Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Cold War Bulgarian Umbrella Killers Of London

* The newly opened public enquiry into the horrible killing of Russian dissident Alexander Litvienko in London is already throwing up plenty of details that will be embarrassing to the Kremlin in general and Vladimir Putin in particular. Assuming that Vladimir Putin can actually experience embarrassment.

But Litvienko was not the first Eastern dissident to be assassinated in London. And one of the previous cases has eerie similarities with the polonium poisoning case.

So read on.......

Georgi Markov
     * Two secret agents track a man through the streets of busy streets London. They have followed him in and out of caf├ęs, on the Underground and along pavements, trying to engineer a chance encounter. The Eastern European spies have already tried at least once to get close enough to administer a deadly poison to their target. This time, in one of the busiest spots in central London, they are successful. The poison is delivered. The target - a writer and journalist who has been deeply critical of the regime in his native country - has barely noticed anything. But soon he will tell his colleagues and family about a sudden rash, a rapidly developing illness. He is taken to hospital where doctors are mystified as to the cause of his rapid and unstoppable decline. He insists he has been poisoned. He raves about KGB assassins sent by political masters in the East, his former homeland.  

Within four days he is dead. 

If you have been following the case of Alexander Litvienko, this scenario will sound very familiar. Exotic poison, assassins from behind what we once called the Iron curtain. A brazen political killing on the streets of London.

But this is actually the story of Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov, killed on the instructions of a communist secret police in London in September 1978. I remember reading about it when the real story started to emerge in the early '80s and the impression that it made on me. This was a fictional spy thriller come to life. They had killed him with - of all things - a poison tipped umbrella.

Markov had been a writer, a dissident who moved to London to escape persecution in his native Bulgaria and worked for the BBC and (more infuriatingly for the Communists) the US-Funded Radio Free Europe, a network of polyglot stations, broadcasting directly into the Communist Bloc with news, political views and music that the regimes there did not want their people to hear.

Markov In London

On September 7th in '78, Markov was walking across Waterloo Bridge in London, going to catch a bus to his job at the BBC. As he stood at the bus stop, he felt a sharp sting on the back of his right thigh, as if he had been bitten by a particularly big bug. 

He quickly looked around and spotted a man picking up an umbrella and hurrying away to grab a taxi.

Markov was a little shook but continued on to the BBC, where he told colleagues about what had just happened to him and showed them a little red raised bruise on his thigh.

That evening he developed a fever. Shortly after he was rushed to hospital - where doctors were unable to establish the cause of his sudden and rapid deterioration. Markov insisted he had been poisoned by the man with the umbrella. Four days later he was dead, aged 49.

It was established that the cause of death was a metal pellet the size of a pin-head, a hollow ball, filled with the deadly poison Ricin. Even if the doctors had known the nature of the poison, they could not have treated him. There was no known anti-dote for it at the time.

Investigators later deduced that the pellet had been fired from the tip of an umbrella, using a pneumatic system similar to an air-rifle.

Diagram Of Suspected Umbrella Gun

The police and secret-service agents investigating the death then discovered that just ten days before the fatal attack on Markov, the exact same method - a poison-tipped umbrella - had been used in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt on another Bulgarian dissident on the Paris Metro.

The Actual Pellet Taken From Markov's Leg

It has long been believed that the Bulgarian secret police, backed by the KGB, used a Danish man of Italian heritage - Francesco Gullino - to carry out the actual attack on Markov. Gullino was said to be an art dealer turned drug smuggler who had been captured by the Bulgarian police and given the simple choice - work for us in the West or spend the rest of your live in a Bulgarian jail.

Gullino - codenamed "Picadilly" by the British secret service - has never been apprehended and is believed to be still travelling, under several false identities in Europe to this day.

There are many strange similarities between the case of Markov and that of Litvienko, poisoned with radioactive polonium in a London coffee shop.

The family of the Russian must hope that they get a better shot at final justice than those who loved Markov ever did.


Monday, 19 January 2015

Captain Jack White - The British War Hero Turned Anarchist Who Drilled The Citizens Army

* Regular readers may, by now, be familiar with my obsession with the lesser told, quirkier stories from history in general and Irish history in particular.

With the Centenary of the Easter Rising on the horizon, we are going to hear a lot of familiar stories, the headline names of 1916 and lots about what that armed revolution means to modern Ireland (not a hell of a lot, in my humble opinion. Whatever those men had in mind for this island, what we have now comes nowhere close. It was just another chapter, now long past.)

But I'm drawn to the figures and stories on the periphery of the Rising, The ones mostly forgotten now, or written out almost from the start because they didn't fit the conventional narrative...

And so I've long be interested in the story of Captain Jack White. A hero of British imperialism, turned radical socialist, then anarchist, a man who lent his life to a series of lost causes. A man who was, in his own word, a misfit.

So here follows a brief history of a fascinating man......

Captain James Robert "Jack" White  
* A handsome man with an unmistakeably military bearing. Dressed in civvies but holding a rifle. Captain James Robert White, always known as Jack, is largely forgotten in Ireland, Britain and Spain now. But for a long while, he was at the centre of great events.

Through his life, he believed in socialism and the collective cause and destiny of the working classes. And he believed in their right to organise, arm, drill and fight.

It was Jack who organised the Irish Citizen Army, after seeing the strikers in the 1913 lockout - the bitter struggle between the unions and the employers - getting knocked about by the police and strike-breakers.

White - who by then had left his official soldiering days with the British Army far behind him - saw the need for a disciplined force, a Citizen Army that could, as he said, "put manners on the police".

White was the true born son of the Empire, He was born in 1879 on the family estate in Co Antrim in the North of Ireland, the only child of a full British Field Marshal - Sir George Stuart White VC, GCB, OM, GCMG, and so on. Sir George had won Britain's highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, fighting the hill tribes in Afghanistan, in the year his son was born.

Jack was educated at Winchester (from which he was expelled) and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He began his fighting career aged just 18 with the Gordon Highlanders fighting the Boers. And he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for an act of great bravery and initiative.

However, it was also in South Africa, during that bitter war, that Jack first showed signs on a very un-imperialistic streak. During one furious battle (as he later recalled), a 17-year-old soldier in White's section lost his nerve and stayed shivering in his trench. A senior officer called to the young Lieutenant White; "Shoot him!". When Jack did not move, the officer moved towards the youth with his own side-arm out. Jack is said to have drawn his gun, covered the officer and coolly told him; "Do it - and I will shoot you".

There was further some service with the army in India, but it seemed Jack White and the British army were destined to have a parting of the ways.

He returned to his native Ireland and became interested in radical politics, then a huge draw to many young members of the aristocracy with questions. He dropped out of society, travelled to Canada to work as a lumberjack, taught in various schools and joined a radical commune influenced by the writings of Tolstoy (Jack actually wrote letters to HG Welles and Tolstoy to explain his new course in life, Tolstoy is said to have written back approvingly).

The commune, in the English countryside, also welcomed practitioners of Free Love. It was pretty radical stuff for the son of a full British Field Marshal in the 1900s.

It was this romantic search for something new, something better, that eventually brought him to Dublin, where he met with the Scottish born, Irish socialist leader James Connolly. The two men, who could hardly have been from more different backgrounds, struck up what became a very strong and enduring friendship.

White got caught up in the labour battles around the time of the 1913 Lock-out. He saw the ranks of the union men broken up by police batons and decided it was time for them to fight back.

Captain Jack White (carrying the flag) with the Irish Citizen Army

White organised, drilled and commanded the Irish Citizen Army. Which would go on to fight in 1916.

White did not fight in 1916. He had been organising a Volunteers brigade in Derry, but was very disillusioned by the sectarian, anti-Protestant views he encountered there. He also managed to fall out with his fellow protestants who put sectarian beliefs before the unity of working people. It was to be a motif throughout his life. It seems that Jack White was always on the search for purity of belief and deed. And he would always be disappointed in his fellow men. Those who put nationalism, religion, class prejudice, a thirst for power or control, above what he saw were the simple tenants of socialism. When he appealed to the Irish Volunteers for unity with their fellow protestant workers, they often accused of him "looking out for his own" and questioned his commitment to the glorious cause of Irish freedom.

But White could be just as difficult with his fellow Protestants he believed that true Protestantism should be behind those who wanted a better, fairer world for all. Not just Orangemen and the sons of land-owning British Generals.

To the Protestants, he was always a "Shinner". To the Republicans, an Orangeman, a toff, ex-British Army and the son of a General. Not for nothing did White call his autobiography, written in later life when disillusion had largely taken hold; "Misfit".

