It’s a story you’ll struggle to find on any mainstream news service, so thank goodness that technologists tend to be generally liberal and sane as well as technologically knowledgeable and proficient.
The Register has a long report on ‘JFL’, the first person jailed under draconian UK police powers that Ministers said were vital to battle terrorism and serious crime. And he’s a schizophrenic science hobbyist with no previous criminal record.
There are a number of complications, and while it’s possible to read the entire history of the case (which you should) as the hounding of one man by security forces bent on conviction, whose prosecution finally succeeded only on the basis of the accused trying to avoid such harassment, we’re aware that the police are unlikely to simply walk away from a man behaving shiftily while bearing traces of high explosive; to do nothing was never going to be an option.
It’s the methods used, and the inferences drawn, that concern us. JFL was allegedly told, pursuant to demands that he hand over the keys to encrypted computer files, that: “There could be child pornography, there could be bomb-making recipes… Unless you tell us we’re never gonna know… What is anybody gonna think?” The presumption of innocence was a long way off.
The fact is, there were bomb-making recipes, and not in the computer files: the judgement also took into account a number of books in JFL’s possession: “on gun manufacture, a book on methamphetamine production and an encryption textbook” – all, apparently, available from Amazon. (We don’t know what they are, but this, this and this would all fit the bill – covers below.)
The Uncle Fester books in particular (Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, above centre) have a long and dodgy history. A pseudonym of Steve Preisler, whose other publications include Silent Death (describing routes for manufacturing nerve gases) and Bloody Brazilian Knife Fightin’ Techniques – Fester and his publisher, the much-missed Loompanics, faced many legal challenges over the years, frequently cited in court cases. In 2007, a Denver bookstore successfully fought a court order to turn over purchaser details for one of Loompanic’s Fester titles.
The other book quoted in the Register article is Abbie Hoffman’s seminal Steal This Book, which the judge in JFL’s case described as “a book that detailed how to make a pipe bomb”. It does indeed – as you can see from this online version (Steal This eBook?) – although it also includes advice on starting a pirate radio station, living in a commune, preparing a legal defense, and obtaining a free buffalo from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Hoffman’s work too has a long history of controversy – not least frequent wrangling with bookstores unhappy that their copies kept going missing.
In the Legal Advice section of Steal This Book, Hoffman gives the following advice to those who find themselves in custody:
Any discussion about what to do while waiting for the lawyer has to be qualified by pointing out that from the moment of arrest through the court appearances, cops tend to disregard a defendant’s rights. Nonetheless, you should play it according to the book whenever possible as you might get your case bounced out on a technicality. When you get busted, rule number one is that you have the right to remain silent. We advise that you give only your name and address. There is a legal dispute about whether or not you are obligated under the law to do even that, but most lawyers feel you should.
It’s a shame to see that a book derided in JFL’s court has as much relevance today as it did in 1971. The defendant’s right to silence was the core liberty overridden by Part III of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which came into force at the beginning of October 2007, nominally aimed – of course – at terrorism, but employed in this case despite the fact that all suspicion of terrorism was dropped long before trial and JFL was sentenced under RIPA Part III “as a general criminal rather than a threat to national security”. Furthermore, the judge diverted from normal court procedures because, he said, “I was satisfied you would not tell the Probation Service anything significant further that I saw no purpose in obtaining a pre-sentence report which is normally a prerequisite for someone of no previous convictions who has not previously received a prison sentence.” Such reports would have done much to explain JFL’s behaviour.
Hoffman would be unsurprised.
When I wrote about Edward Upward a few weeks ago, I promised I’d go on to report on the mysterious Montmere Stories he wrote with Christoper Isherwood. I’m pleased to say that I shall now do so.
To recap, Upward and Isherwood were bosom chums at Repton and at Cambridge: huge admirers of each others’ work, and partners in a conspiracy of imagination against the stuffy world of school and university between the wars, and the larger society it both echoed and helped to build. Isherwood, who went on to become both better known and more highly regarded than his friend, wrote of Upward (as the disguised Chalmers in Lions and Shadows) that “He was a natural anarchist, a born romantic revolutionary; I was an upper-middle-class Puritan, cautious, a bit stingy, with a stake in the land. Chalmers had refused to be confirmed.”
