The Hereditary Grand Falconer-Delfico

The  Hereditary Grand Falconer-Delfico
The Model for the Maitre d'Armes

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ricki-Ticky-Tickle, Darling

(A Soliloquy for Lady Molly, with apologies to Anthony Powell)

Poor Jeavons! He never did understand, poor lamb, but just accepted the little fellow in his kindly, somnambulistic way.

Ricki just didn’t like Jeavons hanging around me, back then, you see. Didn’t understood what I saw in him, I suppose. That hardly made Ricki unique, of course. Jeavons was, shall we say, not out of the top drawer. He’d had style once, though. And dash—my old friend Mildred Blaides could tell you something about that, if she thought hard about it, and could see the man in front of her. Yes, Jeavons made sense back then. And he still does, damn it! I’m fond of him, and he’s … restful.

But Ricki tried to make trouble when we were first married. No man would do for me but Ruddy, as far as Ricki was concerned. Oh, the time he gave Jeavons, and me come to that. Because, after all, Ruddy had meant a great deal to me, and I was sorry I had to break it off—but there are limits, you know.

Oh, a girl likes a bit of poetry, and a bit of romancing, but enough is as good as a feast, my dear, and Ruddy could, if he got started, bore for England. And India, too, come to that. Still I remember his bristly little moustache and—oh, yes, he had his talents, did my Ruddy.

But too clingy, too needy, too clever by half. He didn’t blub when I gave him his notice, though. Left Ricki behind, and went out again to the Punjab. But I had Ricki to remember him by. Oh, the pranks he would play on Jeavons! Tripping him, pouncing on him in bed, gnawing his ankles—

They do that, you know. Gnaw things, I mean. All very well if he’s in a book, slaying King Cobras—Nag and Nagina, was it? Splendid creature in the subcontinent. But in London? Nothing worse than waking up with a bit of a head early some morning, but unable to lie abed because you can hear it—no matter how you try to not hear it!—again and again:

Rick-tick-TICK TICK!

Well, my dear, you try sleeping through that, if you can.

I ask you.

Ruddy claimed he was the original, the one in the story. That clever Nick Jenkins laughed at that, saying it couldn’t be. That the story had come out in 1894, and that Ricki couldn’t have lived thirty years later.

So Ruddy was a bit naughty, and lied to me, I suppose.

I wouldn’t have paid to have him stuffed if I knew that, of course—Ricki, I mean, not Ruddy. Ruddy wasn’t stuffed. Although he could be very formal.

Still, he could do such lovely things with his moustache—

I’m not sorry I had Ricki stuffed, anyway. He was a sweet little fellow and became much nicer as he got older. Jeavons cried like a child when he died.

That’s why I keep him, I think.

Jeavons, not Ricki, I mean.

I keep Ricki because he was sweet and cute, when he wasn’t biting Jeavons, at least, and Ruddy was a famous man, who fell for me when I was a pretty young thing, and he gave me the very animal he’d made a hero in one of his books. Let’s see Mr. Nicholas Jenkins top that!

But neither of them could top my Jeavons. It takes a special man to weep for a little animal who ate his carpet slippers, and bit his ankles, and was given to his wife by a famous man who was her—friend, long before he came on the scene.

And Jeavons learns, you know. His moustache has made splendid progress in our years together, you know. He’s not quite in Ruddy’s class but—oh, Alymer! How nice of you to drop by! Have you met General Conyers, Isobel?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Rhapsody on a Windy Night

It's mid-December, already, and the year is hastening toward oblivion so quickly that I can hardly catch my breath. I sat down to do a piece of writing that very much needed to be done tonight, and, while I got to a good point with it, it is not done.

I was felled, you see, by a bout of nostalgia.

I write to music, and I had a playlist that skipped randomly about tonight. A few songs came up that took me back to the mid-1980s and caught me short.

I don't know about you, but as I go on toward the end of my forties (seriously--that was bloody quick; Basil had a point), I am in a good place; I don't hanker for the past (though I wouldn't mind having my old waistline). But music can catapult me back in time, and into an old frame of mind, and I become two people--the Anglocat of the present, with half my mind and heart, and the much younger version.

And in that doubled perception, part of me feels every emotion as it was at the time, and the rest of me watches, bemused.

It's music that does it to me, generally. In this case, it was an old favorite from my youth, played by the aging piano man himself:

Now, honestly, I fell in love with the song as a teen, long before I had any relationship even remotely resembling one to which it could be applied. (It's the lyrics, the rippling notes of the piano, the rueful, loving tone of the song that got me).

And it still can.

So I embarked on a series of old favorites, each speaking to a different moment in time for me--the old songs that I listened obsessively to, again and again. (This is possibly my most irritating tic, that I will, in this frame of mind, play a song up to a dozen times, like I'm scratching a mosquito bite until it bleeds, and stops itching.)

