Throughout history, Europeans have tried to grab their own little portion of Africa. Too many have succeeded through the use of violence, bribery, subjugation and the remorseless wearing of breeches. But Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de Brazza, who made significant inroads into the Congo during the late 19thcentury, was different.

Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de Brazza was nice.

Born Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazzà in 1852, he was the middle child of thirteen offspring sprung by Count Ascanio Savorgnan di Brazzà and Giacinta Simonetti* of Italy. His family was wealthy, noble, well-connected in Europe and probably had some really nice furniture.

The young Pietro spent his rather comfortable boyhood dreaming of the sea and ships, and the faraway lands he read about in the well-thumbed but incomplete atlases lining the shelves of his library. Long before he was required to choose a vocation, he decided he wanted a naval career.

Pietro wanted for nothing – except an active navy in his local area. In order to satisfy his devotion to the ocean, he looked further afield. Family connections and plenty of coin soon secured him a place at the Ecole Navale** in Brest, France (as opposed to the other Brest, which is slightly smaller).

By the time de Brazza was 20, he’d graduated as an ensign and was on a ship headed for Gabon on a mission to thwart the slave trade (see? Nice.). Shortly after that, he became a French citizen and changed his name from Pietro Paolo Savornan di Brazza to Pierre Paul Francois Camille Savorgnan de Brazza, which by any stretch of the imagination is a ridiculous collection of names. From this point forward, I shall refer to him simply as ‘PPS de Bra’ – partly because I’m lazy, and partly because I like making people think of boobs when they should be reading about history.

Falling a little bit in love with Africa, PPS de Bra decided he wanted to follow the Ogooué River, which traverses Gabon, to its source in the country then known to Europeans as “the shady one in the middle that hasn’t been exploited yet”. He used his considerable charm and exemplary manners to convince the French government that it was an expedition worth coughing up francs for. The French met him halfway (financially, that is) and he financed the remainder from his own deep pockets.

In 1875 he was off like a frog in a sock***, and while his contemporaries might have packed a small army of assistants and a suitably xenophobic arsenal of weaponry, PPS de Bra travelled light. He was accompanied only by a doctor, a naturalist, 12 Senegalese soldiers and two or three indigenous interpreters. The ship’s hold was stacked with fabrics, glass items and tools for bartering with locals. This was not a man intent on quashing resistance with an iron fist. His negotiations were not made with the muzzle of a musket. He desired only to win people over with lengths of muslin, nice-looking vases and a face that could make angels weep.****

Indeed, PPS de Bra’s smooth talking and handsome handsomeness earned him passage deep into unexplored terrain, which in turn impressed the French government, which gave the nod to a second expedition in 1879. The French did not regret this decision. On this trip, PPS bartered and beguiled his way to the Congo River and the domain of the Bateke people. He convinced the Bateke king, Makoko, to sign a treaty allowing his lands to be a French protectorate. PPS and Makoko also established a settlement on the Congo River, which later became Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo.

When PPS de Bra returned to Paris in 1882, he was a popular bloke. He gave public lectures and interviews, and even inspired a range of merchandise which included cigarettes, fountain pens and photographs. The less popular Brazza Beard Barbie was discontinued.

In 1886 he was appointed the governor-general of the French Congo. And because he was super-nice, he dedicated the next decade or so to establishing schools, medical services and employment opportunities, and set standards for wages and working conditions for employees of European traders.

That’s when things started turning a little sour. Many European traders didn’t like the idea of “natives” getting a fair cop, and preferred the low cost of slave labour and being complete bastards. King Leopold of Belgium, who was in charge of the neighbouring Belgian Congo and who was still miffed at PPS de Bra for bagsing the other side of the river, didn’t come off well by comparison. His murderous and mercenary ownership of Congolese land looked, frankly, beastly compared to the fairer, kinder French part where hardly anybody got their hands chopped off. Rumours of PPS de Bra’s soft touch and ‘negrophilia’ hit the French press, and the lack of profit returned by the colony saw him dismissed as governor in 1897.

The Congo did not thrive under its subsequent governor, Emile-Gentil. News of his brutality and the misery of his colony forced the French government to investigate, and they sent the 53-year-old de Brazza to do the job. He was appalled at the corruption, torture and slavery he saw, and his investigation was hindered at every turn by his haughty hosts. Nevertheless, a few weeks later he boarded a ship back to France with his damning report tucked safely under his arm.

De Brazza never made it back to France. He died of dysentery on 14 September 1905 in Dakar (although some suspected poisoning by his enemies). He was buried in France with the pomp of a state funeral, only to be exhumed and reinterred in Algiers at the request of his wife. Then in 2006, his remains were again exhumed and taken to Brazzaville, to rest in the new mausoleum built to honour his memory. Even 101 years after his death, he was still travelling.

 

*Loosely translated, the name ‘Giacinta’ means ‘exhausted by babies’.

