Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Colour of Ice


Bloody Vikings. That’s what you needed to be to find any pleasure in this God-forsaken corner of the globe. Hell, they must’ve been tough bastards. A horizon of ice, blizzards which stung you every few hours like a hail of tiny white bullets. Steely grey water punctuated by bergs, growlers and floes. And yes, over there, to starboard, there is some terra firma. Who the hell ever gave it that name - ‘Green’ land? Even viewed through binoculars, it appears as anything but green. It looks like the rest of this area; pallid, cadaverously dead, inhospitable.

   I usually enjoyed the 4-8 watch, especially the morning stretch. But there in Baffin Bay, way up off Greenland’s frozen west coast, no matter what watch you kept, there was an insistent mood of melancholy. Yet I blessed the modern research ship, our nomadic platform of hermetically sealed civilisation, able to bang defiantly through the ice as we dreamed of home in warm cabins, enjoyed good food … and even a lowly deckhand like me got paid.
We were collecting seismic data for possible oil fields in an area seaward of Canada’s 12 nautical-mile boundary, beyond the Outer Land Fast Ice Zone to the Greenland border. No exotic ports to waste my wages in. No bars, brothels or loose ladies. Not a bad number for an old hand saving for his retirement.

It was in a murky, way below zero chilling darkness that I came off the wheel at 0500 hours, when, as I went to leave the bridge the Chief Mate, clutching his binoculars, murmured “…what the bloody hell is that …” I paused and peered through the dark greyness at the horizon, as ever, littered with the ghostly, towering icebergs. But between them there was something else, something odd, an indistinct, misty silhouette. We were doing about ten knots and heading in its direction. As the shape clarified in the mounting dawn gloom, we both gave a nervous laugh. It was an old sailing ship. She was a four-master, square-rigged on all except the after mast. The Mate looked at me. He knew I’d been at sea when he was still in his cradle.
   “What d’you think?”
   “Judging by her rig,” I said, “she’s a barque. Pretty old, too.” He handed me the glasses and went into the chart room to check the radar. In the few minutes he was away, I could see the mystery ship more clearly. She had no navigation lights. No lights anywhere, and no sign of life on her decks. Her stiff sails were hanging in hard-frozen tatters. Her rigging was heavily encrusted with ice. This was a dead ship, a drifter. My relief crewman on the wheel, a young lad from Nova Scotia, now spotted it.
   “Hey - maybe that’s one of those new Johnny Depp movies they’re making? Another Pirates of the Caribbean?” The Mate turned on him and sneered.
   “We’re in bleedin’ Baffin Bay, you clown, not the West Indies! I don’t see any palm trees, do you?” Ten minutes later we had a better view. It wasn’t pleasant. There was something very unsettling about this derelict. She was afloat, yet with her timbers clad with heavy ice it was a wonder she hadn’t gone under. Oddly enough, she appeared to be moving in our direction. I hung around on the bridge as the Mate went to rouse the Captain out of his well-earned slumber.

    Captain Thorstein, a heavily bearded middle-aged Norwegian, was not best pleased to be wrenched from his warm bunk. Yawning, he stood there in his bathrobe and slippers. Yet he looked in silence for a long time as the distance between us and this frozen phantom decreased.
   “This is remarkable … very strange.” He rang down to the engine room to stop. We then gave the ancient mariner a blast on our whistle. No visible response.
   “Get the Aldis lamp, chief,” said the Captain, “ask him who the hell he is.”
Signals were flashed. Nothing. The Skipper dashed back to his cabin to get dressed. I could have gone below, but I remained transfixed by this approaching spectre.
   “Did they ever find the other ship from the Franklin expedition?” asked the Mate.
   “I think they found both,” I replied, “but this old tub’s a barque, a different rig, and she’s much older.” I zipped up my parka and went out onto the wing of the bridge for a smoke. It was lighter now and the drifter was just half a mile away. This close it looked even more sinister than ever. The skipper re-appeared and called all hands. The Mate suggested we approach the derelict and secure her alongside us, but I was relieved when the skipper rejected the idea. A decision was made to launch one of our inflatables to take a boarding party over. I was reluctant to be chosen, but with still over two hours of my watch left, and being fairly experienced, I got the dreaded call.
   Bouncing along, six of us, through an ice-infested obstacle course of deadly grey water, we were stunned into a state of disbelieving silence, disturbed only by the splutter of the outboard motor. Soon the ice-encrusted ancient wooden monster towered over us. As we passed under her stern, beneath the frost we could see the gilded, peeling name ‘Satyricon’.
   The Mate addressed his second in command. “You went to a good school, didn’t you, Thompson?”
   “Yes Chief, why?”
   “Satyricon. What’s that , a Greek god or something?”
   “No sir,” replied Thompson, “It was a Roman book by a man called Petronius. He was a big friend of the wicked Emperor Nero.” Our Bosun, Moncrieff, a dour old Shetland islander, puffed frantically on his briar pipe, staring up at the drifter with a wild expression.
   “Och, no … I dinnae like this, lads. Not at all. We should’ae left this ole’tub tae her fate. This is the devil’s work…” I wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. He had a point.
There were various stiff, frozen old ropes hanging over her side, but the Mate thought them too dangerous to use. After several attempts with a grappling iron and heaving lines, we managed to get a block and tackle hooked amidships enabling us to attach a Jacob’s ladder.
One by one we followed the Mate up the ladder, Moncrieff  remaining on the inflatable.
   As the five of us stepped onto that slippery, ice-bound deck a prickly, electric feeling of nauseous dread spread from man to man. The Mate and Second Mate were both equipped with powerful flashlights and walkie talkies. We all stood there for a few seconds, gazing around the deck, then aloft at the stiff, frozen old canvas and brittle rigging. Her hatch and lazarette covers were still in place. There was a blackened, rusting iron chimney astern of the mainmast.
    No-one spoke at first, then the Mate split us into two groups. I was to go with him to the quarterdeck to find what we presumed would be the Captain’s quarters, and the Second Mate would take two men forward to explore the fo’c’sle accommodation. Underneath her coating of ice she still felt reassuringly solid, yet something told us to tread very carefully indeed.

   Forcing open the quarterdeck door took some heavy physical force. I was praying it would stay shut, but ice creaked against ice as the dark interior was revealed. I followed the Mate in. Then the horror truly commenced. To starboard an open cabin door revealed a grim tableau. A frozen man, a corpse in an 18th century greatcoat was crouched cross-legged on the deck, his head swathed in torn strips of old blanket. In his blue-green sticks of fingers he held a flint and a silver tinder box. Before him on the planks a small heap of partly burned wood shavings. The Mate shone the powerful torch beam and we shuddered at further revelations.

We disturbed a rigid blanket in a bunk, and as it cracked into shards, beneath it we discovered the frozen cadaver of a young woman, eyes still open and staring, her bared teeth set in a rictus of agonized death. Yet it was the pyramid-shaped canvas, an enshrouded heap on the deck close by which caused us to gasp and tremble. As we lifted the canvas, beneath knelt the brittle body of a small boy, his tiny hands welded together in an attitude of prayer. In this small cabin we were looking at the final tragic, miserable demise of what appeared to be a family. We jumped as the Mate’s walkie talkie crackled into life. The second mate’s voice burst into the frigid air.
   “Oh, Jesus H wept, Chief! We can’t stay here! You’re not gonna believe this - over!”
   “I know, Thompson. Whatever you’re seeing we can match it. But stick with it.”
‘Stick with it’? Was this some new maritime masochism? I wanted to be out of there and down that ladder, pronto.
We left this chamber of horrors and found ourselves in the larger Captain’s cabin. Sure enough, there was the ill-fated Master, sat like a pale marble statue at his desk, his inflexible blackened digits still clutching a quill pen. Before him, lying open, was the log book of the Satyricon. We huddled by him, reading the pages over the dead skipper’s bony shoulders. In those few minutes, which seemed like a grim eternity, we discovered that this ship had left Portsmouth on a long trip to China in 1759. The last entry he had been writing as the ice crushed the life from his veins told us that he and his crew had met their fate on or around November 21, 1773. Where had they been for 13 painful years!? And what the hell were they doing off the west coast of Greenland? Scarier still, how had this utterly refrigerated vessel been lurking in this remote region for 242 years without being spotted? We stood in horrified reverence for a few seconds, until the Mate said
   “Christ. D’you realise what this means? They must have found the North West Passage three years before even the Admiralty sent Cook out to look for it. This guy’s a hero!”
   “No, Chief,” I spluttered, “he’s a bloody corpse, and this ship’s a creepy graveyard. I don’t want any more of this.” The Mate looked at me and I could see he agreed. He took out his mobile phone and began taking pictures. He tried to pick up the crumbling log book but it fell to pieces. All nautical discipline left me. “For Christ’s sake, Chief - leave it! Let’s go!”
We left the quarterdeck and made our way forward. Thompson and his two startled, white-faced accomplices were staggering from the fo’c’sle.
   “Don’t go in there, Chief - don’t!”
   But we pushed past them and entered what was now a darkly sinister mariner’s mausoleum. Rigid corpses in bunks, skeletal remains in rotten hammocks, and the ultimate horror. A large cooking pot suspended by a chain over a pile of charcoal. It contained bones; human bones. The Chief snapped more pictures, but I flipped. I ran. Within seconds we were all scrambling down that ladder, almost capsizing the inflatable in our desperation to escape.
   Back on board our safe, warm, 21st century refuge, we assembled in the saloon to report to Captain Thorstein. Rum was passed around. We needed it. The skipper found our tale hard to believe. But the Chief took out his phone. This would convince the Captain. Yet the little screen simply displayed six milky, opaque rectangles … the colour of ice. When we all went out on deck, the Satyricon had vanished.

After we were paid off in Glasgow, I never went to sea again. In disturbed dreams on dark winter nights, I still see that tiny figure, hands frozen in prayer, and I wonder where he is now. And that cooking pot … those bones.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

MANUEL a film by Tao Ruspoli

Rest in Peace, Manuel Molina 1948-2015. This wonderful little film explains what Flamenco really is, what it means; a celebration of life, friendship, passion, heritage, culture. These scenes could have been from any decade in the past century, because what we regard as the 'modern' world is a temporary mirage. This is the romance of eternity, the joy of living, a refreshing view of what God is, and a positive idea of the hereafter. If there's a heaven, and Manuel is in it, I hope I get there. It'll be a fine place.
Joyful, independent, and unique, he died in much the way that he lived—uncompromising, always forging his own path, quintessentially flamenco. No one better could write his epitaph:

Let no one cry the day I die;

It’s more beautiful to sing,

Even if the song comes with pain

Monday, 2 November 2015

The Real 007


The Bizarre World of Sidney Reilly – The Real 007.

Sidney Reilly: The Man who inspired James Bond.

Beyond the misty boundaries of espionage there are walking, human mysteries, conundrums of the psyche who leave behind a strange record of lives lived which are so complex, incredible and multi-faceted that they will remain a source of puzzlement and wonder for all time.
Whatever James Bond achieved in fiction is nothing compared to the real-life exploits of the so-called ‘Ace of Spies’, Sidney Reilly.  Even 007’s originator, author Ian Fleming, admitted his creation’s limitations when he said
 “James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up. He’s not a Sidney Reilly, you know…”  
Sidney Reilly was a cunning chameleon, a devious, bold survivor, and the inspiration behind Bond, the ultimate enigma, feared by both political extremes, from capitalist to commissar. In the words of one researcher, ‘Reilly was so twisted he had to take his pants off with a corkscrew’. He may have come too early for the age of missiles, helicopters, Goldfinger and Blofeld, yet his dark hand is traceable in some of the early 20th century’s dirtiest deals. He was a con man who held a dozen passports, described by the U.S. Government as ‘world class’, a chemist, a businessman, a master of disguise, a forger, and was fluent in a number of languages. He could fool the rich and famous and bring down governments, and then vanish like a ghost. His headed notepaper bore the double-headed Russian eagle with the legend Mundo Nulla Fides – ‘Put No Faith in The World’, or, literally – ‘Trust No One’. Anyone who came into contact with this man of mystery soon understood the deep significance of that motto. 

