flannel, and what appeared to be a lipstick tube and a rusting powder compact. Sharon stood by, clasping her hand to her mouth in nervous awe. He laid the items on the bed, and the rest of the case’s contents were revealed. Wads of type-written sheets of quarto paper, some tied with faded blue and red ribbons. The whole case was filled with these manuscripts, some obviously carbon copies. Brian deftly removed one and blew the dust from its cover page, then gasped, falling to his knees at the side of the bed. Sharon stared anxiously down.
He held up the manuscript in one hand and traced with a shaky, trembling finger across the title line, which read;
INTO THE FOREST A Short Story By Ernest Hemingway.
He dropped it onto the bed and frantically rummaged through all the other manuscripts, gasping at each one. He turned to Sharon, who was still frozen in her stunned, mouth-clutching posture.
“Christ, love. Do you know what this is?”
She inhaled and exhaled deeply.
“No, but it smells like trouble. And don’t tell me who Ernest Hemingway was. I’m not that thick.”
“God. We were there this afternoon – 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine!”
“Oh. Yeah, tell me about it – that’s why my feet still ache…”
“Sod your feet! That’s where he would have written all this stuff! This is Hemingway’s missing suitcase. This is all the work he’d written before he was even a published novelist. This must have been here since 1922.”
“What in hell’s name are you on about? Hemingway’s missing suitcase? 1922? How do you know that?”
He stood up, rubbed his hands on his trousers and stared out of the window.
“You see, darling, that’s the difference between Sicily and Paris. I’m not knocking Sicilian history, but big things happened here as well. Big, 20th century things. I was always fascinated by Hemingway.”
“Yes, and I’ve always been tired of you banging on about him. So how do you know what heap of old rubbish is – and how long it’s been here?”
“Get dressed. I’m nipping out to get a bottle of wine or champagne .… no, damn it – whisky. We totally, utterly need a drink. Don’t touch this. Stay in here. Don’t let anyone in. We need to talk.”
“Oh, give over, Brian!”
He grabbed her shoulders and stared intently at her.
“You have no idea how important this is. Just have some faith, Sharon. Believe me – this is big. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
It had taken thirty minutes before he arrived back with a bottle of Vat 69 and a bottle of Moet Chandon. Sharon had got ready for the evening, and in her green velvet dress and make-up she looked attractive as she sat by the small, woodworm-riddled dressing table. He poured two glasses and sat on the bed, staring at the paper filled suitcase.
“Right love. I’m going to tell you a story, then you’ll realise what I mean when I say this is important. This’ll go down as the most historic wedding anniversary in European history. Ernest Hemingway was 23 years old and in Lausanne in Switzerland in December 1922. At that time he was correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star, covering the Peace Conference. The journalist and editor Lincoln Steffens, who Hemingway had met in Genoa, was also there. Steffens really admired Hemingway’s writing and asked to see more. The year before, 1921, Hemingway married Elizabeth Hadley Richardson. He always called her Hadley. They soon moved from the USA to Paris, because this was the most creative artistic and literary community in Europe then. He sent a message to Hadley that she should come to Lausanne on the train. She packed up all of Hemingway’s papers in a suitcase, to take them with her to Switzerland. He hadn’t asked her to take all his writing, but she thought it would be a nice touch to re-unite him with his work. She packed everything she could find, even the carbon copies. Remember, there were no photocopiers then, no laptops or memory sticks – “
“Yes, smartarse, I know that – I’m not stupid …”
“Right, yes, point taken, I’m just adding a bit of drama here, although it doesn’t need it. So off she went to the Gare de Lyon railway station, got on the train, found her sleeper compartment, and there would be a wait before the train set off. So, while the train was still standing in the Gare de Lyon, Hadley went to buy a bottle of Evian water for the trip. Sadly, she left the suitcase unattended on the train. When she came back, it was gone.”
“Crikey. I’ll bet she was popular after that …”
“Not much. At that point, nothing of Hemingway’s fiction had been published. Back at their apartment at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, there was nothing left. She’d packed everything, both the originals and their carbons. Only two short stories survived the disaster. ‘Up in Michigan’, which Hemingway had hidden in a drawer because Gertrude Stein had said it was un-publishable, while ‘My Old Man’ was out with an editor at a magazine. What we have here, must be everything else.”
“So who does it all belong to now?”
“Well, obviously, the Hemingway estate, or maybe his publisher. It was always thought that the thief, whoever he was, would have skedaddled out of the station, opened the case somewhere and been quite disappointed to find nothing more than a load of paper, Hadley’s lipstick and underskirt. People suggested he would have chucked it all the Siene. After all, Hemingway wasn’t famous then. That was to come later. But by God, do you realise what this lot is worth now?”