**My French isn’t very good. This is either the ‘French Naval Academy’ or ‘Belly Button School’.

***An old Gabonese idiom meaning ‘French person in a boat’.

****Making angels weep is actually quite difficult. They are notoriously immune to nipple-cripples, and they’ve all seen Four Weddings and a Funeral about twenty-five times.

Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza

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Dear readers, strap yourself in for the greatest story never told!

Ok maybe not the greatest. But definitely the best one you’ll hear all day. Depending on the other stories you may have heard today, obviously. But this one really is quite surprisingly good, at the very least. I think it is, anyway. Oh look, it’s got Nazis and aliens and magic hair in it. If that’s not good enough for you then go listen to Infowars or something, I don’t care.

This is the story of Maria Orsic, a beautiful and beguiling woman who may, or may not have played a key role in some of the most astounding military secrets in history. Her life story swims in mystery, rumour and conspiracy theories, leaving meagre pickings scattered across humankind’s collective documented wisdom (“The Internet”) for those seeking only what is true and right and based on unshakeable evidence.

But hey, she was a babe, so pish posh to evidence, I say.

What we do know about Maria Orsic is this. She was probably born in Vienna to an Austrian mother and a Croatian father in 1895. She probably moved to Munich in 1919 to be with her fiancé. She became interested in German nationalism movement, and she was some sort of psychic medium.

That’s not much of a story, is it? Not until you look at some of the less-confirmed details (or, as most late-night, web-based researchers like to call them: FACTS). Like the FACT that Maria Orsic was friends with the Thule Gesellschaft, a German occultist society that advocated the notion of Aryan racial purity and provided fertile ground of the seeds of the Nazi Party. Or the FACT that Orsic and a small group of other beautiful female psychics formed the Vril Society, whose central tenet was the existence of an energy force called Vril which could bestow great power on anyone clever enough to tap into it. Or the FACT that Maria and her Vril Society sisters wore their hair in unfashionably long pony-tails, which acted as psychic aerials for cosmic energy and alien messages.

Uh-huh. Nazis, aliens and magic hair. “Now THAT,” you say, smiling a wry smile and doing that funny waggly thing with your forefinger, “is a STORY.” But let’s look at this rationally. Look up at the top of the page. There’s really not all that many words between the bold headingy bit and the bit you’re reading right now. Dig even deeper and you’ll discover a further assortment of words between these ones and the bottom of the page. That can mean only one thing. That’s right. There’s MORE.

As the story goes, Maria and a small contingent of the German occultist Who’s Who met in a cabin in the Bavarian alps in 1919. To this group, Maria announced that she had received communications (through her hair, presumably) from a planet in the Aldebaran system, about 65 light years away. The messages came to her in a combination of German Templar script and ancient Sumerian. After a bit of bitching about why a seemingly advanced race of aliens chose to transmit their cosmic message in two different obsolete Earthling languages, she discovered that the message contained the instructions and blueprints for building a circular, Vril-powered flying machine. The Aldebaranians had further communications with Maria, revealing that they had used a convenient Aldebaran-Earth worm-hole to partially colonise Earth a few centuries earlier, establishing the Aryan race (and also Uma Thurman).

Over the next few years, Maria shared her story with some Thule Gesellschaft mates, including a few eager up-and-comers like Rudolf Hess and Adolph Hitler. By the end of World War II, the Germans had harnessed the power of Vril, constructed a flying saucer, landed on the moon, visited Mars and established Vril-fueled colonies under the South Pole, where they await the opportunity to exact their revenge on the Allies.

Nothing has been heard of Maria Orsic since 1945. She disappeared and was presumed dead. In this instance, “dead” could also mean “living on another planet”.

And that, my friends, is how a beautiful woman helped the Nazis take over the world in their flying saucers. It happened just exactly like that.

FACT.

maria orsic

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If history has shown us anything, it is that God favours blonde people with blue eyes. And in the case of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it’s fair to say that God had a total crush on him.

Born two days before Christmas 1805 in Vermont, Joseph Smith enjoyed a run-of-the-mill small-town upbringing until his family moved to New York State when he was 12 years old. This time of his life (when boys start asking Big Questions like “Why am I here?”, “Who created the universe?” and “Are girls’ germs really all that bad?”) coincided with the Second Great Awakening, an era in which empire-line frocks were on the way out and religious fervour was in.

If you were living in America in the middle-early bit of the 19th century, having sacred visions wasn’t just in vogue; it was practically mandatory. And the young Joseph Smith was nothing if not fashionable. At the age of 15, while he agonised over the apparently conflicting doctrines of rival churches, God and Jesus came to him and said,

All your sins are forgiven. Prepare for the second coming. Also, all the churches are corrupt and wrong and you should just rock out on your own.

Or something to that effect. God didn’t just like Joseph Smith. God liked him liked him.