Sidney Reilly would have loved to look like Daniel Craig ...
And, as with Messrs. Craig, Connery, Moore and Brosnan, women couldn’t get enough of our Sidney. Any serial bigamist who had an estimated eight wives at the same time, with a mistress alongside each, deserves our attention.

He left a legacy of riddles. How did he become the fictitious Sidney Reilly,  claiming to be a ‘British gentleman’ of Irish descent? Did he die in front of a Soviet firing squad in 1925, or did he live on with yet another identity until the 1940s?
He was born to the Rosenblum family, either as Georgi, Shlomo or Sigmund – (sources differ) in  Odessa in Russia on March 24 1874 or 1873.  His father was a Jewish doctor, Markus Rosenblum, who had given up medicine to become a shipping agent and broker. Yet even these biographical details are suspect, as according to Reilly’s latest biographer, Professor Richard Spence of the University of Idaho[1]  there is no record of a Markus Rosenblum living in Odessa at that time. Reilly never mentioned Odessa as his birthplace. He cited both Clonmel, Ireland, and at other times, St. Petersburg, Russia as places of origin.
Reilly learned from an early age in a virulently anti-Semitic environment that plain survival was the noblest cause of all. The oppressed Jews were blamed for everything, including the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Pogroms – violent and murderous attacks on Jewish communities, were a regular occurrence, with the cry  Bei zhidov, spasai Rossii! (Kill the Yids and save Russia!) ringing through the streets. If you were a Jew in this climate, it made sense to have money – as much as possible. Money made life easier, it offered protection in tight corners and oiled the commercial wheels. Having money – and being prepared to kill for it -  became the guiding rule of Sigmund’s life.
For his entry into the international affairs of Great Britain we have a choice of scenarios. Professor Spence favours young Sigmund, with a qualification in Chemistry, arriving in London from France in 1895. Another current biography by Britain’s Andrew Cook[2] favours the lad stowing away on a British merchant ship bound for South America. There he took on the identity of a South American called Pedro, and became a cook at a British mission. When the mission was attacked by local Indians, it was Pedro to the rescue, bravely saving the endangered Brits whilst scaring off the local tribesmen. One of the mission members was a certain Major Fothergill, a British agent, who showed his gratitude to ‘Pedro’ with a generous cheque for £1,500. Rosenblum found a passage back to England. In London, he was soon mixing with a panoply of bizarre characters  who operated on the fringes of late Victorian society. If they had money – Sigmund was interested. He had begun trading as a chemist making profitable patent medicines with his own firm, Rosemblum & Co, then with the Electric Ozone Company, ostensibly carrying out research into the use of Ozone in the filtration systems on submarines. This brought him into contact with Basil Zaharoff, a fearful character of tremendous wealth and political influence, who had built his fortune on arms sales.
Basil Zaharoff displaying his many 'honours'.
Zaharoff was known as ‘The Merchant of Death’ (he excelled in bribery, blackmail, with a reputation for having competitors assassinated). Twice young Sigmund’s age, he took the callow chemist under his dark wing. They were made for each other. Zaharoff taught his devious young protégé  three rules he would always live by; that the best way to gain influence over a man was through a woman, that one should bet on all sides in a contest, but bet the most on the strongest man, and in politics, one should “begin on the left…and then work over to the right…”.
As if Zaharoff wasn’t depraved enough, it is thought that young Sigmund came into frequent contact at this time with the so-called ‘Beast Incarnate’, the black magician, Aleister Crowley.
Aleister Crowley, the self-proclaimed
'Great Beast'.
Posing in London as a Russian nobleman, Count Svarov, Crowley claimed to have returned from a spying mission to Russia on behalf of the Foreign Office. Such a fanciful yarn was bound to attract Sigmund’s attention. Crowley’s ‘magickal’ maxim ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’ would have appealed immensely to the libidinous Rosenblum. But neither Crowley nor Zaharoff had been his first London contact.
One of the great Fortean mysteries of all time is still the indecipherable Voynich Manuscript, which is today lodged in the rare books department at Yale University. In the 1890s, the man who would eventually unearth this arcane tome at a Jesuit monastery in Italy, Wilfrid Michael Voynich, bibliophile and rare book dealer, ran his business in London. Not long after his arrival in England Sigmund realised that London was a hotbed of exiled Russian anti-tsarist revolutionaries. Information was his currency, and before long he was working for the Tsar’s secret police, the Ohkrana.

