‘The White House’ – a cautionary novel

The White House – Now available on Kindle 

myles dungan final copy

 

Now available in paperback and on Kindle.

 

 

 

Here’s a slightly longer preview. Strictly between ourselves. Don’t tell anyone. 

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

A future, of sorts, in a barely tangential universe…

 

The spaniel heard the limo approach and stopped licking his testicles. Fleetingly it occurred to him not to bother giving chase. After all only vassals pursued cars, and he was a feudal Lord. A High King. But the limo was sleek, interminable and enigmatic. Despite the intense cold, and his aristocratic lethargy, the chance to assert his mastery over a chrome and steel Titan was irresistible.

Agamemnon had a rigid modus operandi when it came to chasing cars. Some dogs bark and never leave the kerb. But where was the fun in that? Aggie had an appetite for physical and moral hazard. He really should have been shorting the euro on Wall Street, with his dealer on speed dial.

Agamemnon—his human was a history professor— had inherited his technique from his mother, Athena. Her style was an homage to her own mater, Aphrodite. Both had long since made the journey across the Styx, aged, obese and diabetic, but unmarked by a single car track. So why try and reinvent the hubcap?

As the limo swept past, its black windows impenetrable, splashing brackish water onto the hedgerows of his County Meath domain, Agamemnon sprang into action. He was the Hound of the Baskervilles. He was Cujo. He was Vishnu’s familiar, Death, destroyer of tyres. At least he would be if he ever caught one.

He set off after the vehicle with a surprising turn of speed for an animal who, with a certain physiological inevitability, was tending towards the avoirdupois of his ancestors. His neglected skills quickly reasserted themselves and his enthusiasm for the chase mounted. As the limo approached a pair of imposing gates it slowed down and, to his astonishment, he began to gain ground. Then it stopped altogether. He now held the monstrous beast in thrall. For Agamemnon, the prospect of imminent victory posed a dilemma. He had no idea what to do next. What do you do with an overpowered Leviathan whose body parts were composed entirely of aluminium, rubber, glass, tungsten and PVC?

As Agamemnon pondered his next move, the door opened on the front passenger’s side. A man with a crew cut and designer sunglasses emerged. He began talking aggressively to his sleeve.

‘Hey, dumbass. Why isn’t the gate open? Godammit, POTUS is a sitting duck here.’

Agamemnon became excited at the mention of ducks. Then a rasping voice came from the driver’s seat.

‘Stop with the POTUS, Schmidt. We’re not even supposed to be here.’

‘Sorry sir,’ said the sleeve-talker. He resumed the tête-a-tête with his clothing. ‘Repeat. Golden Eagle is a sitting duck here.’

Agamemnon was puzzled. How could an eagle be a duck, he wondered? He knew he was only a dog, but still, the proposition sounded absurd. Sleevetalker, who clearly had an interest in birds, now approached the entrance and began to press the buttons of a silver pad on the gate’s pillar. After punching the same four keys half a dozen times he reached into an inside pocket, took something out, and pointed it at the pad. He spread his feet a shoulder length apart, extended his arms, and secured his right wrist with his left hand. Then he had second thoughts. He abandoned his awkward stance, reached his left hand into another inside pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. He studied it for a moment, then tried some more buttons. There was an immediate response.  A bored voice issued from the metallic grille underneath the buttons.

‘Welcome to Beltra Country Club, how can I help you?’

‘You can open these goddamn gates and get POT … Golden Eagle out of harm’s way, numbnuts.’

Just then the rear window of the limo opened a few inches and a new voice, strident and high-pitched, intervened. To the superstitious dog, it sounded like the whine of the Banshee. An anxious Agamemnon began to whimper and look around for an escape route.  ‘What the merry fuck is going on here?’ rat-tat-tatted the Banshee. ‘Is this a negotiation?’

‘Did you hear that, asshole?’ Sleevetalker shouted at the pillar. There was a smooth whirring noise and the gates began to open. The engine of the car started up again. As it did so, Agamemnon feared that his quarry was about to elude him. Before Golden Eagle had time to disappear the black spaniel cocked his leg and urinated on the gleaming hubcap of the limo’s rear wheel.  Then the vehicle sped off down what looked to Aggie like an interesting driveway, one with lots of rabbit holes to either side and no obvious badger setts—badgers were trouble. Contented with his lot the little dog strutted back down the country road. He was returning home for another session with a copy of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  It belonged to his history professor and, so far, hadn’t been missed. He had already chewed his way through a superior chapter on the gruesome reign of the guillotine and the depredations of Robespierre.

 

BOOK ONE – THE SEA

‘Cast thy bread upon the waters …’

Ecclesiastes 11:1

That smug patrician, Adrian Breakspear, had plenty to smirk about, thought President Trout. His face must be permanently fixed in one of his lop-sided leers. It was as if he had conjured the waters himself, like some tweedy Anglo-Irish Sea God. This thought, however fanciful, served to increase Trout’s agitation. He imagined Breakspear, a flop-haired Neptune, directing the acquiescent waves of the Irish sea, across the sands of Beltra beach, towards the fescue grass of the ‘White House’ green.

‘There must be some sort of blacklist I can put the bastard on?’ the President mused, staring vacantly out the window of the Oval Office at the bare branches of the crabapple trees in the Rose Garden. They were being pruned by a small army of well-muffled gardeners.

While he doodled on yet another unread daily CIA briefing, Trout couldn’t help feeling that, in spite of everything, Breakspear might ultimately have triumphed. The thought exasperated him. All the more so because the Breakspears, in all their horsey decrepitude, had oozed buttery condescension.  They liked to remind everybody that they were descended from the only English Pope. They had seized the Beltra lands by force majeure after their saintly ancestor sent his fellow countrymen to invade Ireland in 1169. In the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the natives hadn’t taken kindly to the Breakspears. The disdain was entirely mutual and the twain rarely met. An inevitable consequence was centuries of spectacular in-breeding, exemplified by the ubiquity of the famous Breakspear unibrow. While their neighbours were impervious to the Breakspear pheromones, they had a stimulating effect within the extended family. Such a rate of consanguinity meant it was inevitable that a genetic glitch—someone like Adrian— would eventually lose the plot. In fact, he had managed to squander all four thousand acres of it.