Three years later, God sent an angel called Moroni* to visit Smith. Moroni appeared to Smith during his nightly prayers, and told him where to find a book made of engraved gold plates and a set of ‘seer stones’ which would help him translate the book’s holy mysteries**. But that wasn’t even the best bit. Moroni told Joseph that he’d find the book buried right near where he lived! There was no quest or sacrifice or test of faith or anything! Even Jesus had to wander around the desert for forty days and forty nights to please his Holy Father, but Joseph could just pop down the driveway and dig up a golden goodie-bag. Honestly, God would have been happy sharing his toothbrush with this guy.

Unfortunately for Smith (and for anyone impertinent enough to question his account), the angel Moroni forbade him to remove the golden plates, or to show them to anyone else. Luckily though, with the use of the seer stones, Smith was able to translate the engravings without even having them nearby. This he did by putting the stones into his hat, putting the hat over his face, and dictating the words that appeared to a scribe.

In 1830, after years of intermittent effort and the use of various scribes, Smith completed his translation and published The Book of Mormon, the basis of his soon-to-be-official new church.

I’m not going to go into the teachings of the Mormon Church or its later iterations, the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Needless to say, there’s enough bizarre material in Joseph Smith’s history to fill a whole bucket of crazy. But I have a word limit, and you’d probably like a cup of tea quite soon, so I’ll try to keep it short.

Smith married Emma Hale (his first and only proper wife, unless you count the 30 or so other Mormony wives, which Emma didn’t) in 1927. As his church grew and attracted followers, Smith continued to have visions and revelations that guided him in the construction and growth of the church and the administration of its teachings. After some other members claimed to have received significant revelations, Smith had a revelation that said he was the only person whose revelations were proper Mormon revelations, and everyone else should shut the hell up. Because God was totally smitten with him, obviously.

As the church developed and spread across the central states of the US, it continued to attract hordes of believers, but also rustled the jimmies of thousands of anti-Mormons across America. Included on the long list of Things People Didn’t Like About Mormons were polygamy; the establishment of covert militia; a desire for an independent Mormon state with separate laws and monetary systems; and generally being a little bit uppity. By the time he was 38, Joseph Smith had been arrested for bank fraud, tarred and feathered by an angry mob and announced his candidacy for US President.

Instead of becoming the President of the United States, Smith took the next best option and was arrested for inciting a riot. In June 1844, while Smith was in custody in Illinois, an angry mob (different to the previous, tarring-and-feathering angry mob) stormed the prison with guns blazing. Smith tried to escape out a window but fell to the ground. His attackers kept shooting to make sure he was really, properly dead.

Understandably, God was quite upset that his prettiest 20th-century prophet had been pumped full of bullets, but he stopped short of flying into an apocalyptic rage. Unlike the vengeful, murderous God of the First Testament, today’s modern deity likes a more subtle approach.

So the next time you see a pair of neatly-dressed, Bible-clutching chaps approaching your front door; remember: that’s God sulking.

*Moroni was pretty happy to get out of the office. He was sick of hanging around with the other angels, who teased him about his dorky name. Sure, he kept smiling and sparkling and shit, because what could he do? He was an angel.

** According to Smith’s accounts, the golden plates were written in a language called “Reformed Egyptian”. Linguistic and historical experts have never found any evidence of “Reformed Egyptian” in any other context. But since we’re talking about angels and magic stones and a talking floaty Jesus, that seems rather an insignificant detail.

joseph smith

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Queen Victoria was a bitch to shop for. I mean, what do you get the woman who has everything? And by “everything”, I don’t just mean “enough socks”. I mean “a quarter of the known world and rather a lot of rubies”.

But one fine day in 1851, somewhere off the coast of West Africa, Captain Frederick E Forbes of the Royal Navy was on a mission to quash the thriving human trade along the so-called “slave coast”. It was there, in the kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin), where he happened across a young girl called Ina, a Nigerian princess. The girl had been captured by King Ghezo of Dahomey after he slaughtered her family, and because of her noble blood she was intended not as a slave, but as a human sacrifice. Captain Forbes was having none of it.

“She’ll do nicely for Her Majesty!” thought Forbes, already planning how to re-gift the weasel-pelt slippers he’d already – somewhat foolishly – purchased for her in the back room of a pub. “Wrap her up!” he said.

And so the eight-year-old Ina sailed to England aboard Forbes’ ship, the Bonetta, to be presented to the Queen of the United Kingdom, the Empress of India, etc etc. On the way, she was re-named Sara Forbes Bonetta, she learned English and impressed the socks off her rescuers with her composure and intelligence. Said Forbes of his new charge:

She is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection.

I’m sure Miss Forbes Bonetta could scarcely believe her luck (aside from having dead parents and being kidnapped twice in the same year, that is). Not for her a senseless death to please a marauding king! Not for her a life of slavery! No! Her fate was to be whisked away from her homeland to live with rich white people and spend the rest of her life doing whatever they told her to, which isn’t like slavery at all, because there were plenty of clean frocks and really top-notch nibbles.

