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24 November 2017

The bizarre academic fascination with Charles Manson

I heard an Oxford professor argue that, far from being mad, the cult leader had a lucidly logical mind. 

By Peter Wilby

The cult leader Charles Manson, who has died at 83, was a subject of fascination to some sections of the Western intelligentsia. This could take bizarre forms. A few years after Manson’s followers, on his orders, murdered seven people in Los Angeles in August 1969 – including the heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski – I heard an Oxford University professor of religion argue that, far from being mad, Manson had a lucidly logical mind. The professor was Robert Zaehner, a former MI6 agent in Tehran.

At the annual conference of the World Congress of Faiths, which I attended after a tip that he would say something controversial, he argued that Hindu texts made plain that realisation of “the Absolute” meant transcending good and evil. On the absolute plane, killing and being killed were equally unreal. “Once you have truly got rid of all sense of ego,” Zaehner said, “you will find that you can murder to your heart’s content and feel no remorse at all.” Even the Old Testament God, “a raving savage”, could be quoted in support of murder.

Zaehner explained to me afterwards that he wasn’t attacking religious faith as such but pointing out the dangers of taking scripture literally. I wasn’t sure that his audience, which included nuns, Anglican vicars and Buddhist monks, quite got that message. Nor perhaps did the Almighty. The following year, Zaehner, a Roman Catholic, died suddenly at 61 on his way to Sunday Mass.

Gainfully employed

Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, caused outrage when he stated that we have “full employment”. But he may be right, or almost so. Economists agree that zero unemployment, even if it were possible, would be undesirable: the labour market would be inflexible and inflation rampant. They disagree, unsurprisingly, on the desirable rate.

John Maynard Keynes put it at 3 per cent. Followers of Milton Friedman prefer 6 per cent. The current UK unemployment rate, 4.3 per cent, is slightly nearer to Keynes’s figure than to Friedman’s. As we all know, successive governments massaged unemployment figures downwards until they became almost meaningless. Many who are now “employed” live precariously in the “gig economy”. Yet since the alternative to Hammond seems to be the crazed Brexiteer Michael Gove, perhaps we should cut the Chancellor a little slack.

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Vanishing state

According to figures from Savills, councils in the first eight months of 2017 spent £758m – roughly three times what goes on building council houses – buying commercial property including hotels, office blocks and shopping centres.

With their taxation powers and central government grants both severely curtailed, council leaders have no alternative but to turn themselves into ravenous capitalists. Investing in an office block gives far better returns than building homes for people on modest incomes to rent.

That is the way of neoliberalism. In the Soviet Union, entrepreneurial instincts were wiped out and the state became omnipresent. In 21st-century Britain, the idea of public service is wiped out and the market becomes omnipresent.

One-way ticket

The story of the explorer Benedict Allen, who was stranded in the jungles of Papua New Guinea and had to be rescued by the Daily Mail (according to the Mail, that is), alarmed me. Visiting PNG four decades ago, I came close to being  abandoned. At a loose end on a Sunday in the capital, Port Moresby, which has no road or rail links with the country’s mountainous interior, I wandered down to the airport and bought a day return (or so I thought) on a single-engined passenger plane to a remote settlement.

After an hour’s flight over dense jungle, I was dropped on to a landing strip lined by people carrying chickens, presumably intended for sale in the capital’s markets. As I went to explore, the Australian pilot shouted, “When are you going back?” When he was ready, I replied. He examined my ticket, looked at me sternly and said it was a single. “When is the next flight?” I asked. “In three weeks’ time,” he replied. As I looked aghast, he said he would take me back but I must sit in the cockpit with him. As he turfed a randomly chosen villager and his chickens off the plane, amid vigorous protests, I understood why.

Office politics

I used to enjoy television comedy. But after I experienced working on the Observer, then edited by David Astor who was also the proprietor, nothing on TV ever seemed as funny again. The newly published memoir of Astor’s successor Donald Trelford, Shouting in the Street, recalls many episodes of high comedy. Here is one.

In 1969, Michael Davie, then the deputy editor, suddenly disappeared. Nobody knew where or why. Then Anne Chisholm, who worked on the gossip column, also left suddenly. They were lovers and had eloped (Chisholm’s word) when Davie’s wife discovered their affair.

This being before the era of gender equality, Chisholm was instantly dismissed while Davie was demoted to news editor (they later married and both became distinguished authors). Trelford, who went on to edit the Observer from 1975 to 1993, stepped into the deputy editorship.

As these events unfolded, Nora Beloff, the volatile political correspondent, arrived unannounced at Astor’s enormous north London home. “You’re a murderer,” she shouted. “You’ve murdered Michael’s marriage.” Astor, the most patient and courteous editor I have known, invited her to explain over dinner. Eating, drinking and talking in an emotional state, she at one stage paused briefly, opened her handbag and vomited into it. She then, as Trelford tells it, “snapped the handbag shut and resumed… with barely a pause”. 

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder