Friday, 27 July 2018

Entropy sucks; “To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.” Mark O’Connell (Granta £9.99)

‘To be A Machine’, Irish journalist Mark O’Connell’s book on the transhumanist movement, won this year’s Wellcome Book Prize. The chair of Judges, Edmund de Waal called it “a passionate, entertaining and cogent examination of those who would choose to live forever. Mark O’Connell brilliantly examines issues of technology and singularity. In doing so he brings into focus timely issues about mortality, what it might mean to be a machine and what it truly means to be human.” It’s also very funny, but we are talking about death, the most fertile ground for comedy after sex, so perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising.

O’Connell is quite a stylist. His book opens resoundingly; “All stories begin in our endings: we invent them because we die. As long as we have been telling stories, we have been telling them about the desire to escape our human bodies, to become something other than the animals we are…. We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendour. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves.” It is hard to resist quoting him, the book is crammed with elegantly expressed ideas and observations. And it isn’t just me – all the reviews of ‘To be a Machine’ are littered with sizeable chunks of O’Connell’s own prose. He makes the task of paraphrasing him very difficult. Take a pedestrian example, what is transhumanism? Transhumanism is, according to the OED “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” But for O’Connell transhumanism is “a movement predicated on the conviction that we can and should use technology to control the future evolution of our species. It is their belief that we can and should eradicate aging as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.” Lexicographers, eat your hearts out.

Aubrey de Grey "we should be prosecuting a great counteroffensive against our common enemy, mortality itself’
O’Connell nails his colours to the mast early on in the book “I am not a transhumanist,” he says “but my fascination with the movement, with its ideas and aims, arises out of a basic sympathy with its premise: that human existence, as it has been given, is a suboptimal system.” There is nothing much to argue with in these sentiments; ageing, suffering and death are generally not positive experiences and who wouldn’t be tempted by the possibility of escaping them if they could? Until relatively recently religion was our only real option if we couldn’t face up to the existential anguish of having our existence snuffed out by death.  But since the early 19th century Science has been seen, at least by some, as a contender in the fight for eternal life. The early notions of the reanimators and resurrectionists who thought they could bring a corpse back to life by passing a few hundred amps of voltaic current through it may seem absurd now but the guiding principle was no different from today’s transhumanists. The science may be more sophisticated but Aubrey de Grey is essential pursuing the same goals as Victor Frankenstein, the discovery of the secret of life and its essential corollary, the abolition of death. As O’Connell explores the various transhumanist visions of eternal life, even the idea that improved longevity might be a good thing starts to be eroded and as for immortality – the versions on offer here are generally pretty unpalatable.   

O’Connell’s tour of transhumanism starts with Swedish academic Anders Sandberg, who wants to enhance human abilities through brain implants. “What would be a nice scenario,” he tells the author, “is that we first get smart drugs and wearable technologies. And then life extension technologies. And then, finally, we get uploaded, and colonise space, and so on.” To O’Connell this looks less like liberation from the constraints of being human and more like a “total enslavement to technology” In particular the idea, which crops up again and again amongst transhumanists, of being able to upload the brain into an electronic device that is more durable than the human body. Do we even really continue to be human without a corporeal body? Isn’t a digital version of a human mind, no matter how close the resemblance to the original, just a simulacrum?
Zoltan Istvan, 2016 presidential candidate on the immortality ticket

Another early chapter deals with Max More and his wife Natasha Vita-More, who run the Alcor cryopreservation facility where technicians will, for $200,000, carefully freeze your body upon death or, if you can’t afford that, just your head for $80,000 and keep it until technology has advanced sufficiently to allow you to be thawed out and brought back to life. O’Connell has a masterly way with bathos, he writes of Max More “I wanted to know how a man who had ostensibly dedicated his life to the overcoming of human frailties, to a resolute transgression of the principle of entropy, had come to spend his days surrounded by corpses in an office park, between a tile showroom and a place called Big D’s Floor Covering Supplies.” He also notes that “when the time came to make the necessary arrangements” for the disposal of his own remains, 60’s acid guru Timothy Leary, a long standing advocate of life extension in general and Alcor in particular, eschewed the cryopreservation facility and instead “went for the more show-stopping option of having his cremated ashes shot into space from a cannon”. Amongst the disappointed cryonics community this decision was criticised as a capitulation to “deathist” ideology.

O’Connell’s tour of transhumanism takes in computer scientists researching Artificial Intelligence, philosophers, gerontologists, grinders (individuals with cybernetic devices implanted beneath their skin, often by themselves, without anaesthetic) and roboticists with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (who are still a very long way from creating a Terminator). Many of the characters he meets are colourful, English celebrity gerontologist Aubrey de Grey for one. De Grey is renowned for his theory of Longevity Escape Velocity “the notion that the pace of technological advancement in the area of life extension would eventually increase to the point that, for every year that passes, average human life expectancy increases by more than a year, at which point the theory goes, we put a comfortable distance between ourselves and our own mortality. Over the past century or so, life expectancy had been increasing at the rate of about two years per decade, but the optimistic expectation within the life extension movement was that we would soon reach a point where the ratio flipped – thereby, as de Grey put it, ‘effectively eliminating the relationship between how old you are and how likely you are to die in the next year.’” The exuberantly bearded scientist seems to be embarked on a personal life extension project of a distinctly old fashioned stamp; pickling or preservation in alcohol. O’Connell meets him “one August morning at a cavernous bar near Union Square in San Francisco…It was shortly after breakfast, and Aubrey was blowing the froth off what may or may not have been the first pint of the day.” The scientist’s partiality to anything brewed up from hops, malt and barley is notorious.
Roen Horn poses in front of the Immortality Bus

The book builds to a climax with a long final chapter on a road trip on the Immortality Bus taken in 2016 with the transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan whose avowed aim, rather than election to office, was the hope “that my Immortality Bus will become an important symbol in the growing longevity movement around the world. It will be my way of challenging the public’s apathetic stance on whether dying is good or not.” The impossibly good looking Istvan was born in California in the early seventies to Hungarian immigrant parents. He became a champion swimmer and water polo player, graduated in Philosophy and religion from Columbia University and then took off on an around the world yacht trip which he filmed for the National Geographic channel. When he finally returned to the States he made a fortune in real estate which he used to fund the writing and publication of a turgid and interminable science fiction epic called ‘The Transhumanist Wager’. He is now embarked on the quixotic quest to save humanity from death. Instead of Rosinante Istvan had the Immortality Bus, a big brown antiquated Wanderlodge that with the addition of a wreath on the roof was supposed to uncannily resemble a coffin but which many onlookers likened to a turd on wheels. Istvan’s Sancho Panza is Roen Horn, a classic Californian geek, founder of the Eternal Life Fan Club, who describes himself as a philosopher and lecturer “on the importance of trying to live forever.”      

O’Connell joins Istvan and Horn driving the hazardously dilapidated Wanderlodge around the desert towns of Arizona and New Mexico, seemingly always in imminent danger of breaking down and being stranded half a days hike from the nearest water in temperatures of 45C. With nothing better to do than listen to an ancient cassette of Tom Petty’s first album and talk about immortality the three men develop an unlikely friendship. “I had begun to feel some affinity with these two men…” says O’Connell “we were confreres in futility.” Istvan plays straight man to Horn who somehow manages to make total lack of self awareness and irredeemable gaucheness deeply charming. “I just want to have fun forever,” says Roen “guiding a forkful of dry salad leaves towards his pale face. “The twenty years I get from eating the way I do could be the difference between my dying and my getting to longevity escape velocity. I’m holding off on pleasure now so that I can have more pleasure later. I’m actually a total hedonist.” “You don’t seem even slightly like a hedonist to me,” says O’Connell “You don’t drink, you don’t take drugs. You barely eat. To be honest, you seem like a medieval monk.”

