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Detective Fiction, Fiction, Original Fiction

The Missing Wife: A Murder Mystery

“Well, Arthur, what do you have for us this evening?” Ruth smiled toothily at the retired detective who sat at the head of the table.

Ruth Agu, MP for Chipping Barnett, had the imposing appearance and personality of a Nigerian queen. She was dressed in an ornate gold headwrap, nude lipstick, a luxurious gold necklace and wide gold bangles. Her gown was similarly shiny and extravagant.

“Ah yes, I forgot I was to sing for my supper,” said Arthur Allen, who suddenly looked like a mournful Airedale terrier. “This cake is excellent, by the way. What is it?”

Charlotte aux fraises, but don’t dodge the issue,” Ruth replied crisply. “I promised my guests you’d have a juicy one for them over coffee. They’ll be very disappointed otherwise.”

The guests aforementioned were Claire Cooper, a shovel-faced Oxford professor specializing in medieval British manuscripts, and Rashid Sharif, a plump dandy known for his wine expertise. They smiled apologetically at Arthur.

Arthur cleared his throat and patted the corners of his mouth with a gaudy napkin. Then he bowed to his hostess.

“When Beauty sounds the clarion, Age must heed her call” he said gallantly. “Let’s see now,” he said as he saw Ruth’s manicured fingers start tapping impatiently. “In honour of this excellent French cake, I will relate one of the most perplexing cases of my career, which happened in France, in the town of Chamonix.”

“Ah,” Rashid smacked his lips, “Home of the Altesse grape and the Rousette de Savoie. A sensory foray into the mountains, an immersion in the fragrance of rock-warmed herbs, honey and hazelnut.”

“It was,” Arthur continued, “The summer of 1994. The first week of June. We had a call from the Gendarmerie Chamonix-Mont Blanc, Superintendent Arnand Favre, who told me that Sarah Mills had disappeared. At that time, you see, I was head of homicide in Redbridge, where Sarah and Gerard Mills lived.”

“Why were they in Chamonix?” asked Claire Cooper, frowning.

“Let me begin again. Gerard and Sarah Mills were a newly married couple from Redbridge who had decided to have a holiday in Europe that summer. They’d set off on June 1st, crossed France with no incident until the night of June 12, which is when Sarah was last seen alive.”

“So the husband did it,” Claire said, pushing her spectacles back up the nose down which they’d slid.

“Well,” Arthur nodded, “It does tend to be the way. Nine times out of ten the culprit is the husband or romantic partner, certainly. It was our working assumption when we got the news. And, indeed, Gerard Mills confessed.”

“So far this isn’t much of a mystery, Arthur,” Ruth frowned, swirling her glass dangerously.

“Pardon me,” he said, “I seem to be having trouble getting started. Perhaps I had better tell you the timeline as Arnand Favre told it to me. It will become clearer...”

***

Sarah Mills disappeared on June 12. On June 13, according to her husband’s statement, he spent the day looking for her without success. On the afternoon of Jun 14, he reported her missing. According to Superintendent Favre, Mr. Mills was visibly distraught—unshaven, rumpled, shadows under his eyes, barely coherent.”

“Murderers often make good actors,” Claire Cooper said. In addition to being one of Britain’s leading authorities on the Lindisfarne Gospels, was also a True Crime aficionado.

Arthur nodded. “My colleague was not unduly moved by the show of grief. He immediately obtained a statement from Mr. Mills as to his activities on the previous two days and later shared this statement with me.

“Mr. Mills’ account was as follows: On the afternoon of June 11, he and Sarah had arrived at a campground on the outskirts of Chamonix. They’d spent the evening settling in, showering, settling the camping fee. They’d gone into town, shared a meal and a bottle of wine at a restaurant, then returned to the campground at around 10.30 at night. These times were later confirmed by a waiter and their neighboring campers, a Dutch couple. Incidentally, the couple heard the Mills have a noisy argument that night. In fact, the next morning they asked to move to a new site.

“The following day, the Mills slept late. Sarah said she’d do some laundry and Gerard went into the town to do some grocery shopping. Before visiting the grocery store, he obtained a shovel at the local hardware store.

“Ooooh,” Rashid said, “Not good.”

“That clinches it,” Claire agreed.

When Gerard returned to the campground at three o’clock, he says that Sarah was lying on the bed reading. She told Gerard that she’d broken a ceramic bowl and that they needed a new one for their breakfast cereal. Gerard said he was tired and didn’t feel like going back to town, but she was insistent. So, for the sake of keeping the peace, he went back.

When he returned to the campground, Sarah was gone. When she didn’t appear for several hours, he thought that she was angry with him after their argument about the bowl (he didn’t mention the big fight they’d had the previous night). Full of remorse, he spent a sleepless night and early in the morning he went about looking for her. Thinking she’d spent the night in a hotel, he checked all the establishments in town, showing receptionists a photograph of her. He asked the campers and one of them said he’d seen her the previous afternoon, at about four o’clock, walking along a trail near the campground. She was wearing a knapsack. His impression was that she was going for a short hike. Another woman based in the campground said she’d seen Sarah coming out of the bushes on the edge of the campground at around three o’clock. She’d noticed her because she looked a bit furtive, and she’d thought it was odd.

Gerard worried that she’d had an accident while hiking and spent the rest of the day roaming about the trails, stopping other hikers to ask if they’d seen her. Invariably the answer was ‘No.’

The next day, after another sleepless night, Gerard went to the police.”

“By which time more than 24 hours had passed since the last time she was seen.”

“Yes, assuming the witness who saw her on the trail was reliable, it was 41 hours after that.”

“Plenty of time to tidy up,” Claire said wryly.

“When asked if anything was missing from the campervan, he said that the clothes she was wearing, her purse, the shovel and a map of the area. She’d also taken her usual hiking knapsack, which contained a bottle of water, a red rainjacket, a headlamp and a couple of chocolate bars.”

“He actually mentioned the shovel?” Rashid cried in disbelief.

“Well,” Claire said, “The local shopkeeper had mentioned him buying it, of course.”

“Superintendent Favre immediately organized search parties. There was some concern that she might have gone to climb Mont Blanc, so an emergency helicopter scoured the slopes. Members of the community lent a hand. And eventually, a little way off the trail where the woman had last seen Sarah Mills, they recovered her purse, whose contents were scattered on the ground, and the clothes which she had been wearing. There was some blood on her T-shirt, which was torn. Then the shovel was found in the brush near the campground. It had dirt on the blade—it had clearly been used—but there was no evidence of disturbed earth in the form of a grave anywhere nearby, only a small cut in the ground.

“What about in the area where they found her clothes?” Claire asked.

Arthur shook his head.

Nothing. By this time, of course, it had been reported in the newspapers and public suspicion fell on Gerard Mills. The police took him into custody, largely for his own safety. It was at that point that Superintendent Favre called me, since he suspected even then that there would need to be some international cooperation to solve the case. He told me what had happened, much as I have just told you, and he added some interesting pieces of information in addition—things that helped put a new light on the situation.

He told me that staying at the campground at the same time as the Mills was a man who attracted some attention—quite tall, with dark hair, thick bushy eyebrows, very muscular. He was alone, very unfriendly, and he spent most of the day in his tent drinking beer. He had a silver Renault, fairly expensive looking. On the occasions when he did emerge, he drew some attention to himself by staring at other campers…particularly Sarah Mills. And he happened to check out of the campground at three o’clock on July 12, the same day that she went missing. He’d registered in the camp’s log book with the name of Mirko Joviḉ.

