- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

Leonard Piper’s Dangerous Waters: The Life and Death of Erskine Childers (Hambledon

and London, $29.95, 256 pages, illus.) is further proof, if any is needed, that the British once held a near monopoly on useful eccentrics. In foreign affairs, they always seemed to come up with some talented oddball (e.g. T.E. Lawrence).

Erskine Childers (1870-1923) was part of this great tradition. He was at various times a bestselling novelist, a soldier in the Boer war, a clerk in the House of Commons, an expert small-craft sailor, a member of British military intelligence, and a pioneer in strategic aerial warfare in World War I. He was also something of a crank. If he is remembered at all today it is for his still controversial and ultimately fatal devotion to the Irish struggle for independence from England.

Childers, the son of an English father and an Irish Protestant mother, first came to public attention in 1903 as the author of “The Riddle of the Sands,” a book generally considered to be the first modern spy novel. During the next 10 years he wrote articles and books, married an American, and sailed incessantly. Then he dabbled in British politics, became “obsessed” (the author’s word) with the question of Irish independence, and in 1914 ran guns into Ireland. After distinguished service as a British officer in World War One, he rallied enthusiastically to the cause of Irish freedom.

Ireland’s bloody war against the British resulted in an Anglo-Irish Treaty. The newly-formed Irish government found itself threatened by an even more savage civil war. Childers sided with the irreconcilable anti-Treaty Irish hard liners, led by Eamon De Valera. He was captured by Irish government forces, found guilty of possessing a firearm and was executed by a firing squad. Was Childers a British spy?Was he crazy? Mr. Piper says no,but insists it was Childers’ fanaticism that led to his doom.

Social Note: Do not plan to invite Mr. Piper to your next Saint Patrick’s Day party. He has — how best to put this?— issues with the Irish. His account of the Irish fight for independence reads as if were written by a dyspeptic Tory clubman suffering from gout. Irish rebel leaders are portrayed as fanatics, murderers, or fools. Irishmen who opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, according to the author, loved to “kill and maim” and were afraid of “being a nonentity in a Dublin slum.” Not our kind of chaps at all, don’t y’ know.

In February 1957, the Japanese magazine Housewife’s Companion published a brief piece titled “Account of the Wanderings of a Country Geisha.” The article was sent to the popular magazine by a barely literate woman (she wrote in a Japanese syllabary used by very young children) who had written it in the hope she might win desperately needed prize money.

An editor at a publishing house suggested to the author that the article should be expanded into a book. The result was Sayo Masuda’s Autobiography of a Geisha (Columbia University Press, $24.95, 216 pages) which has now been translated into English, by G. G. Rowley, a teacher of English and Japanese literature at Tokyo University. The book is a riveting story of a woman who since her earliest days knew little but cruelty, humiliation and sorrow. By helping her younger brother to survive she learned to trust and to open her heart to others, only to suffer the agony of the boy’s suicide.

The life of the geisha found in these pages is not the Hollywood version of a some delicate young flower trained to please customers through conversation and dancing. According to the translator, “Masuda demolished the notion that geisha do not provide sexual services for payment. She makes it clear that in the world she inhabited, geisharoutinely engaged in sex for payment… this was what was expected of them …”

In simple but moving language, the author describes her wretched childhood as an indentured servant to a farm family whose members regularly beat, humiliated and scolded her. In 1937, when she was 12, she was sold (again through a process of indenture —slavery was technically outlawed in Japan) to a geisha house at a small-time hot-springs resort. Plain, timid and ignorant, she was victimized by older geisha, and browbeaten (and just plain beaten) by her mistress. She eventually attracted a danna (regular patron), a loathsome gangster named Cockeye. Eventually she found — and subsequently lost — a man who truly loved her.

I realize that what I have written gives the impression that the book is a dreary recountingof abuse and hardship. To the contrary, Sayo Masuda, through her artless art and her refusal to sentimentalize the past, brings to vivid life a whole cast of characters. She makes shrewd and often comic observations of human behavior, and shows herself to be an admirable, resilient, and even heroic woman.

The chapters dealing with the discovery of her long-lost brother, depicting the hunger and the hopelessness they endured, are inspiring and permeated with the fierce love she felt for the doomed teenager. I highly recommend “Autobiography of a Geisha.” To paraphrase William Faulkner, Sayo Masuda (who is still alive) simply didn’t survive — through indomitable courage and a dogged refusal to let her often cruel world crush her, she prevailed.

When the province of Quebec threatened to secede some years ago, Canadian officials met at a place called Meech Lake to talk things over. At the time, an American writer (was it Pat Buchanan?) said: “That’s the difference between Canadians and Americans. When Canadians have a secession crisis, they do Meech Lake. When we have secession crisis, we do Antietam.” Precisely.

According to television news celebrity Robert McNeil in his memoir Looking for My Country: Finding Myself in America (Nan A.Talese/Doubleday, $25, 224 pages), Canada during the 1940s was one long succession of social, cultural and attitudinal “Meech Lakes.” TheCanadian Way emphasized self-effacement, politeness, deference, a principled commitment tononcommitment, and a love of England that bordered on adoration. Mr. MacNeill’s mother, typical of many of her generation, loved anything that was English and loathed all that was American. But on a visit to the United States in 1952, when he was 21 Mr. MacNeil discovered that the brash, informal, and openly ambitious Americans weren’t really that bad. He came to see his native country as uptight, boring and provincial in more ways then one.

His memoir, written in a style that reflects the detached, almost chilly persona he made famous on “The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour,” follows the usual pattern of TV news celebrity memoirs: modest beginnings and hard work lead to lucky breaks and good jobs. He meets famous people, journeys to exotic places, and achieves great success. In later years he comes to love America (he became a citizen in 1997) and rediscovers virtues in the Canadian Way. In 224 pages there is not a single liberal attitude or platitude that Mr. MacNeil does not heartily endorse. He appears to live in that blessed state of innocence reserved only for those whose ideological faith has never been blemished by the slightest taint of doubt.

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide