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.
- Ironic, really, given the stereotypes associated with my chosen field of study.↩
- 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.”↩
- Despite being egged on by a friend to do them in an afternoon like he had done with his PhD.↩