The Twenty-Year Death, by Ariel S. Winter

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Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death is a first novel in the form of three separate but linked full-length novels, each of which is written in the style of a classic crime author – Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson (we can be sure of this as each is prefaced consecutively by ‘In memoriam G.S., R.C., J.T. with apologies’), together forming a case study in stylistic developments of crime fiction during the mid-twentieth century.

The first, Malniveau Prison, is set in 1931.  It opens with heavy rain falling on a small French provincial town, Verargent, and the baker’s basement flooding.  When the baker goes to investigate, he finds a body blocking the drain.  Chief Inspector Pelleter is in town to interview Mahossier, a convicted child murderer incarcerated at Malniveau prison, just outside the town.  Pelleter had been responsible for capturing Mahossier, and the prisoner often has useful information for him, which must be used with caution as Mahossier has his own agenda.  This time Mahossier alludes to a number of fatal stabbings in the prison that have been hushed up.

Pelleter is roped in to help investigate the death in the rain, which becomes more mysterious when it is discovered that the man was murdered and his clothes changed.  Still more mystery is piled on top when it is ascertained that the man, Meranger, was an inmate at the prison – how did he wind up dead in the street?  Then Pelleter discovers that Meranger’s daughter, 19-year old Clotilde-ma-Fleur, is by chance living with her American author husband Shem Rosenkrantz in the same town.  The trail leads to the discovery of more bodies of murdered inmates buried in a farmer’s field.  The prison records show they were transferred to another prison but it does not exist.  The question is who is organising the cover-up, and why.

Winter’s style captures Simenon’s emphasis on character and psychology over the game of providing clues to allow the reader to attempt to solve the problem, though Malniveau Prison is much longer than a typical Simenon novella.  The Maigret-like detective (albeit a cigar man rather than a pipe smoker like Maigret) uses the typical Simenon combination of plodding procedure and sharp intuition honed by long years of experience, though we are given more insights into Pelleter’s thought processes than Simenon would have allowed.  There are anachronistic Americans as well, but if the pastiche is taken as an American translation of a French original, it sort of hangs together in terms of style, though it somehow fails to convey the authentic French tang Simenon was able to conjure up.

Thus the prisoner Pelleter has come to see, a man who had kept children in underground cages and made them fight each other to the death, until Pelleter captured him, has more of the flavour of Thomas Harris than Simenon.  The way dead bodies are transported from the prison and buried close to a road without being noticed seems implausible; and dumping a body in town, where questions are bound to be asked, beggars belief.  The reason for the murders of prisoners – an apparent attempt to discredit the new assistant warden – is preposterously thin.  But these issues only seem problematic at the end as the intriguing plot compensates for stylistic deficiencies, and with a slight squint it is possible to convince oneself this is Simenon’s universe; but that universe is so large it begs the question why anyone would want to do so when the originals are so readily available.

The second novel, The Falling Star, is set in 1941 Hollywood.  The linking characters only become apparent in the second novel, American author Shem Rosenkrantz and his French wife Clotilde, who played minor roles in the first.  Clotilde is now Chloë Rose, a Hollywood starlet in San Angeles, California, making a picture. We had seen Shem’s heavy drinking in Malniveau Prison, but now his Great American Novel talent has disappeared into the bottom of a bottle and he is reduced to writing film scripts but making the bulk of his income from pornographic novels to pay for his booze while he conducts extra-marital liaisons.  Dennis Foster, a PI, is hired by Chloë’s studio’s head of security to watch her as she is complaining of being followed, though all around her think she is being neurotic.

Naturally, given the Chandler influence, the case gets far more complicated, with Foster coming across a number of dead bodies during his investigation.  The first is another starlet, and Foster discovers there have been other murders with a similar MO.  The studio seems to be good at making bad news go away, which only makes Foster’s job more difficult.  The police are looking hard at Chloë as the prime suspect in the murder of the other actress because it is convenient, as Shem was having an affair with her, even though there would have been zero likelihood of Chloë committing such a brutal murder.  Foster finds Chloë attractive and vulnerable, and wants to protect her.

The Rosenkrantzes are even less central to the novel than they were in Malniveau Prison and hardly appear.  It is a surprise to find them transplanted from France and the delicate Clotilde transformed into an actress, and it feels like it was the only way Winter could establish continuity between two books with such disparate writing styles.  The final scene has Foster visit a heavily sedated Chloë in a private sanatorium, with the philanderer Shem glowering and drinking in the corridor.  The future does not look good for the couple.

The Chandleresque style is successful enough, with an increasingly knackered and beat-up Foster plodding round, following hunches and ostentatiously not doing what he is supposed to be doing because his sense of professional self-respect and ethics refuse to allow him to be used for others’ dubious purposes.  He ignores increasingly physical warnings to lay off from the police, the studio and mobsters – all interlinked in a web of mutual self-interest – to the extent of refusing to take his pay-off fee, until he manages to piece the puzzle together with a complexity worthy of Chandler himself (meaning it is hard to work out in retrospect how the various steps in Foster’s journey fit together).

Full marks for atmosphere, unfortunately the territory feels hackneyed as it has been so heavily mined since Philip Marlowe hung up his fedora; there is even a moment straight out of Chinatown when Foster is in a library and rips out a page from a newspaper while coughing.  The Falling Star would not have worked well as a standalone novel as it feels derivative, but is fine as part of the linked trilogy.  However, the time spent reading this might be better employed on something by say James Ellroy, or Chandler come to that.

The final novel, Police at the Funeral, is set in 1951 and the style has moved on to mimic that of Jim Thompson.  Clotilde as resident in a private sanatorium is necessary for the plot of the third novel so is rather a convenient device (at least we know now she really wasn’t being followed in The Falling Star, but was paranoid).  While there are hints of Shem Rosenkrantz’s self-destructive alcoholic behaviour as far back as Malniveau Prison, here he has succumbed to the booze and hasn’t written anything for years, his novels out of print.  He’s lacking money and luck, the advances for work he never does as dried up as the inside of his mouth, a has-been without friends or prospects in the shiny new America.