“How do you know all this stuff?”
“Insomnia. I know this stuff because I read in bed every night while you’re laid there snoring.”
“Charming. It’s just a box of old paper though.”
“You wouldn’t have said that about the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is literature’s Holy Grail, and we got to it before Dan Brown did.”
“But it isn’t ours.”
“It could be.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the hotel probably didn’t know it was here. We could just buy a slightly larger suitcase, stick this inside, and – “
“And get arrested for theft. How would you get it through customs? Where would you say you got it from?”
He blew a raspberry, poured another whisky and lit another Gitanes.
“It’s the story, Sharon, the story. We could be like, what – Howard Carter discovering Tutankhamun or even Indiana Jones!”
“If you were Harrison Ford we’d be on that bed but you’re not. You’re a retired electrician and this is a load of old paper.”
“No. It’s solid gold, love, solid bloody gold. Hemingway shot back to Paris once Hadley had told him what happened. He could hardly believe it. Broke his heart. He wrote a letter to Ezra Pound, in January 1923, ‘I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenilia? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence and journalistic carbons.’ I’ve read that bit so many times. See what a bloody great yarn this is? I know all about it down to the fine detail because it’s always fascinated me. Poor Hemingway. Well, Papa, wherever you are, here it all is, safe and sound, waiting to be published, and we found it, two middle aged Brits on their 40th wedding anniversary. The press are gonna love this.”
Brian gathered the stuff together, closed the case and placed it back in the cavity, pushing the panel back in place and tapping two of the rusty old nails in with the base of the Champagne bottle. He was feeling buoyant, half drunk and excited, Sharon less so, as they stepped out into the Parisian night and made their way to the Fleur des Amite restaurant. It was a brilliant meal. Langoustines, a tasty Daube de Boeuf Provencal followed by Tarte au Limon with cream. Sharon enjoyed it all, yet felt totally ill at ease as Brian continued to rave on about the suitcase. As they drank brandy and coffee, she dabbed her lips with a napkin and stared long and hard at her husband.
“Why are you looking like that?” he asked.
“I’m just thinking about the past 40 years. We’ve had our struggles but we’re happy, aren’t we?”
“Yes. I suppose so. The kids have grown up, we’re free, and I’ve got my pension. Mortgage paid off. We’ve a few bob in the bank that’ll see us out. So?”
“So we don’t need Hemingway’s suitcase.”
“Oh, love, come on!”
“What will it bring us? Maybe a few extra quid and a lot of unwanted attention. In any case, the hotel will claim it as their own. And you can’t simply nick it and hope to get away with it. If you do, this’ll be the last wedding anniversary we’re having.” He regarded her for a few moments. He realised how close they were, how much in love they had always been. Yet he found her attitude over this hard to accept.
“So what do you suggest then? We just finish the week, go home and forget it all? The greatest discovery in modern literature? We have a duty here.”
“Bollocks!” she spat.
“That’s not ladylike language.”
“There’ll be worse if you don’t shape up and listen, Brian. Duty my arse! Before we leave that bloody awful shack of a hotel, make sure you place that wood panel back as securely as possible – no trace that it fell off. Then once we get home, drop an anonymous line to whoever publishes Hemingway’s stuff these days, telling them that his missing case is hidden in room 14 of the crappiest old hotel in Paris. That way we can watch the developments from a safe distance. No intrusion into our lives, and you’ve done your duty to literature.”
“Maybe I should tell the hotel manager that it’s there.”
“Don’t be daft! That’ll bring us into it. We’ll get charged for damaging his crappy room. And suppose he already knows it’s there? Maybe he’s saving it for some kind of retirement pension. And another thing – it doesn’t belong to anyone – not the hotel, not us – but the late Ernest Hemingway’s descendants. It was a theft, after all. Some creepy 1920s French toe-rag crept onto that train and nicked that case. Maybe that hotel used to be where he lived. The only solid thing to come out of this is that we know where it is.”
It was raining heavily when they arrived at East Midlands Airport. Paris now seemed a fantastic blur. They had hardly spoken on the plane. Brian had stared through the window, his thoughts occupied solely by the suitcase, that hidden, historical, stolen, secret suitcase packed with utterly epic literary history. Had he really seen those manuscripts? Would he wake up and discover that this had all been some bizarre dream, and that they were actually coming home from Sicily? But it wasn’t a dream.
