Holiday(?) reading: The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo

Either I picked up The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo by Will Dexter in a charity shop or Allison picked it up for me, but either way it seemed like very much my kind of thing: a history of a weird, obscure subject. In this case, I was aware that Chung Ling Soo was a magician from the late 19th and early 20th century whose gimmick was based on being a “Chinese conjurer” but who was nothing of the kind, and that’s about it.


For all that most stories about William Robinson (Chung’s real name) focus on his “deception” or “double life,” everyone who knew him, worked with him, or wrote about him seems to have been well aware that he wasn’t Chinese; the media just played along with the bit in order to help drum up publicity.

Robinson is also famous for having been killed in an onstage accident in 1918. He did a “bullet-catching” illusion as part of his act, and one of the gimmick guns malfunctioned, actually shooting out a bullet and killing him. This is the sort of central theme of The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo; there have been a number of sensational books and articles claiming that Robinson was murdered or committed suicide, which the author tries to debunk. Along the way, though, we get an apparently comprehensive history of this famous career.

I suppose I was expecting some Jim Steinmeyer type of stuff, and indeed I see that Steinmeyer actually has written a book about Robinson, but instead I got something written in the 50s from a history-of-magic perspective, very focused on appreciating Robinson as a magician. This meant that the book included one thing I wasn’t expecting and left out one thing I was.

The thing I was expecting, but wasn’t there: the book doesn’t even acknowledge the idea that the whole Chung Ling Soo bit is pretty racist. It even mentions criticisms levelled at Robinson by a magician who actually was Chinese (or Mongolian; the author can’t seem to make up his mind), but doesn’t seem to perceive that those criticisms were, you know, actually true. It’s all understood as part of the expected flim-flam of show business, which … I suppose it is? But that flim-flam traded on some corby, even offensive, stereotypes. I’m not convinced, and I don’t think a modern writer would leave that point out completely.

The thing that I didn’t expect was the information that Robinson seems to have been warmly welcomed by the Chinese community, particularly in Australia. Apparently, in an environment of pretty pervasive anti-Chinese prejudice, a white dude performing corny Chinese stereotypes was seen as a pretty good thing, perhaps since at least they weren’t corny negative Chinese stereotypes. Obviously, no one was fooled by his “my dad was a British missionary and that’s why I look like a white guy from Philadelphia” bit, but they seem to have been happy enough that this cheeseball variety act was drawing attention to Chinese culture, even if in a completely distorted way. So that’s interesting.

One thing I did expect and was not surprised to find confirmed, given the hagiographical tone of the work, is that Robinson’s personal life, largely absent in the book, was pretty shady. For example, there are some nice words said about his romance with his future stage partner, Olive “Dot” Path, but there’s no mention of the fact that when this romance began he was already married and had a child who he basically abandoned to go be Chung Ling Soo. I mean, not much is said about his family life, but you’d think his other family would have got a look in. Oh well.

These kinds of book are always fascinating to me, less for the historical information, which is often unreliable except in overview, but for the look at what the author thinks is relevant. There’s something interesting about reading the perspective of a writer so immersed in a particular subculture that they don’t feel like they have to explain why they’ve chosen to take a certain position. I’m not sure if I’m explaining that well.

Anyway, I read it on the train and it was fun, even if I admit I skimmed some of the descriptions of performances.

Holiday(?) reading: The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo

Holiday reading: Daughter of the Wolf

Another book under the Christmas tree for me this year was Daughter of the Wolf by Victoria Whitworth. The author is a historian — I cited her book Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon Englandlot while writing my thesis — and I have read and enjoyed her two previous novels set in Anglo-Saxon EnglandThe Bone Thief and The Traitor’s Pit.


In keeping with my previous posts about these books, this is not a review. If you want my one-sentence review, I liked it and was really pleased with how it evoked its world. In this post, though, I really just want to talk about an issue that I think Daughter of the Wolf approaches very effectively.