He is living with a woman named Vee, leeching on her earnings as mistress to a gangster and bumming drinks from strangers.  As Vee is happy to tell him, he isn’t much better than a pimp – hell, he is a pimp!  Still obsessed with Clotilde, he cannot pay for her expensive but apparently ineffectual care and she is in danger of being shunted off to a state institution while he has racked up huge debts from a number of unsavoury sources he cannot repay.  The desperation is oozing from his pores along with the alcohol fumes.  He’s been called to Calvert, Maryland, as he is mentioned in his first wife’s will, the woman be abandoned to be with Clotilde; but if she was so rich, how was it he had had to pay half his royalties as alimony when they were recently divorced and he was living in France?  Would he be getting his own money back?

He finds that he does figure in the will, but all the money, $2 million, goes to his estranged son Joe, whom we met briefly in The Falling Star.  Joe, now 22, despises his dad for the way Shem treated Joe’s mother and abandoned the infant boy.  When the will is read Shem learns he would only have inherited if Joe had predeceased him, otherwise he gets nothing, so it was all a waste of time.  When Shem visits Joe in an attempt to heal the rift (i.e. bum some money) there is an altercation and Joe is accidentally killed (or so Shem claims, but how reliable is he?).

As Shem stands to benefit so greatly, who would believe it was an accident?  When Vee offers to help him out things get more complicated; Shem later learns from the police that she used the same method before on her husband.  Vee has her eyes on the money, but Shem realises she would shop him to save herself so decides he has to do something drastic to silence her.  In the mix is her gangster boyfriend who dislikes Shem and buys up his debts.  Shem comes up with a plan to dispose of both problems, but finds real life is not like fiction (from which one might also infer that Thompson’s fiction is not like real life).

This is probably the least successful of the three novels, and certainly the least enjoyable as it relentlessly tracks Shem’s downward spiral, partly because it is so downbeat, partly because Thompson is a less interesting writer than Simenon and Chandler, and because Shem and Clotilde are so peripheral in the first two stories it is hard to engage with them in the third.  After the first few pages it is painfully clear that this is not going to end well, and the only suspense is in wondering quite how far Shem will fall.  Unfortunately he is such an unsympathetically selfish character it is hard to care.  The interest is in seeing how a man who is weak rather than bad can come to do bad things as he loses control over his life and sees his options relentlessly narrowing.

The Twenty-Year Death we realise at the conclusion, after 600 pages, refers to Shem, as the story apparently ends with him driving straight at the car with the gangsters who have been hunting for him.  But the ending raises a curious question: if he is dead, how does Shem manage to write the novel we have just been reading, told as it is in the first person?  Or does he not die in a head-on collision, even though that outcome seems assured and is heavily implied by the title The Twenty-Year Death?  Even if he survived the crash it seems certain the gangsters would get him sooner or later, and they did manage to find him in Iowa after all.  Or could it be that after many years not being able to write a novel Shem has managed it, and we are reading the fruits of his rejuvenated career?  It’s either beautifully ambiguous or a frustrating cop-out, depending on the extent to which the reader desires closure.

It’s all a curious exercise, but a knowing one.  Police at the Funeral is the title of one of Margery Allingham’s Campion novels, published in 1931, the same year Simenon’s first Maigret story appeared in book form, reinforcing the idea that Winter is playing games with the genre.  Writing one pastiche would risk dismissal as derivative, and to write three consecutive ones would risk the same charge multiplied three times.  However, combining three in a single volume invites the accolade of virtuoso performance.  The Twenty-Year Death may stimulate a visit (or revisit) to the models on which his three novels are based.  It also marks Winter out as a talent to watch.  For the moment though, he fails to escape the shadows of the writers he has chosen to emulate.


How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs if You Ever Want to Get Published, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

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There are countless manuals providing assistance on how to write a novel, but as the title indicates, this is not one of them, and is far less cosier than the typical inspirational type of writing manual.  Instead Mittelmark and Newman’s How Not to Write a Novel outlines the common mistakes tyro novelists make which are guaranteed to cause their manuscripts to travel from the slush pile to the bin, smartish.

Drawing on the authors’ considerable combined writing experience, each point is prefaced by an often very funny example of terrible writing composed by them to illustrate it in action, and if any reader baulks at the unlikelihood of a particular error being committed in real life, we are assured that it has been, many times.

The coverage is comprehensive in terms of types of error, from plot and character, through theme, style, setting and dialogue, to the pitfalls of trying to be experimental and readable at the same time, and with handy advice on how to deal with publishers thrown in.  Towards the end there is occasionally explicit language which may put some readers off.

Much of the information here is timeless (sadly), but there is one area in which the book has dated since it was published in 2008.  There is information on self-publishing and the dangers of the vanity presses, but the internet has facilitated the exponential increase of self-published writing, much of it churned out by people who have either not read How Not to Write a Novel or failed to heed its warnings.

In this swampy world you don’t have agents and editors acting as gate-keepers, but gung-ho authors who go from creation to publication with no intermediary to save them from their worst excesses.  The only good thing is that such efforts are cheaper to produce than by falling into the clutches of the vanity presses, though the self-publishing boom has not seem the demise of the old-style vampires Mittlemark and Newman primarily have in mind: as David Gaughran has documented extensively, the vanity scene is thriving and ready to take the unwary author’s money.

The book is stuffed with useful suggestions; however, while there may be 200 mistakes covered (I didn’t verify the number), there  are only 258 pages to cover them in, so each mistake cannot be addressed in depth but is only highlighted.  The examples have to be brief and are therefore exaggerated to make the point, but in practice a given piece of bad writing is cumulative in its spirit-deadening effect, and Mittelmark and Newman do not have the space, nor would the reader have the patience, to demonstrate this.

