Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Life Through New Windows And a Nostalgic Return to Anchovy and Claptrap

As I have reported elsewhere, on a social networking site near you (probably), my peripatetic lifestyle means I have historically owned two PCs. Lovely towers, one in each major location, built with precision and care by a great friend who knows about such things. Installed with user friendly, 'I can handle anything you care to throw at me', Windows XP.

For half a dozen years, and more (in one case), we have explored strange new worlds of horror, witchcraft, the paranormal in its many incarnations. We have discovered Twitter and other social media, the wonders of itunes and YouTube. And, most importantly, we have resisted every persuasion to upgrade. Windows 7, Vista, all have been waved off with a knowing wink and a 'they'll be back'. Even that young upstart, Windows 8, has been given the brush off. On more than one occasion.

Until now.

For some time, the older of the two PCs - a sort of elderly, wise statesman who always booted up efficiently, properly and never crashed - has developed a PC version of arthritis. Possibly even osteoporosis. Creaking, ailing, memory almost full. Even tweaking, uninstalling redundant programs and all the other remedial treatments have been insufficient. I had to acknowledge my old friend was slipping into the winter of its life. Coupled with Microsoft ceasing support of XP from April this year, a decision had to be made.

Life support will soon have to be switched off. I will have to let the dear old workhorse cross the rainbow bridge of chips and microprocessors and join its kind in that great Motherboard of the virtual world.

So I now have my first laptop. Oh, I've used one before. Many times. My husband has a collection of them (don't ask). This one is deep purple (did you know I like heavy metal?), possesses 1TB (I'm reliably informed not to worry. This isn't tubercolosis. It's actually the memory of a small planet) and is installed with (cue hysterical screams and ominous organ music) WINDOWS 8.

 "Aaaargh", I hear you cry. "Run for the hills. Save yourself!"

Yep. Windows 8, with the infernal pop-ups that slide up even when you've specifically ordered your web browser to deny any of them access to you - no matter how much you allegedly need their wonderful offer. Not now, not ever. NEVER. I even uninstalled the program that was initiating them. So, up pops another one. And I can't even find THAT program!

Windows 8, with built in Nanny that smacks your wrists if you dare to try and install itunes (latest version), large files or anything that doesn't take its fancy today (such as Adobe Flash, when used with Firefox, and vital for YouTube). Come back tomorrow and things might be different. Don't hold your breath though.

Windows 8, with its uncanny ability to play hide and seek when you look for things that were perfectly obvious on good old XP.

Not that there aren't things to like about Windows 8. Honestly. And when I find them, I'll let you know. Of course, I'll have to write down where I found them because, with no instruction booklet, it's all a bit hit and miss.

"Go to the Microsoft Online help website," I hear (some of you) cry.

Yeah, right. This is Microsoft remember. The Help is less than helpful and is written in a language designed for people who don't need the help in the first place.

Ah well, progress was never designed to be easy, was it? And at least, after two days of trying, I now have itunes (albeit an earlier version). And I can watch YouTube (but only if I use Internet Explorer - other browsers ARE available, of course and I much prefer them, but never mind, eh?)

So, I remain a novice at Windows 8. Happy enough with Office 2013 though. I'm sure it has 101 gadgets that weren't on Office 2003 and I'm still trying to find the ones I actually use (almost there though). As with all technology, I won't let it beat me and I will insist it learns that it is there to serve me and not the other way around. I just keep pressing buttons 'til I beat it into submission and it finally gives up and lets me have the function I want.

As for nostalgia for the good old days of XP, I am also reminded of my very first foray into computers. It was 1989 (or thereabouts) and a couple of years ago, I wrote about my very first PC. Here's a reprise:

Ah those heady days!  OK, if you were born after 1990 you won’t know what on earth I’m on about but if you were born a little (well, let’s face it, quite a while) before then and you were writing anything more than the odd shopping list, you probably remember the revolutionary Amstrad 9512.

Yes, in the days when Lord Sugar was merely Mr Alan, this incredible, labour saving PCW (that’s Wordprocessor to you and I), launched onto the market to a hail of instantly discarded manual portables and Imperial office typewriters.