Once home they unpacked. He made some tea, sat at the table and lit the last of his Gitanes. Sharon came and sat opposite him. She felt relieved to be back and calmer now that they were well away from the eye of a potential storm.
“Well? Did you enjoy Paris?”
“What do you think,” he said, blowing out a cloud of aromatic smoke. She waved her hand.
“At least I’ll be glad when you’ve finished those bloody awful fags. That stink will always remind me of that hotel. So; what are you going to do?”
“Spill the beans.”
“Don’t do anything stupid, Brian.”
“No. I don’t think it’ll involve the police, or publishers. We need an academic on this.”
Unable to sleep, that night, crouched over his laptop with a glass of Scotch close by, he typed his letter.
Rector of the Academy of Paris, The Sorbonne 47, rue des Ecoles 75230 Paris Cedex 05
Sir or Madam, This is exclusive and important information which I hope your department can deal with. I have to inform you that the batch of missing manuscripts written by Ernest Hemingway prior to 1922, which were in a suitcase stolen from a train in the Gare de Lyon in December that year, are hidden in a cavity in the wall of room 14 in the Hotel Saint Medard off the Rue Monge.
Sincerely, A literary well-wisher.
He hit the Google ‘translate’ button and printed the message out in French, along with an address label. After sealing it and applying a stamp, despite the fact that it was now 3 am, he ventured out into the damp street and dropped it into a post box.
Brian’s weekend reading included a regular treat; The Guardian on Saturday and The Observer on Sunday. For two weeks he tuned into every TV and radio news broadcast and scanned every single page of his weekend newspapers. He felt unsettled, uncomfortable, and seethed with regret that he hadn’t removed the case himself and done something more specific and realistic. But it was too late now. It seemed obvious to him now that his letter to the Sorbonne would have been treated as a stupid, cranky prank. Who in their right minds would have believed such an anonymous claim posted from England? Three weeks went by. The nights drew in, the clocks changed and winter was upon them.
Then, one night as they finished dinner, as they watched Channel 4 News, with the sound turned down, Brian spluttered into his teacup as the familiar image of Ernest Hemingway appeared on the studio screen behind presenter Jon Snow. He fumbled for the remote. Sharon started, dropping her cup.
“What the hell – “ he raised his hand at her interjection.
“Shut up! Shut up! This is it!” He turned up the volume as they watched a report from Paris with the voice-over;
“High drama in the French capital this week, after an anonymous tip-off that one of the biggest mysteries in 20th century literature appeared to have been solved. In 1922, a suitcase full of typewritten manuscripts by the then un-published Ernest Hemingway was stolen from a train at the Gare de Lyon station. Until now, it had been suspected that the thief had thought them of no value and probably dumped them in the Seine. On Monday a group of academics from the Sorbonne University descended on this hotel – where the anonymous source claimed the missing suitcase was hidden. But the management were far from helpful. The manager, Claude Lebrauc, refused to co-operate and called the police.”
The scene cut to Lebrauc standing at the hotel reception desk, with the voice-over translating;
“This is a ridiculous prank. My family have been here in this building since 1912, and if there had been any such items hidden here, they would have been discovered by now. Of course, I welcome the publicity, but since we finally allowed the gentlemen from the Sorbonne to examine the room, they too have come to the conclusion that this is exactly what it appears to be – a wicked hoax.”
The item ended with a shot of room 14 with the wall panels removed. The cavity was empty.
The item finished, and Brian turned off the TV. Sharon turned to face him, smiled, then burst out laughing. Brian was angry.
“Oh, so that’s hilarious, is it?” But she laughed again.
“Yes, in a way. But more than that, it’s a relief. That bloody manager will have nicked that case and any bets it’ll turn up somewhere in a couple of years. But it won’t involve us, so can we get on with our lives now, please?”
Brian stared down at the tablecloth, scratched the back of his head and shrugged. The adventure was well and truly over and done.
As the TGV from Paris came to a halt in Geneva’s busy Genève-Cornavin railway station, a well-dressed Swiss couple stepped onto the platform. He was a big well-built man with a full grey beard, in his late 60s, wearing an expensive Homburg hat and a smart overcoat buttoned up against the Yuletide cold. She was perhaps twenty years his junior, clad in furs, her blonde tresses tumbling onto her shoulders from beneath a sable hat. They ordered a porter to bring a trolley, onto which their luggage was loaded to be taken to a waiting limousine out on the station concourse. It had begun to snow.
Among the expensive Gucci, Rimowa and Victorinox travelling cases, the misshapen, polythene-packed item festooned in parcel tape was totally incongruous.