Wilfrid Voynich
Wilfrid Voynich, a Pole, had been an anti-tsarist nationalist who, like Sigmund, had trained as a chemist and had escaped from a Warsaw prison where he had been held for his political activities. Voynich had valuable contacts  among the many Russian political exiles in London, and as a rookie in the information business, Sigmund clung to Voynich like a limpet. Even more valuable to him was Voynich’s wife, Ethel Lillian Boole Voynich, the daughter of the prominent mathematician, George Boole. Another committed revolutionary, she took to Sigmund, unaware that every piece of information she let slip might end up in Scotland Yard or on the Tsar’s desk in St. Petersburg.
In 1899 she wrote a novel, The Gadlfy, whose central character, Arthur Burton, is said to be based on her interesting young friend.
Although a substantial sum at the time, the £1500 Sigmund had been given by Major Fothergill was dwindling away. His espionage wages from Scotland Yard – and elsewhere-  were not yet paying enough to run his hedonistic lifestyle.
Sigmund needed capital.
Through his connection to Superintendent William Melville at Scotland Yard, he came into the orbit of Sir Henry Montague Hozier, the Managing Secretary of Lloyds of London.  Whatever similarities there were in the two men’s character, they were in the area of serial infidelity and a nose for intelligence work. Hozier would eventually become Winston Churchill’s father-in-law. It was one of his associates at Lloyds in the Naval Intelligence Division, Albert Kaye Rollit, who would unwittingly move Sigmund closer to the money he needed. Rollit, Melville and Hozier were all Freemasons - as was Sigmund Rosenblum. They shared another passion – race horses, which eventually saw Sigmund being introduced to the 65 year old Reverend Hugh Thomas, another fan of all things equine. Thomas was very well-heeled for a clergyman, with his own stud farm, property in London and a Welsh estate. He also held an impressive portfolio of stocks and shares. Sigmund soon put the first of Basil Zaharoff’s rules into action. Thomas’s wife, Margaret Callahan Thomas, was the 23 year old daughter of an Irish sea captain, Edward Reilly Callahan.
Reverend Thomas had a bad heart. He had tried manfully for five years to produce an heir to his estate, but Margaret’s hoped for pregnancy had failed to materialise. Enter the young stud, Sigmund. By the summer of 1898 she was not only in love with the swarthy young spy, but carrying his child. Naturally, the old clergyman thought he’d scored at last.
He planned to celebrate the pregnancy by taking Margaret – and Sigmund - to sunnier climes, but as they were about to leave for the continent, he died from heart failure in a Newhaven hotel room. There may well have been some complicity in the Reverend’s death between Sigmund and Margaret. There is no record of the nurse who was supposed to be present at the death. The death certificate was signed by a doctor variously called S.W. or T. W. Andrews. The Royal College of Surgeons had no such member listed at the time. With his skill as a forger, it is possible that the death certificate was forged by Rosenblum.
Five months later Margaret, now a rich young woman, married Sigmund at Holborn Registry Office. He set about liquidating the late Reverend’s assets, a process which culminated in an auction at Christies. Now with adequate funds, he cleared off to Spain, possibly on a spying mission for Melville. Margaret was not invited.
In December 1898 he returned.
Six months later, with a passport in the name of Sidney George Reilly, he and Margaret left their house in London’s Upper Westbourne Terrace and Sigmund Rosenblum vanished. He may have been involved in a major counterfeiting operation which had pumped millions of fake roubles into the Russian economy. If Sigmund was to face any charges on this, then his cover with the Ohkrana and Scotland Yard may have been blown; so, he had to go abroad – to China.
The next few years of Reilly’s life becomes a complicated roller-coaster ride of business dealings, illicit affairs and, of course, the further development of his spying career around the world – especially in Russia.
By the time the First World War began he was regarded by the British Secret Service (MI6) as their top man. Code-named ST-1, this hard, cold enigma treated his women with contempt – and by this time Margaret was history.
His daring exploits beggar belief. At one time, at Cannes on the Mediterranean coast, he managed to talk his way on board the private yacht of the French Rothschild family to procure Persian oil concessions for Britain by disguising himself as a Catholic priest. At the height of World War I he turned up at a meeting of the German High Command dressed as a German officer, where he sat in, unnoticed, then reported back to MI6.  But it was in Russia where the enduring legend of Sidney Reilly  would be fully formed.
Reilly was fascinated by all things Napoleonic. He collected anything to do with Bonaparte. His plans for Russia following the overthrow of the Romanovs by the Bolsheviks in 1917 have an almost Napoleonic flavour. Reilly really believed that he could be the one man who could give back to Russia her former imperial glory. He would do it by intrigue, secret deals and dirty tricks, just as he did everything else. If spying had been a ‘gentlemanly’ occupation before Reilly, then the new rules of play under his direction would be as far from cricket as one could get.
But not everyone who worked for His Majesty’s Government found this brash braggart to their taste.
Robert Bruce Lockhart
Robert Bruce Lockhart was an erudite, keen young diplomat who had been sent to the new Bolshevik Russia in 1918 by the British government as an envoy to keep Lloyd George’s cabinet informed on the new Soviet state’s intentions. Lockhart was a pragmatist. On an earlier posting to Russia he had repeatedly warned London that the power of Lenin and Trotsky would eventually mean that the west should at least have a dialogue with the new socialist regime. Yet his advice fell on deaf ears. King George V and the deposed Tsar Nicholas II were close cousins. If there was any way the radical new usurpers could be toppled, despite simultaneously running the Great War, then Sidney Reilly would find it.
MI6 despatched their ace of skullduggery to Moscow, without informing Lockhart.
In addition to fermenting counter-revolution,  the centre piece of Reilly’s grand scheme was to arrest Trotsky and Lenin and, rather than execute them, parade them through the streets of Russia on a cart, minus their trousers.
‘Better they look fools than martyrs’ was Reilly’s Russian strategy.
In Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called), the British Embassy had been vacated by senior diplomats, who had returned to the comfort of England rather than face the rigours of advancing communism. In their place in the embassy was a brave, highly-decorated Royal Navy submarine captain, the 37 year old Francis Cromie. Courageous though Cromie was, he was out of his depth in Reilly’s field of espionage.

