"Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation."

Norman Mailer
"The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China--why then it will be spring."

"This new history of yours," said McPhee, "is a wee bit lacking in documents."

C.S. Lewis

Synchronicities this week

  • June 24 Midsummer/St. John’s Day
  • June 24, 1947 The first flying saucers are sighted over Mount Rainier by pilot Ken Arnold.
  • June 24, 1542 St. John of the Cross, Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet, is born.
  • June 24, 1938 500 ton meteorite lands near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
  • June 24, 1717 First Free Masons' grand lodge founded in London.
  • June 24, 1374 A sudden outbreak of St. John's Dance causes people in the streets of Aachen, Germany, to experience hallucinations and begin to jump and twitch uncontrollably until they collapse from exhaustion.
  • June 24, 1314 Battle of Bannockburn; Scotland regains independence from England.
  • June 24, 843 Vikings destroy Nantes.
  • June 23 Midsummer’s Eve
  • June 23, 1972 Nixon & Haldeman agree to use CIA to cover up Watergate.
  • June 23, 1942 Germany's latest fighter, a Focke-Wulf FW190 is captured intact when it mistakenly lands at RAF Pembrey in Wales.
  • June 23, 1888 Frederick Douglass is 1st African-American nominated for president.
  • June 23, 1848 Workers’ insurrection in Paris.
  • June 23, 1713 The French residents of Acadia are given one year to declare allegiance to Britain or leave Nova Scotia, Canada. They choose the latter, migrate to Louisiana, and become Cajuns.
  • June 21 Summer Solstice (11:28 a.m.).
  • June 21, 1964 Three civil rights workers-Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James E. Chaney-are kidnapped and murdered by the Klan in Mississippi .
  • June 21, 1948 The 33 1/3 RPM LP record is introduced by Columbia Records.
  • June 21, 1944 Ray Davies of the Kinks born in London.
  • June 21, 1916 Mexican troops beat US expeditionary force under Gen Pershing.
  • June 21, 1877 The Molly Maguires, ten Irish immigrant labor activists, are hanged in Pennsylvania prisons.
  • June 20, 1947 Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, gangster, the “man who invented Las Vegas,” shot dead in Beverly Hills, Cal.
  • June 20, 1909 Errol Flynn, greatest of the swashbucklers, born in Hobart, Tasmania.
  • June 20, 1944 Congress charters Central Intelligence Agency.
  • June 20, 1943 Detroit race riot kills 35.
  • June 20, 1893 - Lizzie Borden acquitted in murder of parents in New Bedford Mass.
  • June 20, 1871 Ku Klux Klan trials began in federal court in Oxford Miss.
  • June 20, 1837 Queen Victoria at 18 ascends British throne ; rules for 63 years ending in 1901.
  • June 20, 1756 146 British soldiers imprisoned in the "Black Hole of Calcutta." Most die.
  • June 20, 1631 The Irish village of Baltimore is attacked by Algerian pirates.
  • June 20, 1214 The University of Oxford receives its charter.
  • June 20, 451 Germans & Romans beat Attila the Hun at Catalarinische Fields.

Friday, June 26, 2009

This Week in the Secret History: Custer's Karma

What a flamboyant, outrageous figure. What a sense of himself he had. He must have considered himself immortal, at least when his hair was long, as invincible as Beowulf or Siegried or Harold Greatheart. He sprang from that race of blue-eyed, long-nosed devils, who once upon a time trotted arrogantly through cold black forests with the North Sea in their veins; and being who he was, he must have felt their eyes on him as he galloped across the American prairie, strawberry curls flowing in the wind. Even his weapons – Remington sporting rifle with octagonal barrel, two self-cocking ivory-handled Webley Bulldog pistols, a hunting knife in a beaded scabbard—everything about him contributed to the image. General George Armstrong Custer! His name reverberates like the clang of a sword.

Evan Connell

Son of the Morning Star

To understand the events that culminated at Little Big Horn, you have to factor in the way the Indians interpreted it. In their eyes, it was a religious or spiritual process. To 19th Century Plains Indians, as in most pre-industrial societies, there was no separate secular realm of life. All activities had spiritual implications.

There is something stange about the Black Hills of South Dakota. They rise, an enclosed island of incongruous mountains, from the middle of flat oceans of grassland around them, made even more distinct by their dark wooded slopes in a land where they are no trees for miles. Hence their designation as “Black” Hills, or Paha Sapa in the language of the Lakota Sioux. American Indians have inhabited the area since at least 7000 BCE.

