The End Is Nigh

You’ll have heard that there is a “Mayan Prophecy” that the end of the world is imminent, but I bet you haven’t heard any circumstantial details. Where was this prophecy written? Some stone inscription? An ancient partchment? Who discovered it? Can you see it in a museum?

I was trained to do job interviews, and there was always the possibility that someone might not be entirely honest, so there was a simple technique to expose deceit: you asked for more and more details. It’s very easy to remember minor details if you’re telling the truth, but difficult to invent them spontaneously but consistently when lying. I’m sure the police use the same sort of thing when questioning suspects.

The absence of detail about the “Mayan Prophecy” idea is a pretty good guide to its being fake, simply an internet fiction. In fact, it’s one of those rolling stories which mutates as it spreads, because, originally, it was a “Sumerian Prophecy” that the world was to end in 2003. It didn’t.

The Sumerian notion originated outside the internet in the books of Zecharia Sitchin, who made his own “translations” of real Mesopotamian inscriptions, readings which, to put it politely, were not consistent with what all other scholars get from them.

Mayan digits

Mayan digits

Once the world didn’t end (again) in 2003, some of the elements of the story were added to a new concept, that the world would end when the Mayan calendar ran out of digits. You know how children, newly introduced to numbers, sometimes go through a phase of thinking that there must be a “biggest number”? But they soon learn that you can always add one to any number. The Mayan calendar has no “biggest number” either.

The Mayans and related cultures used a “Long Count” system, which was simply the number of days since the beginning of time, a day which we call the 11th of August, 3114 BC. The earliest actual date using this system (found so far) is inscribed on a stone in Chiapas, Mexico, and denotes 1,124,333 days after the Creation. That’s 6th December 36 BC.

It’s striking that these ancient peoples were quite able to calculate numbers in the millions. They had their own notation, different to our modern one (which originated in India) and they counted in 20s, not 10s. A Mayan “digit” is a simple glyph which uses a dot to signify 1 and a bar to signify 5. Three bars and two dots is therefore 3*5 + 2*1 or 17. Today, a Mayan number is usually represented with the digits in decimal and periods between them, such as, which would be 12*20*20*20 + 17*20*20 + 3*20 + 2.

(Long Count numbers are actually slightly different to ordinary numbers. The third digit from the right rolls over at 18, not 20; probably because 17.19.19 plus one is 360 days, or close to a year.)

The next “round number” in Long Count dates is or 21st December 2012. And the day after that is and the day after is, and so on and so on, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The Mayans didn’t think that time was going to end at any particular string of digits, although they did have the general concept of cycles of time and history, and they probably had a bit of a party when a lot of digits flipped over.

Me, I’m most excitedly waiting for the instant when the date changes from to which will be midnight on Thursday, 12th October 4772. Let’s party like it’s 1999.


The Whole of the Law

Do What Thou WiltI first met Aleister Crowley in Cairo in 1904, and was aware from the beginning that he was a charlatan and a fraudster. It wasn’t that I was unusually perceptive: knowing that I had no belief in the esoteric, Crowley was quite frank with me about what he was up to. His recent experiences with the Golden Dawn and its more gullible members had taught him that people could be made to believe almost anything if it was suitably obscure and portentious. “I’ve been trying to get Rose to do the mediumship business, but oh dear, old chap, she’s just hoplessly unconvincing. I think I’ll just have to make the contact with the other side myself.” He winked at that point.

Sure enough, a few days later, he began to write down The Book of the Law, as dictated by an entity called Aiwass, “the minister of Horus”. It only took three sessions to complete, an hour at a time on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and Crowley joined me each afternoon at a local cafe to smoke cigars and cheerfully discuss progress. (Or rather, I smoked cigars. He had a disgusting hookah pipe.) He had hit on the idea, or rather, received it from Aiwass, that “do what thou wilt” would be a dammned good code of living.

I had no contact with Crowley for some years afterwards, although I would often see the hysterical and salacious reports in the papers of his antics under “do what thou wilt”. He divorced Rose, but was never without a willing “priestess” and disciples to assist him, and keep his name in the news.

We actually met next in America after the outbreak of the First World War, since at the time we were both employed by Britain’s Secret Service Bureau (later to be known as MI6, and in modern times, the Secret Intelligence Service). While I was a straightforward spy (if there can be such a thing) in the Irish-American community, reporting on anti-British activists, Crowley, naturally, was something much more grandiose and complicated. His cover was that he was a German propaganda writer and proponent of Irish independence, and he wrote obstensibly pro-German articles for The Fatherland and The International which were actually intended to irritate and alienate the American public from the German cause.