Captain Francis Cromie
In Russia, Reilly  had established yet another identity for himself as Comrade Relinsky, an officer with the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police and fore-runner of the KGB.  He also became a fictitious Greek businessman, Mr. Konstantin. To the Americans he was ‘one of theirs’ with the odd name ‘Ser Ruis’. Each of his ‘characters’ in Russia soon had a wife. His identity would change even on train journeys between Petrograd and Moscow.  He would board as the Greek at one end, and disembark at the other as Relinsky.  There is no doubt that, with his previous experience working for the Tsarist Ohkrana, Reilly was feared by certain members of the new Cheka, who, like him, would have had much to hide about their previous affiliations. The sight of Reilly in their midst would fill them with fear lest he talked, providing fertile ground for blackmail, something Sidney excelled at.
By August 1918 there were serious Allied plans afoot to intervene in the new Russia. Trotsky and Lenin were told that Allied troops had been sent to Murmansk and Archangel to protect British armaments lest they fell into the hands of the Germans and to form a bulwark against the Kaiser’s troops.  But behind the scenes a different plot was developing. If the Allied force could join with the sizeable, disaffected tsarist factions, then the threat posed by the Bolsheviks – and any inspiration they might give to the rest of the world’s workers – could be removed.
When a party of Lenin’s Latvian Praetorian Guard secretly visited Captain Cromie at the Embassy in Petrograd, he listened carefully to their offer – that, with the right amount of finance, they could mobilise several thousand Latvian troops who would fight alongside the Allies to bring Lenin and Trotsky down. Cromie  sent the keen   counter-revolutionaries to Moscow to meet Lockhart and Reilly, posing as the Greek, Konstantin. Reilly immediately organised the transfer of 1,200,000 roubles in funds from London, which (although not all) was passed on to the ‘rebels’.
The money had, in fact, gone straight into the coffers of the Cheka; the whole thing had been a Bolshevik ‘sting’, set up to discover the real intentions of the Allies. Handing the money over had been a gamble, but risk was Reilly’s game and the Cheka agents had done a convincing job.
Such was the bold sweep of Reilly’s plans at this time that Bruce Lockhart had been forced to accept that Allied policy was now the spy’s full responsibility. Reilly’s scheme included blowing up bridges, the delivery from secret locations to Moscow of several batteries of  British heavy guns, and he had discovered the location of a sealed trainload of gold which was bound for Germany – for Sidney, an irresistible bonus should he get his hands on it. In Petrograd, Captain Cromie would proceed with plans to scuttle the Baltic Fleet. Reilly’s Napoleonic dreams seemed achievable.
Head of the Cheka: 'Iron'Felix Dzerzhinsky
The Cheka were now fully aware that Russia was under serious threat, but the organisation’s leaders, ‘Iron’ Felix Dzerzhinsky and his deputy Jacob Peters  played it cool and bided their time. Peters was in a dangerous situation – Reilly had known him in London and there seems no doubt the hidden truth of the Cheka deputy’s dubious political past was enough for Sidney to be able to make Peters complicit in his schemes.
However,  what happened on Friday August 30th 1918 forced their hand.  In Petrograd that morning the city’s Cheka boss, Moisei Uritsky, was assassinated. Was Reilly behind this? Probably, as it seems possible Uritsky may have known too much about Reilly and Peters. Worse was to come that evening when a young woman, Fania Kaplan, fired two shots at Lenin as he left from giving a speech in a factory. Lenin survived, but was seriously wounded. There is a strong possibility that Reilly was also behind this plot.  These two events, plus the threat of Allied intervention, all now combined to create what would be known as ‘The Terror’.
Hundreds were arrested or executed that night. The following day, Saturday 31st, the Cheka invaded the British Embassy, arrested everyone, and shot Captain Cromie dead. Even the brave Cromie’s death may have been the result of Reilly’s scheming. He saw the naïve captain as a loose cannon who knew too much.
The game was up, and although Allied troops had indeed landed in Archangel, their network of support in Russia had been destroyed, as nearly every British diplomat or agent had been imprisoned. Reilly, of course, vanished, but in his perambulations by train between Moscow and Petrograd he was almost caught. The Cheka had boarded the train looking for him. Reilly bumped into a Bolshevik sailor in the corridor. He attacked him, stole his uniform and bundled  the unconscious mariner through the window onto the track. Now kitted out as one of the Soviet Navy’s finest, ‘Comrade Relinsky’ asked the marauding Cheka agents if he could ‘help to look for Reilly’, an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Despite Reilly’s efforts, the Soviet Union was to survive for over 70 years, but he carried on his devious work. In Britain in 1924 he helped to forge the infamous ‘Zinoviev Letter’, a scurrilous Russian fake exhorting British workers to revolt. It’s appearance in the Daily Mail  brought down Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government.
His death, as one would expect, has been as big a conundrum as his life. There are suggestions that he survived as a businessman for many years either in the USA or in Israel, as ‘George Rosenblum’.  Biographer Andrew Cook believes Reilly was probably executed in Russia, on Stalin’s orders, on November 5th 1925.[3]
Whatever the truth – do we really want to know? In Reilly’s case, we can never stamp ‘case closed’ on the file – everyone loves an enigma.

Honoured By Strangers
is available as an e-book
from Constable & Robinson /Little, Brown Ltd.


[1] Spence, Richard B. Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly.
Feral House, Los Angeles, 2002.
[2] Cook, Andrew Sidney Reilly: ST1 (On His Majesty’s Secret Service)
Tempus Books, UK 2002.
[3] IBID. See also Boycott, Owen, How Fate, and Stalin, finally dealt the ‘Ace of Spies’ a losing hand.
The Guardian, September 7 2002.


Bruce Lockhart, Robin: Reilly Ace of Spies MacDonald, London 1968.
Written by  Robert Bruce Lockhart’s son,  this is a stirring yarn which incorporates all the fact, fiction and myth surrounding Reilly, yet lacks any sources, footnotes or a bibliography.
It was the basis for the 1983 12-part TV drama Reilly Ace of Spies starring Sam Neill.
Bruce Lockhart followed his book with Reilly: The First Man  in 1987 as a sequel.

