Some notes on George RR Martin’s prose style

George RR Martin’s prose style in his epic A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series of novels is unstable. By this I mean it veers from purely functional modern thriller prose to prose larded with fake medievalisms, from a lexicon of short, Anglo-Saxon words to one suddenly stuffed with neoclassical and latinate vocabulary. On the same page there can be ‘ofts’ and ‘elsewises’ from the 15th century and then things being ‘divvied up’ or people asking ‘What’s that all about?’ as if in modern New York.

For fun I’ve tried to identify various aspects of his style:

1. Crisp The default setting of Martin’s style is lucid and functional:

When morning came, none of them quite realised it at first. The world was still dark, but the black had turned to grey and shapes were beginning to emerge half-seen from the gloom. Jon lowered his bow to stare at the mass of heavy clouds that covered the eastern sky. He could see a glow behind them, but perhaps he was only dreaming. He notched another bow. (p.301)

There are a few nods in the direction of cod-medievalism, a few stylistic gestures towards the books’ fantasy setting (see below). But these tics don’t conceal the fundamental modernity of the prose and the worldview it conveys.

Bran was too frightened to shout. The fire had burned down to a few bright embers and his friends were all asleep. He almost slipped his skin and reached out for his wolf, but Summer might be miles away. He couldn’t leave his friends helpless in the dark to face whatever was coming up out of the well. (p.195)

2. Poetry. When his characters are not swearing or chopping off each others’ heads, GRRM’s limpid style can have a powerfully simple beauty. I particularly associate this with the character of Arya Stark once she’s set sail from Westeros for the island city of Braavos.

Faint and far away the light burned, low on the horizon, shining through the sea mists.
“It looks like a star,” said Arya.
“The star of home,” said Denyo.
His father was shouting orders. Sailors scrambled up and down the three tall masts and moved along the rigging, reefing the heavy purple sails. Below, oarsmen heaved and strained over two great banks of oars. The decks tilted, creaking, as the galleas Titan’s Daughter heeled to starboard and began to come about.” (FFC98)

His prose can be wonderfully evocative. I’ll long remember the word paintings of the Water Palace of Lord Martell of Dorne:

When the sun set the air grew cool and the children went inside in search of supper, still the prince remained beneath his orange trees, looking out over the still pools and the sea beyond. A serving man brought him a bowl of purple olives, with flatbread, cheese and chickpea paste. He ate a bit of it, and drank a cup of the sweet, heavy strongwine that he loved. When it was empty, he filled it once again. Sometimes in the deep black hours of the morning sleep found him in his chair. Only then did the captain roll him down the moonlit gallery, past a row of fluted pillars and through a graceful archway, to a great bed with crisp, cool linen sheets in a chamber by the sea. (FFC40)

(I can’t decide whether the repetitions in this passage – of ‘cool’ and ‘still’ – are signs of haste, or careful repetitions designed to evoke the lazy, torpid atmosphere of Lord Martell’s sea retreat.)

3. Types of scene Martin can manage an impressive variety of scene:

Big setpieces such as:

  • the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay of which we get a panoramic overview as well as the point of view of the heroic dwarf Tyrion Lannister
  • the grisly Red Wedding where Robb Stark and his allies are massacred, seen both from Lady Catelyn’s viewpoint inside the castle and from Arya’s as she rides up to it from outside
  • the sudden mayhem when the Kings Landing mob riot and attack Joffrey’s procession, seizing horses, dragging riders off into the baying crowd and Martin vividly conveys fear and panic and confusion
  • the battle of the Wall as Jon Snow and the Night Watch defend against the wildlings’ attack, and then the sudden arrival of King Stannis and his cavalry
  • the Others’ attack on the Night Watchmen on the Fist of the First Men

Small, dramatic scenes such as:

  • the countless duels, for example between Bronn and the knight of the Vale for Tyrion’s life; between the Oberyn Martell and the Mountain that Rides; between Jaime Lannister and Brienne in the Riverlands
  • sudden violence, as when the wights ambush Bran, Hodor and Meera and Jojen Reed at the mouth of the cave of the prophet; or the three mercenaries ambush Brienne at the castle on the Fingers; or Jon Snow is assassinated; or the Hound cracks Arya on the head with his axe
  • the extraordinary scene where the demon birthed by Melisandre enters King Renly’s tent to murder him
  • the wonderful opening of Feast for Crows where the Damphair drowns and revives a convert to the Drowned God

4 Dramatic dialogue Confrontations between opposing characters are done though terse, charged dialogue. As a reader on numerous occasions you experience a real dramatic shock when you realise, along with one character, the implications of another one’s words, and are horrified or shocked. When Cersei orders Sansa’s direwolf to be killed; when princess Margaery realises Cersei is trapping her in the dungeon at Baelon’s Septon; when Eddard Stark realises he has lost control of King’s Landing.

Tyrion is a master of stylish banter, witty asides, the telling bon mot, throughout the books.

Littlefinger is arch and aphoristic, especially once he takes Sansa Stark into his ‘care’.

5 Distorting English Martin employs the slight deformation of existing standard words or phrases into something rich and strange. A frequent example is that knights (warriors in armour riding horses) are called ‘Ser’, an obvious distortion of the traditional Sir, which starts out sounding silly but, by sheer repetition, comes to seem the natural term. Similarly, girls who have had their first period have ‘flowered’, they have tobacco in Westeros but use it to chew and call it ‘sourleaf’; they have a sedative drink called ‘dreamwine’, and so on. By repetition over the multiple scenes, and scores of chapters, Martin’s slightly distorted English, and slightly amended concepts, become your home setting.

6 New coinages Matching and echoing the epic scope of his imagination, Martin has coined completely new, medieval-sounding words to fit the fantasy medievalism of the story. These are a highly creative and enjoyable aspect of his style, and there are hundreds:

  • Sept and septon and septa (shrine and priest and priestess to the seven gods), maester (doctor/alchemist), wildlings (wild men from north of the Great Wall), pyromancer (reader of the future in fire), holdfast, warg (human who can inhabit an animal), damphair, and many others.

7 New word combinations English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. Martin uses this facility to coin scores of neologisms:

  • sellsword (mercenary), smallfolk (ordinary people),  strongwine, westermen,  ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), bannermen (minor families loyal to a great lord), woodharp, stumbletongue, firewine, greensick (seasick), kingsmoot (meeting to decide a king), skinchanger (who can change into an animal), godswood (holy wood where the magic weir trees grow), weirwood (the holy trees), greenseer (wise man of the Children of the Forest), greensight (second sight of the greenseers), sweetling (term of endearment), beastling, shadowcat , crannogman,

As with the distortions of standard English and the new coinages, these new word combinations build up a linguistic base for the otherness of his fantasy world. The more there are, the more frequently you encounter them on each page, the greater the sense of moving into his otherworld, the greater the sense of the completeness of his fantasy world.

Read a comprehensive account of Martin’s use of affixes, compound and combination words

New names It’s one thing to point out that the Song is full of hundreds and hundreds of characters, each realised with great vividness and precision. (Someone has counted over 1,000 named characters in the saga so far.) But of course almost all of them require names. The names of the hundreds and hundreds of characters partake of the alienation affect mentioned above, of being nearly recognisable but bent or distorted. We feel we are nearly in a familiar world – but not quite.

Martin’s names can be grouped into three categories:

a) Similar names Jon Snow is a straight down the line English name (extremely rare in Martin). His fat friend in the Night Watch is Samwell Tarly. Jaime Lannister’s name is almost English. Tywin is definitely foreign and so is Tyrion. Bronn sounds as if it should be English. Joffrey is an English name, distorted. Ditto Margaery, Dorna, Cleos and Kevan, Eddard and Robb, Tommen or Lyonel.

b) Alien names Others are entirely alien like Tygett, Darlessa, Gerion, Emmon, Lancel, Arya, Hodder, Mace or Loras, Brienne, Barristan, Viserys, Daenerys, Balon, Renley, Stannis, Euron, Asha, Walder,

c) Exotic names Let alone the exotic names of characters from the free Cities of the eastern continent, Essos: Hizdahr zo Loraq, Khal Jhaqo, Skahaz mo Kandaq, Daario Naharis,

In these and related ways the text works on a purely verbal level to draw you into a parallel universe, whisperingly close to our English history and culture, yet bracingly alien and explosive.

9. Cod medievalism

Martin all-too-frequently remembers he’s writing a medieval epic and abandons his natural crisp, clear style to slip into pastiche medievalism. I suppose we should be grateful he avoids the standard medievalisms – thee and thou, ye, prithee and so on. But there is a number of would-be medievalisms which become annoying mannerisms:

  • The most persistent one is removing the -ly suffix from adverbs. “He is like to be angry”; “He has near finished the task.”
  • ‘Oft’ instead of the sensible ‘often’
  • ‘Elsewise’
  • ‘Among’ and ‘while’ become the archaic ‘amongst’ and ‘whilst’
  • He invents some cod medieval phrases such as ‘much and more’.

Sometimes entire paragraphs or chunks of dialogue will use these and other tame medievalisms to create a style closer to Victorian pastiches of medieval prose than the real thing.


In my post on Affixes and compound words I try to show that if Martin’s style answers to / is responsive to  the medieval world of the narrative, it is not because of the occasional pseudo-medievalisms (‘oft’ and ‘elsewise’) which are in fact blemishes on his otherwise swift clear style;  it is because he consistently chooses words of Anglo-Saxon origin and generally avoids Latinate and neoclassical vocabulary, thus giving his prose a cumulative feeling of woodiness, antiquity, pithiness.

The thoughts above are intended to shed further light on the distinctive strengths and achievements of his uneven but often wonderfully powerful and evocative style.

Related links

All quotes copyright George RR Martin 2013.

Njal’s Saga (13th century)

‘The hand is soon sorry that it struck’

Brennu-Njals Saga is the longest and most celebrated of the Icelandic Sagas. Like most of the sagas, the events it describes take place in the period 930–1030, which is called söguöld (the Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history, though scholars have shown the chronology is as erratic and inconsistent as a Shakespeare history play and for the same reason: dates and protagonists’ ages are changed to make the storylines more dramatic.

Also, as standard, though the events are set from the mid-tenth to mid-eleventh centuries, Njal’s saga wasn’t written down until towards the end of the thirteenth century (1280?) ie 250 years after the events occurred, and by an anonymous Icelandic sagaman or storyteller. It is a highly crafted text, but crafted in numerous ways we aren’t famliliar with.

The challenge of sagas

There are several obstacles to enjoying the Icelandic sagas:

Many names The blizzard of names is very confusing but understanding them is vital, since most sagas amount to long, convoluted records of feuds and vendettas which span generations of numerous families, where husbands marry multiple wives, have numerous children, step-children, foster-children and adopted children. A few family trees (as in this edition) are barely enough to hold the full complexity of family relations and can be more confusing than helpful, as Icelanders had a limited number of names and no family or surnames. They take the name of their father and add -son or -daughter. Hence Thrain’s son Grim is Grim Thrainson etc. But there only appear to be about 20 names and given there are some 400 people in the text, there is a lot of duplication of names, making it challenging to keep in mind not just who’s who but what the family ties and allegiances are of the numerous Hoskulds and Thorgeirs and Mords and Grims.

The glossary of names at the end of this Penguin edition is invaluable in helping you remember which character did what in which chapter, but isn’t really enough to explain who is related to who, and so doesn’t really help explain why people act the way they do.

Dull prose The prose is as flat as a pancake. The action, like the dialogue, is clipped and laconic; only the absolute minimum of information is given. Description of anything at all only occurs once every 20 or 30 pages and comes like the sight of a weed in the Sahara.

There was a man whose name was Gunnar. He was one of Unna’s kinsmen, and his mother’s name was Rannveig. Gunnar’s father was named Hamond. Gunnar Hamond’s son dwelt at Lithend, in the Fleetlithe. He was a tall man in growth, and a strong man—best skilled in arms of all men… His brother’s name was Kolskegg; he was a tall strong man, a noble fellow, and undaunted in everything. Another brother’s name was Hjort; he was then in his childhood. Orm Skogarnef was a base-born brother of Gunnar’s; he does not come into this story. Arnguda was the name of Gunnar’s sister. Hroar, the priest at Tongue, had her to wife. (Chapter 19)

There was a man named Valgard, he kept house at Hof by Rangriver, he was the son of Jorund the Priest, and his brother was Wolf Aurpriest. Those brothers, Wolf Aurpriest, and Valgard the guileful, set off to woo Unna, and she gave herself away to Valgard without the advice of any of her kinsfolk. But Gunnar and Njal, and many others thought ill of that, for he was a cross-grained man and had few friends. They begot between them a son, whose name was Mord, and he is long in this story. (Chapter 25)

It is clipped, factual, bare as the windswept Icelandic landscape. But, over the long haul of this long book, the style becomes strangely addictive. There are almost no descriptions, no similes, no metaphors, little or no colour. The prose describes people doing things in the flattest most factual manner imaginable. But it gains power.

A long book about killing The subject matter is men killing other men. In fact, in Njal’s Saga it’s men killing other men and then going to the Althing, the national court, to negotiate the complicated legal settlements which Icelandic culture offered between murderers and the victim’s family. In the first half of the book Njal is a wise lawyer who can fix any murder-related mess. From one angle, Njal’s Saga is a kind of Icelandic John Grisham, with some very long and quite tense courtroom scenes.

The Law In the sagas – written down in the solidly Christian culture of the 1200s by literate men who were either monks or got their education from monks – almost all traces of paganism have been removed. Instead, and maybe this does reflect the Iceland of the time, there is a massive emphasis on the Law, on legal procedures and negotiations. The events of Njal’s Saga are punctuated by the annual visit by all the characters, by all Icelandic men it appears, to the annual Althing or national court or legal convention. First there is an isolated killing in a field or in the woods or by a river. Then the lengthy negotiations at the Althing where, in the first half of the tale, Njal advises Gunnar who always emerges with honour.

Violence is quick Unlike in the movies, the violence tends to be quick. One blow is generally enough, sometimes two, to kill a man, especially if you’ve crept up on him unawares. Only rarely is there a ‘battle’ ie a fight involving more than two men, and these stand out, like the Battle of Rangver River where Gunnar and his two brothers hold off a force of thirty, or the climactic battle at the Allthing when negotiations break down.

No paganism If you go reading sagas looking for any signs of paganism you will be disappointed. There are hardly any references to priests or temples or rituals or sacrifices. There is a little folk superstition, for example characters sometimes foresee their futures in dreams, and everyone is fatalistic – ‘If that is my fate, so be it’ – but these attitudes could and do survive in nominally Christian countries today. In one scene Killer-Hrapp pulls the idols out of a temple and rips off their gold and one of them is a statue of Thor. That’s almost the only reference to pagan religion in this long book about a pagan culture.

Christianity Chapters 100-105 describe the arrival of Christianity in Iceland in the form of the missionary Thangbrand. Two things are striking: 1. How quickly the new faith is accepted by these sturdy heathen men. 2. How violent Thangbrand is. He kills men in duels, kills a poet, kills a berserkr. His isn’t a religion of pacifism and forgiveness. His God is simply stronger than the pagan Thor. He wins fights, he converts. The burning of Njal happens after the Conversion. All the protagonists go right on killing each other for the slightest reasons. The culture, the feel of Christian doctrine, only has a little influence right at the very end of the text, after both the surviving protagonists (Kari Solmundarson and Flosi Thordarson) have completed arduous pilgrimages to Rome and, finally arrived back in Iceland, embrace and forgive each other.

Now why couldn’t they have done that several hundred blood-soaked pages earlier?

Skarp'héðinn kills Thrain Sigfusson (1898)

Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin beheads Thrain Sigfusson with one blow

Related links

Other sagas

Zbigniew Herbert: Selected Poems (1968)

Poetry is best encountered like a complete stranger who starts talking to you on the Tube, at the supermarket checkout, at the school gates, who in fifteen minutes adds something completely unexpected to your day, a new thought, a new insight, a new sensation – and then vanishes.

I picked up this old volume for £1 at the Salvation Army bookstand and read it on the train home.

Herbert (1924-98) was the outstanding Polish poet of the 20th century. After fighting in the Polish resistance, he remained in his homeland to become a subtle dissident against the communist regime.

The short introduction is by Al Alvarez who neatly pulls out the political nature of Herbert’s work.

Most of Herbert’s work is concerned with reasons for not being convinced.

After such a holocaust of an upbringing, what was there to believe in? His poetry

is political by virtue of being permanently and warily in opposition.

An admirable stance.

Herbert’s verse is classic, precise, ironic, characterised by a scientific detachment. Romantic styles and forms, rhyme and lushness and rhetoric, have all been burned away by the Nazi atrocities and decades of communist oppression, along with punctuation, capital letters and all other forms of conventional typography.

There are just phrases, lines, each trying to be as honest as possible.

