The Alpha and Omega Trip

It starts in an office and ends at a children’s camp. Between those two locations the main character buys a telephoto lens, gets involved with two women and murders a couple of Americans for some Chinese agents.

This all happens in Wellington, and it’s not very interesting.

Graham Billing’s “The Alpha Trip,” published in 1969, is a spy thriller written by someone who was not yet at the peak of his performance. “The Alpha Trip” is trying both to be a Len Deighton novel and a story of a character’s sexual and political liberation, but it suffers from adhering too closely to cliches and not really having a plot worth mentioning.

I came across “The Alpha Trip” when I was last down in Wellington. Despite the fact that I no longer want to own physical copies of books, I still find myself browsing the shelves of secondhand bookstores. I have spent so much of my life looking for some interesting tome of forgotten lore that even given my love of going digital, I still find book shops a delight to spend an afternoon (and its cheaper than going to a number of galleries).

I don’t know what it was about “The Alpha Trip” which made drew me to it; the copy I eventually bought was a standard hardback with a lurid dust jacket, typical of the late 1960s (which is in no way an enticement, speaking personally) but, for reasons which are definitely not related to fate, I picked the volume from the shelf and looked for the blurb.

“A novel about a conspiracy to hide the existence of an underground military base, set in Wellington. I wonder…”

Astute readers of this blog (and new readers, worry not; if the Relevanssi plugin is working, there should be a link at the end of this post) will know by now that my interest in conspiracy theories started with the tales of hidden tunnels in the hilltop fort of North Head (which is located in the suburb I grew up in, Devonport). I have always been interesting in the question of whether there were any earlier stories of hidden tunnel complexes in New Zealand, a question of “prior art” you might say. Certainly, given the prevalence of sociological literature about how conspiracy theories are primed by what people already believe, “The Alpha Trip” looked like it might be of interest. Given that Wellington has a similar, substantial fortification that is, at least in part, contemporaneous with the building of North Head, a Poneke-based novel about a hidden military base… Well, I hoped I might have found something interesting.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t, for two reasons. One, the military base that features in “The Alpha Trip” is secret but not hidden, located on a plain and not in a hill, and there are no stories of people getting inside and discovering decaying ammunition or obsolete technology. “The Alpha Trip” is all about the then-future of communications technology and the role New Zealand, as a rural economy, was playing in the epic spy game of the Cold War.

Two, “The Alpha Trip” is a profoundly boring book.

So, why bring it up, given that the book is both dull and the conspiracy within it is really just an excuse for a deeply unlikeable character to fall in and out of love with two communist spies? Well, I purchased my copy of “The Alpha Trip” just one week after I submitted my PhD. In the same respect that “The Alpha Trip” ended up being a bit of a disappointment, the end of my PhD has been a similar letdown. Not with respect to the PhD itself being a disappointment rather because I am now suffering from that common post-PhD malaise, the unsatisfying feeling of “Is that it?”

I have always maintained that anyone can write a PhD; you really only need one good idea (and everyone will have one of those eventually) and the temerity to think you can focus on that idea for three to five years without significant mental anguish and heartbreak. By the end of my PhD I came to the conclusion that only an idiot would ever work on such a project, because the emotional turmoil and frequent temper tantrums I was experiencing were not the products of an intelligent mind but rather an irrational one1.

I will spare you the psychological details of just how rocky and rough the finishing of my thesis was, in part because it’s actually not a particularly novel story and in part because, in retrospect, I was the problem and the people I was railing against were just doing their best to help me. Basically, the period between finalising the actual content of the thesis (the hardcore, constant changes, thesis-in-flux editing malarky) and submitting the thesis for examination was a mere four days; up until the Monday (for I submitted on a Thursday), it looked like I might miss the deadline and thus incur extra fees. Then, the day my primary supervisor sent the all clear, my mood lifted. That didn’t mean four days of rest and relaxation, because I still had to go through and make sure I was adhering to some form of formal English spelling and grammar, but minor spelling corrections… I could cope with those.

Even though I submitted in September, I didn’t hear back from the examiners until early January. The examiners’ reports looked okay (one was incredibly positive whilst the other was less positive, almost dour). As I was in the midst of teaching a summer school course, I decided it would not be advisable to schedule the oral exam until after classes had finished. My supervisors were keen to prep me for the oral (the oral examiner we had chosen has been known to ask particularly good-but-tricky questions at conferences), so a series of three mock oral exams were organised. Jon, my primary supervisor, decided that each one should be progressively harder than the last, and so made sure to instruct certain members of staff to take a negative view of my oral presentation, no matter their actual philosophical views on the material.

We over prepared; the actual oral was a pleasant, friendly affair. It was a conversation between two experts in their fields rather than an interrogation, and afterwards we all went out for coffee (but no cake, because there is no vegan cake on campus).

Eight minor corrections2 had to be made to my PhD before it could be submitted in fulfillment of my degree. I spent a week on them3, with most of that time taken up with correspondence with my supervisors as to the best way to phrase the changes (one of the changes was one I really did not want to make but, as someone told me at the time, whilst they are a requirement for completion, you don’t have to like them (and you can always put the material back when it comes to writing the book)). The only real hurdle at this stage was printing out the five double-sided copies I required (two for the university, one of my Mother, one for me and a fifth for the Amazing Randi (who has yet to even acknowledge receipt, I must say)). Photocopiers, early in the morning, seem to be more prone to jams than photocopiers later in the day; the economy of double-sided the print job was slightly undermined by the ensuring wastage of paper every time the unit jammed. Then all I had to do was chose a binding (I call it “TARDIS blue”) and, three days later, the thesis was given over to the Board of Graduate Studies and my eligibility to graduate was confirmed.

And then… Well, nothing. There was no choir of angels, no sudden offers of employment just… a return to work. Like the end of “The Alpha Trip,” I expected something the writer and world had no intention or ability to provide. It seems that if I want there to be another chapter of interest to my future chroniclers, I might have to go and be a little proactive. I mean, Graham Billing went on to write well-considered novels (allegedly; I’ve not read them), so…

Matthew Dentith is currently looked for either interesting work or a post-doc. His thesis can be read here.

Notes

  1. Ironic, really, given the stereotypes associated with my chosen field of study.
  2. Minor in the sense that they were, with one exception, changes to single paragraphs rather than systemic changes to the thesis as a whole; the systemic change that was suggested was a recommendation rather than a requirement, but it ended up being, in Bertie Wooster’s words, the “work of a moment.”
  3. Despite being egged on by a friend to do them in an afternoon like he had done with his PhD.

Final Draft

It has been just over four and a half years since I first started working on this thesis (my second attempt at a PhD); a long time personally but not so long geologically. Late this afternoon, whilst thinking of vegan fish and chips, I sent to my supervisors the first full draft of the thesis.

Eight chapters. In order. Plus an appendix.

It was a weirdly momentous occasion. Jon and Justine have both read all of the thesis, but never in order and never as one document.

At the beginning of this year, when we decided on a September submission date for the finished work, I had six chapters in various states of completion. The final chapter, my analysis of what I call the “inference to the existence of a conspiracy,” was the most polished piece of work. Understandable, really; it was the last thing I had written and most of the lessons I had learnt were applied skillfully to it. The earlier chapters, though, looked terrible. I had an introduction chapter which did not seem to be much chop and then followed a literature review which was bloated and looked to have been written by a teenager. The third chapter, on conspiracy theories as explanations, focussed on issues that I had, by now, decided really weren’t worth bothering with, whilst the fifth chapter, on the transmission of conspiracy theories and the act of rumouring… Well, actually, I liked that one. It’s going to be in a book, don’t you know.

