William Gerhardie – review of “God’s Fifth Column”, The Dabbler, 2015

Another William Gerhardie piece, this time ten years on from the SAU blog one and covering much of the same ground about his odd kind of fame. The Dabbler had a feature called the 1p book review, on books that, in theory at least, cost only 1p via Amazon marketplace. I also had encountered Gerhardie again in the memoir of Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec, financial manager of the Rolling Stones.

 

1p Book Review: God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie


Seamus Sweeney reads God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940 – an unusual work by an author who at one time looked like becoming one of the greats…

William Gerhardie has achieved an odd kind of fame; famous for not being famous.

He is a writer whose champions specifically focus on his obscurity, or rather the obscurity of his later life. Gerhardie was well-known in his early career, and the same few quotes that recur in his blurbs give testament to his appeal to his contemporaries. Evelyn Waugh said of him, “I have talent, but he has genius”, and for Graham Greene “to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.”

Born in St Petersburg, Gerhardie was an English merchant of great wealth who was thrown into a sack in the 1905 Revolution. According to his son, he was only spared by being confused by the mob with Keir Hardie (this does have the air of a somewhat convenient anecdote). A Russian education for William was followed by being packed off to England to prepare for a commercial career of some kind; he ended up returning to the land of his birth as part of the failed Allied intervention after the 1917 Revolution.

As well as the acclaim of Greene, Waugh, Katharine Mansfield and Edith Wharton, Gerhardie also achieved a fair measure of worldly success, being taken up by Lord Beaverbrook as a potential protégé on the strength of The Polyglots. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn him into a bestseller failed, and a lengthy decline into obscurity began. In 1931, aged 36, he published an autobiography, and moved into Rossetti House in London, behind Broadcasting House. He would remain there until his death in 1977, “a hermit in the West End of London” in the words of Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky’s introduction to God’s Fifth Column.

Every so often, Gerhardie achieves some revival  degree of revivial. I myself tried to stoke the embers in 2006. William Boyd, a longtime admirer partly based Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart on Gerhardie. Michael Holroyd seems the most devout keeper of the flame.

 There was another flurry of interest when his biographer, Dido Davies, died in 2013. Davies was a former heroin addict and author of sex manuals who had her funeral written up in Mary Beard’s blog.

 Of his novels, Futility, Doom and The Polyglots are widely available. Futility is the most amenable to (my) contemporary taste,  while Doom and The Polyglots are much shaggier stories but with much to recommend them. The latter,  with its vain narrator, is notable for a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of children free of sentimentality or faux-toughness. The former features a fictionalised Beaverbrook and a piecemeal apocalypse.

 One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

 Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

 After his death, within various cardboard boxes labelled “DO NOT CRUSH”, was found the manuscript posthumously published as God’s Fifth Column. He had been working on this from 1939, and it made it into the Metheun catalogue of upcoming publications for Autumn 1942, but was then withdrawn (the relevant correspondence disappeared during the War; Gerhardie claimed he had withdrawn it at his own request for revision).

The “god’s fifth column” of the title is the comic spirit, subverting humanity’s well-intentioned, seemingly rational plans. Gerhardie defines it thus:

God’s Fifth Column is that destroying agent – more often the unconscious agent, sometimes malevolent or maladroit in intention – of spirit within the gate of matter. Its purpose is to sabotage such structures and formations of human society, built as it were of individual human bricks, as have proved to be unserviceable for association into larger groups of suffering units because insufficiently baked by suffering to cement with their immediate neighbours.

Later, he writes “Comedy is God’s Fifth Column sabotaging the earnest in the cause of the serious.”

Despising overarching explanations of history, and keen to defend the individual against all the collectives, from family to state, that seek to the control the “suffering unit” that is the individual person, Gerhadie’s history is a series of tableaux, of scenes in which the same figures -Tolstoy, Shaw, Margot Asquith, Arthur Balfour, various royals of various  nations – recur.

Holroyd and Skidelsky edited out a quarter of the text which was unready for publication; the bulk of the text  relates to the 1890-1919 period, with the next twenty years much more briefly dealt with.  Gerhardie’s judgments are direct, his authorial voice magisterially certain of his subjects. A sample:

Bernard Shaw sent the greater writer of the Russian soil [Tolstoy] his The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which drew a blank from Tolstoy, who answered that he ‘looked forward to reading it with interest’. Which, in author’s vocabulary, may be taken to mean he had already dipped into the thing without much interest and elected to write before he had to confess disappointment. In his accompanying letter Shaw stressed that virtue was ineffective because habitually cloaked in pious language, and would gain by the prestige of blunt, full-blooded, pithy speech, in which vice masquerades attractively before an admiring adolescent world.

 This suggestion also seems to have drawn a blank. Virtue knocked dumb by meekness drew tears from Tolstoy’s old eyes, and he could not see it swaggering in jackboots.

 But the letter is key to Shaw. He is a swaggerer, and he knows it and enjoys it. A man of trepidation in most things, he takes a double step. Metaphorically, even physically, as he strides up like a conquerer before the cine-camera. He adds an incongruous flourish of defiance to his old-maid’s signature: uses belligerent barrack room terms to convey Salvation Army sentiments.

This extract is fairly representative. God’s Fifth Column is full of entertaining anecdote, and Gerhardie has extracted from a host of memoirs of the age a host of arresting observations and unexpected encounters. His style, lapidary in Futility, tends to the verbose (not to mention tendentious) here, and ironically given his disdain for the great abstractions that press on the “suffering unit”, much of the narration is taken up with abstraction.

Read at length, the style becomes slightly grating; however as a book to dip and out of, it works very well.

 

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Birthplace of St Columba, Gartan, Donegal

Birthplace of St Columba, Gartan, Donegal

 

Traditionally, St Columba’s birthplace was near Lough Gartan, Church Hill, Co Donegal. Church Hill is a village near Glenveagh National Park, and is on the fringes of the Derryveagh Mountains – nearby, the rugged albeit farmed land of the eastern part of Donegal gives way to the wildness of the highlands.
According to the website Colmcille.org, there are two possible candidates for the birthplace in the Gartan area. The “official”, signposted one is Leac na Cumhaidh.

These photos are not very well taken but hopefully capture something of the place. The reputed birthsite itself is a flagstone which has been discoloured by coins, at the upper left of the rock arrangement seen below. A sign sternly warns visitors not to leave further coins:

 

The site is visually dominated by a massive cross erected by Cornelia Adair, amiable American widow of the notorious John George Adair. Cornelia was popular, relative to her husband who achieved lasting notoriety due to the evictions that led to the creation of the Glenveagh Estate.

Columba evidently was, like St Patrick also, seen as a figure who could unify Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter alike. The below inscription reads “Preserve With Each Other Sincere Charity and Peace”Finally, and most interestingly in many ways, this site is still evident attractive for contemporary would be prophets. The below image was attached to the railings around the site. img_2511

Kacou Phillipe’s page picks up the story:

Like the prophets of the Bible, In April 1993, a man who had never been in a church receives in a vision, the visitation of an Angel who commissions him for a Message destined to the entire earth in fulfillment of the ministry of Matthew 25:6 and Revelation 12:14..

For those who are a little rusty, Matthew 25:6 reads

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom comes; go out to meet him.

And Revelation 12:14:

And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.

Kacou Phillipe’s page also informs us:

Prophet Kacou Philippe got out of prison on Tuesday night, August 16, 2016.

William Branham was also new to me. His Wikipedia page begins:

William Marrion Branham (April 6, 1909 – December 24, 1965) was an American Christian minister, generally acknowledged as initiating the post World War II healing revival.[1][2] Branham’s most controversial revelation was his claim to be the end-time “Elijah” prophet of the Laodicean Church age.[3][4][5] His theology seemed complicated and bizarre to many people who admired him personally.[6] In his last days, Branham’s followers had placed him at the center of a Pentecostal personality cult. Other than those that still follow him as their prophet, Branham has faded into obscurity.

There are indeed those that still follow him as their prophet, and this is their webpage. From the Wikipedia page again, Branham had a range of prophecies:

Branham claimed to have had a prophetic revelation in June 1933 that comprised seven major events that would occur before the Second Coming of Christ.[70] He believed that five of the seven predictions, relating to world politics, science and the moral condition of the world, had been fulfilled. The final two visions, one related to the Roman Catholic Church gaining power in the United States and the second detailing the destruction of the USA, would be fulfilled by 1977, subsequent to which Christ would return.[71] A comparison of Branham’s descriptions of the prophecies reveals his tendency to exaggerate and embellish his actual predictions.[72]

In December 1964, Branham also prophesied that the city of Los Angeles would sink into the Pacific Ocean. This was subsequently embellished to a prediction that a chunk of land fifteen hundred miles long, three or four hundred miles wide and forty miles deep would break loose causing waves that would “shoot plumb out to Kentucky.”[48][73]

The line “his theology seemed complicated and bizarre to many people who admired him personally” reminded me of a passage in Anthony Storr’s book on gurus, Feet of Clay. Storr has a chapter on Rudolf Steiner, and writes on how Steiner’s work in education, especially for those who we would now describe as “special needs” children, was entirely admirable, and his personal life unimpeachable (I paraphrase), and yet his cosmology and theology were unintelligible and, for Storr, close to the delusional systems seen in schizophrenia.

When I walked with my family down a country lane in Donegal to the (supposed) birthplace of St Columba, I did not think I would end up learning about Kacou Philippe or William Branham.

 

 

Review of Fugitive Minds, Antonio Melechi, Nthposition 2005

This review, unlike that of“Old Friends”, now seems rather dated. Not because of the book (which I would like to re-read) but the tone, simultneously bombastically magisterial in the opening paragraphs and tellingly naive (I have now heard of the normalisation of hearing voices – indeed it is more or less mainstream)

fugitive minds

 

There are two tendencies in popular science, particularly popular psychology and neuroscience. One could be called reductionistic. We are assailed by books claiming that “we” are “just” collections of neurons, or idiot machines to reproduce our DNA, or somesuch. Books touted to “explain”, finally and definitively, why we are the way we are. The other is the perpetually chippy and confrontational, content not merely to propound a sweeping explanation for everything but to dismiss as absurd, stupid or downright evil all alternatives.

The regrettable proliferation of inverted commas in the last above paragraph perhaps indicate how these books rub off my own taste and temperament rather than objective critical opinion, but it is a pity that popular science writers seem less and less keen simply to explain and illustrate, rather than hector and hold forth.

The fly jacket tries to set this up as Antonio Melechi versus the monstrous regiment of materialist biological psychologist and psychiatrists: he “argues that this materialist vision of the human mind and behaviour promises more than it can deliver.” This is true, but on one level misrepresents the book. Melechi is refreshingly undogmatic, and while his inclination is obviously to champion the importance of cultural factors in twilight states, this is no aggressive polemic. The emphasis is on the interplay of cultural and biological factors, and Melechi’s stress on the cultural side is not just a reflection of his own background but a corrective to the prevalent tendency to champion the biological side. But he is no blind foe of any application of biochemistry and neuroscience to psychology.

For instance, in the essay on Near Death Experiences, Melechi concludes that “many of the elements that are ‘universally’ characteristic of the NDE, from geometric forms to the ‘life review’, do not require metaphysical explanation; they are best explained in terms of a secret heritage called ‘the body.'” William James, far more than Freud, is the presiding spirit of these essays. In the introduction Melechi writes of James’ scorn for the 19th century materialists who eagerly diagnosed saints and mystics as epileptics and hysterics. This is Melechi’s attitude too, one that is properly sceptical of wild claims but never outright dismissive.

He writes, for instance, on the possible relationship between Lewis Carroll’s history of migraines and the genesis of Alice in Wonderland. The shrinking and expanding, the “curiouser and curiouser” phenomena that Alice encounters, all echo descriptions of a migraine aura. Yet Melechi is aware of the limits of this approach; writing on the temptation to see Jabberwocky as influenced by the migrainous jumbling of words, he deflates the idea by observing that the poem was intended as a parody of Anglo-Saxon.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on hearing voices. I was unfamiliar with the work of Marcus Romme, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maastricht (what would Europhobes make of that, I wonder), who campaigns for the normalisation of hearing voices, and the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose idea of the “bicameral mind” is purported to underly the guidance by voices of the Old Testament Prophets, the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey and other ancient texts. The later discussion of the work of John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist of whom Melechi writes “of late, [he] has been increasingly impervious to criticism and debate. The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which has been less than even-handed in its criticisms of Mack, should take some responsibility for his exile” should warn one of the dangers of accepting authorities whether they be tenured professor at Harvard or self-appointed police of the borders of science.

The book is not just concerned with psychopathology (or perceived psychopathology) There is much on the twilight states that we all experience – sleep, dreaming – as well as ones which, while not universal, are very common – such as sonambulism and déjà vu. There is much on psychiatric exotica like latah, koro and arctic hysteria, and obsolete psychiatric diagnoses like nostalgia, once a dread disease of migrant workers. It functions best as a collection of essays, very well written and filled with literary and historical references, about various aspects of psychology rather than as some kind of argumentative tract. Even the most rigid biological determinist would surely be able to read these for profit and entertainment.

 

Wild Boars in Ireland

Every couple of years there seems to be a flurry of media interest in the presence of otherwise of wild boards in Ireland – as we can see from this 2012 Irish Times story and the rather lurid coverage in 2014 of a boar in Co Clare. One section in Paddy Woolworth’s 2012 Irish Times story brings this a little closer to home:

The wild boar is a formidable and hairy beast that makes the farmyard pig look like a weakling. It has been making unscheduled appearances in our countryside with increasing frequency. A 180kg male was shot near a school in Co Tipperary, and there are also recent records of boar breeding wild in Co Wicklow and Co Kilkenny, plus sightings in other counties.

I haven’t been able to find much about this Tipperary school incident, which I would obviously have a certain personal interest in! Here is a link to a PDF of the Irish Wildlife Trust’s submission to the Governments Wild Boar Risk Assessment – though it is undated.

I would be curious to find out more and what empirical studies have been done of the wild boar in Ireland. While reading about birding in France, I rather randomly came across this birding site which discusses boars in France   and which illustrates the principle of unintended consequences in any kind of species control.

 

There is of course another aspect to hunting; that of culling. Taking the wild boar – the sanglier, as an example, the estimated French population in 2013 was in excess of two million, with a population explosion in recent years as a result of human activity – global warming and radical changes in agricultural land use. The wolf is historically the principle natural predator – a species virtually non-existent in France despite a mini revival in the French alps and Massif Central. Needless to say this will never be a viable future solution here. So it follows that assuming numbers need to be controlled, hunting is the only solution. Sangliers certainly love maize (a thirsty crop at the best of times), as well as root vegetables and vines, amongst much else on this adaptable omnivore’s varied menu. In an attempt to stop the boars roaming into fields and vineyards, hunters have been encouraged to create feeding zones in woods and forests – often maize. But this has actually exacerbated the problem by artificially concentrating large populations, thereby creating perfect breeding grounds and leading to even larger packs of well-nourished animals. These zones have also apparently been responsible for accelerating the time it takes for them to reach adulthood (i.e. they can now breed at a younger age).
Interestingly, the hunters have been forced to reimburse farmers for crop damage, a bill that has much increased in recent years to a massive 50 million Euros (in 2011), but in spite of spending most of the year in the woods, they don’t seem to be able to keep the population increase in check. And as a sign of innate intelligence, according to hunters sangliers have recently developed a new tactic when devouring maize. When they enter the fields, they leave the outer edges of the field intact, presumably to hide what they’re doing deeper in the field completely out of sight!

