Gizella Bodnár AKA “Airplane Gizi” RIP

Gizella Bodnár has died. No, I hadn’t heard of her either until I came across her via Wikipedia’s Recent Deaths page. Hungary’s “Queen of Thieves”, she also earned the name “Airplane Gizi’ due to her M.O. of making hadty getaways using domestic flights.

More on Gizella and the rather tragic backstory to her kleptomania :

The fourth of six children born to a railroad engineer father and a housewife mother, Gizella, or Gizi for short, started to steal small things while still a child. She attributed her kleptomania to meningitis which she survived at the age of six. Later she studied in Kassa, but when World War II broke out the stress of it brought her kleptomania to the fore again.

In the early 1950s, Malév, the national Hungarian airline, used to provide domestic flights between cities throughout Hungary. Bodnar’s clever ploy was to fly from Budapest to Miskolc, Debrecen, Szeged, Pécs, and Szombathely where she would break into houses and then fly back home to the capital on the evening flight; although she always denied ever having flown in a plane.

Hungary was not the only country in which she practiced her purloining ways. Among other watch loving capitals, she also committed regular break-ins in Amsterdam, London, and Paris. Part of her modus operandi was to knock on a neighbor’s door in the morning to borrow some condiments for cooking, which she would then return in the evening, thereby providing herself with an alibi for two distinct parts of the day.

During her long career, she was arrested twenty-one times between 1948 and 2006 and stood trial over 20 times. Ultimately, she was convicted to a total of 40 years in jail of which she served a total of 16 years and 7 months in prison.

She moved to the town of Komárom, where she was arrested in January 2009, at the age of 82, for breaking into a house. Late in her life, she was diagnosed with kleptomania: she admitted to liking “shiny things” and claimed that she mostly gave away all her loot to other people rather than selling it, a claim supported by the fact that at the time of her death she had no possessions to her name.

In this age of active ageing, it is heartening to find Gizella continued her criminal habits into her 90s:

In 2015, at the age of 89, incorrigible Gizella was arrested twice, once in June and again in September. In the latter instance, she was found in a cupboard, where she claimed she was hiding from the rain outside. She was arrested again in February 2016 in Sukoró, and again in August 2017 in Tatabánya.

In this age of active ageing, it is heartening to find Gizella continued her criminal habits into her 90s:

In 2015, at the age of 89, incorrigible Gizella was arrested twice, once in June and again in September. In the latter instance, she was found in a cupboard, where she claimed she was hiding from the rain outside. She was arrested again in February 2016 in Sukoró, and again in August 2017 in Tatabánya.

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Ian Parker in The New Yorker on Dan Mallory’s life of deception

There’s an enthralling piece in the Feb 11th New Yorker on the suspense novelist Dan Mallory who has published as A J Finn. Turns out he chose a pseudonym for a reason:

In 2016, midway through the auction for “The Woman in the Window,” the author’s real name was revealed to bidders. At that point, most publishing houses dropped out. This move reflected an industry-wide unease with Mallory that never became public, and that did not stand in the way of his enrichment: William Morrow, Mallory’s employer at the time, kept bidding, and bought his book

The whole article is worth reading. There is something highly disturbing about Mallory’s repeated claims to either have cancer himself or that his mother died of it. Parker quotes various nauseatingly jokey emails and self-dramatising articles. For instance:

While there, he published a dispatch, in the Duke student publication TowerView, describing an encounter with a would-be mugger, who asked him, “Want me to shoot your motherfucking mouth off?” Mallory responded with witty aplomb, and the mugger, cowed, scuttled “down some anonymous alley to reflect on why it is Bad To Threaten Other People, especially pushy Americans who doubt he has a gun.”

I get a strong whiff of Never Happened from this. Mallory’s evident tendency to never let the truth get in the way of a good story has nearly been caught out before:

In an interview last January, on “Thrill Seekers,” an online radio show, the writer Alex Dolan asked Mallory about the novel’s Harlem setting. Mallory said that, when describing Anna’s house, he had kept in mind the uptown home of a family friend, with whom he had stayed when he interned in New York. After a rare hesitation, Mallory shared an anecdote: he said that he’d once accidentally locked himself in the house’s ground-floor bathroom. When he was eventually rescued, by his host, he had been trapped “for twenty-two hours and ten minutes.”

“Wow!” Dolan said.

Mallory said, “So perhaps that contributed to my fascination with agoraphobia.”

Dolan asked, “You had the discipline to, say, not kick the door down?”

