Olympic Games history, new book

This video from the USA says about itself:

John Carlos, 1968 Olympic U.S. Medalist, on the Sports Moment That Changed The World. 1 of 2

12 October 2011

Almost half a century after his famous raised-fist salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, John Carlos has authored a new memoir with sports writer Dave Zirin, “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.” Olympic medal winners in the 200 meter race, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the national anthem at the Olympic prize ceremony as a protest against racism in the United States.

Seen around the world, the Black Power salute on the Olympic medal stand sparked controversy and an eventual career fallout. “I wasn’t in there for the race, I was there to make a statement,” Carlos told Democracy Now! in an interview Oct. 12 with Dave Zirin. “I was ashamed of America for America’s deeds — what they were doing in history as well as what they were doing at that time.”

This video is the sequel.

By Jamie Johnson in Britain:

How Olympic ideal became corrupted

Tuesday 26th April 2016

Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics
by Jules Boykoff
(Verso, £11.99)

THE OLYMPIC Games have not always been the commercialised economic and undemocratic juggernaut of modern times which, awash with corporate sponsorship, rides roughshod over host communities.

But, historically, it has been a clandestine, elite-driven organisation with regressive policies, a huge price tag and ever-strengthening ties to capitalism.

The St Louis games of 1904 were even bedevilled by so-called “anthropology days,” with events rigged to test racist hypotheses showing that “savages” were inferior.

Women’s participation in track and field events shamefully lagged behind the introduction of female suffrage.

Fortunately, the Olympics’ chequered history has been accompanied by a catalogue of progressive radical protest.

Pre-empting Tommy Smith and Don Carlos’s black power salute at their medal ceremony in Mexico 1968, Irish athlete and staunch nationalist Peter O’Connor — selected to represent Britain— climbed the flagpole to rip down the union flag and fly his Irish alternative after winning silver in the Athens 1906 long jump. Suffragettes targeted the golf tournament at London’s 1908 games.

In developing his theory of “celebration capitalism,” which gives the mainstream media something to cheer about every four years, Boykoff firmly places the five-ringed circus as a central cog in a destructive neoliberal machine and finds much to admire in the alternative, yet short-lived, International Workers’ Olympiads.

And he demonstrates how the Olympics are an incredible but fundamentally unsustainable sporting event, an over-budget corporate franchise purchased with public money, directly transferring wealth to private hands.

British taxpayers footed 88 per cent of London 2012’s costs but received few positive long-term benefits. When even The Economist claims that hosting the Olympics is bad for a city’s health, something is clearly wrong.

Enjoyable and informative, Power Games is an even more relevant read in the build-up to this summer’s first-ever Latin American Olympics.

Scottish 17th century lady-in-waiting’s gown discovered off Texel

Painting by Sir Anthony van Dyck, on the occasion of the wedding of William II and Mary Stuart

From Leiden University in the Netherlands:

Texel gown belonged to member of royal court of Queen Henrietta Maria

20 April 2016

Archival research has revealed that the wardrobe discovered near Texel belonged to the royal court of the English Queen Henrietta Maria. In March 1642 the queen was travelling to the Netherlands on a secret mission when one of her baggage ships sank in the Wadden Sea. This discovery was made by cultural historians Nadine Akkerman from Leiden University and Helmer Helmers from the University of Amsterdam.

Divers had found the gown in a shipwreck off Texel in 2014.

The 17th-century dress, photo Kaap Skil museum on Texel

Scottish lady-in-waiting

The now famous silk gown is still remarkably well preserved and is the showpiece of a larger archaeological find near Texel. It probably belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe (approximately 1585-1643), lady-in-waiting and confidante to Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669). There was also a younger lady-in-waiting whose clothes were being transported in the ship, but the more outdated style and size of the gown indicate strongly that it belonged to Kerr, the elder of the two.

Elizabeth Stuart

Cultural historians Nadine Akkerman and Helmer Helmers are experts on the British Royal House of Stuart. Their findings are based on a letter written by Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), the Stuart princess who found refuge in The Hague after being exiled from the Kingdom of Bohemia. In this letter to the English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, dated 17 March 1642, Elizabeth describes how her sister-in-law lost a baggage ship during the crossing. In addition to the clothing of two ladies-in-waiting and their maids, the queen herself lost the chalices from her private chapel in the shipwreck.

A secret mission

The official story behind Henrietta Maria’s trip to the Dutch Republic was one of royal connections: she was delivering her 11-year-old daughter Mary to the court of William II, Prince of Orange and future stadtholder, whom the girl had married the previous year. This was only a ruse, however: her real mission was to sell the crown jewels and use the proceeds to buy weapons. These were essential for King Charles I to take on Parliament in the English Civil War. According to Akkerman and Helmers, the find at Texel represents a tangible reminder of the strong Dutch involvement in this conflict.

Winter Queen

Akkerman, Assistant Professor of Early Modern English Literature at Leiden University, and Helmers, Assistant Professor of Early Modern Dutch Literature and Culture at the University of Amsterdam, were able to solve the mystery of the unknown owner of the gown reasonably quickly. Akkerman: ‘Once Helmer alerted me to the find, it took us about five minutes to unearth the relevant letter, as I remembered transcribing and deciphering it in 2006. We are still finding even more references.’ Akkerman is the editor of the Correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, while Helmers is the author of The Royalist Republic, on Anglo-Dutch relations in this period.

Unnecessary speculation

The mystery and speculation in the Dutch press surrounding the origin of the wardrobe were unnecessary. With the discovery of the family crest, the evidence quickly started pointing towards the Stuarts. Helmers: ‘It’s a pity we weren’t consulted sooner – the puzzle would have been solved much earlier. The archaeological experts have focused primarily on the material side. That’s important, of course, but the historical texts also tell a thrilling story.’


Native Canadians’ history, new research

This video says about itself:

17 December 2015

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has officially recognized Canada’s historical abuses toward aboriginals, and he is now calling on the Pope to apologize too.

By Janet Browning:

Canadian capitalism and the subjugation and decimation of the indigenous population

23 April 2016

Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life by James Daschuk

James Daschuk, an academic at the University of Regina, has produced a study on the health of Canada’s indigenous people up to and including the nineteenth century. Clearing the Plains provides a devastating indictment of Canadian capitalism’s subjugation and decimation of the Native Indian (First Nations) population on the country’s western plains—the modern-day Prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

Daschuk’s study, which is based on extensive archival research, is aimed at identifying the roots of the stark health disparity between the current-day indigenous and non-indigenous populations of western Canada. At the beginning of Clearing the Plains, Daschuk notes that on average, indigenous Canadians can expect to die between five and eight years earlier than other Canadians. He sets out to confirm that the deliberate economic and cultural marginalization of indigenous people by the Canadian capitalist state is the primary factor impeding improved health outcomes for First Nations people.

The book divides the history of indigenous people’s health into two periods:

1. Before 1869, when the spread of “virgin soil epidemics,” such as tuberculosis, smallpox, whooping cough and scarlet fever, constituted a tragic, unforeseen, but largely organic, change driven by the expansion of trade and increased contact with Europeans; and

2. After December 1869, when, with the purchase of the “Hudson Bay lands” by the recently established Dominion of Canada, the Canadian bourgeoisie and its state mounted a concerted drive to impose capitalist relations based on private property on Canada’s Great Plains. This led to a systematic policy of marginalizing the indigenous population and forcing them off their land, through violence, chicanery, and the deliberate withholding of food—that is, starvation.

Daschuk’s research reveals that in the first period of colonization, indigenous people on the Plains generally enjoyed good health. Indeed, they were observed to be larger than Europeans at the time of initial contact. This was no doubt due to their high protein diet, which was mainly based on the consumption of bison.

European explorers and traders brought smallpox and measles. These and other infectious diseases had a devastating impact because the Native population had no previous exposure to them, hence the term “virgin soil diseases.” As trade spread across the continent, indigenous communities were ravaged by disease, badly disrupting their patterns of life, resulting in food shortages, weakened immune systems, and still greater depopulation.

Daschuk spends the first five chapters of his work dealing with the historical period from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, including the fur wars that commenced in the 1780s, and the subsequent period of the Hudson Bay Company’s monopoly over modern-day Western Canada. The remaining four chapters, upon which this review will concentrate, deal with the period following the 1867 merger of the largest British North American colonies into the Dominion of Canada.

The decline of the fur trade and the relentless expansion of capitalism in the St. Lawrence Valley-Great Lakes region buoyed by Britain’s need for foodstuffs, wood and other resources products and by the transfer of impoverished crofters (tenant-farmers) and artisans from Europe to the “New World” pushed colonial settlement and land appropriation ever deeper into the hunting grounds of the indigenous peoples. As in Australasia, the subjugation and dispossession of the Native peoples of North America arose out of the objective logic of capitalist expansion and the incompatibility of capitalist private property and the exploitation of wage-labour with communal forms of property and social organization.

These objective forces found expression in the political leadership of the new Dominion. Daschuk’s research shows that Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and the principal architect of the union of the British North American colonies, headed a regime engaged in a colonizing process, whose logic led to the driving of the Plains Indians from their ancestral lands and their near extermination. In the quarter century following Canada’s purchase of “legal title” over the Hudson Bay lands, the Canadian state forcibly subjugated and dispossessed the indigenous population of the Plains so that the Canada Pacific Railway could be built, with the threefold purpose of consolidating the Canadian bourgeoisie’s control over the northern tier of North America, opening the Canadian Prairies to commercial agriculture, and providing a market thereby for manufacturers in eastern Canada.

While it is difficult to determine the exact number of Native people who died during this period as the result of Canadian authorities’ acts of commission and omission, Daschuk provides several figures that give a sense of the scale of the catastrophe. In 1876, a government official estimated the total indigenous population on the western plains at 26,000. By 1891, it had fallen to 15,000, including a decline of one third during a six-year period beginning in the mid-1880s.

The Treaties and state-sponsored famine

By the mid-1870s, the bison population, upon which Plains Indians had relied for centuries for food and clothing, was in steep decline, and many of the hereditary chiefs had acknowledged that their people would have to shift from a semi-nomadic life as hunter-gatherers to one based on agriculture. Consequently, they petitioned Ottawa for treaties through which they hoped to gain assistance from the Canadian government in transitioning to agriculture. Eager for economic development and fearing armed conflict, Dominion officials saw the treaty process as a good means to strengthen the state, marginalize the Native population, and get unfettered control over prime tracts of land.

Daschuk notes that most of the Cree who attended the Treaty 6 talks at Fort Carlton in the late summer of 1876 recognized the futility of armed resistance to Dominion authority. The Cree successfully negotiated three innovations in Treaty 6: extra assistance in their conversion to agriculture, relief in the event of famine or pestilence, and a “medicine chest.” The latter provision involved a promise to maintain a chest of basic medical supplies for Native people’s use at the house of the local representative of the Department of Indian Affairs.

Within a year of the signing of Treaty 6, a large-scale famine occurred, which Daschuk characterizes as a “Testament to Dominion indifference.”

In 1877, Treaty 7 was hurriedly negotiated to defuse an increasingly tense situation in Southern Alberta caused by armed conflict just south of the US border. Within two years, the bison were gone, and the indigenous people were resettled onto small, remote reservations that they were forbidden to leave, even to work on private farms as labourers.

At this point, explains Daschuk, Macdonald, seeing his advantage, deliberately withheld food from the hungry and completely dependent population so as to enforce subservience to the Canadian state and compliance with the new capitalist order. If recalcitrant Indians died in the process, so much the better.

As Daschuk observes, “while the Indians were starving, in many cases to death, the authorities withheld food that was available. The famine on the plains was more than the simple Malthusian equation of too many people and too few bison.”

This policy was even more criminal given that, according to Daschuk’s research, Ottawa had been well aware of the impending food crisis. As early as 1874-1875, an internal document predicted the disappearance of the bison within a decade. In May 1878, the lieutenant governor of the Dominion’s territorial government warned the minister of the interior, David Mills, that the government would have to choose one of three options: “help the Indians to farm and raise stock, feed them, or fight them.”

