Friday, February 26, 2016

Les Chesseurs Britanniques de Paris: Part 4 The Beast

In this series we have tracked the fortunes of the British Chess Club of Paris and its members for the 12 years or so up to its demise when war was declared in 1939 (though the serious fighting didn't start until 1940). In this episode we will see what happened to two club stalwarts afterwards, although this will also involve a return to the years when the club was in full swing. As we have come to expect in this series, we will do all this in the company of George Louis Alexis Langelaan (19 January 1908 - 9 February 1972). He will take centre stage in much of this episode. It is where he would have felt at home. As tends to happen where George is concerned, fact and fiction blur at the edges - even when it comes to his appearance.

At the beginning of the war this is how Langelaan would have looked - the bit of him we can see - in a cropped mugshot-style photograph.  
George fact.
It is how he might have appeared, partially anyway, to the other members of the BCCP between 1926 and 1938/9 (plus or minus a few years). And this is how he looked a little later...

George fiction.
Pictures from Knights of Floating Silk (1959)
Ignore the stage-prop moustache (though it might be his own) and the specs, and the comb-over: these are merely cosmetic and possibly temporary. It's really about the ears, which have been streamlined by plastic surgery - the point of the cropped pictures is to show-off this feature before the application of the surgeon's scalpel (ouch). Yes: the ear-job is permanent. Would that have been done out of personal vanity? Or was there a more profound reason? 

He recounts in "un nommé Langdon" (published in France in 1950, over here as "Knights of Floating Silk" and in the States as "The Masks of War" - both in 1959 - and praised by one historian, M.R.D. Foot, as "a well-written agent's war autobiography") that, when war broke out, "as a British subject living in France I had joined up in Paris….after a bare four weeks at the Le Mans base, had been sent up to the north of France to join the Nth Field Security Section." His French proved useful straightaway in helping his local command communicate with French gun batteries as the Germans overran the Maginot line in 1940. He was evacuated at Dunkirk (a place he had known before the war) in June.

With his language skills, and his flair, Langelaan had an obvious role to play, so his appearance was doctored by SOE in order that he could operate in occupied territory without attracting unwanted attention. He did invaluable intelligence work, although on his first mission in 1940 he was arrested after only a month and imprisoned by the French authorities. He was held in solitary, but played chess with another (unknown) prisoner - "scratching boards on the floor of our cells...My chessmen were made from pieces of straw pulled out of my bedding" (Masks p 148) - by tapping out the moves on the pipe-work. He was expelled to Blightly, and then parachuted back in to continue his adventures.

He claimed to be among the first Allied soldiers to enter Paris at its liberation in August 1944, returning to the streets he had known as a child. His citation for the Croix de Guerre in 1946/7 (although British, he was decorated by the French) read as follows:
"George LANGELAAN was parachuted into France in September 1941. Using Lyons as a base he established contact with various British Sympathisers and with their help obtained a job as a local food distribution officer and under that cover was able to travel in the surrounding countryside. He amassed a great deal of intelligence regarding French Resistance, the railways, the press but was arrested and imprisoned. He finally escaped and made his way home via Spain."  
In diplomatic traffic between Westminster and Paris (in the National Archives) concerning Langelaan's decoration another ex-BCCPer may be found, joined with him in the same documentation in fact: Major Laurent Henry Mortimore. In Part 2 we told how he had been the club's delegate to the French Chess Federation - perhaps because of a facility with the language. He, too, had been born on French soil to parents of both British and French nationalities, and he, too, had opted to relinquish the French. This is his citation:
"Legion of Honour Degree of Chevalier:   Commencing his work in France in the Resistance from August 1940 up to February 1941, he was thereafter charged with organising the passage of men and materials through Spain, Portugal and North Africa up to the liberation. He carried out with complete success all the missions entrusted to him in the formation of reseaux [networks - MS] in France
Mortimore gets his a small place in history for assisting with the reception and assessment of Resistance leader Jean Moulin - then an unknown quantity to the British - en route from France to meet De Gaulle in London in 1941. This is one account:
"[Moulin] crossed the Spanish frontier on 9 September...He reached Portugal on 12 September, setting himself up in a guesthouse...He met British representatives and found he was dealing not with consular officials, but with SOE. On their behalf he was interviewed by Major L.H.Mortimore, a British businessman recently based in France. Mortimore reported that Moulin 'made an excellent impression', and he later told his sister that 'his shining patriotism and personality commanded attention'." (Clinton, A. Jean Moulin 1899-1943. Palgrave Macmillan (2001)).            
In London Moulin was charged by De Gaulle with the mission of uniting the different Resistance networks under one leadership. Back in France Moulin was betrayed, captured, tortured and murdered by the Nazis in 1943; he is honoured as a hero of the French Resistance, and commemorated in the Pantheon, in Paris, of the great men and women of France.