“Serbian?” Ruth asked, frowning. “

“Yes. The Gendarmerie drew up a likeness according to the campers’ description and it was posted all across Chamonix and, indeed, Savoie. Seeing the image, an old lady living in the center of Chamonix, an insomniac who spent hours looking out of her window, saw a car stop and the passenger get out to use an ATM at around midnight early on June 13. The car was a silver Renault answering to the description of the one belonging to Mirko. From what the old woman could see, the driver looked like the man in the poster. The passenger was much smaller, though. He was wearing a baseball cap and had a dark beard. According to the old lady, he saw her staring at him and stared straight back at her, as if in challenge. She says it annoyed her at the time. She got the feeling he was trying to frighten her and she’d survived World War Two. But afterwards, hearing what had happened to Sarah Mills, the memory made her blood run cold. As it turned out, at 12.15am on June 13 Sarah Mills’ credit card had been used at that very spot. The old lady had been looking straight into the eyes of a murderer!”

“So what did the superintendent want you to do?” Ruth asked.

He wanted me to find out whether Gerard Mills had a criminal history and he also wanted to know more about Sarah Mills, particularly her former boyfriends or whether she’d ever reported being stalked. So we searched the Mills house and interviewed their friends and family to find out about any marital strife. Thanks to this search, we got a fuller sense of Gerard Mills. He’d been arrested three times as an adolescent, twice of engaging in a fray outside a club—typical teen stuff—and once on a charge of domestic violence.

“Aha!” Claire said and took a gulp of wine.

But the charge was almost immediately dropped. We interviewed the lady in question, who admitted she’d called the police because Gerard, having had a few too many Bacardis, would not stop playing his new Ace of Bass CD at top volume. When she’d complained to him, he’d told her she could go ahead and call the cops if she didn’t like it. So she did. In fact, she narrowly avoided getting ticketed for wasting police time.

It seems that once Gerard met Sarah, he cleaned up his act. He stopped drinking Bacardis, stopped fighting, started up a garage for luxury cars together with a friend of his named Billy Ragg—a very successful enterprise. So successful, in fact, that he was able to indulge a new passion for collecting art. At the Mills’s home we saw an original Clara Porter...

“Gosh!” Rashid exclaimed. “One of hers went for a couple of mill at the last Christie’s auction!”

“Somehow I wouldn’t have picked them for art lovers,” Claire said

Everyone we talked to said the same thing—he was a devoted husband. He and Sarah were planning to have a family. They’d been saving for a house and had been house hunting in the months before going on holiday. Gerard’s mother said the trip had been Sarah’s idea—she’d wanted one last adventure together—just the two of them before they started their family. Gerard had been against it at first but, as usual, he quickly fell in with her wishes.”

“A bit of mother-in-law friction there, it sounds like,” said Ruth.

“Yes,” Arthur said, “There was no love lost between Mrs Mills senior and her daughter in law. She called her all sorts of names, the upshot being that she had Gerard wound around her little finger.

“Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Sarah’s version of events was completely at variance with what Sarah Mills’ colleague Alice told us. The two worked together at a beauty salon and had not been particularly close, which is why Alice was rather surprised when Sarah confided in her, about a week before she and Gerard left for their European holiday.

“She told Alice that she didn’t want to go but that Gerard insisted. Alice scoffed and said, ‘Why not let him go on his own then?’. Sarah shook her head and whispered that she was scared of him. She then rolled up the sleeve of her blouse and showed Alice a lurid bruise. She then carefully rolled the sleeve down again. Alice was shocked. She said that Gerard had always seemed to her the Prince of Mildness and wouldn’t have believed him capable of that sort of brutality.

“Oh, you can never tell though,” said Claire, “The charming, sympathetic types are often the most vicious.”

Alice urged Sarah to go to a women’s shelter to call the cops but Sarah shook her head. She said, rather cryptically, ‘It’s too late. I’m in too deep. But if I don’t come back from the holiday…remember what I told you.’

Alice replied that she’d have a hard time forgetting and that she’d much rather sort it out now and put the bastard behind bards. At that point, Sarah became very agitated and even swore at Alice and threatened her with a pair of scissors so that she’d put down her cellphone. At that point, Alice decided that if Sarah Mills wanted to be a punching bag, who was Alice to stand in her way? Frankly, she suspected that Sarah was being a bit overly dramatic. Of course, now that she’d been murdered, Alice felt remorseful.”

“So what it seems to come down to,” Rashid mused, “Is that one party was lying—Gerard or Sarah.”

“What about the search of the house?” Ruth asked. “Find anything?”

Arthur sipped his sherry and nodded.

“We found something quite damning on Sarah Mills’ dresser drawers. This was a letter written by Sarah. I have a copy with me, as I knew our gracious hostess wanted me to tell the story.”

Ceremoniously, he reached into his inner breast pocket and produced a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and started to read:

To Whom it May Concern,

If you are reading this, it means that I did not return from holiday. I have probably been murdered by my husband Gerard P. Mills. Do not be fooled by his meek face he is a monster. Goodbye cruel world.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Mills

“Meanwhile, back in Chamonix, the Gendarmerie had alerted all of Europe to be on the lookout for two men in a silver Renault. A week later, they found a licence plate dumped by the side of the road near Marseille. The car, with different plates, was found parked at the port.”

“So they left by ferry?” Rashid asked.

“So it would seem,” said Arthur, “Though nothing was proved. Back in Chamonix, Superintendent Favre was becoming increasingly perplexed. ‘Arthur,’ he said to me one day, ‘It is too strange. There is no body. There is no motive. This husband, he tells me all of a sudden he wants to confess. We are happy. We ask him too many questions:  How did you kill your wife? Where is her body Why did you do it? To all this, he say nothing. ‘It doesn’t matter, this,’ he insists, ‘I tell you, I am guilty.’ We reply that of course it matters very much. The parents of Sarah, for example, think of her mamán. The last rites, how cruel to deprive her parents of this last comfort. And so on .That day, he tries to—how you say?—suicide himself. The guard saves him. The next day, he comes to us and says, ‘Now I am ready. I tell you everything.’ Eh bien! ‘Wonderful!’ I say, ‘I am all the ears.'” Arthur paused and produced another paper from his pocket.

“This is a transcript of Gerard Mills’ statement, which Superintendent Favre faxed to me that day:

On the night of June 11, Sarah and I had a big argument. I was very angry with her and shouted at her. In fact I was so angry that I decided to kill her. I left in the morning and thought about how to do it. I bought a shovel so I could dig her grave. My previous statement, that she’d asked me to buy it, was a lie. Then I went to the grocery store and returned to the campground at about two o’clock in the afternoon. I pretended I was sorry for yelling at her the previous evening. She did not accept my apology. I pretended to leave for the shop but in fact I parked the car a short way from the campground to watch her and wait for my chance. Just as I suspected, she decided to go for a hike. I followed her and killed her.”

“At about this point, Superintendent Arnand Favre interrupted. ‘How did you kill her?’

‘I strangled her,’ the widower replied.

‘How long did it take?’

‘I wasn’t timing it.’

‘Approximately, let’s say.’

‘Ten minutes.’

‘Did she struggle?’

‘No. I surprised her. She didn’t have a chance.’

‘Where did it happen? Can you show me on the map?’

[Mr. Mills points to a point on a walking trail leading to Mer de Glace]

‘OK, you strangled your wife. And then?’

‘What do you mean?’

Sacre bleu! The body, monsieur. What did you do with her body?’

‘I took it back to the car.’

‘It was parked near the campground, non?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘Bien, and when you brought her to your car, what did you do?’

‘I covered her with a blanket and drove her to Lake Gaillands. Then I waited until midnight and dropped her in the lake.’

‘And what time did you do this?’

‘It was about eight o’clock at night.’

Superintendent Favre later told me that at this point, he carefully put his pen down on his desk, folded his arms and stared at Gerard Mills for several seconds.

‘Monsieur,’ he said quietly, ‘Might I ask why you are wasting my time?’

‘What do you mean?’ said Mr. Mills.

‘I mean, your wife has disappeared and you are telling me this rooster-and-cow story that a child of seven would not believe.’

‘I’m telling you the truth!’ Gerard yelled. ‘I murdered Sarah!’

‘Pardon, but that is not the truth. Do you suppose every Frenchman is such an idiot that he will believe the moon is constructed of cheese? You think I will nod and believe you are a magician so that you can appear in two places at one time? Between two o’clock and eight o’clock you claim you were hiking in the forest and strangling your wife and disposing of her body. I have no witnesses to support this extraordinary claim, but I have at least three witnesses who say you were elsewhere. You were in the supermarket purchasing a dinner plate—I have video evidence, there is no use shaking the head—and after that you consumed wine at a tabaccheria.’ He held up a finger to anticipate Gerard’s interruption.

‘But, mon ami, that is not the most insulting part of this cockadoodle story. You expect me to believe you followed your wife here,’ he jabbed at the map where Gerard had claimed to have killed Sarah, ‘Which is an hour of hiking and that she did not notice your presence—you are a true Mohican, eh? And then you strangle her for ten minutes as she is calm as a feather and does not kick, does not bite, does not fight for her life. And then, when she is kaput, you, as you put it ‘take her to your car’, presumably carrying a tall woman in your arms down a popular hiking trail that is rather steep. You do not mention any difficulty in this extraordinary feat. And I do not ask because it is clear to me that it is something you did not do.’

‘I carried her. I’m used to lifting weights,’ Gerard insisted.

‘I do not doubt it. That is possible of course. Yes, perhaps you carry your substantial wife down the hill for an hour in your arms like the Bridegroom of Death. But me, I do not consider you so eccentric or (excuse me) bold that you would carry her naked, in broad daylight, down a trail where many people travel.’

‘I didn’t use the trail,’ Gerard retorted, but feebly.

“In your statement, you did not explain why you removed her clothes. You did not explain removing her credit card. You did not explain why you bought the shovel if you did not use it. You explain nothing.’

Gerard stared furiously at the table in the interrogation room. Favre patted his head kindly.

‘This is some cauchemar for you, non? Your beloved wife disappears. You are accused of the crime. What would I do in your place? I would be angry, enraged. It would be my passion to find the true murderer and to put him in the jail. To exact revenge, to teach him a lesson. This you do not do. I ask myself why. I think and think and finally, it comes to me: you wish to protect the criminal, is it not?

Gerard directed his gaze in front of him, expressionless. Favre continued.

‘Monsieur, consider for a moment. This criminal did not wish to protect you, after all. Au contraire, she carefully laid a trap for you. This is worse than mere disregard, it is a diabolical malevolence. There is no longer any obligation for you to protect this monster, your wife.’

Gerard let his head fall into his hands and wept.

Favre waited patiently until Gerard was quiet except for whimpering noises.

‘Now, time to pour the beans, mon ami. I think you know everything. Why don’t you tell me?’

Gerard nodded and sighed.

‘It was that police sketch that made me realize,’ he said.

‘The sketch of Mirko Joviḉ, the Serb?’

Gerard snorted scornfully.

‘Serb my foot! It was Billy Ragg from Enfield.’

Favre nodded.

‘A man you know well, I believe you were friends?’

‘Couldn’t stand the git,’ Gerard spat.

‘And yet, he was a frequent visitor at your home, was he not?’

‘How did you know that?’ Gerard asked.

‘My colleagues in Britain, they asked about your friends and your business. Do you care to explain why it was that you so often entertained a man you disliked at your home?’

Gerard pursed his lips. The superintendent continued.

‘Was it perhaps a business relationship? I do not speak of the garage you were partners in, but of the smuggling operation you ran. Guns, drugs, sometimes people.’

Gerard shot him a look of deep dislike.

‘Perhaps, for example, this Billy Ragg was arranging a large shipment. Something that would pay the conspirators well, so well that you would be able to afford a lovely new house, education for your future children, multi-million-pound artworks…?’ Favre looked at Gerard.

Reflection (Self-Portrait), 1985 by Lucian Freud Oil on canvas. Private collection, on loan from the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Image ©The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

‘Ah, we are like the clam now? Well, no matter. Let us continue with this imagining. What if Billy Ragg was using this promise to lure his partner into a trap? What if Billy Ragg was jealous of his partner’s wife and wanted to destroy him once and for all?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Gerard.

‘Come, come There is no shame in being taken for a fool. After all, the racket had been lucrative in the past. This is how you bought your nice car, your house, your expensive artwork…This was just the same, but a much bigger prize. And, as had happened in the past, Ragg required some kind of deposit from you, to pay for expenses. A much bigger deposit.’

Gerard was turning purple. He yawned but according to Favre it looked more like a silent, angry scream.

‘So this Billy Ragg is clever. He extracts money from his mark and at the same time seduces the wife. He charms her with visions of fabulous riches, a new life somewhere sunny. He tells her he has connections in high places, people who will help create new identities for them both. And this is true. She is charmed by this trickster and by the prospect of a great exciting future. There is only one thing standing in her way—this husband. But they have a plan to deal with him. Such a clever but simple plan. They laugh about it together. They’ll frame him for her murder and then vanish.’

Gerard uttered an animal cry, leapt up and went to attack Favre, who sidestepped him easily. Two other gendarmes burst in to restrain the suspect.

‘Monsieur,’ said Favre ,’I tell you you are right to be angry. This is nature. What is not nature is to do suicide, to lie down for these heartless beasts. Strike back! That is the idea. And with my help, monsieur, you can strike back most well.’

‘How?’ Gerard gritted his teeth.

‘Billy Ragg is clever, yes, but he is not so anonymous as he hopes. Scotland Yard were close to arresting him for human trafficking some men who died in the back of a truck last year. Unfortunately, one of the witnesses was killed in a hit-and-run accident before the case went to trial. One of the reasons, indeed, that Mr. Ragg wanted to make a new life for himself  What I propose, Mister Mills, is a species of exchange. The police are willing to overlook any…indiscretions on your part, for example receiving stolen art works and conspiring in smuggling. In return, you will tell a jury what you know of the criminal acts of Mr. Ragg, who is looking at perhaps twenty years in a prison.’

Gerard Mills looked at his hands, clenched his fists, then looked superintendent Favre in the eyes.

‘It will be a pleasure,’ he said.

History, Modern, Travel

Me and You and SARS-CoV-2: A Year in Review

Historians will look back at 2020 with the same fascination as arborists looking at one of those tree-ring anomalies that signal something cataclysmic—a wildfire, a rare atmospheric event, a rampant disease. It is something grandchildren are likely to ask their elders about and that people will build unwieldy monuments to. So for this week’s post I thought I’d do something I’ve been avoiding for a whole year, which is to talk about the pandemic and the year we’ve all just scraped through. Thinking about the virus and virus-related events tends to inspire feelings of dread, denial, depression, anxiety, shock, anger, grief and dislocation, so I try to ignore it as much as possible. On the other hand, sometimes looking at things squarely can have a bracing effect, and somehow it’s easier to think about now that some vaccines are ready, so here goes.

