Monday, 17 June 2019

Dr Mary's Monkey by Edward T Haslam

I have just read one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read, if not the most extraordinary.

It all starts when a young boy, a native of New Orleans, becomes fascinated by the unsolved murder of one of his doctor father's colleagues, a high ranking cancer specialist called Dr Mary Sherman, a woman who once bounced him on her knee.

She is discovered one morning in July 1964 after reports of smoke emanating from her apartment. Naked, a pile of smouldering underwear has been placed upon her and set alight. She has stab wounds to her heart and genitals suggestive of a sexual motive.

But strangest and most horrifying of all, her right arm is missing and part of her ribcage is burned through where she is lying. How could a minor fire cause this level of damage? Moreover her neighbours had heard nothing overnight through the thin walls of the apartment block. His father is sent to identify the body and is clearly traumatised by what he sees, but won't go into detail with young Ed.

It is only as he grows up that Ed learns these details and starts to be party to various clues and rumours in the community, making sporadic notes. His father dies of cancer when Ed is scarcely out of his teens, but his last words are to warn him to be careful, knowing of his curiosity.

Decades pass and Ed lives a normal life, but every so often a new clue or new piece of the story presents itself and Ed duly writes it down. A pivotal moment comes when he gets a job at a local newspaper office and is sent to meet some men who wish to know if the newspaper might be interested in their files. He feigns innocence and disinterest, but what he sees is dynamite, including pro-Cuban tape recordings featuring Lee Harvey Oswald, the prime suspect in JFK's assassination.

Bit by bit Ed uncovers the fact that New Orleans has been a secret centre for monkey research since the 1950s involving the mutation of viruses, possibly with the aim of causing a quick-acting cancer to assassinate President Castro during the Kennedy era.  Simultaneously these viruses play a part in the development of the polio vaccine, in the early batch, with disastrous results, and latterly in a sense that could have given rise to the modern cancer epidemic, and even AIDS, as they manipulated viruses creating retroviruses far beyond their understanding, or ability to fully contain, using the new secret particle accelerator machine, a machine Ed comes to suspect of having electrocuted Dr Sherman, either accidentally or deliberately, leaving her colleagues with the horrifying task of having to finish her off and deposit her body at her apartment, making it look like a random murder to hide their top secret medical experiments.

The CIA, the FBI and the Mafia all play a part in this story and all turn out to have nationally-significant roots in New Orleans, including Lee Harvey Oswald, who was also a resident. However the central character appearing to bind everything together is the shadowy Alton Ochsner, founder of the biggest medical clinic in Louisiana, former president of the American Cancer Society and able to boast friends in the highest political spheres, and not just statewide.  He has also been granted special national security clearance for a project of national importance, but what?

There are times in Ed's life when he tries to turn his back on the story, which has now grown to gargantuan proportions from the unsolved murder of a scientist, to secret government laboratories, monkey viruses, a unique plot to kill Castro, a worldwide cancer epidemic, AIDS, the CIA, the FBI and the Mafia and now Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

It all sounds far too incredible to be true and yet the more you read, the more monsters begin to emerge from the sultry Louisiana swamps.

The first version of the book came out in homespun form in 1995, but has grown ever since as new pieces of information come to light and new witnesses come forward. This is no slick production by a seasoned hack or a journalist out for a quick buck, but one man's reluctant life's work on a story he felt deserved to be shared with the world, and at no small risk to himself. Many of the central characters have died before their time after all. It is even suspected that nightclub owner Jack Ruby (who shot Lee Harvey Oswald before he could testify) was injected with quick acting cancer cells to ensure his own death (and thus silence) shortly after. Certainly the researchers who worked on the secret cancer project seemed to be as expendable as their lab animals.

Interestingly 60 Minutes made a documentary on Dr Mary's Monkey, but it was pulled at the last minute with no explanation.

Ed Haslam doesn't ask the reader to believe his book but to join him in asking the questions contained therein. Starting off with questioning the bizarre murder of a renowned scientist which was quickly shut down and never investigated, no suspects, no arrests, no credible explanations.

That said, he provides an impressive array of evidence for many of his suppositions and demonstrates that the official version of events can be just as unbelievable when held up to the light as any alternative version of events we might not wish to believe.

This book has been unputdownable - akin to several thrillers rolled into one. If just one part of it is true, it would still be an incredible story.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Farewell Avon

They say every girl loves a bad boy. Avon was mine. I was eight. He was thirty seven. It could never be. And I'm sure my fantasies growing up in small town Northern Ireland were suitably PG.

Almost sure.

But he left a lifelong and indelible impression on my young mind. It was Avon I tried to channel every time I wanted to take a risk in life, albeit not always successfully. He who showed me that life was not necessarily black and white. You couldn't always tell the goodies from the baddies.