Roen weighs up the pro and cons of sexbots and real girls
In another exchange with O’Connell Horn asks him “You know one really cool thing about being alive in the future?”
“What’s that?”
“You know, like AI robots that are built for having sex with.”
“Oh sure,” I said,  ”I’ve heard of sexbots. ……"
“It’s something I’m very much looking forward to.”
“The problem I have with sexbots,” I said, “is why wouldn’t you just have sex with an actual person?”
“Are you kidding me? A real girl would cheat on you, sleep around. You could get an STD. You could even die.” When O’Connell asks him if he is being alarmist the response is
“No way, man. It happens literally all the time. See a personal sexbot would never cheat on you, and it would be just like a real girl.” When pushed he also admits to “have so far abstained from sex. I have never had a girlfriend.”
O’Connell tells Zoltan and Roen that he thinks of the bus as the Entropy Bus “a great mobile metaphor for the inevitable decline of all things” and quotes from St Peter in the King James Bible “the elements shall melt with fervent heat. The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
“Entropy sucks,” said Roen
“It is what it is,” said Zoltan, “It absolutely is what it is.”
The road trip on the Wanderlodge may be the longest chapter in O’Conell’s book but I could happily have spent a lot more time in the company of Zoltan and Roen.

Friday, 20 July 2018

The Wisdom of Solomon and the man who was buried while Limehouse burned

“At St Anne’s, a rather remarkable drawing reveals that Hawksmoor toyed with the idea of placing a pair of pyramids atop the church’s east end. A lone pyramid standing in the churchyard is often said to have been one of those intended for this purpose.”                                                                     
Owen Hopkins ‘From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor.’

“From the padlocked gates of another Hawksmoor masterpiece, St Anne’s. Here, it’s not just, as has been the case for many years, that the doors of the church are closed; I mean the grounds, benches, gravel walks, stacked gravestones, are forbidden to us. No sanctuary. Every point of access secured. You can press your face against the bars, like James Mason in Haggerston Park, or John Rokesmith in Our Mutual Friend, when he came up against this same ‘great iron gate’ and saw himself as ‘a spirit that was once a man’. The white pyramid depicted by Hablot Browne in his engraving of the churchyard is beyond our reach. The author of sensationalist ‘yellow peril’ fictions, Sax Rohmer, had a particular interest in this pyramid. It was known to his evil genius, Fu Manchu, with his fiendish plots and intimacy with London’s riverine quarters, its extensive subterranea. A panel in the pyramid gave entry to a network of underground tunnels.”
Iain Sinclair ‘The Olympics scam.’

Iain Sinclair’s 40 year obsession with the Limehouse pyramid started with ‘Lud Heat’ in 1975 and continued right up his most recent book, ‘The Last London’ in 2017. All his writings between  are littered with references to the pyramid in the churchyard of St Anne’s including ‘Light’s Out For the Territory’, ‘Liquid City’ (which includes  an excellent Marc Atkins photo of it) and ‘Ghost Milk’.  In ‘Lud Heat’ he sets out the theory that 8 churches built by Nicolas Hawksmoor along with a number of obelisks and pyramids (St Anne’s foremost amongst them) dotted around east London form a sacred geometry of power lines in the shape of an ancient Egyptian Hieroglyph; “Eight churches give us the enclosure, the shape of fear; ... erected over a fen of undisclosed horrors, white stones laid upon the mud and dust".  This ‘enclosure’ covers the ancient city and its Roman temples dedicated to Mithras, its plague pits and cemeteries, its prisons and places of execution and the scenes of its most notorious crimes, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 and the Whitechapel murders, the Jack the Ripper killings, of 1888. Peter Ackroyd later exploited Sinclair’s outré theory to much greater commercial effect in ‘Hawksmoor’ and Sinclair never seems to have got over the shock of seeing Peter Ackroyd and Melvyn Bragg resplendent in pinstripe suits, posing in front of the Limehouse pyramid on the South Bank Show and discussing Ackroyd’s stratospheric sales figures and his critical and popular acclaim (he was more forgiving though of his friend Alan Moore’s use of the Hawksmoor black legend in ‘From Hell’).  The St Anne’s pyramid features on at least two cover designs for ‘Lud Heat’.  
Despite all the portentous omphalos symbolism invested in the pyramid I had always assumed that it was merely a standard monument, a hyper inflated grave marker, and that it would carry an inscription recording whose memorial it was.  Not untypically of churchyard and cemetery pyramids it even has a coat of arms complete with what looks like a unicorn; high social status goes hand in hand with being buried inside or beneath pyramids, from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the landed gentry of the 18th century and the haut bourgeoisie of Victorian England .  But the only inscription, engraved above the armorial crest, are the mysterious words ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’. Some accounts claim these were once also carved in Hebrew characters further down the pyramid and many see all this as evidence that it is somehow linked to the Masons.  The pyramid is built of Portland Stone and in pristine condition would have been almost white, like St Anne’s itself, but it is now weathered and covered in a velvety layer of dark green moss. Whatever the pyramid is, it is not a memorial. It doesn’t seem likely to be a secret masonic symbol either.  Most commentators think the pyramid was part of Hawksmoor’s original design for St Anne’s and was perhaps intended to top the tower.  It isn’t really big enough to cap the tower but possibly it was meant to be set up on some other part of the building. Hawksmoor certainly liked to idiosyncratically incorporate eclectic classical elements into his buildings, the portico based on the Temple of Dionysus at Baalbeck and the stepped tower of St George’s in Bloomsbury and the six copies of a Roman sacrificial altar that top the tower of St George’s in the East are examples. And he liked pyramids – he designed and built one at Castle Howard for the Earl of Carlisle in 1728, the year after work was finished at St Anne’s. It does seem likely then that the pyramid was made for Hawksmoor for use as an architectural feature but that he then had second thoughts and with no where better to put it, it ended up in the churchyard.          
The pyramid as photographed by Marc Atkins for 'Liquid City'.  

