Monday, 6 March 2017

Aliens on a Train

So apparently there is a Horror Channel on Freeview - channel 70, if you're interested. I'd not encountered it before, and assumed it was one of those 'timeshare' channels, but it turns out they broadcast for almost all of the day. On Saturday night I came across it while channel flipping, just in time to see the start of a movie called 'Horror Express', and once I saw that it starred not only Christopher Lee but also Peter Cushing, I knew that I was on board for the long haul on this one.

Given the presence of Lee and Cushing, I initially assumed that it was a Hammer Films production - it's from 1972 and has that same brightly saturated Technicolor look to it, especially the vivid red substance they used for blood (I believe jokily known as 'Kensington Gore'). But in fact it turns out to be an Anglo-Spanish co-production, filmed in Madrid on a very tight budget with a Spanish director and largely Spanish cast - much cheaper at the time than filming in the UK. Yes, it's in effect a Spaghetti (or Paella) Horror movie.

The film starts with the discovery of a strange humanoid creature frozen in the ice in the Himalaya by a team of western explorers - more on this later - then quickly shifts to 1906 'Peking', where the usual mixed bag of characters are joining the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow. Among them is Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee), who has a mysterious crate he will not allow inspection of. A thief tries to break into the crate as it sits on the platform, and then is found dead, his eyes completely whited over. Dun-dun-duuuuun! Saxton's fellow travellers include British scientist Dr Wells (Cushing) and his bluestocking assistant Miss Jones; Count Marian Petrovsky and the beautiful Countess Irina - Petrovsky has invented some new kind of steel "harder than diamond"; a Rasputin-like Orthodox priest, Father Pujardov (who pronounces that the crate is 'evil'); and Natasha, a beautiful thief with her eyes on the Countess' jewellery. And so the stage is set for some Orient Express-style shenanigans on a train, but with a horror slant. Once the train is on the move, Cushing is curious about the box, and bribes a porter to break into it, and said man is also found dead with white eyes. The creature inside, bizarrely, picks the lock and gets out (there is a good reason for this - bear with me), and an inspector - who is on the train following thief Natasha - takes charge of the investigation.

And here is where the film segues from horror into science fiction, albeit hokey, bullshit, horror movie SF. An autopsy on the porter reveals his brain is completely smooth. Somehow the creature is draining people's brains (hence it gaining the ability to pick locks from the thief at the start). Also - it leaves somethng imprinted at the back of the eye - the last thing the person saw - this was a popular medieval trope, here there's a sort-of reason for it. When the creature is apparently shot dead by the police inspector, vistas of prehistoric Earth and even the Earth seen from space are seen etched on its retinas - as my companion sagely noted, the latter was something that would very much be in the public eye in the early 70s due to the Apollo moonshots. The old priest of course is convinced that this is Lucifer, not an alien, but that still doesn't quite explain why he throws his lot in with the creature. Meanwhile, after seeming to be dead, the creature swaps bodies - possessing the police inspector, and more running around ensues. The Count, Miss Jones and the beautiful thief all meet their various ends. And more - we come to start to understand the creature. It seems to be just trying to get home - in the guise of the Inspector it quizzes Lee about rocketry, it steals the secret of the hardened steel by absorbing the Count's mind, eventually it even tries to persuade Lee to help it, in return for advanced knowledge it can give him.

And then suddenly, Telly Savalas randomly appears as a comedy Cossack leader, boarding the train with his men, possibly because someone has telegraphed ahead, but the point is not made terribly clear. He drinks, he wenches, he chews the scenery and generally steals his scenes, and then within about five minutes he is swiftly killed by the creature and turned into a zombie (as are all of the other dead people - they really have thrown the kitchen sink at this plot). There's an ending involving decoupling the car with the survivors in and sending the train plummeting over a convenient gorge, but frankly after Telly dies, it's all anti-climax.

So how to sum up this unexpected discovery? It's not that bad - hokey at times but entertainingly watchable in a late night horror movie kind of way - exactly right for the slot the Horror Channel put it in. The beautiful countess and femme fatale are beautiful, Cushing and Lee play it completely straight as always and are their usual impeccable selves, and aside from some bad dubbing over the Spanish extras and the random Telly Savalas cameo, it could basically be any Hammer film of the 60s and 70s. Savalas was here at the height of his bankability; just post- his major film roles like 'Kelly's Heroes' and 'The Dirty Dozen', but just pre-Kojak, so quite a big name to have secured, albeit for a bit part. Both Savalas and the locomotive and train car set were, it seems, borrowed from 'Pancho Villa', which was just about to start shooting at the same studio.

But what really interested me was the whole 'alien dug out of the ice, goes on a rampage but is actually trying to get home' element. This plotline first appeared in 1931 in the pioneering novella by SF-horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft: 'At The Mountains of Madness'. This then led pulp writer John W. Campbell to write his own 'alien spacecraft trapped in the ice' story 'Who Goes There?' in 1938, which became filmed in 1951 at the height of American UFO panic as 'The Thing From Another World', and which itself was then remade in 1982 as 'The Thing', directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell. Ridley Scott's 2012 Prometheus is also arguably based on the same ur-plotline (it was cited by Spanish director Guillermo del Toro as the reason he abandoned his own simultaneous attempt to film At The Mountains of Madness). That there should have been another movie inspired, albeit obliquely, by the same plot, is a delightful find. The fact that the horror has a scientific element to it in Horror Express makes the film more interesting than just a simple revenant on a train, and that science element is reminiscent of a couple of other Hammer films like the 1967 oddity Night of the Big Heat (also starring Lee and  Cushing). All told, it's an interesting curio, and worth watching if it ever comes by again.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Here Comes The Sun

Movie trivia: what were the most expensive films produced in 1990? As BuzzFeed might put it: the answer may surprise you. 1st: Die Hard 2 ($70 million), 2nd: Total Recall ($65 million), 3rd: Dick Tracey? Back To The Future 3? The Hunt For Red October? Nope. Solar Crisis ($55 million).

And yet I am going to take a punt and suggest that you have never even heard of Solar Crisis, much less seen it. It certainly wasn't one of the top grossing films of 1990. In fact, outside Japan (it was a Japanese-US co-production based on a Japanese novel), it seems to have had a very limited cinematic release. But $55 million is a lot of money to splurge on a straight-to-video B-movie. So was it some kind of mafia money laundering scheme? Well, not on the face of it - it stars Charlton Heston (yes, that one), Jack Palance, Tim Matheson (the vice president in The West Wing), and Peter Boyle (the dispacher in Taxi Driver, the monster in Young Frankenstein, and Ray's dad in Everybody Loves Raymond), and was directed by Richard Sarafian, who in his younger days had made cult road movie Vanishing Point. A lot of special effects money also seems to have been thrown at the film, although by today's standards it still looks pretty hokey. However, the fact that Richard Sarafian asked to be credited as 'Alan Smithee' hints that the film may have had a... shall we say 'troubled' production history.
Like you, I had never heard of Solar Crisis, but I came across it on top of a pile of DVDs at my parents' house, and was intrigued at the idea of a 1990 SF film starring Charlton Heston that I had never heard of. Could it be another overlooked cult movie like the 1980 SF B-movie Saturn 3 (Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel, Farrah Fawcett and a killer robot - what's not to like)? So I borrowed it and - last night - watched it.
The other thing that had intrigued me was the premise - Earth is facing destruction at the hands of a monstrous solar flare. To divert it harmlessly away from Earth, a crew of astronauts must pilot a massive bomb into the heart of the sun. Sound familiar? That's because it's - give or take - the premise of Danny Boyle's 2007 SF film Sunshine. The idea that it had been done 17 years earlier with Chuck 'From My Cold Dead Hands' Heston sounded amazing. However, the similarities pretty much end there, and it turns out that there's a good reason you've not seen this movie. It is... well, not exactly terrible, just not terribly good.
So let's start with the plot - it's all over the place. The main 'carry the bomb to the sun' plot plays second fiddle to confusing shenanigans back on Earth. Tim Matheson, captain of the Helios - the ship with the bomb - has unresolved dad issues both with his son - who absconds from military academy - and his dad, the Admiral (Chuck Heston). Meanwhile religious corporate baddie Peter Boyle reckons that the solar flare won't happen, and therefore (?) for no particular reason tries to sabotage the mission, by employing a hitman who looks like Billy Idol, who botches the assassination of a key henchman who then goes on the lam. Henchman, military cadet, corporate goons and military rescue squad all collide in some Mad Max-style badlands area where crazy old man Jack Palance turns out to be ex military and saves said cadet. Oh, did I mention the sexy cyborg (Annabel Schofield, apparently channelling Liz Hurley) who gets reprogrammed by Billy Idol to sabotage the Helios...? The confusing plot unfortunately rubs shoulders with risible dialogue (even for an 80s - or nearly 80s - SF movie), a smart alec talking bomb that seems to have escaped from Dark Star, and gratuitous female nudity (Annabel even gets that staple of 80s movies - a random shower scene). Jack Palance isn't really trying, Charlton Heston does gravitas very well but doesn't get enough screen time, and the whole thing ends in a strange 2001-style 'Stargate' sequence as the sexy cyborg ovecomes her reprogramming and sets the controls for the heart of the sun.
As SF turkeys go, though, this one is definitely M&S hand-reared free range turkey, and you're welcome to borrow the DVD.