If it's not straying too far from the subject of the series, and if you will permit the indulgence, let's quickly also celebrate Jean Moulin's skill as an artist (under the name "Romanin"), here lampooning not so much modern art as they who refuse to treat with it.

"incovenant" here means "indecent"
By 1946/7 Langelaan was in the Press Section of the British Embassy in Paris, from where he picked up again his career in journalism and writing. One has to suppose that in his accounts of his war-time exploits Langelaan tells it how it was as an agent in occupied France, without embellishment. However, his recollection of the years of the British Chess Club, when re-told thirty-five years later may have been decidedly more shaky: for example the reminiscence that turned up in issue 19 (November/December 1964) of the outré French language revue Planète, with which he was closely associated.
No, not another facial for George.
Talking of reminiscence: I remember from my childhood a popular series on black and white television called "Fact is Stranger than Fiction". Of the same stripe is Planète's proud boast that "Nothing that's strange is foreign to us", and you don't have to translate the foot of the front page [click on to enlarge] to catch their drift. "Fantastic(al) Realism" would be the genre where many might pigeon-hole it (although it is a receptacle of another sort wherein others might consign it).

In issue No 19 we find, under the rubric "invisible history", an article by Jacques Mousseau (Planète's Editor, and, we are told, a respected journalist): Un compagnon de Lucifer: Aleister Crowley - and the alarm bells start ringing. And no, nor is the cover a portrait in blue of The Beast - he appears on the inside, in this familiar image.

Crowley, in 1912 (so it is said).
Now here's another bit of trivia I can't resist sharing with you: Crowley went to school in Streatham, and lived for a year or so in a street down by the Common, now behind the War Memorial . He had form at the chess board, as you will know, and had a chess column in The Eastbourne Gazette for six months in 1894 (managing to put many people's backs up in the process). In his column of 11 April he gave a score of a simul draw against Blackburne (below), and he was apparently uncharacteristically modest in omitting any mention that it was he who played the game; but then, most of the games featured in his column were egostically his, as if no-one else's were worthy of mention (these observations are indebted to the late and lamented Chris Ravilious, and his brilliant in depth review of Crowley's chess career here).

Up at Cambridge he got himself the Presidency of the University Chess Club, and was thus board 1 in the 1897 Oxbridge Varsity Match (he lost to Edward George Spencer-Churchill). The Beast could play; and so what could be more natural, when he was sojourning in Paris in the 1920s, than he should involve himself in the local chess scene. See, for example, this in Le Petit Parisien of 17 April 1929: "I love Paris. It's my headquarters. There I know only decent restaurants and my chess club - where I am well respected. I don't want to go anywhere else."

Reminiscing for Mousseau's article in Planète George Langelaan (back to him again) said he got to know Crowley at the British Chess Club in Paris around 1930-32, when he dropped in once or twice a week to the Café du Grand Palais. In spite of Crowley's notorious reputation - "grand maitre de la magie noire" - he waxes lyrical: ..."only a lot later, and little by little did I [Langellan] discover the reality about the man: one of the great minds of the century, one of three or four great men who we can now recognise, just as, since the end of the [19th] century, we can now see those dark stars of legend." (My translation).

Langelaan then goes on to recount - including, verbatim, a conversation between himself and Crowley - how the latter says he beat Tartakower in a club match. Crowley had been a pawn down against the great master, but after a "conference with the Baron" between moves - in front of the mirror in the lavabos - the game continued and Tarta blundered his Queen. He "renversa son Roi en signe d'abandon."

Crowley beat Tartakower? With such specific and lurid detail, surely this couldn't be yet another piece of self-serving fabulation by The Beast? But Dominique Thimognier of Heritage des Echecs Francais, who knows a thing or two about Tarta, has serious doubts. Much doesn't ring true. There is the no small matter of Crowley having been expelled from France in 1929 (the substance of the Petit Parisien article quoted above) suspected of spying for foreign powers. But Langelaan placed the supposed Tarta game sometime in 1930-32. An inconsistency, though it could be from an understandable trick of Langelaan's memory.
"Magus? Spy? The enigmatic face of Aleister Crowley who is about to be expelled from France."
Le Petit Parisien 17 April 1929 
However, even if the game (assuming it had happened all) had taken place in, say, the first "Liberté" Paris Club competition in 1929 (Langelaan having misremembered the precise year), there is considerable doubt that Tartakower would have played. In such matches there was a presumption against GMs playing club v club. When the Cercle de Potemkhine (Tarta's club) tried to field him later, in the 1931 edition, against Fou de Roi it provoked a row, and Fou de Roi eventually walked out (info from Dominique)

It is possible that Tarta might have played in some friendly club encounter before Crowley's expulsion in 1929 - if a player of Tarta's calibre could have been tempted; but whatever the circumstances, if it did happen as described, surely a "Crowley beat Tartakower" sensation would have been all over town, and into the chess press, in no time at all. Not least because Crowley would have seen to it. But the chess record is silent, there is no game score, and as far as I can see there is no reference to the incident in Crowley's own writing (though I haven't checked it all - there is a limit to how much Crowley one can take, even for the Streatham and Brixton Chess Blog).

Nevertheless, whether the defeat of Tartakower is fantastical fact, or plain and simple fantasy, it is quite plausible that Crowley - an habitué of the Café de Grand Palais when the Club was in session - was, all said and done, a member of the BCCP. So we should perhaps update the list of members that we gave in the episode before last, and include "The Beast" - but maybe not as the cod-Gaelic "Ta Dhuibh", which is how he signed-off his Eastbourne Gazette chess column. His membership, if such, would only have run up until when he was bundled out of France in 1929. It's a shame he wasn't still around in 1932 for the Club's "burlesque performance of Faust". He would have made a more convincing Mephistopheles than even George Langelaan.

Langelaan himself had a successful career after the war, and we will follow this up in the next episode, where George makes good use of his knowledge of the noble jeu.

Members of the BCCP 1926-38 mentioned in the BCM and/or French sources (updated):  
N.Baliol Scott, E.L.Barbier, E.O.Barnard, M.Behles, R.Brown, G.W.Champion, E.Coleman, D.J.Collins, E.A.Crowley, C.C.Curtis, R.Dunlop, F.Farrington, J.J.Fitzpatrick, S.T.Fletcher, W.I.Gastman, E.Grad, H.K.Handasyde, R.W.Holmes, D.Japp, J.M.Lang, George L.A. Langelaan, Gérard Langelaan, L.H.Mortimore, H.Reyss, A.Roe, H.G.Spencer.

Members of the correspondence section:
B.Reilly, Col.Stuart-Prince (based in Nice and Hyères respectively); A.W.Mongredien.

Others mentioned in a social context:
D.Langelaan, M.Staub.

[With thanks also to Richard James, who knows a thing or two about Crowley.] 

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