Kettle, Michael Sidney Reilly: The True Story of The World’s Greatest Spy  (London 1983)
Reilly, Pepita and Sidney The Adventures of Sidney Reilly  (London 1931) supposedly partly written by reilly himself, although this seems doubtful; ‘Pepita’ was one of his bigamous wives.
Websites: for Reilly, the Zinoviev letter, etc.,

Finally, my own book,
Bainton, Roy Honoured By Strangers – The Life of Capt. Francis Cromie CB DSO RN 1882-1918
e-book, Constable & Robinson 2014 Airlife, Shrewsbury 2002  features many of Reilly’s exploits and dealings with Cromie.

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Skull of Doom.

Seeing Through The Crystal Skull
The Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull

There is great treasure there behind our skull
and this is true about all of us.
This little treasure has great, great powers,
 and I would say we only have learnt a
very, very small part of what it can do.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991)

VJ Enterprises was founded in 1991. Their website www.v-j-enterprises.com/ tells us that they are ‘A New Age organization whose goal is to share with the public the best information which describes the prophesied Golden Age. Our services include various types of public lectures and workshops focusing on such subjects as the Crystal Skulls, UFOs, Peru, Crop Circles and the Bible Code and the Manifestation of the Aquarian Age.’
The phenomenon of crystal skulls remains a controversial archaeological mystery. We’re informed by skull fans that 13 crystal heads have been discovered in various locations around the world, from Tibet to the USA. Joshua ‘Illinois’ Shapiro, who runs VJ Enterprises, leaves their importance in no doubt.  ‘I personally feel that the Crystal Skulls are not only here to share ancient knowledge and wisdom, but to assist in awakening our race to higher spiritual laws and understanding of itself ... If the Crystal Skulls were not brought by extra-terrestrials then certainly we must conclude there have been civilizations much more technologically or spiritually advanced than our own today.’

Mitchell Hedges (right) with his daughter Anna in Belize

The most famous of these glittering noggins  is the ‘skull of doom’,  allegedly discovered in 1924 by a 17-year old Anna Le Guillon Mitchell-Hedges, (1907-2007) The discovery of the skull, allegedly found beneath an altar in Mayan temple ruins, is said to have taken place on Anna’s 17th birthday. She was on an archaeological dig at the ancient Mayan city of Lubaantun (‘place of fallen stones’) in British Honduras (now Belize) with her adoptive father, the adventurer F. A. ‘Mike’ Mitchell-Hedges (1882-1959). Mitchell-Hedges had travelled to Belize on a mission to find the ruins of Atlantis. This clear quartz skull weighs about 11 pounds and measures 5.25 inches high. It is reminiscent of stone skulls made by the Aztecs. However, Aztec skulls are stylized, and the Mitchell-Hedges skull is more realistic, complete with a detachable jaw.
            The controversy over this artefact goes all the way back to its claimed day of discovery. You might think that the biggest gem ever found, among ancient stones in a jungle by a 17 year old girl, could have been the prime success of the dig. Yet despite the repetition of the story in later decades, Mike Mitchell-Hedges never mentioned it. It only appeared in his 1954 autobiography Danger My Ally, and it is dispensed with quickly, vanishing altogether in later published editions. As to the ownership of the skull, the passage in the book seems cryptic:
            ‘How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing.’ He goes on to give it a brief description, that scientists believe that it took 150 years to make, it’s 3,600 years old, and ‘the embodiment of all evil.’ In fact the whole entry in the 1954 book only covers 13 lines, which, if the artefact is so important, seems curious.
Legend has it that the skull of doom was used by Mayan high priests to not only concentrate on death, but to will it. It has gathered a reputation as a malevolent relic. Apparently, if you take the mickey out of the skull, you could die, and with further shades of the popular ‘mummy’s curse’, others are supposed to have been struck down with serious illness. Yet the controversy about how the skull was discovered is based on the suspicion that Anna Mitchell-Hedges, who lived to be 100, (a bonus which caused her to re-designate her cranial guide as ‘the skull of love’ rather than ‘death’)  may not have even been on the expedition at all in the 1920s, and only visited Labaantum for the first time many decades later for a TV documentary. Earlier versions of the ‘discovery’ involve the suggestion that her father ‘planted’ the skull beneath the altar, so that she could find it inside a deep hole, or cave beneath or inside of a pyramid, and enjoy the experience as a birthday present. The man behind all the myth and legend making is Mitch himself. Explorer, gambler, author, and soldier with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, he was quite a character.
Much of Frederick A. Mitchell-Hedges’ life was taken up as a deep-sea fisherman. He wrote numerous articles and books complete with that usual fisherman’s braggadocio about the size of ‘the one that got away’. But he didn’t refer to his sport as such; he called fishing ‘deep sea research,’ and expanded his yarns for the Randolph Hearst newspaper empire into more mystical marine territory which included sea monsters, epic struggles with giant fish, and the obligatory courageous reports of struggles with man-eating sharks. He would sail off to the Caribbean at weekends, where his penchant for tales of danger and discovery were embroidered with claims to have discovered lost continents on the seabed, as well as island tribes who had never met the white man before.
So what happened to the skull of doom once Anna was supposed to have unearthed it? According to her own version, her dad gave it to the Mayans as a gift, and apparently they ‘loved him’ for bringing them medicines and clothing. That’s a neat cover for it not appearing again in the family for another 20 years. The Mayans had it. So, how did it come to be in a collection of artefacts belonging to a London art dealer? Anna’s explanation is as follows.
When explorers in the first half of the 20th century went off on long expeditions, to beat the burglars, it was not unknown for them to leave valuable items back home in the care of friends. The skull was, apparently, left with an old school friend of Mitch’s, Sidney Burney. But in 1943, Mitch was horrified to discover that Burney had put the skull up for sale at Sotheby’s in London.
Learning of this skulduggery the day before the sale, Mitchell-Hedges was, apparently, ‘so furious that for a while he was unable to speak’. He tried to get in touch with Burney, but failed, so arose at 5 am the day of the sale and headed for London, hell-bent on getting his skull back. What transpired when the rage-muted Mitch arrived at Sotheby’s is not clear, but apparently it was Sidney Burney’s son selling the skull, not Burney Senior. Sotheby’s allegedly refused to withdraw it from the sale, so Mitchell-Hedges must have quelled his wrath with the realisation that the only way he’d get the skull back was to buy it. This he did, at a cost of £400. It seems an odd solution, because if someone had purloined your property and put it up for sale, the first thing you’d do is call the police. However, the sceptics believe that far from being ‘stolen’ by Burney, in fact this was the first time Mitchell-Hedges had come into contact with the contentious crystal noggin. According to the July 1936 issue of the British anthropological journal Man, the skull was owned then by Burney.           Its history prior to the sale at Sotheby’s, from the 1920s onwards, begins to look like another of Mitch’s tall tales. Sidney Burney, and those who were on the Lubaanatun expedition, denied that Mitchell-Hedges found the skull.
After her father’s death, the skull became Anna’s property. She maintained that Burney only had the piece as collateral against a debt Mitchell owed Burney. So why didn’t he simply pay off his debt rather than travelling to London and forking out £400 – a huge sum in war-torn 1943?
Anna has occasionally put it on display, claiming it was kept in Atlantis before it was brought to Belize, and that it came from outer space. You could view it for a fee. Today, it is owned and cared for by her widower, Bill Homan, who continues to perpetuate its mystical properties.
So, what about the history of the skull itself? Is it ancient, does it have paranormal properties?

