Taking off into a perfect sky, they were soon reabsorbed into a dreamy blue-and-purple world

Waldorf was surely right to question their thinking when it came to the whole question of “point-of-view.” When they’d talked blithely about “pictures” they’d somehow imagined that highly stylised graphic posters would magically appear and make themselves known to the whole wide world. Posters like the Art Deco ones the P&O liner company produced. Big blocks of bold colour. The Parthenon, say, in pale grey against a lime green or yellow or blushing pink sky. Background hints of a town somewhere in the twilight. And above, the Lindbergh plane, in silhouette, pitched at a rakish angle. Done well, this sort of image might have a subtle power, conveying a notion of glamour and modernity but also the feeling that an aeroplane could be seen as the harbinger of a new version of history.

A simple yet powerful message: The aeroplane, if you let it, would create more ruins. A world of ruins.

But of course no such posters would magically appear and make themselves known to the world.

All they had with them was a little lightweight camera and a few rolls of black and white film.

Details, details. What mattered most, surely, was Charles talking to the press. After all, a Charles Lindbergh quote was worth a thousand pictures.

Tellingly, though, the fact that they hated the press was another small detail they’d sort of overlooked. When they landed in Italy, having flown rather daringly right over the Alps, they were met at the aerodrome by a handful of reporters. It was hardly a mob; but almost by instinct now they pushed through without saying a word and they contrived to escape further attention by having their car pull up to a side entrance. They were tired, they were hungry; the press could wait another day.

And yet, when they returned to the airfield the next morning, to begin in earnest the first official leg of the expedition, there was no-one there. Not a soul. Not a single reporter. Not a single flashbulb.

But Rome was a hotspot compared to further afield. Carthage, for instance. A hazy afternoon, they weren’t even sure they’d flown over the right ruins; but when they landed at the new airstrip outside Tunis, there wasn’t a single person to meet them. Not even any ground crew. One hangar and two single-storey buildings whose windows hadn’t even been fitted with glass yet. All deserted. Luckily one of the telephones was connected. “Pronto! Pronto? Prego? Francaise? S’il vous plais, Embassy, Etats Unis?”

So it went. They criss-crossed the Mediterranean in search of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The thing was, though, that with every day that passed, their sense of mission seemed to drain away. They were aware this was happening, of course they were; and they did their very best, their damnedest, to keep the flame alive. Yet it was also true that some sort of enchantment was working upon them. A mythical power. Or, who knew, perhaps even some sort of primeval force.

Each day, as they took off on a new leg, with a new target ahead, they were more easily distracted. They were more easily intoxicated by beauty. It was almost as it they had become initiated, without quite knowing how or why, as disciples of a new aesthetic. First thing, not long after dawn, they’d take off into a perfect sky and were soon reabsorbed into a dreamy blue-and-purple world. The blue of the sky was darkest directly above, becoming paler towards the horizon; the purple of the mountains was deepest, brownest, along crinkled coastlines, shading out into distant mauve; and everywhere beneath them, the seas were a deep purply blue. From right up under the ceiling of the sky they could barely make out any sign of human activity below them, save, here and there, for the faintest threads of white left in the wake of sailing ships. An overpowering sense, from up here, that the Mediterranean was just one great puddle at the centre of an ancient world. But no sense at all of the ruins of that world.

And yet, though they drifted, though they gathered wool, they never wholly forgot what they were about…

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Anne Morrow Lindbergh, on a wind-blown rock out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off Africa, looks back at Tingmissartoq and at Charles

The book came together rapidly now. And, day by day, as it grew in size, it grew, more importantly, in mastery too. Its engine no longer sputtered, it generated real thrust and an ever-more-evident potential to roar.

She’d acquired, from who knew where, almost out of the ether, a startling array of writerly tricks. Games with time, with visual perspective, with psychological perspective. Tricks of the light, tricks of the mind.

