sex, sleep, words

The Badly-Timed Blink

only takes a nano second

adultery, spies, ‘visit’ dreams, Osaka Elegy, Kim Philby, and An American Werewolf in London

I once knew a woman, she had a love affair with a man who was married, but in time the man’s wife grew suspicious. 

Although not a happy union, the marriage hadn’t yet run its course. One evening when the husband was taking a bath, the wife asked if he was fucking X.

My friend X told me she was appalled to be named as co-conspirator, that what she and her lover shared was separate and private. (She also considered the morality of infidelity to be the man’s concern, within the confines of his marriage.) And yet here was X being named in the marital bathroom, her sex life contested. I said Yes, that must have been difficult, but didn’t she find it fascinating that the wife confronted the husband in the bath?

A Bath with Legs

This detail of the tub seemed important and has stayed with me. The wife (someone I never knew, or met; all the protagonists lived in another city) had waited until her husband was naked and dipped in water before she pounced. I wonder if bubble bath was involved. Was he stretched out in the bath, basking? Or sat up with his chest exposed, the head of his penis partially bobbing above the waterline, in and out of the suds? 

Whatever his pose, she had him in a spot: he couldn’t simply bolt and bluster a non-answer while vacating the room in a flurry of evasion. The bath-time interview enhanced the wife’s chances of getting the truth. In the several seconds it would take to rise out of the water, hop from the tub (without slipping and breaking his neck), grab a towel, wrap himself and scarper, he’d have to deadbat the accusation so many times, she would in effect have her answer. 

It’s quite possibly harder to lie sporting a damp, shrivelled penis. The husband immediately confessed to the affair with X. This admission marked the end of the extra-marital involvement. The wife had chosen her moment well.  

Old Door with a Padlock
bathe in peace

Another woman once described to me the endgame of a fling with a former colleague. Following many months of infidelity, she decided to confess all to her husband. (Is confess still the right word now that we’re no longer sinners?) She told him while he was soaking in the bath. She admitted to me she planned the setting with care: that laid out in the water, he would be forced to discuss something she suspected he’d suspected for some time.

So the moral is, take showers, never let your partner into the bathroom, use the lock? Don’t have an affair? 

Osaka Elegy, original film poster in Japanese
a vintage film poster

In Kenji Mizoguchi’s film Osaka Elegy (1936) the husband of a grumpy heiress persuades a young telephonist (Isuzu Yamada) at work to become his mistress. He sets the young woman up in a smart modernist apartment block and gives her the money to pay off her father’s ill-gotten debt. 

Resolving her father’s money troubles is the reason the woman agrees to sleep with the wealthy husband. This scenario closely replicates the real-life family story of Mizoguchi as a teenager, when his sister was sold into geishadom after their father’s business collapsed. His sister’s new income allowed Kenji and his brother to continue with their studies. The sacrifice and suffering of women are key themes in Mizoguchi’s films.

A Gladstone Bag with Stethoscope
Doctor Gladstone, I presume?

Late one night the wealthy husband feels unwell and summons his doctor. But he makes a critical mistake. The critical mistake is not getting the medic to confirm which address. The doctor rushes to the family home, but upon arrival realises he should have gone to the mistress’s apartment. When the suspicious wife sees him standing on her doorstep, toting his Gladstone, she immediately twigs and tears across town to the love pad, where she bursts in on the affair, bringing it to an abrupt end. 

The mistress now needs a new benefactor. But her life is plainly on the slide, rapidly leading to social shame, family rejection, and even the attentions of the police. Mizoguchi’s crypto-Marxist critique of patriarchal values culminates in a closing scene where the young woman wanders alone, lost in the dark city late at night, facing a dangerous, precarious future as she stares into the camera and directly at the audience.*

Isuzu Yamada in Osaka Elegy (1936)

The jealous wife in Osaka Elegy first came to doubt her husband’s fidelity after seeing him out at the theatre with his paramour. The dissembling husband persuades the wife that the younger woman is actually stepping out with a colleague. As the wife’s suspicions rise while sat in the theatre stalls, onstage a traditional puppet show reaches a dramatic twist in the story. A character admits to being confused, to making a crucial error as witness to an event. The error is due to a mis-sighting due to blinking at the wrong moment – described as a ‘badly-timed blink’.

