The Christmas Ghost Story: M. R. James

When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, he subtitled it “A Christmas Ghost Story”. So, in 1843, there was a Christmas Ghost Story genre in England. Victoria had married in 1840. Albert brought his Christmas traditions from Germany and Victoria was young enough to welcome a celebration and a party and anything that made Albert smile. Christmas was slowly coming back after being suppressed by Cromwell and the Puritans. So how did the Christmas Ghost Story become an established custom?

One answer is that the stories reflect England’s pagan past, when the Yule season was one of religious ritual and death — death of the year, but also perhaps, of some sacrificed person. So: fear, death, and the supernatural are the components of the model ghost story, all part of our cultural heritage. Or at least, that’s a theory. And I think it is one that would appeal to master ghost story writer, Montague Rhodes James.

M.R. James, 1900. [Wikipedia]

M.R. James, like many of the characters in his stories, was a scholar and antiquarian, based in King’s College, Cambridge, where he became a don in the 1880s. He was very familiar with scholarship on England’s pagan past and it features in many of his stories. James published his first book of stories in 1904, the year before becoming provost of King’s College. James had been an actor and sometime dramatist and told (or performed) stories for friends and students, particularly on Christmas Eve. These performances were dramatized early this century by the late great Christopher Lee reciting ghost stories to a group of young men, filmed at King’s College. These are very lean productions, radio with a few illustrations, but they are effective:

The Stalls At Barchester Cathedral

The Ash Tree

A Warning To The Curious

But the BBC has also created full dramas from James’ stories. “Whistle And I’ll Come To You” has been done several times:

1968 version (B/W)


And in 1971, a series of five:

The Stalls of Barchester

A Warning To The Curious

Lost Hearts  (being repeated by the BBC this year on Christmas Eve.)

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

The Ash Tree

Illustration for “Whistle And I’ll Come To You” by James’ friend James McBryde. McBryde was supposed to illustrate James’ 1904 collection of stories, but died after completing only four illustrations. [Wikipedia}

And in 2004 began a new series:

A View From A Hill

Number 13

Whistle and I’ll Come To You

The Tractate Middoth


Merry Christmas!

Parade’s End Revisited

After doing that exhaustive review of Parade’s End, I finally watched the BBC series, which is up on NetFlix now. So, how does it hold up? Pretty good, I thought — in fact, I liked it better than the books except for one thing: the final volume, Last Post, was left out. Now I know that certain critics and Graham Greene believe that Ford should have quit with a trilogy, but as I mentioned before, I think the guy was looking to do a Galsworthy/Forsyte Saga kind of deal, maybe looking to spin this sucker out right into the 1940s (when he died). Anyhow, of all the characters in the book, I liked Marie Léonie the best and she didn’t even get a line in the TV series.

But otherwise I liked the way Stoppard trimmed the work down to an essential narrative which was presented in chronological order. There was a nod to certain repeated phrases (which provide a sort of continuity in the book), Christopher is not compared to a meal-sack, but his opinions are, and we have Sylvia pulling the shower bath strings several times. There are no long sections about birds and flowers but we do have Christopher going on about how he loves England, which serves something of the same purpose. So far, so good.

Certain scenes did not work as well as they should have — the Duchemin breakfast, where Cumberpatch is given some awkward lines to make certain everyone knows that Reverend Duchemin’s servant is a professional boxer, who subdues the Reverend in a most obvious fashion, not the discreet jab to the kidneys that is in the book — but I’m not going to dwell on them.

The big question is, how well are these characters depicted? Let me jump out of order here, past the leads, to Anne-Marie Duff who plays Edith Duchemin: she is perfect. First, she looks right, like Elizabeth Siddal would have if she had lived another decade or two. Her costumes, too, are wonderfully pre-Raphaelite gone to seed. I was convinced.

I was already prepared for Christopher/Cumberpatch not to be the fat Yorkshireman portrayed in the novels, so wasn’t too shocked. Still, I wish Benny had a few more pounds on him. The entire Yorkshire connection is pretty well missing — we have Groby and Groby Great Tree and all, but none of the regional flavor. Imagine, for a moment, Christopher played by whatever actor you might prefer as Inspector Dalziel, Warren Clarke in his younger days, for instance.

Cumberpatch was given more opportunity to emote than Ford gives Christopher in the novels — he cries, I think three times, in the TV play, but only once in the novel (when the horse is going to the knacker’s, something not underlined by Stoppard). By and large, Cumberpatch and Stoppard give some life to this rigid, self-destructive character but leave enough of the original that at one point, my wife (who is not a fan of martyrdom) muttered “Bring out the cross and nails, already.”

Sylvia is a huge problem. Her behavior in the novels is borderline-psychotic, Stoppard tones her down to simple borderline-personality disorder, which is easier to digest. And, in the book and the TV series both, there are moments when you sympathize with her wish to crack Christopher’s composure. In the series’ beginning, Sylvia is ravishing — there is a scene where she rises from the bath and Christopher, poor jerk, cannot look at her body — but as the story progresses, Sylvia becomes less beautiful. Her mouth seems to get larger and larger and her teeth more prominent. In the confrontation scene with Valentine, Rebecca Hall is wearing really red thick lipstick that traces a mouth half again as large as at the series’ beginning. She is monstrous, then, especially when compared with perky, pretty Valentine.

"No! I won't look! For gentlemanlyt reasons of my own, I will not be seduced by my wife!" [via]

“No! I won’t look! For gentlemanly reasons of my own, I will not be seduced by my wife!” [via]

Valentine only develops depth in the fourth Parade’s End novel, so Stoppard has to work a bit to make her more than just a pretty face. He emphasizes her physicality — Valentine is seen running a number of times — and that is right in line with the book, but lacks the punchline of Last Post when Valentine’s body fails her. Still, what can you say against Adelaide Clemens, who is a really delightful little cupcake and perfect for the girl that Christopher says would make “a cracking little mistress”? Stoppard gives her some lines when the confrontation with Sylvia occurs. Valentine gets right in Sylvia’s face and tells her off and even old meal-sack Christopher smiles. (You could have done that, too, Chrissie, you gormless jerk.)

MacMaster was played well by Stephen Graham, but I wish Stoppard had gone a little deeper into his friendship with Christopher. In the book, MacMaster is explicitly compared to a pet dog, all panting admiration for Christopher, who accepts his fawning attitude as the due of a gentleman. But this brings us into the tricky realm of the way Christopher sees other people — Scots like MacMaster and Edith Duchemin are barely all right, unlike Jews who are totally unacceptable. There is only one reference to anti-Semitic attitudes in the BBC play and it is rather veiled; in the novels, anti-Semitism is rampant, constant, and I can understand why Stoppard did not want to go there. Which brings us to the larger question of how well Stoppard presents the collapse of the English system that had prevailed since the Glorious Revolution. (Do you think it an accident that the Tietjens family comes over with William of Orange? I don’t.)

The two young men, Tietjens and MacMaster, are presented at the beginning of Parade’s End as exemplars of a class that rules half the world; at the end of the tetralogy, Christopher is peddling pieces of England to Americans. The important historic shift, in Ford’s work, is in the concept of a certain kind of upper class and what being a gentleman means. This is something missed in Stoppard’s version. If Parade’s End is about historic change — which was Ford’s intention — then we should have seen more of it. Instead, Stoppard brings us some symbology about Groby Great Tree and that must make do. (To do him justice, Stoppard does have changes in sexual matters — Sylvia with a douche bag, Valentine discovering a Marie Stopes marriage manual, but even Ford has Edith Duchemin cursing MacMaster for not using a rubber. And, I give Stoppard credit for bringing in Father Consett’s execution, one of several references Ford made to Ireland, though neither he nor Ford properly link that to Sylvia’s state of mind.)

Nuzzling. [via Moriarty's Skull]

Nuzzling. [via Moriarty’s Skull]

But, what the BBC version does give us at the end is Christopher nuzzling Valentine’s naked breasts, which is far more satisfying than the non-embraces that repeatedly come up in the books. If you are going to tease the reader, then you need to come through at the end. Stoppard understands this, Ford, not so much.

Tl;dr: Swell romance with just enough gratuitous nudity, but the novel is a different story.

Miss World

The number-one rated British television program of 1970 was the Miss World Contest and 24 Million plus viewers were certainly entertained that night as they witnessed a bombing, a protest that included missiles hurled at an internationally famous performer, and a scandalous judging result, but those are only parts of the most infamous beauty pageant ever held.

Most infamous, that is, if we except the ancient contests described by the mystic Nicholas Roerich, whose ideas form the basis for Stravinsky’s Les Sacres de Printemps. That ballet depicts the selection of a young maiden by a prehistoric tribe who then sacrifice her to the Earth. Something like this is preserved in fairy tales where the chosen princess is staked out for the dragon as an offering so that the monster doesn’t eat everyone else.  Other fairy tales tell of a gathering of young women so that the handsome, wealthy Prince can select a bride. These being fiction, he always chooses the Goose-Girl or Cinderella, but the historical reality, in early medieval Byzantium for instance, was that “bride-shows” of eligible young women only included members of the aristocracy — can’t have the Emperor marrying trash, you know.

The modern beauty contest had its beginnings at the beach where young women were allowed to wear somewhat more revealing clothing than other places. Someone got the idea of putting all these “bathing beauties” on display. The ancestral Miss America pageant consisted of young women in bathing attire being wheeled in wicker beach chairs along Atlantic City’s Boardwalk in 1920. “Beach revues” were popular in America until the end of the 1920s when they were banned as immoral — for a while.

In England, beach resorts in the summertime, places like Blackpool, Brighton, and Bournemouth, had a reputation for sexual license — young working men and women would take their holidays there and, so we are told, did what young men and women do. (See Steve Humphries’ A Secret World of Sex for more.) Various kinds of shows and contests were held that involved women in bathing suits, which were the most revealing outfits they could wear in public without being arrested.

So, in 1951, when promoter Eric Morley was asked to come up with something special for the Festival of Britain, he immediately thought of a contest featuring young women in swim suits. But — and this is crucial — rather than a mundane local contest, Morley decided to have the women represent different nations. Also, he had them wear the brand new bikini style suit. That first contest was won by Miss Sweden. When Morley heard that another promoter was putting together a Miss Universe contest, he named his own show Miss World and began staging it as an annual event. After the pope condemned the show, Morley banned bikinis from contests for a long while. He was already skating close to the edge of propriety and he knew it. The concept of ogling women’s bodies belonged to burlesque and other low entertainment, these pageants were all about beauty, the beauty of chaste young women who represented ideal femininity. They were Art! Sort of.

The first Miss World winners and the last to pose in bikinis, 1951.

The first Miss World winners and the last to pose in bikinis, 1951. [pageantasia via]

Miss World grew along with its television audience and, by 1970, was a huge affair. But feminism (then called “women’s lib”) had also come on the scene. In 1968, feminist protestors had disrupted the Miss America contest at Atlantic City — there was talk of bra-burning and so on but this seems to have been a media myth. Still, the American feminists had set a precedent: beauty pageants were degrading spectacles where women were seen as so much meat and they were proper targets for protest. In England, two separate groups decided to have a go at the 1970 Miss World pageant, each unaware of the other.

One group had not yet decided on a name for itself though sometimes it signed manifestoes as “Butch Cassidy” — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in 1969 and many young men liked to see themselves as Robert Redford or Paul Newman, and, no doubt, there were young women who wanted to be Katharine Ross, helpmate to a romantic young outlaw. Later, the group would call itself the Angry Brigade, a name that they might have picked up from the feminist protestors who used the word “angry” a lot. Or they may have derived it from French student protestors — les enragés, as they called themselves. The Angry Brigade had determined to use violence and, from late 1968 until they were busted in 1972, planted more than twenty-five bombs. Some exploded, some didn’t. Somehow they managed not to kill anyone.