Only someone as hapless as a Breakspear, however, Trout pondered with quiet satisfaction, could have fallen foul of pirates in the 21stcentury. Adrian had wagered the entire County Meath estate on a precarious Lloyds syndicate, being spectacularly mismanaged by some of his chinless old Etonian schoolmates. In 2010 the consortium took one punt too many on the insurance of cargo ships sailing off the Horn of Africa. The Breakspears, who had survived the Black Death, Cromwell, the Land League, a plethora of IRAs, and a substantial shareholding in Anglo Irish Bank, finally succumbed to Somali buccaneers with speedy motor boats, garish headbands, and a persuasive arsenal.

Then, from the west, a white knight had galloped to the rescue. Tyrone Trout was a humble New York billionaire hedge fund manager. He had amassed his wealth by failing to lose the entire fortune bequeathed him by his father, and by avoiding tax like most avoid stepping in dog shit. The Fall of the House of Breakspear had coincided with an epidemic of status anxiety on Wall Street. Clifton Cathcart III had begun the stampede of bankers and traders anxious to avoid the social stigma associated with the failure to acquire some heavily encumbered Irish real estate. Warren Buffet’s tide had gone out, and Ireland’s bankers had been caught swimming in the altogether. Wall Street’s Finest were snapping up Irish properties like crocodiles. If the degenerate Cathcart was buying Irish, then so was Tyrone Bentley Trout. The acquisition of the Beltra demesne (‘fabulous sea views, ripe for development’ – Real Estate Alliance) became a sacred mission.

Trout successfully gazumped an attempted purchase by the Irish state, when he offered the Breakspears twice what the Office of Public Works couldn’t afford anyway. This minor coup had added the all-important hint of lemon juice to his mayonnaise. The word ‘public’ offended him, and he had promised his billionaire father on the latter’s death bed that he would never flinch in the fight against briefcase socialism. What clinched his triumph was the ‘sweetheart’ deal he dangled before the Breakspears. The family could remain in situ in Beltra House, while their knight errant doffed his armour and constructed two championship golf courses in the demesne land around them.

Breakspear and Trout had sealed the transaction with a gentlemanly handshake. Unhappily for Breakspear, however,  he neglected to count his fingers after pressing the flesh. Had Trout been a man of his word he would have been a mere hedge fund millionaire.

The official photographer who recorded the happy event had difficulty framing his shot. The Anglo-Norman Breakspear was tall and slender, yet to manifest the famous family stoop. The cross-bred Trout was squat. His father and mother had been squat, his younger brother was squatter still. Trout was also a sixty-something, cantankerous, florid alpha male who liked to tell photographers—and most other service providers—how to do their jobs. Trout’s priority was a favourable camera angle, this was essential to avoid drawing unnecessary public attention to the jaw-dropping wig whose very existence he consistently denied.

At first, the deal had worked unexpectedly well for the Breakspears. The discovery of a thriving colony of protected whorl snails on their former estate delayed the start of course construction. After a congenial visit to New York, however, the incumbent Taoiseach, Austin Purcell, had come to see things from the billionaire’s point of view. His considered judgment was that having a ‘signature’ Trout leisure development in Ireland was well worth the inconvenience of flouting the European Union Habitats Directive—at a cost to the state of €20,000 a day.  There were unpalatable, and unprovable rumours that Purcell had been well recompensed for his own inconvenience.

Having now accounted for the wildlife, Trout had built his two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses—Beltra (Links) and Beltra (Park)—while the Breakspears slumbered. But as soon as the designer’s helicopter had taken to the air at the end of the exhibition match marking the opening of the two courses, the Breakspears had been unceremoniously shunted out. A couple of ostentatious suits of armour were imported for the lobby and their Beltra mansion became a ‘Blue Book’ country house hotel, specialising in upmarket weddings.

After their humiliating eviction, there was one final, despairing throw of the dice from the Breakspears. A shadowy organisation calling itself the New Irish Land League emerged from the snooker room of the Merrion Street Club to fight the eviction. In response, Trout International hired half a dozen sinewy members of the Drogheda Mixed Martial Arts club to act as their champions. Facing a dialogue with six ‘wannabe’ Conor McGregors, the New Irish Land League had discretely ‘called stumps’ and had never been heard of again.

Then, just a few weeks after the disaster of the Presidential victory, came more bad news from Ireland. Nature had chosen to demonstrate its abhorrence of a vacuum, and its support for climate change science, by sending a tempest against his property. The ‘signature’ seventeenth hole of Beltra (Links) had been in the eye of the storm. This was Nicklaus’s personal favourite. He had named it the ‘White House’ in honour of Trout’s maverick run for the Presidency. After an impressive winter storm, all that remained of his verdant ‘White House’ was a partially submerged flagstick. Even this had quickly been claimed by an enterprising souvenir hunter in a kayak.  Defying the wishes of the Secret Service, Trout, in the midst of the presidential transition, had gone to have a look for himself. What he saw on his clandestine mission dismayed him. Having started life as a classic dogleg left—with three fairway bunkers in the shape of a shamrock—the ‘White House’ was now an expensive water hazard.

Trout recalled to mind a lesson that his father had once taught him after ‘Junior’ had crashed one of ‘Senior’s’ Mercs. Someone would pay for the damage, and it was not going to be Daddy.