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

You can see how Ted Hughes was influenced by the unsentimental objectivity of these East European poets, many of whom he helped to publicise and get published in the West. Hughes himself has a brilliant poem about a pebble turning red in the heat of the sun which I must track down…

But Herbert’s work is not all about natural objects. This volume has a series of prose poems which combine the feel of European folk story retold for the era of the faulty fridge and the party functionary.

from Mythology

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leapt, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

The crisp translations are a collaboration by the just-as-famous Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Canadian diplomat Peter Dale Scott.

Permanently and warily in opposition

What a fabulous, life-enhancing voice!

Related links

The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson (2009)

Top Viking facts

  • Holy War There are numerous theories about what started the ‘Viking Age’. Bad weather. Poor soil. Population explosion. Development of sailing technology. Ferguson goes with the theory that Norse violence was a holy war, a hyperviolent response to Charlemagne’s bloody campaign to convert the heathen Saxons to Christianity in the 770s which climaxed in the massacre at Verden in 782. Saxon survivors fled north into pagan Denmark, taking tales of atrocities and it was only a few years later, in 793, that the first, ferocious assault was made on the coast of Britain, at the monastery of Lindisfarne, an attack which inaugurated 250 years of blood-soaked raiding, killing and enslaving. The other theories may be true as well – there may be multiple causes – but only the Holy War theory explains the excessiveness of the violence which is always associated with the Norsemen.
  • Slavery Who they didn’t torture and kill, the Vikings enslaved. Slavery was one of the most widespread and lucrative commodities of this era (800-1050) across Europe. Dublin was a major centre of the slave trade. Rouen became a thriving centre of the trade till past the time of William the Conqueror, who was petitioned by clerics to curtail the trade.
  • Slav slaves The English word slave ultimately stems from ‘Slav’ because throughout the Viking period so many Slavs were traded as slaves. Russian nationalists do not like this fact. Online etymological dictionary
  • The Great Heathen Army From the British perspective, there is a lull between the famous attack on Lindisfarne in 793, followed it’s true by persistent opportunistic raids – but it’s with the first army wintering on Sheppey in 835 that the threat becomes sustained and builds to the arrival, or invasion, of the Great Heathen Army in 865. They don’t leave and go on to establish a ‘kingdom’ across the east and north of England which endures over 100 years.
  • Russia was founded by Vikings Debate rages to this day about the origins of the ‘Rus’ who give Russia its name, basically the West taking the evidence at face value that it was founded by the Rus, meaning men who row, who were Vikings from Sweden. Russian nationalists take the ‘anti-Norman’ view that native Slavs were too culturally superior to be conquered by barbarians. The debate is summarised in this Wikipedia article. Ferguson goes with the Western view that Viking raiders/traders, predominantly from Sweden, explored the river systems which drain into the Baltic and realised, with a small amount of portage (carrying the boats), they could cross over into the river systems which flow south to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Rhos or Rus traders were reported by Greeks from Byzantium, by Arabs, in western chronicles and in the earliest Russian annals – they were Heathen, raided with savage violence, were strong and blonde like the other Scandinavians, held ship-based funerals like Vikings, and their most profitable commodity was slaves from the shores of the rivers they navigated which they sold to the Greeks. Kiev became the great trading centre half-way along the route, centuries before Moscow was founded, which is why Kiev and the Ukraine still hold such a place in Russian nationalist ideology.
  • Ireland’s towns were founded by Vikings The first attack on England was at Lindisfarne in 793. In 795 Vikings attacked and burned Rathlin island monastery. After a generation of opportunist raiding, just as in England, in the 830s and 840s the Vikings stopped disappearing after a raid and began to winter in Ireland and penetrate further inland. They established coastal settlements at Dublin, Waterford, Wicklow, Cork and Limerick. Dublin became a centre of the Viking slave trade.
  • Vikings had tattoos ‘Ibn Rustah also tells us that the Rus were covered to their fingertips in tattoos depicting trees, figures and other designs. This is of a piece with what Alcuin and that other anonymous Anglo-Saxon commentator noted concerning the personal vanity of the Heathens, especially their fashion for “blinded eyes”, which may have been a form of eye shadow. An Arab source leaves no doubt that eye make-up was common among the Rus: “once applied it never fades, and the beauty of both men and women is increased.” Tattooing was banned in 787 by Pope Hadrian because of its associations with Heathendom…’ (page 257) which sheds light on the general widespread of tattoos until very recently.
  • Throwing stones the sagas tell ‘of ships that return to shore to pick up fresh supplies of stones, the stone for throwing being the weapon of choice for the average foot-soldier or sailor throughout most of the Viking Age.’ (Page 214)
  • Starboard comes from the Norse for ‘steer board’, which was on the right-hand side of the longboat allowing it to be folded up to the side when navigating shallow water, unlike a rudder fixed to the stern.

Top Viking words

  • the Old Norse personal pronouns they, them and  replaced Old English hie, him and hiera
  • many words with an initial sk sound like sky, skill and skin
  • everyday words such as anger, husband, wing, thrive, egg, bread and die
  • Gil denoting a ravine or steep narrow valley with a stream eg Long Gill
  • by places where the Vikings settled first eg Selby or Whitby, some 600 such places in England. The -by has passed into English as ‘by-law’ meaning the local law of the town or villages
  • -thorpe eg secondary settlements on the margins or on poor lands. There are 155 place names ending in -thorpe in Yorkshire.

Top Viking characters

  • Ragnar Hairy-Breeches legendary figure whose campaign of violence comes to an end when he is thrown in a snakepit by Aella of Northumbria, which triggers the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in 865
  • Ivar the Boneless (d.873?) a son of Ragnar Lodbrok/Hairy-Breeches, Swedish Viking leader who ruled part of modern Sweden and Norway – one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army which invaded East Anglia in 865. Credited with the murder of king Edmund in 869, who quickly became revered as a Christian martyr.
  • Halfdan the Black (810-60) of the house of Yngling, king of Vestfold, a portion of Norway
  • Harald Finehair (850-932) son of the above, first king of a unified Norway
  • Erik Bloodaxe (885-954) the oldest of Harald Finehair’s sons, got his name for killing two of his own brothers, came a refugee to England where he established himself as king of York but was shortly driven out, and assassinated in flight, 954.
  • Ganger Rolf (846-931) also known as Rollo, Rollon, Robert, Rodulf, Ruinus, Rosso, Rotlo and Hrolf, Ganger Rolf or Rolf the Walker, conqueror of the area of north-west France which becomes known as Normandy, and so ancestor of the William who conquers England in 1066.
  • Erik the Red
  • Harald Bluetooth (935-85) king of Denmark and Sweden, converted to Christianity and erected the Jelling stones.
  • Sweyn Forkbeard (?-1014) son of Harald Bluetooth, he likely deposed his father who died wretchedly on the run. Sweyn or Sven went on to conquer England, becoming first of the Danish kings of England.


Related links


Ruin Lust @ Tate Britain

A disappointing mish-mash.


Six rooms displaying a confused and confusing ragbag of paintings, watercolours, sketches and notebooks, photos, postcards and films about – in the end – a very small selection of parochial subjects: ruined abbeys, knackered old London, one or two postcards from WWI, a few paintings from WWII, a tower block being demolished.

Small range

Is that it? With the whole world of human endeavour, of civilisations which have risen and fallen, the vast range of man-made catastrophes to range over, why is the selection of images so sparse, so narrow, so flat?

The selection here felt very small and heavily weighted towards the random items which happen to be in Tate’s collection already. With a whole world to pick from there were too many mediocre paintings by John Piper or Graham Sutherland or Paul Nash, sets of photos of places which weren’t even of ruins – for goodness’ sake, a few clicks on the internet takes you to images as stunning as this – the most spectacular abandoned places in the world.

So, for example, the first room contains just three big images: one of John Martin’s end-of-the-world paintings (not strictly a ruin), a mediocre oil painting by John Constable of a ruin (poor), and the standout image of the whole show – the photo of a ruined World War II German coastal bunker by Jane and Louise Wilson. No surprise it’s the big feature of the first room and the image selected for the poster. But the disparity of these images sets the very uneven tone of the exhibition.

Photo of a ruined WW2 concrete bunker

Azeville 2006 by Jane and Louise Wilson. Copyright Jane and Louise Wilson. Tate.

No ideas

There was little attempt in the commentary to give insight into the psychological attraction of ruins: why do we like them? What pleasure(s) do we get from visiting ruins or seeing them depicted? Why did the ruin become an aesthetic category – it wasn’t in the 17th century; it was by the end of the 18th century? what changed and why? Once ruin-fancying had taken hold, what was the aesthetic difference between the ruined abbeys and monasteries of the Middle Ages which tourists could see here in Britain, and the ruins of Rome which countless aristocrats and artists were compelled to go see for themselves on the ‘Grand Tour’, which gets up and running in the second half of the 18th century and is still a requirement for characters in Henry James and EM Forster in 1900?