The second group was composed of feminists and the youth wing of the Liberal Party. They picketed and demonstrated. They also got tickets to the show and members carried in small sacks of flour and stink bombs which they meant to hurl at suitable targets.

Meanwhile, the Miss World organization had other problems. Anti-apartheid groups were upset that South Africa was competing. The contest organizers then decided to have two contestants from that country: Miss South Africa, who was white, and Miss Africa South, who was black. This, of course, was not enough and there were still people upset that Miss World was violating the South Africa boycott.

A little after 2:30 AM, November 20, the day of the Miss World pageant, a bomb blew a hole in the floor boards of a BBC Outside Broadcast van parked near the Albert Hall, where the evening’s festivities were to take place. Little attention was paid to the bomb blast because the police had decided not to publicize this sort of event. Throughout its short life, the Angry Brigade was plagued by a lack of press until ten people were arrested, charged, and tried in 1972 for twenty-five bombings.

Peter Dimmock, a Miss World judge and General Manager of BBC Outside Broadcast, seemed unperturbed by the bombing as he and the rest of the judging panel were introduced that night. It is easy to understand the selection of entertainment industry representatives, including Glen Campbell, Nina van Pallandt, and Joan Collins, the unabashed Queen of Trash. It is a little more difficult to see why the High Commissioner of Malawi (who was not named), the also-unnamed ambassador to Indonesia, and the Maharajah of Baroda (which was eliminated by the Indian government shortly after the contest), were judges, but judge Eric Gairy, the Premier of Grenada, certainly had an interest in the pageant, as we shall see. [introduction of the judges on YouTube]

Protestors outside the Albert Hall.

Protestors outside the Albert Hall. [via]

Protestors had assembled outside Albert Hall before ticket-holders arrived. They did little to disrupt the proceedings, just demonstrated, carrying signs saying that they were angry and calling the pageant a cattle market.

This notion was picked up by Master of Ceremonies, Bob Hope, who came out to do a bit while the contestants changed into evening gowns. Hope said that he had gone to the meat market in back to check out the calves. Ha. Ha. There was more in this vein, since Hope’s basic stand-up routine consisted of double-entendres combined with leers at the audience. Hope was a veteran of old-fashioned burlesque where baggy-pants comedians would trade lines with strippers in between the acts. Burlesque, in that form, disappeared by the 1940s, but Hope was still performing from that frame of reference. The protestors inside Albert Hall were supposed to wait until all the contestants were on stage before launching their missiles but Hope’s jokes so enraged the protest co-ordinator that she gave the go-ahead signal to her group.

Bob Hope is flustered as flour bombs hit the stage. [YouTube:]

Bob Hope is flustered as flour bombs hit the stage. [YouTube:

Suddenly, a projectile landed on the stage, followed by many more. These were flour bombs only, I think; I cannot find a reliable account of stinkbombs bursting on stage. Hope backed off. Some accounts have Julia Morley, pageant organizer and wife to founder Eric, grabbing his ankle to keep him from exiting the stage. Security guards quickly rousted the trouble-makers and Hope continued, saying that there was going to be payback for this outrage and that anyone interfering with something so wonderful as Miss World must be on “some kind of dope”. Yes! He did. Check out the video.

Now, bombings and booings being contained, the beautiful pageant continued. The winner was announced: Miss Grenada! What? Right away, Miss World fans complained that Miss Sweden should have been the winner. In fact, four of the judges revealed that they had voted Miss Sweden into top spot, only two opting for Miss Grenada. So the contest was fixed! A huge scandal erupted, larger than the protest and much, much larger than the bombing. Julia Morley was forced to resign as organizer (though she was reinstated a week or so later). Miss Sweden wrote a memoir saying “I was robbed!”, even though she had dissed the contest before the competition, saying:

she felt “just like a puppet. I don’t even want to win,” and she sympathized with women’s liberation supporters who denounced the contest as “a cattle market that degrades women.” Miss Sweden would have walked out on the contest if it were not for the fact she was under contract to the organizers. 

She retracted those statements the day after making them.

A special team of journalists was dispatched to Grenada where they discovered that the elevation of Miss Grenada had nothing to do with the fact that Eric Morley wanted a license to open a casino in Grenada. No. Nothing to do with that since everyone denied it, some of them even before they were asked. Ballots from the contest were displayed and the voting process — something like Preferential Voting — was explained. Some were convinced that the contest had been on the up and up.

Miss Grenada did make history in another way: she was the first black Miss World. Here it should be mentioned that Miss Africa South was runner-up. Just to put this in some kind of context, 1971 was the first year that a black woman was even allowed to compete in the Miss America contest.

Miss Grenada crowned as Miss World. Runner-up Miss Africa South to her left and fourth-place Miss Sweden at far right.

Miss Grenada crowned as Miss World. Runner-up Miss Africa South to her left and fourth-place Miss Sweden at far right. []

This was far from the last Miss World scandal, but first let’s look at the Angry Brigade who were upstaged twice at the event. No one now is really certain who was part of the group. There were a lot of dissident folks in those days and they all had their reasons and their theories which did not necessarilly match anyone else’s. Some of these folks got together to create an identity and, perhaps, an organization. They discussed what they should call themselves. One possibility was The Red Rankers. See, Labour Minister Roy Jenkins, who had reformed the police, had a pwoblem pwonouncing his Rs, so… Perhaps in the end they decided that “Angry Brigade” had enough Rs to make Jenkins sound like Elmer Fudd, so anything else was just overkill. Anyway, the Tories came into power and that government determined to destroy these bomber type groups by whatever means necessary.

In late 1971, Stuart Christie, a man who was exercised about the Spanish Civil War and who had served several years in a Spanish prison for trying to assassinate Franco, drove up to a certain house in Stoke Newington, only to be met by police and arrested on the basis of two detonators found in his car. Christie says that these were planted by the cops and police behavior during this episode does little to shake that assertion. Other people living at that address had just been arrested. Altogether, ten people were charged with Angry Brigade crimes. Several of them have since stated that innocents were arrested and guilty parties ignored, but they have all decided not to name any names.

The first two people to face trial included Jake Prescott, who later said:

As the only working-class member, I was not surprised to be the first in and last out of prison. When I look back on it, I was the one who was angry and the people I met were more like the Slightly Cross Brigade.

Prescott was convicted on the basis of testimony from a jailhouse informer and because he had actually addressed envelopes on three of the missives sent out by the Angry Brigade, claiming to have done this and that. Prescott thinks that he was fitted up and is pretty dismissive of the other Angry Brigadiers. The other person charged at this time was not found guilty. Prescott got fifteen years.

Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson from a BBC interview filmed while they  were out on bail during the trial.

Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson from a BBC interview filmed while they were out on bail during the trial.

The big trial was of the eight others connected to the Brigade. Four seemed to be major players, four others, not so much. The major players included two young women, Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson. Someone got the bright idea of taking photos of the women and giving over the rights to friends who then collected a fee every time some British tab used the pictures. Everyone understood that the press would seize on sexual aspects of the case and photos of the women would be far more valuable than those of the male defendants. The license fees went directly into the defense fund of the Stoke Newington Eight. You can work out for yourself the interesting sexual politics of funding the defense of militant feminists by supplying their photos to an exploitative press.

And the press was incredibly exploitative, even for Britain, which has some really scummy newspapers. “Sex Orgies in the House of Blood” was a Sun headline. Because, you see, if this is a mixed event, with both men and women, then there had to be orgies. Right? The blood, incidentally, was supposedly from a turkey. Having for decades presided over turkey corpses twice a year at celebrations, I am inclined to let the Angry Brigade off on this charge. Even if they did kill a turkey, well, that’s what turkeys are for.

The judge instructed the jury that any nod or the slightest wink to actual bombers was enough to convict someone of conspiracy. In the end, the jury did not convict anyone of actually planting a bomb, but they did convict four of the eight with conspiracy to blow things up. Both women were convicted but the jury accepted that Christie was not guilty. The jury also asked the judge to show mercy and the judge responded with ten-year sentences for the four convicted criminals. He did, however, lower previously-convicted Prescott’s sentence to ten years from fifteen. Noblesse oblige, Jake.

Poster from 1971 during the trials. []

Poster from 1971 during the trials. []

The trial was the longest in British history up to that time (and maybe now, I don’t know), so the Angry Brigade got a lot of press and public reaction was mainly supportive. “We’re All Angry Now” was one response to the sentencing. Those convicted served seven years or so in prison, though the women were let off earlier for medical reasons like anorexia. Chivalry is the hand maiden of sexism, so to speak. Today, none of those convicted seem apologetic, in fact, they seem more angry than ever.

Miss World kept going. Next major scandal was in 1973. Contestants had to speak and show stage presence as part of their performance. The voting system was shifted to a majority rule. The winner was the first American Miss World, Marjorie Wallace. Within a short time, she became featured on tabloid front pages as she worked through various relationships with sports and entertainment figures. Probably the photographs of her deep-kissing Tom Jones were the final straw that caused her crown to be removed as unfit to represent Miss World.

The next year, Miss Wales was made Miss World, which lasted a little while until it was revealed that she had an eighteen-month-old child. She had never been married so was legal under the stated rules but…(see above Re: virgins, dragons, and all). She resigned.

Meanwhile, the South Africa/Africa South business really irritated a lot of folks and they kept complaining. Iceland, for example, quit having run-up pageants, though some beautiful people kept naming contestants from that country for Miss World. In 1976, though, a number of countries boycotted the contest and South Africa was kicked out until 1991, when apartheid ended.

In 1980, Miss Germany resigned after one day as Miss World, when it was revealed that she had posed for nude photos. (see above Re: virgins, dragons, et al).

In 1996, the pageant was held in Bangalore where there were massive protests about the swim suit part of the contest and threats to burn down the stage. The contestants were removed to the Seychelles, photographed in their bathing suits, and then returned to India for the remainder of the competition. This year may have marked the largest television audience ever for Miss World, many many millions, though who can trust Miss World stats?

Miss Israel for 1998, Linor Abargil, was raped at knifepoint by a travel agent before winning that year’s Miss World title. She now acts as a spokesperson for rape victims. Her story is told in the documentary Brave Miss World.

In 2001, Miss Nigeria became the first black African to win the title. The following year, serendipitously, the contest was held in Nigeria where Amina Lawal had been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery and being pregnant out of wedlock (you can reconcile those two charges as you wish). Many people protested the upcoming pageant and urged that it be cancelled. Amina Lawal herself begged to differ. She understood that the sentence by a local court was unlikely to stand on review and was reluctant to be a cause of national disgrace. Even so, many nations decided to boycott the contest. A Nigerian newspaper said that Mohammed (PBUH) might have selected a wife from the contestants. This upset enough people locally so that there were riots and over 200 people were killed in Kaduna. The pageant went ahead, in England, and many boycotting nations allowed their young women to participate in the new venue. Amina had her sentence overturned. By all accounts, she went on to an ordinary life.

This last scandal underlines a difficult aspect of Miss World. Many nations still regard beauty contests as worthy of regard. Venezuela, for instance, has been very active in supporting would-be beauty queens. And most Miss World winners have gone on to careers that were, at a minimum, fulfilling. Most, of course, have advanced in the entertainment industry though there are former Miss Worlds in management (yes) and other trades. Miss Grenada (1970), who became Grenada’s High Commissioner to Canada, said that this was an opportunity and she knew to grab it. Even runners-up, like Halle Berry, have made something of their appearance. So, how congruent are feminist meat market criticisms with the argument that women’s sexuality should always be veiled? Which side are you on?

That question was raised when the 2013 pageant, held in Indonesia, was condemned by Moslem clerics. In order to placate them, Miss World switched from a swimsuit competition to a “beach attire” show featuring sarongs.