One would like to think people don’t need the kind of guidance in this book, that reading well-crafted literature and writing and reflecting in an iterative process of self-improvement would ensure authors had some inkling of the quality of what they are sending off to agents, editors or Smashwords.  But it clearly isn’t the case, as I know having read one or two poor examples myself.

So will the target audience actually pay attention in any great numbers?  You can imagine the bad writer nodding at the sage advice offered and going back to churning out diabolical prose nonetheless.  Alternatively, if How Not to Write a Novel has had an impact, one dreads to think what the world of literature would have been like without it.  This is a quick and entertaining read, but ultimately it is merely a finger in the dyke of bad writing.

Survival: A Reconsideration, by E. Garth Moore


E. Garth Moore presented the sixteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture to the Society for Psychical Research in 1966, and the lecture was published by the Society as a slim pamphlet the same year.  His message was essentially pessimistic.  Talking about the study of survival, he began by acknowledging: ‘It seems to me that we have reached something of an impasse, and that, unless we can find some new track to pursue, we are not likely to get much further.’

He considered that the study of survival (with the exception of the work done by Hornell Hart in ‘Six Theories about Apparitions’) had not progressed far in the 65 years since Myers’ death, though this was no reflection on the ingenuity of researchers, nor meant to under-value the material they had collected.  It was fair to say that survival research in the intervening period had indirectly opened up other fields, psychological and parapsychological, which might eventually lead to progress in the study of survival itself.  Whatever survival actually is, he continued, it was reasonable to assume it is more than the continuation of the soul and may differ from the living person as the acorn differs from the oak tree: it is possible to ‘miss the significance of the oak-tree, if all the time we think that what we are seeking is an acorn’.

Moore therefore thought it advisable to attempt new approaches by asking fundamental questions, rather than treading the same ground.  Thus, what do we mean by the term ‘survival’, what is that may survive, what is death, and what is life?  We may think these terms are clearly demarcated, but it is not so, and technological advances have shown how blurred the lines can be between say consciousness and unconsciousness, and life and death.  We cannot even be sure when life begins.

If something, which for convenience we can call a ‘soul’ survives, what is its genesis?  If the soul does survive death, why should we assume it begins with a new life?  Moore quotes Whateley Carington’s 1935 Myers lecture where he speculates about ‘a state of pure undifferentiated Consciousness’ with minds as singularities within it originating from and eventually returning to this undifferentiated field (Moore notes similarities to Buddhist and Hindu views of the Absolute).  Psi would be explainable in terms of the connections enabled by this field.

This is the kind of idea Moore felt should be examined in the search for alternative paths of exploration.  Up to the present there had been an emphasis on the personality, or soul, as an attribute of a person distinct from, though connected to, the body, linked to the body at some point in the latter’s creation, and surviving its dissolution.  The focus on the soul’s survival of the body had not got us very far, so perhaps looking at what the soul is and where it comes from could open a more fruitful avenue of research.  Unfortunately Moore cannot say how this might be achieved.

There were though possibilities in examining ‘the nature of the soul, its link with the physical body, when that link is first forged and when it is finally broken.’  One such would be to use a medium to attempt communication with someone who, in today’s parlance, is in a persistent vegetative state, of whom Moore says we would ask if they are really alive and ‘whose physical body is apparently just ticking over’.  Of course attempting to contact the soul of such a profoundly unconscious person would not preclude the operation of telepathy or precognition, and while such possibilities cannot be excluded altogether, they could be minimised on the balance of probabilities, in the same way they could in the case of the cross-correspondences.  Preliminary studies could be tried with individuals who are in deep natural sleep, who would be able to discuss the experiment on waking.  Such efforts would not be straightforward but would be easier than those aimed at discovering the genesis of personality, consciousness or soul.  Experiments could be tried with foetuses or sleeping babies, but verification would be a problem.

However, while evidence might not be readily forthcoming, Moore wonders whether undue emphasis has been placed on the accumulation of evidence, even though this might sound heretical coming from a lawyer and in a Society in which stress is placed on the importance of evidence.  He sees members of the SPR, like everybody else, divided into two categories: those who are able to believe in the unusual, and those who aren’t.  ‘To the former a supernormal explanation sometimes provides the most economical hypothesis.  To the latter, the most far-fetched explanation on normal, material lines is always the more economical.’

Both sides value evidence, as does Moore, but he has two reservations:  firstly, time had been unnecessarily spent re-proving what has already been proved (e.g. telepathy and precognition); and secondly, there is uncertainty over what evidence can be obtained, as the material sciences deal with what can be measured or weighed, and psychical research is concerned with what cannot be measured or weighed.  The SPR was formed at a high point for the advance of science and modelled its approach on scientific methods that had proved so successful, but in a different sphere.  Some things cannot be measured and exactitude must give way to a balance of probabilities.  Moore thought some scientists more ready in 1966 than in 1882 to think in philosophical terms bordering on the religious, and wondered whether psychical researchers should do the same, even if risking being mistaken for ‘spiritists’.

This moves the discussion on to theology.  He argues that in its desire for scientific respectability, psychical research has treated theology as cavalierly as natural scientists have treated psychical research, and with as little justification.  On the other hand, both scientists and theologians have rejected psychical research, which has found itself stuck between the two when it should be their meeting point.  Respect between the three would perhaps open doors to further research and they could all learn from each other, particularly psychical research and theology.

Psychical research might progress if it took Christian theology more into account, just as empirical data could make a valuable contribution to Theism (Moore wrote as a committed Christian and therefore believed in survival on theological grounds, albeit strengthened by the findings of psychical research).  Likewise theology is a valuable resource for psychical research, full as it is of stories of the paranormal.  To ignore such matters would not be scientific when studying the question of survival, even though science has its limits when one is dealing in the realm of metaphysics.