It came with a floppy disk drive (well, it didn’t have a hard disk so until you loaded that when you switched on, all you would get is a blank screen) and it had its own printer. This printer took daisywheels and you could buy different ones. So, if you were tired of looking at boring old Courier, you could buy a more interesting looking font – even an attractive joined-up writing one!

And oh the bliss of relegating the box of carbon paper to the back of the shelf ‘just in case’ and the rapidly hardening Tipp Ex to the waste bin.

The printer made a wonderful duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh, duh sound, except when it was drawing a header or footer line whereupon a noise like a rapid machine gun would set the house shaking. Only seven hours and twelve expensive ribbon cartridges later, your six hundred page manuscript was ready. Imagine that! And, if your by now throbbing head (and rapidly dwindling finances) could stand it, you could print off another copy! Wow, the days of saving your precious original in the freezer (it's the last thing to go if your house burns down) were over.

Then, of course, there was the magical spellchecker. Here was a complete novelty. Every time the Amstrad failed to recognise a word you had typed, it would highlight it and give you an alternative – or sometimes, if you were really lucky, more than one. 

The problem was that its dictionary was quaint to say the least. It was wonderful with medical terms (were doctors part of their market research focus group?) but when it came to common names, it hadn’t a clue. For ‘Anthony’, it offered ‘Anchovy’ and if you didn’t refuse, it would insert it anyway. Try and type ‘Cleopatra’ and it was sure you meant ‘Claptrap’ and, when you weren't looking, would sneak up and insert it. Every. Single. Time.

Yes, folks, presenting that well known tragedy by William Shakespeare: ‘Anchovy and Claptrap’.

Still, despite its shortcomings, I loved my Amstrad, we wrote six books together and numerous articles, a play and some short stories, until one sad day, I switched it on and nothing good happened. It had finally given up and surrendered to the inexorable march of time and the fully functioning full colour, versatile PC. I now have a quiet, unobtrusive laser printer but, you know, now and again I still hanker for the deafening racket of a fast-moving daisywheel…

So, there we have it. I shall learn to love my new Windows, and I'm already quite at home with my shiny new laptop.

If only I could rid myself of those damn pop ups...

Friday, 14 February 2014

40 Years on - The Real Exorcist

December 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the release of the film that still lingers in my mind as the most disturbing I have ever seen – The Exorcist. To me, the Blair Witch Project held no fear, and precious little suspense. The Amityville Horror, Halloween and a host of others over the years have provided me with a jolly good, but instantly forgettable, night’s entertainment.

But there was something about The Exorcist. Was it the pea green vomit? The swivelling head? (Yes, that did it for me). Maybe it was the incredible make up. And that voice. Made you shudder, didn’t it? Maybe the whole package. Certainly, judging by the queues down the street and around the block, at cinemas all over the country, we had never seen anything quite like it before. That is, those of us who were permitted by their local councils to see it. Some were so shocked, they banned it. So people just travelled somewhere else. I lived in Leeds, West Yorkshire, at the time. We were enlightened in Leeds. And we had the lengthy queues to prove it!

I didn’t manage to see it all the way through at that time. When the vomit projected, my (then) boyfriend was off, along with a couple of dozen others. I didn’t complain. I’d had my eyes shut for about a quarter of an hour (never told him though).

Still the film stayed with me. Yet, it would be another eight years till I actually watched it all the way through. On video, at home, during daylight hours, with my two cats. As long as they didn’t react, I figured I was OK. No demons were coming to get me. Crazy? Probably. As I said, there was something about The Exorcist. 

We were told it was based on a true story of demonic possession, involving a young boy. And that the truth was far worse than the film.

The reported truth involves the strange case of a boy of thirteen, known as ‘Roland Doe’ (one of many pseudonyms that have been used over the years, another being Robbie Mannheim), who hailed from Maryland. This formed the basis of the story which William Peter Blatty would write and which was adapted from his novel into the film starring Linda Blair as the possessed Regan.

Roland was taught to play with an Ouija board by his Spiritualist Aunt Harriet and, shortly after her death, in 1949, the family began to hear odd, scratching noises coming from the walls of their home. These even extended to Roland’s mattress. It seemed the family had a chronic infestation of mice.

But mice are not renowned for their physical strength, or ability (not to say inclination) to move bedroom furniture around. Yet this is precisely what happened. Then, objects started to fly through the air, with no apparent means of propulsion.

Strange phenomena didn’t just happen at home though. They seemed to follow Roland wherever he went. At school, he became prone to blackouts, became violent and began to spout gibberish. His behaviour became so frightening and unpredictable that his parents became convinced that the spirit of his dead aunt was possessing him. They spoke with their Lutheran church minister and he referred them to the Catholic church as the ‘experts’ on matters of this nature.

The Catholic church sent along a minister to assess the case. When Roland saw him, he is reported to have said (in perfect Latin, which he had never learned), ‘O sacerdos Christi tu scis me esse diabolum' (O Priest of Christ, you know that I am the Devil).

Roland was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital, where the Jesuit priests found it necessary to wear rubber clothing under their cassocks, owing to his habit of attempting to urinate on him. He also slashed the senior priest with a bedspring coil, causing permanent injury to the unfortunate man’s arm.

Fr Bowdern
A move to St Louis followed, and anotherJesuit priest, Father Bowdern, attempted to deal with Roland, who had now adopted a harsh, guttural voice and an aversion to anything associated with the church, whether it be rosaries, crucifixes or holy water. He reserved his particular distaste for priests.

The boy was transferred to the psychiatric ward of the city’s Catholic Alexian Brothers Hospital and it was here that the official exorcism took place, although all those officiating were banned by the church from talking about it.

Sketchy details did leak out and provided William Peter Blatty with sufficient information to write his 1971 bestseller. But the official record of what the priests said they witnessed was stored away and didn’t see the light of day until 1978, when a demolition project at the hospital unearthed it.

This record stated that writing - apparently in blood - would appear on Roland’s skin, with the words, ‘Hell’, ‘Hello’ or ‘Evil’. When asked what he called himself, he replied ‘Spite’.

Fr Halloran
Over a period of four weeks, Father Bowdern performed the exorcism rite on Roland, He was assisted by Father Halloran, whose job it was to hold the boy down.

Night after night, the rituals continued. Then, suddenly, one night, Roland called out, ‘Satan, I am St Michael. I command you to leave this body now.’

After one final spasm, the boy said, 'It's gone'. There were no further manifestations and he maintained he remembered nothing of what had happened.

True possession? Or some psychological disorder that went as suddenly as it had come on? We’ll probably never know for sure, but the priests were adamant they had witnessed a rare case of true possession, where good had eventually triumphed over evil. Mind you, they’d needed a pretty powerful saint to do it. They don’t come much bigger than St Michael.

William Peter Blatty
To mark the 40th anniversary, a new Blu-Ray version has been released, to add to the seemingly endless stream of differing formats. Here’s the link for Amazon.

Me? No, I'll pass thanks. Still trying to get that backward facing head out of my mind...

Friday, 7 February 2014

Two For The Price of One - The Curious Case of James Maybrick

With Liverpool's James Maybrick, you get, not one, but two scandalous mysteries. First there's the infamous Diary of Jack The Ripper and then there's the way he met his untimely end. So, was he or wasn't he? 

Did she or didn't she?

In 1998, more than 100 delegates at the International Investigative Psychology Conference at the University of Liverpool, failed to determine whether a diary, belonging to Victorian cotton merchant,James Maybrick and purporting to confess to the murders of Jack the Ripper, was genuine. It had apparently been discovered by a fitter, Michael Barrett, while working on his former home. The delegation of psychologists, historians and police officers from all over the world could only agree that the diary was "fascinating" and written by someone with "a disturbed mind".

 Pyschological profiling, Professor David Canter said, showed that it could theoretically be the work of the man known to history as Jack the Ripper. "This was either produced by a very skilled author or someone with detailed knowledge of the Ripper history, or someone with enormous insight into carrying out these crimes and the person most likely to have that is the person who did carry out those crimes."

Shirley Harrison, author of the academic work, The Diary of Jack the Ripper, said: "Although I have not been able to prove that it is genuine, I seriously believe the diary deserves serious historical and academic consideration." 