Miss World has fallen on hard times, shuttling from one second-rate cable channel to another. British viewers of the most recent pageant were numbered in the thousands, rather than millions. Julia Morley, who runs the show single-handedly since the death of her husband in 2000, claims more than 2 Billion viewers watch Miss World, more than the World Cup, she says. She has inaugurated a new concept: Beauty With A Purpose and Miss World now has to serve as global ambassador for Good Causes. Can worldwide audiences keep the contest going when even hardline feminists regard beauty pageants as beneath their notice? World venues pay $5 Million or so just to host the contest. Miss World 2014 will return to its roots and be held in London.

Oh, and the Angry Brigade? It’s back.


“The Judges of Miss World, 1970” gives bios and where-are-they-now info about the judges. If you don’t know who Nina van Pallandt is, or want to know more about Eric Gairy, you can look them up here.

Another Nickel in the Machine has a fine account of the 1970 protest with lots of video.

Missosology has everything you ever wanted to know about beauty pageants. has many photos.

A protestor discusses her actions at Miss World for the BBC.

The Angry Brigade has lots written about it, there is a television documentary , which Stuart Christie calls the most comprehensive look at the group, and even a play. Stuart Christie has an autobiography, Granny Made Me An Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me.











A Guide To Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

Some Do Not…
No More Parades
A Man Could Stand Up–
Last Post

Ford’s tetralogy of novels, Parade’s End, is on most lists of great books about World War I and is the basis for a series now showing on the BBC to great critical acclaim. Benedict Cumberpatch plays the main character, Christopher Tietjens, and that immediately raises warning flags about the TV series. But that isn’t a reason not to watch. Look, I’m going to tell you what happens in the books, then you can pretend to have read it when the show hits NetFlix or PBS or wherever you can view it. Or, if so moved, you can read Parade’s End for yourself and tell me that I am full of it when I slag Ford’s characters.

Christopher Tietjens (pronounced TEE-jens) is the youngest son of English gentry. An ancestor came over with William of Orange and founded the family estate, Groby, in Yorkshire where the Tietjens family own a town — or so it is said in the first novel of the series, Some Do Not…, there is no further mention, later in the book, of the town, only of the great hall at Groby and Groby Great Tree that shades it. Now a Yorkshireman is supposed to be stubborn and so is a Dutchman, so we might well expect Christopher to be “obstinate as a hog” as his equally stubborn brother puts it — both of them are incredibly pig-headed to the point of self-destructive behavior. In appearance, Christopher is a large man, often described as looking like a meal-sack. Sometimes this is modified a bit: a “fat meal-sack”, for instance, or affectionately as a “dear, meal-sack elephant”, or even “as courteous as a well-trained meal-sack of the dix-huitieme” by Christopher’s French Sister-in-Law. Christopher is described as a meal-sack at least twenty times over the course of the four books. Now, I have seen meal-sacks and I have seen Sherlock and, hear me People! Benedict Cumberpatch is no meal-sack! He is a swell actor and all and photos from the BBC production indicate that he may have put on a few pounds, but I doubt that he is going to do a DeNiro and fatten up to meal-sack proportions. The fat, stubborn Yorkshireman is played by a slender southerner. Well, I haven’t seen it yet, maybe it works somehow.

Cumberpatch as Sherlock; French meal sack; Cumberpatch as Tietjens. Compare and contrast. (BTW, meal sacks are collectible. This one was on

Cumberpatch as Sherlock; French meal sack; Cumberpatch as Tietjens. Compare and contrast. (BTW, meal sacks are collectible. This one was on

Some Do Not… begins with two young men “of the public official class” in a railway coach in the summer of 1912. One of these two is Christopher Tietjens who discusses his wife’s infidelity with the other young man, MacMaster.  Christopher tells MacMaster that he has had a message from Sylvia, Christopher’s wife. Sylvia has been in Europe having an affair, something she does fairly often, it seems. Will Christopher divorce her? No, he is too much a gentleman to ever divorce a woman, she must divorce him. Sylvia is a Catholic and unwilling to do that. So the couple is locked together. Sylvia is devious and nasty, dedicated to causing her husband pain — she can’t stand the stoic front that he presents (and, for that matter, I grew a little tired of it myself). Christopher doesn’t really believe in the value of the society whose standards he upholds, but he must, in his hard-headed stubborn way of thinking, uphold those standards because they are standards, his standards. Sylvia says that he lacks the guts to live by his own beliefs and that struck a chord with me, too, but the essence of the book is Tietjens finally coming around to living a life with meaning, rather than the sham existence — meaningless job, loveless marriage, irrelevant belief system, socializing with fools — at the novel’s beginning. Or at least that’s the best construction I can put on the narrative but actually, Christopher seems pretty lost at the end.

Tietjens, 26 years old, is “entitled to the best” but his friend MacMaster has Scots shopkeepers for parents and depends on Tietjens for cash and social entry. Tietjens can afford to neglect his own career as well as his appearance, MacMaster cannot. MacMaster is arty and latches onto the remnants of a pre-Raphaelite group (see Pre-Raphaelites) headed by Rev. Duchemin, one-time intimate of Ruskin, and Mrs. Duchemin, who lives in fear of her husband, who is completely nuts and may turn violent at any moment. MacMaster sizes up the scene and makes his move on Mrs. Duchemin, who succumbs to his charm. Also in this group is Mrs. Wannop, close friend of Christopher’s father, daughter of a famous critic and herself the author of a novel that Christopher thinks is pretty good. Mrs. Wannop’s daughter, Valentine, acts as a sometime housemaid for her mother and assists Mrs. Duchemin. She is twenty-two and a suffragette.

These characters, and some others, including General Campion, a family friend and Christopher’s godfather, entertain Christopher and MacMaster. This entire section is a venomous take on Edwardian society. The men play a round of golf first, some of them seeing if they can hit the party ahead of them with a drive, which is interrupted by suffragettes charging across the course. Some of the golfers chase after them shouting, “Strip the bitch naked!” One of the young women falls and sprains an ankle. Tietjens helps her and Valentine Wallop to evade the police and the girls get away.

Meanwhile, Christopher has refused to fake some figures for the Department of Statistics and has written a possibly insulting letter to his superior, something that upsets those around him a great deal. But Christopher wants to chuck the whole job. He winds up being lectured by his elders, frightening his good friend, irritating his co-workers, and, by the end of the golf match, is no longer on speaking terms with his golfing partner. Christopher meets each of these situations with the stolid, stoic visage of a gentleman.

Christopher and MacMaster have breakfast at the Duchemin house. Duchemin breakfasts are famous, once a main locus for artistic chat featuring Ruskin, Rossetti, and so on. The others are already at the table when Duchemin comes in, escorted by a muscular type that Tietjens recognizes as a champion prizefighter. And Christopher and the others understand that the boxer is there to restrain Duchemin if he becomes violent. A couple of times he seems building up to an explosion but MacMaster talks him down.

Anyway, by the time the golf/Duchemin visit is done, Christopher discovers an attraction to Valentine Wannop and is seen with her under circumstances that compromise the public perception of her virtue, which is a big deal here, partly because it has class implications. There is a fair amount of discussion among the male characters about when and where it is proper for a man’s mistress to make an appearance and how to deal with her financially — basically assigning her to a specfic class. A mistress is much higher in the social hierarchy than a servant but can never equal the status of a wife. This takes a fair bit of calculation and gentlemen consult one another in these matters.

Christopher and Valentine are in a horse-drawn cart during the early hours of the morning, having delivered the injured suffragette to safety. They discuss Latin, which Valentine knows very well, thank you. And they both yearn physically for one another but some do not embrace. Even so, when General Campion runs into them with his car — like a tea-tray coming out of the fog — it is assumed that they are having an affair. Christopher is also linked to Mrs. Duchemin. Sylvia piles on her own lies and Christopher is seen as a libertine and Sylvia, a wronged wife. Meantime, Christopher wonders if their son is really his child or not. Throughout, Christopher remains stoic and stolid and silent, though some detect a hint of suffering in his visage and seriously ask, “Is he trying to be Christlike?”

Cumberpatch and Rebecca Hall as Christopher and Sylvia.

Cumberpatch and Rebecca Hall as Christopher and Sylvia.

That is more or less the core story, the rest of the novel(s) will play out the ramifications of this first sequence over the next six or seven years. The War comes, Christopher finds himself facing “…death, love, and public dishonour…” — rare occurrences in the life of any man, we are told, but Christopher faces them all at once. Through it all, Christopher does not abandon his principles or his standards until toward the end of the War, by which time both he and Valentine have failed to embrace on several occasions, though each is dying to do just that. Sylvia continues on her nasty path of destruction, determined to make Christopher as unhappy as possible, possibly by warping their son, if she can find no other way.

All of this is worked out over the course of four novels that feature stream-of-consciousness, unreliable narration, and manipulated time lines. It is evident that the work is very structured but the nature of that structure is not immediately obvious.

Ford’s plan for Parade’s End seems to me like a musical composition. Once he has given us the opening story, the characters become themes, marked by recurrent words or images — meal-sacks, for instance. Sylvia is said to enjoy pulling the shower-bath strings — I think the meaning has to do with hot and cold water, but the string-pulling part of the image is evocative — she likes making trouble and she manipulates people like puppets. So “shower-bath strings” is the theme whenever she is mentioned and she is also shown pulling on actual strings, curtain cords, for example. In the musical piece, these themes would belong to specific instruments — a cello for Christopher going “I won’t. Won’t. Won’t.” and screechy violins for Sylvia with perhaps the addition of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho bird calls, but maybe I am thinking too much about showers.

The titles of the individual novels are repeated throughout as well. “Some do not…” is given a number of different readings in the first book, just as A Man Could Stand Up and No More Parades are repeated over and over in those novels. In Last Post, the bugle call itself is played in the background from time to time. The repetitions — of titles, of character themes, of the same action performed by different people under different circumstances, of specfic words, (for example, “tea-tray” usually means violence, a crash or explosion, when you read it here — it may be instructive that someone remembers the name Tietjens sounding something like “tea-trays”) — all this repetition is intended, I think, as a sort of music meant to involve the reader. By the end of the work, just about every sentence is full of these repetitions so that words ring with the accumulated music. Or, I think, that is the way it is supposed to work.

Now one thing about turning these characters into musical themes is that it gives a certain license to ignore them as people, or rather, to ignore any aspect of their lives that is not part of the theme. Let’s check out these characters:

Christopher Tietjens: Our star meal-sack is stoic, stolid, and an asshole (see Scot-Jew). Benedict Cumberpatch says that he wishes he were as principled as Christopher. Oh no, Ben! These aren’t really principles being expressed by Christopher, they are positions taken by him and from which he will not be moved. “No one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce.” What principle is Christopher defending when he refuses to divorce Sylvia? The sanctity of marriage? Refusal to shame a woman who is shameless? Or is he just grabbing the moral high ground so that he can maintain an air of superiority to the entire situation? Certainly there is no Responsibility in Christopher’s position — neither toward his son nor his wannabe lover. Passive-aggressive Christopher is self-absorbed to the point of narcissism.

Sylvia Tietjens: Speaking of narcissism, let’s check out Sylvia. Sylvia screws around not because she enjoys sex, but because she enjoys being the star in her own little drama. She has allies in the form of besotted men and stupid cat’s-paw women. Her game is to disturb Christopher from his superior attitude:

Every speech he utters about everything… makes me want to stick a knife in him. …I can’t prove he’s wrong, not ever, about the simplest thing. But I can pain him!

She doesn’t mind being the villain, if she gets some choice lines, and boy, does she work for them!

Sylvia’s Scandals: The important thing is that the scandals are aimed at hurting Christopher, so any other result is just gravy. Christopher has been in England, recuperating (see Shell Shock) when he is about to be returned to the Front, His godfather General Campion has arranged for him to be as far behind the lines as he can manage, as a resupply officer. But Christopher has problems, too. Sylvia and her evil allies have created a situation where Christopher bounces a cheque or two, is crapped on by his bank, and booted out of his club. Christopher bounces back, demonstrating to bank and club that he was purposely put in the red by those aforesaid evil ones.

“Good God, Man! Your club membership is hereby reinstated!”
“In that case, I resign.” Never a crack in that stolid visage.

So Christopher is back in France having a not particularly good time though he does his job and does it well. But there are disturbing messages from the outside world. General Campion wants Christopher to make Sylvia leave him alone. It takes Christopher a while to realize that Sylvia is actually in France, at a nearby hotel, where he goes to meet her.

Now we learn, in fits and starts, that on the night that Christopher did not embrace Valentine and make her his mistress (see Non-Embraces), he went back to his London apartment and sat staring out a window into the darkness. Sylvia knows he is there and divines that he has not bonked Valentine (an event Sylvia tried to facilitate for evilness reasons of her own). She calls for a cab early in the morning to take her away; she is entering a convent retreat. Christopher, hearing her go, believes that their marriage is finally over.

Ha, ha. Silly boy! Sylvia spends three months in a nun’s cell before she becomes bored and decides to go back to torturing her husband. So, in France, at the hotel where she awaits Christopher, she flirts with a Major Perowne, who believes that he has the go-ahead to visit her room later that night. Now Perowne just happens to be the same guy that Sylvia shacked up with in Europe back in 1912 when Christopher came over to help her cover up any scandal. Sylvia sits, bored by Perowne’s chatter and contemplates hurting Christopher: “By the immortal saints,” she exclaims in an aside, “I swear I’ll make his wooden face wince yet.” Sylvia has more Asides to the Audience than Richard III; she turns into the camera and intones lines about the winter of her discontent and all, but let’s face it, she’s not a spectacular royal villain, she’s only Psycho-Bitch and a mature, adult male ought to be able to get shut of their relationship, not descend into the dysfunctional battle of “You hurt me, now I will stagger about and pretend I am not wounded. Then you can hurt me again!” Rebecca Hall ( Vicky Christina Barcelona) plays Sylvia in the BBC series, and it will be very difficult for her to avoid taking the role completely over the top.

This time Sylvia decides to seduce Christopher. So she dons a sexy negligee and sits at her dressing table looking alluring. Christopher comes to her room and is just about to be seduced — well, possibly, we hope, since after all these non-embraces the reader wants the boy to get his ashes hauled, every few years or so, anyway — when Perowne barges in. There is an altercation, attracting the attention of an officer that Christopher has antagonized and the whole evening becomes a shambles and a scandal. General Campion comes to see Christopher. The ramifications are that Christopher has to be transferred and, because Sylvia has cut off a number of possible posts and Christopher has antagonized himself out of others, he is to be sent to the Front. Christopher hears all this in a daze; he knows it is a death sentence. This was not what Sylvia intended, she just pulled one shower-string too many. Not that Sylvia is really sorry. She is never sorry.

This entire dysfunctional relationship bothers me. It’s as possible as anything else involving human beings, I suppose, but generally in these situations either the couple break up pretty quick or they are together forever, like George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for instance. Now there’s a couple that can out-dysfunction any other relationship ever recorded or invented! They are far more interesting, in their hideous way, than Christopher and Sylvia.

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine. "What a jolly mistress she'd make," says Christopher. Sure, Chrissie, but first you have to embrace her.

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine. “What a jolly mistress she’d make,” says Christopher. Sure, Chrissie, but first you have to embrace her.

Valentine Wannop: The third side of this triangle is young suffragette Valentine. She is far more likable than the Tietjens couple mainly because she is healthy. Her father had her educated in ladies’ gym rather than academics because reasons of some kind or other. So Valentine is a vigourous type, sound in mind and body. Valentine is played by Adelaide Clemens, who is Australian and thus probably very healthy. Adelaide Clemens is a pretty blonde who can play Valentine very well, no doubt, but there is a slight glint in her eye that Valentine lacks. I cannot imagine Adelaide Clemens non-embracing all the time, there’s a girl with some life to her!

Christopher’s brother, Mark, thinks Valentine “has her head screwed on right”. Well, maybe. Here she is mooning after a married man for more than six years with nary an embrace. Something a bit off there, perhaps, but compared to Sylvia, a paragon of mental health. Let’s look at the thwarted romance of Valentine and Christopher:

Non-Embraces: The first non-embrace is during the long cart ride that results in scandal because it is thought that Christopher and Valentine actually did embrace. For five years afterward the two fantasize about one another, then Christopher decides it’s time to lighten up on this moral stance he’s taken.  It’s his last night in England before he heads back to the War. “Will you be my mistress tonight?”

Will she! Valentine has already made the bed! “Yes!” Here’s instructions on when and where to meet me.

Well, finally! But things happen. Christopher and Valentine fail to embrace again. They part, Christopher headed back to France, stoic as can be.

Christopher and Valentine meet again on Armistice Day. Christopher has actually been in London a for a while but hasn’t looked up Valentine, who he has sworn will be his mistress, because some reason or other. Anyway, she goes to see him and it looks good for an upcoming embrace. But Armistice Day is a raucous event. Valentine and Christopher are interrupted by a bunch of his old trenchmates who want to celebrate, which they do, and A Man Could Stand Up ends with Valentine and Chris dancing together. Soon, the reader anticipates, they will embrace.

It is a little while into Last Post before we discover that, no, things did not go well on Armistice Day. (By this point, the reader should not be surprised.) The evening of jollity that ended with dancing at the close of A Man Could Stand Up continues into a difficult, raucous night — one of Christopher’s war buddies dies in a cab — and when Christopher tries to take Valentine back to his place so they can, you know, embrace, who is there but evil Sylvia who tells Christopher that she has cancer and then throws herself down a flight of stairs. She picks up a few bruises and muses later that she is losing her touch, why a few years back, she could take such a fall and never suffer a blemish. Valentine is not taken in by this “good theater fall” and the couple leave Sylvia on the floor. (Hooray!) So, Christopher wants some cash so he can locate an embracing spot (I don’t know if he ever found one that night) and poor Valentine winds up discussing war policy with Mark at 3:30 in the morning and occasionally dashing into the next room to weep all over Marie Léonie’s shoulder. It’s about this time you want to say, Girl, get out of this mess!

Mark Tietjens: Christopher’s eldest brother, Mark, works in Ministry of Transport where he is very high up indeed. He and Christopher meet in 1917 to discuss the deaths of their other two brothers, their sister, their mother, and their father. Yes, five family members dead. The two brothers were killed at Gallipoli, the sister was a nurse who drowned, their mother died of grief, their father… Ah! The father died of a gunshot to his head suffered while he dragged his loaded, cocked weapon through a hedge. Both the surviving brothers think it was suicide. Perhaps it was suicide caused by his disgraceful son, Christopher, who is rumored to have a child out of wedlock by a mistress he set up with a tobacco shop, and who was reputed to have an affair with Mrs. Duchemin — Mrs. MacMaster now, able to re-marry since the death of her husband — and who was a wastrel who had gone through thousands of pounds somehow, possibly on pay-offs to loose women, and military reports say he is a communist, or maybe a Francophile, and not to be trusted, and so on. Old Tietjens did not leave Christopher any money directly but instructed Mark to dole out whatever cash he requires. Christopher finds that insulting and says, all right! Then I won’t take any of that money from Mark! Yes! That’s the way to get back at the old dead guy, I’ll embarass him! By not taking any money and exhibiting an expressionless face, I will demonstrate moral superiority! And by God, Mark admires his younger brother for taking this firm stance — actually he admires any unrelenting position on anything, he believes this a proper Yorkshire attitude.

Rupert Everett as Mark. No. Forty pounds heavier and much grayer, I might believe, but this is just... no. I am not putting up any pictures of Renee As Marie Léonie because she is not even this close to looking like her character. I blame the director for this: he could have made the actors less pretty and slim.

Rupert Everett as Mark. No. Forty pounds heavier and much grayer, I might believe, but this is just… no. I am not putting up any pictures of Lyne Renee As Marie Léonie because she is not even this close to looking like her character. I blame the director for this: he could have made the actors less pretty and slim.

Mark doesn’t like Sylvia, who he thinks is a bitch. And one wonders why more people haven’t come to that conclusion, for crying out loud! She does everything except bare blood-stained fangs at the reader. But, No! Here she is persuading people to screw up Christopher’s pay and his bank account and everybody is saying, “Poor Sylvia, married to that dissolute brute!” when they must know she’s shagged half of Britain’s male citizenry by this time not to mention a few foreigners who helped wreck her husband’s reputation. I mean, at this juncture, if only the men who have boffed Sylvia know how not-nice she is, that is still a significant portion of the population. So, it is difficult to see how she can flourish except that Christopher is always rubbing people the wrong way and making enemies — perhaps, like Sylvia, Christopher’s enemies just want to wipe that smug look off his stolid face. By the end of the tetralogy people believe that Christopher is turning out his wife to get money or favors from the many many men who have bonked her. In other words, every time Sylvia screws a new guy, Christopher gets blamed. AND he wins the contempt of his fellows for not getting enough money or favors for peddling his wife’s ass. Not only is he a pimp, he’s a poor businessman!

Mark becomes upset that the Allies will not advance into Germany at the end of the War. The English failure to occupy Germany means that the years of war have been for nought. And there is an argument you could frame that way, and that argument was a serious consideration for the Allies of WWII who determined not to fail to occupy Germany again — they wanted the German populace to understand that they had lost and not, as in 1918, conclude that their victorious armies had suffered a stab in the back. Perhaps Ford, too, thought this in 1925, but here it is just one more fringe concept, just one of many thoughts and interpretations of events floating through the present that may or may not be of value in the future. Anyway, Mark is upset and determines never to speak again. Yes! That’ll show ’em! Hold your breath, too, why don’t you?

Marie Léonie: Mark has never married, but he does have a mistress. He spotted Marie Léonie in the second line of dancers at a show and was taken with her so much that he immediately looked her up and made a straight-forward proposition to set her up as his kept woman. Marie Léonie is from Normandy, which is France’s answer to Yorkshire, and was not offended by Mark’s blunt offer but accepted it. So, for twenty years, every Thursday and every Tuesday, except for a month during the summer racing season, Mark goes to the house that he rents for Marie Léonie. Marie Léonie prepares for Mark the same meal every time (see Meals), except during shooting season when pheasant are worked into the rotation, and the two have, so far as Parade’s End goes, a model relationship.

In October of 1918 (or thereabouts, Ford is purposely muzzy about the date), Mark has suffered a stroke and is mostly bed-ridden, Marie Léonie taking care of him. Christopher persuades Mark to marry Marie Léonie. No one asks her if she wants to be married; it is assumed that a woman of her class could want nothing more. Marie Léonie allows herself to be married. She is devoted to Mark, anyway, although she has looked ahead to her future and given some thought to going back to Normandy if Mark should die. Now, though, she is mistress of Groby, a member of the gentry. It doesn’t change her. She sees the possibility of a clash with Sylvia, who is living at Groby, and thinks, “Bring it on! I can handle her.” And, how exciting that would have been to read about! The clash between the stolid, firm Norman and the flaky English emotional cesspit! I’d buy tickets!

In the final novel, Last Post, Christopher has rented a Sussex farm where he lives with Valentine. Mark, completely silent and immobile, lies in a cot in a bower constructed for him. It is on this farm that we see Marie Léonie in her element. She runs that farm very well. Even though there is friction between herself and the local peasantry over Norman vs. English ways of doing things, it is not really an important issue: Marie Léonie and the local farmworkers understand each other very well. The best word for Marie Léonie is “grounded”; she grasps the fundamentals of life far better than any of the non-peasant characters in the book.