It's an emotional catharsis, of a kind, and leaves me purged of the delusion that my youth is something to hanker after. That's the argumentum excrementum taurorem. I have never been in a better place than I am now. It's just that I sometimes need to pay a debt to the past, in order to appreciate where I am now. And the old songs are my way of doing that.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Writer on Filming

Here is John le Carré (David Cornwell) discussing the filming of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), and praising to the skies the genius of Alec Guiness. It's a great interview, and Cornwell is in full raconteur mode, as well as displaying characteristic insight on the actor's art, what he calls "the controlled schizophrenia of the actor."

He also does a fine impression of Guiness, by the bye.

Here's le Carré on the subject of his breakout book:
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the work of a wayward imagination brought to the end of its tether by political disgust and personal confusion. Fifty years on, I don't associate the book with anything that ever happened to me, save for one wordless encounter at London airport when a worn-out, middle-aged military kind of man in a stained raincoat slammed a handful of mixed foreign change on to the bar and in gritty Irish accents ordered himself as much Scotch as it would buy. In that moment, Alec Leamas was born. Or so my memory, not always a reliable informant, tells me.

Today I think of the novel as a not-very-well-disguised internal explosion after which my life would never be the same. It was not the first such explosion, or the last. And yes, yes, by the time I wrote it, I had been caught up in secret work off and on for a decade; a decade the more formative because I had the inherited guilt of being too young to fight in the second world war and – more importantly – of being the son of a war-profiteer, another secret I felt I had to keep to myself until he died.

But I was never a mastermind, or a mini-mind, and long before I even entered the secret world, I had an instinct towards fiction that made me a dubious fact-gatherer. I was never at personal risk in my secret work; I was frequently bored stiff by it. Had things been otherwise, my employers would not have allowed me to publish my novel, even if later they kicked themselves for doing so: but that was because they decided it was being taken too seriously by too many people; and because any suggestion that the British Secret Service would betray its own was deemed derogatory to its ethical principles, bad for recruitment, and accordingly Bad for Britain, a charge to which there is no effective answer.
A fascinating, and perceptive man.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wintry Mix

I admit it, I've always loved snow, and winter. It's the reason I'll never move to Florida of my own free will, or any such place. There's something in my soul that responds to the innocence and the darkness both of winter.

The innocence: playing in the snow, my father building a snow dinosaur one year (a proper Tyrannosaurus Rex, thankee, and not a Spielbergian T-Rex) or a bear, based which direction his imagination took that year. Hot cocoa after shoveling, snow forts. The simple, stately beauty of a quotidian world transfigured into something quite--other. And the quiet! The silence as untrodden, fresh snow laps the pathways that once were clear.

And the experience: cold, dark falling early, the frisson of the world transformed into a place where the Norse sagas could take place, where magic seemed real and not always benign. The world evoked by Ghost Story or Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket. Of Lewis's White Witch, come to that.

Winter is come again, and as I walked through snow today, I felt all the child's enthusiasm for it again. I hope I never lose that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Shining City on a Hill

"All I want you to do is imagine if you were witnessing this scene in a movie. The interrogators would be Nazis, wouldn’t they? And now they are us."--Andrew Sullivan

If you can read the Senate Committee Study of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program without feeling sick, simply sick--well, you've a damned sight stronger stomach than I have, that's all. And I don't think it's anything to take pride in.

The report has provoked a predictable, and well-earned firestorm from Andrew Sullivan (whose persistence and righteous anger on this issue more than make up for his blind spots, occasional self-righteousness, and seeming inability to take a nap). His live-blog is worth a visit, though your skin will crawl as you read the iniquities perpetrated in our names. And if it doesn't--well, as Aaron Sorkin once wrote, then, God, I don't even want to know you.

From The Times:
he long-delayed report, which took five years to produce and is based on more than six million internal agency documents, is a sweeping indictment of the C.I.A.'s operation and oversight of a program carried out by agency officials and contractors in secret prisons around the world in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It also provides a macabre accounting of some of the grisliest techniques that the C.I.A. used to torture and imprison terrorism suspects.

Detainees were deprived of sleep for as long as a week, and were sometimes told that they would be killed while in American custody. With the approval of the C.I.A.'s medical staff, some C.I.A. prisoners were subjected to medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” or “rectal hydration” — a technique that the C.I.A.'s chief of interrogations described as a way to exert “total control over the detainee.” C.I.A. medical staff members described the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, as a “series of near drownings.”

The report also suggests that more prisoners were subjected to waterboarding than the three the C.I.A. has acknowledged in the past. The committee obtained a photograph of a waterboard surrounded by buckets of water at the prison in Afghanistan commonly known as the Salt Pit — a facility where the C.I.A. had claimed that waterboarding was never used. One clandestine officer described the prison as a “dungeon,” and another said that some prisoners there “literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled.”

Many of the most extreme interrogation methods — including waterboarding — were authorized by Justice Department lawyers during the Bush administration. But the report also found evidence that a number of detainees had been subjected to other, unapproved methods while in C.I.A. custody.

The torture of prisoners at times was so extreme that some C.I.A. personnel tried to put a halt to the techniques, but were told by senior agency officials to continue the interrogation sessions.