The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie confirmed the Lakota ownership of the mountain range. The Sioux and Cheyenne claimed rights to the land saying that in their culture it was considered the sacred center of the world.

Rumors of gold in the Black Hills had circulated in North America for decades. In 1874 Brevet Major General Custer led the 7th Cavalry on a military/
mineralogical expedition into the Black Hills. They discovered gold in French Creek in the Southern Black Hills. An official announcement of the presence of gold was made to the nation through newspaper reporters who accompanied the expedition.

Within a year the gold rush began. Thousands of miners went to the Black Hills; by 1880, the area was the most densely populated part of Dakota Territory. Cities, towns, villages, and scores of gold camps sprang up. Railroads were already reaching the previously remote area.

An early cartographer's map of the Black Hills

Less than a year after Custer’s expedition, prominent Lakota leaders were brought to Washington to meet with President Grant in an effort to persuade them to give up the Black Hills. The attempt failed. That fall, a commission was sent to each of the Indian agencies to hold huge councils with the Lakota, hoping to convince the population and thereby pressuring Lakota leaders into signing a new treaty. Again, the government's attempt to secure the Black Hills failed. Within a few months the Grant administration began to discuss military action against the non-treaty bands of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne who had refused to come in to the Indian agencies.

While the Black Hills was at the center of the growing crisis, resentment was also growing over expanding American interests in other portions of Lakota territory, including the proposed Northern Pacific Railroad that would cross through the last of the great buffalo hunting grounds, the straight line of American westward expansion crossing and breaking the immemorial circle of the Indian’s hunting patterns.

Concerned about the public perception of launching a war against the Lakota without provocation, it was decided to send out a demand to the non-treaty tribes to turn themselves in at the reservations by January 31 of that year, knowing that in the depths of winter Lakota bands did not attempt any long range movement. When the deadline passed, the military was ordered into action. Sitting Bull, chief of the Lakota Sioux, who was both war leader and tribal holy man, was the foremost chief of the non-treaty bands, and was the most influential and determined opponent of the reservation system. His responsibilities as a holy man included understanding the complex religious rituals and beliefs of the Sioux, and also learning about natural phenomena that were related to the Sioux beliefs. Sitting Bull had, according to his biographer Robert M. Utley in The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, an "intense spirituality that pervaded his entire being in his adult years and that fueled a constant quest for an understanding of the universe and of the ways in which he personally could bring its infinite powers to the benefit of his people."

The Lakota’s decision to disregard the command to come inhto the reservation was inextricably bound up with the fate of Paha Sapa. Sitting Bull’s example in staying off the reservation carried great weight with the other bands and even extended to the Cherokee. Little by little, during the first half of 1876, Siting Bull’s group attracted more and more of the independent tribes, until by summer he had gathered around him the largest assembly of Plains Indians in history. Together they decided to open their last struggle for their way if life and their religious system by holding the largest Sundance, their most sacred rite, ever This is what the U.S. Cavalry columns met that summer—one unimaginably huge Sioux and Cheyenne spiritual festival.

Custer’s Indian scouts told, him that afternnonn in June that the the largest Indian village they had ever seen was on the opposite shore of the Little Big Horn River. Custer could not or would not hear them. To the Sioux and the Cheyenne, it was no accident that the man and the soldiers they wiped ot that afternoon, in the greatest of Plains Indian victories,were the ones who had spearheaded the violation of their holy land. As Jack Crabb, the narrator of the novel Little Big Man says of the Cheyenne and the Lakota as he witnesses Custer’s situation deteriorate on the afternoon of June 25, 1876, “They was the Human Beings, and they was at the center of the world” – for one last time. For a moment, the balance was struck, the circle restored.

Consistent military pressure eventually broke up Sitting Bull’s coalition. Sitting Bull and his own band escaped to Canada, but accepted U.S. terms when they faced starvation. There were 186 of them when they returned to the United Sates and the the reservations. With Sitting Bull’s surrender, the last serious Indian resistance to white domination came to an end.

On July 23, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were illegally taken and that remuneration of the initial offering price plus interest — nearly $106 million — be paid. The Lakota refused the settlement, as they wanted the return of the Black Hills instead. The money remains in an interest-bearing account which now amounts to over $757 million, but the Lakota still refuse to take the money on principle that doing so would validate the theft of their most sacred land.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

This Week in the Secret History: Viva Las Vegas? Non, Gracias

On June 20, 1947, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the man who brought organized crime to the West Coast, was shot and killed at his mistress Virginia Hill's home in Beverly Hills, California. Three bullets were fired through the window and into his head, killing him instantly.