 But areas of concern included certain errors in historical detail, such as the naming of a pub as 'The Post House', when it didn't acquire that name until after 1888 - the year the diary was supposed to have been written.

 A final vote on the subject declared 30 delegates convinced the diary was indeed a fake.


 Whoever Jack the Ripper really was, he had a short career and a bloody one. The known murder victims were Mary Ann Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly. They were all working as prostitutes at the time of death, at the very lowest rung of the Victorian social scale. Their ages ranged from 25-47. All were horribly mutilated, in the Whitechapel area of London between August and November 1888. There may have been others, including Martha Turner. She was stabbed, but not butchered with the Ripper's trademark style. As the murders grew in number, so did the level of violence used. Then, without warning, they stopped. 

Duke of Clarence
Many famous and not so famous men have been suspected - from Queen Victoria's grandson, the Duke of Clarence, through to Lewis Carroll, the painter Walter Sickert (Patricia Cornwell favoured this suspect in her book Portrait of a Killer), the Queen's physician, Sir William Gull, and a host of others in between. From the discovery of Maybrick's alleged diary in 1992, he joined an illustrious, infamous group, at least for a time.

Walter Sickert
While investigation and speculation as to the authenticity of the diary amused the delegates at the 1998 conference, earlier events had already cast considerable doubt on whether Maybrick had even written it. In 1994, Michael Barrett told the Liverpool Daily Post that he had forged it. He later retracted this statement, only to retract that later and insist that he had in fact forged it. This is at odds with assertions made by his ex-wife that she had the diary in her possession from 1968 when her father had given it to her. He, in turn, had told her he had received it in 1950, along with a pile of other books. In 1992, she allegedly gave it to a (now deceased) friend of Barrett's, urging him to pass it on to her ex-husband. She said she thought he might write a story based on it, as he seemed to lack purpose and direction in his life at the time. She didn't think he would actually attempt to publish it as it was. He did.

Now, it is generally believed that the diary's many details of error in relation to, not only the pub name, but also to the murders themselves, put Maybrick out of contention as a serious suspect. There is also a discrepancy in the style of the diary's handwriting with known examples of Maybrick's own, so there remains the mystery of who actually did write the diary?

This is a question to which no answer has yet been offered (except for the contentious confession of Michael Barrett).

As forJames Maybrick, we now move to the second mystery. His death.

 Enter Maybrick's American wife, Florence. In 1889, she was convicted of his murder, by arsenic poisoning and, while she escaped the hangman, she remained incarcerated until 1904. The trial attracted widespread coverage on both sides of the Atlantic and many considered her innocent of the crime. But, if she was guilty, why did she kill him?

The Maybricks were well known on Liverpool's social scene, but their marriage was a severely tested and troubled one. James Maybrick had a string of mistresses, one of whom bore him five children. He was also a habitual user of arsenic, for 'medical' purposes, as were many in Victorian times, where it was used for - among other ailments - treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis. Maybrick, though, was said to have taken it as an aphrodisiac, or tonic.

Florence also had affairs, including one with a brother in law and one with a local businessman, Alfred Brierley. Maybrick found out about this and a furious row ensued between the couple. Maybrick declared his intention to divorce Florence. This would have ruined her socially - a fact which would have, undoubtedly, troubled her greatly. She is then said to have purchased arsenic soaked flypapers, which she then soaked in water. At her trial, she claimed this was for her own, cosmetic use - another widely employed Victorian practice.

On May 9th, 1889, a nurse reported that Mrs Maybrick had interfered with a bottle later found to contain a half-grain of arsenic. Florence testified that her husband had begged her to administer it to him as a 'pick-me-up', but never drank its contents. He died two days later, at his home. A post mortem discovered traces of arsenic but not enough to kill him. Following an inquest, Florence Maybrick was charged with murder and, following conviction, sentenced to death. A huge public outcry deplored this decision and her sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Influential people fought for her to have a retrial, including Lord Russell, the Lord Chief Justice, but it never happened.

On her release, she initially went to the USA, where she toured the lecture circuit, protesting her innocence. Later, she returned to England, where she lived as a virtual recluse, with only her cats for company. She died, penniless, on October 23rd, 1941. Her neighbours weren't even aware of her true identity.