Friday, 28 June 2013

The Gold Ring Scam - How Not to Do It

The famous gold ring

In January 2013 I visited London for a three-day conference at University College London.  It didn’t begin until 11am on the Saturday morning, so I briefly visited the Wellcome Collection to see their exhibition on death.  Afterwards I was ambling along Euston Road, my mind on what I had seen, when I vaguely noticed a man walking in the opposite direction.  It was still quiet, traffic light, and we were the only pedestrians on that stretch of pavement.  As he got close, he stooped and picked up something.  With an exclamation that shook me from my reverie he straightened and showed me what was between his fingers: a chunky gold ring.

I stopped and he said something like “Look what I‘ve found!”  His accent was heavy, Eastern European.  I made some non-committal remark, slightly on my guard, ready to carry on walking.  He tried the ring on his finger but it did not seem to fit, demonstrating that it was no use to him.  Still holding the ring he said in fractured English that he was a tourist and did not know what to do with it, so would I take it.  I didn’t know what to do with it either, but said I would hand it in at a police station.  I was already wishing I hadn’t stopped because I had no idea where the nearest police station was, and it was going to be a problem finding the time to hand in lost property.

He gave me the ring and it felt solid and heavy, a signet rather than the wedding ring I had first thought it.  Putting it in my pocket I started off again, thinking he was nice for not having kept his find, which he could so easily have done.  I had only got a couple of yards when he was back next to me, gesturing to his mouth and saying repeatedly “you give me money for food”.  I still couldn‘t make out if this was a con because for that to have worked he would have needed to somehow create a feeling of obligation on my part.  He hadn’t done that because I had told him I was going to hand in the ring.  All he had done so far was to inconvenience me.

There was no reason why I should hand over money to a random person in the street simply because he asked for it, and this seemed extremely odd behaviour for a tourist, so I said no.  I started to walk away again, when he became slightly agitated, walking along beside me and saying over and over, “you give me money”.  I kept saying no, more and more firmly, and we walked on like this for a few more yards, the volume between us steadily rising.

Becoming increasingly anxious, he started pushing me towards the buildings as I tried to get away from him.  This made me annoyed and I told him to go away.  At this point he started saying “give me back my ring, give me back my ring”.  Thoroughly irritated by what was clearly a con, I pretended to be confused.  “But it isn’t your ring, you found it on the pavement.”  “It is my ring,” he kept replying, then he pulled out a large bunch of identical rings from his pocket.  “It is my ring, is my job.”

Now he was pushing me as I tried to walk, and I was being sandwiched into the front of a building.  He was a small chap so I didn’t feel threatened physically, but I was concerned he might try to pick my pocket.  I told him to go away in very strong terms, and he jumped back, looking shocked, perhaps actually fearing violence from me. At least it cleared some space between us.  I had a thought.

“Are you legal?” I asked him, and when he looked puzzled I said slowly, “Are you here legally?”  At this he stepped backwards a few paces.  This was a winning strategy.  “I know,” I said, “let’s find a policeman and sort this out.”  At the word “policeman” he set off at a very brisk pace in the direction I had come.  I carried on my way, one rather tacky, and worthless, gold ring the better, wondering at the man’s incompetence.

I learned afterwards that this is a common trick that seemingly originated in Paris, mostly run by Romanians who initially migrated here for the 2012 Olympic Games.  The conventional method is to create a sense of conspiracy by the ‘finder’ offering the ring for sale at a price that would be extremely good, say £20, if the ring were actually gold and worth something.  The moral slope is a shallow one, sharing something apparently lost rather than stolen, so it can be easier to reel in the victim.  Many of those conned curiously seem more amused than angry by the experience.

There is this alternative procedure which I experienced, but it seems less reliable as the scammer has already handed over the ring before asking for something, though it appeals to someone’s good nature, requesting a quid pro quo, in a way a cash transaction does not.  It seems that most people who realise it is a trick simply hand the ring back, perhaps more concerned about a confrontation than I was, so it is generally a low-risk activity for the scammer.  Possibly the rationale for this variant technique is that most victims will intend to pocket the ring, which does create a sense of obligation the confidence tricksters can exploit.  In that case, I suppose you can’t really complain if they succeed.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Imitation Game, Alan Turing, and the Cynicism of Hollywood

Some time ago I reviewed a novel called The Holmes Affair, by Graham Moore.  I was not impressed by Moore’s effort, and at the end of the review expressed my concern that he had written a speculative script about Alan Turing called The Imitation Game which, on the evidence of The Holmes Affair, in particular his inability to convey the nuances of English life, would be as authentic about Turing as the 2000 film U-571 was about the capture of an Enigma cipher machine (i.e. not at all). Moore sold his Imitation Game script to Warner Bros for a seven-figure sum, and Leo DiCaprio was pencilled in as the lead.  That bizarre piece of miscasting has been rectified, with Benedict Cumberbatch now set to play Turing, and Keira Knightley as his, well, his love interest.  Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, an odd choice it would seem judging by his CV, is set to direct.