December 2019: Wuhan & the Tsunami Omen

It is believed to have started in Hubei Province. Some studies show that people in Lombardy, Italy, had it as early as September but it wasn’t until the final days of December 2019 that anyone recognized the virus as something new. On December 26, an elderly couple visited a Wuhan hospital complaining of fever, coughing and fatigue. The next day, examining their CT scans, Dr. Zhang Jixian noticed features different from flu or common pneumonia. Zhang had worked as a medical expert during the 2003 SARS outbreak and was alive to the possibility of another epidemic. She ordered tests that confirmed the couple’s illness was a viral infection but not influenza. She ordered a CT scan for their healthy-seeming son; sure enough, his lungs were similarly affected. Another patient showed the same signs. Zhang filed a report to the hospital directors declaring the discovery of a viral disease that was probably infectious.

WUHAN, April 16, 2020 (Xinhua) — Zhang Jixian, director of the respiratory and critical care medicine department of Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, receives an interview at the hospital in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, March 2, 2020. (Xinhua/Shen Bohan)

By the end of the 2019, Wuhan was on high alert. On December 31, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission released a briefing on its website about early signs of a pneumonia outbreak in the city. It advised the public to seek hospital care when having persistent fever while showing signs of pneumonia, and to wear face masks and avoid enclosed public places and crowded areas. Meanwhile, Zhang instructed her staff to wear face masks at all times and to take extra precautions.

At this time John and I were in Sri Lanka, in Hikkaduwa, a beach town. We were not yet aware of any virus in Hubei. Actually, the biggest disaster news was that Australia was burning. Around us, there were reminders of a local disaster—the tsunami of 2004 that devastated many families in the region. Near Hikkaduwa was Tsunami Honganji Viharaya , a Buddhist temple built by the Japanese dedicated to the victims of the tsunami.

Peraliya Buddha near Hikkaduwa

On New Year’s Day I went swimming on the beach, out to where the water was waist high, when the tallest, most powerful wave I’ve ever experienced knocked me head over heels. I decided to get out quickly. A Russian swimmer had the same idea—the Indian Ocean was taking no prisoners. I couldn’t help wondering if this slap on the very first morning of 2020 was some kind of omen…

January 2020: Thailand & the Chinese New Year

The very first confirmed COVID-19 patient outside of China popped up in Thailand. A 61-year-old Chinese woman, a resident of Wuhan, entered Bangkok on January 8. On January 13 she was diagnosed as having the new coronavirus. By January 28, at least 14 people in Thailand had been infected and the Thai Health Minister said the government was unable to stop the spread of the disease. Cases started appearing in dozens of other countries.

We arrived in Thailand at about the same time as Covid. Our ultra-modern Chinese hotel had an infinity pool (yay!) but also facial-recognition instead of entry keys and we got stuck in a dystopian nightmare (the stairwell) for an hour (boo!).

One day a screen in the elevator lobby alerted us to the need to take precautions against something called COVID-19. Overnight, everything was different. Everyone seemed to know where to get face masks, every building entrance had a little table with hand-sanitizer. In the metro, two friendly public officials supervised the use of hand-sanitizer and, confusingly, made everyone pass through a metal-detector.

It was just at this time that shops in Bangkok were gearing up for Chinese New Year. It was the Year of the Rat and everything was branded with cute mouse images. The supermarkets and special New Years’ markets were very crowded. For the first time, when doing my grocery shopping, I felt heavy claustrophobic dread. This would become a familiar feeling over the following months.

February: Tokyo & the Diamond Princess

By February 10, the COVID-19 death toll in China had already surpassed the total number of Chinese deaths in the SARS crisis of 2003. In America, the case of Trisha Dowd, the first person in the US to die of COVID-19 and someone who had not travelled recently, suggested that the disease had already been spreading by community transmission, maybe even as early as December 2019.

On February 5, a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess was quarantined near Yokohama when several passengers tested positive. Confirmed cases on board would eventually total 712 (of 3,711 people). In early February, the ship accounted for over half of reported cases outside of mainland China. Since then, more than 40 cruise ships have had confirmed positive cases of coronavirus on board.

Like the virus, we ended up in Japan in late February, for a week-long stopover. The train ride from the airport to the city was dreamily quiet and, again, everyone was wearing masks except us and other Americans/Europeans/Australasians. The streets were eerily quiet. We visited the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden just as the cherry trees were starting to flower and saw a couple get their wedding photos in traditional kimonos. We ate ramen and spicy fries in a little bar where Japanese country music was playing. We were roughly handled by a real sushi chef. In short, it was everything we’d hoped!

March: Seattle & the Elderly

On March 2, a woman living at a nursing facility in King County, Washington State, died of coronavirus. Eventually 81 residents, 34 staff members and 14 visitors at the same facility would become infected and 23 people would die—the first outbreak in a nursing home. By the end of November, more than 100,000 long-term care facility residents and staff would die of the coronavirus in the US. Disturbing reports of neglect and lethally irresponsible decisions would emerge from carehomes in Canada, the UK , Europe, Australia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Italy was becoming the Wuhan of Europe. By March 9, 9,172 cases had been confirmed and the entire nation was in lockdown. There, too, the elderly of Bergamo died in staggering numbers.

Message in the window of a nursing home

In Japan, the airport had been a little chaotic but there was definitely a sense of emergency and people were required to wear masks at least. Prior to boarding, an airline official had come around with a clipboard asking if we’d visited China within the last 14 days. When we arrived at SeaTac airport, no one was wearing masks or acting like anything was different. I was interrogated for 15 minutes by border guards about why I wanted to enter the US. They did not wear masks nor mention the virus at all— I suppose they were worried I was a potential ‘illegal’.

April: New York & Emily

On March 1, the first patient in New York had tested positive for the virus. By April, there were 83,713 total cases and 1,957 deaths in the state. On April 10, New York State had recorded more COVID 19 cases than any single country other than the US. Some New Yorkers fled their apartments to seek safety in the country. Schools, restaurants, workplaces shut down and residents were required to stay at home except for essential activities, where they had to wear masks. Scenes emerged of temporary graves being dug in public parks, of exhausted healthcare workers, of makeshift disaster morgues.

Statue in Kenton, Oregon

We’d arrived in Portland, Oregon, but my thoughts often went to New York, where so many of our friends live. A couple we know were expecting their first child and I was extremely worried for them. Jasmine said her experience of labor in the middle of a pandemic was like a hell, and she is not someone who exaggerates. She’d been whisked away to a hotel that had been hastily adapted to function as a maternity hospital, the hospital staff were exhausted and grumpy and it was very daunting for a first-time mother. But Emily was born healthy and beautiful.

May:  Portland & Black Lives Shattered

In the USA (and elsewhere), COVID-19 was not just a virus, it was a political issue. The one time we used a taxi in Portland, the driver was not wearing a mask. He saw that we were masked up and told us that we shouldn’t believe what we hear on the ‘mainstream media’. He said that the virus was no different from the flu. Conspiracy theories about the virus gained traction.

Meanwhile, anger was growing about cases of white cops targeting and killing innocent black people. In March, three plainclothes police forced entry into a Kentucky apartment and shot young ER technician Breonna Taylor in her sleep. On May 25 Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Mural in West Belfast, 2020

By now we’d been in Portland for a couple of months. The neighborhood where we lived was characterized mainly by beautifully tended gardens designed to attract birds and bees, and chalked messages on the sidewalk saying things like ‘I Love You’ and ‘Hope’ decorated with hearts and rainbows. Mt. Hood stood serenely in the distance and the huge forest park cooled the whole city with its fragrant shadow.

