The greatest shock for me reading this fictionalised retelling of history was understanding the meaning of the title. Not that the story itself wouldn’t be considered shocking in it’s day. And would probably be considered more than eyebrow raising now.
The Devil’s Paintbrush is the story of the meeting of Major-General Sir Hector MacDonald, one of the heroes of the British Empire, and the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. Not a combination you’d expect to find. But meet they did and Jack Arnott breathes life into those events showing both compassion and frankness about his subjects.
It is a quite an extraordinary tale and from the list of acknowledgements I’m willing to consider that Arnott spend a lot of time on the reconstruction of events but at the same time he has to have injected some narrative compulsion to the proceedings.
MacDonald meets Crowley as a great scandal is unfolding around the Major-General and the Beast acts as his savour. Even though limited by the order of the events Arnott takes us and the characters on a journey that goes from Paris to battlefields of Sudan via the backstreets of Edinburgh.
And it’s the battlefields of Sudan that has some of the best moments. Not only do they contain the key to the title but the core of self-destruction of MacDonald. It also shows the dark nature of imperialism. As a solider MacDonald commits some brutal and offensive acts and in private his own sexual needs were at the time offensive.
As I was reading the thing that hit me is what would and wouldn’t be accepted in the modern day and the acts that are so scandalous in MacDonald’s private life at the time wouldn’t be his downfall now. What would bring him down would the acts committed in the name of war.
Crowley’s role in this deconstruction of MacDonald is to help release him from the constraints of Army-life and the situation itself. This isn’t an entirely altruistic act. He’s using MacDonald as a Knight in his own fight with his ex-mentor and to advance his own status through the acquisition of a manuscript and what it represents. He does release MacDonald in a way but it’s not a noble path he shows him.
Arnott has successfully re-imagined the events of those few days and expanded them into a comment on the past and how far we have come.
There are no longer people called ‘Fight Mac’ or ‘the Best’ and maybe they are creations of their own time. I have to praise Jack Arnott for his skill as a storyteller and thank him for shedding light on this forgotten but none the less important piece of history.