Queen Victoria was most pleased with her gift, and remarked upon Sara’s countenance, bearing and keen mind. She promptly adopted her as a god-daughter and sent her off to become educated at a mission school in Sierra Leone, which is the 1850’s Rich Royal Person’s equivalent of saying “umm… thanks. I don’t suppose you kept the receipt?”

Four years later, the Queen ordered the now 12-year-old Sara to return to England, because a rescued African not-really-a-slave is for life, not just for Christmas. Sara was plonked into the care of a nice middle-class couple in Kent.

In 1962, Sara’s marriage was arranged to James Pinston Labulo Davies, a wealthy Nigerian living in England. The wedding was a grand affair in Brighton, after which the couple moved back to Africa and had a daughter named Victoria, who was also adopted as a god-daughter by the Queen*.

Ever since her transplantation from Nigeria to Britain, Sara suffered from a persistent cough. She travelled to Madeira in 1880 for the healing climate, but died of tuberculosis shortly afterwards, at age 37.

In many ways, Sara’s life was one of privilege – especially when one considers she could have been burned to death by a crazy king at age eight. In other ways, Sara was merely a possession of a rich and powerful old boiler who also had lots of rubies. One could spend hours agonising over the tragedy of viewing humans as consumer goods, the astounding racism, the cultural insensitivity, the blatant materialism and the haughty imperialism of it all.

But hours probably wouldn’t be long enough.

*Queen Victoria had around 60 god-children during her reign, as well as nine of her own kids. Writing Christmas cards was a nightmare.

 

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Alexandre Yersin had trouble hooking up.

It wasn’t his appearance. Look at those eyes and kissy lips! Look at that gallant brow and the beard that says, “This is as well-groomed as my inequitable portion of testosterone will allow”. Definitely worth the effort of looking at.

It wasn’t his upbringing. Born in Switzerland in 1863 to a recently-widowed French schoolmistress, his mother brought up Alex and his two brothers capably while running a finishing school.

It wasn’t his job. At age 20 he began studying medicine, and by 1886 he’d studied in three different countries and had scored a job at Louis Pasteur’s lab in Paris. His medical career saw him travel the world as a microbiologist in Europe, a ship’s doctor on the South China Sea and a medical researcher in Hong Kong, before settling in Vietnam permanently. Not really all that shabby.

It may have been his approach. “Hi!”, he would say eagerly to a prospective poking-partner in a suitably tailored outfit in a suitably appointed salon, “I’m Alex, and I noticed you from over there. I’m kind of a big deal in sciencey circles. In fact, just today I was in the lab with several of the world’s most deadly pathogens. May I kiss you?”

Yersin, you see, specialised in bacteriology. His day-to-day duties involved dipping his various tools into jars of diphtheria, rabies, and everyone’s favourite life-interrupting bacterium, the bubonic plague.

In 1894, dapper young Alex was credited with the discovery (and therefore got dibs on the naming rights) of Yersinia pestis, the germ responsible for the plague. Only days before, Japanese bacteriologist Dr Kitasato Shibasabur; had also identified the bacterium, but did not document the discovery adequately to claim the credit. In those days, such scientific controversies were settled calmly and respectfully – not with the pay-per-view oiled wrestling matches we see today. Whatever the case, a hundred million dead people from the 14th century were a bit pissed off that it hadn’t been discovered 600 years earlier.

For the next few years after his discovery, Yersin set about manufacturing and testing a serum to treat the plague, with disappointing results. Not one to sit idle, Alex immediately set himself up in his back room and spent hours each day doing Sudoko and eating Jaffa Cakes. Or at least he would have, if he was a freelance writer in the 21st century. Lucky for us though, he wasn’t. Instead, he helped to establish and run the Medical School of Ha Noi between 1902 and 1904; he pioneered the cultivation of rubber trees imported from Brazil and quinine trees from South America; and generally set about being a hero of his adopted country. Sigh.

But all good things must come to an end, and in 1943, at age 80, so did Alex Yersin. He passed away at his home in Nha Trang, leaving behind a great contribution to science, several educational institutions bearing his name, and a small collection of terrible pick-up lines.

Personally, I would have risked a few gangrenous limbs for the chance of a snog.

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The Renaissance.

The RENNAsnssse.

The ReNAYsornts.

No matter how you say it, it’s chock full of beautiful women in various stages of undress. Sometimes holding a boob. Sometimes not. But always breathtaking in a centuries-long celebration of beauty, composition and that little dimply bit just above the buttocks.

Amongst all the lady-portraits, angels, Madonnas and Venuses that streamed from Italian easels during the 15th and 16th centuries were thousands of models, muses and paragons of loveliness. But who was the loveliest?