Moore concludes by noting that psychical research had not yet established survival because telepathy and precognition offer alternative explanations for the evidence, but on a balance of probabilities the alternatives should often be rejected as uneconomical.  In any case, psi strengthens the probability of survival as it shows there is something beyond the obviously material.  Psychical research, he believes, is not a waste of time even if progress is slow, and further doors will open with perseverance.  Whether such confidence has been borne out in the 52 years since he gave his lecture is open to question.

32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics, by Adrian Tomine

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This small volume collects, as the title suggests, 32 of Adrian Tomine’s short comic strips published from 1991 to 1994 in the first seven issues of his Optic Nerve mini-comic.   The introduction outlines his beginnings as an artist while at school, self-publishing the first photocopied Optic Nerve with a meagre print-run of 25.

Subsequent issues allowed him to experiment with different graphic styles and the comic became more sophisticated in design and production, later incorporating colour and proper printing.   By issue 7 in 1994 sales had reached 6,000 but Tomine had grown weary of the administrative side and Drawn & Quarterly took over as publisher, marking the end of Optic Nerve as a mini-comic.

He was only a teenager when he started and the stories trace his evolution as he learns the craft as he goes along.  That said, even issue 7’s style is still relatively unsophisticated.  The technique though is secondary to the subject matter, and it is easy to see how this would have appealed to a certain emo school student demographic.  A major theme is the difficulties of communication, the attempt to put words to feelings we can hardly grasp ourselves.

Characters lead depressing lives of quiet desperation, no-hopers trapped in loneliness and anomie, diffident with the opposite sex and lacking self-confidence, and when in bad relationships not able to find the strength to leave.  Tomine details insecurities many of us have felt as young, and sometimes not so young, adults.

The stories are a mix of fiction and apparently true experiences.  The true one often peter out, and the obviously fictional ones do not feel authentic because they are not based on Tomine’s grungy experience.  Anxiety dreams are another source of inspiration and these work best because the fantasy is foregrounded.

Some stories are fine as brief anecdotes, reflecting their lack of weight, while other vignettes feel they could have been developed further but are trapped by the format.  Tomine often puts a woman as the protagonist, which must be unusual for a male teenage author.  Stories can be grim, even violent, but they are not always downbeat; there is humour, even if dark.

Tomine is self-deprecating about his talent in the introduction but decided to take advantage of the opportunity to republish these early efforts anyway.  You can visualise him at school, in the canteen at lunchtime, sitting on his own and absorbed in his drawing, but covertly watching life around him.  This is a quick read but it provides an interesting peep at a developing talent.

The Whippingham Papers

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The Whippingham Papers was first published in 1887 and is devoted to the pleasures of flagellation.  Its chief merit is that it is short.  The preface takes a swipe at Catholic priests using ‘the rod’ in order to ‘serve their own lubricity’, but considers the subject to have deeper roots in England than elsewhere.  The book takes the form of poems, short pieces of prose and a one-act (in more senses than one) play by various hands.  Several of the entries involve thrashing schoolboys, thus proving that in some respects times have changed for the better.  The book was republished by Wordsworth in 1995 in its Classic Erotica series.

‘Arthur’s Flogging’, by Etonensis, attempts the heights of epic – ‘I sing of Arthur’s flogging’ – but manages only the tawdry; if anyone ever found the lines ‘Under the birch, and from them every one / The drops of blood as thick as raindrops spun’ erotic, they would be in need of psychological help.  Arthur bleeds copiously, punished severely for a minor transgression (being late and missing church).  The account highlights the divide between eroticism and unpleasant sadism based on asymmetric power relations.  At a time when pederasty was illegal perhaps flagellation counted as sublimation.  The irony of Arthur’s offense having been to miss church and being so uncharitably assaulted for it would not have been lost on the first readers, so clearly was the punishment, which goes on and on, done for the teacher’s gratification (much talk of Arthur’s plump bare bottom) rather than the boy’s reformation.

The play ‘A visit to Mrs Birch’ attempts an eighteenth century ambience with silly names: Miss Switchem, Miss Tickletouch, and of course Mrs Birth.  Young ladies are not immune from corporal punishment, here for failing to learn lessons and for bad behaviour, though Miss Drawler’s and Miss Stitchem’s ordeals are extremely mild in comparison to Arthur’s.  The mature Miss Tickletouch enjoys the spectacle so much she volunteers for the same treatment, explicitly decoupling beating and punishment.

‘Hints on flogging’, by Allan Bummingham, gives advice to the proprietress of a ‘birching establishment’ in Pimlico.  Apparently full breasts heaving with the exertion of administering the birch are a definite attraction for clients.  The essence though is a masochistic feeling that the woman is more powerful, and the essay stresses the dramatic aspect of the encounter, suggesting that a book of scenarios be kept which can be played out; the whipping on its own is not enough.  A sample – ‘The enraged and jealous wife’ – is included, though the chances are both parties would collapse in fits of laughter before reaching the end if attempting such ridiculous role play.  A number of suggestions for fruity anecdotes to be told over dinner are included.

‘Reginald’s Flogging’ is also by Etonensis, and though not as prolonged as Arthur’s ordeal it seems to be as bloodthirsty.  Sadly for Reggie, even his father thinks flogging a good idea and tells his offspring that had he been administering the punishment rather than the schoolteacher, he would have laid on two strokes for each one actually received.  Reggie is scarcely singled out, as numerous other boys experience the same kind of chastisement, and as with Arthur there is little schoolboy solidarity because the other lads all enjoy the spectacle and even Reggie’s brother has no sympathy.  Apparently there is evidence Etonensis was none other than Swinburne, who did attend Eton, and a character called Algernon appears in ‘Reginald’s Flogging’ standing close by during the ordeal, despite which this hardly counts as autobiography.