And she’d made the inspired decision not to begin, after a suitable explanatory preamble, right at Bathurst. Instead, she began her narrative on Santiago, one of the islands in the Cape Verde archipelago. Santiago had been their real-world stepping stone before Bathurst; but she now saw its potential as a psychological prelude too. They’d found Santiago a disturbing, unsettling place. Now she latched onto the eldritch nature of their brief time there, using this as a harbinger of things to come. And rendering the experience of Santiago into words on a page taught Anne the deftest of tricks when it came to collapsing the very-very large into the very-very small. Entire worlds in a grain of sand.

It allowed her to strike up a metaphysical relationship with the elements too. The sea, the sky, a gale-force wind, hot and dry.

Because they’d been misled about Santiago. They’d been told it was a French seaplane station: and indeed, there was every evidence that, once upon a time, it had been earmarked as an important base for French transatlantic aviation. But at some point in the 1930s it had been semi-abandoned. Buildings crumbled, equipment rusted. Three of the base’s crew remained, perhaps forgotten by Paris, forsaken, human accounting errors still drawing meagre pay and rations.

It was a fly-blown, diseased outpost, a plague ship. They’d all had fever. Or would contract it soon. But it seemed a dysfunctional community in other ways too, a darkness simmering below the surface. Each minute she was there, Anne was glad she would not have the time to discover more. Perhaps if they’d stumbled upon some monstrous secret they’d never have been allowed to leave.

The station boss, his wife and the radio operator lived in a bungalow near the top of a steep hill overlooking the bay. A dusty, crumbly hill like a cinder spoil-heap. As Anne took off up the hill she looked back to see Charles in a row boat, pulling hard into the gale, heading out into the bay where Tingmissartoq was at anchor.

Closes her eyes, climbs further up the hill. She looks back… and Charles is still rowing hard into the wind and it is as if he has made no progress at all. She climbs some more, looks back, and he is still pulling hard, but still nowhere near reaching the plane.

Time does that sometimes. You walk forwards but sometimes you cannot help but look back. Or sometimes you walk forwards but everything around you stands still. And sometimes the effects are magnified, intensified, on a wind-blown rock out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off Africa.

And another odd thing about Santiago was that, when she began reliving it, writing it, her general mood, already darkening, became darker still. She was conscious now of a festering anger. An anger and a pessimism. Even odder was the fact that she was almost certain that some of this anger was directed not towards Charles but towards Harold. It was almost as if she now openly resented him. For befriending her, for helping her, for giving her the use of Long Barn, for encouraging her, for being, when all was said and done, right about Bathurst.

Harold Nicolson, pretty flamingo, the pinkest of Elizabeth’s courtiers

… So off he flew to the land, more or less, where Stanley had met Livingstone. And he was hugely grateful in the end because the whole business proved wonderful for the soul. He found Africa stunningly beautiful. The approach to the airfield near Kampala, for instance, was particularly awe-inspiring. The strip was situated right by a lake; and from high above, circling to begin a descent, it looked for all the world as if this lake was edged in a coral necklace; and then, turning into a final approach, this necklace shattered, dissolved, fragmented, as thousands upon thousands of flamingos took to the air.

Day after day, there were further wonders to behold; and Harold drank them in.

The very air itself, he could have breathed it for a thousand days. Everything was clear and clean. Every experience seemed etched in peculiar sharpness. It was like Switzerland without the snow, hyper-real, more than vital. Even his allotted task, its endless meetings with uninspired and uninspiring colonial bureaucrats, seemed terribly stimulating. It was almost a shame to have to come home.

But come home he did to the last dregs of a filthy English winter.

And there was no mistaking the new mood. Edward VIII had gone and in his place as King, his brother, formerly The Duke of York. The Queen at his side, Elizabeth, was the mischievous little Scotch lady Harold had, in recent memory, failed to recognise at a cocktails reception. Yes, that Elizabeth, the twinkly-eyed pixie he’d attempted to shock to the very core of her being by taking her to a Sodom and Gomorrah show in Berlin less than ten years ago. O-ho! She had him now on toast if it pleased her. She could retain him as her poor fool.