 

Lisa Gherardini

Mona Lisa

Of all the people who were capable of sitting in a chair for a very long time, Lisa Gherardini is the most famous. Her fame began when her husband, Francesco del Giocondo, was at a tavern with a friend, a bit sloshed on local Florentine wine.

“You’re wife’s ok,” slurred the friend, “but she’s no oil painting,” to which Giocondo replied, “We’ll just see about THAT!” Then a whole lot of stuff happened and Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the history of the world.

But why is it so famous? I don’t get it. It’s Lisa sitting in front of some squiggly rivers. It’s a good painting and all, but Leonardo did better. The man invented a helicopter in the 1400s, for chrissakes. Surely that’s worth more of a celebration than a picture of a silk merchant’s wife with an “I just popped one off” look on her face.

Nope. Not exciting enough.

 

Margarita Luti

Luti

If you’ve ever seen a painting by Raphael, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the likeness of Margarita Luti. The artist not only painted two proper portraits of her – La donna velata and La Fornarina - but she also appears in dozens of his other works.

Raphael’s artistic genius was dwarfed only by his reputation as an enormous hornbag, and Margarita was by far his favourite lover. Claiming that he was too distracted to work without her nearby, it is said the artist managed to sneak her in to the palaces where he painted murals and other commissions, to be by his side. She provided him with company, inspiration, frequent and long-winded bonk fests and probably a few cups of tea.

Some art historians think that the La Fornarina portrait provides evidence that Raphael and Margarita were secretly married. In it, Margarita appears before a myrtle bush, a symbol of fidelity. She also wears a small ruby ring on her left hand, and an armband bearing Raphael’s name. These delicious little hints were the only way an artist could communicate secret messages in an age before backmasking and crop circles.

Whatever the truth of their relationship, Margarita Luti was hot enough to have her face painted on palace walls and to satisfy one of the most libidinous lads of the picture-painting profession.

 

Veronica Franco

franco

Having a pretty face and enthusiasm for pantsless activities was one thing. But if you’re after a bit more substance in your portrait-poser, look no further than Veronica Franco.

Franco posed for numerous portraits by Tintoretto, whom she met amongst many others of Venetian fame or nobility, in her role as a cotrigiana onesta, or Posh Kind Of Courtesan. Her job, which she learned from her mother, was to entertain the gentility of Venice with music, conversation and poetry.

Here’s where the substance comes in. Franco turned out two volumes of poetry, several books of letters and a few anthologies of other poets’ works. She was able to support herself very comfortably indeed thank you very much, with the art of her mind as well as the charm of her body.

But this is called the Hot and the Dead, not the Hot, Dead And Also Quite Brainy And Accomplished. Substance isn’t worth the canvas it’s sploshed on.

 

Simonetta Vespucci

vespucci

So here, ladies and gentlemen, is the hottest of all hot Renaissance paint-candy. Simonetta Vespucci, otherwise known as La Bella Simonetta or simply “Phwoar”.

Born to a Genoese nobleman in about 1453, Simonetta married Marco Vespucci, a distant relative of the guy who helped chart and name America, in her teens. Marco was well connected in the Florentine court, and no sooner had he turned up to some fancy Italian shindig with his delightfully ginger wife than everyone fell in love with her.

In Renaissance Florence, “everyone” included Giuliano Medici, who entered a jousting tournament in 1475 bearing a banner painted with Simonetta’s image, and Sandro Boticelli, who included her image in his paintings several years after her death of tuberculosis at age 22.

Because of the irritating habit of people who lived hundreds of years ago to not write things down properly, it is unclear how many paintings Simonetta Vespucci appeared in. But it is widely accepted that she is the subject of Piero di Cosimo’s Portrait of a woman, and entirely likely that she is Boticelli’s Venus in both Primavera and The Birth of Venus. There’s also an outside chance that she appears in Boticelli’s Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci.

Boticelli outlived Simonetta by 34 years, and was buried at her feet in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence, which he reportedly requested. Now, after staring at her image for the last hour, I’ve half a mind to request the same.

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Yukio Mishima was known in 20th-century artistic circles as an “octuple threat”. The author-poet-playwright-actor-director-singer-model-bodybuilder was born Kimitake Hiraoka in January 1925 in Shinjuku, Japan. He had a decent start in life - his father was a senior officer in the Ministry for Agriculture, which was just a smidge short of nobility; and his mother was the daughter of an elite school’s principal.

Mishima spent the majority of his childhood with his grandmother, who was fairly typical as far as grandmothering goes. Apart from removing her grandson from the care of his mother and not allowing him to go outdoors or play with other boys for about twelve years, she was just lovely. Lovely with a hint of violence and a sprinkle of always-talking-about-death.

Mishima returned to his parents’ care at age 12, where his father enforced his special brand of discipline. According to his dad, being outside doing sport was Boy Thing, but being inside and writing stories was not. Mishima, however, was very good at writing stories and being a boy, and he had works published in literary magazines and books before his twentieth birthday.

