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by John Helmer, Moscow 

Mistakes are what we are taught to make. Recognizing and correcting them are what we learn on our own. Repeating mistakes after recognizing them for what they are – that’s what a dunce does.

In this most intimate of memoirs, John Helmer tells the story of his life, his mistakes and misfortunes. In the retelling of his sex life, his political defeats, his financial losses, and more besides, the reader is invited to laugh and then to pass the severest of judgements. But can they match what Helmer reveals has been tried or done to him already?   

From Castle Duns in Scotland to Stavros Beach in Crete and to the White House Cabinet Room in Washington,  the boy who insisted on growing up as fast as he could, learned to reject five-pound notes for birthday presents, then $800,000 business bribes; discovered the ancient Indian arts of sex anticipating the modern neurology of orgasm; applied the lie-detector trick of uncovering politicians’ foreheads to know when they are lying; and spat out the faking of wine fraudsters for the pleasures instead of typsication.  

Top: left, Castle Duns, near Edinburgh, Scotland; right, Stavros Beach, near Chania, Crete.
Bottom: President Jimmy Carter presiding at a Cabinet Room meeting, 1978

This is Peter Pan in reverse — the tall man’s repudiation of the small boy with wings who has decided in this book not to forget the tragedies he has seen, and to remember and bring back to life all the adults Peter Pan said he had killed.

After his wars of religion, Helmer reports that the first fascist in history was God; the churchmen’s hell was the first Reich.  His family lost its war of the Polish succession; he won his first war of independence; it’s been his Thirty Years’ War ever since. To fight these wars he learned his own government was plotting to kill him. A state, he explains in this book, which decides it has no duty to defend or protect its citizens is no state at all. It’s either a subject in someone else’s empire or its forces are nothing but mercenaries and gangsters.

Did the author turn into a monster, a nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a brute  just the same, without a heart? Is that his biggest mistake of all?  

From the peaks of your coat lapels to the soles of your shoes, this album-sized book will also serve as a dress guide from your bed to your grave, and then over – if you believe there’s a fighting chance there’s more to life than this book reveals.

Excerpts – Chapter 1, Dunce

In 1995 I was publicly accused of being a spy; allegedly, I was the third most important spy the Soviet Union had been running in the United States.

This was a lie quickly disproved and dismissed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency which announced shortly afterwards that they had caught the first and second most important of the Soviet spies; they had been high-ranking officials of the FBI and CIA.

The one about me had been the invention of a Russian sacked by the KGB, the Soviet security and foreign intelligence agency, for faking his reports in an alcoholic stupor. He was repeating them in order to get a book contract with a New York publisher and earn admission to the US.

The newspapers which reported the allegation admitted their mistake; retracted and apologised in print; and paid the lawyers’ bills.

But when you have been publicly accused of being a spy, never mind that you were not, the allure of the falsehood never quite goes away. It keeps sticking to a name and reputation, like mud to boots or guilt by association. This is the allure of what is kept secret glimpsed through a keyhole – obscure, camouflaged, forbidden. In the libel courts, the rule is that no matter how mistaken the allegation may be, so long as it is reiterated often enough in print, the notoriety will eventually defeat the truth by force of repetition.

This is no laughing matter. Nor can the remedy be confession.

Bear in mind that in his narration a suspected spy can be expected to stick to his legend; that’s the fabricated story of his life which misrepresents the truth of what he really was, where he came from, what he aimed to achieve, and with what means and results. The mistake is to believe the confession of a spy. I confess I wasn’t one.

Chapter 2, Sex

The loss of my virginity happened on a narrow bed, in small dark room in a middle-class section of Melbourne, Australia, on a street called, with local pretentiousness, Linlithgow Avenue. The dog-leg street running up a steep hill was a tight squeeze for a Morris Minor and a bicycle to pass each other. It was much too narrow to warrant the title avenue. The bed was wide enough for a boy of eleven years old and a girl of twenty.

Linlithgow – a castle one hundred kilometres from Duns Castle with Edinburgh in between – was the birthplace of Mary Stuart, the ill-fated Queen of Scots who was imprisoned, tortured, then murdered by Queen Elizabeth I of England. Starting with the street where I lived, everything against which I rebelled in my schooldays was associated with Scotland – the country, history, and religion imposed on me by the English winners of that earlier fight for power.