In 1945, Siegel had a brilliant idea. Just hours away from Los Angeles sat the sleepy desert town of Las Vegas, Nevada. It had nothing going for it except for a compliant local government and legal gambling. Siegel decided to build the Flamingo Hotel in the middle of the desert with $6,000,000, a large piece of which came from the New York syndicate.

In their 2002 book, The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold On America, investigative reporters Sally Denton and Roger Morris chronicle how for half a century, Las Vegas has been the cutting edge of the corruption of American business and public institutions. They describe how Las Vegas emerged in the last years of the 20th century as America's fastest-growing city, and in the process, a family-entertainment and cultural center. But underlying that Las Vegas is an older, decidedly less friendly city, one shaped by an "alliance of gamblers, gangsters, and government" to cater to every kind of human weakness.

At the same time Las Vegas’ ethos of greed and artifice became a wholesale American model. Few presidents elected in the last century did not come calling on the desert city to secure funds and favors. Failed 1950s reform movements allowed for the ascendance of organized crime, fortified by huge "skim" profits from casinos. Operation Underworld, a WWII collaboration between government and "Syndicate" forces, forged extensive relationships between federal agencies, corrupted police and gangsters that proved central to Las Vegas's economic boom. The profits radiated corruption outward.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Denton and Morris:

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: Denton: In almost 25 years as an investigative reporter and writer I have been constantly fascinated by the fact that almost every important story I ever came across—from New Mexico to Kentucky to Washington, DC, from organized crime, to drug trafficking and gun running, to political corruption at every level—sooner or later traced a trail back to Las Vegas. As a child growing up near Lake Mead on the outskirts of the city (I’m a native Nevadan), and especially with parents in the political process, I knew that Las Vegas was a great story -- its growth, its glamour, the endlessly intriguing people who came to it, some of them to our home. But it wasn’t until I wrote this book that I understood what the city really was and its absolutely central importance in America and the world.

A: Morris: In my experience in the White House and on the National Security Council, and certainly in my research as a presidential biographer and historian, there always seemed to be something missing in the traditional approach to American politics. The phantom, of course, was the largely unexplored, unacknowledged dark side of American politics, what Daniel Boorstin calls our "hidden history" that Las Vegas epitomizes so starkly. That darkness, those secrets, are not just an aberration. They are often at the heart of the American experience, though historians, like everyone else, are uncomfortable with that reality. I believe that seeing it and confronting it is the only way to make our history whole. I certainly wrote this book because Sally brought me to a deeper understanding of what the city was and is. But I also wrote it very much as part of a larger effort to show what America was and is.

Q: How and when was the Las Vegas Strip founded?

A: Denton The Strip was founded by Meyer Lansky and a truly multi-ethnic criminal consortium of underworld and legitimate business with most of the capital coming from the international drug trade, Mormon-dominated banks, and other financial institutions, insurance companies, Wall Street and other ostensibly legitimate interests.

Q: How and why did Vegas come to be ruled by such a national, multi-ethnic syndicate?

A: Morris: As the book shows again and again, Las Vegas was and is ruled by the same forces that did and do rule the rest of America. The corruption of America’s government, economy, and society nationwide in the 1920s and ’30s traced principally to that multi-ethnic force, of which the popular Mafia caricature was only a fragment. Our book shows that from the beginning in the 1940s and ’50s the city became a national, and soon global, money laundering capital of underworld profits from every conceivable pursuit—from petty vice in dozens of American cities and rural areas to international arms trafficking to the Middle East and Central America.

Q: Why was criminal activity rampant for so long? Why did no one put a stop to it? Who is to blame?

A: Denton: In a sense it is misleading in Las Vegas, and even in much of America, to draw that old distinction between criminal and legal. The system we are describing in the nation and the city is so profoundly and inextricably enmeshed, the old criminal ethic of exploitation and greed is so much the ethic of corporate "legal" America, that the distinctions are difficult to make when it comes to understanding power, the way things really work in America. The short answer is that a practically and/or ethically criminal system survived and survives in Las Vegas and elsewhere because it’s in essence inseparable from the ruling regime.

Q: What was the most startling revelation that you came upon while writing/researching this book?

A: Denton:
I was most intrigued by the sheer depth and breadth of all of the machinations around Cuba and Las Vegas in the 1960s, the underlying corruptions of an era in which my own political idealism was formed. The reach of the government-criminal collusions in the assassination attempts of Fidel Castro and the ensuing and abiding compromises that shaped so much of the America and world we live in, the unholy alliances that would become the prototype for decades of covert foreign policy.

A: Morris: Though I worked for two presidents and wrote a biography of one of them and a study of yet another, I have to say rather shamefacedly that as a historian and a journalist I was unprepared for the sheer continuity and depth of the root corruption in American politics and society that so dominates the last 75 years of the 20th century and has so determined the country we are. I especially loved the story of Senator Estes Kefauver, including his corruption hearings in 1950. He deserves a major biography. In a way, his experience says it all.

Q: Would you consider the growth and development of Las Vegas an American success story?

A: Morris:
By the accepted statistical standards, Las Vegas may be the greatest single business success story in American business history. No city has grown faster from an obscure desert crossroads, attracted more visitors, generated more wealth and profits for its size, than Las Vegas. It was, and is, the last of the great American boomtowns, where a lot of people made a lot of money more freely and more rapidly than perhaps anyplace else in America. Las Vegas was indeed a place of the new start and the quick buck for thousands of people. That’s the way Las Vegas, and obviously much of America, likes to see itself. But the dark side of that success and the tragedy for the city and the nation is that it has always been dominated by an oligopoly and it brought the ethics and values of a corrupt company town to the rest of the nation. The price of success was and has been terrible.

Q: What has America learned (if anything) from the rise of Las Vegas?

A: Denton:
Most of America has learned the wrong lessons, if any. Most of the country is still content to see Las Vegas as a distant aberration, a fun place in the desert that has little to do with the reality of their own lives even if casino gambling and the political power of the industry is dominant in their own home states. But as the book makes plain, to come to grips with the reality of Las Vegas is not to understand some pariah city, but rather to confront the underlying reality of America’s worship of money and all its materialism and the devastation of our democracy and economy by that obsession.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Happy Birthday, Paul!

“Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-67 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture. A sunny optimism permeated everything and possibilities seemed limitless. With its vision of ‘blue suburban skies’ and boundlessly confident vigor, Penny Lane distils the spirit of that time more perfectly than any other creative product of the mid-60s. Couched in the primary colors of a picture book, yet observed with the slyness of a gang of kids straggling home from school, Penny Lane is both naïve and knowing-but above all, thrilled to be alive…

"…[The] song is every bit as subversively hallucinatory as Strawberry Fields. Despite its seeming innocence, there are few more LSD redolent phrases in the Beatles’ output than the line (sung with an ecstatic shiver of grace notes) in which the nurse 'feels as if she’s in a play'…and 'is anyway.’”

Ian MacDonald Revolution in the Head

Saturday, June 13, 2009

This Week in the Secret History: The most radical presidential speech of our time?

How two pacifists and their president cut out the Joint Chiefs of Staff and crafted a revolutionary foreign policy statement

"If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."
It is likely that JFK, with his keen sense of the absurd, smelled out the ritualized game aspect of the whole Cold War scenario as soon as he got within sniffing distance of where the levers were pulled. And of course he would have known, at the same time, that it was a rigged game, like all of them ultimately are. Only this was rigged for destruction, rigged by the defense and national security apparatuses of the two countries, a rigged and demoniac game. At first he accepted it because he couldn't see a way around it. But Kennedy had had possibly the most existential moment of any 20th Century American. He (and Nikita Kruschev) had actually looked down the nuclear barrel, into the literally unthinkable blackness at the bottom. After that, no-one could tell him he had to keep the game in play. So he decided to tell his country that we were going to stop playing.

The origins of the speech lay in Pope John XXIII's recruitment of Norman Cousins, a lifelong peace activist and Unitarian, as an informal link between the Vatican, the Kremlin and the White House. Cousins spent some time with Kruschev; he then came home to talk with Kennedy. It became clear to Cousins and Kennedy that Kennedy and Kruschev were in symmetrical positions in their two power structures: "Kruschev would like to prevent a nuclear war but is under severe pressure from the hard-line crowd, who see every move in that direction as appeasement. I've got similar problems," Kennedy said.

David Talbot picks up the story in his book Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years:

"When Cousins sugested that Kennedy blast through the impasse with 'a breathtaking new approach, calling for an end to the Cold War and a fresh start in American-Russian relationships,' Kennedy was intrigued. He asked Cousines to confer on the speech with Ted Sorensen [JFK's speech writer] a fellow Unitarian with whom Cousins was friendly.