 

 

Edward Rothko, United States Commerce Secretary, was a trim, elegant, vigorous looking athlete of early middle age. The former merchant banker was a grizzled, non-smoking, Marlboro’ Man, squeezed into the sharpest of Armani suits. In his previous life, for which he was beginning to yearn already, he had haunted the gym of the New York Athletic Club. His daily 6.00 a.m. workout—always accompanied by two competing personal trainers—was the chisel that had chipped out the angles and shallow recesses of his attenuated face. He liked to think of his body as a temple, though, in truth, it was little more than a modest synagogue.  He encouraged both Angelo and Jalen to call him ‘The Beast of the Bourse’ hoping that the nickname would reach the executive washrooms of Wall Street. So far, it hadn’t caught on, and now that he had relocated to DC he would have to start from scratch.

The Presidential Transition Team had plucked him from Price Waterhouse Cooper and deposited him in a swimming pool-sized office on 1401 Constitution Avenue, a few blocks from the White House. Rothko had sat beside a Stanford academic at Trout’s inauguration. She chatted about the charms of eugenics, the elegance of the Bell curve, and her loathing for John Maynard Keynes (‘I’m told he was a compulsive onanist!’), while Rothko shivered in the dry freezing air and wondered what an onanist was. So far he had spent the first three days of his tenure doing little more than conducting job interviews with beetle-browed economists far to the right of the late Milton Friedman while nursing his attendant migraine, and sneaking a nostalgic look at the Hang Seng Index on Bloomberg TV. His tightening hamstrings reminded him of how much he missed Angelo and Jalen.

Today he had been peremptorily summoned to the White House. He had been greeted on his arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by the carnivorous Buchanan. Trout’s sentinel handed him a (temporary) laminated White House pass.

‘The first of many, I’m sure,’ said the Chief of Staff jovially, in the manner of one of Pavlov’s dogs who has heard a bell ring. The man made Rothko nervous, and it wasn’t just the infamous black eye patch either. The cadaverous Buchanan always looked as if he hadn’t eaten for weeks, and was sizing you up as a potential snack. He had, thought Rothko, the balls of Satan, and the charms of a funnel web spider.

‘Any idea what this is about?’ Rothko inquired, trying not to sound too diffident. He was, after all, tenth in line of succession to the Oval office. He’d looked it up on Wikipedia before agreeing to take the job.

‘It must be about you, I suppose. Just be yourself,’ replied Buchanan unhelpfully. ‘And an occasional display of fawning deference wouldn’t go amiss.’

The laconic Chief of Staff had then ushered Rothko into the Oval office without offering any further enlightenment.  As he entered the room the Commerce Secretary detected a musky but vaguely familiar odour. Trout was finishing off what looked like a helping of chicken nuggets. Rothko hadn’t seen a chicken nugget face to face since finishing a teenage internship in a Brooklyn McDonald’s at the insistence of his autocratic father. He immediately understood why the White House Chef had already handed in his notice.

Rothko was motioned by the Falstaffian Trout, his mouth brimming with capon, towards the opposite side of the huge Oval Office Resolute desk. The proffered seat looked extraordinarily like an electric chair with truncated legs. When the Secretary sat, his head barely appeared above the top of the oaken writing table. He was looking almost directly into a carving of a bald eagle with an E Pluribus Unum scroll billowing from its beak.

Without swallowing the remnants of his lunch the President had dived right in,  berating his Secretary of Commerce for obscure sins of omission. Rothko did his best to be sycophantic but lacked any bearings. Worse still he became fatally distracted by a sliver of white chicken lodged between the President’s yellowing upper incisors. He studied it attentively as the rant continued, wondering when it would dislodge. Should he say something? What if the President’s next meeting involved lots of hand-holding and congenial grins?  Deflected from the message by the medium, he missed the thrust of the President’s diatribe. He gathered that vital American commercial interests in Ireland were at stake, but then became confused by militaristic references to ‘flags’ and ‘bunkers’. His bewilderment had accumulated just enough octane to fuel an interruption when the President curtailed his tirade to swallow a mouthful of something dark and bubbly from a red aluminium can. It had no effect on the sliver of chicken, which still clung to greatness.

‘I’m sorry Mr. President but I wasn’t aware that we had bases in the Republic of Ireland,’ the Secretary ventured. His speech was so rapid that he feared his sudden lack of diffidence might be construed as insubordination. His dental preoccupation also meant that he had no inkling what a military crisis in the North Atlantic had to do with the Commerce Department.

Trout grunted, opened a drawer and produced a toothpick. A tsunami of relief washed over the Commerce Secretary. He was off the orthodontic hook.

‘Who said anything about military bases?’ hissed Trout ‘ We’re discussing an endangered American facility on Irish soil – soil, I might add, which is eroding at an alarming rate and is rearranging the boundaries of a US overseas dependency.’

‘Eh … overseas dependency Mr. President?’

‘Yeh! Like Guam … or Hawaii. US sovereign territory is shrinking by the day and the Commerce Department is doing nothing about it.’

Just then Rothko felt a sharp pain in the meaty part of his right thigh. He jerked upwards. He’d been correct about the chair, he thought. There must be a button under the desk. How many more volts did Trout have at his disposal? The first jolt had only been a warning. Then, looking down, he spied what appeared to be a matted blob of orange marmalade perched on his lap. It had flamboyant whiskers and two malevolent walleyes.

‘Aww,’ murmured Trout affectionately, ‘I see you’ve made friends with Supreme Court.’

‘The Supreme Court, sir?’ Rothko was, by now, so far out to sea that he might have been a minor character in a Patrick O’Brian novel.

‘Not THE Supreme Court, you moron. MY Supreme Court. The cat sitting in your lap. A magnificent specimen, don’t you think?’ purred Trout.

Rothko couldn’t have agreed less, barring the probability that Supreme Court’s magnificence could be measured in litres of pure evil.  While Rothko eyed the cat warily, and surreptitiously rubbed his smarting thigh, the President had returned to the matter in hand.

‘You’re my Commerce Secretary, right? Rubenstein … or something like that.’

‘Rothko, sir.’

The President looked at him with sudden interest.

‘Rothko … didn’t my wife—not this one … Number Two … the one with the weird accent—buy some piece of crap painting from you, for my kitchen?’

‘I think you’re mistaken Mr Pres—’

‘You’re right. Maybe it’s the one in the john. Lots of straight lines and boxes.’

‘I think you’ll find …’

‘Doesn’t matter. Moved on already. So you ARE my Commerce secretary …?’

‘Absolutely, sir. However, might I suggest, Mr President, that this may not be within my bailiwick?’ He considered making a joke about waging a trade war but thought better of it. He had already heard rumours about how policy was being made in the Oval Office.

Trout speared a post-it note on his desk with the toothpick. He began to twirl it between thumb and index finger as if it was a square yellow cocktail umbrella.

‘Your … bailiwick?’ he inquired, menacingly. Too late, Rothko remembered that Trout had no grasp of multisyllabic English. He spoke what he called ‘American’, and carved short cuts through language like a Deliveroo cyclist.  Rothko took a deep breath and tried again. ‘My province.’ And again. ‘My sphere of responsibility.’ A slight upward movement of Trout’s jowls indicated that he had finally understood. Rothko wondered whether it was the ‘province’ or the ‘sphere’ that had captured the heights.

‘So, who do I need to talk to that can put the shits up the Irish?’ asked the President, stabbing the air with the toothpick, which, to the Secretary’s dismay, had yet to be applied to the purpose for which it was designed.

‘Probably the Secretary of State, Mr President.’

‘State? That scrawny motherfucker. Maybe I should just go straight to the Joint Chiefs of Staff?’

‘That might be a shade provocative, don’t you think, Mr President? I don’t believe Ireland has much of a standing army worth talking about.’

Trout laid the toothpick on the table and opened a second drawer. From this to Rothko’s surprise, he produced a packet of cigarettes and proceeded to light one. Instinctively the Commerce Secretary’s eyes sought out the nearest smoke alarm. Trout intercepted the glance and smirked.

‘They’re all gone. Sprinklers too. Obama got rid of them. Sly bastard.’

Rothko smiled wanly. That explained the strange but oddly familiar aroma, he thought.

‘OK, we’re done here,’ barked Trout. ‘You can go now. Put down Supreme Court and send in Buchanan. Chop chop!’

As Rothko gingerly extracted himself from underneath the ginger tom and beat a welcome retreat, the President suddenly changed his mind and called him back. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Rothko returned to the huge oaken desk, by now denuded of everything other than a phone, a hideously mutilated post-it note, and a leaf of discarded iceberg lettuce from the President’s chicken nuggets that had been pressed into service as an ashtray.

Rothko knew instinctively that he was about to be fired. Angelo and Jalen beckoned. He wondered what the previous record was for the shortest tenure as Commerce Secretary.

‘I remember now’, said Trout. In his head, Rothko was already composing his resignation letter. Abrupt or apologia? Terse and enigmatic, he decided. Mostly verbs.

‘It was the john,’ said Trout, thoroughly pleased with himself.

‘Eh … what was, sir?’

‘Where I hung that painting of yours. The reason I remember is that bar a couple of random lines of beige, it was the colour of shit.’

With a flourish, he extracted the sliver of chicken with the nail of his index finger, studied it for a moment, returned it to his mouth, and swallowed it.

As the last shard of Presidential nugget slipped down the Commander in Chief’s throat he turned his attention, once again, to the man he took to be an abstract expressionist.

‘Do you play golf?’ he asked.

 

 

 

Fake Histories #33  Is Elvis still taking care of business?

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Depending on when you were born, Elvis Presley—who died forty-two years ago today—was the King of Rock and Roll and a practising demi-God, or a morbidly obese Las Vegas cabaret singer who didn’t even write his own songs. It largely depends on whether you were born in the forties—in which case he was a genius—or the fifties—in which case you were more of a Beatles type anyway.

Falling squarely into the latter category I was one of those people who was puzzled at the mawkish outpouring of grief when Elvis died on 16 August 1977 and those spangly white costumes, which latterly had almost been painted on to his frame, were no more. Personally, I was more affected by the death of the great Groucho Marx the same week.

As is the case with most icons there are many myths surrounding the life, times and music of Elvis Presley. Among these is the notion that Presley and Oprah Winfrey are related. Which occasionally morphs into the narrative that Oprah’s ancestors were once slaves on the Presley estate. This, however, is hard to reconcile with the idea of Elvis being descended from an impoverished line of Mississippi sharecroppers who were forced to shoot, skin and eat squirrels to stay alive. Plantation owners were more of the ‘mint julep on the porch’ variety.

Then there is the rumour that Elvis had a pet chimpanzee named Scatter who died of alcoholic poisoning. Well, this one definitely has at least an element of truth about it. Elvis had a lot of pets, and one of them was a chimpanzee named Scatter who often dressed, like his owner, in Hawaiian shirts. Whether or not he was spoon-fed liquor and died as a result, however, remains merely a nasty rumour.

But, of course, the abiding myth that surrounds Elvis is that he is still ‘taking care of business’, holed up somewhere with that other great immortal Jim Morrison. Neither man, thousands of people fervently hold as an act of blind faith,  ever left the building.

Apparently, the King’s Graceland mansion included a secret tunnel dating back to the days of the Underground Railroad, when slaves were smuggled out of the South to freedom in the North. Elvis is supposed to have abandoned his career by means of this nineteenth-century convenience, rather than actually having died of a heart attack on his own twentieth-century convenience. He is then alleged to have purchased a ticket to Buenos Aires in the name of John Burrows the day after his faked death. Why is this significant, you ask? And I will tell you, as breathlessly as possible. The man who bought the ticket looked very Elvish and the alias ‘John Burrows’ was often used by Presley’s management team when booking hotel rooms for him anonymously.

