None of Your Damn Business

22 October 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

The word “privacy” appears nowhere in our Constitution, but privacy lies at the root of our constitutional republic. At least that is how John Adams saw it on the day before America declared independence. Writing to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, Adams observed that the path to independence traced back to “the year 1761,” specifically to “the argument concerning writs of assistance.” Fifteen years before, Adams witnessed a trial in Boston challenging British searches and seizures licensed by broad “writs”—warrants—issued by the king. He even memorialized lawyer James Otis’s case against them: “One of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house,” Adams summarized at the time. “A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle.”

The argument failed in court but prevailed three decades later in the U.S. Constitution—more specifically, in the Fourth Amendment, which protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Other amendments protected the right not to open one’s home for military troops and the right not to testify against oneself.

Nearly two centuries later, as University of Alabama history professor Lawrence Cappello relates in “None of Your Damn Business,” the Supreme Court concluded that these specific rights implied a much more general “right of privacy.” As the court explained in infamously foggy terms, “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” In the case that prompted these words, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), a right of privacy guaranteed married couples’ access to contraceptives. A half-century of further emanations and penumbras followed: a right to abortion, a right to same-sex marriage.

. . . .

Mr. Cappello brings together several aspects of “privacy” in American life and law to show how changing technologies and cultural values shaped our expectations of privacy. He reminds us that privacy involves our relationships with corporations—and with one another—as well as our relationship with the government. These themes are exemplified by Louis Brandeis, who before joining the Supreme Court co-wrote “The Right to Privacy,” an article focused not on government surveillance but on the acts of “the too enterprising press, the photographer, or the possessor of any other modern device for recording or reproducing scenes or sounds.” Brandeis argued for a personal right of privacy against them, which came to be known as the right “to be let alone.”

. . . .

Mr. Cappello credits Brandeis with devising “an entirely new approach” by “shifting the emphasis from where an alleged wrong took place . . . to how it affected an individual.” Brandeis lost in Olmstead, but the Supreme Court did adopt a more Brandeisian approach in Katz v. U.S. (1967), overturning a handicapper’s conviction because the police did not obtain a warrant before tapping a phone booth; the Court reframed the issue in terms of what would come to be called “reasonable expectations of privacy.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

To be a writer was the most dangerous profession

13 October 2019

From The Guardian:

Jung Chang was born in China in 1952 and came to Britain in 1978. She is the author of Wild SwansMao: The Unknown Story (with her husband, the historian Jon Halliday) and Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 15m copies outside mainland China, where they are banned. Her latest, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, charts the lives of the Soong sisters, who were among the most significant political figures of early 20th-century China.

Your new book explores the dynamic between three women in a family, as did Wild Swans
Wild Swans shows how life was different for each of the women – my grandmother, my mother, me. This book is also about very different lives, but because of political beliefs not generations. Big Sister [Soong Ai-ling] and Little Sister [Soong Mei-ling] were passionately anti-communist, whereas Red Sister [Soong Ching-ling] supported Mao. To start with, I didn’t want to write about the sisters; they were like fairytale [characters]. But while I was doing research, I realised how extraordinary they were, with all their mental agonies, moral dilemmas and heartbreaks.

Did you aim to show how the political is personal?
Yes – the sisters’ personal lives were more intimately connected with politics even than in Wild Swans. These women were right at the centre of Chinese politics – Ching‑ling was married to the father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen. Two of the three sisters miscarried and could never conceive again. Their miscarriages were a direct result of Chinese politics. Of the three sisters, there is just one descendant, living in Texas, who is the son of Ai-ling’s youngest son [Ling C Kung] and Hollywood star Debra Paget, who was Elvis’s lead lady in Love Me Tender.

The book is dedicated to your mother…
My mother inspired me to write Wild Swans and she’s been so supportive of all my work. She lived under Chiang Kai-shek – she was a student activist, fighting his regime – and through Mao’s rule. She’s 88 now and living in China.

Do you visit her?
Not often, because since the publication of my biography of Mao [in 2005] I’ve lost the freedom to travel in China. I’m allowed to go back 15 days a year to see my mother.