So The Bone Thief and The Traitor’s Pit did a great job of putting a fundamentally different way of viewing the world at the centre of the story in a way that felt natural. This kind of thing really stands out in a historical novel, where differences between historical and modern, dare I say it, mentalities are either glossed over or tend to stick out a little awkwardly because of the light the author shines on them.

Now, and this is not a criticism, those books were, particularly The Bone Thief, adventure stories. A plucky band of unlikely heroes, travel to exotic places, a beautiful but possibly unreliable love interest, dangerous missions behind enemy lines, all that kind of thing. They were adventure stories without much fighting, which was nice to see in a period that’s mainly seen as all about the shield-wall and the Vikings and the wolf-time and what not. But they were definitely within the tradition of the historical adventure story. Again, that’s not a bad thing.

But Daughter of the Wolf moves even further away from that tradition. There is violence and danger in the story, of course, but this is a story that focuses on a young woman who has to run her family estate against a backdrop of both political and family intrigue. What that means is that it’s a dramatic historical narrative set within the framework of activities that would have been considered acceptable for women (more or less) within its ninth-century setting.

I’ve written before about some of the aspects of the early medieval shieldmaiden image that give me pause. Specifically, the celebration of female heroes who excel in traditionally male-dominated areas like combat and the military can be read as dismissive of the social areas in which women mostly did have agency. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with female fighting heroes, or that women didn’t or don’t fight — but it’s nice to see Daughter of the Wolf centering its narrative in the world of government, religion, economics, diplomacy and so on.

Anyway, I liked it a lot, but no surprise there; I’m 3/3 on this author.

Holiday reading: Daughter of the Wolf

Holiday reading: Designing Utopia

I got Designing Utopia: John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift for Christmas and read it over the break. I thought it was pretty great.

The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift are one of those weird groups that pop up in British history — a sort of back-to-the-land folk-y group originally intended as an alternative to conservative, militaristic Boy Scouting but also incorporating mysticism, eugenics, a secret initiatory occult lodge, a weird cult of personality, and lots of other stuff. From a social and artistic movement, it became a political party and protest organisation advocating for something called “Social Credit,” a radical (“crank?”) economic theory.


Now, I have previously blogged about the Kibbo Kift, back when I went to the Whitechapel Gallery exhibit about them. This is a more detailed history of the organisation, and goes into more depth about John Hargraves’ life and the evolution of the Kibbo Kift. It’s a museum publication, so high production values, lots of pretty art, all that kind of thing.

What I really enjoyed about it was its emphasis on the extent to which the Kibbo Kift was within the intellectual mainstream of the interwar era. The outfits and the neologisms might have seemed a little strange to some observers, but every ingredient in the Kindred’s stew was something that was out there in the culture: an obsession with racial “health,” a sense that there was something wrong with civilised society, a skeptical view of the Empire and the military following the war, a belief in the power of symbolism, etc., etc.

What’s also interesting is the sense of John Hargraves’ personal command. Over its history, the Kibbo Kift shifts with Hargraves’ whims, going from a sort of volkisch mystical hiking and crafty club to a fringe political party with uniformed street team. These two incarnations don’t obviously seem to have much to do with each other, so we’re left with the conclusion that the Kibbo Kift is just the club that Hargraves uses to pursue whatever his current whim happens to be, with the stipulation that no matter what the group is doing, Hargraves, regardless of qualifications, is the boss.

Anyway, this was an interesting read about an interesting group and I was sufficiently keen that I read through it that morning. If you’re only going to read one book about the Kibbo Kift — which seems like a pretty good number — I recommend this one.

Holiday reading: Designing Utopia

Books I don’t need but still buy

Over the last few days, as is my wont, I bought some used books. Some came from a book stall at the fair that happened this past weekend in my neighbourhood, others from charity shops.

Here are the history-relevant recent purchases:


I read Ray Page’s book ages ago, and although I’m sure it’s out of date now, hey, it was £1 and it will be handy to look some things up for someone who is not a runes guy. And I gueess I do tutor the impact of Empire part of the history GCSE, so a big illustrated book about it could come in handy.