And how did reception of the ruin change during the Victorian era, the era of industrialisation and the creation of monstrous cities? In the 18th century it was something to do with The Sublime, as articulated by Edmund Burke: gazing on ruins gave us a pleasing sense of the Immensity of Time, the transitoriness of human glory, and of our own insignificance.

But for the Victorians, ruins came to represent calm and peace away from the hellish industrialised cities, and so became part of their cult of Nature; ruins covered in ivy and lichen were part of the Wordsworthian sanctuary they sought sanctuary in away from the Golgothas they had built and, for many (John Ruskin, William Morris) medieval ruins in particular spoke of an age when architecture and the rhythm of life ran at a human pace, on a human scale.

And then how was the whole aesthetic appeal of ruins transformed by the epic devastation of the Great War? Did the ruin of so many towns and cities, of entire landscapes, haunt artists (and civilians) after the War, who hallucinated ruination wherever they looked (as with Paul Nash’s surreal landscapes of the 1930s)? Ruins, which had provided sublimity to the Enlightenment and escape for the Victorians, now press in on our dreams, provide a menacing vision of what might industrialised warfare might do to our countryside.

And then the further devastation of the Second World War cemented the sense that everything can be ruined at any moment, that ruins are potentially all around us. Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden – any city could be utterly destroyed in a night, an intuition made even more horrific by the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why were there no images of any of this in the exhibition? Surely the nightmare of nuclear devastation hung like a suffocating shroud over much of post-1945 culture, well into the 1990s, and innumerable artists throughout the Cold War envisioned the destruction of the entire world in a nuclear apocalypse: to take just their most obvious, popular, cinematic form, in movies from Dr Strangelove to the Terminator series.

A chronological survey, no matter how basic, might have a) established the fundamental psychological and aesthetic appeal of the ruin b) shown how these developed and became more sophisticated over time.

Quotes on the wall

The most insight I got was from a series of quotes painted on the wall outside the exhibition which I only stumbled upon by accident: one from the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin, bespeaks the melancholy tone of so much Anglo-Saxon poetry (cf The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, Beowulf) – always the perfect world was in the past and we live in its shadow, in fallen times. There is no irony or distance, the poet’s lament is literal and heartfelt.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,
walls gape, torn up, destroyed,
consumed by age. Earth-grip holds
the proud builders, departed, long lost,
and the hard grasp of the grave, until a hundred generations
of people have passed.

Another quote is from Denis Diderot writing in the 1700s, pretty much 1,000 years after the Anglo-Saxon poet, in which the enlightened Frenchman sees walking in the ruins of Rome as an exquisite pleasure, conveying multiple sensations to the Man of Taste, namely:

  • that every step is placed where Caesar and Augustus walked – the thrill of sharing the same space with Great Men
  • the sense of the immensity of Time, the thrilling sense of the vastness of the ages and, by extension, our own insect-like insignificance which, in some moods, can be pleasurable – what are all my woes and troubles? Nothing compared to the great ages which have passed.

For this characteristic Enlightenment philosophe ruins can be consoling and comforting and/or offer glimpses of the sublime.

Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window by JMW Turner (1794). Tate

Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window by JMW Turner (1794). Tate

But why was there such a glaring gap where there should have been quotes from the Victorian era?

And of the twentieth century, the Century of Disasters, why only a casual mention late on in the show of JG Ballard saying Modernist architecture contains the premonition of its own destruction – a typically brilliant insight: the disaster, the apocalypse already built-in to the design of modern buildings. But surely a few people had something to say about twentieth century ruins?

When the camera floats over Manhattan in Koyanisqaatsi it is not to celebrate these soaring achievements of man’s ingenuity (as it might have been in the 1940s and 50s) but to give a foreboding sense that these absurdly priapic buildings are unnatural, the mushroom outgrowth of a culture which is destroying itself.

The Modernist notion that through technology and design we can build a better world (which, very roughly, fuelled so much art, politics and architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s) has expired, and we live in a post-Modernist age, among not just the physical ruins, but the intellectual and cultural ruins of those high hopes.

We now know we are destroying the world, the future will be worse than the past, the environment is being degraded at an escalating rate, our children will have worse lives than us and live in a world in far worse shape: no coral reefs; no fish; the vengeful sea rushing in to engulf our flood-plains.

Selected highlights

Apparently William Gilpin‘s writings about ruins from the 1740s onwards helped define ‘the picturesque’ and inspired artists and poets to seek out ruins. This ‘ruin lust’ became a standard part of the Grand Tour of Europe which every cultured man was expected to take throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, building to a climax amid the ruins of Rome.

Of course there are good things to enjoy in the show:

Coggeshall Church, Essex 1940 by John Armstrong. Tate

Coggeshall Church, Essex 1940 by John Armstrong. Tate

Modern modern art ie since the 1960s:

The show includes too much that isn’t even about ruins:

  • Paul Nash’s surrealist photos from the 1930s – which I greatly liked but these included nice photos of tree stumps and logs in fields – not ruins at all: why were they here?
  • Laura Oldfield Ford works based on the crappy brutalist Ferrier Estate ie paintings or photos themselves covered in scrawled graffiti – damaged but not ruins…
  • Paul Graham’s photos of roads in Ulster; buildings bombed during the Troubles I would have understood, but these are photos of just roads – evocative, but not ruins…
  • John Tillson’s portrait-shaped frames containing a tryptich of images: a fish, a Celtic cross, some text – nice enough but nothing to do with ruins…
  • Jon Savage, the chronicler of punk, took photos of London in the 1970s: these were desperately disappointing. I remember a landscape of deprivation and destruction, these anodyne images of flyovers didn’t capture it at all, nowhere near as bleak and shabby as I remember.

Related links

Only in England @ the Science Museum

This is a fabulous exhibition of black and white photographs of ordinary English life in the 1960s and 70s. It’s divided into three sections:

  1. Photos of English life by pioneering b&w photographer Tony Ray-Jones, taken 1965-69.
  2. Early photos by English photographer Martin Parr, from his first work, The Non-Conformists, a five-year project to photograph the people and life of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire from 1974-79.
  3. Photos by Ray-Jones selected by Parr from the 2,500 negatives held in the Ray-Jones archive in Bradford, and exhibited here for the first time.
Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

1. Tony Ray-Jones (1942-72)

Tony Ray-Jones died in 1972 from leukaemia, aged just 30. After studying photography in England in the late 1950s he went for further study in New York between 1961 and 1964. The exhibition explains that in America ‘the street’ was much more a focus of outdoor life and community and was much more photographed and described than in rainy England.

When he returned to the UK in 1965, Ray-Jones was determined to apply the American aesthetic to record the quirks and character of English street life and his pioneering approach to the drama and narrative of ‘ordinary’ life became hugely influential on all succeeding photographers.

The exhibition commentary picks out the importance of the seaside resort as a kind of quintessence of Englishness and the exhibition is full of images of stoic holidaymakers braving bad weather while drinking tea. In image after image Ray-Jones captures that special atmosphere of drizzle and disappointment only to be experienced in a rainy English seaside resort. As Martin Parr points out in the short film which accompanies the exhibition, England’s seaside resorts are often less changed than inland towns. In some ways being at the seaside is like travelling back in time.

Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ray-Jones spent the later 1960s travelling extensively all over England, observing human beings in all their eccentricity and quirkiness. He was photographing what he saw as a disappearing way of life, aware of the onrushing encroachment of Americanisation, of consumerism, of white goods and conveniences which was replacing the England of back-to-backs, outside loos and heavy prams.

Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ray-Jones made extensive preparations for his visits to each location, treating his work almost as an anthropologist’s project, setting out to learn about the place and people he was about to study. The exhibition shows his notebooks along with lists of books and articles to read. He was also fond of writing lists of dos and don’ts to himself:

  • stay with the subject matter
  • be patient
  • vary composition – Be aware of composition
  • Get in closer. ‘If a photograph isn’t interesting enough you’re not close enough’ – Robert Capa
Location unknown, possibly Morecambe, 1967 – 68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Location unknown, possibly Morecambe, 1967 – 68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

I think two closely-related things are going on in these photos, to do with narrative and composition.