How does that feel?
I feel very bad. She’s just come out of hospital. I wish I could just jump on a plane and go and see her. Fortunately, we can Skype. My mother is extraordinary. I still draw strength from her capacity to make me feel that everything is OK, that I should just be myself. She can take anything: glory, danger, hardship.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The Queen of Forensic Science

12 October 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

I’ve long been a sucker for that crime-fiction stereotype, the old lady sleuth who defies social expectations by being clever and fearless. The nosy Miss Marple, the curious Jessica Fletcher, the cozy Miss Maud Silver—they all have in common an independence, a kind of postmenopausal unflappability and an infinite capacity to upend the assumptions of condescending cops and criminals. So it was with great delight that I met the real thing in the pages of Patricia Wiltshire’s fascinating memoir “The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a Trace.”

Ms. Wiltshire, also known as the queen of forensic science, also known as the snot lady for her unique retrieval of microscopic evidence from the nasal cavities of the dead, is a petite, fastidious septuagenarian, a lover of cats, Baroque music and sloe gin who is arguably the U.K.’s premier forensic ecologist-botanist-palynologist. (Palynology is the “study of dust,” or microscopic organic particulates.) In other words, she collects and analyzes the pollen granules and fungal spores that are carried out of, or into, crime scenes on killers’ shoes, clothes, shovels and gas pedals, and helps police figure out the how, what and wheres of a crime. “We all leave our marks on the environment,” she writes, “but the environment leaves its marks on us too.”

Her technique, once the samples are collected and identified in processes she describes as sometimes “mind-blowingly tedious,” is to re-create in her mind the vegetation at the crime scene—forest or meadow, backyard or farm—and from it extrapolate the nature of the soil, the shade, the sun. She can determine the maturity of trees based on pollen findings—spruce, for example, don’t produce pollen until they are 40—and, with the help of criminal-behavior profiles (like the fact that murderers tend not to carry corpses much more than 100 yards) and British flora-distribution maps, she can conceptualize the terrain where a body might be found or where a killer was. Each square foot of landscape, she notes, is unique, like a fingerprint.

Ms. Wiltshire is quite good at this re-creation. She has aided detectives in almost 300 cases, from cracking the “Jigsaw” murder—where she helped connect the dismembered and widely distributed body parts of the victim to a killer couple—to nailing Chinese triad assassins, and even to catching a team of illegal badger cullers by the soil traces left on their lethal spades. Painting a picture based on myriad details is what Ms. Wiltshire does, and she does it again in this lively profile of her work and personality.

. . . .

A significant percentage of the book is personal history evoking her sickly childhood in a Welsh coal-mining village—where she recuperated in the company of her encyclopedias—her love of science and subsequent academic and professional achievements, the traumatic death of her young daughter and her unintentional career in forensics. A portrait of a prickly, precise and plucky woman emerges, one who can remove a corpse’s face skin as tidily as she maintains her immaculate kitchen; who readily scolds cops who are skeptical of her methods (“after all these years of teaching them,” she sniffs, “they still cannot seem to get their heads around the constraints and requirements of environmental sampling”) and lawyers who challenge her findings in court by suggesting dandelions are found everywhere. “Well, of course they are not,” she writes. This lady in pearls anticipates, with the excitement of “a child who wakes early on Christmas morning,” a trip to a body farm in Knoxville, Tenn., where the rate of human decay is studied. Really, what’s not to love?

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)


The FBI Lost Our Son

11 October 2019

Maybe a Writing Prompt

From The Wall Street Journal:

William and Theresa Reilly were biking on a leafy trail north of Detroit when their son, Billy, sent a text from his trip to Russia. The 28-year-old man had never lived away from home, and the Reillys fretted over his safe return.

Billy Reilly had yet to find a career, but his foreign-language and computer skills led to part-time work in counterterrorism for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Detroit. He was one of the bureau’s army of confidential sources, and the Reillys didn’t know if his trip was somehow connected.

Over the years, Billy had delved into the Boston Marathon bombers, cultivated alleged Islamic State recruiters, analyzed Syria’s civil war and conversed with Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. He used online aliases to penetrate terror groups over computers from the family home in Oxford, Mich.

Billy planned to return soon, and his parents were relieved to hear from him. He had told them a vague story about joining a humanitarian mission into eastern Ukraine. Once abroad, Billy leaked alarming bits and pieces, mentions of fighting, drinking and bloody encounters with volunteer soldiers.

“Big news,” Billy texted. His plans were changing. He wasn’t leaving Russia just yet. Mrs. Reilly was so absorbed she didn’t notice a dog approaching her on the trail. It bit her ankle, she recalled, drawing blood.

Billy sent the text on June 24, 2015. Mr. and Mrs. Reilly called and wrote him texts back over the following hours and the next day. They lost sleep, tethered to their phones, but heard nothing.

A day or two later, a government sedan pulled up to the Reilly home. FBI special agent Tim Reintjes introduced himself. The Reillys had never met him, but they knew from Billy that he was their son’s FBI handler.

“Something happened to Billy,” Mrs. Reilly recalled thinking. “They know about it, and he’s here to tell us.”

Instead, the agent asked if Billy was home. When the Reillys said he was in Russia, Agent Reintjes seemed surprised. He began asking questions, probing for details.

Over the next months, Agent Reintjes returned a half-dozen times. He asked for the laptop and phone the FBI had given Billy. He also wanted to retrieve Billy’s phone bill as soon as it arrived.

Agent Reintjes brought colleagues who assured the couple that the world’s leading investigative agency was on the case. “They’ll find him,” Mrs. Reilly recalled thinking. “We don’t have to worry.”

Then the Reillys found another phone Billy had used. It contained text messages between Billy and a contact named “Tim.” The number matched the one on Agent Reintjes’s emails to Mrs. Reilly.

The parents scrolled through the texts and found a series of perplexing exchanges suggesting the FBI agents knew all along about their son’s trip.

As Billy prepared to leave for Russia, Tim had sent a text in early May 2015.

“Do you have your trip itinerary yet.”

“I’m still waiting on visa,” Billy replied.

Two days before Billy flew to Moscow, Tim arranged a face-to-face meeting and wrote, “Bring your travel info.”

The Reillys couldn’t understand why Agent Reintjes hadn’t told them.

. . . .

The FBI’s counterterrorism work grew to preventing attacks. To help, the agency recruited workers like Billy Reilly, part-timers with the right skills to infiltrate terror or criminal networks, either in person or through online chat rooms and social media.

These sources work in a dangerous world, with little training and fewer of the institutional protections afforded full-time FBI agents. They draw no government benefits beyond an occasional paycheck and a pat on the back. Yet they are critical to the FBI’s work to see plots in the fog of international jihad.

As an FBI source, Billy was required to report foreign travel, even vacations. The bureau has the authority to dispatch sources on foreign missions. It is one of the U.S. agencies responsible for disrupting terror cells abroad.

. . . .

Alarmed that Agent Reintjes was hiding information about their son’s disappearance, Mr. Reilly, a retired Teamsters driver for Coca-Cola, and Mrs. Reilly, for years a stay-at-home mom, began a quest to find Billy themselves.

. . . .

The Journal posed more than 100 questions to the FBI. Brian P. Hale, a spokesman, responded in an email: “The FBI never directed William Reilly to travel overseas to perform any work for the FBI.”

. . . .

Billy obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology from Oakland University, a public college in Rochester, Mich. The financial crisis had deepened Michigan’s economic troubles, and he was pessimistic about local job prospects. “Billy always wanted something bigger than our lives,” his sister said.

In the spring of 2010, there was a knock at the door, and a man in a suit introduced himself to the Reillys as an FBI agent and held a printout of the senior Mr. Reilly’s passport. After a raid on an al Qaeda position, the agent said, U.S. forces in the Middle East had recovered a hard drive that contained communications with someone using an IP address at the Reilly house.

Mr. and Mrs. Reilly looked at each other, and then toward Billy’s second-floor bedroom.

Billy, then 23, explained to the agent how he had found his way into restricted jihadist chat rooms. During their conversation, the agent asked Billy if he had any interest in working with the FBI.

. . . .

The bureau’s Detroit office had roughly 200 agents, and its counterterrorism unit was one of its busiest. Billy, an American of European heritage, who had knowledge of Arabic and could approach potential terror targets online, had great potential value to the FBI.

Billy told his uncle that 80 FBI agents had tried and failed to access a particular jihadist site that Billy penetrated. “They knew the language, but they didn’t understand the culture,” the uncle recalled Billy saying.

. . . .

The FBI’s Confidential Human Sources Policy Guide warned that a source’s “misconduct will reflect on the FBI. Fairly or unfairly, the FBI will be viewed in the light of that reflection.” Agents were schooled to cut off contact when sources behaved in ways detrimental to the agency.

. . . .

Billy’s value to the FBI soared when the Arab Spring began unfolding at the end of 2010. In Syria, as an unpredictable uprising took root months later, Billy tried to see through the confusion. His FBI reports often read as though they were prepared for the CIA, including analyses about an emerging group of fighters that became known as Islamic State.

