Portraits, by Steve McCurry

Even if one has not heard Steve McCurry’s name, it is likely his most famous photograph will be familiar – ‘Afghan Girl’, as it became known.  Taken for National Geographic at a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984, it features Sharbat Gula with her piercing green eyes staring at the camera.  It has become one of the most iconic photographs of all time as well as the magazine’s best-known cover (June 1985), symbolising the suffering of the Afghan people, and particularly its women.  To acknowledge its fame, it takes pride of place on the cover of McCurry’s 1999 book Portraits, with a less-familiar picture of her playfully hiding the lower part of her face on the back.

She is accompanied by many more portraits taken around the world, though few in Europe.  They have an air of spontaneity, the sense that as McCurry wandered along, he would see interesting faces projecting character and ask them to pose for him.  There are several famous subjects, but these are treated precisely the same as all the other individuals photographed, with no effort to note who they are.  He is particularly good with children, and he likes faces that are decorated in some way.  There is an intimacy to the portraits suggesting it would be pleasant to sit down for a chat; the short introduction by McCurry does refer to the portraits speaking of ‘a desire for human connection.’

My major complaint, apart from the small format of the book, a surprise coming from Phaidon, is that there is so little contextual information.  The introduction isn’t particularly informative, and captions are confined to the date and place the photograph was taken.  We learn nothing about those pictured, which does them a disservice.  Some are quirky, and a description would be useful – why, for example, is the man covered in what looks like gold paint smoking four cigarettes simultaneously?  What is the large object sitting on a man’s head in Sri Lanka?   There is no obvious organisation, and the photographs jump from place to place and back and forward in time.  As the period they were made in recedes, it will become increasingly difficult to work out what was happening when McCurry was in a particular country, and why he was there.

As an indication of the iconic status of ‘Afghan Girl’, Simon Hill, Royal Photographic Society president, used it as his example when he tackled the issue of artificial intelligence in the May/June 2023 RPS magazine.  He used a text-to-image app, and of all the pictures he could have chosen he recreated McCurry’s photograph.  He wrote fewer than 50 words and the app took less than a minute to generate the result.  Comparing the two versions, in one sense the similarity to Sharbat Gula’s portrait is immediately obvious: a woman with piercing eyes (bluer than Gula’s) wearing a red scarf with her dark hair showing, standing in front of a blue background and looking directly into the camera.  But the differences show what a great photograph McCurry has made.

Leaving aside such minor details as the positioning (the AI subject is standing square whereas Gula is standing at an angle, the blue background is clearer, taking the form of horizontal planks, whereas McCurry’s background is less defined but with vertical marks), the AI version is smooth, with none of Gula’s experiences etched on her face.  The program has raided the corpus of western classical painting, giving the AI subject an Italian look.  Her hair is groomed and neatly parted, contrasting with Gula’s unkempt look, her skin is unblemished and looked after, not that of someone who has been living in a dusty refugee camp.  The lighting mimics a style that is artfully posed, McCurry’s photograph possesses a directness suggesting he was working quickly with what he had to hand.

But the most distinctive difference is the quality of the scarf.  Gula’s is worn, holey, and her blue tunic shows through the ragged tears.  It, like its owner, has seen much.  The AI version by contrast is glossy, new-looking and elegant.  Its colour is richly saturated rather than faded by exposure to the sun, washing and hard living, a fashion statement rather than a symbol of deprivation.  Not knowing this is someone who never lived, one would have to agree the AI has produced a face which looks physically attractive, but would not consider her to have displayed resilience in difficult circumstances, the point of McCurry’s portrait.  The AI may have, to an extent, replicated the surface of the original, but it did not reproduce the depth.  That is entirely down to the interaction between Gula and McCurry.


Simon Hill, ‘Voicebox: Facing up to a Brave New World’, Journal of the Royal Photographic Society, Vol. 163, No. 3, May/June 2023, p. 331.


The 50 Greatest Bike Rides of the World, by Sarah Woods

Sarah Woods’ The 50 Greatest Bike Rides of the World (2016) is a travel guide highlighting some scenic bike rides around the world suitable for a variety of fitness levels.  It is part of a series, each listing 50 items, so the number of routes was chosen to fit the format.  There is no general advice on cycling overseas, this is solely about the listed routes and Woods’ experiences of them.  While light on detail, the descriptions give a taste of what it’s like to cycle in different parts of the world.