Mallory, committed to twenty-two hours and ten minutes, said that he had torn a brass towel ring off the wall, straightened it into a pipe, “and sort of hacked away at the area right above the doorknob.” He continued, “I did eventually bore my way through it, but by that point my fingers were bloody, I was screaming obscenities. This is the point—of course—at which the father of the house walked in!” After Dolan asked him if he’d resorted to eating toothpaste, Mallory steered the conversation to Hitchcock.

Parker considers how Mallory’s lying and exaggerations became notorious:

In subsequent interviews, Mallory does not seem to have brought up this bathroom again. But the exchange gives a glimpse of the temptations and risks of hyperbole: how, under even slight pressure, an exaggeration can become further exaggerated. For a speaker more invested in advantage than in accuracy, such fabulation could be exhilarating—and might even lead to the dispatch, by disease, of a family member. I was recently told about two former publishing colleagues of Mallory’s who called him after he didn’t show up for a meeting. Mallory said that he was at home, taking care of someone’s dog. The meeting continued, as a conference call. Mallory now and then shouted, “No! Get down!” After hanging up, the two colleagues looked at each other. “There’s no dog, right?” “No.”

The examples I’ve quoted are relatively benign. Other of his self dramatics have a sinister air.

As Parker points out, Mallory’s use of cancer and mental illness as self justifying rhetorical props misrepresents the reality of these conditions:

What is most objectionable about Mallory is his use of suffering and reported suffering for instrumental purposes. Culturally we increasingly valorise and glorify victimhood, giving certain approved classes of victim a moral authority. It should be no surprise this provides an incentive for bad faith manipulation.

Geoffrey Langlands RIP: major, Dieppe Raid survivor, educationalist, 97 year old coup leader

I had never heard of Geoffrey Langlands, who has died in Lahore aged 101, until coming across his death on Wikipedia’s Recent Deaths page.  His Wikipedia page has been subjected to a fair bit of editing since I first read it, with some of the more colourful phrasing being removed.

Like many long-lived folk, Langlands lived a full life. Aged one, his father died in the flu pandemic of 1918, like a son of Drangan (who also lost his mother) HIs mother died of cancer ten years later. Ultimately he became a teacher, and on the outbreak of World War II joined the army, surviving the disastrous Dieppe Raid (one wonders how many other survivors are left) and receiving an emergency commission in the then British Indian Army. Electing to remain in Pakistan on Independence (and Partition) as a military trainer, he began a storied educational career at firstly the “Eton of Pakistan”, Aitchison College, and later started his own school. Current Prime Minister, cricket legend and reformed playboy Imran Khan, is among the many elite pupils of Langlands over the years.

This story in the Daily Telegraph (where else?)  marked his retirement at 95:

Five years separate Major Geoffrey Langlands from his centenary, so it was to be expected that he would remain in his chair during the show marking his retirement from the school high in the Hindu Kush that bears his name. Yet, even at the age of 95, the old boy is far too wily to let a photo opportunity slip by. When pupils of Langlands School and College broke into a folk dance from their native Chitral, he was up, walking stick discarded, twirling around, hands raised above his head. The boys and girls of the school whooped with delight as their old principal temporarily abolished the passing years, mobbing him as he danced. Langlands, last survivor of the Raj, certainly knows how to work a crowd. “How do you follow that?” asks Carey Schofield, the woman who arranged the surprise party in Langlands’ honour on Tuesday. “It is very hard to take over from the Major. He is quite literally irreplaceable.”

Carey Schofield was to discover just how literally irreplaceable he was. In  2013 however it was all going so well:

In post for only a few weeks, Miss Schofield has forsaken her home near London’s fashionable Sloane Square for a mountain fastness. So why, at the age of 59, has she abandoned an enviable lifestyle in Britain to come here?

“Because it would be nice to make a difference,” she says, speaking for the first time about her new job. “It is good in middle age to be able to do something useful. The College and its associated primary schools educate a thousand pupils. If we can turn them around it will improve a thousand young lives. The job is daunting but worth doing.”

And the Taliban? “Chitral is safer than Chelsea. There have been a few incidents but most of them involve goat rustling, not terrorism. There was a bad incident in 2011 when members of the Chitral Scouts were killed during an attack from Afghanistan but that was further south. Chitral is unlike the rest of the North-West Frontier, more tranquil. The risk is very slight.”

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The risk from the Taliban might have been very slight, but from another source the risk was more substantial. Fast forward to another Telegraph article two years later:

Pakistan is rather used to military coups, but even by its standards the attempted putsch at one of its leading schools is somewhat unusual.

 

The protagonists are Major Geoffrey Langlands, who stepped down from his post as the school’s principal in 2013 and his anointed successor, Carey Schofield.

 

Whether he was unhappy in retirement or displeased at how the school was being run, Major Langlands, 97, decided he should resume control of the institution which bears his name and numbers a number of the country’s leading pupils among its alumni.

 

The old boys include Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, who was enlisted by the major in his attempt to oust Miss Schofield.

With Miss Schofield, 61, in London, Mr Khan was persuaded to revoke her visa, effectively preventing her from resuming her post.

Believing he had ousted his rival Major Langlands returned to the school at Chitral in the North West Province to resume control.

In case you are feeling Torygraphed-out, we can turn to The Grauniad for the resolution of this episode:

Carey Schofield was greeted by crowds of parents and teachers when she finally flew into the former princely state of Chitral last week after a spectacular falling out with Geoffrey Langlands, a celebrated Raj-era army officer who taught a generation of Pakistan’s political leaders.

Her return was made possible by the decision of the school’s entire staff to travel more than a thousand miles on a rickety school bus to lobby Langlands to drop his opposition to Schofield, whom he accused of mismanagement and overspending.

I am glad to report that Carey Schofield is evidently of a forgiving disposition, if her contribution to Langland’s subsequent 100th Birthday party is any guide:

Principal Langlands School Ms. Carey Scholfield spoke of Langlands’ services to the country.

Was Charles Hughesdon the last surviving eyewitness of Michael Collins’ funeral?

A few years ago I came across this obituary in the Daily Telegraph. It seems a little parochial to wonder if, in the midst of a busy and incident-packed life, one of Charles Hughesdon’s achievements was to be the last surviving eyewitness of Michael Collins’ funeral:

 

During the First World War the family moved to a flat above the Johnny Walker offices, and Hughesdon was educated at the nearby Raine’s Foundation Grammar School. A notion (soon abandoned) that he might be suited to the priesthood allowed for a short spell in 1922 at a seminary near Dublin, where he attended the funeral of Michael Collins.

Surely he was the only attendee at Collins’ funeral to have an affair with Shirley Bassey (amongst others):

[His] marriage, however, was informed by a flexible attitude to fidelity: extramarital liaisons were considered “medicinal”. Hughesdon had flings with both the first and second wife of his friend Tyrone Power. In 1955 he was introduced to Shirley Bassey, then in her late teens, who was at the time lighting up the West End. The pair conducted an affair for several years, meeting up in Britain, America and Australia. The singer even joined Hughesdon and his family for a Boxing Day party at which she and Florence Desmond duetted. “It was riotous,” recalled Hughesdon. “Finally after much laughter and Shirley dancing barefoot on the billiards table a few of us finished in the sauna bath.”

As with William Seabrook and Talbot Mundy, the opening line of Hughesdon’s obit says it all:

Charles Hughesdon, who has died aged 104, was a daredevil aviator, champion ballroom dancer, insurance broker and airline executive who married the film star Florence Desmond and boasted of affairs with Shirley Bassey and Margot Fonteyn.

Hughesdon was 13 or so at Collins’ funeral, and presumably there were younger children present at what was a vast occasion. But how many retained some memory of the event in later life? When he died in 2014 even a day old infant at Collins’ funeral would be 92. At the very least, Charles Hughesdon was among the last.

“the culture of the Mechanics’ Institute”

Reading John Buchan’s “The Island of Sheep”, the last of (and the best of) the Richard Hannay novels, I came across this arresting passage (spoken by Sandy Arbuthnot on his pursuit of one of the main villains)

I got a young friend to take me to a party — golly, such a party! I was a French artist in a black sweater, and I hadn’t washed for a day or two. A surréaliste, who had little English but all the latest Paris studio argot. I sat in a corner and worshipped, while Barralty held the floor. It was the usual round-up of rootless intellectuals, and the talk was the kind of thing you expect — terribly knowing and disillusioned and conscientiously indecent. I remember my grandfather had a phrase for the smattering of cocksure knowledge which was common in his day — the “culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be-perhaps the “culture of the B.B.C.” Our popular sciolism is different — it is a smattering not so much of facts as of points of view. But the youths and maidens at this party hadn’t even that degree of certainty. They took nothing for granted except their own surpassing intelligence, and their minds were simply nebulae of atoms. Well, Barralty was a king among those callow anarchists. You could see that he was of a different breed from them, for he had a mind, however much he debased it. You could see too that he despised the whole racket.

Massively snobbish, of course, as the Mechanics’ Institutes seemed like entirely admirable bodies (indeed, we could do with “the culture of the Mechanics’ Institute” a bit today)

I am gearing up for a post on Hannay one day, following the overwhelming success of my previous Buchan-related posts. The Hannay novels are, the fame of The Thirty-Nine Steps notwithstanding, not a patch on those with Leithen. Or perhaps I was just Hannayed out. On one level, it is is hard to disagree with much of this post on the Boots and Books blog on the imperialist, racist, sexist, xenophobic etc. nature of the Hannay books (and all of this is present in the Leithen series also). There is an awful lot of casual racism (and Buchan is pretty down on the Irish) – a lot more than one can comfortably “divide through” as being representative of the culture of the times.

On the other hand, there is something else going on, something that draws one’s attention all these years later. Perhaps it is the sense that all those taken-for-granted things are in actual fact explicitly under threat, and that civilisation is just a skein. The huntin’, fishin’, shootin’ stuff confirms this. All that we tend to see as imperial complacency is built on a foundation of

Anyway, back to the phrase “the culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I can only find four references in Google, all of which are to the Buchan novel. So despite the claim that “my grandfather had a phrase”, no trace of this phrase has embedded itself online. Funny that, as the grandfather of Aubrey Herbert (the supposed model of Arbuthnot) was born in 1800. And of course, everything of note in human history is online.

But I would be curious to know if “the culture of the Mechanics Institute” was a phrase that had an existence outside Buchan’s imagination.

Barralty turns out to be not the most formidable villain – for in all too familiar Buchan style yet another superior mind is really behind it all. And it isn’t given that much away that, unlike other Hannay novels in which the villains are rather mysterious foreigners who have infiltrated the British establishment (to the extent of becoming MPs, highly implausibly) the super-villian is a good old fashioned Frenchie … “The Island of Sheep” is much more tautly written and plotted than the at times rather diffuse Mr Standfast or The Three Hostages, both of which feature last-act dramas that seem a little disconnected from what came before.

Tory Island, poitín, and prohibition

Tory Island, poitín, and prohibition

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Thanks to Rory Naughton who has brought this family history on the Clare Co Council library page. John Cunningham gives an interesting and entertaining account of his father Michael’s life in the War of Independence era IRA and early decades of the Gardai. Among other stories there is this about policing Tory Island in the 1920s. Like Tory Island doctoring, Tory Island policing had its challenges. I had never come across this link between Tory and the illicit alcohol trade of Prohibition before:

Later on in the 20s, when my Father was stationed in Sligo, a message came through from Dublin one day about the illegal poitin stills out on Tory Island off the Donegal coast. Apparently, the Tory islanders had quite a thriving industry going on up there and used to supply the ships sailing between Scotland, Northern Ireland and America with poitin for the speakeasys of the Prohibition days in the States. The U.S. Embassy had complained to the Government who had in turn instructed the Guards to smash the illegal operation.

A detachment of Guards from Sligo and surrounding areas was sent to carry out the operation. They travelled up the coast until they reached the point on the mainland from which the boats would row out to the island. Having hired the required boats, they set off and landed at the pier on Tory.

When they announced their intentions however, the islanders were thrown into a state of agitation and it wasn’t long before they were confronted by an angry crowd. Now the islanders had their own ‘King’ and this gentleman told the Guards that if they smashed up all the stills, they needn’t worry about getting home to the mainland as they would all be drowned. The guards passed no heed but proceeded to break up all the poitin stills they could find. The King told them again that the elder women had turned the stones in the graveyard and thereby called down a curse on the intruders; a storm would arise and drown them all as they rowed back to the mainland. He told them that a few years before, a British warship had sent men ashore to do the same thing and a similar curse was called upon their heads. According to His Highness, the ship was sunk and all hands drowned.

The guards did some quick thinking and decided to arrest the King and bring him back in the boat with them so that he might act as insurance against anything happening. When the job was done they returned with their captive to the pier only to find that the boatmen had spent the day guzzling the last few drops of available poitin and were pissed out of their bloody minds. Undaunted, the Guards rolled up their sleeves and started to row the boats as best they could.

It wasn’t long before a storm did indeed blow up and my father remembers being really frightened trying to keep his boat on an even keel. They eventually did reach shore and although my father’s hands were streaming blood from the burst blisters, he never felt happier. The lads brought their captive back to Sligo and he was duly prosecuted and sentenced.

One of the Guards had also slipped a little keg of ‘whiskey’ into one of the boats and they decided not to open it there and then, but to keep it until Christmas and have a wee party. When they opened it at Xmas however, it was pure poison and undrinkable and had to be dumped. Whether this sample was cursed or representative of what the Americans at the time had to drink in their speak-easys, we’ll never know.