“I think that after IS consolidates their control of Raqqa, Deir Zowr, East Aleppo,” he wrote of the militant group’s spread in Syria. “…their target will be the Homs area.” He turned out to be correct.

. . . .

The Reillys recalled Billy voicing doubts about his work in 2013, after he played a role in an undercover case targeting an Iraqi émigré. The FBI identified people with suspected jihadist sympathies who traveled to the Middle East. Aws Naser, of Westland, Mich., fit the profile.

Mr. Naser believed the FBI was already watching him when Billy reached out to meet in person. Billy had said his name was Mikhail, and that he wanted to learn about Islam. Mr. Naser recorded a video when he met Billy and planned to expose “Mikhail” as an undercover agent.

“I wanted to see how they entrap people, so they can never do it again to innocent people,” said Mr. Naser. Years earlier, he said, he had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Marines in Iraq.

Mr. Naser was arrested before he could post the video of Billy on YouTube. FBI agents stood in the driveway as police led him from his home on Jan. 4, 2013, Mr. Naser said in an interview. He was accused of stealing $180 from a cash register at a former workplace and squirting pepper spray at a cashier.

Mr. Naser, who had previously pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, said he was owed the money in back pay.

FBI agents were in court when a judge set Mr. Naser’s bond at $2 million. He was later convicted of felony armed robbery and sentenced to a prison term of three to 20 years.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Would You Write a Cookbook for Next to Nothing?

10 October 2019

From The New York Times:

In 2017, the Dallas food blogger Urvashi Pitre published the “Indian Instant Pot Cookbook.” By any measure, it was a hit, selling more than 100,000 copies.

But under the contract she signed with her publisher, Callisto Media, Ms. Pitre received no advance, the payment often given to an author when a book deal is signed. Callisto had asked her to develop 50 recipes in three months, but offered no budget for recipe development or testing. She said it takes her 12 hours to perfect a single recipe, and her grocery bill when testing is around $1,500 a month.

She fronted all those costs. Over the last two years, Ms. Pitre said she has made $15,000 — minus the cost of her expenses — solely from milestone payments, fixed bonuses given out if book sales exceed a certain number.

Ms. Pitre’s experience is not unique, and Callisto Media is not the only small publisher offering such deals. Many chefs and writers are asked to write cookbooks and food books for very little, and sometimes nothing. In the current publishing landscape, there is an expectation that people will do a lot more for a lot less.

. . . .

In July, the Baltimore cookbook author Allison Robicelli was approached by Reedy Press to write a book about standout restaurants in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, for no pay up front, and with no budget for travel or dining. Any payment would come later in the form of royalties (a percentage of sales on each copy sold) of 10 percent.

She shared this information on Twitter, and received more than 2,000 responses, many from writers who had received similar offers. (Ms. Robicelli turned hers down.)

“This is all so unbelievable,” one Twitter user replied. “No money is a joke. Who would do this for nothing!?” Another wrote, “As a hopeful book-writer, I had to stop reading this tweet because it made me sick to my stomach.”

Ms. Robicelli, 39, said she wasn’t surprised by the reaction. “What is surprising is that we haven’t been speaking out about this before,” she said. “Nobody wants to talk about how hard it is to get by as a writer.”

. . . .

Josh Stevens, the publisher of Reedy Press, said the company does not offer money up front because the books “ultimately have a limited audience.”

“It is mainly a cost factor for us,” he added.

He said that a book like the one Ms. Robicelli was asked to write wouldn’t require an author to dine out or travel. When pressed on what options an author has to write a book about restaurants with no dining budget, Mr. Stevens said that “some authors may work something out with the establishments.” He later clarified: “I don’t know, maybe they give them some comped meals.”

. . . .

The cookbook business is not struggling. A spokesman for NPD BookScan said sales of print cookbooks grew 24 percent in 2018 over the previous year, compared with 6 percent growth in 2016. These meager deals could be a response to that growth.

Alison Fargis, a literary agent and partner at Stonesong, and Stacey Glick, a vice president and literary agent at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, both in New York, said they have seen a significant increase in these offers in recent years.

Ms. Glick described companies like Callisto Media as “data-driven publishers that look at a trend, come up with an idea and hire freelancers” — like Ms. Pitre — “to do books quickly so they can get out into the market and take advantage of that trend when there is not a lot of competition.”