The uniformed Chauffeur stepped out, opened the boot and began to load the luggage into the car. He wrinkled his nose in a slight expression of puzzlement as he reached for the polythene package. But his tall and elegant master waved him away, lifted the item himself and placed it on the limo’s rear seat.
“A little sentimental souvenir, Maurice,” he purred, as the chauffeur touched the peak of his cap in a salute.
“I will take care of this. It belongs to an old family friend…”
“Well, I hope Neil Young will remember a southern man don’t need him around anyhow”
Lynrd Skynrd: Sweet Home Alabama
The Deep South had already come a long way, socially, when Neil Young wrote his damning tracks Southern Man and Alabama. However, what many Skynrd followers fail to understand is that their verse from Sweet Home Alabama isn’t a put-down; it’s praise. They agreed with Young’s criticism yet were intent on putting him right – things had changed. In 1971 Lynrd Skynrd were recording at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, famed throughout the ’60s and ’70s for recording such acts as Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, and most of the South’s R&B influenced rock bands. The superb Muscle Shoals house band, who accompanied the solo artists, were known as The Swampers. Hence the Skynyrd line: “Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers.” The exposure of the good-natured tiff between Skynrd and Young over the South’s history of racism represented a new, musical high watermark in the social history of rock and blues. We could no longer see the rednecks for all that hippie hair. Yet the ghosts of the past take a long time to fade away.
Over the years I’ve been commissioned several times to write the liner notes to CD box set compilations of rhythm and blues hits spanning the 1940s-1950s. As a writer and R&B enthusiast, one tends to think after a while that, historically, there aren’t many artists left to discover. However, through researching thumbnail biographies of long-forgotten stars, some of whom released as few as two records, to be included on a four CD set spanning 100 tracks, I’m constantly being disavowed of the notion that I have anything approaching an encyclopaedic knowledge.
Such was the case when I was faced with The R&B Hits of 1947 when a new name cropped up; Andrew Tibbs. Of course, seasoned researchers with a detailed knowledge of Chess and the Aristocrat labels would recognise the name straight away. Yet finding detailed information on Tibbs’s life, and what happened to him during the final 30 years up to his death in 1991 was a challenge. The most intriguing aspect of Andrew Tibbs’s recording career was the title of his first single release on Aristocrat 1101 in August 1947; Bilbo Is Dead.
What I’m about to admit would have more erudite blues buffs smirking in superior disbelief. I realised I knew more about J.R.R. Tolkien than I did about the blues. The Hobbit had been published in 1937. Its main character was one Bilbo Baggins. I think I can be excused for considering the name Bilbo to be somewhat unusual . Thus, before launching into the quest to find out more about Andrew Tibbs, I was forced to ponder over the possible scenario of a young, black American blues singer who had read the works of Tolkien as early as 1947. OK, academicians – stop laughing. Such are the learning curves when delving into R&B history. Just about forgotten today, Andrew Tibbs (left) was born Melvin Andrew Grayson, on 2 February 1929, in Columbus, Ohio, and died 5 May 1991, in Chicago, Illinois. For the Chess brothers, he helped to establish the Chess and Checker labels’ forerunner, Aristocrat Records.
His father was a prominent Baptist minister, the Reverend S. A. Grayson. Tibbs was a fine singer who performed in choirs directed by Mahalia Jackson and Ruth Jones, another hugely talented vocalist who married Andrew’s brother, Robert, and later changed her name to Dinah Washington. His influences were Gatemouth Moore, Roy Brown and Ivory Joe Hunter, among others.
Tibbs performed at Chicago’s Macomba Lounge, owned by Leonard Chess, where his subtle stagecraft and smooth vocal style went down a treat – especially with the women. As Chess was in the process of buying Aristocrat Records, He decided Tibbs would be a great act to sign for the label. His first single, Bilbo Is Dead was backed with Union Man Blues. The sardonic, critical Bilbo dealt with the recently deceased Mississippi segregationist senator, Theodore Bilbo, a racist of the foulest ilk, and certainly caused controversy, being banned from sale in a number of Southern states.
However, whereas most researchers repeatedly claim that the Chicago Teamster unions objected to the b-side, in her very thorough history of Chess Records, Nadine Cohodas has shown that the story told by Marshall Chess about Tibbs’s 78 being destroyed in its thousands by angry Teamsters because of Union Blues is probably incorrect. Trucking companies weren’t used by Aristocrat – the label simply couldn’t afford them. Another part of the legend seems disproved, that being that Leonard Chess, who sold his product out of the boot of his Buick, was threatened over the Tibbs record with a crowbar. There
appears to be no documentation to verify this. In any case, the lyrics are hardly critical of the union; the verses celebrate being a member, because once joined, he can’t be touched . So, despite the legends, the record wasn’t a complete commercial flop. Bilbo, on Aristocrat 1101, was followed up by Toothless Woman Blues backed with Drinking Ink Splink, on Aristocrat 1102 which appeared in the shops in March 1948 . Tibbs recorded another six singles for Aristocrat, and then his path begins to fade.
It’s difficult, over sixty years on, to imagine how popular artists like Andrew Tibbs were in their heyday. One inevitably wonders why his full potential wasn’t reached to the point where, like many of his contemporaries, he’d remain a recognisable name today, two decades after his death. All we are left with are tantalising glimpses through time’s heavy curtains, such as in the engrossing biography of Jerome Solon Felder, a.k.a. Doc Pomus, (1925 – 1991), prince among rock’n’roll songwriters, a producer, and above all, blues singer;
‘To many blues cognoscenti, Doc foremost among them, the greatest singer in the nation, save Joe Turner and B.B. King, was Andrew Tibbs. His records failed to capture his genius … on stage at Cookie’s Caravan Tibbs held an almost supernatural sway over the audience … That good-evil countenance drove women, and some men, too, into Pentecostal hysterics.’
Pomus and Tibbs often featured on the same bill and would round off their evenings with what they called a ‘battle of the blues’ which often focused – dangerously, if boyfriends or husbands were present – on a particular woman in the room who had caught their eye. Andrew and Doc would trade improvised verses from opposite ends of the room – their powerful voices needing little or no PA system. Considering the racial constraints of the time, the combination of the uninhibited Doc Pomus, a disabled, cigar-chewing white Jew, permanently on crutches due to the polio which had stricken him in childhood, and a coloured man, Tibbs, must have been quite a musical novelty. Andrew also performed regularly with his brother, Kenneth, as The Tibbs Brothers. Later, when Pomus formed his legendary writing partnership with Mort Shuman, the brothers would be early beneficiaries of the Pomus/Shuman writing machine when they recorded two of their songs, I’m Going Crazy and (Wake Up) Miss Rip Van Winkle. Sadly, as with much of the partnership’s output during their learning period, neither song set the world on fire. A small piece of musical history was made when King Curtis did his first Atlantic recording session backing the Tibbs for Atco in 1956. In 1965 Andrew Tibbs, still not really the star he should have been, made his last single for M-Pac! Records, Stone Hearted Woman, then left the music business for good, spending the rest of his life working for the West Electric Corporation. He passed away, aged 62, in Chicago on May 5 1991.
From here on, the reader may well ask ‘what the hell has this chapter to do with R&B?’ However, when it comes to the history of the Deep South and racism, the following few pages are included to illustrate the historical social landscape against which African Americans were forced to struggle in the first six decades of the 20th century. The actual characters that ran states like Mississippi and Alabama were frighteningly real, and for those of us who grew up in Britain in ignorance of their existence, when we look at what they did and said, we can only be shocked at their attitudes. Therefore their inclusion may help us to gain an extra level of appreciation for the courage and tenacity of dedicated black performers during those times and the triumph and durability their enduring music.
When the book finally closes (if it ever does) on the struggle for full African American Civil Rights, at least the courageous young Andrew Tibbs and his barbed reminder of vicious segregation, Bilbo Is Dead, will undoubtedly provide an interesting footnote. The idea of (to use Theodore G. Bilbo’s vile grandiloquence) a ‘Jew and a nigger’ performing together in a club would have been the ultimate anathema to Mississippi’s champion knight of the burning cross. So, over 80 years after the end of the American Civil War, how did the majority of white Mississippians sleep at night knowing they had such a sickening senator? With great ease, apparently; he had no trouble being re-elected.
Theodore Gilmore Bilbo (October 13, 1877 – August 21, 1947) represented the epitome of misguided Southern white supremacy. His family, from Juniper Grove, a Mississippi hamlet in Pearl River County where he was born, were poor. He attended Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, then law school at Vanderbilt University, failing to graduate from either institution. After a brief spell working as a teacher, he was admitted to the bar in Tennessee in 1908 and established his own law practice in Poplarville, Mississippi.