Mishima’s early works included several poems in the traditional waka form. Because of the difference in word forms between the two languages, translating waka from Japanese to English can be clumsy and imprecise, but crudely summarised, a waka poem has five lines with a syllable pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. For example:

When I was a child
I found a love for stories.
Those words sang to me.
Oh, those pages shone brightly!
And my grandma was mental.

After leaving school, Mishima’s father gradually accepted the idea that his son was going to do namby-pamby girl-writing for a living, and the talented author churned out novels, short stories, poems, plays and essays. Among his many dozens of works were Tabako, about the bullying he suffered at school, Tozoku, about the suicidal intentions of aristocrats, Confessions of a Mask, about the social pressure to hide homosexuality, and Yukoku, about the loyalty and patriotism of a young soldier.

If there was one thing Mishima loved as much as writing, it was doing other things as well. He acted in, and sang the theme song to, Afraid to Die, a 1960 yakuza film directed by Yasuzo Masumura. He acted in several other films, including Yukoku, which he also directed. He modelled for the photographic collections of Eikoh Hosoe and Tamotsu Yato. He became proficient in the martial art of Kendo, and also became an obsessive natural bodybuilder who trained regularly for over a decade.

Am I just writing?
No, I have numerous loves:
To sing, act, direct,
To pose in front of cameras.
Also, my pecs can crush rocks.

Around 1967, Mishima’s exploits became considerably more Daddy-pleasing when he joined Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Forces. A year after making it through basic training, he established his own private militia called the Tatenokai, or ‘shield society’. Mishima recruited and trained his troop of young men, imparting strong ideals of martial discipline and bushido, the way of the ancient Samurai. Mishima had no great affection for the actual emperor Hirohito, who he considered a bit wimpy for denouncing his man-god status after World War II. Instead he valued the ideal emperor – one who embodied honour, divinity and the historical essence of Japan. In his head and in his men, Mishima instilled an unwavering desire to return Japan to its pre-war greatness and reinstate the power of the spooky essence-infused ghost emperor. So, like all typical death-obsessed poets-turned-muscly-militia-men, Mishima attempted a coup.

On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima led four men into the Tokyo headquarters of Japan’s Self Defence Forces, captured the commandant and presented the unit with a list of their demands, which included overthrowing the government.

The men of the Self Defence Forces responded with a smattering of giggles (or whatever it is that tough military-type blokes do when a smattering of giggles is called for, but is not quite appropriate for the military blokiness of the situation). In short, Mishima failed. And what do obsessively honour-driven warriors infused with the spirit of the Samurai do when they fail? They perform seppuku, a ritual suicide by disembowelment.

After the incident, evidence of Mishima’s meticulous planning and his tidy financial affairs suggested that he had been preparing his death for over a year. Speculation still surrounds his suicide, and it is widely believed that the coup was merely a convenient theatre in which to act out Mishima’s lifelong dream, which lay at the heart of his work, of knowing a noble end.

I only wanted
The days of the Samurai,
Our honour intact.
It didn’t go as planned, though.
Bit embarrassing, really.

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Whinge, whinge, whinge. Gemma Galgani never seemed to stop.

Born to a well-to-do pharmacist in the Tuscan town of Capannori in 1878, Maria Gemma Umberta Pia Galgani had a capable intellect, very pretty eyes and an astounding talent for attracting misfortune.

By the time she finished school, she had lost three of her seven siblings to illness. Her mother, Aurelia died after a long bout of tuberculosis when Gemma was only seven. Gemma herself suffered several illnesses and a severely infected foot during childhood. Her father died when she was 18, leaving his daughter to look after her remaining siblings. For the majority of her formative years, Galgani could be found suffering. Suffering and whingeing.

But nothing made the young Italian happier. Because Gemma, you see, was whingeing for Jesus.

Brought up a devout Catholic, Gemma took to religion like a duck to water. While other kids were running wild through the cobbled streets on their chubby little legs, playing and shouting and being urchins, Miss Galgani was sitting by her mother’s deathbed, chatting with angels about heaven and how awesome it probably is.

While attending a school run by the Sisters of St. Zita in Lucca, Gemma became increasingly interested in the Passion of Christ, otherwise known to less goddy people as ‘the bit in the Bible just before Jesus gets crucified’. In the evenings after school, she turned into a total God Nerd, shutting herself in her room to recite the rosary, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night for an extra prayer or two. No doubt her homework suffered, but who needs good marks down here on Earth when you’re swotting for the Rapture?

Gemma was well known around town for her generosity towards the poor. She would give them what little money she had, and when she had no money she would give them bread, flour, clothing or whatever she could get her hands on. She gave so much stuff away that her confessor, Monsignor Volpi, asked her to stop.