I watched it as a double bill with the aforementioned Sunshine, just for comparison. The truth is, though, there just is no comparison. Danny Boyle directs with a sense of wonder at the sheer scale of everything, the acting is fine, and the plot is pretty tight and concentrates quite rightly on the whole 'getting the bomb to the sun' thing. I hadn't enjoyed Sunshine very much when I first watched it, and this was the first time I had seen it in several years, but the plot actually made much more sense the second time around, aside from the central conceit, which doesn't make sense in physics terms (even a fission bomb 'the size of Manhattan' would be a mere drop in the ocean on something the scale of the sun). Still, that bothered me less this time and I enjoyed the atmospherics, and the way staring into the sun drove people to madness. I actually ended up wishing more could have been made of that, especially what had happened to the previous Icarus mission - something of an Event Horizon-type thing as they put the pieces together (but with less religious mumbo jumbo). But the main distraction for me was Cillian Murphy, whose character looked too much like Professor Brian Cox, and I kept on expecting him to break into a soft Lancashire accent and big cheesy grin, and have a large, exciteable Irishman appear alongside him to crack a few jokes. But yes, I think I can see what Mark Kermode likes about Sunshine now.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Whatever happened to cyberpunk?

So here it is - the year 2016. I'm living in the future that I could only imagine back in the 1980s. But how does it measure up?
Personal cyberdeck?


Domestic robot?


All transactions conducted in Eurodollars?

Ehhh... kind of. A bit.

Direct brain interface for my cyberdeck?

Not so much.

Cybernetic arm with concealed shotgun?

Seriously, WTF? Why would you even want that anyway?

But hang on... what's this...?

How the hell did we not manage to imagine mobile phones?

The future is a strange place, but I think I kind of like it.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Hard to be a Soviet

It is a commonplace that science fiction tells you far more about the time and place it was written in than any potential vision of the future, but this was brought home to me recently by reading two very different and yet similar books. The first, Almuric, was written by Robert E Howard, writer of the Conan stories and part of H.P. Lovecraft's 'weird fiction' circle in the 1920s, while the second, Hard To Be A God, by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, was from a very different time and place - not the sunny, macho post-pioneer cowboy world of frontier 20s Texas, but instead the rather drabber and more circumscribed world of the 1960s Soviet Union. However, both deal with the idea of a visitor from a technological Earth being dropped into a more primitive culture and having to make his (and in both cases it is a he) way in it.

The stranger from our world, or a future version of it, journeying in a more 'primitive' culture is of course a well-worn trope of science fiction, running from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court (written back in 1889 as a satire on the romanticised Victorian pre-Raphaelite view of the Middle Ages) to Iaian M Banks' 1998 novel Inversions, but the treatments couldn't be more different. Almuric is a so-called 'planetary romance' in the mold of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series, which Almuric is, to be blunt, a poor pastiche of. However, for all of its alien (though generally humanoid) window dressing, its roots, like John Carter's, lie solidly in the 'white man has adventures in the wilds' genre that can be traced back to Kipling and Rider Haggard - The Man Who Would Be King and King Solomon's Mines. The main difference is that while the colonialist Boys' Own adventure stories tended to emphasise the primitiveness of African (and for Martian we can pretty much read African) tribes, Robert Howard was clearly much more sympathetic to what he viewed as the more 'authentic' nature of tribal existence, unmediated by the trappings of 'civilisation', and his hero, Esau Cairn, is another of his burly man-mountains in the mold of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and Francis X Gordon, who is out of place in his own world and finds the more existential challenges of the wilderness more to his taste. Indeed, there is more than a touch of the Western about Almuric, albeit the kind of Western that Hollywood didn't start making until the 1960s, where the Native Americans stop being simply villains - something akin to A Man Called Horse, for example, and Almuric is as much about Cairn's acceptance into the tribe he finds himself among as it is a story of rescuing women in peril and two-fisted action. Howard was growing up in a time and place when the Frontier was still within living memory and he clearly had a respect and fascination for tribal culture based on real world 'Indians', but his books are also something of a paean to that frontier world of his grandfathers, fast disappearing in his time as America industrialised. Like Cairn, he would rather have been transported into that world than have to put up with the new America of automobiles and office work.

Written from the vantage point of the post-colonial era, Hard To Be A God has no such romantic view of 'primitive' cultures. Life in the Arkanar Kingdom on a world light years from Earth is nasty, brutish and short, and fastidious Russian scientist Anton, posing as nobleman Don Rumata, is continually repelled by its smells and cruelties at the same time that he worries that they are rubbing off on him. Anton is a product of a socialist, utopian future Earth (the so-called Noon Universe, which the Strugatskys used as the setting for several novels), which is what we would now call a 'post scarcity society', and a model for Gene Rodenberry's benevolent United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, and more particularly The Culture from Iaian M Banks' stories. But its sociologists, working under cover while trying to gently push the medieval society of Arkanar towards a Renaissance, cannot work out why their wonderfully Soviet-sounding 'Basis Theory' does not seem to account for Arkanar's resistance to progress, which causes the society to move backwards through a fascistic authoritarian coup into a theocratic dictatorship. All they can do is save a few philosophers, poets and intellectuals from the pyres. The book is dense with questions about free will, human nature, and the responsibility of more advanced societies towards those less so - allow them to make the same mistakes that we did, or intervene and remove their own sense of agency? But it also serves as a kind of allegory of Stalinism and the chilling effect it had on the intellectual life of the USSR; the book was published in 1964, when Kruschev was still in the process of 'de-Stalinising' the country. Like real life (and very much unlike Almuric), Hard To Be A God offers no easy answers to the questions it poses, but it may be one of the most interesting SF books I have read in a very long time.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Nearer, my God, to Thee

There is a big hoo-hah in the news this morning about the world's largest cruise ship arriving in Southampton. The BBC put one of their business correspondents aboard to ask about payback times, cruise ship sizes, passenger demographics and all that. But what I found frustrating is that he didn't ask what I have always felt is the most fundamental question about these gigantic ships - are they actually, you know, safe?

Putting aside the fact that being stuck in a hotel/shopping mall with 8,500 other people for several days, probably in a cabin with no window, would be a personal vision of purgatory, 8,500 crew and passengers is a staggering number of people to be literally all in the same boat. That's nearly four times as big as the Titanic, and twice the size of the Costa Concordia, which sank four years ago amid some pretty chaotic scenes. The Costa Concordia's ill-fated captain made one crucial decision, which was to steer the ship for shore. That meant that although the ship began to list too heavily for the lifeboats to be lowered on one side, most passengers were able to swim to safety, and because the ship settled on the seabed with part of it still above water, others could just cling to the ship and wait for rescue. As a result, 'only' 32 lives were lost.