The volume concludes with a few short prose pieces.  In ‘A Boy’s Flogging at Birchminster’, Aubrey, a pretty boy, is beaten by Dr Armstrong (a more subtle name than Miss Switchem et al).  While not signed by Etonensis, Reginald’s cousin appears, and there is a long description of Reggie’s thrashing.  A paragraph describes Boadicea (as she was then called) being whipped and her daughters violated, acts leading to the Iceni uprising and defeat.  Another historical note concerns the treatment of adulteresses in Germany in past times (whipping, naturally, in public).  A woman in colonial New England who had been flogged for producing a series of illegitimate children and not being able to pay the fines those births had incurred offers a dignified defence of her actions, and it sits oddly among the other contributions, not least because the whippings are only mentioned in passing rather than being the focus as with the salacious pieces.

‘Whipping as a punishment in Russia’ details the ‘barbarous’ use of the ‘knute’ (knout), which would maim or even kill, thus barbarous because lacking any hint of eroticism.  A miscellany drawn from Buckle’s Tract covers a clergyman’s daughter with a taste for whipping who opens a school to indulge her desire; a young man who rather enjoys seeing his sister whip a ten-year old cousin in her care while wearing a huge bouquet – he acquires an erotically-charged fascination for the scent of the blooms in an early example of Pavlovian conditioning, eventually marrying a 14-year old he happens to see wearing ‘a most enormous side-bouquet’; continental nuns who enjoy whipping almost as much as they would sleeping with men; and a Parisian duchess who purchases a negro woman, educates her and trains the woman to beat her.  A young British officer falls in love with the daughter of a West Indian planter, but sadly on his wedding day witnesses his beloved supervising the whipping of a little mulatto girl, causing him to leave a hasty note bidding her adieu.

A letter to the editor (we are not told which publication) by ‘Castigator’ outlines the punishments meted out in a mixed boarding school near Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  The Earl of Portsmouth, a benefactor of the establishment, enjoyed whipping the boys and witnessing a mistress whip the girls, and his wife and her butler did the same to him at home.  (This was presumably the insane 3rd Earl, whose family name amusingly was Wallop; a later Wallop was educated at Big Horn School in the United States.)  The volume concludes, or more accurately trails off, with Sir Eyre Coote’s misadventure at Christ’s Hospital School when he got into trouble after being caught paying the boys to whip him and allowing him to whip them.  The upper classes, don’t you love ‘em.

Miscellaneous publications on Romania

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I have a particular interest in Romania, though I have never visited.  Below are notes on my random reading of publications, mostly short, about that country.  They are listed in order of publication.

Romania in Pictures, by Ann Kerns, 2007
In Love with Romania, by Tamara Robeer, 2012
Rediscovering History, July 2013
World Heritage in Romania, 2017
#translating Bucharest, by Oana Dorobanţu (ed.), 2017
PressOne Quarterly #5, 2017


Romania in Pictures, by Ann Kerns

Published by Twenty-First Century Books in 2007 as part of its Visual Geography Series and intended for classroom use, Romania in Pictures, while inevitably dated, is a useful brief introduction to the country.  It covers the physical geography, complicated history, politics and social life, culture, the economy and miscellaneous information.  There is even a recipe for mamaliga.  The book concludes with a timeline, a list of basic facts, some famous Romanians, notable landmarks, a glossary, a bibliography and an index.  The text is primarily aimed at an American readership.

The book was written before Romania joined the EU (which took place in 2007), and much has happened in the last decade; Romania has hugely benefited from EU membership and its prospects look brighter than they did at the beginning of the century, though Kerns highlights the positive aspects of the country, which had made considerable gains since the revolution of 1989.  Whether the country has completely fulfilled its potential in the decade since joining the EU is open to question.  The title is slightly misleading a there is more text than it suggests.  This is certainly not picture-heavy, and the pictures tend to the generic rather than making a significant contribution in their own right.

Source: Internet Archive

(31 December 2017)


In Love with Romania, by Tamara Robeer

London-based Tamara Robeer is half Dutch, half Romanian, and has written a short affectionate memoir based on photographs that had belonged to her father Gerrit Jan Robeer, a few of which are included.  She had inherited a collection of a couple of hundred of these images, taken between 1970 and 1974, after his death in 2009.  Her article first appeared in the online photography magazine Love Issue #7 in 2012.

Born in 1950, in the 1970s Gerrit had had been an adventurous youth keen on photography and eastern Europe.  Romania became a favourite destination, driving down at a time when travel to the Communist bloc was difficult, and there he met Tamara’s mother Nela, who had been born in Bucharest.

He made repeated trips and they married in Bucharest in 1974, though it took a further year, and much pleading, before Nela was allowed to leave the country.  She wasn’t allowed to take her educational diplomas out, so they secretly made copies at the Dutch embassy.  Nor could she take the gold trophies she had won at gymnastic competitions, so her father arranged for the gold to be melted down and made into a ring.

The photos show Tamara’s parents as they were in the early 1970s, young and freshly in love.  This hairy Dutchman with his western ideas must have been a breath of fresh air in stuffy buttoned-down Romania, with Nicolae Ceaușescu increasing his grip on power.  Tamara was born in 1981 in the Netherlands, and was only able to visit Romania in the mid-1990s, after the 1989 revolution.

Now she has followed in her father’s footsteps and is a photographer, using the medium to help her understand a country which, as she puts it, ‘feels so familiar and is completely unknown at the same time’.  Her father’s archive allows her to explore the way photographs hold on to moments, giving them ‘a second life’, but at the same time shape our memories of those moments.

Source: Issuu

(2 January 2018)


Rediscovering History

Subtitled ‘Monthly publication dedicated reenactment enthusiasts’ (sic), this is an English-language version of a Romanian publication, Redescopera istoria, and the translation level is fairly basic.  The first issue is dated July 2013 and the cover features a re-enactor in German Second World War uniform superimposed against a map of Europe labeled ‘Western Front’ and ‘Eastern Front’.  While it is supposedly dedicated to Romanian military re-enactments, the casual reader might be forgiven for thinking the short articles are in part a celebration of Nazi militarism, though there are articles on other subjects to lighten the mood.

