Indigenous Australia @ the British Museum

‘The first major exhibition in the UK to present a history of Indigenous Australia through objects’

1. Artefacts

In three medium-sized rooms The BP exhibition, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, packs scores and scores of artworks and artefacts designed to illustrate and illuminate the history of the indigenous peoples of Australia. A timeline on the wall starts 60,000 years ago with the first evidence of humans on the continent, proceeds to the first artefacts and art some 40,000 years ago (at a time when Neanderthals were still living alongside homo sapiens in Britain), among much other evidence that Indigenous Australian is the longest continuous, unbroken culture anywhere in the world.

A huge map of Australia on the wall shows the patchwork of tribes and peoples which covered this vast country – the size of Europe – and, when the Europeans arrived, home to some 1 million Indigenous people speaking an estimated 250 separate languages.

From the BM’s collection of 6,000 Australian objects, this exhibition showcases a range of bowls, masks, spearheads, boomerangs, pendants, belts, shields, shell ornaments, speartips, generally dating from the Early Colonial Period (1770-1850) when missionaries and explorers began to collect them, most beautifully crafted and decorated with very appealing abstract and geometric designs.

Standout objects included a 5-foot-long crocodile ‘mask’ designed to be worn on the head and a small (6 inch square), wonderfully evocative head and shoulders carved out of coral.

Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish, Attributed to Kuduma, Murala.  Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell. Nagir, Torres Strait, Queensalnd, Australia before 1888.  © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish, Attributed to Kuduma, Murala. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell. Nagir, Torres Strait, Queensalnd, Australia before 1888. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

2. Art

Interspersed with these generally anonymous folk artefacts were large, sometimes very large, paintings by named and much more contemporary aboriginal artists. Almost without exception these were stunningly beautiful and inspiring. The artists included:

They are generally acrylic paint on canvas and there are enough of them, showing enough similarities in style, to have become known as ‘desert paintings’. (There are photos showing the large canvases laid out on a patch of desert and being worked on by one or several artists simultaneously with wide open spaces in the background.) They show abstract patterns derived from natural objects or creatures, but converted into flat panels covered in geometric patterns.There is no attempt at naturalism, they are not confined or trapped by Western notions of perspective or the notion that a painting must be a ‘window on the world’.

‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington (2013) Acrylic on canvas © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington (2013) Acrylic on canvas
© The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

I really liked the way the patterning suggests geometric regularity but is never actually exact, always has an organic-feeling variety and fluidity in its lines and circles, its matrices and swirls. And I loved the use of stippling, large dots of coloured paint to create a mosaic affect.

A century ago most Westerners lived in a post-Renaissance visual world, inculcated to think of ‘Art’ as depictions of heroic white men and docile gauze-veiled women (as exemplified in the recent exhibition at Leighton House). It took decades, maybe a century, of Modernism, the influence of Picasso and his generation breaking free from Renaissance traditions and taking inspiration from South Sea Island masks and African carvings to teach us how to see beauty in art which bears little or no relation to the stifling realism of the Western tradition, and to enjoy images like this for their confidence and imaginative power.

As well as examples of this ‘desert painting’ style, there were other bang up-to-date art works:

James Cook - with the Declaration; Vincent Namatjira (b.1983) South Australia (2014) Acrylic on canvas © Vincent Namatjira

James Cook – with the Declaration; Vincent Namatjira (b.1983)
South Australia (2014)
Acrylic on canvas © Vincent Namatjira

  • James Cook with declaration by Vincent Namatjira (2014) a large naive-style painting of Captain Cook holding a big white document representing the law by which the white man will steal the land
  • Undiscovered #4 by Michael Cook (2010) a large print of a photo of a beach showing a Captain Cook-era sailing ship anchored and a man in 18th century British Army uniform standing on the beach – except it is an aborigine in the uniform
  • Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana (b.1935)  a large ‘totem pole’ type pole covered in painted patterns with two heads at the top representing Cook and a native god, Barama

And the Museum has commissioned works specifically for this show from Indigenous artists, including two from Judy Watson (b.1959) – the holes in the land 3 and the holes in the land 4 – in which she’s taken floor plans of the current museum and of the museum extension, created standard-size framed prints of the plans, then given them a wash of colour and superimposed on them the outlines of large dark Indigenous artefacts, in the first case, piturri bags.

3. Aboriginal beliefs

A large video screen just inside the door showed a montage of shots of contemporary Australia, breath-taking landscapes, the beaches and sea and islands, mysterious tree-fringed rivers and wide expanses of red desert dotted with spinifax plants, and then humans, the white world of highways and cars and shopping malls, and groups of aboriginals together in camps, painting young boys’ bodies with traditional designs, and the sound of flies in the desert.

Bark painting of a barramundi.  Western Arnhem Land, about 1961  © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Bark painting of a barramundi.
Western Arnhem Land, about 1961
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Against this visual and aural backdrop the wall labels and audio commentary didn’t attempt a summary of aboriginal beliefs but dropped insights. Not least because Aboriginal religion or traditional beliefs stretch the western mind, their traditions and holistic mindset completely different from our crisp, clearly demarcated divisions of meaning. I don’t pretend to understand it but it includes:

  • the importance of ‘country’ or the land
  • really ancient traditions and stories stretching back thousands of years
  • the songlines and dreamworld, a difficult concept to grasp, to do with the way the ancestors walked through the land and called it into being, called the animals and flora into existence, and the trails and tracks they left across the land which record these legends…

Something which struck me is the way the songlines stretch right across the land and are shared by different groups, so that someone walking them has to pass on to a different song in a different language to continue the journey. Different tribes and sub-tribes inhabited specific areas, but there was much migration and movement, and people could travel freely across the country.

