In 1936 Vladimir Pozner, a young immigrant writer with left-wing views, was trawling the underground of the Russian community in Paris for information on a dead Baron.
The people he talked with had been driven out of their homeland twenty years before by the Bolshevik revolution. It was a world of former Colonels driving taxi-cabs; aristocrats in genteel poverty scratching for rent; Russian language newspapers on cheap paper predicting the fall of Communism any day now; and tea rooms in which the clock had stopped in 1917.
Pozner had no sympathy for these shards of old Russia embedded in the French capital. He was researching the biography of a General from the Civil War. The best place to find information was among the Russian exiles still mentally fighting the Bolsheviks.
“The taxi drivers and workers in the automobile factories made their way right across Paris to read the memoirs of their former leaders in the Russian Library,” he wrote. “They surrounded the page with exclamation marks and comments such as ‘Traitor!’ ‘Jew!’ ‘Coward!’ Everything that might be read between the lines of these books was shown up here, pencilled in, rubbed out, and scrawled in again by subordinates bursting with retrospective rage.”
My book about the crazy gang of foreign mercenaries who fought for Ethiopia in the 1930s went to the printers last week. It has a shiny new cover in gold and marble grey, and should be in the shops some time this summer.
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in late 1935 outraged the world. Communists saw it as proof of Fascist barbarism, liberals as outdated imperialism; even the empire builders in London and Paris were reluctant to welcome Mussolini into their club.
It was a war between far-right modernity and patriarchal traditionalism. The Italians had airplanes, high explosive, and mustard gas. The Ethiopians preferred swords and spears. Emperor Haile Selassie needed expert foreign help. What he got was a crazy gang of mercenaries who could barely shoot straight and leaned further to the right than Mussolini.
Lost Lions of Judah tells the whole colourful, blood-stained story.
When you hit the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1992 you stayed at the Metechi Palace Hotel. Everyone did.
You got a taxi from the airport. It cost $5 and the driver spent more time negotiating bribes with the roadblocks manned by young men with AK-47s and leather jackets than he did at the wheel.
The city was a wreck, smoke-black from the recent fighting. Out the taxi window you saw the shops embracing free enterprise, selling Malaysian exercise books, Korean playing cards, fake Camel cigarettes, leather jackets from Turkey. The bookshops that sold only Soviet engineering texts and copies of the twelve century Georgian epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that everyone in the country already owned. The Stalinist-style parliament building, half destroyed in the fighting, its supporting columns eaten away by RPG rounds. The street vendors selling orthodox icons, nesting dolls, glassware, ornamental daggers, the family silver.
Crazy Joe Gallo got a bullet in the head in April of 1972. I wrote a post about it here. He was celebrating his birthday in the early hours at Umberto’s Clam House when gunmen came in through the back door and started blasting.
Joe overturned the table and made it outside but died in the street. It was the end of the Gallo brother’s dream of forming their own Mafia family.
But back in the 1950s that dream was still alive. Joe, elder brother Larry (the brains of the outfit), and younger bother Albert (‘Kid Blast’) were up and coming foot soldiers in the Colombo crime family. They ran their own corner of Brooklyn for the family, collecting debts and protection money, and hustling any opportunities that came their way.
The three brothers were the Mafia warlords of their block. They had money, guns … and a real life lion in the basement. And a little person club-owning friend to walk him through the Brooklyn streets.
In Franco’s International Brigades I mentioned a mysterious Cuban called Miguel Ferreras who fought for both Franco and Hitler then married into the Guinness family and became stepfather to a man immortalised in The Beatles’ song A Day in the Life. Quite a ride.
Now Paul Howard’s biography I Read the News Today, Oh Boy shines more light on Ferrera’s strange life and times through his relationship with stepson Tara Browne. Howard’s book is a great read that covers everything from swinging sixties London to Paris’ gay underworld. Definitely worth buying.
Ferrera’s stepson was a gilded youth born into money, privilege, and bohemia in Ireland. His mother was brewing heiress Oonagh Guinness. Browne was precociously advanced, quitting smoking at the age of eleven, and never getting more than a few year’s schooling. He got his own kind of education from his mother’s artistic friends.
In 1957 Oonagh married Cuban fashion designer Miguel Ferrera in New York. Oonagh had two ex-husbands and Ferrera quickly ditched his first wife (who’d given him an American passport and a few kids) when all that Guinness money walked into his showroom. Tara hated his new stepfather and so did most of Oonagh’s friends who considered Ferreras rude, provincial, and untalented as a designer. They didn’t know the half of it.
Here’s the second guest post from Chris Hennemeyer, an expert in contemporary Africa. He’s spent more years than he cares to remember working international aid and development across the subcontinent. His first post described dealing with rebels in Liberia; in this article he guides us through the corruption and danger of Nigeria’s oil region.
In a scene right out of the old mercenary movie The Dogs of War the parting words from the immigration officials who had, in their phraseology, “intercepted” me on the highway and determined I was working illegally in Nigeria, are “Welcome to Bayelsa!”
After four sweaty hours of detention and interrogation, I am finally released, with fraternal claps on the back and proclamations of eternal friendship, to enjoy the splendours of the state capital, Yenagoa.
Sitting like a blood clot right in the economic heart of Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy, awash with the source of its massive petroleum wealth, one would think Bayelsa state would have something to distinguish it other than schizophrenic immigration personnel. And one would be right, but for all the wrong reasons.
On 3 March 1977 four men walked into an office block in the business district of central Tokyo and took hostages. They had a rifle, a pistol, and a Japanese ceremonial sword.
It all began at 16:30. The block was home to the headquarters of Keidanren (the Japanese Federation of Economic Organizations), mouthpiece of Japan’s biggest corporations. The men arrived in the foyer and asked to see Toshiwo Doko, 80-year-old head of the Federation. They were politely told he was on a business trip in Osaka.
The men produced their weapons and fired three shots into the ceiling then headed up to a seventh floor office where they took twelve people hostage, including the Federation’s managing director.
As riot police sealed off the building, the leader of the hostage takers, 42-year-old Shūsuke Nomura, issued communiques attacking the corruption and business plutocracy he claimed ruled modern Japan. It all sounded left-wing until Nomura starting condemning the post-WW2 Yalta and Potsdam conferences. He accused America and other nations of having deliberately crippled Japan to prevent it reclaiming its former imperial glory.
The police realised they were dealing with right-wing terrorists.