. . . .

With these smaller publishing companies, there isn’t always an advance, and if there is, it’s often less than $10,000. Royalties aren’t always offered, and most expenses aren’t covered. The timeline is months, not years, and there is much less emphasis on design and photography. Authors are occasionally asked to sign nondisclosure agreements before even viewing a contract.

“In pretty much all cases, I have tried to discourage my authors from taking these deals,” Ms. Glick said. But she has sold books to both Callisto Media and Tiller Press (a division of Simon & Schuster that she said follows a similar model). “There are certain exceptions when an author is starting to grow their following, and it might be a good opportunity for them to get their name associated with a book.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG says if anyone wants you to sign a nondisclosure agreement prior to viewing any kind of contract that requires you to put skin in the deal – either time or money – the odds of you getting screwed have increased exponentially.

If it’s a fair contract, the person or organization should not have any concern with you showing it to anyone before or after you sign it. You may decide to keep it confidential for whatever reason, but when a publisher wants you to keep quiet about a contract, they’re worried about adverse publicity and reputational damage if their contract terms are open to public scrutiny.

An Intimate History of the British Empire

9 October 2019
Comments Off on An Intimate History of the British Empire

From The New Yorker:

After Carl Carby arrived in England from Jamaica, in 1943, he wore starched shirts, polished dress shoes, and neatly knotted ties. He was from the colonies, but his mannerisms evinced a restrained, British sensibility. Like most early immigrants from the Caribbean, he was expected to provide a service: his entrance to England was predicated on his employment as a bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force, which recruited around six thousand people from England’s “black colonies” to fight in the Second World War. At a dance in Worcester, he met Iris Leaworthy, a young, white Welsh woman who worked as a civil servant in the Air Ministry, and the two bonded over the surprising similarities of their upbringings. Both had grown up in poverty. As schoolchildren, each donned a starched uniform and, on Empire Day, a holiday designed to instill in children a feeling of belonging to a great nation, waved the Union Jack. When England went to war, both of them enthusiastically offered their service. The pair soon married, and had a daughter named Hazel. To her, Carl spoke little of Jamaica. “It was as if he had been born an airman in the Royal Air Force,” Hazel Carby writes in “Imperial Intimacies,” her new book of political history, which came out last month.

As Carby recounts, upon the completion of his service, Carl, who was then twenty-three, applied to the Welfare Department of the Colonial Office for an award to attend further-education courses in economics and accounting. For Carl, getting vocational training was akin to securing a life with his family. As an interracial couple, he and Iris had found it difficult to find a landlord willing to house them; they would need to buy their own home. Carl’s application was granted, but with a stipulation: like all colonial recruits, he was asked to declare his intent to return to his colony by “the first available ship” after his course of training—a pledge, the Welfare Department assured him, that would be “watched with interest in the Colonial Office.” Under the threat of deportation, he took a job as an accounts clerk at an engraving firm. His salary was meagre, and the only home that he and Iris could afford was one that had suffered extensive bomb damage.

. . . .

As a child, for example, she witnessed the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, which was punctuated by arguments in the family’s kitchen. The room—painted a neat blue and white, with a two-tub washing machine and a stove tucked between the sink and countertop—was Iris’s domain. Carl enjoyed cooking Jamaican food––curries, banana fritters, fried rice––but Iris refused to eat it.

. . . .

Carby recalls this story, and her parents’ eventual divorce, from memory. Initially, she thinks of it as an account of marital incompatibility. But, in the course of her research, she finds government records—recriminations in depositions, police reports from domestic disputes, and an on-the-record account of the attempted suicide—that show how her parents’ domestic difficulties were exacerbated by interactions with the state. After Iris married Carl, she was forced to leave her position in the Air Ministry, which put financial strain on the family. The Colonial Office provided Carl with a small allowance, which included an allotment for his wife, but it was too little to survive on, and the pair bickered over how to spend it. Iris resented that Carl sent a portion of the money to his family in Jamaica, and eventually she petitioned the Colonial Office to pay her share directly to her. “An acid rain fell on their interracial parade, replacing affection with bitter resentment,” Carby writes.

. . . .

