Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

AFTERMATH OF 9/11

This month, September, marks the

13th anniversary of the 9/11 attack

on the World Trade Center.  A few 

days afterwards, Lynn and I were 

staying at the house of friends

in Ojai, California,when I read 

an account of the aftermath in the

New York Times.

 

Here’s what I wrote that afternoon:




Aftermath 9/11


Ojai, California
September 14, 2001

Here, all around me, is a landscape
begging to be painted.
Beyond a redbrick terrace
blue and purple plants crowd in;
species that I’ve never seen before.
drifts of giant sage, lucantha,
and here and there a common rose.

Beyond all this stand orange trees and limes
and lemons. Further out, beyond the reach
of  water pipes and hoses,
are arid places with clusters of spiky succulents,
and part-dismembered, unattended cacti.

Above the borders, bees dart
among cascades of flowering herbs,
while butterflies, like shreds of tissue paper,
swirl and rise and fall.

The scene is mute and motionless.
No foreign sound, no breeze, no barking dog,
no distant drone of planes or traffic,
or the laughter of playing children.

But now look down. Here, open on my lap,
the Sunday paper shows an anguished and
chaotic scene two thousand miles away.
A photo shows the silhouetted,
criss-cross lattice of the shattered towers’ remains.
A devil-made design that could,
were it left unsalvaged where it stands,
become a starker and more telling monument
than any man-made memorial.
And on another page, portraits of two
dozen wanted men, their faces
grave and troubled, even shameful,
as though they’d had some premonition
of their act’s outcome.

Two pages on – the tragic flip-side of the assault
– are fifteen portraits of dead and missing victims,
their faces smiling, or in repose. Each bears
some eulogistic paragraph:
the scoutmaster; a man called Yang,
who earned ten bucks an hour; Katherine who
loved the stage, Ruben, the Michael Jordan fan
who lived for sport.

Hundreds of such pictures have appeared
and there’ll be thousands more.
Reflect. How different did these gentle faces look
in their last fear-frozen moments?

Meanwhile, the nation reels,
vowing not to turn the other cheek,
and speaking of revenge, and war.
And after this carnage, dare I demand:
where is God, all-knowing, just and merciful?



John Birch
2001


Monday, August 4, 2014

A PASSING ACQUAINTANCE


. . . something odd and unwelcome happened . . .  I withdrew
my hand in a quick, impetuous movement . . .


His name was Patrick Gallagher. I met him in my mid-20s more than 50 years ago, when I was alone in Cyprus, on ten days leave from my regiment in Egypt. The hotel was perched on a cliff outside Boghaz, a dozen miles up the east coast from Famagusta.  It had only a few spartan bedrooms, a small, barely patronized restaurant and a lounge that was open to a big stone terrace with a view of the Mediterranean. I’d had a late dinner and sat reading in the lounge in a deep wicker chair. It was dusk, and the proprietor had lit the lamps. There was nobody else staying in the hotel that early in the season.
         Gallagher walked in and nodded to me in silent acknowledgment. He was a tall, bony man, with sad deep eyes, thinning red hair and a slight stoop. The manager seemed to know him well, and they conversed in Greek. He ordered a cognac and took a seat across the room. I had no doubt he was English; his khaki drill pants, suede desert boots, service style shirt and an Ascot made this obvious. Besides, he was carrying a copy of the Manchester Guardian Weekly.
         Far from home, I’d have welcomed a chat with a fellow Brit, or with anyone, for that matter, but he seemed absorbed by his newspaper. I returned to my book and was thinking of going to bed when he looked up and spoke.
“What are you reading?”
I closed the book and held the cover up to him.
         “Evelyn Waugh. ‘Men at Arms,’ It’s only just come out.”
         “Like it?” he asked.
         “Very much.”
         “So did I,” he said. “I’d guess you’re a military man yourself.”
         He came over and held out his hand.
“Patrick Gallagher.”
It turned out that he was a retired army colonel. After World War II he’d settled in Cyprus, where he’d served in the Intelligence Corps ten years earlier. He was on the board of Cyprus Airways and one or two other local companies.
         I guessed he was in his mid-fifties, which would have made me twenty-four, and a mere lieutenant at the time, thirty years his junior. He was widely read and had interesting views, but an attentive listener. At that age, with few profound opinions about anything, I was interested in books and writers, and flattered when he asked what I thought about this and that. We found we were both Catholics, and he talked interestingly about Waugh, Greene, Joyce, Wilde and others who’d been influenced in widely different ways by Catholicism. He seemed to have a special affection for Wilde, and often quoted him.
         We talked for an hour or two, quickly becoming open and intimate in that way that can happen when two expatriates meet, isolated from their own world. Although our ages were different, we found we had much in common. We’d both graduated from Sandhurst, Britain’s only military academy, shared the same tastes in the arts, and political affiliations.
         During the evening he showed deep concern about a recent upsurge in terrorist action in Cyprus. It was April, 1955, and Archbishop Makarios was pressing for enosis, union with Greece. Several British-owned properties had been burned down, and bombs had exploded in bars and clubs in Nicosia, killing British soldiers. There were rumors that George Grivas,  the Greek partisan who’d harassed the Nazis in occupied Greece, was already training guerillas in the Troodos Mountains.      
Before we went home, after a couple of drinks for the road, he shook my hand.
         “When are you going back to Egypt?”
         I told him I had just two more days.
         “Oh, right,” he said. “You must come and have dinner with me before you go. What are you doing tomorrow night?”
         I apologized, explaining that I’d met a girl in Famagusta. Tomorrow would be my last chance to see her, since she’d be unavoidably away in Beirut on my last day.
         He laughed, uneasily, I thought. “You’re a fast worker. Is she beautiful?”
         I said she was indeed beautiful, and felt myself blushing.
“She’s pretty special,” I said. “Her name’s Carmina. Her mother’s Venezuelan and her father’s American.”
         “And you’re in love?”
         I shrugged, unable to express myself.
         “Well, you know how it is.”
         “Yes,” he said. “I know how it is.”
         We arranged to meet for dinner on my last evening on the island. Before he went home, he drew a map showing how to get to his house, which was somewhere in the hills behind the hotel.
         I forgot Gallagher for all of the next day, driving in my rented car to Famagusta to see Carmina. We sailed alone down the coast in her father’s boat, swam in sea as clear as tap-water, and lay together in the warm spring sun in a deserted, sandy bay near Cape Greco. Later we found a taverna where they broiled fresh red mullet on charcoal, and served jugs of retsina from oak casks. By the time I returned to the hotel next morning I was utterly entranced by Carmina. I began to feel the wrench of leaving her in Cyprus, little knowing that, in only a few months, my battalion would be sent to the island for two whole years.
         The next day alone at the hotel passed slowly. I swam, read my book, did some packing to save time the next morning, and had a leisurely lunch. With Carmina away in Beirut, I began to look forward to the company of Patrick, my new friend.
         Around six that evening I drove to his home, along a rocky winding road about a mile from the sea. A handsome single-story house, with sky-blue shuttered windows and a long balustraded porch, it stood on a slope carpeted with blood-red anemones, brought out by the spring rains. A few spindly pines stood around the house to give it shade in the arid Cyprus summer.
         Gallagher sat on the porch waiting for me. A brindle bull terrier crouched on the floor at his feet, and growled as I came up the steps. Gallagher rose to meet me and shook my hand warmly, bending to pat the dog.
