Friday, 19 September 2014


Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
"Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone."

William Butler Yeats, 'Parnell'

So, the United Kingdom endures, although it nearly didn't. Independence is one of those strange and fickle things. It's seductive, because you can hold up a blank sheet of paper, and like one of those vacuous motivational posters or an aspirational advert, you can say: "your dreams here", "just imagine", "be all you can be", "just do it" etc etc. That way you can be all things to all people, and handwave away the potential problems as "not being positive enough". But it also dodges some of the harsher realities of life post-independence, which Yeats alludes to in the above poem. Charles Stuart Parnell was the charismatic Irish independence campaigner who nearly achieved Home Rule for Ireland in the 1880s - perhaps the Alex Salmond of his day, or at least the Donald Dewar. But when Irish independence was finally achieved, in 1922 (25 years after Parnell's death), it proved to be a traumatic and dislocating time; civil war was followed by partition, the great depression and a trade war with the UK in the early 30s. Yeats wrote his little two-line poem in 1937, and it's portrayed as a warning from the past about the disillusionment that inevitably follows independence; Parnell is cautioning a road mender breaking stones by the side of the road that he'll still be doing his poorly paid and back-breaking job whatever happens to the country's governance. This was the flip side that the Yes campaign in Scotland tried to brush aside in favour of the promise of the clean sheet of paper; no, not a civil war, but that you'll still get a government that you disagree fundamentally with 50% of the time, that EU accession would likely have been protracted and painful, that taxes would probably have to go up or benefits be cut in order to shore up Scottish monetary reserves - an independant Scotland, as the Irish Free State did in the early 20s before it introduced its own (Sterling-pegged) currency in 1926, would probably be using Sterling but without a formal monetary union, at the mercy of Bank of England rate setting. This was not just "fearmongering" but real and very serious issues that it suited the Yes campaign not to engage with.

It puts me in mind of UKIP, which likes to wave a similar magic wand over UK membership (or otherwise) of the EU. It was quite amusing to see Nigel Farage making all of the arguments in favour of the Scots staying in the Union that he uses against the UK doing so in Europe. Like the SNP, UKIP has some good points to make about democratic deficit. But like the SNP, it doesn't really have any answers beyond walking away and hoping for the best. A lot of the Scottish Yes vote came, I suspect, not from a romantic yearning about "A Nation Once More" and the re-creation of a state that was abolished by mutual consent (for all of the 'Parcel of Rogues' grumbling) in 1707, but from a Scottish, largely socialist disillusionment with the neoliberalism that has become the default option for successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative. And UKIP likewise depends on a southern English neoliberalism at odds with the generally centre-left welfare-ist and 'green' tone of European politics. They're assisted by the fact that the three main British political parties certainly haven't engaged their own core voters - the Tories have a leader who understands that elections are won on the centre ground, but who is thereby far too liberal for the tastes of most of his party, the Liberals have discovered that the kind of coalition politics they have been pushing for for decades actually involves messy compromises in real life and occasionally having to backtrack on campaign promises, and Labour have somehow managed to pick the blandest leader I can ever recall in an attempt to paper over the Blairite-Brownite cracks.The contrast between Milliband's panicked exit from a scrum of Yes supporters and Brown's defiant speech in favour of the union last week was a very striking one. God knows Brown has his myriad faults, but he wasn't the strange personality vacuum that is Ed Milliband.

So now where? Probably the optimal solution for the UK, as it is for Europe, is more devolution of powers from the centre. The telling difference, I suppose, is that the UK seems up for a more federal constitution at the moment, but in spite of the warning shots delivered by the past round of European elections and the chaos caused by the euro's straightjacket on Mediterranean economies, I'm not sure that Brussels is just yet. The next election, and the next parliament, promises to be a very interesting one.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Ronseal Psycho

