My Book of the Year

I wrap up this year with another run-down of several of the more obscure books that I had been reading in the gaps between writing my own.

I spend a lot of time travelling. Or rather, my life appears to have geared itself to a condition whereby I can only get much of my reading done while travelling. Facing four months away from home this year, I bit the bullet and bought a Kindle. So wonderful to get on a plane with not one or two, but over a hundred books in my pocket; to finish one book and leap straight onto the next; to be mid-air somewhere over Asia with half a dozen books on the go; to sit in a coffee bar and alternate one chapter of work reading with one chapter of a novel, all day. And, of course, to be able to read the Literary Review five thousand miles from home, and have the month’s recommendations jump instantly into my pocket.

It’s good for authors, too. Schoolgirl Milky Crisis has made immensely more money for me in eBook editions than it has in print, you modern readers, you. My Mannerheim is out on the Kindle, as are Coxinga, my translation of the Art of War, the Dorama and Anime encyclopedias, my novels Ruthless and Swords & Ashes, and in February 2013, you will be able to get yourself the Brief History of the Vikings and Brief History of the Samurai on the Kindle, too.

Since I have carefully-kept accounts of exactly what I read each year, I can also attest that owning a Kindle has not reduced the amount of money I spent on paper books. This year, it has simply caused me to spend £400 extra on eBooks.

I am not a total eBook convert. I much prefer to work with paper, and to have paper on my shelves where I can “access” it by staring dreamily around the room while I think. I am a tad frustrated with a recurring lack of “real” page numbers in Kindle books, which means it is difficult for me to cite them academically without getting hold of a paper copy anyway. But work aside, for someone who had all but forgotten the idea of reading for pleasure, having a Kindle has brought much of the joy back for me.

I have long been interested in the Flying Tigers, but my material on them never grew into a book because Daniel Ford had already written one saying everything I would have said and more. So there’s a whole shelf of Flyingtigerana in my office, awaiting the day when I can use it instead in a novel or a script. But I still keep track of new publications in the field, and enjoyed Ford’s edition of the memoirs of Olga Greenlaw, The Lady and the Tigers. Greenlaw was one of a handful of feisty women who lived among the mercenary airmen in China and Burma, fighting the Japanese before WW2 had been declared. Her memoirs were published soon after the war, but sank without a trace, swamped to some extent by similar books by many of the actual pilots. Ford, however, returns to Greenlaw’s neglected book in a 2012 reissue, pointing out that as the official Flying Tigers diarist, her account of events is often more reliable than the bragging of the men. She is wonderful fun, gleefully racist (she hates Japs, Darkies and Limeys, not necessarily in that order) and seems to spend most of her time shouting at her husband and hectoring the help. She also offers the sort of tantalising details that historical novelists love, such as how Madame Chiang Kai-shek did her make-up. Popular myth among the Flying Tigers claims that Mrs Greenlaw slept around, but editor Ford sweetly points out that her diaries only seem to get excited about pilots when they are dead — i.e., she talks about how much she adores certain men simply because she has had to go to their funeral the day before. These eulogies have been wilfully misinterpreted by a whole bunch of male historians who like to think that she was banging half the air force. Ford also extends the story past Greenlaw’s return to America in 1942, up to her death in 1983 a whole lifetime and two more husbands later.

Someone who was very nearly a footnote to the Flying Tigers story was Ernest Hemingway, who once turned down a large sum of money to write a movie script based on their antics. Ernest Hemingway on the China Front, by Peter Moreira, is an account of the 100 days that the author spent in China in 1941, in the company of the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, the new Mrs Hemingway, who had rashly decided to visit China’s war against Japan in lieu of a honeymoon somewhere a little more placid. Fifty years later, Gellhorn would still be telling journalists of the awful condition of Chinese toilets. Hemingway, meanwhile, wrote remarkably little about China, despite spending more time there than he had on the Italian front in WW1 which famously inspired him to write A Farewell to Arms. Despite the implied bias of the main title, Moreira’s book is as much, if not more Gellhorn’s that Hemingway’s, alternating their separate accounts of their trip, and more often than not leaving him looking like a drunken idiot, and her looking like a smarter, if sometimes deluded traveller. It would surely have pleased Gellhorn, who was soon to become the new ex-Mrs Hemingway, that seventy years later she would still get the last word, as she also does in the very odd Hemingway and Gellhorn, an HBO biopic released this year with Clive Owen (yes, Clive Owen) as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman (yes, Nicole Kidman) as Gellhorn, and a massive spot-the-cameo series of walk-on celebrities, including Lars Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica, playing Communist filmmaker Joris Ivens. Really: why would I make something like that up?

Another unexpected discovery was Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror, by Milo Thornberry, which one hopes is on the radar of a Ben Affleck type looking for a follow-up to Argo. Thornberry arrives in 1960s Taiwan as a starry-eyed Methodist missionary, who soon stumbles into political activism. Inspired in part by Martin Luther King, who is killed shortly after the author arrives, but also by Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings on the unexpected repercussions of Gandhi’s “non-violent” protests, he determines that there is no such thing as pacifism, and people really ought to get on and do something. The main narrative coalesces around Peter
Peng, an expert in space law who is under virtual house arrest, and who the mad Methodists decide to smuggle out of the country. They do this by disguising him as a Japanese hippy, which is quite difficult, because he only has one arm, and they have to mock up a fake one in a sling in order to get him through immigration. The guileless Methodist is dragged away from teaching New Testament Greek in order to forge a passport, while his colleagues embezzle money from a church fund in order to slip money to the impoverished families of political prisoners.

Meanwhile, Peng’s secret service tails turn out to be so incompetent that they do not even realise that he has left the country. Instead, in a traditional work-shy manner, it transpires that they have long since given up round-the-clock surveillance, and have instead been filling fake reports for months, claiming to follow him all over Taipei. Unaware that their quarry has already got on a plane with a guitar and a false arm, they continue to tell their bosses that they are following him on a daily basis, even as Peng is stepping off a plane in Stockholm and claiming political asylum.

Things take on a far broader tone as the book embraces the Taiwanese independence movement, discussing the frantic political machinations in the early 1970s as Nixon, bogged down in Vietnam, authorised the use for the first time of the term “People’s Republic of China” in a speech, thereby sending a message to Beijing that he was ready to ditch Taiwan. This immediately sent the government of Taiwan into conniptions, leading not only to the sudden appearance of Chiang Kai-shek’s son in New York to argue his case, but also an attempt on his life by Taiwanese independence agitators, in between the news stories of the My Lai massacre and the Ohio shootings, so swiftly relegated to the back pages of American newspapers. And if that’s not enough for you, the author then gets immensely biblical, and begins discussing the Gospel of Mark as a redacted text, suggesting that the historical Jesus was substantially more politically active, but that the completion of the gospel around the time of the Jewish Revolt led Mark to leave out anything that sounded too anti-Roman and/or outright seditious. Thornberry mentions this in comparison to the way that American newspapers and magazines, particularly Time, refused to say a bad word about Taiwan because the ruling family were nominally Christians, and the only alternative was Commies.

But none of those are my book of the year. That honour goes to a Kindle-only title that sneaked out in the late autumn, detailing the series of connections and synchronicities that started with a bored FBI employee using the company photocopier to make a false treatise on principles of discord, and expands exponentially to include the tour dates of Echo and the Bunnymen, the career paths of actors who have played Doctor Who, and the decision by two Playboy editors in the 1960s that, just for fun, they would consider a world in which every insane conspiracy theory they had ever heard was actually true. The book is called KLF: Chaos, Magic Music, Money, by JMR Higgs, and begins as an account of two wannabe musicians (who, after releasing a novelty single as the Timelords, would eventually become the KLF), but soon takes on new aspects as they are inspired to emulate, imitate and assimilate the ideas to be found in the Illuminatus books by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (Robert Shea, incidentally, whose later Shiké: Time of the Dragons, was the book that first interested me in Japan).

The KLF book appeals to me, at least in part, because I felt like I was part of it. It’s less my book of 2012, perhaps, than it is my book of 1989 or 1990, as I remember so many of the events in it taking place in the media around me. I read Illuminatus sometime around 1987, having won it in a haul of second-hand science fiction novels that was first prize in an end-of-term Latin quiz (held by Ted Read, to whom Spartacus: Swords & Ashes is dedicated, by the way). So when the KLF began singing about the Justified Ancients of Mummu on national television, it felt oddly like I was being sent messages through the ether. Fnord. I remember turning on the television one morning and found Tammy Wynette singing about the immortal secret masters of the world, sitting on a throne on top of a giant pyramid and exhorting viewers to “Stand by the J.A.M.s”. On Saturday morning television, watched by twelve-year-old girls and stoned students. That’s the sort of thing that the KLF used to do.

Higgs’s book delves deeply into the Situationist movement, and its wise proclamation that people were transforming from being, to having, to the appearance of having – a concise description of the modern world. It alludes in asides to the squalid poverty under which the artists lived, skulking in squats while they tinkered with their instruments. And it addresses, in ever greater and more grandiose terms, the motivation and consequences of what is perhaps the KLF’s most infamous act – the burning of one million pounds as a work of Situationist art. The book is as mad as a box of frogs, and has Alan Moore, Gary Glitter and Julian Cope in it.

The Tiger’s Tail

It has always struck me as strange that the stories of Robin Hood should crop up in Europe at the same time as stories of the heroes of the Water Margin in China and of Yoshitsune in Japan. What is it about the late 12th century that suddenly favours stories of noble outlaws opposing dastardly governments? Why is it that for every story of Robin Hood facing Little John on a log across a stream, there is an analogue in the East, like that of Yoshitsune fighting Benkei on the Gojo Bridge?
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