Meals: Every Thursday, every Tuesday, Marie Léonie cooks the same meal for Mark: two mutton chops, all but 1/8 inch of the fat removed, prepared without condiments, two floury potatoes, an apple tart with stilton cheese, and claret. Each book has a meal or food topic: there is the Duchemin breakfast where guests mumble iced caviar, peaches, and kidneys while wondering if a raving lunatic will swarm over the tablecloth at them; there is Christopher’s resupply officers’ lunch in France, with 1905 brut champagne that they buy themselves; there is Christopher’s luncheon at the front where the unit cook turns bully beef and other substances into mock pâté — these menus underline the absurdity of Edwardian manners in a non-genteel reality. Mark’s chops are an attempt to preserve at least some order in the world. In the final volume, Marie Léonie makes cider, upsetting the locals by using a siphon (“a chube!”) while she bemoans the lack of decent, proper turnips in England. But these folks will get along and adjust to the new reality, the local peasants and honest, solid Marie Léonie are the foundation for a new order, unless they are meant as the backbone of the old; possibly they are both.

War: No More Parades is set in the trenches in France. Christopher works at putting together units and shuffling them back to the front. There are a number of Canadian Railway Service workers, for example, who present an amusing spectacle in their furry hats. And there are Welsh soldiers — the Welsh are always good for a chuckle — some with names like 09 Morgan. See, there are so few family names in Wales that groups of men with same last name are often found in military units and numbered somehow to tell them apart. But Ford undercuts all the humorous set-ups that he creates. The general mood in Christopher’s dugout is not laughter but lunacy. Take, for instance, Christopher’s fellow officer, Mackenzie, or maybe his name is McKechnie, who is muttering to himself and seems on the verge of suddenly shooting his mates. Then 09 Morgan is killed by a bomb and dies in Christopher’s arms, his blood spreading across the floor. The men have to be got ready to move out and Christopher oversees their writing of their wills. One fellow has a girl in each of three different countries and wants to leave each of them a bit of dosh, and we have another almost comic turn. Almost.

Ford was proud of writing about the Great War and hoped that his work would aid the cause of peace, or so he said. I think that what he was really proud of was giving an honest account of modern war — it is not so much the skill or valor of the individual warrior that counts any more; it is where he is standing when the stray shell drops.

In A Man Could Stand Up… Christopher is back at the Front. A great German offensive is expected at any time. Senior officers have been killed and Christopher is in command of his unit. He bustles about, preparing for the assault on his position due to start any minute. He is not completely mad, though a little strange — he obsesses about the angles of trench lines and toys with the idea of sticking his head up above the trench. Then there are these drainage pipes that he had run horizontally instead of vertically because that would better drain the trench, he thought, except that there are vast muddy areas in the trench. A German shell explodes and half-buries Christopher. He digs himself out. He tries to help one man, who may drown in a trench mud puddle, and pulls the man up, thus exposing a part of the man’s face to a sniper who takes out his eye. This mirrors a situation in No More Parades, where Christopher does not give the Welsh soldier, 09 Morgan, leave to straighten out his marital problems at home — the local police tell him that if the man returns, he will be murdered — so Christopher has him stay in France where 09 Morgan is killed. Christopher cannot even trust his own instincts, his best intentions may make things worse. Anyway, General Campion shows up and relieves Christopher of his duties because, oh, Sylvia and this and that. Campion has been living at Groby (in the house meant for Marie Léonie) while he considers a political career and Christopher discerns that he is shagging Sylvia. By the way, Campion is looking much younger than he did in the first book — I don’t know how that was managed — but he must be approaching sixty if not already far past it. Christopher is re-assigned to looking after prisoners-of-war, thus losing command pay. Later, someone does Christopher a favor and de-mobilizes him a little early, thus costing him army pay. Christopher is broke on Armistice Day when he and Valentine meet in his rooms.

Shell Shock: After the fateful evening in 1912 when Valentine’s honor is compromised, the next part of Some Do Not takes place five years later while Christopher, who has been shell-shocked, recuperates in London. When Ford says “shell-shocked” he means exactly that: this is a man concussed by a nearby explosion. In 1917 Ford himself was sent back to England after three years in the army, diagnosed with “shell-shock”. That term’s relation to what we now call PTSD is hinted at in the novel but not spelled out. There is a mention that there are sanitoriums for veterans like that — a concept that fills me with dread since I expect they are actually prisons meant to keep these men from embarrassing anyone.

Christopher’s concussion has cost him some of his memory. He is reading the encyclopedia to regain facts that have been lost to him. Before the War, Christopher sneered at people who use encyclopedias. I think Ford wants us to know that our boy has picked up a little humility — though it is hard to tell, what with that stoic, stolid visage of his.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, photograph by Lewis Carroll [ via lewis ]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, photograph by Lewis Carroll [ via ]

Pre-Raphaelites: Ford’s hatred for the pre-Raphaelites is interesting because Ford Madox Brown, a leading painter connnected with the group, was his grandfather and Ford would have met the kind of people that enlivened the Duchemin breakfasts of the past. Christopher Tietjens says of Rossetti:

…it revolts me to think of that obese, oily man who never took a bath, in a grease-spotted dressing-gown and the underclothes he’s slept in, standing beside a five-shilling model with crimped hair or some Mrs. W. Three Stars, gazing into a mirror that reflects their fetid selves and gilt sunfish and drop chandeliers and plates sickening with cold bacon fat and gurgling about passion.

Don’t hold back, Christopher! Let it all out, let that bacon fat sicken, I can smell it from here reflected in your words. Mrs. Duchemin recalls Ruskin:

Fragments of all the worst stories that in his worst moods her husband had told her of [Ruskin] went through her mind. She imagined that the shameful parts of her intimate life would be known to [MacMaster].

The mad Rev. Duchemin talks about Ruskin’s marriage:

“When he drove away in the carriage on his wedding-day, he said to his bride: ‘We will live like the blessed angels!’ How sublime! I, too, after my nuptials…”

Mrs. Duchemin suddenly screamed: “Oh…no!

Now  Ford is perfectly aware that there are various stories of Ruskin’s wedding night — you prurient types can google — so the implication here is that Mrs. Duchemin’s  honeymoon was also some kind of horror. So much for sublime angel connubial bliss! Later, when Mrs. Duchemin thinks MacMaster has knocked her up, she curses him in such a way as to indicate she knows her way around the block. Apparently, she has an abortion. So much for all that angelic innocence and ethereal feminine sensibility!

And then there is the mad Rev. Duchemin himself, one of Ruskin’s road-builders. I think we are supposed to believe that Duchemin’s mental problems stem from venereal disease or alcoholism or both.

Rossetti courting Elizabeth Siddal from Rossetti and His Circle by Max Beerbohm [ Wikipedia ]

Rossetti courting Elizabeth Siddal from Rossetti and His Circle by Max Beerbohm [ Wikipedia ]

Christopher’s Intelligence:  Directly after the evening when Valentine and Christopher first fail to embrace, Christopher heads out to Europe creating a cover story that will allow for Sylvia to avoid scandal. Then (we discover later — Ford is always tucking little bits of information here and there in the narrative) …Then, they go on to East Europe for a little while where Christopher invests heavilly in Ukrainian bonds…

Now let me pause right there: Christopher is thought by everyone to be incredibly smart. He has a calculator brain that breaks things down to numbers. Watching ships he calculates the cost/value of building a certain vessel against that of building a log raft in Russia, because that’s how he rolls. Christopher also favors himself as a bit of a classicist and has an argument with Valentine, who knows a bit of Latin herself, over a quote from Ovid. And he writes critical essays for Mrs. Wannop that make her reputation as well as reports for the Department of Statistics (including one that MacMaster takes credit for which earns him a knighthood) which are always truth because a gentleman does not tell lies. Okay, but this Smart Guy also does some dumb things, like buy Ukrainian bonds in 1913. When he knows a War is coming. And he is supposed to be an expert on East European matters, too! Christopher’s superior remarks drilly: “You’re a perfect encyclopaedia of exact material knowledge, Tietjens.” And Christopher accepts this as tribute, though he does not acknowledge it because taciturnity is one of his principles.

Rumors of War: There are various odd notions aired throughout the four novels as characters try to make sense of world events. For instance, there is the notion, held by General Campion, that England is withdrawing supplies and troops from France and sending them to Turkey to fight for the Middle East and Empire. In fact, the exact opposite is happening: in 1917 England begins shipping resources from the Turkish front to France, leaving T.E.Lawrence to battle for the Middle East all by himself. But this is a wonderful example of the kind of rumor that troops turn into grand conspiracy theories: “Why don’t we have more Mills bombs?” ” They’re being shipped to Iraq along with reinforcement troops. It’s part of a plan to pressure the French.” Sure. I have heard World War II vets who, years later, would repeat similar theories about their war. This rumor is a bit of genius by Ford, and, however I feel about his character delineation, I have to concede the man’s insight into human affairs.

In book three we have the notion of the “Single Command”, a panacea for the lack of Allied movement: it’s all because of a lack of coordination between the Allies. Put everyone under the same leader and watch what happens! Of course, the English are concerned that it will be a Frenchman in charge and so that’s why we don’t have that and everyone is getting killed. That was the theory. In 1918, the French, in the form of Marshal Foch, took over the single command and the German Spring offensive failed, but what probably made more of a difference than the single command was throwing 300,000 American troops into the lines, with many thousands more to follow. These theories are Ford’s attempt at showing how we try to interpret events in a meaningful way, even in a state of chaos.

Furniture Business: Christopher has a rare talent: he can look at a piece of furniture and know if it is a fine antique or junk. This is one of two talents that Christopher possesses — the other one is a remarkable facility with horses — but horses are going out and motorcars are coming in, so Christopher sells furniture to Americans. His is not an Antiques Road Show skill, Christopher never looks on the bottom or pulls out the drawers, he just looks and knows, right away, this cabinet is a fine antique but this other piece is crap. I think this may be Ford’s way of saying that Christopher has exquisite taste honed by centuries of privilege or something like that. Anyway, Christopher is an idiot-savant of furniture, and is flogging every piece that he can locate. But he is not making much money. He has a partner in the United States who, everyone says, is ripping him off. But I can’t tell if Christopher is just a rotten businessman or what. The partner is a guy Christopher met when he was sorting German prisoners and he is a Jew (which deserves some more attention, see Scot-Jew).

Birds and Plants: Birds and local plants are repeated themes throughout the four novels, pretty much one major episode per book. Christopher recites English plant names as a mantra, he and the soldiers chat about the larks at the front, and so forth. Ford is pulling out an old trope here: the English countryside with all its humble lifeforms is a renewing, wonderful source of Englishness, and even as the country falls apart, well, nature is renewing, so England is renewing. Or something like that.

Christopher is particularly given to let his consciousness stream to Shakespeare and the list of flowers that float around drowned Ophelia, particularly the long purple flower which liberal shepherds have given a grosser name. It’s a little worrisome that Christopher tends to think of Ophelia when Valentine is on his mind.

"Ophelia" by Millais. [ via ] There with fantastic garlands did she come Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them" Hamlet Act 4. The model was Elizabeth Siddal who later married Rossetti. After she died of a laudanum overdose, Rossetti buried his unpublished poems with. Later, he dug her up and retrieved the poems

“Ophelia” by Millais. [ via ] “There with fantastic garlands did she come/Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples/That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,/But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them” Hamlet Act 4. The model was Elizabeth Siddal who later married Rossetti. After she died of a laudanum overdose, Rossetti buried his unpublished poems with her body. Later, he dug her up and retrieved the poems.

Marie Léonie  doesn’t understand this English thing about giving every weed a name and, to her, all these sparrows are the same bird, but she is wonderfully appreciative of her chickens — there is a nice passage where she compares a rooster to Rodin, who she saw once in his studio, scratching about some young female visitors. If I was noting Good Parts of this work, that would be one for the list. Sylvia has her bird bit, too, she sees an eagle frightening seagulls and she immediately identifies with the eagle, not the screaming gulls, though I picture her as more screechy than soaring, myself.

Mental Health: I don’t think it possible to do psychoanalysis of a person if a) you have no psychiatric expertise or b) if that person is a literary invention. So, guilty on both counts, I will stand clear. I will hazard a guess that, if the BBC production has any traction, we will soon have a personality disorder named after Sylvia. And maybe one for Christopher. The person that is worrisome is Valentine — in Last Post she seems depressed and distraught and it looks like her pregnancy may not end happily, either miscarriage or post-partum troubles. She is already practically drooling over the thought of a bromide that the doctor may give her. Wait until she discovers the other drugs that were over-prescribed back in the day! And she was so healthy, too!

Scot-Jew: In the railway carriage scene that opens the first novel, MacMaster mentions that Christopher should be careful about how others in his civil service office see him.Tietjens agrees:

…a first-class public office is very like a public school. It might very well object to having a man whose wife has bolted amongst its members. I remember Clifton hated it when the governors decided to admit the first Jew and the first nigger.

What? Are you free-associating here, Christopher, or do you really think that a cuckold will be treated as a Jew? Or is this just an excuse to call people names? “Nigger” is used only once more and at a distance — blacks are hypothetical in Tietjens’ world — but Christopher really lays it on the Jews. Sometimes he remarks on the way they sneak into English life, but they can’t fool him — Christopher can spot the Oriental, or the Levantine, features that indicate someone is a Jew. Curiously, at one point in Parade’s End, Christopher is seen hanging about with a young woman who is Jewish — is he getting it on with her? Maybe he sets her up in a tobacco shop, which brings us back to just how much of what the characters say can be believed. Anyhow, the anti-Semitism is unrelenting. Mark, for instance, says that the only good thing about Sylvia is that she’s never had sex with a Jew — and he gives her credit for that.

Even so, Christopher has a number of relationships with Jews (not counting the young possible-tobacco-shop woman), officers, bureaucrats; he works with both and has a German-American Jew as a business partner:

That he was a Jew and an American did not worry Christopher; he had not objected to the fact that Macmaster had been the son of a Scotch grocer. …for a little shivering, artistic Jew, as of old for Macmaster, he was quite capable of feeling a real fondness — as you might for an animal.

Now if you thought I was a bit harsh when I called Christopher an asshole way back when, I ask you to consider the words from the novel quoted above: Christopher regards Jews and his friend MacMaster as pets, panting about his feet, waiting for their ears to be scratched.

MacMaster and Mrs. Duchemin are both Scots and each of them is very ambitious. Their union is a matter of using one another to climb the ladder of success and — mirabile dictu! — this works for them. MacMaster gets knighted, Mrs. Duchemin/MacMaster is a leading social light. These two grasping people are presented as Semitic, if you accept that Jews are constantly manuvering to enter English society and are grasping, greedy, etc. Scots are Jews-lite. You can indulge Scots and allow them into society (though they will always be on a lower rung than you) and perhaps, in a century or two, they will be as much English as Tietjens, who is three centuries past his own ancestors arriving in this green and pleasant land. Jews… Well, ask after a millenium has passed.

Last Post: Mark is lying in his bower which has been set up so that he will be entertained by the songbirds all around. He lies there and never says a word because he has made up his mind not to speak. That doesn’t mean that Mark is silent to the reader, no, we are treated to lengthy streams of conciousness. And, even though Mark pretends not be interested in small things, he does watch the birds. (Slow percussion for Mark, perhaps in cardiac time, with a snap on the snare for “No” when Mark blinks once, two snaps when he blinks twice for yes — that’s right, it takes less effort for Mark to say No than to say Yes which, I think, is a nice touch. So, some percussion with the flutings of birds all about.)

Besides Mark, who narrates most of the last book, Marie Léonie has a turn: stolid and Norman, France’s version of a Yorkshireman, she will bottle cider her own way, thus upsetting the Sussex locals, who also have a small section to narrate. This back-and-forth is amusing (woodwinds, mostly oboes, I think) and it happens at about the place where a symphony might also have a bit of lightness. Now the peasants scatter… Wait! I see. This should be opera!

Now the peasants scatter as a group of riders appear on the road overlooking the farm Tietjens is renting, one of them is the person Sylvia rented Groby Great Hall to, Mrs. de Bray Pape, an unsuitable American. This woman is here to talk about Groby Great Tree, that she has had taken down. Taking out the Groby Great Stump (with explosives) caused a Groby Great Hall wall to cave in, and there is now a Great Hole in Groby Great Hall wall, so this lady has quite a bit of explaining to do. Sylvia takes credit for getting Mrs. de Bray Pape to wreck Groby Great Hall, now she is using the woman to torment Christopher and Valentine. Mrs. de Bray Pape plunges into things in a heedless, reckless manner. She plows straight through the hay field, rather than go around. She is wearing an old-fashioned women’s riding get-up for side-saddle, with huge, sweeping skirts that devastate the hay. See, she pretends to be an English Lady, but she doesn’t know better than to trample the hay.

Also in this group are young Mark Tietjens and Sylvia. Sylvia has begun divorce proceedings, sort of, but she has yet to turn in the key papers and has still not decided if she will do so. The thing is, if Sylvia divorces Christopher, then she can marry General Campion who she believes will get a major posting to India as head of the Raj or whatever the deal is in 1919. Campion has already refused this proposal but Sylvia has reminded him of her own wealth and how rich Campion could be if he married it. We don’t know if that has changed General Campion’s mind but Sylvia is confident that she will have her own way whenever she decides what that is. Meantime, she enjoys fantasizing about the affairs she will have after marrying Campion. She pictures herself in stunning Orientalish costume while some young subaltern or other crawls at her feet begging for her precious love. Really!

Sylvia and General Campion played by Roger Allam. Now he looks right, but he is the guy that should have played Mark. Allam, if you don't recognize him, plays Morse's boss in Endeavour.

Sylvia and General Campion played by Roger Allam. Now he looks right, but he is the guy that should have played Mark. Allam, if you don’t recognize him, plays Morse’s boss in Endeavour.

Sylvia and young Mark come across old Mark’s bower. He reflects that this boy is definitely his brother’s son, no matter what the gossipers say. (In an earlier volume, Christopher told Sylvia that he spent a great deal of money on private detectives to ascertain that very fact. Sylvia may have been surprised. Anyway…) Mark does not speak and an awkward time is had by all.

(BTW, Ford’s disregard for young Mark begins in the first volume where Christopher’s son is named “Tommy”. When we finally meet the young fellow, he is called either Mark or Michael. Ford’s explanation for that? Sylvia. I think this is totally unfair — Sylvia is evil, sure, but it wasn’t her who forgot her son’s name, it was the author, and he has a lot of nerve, laying the blame on one of his characters like that!)

Mrs. de Bray Pape charges into Christopher’s house, confronting Valentine. Valentine is pregnant and not doing very well. Apparently she fears a miscarriage. “Too much horseback riding,” people mutter. The doctor is coming.  Valentine has always been proud of her strong, healthy body, but now finds childbirth may be too much for it.

Sylvia advances into the scene. She kicks out Mrs. de Bray Pape and confronts Valentine face-to-face. Young Mark comes in as well continually asking his mother if what she is doing is “sporting”. But what’s this? Sylvia’s eyes mist over, she almost apologizes to Valentine for screwing up her life, she says that she will give Christopher that divorce, she has already begun the process… She is crying and… No! No! NO! You’re telling me that this wicked person who combines the worst traits of Lucrezia Borigia with those of Cruella deVille, that this paragon of evilness is so moved by the sight of her husband’s pregnant mistress, that she weeps and gives up her terrible ways? I don’t believe it, not for a minute. Your fault, Ford, if you want me to believe that Sylvia has a soft center, then show her practicing a little humanity in the previous 800 or so pages. The only way to take this is that Sylvia has had a brain fart and may do something out-of-character for a day or two, but she has not reformed. No.

Mark Dies: Mark has thought of a day when he went hunting with his father and bagged four birds with one shot, It was all luck, but Mark’s father has the birds stuffed and mounted. “Mark’s Bag” stood in the nursery for the younger siblings to wonder over. It occurs to old Mark that the group of stuffed birds is the closest thing to a monument he will ever have. He naps a bit and when he opens his eyes, Christopher is standing there. He has been to Groby and flown back, then bicycled from the airfield to his brother’s side (which may be contrasted with Sylvia’s horseback riders who have invaded the place, 19th vs. 20th Century, etc.). Christopher tells his brother that Groby Great Tree is down, that a chunk of wall has gone, too, taking out the nursery, but that he has rescued Mark’s Bag from the rubbish heap. Meantime, Valentine has recalled a bit of poor business that Christopher concluded and rails at him because he has chosen to be poor and they have a child on the way and so on. Mark utters his first words in months, “Now, I must speak.” He recites a bit of a poem:

” ‘Twas the mid o’ the night and the barnies grat
And the mither beneath the mauld heard that…’

“An old song. My nurse sang it….Never thou let thy child weep for thy sharp tongue to thy good man.”

Mark takes Valentine’s hand and dies and Valentine mellows out and the book ends.

What! What is that last bit about? Mark recites a few lines about a dead mother — is this a foreshadowing of Valentine’s death in childbirth? Is this prophecy? Christopher thinks of Ophelia and Mark thinks of dead mothers when they consider Valentine. Ford, unconsciously perhaps, is letting us know that Valentine is doomed. Perhaps she’ll OD on laudanum like Elizabeth Siddal or chloral hydrate like Rossetti!

Anyway Mark chides (?) Valentine for attacking her husband because it will upset the children. And Valentine feels so good for having heard this! I have been over this ending quite a bit and still cannot make sense of it though some — many, in fact — claim they are moved to tears. I am completely befuddled here.

Happily Ever After: Now I have read that some folks, including scholars, believe Sylvia when she says she will get a divorce. This is part of her scheme to marry General Campion, who may just get a posting in India, where Edwardian manners still hold sway. But General Campion has already said No and anyway I trust Sylvia about as far as I can pitch a post-hole. Even if she does do the divorce and go off to India, she’ll be back. She still has a son she can use to torment Christopher and, what exactly is her position concerning Groby? Again, blithe souls claim that young Mark (the communist) will give up his claim on Groby, but I don’t see that necessarilly taking place. Perhaps Christopher will decide to move back to Groby and run the place and be rich. (I believe that Ford has hinted at this from the first novel.) That will give young Mark more time to give up his claim and become just another Cambridge Red waiting to be recruited by Soviet agents. Marie Léonie has a place on the Groby estate which old Mark figured she might move into, but if Christopher continues to rent this farm in the south, she may stay on there. Or she might decide to go back to Normandy. In other words, I don’t think that Ford means us to see any character as settled. There are lots of changes being made and all these characters will have to adapt.

Graham Greene said that Last Post doesn’t belong, that Parade’s End should be a trilogy ending with Christopher and Valentine dancing at the close of A Man Could Stand Up. Perhaps the fact is that Ford contracted for three books, squeezed out a fourth, but couldn’t get an advance to keep the series going. Maybe he wanted to do a Galsworthy/Forsyte Saga thing and pump out novel after novel for years and years. There are unfinished plot lines dangling like shower-bath strings all across the ending of Last Post. But that is sheer speculation.

Summary: Ford has created a very structured work, whether or not you accept my notion of music. There is some good stuff here, and I mean that. This post, long as it is, has been cut to half its original length and there is no way I could say so much unless there was something to talk about. But the characters! Ford and Joseph Conrad had discussed the idea of a novel taking place in a time of historic change which we see through the characters’ eyes. Fine. Good plan. But Christopher is such an unyielding asshole and Sylvia is such a rotten bitch, it’s a little hard to take them seriously. A writer who did accomplish the kind of historic novel that Ford and Conrad discussed was Joyce Cary. Cary’s characters embrace. All the time. But since, for me, the problem with Parade’s End is the characters, perhaps the TV version will be good — after all, there are some good actors playing these roles and Tom Stoppard writing their lines. So, we’ll see.


