The Christie File

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Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland

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The Christie File: Part 1, 1946-1964

The Christie File: Part 1, 1946-1964Stuart Christie Blantyre Public Library. From ‘My Granny Made Me An Anarchist. The Christie File: Part 1, 1946-1964. The cultural and political formation of a West of Scotland baby-boomer’:

“I am not certain whether or not my interest in history developed through literature, or vice versa. Reading about the experiences of old men was a good way of understanding the present.

“This enthusiasm for history went hand in hand with my fascination for libraries. There were no second-hand bookshops in Blantyre, only the local public library that stood opposite the school and where I began to spend more and more time.

“I was overwhelmed when I discovered that I could borrow any book I wanted (except certain ones — such as Havelock Ellis on sex — which were kept under lock and key in the back room for an unspecified class of person, of whom, obviously, I was not one). I had never seen rooms and shelves filled with so many books; so much knowledge, so much wisdom, so many perspectives and possibilities. I had no idea where to begin. Finally I took out Ripley’s Believe It Or Not which I devoured overnight and returned the next day to borrow something else.

“Blantyre was fortunate in having such a large lending library, with a reference room that to me was a window on the world. I got into the habit of going there whenever I could and reading whatever subject caught my imagination.

“My regular visits to the library meant I soon became friendly with two of the young librarians, who were in their late teens or early twenties and who shared my iconoclastic view of the world. Librarians became my role models — the new bohemians — and I wanted to be one.

“They were dynamic, well-read, radical and anti-authoritarian. Not the Kingsley Amis types, but the green corduroy and black roll-neck sweater and suede desert boots (known as ‘brothel creepers’ even by those who didn’t know what a brothel was) brigade. To spend all day surrounded by books seemed like the ideal way to spend your working life. I read everything that looked as though it might increase my understanding — indiscriminately.

“Emerging out of the cracks and fissures that were beginning to appear in the façade of the old order were new ideas and attitudes that were giving a jolt to Establishment shibboleths. Among these were Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye.

“The Catcher — probably more than any other work of contemporary literature or theatre — was, I believe, the seminal adolescent youth book of the period. Although it had been first published in the States in 1951 — round about the same time as Mad Magazine and Jack Kerouac’s beatnik novel, On The Road— I didn’t come across it until sometime in 1959.

“The Catcher was a revelation to me, almost as though some telepathic distance-reader had cracked my psychic code. It was unlike other books I had read, which tended to have a thread of coherent wisdom and black-and-white certainty running through them. Instead, The Catcher in the Rye focused on humanity’s frailties and unpredictability.

“The hero’s frustration was directed against a materialistic and profit-driven world inhabited by adults who appeared to lack any sense of vocation and who lived by a self-serving code of ethics to justify the exploitation and corruption of others for their own selfish ends.

“Holden served a whole generation as a role model.

“The more I read, the more I was aware how little I knew or understood. My librarian friends directed me to some impenetrable books such as Bertrand Russell on philosophy, but others proved inspirational, particularly the Essays and Lectures of Colonel R.G. Ingersoll, the mid-19th-century American agnostic and rationalist and the only atheist in the US to have a statue erected in his memory. Ingersoll I could not put down. The exhilarating lucidity of his arguments against the irrationality and inhumanity of institutionalised religion, the churches, and superstition, and his exaltation of the humanist qualities of Shakespeare, Voltaire and the nature of liberty immediately struck a chord with me:

“‘I tell you there is something splendid in the man that will not always mind. Why, if we had done as the kings told us five hundred years ago, we should all have been slaves. If we had done as the priest told us we should all have been idiots. If we had done as the doctors told us, we would all have been dead. We have been saved by disobedience. That splendid thing called independence has saved us, and I want to see more of it, I want to see children raised so they will have it.’

“Ingersoll’s views on the Roman Catholic Church articulated just what I was beginning to grasp:

“‘That Church is the only one that keeps up a constant communication with heaven through the instrumentality of a large number of decayed saints. That Church has an agent of God on earth, has a person who stands in the place of deity; and that Church is infallible. That Church has persecuted to the extent of her power — and always will. In Spain that Church stands erect, and is arrogant. In the United States that Church crawls; but the object in both countries is the same, and that is the destruction of intellectual liberty… Thousands of volumes could not contain the crimes of the Catholic Church. They could not contain even the names of her victims. With sword and fire, with track and chain, with dungeons and whip, she endeavoured to convert the world. In weakness a beggar — in power a highwayman—alms dish or dagger—tramp or beggar.’

“Mind you, he wasn’t too keen on the Presbyterians either, whose Calvinist creed he thought was the worst of all. It wasn’t quite the Church I recognised:

“‘No Church has done more to fill the world with gloom than the Presbyterian. Its creed is frightful, hideous, and hellish. The Presbyterian God is the monster of monsters. He is an eternal executioner, jailer and turnkey. He will enjoy forever the shrieks of the lost — the wails of the damned. Hell is the festival of the Presbyterian God.’

“Ingersoll imposed an order on the previously random nature of my reading habits and led me to Voltaire, whose exhortation ‘Écrasez l’infame!’ (Eliminate infamy) spoke volumes, as did Joseph McCabe’s anthology of his essays in the Selected Works of Voltaire, particularly his insights into superstition:

“‘Ever since men made it a sacred duty to dispute about what they cannot understand, and made virtue consist in the pronunciation of certain unintelligible words, which everyone attempted to explain, Christian countries have been a theatre of discord and carnage.

“‘You will tell me that this universal pestilence should be imputed to the fury of ambition rather than that of fanaticism. I answer that this is due to both. The thirst for domination has been so assuaged with the blood of fools. I do not aspire to heal men of power of this furious passion to subject the minds of others; it is an incurable disease. Every man would like to see others hastening to serve him; and that he may be the better served, he will, if he can, make them believe that their duty and happiness are to be slaves. Find me a man with an income of a hundred thousand pounds a year, and with four or five hundred thousand subjects throughout Europe, who cost him nothing, beside his soldiers, and tell him that Christ, of whom he is the vicar and imitator, lived in poverty and humility. He will reply that the times have changed, and to prove it he will condemn you to perish in the flames. You will correct neither this man [the Pope] nor a Cardinal de Lorraine, the simultaneous possessor of seven bishoprics. What can one do, then? Appeal to the people, and, brutalised as they are, they listen and half open their eyes. They partly throw off the most humiliating yoke that has ever been borne. They rid themselves of some of their errors, and win back a part of their freedom, that appanage or essence of man of which they had been robbed. We cannot cure the powerful of ambition, but we can cure the people of superstition. We can, by speech and pen, make men more enlightened and better.’

“Ingersoll also introduced me to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Rights of Man.

“‘Paine’s view of mutual aid and distrust of government mirrored and articulated my own feelings so well that it was as though my confused thoughts and ideas had been funnelled through a filter on to a page:

“‘Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of men. It existed prior to government and would exist if the formality of government were to be abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of the civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landowner, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government.’

“These and other humanist writers reinforced my conviction that the Roman Catholic Church was one of the greatest enemies of humanity and I read every critique I could find of this institution. Most were biased potboilers published by The Protestant Truth Society, but a few gave me a taste for investigative journalism and how the Roman Catholic Church sustained a mutually beneficial relationship with the state and big business. One writer who impressed me particularly was Baron Avro Manhattan, whose books I devoured voraciously.

“Manhattan had been jailed in Italy for refusing to serve in Mussolini’s army and later, during the war, had run an anti-fascist radio station called Radio Freedom, broadcasting to partisans. He wrote more than twenty books. But his The Vatican in World Politics, The Dollar and the Vatican and The Catholic Church Against the Twentieth Century were absolutely pivotal in my thinking about the nature of power politics, morality and natural justice. The ‘Big Idea’ was slowly taking shape in my mind.

“Another influential book I came across — one which gave me a shocking insight into the darker side of power politics, particularly in the USA, the self-appointed paladin of democracy and justice — was High Treason: The Plot Against the People by Albert E. Kahn.

“First published in 1950, this book, read against the background of events in Montgomery, Alabama and Little Rock, Arkansas, exposed the dual moral standards of the American elite and the intrinsically anti-democratic, conspiratorial, oligarchic and racist nature of the United States government and big business. It portrayed a cabal capable of any act in the pursuit of its objectives, and one that set itself above the law and all morality. It was, basically, the secret history of clandestine diplomacy, pro-Nazi, racist, right-wing, anti-labour, anti-liberal, fundamentalist Protestant and Catholic intrigues in the USA between 1919 and 1950.

“This view of the oligarchic nature of even the most democratic of governments was not new. James Madison, one of the USA’s ‘Founding Fathers’, formed it earlier in a contribution to the influential The Federalist Papers. Madison stated that the ‘first’ problem is to ‘enable the government to control the governed,’ and then to ‘oblige it to control itself’.

“Writing during the Revolutionary War in the 1770s, Thomas Jefferson made the following uncanny prophecy:

“‘The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, or people careless. A single zealot may become persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated that the time for fixing essential right, on a legal basis, is while our rulers are honest, ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war, we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will be heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.’

“Caryl Chessman’s autobiographical account of his 12 years on death row was a strong influence on my views on capital punishment and the nature of US justice. He was executed in February 1960, shortly after I read the book, something I found quite distressing.

“The account by Howard Fast, the American Communist Party writer, of the horrifying Peekskill riots in Eyewitness: Peekskill, USA was another crampon in my particular wall of radicalism. In August 1949 Paul Robeson, the Afro-American singer, had been billed to appear at a concert close to the town of Peekskill, New York in support of the Harlem Chapter of the Civil Rights Congress. During the four days preceding the concert the local paper had been ratcheting up its readers into a state of near hysteria over the ‘un-American’ and ‘pro-Communist’ nature of the event and its star performer. The concert was never held and Robeson couldn’t even approach the venue for racists blocking access to the site; blacks and other concert goers were beaten unmercifully — with not one policeman in sight.

“A second concert was organised for the following weekend and received massive support from 2,500 anti-fascists and anti-racists who formed a defensive line around the concert ground. Paul Robeson opened the concert at 2 o’clock with around 20,000 people crowded into the grounds to hear him sing. When the concert ended, the police routed departing buses and cars along a steep winding road that passed through thick woods. Here there were hundreds of men waiting in ambush with piles of stones, bottles and bricks.

“A hail of missiles hit the vehicles making their way along the road. The police and state troopers either did nothing or participated in the rock throwing or beatings themselves. More than fifty buses and hundreds of private cars carried grim scars of the mob violence — shattered windows, dented and battered sides and hoods.

“Someone in one of the buses made a chilling recording of the attacks, which I heard in Josh Macrae’s basement in Balgrayhill Road, Springburn. In it you hear the frenzied hate of the crowds, the sound of stones smashing into glass and people, the wailing of women and the impassioned screams of children and the racist jeers and taunts of the red-neck ambushers.

“Fast also wrote the novel Spartacus that was turned into the inspirational film of the same name, with Kirk Douglas and Laurence Oliver. For weeks after seeing the film we’d re-enact the hillside scene after the final battle, shouting:

‘Am Spartacus!’

‘Naw yer no! Am Spartacus!’

‘Naw yer no! Am Spartacus!’…

“Hank Janson Meets Lady Chatterley

“CENSORSHIPWAS ANOTHER irritant in the cold war between ‘them’ and ‘us’ in the 1950s. It all came to a head in 1960 with Penguin’s publication of the first paperback edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, provoking a major confrontation with the establishment.

“Lobbying by church groups had resulted in the introduction of modern censorship with the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Magistrates were given the somewhat limited power of seizing and destroying work which existed ‘for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind.’

“By 1868 the Lord Chief Justice had widened the interpretation of the test of obscenity as to whether or not it depraved and corrupted those whose minds were already open to such immoral influences. Saturation point was reached in the late 1950s with various nonsensical trials and judgements such as the banning of Boccaccio’s Decameron by Swindon magistrates while permitting the sale of such seedy US imports as Hank Janson’s Don’t Mourn Me Toots.

“The Old Bailey jury trial and subsequent acquittal of the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover felt as though another battle had been won in the war for ‘freedom’.

“Shortly after the trial, I was seen reading it on my way to Calder Street School by one of the nymphophobic spinster teachers. This was to provoke a massive row in the school staffroom between the reactionary and liberal-minded teachers. Mr Bradford, our English teacher, who was believed by these pathetic hags to be a corrupter of youth and intent on undermining their moral authority, led the latter.

“The teacher in question, a sour old bitch of a spinster who taught ‘religious education’, vented her spleen the next morning, in her class, by lecturing me. We had been having fairly animated discussions about censorship in Bradford’s English class the previous day so I immediately adopted a self-righteous, truculent attitude and more or less told her she was a narrow-minded reactionary. I went so far as to imply that this was a view shared by other teachers. This left her flabbergasted. Unfortunately, it also got Mr Bradford into trouble and led me to being hauled up before an embarrassed headmaster who quite simply didn’t know how to handle this new situation. Undaunted by the fuss I triggered a further heated discussion in the English class. Finally, I wrote a short essay addressing the rhetorical question ‘Why should I be a conformist?’ It reflects some of the anger and injured self-righteousness I was feeling at the time:

“‘Why should I be in a rut and be ruled by the conventions of our society when I can be different from anyone else? Any day of the week you can see men and women going to their specific jobs; you can see they are no longer individuals. To be an individual in this country you’ve got to act, think and feel different from everybody else. To be an individualist means to be a non-conformist.

“‘Why should I not be allowed to read any magazine or book some inhibited person told me not to read? Why should I not go to an ‘X’ picture? We are not fit to see it at fifteen and yet a few days later we may be sixteen and we can see it then! Are we supposed to learn about life just like that? There are also many men not fit enough to see them.

“‘Is it any wonder there are beatniks and delinquents with this ‘rat race’ going on? Everybody is trying to outdo everyone else; if society keeps going on this way it will mean we’ll all be playing the harp when the mushroom clouds roll by [I was a Tom Lehrer fan]. With all the neurotics, the depressed, hypochondriacs and other sick-minded people surrounding us, you ask ‘Why should I be different?’ ‘

“BUT ITWASN’TALLphilosophy and politics. I was introduced to the novels of B. Traven: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Death Ship. Traven’s compelling libertarian arguments in the latter title in particular had a big impact on my thoughts on the arbitrary power the state wielded over our lives:

“‘Why passports? Why immigration restrictions? Why not let human beings go where they wish to go, North Pole or South Pole, Russia or Turkey, the States or Bolivia? Human beings must be kept under control. They cannot fly like insects about the world into which they were born without being asked. Human beings must be brought under control, under passports, under finger print registrations. For what reason? Only to show the omnipotence of the state, and of the holy servant of the state, the bureaucrat. Bureaucracy has come to stay. It has become the great and almighty ruler of the world. It has come to stay to whip human beings into discipline and make them numbers within the state. With foot printing of babies it has begun; the next stage will be the branding of registration numbers upon the back, properly filed, so that no mistake can be made as to the true nationality of the insect. A wall has made China what it is today. The walls all nations have built up since the war for democracy will have the same effect. Expanding markets and making large profits are a religion. It is the oldest religion perhaps, for it has the best trained priests, and it has the most beautiful churches; yes, sir.

“‘ ‘I Am Legend’

“‘RICHARD MATHESON’S short horror story ‘I Am Legend’ was another important influence on my thinking. Written in 1954, at the height of the cold war, it was an allegory about the problem of evil, about one man who found himself in extraordinary circumstances, a world in which the survivors of a plague had been turned into vampires. Robert Neville, the protagonist, was uniquely immune to the disease that made him the ‘outsider’ who had to be destroyed for society to function. Neville’s days were spent killing the undead, one vampire at a time, in order to save humanity for ‘good’ and ‘morality’. His nights were spent trying to protect himself from becoming ‘one of them’. Every night more and more of ‘them’ tried to win him over to their side, to see ‘common sense’ and ‘go with the bloodflow’. It was an unwinnable battle, but for Neville it was a straightforward choice of good against evil.

“The story raised all sorts of complex philosophical questions in my mind about the nature of evil, ethics, morality and tolerating the intolerable. The ‘vampirism’ of ‘I Am Legend’ was to me an allegory for the mind-numbing sickness of ‘common sense’ that corrupted our morality and asphyxiated the sympathetic consciousness and imagination linking us with the rest of humanity and coerced us into accepting the wrongs and inequities of an unjust world….” End quote

http://www.christiebooks.com/ChristieBooksWP/tag/stuart-christie/

~~~

Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland

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