The book is divided into six sections: The UK (eight routes, surely overrepresented*); Europe (18); Asia (eight), Australasia (two), The Americas (11), and Africa (three). Each route is described, with general information on the distance, terrain, endurance level, tips, and any special features or attractions along the way.  It is well-illustrated, though the photographs are somewhat murky.  There are no maps, which would have been a better use of the space.

The descriptions are designed to inspire cyclists looking for new experiences, though there is a disclaimer stating that ‘descriptions…are for general guidance only, and should not be used as a substitute for a proper route plan or map,’ continuing with the stern warning that the author and publisher will not be responsible for anything ghastly happening as a result of using the book.  It’s probably not a problem as it is hard to believe anyone would tackle any of these routes armed only with the account of Woods’ ride and without conducting further research.

Instead of forming part of the planning process, the book is more suited as a prompt suggesting places to visit, and is certainly a pleasant aid to whiling away a few hours pondering where one might take a bike.  Are the routes the greatest?  Probably not all of them, those selected are obviously ones Woods has travelled rather than ‘the best’, but they seem fairly good to someone who mostly cycles to the newsagent and wouldn’t dream of undertaking travel overseas on a pushbike.

*Oddly, the first section is titled ‘United Kingdom and Ireland’, but the routes break down into Northern Ireland (one), Scotland (two), Wales (one) and England (four).  The Republic of Ireland is not represented, so the section could simply have been titled ‘United Kingdom’.  Perhaps, ironically, someone in Icon Books’ editorial department needs to check a map.

Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy, by George Behe

George Behe’s Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy (1988) is a valuable contribution to the voluminous literature devoted to every aspect of RMS Titanic’s life and death.  It is a catalogue of accounts, varying in strength, of premonitions and statements later taken to be portents relating to the sinking of the ship.  Some are well-known, for example the remarkable resonances between Morgan Robertson’s novel Futility (1898) and Titanic, but for many of them Behe drew on a wide range of local newspapers which must have taken considerable effort to track down in the pre-internet age.

The 135 cases are arranged in five categories, each accompanied by Behe’s commentary: curious coincidences arising from chance; mistaken accounts and hoaxes; a chapter devoted to W T Stead who, thanks to his high-profile Spiritualist beliefs, attracted predictions of his demise, and was said to have transmitted communications after it; possible psychic phenomena (potentially psychic but for which there are gaps in the evidence preventing a firm conclusion); and probable psychic phenomena.  A general discussion lists various arguments critics might bring to bear to question any paranormality.  A brief conclusion suggests that the sheer quantity of cases supports the reality of psychic foreshadowing.  There are references and suggestions for further reading, and the volume is well-illustrated.

Steering a middle course between credulity and pseudo-scepticism, Behe is careful to note that none of the cases in the strongest category can be ruled as definitely paranormal due to the complexities of evaluating historical documents.  Following the approach Ian Stevenson (whose paper ‘A Review and Analysis of Paranormal Experiences Connected with the Sinking of the Titanic’ is included in the references) took towards reincarnation, which he referred to as ‘cases of the reincarnation type’, Behe describes these cases as ‘highly suggestive’, the evidence currently available seeming to preclude a normal explanation.

The 35 cases Behe considers to be the best certainly sound convincing, at least as narrated.  However, they are still anecdotes, and not one was written down beforehand to enable independent verification.  Behe, with some justice, notes that public verification was not considered important beforehand, because they took on significance after Titanic sank, when those who had made statements could only repeat them, and rely on corroboration from witnesses who had been present at the time.

Behe’s claim that ‘Without a doubt, all of the [strongest] premonitions we have examined took place as described before the Titanic went down’ is unduly optimistic.  We have to take on trust that the statements happened as described, rather than have unambiguous evidence in the form of documentation.  This is a perennial problem, highlighted as early as 1887 when Alexander Taylor Innes asked the authors of Phantasms of the Living (1886) ‘Where are the letters?’  Some of the Titanic predictions seem uncannily accurate, but there is always the possibility that impressive testimony has been filtered through recollection and altered in the process.

In the discussion, Behe picks out two examples of strong cases and despite his earlier caveat says the odds of them being correct by chance ‘are beyond human comprehension.’   Of one of them he concludes: ‘its absolute precision makes it the most impressive case on record concerning the sinking of Titanic.’  So how strong is it?  Case 23 in that section (pp. 141-142) is the tale of Eugene Ryan from Athlone who boarded Titanic at Queenstown with a group of friends, all travelling in steerage.  He had a disturbing dream he told his friends about, one of whom, Bertha Mulvihill, later recounted it.  According to her, he had said to the group every night that he had dreamt the ship was going to sink before reaching New York.  On the Sunday before going to bed he said it was going to sink that night. ‘It was uncanny,’ she added.  She also said he had seen it strike an iceberg in his dream.  Mulvihill was saved, but Behe concludes that nobody knows what happened to Eugene Ryan.