Indeed, one of Harold’s first public acts on his return was a visit to Buckingham Palace. The new King and Queen, still feeling their way, threw a party for the Great and Good: and Harold, though insisting he qualified on neither count, was invited. He did his best to maintain a low profile and somehow blend in with the furniture; but all evening the Queen insisted on bringing people over to him, introducing him to friend and foe alike as “the pinkest of my courtiers.”

By which of course she meant his politics: his election as a National Labour member for one thing, his liberal views for another. She was teasing, naturally, and he didn’t much mind. In any case, the word “pink” now made him think of a coral necklace shattering into countless flamingo fragments, rising into the clear air above an African lake.

Extract from Book Seven of the 2016 draft of Flying Over Ruins

Nicholas Sand… and the LSD stories he never got around to telling us

Extraordinary to see a sympathetic obituary of Nicholas Sand in a mainstream British news outlet. Once upon a time he was public enemy number one. OK, maybe not number one. Or even two. But certainly in the top one hundred or so.

It’s made me rather curious to get hold of a copy of The Sunshine Makers. I hope it tells us lots about his exotic life and times.

Sand was deluded of course. Dangerously so. But in hugely interesting ways.

He’s the sort of person we absolutely should know more about. His, not to put too fine a point upon it, whole milieu. And I think I’ve always assumed that one day I’d see the publication of the Compleat Book of LSD. The drug, after all, was a prime factor in a revolution, more social than cultural and more perceptual than either, that began in the 1960s and petered out towards the end of the 80s.

And yet insightful writing about this is surprisingly thin on the ground. Yes, there’s lots of anecdotal stuff about wacky happenings in the late 60s; and screeds of hagiographical material about psychedelic music.

But no-one’s ever really got to the heart of the subject: LSD as a movement, as an ideology, as a sociological phenomenon. For instance, LSD’s impact on Silicon Valley (personnel, product, business culture), a notion alluded to in the obit I’ve reproduced below, is surely worth exploring.

LSD’s power to alter the way we see the world (even if we’ve never taken it) is far more important than, say, the impact of the recreational use of opium on the early 19th Century Romantic movement, which in any case had a relatively small influence within society as a whole.

And yet I own at least two versions of, in effect, The Compleat Book of Opium. And there is less interest generally in (to use a crude shorthand) LSD Culture than there is in Ecstasy Culture or Heroin Culture.

The reason for this disparity is, I’d argue, easy to pin down – the LSD era produced few compelling narratives. Interesting as his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is, Wolfe doesn’t really cut it. Kesey is a banal writer. Hunter S Thompson was a prize clown. And in any case, their perspectives were terribly narrow and ultimately parochial.

Huxley was more on the money, clearly, especially where the inner journey is concerned; but I’d always assumed that someone would come along and tell me, for I am terribly curious, about the bigger picture.

Yet the people best placed to tell that story, people like Sand, tended to be anti-literate, both by design and inclination. I’ll bet he didn’t keep a journal worth publishing. Yet in some respects he was one of the most important figures of the 20th Century. He helped mould its final three decades.

The participants are muted. And publishers have been, seemingly, reluctant to pull at whatever meagre threads they are offered. I’ve seen this in action myself, albeit at one remove.

At least two writers have attempted to sell the story of the spring and summer of 1978, when Edinburgh became the LSD capital of the world.

The only major flaw in Operation Julie in 1977 was the failure of its officers to realise that the Richard Kemp’s empire had a Scottish outpost, with manufacture and distribution centred on an isolated cottage near East Linton.

It was never raided… and to cut a long story short, several hundred thousand tabs, possibly millions, eventually made their way onto the Edinburgh streets at knockdown prices.

This (and what followed) was one of the oddest chapters in the whole history of the city, yet you will struggle to find any mention of this online or in print. Both of the writers who attempted to tackle this promising subject made the mistake of attracting initial interest from Canongate Books which, no doubt confused by the double vision it began suffering, dithered chronically – and both books were shunted off onto the too-difficult-to-take-any-further pile just prior, ironically enough, to the publication of Trainspotting.

I think I’ve recorded elsewhere my fitful attempts to find out what happened to the manuscripts.

Nicholas Sand would have known all about Edinburgh’s LSD Galore story. But with his passing, the odds on it ever seeing the light of day are further diminished.

And he must have known a hundred stories like it from around the counter-culture world. There are a thousand questions someone should have asked him while there was till time.

Do these stories matter? And if they never make it into print, will they somehow survive as oral history?

Here’s hoping. One way or another, via forensic archaeology if not from the horse’s mouth, we’re bound, ultimately, to discover the intimate truths of our lives and times. Aren’t we?

 

Letters page. Being an acknowledgement, in passing, that an alphabet learned by heart will be lost by reason

Two more postcards. My mailbag bulgeth. Truly.

Firstly, a fretfully plaintive note from a middle-manager in a marketing department who has been invited (I can hear his snort of contempt as he pens this word) to attend a day-long communications course.

He asks: Can you really learn to write better?

Well, let me say, I’m more than happy to respond.

In this instance, I’m very much at one with Ogden Nash.

If you want to write better, you must first be able to write good – which will open up to you the prospect, in the fullness of time, of writing best.

Secondly, a missive from my very dear friend Anna Davis, chief financial officer of Curtis Brown Creative, the world’s only agent-led writing school.

She asks: “Can a novel-writing course teach you to write a bestseller?”

No, Anna, it can not. Sorry to have to break this to you.

It goes without saying, though, that you must absolutely refrain from sharing this insight with any of your prospective customers.

I hope this has helped.

Autobiographical notes and, in a breathtakingly frank departure, queries

In answer to a recent inquiry… Yes, by and large, I tend to keep Edwardian-era Foreign Office hours.

This is not because I believe, as one of my earliest editors did, that early to bed, early to rise is a dictum solely for “the little people.” She wasn’t Irish, by the way. She wasn’t talking about leprechauns. Or, indeed, Sir Martin Sorrell. Not directly at any rate.

She subsequently became, albeit briefly, a Conservative Member of Parliament. Which suited her down to the ground, because in the House you’re not expected to clock on until 2pm.

But anyway. The Edwardian Foreign Office. No-one of any seniority, in that august institution during that Golden Era, arrived at his desk before 11am, the hour at which communiques from far-flung fields would begin arriving from that morning’s Dover packet.

I cannot pretend to argue that this has any relevance to my own particular circumstances. I can only assume that I must have absorbed this morsel at some point in my dim and distant past… and found the notion extremely pleasing.

Well. There you have it. The copula in action. Some things just are: and they may be said to have attained that status in their own sweet way.

But wait. There’s more. Another correspondent asks… Am I a fan of leaning in? Yes. Naturellement! But I am also comfortable with leaning back. And occasionally sideways. Sometimes I even have to lie down.

I hope this helps to clarify matters.

“90% of my digital advertising spend is wasted. The problem is I don’t know which 90%” – digital marketing consultant, Alasdair Douglas Reid


Oh! I seem to have put the whole article into the headline. Damn. I hate it when that happens.

Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Capturing Castles

Lots of Robert Pirsig obituaries this week. A greater number, across a more diverse range of outlets, than you’d expect for the death of a mere writer.

The publication in 1974 of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in some respects marked the point at which (to borrow a Dodie Smith notion) the so-called counterculture captured the castle.

It turned out to be a short lived stay. Shorter than most people remember. Or would like to believe.