  1. Narrative The commentary talks about the influence of film, comedy, maybe even cartoons on Ray-Jones’s eye for narrative, by which it means his eye for dynamic interaction between his human subjects. Something is always happening, often something ordinary and small, but something dynamic nonetheless: the woman in the second row of deckchairs giving us a baleful look; the beauty contestant wiping her mouth while the young man at the counter admires her bum and the old man sips his tea oblivious to both; lots of things in the Ramsgate photo; and the interplay between the four men and dog in the Morecambe photo can also be studied and pondered and enjoyed for some time. These photos are wonderful because they show us how rich and strange and complicated the most mundane of human moments are.
  2. Composition The frame is full with incident always occurring at the edge. Your eye is drawn to the people at the edges, and then back to the central figure(s), who are often interacting with figures at the periphery, after looking at which you look again at the central figures – in a repeating loop, as you discover more and more disconcerting or odd or amusing details – making the experience of looking at these photos very dynamic and rich. Another photographer might have been content to frame the three beauty contestants, as quite a lot is going on with just them. But Ray-Jones widens the frame to include the old man drinking tea and the whole group at the desk or cupboard, turning a snap into something more like a short story with half a dozen characters all interacting in ways only their glances and looks and bodily attitudes can reveal.

2. Martin Parr b.1952

Martin Parr is, according to the exhibition, one of the most successful and interesting photographers working today. Born ten years after Ray-Jones, he was inspired by his photography course at Manchester poly in 1973 to be more personal, to incorporate elements of narrative into his pictures. He had discovered Ray-Jones’s photos in the year of his death and was very influenced by their power and depth. The exhibition features a set of prints from Parr’s first work, a five-year-long study of life among the hill farmers and non-conformist chapels of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire which resulted in a book The Non-Conformists.

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden 1975 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden 1975 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Like Ray-Jones, Parr also felt he was documenting a vanishing way of life, visibly so as the congregations in the chapels aged and died and weren’t replaced by the young, distracted by the ever-widening consumer culture. I loved photos of the Hebden Bridge Mouse show and pigeon competition or an evocative image of the 1977 jubilee celebration tables abandoned in pouring rain. Parr’s prints are bigger and easier to read and enjoy than the early Ray-Jones ones, which required a bit of bending into and using glasses. Not only are they bigger but their use of space is cleaner and more monumental. He tends to have one person or only a few people as the focus, unlike the impression of teeming multitudes given by many of the Ray-Jones’ photos.

Tom Greenwood cleaning 1976 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Tom Greenwood cleaning 1976 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

3. Martin Parr selects Tony Ray-Jones

In the third part of the exhibition, Parr was invited to make a new selection of over 50 previously unseen works from the National Media Museum’s Ray-Jones archive. This archive holds some 2,500 contact prints, vastly more than the 80 or so photos included in Ray-Jones’s only published work A Day Off: An English Journal, unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously in 1974.

The short film in the exhibition has Parr sharing the excitement of opening and seeing some of the collection for the first time, being amazed by not only the number of images, but the memorabilia and especially the notebooks which Ray-Jones kept. The images from this section were printed bigger than the earlier vintage stuff, remastered or something to make the prints the same size as the Parr ones. This made them easier to see, allowing the viewer to enjoy the drama and narrative of the compositions.

Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

The commentary points out that Ray-Jones was also attracted to the ‘Season’ of regular annual fixtures – Epsom, Ascot, Crufts, Chelsea Flower Show –  which continually throw up the dysjunction between the ‘glamour’ or ideal version of events, and the mundane and sometimes bizarre realities as men carry heavy pots of flowers to and fro or groups of dogs cluster incongruously around their owners before going onstage.

But it’s the beach photos which, in the end, speak of something permanent in English life, a heedless provinciality, a blithe gracelessness, a lumpiness and ugliness and crudeness and vulgarity, which is in Chaucer’s dirty stories and Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, an enduring part of the mongrel English character – which speaks to us of a pre-media, pre-celebrity, pre-image-obsessed era, of a kind of innocence which seems fragile and precious, and which Tony Ray-Jones’s great works of art will record forever.

Brighton Beach, 1967 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Brighton Beach, 1967 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

You get a useful overview from the YouTube video of the show.

The exhibition is now, unfortunately, closed in London, but is moving to the National Media Museum in Bradford where it opens on 28 March and runs until 29 June.

Related links

The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes: detective stories

This volume is a selection of 19 short detective stories which were published before, during and after the heyday of Sherlock Holmes, roughly 1890-1910. They were chosen by David Stuart Davies who has edited lots of selections like this, as well as writing his own detective and fantasy/horror stories.

This volume allows the reader to compare and contrast Holmes with his rivals and epigones; but it’s also an opportunity to immerse oneself in the kind of prose which saturated the magazine market during these years and which is now rarely read or studied. And the volume as a whole conveys a strong sense of how quickly the market filled up with this kind of fiction and how authors experimented with every possible permutation: women detectives; French detectives; blind detectives;  Canadian outback detectives, and so on. Today’s obsession with murder and detectives is nothing new.

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe (1844)
Poe’s legendary detective C. August Dupin solves the problem brought to him by the Prefect of Paris police. The (presumably compromising) letter has been sent to the Queen where it is spotted and purloined by an unscrupulous minister. But where has he hidden it? After a long and typically Poe-ish disquisition about the nature of the mind, Dupin abruptly reveals he has it. He purloined it from the minister, having deduced from the character of the minister, where he was likely to hide it, namely, in full view.

Poe's detective C. Auguste Dupin pinching the purloined letter from the minister

Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin pinching the purloined letter from the minister

The Biter Bit by Wilkie Collins (1858)
A neat comedy in letters between an experienced police superintendent, Theakstone, and his bumptious rookie, Matthew Sharpin, who takes on the case of a tin of money stolen from a bedside, and gets the case completely and hilariously wrong.

The Stolen Cigar-Case by Brett Harte (1902)
A short parody of a Sherlock Holmes story. I can see how clever it is and it made me smile but I don’t find parody satisfying.

A Princess’s Vengeance by CL Pirkis (1893)
The female detective Loveday Brooke was created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis. She is strikingly sober, rational and to the point, running rings round the – in this case – naive and silly young Major Druce who has fallen in love with his mother’s amanuensis who has gone missing! Is it a murder? No. She’s in love with the butler and has run off to get married 🙂

Read The Experiences of Loveday Brooke

Loveday Brooke concealed among the palms

Loveday Brooke concealed among the palms

The Absent-Minded Coterie by Robert Barr (1905)
This is one of a series of stories about the French detective, Eugène Valmont, rather improbably based in London. He is preternaturally clever, of course, running rings round the plods of Scotland Yard, and has a wonderful line comparing British staleness and clumsiness with his Parisian finesse. In this very much like Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard. This tale is one of eight collected together as The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont along – tellingly – with a couple of Sherlock Holmes parodies.

The Swedish Match by Anton Chekhov (1884)
Disappointed that Chekhov has the same harsh, unforgiving Russian tone that I read in Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Sholokhov et al. It features detective Tchubikov and his earnest sidekick Dyukovsky in a supposedly comedic double act, but in fact they just threaten each other, harshly. 

‘You devil of a skeleton! Don’t bother me! I’ve told you a thousand times over, don’t bother me with your politics! It’s not the time for politics! And as for you ,’ he turned upon Dyukovsky and shook his fist at him, ‘as for you… I’ll never forgive it as long as I live.’

The Secrets of the Black Brotherhood by Dick Donovan (1892)
Told in the first person. It’s interesting how doing that completely dissipates the mystery and enigma which is created by a third person narrative. Dick is the name of the detective narrator and in  this one he proves the innocence of a young lady accused of stealing jewellery by showing her uncle is leader of a gang of criminals who dress in black and meet in a safe house in south London.

Tamworth was one of the most accomplished and consummate villains I ever had to deal with; his power of acting a part, and of concealing his true feelings, was simply marvellous and would have enabled him to to have made a fortune if he had gone on the stage.’

The Episode of the Diamond Links by Grant Allen (1896)
South African millionaire Sir Charles Vandrift and  his wife go on a cruise with their amanuensis, the narrator of the stories. This is told in an attractive, confident, ironic, civilisé, style. They fear they are being shadowed and guyed by a fiendish ‘sharper’, Colonel Clay who in fact succeeds in stealing Lady Vandrift’s diamonds though an elaborate ruse of claiming to need them for his cuff links (!) This is one of the 12 stories included in the An African Millionaire – Episodes in the Life of the Illustrious Colonel Clay, published in 1897 by Canadian writer. Read more on this blog.

Illustration for 'The African Millionaire' in Strand magazine

Illustration for ‘The African Millionaire’ in Strand magazine

A Clever Capture by Guy Clifford (1895)
The detective is Robert Gracemen, the trusty friend and his trust friend, and the narrator of this first person story, is Halton. By breaking the ciphered message in the personal column of a newspaper Graceman works out which house a gang of burglars working in the Thames valley is going to break into next, allowing the police to catch them. Notable for the boating holiday at Sonning the two chaps take.

Nine Points of the Law by EW Hornung (1899)
One of the eight stories about gentleman thief A. J. Raffles collected in The Amateur Cracksman the first volume of his adventures. In a gentlemanly way he breaks the law and his adventures are recounted by trusty sidekick, Bunny. In this one a cad steals the priceless painting of his uncle, as he’s in debt etc. Raffles cunningly replaces it with a fake – but then Bunny steals the fake, creating a right pickle! Hornung had the distinction of becoming Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law and he didn’t like the immoral hero of his stories.

Raffles, EW Hornung's gentleman burglar, at work

Raffles, EW Hornung’s gentleman burglar, at work

The Stir outside the Cafe Royal  (1898) by Clarence Rook
Unusually for a man, Rook made his heroine a woman, the improbably named Nora van Snoop of the new York Detective Agency. She steals a man’s cigarette case to ensure he is brought into police custody where she reveals he is a notorious murderer wanted in the States.

The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds (1897) by Guy Boothby
Boothby was an Australian novelist who created Simon Carne whose exploits appeared in a series called ‘A Prince of Swindlers’. He was a gentleman crook like Raffles and Colonel Clay. In this adventure he captures the imagination of London in disguise as the famous detective Klimo, in order to solve a crime he himself commits, the detection throwing everyone off the scent. Carne is notable for the skilled and discreet Indian servants he has with him.

The Problem of Dressing Room A by Jacques Futrelle
Futrelle created Professor SFX van Dusen, known as The Thinking Machine who works by pure logic, solving cases brought to him by a reporter, Hutchinson Hatch. In this one an actress disappears from her changing room in the middle of a performance. The Thinking Machine works out how she was abducted and leads the chase to find her before she dies. The pure rationality of the character, unsoftened by any feeling or emotion, makes for a powerful read.

The Hundred-Thousand-Dollar Robbery (1913) by Hesketh Pritchard
Pritchard created the character of November Joe, a detective from the backwoods of Canada. In this story he tracks down the bank clerk who stole the money but was himself robbed in the woods, by a lake, near a settler town.

Read the full set of November Joe: Detective of the Woods stories

November Joe gets his man

November Joe gets his man

The Surrey Cattle-Maiming Mystery (1921) by Herbert Jenkins.
Malcolm Sage is an eggheaded man of pure reason, an effective accountant in Whitehall who does such sterling work during the War his boss suggests he sets up a detective agency. His coldblooded reason is balanced by Carry On hi-jinks from his staff, secretary Gladys Norman, assistant James Thompson, office junior William Johnson, and chauffeur Arthur Tims. This is a bizarre and unsavoury tale of cattle which have been maimed and now a horse has been attacked, too. Sage ignores angry General Sir John Hackblock and lures the culprit into a trap who turns out to be the local curate, under the influence of a mania which occurs at the full moon. Article about Malcolm Sage. Though Malcolm Sage is a bad name.

The Ghost at Massingham Mansions by Ernest Bramah
Bramah created the blind detective Max Carrados, assisted by his butler Parkinson. Can’t put my finger on it but didn’t like this one.

Sexton Blake and the Time-Killer (1924) by Anonymous
Apparently over 100 authors have written adventures featuring Sexton Blake who made his debut in the Halfpenny Marvel in 1893. This is a long story, badly and sensationally written. It combines elements of Victorian Sherlock Holmes with a completely different  between-the-wars feel, in the leading presence of an American PR man talking about Prohibition and in the Indiana Jones-style fight in a low Mediterranean dive. And also the relationship between posh Sexton and his cockney sidekick Tinker, who seems little more than a boy, harks forward to the boys adventure comics of the 50s and 60s which I read.

Sexton Blake in action

Sexton Blake in action

One Possessed (1914) by EW Hornung
Having incurred he wrath of his brother-in-law Conan Doyle by creating the immensely popular gentleman burglar Raffles, Hornung scored another success, a generation later, with his Crime Doctor, Dr John Dollar. Dollar dealt with ailments of the mind at the time when Victorian alienism was turning into psychiatry.  This is by far the most affecting story in the set. Although the plot is as hammy as a Conan Doyle (or as one of Kipling’s horror stories) – colonel retired from India becomes obsessed with the cult of Thuggees to the extent of unconsciously adopting their dress and trying to strangle his staff or house guests – it is treated in a strange oblique style. Hornung uses the passive voice, elliptical references, sentences which don’t quite finish. And Dollar shows a strong sense of sad compassion for the frailty of the human condition, in short a sensitivity completely absent from almost all the other tales here.

Read the full set of Crime Doctor stories

The Great Pearl Mystery (1928) by Baroness Orczy
The Baroness is famous for creating the Scarlet Pimpernel (debuted in 1905), but she churned out numerous other stories, including a series about lawyer Patrick Mulligan whose nickname is Skin o’ My Tooth, and who goes beyond his strict lawyerly duties to help his clients. In this one he dons a disguise to go among criminals of Soho to prove that a gang of foreign waiters was working to steal the jewels from rich customers and fell out among themselves, stabbing the beautiful Madame Hypnos – thus proving his client, dashing Australian war hero Major Gilroy Straker, to be innocent.

Read the full set of Skin o’ My Tooth stories


Buy The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes on Amazon

The Great War in Portraits @ National Portrait Gallery

This year sees the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One. The National Portrait Gallery is inaugurating a four-year course of exhibitions, lectures, educational activities etc and they’re kicking off with The Great War in Portraits – a small (three rooms), beautifully formed and FREE exhibition!

Rock Drill

It opens with Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill, surely one of the most striking art works of the century, a pioneering Modernist sculpture from 1913, designed to sit atop an actual giant pneumatic drill. At its launch it bespoke the liberating, alienating but awesome power of modern technology, capturing the energy and optimism of first wave Modernism. Later, in 1916, as the war became more devastating and less the triumph of modern, clean technology people expected, Epstein removed the drill and splayed limbs to produce the cutdown version we see today. It is not so much the Modernism of the image which came to seem apt – but this mutilation of the original work.

Kings and Kaisers

Room one has portraits of the men who got us into this mess: paintings of Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V, Emperor Franz Joseph, a photograph showing George V with  his cousin Czar Nicholas II. As a result of their orders some 70 million men were mobilised and nine million killed.

Generals and men

Room two displayed portraits of the Generals, the men who led the armies through this mess: Field Marshall von HindenbergCommander of the Allied Forces Ferdinand Foch, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, General Sir Herbert Plumer, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. All these were painted by Sir William Orpen (‘financially one of the most successful, and eventually one of the most honoured, portrait painters working in Britain in the twentieth century’) who is the most-represented artist here. Along with his portraits of the generals are his images of the common soldier: Man in trench, a Grenadier Guardsman, the Receiving room – and a revealing self portrait.

All very interesting and effective. But for me the room is electrified by the relatively compact and super powerful La Mitrailleuse by CWR Nevinson, whose work was recently featured at the Dulwich Picture Gallery Crisis of Brilliance show, and which I also saw recently in a Great War show at the Leeds Art Gallery. Like the Rock Drill, this shard from the brink-of-the-war movement, Vorticism, dominated all the other images in its room, including the naturalistic Dead Stretcher Bearer by Rogers and the milk-and-water post-Impressionism of Walter Sickert’s The Integrity of Belgium.

Heroes and villains

The third, final and big room contained a portraits of outstanding (Allied) heroes of the War: Captain A Jacka, Gilbert Insall, JB McCudden and GB McKean – as well as an entire wall dedicated to a grid of 40 or so photos of soldiers (and two women). Most of them are famous (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon) but some just anonymous soldiers. Possibly the most striking was an amazingly confident/arrogant portrait of the legendary Baron von Richtofen, the fighter ace.

The post-War divide between British and Continental art

The final half dozen paintings provide a stark and maybe unintended contrast which sheds light on a major issue: why British art became a provincial backwater for a lot of the 20th century, while Europe saw an extraordinary explosion of experimental and avant-garde art.

The commentary summarises: for the British the Great War came to represent the horror of the new: of new technology, of new mass societies, of new ways of slaughtring each other. And the struggling avant-garde in this country was tainted by it, with it. After the trauma of the War British society wanted comforting, a return to traditional and conservative forms and subjects. For a few years before the Great War London almost became the capital of modern art and the Modernist movement. After the war, Britain washed her hands of all that and the focus shifted to Paris, with parallel movements in revolutionary Germany, in proto-Fascist Italy and in the new communist Soviet Union.

Because in those countries the Great War had led directly to the state collapsing. The old regimes, the old ways, the old archdukes and kaisers and czars were fatally associated with the catastrophe, and they paid the price, swept away, executed, forced into exile. And along with them went many of the cultural and aesthetic values associated with the old ways, the old beliefs, the old styles. In these countries the Modern held out hope for a new start, and artists all over Europe threw themselves into the new ways of seeing and making.

Epitomising the vast gulf which was already yawning between British art and European art, this small show ends by juxtaposing the visionary Expressionism of Ernst Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier, his hand chopped off, a swathe of violent reds and blues, a naked cabaret girl in the background foreshadowing Weimar decadence; with Glyn Warren Philpot’s very decent, very calm, very assured portrait of Siegfried Sassoon, a protester in the War who quickly reverted to the fox-hunting man of his class and background, and whose later prose and poetry epitomises the stifling blanket of decency which settled over Britain between the wars, and beyond…

Related links

Edgar Allen Poe’s detective stories

During Poe’s short, miserable life (1809-49) he struggled to make a living from writing in a wide range of genres: poems, tales of fantasy and horror, an adventure novel, lots of essays, criticism and piles of ephemeral journalism.

Not much of it was recognised or rewarded in his lifetime, but many of the stories grew in fame and influence in the decades after his death. Now he is predominantly remembered as author of the ballad poem The Raven, and of a series of disturbing, macabre and fantastical Gothic short stories. The Viking Portable Poe divides these into Tales of Fantasy, Tales of Terror, Tales of Death, Tales of Revenge and Murder – which gives a good flavour of the man.

But Poe also wrote three detective stories (classified here as Tales of Mystery and Ratiocination) and most historians of the genre now consider that these more or less founded the entire tradition.

  • 1841 The Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • 1843 The Mystery of Marie Rogêt
  • 1845 The Purloined Letter

Poe himself referred to them as ‘tales of ratiocination’. Merriam-Webster defines ratiocination as ‘the process of exact thinking; a reasoned train of thought’ and in these three stories Poe is more interested in the workings of the mind – the hyperanalytical mind of his hero Auguste Dupin – than in plot as such. All three lean more towards essays than stories, with long excursions into the workings of the mind, pure reason v practical reason, the normal v the abnormal mind etc etc.

Certainly in the first two there is a murder – and then Poe’s creation, the French philosopher Auguste Dupin, uses texts and one visit to the murder scene / in the second story, texts from newspapers and from the police alone – to piece together the course of events. That’s it. There are no subsequent events, no further puzzling discoveries, let alone a chase or race against time to find the murderer.

Just one clever analytical mind sifting the evidence presented in texts to arrive at a theory and witnessed by his more or less passive sidekick, the unnamed narrator.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)

introduced the first fictional detective in English, the eccentric and brilliant C. Auguste Dupin, an impoverished Bohemian intellectual with esoteric and occult tastes, one of which is analysing crimes. In this medium length short story Poe is credited with inventing the main tropes of the detective story which have characterised it ever since.

In the 1945 edition of Poe I have, the American critic Philip van Doren Stern wrote that Poe was painfully aware throughout his life both of his intellectual superiority and of his relative failure to establish it. Hence one of the most characteristic aspects of his prose is a tiresome straining to impress. Rider Haggard, Louis Stevenson and Conan Doyle were not intellectuals. They knew their audience, their reading market in the 1880s, and they knew the importance of getting a plot ripping along on page one and then freshly supplied with incident. It’s a shock to turn to Poe in the 1840s who freights each ‘tale’ with lengthy ‘philosophical’ remarks, thus:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension præternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.

The Murders plot is simple. The narrator bumps into Dupin in a bookshop and, both being poor, they decide to take rooms together (cf Holmes and Watson). They share esoteric interests and often go walking the streets of Paris at night. On one occasion Dupin anticipates precisely what the narrator is thinking, from a process of deduction (exactly as Holmes startles Watson on countless occasions 50 years later). One night they read about the murder of two women in the Rue Morgue. They read the account in the papers; Dupin gets the keys to the apartment from a contact in the police so they can go and see it for themselves; based on a detailed survey of the rooms Dupin explains who the murderer must be. He has already placed an advertisement in the papers and, as he finishes explaining his theory to the narrator, they hear footsteps coming up the stairs of the man who confirms all their theories (exactly as countless feet tramp up the stairs at 221b Baker Street to confirm Holmes’s theories). A few days later the correct murderer is apprehended.

This, the ur-detective story, establishes a number of tropes which are to be repeated in thousands of its descendants:

  • there are two protagonists: the brilliant ‘detective’ or analyst, and his (in Poe unnamed) sidekick and admiring chronicler
  • our heroes read about a murder in the papers, the so and so affair
  • the case features a number of impossibilities, such as the room with the corpses in being sealed by doors and windows locked on the inside
  • it presents a number of unusual features – and Dupin points out (as Holmes does) that the unusual is the detective’s best aid
  • there is a puzzling lack of motive ie the gold left on the floor
  • Dupin’s early practice of forensics in taking the exact imprint of the bruises around the murdered woman’s throat
  • the detective’s outsiderness – both to society as a whole, to which Dupin is a down-at-heel Bohemian; and to the official police, whom he holds in cheerful contempt (as will all his descendants)
  • the police, in the form of the Prefect G—, come grovelling to him requesting his help
  • the exotic/colonial origin of the murderer who turns out to come all the way from Borneo – as so many of Conan Doyle’s stories feature murder brought by exotic criminals from far overseas
  • the culprit flushed out and brought to the detective’s rooms by a carefully placed advert in the newspapers (where they originally read about the case)
Poster for the 1932 'adaptation' in which a mad scientist seeks to mingle human blood with that of an ape, and resorts to kidnapping women for his experiments - ie nothing to do with the story

Poster for the 1932 ‘adaptation’ in which a mad scientist seeks to mingle human blood with that of an ape, and resorts to kidnapping women for his experiments – ie nothing to do with the story

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842)

is Poe’s thinly fictionalised account of the real-life murder of young New Yorker Mary Cecilia Rogers which had caused a media sensation in 1842. Poe sets his fictional version in Dupin’s Paris and gives all the protagonists (and the newspapers whose reports he quotes at length) French names.

This is a deliberate sequel to Morgue. In the story Dupin’s success in the Rue Morgue affair gives him a great reputation with the Paris police, whose chief comes to ask his help a few weeks after the body of the unfortunate young lady is found (cf the bungling Scotland Yard plods Lestrade and Grigson in Holmes). Once he’s left, a) the narrator goes out & procures from the Police the full description of their evidence and theories, then buys every newspaper which has reported it: he summarises all this evidence for Dupin (and for us) and b) Dupin treats the narrator to a long analysis of the various theories proposed by newspapers and police, until he deduces the events and the murderer, viz. Marie was murdered by one man, not a gang, who dragged her body to the river using the torn shreds of her petticoats, stole a boat in which to take the body to mid-river where he dumped it overboard, later tying up the boat at a jetty, later still returning to steal the boat, having realised it could be evidence against him. Find the boat and you find the murderer, Dupin concludes.

It is striking that the entire story really amounts to a piece of practical criticism or close reading of the newspaper accounts. Dupin deconstructs them into individual sentences which he then submits to searching critique and, generally, dismissal. It is not so much an investigation as a reading. Seen from another angle, there is little or no story in the text: it is more an essay, or even a lecture, than a tale.

And the overall affect is disappointing. Dupin’s interpretation isn’t that different from what some newspapers had already suggested. And the 60-page story builds to a strange anti-climax, a note from the narrator inserted into the main text:

[For reasons which we shall not specify, but which to many readers will appear obvious, we have taken the liberty of here omitting, from the MSS. placed in our hands, such portion as details the following up of the apparently slight clew obtained by Dupin. We feel it advisable only to state, in brief, that the result desired was brought to pass; and that the Prefect fulfilled punctually, although with reluctance, the terms of his compact with the Chevalier. ]


I am not a feminist, but it is dismaying that the first detective story, and the first real-life murder-turned-into-a-detective-story, both centre on murdered women. I find the 19th century focus on women as especially innocent, especially vulnerable, to be the corollary of the 19th century stifling, repression and exploitation of women, and the murder of women in fiction, drama and opera a rather nauseating epitome of it.