I have no earthly use for a collection of engravings from 17th-century alchemical texts. But it was £1 and they’re so cool.

This … is the kind of thinking that has led me to own a lot of texts relating to esotericism and the occult.


Well, I say “lots.” It’s obviously not “lots” by the standards of someone who actually studies the subject, but I’m not that. And insofar as I care about magical and supernatural beliefs — and I do — the things I care least about are alchemy and sort of 18th-19th century ritual magic. And yet I do keep acquiring books about them.

Partly it’s because there are a lot of books out there on the topic, and partly, I think, it’s because they look so cool. I can’t pass them up!

I suppose it does provide lots of material and cool set-dressing for other creative endeavours, but I do worry that people will get the impression that I’m some kind of genuinely knowledgeable occulty type, when I’m just a sort of aesthetic dabbler.

Books I don’t need but still buy

More reading: The Traitors’ Pit

So as part of my reading over the holidays I finally read The Traitors’ Pit by V.M. Whitworth, which I bought over the summer but never really had time to get around to. I wrote about the first of these books, The Bone Thief, back in July or so.


Once again, we’re following the adventures of Wulfgar, a West Saxon cleric working for Aethelflaed, the famous “Lady of the Mercians,” in the early 10th century. I like Wulfgar because he’s a very unusual protagonist for an early medieval novel — neither a heroic warrior type nor some kind of transplanted Sherlock Holmes figure. He’s just this guy, you know? Whereas the last one was about the capture of the relics of Saint Oswald, this one is about politics and war along the Northumbrian-Mercian frontier, with politics and justice (if that’s the word) back in Winchester. It’s fascinating stuff.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal, partly because it’s, you know, good, and partly because it does some things that I wish more books set in the period did: for starters, it puts Christianity at the centre of its lead character’s worldview in a way that feels authentic and complicated. This comes through in the scenes that surround one of the main plot lines, in which one character takes an ordeal to prove that another character was innocent of a crime — only the alleged culprit is dead. It’s a great way of illustrating how concern for a person’s soul in the late Anglo-Saxon world continued after death.

On a personal note, this book filled me with a sort of pleasant melancholy. So much of it is about things I immersed myself in for years: late Anglo-Saxon society, its religious imagery, its justice system and above all its burial customs. I can see how different parts of it sprung from the research the author did for her Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, a book I read over and over again while I was doing my PhD. It was a sort of privilege to be able to see the background of it, but it was also a somewhat gloomy reminder of back when I was a promising young scholar. Or at least after a couple of drinks it was.

Anyway, what can I tell you? It was good, I liked it, I’m gonna read the next one.

More reading: The Traitors’ Pit

New reading for a new year

Happy new year, everyone. I have been mostly cleaning my study to create space for some new arrivals, but I wanted to take a moment to mention some new additions to the bookshelves here at head office.


It’s Larry Gonick’s two-volume Cartoon History of the Modern World, which is in turn the conclusion to his three-volume Cartoon History of the Universe, about my love of which I have written before. I loved the early volumes when I was a kid, and while there are some bits you want to fact-check (and, as in history, maybe a few things that aren’t quite appropriate for younger readers, although of course younger readers love that sort of thing), I think that for the level of detail they contain they’re actually pretty good basic history books. And, of course, they’re a lot of fun. There are five volumes in total, plus a Cartoon History of the United States, which I had at one point.

Anyway, I’ve already started on these and I’m looking forward to getting them done, although I’ve shelved them for now.

So satisfying.


New reading for a new year

Holiday reading: The Dig

It’s kind of a Christmas tradition for me that over the holidays I catch up on the books I got for my late-October birthday. One of those this year was The Dig by John Preston, which came out in 2007 but which I had never heard of until my parents recommended it to me.


It’s an interesting novel: it covers the summer and autumn of 1939, when the famous Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk was being excavated. The perspective shifts between several different characters, including the initial excavator, Basil Brown, the landowner, Edith Pretty, and archaeologist Peggy Piggott (who was Preston’s aunt).