Gemma didn’t just pray. She saw and spoke with her guardian angel regularly, talking about Jesus and love and Heaven and Hell and favourite hairstyles and stuff.

Throughout all this, Gemma suffered. She suffered a lot. According to her autobiography, it appears she thought about sin and penance constantly, beating herself up for the slightest wayward thought and yearning for more suffering in order to atone for the sins of others. Sin made her ache. Sin made her cry. And she loved every minute of it. She recalled:

“Every time a fever came upon me and I felt ill I experienced a great consolation. But this changed to sorrow when, after some illness, I would feel my strength return.”

Galgani was the quintessential victim soul – chosen by God to endure pain and misery with joyous gratitude, to make up for those selfish, hell-bound bastards who wanted to be happy and sane all the time.

In 1898, Gemma won the martyr jackpot – she contracted meningitis. She spent months bedridden with the infection, crippled by pain, fever and weakness. Her family and townsfolk prayed for her, and although she came close to death (and, according to her, was visited by the Devil a few times to tempt her into not liking it), she survived the illness. Her recovery was largely due to the miraculous intervention of dead Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows and the even more dead Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. Presumably there were also a few doctors and other living people milling around trying to help, but I’m sure they only got in the way.

It was around this time that Galgani began to have some really top-notch visions of Christ and his associated hangers-on. One particular afternoon around Easter time, Jesus came to her in her room, and she asked Him why he loved her, to which He replied:

“I am burning with desire to unite myself with you. Hasten to receive me every morning. But remember that I am a father and a zealous spouse. Will you be my daughter and my faithful spouse?”

Thanks Jesus. Excellent response. Not creepy at all.

This excited Gemma beyond measure, but it was only the start. In June of 1898, she had a vision of her guardian angel and Mary, who gave her a bit of a cuddle and forgave all her sins before Jesus came to her again, with his crucifixion wounds shooting out fire, like some kick-ass tattoo design. Gemma felt pain in her hands, feet and heart, and when the vision subsided she found she was bleeding from wounds in those places. She had received the stigmata from Jesus! And even better – it hurt heaps! YAY!

For months afterwards, this amazing experience was repeated every Thursday night – a bit like The Footy Show, but slightly less painful. Galgani was completely stoked that she had been chosen for such holy and specific suffering.

But not everyone was convinced. Monsignor Volpi, Gemma’s spiritual teacher, planned to visit her during one of her sessions, accompanied by a doctor to bear witness. Upon hearing of the impending visit, Jesus spoke to Galgani again and said, “Tell your confessor that in the presence of the doctor I will do none of the things that he desires.” And He was right. When Volpi and the doctor were around, no stigmata appeared. That Jesus guy spoils everything.

Gemma Galgani finally got her ticket to Heaven on April 11, 1903, when she died of tuberculosis. In the years that followed, enough people in the Church were convinced of her supreme devotion and miraculous experiences to make her a saint. She was canonised in 1940 and is recognised as the patron saint of students, pharmacists, and spinal injury. To other, much less respectful people, she is recognised as a pretty lady who saw a lot of spooky stuff after her brain got infected.

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Meetings, eh? They never start on time, they never stick to an agenda and they never have the good biscuits. You spend most of your time trying to stay awake and if you do actually think of something good to say, it gets talked over or voted down.

Thomas Andrews, the naval architect of the RMS Titanic, knew all about bad meetings.

“What… um… what if we…” he said to a roomful of senior management types with stuffy suits and intimidating facial hair in 1909, “What if we doubled the number of lifeboats, made the bulkheads bigger and more watertight and… I don’t know… made the hull a bit stronger? Would that be ok?”

But Andrews, being a Very Nice Man and not nearly assertive enough, was overruled. A shame, really. Because if Andrews was good at one thing, it was designing ships. He was also quite competent at sitting in a chair and looking handsome, but it’s important to have something to fall back on.

Born in Ireland in 1873 into a reasonably posh family, Andrews left school at sixteen to learn about boats at Harland and Wolff, a successful shipbuilding firm in Belfast that was partly owned by his uncle, William Pirrie. By 1907, only eighteen long, arduous years after he began his apprenticeship, he was head of the drafting department and quite popular due to his Niceness.

Naval architecture suited Thomas. It provided a steady income, it indulged his love of big things made of metal, and it provided plenty of opportunities for being handsome in chairs. No doubt the income and handsomeness played a part in his marriage to Helen Reilly Barbour in 1908, and the birth of a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1910.

When Harland and Wolff started construction on two whopping great boats, the Olympic and the Titanic in 1909, Andrews was all over it, designing and drafting and drawing and being ignored in meetings, until at last the Titanicwas ready for her maiden voyage*.

Harland and Wolff’s usual practice when launching a ship was to send a ‘guarantee group’ – a small contingent of staff – on a maiden voyage to address any operational or structural shortcomings. Thomas was part of the Titanic’s guarantee group, which would have been a very exciting and prestigious prospect at the time, though in hindsight it might have been a bit shit.

All in all, Andrews considered the Titanic  to be an absolute cracker of a ship during its 4-day voyage. But we all know what happened next. At about 11:40pm on 14 April 1912, an iceberg sliced through the ship’s hull, and three hours later the Titanicwas completely submerged in the Atlantic Ocean (except for a few deckchairs and other pieces of floating wood that would have fit Leonardo DiCaprio on them). From all reports, this was worse than even the most terrible of meetings with no biscuits at all.

But what of Thomas Andrews? Did he straddle the nearest funnel, laughing maniacally and grabbing panicky passers-by to gloat, “The BULKHEADS. I was RIGHT” as the decks descended into the icy waters? Did he panic and run around shouting “OUTTA MY WAY, YOU BASTARDS!”, stepping on children and poor people in a desperate attempt to fling himself onto the nearest lifeboat?

No. Thomas Andrews did what any Very Nice Man would do in such a scenario. He gave the captain his expert opinion of the ship’s fate, then searched through cabin after cabin, alerting passengers to the disaster and assisting them with lifejackets. He was last seen in the first-class smoking room, standing (though sitting might have been handsomer) and looking calmly at a painting.

“Bugger,” he said.**

 

*Or, for those wishing to break free from the shackled mire of patriarchal poppycock inherent in the highly offensive vernacular of the sea, “its first voyage”.

 

**Probably.

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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Hot and the Dead – Linda Goodman

Your parents probably had a copy of Linda Goodman’s best-selling book, Sun Signs on a bookshelf somewhere. I know mine did. Maybe you’ve got a copy too. The book that explored the zodiac’s influence on human relationships and brought the wonders of astrology into the limelight has sold millions of copies since its release in 1968.

But what was she like? What made Linda Goodman tick? What was behind that thoughtfully posed, high-cheekboned, elfin visage?

Well, erm… nothing much, I reckon. But I can’t really finish there, can I?

Linda Goodman was born Mary Alice Kemery in West Virginia in 1925. Shortly after graduating from Parkesburg High School at age 18, she married William Snyder, with whom she had two children. The marriage didn’t last.

After her divorce, she hosted a local radio show for which she adopted a new persona. Called Love Letters From Linda, the program consisted of her reading out letters sent between World War II soldiers and their sweethearts, interspersed with popular music. It was kinda like Love Song Dedications except the dedications were made to someone probably sitting in a ditch in France with dysentery and a gutful of bayonet.

Linda met her second husband, Sam Goodman, while working in radio. They had two children but later separated. During her marriage to Goodman, Linda discovered astrology, and began years of intense research into its ancient mysteries. This research involved hours and hours of reading about astrology, thinking about astrology and nodding a lot with her mouth slightly open.

After thinking especially hard for a very long time and writing most of it down, Linda produced Sun Signs, and her world exploded into a fiery ball of fame and fortune. In hindsight, the outrageous success of the book was unsurprising – it was plonked right in the middle of the Age of Aquarius and snatched up by millions who found Linda’s easy-to-read style a suitably attractive gateway into the Great Universal Life Plan of What Time You Were Born.

Before Sun Signs, astrology was a fringe spiritualist hobby; an anachronism. Afterwards, it was the key to establishing fulfilling and productive relationships with other humans. Sun Signs transformed humanity into a global fellowship of people who sought out happiness by asking “What’s your sign?” and not, surprisingly, getting punched in the face.

Goodman went on to write Love Signs (1978), Star Signs (1987), Relationship Signs (released posthumously in 1998) and other books of stories and poems with slightly less samey titles.

So the lady could write. And clearly her timing was good. But did this astrology-as-a-relationship-guide stuff ring true? Did Linda live her words? Did she walk her talk? Let’s have a little look, shall we?

First husband: divorced. Second husband: separated. Much-younger-lover and marine biologist Robert Brewer: pissed off to Mexico in 1972, never to return. For someone who made her living analysing and predicting the success or failure of relationships based on a birthdate, I’d say she wasn’t really setting an example.

But I’m not here to poke fun at someone’s career simply because it consists entirely of pseudoscientific bollocks. I’m here to talk about hotness and deadness. Linda Goodman was hot. And Linda Goodman died in 1995 at the age of 70, from complications of diabetes. Still, her books and her spirituality live on. Maybe Linda herself lives on as she would have hoped, reincarnated as a wise person or perhaps an attractive insect of some kind.

Sun Signs and other Goodman books evidently still sell well - the most recent review on amazon.com was posted only two days ago. Nevertheless, to the modern critic, Linda’s literary output may appear cutely outdated, espousing 60s-era values, personalities and social stereotypes. But given that astrology itself has been outdated since some guy in a toga said, “Hey, what if the Earth goes around the sun?” I don’t think it really matters.

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