That her parents’ romantic narrative convenes with a national one is not incidental: each of the stories in “Imperial Intimacies” shows how an individual life is shaped by external forces. This project is reflected in the book’s title and in its epigraph, a quote from the cultural and political theorist Stuart Hall, who wrote, “Identity is not only a story, a narrative which we tell ourselves about ourselves, it is stories which change with historical circumstance. . . . Far from only coming from the still small point of truth inside us, identities actually come from outside.” Carby was Hall’s student, and his words reverberate throughout the book. Carby assembles a sprawling account of how imperialism––a web of social relations, labor markets, and trade networks—conditions private feeling. The resulting narrative is something like an affective history of the British Empire.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Like a fine whine

3 October 2019

From The Times Literary Supplement:

Looking back over my career to date, and at all the people I have insulted, I am mildly surprised that I am still allowed to exist”, wrote Auberon Waugh in 1980. For the remaining twenty-one years of his life he took pleasure in adding to his list of victims. Feminism and AIDS were bracketed together as “plagues”, ramblers were “semi-uniformed thugs”, the “lower classes” appeared “ugly, boring, humourless and desperately conceited”, and the female delegates at a Labour Party conference struck him as “either hunch-backed or hairy-legged or obviously lesbian”. It’s natural to associate such views with an age now pretty remote. But Waugh was born in the same year as John Cleese and Margaret Drabble; he was younger than Jilly Cooper and Vanessa Redgrave, John Prescott and David Dimbleby. Were he still alive, he would not yet be eighty.

Having published his first novel, The Foxglove Saga, at twenty, Waugh continued for more than a decade to dabble in writing fiction, but found his métier in journalism, practising what he called “the vituperative arts”. The objects of his savage riffs included cant, political rhetoric and parliamentarians, as well as other kinds of bossy legislator whose exercise of power was a means to “compensate for their personal inadequacies”. At the same time he stood up for free speech, along with causes with which one wouldn’t immediately link someone of his stripe (the magazine Viz, the European Union, Martin Amis) and several less defensible groups, such as adulterers and drunk drivers. As the child of Evelyn Waugh, he inherited vendettas, mainly among what he considered the literary world’s “great armies of militant atheists, leftists and modernists”, and he was pleased to keep up old antagonisms.

. . . .

The trouble with being a vituperator is that your writing is likely to lose its zest as soon as your objects of opprobrium recede from view. When your medium is journalism, that is inevitable; themes endure, but specific targets are ephemeral, and today’s urgent peeve is the stuff of tomorrow’s cumbrous footnote. George Orwell is remembered because he engaged with fascism, imperialism, language and the national character, not because he thought scrubbing brushes had become a bit pricey or reviewed a curious book about ants by Caryl P. Haskins.

. . . .

Nearly half the book consists of “Pulpit” essays for the Literary Review, on matters such as the “raucous trivia” that fills the heads of teenagers, publishers who don’t send out review copies promptly, and the “baneful influence” of people called Jenkins.

. . . .

The durability of a few of Waugh’s claims is hard to assess. For instance, do the “semi-professional poules de luxe on the fringes of café society” continue to disappoint their admirers by failing to serve good vintage port? Yet much remains as it was. Dry white Bordeaux still doesn’t have a great following in Britain. Neither, more regrettably, do the best German wines. It is true that in America “only obvious alcoholics drink anything like as much as the ordinary English professional”. The British still go on holiday to France and return full of hyperbolic enthusiasm for some local plonk that they have been inspired to import in large quantities – only to find, once it arrives in Blighty, that it is no more potable than the contents of a fish tank. There is a certain prescience, too, in Waugh’s remark that the best wines are, increasingly, beyond English pockets “shrunk by the growing indolence, incompetence and indiscipline of our island race”.

. . . .

But what of the fermented juice itself? Waugh was conscious of the perils of writing about it, yet baulked at the starkness of Kingsley Amis’s observation “You can call a wine red, and dry, and strong and pleasant. After that, watch out”. In the 1970s there was a revolution in wine writing, in which anthropomorphic language gave way to a vocabulary that recognized wine as an agricultural product. The new wave found its most influential expression in the writings of the former Baltimore lawyer Robert Parker, typified in a note such as this, about a legendary Pauillac: “A dark, opaque garnet colour is followed by a fabulous nose of cedar, sweet leather, black fruits, prunes and roasted walnuts, refreshing underlying acidity, sweet but noticeable tannin, and a spicy finish”. Waugh was inclined to mock such geoponic rigour and even found another American wine writer absurd for likening a pinot noir to cherries. Yet he could still refer to an Italian red having a “beautiful hare’s blood or red garnet colour and a fragrance of freshly cut pine”.

Link to the rest at The Times Literary Supplement

While the post immediately below this one (which PG posted earlier. In WordPress World, things that were written earlier are seen later.) caused PG to despair for the present state of British intelligence and literary style, Auberon Waugh reminded PG of the glory of acid and skeptical British commentary on almost any subject.

Long may it reign.

A Guest of the Reich

2 October 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

In September 1944, while at the Ritz in Paris celebrating the city’s liberation, Gertrude Legendre made the reckless decision to visit the front. She loved adventure and wanted to get close enough “to smell the fighting.” Together with three American intelligence officers, she set off for the German border village of Wallendorf, which they thought had been taken by the Allies. The idea was to “mosey up to the line,” as one of her companions put it, “so the lady could hear some gunfire.” When they arrived, they heard plenty of shots, but the shots were directed at them. The village had been retaken by the Nazis.

In “A Guest of the Reich,” his gripping account of Legendre’s captivity by the Germans in World War II, Peter Finn brings to light an unfamiliar side of the Nazi regime. During her time as a prisoner, Mr. Finn tells us, Legendre discovered that there was “a parallel Nazi detention system whose relative privileges stood in stark contrast to the horrors and barbarism of the death camps.” Castles, private villas and hotels were used to detain high-ranking figures. “Eventually, the system housed hundreds of prisoners; members of several European royal families; German dissidents whom Hitler or Himmler didn’t wish to be killed, at least not immediately.”

Legendre (1902-2000) was a big-game hunter from South Carolina high society. After the attack on Pearl Harbor she joined the OSS, the wartime intelligence agency created by Franklin Roosevelt, and worked first in Washington, then in London, where she was privy to closely guarded government secrets. She was not afraid of danger. She’d always rebelled against the strictures of high society, preferring the wild outdoors to balls and debutante parties.

. . . .

When she accidently crossed the front line into Germany with her friends, Legendre was dressed in the khaki uniform of the Women’s Army Corps. The Nazis at first suspected her of being a spy. She was relentlessly interrogated (but not tortured) and subjected to stretches of solitary confinement. Once they became aware of her wealth (and connections to senior American generals) they saw a potential propaganda tool and treated her as a “special and honored” prisoner.

When the Allies pushed toward the Rhine, the Germans retreated, taking their prisoners with them. Legendre was moved from city to city and witnessed firsthand the damage done by the Allies. She arrived in Frankfurt under moonlight to see “crumbled buildings, heaps of rubble, gaunt skeletons of towers” silhouetted against the night sky, a shocking contrast to the vibrant town with its medieval center that she had visited in 1936. The center of Berlin was a “dead city”; the gaunt pedestrians wore “masks of defeat and apathy.”

Eventually she was escorted to the Rheinhotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg. The hotel had been a favorite of the Führer before the war, the place where he and Goebbels planned the Night of the Long Knives, the 1934 purge of Nazi leaders. Legendre found the distinguished Art Nouveau building, despite the barbed wire, watchtowers and SS troops on its grounds, less like a prison than an old-folks’ home. There were hot-water bottles; games of chess, bridge and Chinese checkers; math lessons; lectures; even deck tennis. Residents each had a favorite chair and were given to picky grumbling about the food, which was plentiful.

Other “guests” included retired French officers—42 generals and 75 colonels—and Marie-Agnès Cailliau de Gaulle, older sister of Charles, who had been arrested in Normandy. After much pleading on her part, her husband—who had been sent to the Buchenwald death camp—was finally allowed to join them at the hotel. His arrival was a stark reminder of the other side of Nazi prison life. He’d lost so much weight that at first his wife didn’t recognize him.

During her six months’ captivity, Mr. Finn writes, Legendre showed a great deal of courage. She had a personality that “radiated confidence and resolve” and was “an archetypical American woman, endowed with a kind of bullying certainty, as if she had just strolled, cigarette in hand, out of a celluloid frame.” She also had an enormous ego and a strong sense of entitlement.

At the Rheinhotel there was plenty of wine on hand but water was limited. Baths were allowed just once a month. During air raids, Legendre, who hated to go down to the cellar, would stay back so she could steal some of the hotel’s supply of hot water. “Without a twinge of conscience, I hopped into many a tub not meant for me and thus increased my baths far above the legal quota.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

« Previous PageNext Page »