The story of the excavation itself is pretty complicated, and the tensions it revealed (including the conflict between academics and non-academic professionals and the old one between the British Museum and the provinces) are interesting, but that’s not really what this book is about. It’s less narrative-driven and more about mood, specifically the sense of the mysterious connection with the past in the shadow of an uncertain future.

I enjoyed it, but then those themes are very close to my heart. It’s an interesting view of the process of archaeology as a social and emotional process, and you know I like it when everyone is sad and emotionally repressed.

Holiday reading: The Dig

The urge to consume is sometimes rewarded

I was shopping for a gift recently, and I did that thing that you’re not supposed to do — that is, I went to the kinds of places would like to receive a gift from, which are similar to but not quite as the same as the kinds of places my friend would like a gift from.

Anyway, while browsing a bookshop, I did that thing I always do where I see a book on a topic I know nothing about and decide I must know more. Fortunately, I have a well-developed response to this impulse and I didn’t buy anything, but I was tempted by half a dozen titles including Nicholas Rogers’ book on the history of Hallowe’en (a topic about which I know a leetle but not an enormous amount).


Like I said, I didn’t buy it. I came home all virtuous and got an email from an editor asking me for, among other things, a piece on the history of Hallowe’en. I guess I can always claim it as a business expense now.

The urge to consume is sometimes rewarded

Ellroy, expectations and a word from our sponsors

As I may have mentioned, the last few weeks have been a great opportunity for me to catch up on my reading. At the moment, I’m in the middle of James Ellroy’s latest, Perfidia.


I have blown hot and cold on Ellroy in the past — I love the LA Quartet, particularly the three ones everybody loves (that’s The Big NowhereLA Confidential and White Jazz for those unfamiliar), but I was less excited about the next three books. Perfidia seems to be an attempt to drag them all together by creating a unifying sort of dark history of WWII and postwar America. This means recapitulating a lot of stuff from the LA Quartet, to which this is essentially a prequel.

But it’s this idea of dark history that intrigues me. Ellroy has always used the fact that Americans typically have nostalgic views of the 1940s and 1950s to good effect: he depicts a world in which the guardians of law and order are racist thugs who spend all their time getting drunk and having sex with prostitutes and breaking into people’s houses and sniffing underwear and talking bullshit tough-guy philosophy and there’s just stale food and dog shit and razor blades everywhere.

Now, the fundamental truth — the people protecting the established order were a bunch of racist thugs, or at least willing to collude with racist thugs — is sound. But aesthetically I do wonder if we’re not seeing a modern version of that “everything is covered in filth” view of the middle ages that gradually rose from being an alternative take on the period to being the dominant one in the media. For a long time, this was obviously some kind of psychodrama: we know that James Ellroy lived in a house full of dog shit and broke into people’s houses and spent a lot of time drunk and, I don’t know, threw beer cans full of piss out the window, whatever James Ellroy characters do. And when it’s atmosphere in a crime novel, fair enough. But like all useful correctives, let’s not go nuts here. Let James Ellroy present history programs on TV — I hope you like hearing him say “BAM!” as much as I do — but let’s keep a little perspective.

I don’t know, I’m not necessarily criticising. So far, at least, he manages to avoid the usual conspiracy-history thing of just letting ordinary people off the hook. The conspirators are racist thugs, but only as racist as most people around them. It’s the thug part that’s different.

Anyway, I mentioned a word from our sponsor, but we don’t have any sponsors so we’ll have to have blatant self-promotion instead! DriveThru is having their annual Christmas in July sale, and lots of great stuff is on sale including my own The Barest Branch, the Viking Lovecraft horror story so unmarketable that I actually spiced it up with a drab brown cover and a who-gives-a-shit blurb. It’s available in both PDF and MOBI, although I have no idea how you read the .mobi with the Kindle app. It works fine on an actual Kindle, I know that much.

Ellroy, expectations and a word from our sponsors

Recent reading: The Bone Thief

While on holiday I caught up with some long-overdue reading, including The Bone Thief, a 2012(?) novel by Victoria Whitworth. This has since had two sequels: The Traitors’ Pit, which I have bought but not read yet, and a third one, which I believe is coming out this year, though I could be wrong.

I actually read it on the Kindle, but you gotta have pictures.

Anyway, this isn’t a review per se (short review: I thought it was pretty good!) but I thought it would be a good way to look at one approach to historical fiction.

As you may know, saints’ relics were a very big deal in medieval Christianity. They provided a physical expression of the holiness of a saint, and possession of a particularly impressive relic could boost the standing of a church or its patron, attract pilgrims and so on. Not that relics were just some form of social engineering; naturally they were regarded with that mixture of political pragmatism and sincere belief in the supernatural that is so much the hallmark of … pretty much any era before the modern at a minimum.

And of course you know that the written history of the early middle ages can be tantalisingly (or maddeningly depending on your perspective) vague. Case in point: in 909, Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, together with her brother King Edward of Wessex, brought the relics of Saint Oswald from their resting place in Bardney — which at that time was in Danish territory — to the new minster in Gloucester. I came across this incident when I was doing my PhD; Saint Oswald’s (as the church came to be known) was one of the sites I studied. And clearly the author felt the same curiosity I did: did Aethelflaed really lead a military campaign to recover some relics? Or was it more of a small, commando-type operation? A diplomatic mission? What was going on?

So it’s that story that Whitworth sets out to tell — who was responsible for bringing the relics back to Mercia, and how did they do it? If you guessed “a mismatched band of Dark Ages characters from all levels of society” and “via a series of adventures and narrow escapes,” you’re on the right track, of course. But … and here I’m just being a grumpy person … they’re hair-raising adventures and narrow etc. that don’t require you to forget things about the historical period*. Instead, they sympathetically illuminate things about it.

And no surprise there, since the author is a legit historian of the period; I probably cited her Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England more than anything that wasn’t an actual site report when writing my thesis (and brother, it wasn’t that cheap back then, I can tell you). Now, the common complaint about historical fiction written by experts on the period is that it can sometimes feel like a history lesson, but I didn’t feel that way here at all. Of course, a) this is kind of my period in the first place, and b) I really like history lessons, so I could be wrong.

The other thing that really pleased me was — and this is just a personal pet grumble — the way in which The Bone Thief portrays Christianity as a vital part of the lived experience of the medieval world, the context in which other things happen. There are pagan characters, of course, but they’re not presented as Romantic alternatives to a stuffy, life-hating Christianity. A lot of what bugs me about the way Christianity is portrayed in fiction set in the early medieval period is that it’s based on either Reformation critiques of the “medieval” church or modern celebrations of “earthy, vital” paganism. Bernard Cornwall, I’m looking at you here. But here there’s a very varied and human portrayal of the role of Christianity, including a cute scene in which our hero, Wulfgar, who is a bit of a religion nerd, is all shocked and dismayed by the sincere but procedurally-incorrect piety of the local people he meets but never quite works up the courage to say anything about it.

Anyway, The Bone Thief. Best portrayal of early medieval England within the context of a more-or-less straight-up adventure yarn yet? Possibly! I’m going to read the next one, but — and I know this is shallow — I bought it in large-format paperback and now I’m regretting that because it’s really big and it’s a pain in the butt to carry around. I do a lot of my reading on trains and things. Anyway. When I do finish it I’ll talk about it here, but in the meantime if you like the kinds of things I like you might very well like this.

(*To some extent all adventure yarns require you to forget that the circumstances under which a dangerous mission is entrusted to a well-meaning rookie are a little contrived, but that comes with the territory. Also, there’s a Hotheaded Impulsive One, a Beardy One, and The Sexy One. The Sexy One has plenty of agency and is actually a pretty convincing female lead in an early medieval story (if you want an independent woman in the 10th century, a Scandinavian merchant is a good choice).)

Recent reading: The Bone Thief