Decamot of the month

28 Feb 2018-The Road to Mandalay

Inspired by the following Decamot items: plate, Nicole, train, baker, classroom, East Coast, front garden, nail polish, Taj Mahal, wrapping paper

Early in the afternoon of his 60th birthday, Jack White was in his study sitting at his desk building a large Lego model of the Taj Mahal. There were three birthday cards on the window sill (from his wife, son and daughter respectively) and some scrunched up wrapping paper on the floor near the bin. On the HiFi was playing some uncomplicated blues from the late 60s, a favourite genre of Jack's, although not of the rest of the family. But as it was his birthday, no one was complaining, However, when "She Caught The Katy" came round for the third time, his wife Ruby and daughter Carol decided it was about time to prepare his birthday tea.

This level of domesticity was very unusual for the Whites. They were normally racing around the Europe and the US in pursuit of a quick buck, and quite often a not so quick buck, pulling off heists and large scale cons. When it comes to birthdays, it's never easy knowing what to get for the man who has everything, or who can steal anything. This year Jack had come up with something a little different.

"You know what I really want for my birthday? Instead of something ingenious or daring, or exotic or rare, or nearly impossible to obtain, what I really want this year is a normal family birthday. Like normal people have."

And so that's what they'd arranged. A typical birthday tea, complete with jelly, ice cream and a cake had been Ruby's idea. The Lego model had been Carol's idea. She reasoned that at least it would keep him occupied all day, and he clearly loved that particular building because a picture of it had hung on the wall of his study for as long as she could remember. And Sebastien, Jack's son, had, ... , well Sebastien had agreed to go along with it, and that was about as good as anyone could really hope for.

Sebastien, was sitting in an armchair by the window reading through Sotherby's latest catalogue making occasional remarks about some of the items going under the hammer in upcoming auctions. Jack was making the odd comment in reply, but he wasn't really listening. His attention was mainly on following the model's instructions which he was finding surprisingly hard.

Sebastien: Sotherby's have got an auction on next week.

Jack: Oh yes.

Sebastien: One of the items is a photograph. It's expected to fetch in excess of £1.5 million. Proceeds to be donated to Help the Heroes.

Jack: I see.

Sebastien: It's a photograph of the Taj Mahal.

Jack: Oh yes.

Jack didn't look up from his model. Sebastien looked at the picture on the wall behind Jack's desk.

Sebastien: It looks a lot like yours.

Jack: What does?

Sebastien: The photo they're selling at Sotherby's.

Jack: Oh right, yes that.

Sebastien got up from his chair and walked around his father's desk to get a closer look at the picture handing on the wall. He compared it with the picture in the catalogue.

Sebastien: In fact, I'd say it is your photograph.

Jack: Hmmm.

Sebastien: Does that mean yours is worth that kind of sum?

Jack: Oh, I shouldn't think so.

Sebastien: Why would anyone pay that kind of sum?

Jack: Various factors I guess. Rarity would be the main thing. The photographer would be another obvious one. And of course, if the photographer's dead, that would be a factor.

Sebastien: Why would being dead help?

Jack: Well they're not going to take any more, are they?

Sebastien: Yeah right, gotcha. Ups the rarity factor. This photographer I've never heard of before. They've got a picture of the photographer's signature here in the catalogue alongside a picture of the Taj Mahal that they're selling. It looks like ZeeGee. All one word. Capital Z, capital G.

Jack stopped working on his Lego model of the Taj Mahal.

Jack: Let me see that.

He reached for the Sotherby's catalogue that Sebastien had been engrossed in.

Jack: Well, well, well.

As Jack was studying the catalogue intently, Ruby and Carol walked into the room. Both women were carrying a large plate piled high with sandwiches which they put down on the dining table at the other side of room.

Ruby: Found anything of interest?

Jack: Yes. The Last ZeeGee. You remember ZeeGee, don't you darling?

Ruby: Of course I do. Also known as Zenda Goldman. We were all at Oxford together, and you were one of her prisoners, weren't you Jack?

Carol: That sounds intriguing.

Jack: It's your mum's little joke at my expense. We all met in the first week. All studying different forms of engineering: mechanical, chemical and electrical. Some of our lectures overlapped. A group of us decided to join the hiking society together.

Sebastien: Oh very wholesome.

Sebastien raised a hand to his mouth feigning a yawn.

Jack: Zenda was the last to join.

Ruby: And when she walked into the room, all the men swooned. We called them the "Prisoners of Zenda" behind their backs.

Jack: Rubbish of course. But I must admit, going into Zenda's room at university was rather a heady affair.

Carol: Oh yeah!

Jack: It was not like that. She shared a room with Nicole Fanshaw ...

Sebastien: Oh yeah!

Jack: She shared a large double room in an all female halls. All the rooms were double; they all had roommates. It was a heady affair because of the chemicals.

Carol: This is getting better and better.

Jack: Not that sort of chemical. Photographic chemicals. She used to develop all her own photos in the there.

Sebastien: Don't you need a dark room to do that?

Jack: She'd fitted total black-out screens to the windows. She was something of a fanatic about her photographs. She brought with her from home her own red-bulbed lamp, always had a stash of film available, and even experimented with photographic plates occasionally.

Carol: So it was just you and the beguiling Zenda, in a darkened room. Alone.

Jack: It wasn't darkened. She only closed the blinds when she was developing a picture.

Carol: But you were alone?

Jack: Yes, but that's not the point of the story.

Carol: Did she invite you back to see her etchings?

Sebastien guffawed.

Jack: No. We were just killing time before a lecture. But it was while I was there that I found out her two greatest loves.

Carol: At last, the good stuff!

Jack: Her love of her photography, obviously, and her political activism.

Carol: Boring!

This time Carol raised a hand to her mouth feigning a yawn.

Jack: Not at all. Her photography was extraordinary. That was when I saw this photo for the first time hanging on her wall.

Jack patted the photograph shown in the Sotherby's catalogue.

Jack: She'd taken it while travelling through India in her gap year. The composition is perfect: from her choice of spot from which to take it, to the inclusion of people near the building to give an idea of scale, and the archway framing the shot which emphasises the building's symmetry. The political activism I could have done without. In fact, we nearly fell out over it.

Carol: You got into a pretty girl's room at university, and you fell out over politics?

Jack: Nearly fell out.

Carol: How did that happen?

Jack: Well it started out when I made a joke about a poster that she had on her wall. It was of Che Guevara. Dark red background and silhouette of Che wearing a beret adorned with a communist star. Very popular with left-wing students of a certain age.

Carol: But not you!

Jack: No. I merely said: "Ah, Tooting Popular Front's finest". She wasn't amused.

Carol: I can imagine.

Carol paused briefly.

Carol: Actually, I can't imagine. I've no idea what you're talking about.

Jack: Che Guevara was an Argentinian Marxist revolutionary who helped Castro take control of Cuba in the 1950s. Robert Lindsay played a character called Citizen Smith in a sitcom parodying Che. Smith's movement in the show was called the Tooting Popular Front. It was very popular in the late 70s early 80s when we were at university.

Carol: But not with Zenda I'm guessing.

Jack: No!

Carol: So she took politics pretty seriously then!

Ruby: That would be an understatement. She was forever going to her silly rallies with her camera taking photographs for the Socialist Worker. We had to ban her from planning the society's hikes in the end, because they would invariably take us close to a some mass protest or other. She nearly got us all arrested once when she tried to take us across Greenham Common to visit her 36 "sisters" chained to the base fence.

Jack: At the end of the third year of university, she was getting hassled by her dad. He was most concerned that she was spending far too much of her time outside the classroom: "Wasting her talents on lost causes". I suggested that she sell some of her photos to prove to her dad that her passion could be profitable. To which she responded: "Money is so vulgar!"

Ruby: Which was easy for her to say of course. Her family were loaded. Her father was a Harley Street Doctor, I think.

Jack: Harley Street Dentist actually.

Ruby: That would explain her teeth!

Jack: Quite! She had whitest teeth I'd ever seen. She was decades ahead of the latest British celebrity glowing white tooth obsession.

Ruby: I'm surprised you noticed her teeth!

Carol: This sounds interesting. She had other assets that appealed did she?

Carol made quotation marks with her fingers as she said the word "assets".

Ruby: Well appearance wise, she certainly wasn't your typical revolutionary socialist. She was petite, pretty, always well presented, and was never without matching lipstick and nail polish.

Sebastien: So not a feminist then!

Ruby: On the contrary. In her opinion, if men were stupid enough to be wooed by a woman's looks, then she would take advantage of their gullibility if it meant furthering the cause, whatever that cause may be.

Ruby looked at her husband. Jack smiled briefly and insincerely.

Ruby: In fact, her feminism is why she adopted the pseudonym ZeeGee.

Carol: I don't follow.

Ruby: She wanted to remove the "man" from her name, but without losing her identity, so she chose to construct a pseudonym out of her initials. So Zenda Goldman became ZeeGee.

Carol: Shouldn't that be Zed Gee?

Jack: I made the mistake of asking her that once. She pointed out that Zed is a Hebrew boy's name meaning "The Lord is righteous", which she felt would defeat the object of removing the "man" from her name.

Carol: Ah!

Jack: So she adopted the American pronunciation "Zee" instead.

Jack took one of the sandwiches from its plate.

Jack: Anyway, I persuaded Zenda to travel during the summer, take some photos and see if she can sell them to a newspaper or a magazine.

Ruby: And that's exactly what she did, except in typical Zenda style. She started by flying to New Delhi, then travelled by train across India to the East Coast and then on to some of India's northern neighbours. Along the way, she took many photos, but the most iconic were of four more dramatic buildings in South Asia: The Charminar mosque Hyderabad, India, with its four perfect minarets, constructed in 1591; the Roshnai Gate or "Gate of Lights" in Lahore, Pakistan, one of the thirteen gates within the Walled City of Lahore; Curzon Hall, Dhaka, Bangladesh, (formerly East Pakistan) - named after Lord Curzon (the Viceroy of India) with its perfect lawn; and finally, the Watch Tower in Mandalay Palace, in Myanmar, formerly Colonial Burma.

Jack: Those four photographs, along with the one of the Taj Mahal and an extended critical essay that discussed the effects that the British Empire had on the native peoples of the region were ultimately compiled into a photojournalistic travelogue entitled The Road to Mandalay, a classic of its type, and published posthumously by Granta books in 1985.

Jack took a bite out of the sandwich, and then went back to working on his model.

Carol: Posthumously?

Jack looked up.

Carol: You can't just leave the story there. How did she die?

Jack seemed reluctant to continue. So Ruby helped him out.

Ruby: Zenda never came back from that summer holiday. Apparently she'd got involved in Indian politics and started working as a freelance photojournalist.

Carol: Bet that went down well at Oxford.

Ruby: When she failed to register for her fourth year she was effectively no longer an Oxford student.

Carol: What about her roommate, Nicole?

Ruby: She was devastated when Zenda failed to return, and left Oxford. She eventually became nurse, and married a recently widowed surgeon 30 years her senior. They had no children.

Sebastien: Sounds like a classic case of father figure replacement.

Carol: And Zenda, what happened to her?

Ruby: Several years later, Zenda was travelling in Amritsar around the time of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. She was there to report on Operation Blue Star, a military operation ordered by the Indian Prime Minister. By now she'd gained a reputation for taking exclusive photographs in several trouble spots that were published in different international papers. She was very good at being in the right place at the right time, and sadly, on this occasion, she was evidently a little too good; she got caught in the crossfire.

Carol: What a way to go.

Ruby: She must have known how dangerous the situation was, because the week before she died, she'd left a very short will with the British High Commission in New Delhi. Now this is where things start to get intriguing.

Carol: At last, some juicy bits, I'm all ears.

Ruby: All she left behind was the manuscript for the book which she left to her father and the five iconic photographs that appear in the book. She stipulated that the identity of the five recipients of the original photographs should not be revealed, unless the recipients themselves chose to make themselves known. The wording in her will was "to my five lovers". It caused quite a sensation at the time.

Carol: How do you know what was in the will?

Ruby: It was widely reported in the press. For a short amount of time, she was the most famous woman in journalism. Several years after Zenda's death, the original photo of the Watch Tower in Mandalay Palace came to light when it was put up for auction with the proceeds, which were fairly high, going to Great Ormond Street Hospital. The seller chose not to remain anonymous: it was one Nicole Bucknall née Fanshaw.

Sebastien: Ah! So Zenda was gay.

Jack: That would be a little too binary for Zenda.

Sebastien looked at his father blankly.

Ruby: She claimed that she was attracted to both sexes, but despite the boys' best efforts, I think I only ever saw her with women.

Jack: What Zenda actually said was that she was more interested in a person's mind than their body, it just happened that most of the minds that she admired the most happened to be in the bodies of women.

Ruby: The papers loved the story. And they made a big point of showing not just the photo that had been sold for a vast sum, but its reverse. It contained Zenda's distinctive ZeeGee signature. At various other times over the next 10 years, three other of Zenda's pictures that appeared in The Road to Mandalay travelogue came up for auction, the owners presumably needing to make a quick buck.

Carol: The owner's being Zenda's other lovers?

Ruby: Exactly. In those cases, the sellers chose to remain anonymous.

Jack: The last one to be sold at auction was in the mid 90s, over twenty years ago. So, to answer your original question, Sebastien, that's why some photographs are worth a fortune.

Sebastien: And a mere print is worth little more than the frame it's hanging in!

He looked at the photo hanging on the wall behind his father's desk.

Sebastien: Oh well, never mind.

Ruby: Well that was a fun bit of reminiscence!

She looked at her watch.

Ruby: I'd better get a move on so that I can pick up Jack's birthday cake before the baker shuts.

Ruby left the room. Several minutes later the front door closed. Jack looked out the window and watched Ruby as she walked down the path through the front garden. He then got up from his desk and walked over to the framed photograph of the Taj Mahal. He looked at it for a few seconds and then took it off the wall and returned with it to his desk.

Jack: I've got an assignment for you two. Pull up a chair.

Carol and Sebastien dragged their chairs up to their dad's desk.

Carol: We're all ears.

Jack: I'd like you to get down Sotherby's before their auction next week and replace the photo they're about to auction with this one.

Carol: You want us to defraud someone willing to make a considerable donation to the Help the Heroes charity?

Sebastien: That's really not our style, Dad. We normally just con the dishonest and those that deserve it. What have the Heroes ever done to you?

Jack: Nothing! Which is rather the point.

Sebastien: I don't understand.

Jack: I want you to replace the fake that Sotherby's are about to auction with the original, which is this one.

As they spoke, Jack turned the frame over and started fiddling with the catches securing the back to the picture frame.

Sebastien: So you do have a million dollar photo on your wall!

Carol: But how did you come by the original?

Sebastien: And why are Sotherby's auctioning a fake?

Jack: Because they, or rather the photo's current owner, don't know it's a fake. Or at least they don't at the moment.

Carol: I think you've got some explaining to do!

Jack: About ten years ago, I got wind of the fact that someone was willing to pay a considerable sum to obtain the final ZeeGee, the other four having already been bought up and included in various art galleries' collections.

Sebastien: When you say considerable, do you mean a vulgar amount or a truly obscene amount?

Jack: Fairly obscene. Anyway, I happened to know where the original was. It was a nice easy earner. Make a copy, get a fake signature, and then sell the fake and keep the original.

Sebastien: What Sotherby's don't know, won't harm them surely.

Jack: I'm fairly confident that the signature on the fake won't pass the scrutiny of Sotherby's evaluator, and I don't want Help the Heroes to suffer. So I want you to switch the fake for this original.

Jack patted the photo on his desk.

Sebastien: We've done signatures tons of times. Why would this one not stand up?

Jack was silent for a few moments.

Jack: Because I did it.

Carol: You did the forged signature?

Jack: Err, yes.

Carol: But that's normally mum's department.

Jack: I know, but in the circumstances, I ...

Jack didn't finish the sentence.

Carol took the photo from her father and turned it over. On the back was the distinctive ZeeGee signature that had been in Sotherby's Catalogue alongside the picture of the Taj Mahal. And written alongside the signature, in the same hand, was: "to JW, my one and only."

Carol: Ah!

Jack: I know it was a long time ago, but ...

Carol interrupted.

Carol: And you've been displaying this love token on your wall for decades.

Jack: I'd just as soon we kept this between the three of us.

Sebastien: Nuff said!