Now imagine a huge mega-cruise ship like the Harmony Of The Seas in the mid-Atlantic, perhaps on fire, or suffering some other catastrophe that requires evacuation. Well, presumably there at least are sufficicent lifeboats for everyone to get into, right? Wrong. The ship carries 18 lifeboats, and each is rated to carry up to 370 people. That is 6,660 people, on a ship which can carry 8,700. Can they actually do that? Well, yes, apparently they can. The rules on these things are set by the International Maritime Organisation's SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) convention, which says that a ship need only carry sufficient lifeboats to hold 75% of the crew and passengers, the rest can be dealt with by (inflatable) life rafts. Well, oookay, I guess - but it's funny how no-one ever mentions these kind of things in the brochure. What's also not mentioned is that SOLAS specifies a maximum size of lifeboat of 150 people, and the Harmony had to get special permission to have lifeboats that can hold so many, otherwise it would have had to carry 45 lifeboats. Can 16 crew get 370 people into a lifeboat during an emergency? That remains to be seen. SOLAS requires that a vessel can be evacuated in 30 minues from the 'Abandon Ship' order being given. It took five hours to get everyone off the Costa Concordia, with numerous shortcomings highlighted in crew training. And larger ships also run with larger passenger: crew ratios; on the 1960s-era QE1 it was 1: 1.8, on the Costa Concordia 1: 2.8. On the Harmony of the Seas it is 1: 3.2.

And even given all that, that still means that there are over 2,000 people, probably quite a lot of them elderly - we're talking about a cruise ship here - who can't fit in the lifeboats at all anyway. They need to be able to get off a 16-deck ship into little inflatable boats bobbing in the water. How? I'm glad you asked. The answer is via a slide which unfurls from canisters on the evacuation deck, a bit like the escape slide on an airliner. But an airliner on the ground only needs to get people down 20 feet - the deck of the mega cruise ship is 50 feet or more above the water. That's a long way to fall, and people do get injured in such escapes. Serious questions have been asked about whether this is a suitable way of getting off a huge liner - fine in calm conditions in the Mediterranean or Caribbean but not necessarily workable in heavy seas. Caribbean Cruise Lines calls this a "holistic evacuation procedure", but the whole thing sounds very dicey to me.

The IMO said it was taking the Costa Concordia sinking "very seriously",  but the new generation of mega-cruise ships seems to be pushing at the boundaries of what is permissible or indeed advisable by current safety legislation. It was that kind of exceptionalism that led to the Titanic setting sail from Southampton with only enough lifeboats to carry half the crew and passengers, because putting more on would have 'spoiled the look of the ship', and because the existing regulations had been designed for smaller vessels and hadn't caught up with the then-new generation of mega-liners. Plus ca change.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Grave of the Fireflies

"People struggled, then burst into flames where they stood. The fiery air was blown down toward the ground and it was often the refugees' feet that began burning first: the men's puttees and the women's trousers caught fire and ignited the rest of their clothing." 

"Under the wind and the gigantic breath of the fire, immense, incandescent vortices rose in a number of places, swirling, flattening sucking whole blocks of houses into their maelstrom of fire. Wherever there was a canal, people hurled themselves into the water... hundreds of them were later found dead; not drowned, but asphyxiated by the burning air and smoke. In other places, the water got so hot that the luckless bathers were simply boiled alive."

Today, August 6th 2015, is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Around 60,000 people were killed almost instantaneously. Tens of thousands more suffered radiation-related illnesses in the weeks and years that followed. But the picture above, and the quotes from a journalist eyewitness who survived it, were not from that terrible bombing. They were from five months earlier, when over 100,000 civilians (the nature of the tragedy is such that exact numbers are impossible to determine) were incinerated in Tokyo by the largest fire bombing raid of the war. The sad truth is that - as terrible as the morning of August 6th was - it was not the most terrible thing that happened to Japan that year. From March to August 1945 the US made several fire bombing raids a week against Japan, the larger ones, like on Kobe, dramatised in the painful and moving film Grave of the Fireflies, killing tens of thousands of people at a time. As Dan Carlin put it in his excellent Hardcore History podcast 'Logical Insanity', perhaps the more interesting question about the atomic bomb is not 'did we need to use it?', but 'whoever thought that deliberately massacreing cities full of civilians was a valid tactical choice anyway?' Because by 1945, make no mistake, that was where the Allies had got to. There was a fiction about military targets, an incremental slip from 'area bombing' to 'morale bombing', but by 1945 the firebombing raids were quite simply and deliberately designed to create firestorms that erased enemy civilian populations. Britain may have sold the fire raid on Dresden to the public as "revenge for Coventry", but that is to blur the distinction in scale and intent from the admittedly terrible attack by the Luftwaffe, which killed 570 people, and the deliberate incineration of 25,000 German civilians by the RAF. USAF General Curtis LeMay freely admitted after the war that, had it taken a different course, it would be people like him and Arthur 'Bomber' Harris in the dock at Nuremberg, charged with Crimes Against Humanity. This was a deliberate policy of massacre, little distinguishable in its effect, possibly even in its intent, from the mass shooting of Polish and Russian civilians by SS Einsatzgruppen, and the fact that "they started it", "they did bad things first" and "this was a  just war against a terrible enemy" do not detract from that.

What lessons do we draw from history? The lesson that the world seems to want to draw from the atomic bombs is that they were unique in their terribleness, and that as a consequence they must never be used again. Well, to be sure that is a good, possibly even world-saving result, it may have helped us survive the Cold War, and the Japanese have certainly capitalised on their sense of national nuclear victimhood to become loud and enthusiastic proponents of nuclear disarmament (by the by, though, they continue to muddy the water by not accepting any responsibility for the terrible crimes Japan inflicted, especially in China). I visited the Peace Museum at Hiroshima 25 years ago and it is a powerful, overwhelming place, and the stories of the bomb's effects and aftereffects chilling and depressing. Afterwards I talked to someone whose mother had survived the bombing. She still carried shards of window glass driven into her skull by the force of the blast, buried too deep to be surgically removed. But... it's not the whole story. You don't need to use nuclear weapons to commit terrible atrocities. As the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero and the Rwandan massacres have shown us, if the will is there, all you need are farm implements or machetes. A Museum of the Firebombing could tell equally terrible stories, like those I quote above, were it to actually exist. But it doesn't. There is no International Firebombing Day every March 9th. And in some ways the US has collaborated in this by trying to portray the atomic bombings as one-off, terrible events, designed to end a war. And do you know what - they probably did. They may not have shocked Japan into surrender, but they were at least a convenient excuse for the Japanse goverment to decide to capitulate - an honourable way out - against such weapons, who could be expected to fight? They probably saved Japan more pain, more firebombings, and hence perhaps the deaths of millions more. But, and it's a big But - that was only because the US was quite happy to go on incinerating Japanese people at the time, and as far as Curtis LeMay was concerned, the more the better. In some ways the atomic bomb debate is a distraction, because it focuses on the means, and not the ends and intentions.

So as we commemorate the atomic bombings, amidst all of the pious declarations about their terribleness and "never again", let us pause to spare a thought for the wider context, the step-by-step loss of our collective humanity that led us into a place where dropping the atomic bombs was actually preferable to what we were already doing on a daily basis. That slow slide into inhumanity to me is the real lesson from Hiroshima, and not an arbitrary dividing line drawn across some types of weapon that make some "acceptable" and others not.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Selling England by the pound

In yesterday's post I mentioned the story about King John's alleged diplomatic mission to the Emir of Morocco. But did King John once try to subordinate England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco? Did he even agree to convert? To place England under Sharia Law?

This is one of those 'hardy perennials' that continually comes up when King John is discussed. Those who hate John use it as another stick to beat him with, an example of how far he was prepared to go. Muslims like to cite it as an example of John's open and tolerant nature (yeah, right) - his brother Richard, after all, nearly married off his sister to Saladin's brother - while swivel-eyed EDL types view it as a terrible portent of what could happen today. But is there any truth to it at all?

There is a single source for the story, which is worth examining in some detail. It is allocated to the year 1213 in Matthew Paris' continuation of the great chronicle (Chronica Majora) of St Albans Abbey. One of the monks at the abbey, Paris took over as custodian of the chronicle from his predecessor Roger of Wendover in 1236, and so most of the chronicle up to that point was Roger's work (in which the story does not appear), but Matthew did interpolate some events, like the one we are discussing, into his own copy. He tells us why in his own account. But he begins with explaining that John - pressed militarily by the French and diplomatically by the Pope, excommunicated, and with his domestic support draining away, looked further afield for allies;

"He [King John] therefore immediately sent secret messengers, namely, the knights Thomas Hardington and Ralph fitzNicholas, and Robert of London, a clerk, to the emir Murmelius the great king of Africa, Morocco and Spain, who was commonly called Miramumelimis, to tell him that he would voluntarily give up himself and his kingdom, and if he pleased he would hold it as tributary from him, and that he would also abandon the Christian faith, which he considered false, and would faithfully adhere to the law of Mahomet."

The story is quite a long one, but briefly, the leader of the emissaries, Thomas, gives a glowing portrait of England, which "abounds with all kind of wealth, in agriculture, pastures and woods, and from it also every kind of metal may be obtained," etc etc. The Emir wonders why anyone would give up such a land, sends the knights away, and then talks to the priest, Robert "who was a small, dark man, with one arm longer than the other, and having fingers all misshapen, namely two sticking together, and with a face like a Jew." He commands Robert to tell him on his word as a Christian what kind of man King John is. Robert reluctantly admits that John is "a tyrant rather than a king, a destroyer rather than a governor, an oppressor of his own people and a friend to strangers, a lion to his own subjects, a lamb to foreigners and those who fought against him," and so on. The messengers are sent away, but the Emir rewards Robert's truthfulness with gifts of gold and silver.

Paris then explains that Robert had been given charge of the abbey of St Albans during the Papal interdict, and then, "without consulting, yea even against the will of the temporary abbott John de Cell, a most religious and learned man, seized on everything which was then in the church and the convent at pleasure, and appropriated it to his own use," and that he "cheated the abbey of more than a thousand marks." He did get on with some of the monks, however, including "Laurence, a clerk, and Master Walter, a monk and painter, and them he kept as his familiars, to whom he showed his jewels and other secret presents fromt he Emir, and related what had passed between them, in the hearing of Matthew, who has written and related these events."
[All quotations from Matthew Paris - Chronica Majora]

So basically the story comes directly from Paris himself, who says he heard it directly from one of the emissaries, Robert of London. This apparently cast iron attribution has meant that the story - however strange it may sound on first hearing - has nevertheless persisted. And there are other details which are a kind of corroboration, too, including the identity of the emissaries. 'Thomas Hardington' is actually Sir Thomas of Erdington, a knight from Staffordshire whose talent for diplomacy and administration had seen him rise first to the post of Sherrif of Staffordshire and Shropshire, and then from about 1206 as a part of John's court and household, and ultimately a travelling royal diplomat. Thomas was given charge of being John's emissary to the Papal court in Rome, to where he travelled on at least half a dozen occasions. He negotiated the details of John's re-submission to Papal authority, and in 1215 pleaded John's case at the Lateran Council. He is also known to have conducted diplomatic missions to Prince Llewellyn of Powys, and to have been responsible for seizing the Shropshire castles and lands of William de Braose after the latter's fall from grace. He is a key John henchman, and is also cited more than once as being especially eloquent - let's face it, being Royal envoy to the snakepit of the Papal court was not a job for an amateur. He is exactly the kind of person who one would expect to find leading an English diplomatic mission to a foreign potentate.

These diplomatic missions also often consisted of trios, as Paris described - two knights, or a knight and a commoner (usually one with special knowledge or connections, or perhaps facility with languages, like 'Peter the Saracen'), and the third would always be a priest. The same pattern is repeated in Paris' story. Ralph fitzNicholas was another royal household knight (and years later Sheriff of Nottingham, oddly enough), while Robert of London, the cleric described as being on this mission, was another John henchman and very much the kind of man that John got to do his dirty work. He was given the job, after the death of Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1205, of going to Canterbury and seizing the Archbishop's jewelled clothes and regalia for the King. And just as Paris describes, when Pope Innocent placed England under interdict and John decided to seize the wealth of the churches and monasteries for himself, Robert of London got the job of taking over St Albans Abbey and - crucially - its revenues for the King - one of the richest and most powerful abbeys in the country. He took over in March 1208, but made himself such a nuisance with his exactions that within a few months the Abbot had paid the vast sum of 1,100 marks to be rid of him.

So the story seems to be checking out. The key participants all existed, including 'Miramurmelinus', who seems to have been the Almohad Emir Mohammed al-Nasir al-Muminin (the latter is actually a title meaning "Commander of the Faithful', and equivalent to 'Caliph' - the present King of Morocco still claims this honour). But when did it take place? Paris says it was in 1213, but in the Chronica he later contradicts himself by saying that it occurred before al-Nasir's climactic battle with the Spanish kingdoms at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. This seems reasonable - an alliance with al-Nasir before the battle would be with a strong ruler, not the beaten force he was in 1213. It's possible that Paris just made an error of recollection and put the story in the wrong year. Nevill Barbour examined the story in 1960 and proposed that a reference in the 14th century Arab history Rawd al Qirtas to an emissary from the "King of Bayonne" to al-Nasir in early 1212 could well be the same event, as Bayonne was the capital of the English lands in southern France, and John might have been seeking allies against the King of Castille, who was threatening English possessions in France.

But here we start to run into trouble. Ralph fitzNicholas is mainly attested under Henry III, and lived until 1266, but his date of birth is not known. He was seemingly old enough to be made Sheriff of Nottingham in 1217 when Philip Mark was removed, but must have been quite young then. Thomas of Erdington was dead by 1217, King John in 1216 and Mohammed al-Nasir in 1215. Abbot John de Cell died in 1214. Robert of London is not heard of again after about 1210 (although he may have gone into retirement). But if we accept 1214 as the latest date for the story, we then have to ask: when did Matthew Paris hear it from Robert of London? We know that Robert of London was in charge of St Albans Abbey briefly in 1208, and according to Paris this was when he overheard the story, but also by his own account Matthew Paris did not take holy orders until 1217. It is believed he was born in about 1200, and entirely possible that he could be a few years older than that, and it's quite likely he may have been brought up at the monastery before he became a monk, so he could well have been a young boy, perhaps serving Robert of London and his cronies with food or wine and overhearing their conversation. But if so, that would place the supposed trip prior to 1208, when the interdict was still in its early days, and rule out Barbour's carefully reasoned cross-correlation - the only independent verification we possibly might have of the story.

It's difficult to reconcile these various dates, and this leaves us with several possibilities; firstly, that Paris is misremembering - he was writing later than 1236, so he may have misremembered names, dates and places of events that happened at least 25 years earlier - we know he already contradicts himself once over the date in the Chronica itself. Secondly, Robert of London might just have been making stuff up - spinning a tall tale by the fireside to overawe a bunch of monks who didn't get out much, and showing off a few silver baubles he had picked up from who knows where as 'evidence'. Thirdly, Paris might have invented the whole tale as a satire on John's relationship with the Pope. Paris did after all hate King John, remembering perhaps the disruption of the interdict and Robert of London's tenure of St Albans. It was Paris who also wrote, lest we forget; "Foul as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John." Confronted with the basic implausibility of some elements of the tale - John's willingness to convert to Islam, for example - plenty of historians have decided that it's just another of Paris' malicious digs and dismissed it as fiction.

So where does that leave us? Unfortunately none the wiser. The story cannot be true in its entirety because some elements of it contradict other elements, and this means we have to look askance at its inherent implausibility. I offered three possibilities above, but I actually like to believe that it's a combination of all three; Robert of London was - at the very least - exaggerating, Paris was misremembering, and then probably added a few jibes of his own out of his and his fellow monks' abiding dislike of John's memory. In answer to the question at the start of this post - did King John once try to sell England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco - the answer is: "almost certainly not", but the idea of a diplomatic mission to the Emir of Andalus is not at all implausible, and Erdington, fitzNicholas and Robert of London are certainly the kind of people that the King would have chosen to undertake it.