On the news, though, Portland was portrayed as an apocalyptic firefight. Starting from May 29, there were protests in Portland demanding police reform, but they tended to be focussed on one point: the Justice Center downtown. Even after police used teargas and militarized federal law enforcement officers invaded the city in July, seizing protestors off the streets in unmarked minivans, protests continued.

Portland, hotbed of unrest

June: New Zealand & Felipe

In New Zealand, Jacinda Adern’s Labour Government put the country into full lockdown on March 25. By June 8, after a couple of quickly contained flare-ups, there were no active cases of Covid-19 in the country. This was a comfort to me primarily because my family lives there but also because it demonstrated that it was entirely possible for a political leader to deal effectively with an infectious outbreak.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a post cabinet press conference at Parliament on June 08, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In the US, our nieces graduated so we had a little get together on Zoom, the conferencing app that 2020 made famous. Like many students across the globe, they were deprived of the official graduation ceremonies. This was a problem that Japan solved with robots.

The end of June brought a huge loss when our friend Felipe Gutteriez passed away. I will always miss his good humour, elegance and quiet humanity.

Rose in Portland

July: Migration & Belfast

One thing that happened in 2020 was that borders closed fast and hard and there were many travel and transport restrictions. This was an essential part of stemming the spread of a deadly infectious disease. For many people looking forward to a summer holiday, it was an inconvenience. One lovesick Scottish man crossed the Irish Sea on a jet ski to see his girlfriend. For migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, though, it was a life-threatening nightmare. In the Asia Pacific region, migrants faced a higher risk of covid thanks to not being included in social security provisions. Indian migrant workers suddenly left without work were forced to walk or cycle thousands of kilometers to return to their home villages, and many of them had no money for food . There was a huge drop in people applying for asylum in the EU due to constraints on international travel and hardline border policies. In the UK, anti-immigrant sentiment increased . An enormous migrant camp appeared on the US border and government contractors in the US detained hundreds of migrant kids in black sites.

Fifteen-year-old Jyoti Kumari cycled 700km from New Delhi to her family’s village with her injured father, a migrant laborer, on the back of the bike. Read the story here.

Concerned by lost profits, American airlines resumed booking flights to 100% capacity at the start of July. Unfortunately, this was exactly when we were due to leave the US. The first thing that US border authorities had told me was that I was not welcome to overstay, and I was not about to call their bluff. So we took the scary step of flying from Portland to Seattle to Denver. From Denver we were going to fly to Iceland, which at that time was accepting foreign visitors. Unfortunately, the day we were supposed to go, Iceland closed its borders to most non-EU foreign nationals and that plan was scrapped. We spent a night in Denver figuring out what to do and decided to go to Belfast instead because the UK’s border was open. We arrived a few days before July 12, the beginning of the Orange Parade season.

Near Denver airport

August: Americas & Eating Out to Help the Spread

In August, COVID-19 was hitting the Americas hard. On July 29, Brazil set new COVID-19 records for a single day, reporting 70,869 cases and 1,554 deaths,  bringing the country’s totals to 2.5 million cases and 90,000 total deaths. Mexico had the third highest number of deaths from coronavirus in the world, with more than 62,000 fatalities. Argentina, Bolivia and Panama were hit by waves of protests against the combination of covid restrictions and economic recession. By the end of August, Peru had reported the highest number of deaths per capita from the coronavirus and had also posted the world’s deepest economic contraction in the second quarter.

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t get my health and wellbeing advice from this character

At this time we were living in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, a relatively new district near the port. The UK government introduced a scheme called Eat Out to Help Out, an ill conceived plan designed to help resuscitate the restaurant industry. Dozens of people in the city centre flocked to dining establishments and spent many maskless minutes indoors with strangers. Not surprisingly, this was probably responsible for eight to 17% of newly detected COVID-19 clusters in the UK in August and early September.

Sign outside a Northern Irish restaurant during an easing of restrictions

September: Spreading like Wildfire

India topped four million cases, the US seven million. In Europe, daily cases reach a record high on September 20. In the UK, 7,143 new cases were recorded in a single day, the country’s highest single-day jump since the beginning of the pandemic. Indonesia recorded several daily case records on five consecutive days.

Meanwhile, California experienced 13 large wildfires. One of these, nicknamed Bobcat, was one of the largest recorded in the history of Los Angeles County.

We took a taxi tour of Belfast, a highlight of which were the political murals on the Peace Walls, many of them dealing with contemporary issues such as racial injustice in the US, the importance of the National Health Service in the UK and the pressing issue of Climate Change.

Pictorial tribute to the NHS on Divis Street (the Falls)

October: In Sickness & In Obscene Wealth

Spain declared a national state of emergency, and the French and UK governments both announced a nationwide lockdown. In the UN’s COVID-19 and Universal Health Coverage policy brief, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that “inadequate” global health care systems had contributed to the millions of deaths from the pandemic so far. He stressed that universal health care was a key recommendation.

Meanwhile, in Belfast, we moved to a house near the Falls Road, famous for its Republican sympathies in the sectarian strife of the Troubles. We visited Milltown cemetery, where many Republican partisans are buried. It was an area with a strong Socialist presence and every second lampost had stickers announcing the failure of Capitalism and pointing out the huge profits that billionaires have been raking in since the beginning of the pandemic.

November: A Sea Change

The US elections on November 3 were won by Joe Biden and his running mate Kemala Harris. Trump refused to concede and later claimed that the elections were rigged. On November 8 scientists at Pfizer and BioNTech announced that a new coronavirus vaccine stopped 90% of cases.

In its final trial it has been shown to be 95% effective.

In November we moved to a house in Bangor, by the sea, and spent the days trying to spot eider ducks and guillemots. John tried cold-water swimming and decided it was a bit too cold.

A turnstone in Bangor

December: Dublin & Brexit

On December 16, the US passed 19 million cases. About one in every 22 North Americans had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. By December 26, one of every 1,000 North Americans had died from the disease. In late December it became clear that a new, more transmissible strain of the virus had appeared in UK. Macron closed the French-UK border just a few days before the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020.

Thousands of trucks were motionless at the Port of Dover on December 24

On December 30, with our time in the UK nearly up, John and I took a taxi from Belfast to Dublin. We didn’t know where the border is and there were no checks on the way. When we got to town it was very cold. Ireland had lockdown restrictions in place so we walked up and down the street until it was time to meet our new landlord.

The New Year

And so we come to 2021, which lacks the fearful symmetry of 2020 and hopefully will be lopsidedly gentle on everyone. Happy New Year!

Statue in Belfast outside Carlisle Memorial Church, just down the road from Mater Hospital

History, Travel, UK, Uncategorized

Running Away from Newtownards

We’ve been having an unsettled week here in Northern Ireland. The house we booked for December turned out to have an intractable internet problem so we’ve been living hotel rooms for a week. It’s not an ideal situation given the new “70% more infectious” strain of Covid and mind-boggling Christmas crowds. But, after months of practice, we’ve developed a reasonable system: huddle in the room as much as possible, exercise on little-used roads, shop hurriedly at off-peak hours, wash hands regularly, and hope for the best.