Presleyean conspiracy theorists also point to the misspelling of his middle name on his gravestone as a clear indication of an intention to simulate his own demise. Now when you look at this gravestone it clearly reads ‘Elvis Aaron Presley’, the spelling being all present and correct. Except, apparently, Elvis’s middle name on his birth certificate was spelt ‘A-R-O-N’ as opposed to the more conventional ‘A-A-R-O-N.’ Which monumental typo, obviously demonstrates a clear intent to leave a wax dummy in your open coffin and do a bunk for Argentina where your savings would immediately have been eroded by rampant inflation.

The wax dummy theory, by the way, is lent credence by the weight of the coffin, which clocked in at nine hundred pounds. This was, supposedly, because it housed an air conditioning unit to prevent the wax from melting in the August Tennessee heat. Clearly, it had nothing to do with the fact that Elvis himself weighed almost nine hundred pounds at the time of his death.

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Between 1977 and 1981 six of his new releases became top ten singles. This prompted people unfamiliar with the concept of ‘recording’ or ‘archive’ to assume that he was still active in the music business. He was also said to have appeared as an extra in the film Home Alone thirteen years after his faked death. Sightings of him are now more frequent than those of the much older and more credible Loch Ness monster. You can expect him to turn up soon doing tours of Graceland, and for the first miracles to be cited in his name.

So, is Elvis still alive somewhere, possibly working as a vaquero on the Argentinian Pampas, at the grand old age of eighty-four? Well, we should probably assume that he was dead when an autopsy was performed on his body and, tentatively and regrettably, accept this as fake history.

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Fake Histories #32   Beachboy Dennis Wilson barely escaped being murdered by the Manson gang in 1969?

 

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According to the writer Joan Didion the 1960s may have ended fifty years ago today. Technically she was out by four months and twenty-two days, but Didion was writing about a shocking event that banished the optimism, playfulness, and naivety of that decade. Because it was half a century ago today that a promising young actor named Sharon Tate, wife of film director, Roman Polanski, was murdered in Los Angeles. She wasn’t the only victim, four others were slaughtered along with her, as was her unborn son.

They were the victims of a  demented cult or a devious group of psychopathic killers covering up a crime committed by one of their members, that’s depending on which account you read. They were, or so the California courts were told, under the guidance and tutelage of a quasi-Messianic figure named Charles Manson, a petty criminal released from prison in March 1967. A number of personal and second-hand accounts have been written about the rampage of Manson’s acolytes—including the best-selling ‘true crime’ novel of all time, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, who was one of the team that prosecuted Manson in 1970. Their accounts are contradictory and in the case of cult members trying to impress parole boards with the level of their penitence, utterly unreliable.

Ironically, Manson was not present at Tate crime scene, much of the murderous work was carried out by two of the memoirists, Susan Atkins and Charles ‘Tex’ Watson. In addition to the five so-called ‘Tate’ murders, the Manson gang went on to kill a Los Angeles couple, Leno and Rosemary La Bianca and were also found guilty of two more killings, a body count of nine over a period of three weeks.

And it didn’t all end in 1970 when many of the members of the cult were jailed for life, or handed hefty prison terms. Another member of the group, Lynette Fromme, nicknamed ‘Squeaky’, who avoided jail in 1970, made a name for herself in 1975 when she attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford with a .45 semi-automatic pistol. Twelve years later she broke out of prison and, apparently, went in search of Manson who, she had heard, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. She was recaptured within two days and was released in 2009 after thirty-four years in jail. Manson died in prison in 2017 after being incarcerated for forty-eight years.

But amid the horror of their crimes one, often overlooked, episode in the preamble to the murders was the relationship between the so-called Manson ‘family’ and the mercurial Dennis Wilson, drummer, and co-founder of the Beach Boys. Wilson had picked up two female members of the family hitchhiking, brought them to his home, and left for a recording session. When he returned it was to find Manson, and a number of his followers, ensconced in his house. Instead of calling the police Wilson befriended Manson, who saw himself as a budding rock star. Wilson was sufficiently impressed with Manson’s songwriting abilities to record him in his brother Brian’s studio. Wilson even persuaded the Beach Boys to cover one of Manson’s songs—originally entitled ‘Cease to Exist’ – this was changed to the more innocuous ‘Never Learn Not to Love’—as a B-side. When Manson was not credited on the record the relationship turned sour. Manson is said to have threatened to kill Denis Wilson and was beaten up by Wilson as a result.

But to allege that Wilson might have been a specific target for the murderous activities of the Manson gang is something of a stretch. It presupposes a level of organisation, and homicidal mentoring on the part of Manson himself, that doesn’t appear to exist outside of the myth-making of Vincent Bugliosi’s best-selling Helter Skelter. While Manson, and many of his acolytes, were undoubtedly evil, they were not evil geniuses. Neither did they necessarily kill at the behest of Manson himself. Their atrocities, far from being commanded by a charismatic guru figure, may have been ‘copy-cat’ murders designed to convince LA Police that they had arrested another ‘family’ member, Robert Beausoleil, in error, for the killing of a drug dealer.

Wilson certainly forked out a lot of money to the Manson ‘family’—much of to treat the STDs of the famously promiscuous cult members—he even walked out of his own house and left Manson in situ when their relationship turned nasty. But there is no evidence that Manson had any plans to do away with Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson. That’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #31  – The Irish tricolour was first unveiled when it was flown over the GPO in 1916?

 

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He was one of the most colourful and erratic characters in 19thcentury Irish history. Thomas Francis Meagher was born to a wealthy Waterford merchant family in 1823. He was educated by the Jesuits at Clongowes wood and later at Stonyhurst in England, where he replaced his Irish accent with a clipped upper-class English drawl – something that was to alienate many of his fellow-countrymen in the years that followed.

His involvement with the Young Ireland movement in the 1840s led to his falling out with Daniel O’Connell and a drift towards militancy. This culminated in the farcical 1848 rebellion – but before that dismal revolutionary failure, Meagher had conferred on the Irish nation perhaps his most abiding legacy – the green, white and orange tricolour. He had been gifted the flag on a visit to France, it was unveiled in his native Waterford in 1848, and its use in the 1916 rising copper-fastened its status as the flag of the Irish republic. It gained formal recognition in Article 7 of the 1937 constitution.

Meagher’s involvement in the 1848 rebellion led to his transportation to Tasmania. 1852 he escaped to the USA where, arguably, he made a greater contribution to American history than he did to that of his native country.

His most significant impact came after the outbreak of the Civil War. Taking over command of the Irish brigade from Michael Corcoran he proved to be an excellent recruiter for the Union army.  Knowing his target market well one of Meagher’s recruiting posters read –‘The Cotton Lords and Traitor Allies of England Must Be Put Down Once and for All.’

To his detractors, of whom there were many, Meagher was a self-important, fractious and pompous alcoholic. But to his troops he was their General, known to one and all in the Irish Brigade as ‘Meagher of the Sword’. His reputation was sealed by an iconic engraving of the celebrated American artists Currier and Ives in which he was depicted on horseback leading the Irish Brigade into the Battle of Fair Oaks in June 1862.

After the Civil War, Meagher was rewarded by the US administration—if indeed it can be described as a reward—with something called the secretaryship of the territory of Montana.  This may sound like he was expected to take minutes of a lot of meetings, but that is not how things turned out. On Meagher’s arrival in the future capital of the state, Helena, the sitting governor just upped and left. That should probably have served as a warning to the Waterford man that perhaps he too should make his excuses and scarper.

Instead, Meagher became acting governor of the territory and found himself in charge of a large and relatively lawless region of the American West. Not all the inhabitants were friendly. The assertive Lakota nation disputed the writ of the Federal government in suitably muscular fashion. In addition to an Indian war, Meagher also found himself in the middle of some vicious factional disputes among the tiny white population. As Meagher had something of a shortish fuse he didn’t take long to make enemies.  Indeed it may have been his political adversaries who were responsible for his mysterious death on 1 July 1867. He died at Fort Benton on the Missouri river when he disappeared from a steamboat. His body was never found. It was presumed to have been whisked away rapidly by the fierce river currents. Various theories have been advanced as to the cause of his death, the most popular is that he was drunk and fell overboard. Others suggest he was killed by native Americans, renegade Confederates or Montanan political enemies. We shall never know.

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Statues honour the man who gave us the Irish tricolour, in the Mall in Waterford, and outside the Capitol building in Helena, Montana. Both depict him on horseback waving his sword. There is also a bust of the man near the spot where he disappeared more than 150 years ago.

So, in answer to the question was the Irish tricolour first unveiled when it was flown over the GPO in 1916, no it wasn’t. That event took place in the city of Waterford sixty-eight years before the Easter Rising.  [It’s fake history].

 

Fake Histories #30   British 19th-century​ public hangings were always carnival occasions?

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It was one of the most celebrated miscarriages of justice in nineteenth-century British history, based on so-called forensic evidence that makes the appalling convictions of the Birmingham Six in 1975 seem almost benign by comparison. The difference was that the person convicted did not survive to benefit from the subsequent campaign designed to exonerate her.

Eliza Fenning was the daughter of an Irish-born soldier and was twenty-one years of age when she was taken on as a cook in the household of Robert and Charlotte Turner in London’s Chancery Lane. On the evening of 21 March 1815 she cooked a meal for herself,  her employers, the father of Robert Turner, and a young apprentice, Robert Gadsdell.

Later that night all five exhibited signs of extreme food poisoning. A doctor—John Marshall—was sent for, but all five recovered. Turner, however, encouraged by his wife, harboured suspicions as to the source of the poisoning. Charlotte Turner expressed misgivings about the insistence on the part of Eliza Fenning that she prepare dumplings on the night of the ill-fated meal. The remains of these were examined in a rather dubious experiment by John Marshall, who proclaimed them contaminated with arsenic. Robert Turner claimed that a quantity arsenic—freely available at the time for the extermination of vermin—had gone missing from his study. Suspicion fell on Eliza Fenning. Although she too had eaten the dumplings, she was arrested and later charged with attempted murder.

At Fenning’s trial, Marshall gave evidence of his so-called ‘findings’—at the time no reliable scientific test existed which might have proved the presence of arsenic. Charlotte Turner offered a possible revenge motive for Fenning’s allegedly homicidal intentions. She told the court that she had scolded Fenning the previous week when she had caught the young cook in the bedroom of their two apprentices, in a ‘state of undress’. Subsequently, Mrs. Turner continued, she had been treated by Fenning with less than the required level of respect and deference.

At her trial, Eliza Fenning had no legal representation. The trial judge, in his summing up, made no secret of his conviction that Fenning was guilty, despite the flimsy and circumstantial nature of the evidence against her. The jury, thus prompted, took only a few minutes to convict her. The following day the judge sentenced her to death for the attempted murder of the Turners and Gadsdell, although he had the option, had he chosen to exercise it, of ordering her transportation to Australia instead. She was hanged on 26 July 1815 outside the walls of Newgate prison before a large crowd, said to have numbered more than forty thousand. Unlike other public hangings, the atmosphere on this occasion was not of a carnival nature. The crowd was reported as behaving in a sullen fashion. Most would have seen the execution of the young working-class servant girl—who had the temerity to have learned to read—as judicial murder of one of their own. Fenning was still protesting her innocence as she went to her death.

There was an immediate adverse reaction to her conviction and execution. The radical newspapers of the day, such as the Examiner and the Traveller, condemned the nature of the evidence, and the use of capital punishment in the case. Establishment newspapers, however, like the Observer, supported the verdict, pointing out to its readers that ‘her father and mother are both from Ireland, and are both Roman Catholics.’

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The Turner’s house was attacked by a mob shortly after the execution of Eliza Fenning, and more than ten thousand people are said to have attended her funeral.