That’s because the school to which I was sent was an Anglo-Scottish one, headed by a combination of an English headmaster and a Scots chaplain. The headmaster had added to his commonplace surname Smith the hyphenated extra of Selby. The chaplain claimed he had come uncommonly from Clan Fraser; whether he meant the Lowland or the Highland clan Fraser he wasn’t asked and never volunteered. I preferred the origin of his name in France where it meant strawberry. That was the colour his face went when as chaplain he was obliged to present me, an infidel as he knew, with the annual Dux in Scripture prize. For me it was nothing but a reward for my photographic memory and indifference to the biblical texts it was ordered by the chaplain to record, then regurgitate.

Regurgitation ought to be honoured among people who blow bagpipes to celebrate the serving at the dinner table of the national regurgitation – a sheep’s stomach lining filled with minced offal and porridge. I took the book prize; I’ve refused to eat haggis.

Chapter 3, Religion

Over the meat dish at dinner in Moscow with Patriarch Alexei II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, I asked him whether, since the end of the Soviet Union had allowed the recruitment of new priests and the creation of new seminaries to educate them, he had formed a view of Pascal’s Wager. A kindly faced, quietly spoken man, Alexei had been trained by his father, also a priest, and then in seminaries in Leningrad. He was unable to answer the question; Pascal was unfamiliar to him. Atheism equally so, it seemed.

Theologically speaking, Alexei had been poorly educated. But he was no ignoramus, no fool. What sense can be made of the hocus-pocus with which Pascal had struggled for his short and painful life, and which the Roman Catholic Church has reinterpreted? If nonsense after all, then it was wise on the Patriarch’s part to ignore it.

What on earth can Pascal have meant by asking: “is it probable that probability gives assurance?” What can be understood in his answer: “I fear nothing; I hope for nothing. It is not so with the bishops… They have given a ridiculous explanation of certitude; for, after having established that all their ways are sure, they have no longer called that sure which leads to heaven without danger of not arriving there by it, but that which leads there without danger of going out of that road.”

The one certainty in this prattle is Pascal’s attack on the churchmen. And once the wager is taken against them, God may remain but only on condition of strict privacy and in the lining of a coat. There, if God is a secret not to be revealed, there is no religion whatsoever.

And so, if the future is unknown, and choice cannot be reached by reasoning out the probabilities, when success and failure, right and wrong, truth and falsehood may lie ahead, either rightwards or leftwards, and if it’s impossible to decide which way to choose, it’s quite rational in Pascal’s terms to toss coins, heads or tails. What is rational then, and psychologically necessary for the uncertainty lying ahead, is that having tossed, chosen, and acted, you should never look back.

I also apply the rule by never walking underneath a ladder, kissing across a threshold,  or crossing the path of a black cat. When the New Year is being rung in, I burn a little piece of paper on which I’ve inscribed my wish for the new year, drop it in flames into my champagne glass, and quaff the lot.

Chapter 7, Fatherhood

There are two pieces of fatherhood which ought to be joined seamlessly. The part of the father to the son, and the part of the son to the father, as if on either side of the same coin. But if they aren’t joined this way and cast as opposites – if they are coins of an altogether different currency, if the fatherhood can’t be fixed with the childhood, what terrible things ensue.

If one has never been a boy, it’s quite impossible to be the father of three boys, as I am.

The circumstances of my rejection of boyhood and my commitment to adulthood from the age of four are common – the constant risk of death by asthmatic pneumonia, a violent father threatening to send me to an orphanage (boarding school), and a hateful school that amounted to the same thing, are too common to be worth elaborating on. The proof in my case is in my memory, and in the photographs of the child in his greatcoat, at adult stance, and the terrible expression on his face.

It wasn’t until after my beard had grown prematurely grey that I understood that the land of lost content and the lost boys, created in the books of the men whose writing most affected me were speaking of a boyhood they hadn’t had and never known; I mean A.E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. Reading, re-reading, and re-reading them as I do – and must for this chapter – I sob as a man, I blub like a boy.

But neither of them was ever a father, and in their lifetimes of writing, neither of them cared to remember in print the fathers they had had. “Writing about a boy”, Barrie once told the seven-year old Michael Llewelyn Davies, “is the next best thing to being one.” When Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the boy’s mother, asked Barrie if he had children, he replied: “One or two. No, I exaggerate. Just one”.

“A boy?” she asked.

“A dog.”

“I see. And that makes you an authority?”

“Boys and dogs have a lot in common, only dogs have a better sense of humour”. Barrie wasn’t joking.

Nor was Michael when he told Barrie “we’re both boys.”

“You speak for yourself”, Barrie said.

“You’re a boy too.”

“I am what’s commonly known as a grown-up.”

“You’re not common,” Michael replied, “and you’re definitely not grown up. You’re old, but you’re not grown up. You’re, you’re one of us.”

In his head, the boy in my picture was reversing this idea radically. He was young, but he was trying to grow up and escape the company of children and parents as quickly as he could manage. Expulsion from the family home to an orphanage as my father used to threaten was fearful, not because orphans were obliged to live without fathers and mothers, but because orphanages were filled with boys whom I was trying to escape as much as my parents.

Chapter 9, Dancing

When the feet are planted immovably and the body is shaken, a dog is expelling the fleas from his coat. A man is not dancing.

In time I learned to dance alone to drive sadness away – to remember, to appeal to ghosts whose lips were no longer red, I learned the dance that starts with the right foot pointed forward; goes round in a simple melody on a string and drum; accelerates rounder and rounder as the pitch of the instruments rises; and then in the instant before gravity or vertigo would topple me, stops in a crashing chord.

This is the chaconne. The Spanish claim to have learned it in the fifteenth century when they were slaughtering their way through the Inca empire of South America. They held their fire long enough to listen and watch as the Inca men danced to entertain their women. When the Jesuit priests followed to convert the survivors and dragoon them into the churches they built, they encouraged the same dance music to be played after they added a Christian superscript. As they tapped their feet, swayed their hips from side to side, and clapped their hands, if the natives were imagining the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost doing the chaconne in unison, the Jesuits didn’t mind because they didn’t know.

This is a dance of the deepest revenge that is possible – the dance of remembering over the murder of what they, I mean we were when we were alive.

Chapter 11, Taste

On those lasts, and for as long as my surplus money held out, Lobb made two more pairs of shoes and one pair of ankle boots. They were unfitted for the snow and slush of Moscow’s winter streets; my money had also run out by then. But out of curiosity one day I called into the shop to say I wanted to order a replacement for the original worn-out pair. The old leather sampler was no longer there to be consulted, but I was told that such leather had become unavailable for shoes in London.

“Do you still have my lasts?” I asked.

“Oh, no sir,” came the reply. “The basement storeroom has been overflowing, so if you don’t order a new pair within five years we have to get rid of the lasts. Of course, we keep some lasts for their historical value, like the Duke of Windsor, Winston Churchill, and Kim Philby.”

That greatest of English spies against the British government had moved to Moscow in 1963, and had probably run into the same trouble as I was having – I mean, the vulnerability of Lobb’s leathers and sewings to the salted pavements and streets. It was nonetheless reassuring to learn that Lobb had remained indifferent to Philby’s deeds in their decision to keep for posterity the replicas of his feet.

I don’t know if, after he had died in Moscow in 1988, Philby was buried with his Lobb shoes on. I do know that nothing I had done at that point had been so infamous – not even the report in the London Times that I too had been a KGB spy – had saved my taste in shoes from being preserved in wood.

Undaunted, I tried to capitalise by asking if the firm had considered, or would consider making galoshes in a style and shape to suit the Russian conditions. “No sir”, came the unjudgemental reply. Nowadays, however, it has turned out that from Paris the Hermès group headquarters has decided to launch “the John Lobb rubber overshoe designed specifically to provide protection from all external elements and water resistance for the delicate sole and upper….designed to look like a shoe with a toe cap. Hand-crafted for uncomparable quality.”

Lobb of London was mistaken; I have been proved right. Without remembrance of either Philby or me, one hundred and ten pounds will now buy a pair of “uncomparable” quality. Exactly how the rubber can have been hand-crafted I don’t know. When asked recently, the London shop acknowledges this is an error, adding the mistake must have been made elsewhere in the firm, probably in Paris.

Chapter 12, End for the time being

Tania didn’t like to hear me play Dido’s Lament. Tanichka, I used to say, this is no more than a story to end an opera the way operas often end on stage, before the curtain comes down. But Tania thought it was an invitation to a death she didn’t want to contemplate. If she heard Dido’s Lament playing on the radio, she would turn around and leave the room.

I cannot look into the room whence Tania has been led now. In the room in which she has left me there is no music to cheer me, no curtain to close upon my grief, no light for the longing I have to see her face again.

I remember everything. I forget nothing; I lament.

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