I didn't notice or mind that the space guns bore more than a passing resemblance to hair dryers or that the sets occasionally wobbled. I couldn't wait for each week's episode. The only annoyance was how Avon the anti-hero would chase Servalan across the universe each week, dispatching numerous creatures and henchmen at no small cost to his own life as he foiled her evil Federation plans, only to end up close up and personal with the perfect chance at the end of the episode; 'Kill her!, kill her!' King the merciless, urged. But no, he would always kiss her instead. Yuck! And how dare he kiss a girl who wasn't me!

I thought Servalan was the most evil woman in the universe. Then along came Margaret Thatcher.

I was tremendously saddened to hear of Paul Darrow's sudden death last week. Another part of my childhood gone. I couldn't believe he was 78 and felt even sadder to read of the terrible health issues he had suffered in his final years. Yet he had kept working right to the end, enjoying a new career as the sardonic voice of Jack FM, later Union Jack FM radio, triumphantly. 'Playing what WE want!' to the next generation of fans.

I have just been reading Mr Darrow's autobiography 'You're him aren't you?' which is an absolute delight. Almost a performance, rather than a book, where he is aware of his reader and their intelligence at every step, with frequent asides, just for us. This gives the book a three dimensional aspect a bit like when the painter Lowry included figures looking into the picture as well or Turner added that unexpected red lifebuoy into the foreground. I can't believe this tome seems to have escaped rave reviews with its sharp but witty insights, its marvellous theatrical insider stories and its very honest observations of the double-edged (not to mention extremely fickle) sword of fame. On being introduced to Liberace as a young actor, Paul received the sage advice 'Never forget your fans.' And he never did, remaining grateful for them for the rest of his career.

Unfortunately once the era of the avuncular smurf-like BBC producer (often ex-WWII military) who was happy to take a risk on a sci-fi series they knew little about, because they knew enough to know the kids liked that sort of thing passed, it fell to the shiny-suited bean counters of the 90s who refused to take any risks to make commissioning decisions. This spelled the end for many exciting new series, or even the resurrection of the original in years to come, the notable exception being Dr Who.

Blake's 7 was a ground breaker in many ways. It was the first time the bad guys were allowed to win, the first time heroes were allowed to be killed off, not least Blake himself, the first time so many principal cast members were replaced and yet the series still enjoyed viewing figures of over 10m per episode, and even benefited from regular injection of new cast blood. It was also a very sexy series full of stunning space outfits, much though things never seemed to go beyond a passionate kiss.

Moreover it made the telling point that a humanitarian (Blake) can end up unintentionally killing a lot more people through being soft (ie letting the bad guys live) than Avon did through being a killer (when he wasn't kissing Servalan that is).

Blake's 7 was the brainchild of Terry Nation who had also played a pivotal part in Dr Who and wanted to experiment more with the Sci Fi genre. America had Star Trek and Star Wars after all. Why shouldn't Britain have Blake's 7? And not filled with goody two shoes either.

Paul goes into an entertaining commentary on each episode, later detailing his increasingly frustrated efforts to resurrect the series, hampered by Terry Nation's premature death, and subsequently the bean counters who refused to take risks. Meantime as everyone grew older and the chances of resurrection grew slimmer, he penned several Blake's 7 novels and created radio plays based on the series, aided by enlightened company, Big Finish Productions, who decided to capture the audio play market.

But let not the scores of real life plays and TV series he appeared in both pre and post Blake's 7 be forgotten, not least Dicken's Dombey and Son. Then there was the surprising career highlight for Paul of playing Elvis Presley onstage, including singing his hits, for which he received many and extraordinary reviews.

Paul comes across as a dream dinner companion. Entertaining, honest, empathetic, wickedly funny, innovative, flirty, self-deprecating, but nobody's fool. From his first days at school we see the beginnings of an individual who thinks outside the box and who is not afraid to break the rules. However he is gentlemanly enough to do no more than subtly allude to the many conquests he must have enjoyed, almost inevitable in his line of work, even if he did manage to politely dodge the young fans at stage doors begging to have Avon's babies! Fellow actress Janet Lees Price was his wife and rock of 48 years, until her death in 2012.

Interestingly Paul's agent retained him 'just in case Jeremy Brett turned down a part.' Sadly Jeremy Brett never did. Much as I also love Jeremy Brett, and consider him the definitive screen Holmes, I would have been fascinated to see Paul Darrow as Sherlock Holmes. I think he would have brought his own brand of enigmatic menace to the role. Then again, he would also have made a sublime Dr Who, had he not been too well known as Avon. Starring roles can rule out so much and that is their tragedy. Every actor yearns for one, but conversely not to be typecast, even though like true love, it seldom happens twice in a lifetime. Very few actors can jump from one starring role to the next (or have the good fortune to) without getting snagged and then pigeonholed. The likes of John Thaw and Judi Dench somehow managing to be the exception to the rule.

So to sum up, all actors really want is to be loved and remembered according to Paul, and he goes on various witty flights of fancy musing how he might be remembered after his death. Well Paul, with this fan you got both. Thanks for making my childhood that bit more tolerable.