A journalist, John Watkins, took up the case of Fenning and published a riposte to the testimony that had convicted her. He eviscerated the prosecution evidence, most notably, that of the doctor/chemist John Marshall. Watkins pointed out that Marshall claimed to have distilled half a teaspoon of arsenic from the dough left behind in the pan used to make the murderous dumplings. Extrapolating from that, Watkins estimated that the dumplings themselves would have contained eighteen hundred grains of arsenic. Five grains of arsenic is enough to kill most human beings, yet the Turners, Fenning, and Gadsdell had survived an amount of three hundred and sixty times that dosage. The palpably unsafe nature of Fenning’s conviction helped accelerate the introduction of proper forensic standards into British crime detection, and expert court testimony over the subsequent half-century.

So, not all public hangings in 19thcentury Britain were carnival occasions, certainly not in the case of Eliza Fenning. That’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #29   The lunar landings of the 1960s and 70s were all faked by NASA?

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It gave us satellite TV, laptops, carbon monoxide detectors, the Black and Decker Dustbuster, Teflon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins—not the one who was left cooling his heels while the real action was taking place a few hundred miles away, that was Eamon de Valera.

I’m talking about the space race of the 1960s between the USA and something called the Soviet Union. It culminated fifty years ago this week in the landing of two Americans on the surface of the moon. Or did it? Was the whole enterprise an elaborate fake? For years dedicated fake scientists have argued that the entire Apollo programme was one gigantic hoax.

Exhibit A for the conspiracy theorists is the planting of the American flag by Buzz Aldrin. Like many expensive Dublin restaurants, the moon has no atmosphere worth speaking about. But when Aldrin stuck the Stars and Stripes in the lunar surface it appeared to move. This, the Apollo Eleven deniers conclude, indicated the presence of wind. As anyone who did Junior Cert science can tell you, there is no such thing as a breezy vacuum. Not only that, the flag managed to stay aloft throughout the lengthy extra-vehicular activity of Armstrong and Aldrin.

Therefore, Dr. Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick filmed the whole thing in the Hollywood Hills for NASA. Why? because the USA was miles behind the Russians in the space race, and if they lost that they would lose the Cold War, six-love, six-love. They also wanted to distract American citizens from the ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ War with some good news about the billions being spent on their behalf to land a dozen astronauts on a dust-covered rock. Furthermore, Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee were murdered by the American aeronautic ‘deep state’ when Apollo 1 went on fire before take-off in 1967. They were executed because they were going to spill the beans about this massive conspiracy and cause huge embarrassment to the Johnson administration.        NASA’s spurious insistence that the movement of the flag was caused by the very act of planting it in the moon dust, has been dismissed out of hand by all right-thinking conspiracy theorists. They also reject the proffered explanation for the continued erect state of the flag. The best NASA could come up with, was that it had been equipped with a traversal pole along the top in order to prevent it from hanging loose. Phooey!

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The whole flag episode was dusted off for different reasons in 2018 when ultra-patriotic Americans, always on the lookout for cheese-eating surrender monkey slurs—men like the Florida Republican Senator, Marco Rubio—went out of their way to be outraged that the planting of the flag was ignored in the film First Man. This was the biopic of Neil Armstrong, starring Ryan Gosling. So now we know why. The director, the highly suspect French-American, Damian Chazelle, just wanted to avoid a lunar Twitterspat. If he depicted the planting of the flag, he was damned if there was no breeze, and he was damned if there was.

But that’s just Exhibit A. There’s much much more. Some of it is really exciting. Where are the stars, for example? All that dark lunar sky and not a single star to be seen.  You can safely ignore the astronomical fabrication which claims that the reflection of the sun’s light on the lunar surface would have been intense enough to eliminate all traces of starlight. Then there’s the rock with the letter ‘C’ painted on it. This was clearly left lying around by a set dresser or a ‘best boy’ – whatever they are. It features in one of the photographs released by NASA. Pay no attention whatever to their desperate explanation that it’s merely an imperfection on the photographic negative. Baloney.

Finally, there’s the unmistakable appearance in the top right-hand corner of another photograph of Brian O’Driscoll in hiking boots. OK, I just made that one up.

Apparently, it would have required up to 400,000 people to maintain silence for any or all of these conspiracy theories to be true – and what’s so incredible about that? There must have been at least that many people working in the Irish banking sector in 2008

So, were all the Apollo moon landings grotesque, but artistically successful fakes, directed by Stanley Kubrick and perpetrated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration? Oh, for God’s sake, grow up!

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Fake Histories #28   Did King Billy give the Pope a bloody nose on 12 July 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne?

 

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Today was a day for celebrating a two-hundred-year-old tradition in Northern Ireland. The Orange Order, founded in 1795, has been celebrating the Twelfth of July since 1796. They don’t hang about when it comes to a good march. Mostly, in the two hundred and twenty three years since the first parade, they have gone off peacefully enough, with the worst unrest taking place at the notorious clash at Dolly’s Brae, near Castlewellan, in 1849, when a contested procession led to a skirmish which resulted in an unknown number of dead Catholic protestors, possibly as many as thirty, though this figure is disputed by historians.

Orange marches are usually seen by one side as an expression of their culture, and by the other as a blatant sectarian provocation. But the event they commemorate should be known as the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ because of its very own glorious complexities.

The fact is that when members of the Orange Order parade on 12 July in honour of the victory of King William at the Battle of the Boyne, they should keep a couple of things in mind. First, they might ask themselves are they commemorating the scuffle at the Boyne in 1690, or the far more significant Battle of Aughrim in 1691? Because Aughrim, the battle that finally ended Jacobite resistance in Ireland, was actually fought on 12 July, whereas the far less important Battle of the Boyne was fought on 1 July.

This is because of a Pope and a Roman Emperor. At the end of the 17thcentury, Ireland still went by the old Julian calendar, a survivor from the halcyon days of the Roman empire. The British Protestant administration which governed the country had rejected the new Gregorian calendar, adopted in 1582 because it was the brainchild of a servant of the antichrist himself, Pope Gregory XIII.