On Good Friday (29 March) 1850 Hawksmoor’s masterpiece was completely gutted by fire (and to add insult to injury many newspaper accounts of the blaze credited Sir Christopher Wren with being the architect). At 7am that morning a man called William Rumbold, whose job was to light the stoves and see to the heating of the church, let himself into the building as usual and got on with lighting the furnaces in readiness for the holiday services. At half past eight he noticed a strong smell of burning and when he went outside into the churchyard he saw smoke billowing from the roof. He immediately ran to the house of the beadle George Coningham which was only a hundred yards or so away in Church Lane. The two men ran back to the church, Coningham pausing only briefly to ask someone to call the fire brigade, where they climbed to the belfry and rather recklessly opened a door from the organ loft into the roof space. They were immediately beaten back by flames and smoke. With no other means of raising the alarm both men grabbed bell ropes and began to toll the church bells to attract attention. The Reverend George Roberts soon arrived on the scene along with the residents of the immediate neighbourhood and with no fire engine and no water the vicar and a party of gentlemen decided the only thing to do was to try and save as much of the church furniture and parish records as they could.  The party managed to save all the registers and had just removed the large central chandelier outside when the burning  roof collapsed into the nave and stopped any further efforts at salvage. It was only at this point that Fire Chief Braidwood and his officers finally appeared, probably to stand open mouthed for a few moments as they watched the conflagration completely destroy the church. Chief Braidwood sagely announced that there was no hope of saving the church interior and set his men to plying their hoses over what was left standing of the building. At 9.15 the four clocks in the church tower stopped moving and the flag pole at the top of the steeple fell into the burning nave. The fire raged on for a further two hours watched by a growing crowd of curious EastEnders. According to the Illustrated London News:

Nothing could be more complete than the destruction of the interior fittings of the church. The oak pews and gallery were entirely consumed; the organ stood for some time, until the pipes were gradually melted by the intense heat. The altar windows, of painted glass, representing the Sermon on the Mount, was soon destroyed; as were all the monuments and hatchments upon the walls, except tablet to the memory of a lady named Blyth: this memorial, to the left of the altar, was but slightly injured. When the body of the Church took fire, the flames speedily communicated through the organ loft with the belfry the woodwork in which having been consumed, the bells, one of which is of very large size, fell through, and was only prevented from reaching the ground by a very strong stone arch beneath the bell-tower….The galleries are destroyed, scarcely a mark of their former existence being discernible; and, notwithstanding the remains of the roof, galleries, and pews are all contained within the four walls, the mass of rubbish scarcely rises couple of feet above the floor of the Church. The two beams forming the support of the pulpit are almost the only pieces of timber left in an erect position, and these are charred by the fire that a touch would crumble them. The six magnificent pillars supporting the roof—three on each side—are reduced to shapeless masses of calcined stone. In several places, the iron girders forming the roof have broken through the brick arches on which the floor of the Church rests, and penetrated the vaults. 
The Illustrated London News April 6 1850