"The idea of two anti-war Unitarians working on a presidential speech to re-define U.S.-Soviet relations would surely have been deeply disturbing to national security apparatchiks, as Kennedy knew. The president directed Sorensen to keep his working draft under tight wraps, and not to circulate it as usual to the Pentagon, CIA and State Department for comments."

Americans had been indoctrinated for years with the idea that the Soviet Union represented all that was abhorrent to American ideals, that they were fanatically bound to their goal of exterminating us, that confrontation was inevitable, that we could not share the planet with them. To which JFK said, sure we can. No person with a mind and a soul wants this. And so let's begin with our minds and souls, and worry less about theirs. Because the moral onus is as much on us as on them. Because peace, not victory, is the highest good.

Not many heard or absorbed the speech, then or now. A week later it had brought 896 letters into the White House in response. A bill on the cost of freight shipping brought in 28,000.

"Please read it. It's one of the great documents of the 20th Century."
- Robert McNamara

Read the American University speech here.

Watch it here.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

This Week in the Secret History: Some Sobering Thoughts for D-Day

Nobody will ever say that it didn't take supreme courage and selfless dedication to step off a landing
Red Army tank units liberate Bucharest

craft heading in to Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944. What a lot of historians will say now that the Soviet Union is not a mortal threat, is that certain common assumptions in Britain and America--for instance, that D-Day was the crucial turning point of the war--are having to be re-evaluated and in many cases abandoned as we learn more about the German-Soviet War, the Eastern Front. Just about any statistic you care to cite about the Eastern Front truly dwarfs most activities by the Western Allies (I'll tell you some in a minute). The accepted interpretation among most historians today (which they'll tell you if they're unafraid of a few letters from cranky alums) is that the plain facts show that the Soviet Union destroyed and defeated Nazi Germany, with some assistance from their allies who were fighting a much smaller scale sort of war. They didn't do it, and perhaps couldn't do it, singlehandedly, but that's closer to the truth than a lot of the "history" we were brought up with.

What the heck am I talking about? Well, here's a statistic: 9 out of 10 of all German soldiers killed in the entire war, in all theaters, were killed on the Eastern Front. 90
per cen
9 out of 10 of all German soldiers killed in the entire war, in all theaters,
were killed on the Eastern Front. 90 per cent.

All by itself, that tells you most of what you need to know. The Red Army, by any reasonable interpretation, destroyed the Wehrmacht. And with it Hitler's ability to fight any kind of war.

But here's another:

Of all the Allies, the Soviet Union sustained 65 per cent of the total Allied casualties. The next highest is China with 23 percent. The United States and Great Britain -- 2 percent each. Joined there by Yugoslavia.

Combined, German and Soviet Eastern Front military deaths (as opposed to the unimaginable numbers of civilian dead) account for over 2/3 of all military deaths for all combatants on all sides, worldwide.

Germany at no time had less than 55% of its divisions committed to the Eastern Front.

There was simply no campaign or theater of war in WWII that came anywhere close to it, in size or strategic significance.

These facts are still being overlooked by Anglo-American mythmakers. As careful of a researcher s Ken Burns is, he barely mentioned the Eastern Front in his recent documentary, the War. His focus on the U.S. gave the impression we pretty well took care of things single-handed.

This is kind of a hard pill to swallow for us Anglo-Americans. It's one of those realizations that makes the ground feel like it's shifting under your feet. Among other things, think how the Cold War era might have been different had we had a better understanding of what Russia both endured and accomplished during the war.

As is the case most of the time, it's better to know the truth.

Red Army infantry in winter combat

Saturday, June 6, 2009

This Week in the Secret History: The Magickal Roots of "Swinging England"

Christine Keeler and the Famous Chair

The Profumo Affair...There has always been something about this story that begged the discovery, or invention, of an array of subtexts.

In 1963, British Secretary of War John Profumo and his wife, a retired movie actress, were very much at the center of "swinging London" society . One night in July 1961, Profumo was at the Cliveden estate of Lord "Bill" Astor when he was first introduced to 19-year-old Christine Keeler, frolicking naked by the Cliveden pool. Keeler was at Cliveden as a guest of Dr. Stephen Ward, a society osteopath who rented a cottage at the estate from his friend Lord Astor. Keeler, from an indigent background, was working as a showgirl at a London nightclub. Ward had taken Keeler under his wing, and they lived together in his London flat. He encouraged her to pursue sexual relationships with his upper-class friends. Ward introduced her to his friend Yevgeny "Eugene" Ivanov, a Soviet naval attache who some suspected was a spy, and she began a sexual relationship with the Soviet diplomat. Several weeks after meeting Profumo at Cliveden, she also began an affair with the war minister.

On March 21, 1963, Colonel George Wigg, a Labour MP, raised the issue in the House of Commons, inviting Profumo to affirm or deny the rumors of his improprieties. Profumo vehemently denied the charges. This defused the scandal for several weeks, but in May Stephen Ward went on trial on charges of prostituting Keeler and other young women. In the highly sensationalized trial, Keeler testified under oath about her relationship with Profumo. On June 5, Profumo resigned as war minister.

Prime Minister Macmillan was widely condemned as being old, out-of-touch, and incompetent. In October, he resigned under pressure from his own government. In the general election in 1964 the Conservatives were swept from power by Harold Wilson's Labour Party.

Stephen Ward committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. Christine Keeler was convicted of perjury in a related trial and began a prison sentence in December 1963. John Profumo left politics after his resignation and dedicated himself to philanthropy in the East End of London.

Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies on their way to court

And now about those subtexts...

American novelist R.V. Cassill, in his 1970 best-seller, Dr. Cobb's Game, makes Michael Cobb, the Stephen Ward character, not only a playboy and man about town, but a magician who is dedicated to bringing about a psychic rebirth of poor old shabby, war-broken England.The way he intends to do this is by...sex magic! Good old, Merry Old Pagan English sex magic of the D.H. Lawrence one with nature, feel your deep self variety. Cobb initiates Cecile Banner (Christine Keeler) into the erotic mysteries, then sends her out to gather a representative new England around her, including the creative and artistic, the successful, the marginalized, the very good, the very bad, the weak and the very powerful. This last includes Richard Derwent (John Profumo), England's Minister of War, whose potential to play Arthur to his Merlin particularly interests Dr. Cobb.

But then things start to go wrong. On the one hand the old gods become unruly, on the other the Establishment finally takes notice and bares its claws, looking for a scapegoat for the unholy mess Cobb and Derwent have unwittingly created. Caught between the two forces, Cobb takes his own life. And Cecile goes on to become the muse of Swinging England.

It is true that part of the fascination of the Profumo Affair for the general public is that it opened a window into an aristocratic netherworld of campy occult-tinged perversity, which is probably what suggested the whole scenario to Cassill.

On the grittier side, English investigative journalist Anthony Summers, author of Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, in his book Honeytrap, maintains that Stephen Ward was a British intelligence asset who was working with MI5 to turn Ivanov into a double agent by compromising him sexually. Of course, his suicide was no suicide; he was murdered by British intelligence, having become a liability when the whole affair blew up.

Interestingly, one idea that Cassill and Summers share is that Ward (like millions of others) was traumatized by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was working desperately, through his vast web of contacts, to set up unofficial meetings between Soviet and British citizens to prevent another confrontation.

All of this was turned into a wonderful movie, Scandal (1989), with John Hurt as Stephen Ward, Ian McKellen as John Profumo, Bridget Fonda as Mandy Rice-Davies, and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Christine Keeler.

Here's a great clip from Scandal as Christine and Mandy apply warpaint to the tune of "Apache" by the Shadows.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Review: The Incredible String Band--Kitsch or Cosmic?

The Incredible String Band inspires extreme reactions. Their music is either one of the few instances of genuine Blakean vision to come out of the 60s; or they are Exhibit A in the museum of addle-brained twee hippy self-indulgence. The release of Tricks of the Senses, a collection of String Band rarities and oddities, is an opportunity to look for a more nuanced approach, an opportunity I explore in "The Vision Thing," a meditation on the Incredible String Band in the June issue of The Bluegrass Special:

"The first cut on Tricks of the Senses is taken from a rehearsal tape ca. 1966. By way of introducing himself and his Incredible String Band partner Mike Heron, Robin Williamson gives their names, and then adds, "We are songwriters and players and prophets from the North; also seers extraordinary by appointment to the wonder of the universe."

I guess you'd have to have lived a little bit of the '60s life to understand how this might not sound completely risible. Listen again. There's not a hint of preciousness or acid mysterioso about Robin's comment. It's thrown away. Instead of a petal-strewing fool, he sounds like a cheeky 18-year-old Scots elf lord on Adderall...."

Read the rest here.