The first hotel we tried was in Newtownards (rhymes with ‘cute canards’), a small city about 20 km east of Belfast. The town is a dank collection of brown-brick and pebble-dash houses, spiky churches, thrift stores and bookmakers. It smells of coal smoke and God’s disapproval. Looming over it all is Scrabo Tower, a Victorian folly that looks like a good place to keep flying monkeys. Built to commemorate Carles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, who owned land in the area, it is so distinctive that it is commonly used as a symbolic image of Newtownards.

Our hotel was strategically placed between a large shopping center and the hospital, so you could contract the disease and have it diagnosed in a few hours. I’m only half joking. There were things I saw that made my hair stand on end. Next door, for example, was a popular restaurant where locals were hastening to have their festive gatherings before the next lockdown on December 26. In the nearby supermarket, a large number of customers weren’t wearing masks. One of these was an elderly lady who pointedly hugged a man who was also in bare face. They chuckled and patted each other on the back in a congratulatory manner. In a gas station a couple of blocks away neither of the attendants were wearing masks and none of the customers bothered.

All of this baffling laissez faire was setting our nerves on edge. To top it all off, the hotel’s internet connection was terrible, so it seems we’d taken a big risk for no reason. I decided to burn off the guilt and stress with a run in the countryside.

Newtownards’ main street is called Regent Street. I put my mask on and headed past a handsome church that was crowded with keening gulls, a hospital’s ‘covid hub’, a row of closed-up shops, the town hall and a few banks and shops. On this particular day there was a Christmas market in the town square. OK, it was outdoors but it still increased the pressure in my skull. To be honest, though, with the scarcity of light and warmth at this time of year I can see why people cling so rabidly to the thought of it.

At the end of Regent Street, when traffic had thinned, I took off my mask and trotted right past a bunch of brown-brick apartment blocks. These were decorated with posters. One was thanking the NHS, with the blue sky and rainbow motif. Another was declaring that the area was the jurisdiction of the Ulster Defence Association, the loyalist paramilitary group proscribed as a terrorist organization in 1992.

Nearby was a pub sporting the slogan #saveourpubs, an initiative urging the UK government to provide more support to the hospitality industry that has been brought to its knees in the last year.

Turning right and then left, I found myself on the road skirting the north-eastern shore of Strangford Lough, the largest sea inlet in the United Kingdom. At the time, the tide was out. There was still plenty of birdlife, though. I couldn’t see any curlews but there were plenty of turnstones, brent geese and oystercatchers.

On the landward side there were a few little clusters of houses. I saw some sheep of a variety I’d not seen before. John, who sees sheep simply as sheep, says I’m excessively sheep conscious being from New Zealand but they looked really different to me. After some research, I have concluded they are Scottish Blackface Sheep, a hardy and pretty breed. One tiny filling station offered an interesting assortment of temptations: Crisps, Sweets, Ices, all brands of TYRES and Dunbar standard POTATOES. There was also a disused malting factory. This area, the Ards, was known for its malting barley and used to supply Guinness and Bushmills Distillery (Old Bushmills Distillery Old Bushmills Distillery – Wikipedia is still a popular tourist destination).

Rounding a bend, I noticed parachutes in the sky and realized that several people were parasurfing in the lough. The cold weather doesn’t seem to stop the watersports around here.

At this point I was getting near Mt. Stewart, a nineteenth-century house and garden with an interesting history. It was formed by the Stewart family whose ancestor had won land for his participation in the Williamite War in Ireland (1689-91). Late in the eighteenth century Alexander Stewart (1699-1781) acquired a huge fortune from his cousin and brother-in-law Robert Cowan, who’d amassed it during his term as Governor of Bombay. Thanks to these riches, Alexander bought up a lot of land and used some of the loot to build a big house near Newtownards that he called first Mount Pleasant, then Mount Stewart.

Alexander’s son Robert became a Member of Parliament and was admitted into the peerage, eventually becoming the first Marchess of Londonderry.

Robert’s eldest son (also named Robert) was later to become infamous as Viscount Castlereagh. In the 1790s, when he was busy putting down the Irish rebellion, Robert Jr. got mad at one Reverend James Porter of Greyabbey, author of a satire titled Billy Bluff and ‘Squire Firebrand, or, A Sample of the Times that poked fun at the Irish aristocracy. Robert Stewart senior occasionally appeared as a character called Lord Mount-Mumble. In 1797, after the French fleet was prevented from landing in Ireland to help drive the British out of Ireland, Reverend Porter delivered a sermon that argued only the British government, not the Irish people had been threatened by the French invasion: “it is in consequence of our connexion with England–some people call this connexion subjection.” Porter was finally arrested for robbing a postboy carrying an official military dispatch. His wife walked with her seven children in the pouring rain to Mount Stewart to plead for clemency. This was denied. Porter was hanged in Greyabbey, suspended from a temporary scaffold set up outside his own church, in full ecclesiastical dress. Porter’s son, who was 12 years old at the time, said that Lord Londonderry had ordered all his tenants to attend the hanging, as a lesson to them all.

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry

Castlereagh had a hand in some of the major events of the early nineteenth century. He lobbied for the Act of Union (1801), which brought Ireland under direct control of Westminster and squashed the promise of Catholic emancipation; he was one of the architects of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15); he and an apologist for the infamous Peterloo Massacre (1819), in which cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000 peaceful people who had gathered to demand reform of parliamentary representation. And he was charged with supporting the Pains and Penalties Bill of 1820 , whose sole aim was to help the king to divorce his detested wife Queen Caroline. The public vastly preferred Caroline, considering the king a libertine and horribly mean. After a trial in which Caroline was publicly humiliated, she was finally stripped of her title but the public wasn’t happy about it.

The king presented parliament with two green bags full of ‘evidence’ showing the Queen was adulterous. This cartoon suggests a bag of his indiscretions would be a bit bigger.

At the age of 57, Castlereagh had some kind of breakdown and committed suicide by cutting his own throat. Lord Byron wrote a memorable eulogy:

Oh, Castlereagh! Thou art a patriot now;
Cato died for his country, so didst thou:
He perished rather than see Rome enslaved,
Thou cuttest thy throat that England might be saved!
So Castlereagh has cut his throat! - the worst
of this is, that his own was not the first.
So he has cut his throat at last! He? Who?
The man who cut his country's long ago.

Following the death of the childless Castlereagh, Mount Stewart passed to Charles William Stewart, 1st Baron Stewart, for whom the abovementioned Scrabo Tower was built. His second wife was the fantastically wealthy heiress Frances Vane, whose father stipulated in his last will and testament that anyone who married his daughter should take her surname. He obliged and became Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. The owner of several coalmines, he led opposition to the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, which wanted to raise the age of child laborers to ten:

“With respect to the age at which males should be admitted into mines, the members of this association have unanimously agreed to fix it at eight years… In the thin coal mines it is more especially requisite that boys, varying in age from eight to fourteen, should be employed; as the underground roads could not be made of sufficient height for taller persons without incurring an outlay so great as to render the working of such mines unprofitable”

Himself (c) National Trust, Mount Stewart; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In 1845, at the height of the Irish Famine, he was one of the richest men in the United Kingdom. Many Irish landowners were moved to mitigate the suffering of their tenants; he and his wife donated exactly £30 to the local relief fund. At about the same time, they spent £150,000 renovating Mount Stewart.

Nineteenth-century McMansion

I’d hoped to be able to jog up to the top to get a picture of the view of Mount Stewart, which is now managed by the National Trust. Unfortunately, the footpath stopped and so did I, reluctant to run on the busy road. Instead, I turned around and got another view of the tower dedicated to Charles, a real blot on the landscape.