Behe provides a commentary which itself suggests the case is not straightforward.  To begin with, no Eugene Ryan was listed as a passenger, although the steerage list is incomplete so it does not mean he was not on board.  No one with that name survived.  However, there was a Eugene Daley who was from Athlone, so perhaps Mulvihill provided an incorrect surname.  Daley did survive, but never spoke publicly of dreaming about the sinking of the ship.  Behe notes it is unclear how many times Eugene had the dream, whether it was repeatedly, or the once, which he repeatedly mentioned to his listeners.  The main point for Behe though is that he predicted the correct night and that it would entail collision with an iceberg.

But is it particularly persuasive?  The first thing to note is that the case is based on reports in two newspapers, the Providence Evening Bulletin of 19 April 1912 and the Boston Globe of 20 April 1912, so the account was conveyed through the medium of newspaper articles.  We do not know whether Mulvihill’s words were accurately reported, or embroidered by the journalists.  Further, we only have her word for it that the dream was recounted to the group of friends in the way she states.  We do not know who they were, so do not have any corroboration.  Survivors who may have heard what Eugene said were not tracked down and interviewed.  We do not hear from Eugene Daley to comment on the name confusion.

Mulvihill may have misremembered details, or even fabricated them to make her story as a survivor more interesting when being interviewed.  Eugene may have been displaying a generalised anxiety about the voyage which led him to say the ship was going to sink, a vague feeling of apprehension made in retrospect to sound like a firm prediction.  The detail about the specific night and the iceberg could have been added to make it seem even more uncanny.  If Mulvihill did get the surname wrong, what else might she have?  She may well have given a completely accurate account, we just do not know based on the evidence provided.

Objections can be made to other cases, apart from pointing out the unreliability of memory when later referring to statements that had been made about Titanic prior to the disaster.  Behe’s comments indicate there were many reasons why people, prospective passengers or not, were wary of Titanic, whether because the sheer size was intimidating, because of a sense it would be advisable to avoid a first voyage to allow any teething troubles to be resolved (‘maiden voyage phobia’), or a superstitious feeling that boasts about her unsinkability might attract divine displeasure.

Saying something along the lines of ‘mark my words, the ship will never reach New York’ and deciding not to sail or taking passage on another ship could easily be made to carry more weight after the tragedy came to pass than was intended at the time, an uneasy feeling transformed into precognition.  Another other problem is that these cases were mostly reported in newspapers, not collected by psychical researchers.  Apart from the issue of journalistic accuracy, referring to the presence of witnesses may have provided an air of plausibility but they were not interviewed, and statements cross-checked for inconsistencies, in the rigorous manner a researcher would have employed.  To sustain an interpretation of paranormality requires more investigation than took place.

Despite this intrinsic weakness in retrospective accounts, the sheer volume of cases Behe provides is remarkable, in keeping with the cultural resonance the sinking of Titanic has had.  Whether or not one is convinced by any of the cases presented here, they certainly show how it impacted the public psyche, generating a significant body of apparently paranormal reactions – or reactions that were retrospectively interpreted as such.  Whether they constitute evidence for psi or the survival of consciousness after bodily death is another matter, but either way, Behe’s collection, organisation and analysis provides a model of how to tackle historical cases.  He recommends that ‘The most desirable course is to maintain a healthy, open-minded scepticism.  Be critical of the cases which follow, but follow wherever the evidence leads,’ useful advice indeed.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003) tells parallel stories of two men who were prominent in the history of Chicago during the late nineteenth century, for very different reasons.  One was Daniel H Burnham, the brilliant architect placed in charge of designing and constructing the main buildings and landscape at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition), a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World.  He would go on to design the iconic Flatiron building in New York.  The other was Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes, an early, and prolific, serial killer who took advantage of the Fair’s crowds to lure numerous victims to his ‘Murder Castle’ hotel.

Having won approval from Congress in 1891 to host the Fair against competition from other cities, the Chicago establishment was faced with the monumental task of actually building it in record time.  The result was a race to get it ready, the goal to outshine the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris that had the Eiffel Tower as its centrepiece.  Topping the French achievement would be no easy task, however.  Burnham was appointed chief architect, and brought in a team of designers and vast numbers of labourers.