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So, initially at least, celebrations of the ‘Glorious Twelfth’— not to be confused with the open season on harmless Scottish grouse with which it shares its name—were meant to commemorate 1691, not 1690. Then, sometime around the middle of the 18thcentury, Ireland finally adopted the Gregorian calendar and suddenly the anniversary of the Battle of Aughrim fell on 22 July. No problem to the highly adaptable Orange Order, we’ll celebrate the Boyne instead, because its anniversary now falls on the Twelfth!

Then there’s the second more awkward consideration for revelling Orangemen. Technically they should find some room on their banners for Pope Alexander VIII, because, back in 1690, he was an ally of William of Orange! Let me repeat that in case it was drowned out by the beating of a Lambeg drum … the Pope and King Billy were on the same side.

Allow me to explain this mightily inconvenient fact. The Battle of the Boyne was actually part of a much larger global conflict known as the Nine Years War. This began in 1688 and, no prizes for guessing ended in 1697.  It was also called The War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the League of Augsburg and, in North America, King  William’s war. It was fought between France and … just about everybody else. James II of England, being a good Catholic, was an ally of the French. William, a good Protestant, and an even better Dutchman was King Louis XIV’s sworn and implacable enemy.

So where does the Pope come into all this? Well Pope Alexander VIII, ruler of the Papal States, was an enemy of King Louis XIV. As we all know the most basic mathematical equation in realpolitik and war is, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. That made King Billy and Pope Alex very big buddies indeed. The corollary of that equation is ‘the friend of my enemy, is my enemy too’. This meant that King James II, for all that he was a staunch Catholic, was not on the same side of the quarrel as his own Pope. It also meant that the Catholic Irish opponents of William of Orange were not only fighting for an English King, but they were also doing so in opposition to the Pontiff in Rome.

When news of the Williamite victory over the Jacobites reached Rome, the Pope ordered that the bells of the Vatican City should be rung in celebration. It’s just possible this may not have come up in the speeches of various Grand Masters after today’s parades.

So, in answer to the question did King Billy give the Pope a bloody nose on the 12th July 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne? N,o he didn’t. It was 1 July, and they were on the same team. That’s fake history.

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BTW – King Billy didn’t go into battle on white charger either. That’s fake history too!

Fake Histories #27  Christopher Columbus discovered America?

 

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Yesterday America did what it does best, parades. Lots and lots of them. It’s hard to beat an American parade, whether it’s celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, the Chinese New Year, or Independence Day, with marching bands, baton twirling and expressions of love and loyalty to motherland, or fatherland, depending on your gender preference.

So with the focus on the USA this week it’s worth asking the thorny old question, was Christopher Columbus the first to locate America, and if he didn’t why does everyone give him credit for the discovery?

First of all, let’s sort out what we mean by ‘discover’. After all, it’s not like he found it down the side of the couch. There were plenty of people there before him. In the Eurocentric world of the fifteenth century you ‘discovered’ something when you were the first European to get there and begin the process of eliminating any indigenous peoples who had been around for the previous few millennia and had the cheek to assume ownership.

As is well known, when Columbus sailed out into the Atlantic in 1492 he was hoping to hit the eastern suburbs of Asia. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas, travelled on to Cuba and Hispaniola, kidnapped a few natives, and headed back to Spain to figure out how to exploit his good fortune. This is why America isn’t called Columbia, and the best the USA could do for him was call Columbus Day (12 October), and a few cities, after him. A later Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, figured out that what Columbus had ‘discovered’ was nowhere near Asia. He realised it was an integral land mass and won the naming rights – hence the Americas, north AND south are called after Amerigo. Roll over Columbus. I suppose Americans should consider themselves lucky, Amerigo could have insisted on the place being called North and South Vespucci.

Of course, neither of those peripatetic Italian gentlemen even came close to being the first Europeans to land on any part of the continent of America. There are numerous prior claimants, some fanciful and some proven beyond doubt. Let’s take them in order of appearance, or invention. Starting with our own St. Brendan the Navigator, the world’s most famous Kerryman. Brendan, a sixth-century monk, is reputed to have built a variation of a traditional currach and sailed westwards with a crew of fellow monks to what is described in an 8thcentury text as the Isle of the Blessed.

Until 1976 it was generally believed to be impossible to sail something as relatively flimsy as a currach across the Atlantic Ocean until the explorer Tim Severin did just that. Severin didn’t prove that Brendan had got there–the possibility that he reached Iceland is more likely—but he did demonstrate that it was possible.

Which brings us to the Vikings. Their ancient sagas told of an adventurer named Erik Thorvaldsson, or Erik the Red who became the first permanent European settler of Greenland. Obviously, he hadn’t ventured too far inland before he gave the new snow and ice covered landmass a name.

Erik the Red had a son named Leif, assumed to have been born in Iceland. Leif Erikson was as adventurous as his father and journeyed even further westward, to a place he called Vinland because of the profusion of wild vines and grapes. In the 1960s the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, and his wife Anne, an archaeologist, identified a site on the northern tip of Newfoundland which showed evidence of Norse settlement five hundred years before the voyage of Christopher Columbus. According to the Icelandic sagas, Leif Erikson didn’t remain long in Vinland, relations with the indigenous tribes of the area were not good, the Norsemen felt outnumbered and insecure and abandoned to settlement. Who knows, some of them may even have made it all the way back to Dublin in time for the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

The work of the Ingstads in uncovering the Viking settlement offered confirmation of the Icelandic sagas and the European ‘discovery’ of North America around the end of the first millennium. In 1969 the United States Congress conferred recognition on the Norse role in the settlement of North America by establishing 9 October as Leif Erikson day.

Which secures the Viking claim to have got there first, until such time as some enterprising Irish archaeologist discovers the site of St. Brendan’s first American monastery and consigns Leif Erikson to the dustbin of history. Should that come about the Irish government should immediately petition the United Nations for the USA to be renamed, West Kerry.

But did Columbus get to America first, with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria in 1492? Not by half a millennium, that’s fake history.

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