I went on a trip around the Wye Valley with my girlfriend a couple of weeks ago. It was very pleasant - lots of nice rolling green scenery and historic towns, old inns and pubs and the like. One day we stayed in Hay on Wye - she shares my love of books and yet had never been to the country's second hand bookshop capital. So of course I ended up buying a few books - just musty paperbacks of a certain age. All four were, in some way connected with my love of early 20th century 'weird fiction' and the HP Lovecraft writing circle; two Robert E Howard, one Ramsey Campbell, and one Robert Bloch. All were part of Lovecraft's circle of correspondents; Campbell was, like Stephen King, a conscious imitator of Lovecraft, albeit filtered through a childhood on the wrong side of the tracks in Liverpool. Bloch was arguably the most talented of the circle and of course later went on to find fame and fortune in Hollywood by writing 'Psycho'.
The Bloch book I picked up, American Gothic, was not one I knew anything about, but just his name on the cover was sufficient. I've finally got around to reading it in the past week, and it's an interesting read. Set in 1893 during the Chicago World's Fair, it concerns a pharmacist with a shady past, G. Gordon Gregg, who has managed to have built for himself a weird 'castle' on the fringes of the fair, with numerous hidden rooms and passages that he has disguised by getting several different builders to work on the project and keeping the full plans to himself. He manages a succession of inventively grisly murders, mainly of heiresses for insurance money, and is foiled only when a local newspaper reporter, Crystal, takes an interest in him via her insurance clerk fiancee, and starts to unravel his past and crimes. Of course she nearly falls for Gregg's charms herself, and is at one point only narrowly rescued.
Well, the book is called 'American Gothic', and like the Ronseal advertisements, it certainly "does what it says on the tin". There is a haze of Edgar Allen Poe and his 'Murders in the Rue Morgue', a dash of 'Phantom of the Opera', and the weird castle folly is about as Gothic a setting as you could wish for, but there is also a large dose of American can-do pioneer spirit, and 'modern' devices like electricity, the telegraph and new chemical compounds. The trope - a mad doctor preying on gullible young women - in some way feels well worn - the staple of a dozen Hammer films, from House of Wax to the Abominable Dr Phibes. Indeed, finally, at one point the book's sheer preposterousness exhausted my patience, and I was ready to set it aside, but then, as I Googled others' opinons of the book, I discovered to my great surprise that it was, in fact, all - or very nearly all - absolutely true...
Yes, true. What Bloch was writing was not fiction, but a fictionalised life of a real American serial killer; H. H. Holmes. The weird castle, the multiple builders (some of whom he also murdered), the disappearing heiresseses and insurance scams - all true. Bloch, who had a lifelong fascination with serial killers, was writing the book in 1974, fourteen years after 'Psycho', and may have come across Holmes while researching his masterpiece (itself a fictionalised treatment of serial killer Ed Gein).
I was, it must be said, flabbergasted that the things about the narrative that had frustrated me had turned out to be the true ones. I guess that Holmes, like another of Bloch's obsessions Jack the Ripper, had existed just at the end of the period when it was possible to get away with that kind of thing, when uncertain communications and the difficulty in cross-correlating files and evidence between different police forces allowed criminals to play with what we would now call identity fraud, when a forged signature and a confederate willing to answer a telephone were enough to bamboozle an insurance company. The capture of Dr Crippen in 1910, after a radio message overtook him on his escape by fast ship to America, marked the start of a new era, when technology could outpace criminals and fraudsters in a way that had not been possible beforehand. Holmes is known to have killed 27 people, but may plausibly have murdered as many as one hundred. The only real anachronism in the book is Crystal, the spunky heroine, who is far more a creation of the 1970s (via His Girl Friday) than the 1890s.
And talking of anachronisms, I guess that buying a yellowing paperback from a heaving shelf of second hand books is something of that these days too. But how is the digital age ever going to duplicate that thrill of the serendipitous find that such places - dying as they may be - are able to provide? All the internet knows how to offer us is more of the same. People who purchased this book also liked... Will we ever find books like American Gothic that are out of print but not out of copyright, not scanned by Google's or Amazon's ever-widening maw, but simply lying on a few shelves around the world, waiting to be discovered?