Crowley always claimed that it was his work as a double agent which caused the Germans to sink the American liner Lusitania, an act which finally brought the United States into the war, but he was utterly untrustworthy on all matters of autobiography. Admittedly, the German authorties really did believe that the Lusitania was armed and carrying munitions, but whether they got that from Aleister Crowley is unproven, to say the least.

I only visited Crowley once after the war, at his “Abbey” to his new religion in Sicily. As far as I was concerned, it was merely a scenic and picturesque place for a holiday, although the antics of Crowley and his crew were certainly continually entertaining, and the plentiful supply of sex and drugs an added advantage. Unfortunately, one Loveday, another guest, became ill and died from a fever contracted from drinking at a foetid spring (in direct disregard of Crowley’s warnings about the unhealthiness of it). His unpleasant wife returned to London and sold her story to the tabloids, claiming that her husband’s death was a direct result of drinking blood from a sacrifice in a debauched ceremony.

I departed at that point, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the press hounding of Crowley intensified, and journalistic invasions of our holiday home would occur. In fact, Mussolini kicked him out of the country soon after, and he returned to Britain, but we never met again. My colleague in MI6, Ian Fleming, tried to get Crowley back into the Service during the Second World War, with some crackpot scheme of peddling fake horoscopes to the Nazi inner circle, but our bosses wouldn’t go for it. Whatever his undoubted talents at deception, Crowley was just too hot for them.

I was sure that his excesses would kill him sooner rather than later, but he actually lived to the age of 72, dying peacefully in 1947. Or, as he would have claimed, I expect, with a sardonic smile “passed over to the spirit world”.


Holmes & WatsonThe late 1800s were, in some ways, a more innocent time than today. Arthur Conan Doyle could publish stories of two chaps living together, one of them notoriously with little regard for women, without the slightest suggestion that the two might have been more than friends.

Watson certainly did have an eye for the ladies, and in about 1888 married Mary Morstan, heroine of The Sign of Four. There is some speculation that he may have been married previously, but that seems to be based on one specific chronology of the published stories, which may or may not be accurate.

But his marriage to Mary is unquestionable; and tragic: she died within a few years, during the time when Holmes was missing, presumed dead, after having fallen off the Reichenbach Falls in his death struggle with Moriarty. After Holmes astonishes Watson by his return in The Empty House, Watson notes “in some manner he had learned of my own sad bereavement”.

During his seven-year absence, Holmes wandered the world, studying may things, including Eastern martial arts, and certain sciences of poisons. It was the latter subject that raised a suspicion in my mind.

At the time of Watson’s marriage to Mary, Holmes accepted it with less than good grace. “I really cannot congratulate you” and “the only selfish action that I can recall in our association”. Quite camply jealous, in fact. And there were other occasions when the feelings that Holmes had for Watson look more like love than comradeship, such as the time when he was afraid that Watson had been seriously wounded in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs.

Well, enough beating about the bush. I think that Holmes returned secretly to England some time after his escape from death at the Reichenbach Falls, and poisoned Mary Watson, his rival in love. Even though her husband was an experienced doctor, he was duped by the symptoms caused by the secret poison recipe, and always believed that her death was from natural causes. It was the perfect crime.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyA recent xkcd cartoon [] described (in the tooltip) music stores as “just rooms where CDs are set out to age before they’re thrown away”. Tart, and not yet entirely accurate, but you can see things going that way.

For myself, I’ll occasionally browse the increasingly large bargain bins, where well-aged CDs and DVDs decay a little more, and a couple of weeks ago, bought the BBC’s original dramatisations of John le CarrĂ©’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, starring Alec Guinness. Probably, finding the set for sale was not entirely an accident, given the release of the Holywood film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at that time.

The first series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, was screened in 1979, when I would have been, um, young; but I did remember it. I never got round to seeing the modern film, through lack of enthusiasm. I’ve always said that the Holywood system suffers from reverse Midas syndrome: everything they touch turns to shit. Apart from anything else, the BBC version’s seven 50-minute episodes allowed for a pace and depth that couldn’t be achieved in a shorter film.

(The DVD transfer is quite poor though. It looks as though it was recorded from a domestic VHS player.)

The story in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based loosely on the history of Kim Philby, a Soviet spy within MI6, although the idea of a “mole” at the very highest levels of British Intelligence may be more about MI5. (“MI6”, actually the Secret Intelligence Service, is responsible for overseas intelligence. “MI5”, the Security Service, looks after intelligence and counter-intelligence on UK territory. Le CarrĂ©’s “Circus” is the headquarters of SIS/MI6.).

When Philby had been unmasked and ousted from MI6, it had not been feasible to bring him to court for lack of explicit evidence. He moved to Beirut and worked as a journalist for several years, until a Soviet defector brought new information to MI5. MI5 decided to send an officer to Beirut to interview Philby, hoping to use the new revelations to bully him into a wider confession. But, and here is the critical point, Philby appeared to know that someone sent by London was coming to see him.

Although he remained in Beirut and met the officer, when the matter of obtaining a signed statement was raised, Philby disappeared. Six months later, the Soviet Union announced that he had been given citizenship. He spent the rest of his life (miserably) in Moscow.

Had Philby been tipped off? If so, by whom? Just like the book, there was a narrow pool of suspects. The only people at MI5 who had known in advance of the approach to Philby were the Director-General, Roger Hollis; his deputy, Graham Mitchell; Director of ‘D’ branch (counter espionage), Malcolm Cumming; Cumming’s subordinate, head of D1, Arthur Martin; and finally, Martin’s secretary. (The Director-General of MI6, Dick White, also knew, as did (obviously!) the officer sent to talk to Philby, Nicholas Elliott of MI6.)

The disappearance of Philby set off a full-scale mole hunt at MI5, but the issue was never resolved. The Deputy Director, Graham Mitchell, was put under surveilliance and observed to behave strangely on occasion, but there was no conclusive evidence one way or the other. In a notorious 1987 book, Spycatcher, subject of an unsuccessful attempt at suppression by the British government, the author, Peter Wright, claimed that the Director-General himself, Sir Roger Hollis, was the Soviet “mole”. (Hollis had died in 1973).

A contrary point of view was presented in another book of the period, also facing Government hurdles before publication. The author of this one, Nigel West (known to use the cover identity of Rupert Allason, former MP) in the book M.I.5. 1945-72, A Matter of Trust, argued that Hollis was innocent, and that any suspicion was because of diabolical Soviet plotting to incriminate him and shield the real spy.

But the identity of the “real spy”, if there was one, has never emerged. No tidy endings, not like fiction.

Clarion Call

Call to City: Flee That Flood

That was the headline of a newspaper article that alerted social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues to the beliefs of a group in Chicago led by Marion Keech. Keech claimed to be in receipt of messages from the planet Clarion, manifested in the form of “automatic writing” when she was in a trance. The wise people of Clarion were warning Earth that our planet was about to be destroyed, by dawn on 21st December 1955.

Being fairly sure that the Earth would not be destroyed on that date, Festinger took the opportunity to investigate the group and its beliefs, with particular interest in what would happen to their belief system after the deadline. The research, including direct infiltration into Keech’s group, was written up later as a popular book, When Prophecy Fails (by Festinger, Rieken and Schachter).

alienI suppose that title gives away the outcome. The Earth did indeed survive, and the believers had to cope with the failure of the prophecy. Of course, it wasn’t the first or last such failure. I’m particularly fond of the “Great Disappointment” of 1844. The Baptist preacher and prophet Wiliam Miller had calculated, though detailed and arcane analysis of the Bible, the date of the Second Coming of Jesus as some time during the Jewish year 5604. When that year passed without obvious incident, on the Western date of 21st March 1844, Miller returned to his calculations and proposed the use of a different Hebrew calendar, which ended the year on 18th April. Again, nothing happened.

Further revisions by Miller and his followers pushed the date forward, but always, reality intervened. Still, perhaps somewhat bizarrely, there remained a large number of true believers, and churches descended from Miller’s organization remain in existence today.

The actual planet Clarion also had a history of revision and recession. It was mentioned first by one Truman Bethurum, who claimed in 1953 that he had met the crew of a spacecraft from the planet, led by the beautiful Captain Aura Rhanes. In Bethurum’s first book on the encounter, he wrote that Captain Rhanes had told him that Clarion orbited in such a way that it was always out of sight behind the Moon. On being told that such a path was astromically impossible, he changed his story to say that it was always behind the Sun. Later still, when it was proven that no such planet existed, he wrote that Captain Rhanes must have meant that Clarion was in another solar system…

The group who believed Marion Keech’s messages from Clarion expected, like the members of Heaven’s Gate in 1997, to be rescued by flying saucer before the Earth was destroyed. However, unlike the later cult, the Clarion believers survived to deal with their disappointment. Or was it relief? They divested themselves of all metal objects (tabloids usually mention that this included underwired bras), and waited together for midnight, when they would all be transported away before the cataclysm at dawn. On the stroke of midnight, nothing happened. It continued to happen for several hours: the entire group sat together in stunned and appalled silence.

Then, at 4am, Marion Keech felt herself going into a trance, and another message arrived. Earth had been spared. The Greater Powers had felt sympathy for the true believers and had decided not to demolish the planet.