Such were the opportunites for outward rebellion available to young men of the time; but Isherwood and Upward conducted a more private rebellion in their withdrawal from University life and the creation of a shared fantasy world that found expression in a series of stories and fragments of stories: the world of Montmere. Many of these were later destroyed, but the surviving episodes were eventually published by Enitharmon in 1994 – with the help of Upward, then enjoying a late creative renaissance, and eight years after the death of his friend.
The stories, such as they are, frequently tail off, unfinished, after a few pages, giving only a glimpse of the strangeness of Montmere and its approximations: a village, somewhere in England, perhaps in Derbyshire or Lancashire but far from anywhere else, with the usual complement of Lordly Hall, accompanying estate, Rectory, School, pub and railway station. They are enough to see that the village is a doomed, damned place: every fragment contains some fresh abhorrance: a gruesome murder at a manor ball; a gallows masquerading as a quiet railway signal; armies of electrically-controlled mannekins; huge air-ships with scarlet-throated steam-sirens and quick-firing guns.
It’s in the complete stories that the full delicious flavour of Montmere comes through: “The Horror in the Tower”, “The Garage in Drover’s Hollow” and “The Railway Accident” showcase a Lovecraftian appreciation for unnamed, nameless abominations, and the kind of disgust and horror of the rural that England specialises in.
Christopher Hitchens wrote in his introduction to Scoop that he had always thought that Straw Dogs and Withnail and I represented the finest counterpoints to “the apple-blossom propaganda of the countryside idyll”, but Evelyn Waugh had “both of these two hellish expeditions mapped out in advance” in Scoop:
There was something un-English and not quite right about ‘the country’, with its solitude and self-sufficiency, its bloody recreations, its darkness and silence and sudden, inexplicable noises, the kind of place where you never know from one minute to the next that you may not be tossed by a bull or pitchforked by a yokel or rolled over and broken up by a pack of hounds.
But Scoop did not appear until 1938: Isherwood and Upward had got there first, but by their own, private routes. Isherwood’s “The Horror in the Tower”, of 1925, follows a young man on a visit to a friend at Wranvers Hall, where he is subjected to an incestuous conspiracy of such scatalogical horror as to rival Mirbeau, de Sade, or Lovecraft himself. But then, the omens weren’t that good:
I shall find it difficult to convey to you anything more than a faint impression of Wranvers. In the opaque light of dusk, it resembled one of those old factories, long since deserted, memorials to the pioneers of the eighteenth century… A single tower, slender as a column, and not lacking in a certain incongruous beauty, rose high above the crooked chimneys, the sharply pointed gables and the narrow dormer windows of the mansion. It was impossible to detect the spot at which this tower left the main building… The front door was small and heavily studded with iron nails. Many panes of glass had been smashed in the mullioned windows, but they were far too narrow to admit of the passage of any human body, however thin. Above the entrance an inscription had ben chiselled in the stone. It had now been almost obliterated, but I thought I could discern the words “Ursus Ipse” and, some way farther on, “Mortis”. The mist streamed between the horse’s legs like water. The ground beneath our wheels was invisible.
Likewise in “The Garage in Drover’s Hollow”, two young men find themselves trapped in a remote gas-station, the back wheel of their “powerful and costly machine” ripped through by “a small spiked object made of steel and not unlike a burr in size and appearance.”
“You seem to have expected visitors,” said my friend, a trifle sarcastically.
“Well, yes, sir,” replied the foreman, bending over the kettle. “We do get a good many in, expecially this time of year, when the roads are so dark. Little accidents will happen. Of course, we scarcely get a car for garaging from one year’s end to another. It’s all repairs.”
“And no wonder,” said the doctor, exhibiting the burr-like object, “when the road is littered with things like this!”
The foreman examined it.
“Well, now,” he exclaimed, with an ingenuousness which was almost reptilian in its unreality, “to think that I’ve been in the business all my life and never seen one of them things before! I wonder what it could be, now? A new type of ball-bearing, do you think, sir?”
“Ball-bearing be raped!” said Dr Mears abruptly, for his temper was still ruffled. “Let’s get on with our tea and go and see about the car.”
Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.
The stories are also stuffed with malicious and mysterious characters who reappear throughout, often in different guises. What began as caricatures of their least favourite dons and fellows become archetypes of minor English tyrants, like Shreeve, headmaster of Frisbald College, and Wherry, train-wrecker and architect to Mortmere Rural Council.
Upward destroyed most of his Mortmere stories, but his surviving “The Railway Accident” is the longest and most accomplished among them. On the long train journey up the branch line to Mortmere, Shreeve unfolds a tale of such bureaucratic, avaricious and shameless complexity that it would beggar belief, if it did not so perfectly illuminate the mindsets of both conspirator and conspiracy theorist, locked in a dance of mutual depravity and corruption.
The imaginative supernaturalalways Isherwood’s forte over Upwards’is here overlaid as an afterthought, to give some higher meaning to the base graspings of its little protagonists. Figures flicker in the undergrowth, ghost stations rush by, deserted, a corpse swings from a warning-light – “an omen, a warning in the quiet of the day, a visible prefiguration it may be of death as we comfortably roll through the frozen countryside.”
The climax, when it comes, is more mechanical and physical:
An iron echo approached us. Clambering the lower rocks, I turned. The express had taken the points. Booster-fitted, excessively rolling, the racing Mogul engine rounded the curve, bounded into the rear of the carriages we had left. Coaches mounted like viciously copulating bulls, telescoped like ventilator hatches. Nostril gaps in a tunnel clogged with wreckage instantly flamed. A faint jet of blood sprayed from a vacant window. Frog-sprawling bodies fumed in blazing reeds. The architrave of the tunnel crested with daffodils fell compact as hinged scenery. Tall rag-feathered birds with corrugated red wattles limped from holes among the rocks.
Much of the Mortmere mythos is highly entertaining juvenilia, body shock and plain old creepiness. But a passage like this, where Upward takes the reader from the first echo of the train’s approach, through vicious impact to bloody aftermath and the breathless hush that follows it, in the space of a single paragraph, demonstrate the writers’ abilities.
So Mortmere is a wonderful place to visit, and a fascinating rescue job on a strange corner of literature. But more than this, it illuminates the hidden contours of its writers’ lives, personal and political. Frustrated Upward, a lifelong Communist, and Isherwood, repeatedly implicated by Anthony Blunt in the Cambridge spy ring, achieve in language what their contemporaries Burgess, Blunt and Maclean failed to do in life: rupture the quiet placidness of English life and reveal the hypocrisy and corruption of “poshocratic” society.
“Nearly all the changes in which you’re allowed to participate are in things which aren’t very important. The real and difficult changes are those which give more and more people power to decide more and more things for themselves”
For those who don’t know Speechification, it’s an excellent little blog for fans of speech radio, podcasting the best bits of the UK’s Radio 4, and occasional things from the rest of the world. I’m one of the contributors, and I’ve just posted a 30 minute documentary that Bookkake readers will probably enjoy.
The Little Red Schoolbook, translated from the Dutch Danish and published in 1971, advised children about sex, drugs and how to assert their rights at school. It was subsequently banned in the UK as an obscene publication, but continued to be distributed by radical groups, becoming something of a cause celebre in the process. Wikipedia has more references on the history of the book – and you can pick up a copy on Abe, should you so desire. There’s also another good resource on the history of this fascinating little book here. Enjoy!
I have a number of weaknesses. Some of them, in no particular order are: dirty books (obviously), old London guidebooks (of which I have many) and the New English Library.
