Among recent books I enjoyed, I would include Oh Dad! A Search for Robert Mitchum, by Lloyd Robson. Not that I come from the generation where Mitchum was at his peak (one of the only actors who managed the difficult trick of being a man’s man and a woman’s man at the same time. Perhaps Sean Connery also managed it), but I liked him when I saw him.
The book is a gonzo adventure through America (the kind of thing usually done as a tv documentary these days) in search of the places and events in Mitchum’s life – motivated by the fact that Lloyd Robson is a poet (from Wales, indeed) and he discovered (perhaps improbably) that Mitchum was a poet and writer – and that beneath the ‘bad boy’ image lay a wit and intelligence that Bob concealed pretty effectively.
The Great Game
I have also been delving into The Great Game – the battle for central Asia between the Russian and British Empires. I haven’t even read Kipling’s Kim (though it is lying around waiting) but that is the period of time I find intriguing. I mostly don’t do history or war, but my attention got drawn to the subject not only because of simply not understanding what the hell is going on in Afghanistan (for instance) but discovering just how long all this had been going on.
For instance, the UK is full of Free Tibet supporters (and I agree with them) but do they know the Brits fought their way (viciously) into occupying Tibet back in 1904? China is not the only guilty party. Just as the image of China as an opium den is really propaganda, as it was the Brits who flooded the Chinese market with cheap opium (they produced in India)to subjugate the population – and the Boxer Rebellion was in response to this.
So yes, I have always found the hidden history of drugs interesting (and even consumed a few myself) – and particularly the hypocrisy involved – when people who worry about my nicotine and alcohol habits (from a health point of view) can be sipping caffeine with their sugary chocolate cake at the same time, without acknowledging the parallels. Most 'drugs problems' I have heard of involve doctors (the uppers and downers, pick-me-ups and sleepers, Mother's Little Helpers) or alcohol (from hooliganism to wife-beating, from driving accidents to premature death), and yet The War on Drugs remains pointed at the 'illegal drugs' (an ever-shifting border, and not a scientific description).
Policemen on the tv (and in real life) retreat to the pub for a drink when considering how to trap 'drug dealers', like New Tricks or, like Morse with his bottle of wine at home - solitary drinking. In all those home make-over shows they point to the new patio as a place for a nice G&T in the summer, but never 'settling down with a nice spliff'. And they celebrate the completion of the project with champagne, just as we give all our sports stars (!) alcohol as a prize. No wonder the high-speed drivers squirt it all over the crowd, rather than drink it! Drunk at 200 mph? i don't think so. Only Skins and Shameless (of shows I watch)appear to 'normalize' drug use. To describe how things really are is not necessarily to condone them. But the media have trouble separating these, as Noel Gallagher discovered when describing a spliff as normal as having a cup of tea (that's caffeine again, of course, another drug, often taken with sugar, an inert speedy substance without nutritional value).
I wept with laughter when reading Operation Julie, at the repetition of 'real policemen' going to the pub every third page, while trying to catch the acid manufacturers. That great escapade probably led to the absence of really good acid ever since, and its replacement with all kinds of unfortunate concoctions which further contributed to its bad name. Curiously enough, Albert Hofmann, who discovered/invented LSD, lived happily until the age of 102, still taking small doses. But facts don't work as well as myths.
But this time I am not writing about drugs (although, legal at the time, they necessarily appear in the story) but the reconnaissance, espionage, political manoeuvring, etc around the turn of the Nineteenth Century. I first noticed the curious fact the Madame Blavatsky (Russian), Gurdjieff (Armenian/Greek/Russian?) and Aleister Crowley (British) had all, at some time or another, been suspected or accused of espionage in this region. Since then, apart from reading their biographies, I have read The Great Game: the myths and realities of espionage, and am in the middle of Tournament of Shadows, among others.
On a more intriguing note, I read Tim Maroney's edition of HPB's Book of Dzyan, in the intro of which he draws some interesting parallels between sci-fi fantasy writing (so big in the 20th Century, but he references HP Lovecraft) and the strange world models of HP Blavatsky, offered as 'true'.
ESPionage and magiCIAns
I also read the biography of Charles Fort by Jim Steinmeyer (the inventor of illusions, but also an excellent writer – I really enjoyed Hiding the Elephant, and Glorious Deceptions. And yes, I see a strong connection between conjurors and their skills, and espionage. In this murky cross-over world I end up implying some connection between magick of the occult variety, and what people so loosely call ‘the stage variety’. It really upsets some of the esotericists when I imply any connection at all – as if I am implying it is ‘all manipulative tricks’ – where actually I want to point to the area of common ground, hypnosis, belief systems, the unreliability of our perceptions, etc. I battle on. One day I might be able to put it in a way that didn’t upset so many folks. And shamans have always used ‘little tricks’ to draw people into more suggestible states, like many gurus (think Sai Baba and his mysterious ‘ash’ and occasional jewellery, or Geller in his guru phase with ‘teleports and metal-bending, or Blavatsky suspected of chicanery).
If any of the espionage, magic and occult stuff sounds interesting, you will find longer contributions, and further links, from me (the bogus magus) over at Only Maybe - e.g. ESPionage and magCIAns.
If conjuring on its own seems sufficiently interesting, then I gather interesting links on the Intelligence Increase blog.
And, just for laughs, I read A Load of Bull by Tim Parfitt, a really hilarious 'Englishman abroad' book about Spain in general, and Madrid in particular. Hilarious!