Peter Cheyney and I

(originally published May, 2016 by Mystery File)

I came across Peter Cheyney when I was somewhere between twelve and thirteen. A church bazaar or second hand bookshop, the memory is blurred. What remains clear is that being basically stupid and already with the propensity to read what I wanted to read, I assumed at first the book was a western ‘Peter Cheyenne’ being some kind of cowboy. When it became clear that it wasn’t a western, I put the book down convinced Peter Cheyenne was an American thriller writer.

I forgot all about him (well almost, the name having some kind of magic) for almost forty years. And this ‘forgetting’ is key to the whole story. Peter Cheyney was the most popular and prolific British author of his day. He was also the most highly paid. His curse perhaps is that he undoubtedly influenced Ian Fleming, for Bond is nothing more than a glamorous composite of the Cheyney ‘hero’. Cheyney created the template that Fleming developed, and the rest is history. Bond got Chubby Broccoli and celluloid fame, Peter Cheyney obscurity and critical censure.

John le Carre, when asked about spy books that might have influenced him as a child, gave the following response. He duly bowed his head to Kipling, Conrad, Buchan and Greene, and then referred to the: ‘…awful, mercifully-forgotten chauvinistic writers like Peter Cheyney and Co.’

John Sutherland made a similar point, referring to Cheyney’s Dark Series as the ‘high point of a resolutely low flying career.’ These two, wonderfully pithy, assessments are true to a point. They are also skewed by the cultural background and literary talent of both men.

Cheyney was chauvinistic, and no great shakes in terms of vocabulary and style, but he shouldn’t be forgotten ‘mercifully’ or otherwise. Cheyney’s success as the most highly paid writer of his time does not necessarily qualify him as a literary giant, but it does show that his work reflected the attitudes and mood of a huge swathe of the population, amplified it and played it back to them. Cheyney talked to the popular mood rather than the concerns of an educated elite. It was ‘everyman’ who bought his work in droves.

During the dark years of World War II and the austerity that followed, Cheyney’s novels were taken into battlefields, were exchanged for ten cigarettes in POW camps, and at a time when fabric was rationed, women fantasised about the glamorous Cheyney femme fatales in their satin and silks, sheer stockings, ruffles and bows. Read Cheyney and you’re reading violence and brutality set in a fashion catalogue.

For those jaded by pilgrimages to Baker Street, Cheyney provides a welcome alternative. Most of his many heroes, villains and victims live in a very small area of London. Some are unwitting neighbours, and all jostle each other on the same roads and streets, ghosts in parallel worlds. These are mapped, allowing the reader to go on his or her own ‘Cheyney walk.’

Cheyney, Behave recaptures a lost world and provides an eye-opening analysis of a popular culture we might prefer to forget. The book examines the importance of cigarettes and alcohol in Cheyney’s world, his attitude to ‘pansies’, racism, women, and the unconscious but jaw-dropping sexism of his age. It analyses the significance of Cheyney’s ‘Dark’ series in terms of war propaganda and how Cheyney accurately captured the effects of war on prevailing morality.

In his books you will find misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexism and chauvinism and, at their core, idealism and a deep vulnerability. In terms of market forces they reflect a world long past, one far different from ours but fascinating and worth understanding. Read Cheyney, Behaveand judge for yourself.

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Clickbait and You

 by Steve Wetherell

Not so long ago I made a joke post about how Doctor Who wasn’t allowed to be a woman. I made this post because I woke up one day to a sea of posts about how misogynists were frothing at the mouth over the decision, and, inevitably, that the Doctor Who fandom had some serious issues that were symptomatic of the downfall of society as a whole. I was skeptical, and said as much. A couple of people- people I like and respect- suggested that I hadn’t researched it enough, that the issue was indeed real. I had, though. I’d seen the presented evidence and I found it lacking, for one very good reason. Every article I read pointing out this “problem” was citing evidence from Twitter. (The exception being a Daily Mail article, but if you haven’t figured out that the Daily Mail is filled with troll columnists whose only currency is stirring a pot full of shit yet, then you haven’t been reading the Daily Mail hard enough. Good. Don’t.)

Here’s what I hate about Twitter. It’s a platform where news and opinion is shared in a very limited amount of characters. By its very design it does not leave room for a nuanced discussion of events. It is ill equipped to make a fair point. My second problem with Twitter is that it is very much about transmitting rather than receiving, primed as it is for people to make snappy comments, and share comments they thought were snappy. Thirdly, Twitter has millions of users, and the law of averages tell us that a percentage of those users are irredeemable fuck-wads. My fourth problem is a theory not my own but widely suspected by many- the law of diminishing jerkiness. Someone who’s a super jerk on Twitter is probably only a standard jerk in real life and so on. You know, how we’d scream obscenities from the isolation of our car that we’d never dream of bellowing into someone’s face in real life (yesterday I wished an old lady to drive into lake full of shit and remain there for the rest of her days. I didn’t mean it, obviously. I just wanted her to move away from the junction a little quicker.)

I’d no more trust Twitter as an accurate gauge of public opinion than I’d trust the writing on a shit house wall.