The Illustrated London News mentions one other singular detail which is missing from all the other accounts of the fire that I have read. It mentions, merely in passing, that “while the fire was raging on Friday, a funeral took place in the churchyard.” What an extraordinary picture this presents! An illustration in the paper shows the building ablaze, the roof collapsed, every window broken, the tower engulfed in flames and thick black smoke billowing up into the March sky. Tiny firemen with ineffective hoses fight futilely to contain the inferno and in the churchyard there is barely a vacant inch of turf as crowds of curious onlookers prop themselves up against headstones or lean over chest tombs as they watch the unfolding mayhem. In the midst of all this someone actually conducted a burial service? Asked people to move out of the way while pall bearers who must have struggled to tear their eyes away from the conflagration somehow manoeuvred a coffin to a freshly dug grave? If there were any relatives didn’t they object to the timing of the service? It seems scarcely credible but it is true.

Page 132 of the Burial Register for St Anne's Limehouse showing the Good Friday burial of Evan Smith 

The burial register shows one burial taking place on 29 March 1850. The ceremony was not conducted by the Reverend George Roberts (who had carried out the previous two burials on 24 March) presumably because he was otherwise engaged saving the parish records and the chandelier. The officiating clergyman was Thomas Stevens (“Hey, George old man, did you by any chance manage to save the burial register?” “I certainly did Thomas old fruit, I’m sure its here somewhere.” “Excellent, chuck it here can you, if I don’t bury that old sailor from Gravesend I’m going to have to refund his daughter the ten shillings and I spent it last night at the Prospect of Whitby.”) The deceased was the 65 year old Evan Robert Ferguson Smith who intriguingly had died at Gardner’s Terrace Hotel in Gravesend. I presume he died whilst staying as a guest at James Gardner’s establishment rather than keeling over in the saloon bar as a result of one too many rum and waters and acute cirrhosis. He was probably buried in Limehouse rather than over the other side of the river in Gravesend because he had relative there. The Terrace Hotel still stands today at 46 The Terrace, DA12, though you can no longer drink yourself insensible there or pay to crash out in one of its rooms as it is a private residence nowadays rather than a pub. The ghost of Evan Smith is still sometimes seen loitering in the old tap room trying to cadge a bottle of pale ale.                       

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Death by water; Antonio Pedro da Gama Lobo Salema de Souza e Vasconcellos (1963-1989), Putney Vale Cemetery

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                  A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                                           Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you
T.S. Eliot - The Wasteland

“25 years ago I had a couple of hook-ups with a guy. We met in Heaven and went back to my place first and then the following week we met at his place in Meard Street in Soho. He made me dinner. We had a fun time together. At his place he kept playing and dancing around to Express Yourself from Madonna's Like A Prayer album while he cooked me pasta. "I love this record", he said putting it on again. "You're not kidding!" He was almost obsessed with it. He made me laugh. He was a Portuguese banker and had more than one bottle of champagne in his fridge. Fancy, I thought! I was impressed. He was well-read too. A nice guy. Had a nice smile. His name was Antonio.”