The old NEL was a wonderful thing. The current incarnation is an indifferent imprint of Hodder & Staughton, but in the 50s and 60s they published all kids of weird and wonderful (and dirty) things, hitting a high point in the 70s with a whole raft of hack writing – notably Richard Allen’s Skinhead and Mick Norman’s Hells Angels series, which are well worth seeking out.
I particularly like the fact they weren’t afraid of producing their own books – ‘Mick Norman’ was a pseudonym of Laurence James, an editor at NEL who churned out tonnes of this stuff. They were also utterly mercenary, which brings us to this: London Unexpurgated, by Petronius. LibraryThing attributes ‘Petronius’ to Paul Tabori, author of a range of likely-sounding titles such as The Torture Machine and A pictorial history of love, but even the old NEL editors aren’t sure any more.
No matter. Petronius proves an excellent guide to London, 1969, in a book aimed at Yanks (he’s also credited with New York Unexpurgated), but containing plenty of gems for the amateur historian of the London underworld, as well as some rather lovely illustrations, like this one, fronting the chapter on The London Whore:
Petronius takes the visitor to London (or the inquisitive local) on a tour of London’s best pick-up spots, including exhibitions, ice rinks and the pub (which get their own chapter); the best places to peep (outside the youth hostel by Holland Park is a top contender); into the the heart of the Hippie subculture, characterised by Happenings, Pentangle, and pot; and around the late night coffee houses and steak joints inhabited by nightbirds. It is occasionally serious, too, discussing the enlightened British attitude to registered drug addicts (which, “like all well-meaning, general control schemes, does not really work”), and contrasting Paris, which has within recent memory “driven the girls from maisons beloved by Maupassant and Toulouse-Lautrec into the street” under the Marthe Richard laws, with London’s banning of street prostitution, forcing girls into hidden, vulnerable bedsits and leading to the proliferation of coy notices in shop windows:
English and Swedish lessons
Young Lady Good at Figures seeks Position
And so on. It’s also occasionally very rude indeed, advising those in search of nymphettes (“The older I get the younger I like ’em”—The Duke of Wellington) to join the fan clubs of Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones and, ahem, Liberace, in the hopes that they may “deflect their passion from their idol to yourself”. The disclaimer reads “We would not like to be accused of encouraging statutory
rape – we are only giving the facts.”
Petronius is also not coy about delving into the world of “The Consenting Adult”, aka homosexuals, advising males so interested to seek out The Albany Trust – but leaving lesbians to find “their clubs and associations, their regular meeting places and rites” on their own.
Like most NEL titles, there is far more titillation than filth here, and far less information than could be found in a standard guidebook of the day, but couched in a whispering, adult tone that was still welcomed in contrast to the still straight-laced mainstream it subverted. Encouraging the young to explore, and the old to help them, Petronius is a wonderful guide, whose only real injunction is to look beneath the surface, and say:
Anyone else got any dirty guidebook recommendations we should be checking out? Let us know.
Hat tip to Mike for pointing out these awesome and slightly disturbing ads for for Filigranes, a Belgian booksellers (more after the jump).
The series reimagines Kafka’s Metamorphosis as a series of movies in different genres – Kafka in Vegas, in black and white, in Manga, in Bollywood. They’re fantastic images, but they also highlight how little good advertising is done of books.
In the UK, book advertising is considered by publishers to be a bit dirty, and mostly amounts to a packshot on a tube poster. Maybe they’ll do something nice with the cover. If you’re lucky. There’s rarely any attempt to engage with and explore the theme and story as there is in much other advertising. There should be more like this.
Bokkake’s publisher, James Bridle (me), was on BBC Radio’s Pods and Blogs last week, for a books special. We talked about publishing, ebooks and the future, alongside a number of other interesting parties including The Mousehunter Alex Milway, Joshua Rothass of 140Story and Stephen Ely, editor of The Escape Pod. The best bit, for me, was hearing Jamillah say “bookkake” on national radio, but I’m easily pleased.
If you’re interested in the business of books, and their future, it’s definitely worth a listen. You can download it here, or listen, right here: