60 Years Ago: Mannerheim's Last Battle

From Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and in the US.


Mannerheim began his eighties still talking of responsibility and struggle. As he saw it, Finland still ran the risk of drifting irrevocably too far to the left, and he was determined to hold this off by the last means available to him – writing his memoirs.

‘Was it not my duty,’ he wrote, ‘now that the West seemed to have forgotten the gallant Finnish people, to communicate to all our friends near and far what I knew about its indomitable battle for all that a nation holds sacred, and had not my countrymen a right to hear my interpretation of the causes that had led to the position where Finland now stood?’

His decision was unsurprising, but also unwelcome to some of his successors. Mannerheim’s avowed intent was to educate the Cold War world about recent Finnish history, but his memoirs were sure to attract the attention of readers back home. President Paasikivi, in particular, fretted that his illustrious predecessor would write a tell-all book that was sure to land Finland in hot water with the Soviet Union, with which relations were still strained. Mannerheim did exactly as Paasikivi had feared but was steered into being less forceful in his published comments on Bolshevism and ‘Reds’, and also in his attitude towards the Swedes. In private, Paasikivi grumbled that if he paid heed to every one of the field marshal’s grim warnings then everyone in Finland might as well walk into the forest with a pistol and shoot themselves in the forehead.

Despite the politicians’ concerns, Mannerheim was left to write his memoirs in peace with the help of a small staff of assistants. He seems to have originally planned on doing so in Kirkniemi, a manor house he had bought in what is now the Helsinki suburbs, but continued ill health lured him out of Finland to Switzerland in the late 1940s. ‘If on this earth there is a place to be found which is dedicated to forgetting,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘it is Switzerland, with all the convenience which makes life easy, hotels, communications, order, food and the beauty of the landscape, but above all, the mountains, the Alps which give the impression of being somewhere in the atmosphere, above the clouds, between earth and sky.’ Mannerheim also observed that Switzerland, unlike so many other parts of Europe, had been spared the damage and destruction of the war – it was, in many ways for him, a reminder of the lost Europe of his younger days.

His circle of true friends, always small, dwindled predictably in old age. ‘I begin to see only graves around me,’ he commented, although his dry melancholy was economical with the truth. In fact, he spent much time in the company of a new lady companion, the elegant Countess Gertrud Arco-Valley. Some 30 years his junior, the divorcee countess was a friend of Mannerheim’s younger daughter and was often seen accompanying him on his travels.

Mannerheim spent increasing amounts of time in hospital, troubled in particular by stomach and intestine problems. A perforated ulcer nearly killed him in 1946, and kidney stones and haemorrhages laid him low in 1948. He began to lose weight drastically, and is noticeably thin and frail in the photographs of him at the clinic in Val-Mont, Switzerland, where he both took spa treatments and continued to work on his memoirs.

In early 1951, Mannerheim was hospitalised again in Lausanne with a distended abdomen, and had emergency surgery for a blocked intestine. It was, he joked with his surgeon, his last battle, and one that he was likely to lose. He said his goodbyes to those around him on 27 January, and fell into a sleep from which he never awoke. His heart stopped half an hour before midnight, although in Finland’s time zone it was already the following morning – the anniversary of his decisive strike against the Reds in the Finnish Civil War of 1918.

Leaping Through Clouds

There’s always something new to say about Carl Gustaf Mannerheim. And I don’t mean lurid innuendo about his private life, or schmuck-baiting insinuations about his sexuality. Finland’s beloved Marshal is orbited by a publishing industry that now includes a Mannerheim cookbook and a Mannerheim comic, with a history that touches on a dozen countries. He was a truly cosmopolitan figure, the “last knight” of the Tsarist aristocracy and a hero of the nascent Finnish nation. He saw the prophetic trench conflict of that grotty little war between Russia and Japan over Manchuria, and he witnessed the twilight days of two empires.

His epic ride across Asia in 1906-8 would have been the crowning glory of his career, were it not for the intervention of wider world events in his forties. But with a life overshadowed by his role in the Finnish Civil War and World War Two, his arduous reconnoitring of China remains largely forgotten. Across Asia, his mammoth account of his journey, was not published until 1940, and even then in a limited run of only 500 copies. It has taken until the 21st century for the scholar Harry Halén to publish a restored retranslation that brought Mannerheim’s Asian adventure to a wider audience, and several further years for someone to publish the inevitable companion, a modern travelogue that traverses Asia in Mannerheim’s footsteps – The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds: A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China.

Author Eric Enno Tamm is a journalist with firm ecological credentials and no fear of rattling cages. Applying for a visa in Vancouver, Tamm finds his path blocked by Chinese officialdom, but this only spurs him even more to imitate his hero. Forbidden entry as a Canadian journalist, he wings it in true Mannerheim fashion, by travelling under an Estonian passport. And off he goes, through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, leaving a trail of irritated guides, furtive contacts and frustrated jobsworths behind him, contrasting Mannerheim’s accounts of Chinese militarism with his own 21st century perspective on what China is doing to its own environment and citizens.

Tamm’s quest is resolutely, bullishly inquisitive. He is arrested and interrogated by the Turkmen police before he even reaches China. He pokes his nose into the activities of clandestine missionaries, quotes harsh criticisms from named sources, and chronicles ecological disasters along the way. He has an eye for the fabric of life in Central Asia: not only the subtle exclusion of Muslim locals from a hotel restaurant that does not serve halal food, but also giggling tourists in shorts blundering around a sacred mosque, and the zealots who think they should be murdered for it.

His journey is riddled with historical coincidences and parallels. He enjoys the allure of “new bottles for old wine”, such as the paradoxical insistence of Maoist doctrine on blind faith, or the suggestion that the Red Guards who once smashed temples of Confucius could only become such fanatics after being raised in an essentially Confucian culture.

Like Mannerheim before him, Tamm travels undercover. He gets annoyed with his interpreters and jumpy in the presence of the Army, ever unsure who has shopped him and who is watching. But he also meets the movers and shakers of his age, and powerful evocations of the past, such as his encounter with the great-great-grandson of the woman Mannerheim knew as the Queen of the Alai Kirghiz. Tamm’s text fleshes out Mannerheim’s journey with historical contexts and adds data unknown in 1906.

Tamm’s habit of adding tangents, breaking modern conversations with historical musings and flashbacks within flashbacks, creates a knowing pastiche of oriental story telling. Like the legendary Scheherazade, Tamm delays explanations and often throws in punchlines after long diversions. It is endlessly entertaining, but also a means by which some issues are first postponed, and then conveniently forgotten. It is, for example, unclear to me how he evades the canny diplomat Wang Jiaji, who rumbles him in Urumqi, and asks straight-up if he is “the Canadian travelling in Mannerheim’s footsteps.”

There is much written about photographs taken and images seen, but these are oddly absent from the book itself, at least in this hardback edition. For the full experience of “reading” Tamm’s journey, one must also have a web browser open to his richly appointed website of parallel resources. Tamm has shown himself to be a shrewd manipulator of modern media, and offers Tweets, Facebookery and a blog to enhance the experience. One wonders if The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds awaits a true destiny, perhaps after its US appearance, likely awards and hopeful best-sellerdom, when foreign rights buyers decide to incorporate pictures by both Mannerheim and Tamm into editions in French, Russian, Swedish, or Finnish – the most likely territories to jump at the chance for translation rights. I don’t see it coming out in Chinese in a hurry, though Tamm will take that as a compliment.

Tamm undertook his journey in 2006, and must surely have been planning to publish in 2008, on the centenary of Mannerheim’s return from the Far East, or 2009, the centenary of Mannerheim’s report on China. Perhaps because of the publication of Halén’s revised book, perhaps for complex reasons to do with award qualification and publicity, The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds has an official US publication date of 2011, but has sneaked out in hardback in its native Canada several months early, offering an irresistible temptation to anyone looking for an exclusive Christmas present for the Mannerheim fan in their life.

The book alludes to James Palmer’s Bloody White Baron as forthcoming, and includes Paul Pelliot’s Carnets de Route in its bibliography, although it does not dig too deeply into Pelliot’s rich veins of anti-Mannerheim invective. All of which I take to mean that Tamm’s book was delivered to his publishers at roughly the same time as my own – I only squeezed Pelliot in during the revision stage. If so, this would explain why there is no mention of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy in Tamm’s otherwise thorough bibliography. My book must have come out while his was going through galleys, which makes it all the more fun to find him elucidating points I only skim, or asking questions that my own book answers. Both of us break with tradition by making Mannerheim’s Asian trip the centrepiece of his life, contrasted with earlier writers who place WW2 in the foreground. Moreover, we are both unrepentant in our assertion that Mannerheim was a Tsarist spy, a concept that has been vigorously denied by at least one diplomat, although even at the time, I thought he protested a little too much.

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds is an anti-travel book, a guide to places no tourist in their right mind would ever want to see. Its author departs for home literally sick of China, coughing and spluttering, plagued by headaches and recounting multiple intestinal upsets. One sees, perhaps, what one wants to see, and Tamm has little time for uplifting local colour or heartwarming encounters. A trained observer of the land, but perhaps not of the people, he reads the environment well, even if his access to its inhabitants is limited. His book is a damning account of a China that looms over our future, a “coal-fired dragon” vastly more threatening than the tinpot empire derided by Mannerheim’s 1909 report, part of the onrushing, dark, satanic crescendo that Tamm calls the “din of the modern world.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.

The Courts of Chaos

Just back from Saint Petersburg, one of the most amazing cities I have ever seen, on the trail of Mannerheim as always, and also putting together material for another book project, about the activities of Japanese spies in pre-Revolutionary Russia. By the side of the glittering River Neva, I dropped in on Alexander Nevsky, at his last resting place near the Nevsky Monastery on Nevsky Place, at one end of Nevsky Prospect, the glorious boulevard that stretches all the way across the city to the Winter Palace.

I walked the whole length of it, breathing in the ghosts of Mannerheim and Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and stopped off at the Moscow Station, just off the Square of the Uprising with its soaring star-topped column, to see the schematic diagram of the Russian rail system, a hundred feet across. It is like a subway map of the gods, a to-do list for Princes in Amber, a Cyrillic alternate-universe version of the London Tube, where the East London Line terminates in Sarmarkand, and the Central Line stretches on not to Hainault, but to Alma Ata. After a name change and a switch in wheels, it continues on to Beijing and Vladivostok — and there is something wondrous about standing in a train station that will take you to the Far East. Near the Church on the Spilled Blood, I bought a copy of one of my own books in Russian, as a gift for our host Alexey.

This was where Mannerheim commenced his two-year trek across Asia as part of what the Russians called the Tournament of Shadows, a journey that took him out across the Sea of Death to the edge of the world. At a cafe near the Museum of Russia’s Secret Police, I ate a meal that would have charmed Roger Zelazny, of dumplings from the Ural Mountains dipped in smetana, and dumplings from Siberia sprinkled with dill, seeing a slow transformation from west to east. Add soy sauce and chili, and you have jiaozi. Look east from Saint Petersburg, and the next border you cross can be China’s. Or Japan’s.

It’s hard to believe this was ever Leningrad. Someone has twisted the time streams, allowing the old imperial capital of Saint Petersburg to reassert itself with a vengeance, cramming the 20th century into the shadows. Golden, double-headed eagles shine on the tops of the lamp-posts, and the former Museum of Atheism has ben rededicated under its old name, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.

Cameron's Artifice

I have been having a good giggle this week at the redesigned election posters at http://www.mydavidcameron.com. for readers outside the UK, this is a site that lampoons the opposition election campaign by inviting the public to creatively vandalise one of their posters. The example illustrated, by one Ian Yates, is particularly nice, although I am baffled by the UK public’s supposed indignation about one element of the campaign.

There are plenty of things to argue about in British politics — real issues like education, health, crime and defence. And yet a large proportion of this week’s debate seems to have been about the fact that the picture of opposition leader David Cameron has been *airbrushed*. As if this is some sort of sin against nature.

I find it odd largely because the newspapers and TV shows behind this furore will be fully aware that everyone is airbrushed. On my days as editor of Manga Max, Vanessa the designer used to spend hours touching up the covers, even though they were often supposedly flawless anime digital images to begin with. She spent similar intricate efforts making the insides of the magazine look nice. Few images available to the press are ever plug-and-play.

Back when I was a presenter on Saiko Exciting on the Sci Fi channel, there was a brief storm in a teacup over the revelation that I wore make-up on air. This was whipped up by some people who thought that there was something unmanly about it, as if I were duping the viewers by not letting them ogle my zits. The plaintiffs seemed unaware that everybody wears make-up in TV, because you’re sitting under zillion-watt lights that make you look like zombies otherwise.

Most large-scale advertising images are doctored. If you’re on an billboard at 1200 dots per inch, why on earth would you want to look bad?

This isn’t even new. There was a little squib of fun in the 1940s, when a British politician’s wife, Lady Diana Cooper, was amused to discover that the president of Finland, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, was wearing make-up when he met her. She didn’t consider that Mannerheim was also meeting the press that day, facing down the world’s media, and hoping not to look like someone who had been living in a shed in the forest.

A digital effects technician of my acquaintance got his first break in the industry going through a film that you have heard of, frame by frame, gently erasing the blemishes from the face of the leading lady. An actress of whose career you are aware, sure to be named in the top ten actresses you come up with if I asked you to list them, has an asking price that includes a million dollar fund to clean up her image digitally. Now, politicians are not actresses, but give them a little credit. If David Cameron had a big spot on his nose on the day that picture was taken, only a complete idiot would run with it as a campaign image to get him elected.

In the movie field, there’s a broader issue. If you’ve got a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis the book, you may have already read my discussion of the possibility that animation is now perceived as a threat to “real” films. Some forms of artifice, it seems, are more acceptable than others. Special effects that make actors look good are welcome to many Motion Picture Academy voters. Special effects that make actors redundant are a very different matter — a large proportion of MPAA voters are thespians. As “animation” becomes so heavily integrated into special effects, and special effects so heavily integrated into live action, that we see “live-action” films that are almost entirely “animated”, the chance finally arises that a “best actor” award might go to a cartoon character, that a “best movie” Oscar might go to a… well, a cartoon.

You know, I don’t think David Cameron’s people are all that worried about the satire. I think they are telling themselves that no publicity is bad publicity, and, I suspect, storing up a whole series of stories about their rivals in the Labour party (shock!) wearing make-up and doctoring their photographs, ready to roll at the next news cycle. But as for David Cameron’s long-lost cousin, James, artifice is something to be proud of. He might even get an award for it.

"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.

Huomenta Suomi

Jet lag be damned, I shall be up before I go to sleep on Monday morning, to appear on Finnish breakfast television. For the thousands of Finnish readers of this blog, that’s MTV3, Huomenta Suomi at 0805 Finnish time. I shall be talking about my new book, Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, the Finnish rights for which were sold before the English edition was even fully delivered.

It’s the true story of an officer in the service of the Tsar’s cavalry in the late-19th/early-20th century, who fought in the Russo-Japanese War before volunteering for a daring undercover mission to spy on the Chinese while crossing Asia on horseback, disguised as a Swedish anthropologist. Later on, he became the president of Finland, and then the subject of a malicious puppet show, but that’s another story.

Just a note for US readers, particularly if you are one of the 500,000 Americans of Finnish ancestry (yes, I was a bit surprised by how many there were, too), or one of the two million American-Swedes. The Mannerheim book won’t be in American shops until the New Year, but if you can’t wait, or want to impress Grandpa Jussi this Christmas, you can order it direct from Amazon UK right now.

Pictures from the Sea of Death

Last week, the blog rolled away on autopilot without me. This is what I was actually doing…

I was secretly hoping that Helsinki would be cool in summer, but it’s as warm as London, if not warmer with all the extra daylight. Today there is not a cloud in the sky and the Finnish girls are wearing little shorts. Because I can, I decide to take a route past the statue of Gustaf Mannerheim. I am, after all, in town to look at his photo albums.
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