When Connolly (his great friend) was sentenced to death after the Rising – White tried - in vain - to organise the Miners of Wales to go on strike to save his life. 

He later travelled further to the left, joined with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation in England, organised a communist republican group in Ireland in the 30s before joining the anarchists in Spain during the civil war.

Jack White volunteered for the Red Cross in Spain and helped organise the Connolly Column and was thrilled to see Irish protestants and Catholics, all socialists and communists, fighting together for the people. He also distributed handguns to the women of towns and villages around Madrid and drilled them in how to protect themselves. White may have been high-minded in his politics but he was always a practical man. When a fascist is advancing on you, better to have bullets over banners.

Once again, White eventually became disillusioned with the in-fighting and betrayals, becoming avowedly anti-Stalinist and leaning more towards the Anarchists, the only keepers of the pure flame. In this, he was following a similar path to George Orwell, another ex-Imperial policeman. 

He returned to the family home in Co Antrim, shortly before the outbreak of the second world war. There was a brief reappearance in Public life when he tried to stand as a "Republican Socialist" candidate for Antrim in the 1945 general election, but by then those who knew him at all regarded him as little better than an eccentric, rowing pointlessly against the tide of the times.

Jack White died of cancer in a Belfast nursing home in 1946. His family, embarrassed by his revolutionary past, burnt almost all his papers and writings shortly after his death. 

He was a remnant of a strange, romantic, heady time, when many upper-class English men and women, bred to Empire, decided on a radically different course and fought for universal socialism and the rights of every man.

In his beliefs, he was a radical, a puritan, a believer in the essential brotherhood of men and their desire for a just and equal world, He believed, passionately, that you only had to give people the means to fight and the cause to fight for and they would follow.

He was destined to be disappointed. In the end, disowned and hated by Republican catholic and protestant unionist, Jack White was, as his own epitaph said, the eternal misfit.

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Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Hot Potato! Alan Partridge, Charlie Hebdo and C4's Modest Proposal For A Famine-Com

* This Saturday in London, a group of protesters intend to march to the HQ of broadcasters Channel 4 to voice their anger over a proposed sit-com - set around the Irish famine.

The march is being organised by the Campaign for the Rights and Actions of Irish Communities - the rather ironically acronymed CRAIC.

The protest was organised before the Charlie Hebdo outrage in Paris. And it may seem crass to draw comparisons. But you might think it's a little strange that as the world shouts for  freedom of expression and artistic licence to take on even the most controversial subjects and issues, a fair proportion of Irish people are vehemently opposed to a comedy script that hasn't even been fully written yet.

It's not as if humorists haven't worked with subjects like millions of starving Irish people or the holocaust before. 

Irish satirist Jonathan Swift once made a “modest proposal” that the starving Irish could ease the burden by selling their children as food for rich Lords and Ladies. He was joking, of course.
Auld Swifty - He Also Did Fart Jokes

Jewish comedians such as Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin and Joan Rivers satirised the Nazis. And the late Rivers got into serious trouble in 2013 by observing of the German supermodel Heidi Klum; “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”
Answering the outrage generated by her Holocaust joke, Rivers said: “My husband lost the majority of his family at Auschwitz, and I can assure you that I have always made it a point to remind people of the Holocaust through humour.”
Der Furher Was A Wunnerful Dancer! 

Monty Python were accused of sacrilege because of “The Life Of Brian” while the Blackadder team mined comedy gold from the horror of WWI trenches.

Comedians and satirists have always played with fire when it comes to grim historical events. But it could be argued that the best, like Swift, have used humour as a weapon against evil. As well as making us laugh. 
Anyhow!  I talked to Irish comedian, satirist and impressionist Mario Rosenstock, and Professor Gary Murphy about this, ahem, hot potato. 

Knowing Me, Knowing Potato Blight

* The Great Famine!  It’s no laughing matter. Unless you are Channel 4 or Alan Partridge.

In one classic, 1997 episode of the BBC comedy I’m Alan Partridge, the hapless TV presenter sat down with two Irish TV executives, played by Fr Ted writers Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan.

Alan blundered into the subject of the Famine, asking a clearly uncomfortable Linehan (playing TV exec Aidan Walsh); “So, how many people were killed in the Irish famine?”

The Irishman replies; “Two million. And another two million had to leave the country”.

Patridge observes; “Right. It was just the potatoes that were affected? At the end of the day, you will pay the price if you are a fussy eater. If they could afford to emigrate, then they could afford to eat in a modest restaurant”.

If you thought that joke was in desperately poor taste, you may be one of many thousands who signed an online petition this week to demand that Channel 4 drops tentative plans for a sitcom set during the Famine.

Irish comedy writer Hugh Travers has been commissioned by the British broadcaster to write a pilot script for a “black comedy”, working title Hunger, set during the period around Black ’47.

It is to be produced by Deadpan Pictures, a spin-off of the Wicklow-based production company Grand Pictures, the people behind hit comedy Moone Boy.

“This is in the development process and is not currently planned to air,” said a C4 spokeswoman. “It’s not unusual for sitcoms to exist against backdrops that are full of adversity and hardship.”
Hugh Travers, best known for the RTE radio comedy-drama Lambo (a fictionalised account of the moment the late Gerry Ryan confessed to killing a lamb on The Late Late Show) told one newspaper about his thought process.
“Why the famine? Well, they say ‘comedy equals tragedy plus time’. I don’t want to do anything that denies the suffering that people went through, but Ireland has always been good at black humour”.
Travers may be shocked by the furore generated by his development script.
But another Irish comedian and comedy writer, Mario Rosentock, believes one factor in the outrage generated is social-media in general and Twitter in particular.
“Quite clearly, people are only too ready to jump on the outrage bandwagon,” says Mario.
“They can use this 140-character outlet to make a name for themselves, to get noticed. Twitter is like going into a bar and shouting at the top of your voice until everybody shuts up. And the best way to do this is to be rude or outraged about somebody, some TV show or whatever”.
Mario Rosenstock as Himself

The radio and TV comic says he wants to wait and see how the script turns out but he does not believe that the Famine should be off-limits for comedy.
“With a subject like the famine, the tone is going to be very important, it’s the overriding factor in any comedy like this,” says Mario.
“You look at shows like Blackadder, set in the horror of World War One, and they got it right, even up to that ending, where they went over the top, and suddenly it’s very powerful, it’s not about comedy anymore”.
“And just who is doing the jokes is also a very important factor. It kind comes back to the debate about how black comedians can use the N-word, but white comedians cannot.
“It’s largely because they are saying it about themselves.
“The fact that it’s an Irish writer, an Irish production company, and not English writers and producers doing this, I think that allows them, if that’s the right word, to at least look at the subject.
“In this case, the receivers of the injustice, some people would argue the genocide, are the ones who are writing something funny about it, or attempting to see the funny side of it.”
DCU Professor of Politics Gary Murphy believes that, on a basic level, no area of Irish (or wider) history should be off-limits for satire or comedy.
“It’s part of the human condition. We have been through all sorts of trauma, from famine times, a bitter, terrible civil war, right up through the troubles.
“And if we can’t occasionally make fun of our history, this human condition, well what’s the point of it all, really?”
“It’s also a dangerous road to go down. Once you start putting events off-limits, where do you stop? Do you not lampoon the Troubles, or the War of Independence?”
“It’s our story. And if comedy should do anything, it should enlighten that story. These terrible events should be up for discussion in all forms. And comedy is as much a form of political expression as any other”.   
Professor Murphy believes some of the negative reaction to the Channel 4 project comes from professional historians and commentators.
“We can get too po-faced about our history, saying we can only talk about these events in dry history books or serious commentary. It inhibits free speech and imagination.”
The academic believes that we may also be doing a disservice to the people who actually lived and suffered through the famine.
“We can only assume that people then had a sense of humour, not withstanding the unbelievably grim conditions, that’s just part of the human condition. And this idea that only historians can feel their pain, or because it was so terrible - and you can make the strong argument that the British Government just let the Irish to rot - that we can only talk about it in the most serious tones, well I find that very limiting.”
But should any subjects be off-limits for comedians? Mario Rosenstock says it’s an issue that he wrestles with and gives the example of Scottish stand-up Frankie Boyle’s notorious routine about the disabled son of glamour model Jordan.
“I don’t understand how Frankie Boyle, a man of his intelligence, needs to make jokes about Jordan’s disabled son. Yes, what he is doing there is showing us that he can do it, that it’s freedom of speech.
“But you can’t honestly say it’s funny. Nobody with a heart can say it’s funny. As a sentient human being you can’t go and laugh at that”.
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