Fiery Words from FireCrest

Monday, 24 November 2008

A Veritable Onion

We’ve been sent a review copy of The Grassy Knoll Badgeman by Alan J. Summers (AuthorHouse, £10.99, ISBN 978-1-4343-8673-1). The book is listed as a novel but is an apparently factual account, written in a detached academic style, of sundry shenanigans perpetrated by one Robert Elmer Kleasen—a real person, in whom we have an abiding interest.
Kleasen, who died a few years ago in prison in England, had an undistinguished career in the United States in various jails (both as inmate and guard), as a taxidermist, an amateur gunsmith and fanatically dedicated hunter, a mental-health patient and, finally, as convicted murderer. Sent to death row in Texas in 1975 for the murder of two Mormon missionaries, he was released on appeal over a legal technicality, then jailed again for firearms offences, then finally pitched up in England in 1990. Where, of course, no one knew him. To the extent that Humberside police considered him upright enough to grant him a firearms dealer’s licence. He abused that dispensation and found himself back in jail, where he eventually died awaiting extradition to the USA.
In England Kleasen re-invented himself several times over. He told people he’d been born in Germany, where he’d been a star member of the Hitler Youth; he’d come to the USA with his father, a rocket scientist, who was imported under Operation Paperclip. He somehow acquired a Medal of Honor, which he occasionally wore, claiming to have been awarded it for flying bombing missions for the US Air Force at the Battle of Inchon in Korea. As a matter of history, air support for the Inchon landing came solely from carrier-based US Marine Corps planes; and unsurprisingly the official list of MoH recipients doesn’t include his name. Kleasen had then—among many other things—flown U2 spy planes for the CIA, been a member of a Swedish delegation to North Viet Nam, and been a professor of German at the American University in Beirut (in the 1980s when he was actually in jail); he later fought for the PLO. Some stories would change over the years and careful listeners noted that sometimes he seemed to have been in two places at once.
Those who both knew Kleasen well and knew the truth concluded that he wasn’t, precisely, lying about all this. Of course it was all howling claptrap and baloney, but it seems Kleasen had come to believe his own fantasies: his false memories had superseded (perhaps eliminated) his real ones. But he did talk a lot about Che Guevara, and in such a way that it seemed likely that he had known the man—quite possibly meeting him in Mexico in the 1950s.
Now along comes Alan J. Summers—apparently an American—to fill in some of the gaps in Kleasen’s life story, real and unreal. According to Summers, Kleasen has three more amazing claims to fame: in Cuba after the revolution he operated as Herman Marks, otherwise known only as a shadowy US citizen who worked as an enthusiastic executioner for Castro and Guevara; he was the mysterious ‘badgeman’ photographed shooting at John F. Kennedy on the grassy knoll on 22 November 1963; and he was the CIA operative who gave the coup de grâce to Guevara when he was captured in Bolivia in October 1967.
It’s possible to fit the stories Summers tells into Kleasen’s non-fictional biography, but they smack delightfully of the kind of tall tale the man himself was so adept at spinning. But this is one of the pleasures of the book. We can leave others to debunk these episodes in detail. Meanwhile, Summers seems to have concocted a bunch of plausible yarns about a man who turned his whole life into an epic yarn. The sedate style is a fine pastiche of factual biographical writing. It clothes the narrative with a kind of sober respectability—and a deep ambiguity that perfectly suits the many-layered life of Kleasen himself. There is something strangely satisfying in the thought of creating believable whoppers about a man who believed his own falsehoods. Quite post-modern, really, except that it’s highly readable. Recommended!

Monday, 17 November 2008

Grains of Good News

Squeals in the schoolyard
      We’re pleased to see that those méchants élèves the Sundial Press, who foiled our plans to republish T.F. Powys’s Unclay, have at last abandoned their claim to be ‘publishers and republishers of remarkable original fiction’. This may well be true, but we dreamed up the phrase for ourselves first. Sundial now describe themselves less gratingly as ‘publishers of fine fiction’, which doesn’t have quite the same ring, but does have the virtue of being accurate. We’re also wryly amused by this lot, as they’ve deleted our words of praise for Unclay from their website too. Perhaps yelling Yah, boo, sucks! at the same time, as they hurled our bag of sweeties over the playground railing.
       So it goes.

Praise be
      Elizabeth Hopkinson’s excellent and unnerving The Kaleidoscope Man, which we published earlier this year, scored 3/5 in a review by Leslie Mcdowell in The Independent on Sunday. Not bad at all for a first novel, we thought. Here are the best bits:
     “Structured like a thriller, this debut offers a little more than simple ruminations on good and evil. …Hopkinson does a good job of capturing the psychological torment of ‘not knowing’, playing well on the fear of the unknown, and understanding what damage ignorance can do. Her style [is] refreshing, clear and sparse… [and] works best in the moments of shocking revelation when starkness is all you need.”
     Off you go then. Support your local bookshop!

Political Apathy? No: Quiet Desperation

14 November 2008

Partly by accident and partly for reasons we mischievously prefer not to disclose, we found ourselves landing on a wee-small-hours discussion on TV between Andrew Neil and historian David Marquand. The latter had some quite implausibly nice things to say about Mr Tony Blair, but at least recognized that the man – a history graduate – had no sense of history. Yet he seemed as puzzled as anyone else by his finding (apparently, he has piles of data on this in his new book, Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career Of British Democracy) that over the last decade or more the British people have learned to trust politicians less and less, and now distrust them as never before. The result has been a kind – and I must stress that word – of political apathy. To counter it, politicians have come up from time to time with bright ideas, none of which work.
            Quite why this state of affairs is a puzzle to politicians is itself a puzzle, at least for as long as one forgets how few of today’s British politicians have done much in the world outside politics. As David Marquand remarked, Mr Blair (for example) had never managed anything or anyone until he became Prime Minister and had to manage not just a country but (as far as anyone can) its allies and enemies. From such a position it must be difficult to see that in the last half-century politicians have mattered, and influenced, less and less in the matter of how the country is actually run, and even more difficult to admit it even if one suspected as much.
             Government as we know it down on the street has nothing to do with politicians. It has everything to do with bureaucrats and jobsworths: this is where real people encounter real government. The actuality of this new faceless politics manifests itself everywhere, from encounters with officious parking wardens, to the outlandish exploitation of anti-terrorist laws to watch how we dispose of household rubbish, to the spread of ‘managers’ like a cancer throughout the National Health Service. Here is a gem that we treasure as we do the AIDS virus and the curly red hair we hope never to find floating in our G&T: Elfin Safety, innit. Hawkers of Remembrance Day poppies are now prohibited from giving one a pin with which to attach the poppy to one’s raiment unless they deem one an “appropriate person”. By some bizarre loophole one is still permitted to take a pin for oneself, should it be proffered. This privilege will doubtless have been withdrawn in time for next year’s commemoration of those who died for our…er, liberty.
            In a less dreamlike world this would be funny. But it is of a piece with the grotesque spectacle of a civil servant, the amazing Sharon Shoesmith (under whose administration the 17-month-old ‘Baby P’ was slowly tortured to death) blithely refusing to take responsibility for what happened on her watch and even more carelessly remarking that “You cannot stop people who are determined to kill children”. Nothing could more chillingly reveal the arrogant insulation of the bureaucratic mind – not just from real life, which is bad enough, but from any notion of the public service they and their staff are supposed to perform. We had – well, pardon our presumption – thought that people like Ms Shoesmith were permitted to adorn our age so prosperously precisely in order to prevent such horrors as this, and with at least a modest sense of urgency. If Ms Shoesmith had any contact with the meaning of the words that dripped so easily from her mouth, she would already have fired all her staff and then decently shot herself. Her remark condemns the lot of them, and herself, as redundant, ineffectual, otiose, pointless, and a waste of public funds. And who could disagree?
            But what we know (and fear), and the politicians apparently don’t, is that politicians don’t and won’t make any difference to any of this. So of course people are apathetic about politics: they see, daily, where the real power lies, and know that nothing can be done about the leeches and parasites who wield it. This makes people dumbly, cumulatively, sourly angry. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. It is what we talk about in pubs, at corner-shop tills and in service-station forecourts, over brandy and cigars after dinner. If politicians want us to be less apathetic – before we stick their heads on pikes on London Bridge, or whatever nasty form the eventual backlash takes – they would do well to reimpose the authority we naïvely elect them to assert over their – and more to the point, our – minions.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Hail to the Chief?

One has, I suppose, to say something about the election of Senator Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. Everyone else has; so why not be fashionable for a spell, and a change.

An American friend forwards a headline from an Egyptian blog: “Black man gets world’s worst job.”. That’s not a bad summary at all. Others, notably Matthew Parris in The Times of London on Saturday (8 November), have pointed out the obvious corollary: that Mr Obama now has so many hopes and dreams draped upon the tabula rasa of his personality that the limitations of the job will mean he disappoints many, perhaps all, and risks a vicious backlash. Parris notes too his likeness to Tony Blair (“a Blair with brains”) in this, but Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance goes further: “Within a year or so, the non-whites who are still celebrating his victory will have noticed that nothing much has changed as it affects their lives, and will be denouncing him as a white man with a black face.” And Gabb foresees for the United States the kind of subtle but radical destruction of liberties by seductive persuasion that we have seen in the United Kingdom over the last decade. To me, Mr Obama recalls Blair too in his sheer oleaginous politician-ness: his condescending, rather nervous smile during the presidential debates (which weren’t debates at all), his brilliant evasiveness on specifics of policy, the consummate meaninglessness of that Change We Need slogan. Well, we shall see, in due course, what Mr Obama really has to offer.

The pleasure and the pain
There are reasons to be pleased: for one, that somewhat more than half the US population did not, as once it would, find it entirely impossible to vote a black man into the White House. One wonders, though, how many people voted for him simply because he is black, regardless of any political substance (or lack of it) – although his being young and handsome and a skilled orator surely helped. In his campaign Mr Obama may not have played much himself on his race, but he was too shrewd a politician to discourage others from doing so. Some people, almost certainly, voted for him out of solidarity: one Republican commentator remarked that the black vote had increased by precisely the same percentage as Mr Obama’s winning margin – “Go figure.” If so, the impulse was fundamentally as backward-looking and racist (and naïve) as any that may have driven some whites to vote for Mr McCain simply because he is not black. And it’s certainly not difficult to imagine the temptation for many liberal, well-meaning whites to vote for Mr Obama simply to join in the making of an “historic” point.

And lurking behind such considerations is the ghastly spectre of political correctness, and the peculiar, demagogic illogic of contemporary political language. In this, a truncated vocabulary exploits excluded middles: suggest people should arm themselves against sociopaths, and you are acccused of vigilantism and a lynch-mob mentality; lift a voice on behalf of habeas corpus, and you are at least soft on terrorism and maybe a closet al-Quaedist; criticize a black man, and you’re a racist. Rather support Mr Obama, however much you may secretly question the wisdom of the choice, than risk being accused of the worst crime on Earth after child molestation and not weeping at Princess Diana’s demise.

So, whatever Mr Obama may think, or say with such rousing conviction, this was not quite a defining moment. As long as Americans vote out of ‘ethnic’ loyalty or according to some second-guessing of history, they will remain stuck in the past. The United States will really have put its racial divisions behind it only when no one bothers to remark on politicians’ appearance or background at all. But, despite the caveats, this result remains an encouraging sign.

The geography of change
Meanwhile, what of the 57.4 million people who voted for Mr McCain? Simplistic views of a new sense of unity in America creak a bit when one looks at where they live. The slightly byzantine nature of a US general election means that the electoral college votes of the Western seaboard states, a chunk of the Midwest, the Northeastern seaboard, and – looking rather lonely – Colorado and New Mexico went for Obama. Most of rural (central, ‘heartland’) America and the Deep South went for Mr McCain. What the psychological effect of this will be remains to be seen: but at that level one may as well be looking at three or four different polities. The picture you get when viewing voting by county (we filched the map from Wikipedia) gives a rather different impression, but one that’s no less unnerving in its way:

Note, for a start, how most of the US–Mexico border is blue; elsewhere, the rural/urban divide is even more striking than in the declarations for the electoral college. If US presidential election results were based on square miles of territory (and perhaps it’s as well that they’re not), Mr Obama would have been feeling rather wan by now – not to say hung out to dry. This geography of political exclusion will no doubt lead some on the further shores of the Right to wail and gnash their teeth and predict apocalypse. What it really indicates is yet another massive task for Mr Obama – to live up to his promise to be a president for all Americans.

It is possible he may convince much of the American people of this. But it’s not simply a matter of winning over the kind of supposedly “bitter” people who, in Mr Obama’s ignorant, revealing and rather odious caricature, “cling to their guns and religion”. He has too to reign in the presumptuous prejudices of ‘liberal’ America, whose complacent righteousness shows signs of slavering for a field day.

Where else might one find a neat example of this but the Web edition of the New York Times? A mere three days after the election, online correspondent Hanna Strange reported that “Gun stores across the United States are reporting a massive surge in sales as buyers rush to stockpile firearms in case of a ban under soon-to-be President Obama”. The Times, which cited only two gunstores in its copy, appears not have noticed the recent Supreme Court ruling reasserting Americans’ right under the Second Amendment to “cling” to all the guns they want – just too tacky, my dear, to have to admit to that. Rather worse for an allegedly responsible newspaper, it doesn’t address the question of why some Americans are so distrustful of an Obama administration (with a packed Congress behind him). Instead one gets the really unnerving impression that the high priests of ‘liberal’ America are creating mythic fear-figures – bogeymen – out of people who choose not to think like them, drink like them, or dress like them.

Are the people of the American heartland, who are spread out over so many square miles of their astonishing landscape, the new niggers for the cloistered urban élite? That’s how we’d portray it if we had the skills of a vicious political cartoonist.