So what’s this got to do with clickbait? Well, I’ll tell you. Twitter is super handy for the clickbait writer because you can find ‘real life’ comments to back up almost any position. And that is a door that swings both ways. You want me to write a think piece on why the feminist end game is the castration of male children? You think I can’t find five tweets to back that up? Of course I can. Feminists can be shit heads too. What if I wanted to write an inflammatory article about how Black Lives Matter think white people are born evil? Look me in the eye and tell me that any writer at any level with even an ounce of cunning could not find the ‘evidence’ he needs to validate that position. In my circles, writing an article denouncing Republicans- say I wanted to make a claim that Republicans are all inadequate lovers- would be very easy and probably get a lot shares. It’s tempting. I don’t for a second believe it, but it’s tempting.

And that temptation is a problem. I was recently approached by a perfectly innocuous culture and news feed service that wanted me to write articles for them. The pay? Well, lets just say I’d need 30,000 views to get what I consider to be a minimal article writing fee. 30,000 is quite a lot for a small timer with no platform of his own. Would I get that touting my usual brand of silly introspection? Probably not. Could I get that with a ‘LESBIANS MORE LIKELY TO BEAT WIVES’ headline? Yes. Absolutely. I’d be stoking outrage on one side, tickling dark prejudice on the other. Either way, I’d be taking something entirely out of context to get clicks. And that sucks.

It doesn’t just suck for me and my withered soul, or the readers I offend, it sucks because I am contributing to the ever building pile of outrage, and if you haven’t noticed, that is fucking things up for everyone on a massive scale. How many half-formed exaggerations based on contextless stats do you think it got to put Trump in office? Or to keep Bernie Sanders out of it? Humans just aren’t smart enough to take in the whole big picture, so there’s fertile ground for people who want to draw your attention to only part of it.

So, back to Doctor Who. Does it matter that I don’t really believe that the Doctor Who fan base has a problem any more than any other group in society has its inevitable share of arseholes? No. I’m not about to start with the #notalldoctorwhofans. But there’s another element to this process, and that’s backlash. When someone drops a firecracker into the crowd and gets everyone panicked, both sides respond to it. It unfolded with tedious inevitability, but the rabid outrage about the female Doctor Who did appear. It appeared with a bunch of people irritated that they were being labelled as woman haters over something so silly. But once the blood is up, and the medium dictates the message, the argument basically devolved to “get back in the kitchen and make a sandwich and also stop being Doctor Who.”

You could interpret that as scratching the surface and finding the dangerous hidden misogyny in people who like watching children’s television shows. Or, maybe, and I’m referencing my own experience of people here, if you kick someone they’ll kick back.

Either way, if you’ve shared an article that takes very minor behaviour and attributes it to a whole, you are probably not handling that issue with the patience and care it needs. You’re probably just kicking someone, and then acting shocked when they kick back.

Twitter isn’t to blame for this, obviously. It’s just a useful tool. Newspapers have been doing it for years, the internet just does it faster. I have a special contempt for people who push others who were minding their own business into a fight, and then sit back smugly. I have even more contempt for people who do it for money. Look on YouTube, and you’ll find countless talking heads denouncing the same footage or article, and when you step back, you realise what they’re complaining about is very small indeed. That there are probably more people complaining than there are offending articles.

I try to be as fair minded as possible when writing articles, without attacking individuals or making scooping generalisations- even though that’s where the easy comedy is. It’s the reason I won’t ever get those sweet, sweet views. Not for me the rakes of comments gushing ‘THIS’. Not for me the rabid YouTube commenters ecstatic that someone has validated their views. Though, who knows. Maybe one day I’ll pick a side (any side, maybe both sides) and just run with it. It’s fucking easy after all. It’s like slinging burgers outside a weight watchers meeting. Even if they don’t want it, they’ll be tempted. They’ll get the stink of it.

Or maybe I’ll continue writing what I think is the truth, broad and simple as my thoughts may be. That people are people, mostly benign, and that fear makes us all susceptible to the whispers and shouts of those who seek power, however small and trivial that power may be. That people are people, doing the small good in from of them and avoiding the larger evils, and that they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

And it’s so easy to look at the facts and, with a sigh of relief, say;

Not all liberals are anarchists

Not all feminists are man haters

Not all republicans are nazis

Not all brexiters are racist

And then, with an even bigger sigh of relief, add the phrase “in fact, most of them aren’t.”

…But the tighter you push people against the fence, the more they will snarl, and none of us can be properly understood when we’re snarling. We are at our worst when the knives come out, so think carefully before drawing yours.

Or maybe I’m just a deluded hippy. Or maybe I’m a secret nazi apologist. Go through my Twitter. I’m sure, with enough spin, you could prove anything you wanted.

 And that’s the problem, see?

 

FOOTNOTE THOUGHTS:

So you can better understand where I’m coming from, I’ll take an extra moment to explain my stance. My more careful philosophy on judging people comes from my own experience growing up. I was a rich village kid who was educated and worked in a rough town. It was not uncommon to walk the streets and, as a long hair, attract the violent attentions of packs of youth. For a long time I thought everybody in my town was scum, and indeed it was not a nice town, especially back then in the recession years. It occurred to me later that there were many reasons my stance became arrogant. I won’t get into economics and stuff, but I will state the obvious point that took me far too long to realise; I was basing my assumptions of the town on a group of people who had specifically gone out looking for trouble, and not the thousands and thousands of unseen people who had better things to do with their lives. It doesn’t give you much comfort if you’ve just taken a kicking, but it’s the truth. A truth worth remembering.