Bilbo was a Democrat, who spent two terms as Mississippi’s Governor from 1916–20, and 1928–32. He became a U.S. Senator from 1935–47. A rabid racist, a filibustering, scathing rhetorician, his stock in trade was crude, insulting behaviour which often landed him in trouble. At one point one of the recipients of his rudeness broke a walking stick over his head, whilst another prominent victim of his offensive tongue attacked him on a train, pistol-whipping Bilbo in front of startled passengers. He believed that black people were ‘naturally inferior’, supported Adolf Hitler, and was a staunch upholder of segregation, as well as being a committed member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Even allowing for the racist atmosphere people like Bilbo were able to encourage and benefit from, it would be unfair to the population of Mississippi to lump them all together with the KKK. Some of the politicians Bilbo fought against, whilst still incurably infected with the virus of white supremacy, did display slightly more progressive and liberal tendencies.
LeRoy Percy (left) was undoubtedly part of the Delta aristocracy. At the age of 28 he was running the family plantation business. He had a BA from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and went on to the University of Virginia Law School, cramming three years of courses into one year. Back home in Greenville, Mississippi, he soon established himself by energetically simultaneously running a law practice and his plantations with impressive efficiency. As the 20th century dawned, he controlled plantations covering over 20,000 acres. No-one in the region could match his prestige and power. Yet there was nothing parochial about LeRoy Percy. He had important friends in the Supreme Court and in the Senate Executive office, he went hunting with President Theodore Roosevelt, played poker with the Speaker of the House, and was a trustee of both the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, and as a governor of a Federal Reserve Bank he had wide business and industrial connections, travelling widely between the boardrooms of New York, Chicago, and even London.
Percy’s Delta domain relied on physical labour. His attempts to attract Northern farmers and immigrants to Mississippi’s Washington County failed, and only poor African Americans turned up. Ever the pragmatist, Percy decided that if it was the black man who was willing to come to Washington County, to stay and work, then at least, unlike many of his Mississippian political peers, he might as well ensure conditions for his tenants were among the most favourable in the state. If African Americans in the South were, (as was frequently the case), chased off their land, disenfranchised and even lynched, Percy would address the balance even by going as far as providing mortgage loans for them to buy Delta farms. However, although he too believed that African Americans were perhaps ‘inferior’ to the white race, he went even further than mortgage loans. His broadmindedness extended to that bête noir of all segregationist ‘good ole boys’; he actually encouraged and provided education for his black workers. Soon, Washington County had black mailmen, policemen and even a few African American judges. Greenville and Washington County reaped the benefits of such liberal tolerance. Surrounded by the smirking rural evil of Jim Crow, Washington County was an island of free-thinking moderation.
In 1910, Percy became a United States Senator, a proud moment for the innovative Percy family. But his joy would not last long.
Hemmed in all around by more ignorant populist forces, their champions, LeRoy Percy’s formidable opponents, were about to smother Washington County under a regressive blanket of spiteful revenge. A ‘nigger-loving’ senator was something they would not abide. Leading the dark hordes was Percy’s greatest rival, Mississippi Governor James Kimble Vardaman (1861 – 1930).
Vardaman is remembered as ‘The Great White Chief,’ a fierce advocate of white supremacy. He said “if it is necessary every negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” Vardaman supporters were encouraged to wear a red bandana around their necks. Some historians believe that this may well be the origin of the term, “redneck.” Another well-known term, usually applied to poor white farmers was “peckerwood.” As many white farmers lived in the woods, as did that noisy bird, the woodpecker, the name stuck.
When Percy’s re-election in the Senate came up, Vardaman’s followers came out en masse and Percy was defeated. Vardaman became the new senator, and the Ku Klux Klan got what it wanted – the Mississippi Delta. Vardaman had won 74 out of the 75 counties in Mississippi, and had become the new power to be reckoned with.
However, the KKK still didn’t get Percy’s beloved Washington County. His business partner was a Jew, and he was married to a Catholic – two of the Klan’s most hated targets. He needed his black workers to keep his various enterprises running. In 1922, despite threats on his life, Percy, no longer a member of the US Senate, publicly opposed the Klan, refusing to back down. His calculated and brave defiance, by filling the hall where the Klan were holding a major recruitment meeting with his own supporters, was a national sensation. He kept the Klan out of Greenville, and to many became something of a hero.
Sadly, LeRoy Percy’s liberality would be literally washed away by the great flood which devastated the region in 1927. Based in Greenville, Will Percy, LeRoy’s son, oversaw the relief effort. To his discredit (with echoes of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans) he took little notice of the way African Americans had suffered. Their homes, their work, their crops, everything had gone. Thus the bonds LeRoy Percy had built up with his black labour force over the years evaporated. The devastated sharecroppers left and headed north. A year later over half of the area’s black population had gone elsewhere to seek work.