The famine resulted in the sexual exploitation of Native women and children by federal Indian Agents, who exchanged food for sex; created over-crowded living conditions, which resulted in a tuberculosis epidemic in indigenous communities; and led to the death by starvation of many Native people.

“Suffering at Battleford, Saskatchewan, was so pervasive,” writes Daschuk, “that it had become banal. Under the heading ‘Lost and Found’ the Saskatchewan Herald ran the following item on 16 December 1878: ‘Found Where the Indians starved to death, about the 1st of October, a white mare. The owner can have the same by proving property and paying expenses’.”

Daschuk goes on to report, “Even the unsympathetic editor of the Saskatchewan Herald, P.G. Laurier, was moved by the plight of the hungry: ‘the condition of these Indians is deplorable in the extreme. Accustomed all their lives to a diet consisting largely of animal food, the rations of flour and tea they receive here leave them but one remove from starvation.” Laurier reported that Dickieson, the acting Indian superintendent in Battleford, had “to ‘deal single-handed with a thousand starving Indians,’ with no meat or any means of requisitioning it from his superiors.”

At Edmonton, writes Daschuk, “Indian Agent James Stewart reported on the crisis: ‘…I have never seen anything like it since my long residence in this country. It was not only the want of buffalo, but everything else seemed to have deserted the country; even fish were scarce. …. (T)he poor people were naked, and the cold was intense, and remained so during the whole winter; under these circumstances they behaved well, and no raids were made on anything here. They ate many of their horses, and all the dogs were destroyed for food…’.”

Reports from other areas show how the distribution of meagre rations was used by government officials as a weapon, with dreadful consequences. A measure of the disastrous results of the government’s actions is the fact that the few First Nations that had not yet entered into a treaty-relationship with the Canadian state enjoyed better health. As Daschuk notes, “Communities that entered into treaties assumed that the Canadian State would protect them from famine and socioeconomic catastrophe, yet in less than a decade, the ‘protections’ afforded by treaties became the means by which the State subjugated the Treaty Indian population. One measure of the Dominion’s oppression of the indigenous population of the prairies was the explosion of tuberculosis. The Dakota, however, did not succumb to the epidemic in the early 1880s because they were relatively free from the oppressive management of the Department of Indian Affairs and could participate in the commercial economy of the region; in other words, they were free from treaty.”

On top of implementing the federal government’s brutal policies, officials were often corruptly trying to advance their own personal interests. Daschuk cites the case of Edward Dewdney, who served as the lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories during most of the 1880s. Dewdney had close ties to the Montana-based grain firm I.G. Baker, from which the Canadian government purchased flour to supply the reserves. Daschuk reports, “On 6 November 1883, Dr. F. X. Girard, the Medical Officer for Treaty 7, reported that flour supplied by the (Montana) company was ‘unfit for food’ and had been responsible for many deaths. In 1883 W.W. Gibson, a settler whose land was adjacent to the Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan, stated that 130 people had died after being given rancid bacon for their work. The chief, Long Lodge, complained to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs that his people could not eat the bacon, supplied by the I. G. Baker company, to which Dewdney replied, ‘The Indians should eat the bacon or die, and be damned to them’.”

According to a federal Liberal MP, Dewdney’s firm stance on the bacon was because “his friend the contractor, who happened to be in a land syndicate with him, had 90,000 pounds of rotting bacon to dispose of.” Another Liberal MP claimed the Cree who had been confined to the Piapot Reserve were fed rotting meat “bought in Chicago for 1 ½ cents per pound and sold to this government for 19 cents,” and that a share of the profits went to the lieutenant-governor. “Predictably,” Daschuk writes, “the Prime Minister dismissed charges that there was a connection between Dewdney, the consumption of spoiled bacon, and the sudden spike in deaths on the Indian Head reserves.”

The role of the Macdonald Conservative government

Daschuk’s study is principally concerned with the health of Native people, devoting less attention to the discussions taking place within the political establishment at the time. Nonetheless, his account does demonstrate that the political elite, and the Conservatives under Macdonald in particular, saw the indigenous population as a barrier to capitalist expansion in the west. “Macdonald’s plan to starve uncooperative Indians onto reserves and into submission might have been cruel,” says Daschuk, “but it certainly was effective.”

With the return to power of a Macdonald-led Conservative government in 1878 after a five-year Liberal interregnum, there was, explains Daschuk, a new approach to Indian policy. This new approach was bound up with the implementation of the Conservatives’ National Policy, which had as one of its central goals the “opening” of the Prairies to large-scale settlement and capitalist exploitation. “Management of the increasingly serious food situation and Indian affairs generally shifted from a position of ‘relative ignorance’ under the Liberals to one of outright malevolence during the Macdonald regime.” To ensure that the Indians were “pacified” and the western plains ready for the Canadian Pacific Railway and settlement, Macdonald personally took charge, naming himself Superintendent General of Indian Affairs.

Although Daschuk’s research demonstrates that the Canadian state combined the deliberate use of famine as a political weapon with callous criminal indifference, making it directly responsible for a catastrophic drop in the Native population, he refrains from indicting the Canadian state for genocide.

“This study,” he writes, “has shown that the decline of First Nations’ health was the direct result of economic and cultural suppression. The effects of the state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities that began in the 1880s haunt us as a nation still.” He continues, “Identification of the forces that have held indigenous communities back might provide valuable insights into what is required to bridge the gap between First Nations’ communities and the rest of Canada today.”

This amounts to little more than a vague hope. As Daschuk himself notes, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Third World-type conditions continue to prevail on most reserves. Moreover, the conditions of First Nations people who have migrated to the cities are little better. As in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of Canada’s Native people confront desperate poverty, food insecurity and hunger, inadequate fresh water supplies, high rates of unemployment, and an increased likelihood of falling victim to violent crime.

Canadian capitalism and its state were consolidated through the dispossession and subjugation of the Native people, the seizure of their lands, the destruction of their communal property relations, and, under the “treaty-system,” the shunting of the Native people onto reserves that were denied basic resources and subject to all manner of intrusive state control. This process, as Daschuk graphically illustrates, even if he himself shies away from using the term, involved a genocidal policy toward the Plains Indians.

In the twentieth century, the Canadian state connived with the mining, oil, lumber, and hydro companies to further dispossess the Native population, while sponsoring a system of state-sponsored church-run “residential schools” that systematically abused and humiliated Native children. Last year, the government-established Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) felt compelled to designate the residential school policy a “cultural genocide.”

The oppression of the Native people down to this day has been inextricably bound up with the emergence and expansion of Canadian capitalism. It will only be ended through a movement uniting the working class—Native and non-Native—in struggle against the capitalist social order.

By producing a well-researched book that sheds light on the brutal means by which the Canadian bourgeoisie consolidated its state and the enduring legacy of this crime, Daschuk has contributed to a fuller understanding of an important historical period that remains largely unknown. Clearing the Plains deserves a wide audience.

The author also recommends:

Canada’s aboriginal Truth and Reconciliation Report—the class issues
[13 June 2015]

What is at stake in Australia’s “History Wars”
[14 July 2004]

William Shakespeare, book republished

This video about William Shakespeare is called King Lear: The Fool.

By Gordon Parsons in Britain:

Of his, and our time

Thursday 21st April 2016

GORDON PARSONS reflects on the timely republication of a book on Shakespeare’s significance in his own period and today

Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen by Victor Kiernan (Zed Books, £14.99)

THERE are many Shakespeares.

There’s the Stratford lad whose private life, despite many biographies, remains relatively unknown. In consequence an inventive industry, questioning whether such a “nonentity” could possibly have been the playwright and poet whose achievement is recognised as the Everest of world literature, has spawned a mountain of publications.

There’s the writer whose texts are seen by the educational establishment as necessary examination fodder for generations of children who mostly will never again wish to read or even to see Shakespeare on stage, his natural and essential habitat.

Then there’s the national icon whose name can be employed to stir up patriotic spirits in time of need and the commercial “Shakesploitation,” whereby cigars are only one of the myriad products that use the Bard tag.

But both his huge and creative vocabulary and his poetry live in the bloodstream of the language.

They inform everyday conversation, so that Colonel Tim Collins can rouse his troops for battle in Kuwait with an extemporised version of Henry V’s “band of brothers” Agincourt speech and, less auspiciously, there’s the Royal Marine sergeant, unluckily videoed paraphrasing Hamlet. “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt,” he told a wounded Afghan prisoner before shooting him in cold blood.

Undeniably, the plays have captured the imagination and spoken to the generations in the theatre and now on the screen over the 400 years since his death, the quatercenteneary of which is marked on Saturday.

Innumerable books have attempted to answer why this should be the case, literary specialists have analysed the poetry and the characters, while directors and actors have explored the stagecraft and thematic meaning in productions in every kind of venue from village halls to the Royal Shakespeare and National Theatre stages.

Whatever the works may have meant to previous ages — grotesquely adapted in the 17th century or played alongside pantomimes and circus acts in the 19th — they have engaged with our troubled modern world with a particular acuity.

Victor Kiernan, one of that outstanding group of Marxist historians, including Eric Hobsbawn and EP Thompson, spent nearly 50 years studying the 16th century, which shared with today the unnerving crisis of a fundamentally changing world. The movement from feudalism to early capitalism questioned every element of life as codes of behaviour, ethics, class and economic power were going through tectonic shifts.

Few would deny that our own world is undergoing momentous upheavals, from post-capitalism’s decay into an unknown future.

Kiernan’s exhaustive research led, at the age of 80, to the 1993 Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen, now republished.

His detailed knowledge of the plays and the period they emerged from give an enormous authority to his analysis of the forces at work in them. He covers the entire canon, including the sonnets and the comedies but his analysis of the histories is central.

As an historian, Kiernan was understandably more interested in Shakespeare the citizen than the poet, believing that “all good critics are historians” who cannot divorce literature from the socio-political world that spawned it.

If he believes that the sonnets would not be much read if they had been written by anyone other than Shakespeare, he finds them most interesting in their range of social and political implications. An example is “lease” in the line “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” which, according to Kiernan, reminds us that “short leases were weapons in the hands of landowners who were busy ejecting superfluous tenants.”

He maintains that “past politics fascinated Shakespeare from the beginning so obviously it is scarcely possible to think that he was not interested in the politics of his own time.”

Half of his plays, including the great tragedies — treated in depth by Kiernan in his later Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare — are set in historical times. His central analysis of the English history cycles, mapping the 14th and 15th centuries of civil turmoil from the reigns of Richard II to Richard III, captures the essence of Shakespeare’s instinctive understanding of the forces at play in power and personal politics, forces that emerge in all his works.

Here was a world, like both Shakespeare’s and our own, struggling to emerge from a crumbling system into a new world of hope and fear. His plays give “a human contour to impersonal tides of change.”

In the “feminine” world of the comedies, the heroines collectively demonstrate “the vision of a humanity not yet in being,” with an intelligence, strength and sensitivity greater than any of the male characters.

By comparison with the histories, the comedies centre on individuals, with the group “much less a microcosm of society.” Yet the comedies do mirror a society “permeated by money and money-making.”

Primarily, though, Shakespeare was and is an entertainer.

But, as Kiernan has it, “every genuine poet is a teacher” and for his contemporary audiences and those of today he reflects a dramatic image of the past “in order to understand the present better and what was needed to understand the future better than either.”

Houdini and Conan Doyle, stage magic and spiritualism

This video from Britain says about itself:

17 December 2015

Trailer for a new 10-part series “Houdini & Doyle” to air on ITV Encore, Global TV, and Fox in 2016.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Houdini and Doyle: The real story

Wednesday 6th April 2016

A new TV whodunnit features the magician and author battling over spiritualism. It is a true story and PETER FROST tells it here

AFTER any war there are always a number of those who have lost loved ones and are in deep mourning. That is the time that charlatan spiritualists, profit-driven supernaturalists and all sorts of dodgy preachers come out of the woodwork to take advantage of these people’s grief.

Of course there were genuine believers and perhaps the best known of them in the years after the immense slaughter of WWI was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle was a huge supporter of spiritualism; his wife was a practicing medium. Lady Doyle often conducted seances appearing to be in communication with the dead, and Doyle was absolutely convinced of her ability.

Doyle had been for many years a leading member of the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation composed mainly of enthusiastic believers in the paranormal rather than being genuinely interested in objective research.

Yet in the 1920s even that unthinking support was not enough for Doyle. He led a resignation of 84 members of the society, on the grounds that it was too sceptical. Most of those who left the society joined the Ghost Club, of which Doyle was a long-time member. The Ghost Club was fully convinced that the supernatural was an absolute fact.

At about the same time Harry Houdini was best known as the world’s most famous magician and escapologist. He was a huge star. Houdini was a great friend of Doyle but he was also a committed debunker of false mediums and dishonest spiritualism.

This difference of opinion would challenge a friendship between two deep thinkers in the field of the public understanding of science.

Despite this radical difference of opinion, Houdini and Doyle managed to keep their friendship alive for some years.

Then in the spring of 1922, Houdini invited Doyle to the home of his friend New York Lawyer Bernard Ernst.

Houdini wanted to prove to Doyle that anything a medium could do he could reproduce using the tricks of stage magic.

Houdini had Doyle go outside in private and write a simple note that Houdini could not have seen. When Doyle re-entered Houdini had a cork ball soaked in white ink magically roll around on a slate and spell out the exact message Sir Arthur had written.

Houdini wrote to Doyle telling “I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion; I have been working at it, on and off, all winter. I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery.

“I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily supernatural, or the work of spirits, just because you cannot explain them.

“Do, therefore, be careful in future, in endorsing phenomena just because you cannot explain them. I have given you this test to impress upon you the necessity of caution, and I sincerely hope that you will profit by it.”

Doyle responded by inviting Houdini to his own home on June 17 1922 so that his wife could convince Houdini of the reality of the supernatural by putting Houdini in touch with his deceased mother.

In the ensuing seance, Lady Doyle, produced a letter she claimed had been written by Houdini’s dead mother.

Doyle believed this proved the existence of communication beyond the grave. He believed he had won the argument.

Houdini pointed out that the letter was written entirely in English and his [Hungarian] mother could not read, write or speak the English language.

The chasm between the two men became even bigger. In 1923, Houdini agreed to join a committee formed by Scientific American magazine to offer 5,000 dollars to any medium that could pass the committee’s tests. None was able to do so, and the prize was never collected.

Houdini took to attending seances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officers. These activities really upset Doyle who refused to believe any of Houdini’s exposés.

Amazingly Doyle actually believed that Houdini was himself a powerful spiritualist medium, and had performed many of his demonstrations only by means of his own paranormal abilities.

The friendship broke down completely with public threats of lawsuits. Houdini continued challenging and exposing fake mediums for the rest of his life. His fame grew for his amazing escapes and stage acts, but he was increasingly attacked by spiritualists.

Houdini died in 1926. Sir Arthur published The Edge of the Unknown about his life experiences with spiritualism, and he dedicated an entire chapter to his remarkable thesis that Houdini actually had supernatural powers, but knowingly lied about them.

Houdini’s battle against spiritualism continued beyond his own death.

His wife, Bess Houdini, held annual seances, as the couple had planned, to reach Harry in the hereafter. None of the attempts were successful.

The couple had agreed upon a code word to be included in any message Houdini managed to get through from the grave. The word, “Rosabelle-believe,” never emerged in any of the seances.

The tradition of holding a seance for Houdini continues, held by magicians throughout the world. No messages have ever come through.

Doyle never lost his faith in life after death but so far he too has never been able to confirm that belief from beyond the grave.

Sadly even today there are still many charlatan mediums taking money from grieving people desperate to reach lost relatives.

Houdini and Doyle is shown at 9pm on Thursdays on ITV Encore.