In 1970, Anna allowed a crystal carver and art dealer named Frank Dorland to examine it. Scrying (also called seeing or peeping) is a magic practice that involves seeing things psychically in a medium, usually for purposes of obtaining spiritual visions and less often for purposes of divination or fortune-telling. Dorland pronounced the skull as excellent for scrying. He claimed that, depending on the position of the planets, it emitted sounds and light. He stated that it came from Atlantis. And it gets better; those popular old rascals, the Knights Templar, had carted it around with them during the crusades. On October 27, 1970, Frank Dorland had borrowed the skull from Anna Mitchell-Hedges.  One of his acquaintances was the supervisor of the Hewlett-Packard advertising account, Richard Garvin. Due to HP’s advanced scientific facilities as leaders in the manufacture of crystal oscillators, Dorland took the skull for tests to the Hewlett-Packard laboratory in Santa Clara.
At the laboratory, the skull was immersed in a tank of benzyl alcohol, which has the same refraction index as quartz crystal. In a benzyl alcohol solution, it would almost disappear. By passing polarized light through the skull and rotating it, it would be possible to locate the axis and observe ‘twinning.’ This is a splitting of the direction of crystal growth which happens under strong impact. It can happen to a single crystal, or to separate ones which can twin and grow together. Noticeably darker stress marks appearing on the Mitchell-Hedges skull showed this process around the eyes, nose, and jaw area. Dorland had suspected the skull was composed of separate pieces of quartz, but the technicians at Hewlett-Packard technicians reported that the skull, and its jawbone, was ‘almost certainly a single crystal of quartz, rather than a composite of three crystals.’ Mitchell-Hodges had already suggested that the artefact could have taken 150 years to make, so his daughter must have been over the moon when the HP boys suggested it may have taken ‘300 man-years of effort’,
The lab found that the skull had been carved against the natural axis of the crystal. Modern crystal sculptors always take into account the axis, or orientation of the crystal’s molecular symmetry, because using lasers and other high-tech tools, carving against the grain will shatter the crystal. These were wonderful additions to the skull’s growing mystique, and even more so when HP could find no microscopic scratches on the crystal indicating the use of metallic tools. Dorland’s hypothesis was that it had been hewn out with diamonds, with the finer details achieved with a combination of water and silicon.
Armed with such potent, high-tech facts, the paranormal road was open to add as many psychic attributes to the skull as you wished. Dorland, who had it for quite some time, began to experience visionary phenomena. Through the skull he claimed to be able to see buildings and architecture from various historical periods by looking into the eye sockets. He claimed it had an ‘aura’ which he found fascinating. It was said to give off the sounds of chimes, bells and other assorted noises, including chanting or singing human voices. When he had it in his bedroom overnight, he could hear what he claimed to be the sound of a jungle animal – a big cat – on the prowl.
According to the encouragingly thorough Strange Magazine (www.strangemag.com), there was an even weirder and more disturbing episode during Dorland’s possession of the skull.

Anton Szandor LaVey (above) (1930 –1997), was a writer, occultist and musician who founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco. He wrote The Satanic Bible and established LaVeyan Satanism, a synthesized system advocating materialism and individualism. Oddly enough, he described his church as ‘atheistic’ possessing no belief in the God or Devil, a claim which must have surely narked the Fallen One. As LaVey once quipped. ‘It’s hard being evil in a world that’s gone to hell’, but he did his best. It was a big mistake by Frank Dorland to allow LaVey into his house. The Frisco Lucifer, always looking for publicity, was accompanied by the editor of an Oakland newspaper. LaVey said that the skull had been made by Satan himself, and therefore must be the property of his church. Apparently Dorland had a hard time getting LaVey to leave. The ‘churchman’ was also omnipotent as a musician, and as Dorland happened to have an organ in his house, LaVey stubbornly sat at the keyboard to practice his demonic skill.
The skull should have been kept in its special vault, but on the day of LaVey’s visit, it was out of its usual sealed environment and on display in the house. Eventually the bargain basement Beelzebub departed, and Dorland and his wife put the skull away and went to bed. It was not to be a happy night.    Dorland recalled that ‘All night long there were lots and lots of sounds,’ yet he searched around and could find nothing. The next morning the sleepless couple discovered that their possessions lay scattered around, although doors and windows remained locked, and there was no sign of a break-in. ‘We had a telephone dialler,’  said Dorland, ‘that had been moved from the telephone at least thirty-five feet to the front door - and it lay right across the front door threshold. I never believed that this happened until it happened to me....’ What in fact ‘happened’ seems to have been classic poltergeist activity. Needless to say, Dorland thought that LaVey’s strong, evil ‘vibrations’ had interacted with the psychic power of the skull, saying ‘I think there was a conflict of one type of energy against another type of energy which interfered somehow with physical objects.’ Eventually Anna Mitchell-Hedges took the skull back and it remained with her until her death.

Good old Indy - no-one's fooling him!

The greatest expert on the world’s crystal skulls, Nick Nocerino, died in 2004. Nocerino devoted his life to studying crystal skulls, claiming that that no one knows how they were made and that they are impossible to duplicate. He founded The Society of Crystal Skulls International, an organisation that uses some unusual research methodology, including remote viewing, psychometry, and scrying, and it owns a collection of crystal skulls from around the world. 
Some skulls made of stone are genuine Mesoamerican cultural artefacts from such civilizations as the Aztecs. They are known as ‘death heads’ or skull masks. That’s too prosaic for New Agers. As far as they’re concerned, these skulls are either from Atlantis or extra-terrestrial in origin. They are claimed to have magical powers, emitting weird noises, and can spontaneously produce holographic images. This is good enough reason for the purveyors of paranormal trinkets to ensure that their stalls have a good selection of skulls in all materials – crystal, steel, carved from wood, stone, moulded in resin; there are thousands available around the world today.

At least 13 other skulls have made their debut over the years, many said have magical healing powers and mystical origins. The British Museum in London has one. However, in 1966 they carried out a study and survey of these artefacts. Utilising electron microscopes, it was revealed that two of the skulls examined possessed straight, perfectly-spaced surface markings which indicated that they’d been subjected to a modern polishing wheel. The hand-polishing process on genuine ancient objects would reveal irregular tiny scratches. The British Museum’s conclusion was that the skulls were made in Germany during the past 150 years. This would explain how they were manufactured with tools unavailable to the ancient Mayans or Aztecs.
In 1992 when the Smithsonian Institute received what was insisted to be an ‘Aztec’ crystal skull from an anonymous source who claimed it was bought in in 1960 in Mexico City. Research by the Smithsonian concluded that there was a crucial link between the skulls so popular with New Agers. He was a dubious character named Eugène Boban.

Eugène Boban (or Boban-Duvergé) (1834–1908) was the official archaeologist at the court of Maximilian I of Mexico (1832-1867). Regarded as a serious French antiquarian, he was also a member of the French Scientific Commission in Mexico. He appears to have possessed a number of crystal skulls, most of which he sold, and one now resides in the Musée du Quai Branly and another in the British Museum. The Paris skull is said to represent the Aztec god of the dead Mictlantecuhtli, yet does not seem to offer any occult powers.
Perhaps Boban’s post as the French Emperor’s official archaeologist paid well, but even so it must have been a short-lived career. Maximilian was only Emperor of Mexico from 1864 to 1867, his throne provided by Napoleon III’s occupying French forces. After just three years, in 1867, the French left, but Maximilian was reluctant to give up his imperial life, mistakenly believing that the people of Mexico supported him. With his armies gone, he refused to go home, and was captured by Benito Juarez’s Republican forces and executed by firing squad on June 19, 1867.
This disaster must have left Eugène Boban high and dry and strapped for cash, but he carried on dealing in antiques in Mexico until 1880. According to conclusions reached by Jane MacLaren Walsh of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, in Crystal Skulls and Other Problems (Smithsonian Institute Press, 1996), the crystal skulls purported to be enormously ancient which were on display in various museums were only manufactured between 1867 and 1886, and it appears that Boban acquired his skulls not from ancient Mesoamerican sites but from a source in that 19th century hothouse of engineering technology, Germany.
In the May 27 2010 online edition of Archaeology (www.archaeoogy.com)  Walsh states that she ‘had two opportunities to examine the Mitchell-Hedges skull closely and to take silicone molds of carved and polished elements of it, which I have analysed under high-power light and scanning-electron microscopes ...The microscopic evidence presented here indicates that the skull is not a Maya artefact but was carved with high-speed, modern, diamond-coated lapidary tools....It is not unreasonable to conclude that the Mitchell-Hedges skull, which first appeared in 1933, (when it came into Sidney Burney’s possession) was also created within a short time of its debut. ‘
The crystal skull you can see in the British Museum today first appeared in in Eugène Boban’s Paris shop in 1881. Four years later, in Mexico City in 1885 he tried to sell it as an Aztec skull, but this ruse was thwarted by the curator of a Mexican museum who denounced it as a fake. The resourceful Boban soldiered on, and according to the New York Times, December 19, 1886, he managed to flog it off at an auction at Tiffany & Co in New York City. Just over two years later, it was bought by the British Museum where it still resides in the Wellcome Trust Gallery.
The British Museum Skull 

This is the BM’s caption describing the exhibit:
‘A life-size carving of a human skull made from a single block of rock crystal (a clear, colourless variety of quartz). It was acquired by the Museum in 1897 purporting to be an ancient Mexican object. However scientific research conducted by the Museum has established that the skull was most likely produced in the nineteenth century in Europe. As such the object is not an authentic pre-Columbian artefact.’
As for the skull of doom/love, if we accept the Smithsonian study, everything seems to point to it being carved in Europe, probably as a copy of the British Museum skull sometime between 1900 and the early 1930s. Who created it or sold it to Burney is unknown. Boban died in 1908, so he cannot be implicated. So perhaps the real mystical legend began when Sydney Burney finally sold the skull in London to Mitchell-Hedges at a Sotheby’s on October 15, 1943. It remains a terrific yarn, and as such it’s no surprise that Spielberg got a film out of it. Trust the paranormal to offer top line entertainment every time.