I used to go to opera a lot but gave up because I went to a run of operas which eventually made me sick of watching women die for entertainment: La Boheme, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Carmen, Tosca – watching women die with the suggestion that their murder or suicide was that bit more artistic or entertaining or sensational or aesthetic I eventually found sick and exploitative. And something the same feminist feeling in me is roused by these Poe stories. Luckily the third is the exception, though it still rotates around a woman and her ‘honour’.

The Purloined Letter (1844)

is the third in the Dupin trilogy, the shortest and most focused. Though larded with Dupin’s lectures about the human mind it is noticably more interested in describing the bachelor setup enjoyed by the narrator and Dupin:

At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18–, I was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in company with my friend C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library, or book-closet, au troisieme, No. 33, Rue Dunot, Faubourg St. Germain. For one hour at least we had maintained a profound silence; while each, to any casual observer, might have seemed intently and exclusively occupied with the curling eddies of smoke that oppressed the atmosphere of the chamber.

An unscrupulous minister has palmed a compromising letter he found in the Queen’s boudoir (presumably she is having an affair) in order to blackmail her. The Queen employs the Prefect of Police to find and return it without causing a scandal. He has the minister’s apartment searched with fantastic precision and thoroughness but finds nothing and arrives at Dupin’s apartment to implore him to help. A month later he is back still without luck, moaning he would give 50,000 francs to have it. Dupin says, Well make out the check and will give it to you. And hand it over he does, to the amazement of the narrator and G—.

Stripped of fol-de-rol, Dupin explains it was about knowing his man, putting himself into the place, into the mind, of the Minister whereat he quickly realised how he would outwit the obvious hiding places suspected by the police. In fact he was so cunning that he didn’t hide the letter at all – tarnished and readdressed, it was in an open letter holder on his shelves throughout all the police’s searches.

Dupin arranges for a shot to go off in the street during his visit, and as quickly purloins the letter as the Minister originally did himself. Ta da! The theme of the stolen, incriminating letter recurs in the Holmes stories The Second Stain and The Adventure of the Naval Treaty and the arranged distraction in the street features in A Scandal in Bohemia, also about compromising love letters.

Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49)

Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49)

Related links

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1999)

Can’t remember the last time a book made me physically sick. About half way through another description of the murders, rapes, dismemberments, garrotings, hangings, torture and shootings carried out by Belgian rubber companies in the forced labour system set up by king Leopold II in his colony in the Congo (1885-1909), I thought I might spew.

Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and his genocide

If you like historical horror stories, you’ll love this book. It intertwines a biography of lonely unloved Leopold, aloof, shy king of the Belgians who conceived a great ambition to own one of the chunks of the developing world being claimed as colonies by all the other European nations – with detail of how, once he’d settled on the Congo, he commissioned the greatest explorer of the age, Henry Morton Stanley, to open it up; and then created a system of concessions to commercial companies which more or less guaranteed that at every level and in every way, the native peoples of the vast Congo basin would be worked to death, exploited, punished and murdered every bit as cruelly and needlessly as the genocides carried out by Hitler or Stalin.

Villages were razed to the ground, women and children were casually shot, or taken as hostages to force the menfolk to drain rubber from the vines which grew high up into the rainforest canopy. If enough rubber wasn’t collected, the women or children were murdered. Or their hands were cut off. Or their brains were dashed out with rifle butts. Or they were raped or tortured to death, or beaten, or tied in sacks and thrown into the river, or flogged to death, or left chained to trees till they died of thirst. And much more.

Leopold’s loot

This happened for 20 years or more over an area the size of western Europe. The profits to the Belgian, French and British companies who extorted raw rubber were big, but nothing compared to Leopold’s take. The book details the countless cunning ways the king screwed the maximum revenue out of every aspect of the operation. Hochschild quotes the scholar Jules Marchal who estimates Leopold’s total haul at around $1.1 billion in today’s money.

Leopold’s follies

This loot Leopold spent on turning his palace on the outskirts of Brussels into a new Versailles, building grandiose public monuments in cities around Belgium, on collecting a suite of villas on Cap Ferrat in the south of France, and on an impressive series of prostitutes and mistresses, until he fell in love with a 16 year old, Caroline Delacroix when he himself was an ageing 65.

The genocide

Modern scholars estimate the population of the Congo region was halved, from about 20 million to around 10 million, during the decades of Leopold’s homicidal rule. Hochschild quotes Alexandre Delcommune, ‘a ruthless robber baron’, saying that, if Leopold had ruled the Congo for another ten years, there probably wouldn’t have been a single rubber vine left, or, quite possibly, a single native. The genocide would have been complete.

It goes without saying the all this was done in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘justice’, of ‘law’ and ‘morality’. It is particularly disgusting that the Catholic church, right up until the end and beyond, supported Leopold, a crime just as egregious as its over-analysed relation with the Nazis.

The resistance

Speaking of Christians brings us to the resistance to Leopold’s bloody rule and among these were many Protestant missionaries, especially the non-conformists. It is reasonably well-known that what eventually became a worldwide campaign against Leopold’s rule was run by two passionate advocates, the doughty English businessman-turned-crusader-for-justice ED Morel, and the febrile but effective Irishman, Roger Casement. Through a brilliant series of books, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches, through fundraising and lobbying, they managed to discredit Leopold’s rule and make the scandal one of the great issues of the Edwardian world.

And Hochschild says their campaign was the most important and sustained crusade of its type between the mid-Victorian abolitionist movement and the worldwide boycott of South African apartheid in the 1970s and 80s.

Black heroes who campaigned against the horror

But above and beyond Morel and Casement, Hochschild goes out of his way to bring attention to the work of several remarkable black missionaries and campaigners, namely George Washington Williams, William Henry Sheppard and Herzekiah Andrew Shanu who, often at great risk, travelled far, took testimony, and publicised the horrors of what Model called ‘that infamous System’.


I read Hochschild’s book immediately after Thomas Pakenham’s wonderful Scramble for Africa, which covers the same period and a lot of the same subject. Pakenham’s book has the breadth and scale and depth of War and Peace. It is an epic which also includes detailed portraits of key individuals, ranging across the whole continent throughout the scramble, 1880-1914.

Pakenham’s tone is judicious and, for the most part, detached; only occasionally does he pass judgement on the men he’s describing, and his biting criticism is all the more powerful for being rare. By contrast, Hochschild’s book is much shorter, much lighter, and he is ready with sarcasm and criticism from the start. He is sarcastic about Britain’s claims to abolish slavery after the 1830s, he is sarcastic about the so-called civilising mission of the explorer and colonisers, he is quicker to dismiss all high-falutin rhetoric and, in doing so, he misses the complexity to which these rhetorics, these discourses, were put. Many people believed what they said about bringing civilisation to the savages. A number of native tribes did practice cannibalism. The slave trade was rampant in east Africa and British authorities did do their best to stamp it out.

Pakenham’s book, maybe four times longer than Hochschild’s, has the space and depth to explore the highly complicated ways scores and scores of contemporaries struggled to make sense of their world and of the made scramble for African colonies. As such it is a much deeper and more satisfying read.

But what it lacks in scale and depth, King Leopold’s Ghost makes up for in intensity and horror. After you’ve read a certain amount, it’s hard not to share his sense of indignation, his anger, that human beings from so-called civilised, so-called Christian, Europe were allowed to get away with such barbarity and depravity for so long.

The end?

Leopold died of cancer in 1909. Despite the worldwide success of the campaign against him, in the end he was only forced to sell the Congo to the Belgian state a year or so before his death (he had planned to leave it to the Belgian people in his will). And in a depressing final chapter Hochschild makes clear that, although the scale of wanton murder was reined in, forced labour of some sort continued in Congo, and in neighbouring European colonies, well into the 1930s, and was even intensified during the Second World War with the Allies’ bottomless need for tyres for all types of war machinery.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was the link Hochschild draws between the occasional tribes who managed to rebel against the system, who stole arms and killed their white torturers and escaped into the jungle to wage prolonged guerrilla campaigns against their oppressors – and the similar tactics adopted by anti-colonial nationalists fighting the British and French following the Second World War, the Mau-Mau et al. If, as Hochschild book makes you, you powerfully and emotionally root for the first group of freedom fighters – then surely you must, at the very least, sympathise with their descendants.

European civilisation

Leopold II, king of the Belgians. Note the smart uniform, the shiny medals, the impeccable manners. What a Christian gentleman!

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

And now some of the hundreds of thousands of Africans whipped, chained, mutilated, raped and murdered by Leopold’s officers to incentivise them or their parents to gather more rubber for the wise and good king.

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Related links

%d bloggers like this: