Sunday, 2 May 2010

Shame of Orlando Figes & Pomposity of Robert Service

Robert Service had a terrible last week of April. He did not sleep well throughout the week, and got up much earlier than usual. That was awful; a man needs his forty wanks (or is it winks?). If you do historic research for living, and are a Sovietologist planning to unleash your next book about the agents and commissars during the Russian revolution, you need to be in full control of your faculties. And Service had other important responsibilities besides banging out a book; he had a concert to attend where a piece by the composer grandfather of his wife was going to be played. It would be a tad embarrassing, wouldn’t it, if the snoring of the respected and respectable historian drowned the music, and of his grandfather-in-law, too. Service had to bring forth every ounce of his willpower to stay awake during the concert, and by the time the concert finished, the poor man was exhausted. All he wished for was a hassle-free ride back home and a good night’s sleep. Was that too much to ask? Of course not. Did he have a hassle-free ride? Of course not. No one gets a hassle-free ride on M4.

When Service finally reached home what was awaiting him? A mountain of e-mails, some or more of which from the fellow Sovietologist and historian Orlando Figes, or perhaps his lawyers. But more about that later. Let’s continue with Service’s nightmarish week. 

Service went through as many e-mails as he could that night. It was a tedious process, having to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some e-mails offered to enlarge his penis, while some others invited him to donate money to Nigerian bank accounts. Another e-mail sent him a chain message from the Dalai Lama and exhorted him to pass it on to fifteen of his acquaintances, threatening vague catastrophes if he did not do so. These e-mails did little to calm Service’s nerves. He struggled to derive comfort from his wife’s assurance that these were in all probabilities spam e-mails; that no one had taken photographs of his private parts and circulated them on the net; and that no one had hacked into his bank-code. She urged him to concentrate on the e-mails that really mattered, the e-mails from the dreaded Figes. Service had had very little to do with the lawyers over the years. (He had been very wise (or lucky). One’s relationship with the lawyers should be the same as with God—cordial but distant; it is not a good idea to get too involved unless one is in trouble; and it had better be a serious trouble.) Service finally went to bed wondering whether he would be able to hold on to his house if the matter with Figes went to court. 'What was the matter', I hear you asking. Be patient. All will be clear in due course.

Did Service sleep any better the second night? We do not know for sure, but I suspect he did. Why do I say this? Because he went for a run. (Would you go for a run if you woke up feeling knackered? I wouldn’t.) Service wanted an escape, and nothing like a good jog that would get the endorphins flowing. This day was a bit better when he received letters / e-mails of support from fellow Sovietologists, who urged him to stand up to the bully (Orlando Figes). He was doing a super-job, they declared unanimously. (It was, you couldn’t help thinking, a bit naughty of them to instigate Service in this manner: if the matter did go to the court, it was Service and not they who stood to lose their house.)

The next day Service ate sea bass for supper, for which he was joined by his younger daughter. What is nightmarish about eating sea-bass? Search me. I love sea-bass, and eating a well-cooked sea bass would be the high point of my week (unless I ate Halibut Tandoori on another day). May be Mrs Service did not cook the fish properly, or perhaps Service was dismayed that his daughter gatecrashed, thus depriving him of bigger portions. We shall never know the reason; what we do know is the sea bass supper only partially lifted the gloom enveloping him.

The next day Service logged on to Amazon to see the sales of his latest book, Trotsky. If he was hoping—and he clearly was—that his spat with Orlando Figes would boost the sales of his biography of Leon Trotsky—no publicity is bad publicity and all that—he was in for disappointment. The book was doing ‘alright’ (a couple of copies were sold) but was going to comfortably miss the best-sellers’ list. Service spent the rest of the day in gloomy contemplation of the pitiable state of affairs in this country where a shambolic account of the Victorians by Jeremy Paxman (and he is not even a historian; he is just an overpaid journalist who attempts to divert the viewers’ attention from the fact that he has (yet again) missed the point completely by being rude and insulting to the interviewees) was selling like the proverbial cakes, while the unsold copies of his scholarly (and hefty) biography would be pulped within a few months.

Service’s sense of outrage (at what Figes had done and was threatening to do) coupled with dread (of what might happen) was further compounded by lengthy telephonic chats with Rachel Polonsky, the woman who had stirred up the hornet’s nest in the first place. The two simply wound each other up, going over several permutations and combinations of who might have done what, what might be their intention, could professional jealousy account for all of it or were there deeper reasons etc., bemoaning every few minutes what a total waste of time and money the whole affair was, the toll it was taking on their psyches and family lives . . . yada yada yada. Service felt unable to take on board his wife’s view that spending long time chuntering with the Polonsky woman, repeatedly going over the same matter, was perhaps not such a good idea; that it was contributing not insubstantially to the waste of time and money he was purportedly concerned about; and that the toll on her, his family, would be less if he did not speak on phone as if addressing a small congregation of nutters at the Hyde Park corner when she was trying to watch ‘Bill’. He felt compelled to remind her that her overcooking of sea bass (so it was the cooking and not the daughter) had made his week more miserable.

How do I know all this? I know it because Service thought it was appropriate to give a public account of his week on a Guardian blog (obviously labouring under the belief that people cared). 

I had a dreadful week too during the course of which I had unhelpful discussions with my next door neighbour as to whose responsibility it was to trim the hedge of the common border of our terraced houses, during which he commented on several occasions, apropos de rien, on what in his view were my numerous character flaws; the dog got the shits, crapped all over the living room carpet, and required a course of expensive antibiotics from the vet who insinuated that the sudden onset bowel problems of the dog were somehow indicative of my evil nature; and I waited a whole day for a delivery, which did not show up because of the cancellation of flights coming into the UK because of the Icelandic volcano eruption. But then I am not a a academic historian, puffed up with the sense of his own importance, exuding vanity and insecurity in equal measures, and being very sensitive where his own thin skin is concerned. Service pointed out with all humility that his spat with Orlando Figes and the devastating effect on his scholarly sensitive nature was a ‘matter that has broad implications for the public interest’. I’d agree with this. Sea bass is not a cheap fish, and a mindful wife, no matter what the provocation, should not ruin it, especially when there is so much riding on it, such as the next  book of her husband. Pe—as the Americans say—riod. 

There is also the matter of whether or not one can or should post anonymous reviews on Amazon. Com, trashing the offerings of your fellow academicians.

Because that is what Serivce accused Orlando Figes of doing, and Figes threatened to sue him.

Orlando Figes is an expert on Russia. He is a Russianist. He is also a professor of history at Birkbeck College, London. He is, however, not the only Russianist in the UK. There is, as we have seen, Robert Service (although he prefers to call himself Sovietologist). And as academicians do, these guys publish from time to time books the size of single storey houses, on Russia. Rachel Polonsky is another such Cambridge based historian/academician, who recently published a book entitled Molotov’s Magic Cocktails (or is it Lanterns?). One late night, Dr. Polonsky, her favourite cat Mini nestling in her lap and quivering with anticipation (Dr. Polonsky, not the cat), logged on to the Amazon website to look at the reviews her book had attracted. One of the reviews was posted by someone who called himself (or herself) ‘Historian’. And what ‘Historian’ had to say about Dr Polonsky’s book was not pretty. The book, ‘Historian’ sneered, was ‘dense and pretentious’, the ‘sort of book which made you wonder why it was ever published.’ Dr. Polonsky was not amused, which is understandable. I was very upset last week when I went to work wearing a very respectable dark blue cardigan and Hazel, one of the receptionists, burst out laughing and wondered rudely and loudly what had possessed me to buy the cardigan. Much as I tried to tell myself that she was of peasant type who would not recognise class if it were served on a plate with watercress salad, I’d be lying if I said the comments did not hurt. Dr. Polonsky, being the clever academician, decided to trace the posts of ‘Historian’ on the Amazon. She was secretly relieved to know that she was not the only Russianist / Sovietologist trashed by ‘Historian’. ‘Historian’—at this stage Polonsky did not know whether it was a he or a she—had also rubbished biographies published by Robert Service of some or more personalities from the Soviet era.

Then Dr. Polonsky made another discovery. ‘Historian’ had generated another profile on the Amazon website—‘Orlando/Birkbeck’ (I know not how one can link two profiles on the net as belonging to one person, but I am guessing that it can’t be that difficult if Dr. Polonsky managed it). Using her excellent deductive powers Dr. Polonsky reached the ineluctable conclusion that ‘Historian’ and ‘Orlando/Birkbeck’, who had trashed her book was none other than Orlando Figes, fellow Russianist / Sovietologist (I do not know what epithet he prefers, although the way things are going for him at the minute, he will be neither in a few months) and professor of History at Birkbeck college, London, with whom she had had a public spat in 2002, after she wrote a highly critical review of Figes’s book Natasha’s Dance in the TLS (Times Literary Supplement).

Another thing that made Dr. Polonsky suspicious as regards Historian’s identity was the fact that he / she had nothing but fulsome praise for all of Figes’s books. Figes’s 2008 book Whisperer: Private Lives in Stalin's Russia, for example, was a ‘beautiful and necessary’ account of the Soviet system, and Figes possessed [Historian wrote] ‘superb story-telling skills’. That clinched the issue for Dr. Polonsky: anyone who thought Figes had superb story-telling skills was either (a) deluded or (b) Figes himself or (c) both. We do not know which of the three options Dr. Polonsky plumped for, although we can safely narrow it down to b or c. What we do know is that she contacted Robert Service and alerted him of her suspicions. This was exactly the handle Service, who excels in writing tortuous biographies (compared to which a telephone directory is a bowl of amphetamines), was looking for. He in turn sent furious e-mails to 30 other fellow Russianists/Sovietologists (including, we are expected to believe, Figes), in which he condemned the ‘anonymous’ reviews as ‘unpleasant personal attacks of the old Soviet fashion’, stopping short of saying explicitly that the rat was Orlando Figes. (This suggests that the man Figes, a.k.a. ‘Historian’, a.k.a.  ‘Orlando / Birkbeck’, had achieved the clinical efficiency in slaughtering reputations that would have had Stalin nodding with approval, although employing the user name ‘Orlando / Birkbeck, if he had indeed done that, was not very clever; I am not sure the Soviet assassins would have left behind such obvious trails).

Amazon. Com removed the offending reviews from its website (damn!), but now Service was like a Pit Bull who has spotted an infant it can mangle. Experiencing a humour by-pass and frothing with self-righteous indignation he carried on sending bombastic e-mails, urging fellow academicians to start a debate on ‘how to . . . expose practitioners of malign electronic denunciation in countries of free expression’, which only served to bring into relief why most readers become comatose by the time they reach page 10 of Service’s biographies.

Figes reacted angrily to these allegations. He denied that he was Orlando/Birkbeck. Or ‘Historian’ for that matter.  (He was prepared to admit that he was Orlando Figes, which, as the social worker types in the county council say, was a start.) He said that anyone could have written those unflattering (if accurate) reviews of Service’s and Polonsky’s books. The denial was followed by, if Service is to be believed, legal threats for libel.

In an Agatha Chrisriesque touch Figes’s lawyer, David Price, suggested that the ‘Orlando/Birkbeck’ profile could have been an attempt by a third party to discredit Figes.  Added Figes: ‘. . .  clearly that [Orlando / Birkbeck] would have been the last nickname I would have chosen.’

It was all getting a bit, as they say, rum. Who was ‘Historian’, and who was ‘Orlando / Birkbeck’? Were they, as Dr. Polonsky assumed, the same person? If so, who was this person? Was it Figes, as Service and Polonsky believed, who wanted to discredit his rivals; or was it someone else, who had taken on the identity of ‘Orlando/Birkbeck’ that would link to Figes and thus discredit him? In which case the person, ‘the practitioner of malign electronic denunciation’, had tried to kill two (or several birds) in one stone. He (or she) had trashed the books of Service and Polonsky and discredited Figes. Figes had said that he was not stupid to take on the username that would link so obviously to him. But was it a Le Carre style double bluff? Everyone would think it would be so obvious that no one in his right mind would do it. If, as Figes claimed, ‘Orlando / Birkbeck’ was not he, could it be—hold your breath!—Service himself? If it was indeed Service, it would be like cutting your nose to spite your face. Unless of course he really believed in the adage ‘No publicity is bad publicity’, and hoped the interest thus generated would boost the sells of his own books. The mystery thickened.

And then suddenly the mist cleared. Figes issued a statement through his lawyer that it was his wife, the Human Rights barrister Stephanie Palmer who holds an academic position herself in Cambridge, who was responsible for the poison reviews. ‘My client has only just found out about this,’ Price, Figes’s lawyer, said in an issued statement. ‘Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.’

We of course do not know what transpired between Figes and his lawyer wife; however, judging from subsequent developments, I imagine it went along the following lines. ‘Orlando,’ Stephanie Mayer declared, ‘I declare that you are a very silly man. You are a fool. You know very well that I did not write those reviews on Amazon; I have no time to read the tripe you write let alone that old tosspot Service. I have better things to do than getting involved in ridiculous spats you get embroiled in with other chancers, who, like yourself, have made a career out of writing reams and reams of pages about a country and about times few in this country are aware of and fewer care about. Now I suggest you come clean and clarify the matter pronto, otherwise you will find my foot landing with a force on your arse.’ As I said, this is just a guess. The imagined conversation could have taken place over a supper of sea bass, but I doubt it.

The next day Figes issued further clarification through his (one imagines increasingly irate) lawyer. He admitted that it was indeed he who hailed his own work ‘uplifting’ and ‘fascinating’, and found Service’s (awful) books ‘awful’. ‘I have made some foolish errors,’ he said, ‘and apologise wholeheartedly to all concerned.’ He then proceeded to go on sick leave and was unavailable for further comments. ‘This affair,’ Figes concluded, ‘has brought to fore some health issues, but I offer them not as an excuse.’ (What health issues might these be? Perhaps the Psychiatric classification systems should consider including ruthless scheming and lying as a form of mental illness.) Service, in turn, was in about as much mood to show clemency to the disgraced Figes as Bin Laden on a bad hair day. He said that he and his wife had been through hell (in spite of, or perhaps because of, the sea bass supper). ‘However’, he continued (following the dictum: why use ten words when you can waste fifty), ‘I am pleased  . . . that this contaminant slime has been exposed to the light and begun to be scrubbed clean. I have been made acutely aware that a solitary malpractitioner, if he has an abundance of money and malice, can intimidate all and sundry—and that includes both scholars and journalists.’

So this is how things stand. Orlando Figes is humiliated and his public standing in Britain now nestles somewhere between Toni Blair and Gordon Brown. No doubt there will be pressure on him to resign, the first salvo having been fired by John Sutherland, who, as a professor of English at the University College London, is exactly the sort of person you would expect to open his gob about matters that are of no concern of his. Service (one hopes) will sleep better, ecstatic in the knowledge that one of his biggest rivals (who is much more readable than he) has bitten the dust; his euphoria is unlikely to be tempered, at least not for a while, that the fall of Orlando Figes is unlikely to boost the sales of what ‘Orlando / Birkbeck’ described as awful books.