Baudelaire writes of a decisive blink in the early stages of a romance: ‘The lovers come face to face, eye to eye, and in an instant one blinks, and in that instant it is decided: who shall be love’s victim, and who love’s executioner.’  This dramatic configuration feels more poetic perhaps than true to life. There are, however, good reasons as to why we speak of going into something ‘with our eyes open’ –  because so often we don’t, we blink when we shouldn’t, and as a result we miss it. 

There are also times we chose not to see things. And occasions where perhaps we give ourselves away through carelessness. In Osaka Elegy, why doesn’t the philandering husband make sure the doctor comes to the right address? Not that I’m suggesting that cheaters get away with it. But after the near discovery at the theatre you’d think he’d be extra cautious. Did the sickness eat into his vigilance? 

And what about the mistress? Perhaps sometimes we wish for discovery, so to bring an intolerable situation to an end. But we don’t want the revelation to be directly our own doing; so instead, maybe we leave out our journal, turned to an incriminating page, don’t take adequate care with personal laundry, or fail to follow the necessary steps to be sure the doctor doesn’t blow our cover. Maybe this is how it plays out. 

To suspect such psychological rigmaroles is part of Freud’s legacy perhaps; the recognition that we never really know what’s going on inside our heads. That indeed there may be times when, as the writer Oliver Burkeman suggests, we’re ‘deeply emotionally invested in preserving our ignorance of unsettling truths.’ 

And yet what of the people who do not betray their unsettling truths, who carry on through intolerable situations? How do they sleep? 

The common view is that we can easily give ourselves away when out cold, that dreamers never lie. Crystal Gayle certainly believed this to be so. 

Normally, when we speak of pillow talk, we mean something let slip by a loose tongue in the disorienting heat of desire. But what of sleeptalking? 

Recently I got into a dispute with someone in a dream. Apparently I called them a ‘tosspot’ – said it out loud and with conviction. But I don’t know anything more about this somnial argument – I’m still waiting for my appointment at the sleep clinic.

Did the spy Kim Philby ever give himself away while dreaming –  spilling a dark truth, or several, with his eyes shut? A man with so many dangerous secrets stashed in the concealed and ruthlessly compartmentalised chambers of his double life – how did he cope?

Kim Philby
I have secrets

Kim Philby was born in India in 1912. His father was a noted  orientalist who worked for the colonial service. Philby was raised up in the heart of the British establishment. He went to Westminster School and then Trinity College, Cambridge in the early 1930s, where he studied Economics. Later he became a journalist and served as correspondent for The Times during the Spanish Civil War. 

Philby did not feel fulfilled in the role of observer. He wanted to participate, to work for military intelligence. At this time, however, the British government denied the existence of a secret service. 

How do you apply for a job that doesn’t exist? For someone of Philby’s status, someone incredibly, terribly well-connected, all he needed was to scatter ‘a few hints here and there’ among friends with influence. A fellow journalist, who was ‘said to do a little spying on the side’ herself, talked to a couple of people up the chain about Kim, and soon he was admitted into the spy club.**

It was the early years of World War Two. Philby first served with MI5, working on black propaganda and spreading rumours. (Drinks party exchange: ‘What do you do?’ Answer:  ‘Spread rumours.’) Later he was moved to MI6, where he took on a role in offensive counter-intelligence. (Drinks party exchange No2: ‘What kind of counter-intelligence are you in?’ Answer: ‘The Offensive kind.’)

Philby was charming, attentive, amusing, and adored by many. ‘You didn’t just like him, admire him, agree with him,’ reported a contemporary, ‘you worshipped him.’ He was friends with Graham Greene and revered by Malcolm Muggeridge, while the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, one of the ‘cleverest, and rudest, men in England,’ considered Philby ‘an exceptional person.’  Philby cut a dash. He was embraced by the elite and marked out for greatness.