Based on other roles Cumberbatch has played – Stephen Hawking, William Pitt the Younger, Vincent van Gogh, Joseph Hooker etc – he should have no trouble making Turing a believable, and sympathetic, character.  But that still leaves the script, and the suspicion that Moore just isn’t the man to trust with a convincing depiction of England in the 1940s and 50s, what it was like to be a homosexual at that time in general, and what it was like to be Alan Turing in particular.

My fears were re-aroused by an article in the Sunday Times, 23 June 2013, written by the paper’s arts editor, Richard Brooks (‘Enigma of Keira as Code Breaker’s Lover’).  According to the piece, Turing’s biographer Andrew Hodges has attacked the script “for exaggerating a love affair and making a fictional connection to a notorious spy.”  The script was supposed to be based on Hodges book Alan Turing: The Enigma, but given Hodges’ comments, the word ‘loosely’ should be added.  The probability increases that my initial misgivings are not going to be allayed.

The two main criticisms Hodges makes are that the filmmakers have exaggerated the strength of the relationship Turing had with Joan Clarke, his Bletchley Park colleague and briefly his fiancée, than is warranted by the facts; and that they have invented a relationship with another Bletchley employee, intelligence officer John Cairncross, later exposed as the ‘fifth man’ in the Cambridge spy ring.  There is no evidence that Turing even knew Cairncross because Bletchley projects were rigidly compartmentalised and Hodges argues that Cairncross has been included in the script merely “to make it more like a thriller”: perhaps a bit like the 2001 film Enigma.

What about Turing as a man who spent a lot of time at his desk?  Hodges’ allegation is that the script fails by “showing virtually nothing of Turing’s extraordinary skills as a scientist and computer designer.”  I suppose you could just shrug and say, “Hell, that’s Hollywood,” but surely Turing deserves better.  With much the same thought, Hodges wrote to Moore, whom Brooks correctly refers to as “a feature movie novice”, with these worries.  All he got back, he says, was an assurance that Turing would be shown doing marathon running and interacting a bit more with colleagues: “This would make him less wimpish and nerdish,” Hodges concludes.  Let’s hope he’s making some decent money out of the process of being disillusioned.

So what did the film’s producer Teddy Schwarzmann, speaking from New York, have to say to Brooks about these charges?  Firstly, the film is “a drama not a piece of entertainment.”  Say that again Teddy, it’s not going to be entertaining?  Presumably he only means it’s not going to look like a Michael Bay film, for which we should definitely be grateful.  Then Teddy says, “We don’t want to fictionalise events but there are some creative liberties”, which I think means they are going to fictionalise events.  Perhaps sensing a little scepticism emanating from the other end of his phone line, he continues: “When we come over [to England], we are also going to get in touch with some other experts on that period.  We know how very important Turing is to you over there.”  That is good to know, if somewhat patronising, though the experts he has in mind will probably be there to make sure the telephones are of the right period rather than to tell Teddy that the script is nonsense if that turns out to be the case.

Hugh Whitemore’s superb 1986 play Breaking the Code didn’t need to make Turing’s story into a thriller, or distort him out of recognition.  It focuses on Turing in a quiet and persuasive way, and gives the character based on Joan Clarke just the right emphasis in his life.  It would be nice if Moore could use it as a model, but it is unlikely at this late stage; Schwarzmann told Brooks that “we start filming in the UK very soon.”  If Hodges is correct in claiming that the producers are trying to move into thriller territory, then they will be open to the charge of a disrespectful distortion of Turing’s life in the pursuit of boffo box office.

It is a puzzle why Cumberbatch would want to have anything to do with this.  Perhaps in his enthusiasm to inhabit another interesting character he has overlooked any deficiencies he saw in the script.  Or perhaps he thought he could exert some leverage to improve it.  Unfortunately it looks like the problems run too deep, a matter of vision rather than emphasis, and will not be improvable by a quick rewrite.  Given the roles Cumberbatch has played in the past, I’m sure his Turing will be great, but the danger is that his performance will be a jewel in a dung heap.

Update: 18 December 2014

Having now seen the film, I can safely say that it bears no relationship to a dung heap whatsoever.  It must have helped that Warner Bros dropped out when DiCaprio lost interest, and after falling into the hands of the Weinstein Company The Imitation Game is a workmanlike if rather stolid treatment of Turing shown in three time periods: school at Sherborne (an outstanding performance by Alex Lawther looking much younger than his years), his time at Bletchley Park, which is the heart of the film, and the last wretched period of his life in Manchester.

Benedict Cumberbatch of course shines even though, or should that be because, he plays Turing as being some way along the autism spectrum.  The film has received a fair amount of criticism for its inaccuracies and distortions, but somebody as complex – downright cerebral – as Turing has to be translated into an audience-friendly format, so far-reaching simplification of the facts is to be expected, and some spurious tension injected to keep it all ticking along.  It doesn’t always come off if the viewer has some knowledge of the subject, and the sub-Frankenstein motif, Turing trying to recreate his lost love Christopher Morcom as a machine intelligence, seems particularly misplaced.

Reservations about massaging history aside, it’s not a terrible effort overall, and better than advance word suggested.  Which leads one to suspect that while Graham Moore is credited as sole author of the screenplay (and executive producer), other hands were involved in its development as it is not the hash that one might have expected on the strength of The Holmes Affair.  Andrew Hodges’ book is also prominent in the credits (with that all-important caveat ‘based on’ to let the film off the hook of scholarly accuracy).

So in hindsight, was Hodges mollified by the way his very chunky biography was adapted into a crowd-pleasing movie?  I thought not on 17 August 2014 when my wife and I heard him give a dreadfully poor rehashing of his thirty-year old book at Bletchley Park in which he fidgeted constantly as he spoke and conducted a losing battle with PowerPoint. (Fortunately we had attended a lecture given by James Grime at Cambridge’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences the previous month, ‘Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine’, which not only lucidly explained Turing’s life and work, with brilliant AV support, but included a demonstration of the Enigma machine owned by Simon Singh.)

James Grime and Simon Singh's Enigma cipher machine

During the question and answer session that followed Hodges’ turgid presentation my wife asked him for his opinion on the forthcoming film, bearing in mind what he had said in the Sunday Times.  He was dismissive of the question and declined to be drawn, flatly refusing to offer a view and blandly stating that we should wait and see after it was released.  When she politely asked again, dissatisfied by his evasiveness, he just blanked her, an astonishing act of discourtesy.  I can see his point though.  He has made a lot of money out of the film, both from rights and selling more copies of his book, freshly reissued only two years after the last one, the 2012 ‘Centenary Edition’, with yet another new preface slapped on to freshen it up, so it is understandable that having bitten the hand that fed him once, he was loath to do it again.  But the fact that he could not bring himself to say nice things about the film implied that he had not changed his views, only learned discretion.

From the finished film it is clear that Hodges’ concerns were partially misplaced.  Keira Knightley was certainly present but Joan Clarke’s relationship with Turing was not exaggerated, nor was Turing’s homosexuality downplayed, and while Cairncross is still there to give proceedings a little zest, it would take more than that to make The Imitation Game resemble a thriller.  The scene where Turing discovers that Cairncross is a spy and Cairncross immediately blackmails him into silence by threatening to expose his homosexuality has legitimately created some upset as it suggests that Turing would have colluded in treason, but Turing does eventually tell Stewart Menzies, the chief of MI6, only to discover that British Intelligence knows about Cairncross already, so his initial reticence doesn’t really matter.

As to Hodges accusation that the script showed ‘virtually nothing of Turing’s extraordinary skills as a scientist and computer designer’, I think it is fair to say that Cumberbatch did convey Turing’s remarkable abilities as best he could within a script that had to appeal to a mass audience, while unfortunately being guilty of straying into clichéd mad boffin territory that has to combine a trade-off of unusual intellectual talent with marked personality defects.  Finally, Hodges said in the Sunday Times that when he wrote to Moore he was told that we would see Turing running marathons and interacting with colleagues, which would ‘make him less wimpish and nerdish.’ We see Turing run a couple of times, though just around fields, and of course he interacts with colleagues, the initial friction with them and their growing respect and support being a key development of the plot, so he certainly isn’t wimpish.  But nerdish?  Of course he is:  He’s Alan Turing!