The Senate report quotes a series of August 2002 cables from a C.I.A. facility in Thailand, where the agency’s first prisoner was held. Within days of the Justice Department’s approval to begin waterboarding the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued.

During one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” The interrogations lasted for weeks, and some C.I.A. officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such questions were rejected.
Not to mention the breaking of Abu Zubaydah to the point that he would assume the position to be water boarded when his interrogators snapped their fingers, the threatening of one detainee that his mother would be brought in and raped in front of him--and oh, many, many more horrors.

Did I mention that out of 119 detainees, “at least 26 were wrongfully held.” That's over 20%.

All this was perpetrated in our names.

Perpetrated by our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters.

Oh, and all those attacks it prevented? Yeah, not so much. Sorry folks; all a lie; even the CIA can't dispute it. Like the lie that we don't torture. We do.

Perpetrated, it is true, by a Republican administration, and ceased by his Democratic successor--but while Bush and Cheney bear the brunt of the blame (apparently Cheney more than Bush--the report suggest that Bush was misled for some time about the extent of torture), our current president, for whom I voted twice, is not entirely blameless, either. Barack Obama discouraged the release of the report, and tried to delay it; he gave shelter to the guilty. The audacity of hope did not dare to confront this violation of every American ideal. And yet, compromised and tainted though he is in this area, Barack Obama is guilty of basically irresolution, trying to hide the Nation's shame, and retrospective complicity in a crime the enormity of which he did not wish to face.

Perhaps because he feared that we would embrace the torturers, fawning on them, and lick the blood from their gloves:

(Begin at 3:01)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Writing a Sequel: What It's Like

Over at the Trollope and his Contemporaries reading group, I was asked about my writing process--particularly in terms of characterization. I thought that it was an interesting question, and one worth addressing here, as well.

The precipitating factor was, when my wife and I watched Simon Raven's 1974 adaptation The Pallisers together, we talked about our shared affection for the novels, and I got to complaining about how Phineas Finn seems shorn of his fire in The Prime Minister and The Duke's Children. I suggested that AT wasn't done with him--that the failure of the Prime Minister to sell at his usual level had discouraged and maybe diverted him. She urged me to write it up. I wrote the first three chapters--and dried up. Then my computer crashed. Six years later I found the manuscript, and typed it into my new computer. When I finished retying chapter 3, I knew what should happen in chapter 4.

From the moment I started the book, the ending--I mean the last two lines of dialogue and their context--were known to me. That Emilius and Lizzie would return was, too, and that Lord Chiltern's and Violet's son would fall for Phineas's niece--all this I had from the start. The character of Savrola Vavasour was a later idea, but he fit--his historical antecedent had a mother who was of a higher American social class than Winifred Hurtle, but the idea of putting her in play was irresitible. And George Vavasor was not a bad analog to the historical father.

By and large, the characters ran the show. The book just poured out of me, although I had to do some research, looking up geographic details, reading about mining, and 19th Century criminal procedure in Britain. But the interactions were pretty spontaneous; most of the characters came enough alive at least in my own mind that I felt I knew who they were and what they were about--how they would and wouldn't speak.

In the writing, the identities of characters would resolve--the magistrate became John Toogood after I wrote the opening part of his courtroom scene.

Keeping track of the primary characters was reasonably easy; keeping track of where they lived was not. I had to do a chart with all the locations of the various homes of the London-based residences. The cameos were trickier yet. Somewhere along the line, I decided to have cameos, not just from Trollope, but from other writers in the same era. Some were fleeting appearances (blink, and you miss Zuleika Dobson or Paul Montague. Some will be of considerable importance. I think of them as my "Easter eggs." The more important ones appear in more than one scene; they were brought in to fit the story, but to enrich Trollope Country by visiting--to make my fictional universe a broader place, with its ethos from Trollope, but with some (hopefully successful) visitors interpolating themselves. I liked the idea of bringing not just these other characters but their implications and milieu adding weight to their interactions with the Trollope characters.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Working Up the Nerve

This is the key moment, I think, in Peter Capaldi's first season as the Doctor. Notice how vulnerable he is, eve after the TARDIS traps the "Boneless." He starts off slowly, wistfully, thinking of how it could have been, and then, as he shrugs his jacket angrily into place:
I don't suppose it really matters now. You are monsters. That is the role you seem determined to play. So it seems I must play mine.

(The Doctor steps out of the Tardis. Clara, Risby and Fenton come down the ladder.)

DOCTOR: The man that stops the monsters. I'm sending you back to your own dimension. Who knows? Some of you may even survive the trip. And, if you do, remember this. You are not welcome here. This plane is protected. I am the Doctor.

(He turns, and Clara throws him the sonic screwdriver.)
DOCTOR: And I name you The Boneless.
The last line is a bit duff, but Capaldi sells it. More to the point, he has to work himself up to a classic Tennant or Smith style epic speech of epic-ness. This Doctor doesn't live there as easily as did his predecessors.