National pride was invested in the project’s success but Burnham had to contend with harsh winter weather, escalating costs and labour unrest, added to which the construction took place against a background of a national economic depression.  Even on opening day it was not completely finished, but the event was pronounced a stunning success, ‘the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.’  The Fair was notable for a number of innovations, including the Ferris Wheel, the establishment of AC as the standard for electricity use, and the pledge of allegiance.

It even stimulated the novel use of spray paint (lead-based) to render quickly the buildings a uniform colour, hence the white city, readily contrasted with the black city that represented grinding daily life for the majority of the city’s residents.  The Fair itself, against the odds a popular and financial success, had a darker side as completion saw the layoff of large numbers of workers who had been drawn in by the promise of work, their sudden idleness creating economic and social difficulties for the city.

Holmes’s murderous career forms the second strand, his contribution to the life of Chicago juxtaposed with Burnham’s.  Holmes had a troubled childhood, with a domineering father and an emotionally distant mother and, despite his intelligence, began early to display sociopathic tendencies.  He attended medical school at the University of Michigan in the late 1880s, and began the series of insurance frauds that would mark his career. He also became interested in anatomy and surgery, and experimented with dissection.

In 1886 he moved to Chicago and purchased a pharmacy.  Buying a vacant plot, he built a large rambling hotel, which he dubbed the ‘World’s Fair Hotel’ once he knew the Exposition was to be held in nearby Jackson Park.  The hotel was equipped with a variety of secret rooms, some airtight and with a gas supply laid on, and a large kiln in the basement suitable for cremations.  He killed mostly young women who came to Chicago unaccompanied, luring them by promising them work or a romantic relationship.  He also used the hotel as a base for his insurance scams, often taking out policies on the lives of his victims before killing them.

As questions about his personal life and finances grew Holmes fled Chicago after the World’s Fair closed, botching an attempt to burn the hotel down.  He was tracked by Pinkerton detectives and arrested in Boston in 1894, after attempting to defraud an insurance company. Following his arrest, police discovered evidence of his activities, including human remains. Holmes was convicted, and hanged in 1896.

In weaving together the stories of Burnham and Holmes, Larson blends social history and true crime to offer a glimpse into a defining moment in American history.  Unfortunately, the two strands sit in uneasy conjunction and the transitions between them can be jarring.  Those more interested in the true crime aspect may be put off by the weight given to the local history, Larson’s primary interest.  The Devil in the White City would probably have worked better as two separate books, especially as the need to speculate about Holmes’s activities in the absence of hard information give the sections devoted to him a novelistic rather than documentary feel.

So much for the white city.  What about the black?  A companion piece to The Devil in the White City is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).  His novel exposes the harsh conditions endured by workers in the Chicago meatpacking industry in the decade following the period portrayed in The Devil in the White City.  Together, the two works display the squalid underbelly of American progress, providing a window into the darker side of Chicago’s history and showing that the city’s rapid development came at a price.  Sometimes, we find, the white is sprayed on very thinly.

$tatin Nation, by Justin Smith

Statins are a class of drugs commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol levels and thereby reduce the risk of heart disease, a leading cause of death.  In $tatin Nation: The Ill-Founded War on Cholesterol, What Really Causes Heart Disease, and the Truth About the Most Overprescribed Drugs in the World (2017), Justin Smith examines their widespread use and adverse impact on health.  He argues they have not led to better health outcomes; rather, while they may lower cholesterol levels, they fail to address root causes of heart disease.

These include poor diet, lack of exercise, a compromised immune system, stress and environmental factors such as pollution.  Moreover, the role cholesterol plays in heart disease is unclear.  Heart disease is caused by the complex interaction of factors that vary across individuals, and there is no magic bullet to solve the problem.  Worse, there are a number of alarming potential side effects associated with statin use, such as physical weakness, digestive problems, increased risk of certain forms of cancer, muscle pain, liver damage, diabetes, eye problems, memory issues, type 2 diabetes and, surprisingly, even heart disease.

As a result, Smith argues that doctors should be cautious about prescribing statins, and patients should be fully informed of the risks, a process which does not always happen with sufficient rigour.  Instead, statins are overprescribed, with vast numbers of people on them, and they are recommended to many even if their cholesterol levels are not particularly high.  The result of this overreliance has led to a ‘statin nation’, with patients encouraged to pop pills rather than make lifestyle changes to improve their health.

Smith, who it should be said is not a medical doctor but whose claims are well-referenced, highlights the exploitative role the pharmaceutical industry, keen to maintain profitability (hence the $ in the title), has played in promoting the use of statins.  He notes drug companies’ aggressive marketing tactics to persuade doctors to prescribe statins even when they are not necessary.  For busy doctors, statins are an easy option compared to persuading patients to follow other methods of maintaining a healthy heart (it would have been useful if GPs’ views had been canvassed about their prescribing rationale).

While the drugs may have benefits for some patients, on this evidence they are not a panacea for heart disease.  Anyone offered them should think carefully about the benefits versus the drawbacks, and what other lifestyle choices might make a useful contribution to maintaining good health without the need for pharmaceutical assistance.

A more natural approach, involving good nutrition, sufficient exercise and stress reduction techniques, can help to improve health generally, though for this approach to work the individual needs to accept responsibility and effort is required.  It is all too easy to take a contrary position to conventional medical interventions for ideological reasons, but Smith’s concerns are well-founded and should be taken seriously.

Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide, by Caroline Watt

Caroline Watt’s Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide (2016) provides an accessible introduction to the current state of knowledge in what can at times be a technical subject.  Watt was a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh, working with Bob Morris, and currently holds the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology there (though this is now a personal rather than a departmental chair).  She has long taught a highly-regarded online parapsychology course.

Despite Watt’s reputation as a sceptic, she does not push an overtly anti-parapsychology agenda but looks at the phenomena from a variety of perspectives.  Although she does not consider the research to have produced compelling results, she stresses how the innovative techniques developed in a field subjected to rigorous scrutiny by critics have helped to improve methods in other scientific areas.

Unsurprisingly, she stresses dangers in reaching false conclusions such as misperception, poor estimates of probability, questionable research practices (both in conducting experiments and analysing them) and fraud.  On the plus side, she shows that parapsychologists have tightened procedures to try to rule these problems out, and have themselves exposed instances of fraud, rather than having it done by outsiders.  Standards, she acknowledges, are higher than in many other areas of science.

Watt starts with basics, discussing terminology, before examining the roots of parapsychology in a longer tradition of psychical research.  She marks out what it is not, such as the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, instead emphasising ‘the capabilities and experiences of living human beings’ (the word living hinting at the ambivalent attitude to survival in parapsychology).  Then she delves into the discipline in more detail, breaking her treatment into three main sections: testing psychic claims; anomalous experiences; and laboratory research.

Under testing psychic claims she looks at macro-PK, psychic readings, remote viewing, animal psi (presumably honorary human beings for the purpose), and survival issues, including mediumship, super-psi, cold reading and reincarnation.  Anomalous experiences cover out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences (neither of which she judges to be particularly evidential), hauntings, apparitions and the psychology of psychic experiences.  Problems she highlights include fraud and insufficient precautions against sensory cueing.

Moving into the laboratory, chapters cover the evolution of experiments investigating telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis, with good discussions on ganzfeld, dream research, and the role of meta-analysis.  Pre-registration of experiments is stressed to help guard against data manipulation, and Watt runs such a registry at Edinburgh.  Concluding remarks assess the progress of parapsychology and the influence it has had on mainstream psychology in terms of methodology.

For those who fancy trying research themselves, an appendix describes informal and more formal tests for ESP and PK that can be conducted at home, the contrast in the way they are conducted highlighting the need for a rigorous approach in order to prevent counter-explanations being advanced for positive results.  There is a brief glossary and suggestions for further reading.

The book’s coverage is broad, but the necessity to compress the information obliges Watt to skate over topics, a lack of detail and nuance the reader possessing some background knowledge will find frustrating and at times even misleading.  The overall impression given is that while in general parapsychology does not live up to the claims made by its proponents, its pursuit has not been wasted effort because of its beneficial influence in other fields.

Said proponents would probably deem her at best too cautious in her estimate and at worst wrong, while there is nothing to persuade those predisposed to dismiss the subject to change their assessment based on the evidence presented.  It is thus clear what Watt’s position is, despite her attempt to be even-handed.  With that caveat, anyone interested in parapsychology who wants an overview before diving deeper will find this a useful primer.

Just the Plague, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

When one lives in an autocratic state like Stalinist Russia there are worse things than being quarantined on suspicion of having caught the plague.  Based on a true story, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 2020 novel Just the Plague (published in English in 2021) started life in 1988 as a film script produced as an unsuccessful application to film school, and has now been turned into a novel.  Ulitskaya rediscovered the manuscript in 2020, during the Covid lockdown, and realised it had resonance today.

During the harsh winter of 1939, microbiologist Rudolf Maier is working on a plague vaccine.  He is ordered to present his results to the Moscow authorities, and in his haste to comply manages to infect himself.  He travels by train, checks into an hotel, has a shave and attends the meeting, thereby coming into contact with a large number of individuals.

He becomes increasingly unwell and is taken to hospital where a doctor diagnoses pneumonic plague and isolates himself, Maier, and later the barber.  The virus has a 24-hour incubation, so the authorities need to act quickly because its spread in the crowded city would have catastrophic consequences.

The NKVD is tasked with rounding up everyone Maier came into contact with, which it does with an efficiency usually employed on those deemed to be opponents of the regime.  Citizens taken into custody are put into a ten-day quarantine, an outbreak of influenza used as a pretext on the grounds it will cause less panic than would occur if the population knew there was the risk of plague.

In a society full of people ready to inform on each other, and the Great Purge having provided the NKVD with ample experience, the exercise of listing names and sending a van generally proves to be fairly straightforward.  There is much shuffling of paper, but it gets results.  Unfortunately, when one of the ominous black police vans turns up outside an apartment block in the middle of the night, it is easy to assume that its occupants’ motives are not benign.  The natural assumption is arrest and show trial, followed by execution, rather than a move to save lives.

The same goes for the ‘Very High Personage’ to whom the operatives answer, i.e., NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria, who is second only to ‘the Big Boss’.  Seeing every unfortunate event as an attack on the socialist system, he jumps to the conclusion that the outbreak is the result of sabotage, and the detained must be liquidated.  Fortunately, a doctor is able to convince him the danger was caused by an accident, not malice, thus sparing innocent lives.

In this paranoid atmosphere the nigh-time knock on the door creates unintended consequences.  A man shoots himself with the NKVD outside, assuming he is about to be arrested and considering suicide preferable.  A party loyalist denounces her husband to save herself, she thinks, unaware he is merely in quarantine. He is arrested as soon as the restrictions are lifted and led away without a murmur, knowing his likely fate.

On the whole though, while their relatives, who are kept in ignorance of the situation, are frantic, the quarantined are grateful they are not being held on political charges.  As one says afterwards, ‘it was just the plague,’ as opposed to the more deadly alternative.  This was one encounter with the NKVD that ended well, to their relief.

For all the efforts in rounding up and isolating those suspected of having been infected, one person remains untraced.  A Turkmen People’s Deputy who was checking out of the hotel as Maier was checking in had started to feel unwell, and on impulse decided to break her journey back to Ashkhabad in a shop in a market run by fellow Turkmen, and had not arrived at home when expected.

In the zero-tolerance NKVD, the failure to track her down is a huge matter of concern for the operatives seeking her, as the price of failure can be very high for them personally.  We assume she was not infected, but her individualistic behaviour evades the surveillance state, leaving the reader wondering whether in the circumstances her spontaneity was good or bad.  Even if lucky this time, it demonstrates how hard it is to contain diseases once they start to spread – a lesson in all pandemics.

A large cast of characters is shown in a range of situations as the effort at containment proceeds.  Ulitskaya casts sidelights on the society of the times, such as the follower of the prevailing pseudo-scientific Lysenkoist approach to genetics who thinks he has bred cold-resistant geese, only to find them frozen to death overnight.  Still, they do make a nutritious meal, so all is not lost.  More easily followed as a film would have been than as a novel, the narrative jumps around, and the list of characters at the front is very useful when trying to keep track of everyone.

In an interview which forms an afterword, Ulitskaya says she hardly changed anything in the original screenplay for publication.  This was not a story that was known about in Russia when she wrote the script; she was aware of it because the father of her acquaintance, Natalya Rapoport, had performed autopsies on the victims’ bodies, and the two women had discussed it.  From this basic fact she had weaved the fictional narrative.  She adds that, as in the novel, only three people died in the 1939 outbreak – the researcher, the barber who shaved him, and the heroic doctor.

After publication Rapoport, professor emerita at the University of Utah, said they had collaborated on the script together and Ulitskaya had plagiarised their joint work for the novelisation.  In the afterword, Ulitskaya claims the pair had only a single conversation about the episode, and apart from the central facts Rapoport conveyed to her, the rest was the product of her imagination.

However, in her 2020 non-fiction work Stalin and Medicine: Untold Stories, Rapoport has a chapter on the episode tellingly called ‘It’s Just the Plague’, and she similarly uses the phrase to juxtapose detention as a precautionary measure with detention as a prelude to being purged.  Rapoport’s chapter and Ulitskaya’s novel recount the same events, and it may well be there is more of Rapoport’s input in the novel than Ulitskaya is willing to concede.  But Ulitskaya has transformed the bare facts as reported in Stalin and Medicine into a layered portrait of life in Russia in the late 1930s.

While it is hard to admit of such a ruthless organisation, the NKVD were correct in moving quickly and decisively.  Whether such an operation could succeed today is less clear.  China imposed a draconian lockdown on its population during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the virus proved more slippery than did the 1939 Russian plague, and for all their power over the population, the Chinese authorities were unable to prevent its spread.  The Soviet secret police were operating in simpler times.

The Devil’s Trap, by James W Bancroft

The Devil’s Trap: The Victims of the Cawnpore Massacre During the Indian Mutiny, by James W Bancroft (2019), tells the story of a notorious incident in 1857.  Stationed at the East India Company’s garrison at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), a strategic position on the banks of the Ganges, were three native regiments led by British officers.  The British contingent lived there with their families.  In June 1857 the Indian soldiers, with local support, revolted, and a protracted siege took place.

Initially the defenders thought help would arrive, but this did not materialise.  Eventually they surrendered on the promise of safe passage, but the attackers under the command of Nana Sahib reneged on the agreement as the soldiers and civilians were attempting to evacuate by boat, and many – men, women and children – were massacred.  The survivors were kept captive in squalid conditions and deaths occurred from disease.  Then, with the British army closing in and bent on revenge, Nana Sahib ordered the murder of those who were left, and the corpses were dumped in a well.   There were only four survivors.

Bancroft, editor of a book of Romanian paranormal anecdotes, has done sterling work researching the massacre, delving into archives and interviewing descendants.  He has also utilised what he grandly refers to as the ‘JWB Historical Library’, which I think means he owns a lot of books.  There is information on the town, and the relationships between the British and Indian soldiers, and the imperialist power and the local political establishment.

That Bancroft is not an academic historian can be seen in his language, at times slack even for a text aimed at a popular audience.  He is prone to cliché and occasional statements of the obvious (Bath has a Roman spa, apparently).  In terms of organisation, while he has been assiduous in following up genealogical information he dumps biographical snippets into the narrative, which impedes its flow.

He provides an odd trigger warning, stating ‘It was inhumanity at its worst, the Devil himself could not devise a more spine-chilling scenario, and people of a sensitive disposition must not read on,’ a dubious claim guaranteed to get the ghoulish turning the pages.  His indignation at the brutality of the rebels descends into purplish prose, and he again manages to equate the uprising with the forces of darkness, claiming breathlessly and disregarding punctuation that ‘The culprits of this disturbing atrocity were not of the human race they were representatives of Satan.’ 

More seriously, he fails to interrogate the presence of the British and the social and economic structures they imposed.  Expressing outrage at the behaviour of the Indians, he does not question the role of the occupying power.  True, the book’s subtitle emphasises the victims, but the events can only be understood in the broader context of occupation.  He skates over the part the East India Company played in the administration of the Indian possessions and does not examine the complacency and ineptitude that allowed the Cawnpore tragedy to occur, a mindset that clearly underestimated the likely consequences of official actions.

There is a lot more that could be said about this inglorious incident, but it would take an impartial historian to do it justice.  Bancroft is too close to his material and does not treat it dispassionately.  Still, he does provide the background and commemorates the victims, who were so brutally treated, with compassion.  The collection of information on their lives, before and, where appropriate, after, was obviously a labour of love.  Those wishing to dig deeper will find the bibliography a useful place to start.

Update 15 May 2023:

Mr Bancroft has written to inform me that contrary to my assumption based on its name, the ‘JWB Historical Library’ does not contain any books.  Rather, it is a collection of documents and correspondence dealing with British military history, destined eventually for the National Army Museum in London (pers. comm. 14 May 2023).  I think that makes it an archive rather than a library, but I am grateful to have had the nature of its contents clarified.

