Russian spies. Assassinating Arafat. Pinochet’s Poison and Chile’s 9/11. Part one of three:
“What’s Your Poison?” – Idiom:
To ask someone what they would like to drink.
…He found another jar of creamy stuff labelled HAIR REMOVER. SMEAR IT ON YOUR LEGS, it said AND ALLOW TO REMAIN FOR FIVE MINUTES. George tipped it all into the saucepan. There was a bottle with yellow stuff inside it called DISHWORTH’S FAMOUS DANDRUFF CURE. In it went.
- Roald Dahl, George’s Marvellous Medicine
I’ve never thought about poisoning my granny, she’s lovely, but there was a certain vicarious exhilaration as a kid rummaging through George Kransky’s big old house and mixing the horse pellets and the hair wash into a noxious soup to feed to that wily old hag. Roald Dahl made our lives that much richer. In our big old garden in Australia my sister used to make concoctions of mud and lavender, her famous “poisonous cocoa”, and offer it to us as we’d water the plants in the heat of the Summer, yes please my darling! But then, little sisters are naturally very sneaky. In one of the circles that I roll in, in the strange world of Christianity, there’s always Holy Water to turn to if one has succumbed to any otherworldly malevolence, a dash on the walls and the ceiling, a few drips on the forehead, a dunk for the wafer or something if you’re Catholic, a bucket for the demonised, mutant cockroach that threatens to bring ruin to you and your posterity if you’re Pentecostal. That last one actually happened. Today our subject: potable dispatches from the history of poisons, anecdotes about antidotes, and curious cures. Too much alliteration? Okay. Also spies, lots of spies.
It Started at Starbucks
On a Cold(War) Afternoon
I’m sitting in a Starbucks in England. Most English coffee, I understand, is basically poison – foamy, frothy, burnt, nothing like at home. Corporate coffee has the distinctive taste of orphan tears but at least in this sweaty store they know how to make a Flat White. The “bitter medicine” of austerity has hit England too and Starbucks has been in the news for paying so little tax. There’s a poster up now saying that they’ve changed their ways but reports are coming out that they’ve also started cutting the wages of the employees to meet the new demands. Google, in all its straightforward glory, simply declined to pay more. I should boycott the cafe but it’s the only place I can get wifi to access google – I’m a sellout, calloused to my fellow man. It was reading The Independent (not that independent if you ask me), a little twenty-pence paper they sell in Starbucks, that I read about the latest hoo-ha surrounding the 2006 poisoning of a Russian spy, working for MI6 and the Spanish government, apparently by his unimpressed ex-KGB buddies. Welcome to the carry-on of Cold War intrigue. Assassination by poisoning seems kind of anachronistic in this day and age but then so does assassination generally, yet it’s in vogue like never before. Obama can assassinate just about anyone, including your granny, without congressional approval or any disclosure to the public - Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis dodge drones on the regular. We assassinated bin Laden without trial, which even for a bastard is technically illegal.
I suddenly get reminded to google Yasser Arafat, whose grave they just dug up, suspecting that Israel’s Mossad (think CIA with even more chutzpah) had poisoned him, but now the wifi has stopped working - Starbucks, you asshole! Oh there, working now. Deborah Blum, who wrote The Poisoner’s Handbook, brought up the point that your average heavy-smoker, one-pack-and-a-half-a-day, say, can have polonium-210 in their tubes like a dwarf has worms, and Arafat smoked a lot. I think all Arabs smoke and they don’t use filters. Polonium-210 is the same substance they found in Litvinenko’s (the Russian-MI6 spy) green tea and found in traces on Arafat’s clothes, sheets and his famous kaffiyeh (you know, the black and white-checked Palestinian scarfs). Was Arafat poisoned by Israel, who, along with the U.S. and Russia, stockpile the vile stuff like there’s no tomorrow ; or was he poisoned by his own dirty smoker’s breath? Who knows, but then again, Israel did cut-off his nicotine supply, along with coffee, when his P.L.O.’s headquarters were besieged by the IDF during the 02’-04’ turmoil (see here and here for competing narratives), and this is where he fell ill, rapidly degenerating into a coma and finally dying in the Paris hospital he was flown to. Who knows? Apparently Mossad enjoys using poison, but they enjoy a lot of strange things, and there are many possible reasons for Arafat’s horrible death, God rest him. The good news is that Harry Potter’s Mike Newell might get his way and make a film about Litvinenko, but even that’s not so great if you know what Newell’s (not)capable of.
Meanwhile, in Chile they just exhumed another political leader to find out his cause of death. He was Salvador Allende’s “2i/c” (that’s Second-in-Command for you civilian sorts), and when the Western-backed military bombed the presidential villa, where President Allende died amongst the flames (get this, it was September 11,1973), José Tohá, the Vice President, found his way into the military dungeons, to be tortured by a bunch of CIA-patsies until he was found hanging in his cell. His daughter Carolina, a democratic leader in Santiago, believes the hanging was a murder. It’s quite strange that this would be debated considering the sordidness of the Pinochet forces in the mass-murder of Allende supporters through the years following 1973 coup d’etat. Chile’s Communist party has even called for the digging up of their poet laureate Pablo Neruda’s remains to find out if he was poisoned for his political leanings. His former driver recalls Neruda being injected by Pinochet agents hours before his death, in the same clinic where previous President Eduardo Frei, Sr. is confirmed to have been poisoned too. ¿ Oh, and who would kill the noble poet ? Walter Brueggemann puts it like this (in describing the Hebrew prophets); “I just think they are moved the way every good poet is moved to have to describe the world differently according to the gifts of their insight. And, of course, in their own time and every time since, the people that control the power structure do not know what to make of them, so they characteristically try to silence them. What power people always discover is that you cannot finally silence poets. They just keep coming at you in threatening and transformative ways.” I think he’s right in the case of Neruda. These words, for example, live on in endless double time:
There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.
Well, we’ve gone and got political again, haven’t we? I just can’t help myself. Maybe I’m just avoiding the issue of my own eventual poisoning by “radioactive cigarettes”, but then, I don’t smoke five-a-day, let alone a pack-and-a-half. I was smoking a particularly poisonous breed of tobacco recently, purchased in ignorance, known in the old neighbourhood as the unofficial ‘prison baccy’, and that cut me down to half-a-cigarette at a time. My mouth fills with vinegar just thinking about it. It earned me some sweet street cred’ with the local train rats, however, who when they have cigarettes, instead of bumming yours, probably smoke the same stuff. I tell you, that stuff is real poison. I grew my liver to 51-times the size of your average dog’s liver just to survive that month. Each puff felt like an injection of Me-Mow’s green liquid, and I remember, startled, that she’s a second class assassin from the Guild of Assassins, or the School of Assassins (the Fort Benning, Georgia residence of Latin America’s U.S.-directed death-squads, recently renamed something nicer and even less open to scrutiny), but I forget where exactly Me-Mow earned her stripes. I remember, also, to never try this drug called Meow! that they sell here in England. She’s probably the source of that too, although they say it’s from China. Me-Mow looks like she could be from China too, she’s one of those Chinese-looking cats. They say Meow! is meant to keep you up for five-days straight, and age you like a nagging wife. ¡ Never touch that wicked beast, bolillo !
Part one of Three. Turn the page for more!