Travel, UK, Uncategorized

Picturing the Coastal Path

For the past few weeks we’ve been doing a lot of walking around the town of Bangor (N.I.) and its attendant bays. One of our favorite routes is the ‘Coastal Path’, a trail that extends along County Down’s scenic shore. Today John and I took a final walk along it before we move to another town tomorrow.

We started from Bangor and headed to the marina. The square outside the marina and a promenade are something like the equivalent of an Italian piazza. There is a big Christmas tree set up there (firmly anchored with ropes to fend off the sea wind), a clock tower and plenty of benches. It’s a popular place for people to walk, friends sipping takeaway coffee and chatting or mothers pushing strollers or couples walking their dog. There isn’t a lot of boating activity at the moment, most of the boats are sitting quietly in their docks.

Beyond the marina is a a children’s amusement ground called Pickie Funpark. It’s been closed until today, its giant swan-shaped paddleboats lined up neatly, waiting, looking on as giant local gulls used the pond as a bird bath.

Around the corner from that is Skipping Stone Beach. This is a sheltered area popular with swimmers, even now (bear in mind that it’s mid-December and that we are on the 54th parallel north, the same latitude as Quebec and Sakhalin).

Skipping Stone Beach

At the first bend in the path, the landscape becomes a bit wilder. We stopped to look at a plaque sponsored by the local Rotary Club that showed the direction and distance of landmarks such as the Mull of Kintyre, Carrickfergus Castle and Belfast.

Down below us on the rocks and on the sea itself, we saw a number of birds–eiders, gulls, oyster catchers and crows. In the last few weeks we’ve also seen guillemots, kittiwakes, gulls, turnstones and cormorants. In the fields nearby there are pheasants, Irish magpies and wagtails. Locals tell us that the local otter population is doing exceptionally well this year, though the bad thing about that is that they eat tern eggs, so the local tern colony isn’t doing so well. Today we were lucky to see three new kinds of birds: a yellow wagtail, a dunlin and a vagrant ring-necked duck (vagrant because these are native to the Americas but occasionally wander over here).

Picture taken from Bird Watch Ireland

There was also a lot of shipping interest. Every day we see the Stena line ferry, a handsome white boat that crosses over from Scotland to Belfast. There were also two or three container ships waiting to get to Belfast Lough. And closer to home there was a little sailing ship and the lobster boat that does the daily rounds dropping off and picking up traps.

Down the hill, a noticeboard told us we were in Smelt Mill Bay, named for an old lead smeltmill whose powerful bellows were powered by a big waterwheel. Understandably perhaps, there was very little mention of the mill and much more about Saint Columbanus, an impressive monk who lived in the sixth century. He is the first person in literature to have described himself as being Irish. In those days, Bangor Abbey was considered the Light of the World and produced many missionaries including Columbanus. In 590, when the monk was about 40, he set out to sea in a currach with 12 monks intent on travelling to the continent and spreading his monastic light over there. He and his friends established several monasteries in France. Columbanus eventually expired in a monastery in Bobbio, Italy, where the abbey still stands.

A little way along is one of the two new wastewater pumping stations under construction. Along the walls around the construction site, a group called Seaside Revival has put up boards that illuminate aspects of local history with captioned photographs.

In the real world, despite of the lead-smelting history and the not-yet-completed wastewater pumping station, there were a few of hardy swimmers splashing about in the water with their day-glo buoyancy devices, the sound of their chatter and laughter filling the bay.

Further along, everything got wild again. The rocks were covered with grass that John named ‘Viking grass’ because it reminded him of photographs of old Viking settlements in Labrador, Canada.

Further along is Bangor Castle, which is now used as the offices for the local council. It looks like more of a mansion than a castle. Like a lot of places in Northern Ireland, it would make a great setting for a murder mystery.

Last week I was lucky to catch a spectacular sunset in this spot, when the clouds went bright pink. I’m convinced that the intensity of the color was directly related to the coldness of the day. Just as the sun was setting, about 300 crows started croaking and flying around. They then went to roost on some nearby trees, almost one per twig. As they settled down they made a different sound, squeakier and softer as if they were saying goodnight to one another.

Something about the cold air and sea wind was tiring and a warm house seemed even more beckoning than usual. So we turned around and retraced our steps, spurred on by dreams of lunch.

Fiction, Poetry

Multifarious Fausts

What with staying ‘safe at home’, freezing temperatures and 3pm sunsets, this autumn has been a great time for finally getting around to reading the Classics in translation. I liked War and Peace (without expecting to), and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (trans. MacNeice) was a solid piece of work, 8/10. Next up on the remedial-doorstop list was Goethe’s Faust. Frankly, any story involving a Deal with the Devil holds interest for me so I had high hopes. “A crusty old scholar summons Mephistopheles and so gains magical powers, the appearance of youth and unlimited access to earthly delights. But there’s a catch!” Honestly, what is there not to like?

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Faust. See more of his dark designs here

The ‘Real’ Faust

Johann Georg Faust may or may not have been an historical person who lived around about 1480-1540. Some records in the early sixteenth century mention a man of that name posing variously as an itinerant magician, doctor of philosophy, physician, alchemist, magician, astrologer, “nigromancer” and sodomite. He was known to travel with a horse and a dog that occasionally changed into a human servant. This Faust went about conning people, practicing black magic on them and generally blaspheming until he died in an explosion while conducting an alchemical experiment in an inn in Staufen im Breisgau (this is one version). Rumor has it that people saw how badly his body was mutilated by the blast and concluded that the devil had come in person to settle accounts.

If you want to read book based on the ‘historical’ character, you could try The Master’s Apprentice: A Retelling of the Faust Legend (trans. Lisa Reinhardt). Despite the subtitle, it’s more death-metal nightmare than legend and was a way too horrifying for me to go on with.

The very first printed version of Faust’s life was a small chapbook called Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published in 1587. This was essentially a morality tale, as you can see from the title translated into English: The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus.

Frontispiece of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published in 1587 by Johann Spies

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

Using the English translation of the German chapbook as his main source, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) wrote The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus , whose first performance happened about a decade after his death in 1604. In this play, the ambitious Dr. Faustus uses his learning to use a book of spells, so summoning Mephistopheles to his study. A transaction is quickly effected whereby Mephistopheles becomes his servant for 24 years. But then:

I, JOHN FAUSTUS, OF WERTENBERG, DOCTOR, BY THESE PRESENTS, DO GIVE BOTH BODY AND SOUL TO LUCIFER PRINCE OF THE EAST, AND HIS MINISTER MEPHISTOPHILIS; AND FURTHERMORE GRANT UNTO THEM, THAT, TWENTY-FOUR YEARS BEING EXPIRED, THE ARTICLES ABOVE-WRITTEN INVIOLATE, FULL POWER TO FETCH OR CARRY THE SAID JOHN FAUSTUS, BODY AND SOUL, FLESH, BLOOD, OR GOODS, INTO THEIR HABITATION WHERESOEVER. BY ME, JOHN FAUSTUS.

That settled, he starts dreaming about becoming Emperor of the World. Mephistopheles parades before him a juicy selection of demon prostitutes, then he gets acquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, who I imagine must have been dressed up in some evocative costumes for visual appeal. Then, as a favour to his students, Faust has Mephistopheles conjure up the most beautiful woman who has ever existed, Helen of Troy. He rides in a dragon-drawn chariot up to Mt. Olympus and studies the celestial mechanism. Then he goes to Rome to meet the Pope, causing havoc and hilarity (no doubt pleasing his London punters no end). At the end of the play, Dr. Faustus gets his just desserts and devils come to haul him away in a violent encounter that ends with his limbs scattered all over his library.