The After Cancer Diet, by Suzanne Boothby

Suzanne Boothby’s The After Cancer Diet: How to Live Healthier Than Ever Before (2011) is primarily aimed at those who have completed treatment and want to live a full and disease-free life.  But in practice it will help those still with cancer, and those who would like to do what they can to prevent it.  It was produced in collaboration with Suzanne’s father Richard, a doctor experienced in the treatment of cancer who contributes a foreword, and it is written in a light style with plenty of advice and encouragement.

Naturally it addresses food and drink, with advice based on sound dietary research discussing what is best and what should be avoided (though there have been developments in the science since its publication), and there are some simple recipes the most cack-handed in the kitchen can manage.  But it covers physical exercise and mental wellbeing, also necessary for good health.  The emphasis unsurprisingly is on eating good-quality unprocessed food.

The term cancer survivor is dropped in favour of thriver, indicating the positive approach running through the book.  It is not necessarily a term that will achieve widespread usage, but it emphasises the value of having a mindset focused on being well rather than being ill.  The upshot is that someone with cancer need not feel powerless, but can be active in the effort to regain their health.

A quick read, it is full of tips presented in easily-digestible chunks.  A few of the recipes as written would probably require access to specialist shops, but the basics can be implemented with available ingredients.  The important point is that readers are not required to make wholesale lifestyle changes, which are hard to sustain.  Any steps in the right direction are worthwhile, and likely to lead to further improvements.

While I found the book useful, there was one thing that grated (so to speak), leaving aside the lack of a hyphen between after and cancer in the title: the use of the infantile veggie instead of vegetable.  Boothby is not alone in adopting this unfortunate usage, the Glucose Goddess does, and I expect there are other food writers who do as well.

Presumably it is employed on the assumption that many adults have a resistance to eating vegetables, and calling them by the user-friendly term veggies will make them more palatable – a veggie can’t be unpleasant, can it?  It’s on a par with pretending food on a spoon is an aeroplane when trying to encourage recalcitrant babies to eat their puree, and it should be confined to that demographic.

Psychic Dreaming, by Loyd Auerbach

Loyd Auerbach’s 2017 Psychic Dreaming: Dreamworking, Reincarnation, Out-of-Body Experiences & Clairvoyance is a revised edition of a book published in 1991 as Psychic Dreaming: A Parapsychologist’s Handbook.  It covers a lot of ground in under 200 pages, but not in as much detail as the subtitle implies.  Auerbach explores the idea of being psychic (an ability he feels we all possess to a greater or lesser extent), how it relates to dreams, and how readers can apply an understanding of their dreams to enhance their lives.

His preface notes that much of the straight parapsychological detail in the first edition (its history and then-current research) has been dropped, but with only minor editing otherwise.  While more tightly focused on the dream experience and possible connections with psi processes, this lack of a thorough revision means the latest data on sleep science has not been included.  However, as Auerbach points out, there has been no significant advance in the parapsychological study of dreams in the intervening period, and methods of working with dreams, psychic or otherwise, are much the same.

For the person coming to the subject for the first time, in addition to looking at the basics of sleep and dreaming he sets the scene with useful information on the various parts of psi that might manifest in dreams – telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition – before he delves in depth into dreams, their form and potential meanings, and the intricacies of dream analysis.  Auerbach quite correctly stresses how time-consuming keeping a dream diary then going through it to pull out significant aspects can be, but also how invaluable it is to conduct the exercise to really get to grips with dreamwork.

There is extensive advice on how to tackle recording and analysing dreams, and ideas for informal psychic experiments.  There is also a discussion of lucid dreaming, for those lucky enough to experience it, and connections with out-of-body-experiences and reincarnation.  External influences that could affect the psychic component of dreams, such as personality and attitude, are touched on.

His opinion, in the absence of firm research conclusions, is that psychic and non-psychic dreams differ little in terms of form, so ascertaining whether there is a psychic component has to rely on an intuitive feeling that it is qualitatively different from ordinary dreaming.  This is not very satisfactory, assuming dreams do, at least sometimes, contain psychic elements, but our current level of knowledge means it is not possible to point authoritatively to psychically-derived information.  Even if the presence of psi should be apparent, utilising it may not be feasible for practical reasons.

Auerbach has extensive experience of psychical research and Psychic Dreaming is based on an authoritative understanding of the field.  Anyone who is fascinated by their dreams, and wonders if they are more than the random firing of neurons, will find the book of value in exploring this mysterious region to which we travel each night.  Even if there is no psi in dreams, or there is but it is not available in ours, there are still benefits to thinking about them and what they might be telling us.

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