As if Percy’s demise and Vardaman’s rise weren’t bad enough, there was an even more virulent force waiting in the wings. Theodore G. Bilbo was elected twice elected as Governor of Mississippi in 1916 and again in 1928. In 1934, he became a Senator. Over the next 12 years, his poisonous racist outbursts in the US Senate outraged many. Americans had just fought a war in Europe against the kind of murderous political system the likes of Bilbo aspired to, and there was a new liberalism afoot. It manifested itself in the media, often with startling and dramatic effect.
In 1946 the charismatic and multi-talented actor Jack Webb,
who would eventually become known throughout the world for his portrayal as hard-boiled Detective Sergeant Joe Friday in the long running (and much parodied) TV series, Dragnet, was about to bring Senator Bilbo’s nastiness to a much wider audience. Radio was king then, and Jack Webb’s new series One Out of Seven, which premiered over ABC’s KGO on February 6, 1946, would break new documentary ground. In many ways, Webb, who admitted to being ‘an ultra-conservative’ was a paradoxical character. He’d served heroically with the US Air force as a B-26 crewmember during World War II. He was a jazz musician, and practiced the on the cornet every day. He greatly admired America’s law enforcement agencies. Webb was happy to have all the scripts for his TV crime series Dragnet inspected and passed by the LAPD. In the movie LA Confidential, based on James Ellroy’s books, LA Quartet, there’s a Jack Webb type character, the charismatic LAPD Sergeant Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey. Vincennes, like Webb, is connected as an advisor on a fictional police TV show, Badge of Honour. In later life, Jack Webb’s formal, law-abiding attitudes and tough all-American male style fell from grace when the hippie movement swept along the West Coast in the 1960s, and he became a critic of the ‘counterculture.’ His later 1960s episodes of the re-furbished Dragnet were definitely guilty of a florid, trashy misrepresentation of hippiedom to which the hair and beads brigade responded by portraying Webb as a rigid authoritarian who could not adjust to social change. In some ways the view was unfair. Even though he was almost as crazy as Joe McCarthy when it came to ‘the Red Menace’, if anyone campaigned for social change, it was Jack Webb. His life as a musician and jazz aficionado only strengthened his progressive views on race and Civil Rights.
Airing on Wednesday evenings at 9 p.m. throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, the KGO radio series One Out of Seven was a commentary on one of the seven most prominent wire service stories to surface for that week. The show began with the following announcement: ‘The material and direct quotations included within the following programme have been taken from authoritative files and from dispatches filed by the Associated Press and International News Service. We present these statements without editorial comment. We assume no responsibility for their content.’
The first show on February 6 1946 was entitled Senator Bilbo Is An
Honourable Man. Webb and his team obviously knew the power of drama as they damned Bilbo with a sardonic approximation of ‘praise’ in the style of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act III Scene 2 Antony: ‘For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men’ Over six well-selected vignettes, using original Associated Press wording, Webb, playing all the parts in the script, revealed the hypocrisy and racism of Mississippi’s Senator. This ‘honourable man’ insisted that ‘all negroes, and Jews and Italians were inferior races.’ This same ‘honourable man’ had proposed an amendment to the federal work-relief bill on June 6, 1938, proposing to deport 12 million black Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment. With little sense of shame or decorum, he had also proudly revealed his KKK membership on radio. Before the 1938 session of the United States Senate, he’d filibustered against an anti-lynching bill, proclaiming to the Senate: “If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousand fold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon White Southern men will not tolerate.”
Webb’s expose rattled along, including the revelation that Bilbo had replied to one of his female constituents, an Italian immigrant, by starting the letter with the ‘greeting’ ‘Dear Dago.’ After thirty blistering minutes, Senator Bilbo had been condemned out of his own mouth.
In November 1946, nine months after Jack Webb’s broadcast, Theodore Bilbo was re-elected to the Senate for a third term, but the Senate’s newly-elected Republican majority refused to seat Bilbo for the term, rightly suspecting him taking bribes and of inciting violence against blacks who wanted to vote. A filibuster by his supporters delayed the seating of the Senator for days. However, within a year the great white heaven of the KKK called him aloft; Bilbo was dead.