But still. The book straddled audiences as deftly as it straddled genres. It was a big seller in the sorts of alternative bookshops that offered a heady mix of pornography, Marxism, vegan cook books and psychobabble self-help manuals alongside its Picador display stands; yet by the end of the decade it had made its way onto the reading lists of Eng Lit modules exploring the 20th Century after-currents of Romanticism.

Forget much of the zeitgeist stuff in the obits. Yes, the book was a success because Zen Buddhism was modish and motorcycles were still cool. But of equal importance was its compelling structural elegance.

Indeed, there were those on the intellectual wing of the book publishing business (mainly in the US but also, somewhat insipidly, on this side of the Atlantic too) who also believed that Pirsig had stumbled onto a magical recipe.

Take a first person narrative, a testament of sorts, ideally a quest – but disguise its true nature by clothing it in more abstract intellectual pursuits and the riding of choice hobby horses. It’s a form of misdirection, but a remarkably potent one.

Some of our more precious novelists attempted to absorb its lessons – Flaubert’s Parrot springs to mind – but never quite made it up to the mark. Sincerity, as they say, is incredibly hard to fake.

And in fact it turned out that Pirsig couldn’t repeat the trick himself. I’m almost certain I read, or tried to read, Lila… but I can remember not a single word of it.

The lessons, though, are still there to be learned. And well-written high-concept books will surely return. At their best they can be hugely rewarding for the reader. The sort of reader who likes his or her art multi-layered in ways that current templates (as policed by a dreary UEA diaspora) just can’t accommodate.

These days, if you pitched a point-counterpoint narrative even remotely resembling Zen, you’d get one of those witheringly-ghastly wall-eyed agent’s notes.

A day will eventually dawn, though.

As, indeed, it must.

In which Alasdair Douglas Reid, ghostwriter, stands revealed as a Tory-voting enemy of the people

I never quite know what to say when people comment on how amusing or ironic or perplexing it is that I have, supposedly, turned into a Tory. Actually, they don’t comment as such. They merely note. With resignation. How very… well, disappointing, they imply. Or sad.

This on the basis that I had a long history of voting Liberal; yet, in recent Elections, have tended to vote Conservative. Unashamedly.

Because it is hardly a secret that my Liberal heritage runs deep. Deepish. My only overtly political act arrived in the early chapters of my story, about a hundred years ago, when I campaigned on behalf of one of my classmates standing on a Liberal ticket in a mock General Election. I was even issued with a schoolboy Liberal Party membership card. I’m not sure how “real” this was. It was probably run up ad hoc by our history teacher to make the whole business seem even more authentic and immediate.

We won, by the way. I have a 100 per cent hit rate as a political campaigner. Who can match that, I wonder?

But anyway… I was once a card-carrying Liberal. So. How could I even contemplate letting the side down? I stand accused, if that is the right word, of betraying my former self. All I once held dear.

And yet, my critics infer, how terribly predictable. This sort of thing happens to the weakest and weariest among us. They succumb to the tired, disappointed, intolerant pessimism of middle age. In other words, something in me has clearly died. A vitality, a sensitivity, an appetite for life’s possibilities.

Shame on me for losing the courage, the energy, the vision to be a Progressive.

Ah, yes, the P word. This is the point at which you can expect a tart reply.

I hate the P word. I loathe it with all my being. Self-proclaimed Progressives almost never are. In my experience, they are rarely, de jure or de facto, in theory or in practice, unambiguously on the side of the angels. Often they are cynical or narcissistic or both.

But enough of what I don’t like. Here it is. My political testament.

I am still a liberal. In fact, I am more liberal than most members of the Liberal Democrats. Including its leader. Make that especially its leader. I have nothing but contempt for the pinched sort of Christianity he represents.

A liberal still. Indeed I am (count them) once, twice, three times a liberal.

I am, number one, an economic liberal. I believe that the joint stock company is one of the greatest inventions of mankind, bringing, as it does, the Rule of Law into our general economic activities. The things, in short, we do to keep the wolf from the door. It is the engine of prosperity and of technological innovation. And let’s not forget (though goodness knows, comrades, it’s so easy to do) that the joint stock company is the one and only source of funding for the welfare state. Attack one and you attack the other.