Curiously, the first article is a photo spread of the Statue of Liberty being erected, with no reason given for its inclusion.  Quickly though we get on to Romania, the first part of an article, to be continued in a subsequent issue, about Bucharest in 1918, ‘Little Berlin’.  Romania’s reasons for entering the Great War are quickly sketched, and then it is on to the defeat and the German occupation, with photographs of August von Mackensen, commanding the occupying forces, and Germans on parade.

Next is an article describing an event held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to commemorate Heroes Day, 8th July 2013.  The Military Tradition Association (ATM) organised a ceremony involving four engraved urns in the form of 76mm calibre shell cases filled with soil from places where the Romanian Army had fought significant battles and suffered heavy casualties: Bessarabia, Odessa, Sevastopol and Stalingrad.  The day also included an exhibition and re-enactments.

‘Association of the month’ is the Deutsches Freikorps Association, ‘the first group of a historical-military reconstruction in Romania representing the German armed forces from different historical periods in which they fought with local members of the German minority’.  Founded in 2011, we are assured that the members are interested in military history and German culture, and ‘are not followers of a political ideology and not make propaganda for a totalitarian regim (sic), while rejecting the association with certain political movements accused of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia.’  How one rejects that association while dressed in German military uniform is not stated, though they carry the German imperial flag rather than the somewhat more inflammatory swastika.

It’s a relief to see an article actually about the Romanian army uniform of the Second World War, describing its composition.  But after that it’s back to the Germans, or at least the Panzer tank, numbers of which were used by the Romanians during the war.  It is a surprise to read that only ‘[i]n 1950 the Romanian army chose to replace PzKpfw IV with the soviet-made tank T34’.  I think ‘chose’ is being used loosely here, and the surprise is it took so long.

Following is a fascinating article examining the surveillance conducted by the Romanian security apparatus on King Michael (Mihai) while in exile after 1947 as a response to the ‘Monarchic Problem’.  This campaign began after the ‘abdication’ (which Michael disputed as it was signed under duress) and only terminated when the Communist regime fell.  The article is tied in with an exhibition, ‘The King under surveillance: King Mihai the Ist of Romania in the files of The Communist Security Agency’.  It was arranged by the national Council for the Study of Security Archives at the National Library in Bucharest and exhibited documents drawn from security files.  As well as monitoring the king’s activities, outspoken in his opposition to the Communist regime in Romania as Moscow’s puppet, there was an active campaign by Bucharest to discredit him, and silence his supporters within the country.  Unfortunately the article has lost a section and there is only a tantalising fragment of text on what seems to have been a successful infiltration of the king’s inner circle in 1973.  The files were obviously extensive, containing details of the king’s personal life and business activities, and were only closed in May 1990.

A portrait of Jilava Fort 13 outlines its grim history.  Built during the reign of King Carol I as one of 18 forts that were part of Bucharest’s defences, it was converted into a prison in 1907 particularly for political prisoners, especially after 1924 when the Communist Party was proscribed.  Here inmates were treated harshly in cramped dank conditions.  In November 1940, 64 prisoners were executed by the Iron Guard, and a certain young Nicolae Ceauşescu, languishing in one of the cells, was lucky not to have been among them.  Then after the defeat of the Nazis, communist prisoners were replaced by war criminals, including Ion Antonescu, dictator during the war, and anti-communists who fell foul of the regime.  Between 1948 and 1964, when all political prisoners were released, apparently something like a million prisoners passed through it.  The institution survived for a further decade as home to common criminals, though 60 students were imprisoned there in 1989, and were lucky not to be shot.  Now disused, the fort is a monument to political oppression and is open to visitors by arrangement.

A few random photographs taken in Romania between 1947 and 1984 are followed by a photographic project of another kind.  Eduard Gutescu’s Windows in Time. Bucharest 1989-2013 project uses photographs taken in December 1989, compositing them with his own photographs to show dramatically the contrasts between them and now.  He used a similar initiative in Hungary as a model (Sergei Larenkov has done something like this too, combining photographs of a variety of cities during the Second World War with the same scenes taken recently, most notably images taken during the siege of Leningrad with present-day St Petersburg, his home city).  Gutescu is primarily a landscape photographer, and his motive in producing the photographic montages is a surprising one, the assumption young people have little knowledge of the events of 1989, and the purpose is to educate them, remind them of what the older generation went through, and how alien familiar landscapes looked during that dramatic period.  He fulminates against the Communist period, and when asked what he plans next, the reply is: ‘The next project I have in mind is about the Romanian Royal Family. I hope to revive, with the help of photographs, a much more beautiful period in the history of Romania.’

There are a quick couple of paragraphs on two bullets, one French, the other Russian, fired during the Crimean War, which amazingly hit each other in flight, and were uncovered by Ukrainian archaeologists in 2009.  Then there is another short piece, on Romanian airsoft battle simulations featuring a team of ‘Sunday soldiers’ called Iron Sky, which may be a clue to its members’ sympathies, though these are not spelled out.  A longer article examines Hitler’s personal train he used to get around Europe during the war.  Comprising 14 carriages, for some reason it was called Amerika, though this was changed to Brandenburg shortly after the Normandy landings in 1944.  In the first months of the war the train was commanded by Erwin Rommel.  A fully-working headquarters, it carried a significant staff as well as press representatives, and was heavily armed, with artillery on platforms at either end.  The author’s sympathies are perhaps on show here (assuming an accurate translation): ‘One year later, Hitler was tragically ending his “mission” in the bunker located under the Reich’s Chancellery.’  Tragic?  After the war the train was dispersed, one of the artillery platforms ending up in Scandinavia and a carriage is on display in a technical museum in western Germany.