Then there was chapter four, the chapter that was only a third written and I really didn’t think could be completed on time, the chapter on the role of selected evidence and disinformation.

So, at the beginning of January, I began rewriting. The first two chapters were completely rewritten, which took a month each. I tore through my notes from four years ago, looking for material which was salient to the arguments I presented in the last few chapters of the masterwork and came up with arguments to explain why I wasn’t going to talk about issues I thought were irrelevant to my central thesis. I wrote the chapters in disparate pieces, tackling new issues when I found myself mentally blocked by some argument. At first I thought this piecemeal approach was a terrible idea, and then a great one, and… Well, by the time I had hacked together something that looked chaptery enough to send to one of my supervisors I was sure the gig was up; the monster I had created made the work of Frankenstein look like art.

Surely, I thought, the September deadline will need to be revised once she sees this.

A week passed; I worked on the next chapter, dreading getting anything vaguely official-looking in my mailbox. Another week passed and by now I was convinced the chapter I had sent was bad; the notes Justine must be making were growing longer and longer by the day. A third week passed and I was almost ready with the next chapter.

An e- mail. Short. “Looking good. Can’t wait to see the next chapter. No major notes; just copyedit stuff.”

I should have been relieved, but I was not. I fumed for days, getting increasingly angry and grumpy. I had been expecting bad news. Good news unsettled me.

It was most irrational.

I sent off the second chapter, knowing that it give the game away. A fortnight later, more good news. Again, I turned sour and angry and grumpy and maddening.

The first three months of this year were the worst, psychologically-speaking, I have known. I still have the sleepless nights, the constant neck pain, the inability to deal with people unexpectedly, but I’m not, at the moment, constantly angry or about to break down into tears. I’ve hit a plateau; with only six weeks to go I think I can probably make it to the finish line without suffering a breakdown (but I will continue to disseminate cliches…). A few months ago, though, I really thought I wouldn’t make it, academically-speaking, this far.

The third chapter was a pain to rewrite and I ended up dumping five thousand words from it a day before I sent it off to be looked at by one of my supervisors. It turns out that those five thousand words really were useless and they will not be coming back anytime soon.

I almost didn’t write the fourth chapter, but seeing “October 8: Deep in the Forest,” a documentary about the Urewera 17″ convinced me that I needed to get my thoughts on disinformation formalised. It’s a great chapter; I think it will be the first thing I articalise come September 2nd.

I grew used to the good news, although Justine did start to come up with a few complaints, usually structural things which always looked easy to solve but never were.

I finished the last chapter proper a few weeks ago, leaving just the introduction and the conclusion to write. Jon and Justine wanted to read the thesis from the beginning, which meant writing the introduction, something that I always write last. It’s much easier to convert a conclusion into an introduction than try to write the intro first. Conclusions, which are filled with “In this work I have…” can easily be converted into shorter pieces in which “I have…” becomes “I will…”

Now I get a few days off, before the copyedits come in. Six weeks to go.

Six.

Weeks.

To.

Go.

Keeping those readership numbers up

So, not being one to confuse causation with correlation, I’ve been thinking long and hard about unique visits to this site and the associated frequency of my putting up blog posts, and I’ve come to an interesting conclusion. Now, I can;t just share this conclusion with you; I need to have my argument peer-reviewed and do some more tests, but I think I may have come up with something. Here’s a hint; blog post frequency seems to match visits.

Very exciting.

In less interesting news, the thesis goes well. I think I should have a final draft of this chapter (formally chapter six, now most likely to win “The New Chapter Three Pageant”) by Thursday; this afternoon I will spend a largish chunk of my increasingly precious time teasing out my reasoning to see that it holds. If it does, well, all I need to do is finesse a few examples and start a paragraph with:

In conclusion, what this shows, I have argued, is that…

If that all happens (and it should), then I’ll blog a noteworthy post on the chapter’s substantive content. I would do that now, but it’s better to “blow me load” on the thesis rather than the blog.

Trah.