Joseph Needham, history of technology and the Ahenny High Crosses

Joseph Needham, history of technology and the Ahenny High Crosses

Living in South Tipperary, the proximity of the a plethora of high crosses naturally piques ones interest. Some are well known, such as the Ahenny Crosses, some such as that at Kilkieran less so.

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High Cross, Kilkieran

Before moving here I was more familiar with the taller, more monumental Monasterboice cross and those of that group. I found Oliver Crilly’s book on high crosses very helpful, but there is a vast ;literature on the subject the surface of which I have scratched.

ahenny cross one
High Cross, Ahenny

In this scratching I came across an interesting reference to one of the Twentieth Century’s most extraordinary men, Joseph Needham – who amongst other things is a towering figure in the history of technology and science. As the Guardian review of Simon Winchester’s book on him begins:

 

Joseph Needham is one of those extraordinary characters whose life was so large and sprawling that it needs first to be condensed into a list. He was a scientist, polyglot, traveller, diplomat, Christian, socialist, exponent of free love, nudist, morris dancer and Sinophile.

In reading a paper by Peter Harbison, A High Cross Base from the Rock of Cashel and a Historical Reconsideration of the’Ahenny Group’ of Crosses, I came across the following

The chariot on the north side of the Ahenny base (Pl. IX) provides us with
some totally independent dating evidence from an unexpected quarter which
would also point to the ninth century. Needham (29) pointed out that the Ahenny
chariot is pulled by two horses wearing a breast-harness, a Chinese invention
which was introduced into Europe in order to give horses easier traction power,
rather than having them choked by the neck-harness previously in use. Basing
himself on E. M. Jope’s eighth-century dating, Needham saw the Ahenny cross as being the earliest reliable European evidence for the breast-harness, all the other examples which he encountered being no earlier than the ninth century. But as we would expect an innovation introduced from China to be found first on the European continent before it reached Ireland, we could confidently presume that the Ahenny breast-harness was no earlier than the Continental examples,thus arguing for a date not too early in the ninth century for the Ahenny cross.

So my daily commute intersects (nearly) with the path of one of the most remarkable scholars of the last hundred years. Did Needham himself visit Ahenny?

I have found taking decent photos of High Crosses beyond my capacities as a smart phone photographer. Here’s an image of the North Cross base taken from this page on the UCC website:

ahennynorthside base

 

The Needham reference is to: Joseph Needham, Science and civilisation in China, vol. 4. Physics and physical technology, part II, mechanical engineering (Cambridge, 1965), 315 – and the full reference for the Harbison paper is  A High Cross Base from the Rock of Cashel and a Historical Reconsideration of the’Ahenny Group’ of Crosses, pp 13-14  Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies,History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 93C, No. 1 (1993), pp. 1-20

Flann O’Brien’s English Teacher: John Charles McQuaid

Flann O’Brien’s English Teacher: John Charles McQuaid

From Blackrock College 1860-1995 by Sean Farragher and Annraoi Wyer

 

Dr McQuaid himself was recognised as an outstanding English teacher, and when one of his students, Brian O’Nolan, alias Myles na gCopaleen [and Flann O’Brien – SS], boasted in his absence to the rest of the class that there were only two people in the College who could write English properly namely, Dr McQuaid and himself, they had no hesitation in agreeing. And Dr McQuaid did Myles the honour of publishing a little verse by him in the first issue of the revived College Annual (1930) – this being Myles’ first published item.

A reproduction of the poem itself is featured. It reads:

AD ASTRA

Ah! When the skies at night

Are damascened with gold,

Methinks the endless sight

Eternity unrolled.

BRIAN UA NUALLAIN