In The Mill on the Floss, having been given a ‘petrifying’ summary of Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil by young Maggie, Mr Riley challenges Mr Tulliver with allowing his daughter access to such dangerous reading material. A perplexed Tulliver explains:
Why, it’s one o’ the books I bought at Partridge’s sale.They was all bound alike — it’s a good binding, you see — and I thought they’d be all good books. There’s Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying among ’em. I read in it often of a Sunday’ (Mr Tulliver felt somehow a familiarity with that great writer, because his name was Jeremy). ‘And there’s a lot more of ’em — sermons mostly, I think — but they’ve all got the same covers, and I thought they were all o’ one sample, as you may say. But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside. This is a puzzlin’ world.
Conspiracy! bears out both the old admonition not to judge a book by its cover and Tulliver’s conclusion about the state of the world. Your average Spectator reader (in the improbable event that such a creature exists) would be unlikely to pick this book off a shelf on the grounds of the cover alone, which shouts its title with all the subtlety of a market trader flogging cut-price tat. Because the character of the contents entirely belie this inauspiciously crude invitation, I am obliged to infer that the cover is ironic, thereby allowing all intelligent people full permission to be seen reading it in public places.
And it’s a puzzling world indeed that Ian Shircore unpicks. In a series of short, incisive chapters he cuts through the dross and hogwash associated with a range of popular conspiracy theories and presents the cases for and against based purely on the facts (as far as they are verifiable through eye-witness accounts and official documentation) with forensic stringency.
In some cases, once all the clutter has been cleared away, the evidence seems so clearly incontrovertible one way or another it’s surprising that they are still viewed as mysteries; in others, there remain genuinely puzzling aspects to one if not both sides of the story.
One continuing controversy concerns the reforming Polish president, national hero and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Lech Walesa. For years Walesa has consistently and strenuously denied he had ever worked for, collaborated or co-operated with, the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa (the state security service and Polish equivalent of the KGB), to the point of dismissing the authenticity of official records and taking one of his accusers to court. Then, in February of last year, there was a new dimension of the controversy when it was reported that he came clean in a Polish television interview.
Although some is new, much of the material Shircore has dug up has been around for some time, but seems not to have been put together dispassionately and logically until now. Consider some of his examples of well-known ‘suicides’. For my money, the medical evidence he has unearthed surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death implicitly rules out self-harm. Only a fool (or someone induced to lie) could compare two emails ‘written’ by Bob Woolmer (coach to the Pakistan team at the 2007 World Cup Finals) around the time of his death and believe they were by the same hand — Shircore categorically states that he too, did not take his own life but ‘was murdered’.
There are probably few people who find the circumstances surrounding the death of former weapons inspector David Kelly straightforward. The facts not only that there were no fingerprints on the bloodied knife found at his side, but that it took a Freedom of Information Act request four years after his death to worm this information out of the police, is one of many suspicious anomalies at the scene which, taken together, in this usually sceptical reader’s view, comprehensively eliminate suicide as a possible cause of death.
Relentlessly interesting, Conspiracy! is best read as you would eat an elephant (a bit at a time) to avoid information overload. So when you’re next at a dinner party and your favourite conspiracy theorists sound off, throw this book at them. And tell them not to mind the cover. Like the Hutton Inquiry, it’s misleading.