Which brings me to item number two: I am a welfare liberal. I believe that the NHS should be the best we can afford and that the benefits system should be as generous as it is enlightened. I believe that the strong should help the weak. (Always and ever, because, whatever Occult Socialists may have you believe, both will always be with us.) I believe in equality of opportunity. I believe in education and the power of books.

But I also believe that the welfare system must be paid for using real money (see above). There is absolutely nothing Progressive about bankrupting the public finances.

Lastly (for now), I am a social liberal. I believe that what people do within the privacy of their own four walls is their own business, providing they’re causing no harm to the vulnerable. More broadly, I believe in public tolerance. Utterly.

None of this matters much to those who, by a process I can’t say I fully understand, maintain a visceral hatred of the party they call The Tories. Among the more “creative” and “intellectual” (apologies for the quote marks but in many cases they are well-and-truly earned) of my contemporaries there’s often a sly insinuation that if you vote Conservative you’re really, whatever you say, voting for the Powell-ite wing of the party, circa 1968. That there’s really something rather monstrous in play here.

Well… I’ll keep buggering on regardless. The party that’s closest to being liberal three-times-over is the one most likely to get my vote.

If that means you think I’m rabidly right wing and an enemy of the people, then so be it.

So, bless your cotton socks, be it.

29 March 1933 – Claud Cockburn (re)invents Fake News… and lays the groundwork for Private Eye

Claud Cockburn was a former Times journalist, a Middle Class (pour épater les bourgois) Communist and an inveterate mischief-maker. He was arguably the first man in the world to intuit the media implications of a new technology – the mimeograph machine.

“When Northcliffe started the Daily Mail in the nineties, he was not “playing a hunch” but tapping into a mathematical certainty. He argued: The Education Acts of the 1860s have changed the entire character and extent of the literate public. But in the years since the 1860s the newspapers have not changed at all. Therefore there must exist a new pool of potential readers not taken care of by the existing newspapers. And this pool, if correctly tapped, could provide a new multi-million readership.

“There was not much doubt in my mind as to the sort of people who would constitute [my new conception of] the pool. Anyone in, for instance, London or New York or Berlin or Vienna who frequented any kind of club or other meeting place where, say, diplomats, lawyers, bankers and newspapermen gathered together and talked, must have been deeply aware of the strange contrast between the colourful information and significant rumours – for rumours can often be as significant as facts – circulating in the clubs, and the awful tight-lipped drabness of the newspapers being sold on the club doorstep.

“What all this added up to was that I had better go to London and start a weekly newspaper of a new type.

“G K Chesterton had written of editors that lived in the shadow of three fears – fear of misprints, fear of libel actions and fear of the sack. I would aim to disregard all considerations of that kind, more particularly of the second, because what I had in mind was a revival of the uninhibited eighteenth century English tradition of the Newsletter. It was going to give the customer the sorts of facts – political, diplomatic, financial – which were freely discussed in embassies and clubs but considered to be too adult to be left about for newspaper readers to get at them.

“The method I proposed to use – the mimeograph machine – would kill two birds with one stone: we should on the one hand ensure we were in total control of our own paper, and on the other that people who wanted to bring libel actions could of course do so, but probably would not, because most libel actions are brought for the purpose of getting money, and it would be evident to one and all that I had no money of any kind.

“Lawyers volunteered to help, but I had to point out to them that either they were good lawyers, in which case they would have to keep saying, “You can’t publish that, it’s libellous,” or bad lawyers, ignorant of whether things were libellous or not. In either case, what use would they be? It was sad having to fight off so many well-intentioned offers of assistance, but I had to keep firmly in mind that what we were running was a pirate craft and we would not burden ourselves with conventional navigators and mates, however skilled and knowledgeable…”