Contrary to producer Teddy Schwarzmann’s preposterous claim that the film would be ‘a drama not a piece of entertainment’, it is entertaining if not always particularly dramatic.  It’s not the disgrace that Hodges and I both feared it would be from Moore’s novel and the early drafts of the screenplay that Hodges saw, even if it’s not quite the tribute that Turing deserves either.  Against the odds Cumberbatch has I think adequately conveyed the brilliance and the tragedy of Turing’s character.  The flaws that exist lie firmly with the script, which is guilty of failing to trust the audience’s intelligence.

Update: 24 February 2015

It would seem that my reservations about Graham Moore’s script were not shared by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the awards ceremony held on Sunday, 22 February 2015.  To my surprise, far from considering it flawed they thought highly enough of Moore’s work to award it the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.  The predictions beforehand certainly did not deem it a clear front-runner and its success may have had something to do with the vigour of the Weinstein promotional campaign, after The Imitation Game was overshadowed by The Theory of Everything at the BAFTAs, than with any inherent virtues of the script itself.

Still, Moore gave a heartfelt acceptance speech which was a big hit, and he came over as genuinely nice.  I think he was lucky as there may have been some horse-trading, giving The Imitation Game the best adapted screenplay award as consolation for director Morten Tyldum losing to Alejandro González Iñárritu, and of course Benedict Cumberbatch losing out to Eddie Redmayne in the best actor category.  It will be interesting to see how Moore’s career develops; after this success he may want to steer clear of novels in favour of screenplays, which will be no bad thing.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Sherlock Holmes: Past and Present

Conference at the School of Advanced Study, Senate House, London, 21-22 June 2013

On Friday and Saturday I spent a pleasant two days in the superb surroundings of Senate House, University of London, listening to papers on the subject of Sherlock Holmes and his cultural impact.  It is a mark of the significance of Holmes that the organisers, Jonathan Cranfield and Tom Ue, could attract over sixty speakers, and to cram it all in there were sometimes four sessions going on simultaneously, necessitating some very hard choices.  The event could easily have stretched across a third day.

The audience was heterogeneous by normal conference standards, including – in addition to the usual post-grads and early career academics – a variety of enthusiasts of the canon (the sort who can instantly name a story from a brief quote) and its branches, from cosplay to fan fiction and art.  These categories are not of course mutually exclusive.  There aren't many serious conferences where attendees come dressed as fictional characters, so it was clear from the start that this was going to be an unusual experience for even the hardened conference-goer.  Yet there was no ‘them and us’, and no sense of condescension.

The range of the papers was immense.  We had historical analyses, discussions of the influence of Holmes on media, his constant regeneration through the pastiche industry in print and online (though pastiche is a term that does not do justice to the inventiveness), the dissemination of the Holmes model of detective fiction around the world, and much else.  Conan Doyle cropped up occasionally, but this was his creation’s show, though with none of the foolish pretence that Holmes and Watson were real and Conan Doyle just a literary agent, and with few references that I heard to The Game.

The result was a scholarly but accessible series of talks.  It would be invidious to pick out individual ones as it was not possible to attend more than a small proportion of them.  For the same reason it is impossible to say what was missed out.  For example, I didn’t hear anyone refer to Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but I was assured that it did come up in a talk I missed.  I did hear a fair amount about the BBC Sherlock of course, and the Johnlock fanfic genre.  I now know what PWP stands for: ‘Plot, What Plot?’  As well as the inevitable Benedict Cumberbatch I saw a fair few pictures of Robert Downey Jr, with Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone a long way behind.  Such narrow emphases entailed some overlap at times, but there were enough variations in perspective to avoid any danger of monotony.

The peg for the conference was Holmes’s forthcoming 160th birthday in 2014, though it didn’t honestly need a peg.  There were a number of supporting activities to the conference, including a small display in Senate House from its Historic Collections which showed items relating to Holmes and his world.  I was also obliged by my companion to make the short pilgrimage to Speedy’s Cafe in North Gower Street, sadly shut by the time we arrived.  I later learned that other delegates had made the sensible decision to combine their pilgrimage with breakfast on the second morning, though I suspect that finding an empty table would have taxed even Holmes’s ingenuity.

 It is a mark of the enduring popularity of Conan Doyle’s creation that there was so much to say about a single fictional character.  Whether Conan Doyle would have been pleased or irritated by all the attention being lavished on Holmes is impossible to know; he would probably have preferred a conference on his historical output.  He might have been surprised at the extent to which the Holmes/Watson format has mutated – naturally there were numerous references to Elementary, with Joan rather than John Watson – and would doubtless have lifted a quizzical eyebrow at the sheer quantity of works using his creations that are being produced, with no sign of a decline in their number.  Certainly his response on hearing about some of the things that Holmes and Watson get up to in the racier reaches of fan fiction would be easy to guess (some definitely NSFW, a term included in the title of a paper on the subject).

The organisers plan to gather the best conference papers for a volume to be published in 2014, as well as issuing an edited collection on Holmes’ fan phenomena.  They are also hosting a one-day symposium on Professor Challenger in December.  There are few opportunities for Challenger slash fiction one might think, but it would be rash to bet on it.


Last year I was contacted by an American High School student who was researching a paper on Conan Doyle.  He was presumably contacting anybody he could find with an interest in the man so that he could gather enough information to compile a term paper without having to make a huge amount of effort.  He asked me a series of somewhat random questions which I endeavoured to answer as well as I could.  I hope he found my replies useful, but as he never bothered to acknowledge them, I can’t be sure.

Why did you take an interest in Arthur Conan Doyle?

Most people first come across Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by reading, or more likely seeing an adaptation of, a Sherlock Holmes story.  I think my earliest exposure to Holmes was the Basil Rathbone films on television.  These are great fun, however much one deplores Nigel Bruce’s depiction of Watson, and however far the plots stray from the originals.  However, my first brush with what Conan Doyle wrote wasn’t the Holmes stories, it was a volume of his Brigadier Gerard tales which I came across as a pre-teenager.  These are historical romps set during the Napoleonic Wars, and I was immediately taken by the characterisation and narrative drive.  They are much underrated.

My interest in Conan Doyle developed as I appreciated what wide-ranging interests he had.  At the age of 15 I read Hesketh Pearson’s 1943 biography (which I still own), and from that grew a fascination with Conan Doyle’s character and career.   Some time later I picked up the one-volume Penguin edition of the complete Holmes stories, and read them straight through.  They complemented my more general enjoyment of Victorian and Edwardian literature and gothic and detective fiction.  Holmes taps into the nostalgia that many people have for the late nineteenth century, as exhibited by the currently popular neo-Victorian literary genre.  Since then I have read a number of Conan Doyle biographies as well as other works by him, and seen numerous screen adaptations.  I’ve found you cannot fault his fiction for sheer entertainment value.

What does he mean to you?

Reading biographies, I was particularly struck by his determination to pursue justice, demonstrated in his outspoken defence of George Edalji and Oscar Slater, causes that were not fashionable but which he felt strongly about.  I admired his doggedness, such as his adherence to Spiritualism, even though it damaged his reputation.  I don’t think he always behaved well towards his family and he betrayed a degree of self-absorption not uncommon among men of his time, but in general he had a sense of honour.

Are there any things you think are important to tell me about him specifically?

There is now a huge literature on Conan Doyle, which is a testament to his enduring popularity.  You need to take his Spiritualism into account in assessing his work, and if you have to focus on one aspect of a busy life you might find his relationship with Houdini is a useful way of bringing out aspects of his character in a dramatic way.  You should try to read a biography if you can – I would recommend Andrew Lycett’s Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes as a good overview.  I can also recommend Michael Dirda’s short book On Conan Doyle as a fascinating examination of the strong effect that reading Conan Doyle’s books can have. Stress that there is much more to him than Sherlock Holmes. He can also be very funny, which may seem surprising given his serious appearance.

Was there an exact moment when you realised you wanted to know more about Arthur?

No, my interest grew gradually, though I remember being excited on hearing that a Conan Doyle Society had been formed in the late 1980s.  I did write to them but didn’t join, though it was a stimulus for a more sustained exploration of his life.

What was the thing that interested you most about him?

It is often said that there is a strange discontinuity between the rationalism of Holmes and the credulity of Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist beliefs.  I find his complexity intriguing.  I am also fascinated by the variety of his work: the Holmes novels and stories, historical fiction, science and uncanny fiction, general short stories, war histories, pamphlets, books on Spiritualism – his range was prodigious.  He was an all-rounder, keen on sports as well as literature, and was adventurous; the British Library has just published the journal he kept on his trip to the Arctic on a whaler.  He had an enormous zest for life.  His literary style is natural and unforced, and even when he is not on his best form he is extremely readable.

November 2012