So did things get any better in Mississippi? The departed Bilbo’s Senate seat was to be occupied by his replacement, John Cornelius Stennis (1901 –1995)
He was a Democrat who served in the Senate for over 41 years, becoming its most senior member by his retirement. Like his predecessor, he was a devout segregationist. He energetically opposed the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and was a signatory of the 1956 Southern Manifesto which supported filibuster tactics to delay and block an Act’s passage. Stennis also had a nasty earlier career as a prosecutor, yet his demand for the conviction and the death penalty for three sharecroppers, all of whom had been tortured and flogged to get them to confess to murder, led to the Supreme Court overturning the convictions. The trial’s transcript showed that Stennis knew full well that the men had been tortured. In many ways it was also a landmark case with a result that many Southern racists would have hated. The case, Brown v. Mississippi (1936) brought about the banning of the use of evidence obtained by torture. However, time seemed to soften Stennis on the subject of Civil Rights. The 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act got his vote, yet that old Johnny Reb streak couldn’t allow him to fully open his heart to the black man. When it came to establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday he voted against it. So, Jim Crow, as a simplistic representation of racism, was one thing, but that rot wasn’t confined to the roots of society.
The following newspaper obituary opens up an intriguing epilogue to the subject of Andrew Tibbs.
From The New York Times, October 18, 1988 John Ball Dies at 77; A Critic and Novelist Known for Mysteries By EDWIN McDOWELL
John Ball, a music critic turned mystery writer, died of colon cancer Saturday in Encino (Calif.) Hospital. He was 77 years old.The author of some 35 books translated into 17 languages, Mr. Ball’s best-known book is ”In the Heat of the Night” (1965), which won an Emmy from the Mystery Writers of America. The film version won the Academy Award as the best motion picture of 1967.
That book introduced Virgil Tibbs, a detective from Pasadena who becomes involved in a murder case while visiting his mother in a Southern town. In the motion picture, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, Pasadena was changed to Philadelphia. Worked for Fortune Magazine
Mr. Ball was born in Schenectady, N.Y. on July 8, 1911 but moved to Milwaukee as a child. After graduation from Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., he joined Fortune magazine in 1937 and three years later became an assistant curator of the Hayden Planetarium. He wrote liner notes for Columbia record albums, became a music critic for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1946, and left in 1951 to review records for the New York World-Telegram .
When young Andrew Tibbs hastily wrote the lyrics to his first single, Bilbo Is Dead, (apparently on a brown paper bag in a cab en route to the studio) he could well have realised that this was a political move which might have repercussions. And his choice for the ‘b’ side – Union Blues seems to suggest a brave, rebellious spirit. When looking at the writer John Ball’s career, which included a spell in the music industry as both writer and critic – right at the time Tibbs made his first recording – might we ask the question, is Andrew Tibbs in any way the inspiration for the black Philadelphia Detective, Virgil Tibbs, in the 1965 novel (and subsequent 1967 movie) as played by Sidney Poitier In The Heat of The Night?
Stirling Silliphant (1918-1996) won an Oscar for his screenplay of the movie, and any avid R&B fan will easily recall the soundtrack with the mighty Ray Charles singing the eponymous title song. It may be a long shot, a pale guess, but a thrilling murder story, written almost two years after Tibb’s recording, about a black detective, temporarily caught out of his usual Philadelphia comfort zone for one steamy night in Sparta, Mississippi, with its threatening undercurrent of violent racism is pure Andrew Tibbs. For Andrew and the fictional Virgil, Bilbo may have been dead – but his spirit lived on in the Sparta police department.
Arkansas, Alabama, Carolina, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana are all beautiful places. Today down South, they don’t lynch black people any more, yet the descendants of those voters who supported the likes of Theodore Bilbo, J. K. Vardaman and John Stennis, although a dying breed, still carry some pale vestiges of that vicious, post-Civil War resentment.
In 1997, the actor Morgan Freeman, whose home town is the epicentre of the Delta blues, Clarksdale, (where he runs his own Ground Zero blues club) was saddened by the fact that at nearby Charleston High School (that’s Charleston Mississippi, not South Carolina) the school Proms were still segregated. Morgan offered to fully fund the city’s first entirely integrated prom. He repeated the offer every year yet it was not taken up until 2009, when it was finally accepted, and filmed by HBO .
Was it a success? Yes. But as if to prove that the bad old days of Dixie could still bite back, a large number of white parents decided to have nothing to do with Freeman’s prom, and since 2009 have held their own, all white proms. Regretfully, facing such an attitude, almost a century and a half since the end of the Civil War, we simply have to accept that racism is an incurable human condition. They may not be spilling blood these days down on the old plantation, but elsewhere around the world the grisly merry-go-round spins on. Serbs and Croats, Palestinians and Israelis, the stupidity of warring religions, Protestants vs. Catholics, Islam vs. everybody else, and although the Third Reich ended over seven decades ago, its anti-Semitism still has plenty of holocaust-denying supporters.
The fact that rhythm and blues artists clung on to their zest for life and fuelled their love of dance and music by courageously continuing to drive through those wicked landscapes of the 20th Century only makes their recorded heritage more precious.