More about the German war effort is the translation of a letter home from the Eastern Front by Otto writing form Russia in May 1942.  ‘Now we have some time for rest and I shall use this to learn new stuff.  This way time passes easily and what I learn now shall be useful for when I come back.’  I wouldn’t count on that, Otto.  The three-part 2013 German miniseries Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter), which was also shown in the UK, is looked at briefly, too briefly for such a groundbreaking examination of German attitudes and conduct during the war.  The final article, ‘The railway of Mediaș’, feels random filler, merely describing the development of the railways in the area, which is in Transylvania, and the shift in ownership over time from Austria-Hungary to Romania.

There is a supplement to Rediscovering History, dated July 2013, also available in English, Rediscovering History through Reenactment.  This is more picture-heavy than the main magazine.  ‘Reenacting the Past’ argues that re-enactment is one of the oldest forms of story-telling, and photographs show it in action, covering events from the past 2,000 years: a samurai depicting the Battle of Kawanakajima in 16th century Japan; the Battle of Karbala in 7th century Iraq; Austerlitz; and Berlin, 1945.  ‘Military Signalers Day’, 14 July, commemorated the 140th anniversary of ‘the establishment of the first Romanian transmission subunit – the telegraphy section of the mining company of the Engineering Battalion’.  That day also marked the inauguration of the Museum of Communication and
Informatics, with exhibitions and re-enactments, including one of a battle between Romanian and German forces which took place in 1944, with photographs of the day included.

Source: Issuu

(15 February 2018)


World Heritage in Romania

World Heritage in Romania is a 2017 document, attractively illustrated, outlining ‘a new approach in the implementation of The World Heritage Convention’.  Romania accepted the Convention in 1990 but only implemented the necessary legislation in 2000.  The National Institute of Heritage (NIH) acts as the Focal Point Institution for Romania’s sites enjoying world heritage status.

There was a shake-up of the national strategy in 2016 and continued the following year, with the creation of a new World Heritage Coordination Unit within the NIH, the members of which monitor the seven world heritage sites within Romania.

Fortunately little space is devoted to the bureaucratic approach to identifying and managing thee sites, instead the bulk of the document describes the sites, with photographs.  A visit to them all would certainly make a fascinating holiday and provide valuable insights into Romania’s history.  The sites listed are:

Danube Delta
Churches of Moldavia
Monastery of Hurezi
Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania (numbering seven)
Dacian Fortresses of the Orăștie Mountains
Historic Centre of Sighişoara
Wooden Churches of Maramureş

Source: Issuu

(2 January 2018)


#translating Bucharest, by Oana Dorobanţu (ed.)

This is a booklet issued by Casa de Traduceri, a translation service based in Bucharest, in November 2017.  Along with attractive photographs it contains short essays bearing a decidedly hisperish slant by staff members and clients, promoting in equal measure the delights of the city to visitors and the delights of the company to potential clients.

One contributor likens central Bucharest to Paris, possessing a lively scene full of people brimming with ideas and ambition, firmly putting the old rigidities behind them.  Bucharest, she asserts, is a city bearing comparison with capitals such as London, Paris, New York and Prague.  ‘Little Paris’ is now the ‘New Berlin’.  Another stresses the variety of the architecture and the hidden gems to be found while wandering around.

A client profile stresses the festivals devoted to food and drink, and the restaurants and cafes reflect the social diversity and the influences making up Romanian history.  A chef who is interviewed notes how finding the most interesting restaurants require personal research rather than a reliance on guides and websites like TripAdvisor, which he claims are for the lazy.

The nightlife is varied, having grown spectacularly in the last twenty years in step with the growth of the middle classes, and it is a safe city.  However, English resident Tom Wilson notes how the nightlife is concentrated in the centre of the city, with little gentrification in outer districts to support such ventures.  He clearly finds the post-Communist developments double-edged, with Bucharest’s unique identity giving way to similarity with other major cities.

Naturally those who enjoy shopping are well catered for, as are those who seek quieter forms of relaxation in open spaces.  The cultural life is diverse, both in terms of creativity and consumption, though Romanian literature, while thriving, has yet to make itself felt internationally.  On the downside, the traffic problem is mentioned more than once, and Wilson refers to governance issues (though other contributors stress increasing civic involvement).  The booklet ends with useful advice for the visitor.

The publication is described by the company as a ‘Brand brochure and city guide hybrid. A different approach to a boring company brochure’, an aim amply fulfilled.  This is a worthy tribute to the energy and excitement of Bucharest, even if the suspicion arises that the energy and excitement have been hyped to an extent.

Source: Issuu

(I January 2018)


PressOne Quarterly #5, 2017

PressOne is a quarterly English-language magazine which bears the strapline ‘Cherishing Romania’ and articles are devoted both to social justice and reporting positive stories about the country.  It is published in Cincinnati, United States.  The major theme of issue 5, the most recent at the time of writing, is the way children are treated in the country, and the cover has a photograph of a young child tied down in a cot with the legend ‘The tragedy of Romanian children’.  Underneath are stark statistics: 63% are victims of domestic violence; 51% live in poverty; 42% of 15 year olds are functionally illiterate; there have been only 769 adoptions while 57,026 children live in state care (or custody as the caption puts it), which by my calculation is a mere 1.3%.

After the 1989 revolution there were many horror stories in the British press about Romanian orphanages, but on this evidence, despite the opening up of the country, the situation for many children has not improved dramatically in the last thirty years.  As the introduction by Don Lothrop points out, the cover photograph is not from 1990, it is from 2017.  Romanian children are still being kept in appalling conditions.  Further statistics presented indicate that Romania is the only country where child poverty has increased since achieving EU membership and it has the highest infant mortality and child abandonment rates in Europe.  Part of the problem, the editorial continues, is the corruption found within the Department of Child Protection, and the prevalence of dehumanising domestic violence.  Romanian practices contravene both international and domestic laws, and Lothrop sees these attitudes as having deep roots in the old communist culture.

The first two articles amplify the bald statistics by examining domestic violence and child neglect in more detail, with case studies which show just how women and children are being failed by the judicial system.  When prosecutions do occur, penalties tend to be light, with abuse considered more of a private domestic matter than one for the courts, and the process of bringing abusers to justice can be protracted and opaque.  The article on the failure to protect vulnerable children within the care system notes that given the history of child institutions, Romania should have the best system in the world, yet the dire situation persists.

The result is not only suffering in the present, but long-term developmental harm for the children.  A policy decision to foster children rather than place them in orphanages has not been implemented, and there still 70 ‘traditional’ institutions in existence.  Such confinement up to the age of 2 can cause lowered IQ, attachment difficulties and lack of control of emotions.  These articles are the heart of the issue, while those following are lighter in tone and while enjoyable, mostly amount to filler.

As a change to a more cheerful subject, the following article is about a rural funeral, that of Dumitru Şomlea.  There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the death of Dumitru, who had died at the age of 103, except that he was a veteran who fought in the Romanian army for six years during the Second World War.  His sacrifice was acknowledged by those around him, but still he was forced to live on a paltry pension despite the sterling service he had given to his country.  The feeling of those left behind, as is universal when such individuals die, is that they don’t make them like that any more.

The next article concerns a Romanian visiting a fellow countryman now permanently resident in Canada.  He left Romania in 1985, aged 30, using salami as a bribe to get to Yugoslavia with his wife, but leaving their young daughter behind.  Now he works as an estate agent and has only been back to the old country once, in 1991.  He has no desire to return, and discourages his son, born in Canada, from making the journey.  During a visit to the local cemetery he shows his visitor a number of gravestones marking the last resting place of Romanians.  ‘This is my village’, he says.  It transpires that there is a significant Romanian presence in the area.  A wake for one is a chance for the expats to gather, though the deceased did not much care for Canada and his body is shipped back to his native land.  Most of the Romanians in the area fall somewhere in between the two poles, happy to live in Canada but keen to maintain links with their roots, even while acknowledging problems in Romania.

The next stop is Cluj and a profile of a man who was wearing himself out in sales switching to cooking and becoming much happier as a result, with a renewed zest for life.  Then an historical article traces the lives of two brothers, Dinu Lipatti, born in 1917, and Valentin, born in 1923.  Dinu was disabled and often ill, but he was a musical prodigy, and Valentin grew up in his shadow.  The family was wealthy and Dinu was able to study the piano in Paris until their return to Romania in 1939, where he established himself as an important concert pianist.  Dinu moved to Switzerland in 1944 but died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1950.  Valentin took an entirely different path, becoming a member of the Romanian Communist Party in 1947 and a successful international diplomat for the country, dying in 1999.

A contrast is a feature about a Romanian long-distance runner, his achievement all the more remarkable as he nearly didn’t reach his first birthday.  He has a fundraising campaign, ‘The arc over the Carpathians’, to raise money for a new children’s hospital.  He ran 1,300km along mountain ridges, beautiful but full of dangerous animals, in 22 days.  Then PressOne co-founderVoicu Bojan, claiming to be a gentleman of mature years though looking well preserved in his photo, attends a large four-day music festival.  This is Electric Castle 2017, at Bánffy Castle in Bonţida, a small town near Cluj where the festival has replaced pig farms as the major revenue generator.  While the piece is titled ‘No castle for old men’, the author finds it an enjoyable if sometimes perplexing experience.  The issue concludes with a photo spread of Poiana Aleu in Western Romania, looking very attractive.

(14 January 2018)

Source: Issuu

Aircrew: The Story of the Men Who Flew the Bombers, by Bruce Lewis

Aircrew cvr

Bruce Lewis’s book about the British and American bombing missions over Europe during the Second World War was first published in 1991, and by Cassell Military Classics in 2000.  Lewis, who himself flew 36 missions in RAF bombers during the conflict, focuses on the human aspect rather than on technology and strategy in order to get to the heart of the experiences of those who entrusted their lives to those huge machines.

To do so he has supplemented his own experience by drawing on interviews with others who served in various capacities in Bomber Command.  As he points out, to talk in terms of the loss of 57 aircraft during the night of 21/22 January 1944 masks the fact that they were carrying over 400 airmen.  His aim is to focus on the individuals who made up those statistics, describing the hazardous conditions of flying in combat by men whose bravery was understated, for whom an exhausting night with death a constant companion could be characterised as ‘a bit of excitement’.

He has structured the book by devoting chapters to the various roles that made up a bomber’s crew, incorporating biographical information from interviewees and covering training (or lack of it) as well as the raids they undertook.  The breakdown helps the reader to understand how crew members worked together to fly these behemoths to a target while being attacked from above and below, deliver their payload, and return – sometimes – to base.  A final brief section covers the United States 8th Army Air Force.

The numbers are terrifying: of the RAF aircrews who flew combat missions in ‘heavies’, 51% were killed in operations; 9% were killed in crashes in England; 3% were seriously injured; and only 24% came through unharmed.  Those who took to the air in these aircraft knew their chances of ending the war unscathed were slim.  They were very young, seeing things most 20-year olds cannot imagine.  Lewis reminds us that 55,500 Bomber command aircrew died, ‘a rate of loss never before borne by a military force of comparable size in the history of the world’.

Bombers lack the glamour of fighters, and the carpet bombing they undertook night after night was a world away from the aerial jousts of the Battle of Britain; but the part their crews played in the war effort was huge, and the sacrifices immeasurable.  The Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters made an enormous contribution to grinding down Germany, and this is a worthy tribute to the gallant men who flew them.  There is a useful glossary but no index.  A good selection of photographs is marred by faint reproduction arising from the poor quality of the paper used.

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