MEPH: But, tell me, Faustus, shall I have thy soul?
And I will be thy slave, and wait on thee,
And give thee more than thou hast wit to ask.
 
FAUSTUS: Ay, Mephistopheles, I’ll give it thee.

Goethe’s Faust

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust is generally considered to be the greatest work of German literature, maybe even the first great work. That’s mainly because before 1750, German-speaking people looked to France for intellectual and cultural leadership. This changed after philosopher Christian Wolff (1679-1754) chose to teach and write in German, lending it legitimacy as a philosophical and literary language.

Weimar courtyard of the Muses. Schiller reading to the court in Tiefurt. (1860) by Theobald von Oer. The woman in white is Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Goethe stands on the right, with his hand on his heart.

From 1772 to 1805, Goethe associated with a group of writers based in Weimar who developed a literary movement expounding certain aesthetic and philosophical principles. This would later be seen as a kind of synthesis of Enlightenment and Romanticism. This movement is now known as Weimar Classicism and, though Goethe is the greatest proponent, Friedrich Schiller, Christoph Martin Wieland and Johann Gottfriend Herder.

As a child, Goethe had been fascinated by puppet shows of the Faustus legend. He started work on his own version while still a young man and would continue improving on it until his death.

The puppet show might have looked something like this short film directed by Emil Radanok

Part One was published in 1808. Plot-wise, Goethe’s biggest innovation was the character of Gretchen, a young woman who, by all accounts (*weary sigh*), embodies both the Pure Virgin Mary and the Seductive Eve. Allowing herself to be seduced by Faust, Gretchen gets pregnant, then kills the child out of despair. It looks like she’ll be damned for the sin of infanticide but at the very last minute a few lines from the end, voices call from above, “Is saved!”

Joseph Fay (1812-1875), Illustrationfor Faust (1846), colour lithograph, in ‘Faust – the Tragedy Part 1’, Paris 1846, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Part Two, a phantasmagorical meditation about god knows what came out in 1832, after Goethe’s death. Here, Faust trots about in a dragon-chariot and has conversations with supernatural beings. Maybe the original poetry adds some kind of humor or pizzaz or sense but the translations I’ve read leave me baffled. I haven’t got to the end yet but have a vague idea that Faust goes through some kind of transformation and finally gets to Heaven. Goethe said that only a few people would ‘get it’, and I’m happy to leave it to them. Here are his own words:

“…in the second part, there is scarcely anything of the subjective; here is seen a higher, broader, clearer, more passionless world, and he who has not looked about him and had some experience, will not know what to make of it.” – Conversations with Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann February 17, 1831 (translated by John Oxenford)

Faust riding around on Chiron the centaur. It’s fine.

Musical Fausts

Mein armer Kopf / Ist mir verrückt, / Mein armer Sinn/ Ist mir zerstückt. (My poor head/ I’m crazy/ My poor senses/have come unstuck.)

My favourite Fausts are musical. Nineteenth-century composers went crazy for the tale and luckily they weren’t put off by Goethe’s own declaration that no one but Mozart would be up to the task of putting it to music. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set 80 of Goethe’s poems to music, and the very first of these was “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, “Gretchen at the Spinningwheel”, (1814). The frenetic piano resembles a spinning wheel and when Gretchen gets to be crazy with longing towards the end, the singer genuinely sounds distracted.

Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust Second Act “Midnight” with the voices of Want, Guilt, Care, Need and Faust

Later in the century, more and more composers tried their hand at musical adaptations. Robert Schumann wrote “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust” (1851), which some critics consider his magnum opus. Robert Wagner originally meant to write a symphony but dialled it back to an atmospheric overture, Faust” (1855). The brilliant Hungarian Franz Liszt wrote “A Faust symphony in Three Character Pictures” (1857), one picture each for Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. The second part of Mahler’s Symphony Number Eight is a musical setting of the final scenes of Faust Part Two, where Faust’s soul finally ascends to heaven.

The symphony’s thrilling and joyful finale conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Then we have the operas. Hector Berlioz La Damnation de Faust was first performed in 1846. The public was pretty indifferent to the thing on opening night, which hurt his feelings, but it’s still recorded as a concert piece and there are some beautiful arias including “D’amour l’ardente flamme” in which Gretchen (Marguerite) has been abandoned and longs for Faust’s return.

Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), better known as a librettist for Verdi, wrote an opera called Mefistofele that had its premier at La Scala on 5 March 1868. Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) began an opera called Doktor Faust but died before its completion it was finished by his pupil Philipp Jarnach. But my favorite Faust opera is definitely that of Charles Gounod‘s Faust, based on a theater play written by Michel Carré, which was in turn based on Part One of Goethe’s work. I particularly like the Mephistopheles character, who has a great aria “Le Veau d’Or”, here sung by Nicolai Ghiaurov:

The calf of gold is still standing!
One adulates his power,
One adulates his power,
From one end of the world to the other end!
To celebrate the infamous idol,
Kings and the people mixed together,
To the somber sound of golden coins,
They danse a wild round
Around his pedestal
Around his pedestal
And Satan leads the dance
!

Unsurprisingly, it’s also been a popular topic for rock and metal bands with a lyric bent. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is probably the most famous example but there are a lot of others. The metal band Agalloch produced a whole album called “Faustian Echoes” based on quotes from Goethe’s poem. Here is a song accompanied by clips from the 1926 silent movie directed by F.W. Murnau:

Films

There have been many, many cinematic representations of the Faust legend. The following posters should give you an idea of the range…

F.W. Murnau’s silent film Faust (1926)
La Beauté Du Diable (1950)
Alexander Sokurow (2011)
Rock opera of 1976 directed by Brian DePalma
Faust (1994). Probably the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.

Six Stories

There are so many stories based on the Faust legend that it would be pretty tedious to list them all, but there are six:

  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1894) by Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who becomes convinced that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth living for. If only he could find a way not to age…

2. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) by Stephen Vincent Benét

A New Hampshire farmer who has sold his soul to the devil aka “Mr. Scratch” has Daniel Webster, the famous statesman, orator and lawyer, to defend him in court.

3. The Master and Margarita (written in the 1930s, first published in 1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov

The devil visits the Soviet Union, disrupting the life of the new elite. Satan offers Margarita, (whose author lover The Master is in a lunatic asylum) the chance to become a witch. Meanwhile, in another time and place Pontius Pilate presides at the trial of Jesus…

4. Doktor Faustus (1947) by Thomas Mann

A composer strikes a Faustian bargain for creative greatness: e intentionally contracts syphilis in order to enhance his creative powers (don’t blame me, I didn’t write it!).

5. Galactic Pot-Healer (1969) by Philip K. Dick

In this case an ordinary guy named Joe Fernwright is summoned to Sirius Five by a Glimmung, a highly evolved alien with godlike powers who wants him for his excellent pot-healing skills. At the end of the book, Fernwright is offered the chance to join the Glimmung’s hive mind.

6. Faust (ファウスト, Fausuto

Of course there is a manga based on Faust. Osamu Tezuka published his version in 1950. Unusually, he blends Part One and Two together.

The Last Faust?

So there you have it. There are few legends as fecund as Faust and the barrel’s not empty yet. Last year saw the release of an art film titled The Last Faust, set in the year 2059. I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen the end of new mutations.