“We talked about meeting for a third time. He had people staying that weekend though. How about in Comptons? His birthday was coming up and that Saturday night his mate was throwing him a party on a boat on the river. He said that I couldn't come as there were already too many people coming but we should meet the following day on the Sunday. Late though because it was going to be a late one on the boat. OK, Comptons it was. See you then. Look forward to it.”
Antonio de Vasconcellos never made it to his third date with Jonathan Green back in August 1989. Jonathan went to Heaven “feeling a bit miffed I couldn't go to what looked to be a wild party on the river.” In the club, at 2.30 in the morning, he started to hear rumours that there had been some sort of disaster on the river, that a boat had gone down and that bodies were being pulled out of the Thames. He decided to go home “but to my shame it was only after I had got on the N19 night bus on the way home it suddenly dawned on me, "Fuck! Antonio! Antonio was on the river tonight!" I got off the bus at New Oxford Street and dashed back to Meard Street. The lights were on on the second floor and I rang the buzzer but no one answered the door. I rang again. I pressed the buzzer for a full minute. No one was there….”

Antonio Vasconcellos with his friend Magda Allani during their years at Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Sunday 13th August 1989 was Antonio de Vasconcellos’ 26th birthday and he celebrated it by throwing a river boat party the following Saturday, the 19th, for 130 friends on the Marchioness an unassuming 85 foot long pleasure steamer built in 1923. The Marchioness  had been one of the little boats of Dunkirk in 1940, sailing to pick up British and French soldiers trapped on the French coast by the advancing German army but by the late eighties the steamer spent its days plying the Thames between Westminster and Greenwich piers showing tourists London’s landmarks from the river and its nights as a party venue. Antonio’s evening had started off with an intimate dinner for 8 people, including his older brother Domingos, at his flat in Meard Street where they were later joined by 20 other close friends for cake and champagne before the whole group set off for Westminster pier where they joined another 100 guests on board the Marchioness. Although Antonio was a merchant banker by profession most of his guests had nothing to do with finance. Many of them were from the fashion world; models, photographers, make up artists and agents.  Antonio’s best friend and party organiser was Jonathan Phang a former male model who had opened a model agency with Antonio’s financial backing. Most of the guests were in their early twenties.
The party was in full swing at about quarter to two in the morning (some accounts claim revellers were dancing to the Hues Corporation 1974 hit ‘Rock the boat’) and the Marchioness was close to Cannon Street Bridge when some of the guests noticed that a 250 foot long, 180 ton dredger, the Bowbelle, was bearing down rapidly on them, looking like it might ram the party vessel. The collision, when it came, was not head on and might not have sunk the Marchioness if the Bowbelle’s anchor, sitting high on the prow almost at the gunwale, hadn’t caught the top of the pleasure steamer’s superstructure and then pushed it under the bow of the dredger. Experts later estimated that it took less than 30 seconds for the Marchioness to sink. Party goers on the upper deck were thrown into the water; the ones on the lower deck went to the bottom of the Thames in the sinking ship. 51 people died. 24 bodies were recovered from the sunken hull of the Marchioness, the rest were picked out of the Thames in the days following the disaster. Antonio’s was the last body recovered, 11 days later on 1st September. His older brother Domingos died but his younger brother, Diogo, survived, helping save the life of a fellow passenger. The bodies recovered from the river were taken to Wapping Police station which served as a temporary mortuary. All the survivors had been rescued by the crew and passengers on the Marchioness’ sister ship, the Hurlingham, and by river police; the crew of the Bowbelle did not pull a single body out of the water. Instead they sailed on and berthed upriver because the ship’s Captain, Douglas Henderson, as he later explained to a public enquiry, decided to concentrate on the safety of his own vessel and thought that "the best course of action was to get clear of the area." He admitted to the public enquiry that he had drunk six pints of beer the afternoon of the collision and then taken a three hour nap to sleep it off. He also admitted having lied to the police about the number of crew on watch. He told the police there were two but in reality there was only one. According to a report in the Guardian he agreed that “the ship's helmsman wore thick glasses and a hearing aid, but …. denied that this meant he could not see dangers or hear warnings clearly.” The Captain of the Marchioness was not able to answer questions at the public enquiry as he had drowned in the accident. The conclusion of the public enquiry was that both captains were to blame as neither had posted adequate look outs. Captain Henderson was prosecuted, twice, for his failings on the night of 20th August but was acquitted both times.
The salvaged Marchioness after the collision