I used a Signet paperback edition of Parade’s End published in the 1960s. I notice that there are certain differences between that edition and others cited on-line. In his last words, Mark says “child” in my book, “bairn” in others, for instance.

I know very well that King Edward VII ruled only from 1901, when Victoria died, to 1910, so that it may be an error to call any of this period “Edwardian”. Here I follow critics who are trying to champion Ford as the chronicler of a vanished era. Perhaps it would have been better to describe this era as Victorianism gone bad, but that opens a different can of worms.







Upcoming Episodes of Law and Order

[ Important Note: I have been reliably informed by someone who watches more television than I do, that Law and Order is no longer being shown. In fact, it folded three years ago, which shows how out of it I am. I was fooled by the fact that every time I turn on the TV, there’s an episode of Law and Order being shown. Turns out, they are all re-runs. Still, I think the premise for this post is valid. Just substitute CSI for Law and Order and it still works.]

At the end of each episode of Law and Order, a program that has run longer on TV than anything else except The Simpsons, there is a disclaimer that the show was complete fiction and not based on actual crimes in any way. Everyone knows that this is a lie. You read about a bizarre murder case and, a few months later, there it is with whoever is playing the lead roles this season tracking down, arresting, charging, discovering they haven’t enough evidence, going back and re-investgating, charging the right criminal this time, trying the person, and finally convicting them, or not. That’s the way it is in the Criminal Justice System. So here are three cases currently in the news that I expect to see on Law and Order. And possibly CSI. One of the CSIs or maybe all of them.

1 — The Murdered Gun Nut:

Keith Ratliff called himself a “gun nut”. He loved guns. He produced a YouTube series called FPSRussia that was all about guns including weapons that he had built himself. His body was found in his workshop on January 3. Ratliff had been shot in the head. The murder weapon was missing (or maybe not, the GBI has said they don’t know if one of the many guns in Ratliff’s workshop did it, but the wound was not self-inflicted). The police call it a homicide and have ruled out robbery as a motive — Ratliff’s workshop was full of expensive weapons.

Keith Ratliff at his desk.

Keith Ratliff at his desk.

The YouTube program, FPSRussia, was exceptionally popular — perhaps 11th overall amongst YouTubers. It featured Ratliff’s friend, Kyle Myers, who affected a Russian accent as he demonstrated the firepower of automatic 12 Gauge shotguns or a machine gun attached to a radio control helicopter. He blew things up and people loved it.

Keith Myers in the process of assembling a suitcase sniper rifle.

Kyle Myers in the process of assembling a suitcase sniper rifle.

So who and why? Well, there are theories:

1– Ratliff had both a level 10 and a level 11 firearms license, meaning that he could import all kinds of weaponry, including machine guns, and manufacture his own copies. So one theory has it that an arms deal went wrong;

2–Ratliff’s brother says that the killer had to be someone Ratliff knew or else he would have blown the intruder away. After all, he died surrounded by weapons;

3–Maybe it was a local resident who didn’t like him. Ratliff had only recently moved to Carnesville, leaving his wife and child in Kentucky, where they still live. Maybe there was some bit of difficulty with his new neighbors — Carnesville has only a little over 500 residents, maybe someone felt crowded. The sheriff says that he was called out to Ratliff’s place by neighbors at least once;

4– Maybe it was an anti-gun liberal that murdered Ratliff as part of a conspiracy to end Gun Rights in America. You think?

Of course, Law and Order doesn’t have to follow the actual facts of the case — it’s fiction, they say — so who knows what they will come up with. But considering the heightened debate about guns in the US, I suspect the Ratliff murder to spark an episode. One thing: I think the writers should change Ratliff’s buddy, the YouTube star, to a real Russian. I think Alexander Ovechkin would be perfect and it would help launch a new career for him, now that his hockey days are numbered.

2 — The Cannibal Cop:

In February 2012, Gilberto Valle, a New York City police officer, had a series of e-mails with a New Jersey mechanic named Michael Vanhise. The topic was one of kidnapping, rape, murder, and cannibalism. Vanhise wanted Valle to deliver a young woman to him so that they might both enjoy her body. Valle agreed, for a payment of $5000, payable on delivery, but warned Vanhise that she might be unconscious when delivered. He wouldn’t rape her, though, he wanted to be “professional”. Valle’s wife discovered the e-mail correspondence (which also included discussion of eating her) and turned it over to the police. Valle’s trial is due to begin February 25; Vanhise has only now been charged. (The defense says that this was a move to prevent him from testifying for Valle.)

Valle from his FaceBook page.

Valle from his FaceBook page.

Both Valle and Vanhise are members of the Vore community which likes to talk about eating people. They met on line in a Vore discussion group and things proceeded from there. Vore folk, when questioned, say that it is all fantasy and that aren’t interested in pain or torture, just sex resulting in cannibalism. The idea that this was all a fantasy and play-acting is Valle’s defense.

Valle's bail hearing. Bail was denied.

Valle’s bail hearing. Bail was denied.

Valle’s public defender has shown pictures taken from Vore sources to prospective jurors. The pictures included a photo of a bound naked woman with an apple in her mouth and some graphic artistic renditions. Those who became too squicked out to continue were excused from jury duty.

Vore picture (the model has fantasies of being eaten) used by Valle's defense to eliminate jurors.

Vore picture (the model has fantasies of being eaten) used by Valle’s defense to eliminate jurors.

Now, this defense of fantasy might play in New York, I don’t know. But, in Canada, there was the case a few years ago of a guy who had written some pedophilia fantasies on his computer (never published, IIRC) and was convicted of owning child pornography. And there is the case of Mike Diana, the Florida comics artist who was convicted of obscenity and forbidden from drawing. Now you may say that there is a difference here, that these two guys were convicted of pornography and obscenity charges only, but Diana’s prosecutor made a big point that Diana’s work might lead a person to become a serial killer. So: thought = deed.

Except that isn’t true in American jurisprudence, or at least it wasn’t true, before the Patriot Act. See, there is lots of grist for the Law and Order mill here — a lot of room (well, maybe five minutes after commercials and stuff) to discuss whether or not people should be convicted of fantasizing. It might be worth noting one on-line article defending Vore fantasy that exempted pedophilia from acceptability — it’s okay to fantasize about murdering and eating someone, but not okay to think about sex with children.

Anyway, the real Valle case will probably play out differently. Valle used his police credentials to obtain confidential info about a young woman that he stalked — that’s five years right there — and he was seen hanging about the places where two potential victims worked. And there are the e-mails and the offer of money and… However this works out on Law and Order, Valle is going to get locked up.

3 — The Rogue Policeman:

Back in 2008, Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner witnessed an incident where another officer kicked a suspect — a schizophrenic man — and reported her. The internal case was dismissed by the LAPD, but Dorner was not satisfied; he knew that there was a DVD of the incident that had been provided to a hearing. Dorner’s persistence got him fired in 2009 and he became a very bitter man. He accused the LAPD of racism and excessive use of force.

Christopher Dorner.

Christopher Dorner.

Everything was quiet until February 3 of this year when the bodies of Monica Quan and her fiancé were found in a parking garage. A long manifesto that Dorner posted on line contained the words: “I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own, i’m terminating yours”. It is believed that these words were aimed at Quan’s father who defended the police officer that Dorner accused of assault. Dorner’s description went out to California police officers and, a few days later, a patrol car was following a truck believed to be driven by Dorner, when the driver opened fire on the police car, wounding one officer. A second police car was shot up by Dorner shortly afterward and one man was killed, another is seriously wounded. After some misadventures, including an attempt to steal a boat, Dorner escaped into Big Bear Park. A huge task force is hunting him down as I write.

Police car shot up by Dorner.

Police car shot up by Dorner.

In his manifesto, Dorner swore to confront police officers with “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare”. The authorities have taken this to heart.  Some police spokespersons have stated that this is a War on Police: “This is a vendetta against all Southern California law enforcement,” said one and another remarked: “Of course he knows what he’s doing; we trained him. He was also a member of the Armed Forces… It is extremely worrisome and scary.” Scary indeed! Officers pursuing Dorner have already shot up two vehicles containing innocent civilians, one is in serious condition. This is what asymmetrical warfare is all about: goad your enemy into over-zealous responses.

It is unlikely that Dorner will live through this ordeal — in his manifesto he says that his life ended when he was dismissed from the police force and that he does not expect to survive. But in the TV show, he has to live so that we can have the trial and legal manuverings. The defense will claim Diminished Responsiblity because of being unjustly fired (it will turn out that Dorner was telling the truth about the schizophrenic being kicked) or maybe because of service-induced PTSD and, say! when a vet accuses the police force of a culture of violence, well, he probably knows what he’s talking about. Of course, Law and Order always has a hard time dealing with issues of police violence, so this may be an episode that we don’t see.

Sinéad O’Connor Twenty Years After

Twenty years ago today, during a Saturday Night Live performance, Sinéad O’Connor ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II. There was an immediate outcry from critics, journalists, and, a week later, SNL host and noted theologian, Joe Pesci. O’Connor’s career never recovered. When she attempted to perform Bob Marley’s “War” at a Bob Dylan concert, she was booed off the stage. Now, twenty years on, Michael Agresta takes a fresh look at the event.

[click to see performance via YouTube]

Agresta listened to what O’Connor had to say: she added some fresh lyrics to “War” about child abuse as one of the Catholic Church’s sins. This isn’t news today, but it was then. In fact, most people (including me, I have to admit) missed the allusion altogether and thought O’Connor was protesting abortion/contraception policies or something. But O’Connor, when anyone bothered to ask, was quite clear about what angered her:

In Ireland we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they’re not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the shit out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that’s been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorized what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.

The Time magazine interviewer didn’t really grasp what O’Connor was saying, so she tried to explain by giving some personal history. She said she had been subjected to every kind of abuse:

Sexual and physical. Psychological. Spiritual. Emotional. Verbal. I went to school every day covered in bruises, boils, sties and face welts, you name it. Nobody ever said a bloody word or did a thing. Naturally I was very angered by the whole thing… [Time interview, November 9, 1992, behind a pay wall, unfortunately.]

Her mother, said O’Connor, was a Valium addict, a product of Catholic schools. Later, when O’Connor went to an Adult Children of Alcoholics-type group, she got a handle on her situation. The photo of the Pope that she tore up? That had belonged to her mother: “The photo itself had been on my mother’s bedroom wall since the day the fucker was enthroned in 1978.”

Young Sinéad, striped shirt.

O’Connor herself was incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry, an Irish institution for wayward girls, at the age of 15. The Magdalenes have been criticized by the UN Committee Against Torture and one Magdalene being sold by nuns trying to make up stock market losses turned out to have twenty-two unregistered anonymous corpses buried out back.

After Pope Benedict apologized in 2010 for the Irish abuse cover-up, O’Connor criticized him for calling the cover-up “well-intentioned” and called for a boycott of the Church. She told Rachel Maddow that she is a believer who wants to free the Church from those who have brought it into disrepute. And in the Los Angeles Times:

I’m a Catholic, and I love God. . . . That’s why I object to what these people are doing to the religion that I was born into. . . .

I’m passionately in love and always have been with what I call the Holy Spirit, which I believe the Catholic Church have held hostage and still do hold hostage. I think God needs to be rescued from them. They are not representing Christian values and Christian attitudes. If they were truly Christian, they would’ve confessed ages ago, and we wouldn’t be having to batter the door down and try to get blood from a stone.

Sometimes angry people are dismissed when they do or say things other people find disturbing. Often these angry people are absolved over time. Sinéad O’Connor paid a price for expressing her anger and for telling truths that people weren’t ready to hear. She is a brave woman who has finally been awarded some of the respect that she has earned.


Recently a schoolbus monitor in New York State was subjected to verbal abuse by seventh-graders. This episode was recorded and released on YouTube where it got a staggering number of hits. A helpful Canadian (and aren’t we all!) started a fund-raising campaign for the woman that brought in more than $700,000. The kids involved were transferred to alternative education classes, whatever that means in that school district. The monitor herself has started an anti-bullying foundation. Efforts to end bullying are all well and good, but I have some questions; in particular, I want to know why this particular act of bullying got so much attention.

School bus monitor Karen Klein being bullied.(Complete video through YouTube link above.)

Now, most people with experience in the area will agree that seventh-graders are possibly the most difficult age group to handle. It is the practice of many schools to assign tough-guy teachers to these classes to keep the kids in line, which raises the question: are child bullies merely reflecting their adult models?

In 1978, a documentary confronted juvenile delinquents with the frightening realities of prison. Scared Straight took kids who had been charged with some infraction or other on a tour of Rahway prison in New Jersey. The movie won an oscar. Sequels followed. Scared Straight programs claimed a great deal of success and were started in other areas. But analysts who studied the results concluded that the program was worse than useless and might even encourage kids to become criminals. When one of the graduates went on to rape and murder, that point was underlined.  Complaints have caused the states of California, Maryland, and Rhode Island to suspend their Scared Straight programs. Other states still fund this dubious venture and A&E has produced three seasons of Beyond Scared Straight that show children being taken through these programs.

What kind of people watch this series; do they enjoy seeing children being reduced to tears by psychopathic thugs? If so, those voyeurs bear watching. And there is the underlying element of prison rape in all these programs. “I like white boys. You look pretty to me.”  When I hear someone giggle about this kind of stuff or otherwise express a belief  that rape is part of the sentence that judges hand down, I wonder about the fantasies that run through that person’s head.

But Scared Straight programs pale beside Boot Camps, programs where parents contract to have their children abducted, carted off to remote locales, and abused. Sexual abuse, yes, but also deaths in Utah, Florida, South Dakota, Arizona, even China.  VisionQuest has been involved in several deaths in various states. Boot camps are as counter-productive as Scared Straight programs, but they also continue to be funded. A number of countries have followed the US in promoting “get-tough” programs for children and many have become part of official state systems, though they may be contracted from private companies.

Screen cap from a video taken while Florida boot camp “instructors” beat and kicked a fourteen-year-old to death. No charges were filed. [Florida State Attorney’s Office/AP]

It is a commonplace truism among people who work with youths at risk that “abuse generates abuse”, so it is hard to see how these programs can be supported by any thinking adult. The global acceptance of abuse as a strategy to teach discipline may point to one cause of bullying amongst children — they are modelling adult behavior. And all of this suggests why that bus monitor’s case roused so much interest and raised so much cash:  it was unnatural — the natural order, as many people see it, is for adults to abuse children, not the other way around.

Debunking TV Crime Shows and the CSI Effect

You watch crime shows, I know you do, if you watch TV at all, because the only other thing to watch is hockey (What? Reality shows? Screw that. Nobody watches those things!) Okay, there’s doctor shows but they are mostly soap operas constructed around puzzles that the doctor/detective has to solve. Some crime shows have lawyer characters, some have cops or detectives, Law and Order has both. But they’re all the same — the lawyers have to solve the crimes because otherwise their innocent client goes to the hoosegow and the police are incompetent unless they are the main characters and then they usually have a cool lab and double as scientists and stuff.

So how good are these shows? How much info can you take away from, say, Bones or CSI that is reliable. Well, not a lot. Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist, takes Bones episodes apart. A program that doesn’t have too many errors might get a B-, most get D or lower. You really think Temperance Brennan can tell the sex of a skeleton by its jaw? You poor fool.

Don't be taken in: they really don't know what they're doing.

Scott, a family practitioner in Illinois, critiques House, a show he enjoys. Here’s some medical stuff on one episode:

Hemothorax occurs when there is bleeding into the pleura (the membrane around the lung) which causes the lung to collapse. It is bleeding outsideof the lung. It is completely different from bleeding that occurs within the lung, which is what this patient had.

It is true that immune suppressants can worsen infections, but it’s not true that antibiotics worsen transplant rejection. Antibiotics are a routine part of post-transplant treatment. For example, I have several post-transplant patients, and most have been on a daily antibiotics since their operation.

Electrophysiology studies and angiograms are not used to diagnose long QT syndrome (but then, neither is scaring the patient to death).

If the lung transplant is rejecting almost immediately, then it is hyperacute rejection, which does not respond to immune suppressants.

Oliguria does not automatically indicate kidney failure. There are several other causes of decreased urinary flow, a urinary blockage for instance (though I will admit that renal insufficiency (i.e. kidney failure) is the most likely).
allFor supposed experts, they don’t pay a lot of attention to the most basic statistics available on ICU patients such as their I/Os (ins and outs).

Fabry’s is an x-linked recessive disease, so it generally does not show up in women.

It would save a lot of time and effort if they waited for a diagnosis before starting treatments. Both the amyloidosis and Goodpasture treatments were started – and these are not benign non-risky treatments – without proof of diagnosis.

Since she’s already had at least one arrhythmic episode, Della is going to be on heart monitors. Heart monitors would cause the alarms in the heart monitoring station to start going off the minute she showed a flatline (which is what unhooking her leads would show). She would have been found long before she made it down the stairs.

And after all that, the episode got a B and a C. Scott is a kind grader.

There’s other expert critics around. Fringe, for instance, which usually gets a failing science grade, has a couple of good blogs assessing that failure. Here’s one. And many episodes of MacGyver have been deconstructed on Mythbusters. But the show that has drawn the most attention is CSI in its various locales.


One thing I’ve learned from CSI is that if I yell “Enhance!” at my computer while clicking a bunch of keys, then I can zoom into a sharp focused image of incredibly tiny details in a photo, no matter how low-res and grainy it is. (And what is it with that typing? If these guys are running UNIX, then they should have macros operating with a keystroke or two. If they’re using Windows — and most of them seem to be — then they should have drop-down menus and a mouseclick. Instead they just clatter all over the keyboard and try to look competetent.)

Some claim that juries determine verdicts by looking for evidence which would have been discovered by forensic scientists, except that the evidence doesn’t exist and so they come to the wrong decision and free a criminal– the so-called “CSI Effect.”

“Some jurors are expecting that some of the technology used on the shows is real, and it’s not,” says Professor Carol Henderson, Director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law. “In fact, they’re sometimes disappointed if some of the new technologies that they think exist are not used. This is causing quite a bit of concern for prosecutors trying the cases, as well as some of the jurors.  They just want this evidence that may not exist.”  The CSI effect has been blamed for acquittals in some recent cases. “Unrealistic expectations are really harming the jury system,” Henderson says.

Others debate whether this “CSI effect” actually exists — “…despite numerous media stories and law enforcement warnings of a “CSI Effect” crippling our criminal justice system, no such effect exists…”

 On the other hand, the possibility of a CSI Effect may create “CSI Infection“:

[Tamara Lawson has coined] a new phrase, “CSI Infection,” by focusing on the significant legal impact that the fear of “CSI Infected Jurors” has made upon the criminal justice system. The CSI Infection is the ubiquitous “It” factor that scholars cannot conclusively prove nor effectively explain away; however, practitioners overwhelmingly confirm the CSI Effect’s impact on criminal jury trials. The CSI Effect’s existence, the CSI Effect’s true or perceived impact on acquittals and convictions, and how to define the CSI Effect, permeates criminal trials. For example, litigators base their motions on the CSI Effect and build their trial strategies around the CSI Effect, transforming the legal arguments of trial lawyers on both sides of a case. Specifically, voir dire questions, jury instructions, as well as opening statements and closing arguments have been modified and correspondingly challenged on appeal – all because of the CSI Effect.

So, even if the CSI Effect doesn’t influence juries, the possibility that it might changes the way lawyers operate in court.

Of course, no matter what juries or lawyers think, forensic science itself is under fire as unreliable. A 2009 National Academy of Sciences paper addressed the problem and there are many efforts being made to make forensic science better. Meanwhile people have gone to prison because of evidence produced from bad science, not to mention bad scientists. So maybe the problem is not that CSI Effect leads to the guilty set free but rather to the innocent being imprisoned.

Speaking of bad science, how about profiling like in Criminal Minds? Largely bullshit. The thing that’s scary about this is the general application of profiling for people applying for jobs or buying airline tickets.

So don’t believe any of that stuff you see on TV. If you’re watching a show for the characters and the drama, fine. Just treat it as fantasy. The “scientists” are really magicians who can wave a wand or chant a spell like “Enhance!” and reveal the truth. Oh, and those shows where lawyers are the main characters? Nothing that you see has any resemblance to anything remotely like genuine legal practice. Period.

Paper Dolls

Paper dolls based on television shows have become very popular projects. Mad Men is a perfect subject for this form — retro fashions and interesting characters — and these paper dolls by J.R.Smith show an appreciation for graphic concepts of that era. The dolls could have been cut out of a magazine ad.

There are other Mad Men dolls. The ones by Dyna Moe come from a new book that includes other  Mad Men inspired art using a somewhat different take on early 60s design than that of Smith above.






But the best examples of these nouveau paper dolls are those by Kyle Hilton, who has done Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, and other shows as well as some movies. The Breaking Bad series are my favorites.

(via Metafilter)

Jason Maggio: The Man Who Ruined the All-Star Game

This weekend is the NHL All-Star Game. Part of the festivities will be a so-called skills competition featuring stars seeing who can skate fastest , who can shoot hardest, and who can score the fanciest breakaway goal. NHL goalies will stand in the net but in 2009, an amateur was in the crease and, according to Don Cherry, ruined the event.

Martin St.Louis stopped by Jason. St.Louis tried hiding the puck in his glove.

Jason Maggio, a goalie for the AA Dollard Vipers, was recruited for the job when the League decided not to put a pro goalie in the net. This may have been because, in 2008, the goalies actually tried to stop shots, even going so far as to poke check the forwards. After all, if there’s one thing a goalie hates it’s to have that damn disc sitting behind him. But the League wanted to see goals so they asked Jason Maggio to stand in the crease.

That was a mistake. Jason stopped all but five shots.

Alex Kovalev plays the puck off his head.

Jason really didn’t expect to do that well. He was excited going into the game: “Up until now, it’s got to be the No. 1 thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “Nobody else ever gets this chance to skate on the ice with all of these guys.” That’s true — no amateur had ever taken part in the skills competition before and, after Jason’s performance, probably none will ever do so again.

Don Cherry was very upset. “The people aren’t here to see him stop them. One reporter here in Montreal thought it was great. But the people didn’t come here, 19,000 of them, to see a Junior B goaltender stop the guys and make them look stupid!” Of course, the dignity of the game is very important to Cherry who makes a point of never looking stupid.

Don Cherry not looking stupid.

The players didn’t seem to feel that Jason had done anything wrong; they congratulated him in the dressing room. Nor did they seem to mind looking a bit silly. After all, this was entertainment, not a real game on the line.

Ovechkin wearing a hat (like Don Cherry) winning the breakaway competition.

Jason didn’t try anything fancy, he didn’t poke check, he just stood in there. But when players are trying things like bouncing pucks off their head into the net, they’re liable to miss more often than not. Even so, Jason wins bragging rights for stopping the NHL’s best. He is likely to be the only amateur ever given the opportunity to do it. “It was awesome for me, so it would have pretty cool to keep that going and have other kids experience it. It’s something different, something no other league does. I guess maybe Don Cherry’s complaint got through,” he says. Jason’s dad got really excited afterwards; he spoke of his son getting Italian citizenship and playing in Europe. Jason, a very level-headed guy, took a job with CCM instead.

This post inspired by Puck Daddy’s column. And here’s Puck Daddy in 2009.
Complete video of the Super Skills Breakaway contest.
News story. Cherry was particularly upset by this article that praised Jason’s performance.