“This is Hannibal. He’s quite harmless. Too bloody harmless, under the circumstances -- I expect you’ve heard the news.”
         “No,” I said. “What’s happened?”
         On the table in front of him was a bottle of wine in a cooler, and two glasses. He filled my glass and topped-up his own, offering me a chair.
         “They’ve shot a Brit in Ayios Elias. A retired Army man, like me.”
         “How far away is that?”
         Gallagher thumbed over his shoulder. “Three miles back there. No distance at all.”
         “What are you going to do?”
         “There’s not a lot I can do.”
         Then, as though deliberately changing the subject, he added “Let me show you around the place.”
         The house was much bigger than it seemed from outside. The furniture was mostly locally-made, but elegant. There were several fine eighteenth century English paintings and some good porcelain pieces in the big living and dining rooms, in both of which were tall book-cases filled to the ceiling.
         Something odd and unwelcome happened while we toured the house. We were standing in his bedroom, looking out at the sea, when he slipped his hand into mine and squeezed it. He went on talking about the house as though nothing had happened. I withdrew my hand with a quick, impetuous movement, and stepped away from him. Suddenly confused, he muttered something that I took to be an apology.    
“It’s . . . it’s a beautiful house.” I said after a few moments.
         “It is, isn’t it?” he said. “Too damned beautiful for me to run away and leave to these savages.”
         The atmosphere was chilly for the next few minutes, and at dinner I noted he’d set our places at opposite ends of his long dining room table. He served a simple local meal: dolma, vine leaves stuffed with rice, mint and minced lamb; aphelia, a casserole of tender pork with red wine and coriander seeds, and a dessert of fresh fruit. He spoke disdainfully about Cyprus’s own wines, and we drank a light red Bordeaux.
         He was much less talkative now than he’d been two evenings ago. Was he shamed by my unspoken rejection of his approach before dinner, or disturbed by the news of fresh violence on his doorstep?  I searched in my mind for a topic that might revive the conversation.
         “You’re a sitting duck out here,” I said, “You need to do something to make this place safer.”
         Gallagher was decanting a bottle of port.     
“I’ve been thinking about that, naturally,” he said, pausing to pour the wine. “The nights worry me most. The bastards could get right up to the house without my hearing them. You’re more up-to-date with these things than I am. Any ideas?”
         We talked about reinforcing the doors, barring the windows, and setting-up a radio link with the village police station. We even discussed the possibility of his abandoning the house and moving into a better-protected building in Nicosia or Famagusta.  He was cool about all these things, especially any suggestion that he should, as he put it, “run away from the enemy.”
“I’d settle for a basic early warning system,” he said, “something that’d make Hannibal bark and wake me up. How could we do that?”
         I had an idea, though basic it was.
         “Do you have a workshop here?” I asked.
         He led me to a shed at back of the house, where we emptied a little pile of nails, nuts and bolts from a collection of old coffee cans onto a workbench. Then we punched holes in the empty cans and put just two or three pebbles in each, stringing them between the trees. The theory behind this Rube Goldberg contraption was that, if anyone were to approach the house in the dark, the loose pebbles would rattle in the cans, waking the dog.
         We talked and joked as we worked, our mutual discomfort and tension forgotten. Back in the house we toasted our ingenuity with port. When we parted that night he thanked me at the door. His handshake was firm and brisk. He promised he’d write when I was back in Egypt.
                                             *  *  *
         Gallagher never wrote. Almost three months later, the situation in Cyprus had become so serious that my battalion was sent into action there. For the first few months, armed only with shields and batons, we found ourselves face-to-face with rioters in the narrow streets of Nicosia. The crisis was escalating; every few days an Army truck was blown-up and its occupants killed on the lonely roads out to the Troodos Mountains, or the asbestos mines in Morphou. Much worse was to come as the Greek Cypriot population rallied behind Archbishop Makarios and his campaign for union with Greece.
         I didn’t seek out Gallagher. On the rare occasions when I had a few hours off duty I spent them with Carmina. But late one night in October I heard news of him by the most remarkable and unlikely means. I was attached to the staff of COSDO, the office of the Chief of Staff and Director of Operations. Sitting in a trailer, my colleagues and I were collecting and acting on reports of incidents that came in by radio and telephone from Army units and police stations all over the Island.
         That night, amid the babble of voices and the buzzing and ringing on the lines in that smoke-filled vehicle, I heard Gallagher’s name. The message was indistinct, coming and going over the ether. But it described, in detached, matter-of-fact detail, his murder by men with shotguns at the house outside Boghaz. There was mention of a dog, and a “home-made warning device made out of tin cans.”
         But there was a revealing postscript in The Times of Cyprus  two days later. A brief report claimed that Gallagher’s death had not been a political crime, but a “domestic” one. It alleged that “unidentified assailants” had killed him, “in revenge for his alleged abuse of young men and boys in and around the village of Boghaz.”
        
* * *

        
          

     

Monday, June 30, 2014

GARDENS OF LUST

The villagers of West Wycombe and Medenham, about 30 miles from London, knew something sinister was afoot. From time to time, crouched on the riverbank after dark, they’d hear the bawdy laughter as boatloads of women passed up the river Thames. Those who were bold enough to hide among the yew trees and willows watched as coaches unloaded parties of men dressed as monks outside the Gothic arch that led to the mysterious chalk caves under West Wycombe Hill. There were rumors of pagan rites, orgies, Black Masses, and even Satanic rituals.
         Could it be true, the locals wondered, that the man behind this debauchery was Sir Francis Dashwood, their landlord? It hardly seemed likely. After all, he was a friend of the Prime Minister, and himself a Member of Parliament for 20 years. They’d have been even more convinced of his innocence had they known that, later in life, he’d become Chancellor of the Exchequer, then Postmaster General, and finally treasurer to King George himself.
It was indeed Sir Francis, the 15th in a line of barons who, born in 1708, inherited his father’s title and estate when he was sixteen. He grew up to be one of the great rakes of his century, presiding over a secret society that called itself The Monks of Medenham, The Order of the Knights of Medenham and, ironically, The Knights of St. Francis of Wycomb. But whatever they called their mysterious group, it became notorious throughout England and beyond as The Hellfire Club.
         Sir Francis grew up at West Wycombe Park, a magnificent Palladian mansion in the county of Buckinghamshire. In his early twenties he made the Grand Tour of Europe, and spent long enough in Italy to fall in love with its history, its classical buildings, its rich mythology, and at the same time develop a deep a hatred of the Catholic Church. All of these influences had a profound effect on his life. On his travels he became absorbed with the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, Satanism and the pagan cultures of Ancient Britain. In France he even attended a Black Mass as a fascinated observer.
On his return to England, Sir Francis founded The Society of the Dillettanti in London that, like many other such clubs for drinking and womanizing, was frequented by young royals and aristocrats like himself. But after five years, mere debauchery may have grown too tame for his tastes, and he embraced a more depraved interest much closer to home. In Medenham, a few miles from the Dashwood mansion in West Wycombe, he acquired a ruined abbey on the bank of the River Thames. Originally built by Cistercian monks in the 12th Century, the abbey was a long walk from the nearest road, and well hidden in a triangular wood. The best way to reach it was by boat on the river, which made it easy for those attending the profane rituals to come and go unseen.
         Dashwood spent a huge amount of money rebuilding the abbey, with marble columns, painted ceilings and stained glass windows. Charles Johnstone, a contemporary novelist, was clearly alluding to goings on at Medenham Abbey when he described a “group of noted persons who met on an Island in the Thames . . . for the purpose of indulging in nameless vices, and worshiping the Devil.” He describes the ceiling of the chapel as “covered with emblems and devices too gross to require explanation, and portraits . . . in attitudes and actions horrible to imagine.”
Other writings describe the surroundings of the abbey as a “garden of lust.” It was said that the little groves around the abbey were “filled with statuary in indecent poses,” and there was a cave that contained images of  “sexually robust animals and birds.” In one room the walls were hung with paintings copied from indecent Roman frescoes. Another contained portraits of notorious English prostitutes.
         To remind members about the secrecy of the rituals practiced at the abbey, statues of two historic figures were said to stand at each end of the dining hall, both with fingers to their lips – Angerona, the little known Roman goddess of secrecy, and Harpocrates (not Hippocrates), her Egyptian counterpart. Dashwood’s ‘knights’ and ‘monks’ must have taken the gods’ message seriously, because little is known about the rites and rituals at their meetings. However, after seeing the artwork, anyone with only half an imagination could provide several interpretations of the words of Rabelais carved over the Abbey’s entrance in archaic French – “Fay Ce Que Voudras” – “Do what you wish.”
         If  Medenham Abbey was intriguing, a new temple that Sir Francis built was no less macabre. Three years before he acquired the abbey, Dashwood rebuilt a two mile stretch of road near West Wycombe, allegedly to give work to locals ruined by recent failed harvests. To obtain chalk for the road he burrowed into some long-neglected caves at the bottom of a hill on which the village church stood. The caves were said to have been catacombs for pagan worship in England’s earliest history. Workers in Dashwood’s ‘chalk quarry’ noticed that the place had such a strange lacework of tunnels and chambers that many believed to have some magical or occult purpose. At the far end of the tunnels, a quarter of a mile from the entrance, lay a little circular chamber that seemed to have some quite different intended use.
         A few years after he bought Medenham Abbey, Dashwood began developing the caves under West Wycomb hill as a meeting place for his ‘monks’ and ‘friars.’ A number of the small chambers were furnished and used by members of the club to entertain the ‘nuns’ and other visiting women. Further down, across a subterranean stream they called The Styx, (a river to the underworld in Greek mythology) beyond which various ceremonies took place in the little circular chamber, said to include Black Masses conducted over the naked bodies of aristocratic women.
         Yet another mystery is a golden ball, twenty-two feet in circumference, built by Sir Francis in 1752 atop the spire of West Wycombe’s St. Lawrence Church, on the hill above the caves. There were wooden seats inside, where several people could sit in a tight little circle. All that seems to be known about the use of the tower was that, in the words of John Wilkes, himself a ‘friar,’ there was singing “very unfit for the profane ears of the world below.”
         When writer Charles Johnstone described the members of the Knights of St. Francis as “a group of noted persons,” he was right. Mike Howard, a present day writer about cults and witchcraft, claims that suspected members included the Prince of Wales, Thomas Potter, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Wilkes, a radical Member of Parliament and Lord Mayor of London. Others were William Hogarth, Britain’s greatest satirical artist, Sir Horace Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, and the Earl of Bute, another Prime Minister.
Perhaps the most unlikely suspect of all was Ben Franklin, who was Postmaster to the Colonies when Sir Francis held the same post for the British Isles. Franklin had three long summer stays at Dashwood’s country seat. They no doubt talked business and, incongruously, collaborated on an abridgement of the Church of England Book of Common Prayer. However, a book called Temple and Lodge, published in the US in the 90s, claimed that “this proponent of temperance, frugality . . . moderation and cleanliness, while primly exhorting his readers not to use ‘venery,’ became a member of Dashwood’s ‘Franciscans.’”
          Were all the stories true about Dashwood and his elite club? It’s hard to say. There’s ample written and physical evidence that he was a hard drinking, whoring and depraved rake. But Satanism, occult rituals, pagan rites?  Some believe that Dashwood was no more than a dirty-minded and debauched joker, and a brilliant publicist who’d found a way to titillate and befriend the leaders of the British Establishment. Then again, maybe it was no more than an ingeniously concocted façade, and the club simply  “a cross between the Dead Poets Society and a risqué Playboy club,” in the words of the family archives of one of the ‘friars,’ Lord Sandwich.
I guess we’ll never know.