Antonio Pedro da Gama Lobo Salema de Souza e Vasconcellos was the son of João António Melo Trigoso De Sousa e Vasconcelos and his wife Maria (familiarly known as Boneca, doll, presumably for her diminutive stature and striking good looks), who had married in 1960 in what was then known as Lourenço Marques in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique and is now the capital Maputo. The Portuguese love to collect surnames, even the humblest person will have at least two, but a family which advertises its genealogy by hanging on to as many of its illustrious forebear’s surnames as it can usually has aristocratic pretensions, (even if they don’t actually have a title). João Vasconcellos brought his family to England, probably at some point in the late sixties or early seventies, and educated his three sons at Brompton Oratory and the best universities. He died in 1981 and is buried in the plot adjacent to his sons at Putney Vale Cemetery. His rather plain headstone features just his name, dates of birth and death and the carved outline of an artist’s palette and brushes.

Antonio studied Economics at Trinity Hall Cambridge and went on to become a merchant banker firstly at Warburgs and then at Mercury Asset Management. In September 1988 he moved to take charge of Torras Hostensch London Ltd, working directly for the controversial Spanish lawyer and financier Francisco Javier de la Rosa. When the activities of Torras Hostensch were later scrutinised by the Courts, Lord Justice Mance remarked that Antonio “was paid the astonishing annual salary of £900,000.” His Cambridge friend Magda Allani, who survived the disaster, later said that at the time Antonio’s promotion had seemed to his friends the natural result of his brilliance, “but there was nothing normal about it. Any normal office handling resources of the magnitude of those at Torras’s disposal would have had a team of financial analysts. Instead, Torras Hostench London had just Antonio, his colleague Walid Moukarzel, secretary Elsa Garcia and a chauffeur. It didn’t feel right.” Javier de la Rosa has persuaded the Kuwaiti Investment Office to funnel $5 billion of investment through the London offices of Torras Hostensch with barely any oversight or scrutiny. How much Antonio was involved in the embezzlement of millions of dollars in Kuwaiti money no one will ever now know for sure but the lawsuit filed in London in 1993 by the US law firm of Baker & McKenzie on behalf of the KIO seems to indicate that along with Walid Moukarzel, Elsa Garcia and the chauffeur, he was probably an unwitting dupe. The £900,000 salary was perhaps to discourage him from using his keen intellect to look to closely into the deals he was asked to sign off. According to the New York Times the 1993 suit contended “that through the use of various shell companies, fictitious loans, fraud and embezzlement, the former Torras management conspired to steal at least $500 million between May 1988 and May 1992.” Lord Justice Mance agreed. Magda described Antonio as seeming ‘troubled’ in the days before his death, unsurprising given the scale of the fraud going on in the office he was nominally in charge of.       
Antonio’s job and his astonishing salary inevitably led to him, and his fashion conscious guests, being labelled as yuppies and beautiful young things by the media. In Margaret Thatcher’s deeply divided Britain there were few terms as corrosive as ‘yuppie’ and public support for the victims of the Marchioness disaster was in distinctly short supply. Homophobia also played a part as many of the victims were gay. Some blamed the lack of public sympathy on compassion fatigue because in the 2 year period between March 1987 and April 1989 a staggering 765 people had died in 6 large scale incidents in the UK; March 1987 the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise (193 dead)  November 1987 the Kings Cross fire (31 fatalities), July 1988 the Piper Alpha oil rig fire (167 deaths), December 1988 the Lockerbie bombing (243 dead) and the Clapham Junction rail disaster (35 dead), and in April 1989 the Hillsborough disaster (96 dead). A common reaction to the disasters was the setting up of a fund to help the victims and their families. In their first year the fund set up for the victims of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster collected £3.4 million and the Hillsborough disaster relief fund collected £3.5 million. In quite shocking comparison the Thames River Boat Disaster Fund set up for the victims of the Marchioness collected, in its first 12 months, a mere £55,000. Antonio Vasconcellos may have been by most people’s standards well off, as were some of his guests, but many others were not and public opprobrium and financial hardship must have been bitter pills to swallow after the traumatic events of the night of 19th August 1989.