During the early years of his career as a British spy, Philby was based outside London, near St Albans. One morning in 1941, he caught a train to King’s Cross carrying a briefcase ‘bulging’ with classified information. The files explained the aims, operations, personnel, successes and failures of his unit. After a series of meetings with colleagues at MI5 and MI6, the normally highly sociable Kim, with a infamously fish-like thirst for alcohol, elected not to go sip like normal in the MI6 bar. He didn’t repair to his club either. Or drop by his friend’s home in Chelsea, a regular hang out for artists, writers, journalists and spies to mingle and get loaded. 

St James's Tube Station, London
the tube station next door to the spook station

 Instead, Philby entered St James’s Park tube station and walked to the end of the platform – where he waited for the next train to arrive and leave the station, but without him getting on. 

A second train came along, and once everyone had climbed aboard, with the doors about to close, Philby dashed inside the last carriage. He went two stops, got off again, and caught a train back in the direction he’d just come from. 

Philby then left the tube and jumped on a moving bus. Confident that he was not being followed, he hopped off again and walked to a nearby park, where he sat on a bench next to a short, round man with fair hair. The two men shook hands and Philby handed over the contents of his briefcase, before departing for King’s Cross station and his evening train home. 

The short round man was Philby’s handler from the NKVD, a Soviet intelligence agency Philby had worked for during the previous eight years under the codename ‘Sonny’.***

Philby had converted to communism at Cambridge. On graduation, a senior tutor introduced him to the World Federation for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism in Paris, an organisation with close links to the German communist movement. The young Philby moved to Vienna, where he married an Austrian communist who recruited him into working for Soviet intelligence. 

Philby spied for the Soviets for over three decades. For many of these years he acted as a double agent, divulging core intelligence to his Soviet handlers gleaned from his work for MI5 and MI6. Some of these secrets directly led to the death of a number of people in the field, from rival operators and potential defectors, to several Albanian insurgents. 

‘To be a successful spy,’ writes the novelist William Boyd, ‘to be a successful double-agent or traitor – meant you had to live in a world where there was no trust.’ 

But, as Boyd points out, it is not possible for us to go about our basic human business, be it emotional, commercial, or our family relations, without some amount of trust. That to spy, therefore, means surrendering a ‘key component of humanity.’

A Greek Statue as seen from a dream

In Ancient Greek society there was a type of dream common to sleepers that the historian ER Dodds described as a ‘visit dream’. In the visit dream a figure appeared to people when fast-asleep to impart an important message. The visitor could be a family member, or possibly a celestial being. The message they brought with them might be a riddle in need of decoding; or a vision of an event to come; or thirdly, a message from the oracle about what is to be done, perhaps concerning a pressing dilemma currently pre-occupying the sleeper. 
ER Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, book jacket
The Greeks were convinced that the sleep visit actually occurred –  that they didn’t ‘have’ a dream, but that they ‘saw’ a dream. Dodds is very clear about this not being metaphorical, but literal – the visit dream was treated by the ancients as a commonplace nocturnal experience, as real as any waking event.*****

Did Kim Philby ever experience visit dreams? Suffer from them?

In January 1963, Philby disappeared from his home in Beirut. On the verge of being publicly uncovered as a traitor, the compromised double agent boarded a Soviet freighter and defected to the Soviet Union, where he lived under close police surveillance until his death in 1988.

Kim Philby photographed in Moscow post defection
finally Kim walks in utopia

Philby read The Times and listened to the BBC World Service daily in his state-funded apartment. He missed his favourite condiments, Colman’s mustard and Worcestershire sauce, but regretted nothing. 

Recently I cycled past the former MI6 building where Philby used to be based. Nowadays 54 Broadway is a plain office building. Back when it was a den of spooks, they had a fake sign a outside saying ‘Minimax Fire Extinguisher Company’. But all the taxi drivers knew. Even the enemy knew. The story goes that German intelligence deployed an agent disguised as a blind match seller, to stand opposite and monitor the people coming in and out of the building.

54 Broadway, former HQ for British MI6 Secret Service
former fire extinguisher company

As I cycled down the street, the early springtime sun shined upon a clean, spruce exterior that in Philby’s time would’ve been caked in half a century of soot. The generic stone and brickwork dissolved in my mind, replaced by the jacket photo of Philby from his memoir My Silent War (1968) and onward to a fleeting recollection of my childhood home in a tied communist flat in mid-1970s London. I can see Philby’s book on the bookshelf in the lounge, filed among fat, daunting volumes of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Was Philby’s presence amid the heavy gang some kind of endorsement

My Private War, Kim Philby Memoirs, original book jacket
no, not my silent wart

I don’t think my parents actually read My Silent War. I tried a couple of times as a teenager, but didn’t get that far. Even though I didn’t know much back then, I could see that the book was all wrong, and rather dull. Wasn’t spying supposed to be exciting? Maybe not in reality. But I needed something more Len Deighton, some first-hand Harry Palmer, with gadgets and spycraft, the occasional shoot-out even.

I like to imagine Philby’s Moscow nights ruptured by visit dreams writhing with those he betrayed, the people who died directly because of him. I picture his visitors floating down to earth, to line up at the foot of the ex-spy’s bed, summoning him from his booze-sozzled haze, to ask why? They would press him on this. Why?

Two Zombies at the cinema, still from film An American Werewolf in London
I was an estate agent

For an obscure personal twist I picture Philby’s revenants decked out like the victims in An American Werewolf in London. It would be fun if the band of gory, dripping undead concluded each visit by by issuing a loud, scary, collective scream – Boo! – to give the sleeping Philby the fright of his life.******

after a rough morning, a man wakes up as a werewolf, surrounded by chintz

* The ending of Osaka Elegy is reminiscent of the final scene from the Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift film A Place in the Sun (1951), which Charlie Chaplin called ‘the greatest movie ever made about America’. George Stevens’ diluted adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s hefty and clunking swipe at paternalist capitalism, concludes with Montgomery Clift as the condemned man trudging numbly towards his execution, walking straight into the screen in the style of Mizoguchi.

** There was no formal vetting procedure for Philby’s entry into the world of state secrets. The deputy head of M16 had known Philby’s father in India and put in a ‘good word’ for the budding recruit. 
Philby’s best friend in the service joined up via a similar route and was offered two valuable pieces of advice on his first day on the job, that ‘it is a sackable offence to sleep with a colleague’s wife’ and do not ‘light your cigar until you have started your third glass of port’. And to think that at this time Britain’s secret service was the envy of the world. 

*** The source for this account of Philby passing secrets to his Soviet spymaster in a London park is Ben McIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

**** These thoughts on ‘visit dreams’ inspired by E.R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational

***** Later Heraclitus, then Plato, and finally Aristotle came to conceive of dreams as something else, as actually not a gift from the gods, and also not to be viewed as a real event.

****** An American Werewolf in London is largely considered to be a minor classic of its kind. So many people out there of a certain age are going about their daily business certain in the knowledge that the cult John Landis movie from 1981 is without doubt a lovable, brilliant, if slightly flawed diamond. A tip for all these people: it isn’t actually the classic we thought it was. I showed it to the Annoying Son a few years back and lost credibility. I could see it in his eyes. An American Werewolf in London is a curious assembly of several memorable scenes – the backpackers in peril on the Yorkshire moors; their hostile reception on arrival at the pub The Slaughtered Lamb; the shocking transmogrification in Nurse Jenny Agutter’s front room; waking up naked in the wolf cage at London Zoo; the gooey reunion of the undead in the stalls of a porn cinema; werewolf-induced carnage in Piccadilly Circus. But as a whole piece, An American Werewolf in London is an often quite tedious failure: a film that is slow to start, sparks only infrequently, dawdles at length – when it should be gathering pace – only to then briefly spark again before rushing headlong to its climax, whereafter it quickly and abruptly concludes with a whimper. The film has no middle act. It also lacks a satisfying early middle and the necessary, deepening, late middle that tends to bring forth greatness at the cinema. The early stuff on the moors is very good though.