In a small but, I think, significant way this sharing and overlap is exemplified in some of the desert paintings which are actually the product of many hands – the largest painting in the show, right at the start – exhibit 1 – was created by five artists.

‘Pukara’ by Roy Underwood, Lennard Walker, Simon Hogan and Ian Rictor Acrylic on canvas Western Australia (2013) © the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

Pukara by Roy Underwood, Lennard Walker, Simon Hogan and Ian Rictor
Acrylic on canvas
Western Australia (2013)
© the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

4. Politics

I was already well aware that most of the artefacts here are in some sense ‘loot’, sometimes bought or given but most often simply plundered from their rightful owners, often in violent circumstances, and almost always separating the artefacts from the tribe, the location and the tradition which produced them, thus stripping them of much of their meaning and power.

After all, this is true of almost everything in the British Museum which, from one perspective, is a vast stash of loot from the criminal enterprise known as the ‘British Empire’.

But in the second room of the exhibition the dire history of British colonialism began to make its presence increasingly felt, with a sequence of images of the first British explorers, Dampier and then Captain Cook. Cook and his party had only been ashore ten minutes before they stared firing their guns at a couple of curious natives who’d come down to the beach to see them and relations with the Indigenous peoples continued in the same spirit of misunderstanding and one-sided aggression for the next couple of centuries.

The show is, after all, not an art exhibition but an attempt to tell Indigenous Australian history via objects, and no history of Australia is complete, or can even begin to be written, without taking account of the fact that the land was for tens of thousands of years inhabited by hundreds of tribes of people with an intimate relationship with the land, with rich and strange culture and traditions, and with expert knowledge of coaxing a livelihood out of the dryest continent in the world. Until we showed up and started shooting them, enslaving them, hunting them down, introducing them to alcoholism, prostitution and – even worse – western law about property and land ownership.

All this is indisputable and, if you wanted to be sickened and disgusted by the behaviour of the British explorers, colonists and convicts I recommend Robert Hughes’s massive history of crime and injustice, The Fatal Shore.

But as the exhibition moves into room three and the political injustices are laid on thicker and thicker the show becomes quite oppressive.

Land rights placard from the aboriginal Tent embassy, erected, as a site of protest, in 1972.  Paint on Masonite board, Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia (1972) National Museum of Australia

Land rights placard from the aboriginal Tent embassy, erected, as a site of protest, in 1972.
Paint on Masonite board, Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia (1972)
National Museum of Australia

The final room is dominated by a wall-size video screen showing a 3-minute sequence of stills recording the aborigines’ liberation struggle, with highlights such as the way protesters renamed the 150th anniversary of the claiming of Australia for the British Crown, on January 26 1938, ‘A Day of Mourning’. And other milestones in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and up to the present day (‘Key moments in the struggle for indigenous rights 1901-2015’). Among other striking facts we learned that the 1901 constitution which actually created the nation of Australia from six self-governing British colonies, for the purposes of census and population counting, explicitly excluded the aborigines, who were thereby declared non-people, non-existent, in their own country.

All this is true and important and tragic and disgusting BUT it had the regrettable affect of almost completely destroying the impact of the first half of the show.

For the first half hour I was straining my brain to understand concepts of land and tradition and art which are completely alien to the Western tradition, well beyond my understanding – as well as learning more tangible insights into Aboriginal art such as, snakes are an important symbol as they are bringers of water to this dry land – or about techniques of painting with ochre on bark. I was working up a feeling of wonder and awe at the age and depth and beauty of these works and of this culture.

Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

But I felt the delicacy and fragile insight conveyed in these early impressions was rained all over by the increasing politicisation of the show. No doubt the Indigenous peoples have to fight fire with fire and join in the governing western discourse in order to win their due and their rights. No doubt they had to hire lawyers and sign petitions and lobby the authorities and protest and create posters and banners and march for freedom. But I am over-familiar with the rhetorics of western political discourse; like a lot of other people I am sick of western politics and politicians.

With an audible thump the show went from celebrating the invaluable and barely comprehensible insights of a unique and priceless culture, to feeling like I was listening to John Humphreys barking at a lying politician on the Today programme.

I was much more interested to learn that Uta Uta Tjangala (1926-90) was a native artist who initiated the transfer of sand and body paintings onto canvas, and therefore a ‘pioneer of contemporary Australian art’. Or to see the photo of aboriginal artist Byron Brooks painting on a large canvas stretched out on the dirt floor outside with a vista of desert stretching into the distance and surrounded by ten or more dogs lazing or sleeping in the hot sun.

You’d have to be quite tough-minded to retain the fleeting feelings the wonderful art and artefacts evoke in the first part of this exhibition and not allow them to be tainted by mounting feelings of anger and shame at the miserable treatment of the Aborigines which the second half documents.


5. The oppressiveness of the Greek legacy

Greek sculpture The aborigine show is a few hundred yards away from the bigger, blockbuster exhibition about Greek sculpture also currently showing at the British Museum. That show ends with Michelangelo adulating fragments of Greek statuary and so, along with the rest of the Renaissance, passing on the worship of the perfect body into the Western tradition. I made the point in my review of it that, just as all Western philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, so all Western art could be said to be footnotes to Greek sculpture.

The power of perfection Going further, the Defining Beauty exhibition shows the intimate connection between images of perfection and power: the gods were powerful because they were perfect embodiments of the human form: their power somehow stemmed from their perfection; and their perfection gave them power. They are stunningly perfect.

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Athenian imperialism People often forget that Athens, at the peak of its artistic and political achievement, was a slave-owning society at the head of an Empire which it had conquered by force. In this sense the Greek statues in the Defining Beauty show are not innocent. They represent Power.

The power of ideas But not just the power of an army. They represent the power of Greek ideas, the fundamental notion that you gain control over things, over the world, by defining and distinguishing, just as the Greeks pioneered mathematics by exploring all aspects of the interactions of precise, defined values or Plato’s dialogues pursue the definition of abstract terms like the Good, the Beautiful, the Just into mind-boggling depths of analysis.

Plato’s theory of Ideal Forms In fact, Plato found himself persuaded that all earthly objects are the fallen, imperfect copies of things which exist in Ideal Form in another dimension. In some heaven or the Mind of God reside the permanent and Perfect Forms of Beauty, Justice, Law, Power, Morality and so on. These abstract ideas had one perfect form which we lesser mortals, in this fallen world, invoke every time we mention them. Just as, on a cultural and religious level, there was one god to an idea – the god of war, the god of the sea, the goddess of love, the king of the gods and so on.

Precision of Idea. Unity of Idea. Intellectual Perfection. Physical Beauty. Power. All are interlinked. (And were of course handed on into Christianity, the intellectual heir of the ancient world.)

The clash epitomised I had these Greek ideas in mind as I walked through the Indigenous Australian show and the vast distance between the two worlds crystallised, for me, in a photo included in the video of key moments in the aborigines’ struggle for justice. This photo shows a white man (presumably a lawyer) standing with three Indigenous men in western suits, all in the shadow of a neo-classical statue of Justice, perfect in shape and form with a light toga falling off her perfect breasts and holding the requisite scales of justice.

One of the tens of thousands of copies of Greek-style super-realist statues which were deployed all around the British Empire to embody ‘our values’: eg the rule of law (ie the rule of lawyers), democracy (for white men only), justice (if you can afford it), the integrity of private property (once you’ve stolen it from its rightful owners) and so on.

What Captain Cook brought When Captain Cook and his crew came ashore they brought not just the obvious tools of conquest – the guns and metal tools and diseases which would decimate the natives. More insidiously, they brought Western law with its vast array of definitions of property and ownership, the precise and pedantic system of codes and rules which was to steal an entire country from its inhabitants. They brought minds educated to venerate big abstract ideas: Civilisation, Culture, Law, Justice, Writing – and used to ‘reading’ those ideas in their chracterstically classical embodiments – Architecture, Public Spaces, Libraries, Statues.

Indigenous culture In Australia they found none of that. The reverse. The early part of the exhibition emphasises aboriginal culture’s fluidity and depth and localism, the land inhabited by numerous tribes with their own histories, cultures and languages and myths of ancestors criss-crossing the terrain in mysterious tracks and passages, creating the animals and the stories and the means for survival.

Difficult-to-grasp, intangible ideas which the earliest settlers simply didn’t see, couldn’t touch or understand, and so ignored, and so assumed the land was, to all intents and purposes – to white men’s intents and purposes – empty, because the aborigines’ life and culture couldn’t be captured or defined in our precise and pedantic legal terms, wasn’t embodied in forms, in objects or buildings or books, which we could understand.

Mask from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855.  Turtle shell, shell, fibre  © The Trustees of the British Museum

Mask from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855.
Turtle shell, shell, fibre
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Plunder And the scattered artefacts, the beautiful things the natives made and which gained their meaning from the location and tradition they arose from, these also couldn’t be defined, didn’t refer to One God (as Christian missionaries understood it) or even to one Pantheon of Gods (as a classically-educated Westerner would be familiar with) couldn’t be explained according to the kind of unitary system which Westerners understood and insisted on as the only method to generate meaning. And so could be looted and shipped back to the vast lumberyard of the Museum with impunity, higgledy-piggledy, stripped of their mystical associations, the spoils of Empire.

Conclusion

All of which led me to wonder: If all philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, then can the whole history of Western colonialism and imperial conquest be said to be footnotes to the Greek ideals of discrete, defined, logical concepts – to Greek notions of perfectionism – to the tyranny of Perfect Ideas and concepts — a mindset, a way of thinking, which the conquerors repeatedly failed to find among the native peoples in America, Australia and Africa who instead practiced more holistic, overlapping, complex and less authoritarian modes of belief.

And that this fateful clash of cultures is epitomised – in the realm of art and iconography, at any rate – in these two fascinating exhibitions at the British Museum.


P.S.

On the way out, right next to the main entrance to the museum, don’t miss the room off to one side which is displaying a handful of larrikitj, or memorial poles by contemporary artist Wukun Wanambi, made from the trunks of young-ish trees, absolutely covered with minute designs based on swarms of mullet fish – creating a mesmeric swirling pattern of tiny lozenges or facets which, on closer examination, turn out to be teeny, tiny stylised images of fish. Wonderful, beautiful, enchanting.

Related links

Reviews

British Museum video

North Star by Hammond Innes (1974)

I went slowly out on deck, pausing a moment to see his heavy figure climbing the long iron stairway at the base of the derrick that led from pipe deck to derrick floor, climbing with a sort of punchy swagger. He flung open the corrugated iron door and stood there for a moment surveying the scene, a lone figure standing right above the pipe skid, the noise of the draw-works blasting out and the men inside dancing a strange ballet around the kelly, the tongs in their hand and the winches screaming. (p.166)

Another in Hammond Innes’ long sequence of first-person narratives in which the hero is on the run from the police, has a troubled relationship with his father, has detailed technical knowledge of the sea and ships, but finds himself drawn by forces beyond his control into disaster.

The hero as suspect

Michael Randall was brought up in America by his mother and rich step-father but came to England to study at the LSE under a Marxist tutor. After getting his degree he went north to Hull to sign on as a trawlerman to see the practical side of politics and class war. It is the late 1960s and he gets involved in left-wing activism and organising strikes. One night, after outside agitators whip up a union meeting, he realises they are going to target the foreman’s house and goes there beforehand (typically, for an Innes hero, with no plan, just on a hunch), only to witness two agitators throw a petrol bomb through the window. Unfortunately, a little girl is in the house and Michael breaks in to save her, handing her over to the neighbours who’ve come rushing out.

Flustered, stressed, partly implicated insofar as he was at the original political meeting, Michael doesn’t stick around to talk to the police but makes for his trawler which departs before dawn.

When the trawler puts back into port after its fishing trip is complete, worried about the incident, Michael finds himself ‘drawn’ – like so many other Innes heroes – mysteriously drawn to a remote land, in this case to the Shetland Islands where he’s never been before, but where he knows his father once lived.

Here he discovers a) the remote church where his father is buried (touchingly, vividly described) b) that a trawler recently ran aground nearby in a storm, the old skipper dying of a heart attack. On an obscure impulse (the same unfathomable motivation of so many other Innes heroes) he borrows the money and sets out to repair the trawler, The Duchess of Norfolk. In doing so he finds himself attracted to the young widow of the old skipper, now the trawler’s owner. And then the two are brought together in business deal when the opportunity arises for The Duchess to become a supply ship to a new oil rig, North Star, which is being set up to drill in the dangerous deep water west of the Shetlands.

Complications

Slowly these disparate threads are wound together into a recipe for disaster.

Michael’s father is not dead. Michael discovers from old-timers on the islands that his father was rescued from Norway back in 1942, badly injured by shell fragments. He is profoundly shocked to discover him staying in a remote house, aloof, unfriendly, harshly disfigured. In an even bigger psychological blow, Michael discovers his rival to buy the wrecked trawler, a local man who’s lived in Shetland all his life, is also his father’s son, by a local Shetland woman – and so is his half-brother!

And his father is part of a terrorist conspiracy. He may or may not have been – or still be – a Russian spy (conversations about this, as about most other subjects in Innes’ texts, are circular, blocked, stymied, broken off, left unconcluded…). But he is certainly now mixed up with a gang of saboteurs, themselves linked to the IRA. (The ‘Troubles’ began around 1969 and by 1972-3, when Innes was writing, were in full swing.)

The IRA contingent are helping Marxist saboteurs who want to strike a blow at capitalism: specifically, they want to create an oil rig disaster, humiliating the gung-ho venture capital owner of the rig – Villiers – discrediting the new ‘oil rush’ in the North Sea, and causing an environmental catastrophe in the important Hebridean fisheries which will tarnish the whole oil industry.

Like so many Innes heroes, Michael finds himself pushed onto the wrong side of the law by obscure and tangled forces, sometimes of his own making. In the centre of the book, he is called on to testify against the men who threw the petrol bomb and, in a terrifyingly believable courtroom scene, we watch him get out-manoeuvred by his opponents who have bribed witnesses whose testimony persuades the judge and jury that the men on trial are innocent and that Michael did it. The fact that he didn’t stick around to talk to the police deepens suspicion against him.

When the case against the accused (and guilty men) collapses, Michael is himself arrested, cautioned and, eventually, released – for the time being – but now he has hanging over his head a) the threat of being rearrested, charged and tried at any moment b) the threat of revenge by the two men and their shadowy ‘revolutionary’ organisation, which he had the bravery/foolhardiness to confront.

Hence Michael’s wish to escape to sea, to be in international waters if the police come calling. He returns to Shetland, to take over the captaincy of The Duchess of Norfolk, to his ambivalent relationship with its owner – Gertrude – and to a typically uncertain and uneasy relationship with the buccaneering owner of the oil rig – Villiers – and the tough Texan oil-man who manages the rig. These guys already knew a little about his reputation as a union organiser but when news of the court case arrives, and the fact that he has been arrested and is only out on bail, then they fire him from the job of servicing the rig.

Like so many Innes heroes, Michael just can’t seem to break free from the squid-like tentacles of the past which block his efforts at every turn.

His deputy takes over captaincy of the Duchess and Michael finds work on the other ships in the area owned by his rival and half-brother, Sanderson.

Love life

There’s a lot more to it than this summary suggests: the text is a densely-printed 260 pages long, maybe that would amount to 400 pages of a modern, larger-print paperback. There are numerous scenes elaborating Michael’s troubled relationships with his father, with his employer and with the police.

And there is a powerful thread about his love life, about his troubled relationships with his attractive but superficial (and drug addict) wife, Fiona (an echo of the beautiful, bitchy wife who appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Golden Soak) representing his troubled political Past – and with the stocky, plain but appealing Scandinavian woman, Gertrude, who owns the damaged trawler (similar to the plain, chunky but honest female lead in Golden Soak), representing the Future.

I was staring at her, seeing her large-mouthed competent face, thinking how comfortable and practical she was in comparison with Fiona. (p.226)

They argue. They make up. She bosses him around. There’s an almost romantic moment, which is interrupted by a phone call, misunderstandings. Later, after the trial, Michael makes a pilgrimage to Gertrude’s house but she’s not there. On a later occasion Fortune favours them and, after an evening of food and wine and candlelight in her remote Shetland cottage, they finally make love. But then the newspapers of his trial arrive, spreading the accusation that he is an arsonist and almost-murderer, which makes her doubt him. And then he is sacked from the oil rig job, which brings their professional association to an abrupt end. And so on and so on…

Like most of Innes’ characters’ relationships – and like the narrative itself – his ‘love life’ is made up of hesitancies, delays, misunderstandings, moody silences, shrugs and postponements. It is during a fatal failure to go visit his wife during one of her drug-induced depressions, that she (surprisingly) kills herself with an overdose of barbiturates leaving Michael bitterly blaming himself…

The sea the sea

The sea is Innes’ preferred element and the setting of his greatest novels, The Wreck of the Mary Dear and Maddon’s Rock and The White South among them.

The descriptions of trawlers and tugs, of their heavy complex machinery, of chart reading and sailing, navigating and steering, as well as of the business of running an oil rig, are conveyed with great detail and conviction, owing much to Innes’ own years at sea. In addition there is his trademark thorough research – as with many previous novels, this one has an author’s afterword thanking the many organisations and experts who helped him with factual background.

Even if the motivation of the human characters often seems puzzling, wilfully obscure and not particularly plausible, his descriptions of dawn at sea or the Norwegian mate bringing the trawler round into a headwind or of riggers wrangling rig piping always ring completely true.

I went up to the pipe deck where the engineers and a whole gang of roustabouts were working in the glare of the spotlights to wind the new cable on to No. 4 winch. It would have been better if they could have rigged it on No. 1 winch, which was facing due west now, but as Smit pointed out to me, it had to be a winch within reach of one of the two cranes, since there was no other way of hoisting a 15-ton anchor out over the side. (p.238)

I admire Innes for writing book after book which pay such careful attention to the hard physical labour that generations of men have done, for his skill at conveying the pleasure and joy of expert men doing work they love and understand. There are descriptions of love and even a little sex in the novels; but the real love affair is between big gruff men – bearded Norwegian sailors, Yorkshire trawlermen, Scottish sea dogs, tough Texan riggers – and their all-consuming vocations.

Environmentalism

There had been intermittent prospecting in the North Sea in the 1950s but the scene was transformed in late 1969 and 1970 with the discovery of massive deposits of oil and natural gas. Drilling, mapping, supplying, shipping, refining all converged to create the huge industry which has been active for the past 45 years, and not without impact on the environment.

Early on in the book Innes mentions the famous Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967 when an oil tanker broke up, spilling vast amounts of crude oil along the Cornish coast. As an experienced sailor and a man devoted to the beauty of Nature, Innes was an early advocate of environmental issues, and awareness of the environmental impact of the dastardly plot to sabotage the North Star is a thread running through the book.

Politics in the early 1970s

It is difficult now to recapture the desperation of a time which has receded into history. In his author’s note Innes mentions that his plan to start the novel in 1972 and complete it by 1974 was overtaken by events, namely:

  • a severe mining strike in 1972
  • the October 1973 Yom Kippur War which led the OPEC countries to limit oil production and prompt…
  • …the oil crisis of October 1973 to March 1974 when the price of oil quadrupled
  • leading to the imposition of a three-day week in the UK and
  • a political crisis which caused two UK general elections in the same year (1974)

Crisis followed crisis with bewildering speed and political activists on the right and left felt the existing system was collapsing and only needed a few violent nudges to bring about the revolution they hoped for. Such as blowing up an oil rig.

Innes’ novel could hardly be more topical, weaving as it does the themes of industrial action and crippling strikes, of extreme and bitter political polarisation, with the widespread hope that North Sea oil would be a bonanza which would free the UK from dependency on Arab producers.

And stirs in the threatening presence of the Provisional IRA, at their most violent following the catastrophe of Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972 (during 1972 alone the IRA killed 100 British soldiers, wounded 500 more and carried out 1,300 bomb attacks). Innes’ protagonist is right to feel very scared when he is ordered to a remote cove to load suspicously unmarked crates from aggressive men with Irish accents.

The climax

The climax of the novel comes when Michael is tasked by his employer and half-brother with collecting these crates and sailing back out towards the North Star. As the ship makes its way towards the rig Michael is stripped of command by the gang and becomes a helpless witness to their plot to blow up the oil rig and cause a major disaster – and, with typical Innes overkill, all the time a major North Sea storm is closing in on the situation…

Do the saboteurs succeed? Is the rig blown up in a terrific fireball explosion at sea? What happens to all the crew aboard it and what happens to Michael?

You’ll have to buy the book, which is worth getting hold of for the gripping final 20 pages alone, worth reading for its descriptions of the Shetland islands and the stormy seas around them, vividly depicted in all weathers and moods, and for the detailed portrayals of men at work in hard physical jobs under extreme conditions.

Less so, perhaps, for its handling of characters who all seem incapable of decisive action or forthright conversations, or for the tone of dazed bewilderment, of obscure motivation and irrational impulses, which drive the perplexed protagonist through a plot which, despite all its naturalistic detail, often seems wilful and contrived rather than plausible or persuasive.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of North Star

Fontana paperback edition of North Star

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector @ the Barbican

‘This is the first major exhibition in the UK to present the fascinating personal collections of post-war and contemporary artists.’

The exhibition

14 rooms or alcoves displaying selections from the private collections of 14 post-war artists from around the world, alongside one or two works by each artist in question, the idea being that knowing something about the artist’s tastes and favourite objects throws light on their work.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector - Installation images Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

I M U U R 2 by Danh Vo, based on Martin Wong’s collection
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Since the artists are so very varied – and their tastes in objects extremely varied – the overall effect is like wandering round a particularly eclectic and high-class junk shop. There is no Grand Narrative, no Big Idea, just a diffuse collection of bric-a-brac reflecting a diverse mix of artists and practices which we are at liberty to stroll around and enjoy as the fancy takes us. And lots of it is very enjoyable.

The artists

Arman (1928-2005) French-born American artists whose selected work is the fabulous Home Sweet Home II (1960), a cabinet stuffed with WWI gas masks. His alcove was sparingly decorated with a selection from his collection of wonderful African (and a few ancient Greek) masks and helmets. Like a little bit of the British Museum landed in an artist’s studio. This was by far the most ‘tasteful’ room, by which I probably mean the one which looked most like a typical exhibition or gallery space with the objects hung sparingly in their own space.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Arman room Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

African masks in the Arman room
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Peter Blake (b.1932) his selected work is Kamikaze (1965). Blake will be forever associated with the cover of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album which typifies a kind of 60s amused, nostalgic fondness for the relics of English life, and that’s very much the feel of his collection, exemplified by – among a lot else – nostalgic metal shop signs, a large collection of elephant figurines, a wall full of masks from all cultures and traditions.

Hanne Darboven (1941-2009) her selected work is Mitarbeiter und Freund (1990), 91 wood-framed prints of  deliberately average amateur photos, presumably of friends and family in restaurants and at dinner parties. Poor. She was an associate of the New York minimalists such as Carl Andre, Sol leWitt et al. The collection of jumble and lumber filling her alcove – a life size Charlie Chaplin cut-out, an enormous wooden horse, organ, lampstands, a typewriter, a toilet etc – was much more interesting than her work.

Edmund de Waal (b.1964) his selected works are from the collection of a private man (2011), several shelves of small round or tubular white ceramics. De Waal is a London-based potter and writer who won a wider audience with his book The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) and who is represented here by stones and fossils and some of the 264 netsuke (small hand-carved objects used in traditional Japanese dress as toggles for kimono robes) which he inherited from his great-uncle Ignace Leon von Ephrussi. The hare with the amber eyes (or a hare with amber eyes) is prominently displayed but I was surprised by a tiny ceramic of ‘Ama suckling an octopus’, which reminded me of some of the images in the British Museum’s Shunga exhibition.

Damien Hirst (b.1965) his selected work is Last Kingdom (2012) from the Entomology series, echoing the display cabinets of Victorian animal collectors, pinning same-sized specimens of butterflies spiders etc into neat rows. Hirst is a keen collector of contemporary art but also of natural history objects, tools and specimens and we are treated to glass cases containing a stuffed lion, a stuffed vulture, stuffed armadillos and a neat array of human skulls.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Vitrine of objects owned by Damien Hirst Barbican Art Gallery - 12 Feb – 25 May 2015 © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images Courtesy Murderme Collection

Vitrine of objects owned by Damien Hirst
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery – 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images
Courtesy Murderme Collection

Howard Hodgkin (b.1932) selected work In the studio of Jamini Roy (1976-9). Hodgkin acquired an interest in India and Indian art when he was at school at Eton and his is a small room hung with ten or so, presumably valuable and choice, examples of classical Indian art which left me cold. Liked the Persian carpet, though.

Dr Lakra (b.1972) Mexican artist who started as a tattooist, represented by a set of cut outs of dolly birds from 1950s magazines whose bodies he has covered with intricate tattoos – Frante al EspejoMosquitoes (Google images of Dr Lakra’s work). His room mainly consists of one wall lined from floor to ceiling with obscure kitsch album covers, no fewer than 184 in total! with several loudspeakers playing hammy music suspended above them. As I walked up to the space, it was playing the theme from the 1960s TV show Batman. Any friend of Batman is a friend of mine.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Dr Lakran's record covers Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Dr Lakran’s collection of record covers
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) a leader of New York minimalism, LeWitt collected work by friends and contemporaries, classic European photos, stylish Japanese prints as well as the earliest scores of minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He recorded his life in a vast book of photos, Autobiography (1980), a selection of which are displayed here as 60 frames each displaying 18 small photos neatly lined up.

Martin Parr (b.1952) British photographer who specialises in the tackiness of modern life. His works were five photos of iconic tourist destinations looking uncomfortably packed and thronged – titled Venice 2005 and Macchu Piccu 2008. Since the 1970s Parr has been collecting thousands of tourist postcards, with which his exhibition room is covered – b&w or early technicolour images of late 1950s/early 1960s cars, tower blocks, holiday resorts, Trust House Forte motorway service stations, the Totton bypass (!), airplane travel, 1960s cars – funny, evocative, nostalgic, a vanished world. Not to mention his collection of memorabilia commemorating Soviet space dogs, represented here by no fewer than 43 space dog mementoes.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Some of Martin Parr's space dog collection Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Some of Martin Parr’s Space Dog collection
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Jim Shaw (b.1952) American artist whose selected works are Decapitated Okapi 1 and Decapitated Okapi 2 (2014). Shaw has amassed a large collection of thrift-store paintings, cheap, anonymous poor quality works which, taken together, is still rubbish.

Hiroshi Sugimoto (b.1948) Japanese photographer, spent decades as a dealer in Japanese artefacts and folk art, keeping many of the best pieces for himself, and eventually exhibiting the works intermingled with his own photos, the ones featured here being odd b&w photos of Madam Tussauds exhibits, The Hanging and Benjamin Franklin.

Andy Warhol (1928-87) his selected works are some fish-themed wallpaper (1983) and silkscreened boxes (1964). Warhol bought and hoarded compulsively: when his collection was auctioned off after his death it turned out to contain over 10,000 objects and took ten days to flog: a vast treasure trove of every conceivable kind of junk, kitsch, novelties, consumer objects. In one cabinet stood a selection of the ‘famous’ collection of 175 kitsch ceramic cookie jars he was known for.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Some of Andy Warhol's cookie jar collection Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

A small sample of Andy Warhol’s cookie jar collection
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Pae White (b.1963) Los Angeles-based, Pae has large collections of ‘the kitsch, the decorative, the everyday’, including no fewer than ‘3,000 textiles by prolific American designer Vera Neumann (1907–93)’. A selection of these fabrics, are hanging from the ceiling in her alcove in an installation titled Cloud Clusters (2005) and it is mildly dreamy to walk among them letting the delicate multi-coloured forms brush against your face’

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Pae White's collection of Vera Newman scarves. Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Pae White’s collection of Vera Newman scarves.
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Martin Wong (1946-99) collected some 4,000 objects representing ‘East Asian art and culture, Americana and kitsch’. When artist Danh Vo (b. 1975) came across the collection he tried to interest galleries in buying the collection, rearranged and interspersed with Wong’s own works (paintings of dice and brick walls) and titled I M U U R 2, and eventually sold it to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.


There is nothing so beautiful as a list

The show includes:

sculptures, statues and souvenirs, cut-outs, curiosities, collectables, candelabra and cuckoo clocks, postcards, prints, pots and photographs, pianos, helmets, masks, ceramics, boxes, packing cases, paintbrushes, crates, typewriters, birdcages, 1960s badges, old games, golfballs, marble skulls, stuffed birds, stuffed armadillos, anatomical models, a box of glass eyes, a toilet, cuckoo clocks, wall clocks, musical instruments, chamber pots, clay pipes, dinosaur bones, paperback books, a cheeseburger-shaped lampstand, Japanese armour, radios, antique pistols, street signs, Soviet space dog mementoes, wind-up toys, old movie magazines, a life-size cut-out of Charlie Chaplin, tattered newspapers, desk clocks, cigarette cases, a barometer, cigarette holders, scarves, bedsheets, duvet covers, towels, shells, fossils, stones, ivory carvings, metal shop signs, classic dolls, trinkets, Mr Punch, cabinets of curiosities, Victorian screens, ventriloquists’ dummies, vintage postcards, mouldy mousetraps, old bottle openers, matchboxes, buttons, bills, balls, stalagmites and stalactites, a postal order, a boot hook, Roman pots, leaves from Hadrian’s villa, a stone from the Brontes’ house in Haworth, wrestling memorabilia, a complete set of leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannicas, ceramic fruits, plastic Donald Ducks, coffee, tea and tobacco tins, a champagne bottle, statue of liberty souvenir statuettes, novelty lamp stands, bird feathers, teaware, Chinese scrolls, ‘sambo’ figurines, a big stuffed lion, an enormous wooden horse.

In some ways this impressive hodgepodge of lumber, this jumble of rummage, complements Tate Britain’s exhibition of Folk Art, which also showcased a miscellany of non-art objects, prompting all sorts of thoughts about ‘beauty’ and ‘authenticity’, individual creation against mass production, classics versus knick-knacks, quality versus dreck, as well as sheer pleasure and amazement at a bottomless cornucopia of kitsch.


Conclusions

Two thoughts arise from this highly heterogeneous show:

1. William Morris said:

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

This show proves conclusively that, like all Morris’s other hopes (for an equal society, for human work to be enjoyable and creative), this one has been comprehensively trampled underfoot. No civilisation in history has generated so much mass-produced tat, has come so close to drowning in a sea of its own cheap assembly-line detritus.

Peter Blake's dolls collection Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Peter Blake’s dolls collection
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

2. It is news to me that artists’ collections are beginning to be thought of as art works and purchased by galleries. Partly the result of curators’ and scholars’ ever-expanding definitions of what is and isn’t art, but also a function of the biggest single art movement of our time – global capital’s insatiable quest for new investment opportunities. Not only are scholars and intellectuals pushing at the borders of what is ‘art’, what is collectible and buyable; so are people with money, lots of money.

The collections sampled here may be marvellously diverse and varied but the mere fact that they’ve been assembled into an exhibition like this strongly suggests that they are all destined to end up in art institutions or bought by businessmen; certainly, as the books in the shop indicate, they have already become a new area of academic investigation – and of potential investment.

It would be sad if this disconcerting disarray of objects, a liberating heterogeneity which reflects the diverse characters and compulsions of their collectors, originally sited in disparate and improbable locations around the globe, and which offer all sorts of odd pleasures, diverse ways of escape and unpredictable insights, were destined to be stored in air-conditioned sterility and homogenised into subjects for scholarly study and calculating asset management.


Related links

Reviews

The Golden Gate by Alistair MacLean (1976)

Carter asked, ‘What’s he like, this Revson of yours?’
‘Ruthless, arrogant, independent, dislikes authority, a loner who consults superior officers only under duress and even then goes his own way.’ (p.90)

A sophisticated gang of criminals hijacks a convoy of coaches carrying the President of the USA, along with sheikhs and princes visiting from the Middle East, as it’s crossing the Golden Gate bridge. They have spent months planning and rehearsing the ‘caper’, have hijacked helicopters, seized local air traffic control and neutralised all the bodyguards, police and soldiers accompanying the convoy… but they hadn’t counted on the presence of special agent Revson, hiding under a fake name in the Press coach, which the kidnappers keep around in order to broadcast their ransom demands.

Yes folks – Only one man can save the president! One resourceful special agent, along with the young doctor in the President’s entourage who he recruits to the cause, and the beautiful young lady journalist they get to help them.

Sad decline

MacLean’s novels from the late 1950s through the late 1960s are among the most viscerally exciting and compelling thrillers ever written – Night Without End (1959) is one of the most nailbitingly intense books I’ve ever read. However, around 1970 his style, already tending towards flippancy and facetiousness, began to be dominated by this often silly tone, expressed in sentences which frequently spiralled out of control – and the plots themselves began to feel less like novels conceived as novels, and more like drafts of screenplays, novelisations of bad 70s disaster films or made-for-TV movies.

It feels like MacLean had stopped caring, and a glance at his biography shows that a) he was by this time the most successful writer in the world, with little more to prove b) was in the grip of an alcohol addiction which became steadily more serious: ‘He also struggled constantly with alcoholism, which eventually brought about his death in Munich in 1987.’ (Wikipedia article)

Made-for-TV characters

The President is elderly and courteous but quick to anger if life is threatened. The baddie, Branson, is cool and calculating, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard. His Swedish number two, Van Effen, is ready with a machine gun to shoot anyone who steps out of line (also rather like the blonde number two baddie in Die Hard). The authorities gathered round the radio in San Francisco municipal headquarters are led by the grizzled veteran, Hendrix, who holds tense radio conversations with Branson (‘You’ll never get away with this, you know.’) The dim Vice President pooh-poohs the chances of Revson saving the day – until he starts saving the day, whereupon he concedes with good grace that ‘Maybe your boy knew what he was doing all along’. The doctor who becomes Revson’s accomplice (O’Hare) is unexpectedly good at hiding secret gadgets and lying to the baddies. The beautiful girl journalist, April Wednesday, at first accuses Revson of being a heartless bastard, but then comes to realise he is their only hope, until she is eventually kissing him and telling him not to get hurt.

In other words, the book is a riot of hilarious stereotypes and characters about as deep as a puddle on a hot day.

How many movies have been made which involve hijacking Air Force One or breaking into the White House or otherwise endangering the Prez, or set on, or reaching a tense conclusion on, the Golden Gate bridge? (The Golden Gate bridge in movies) The entire book feels like a pitch to a movie or TV company. There is novelty in some of the details and twists but overall both the plot and the characters feel as predictable as a Roadrunner cartoon. Coyote falls of the cliff. Roadrunner triumphs. Beep beep!

Car crash sentences

Most of the characters say the things they have to say right out (unlike the unbearably evasive conversations of characters in a Hammond Innes novel), and the plot moves briskly forward in its made-for-TV manner, with neat reversals and ingenious gadgets (the aerosol which sprays sleeping gas, the pens which fire poison darts, the radio in the bottom of a camera).

But on almost every page the reader is brought up short by sentences in various states of disarray: some are slight stumbles, others puzzling half-repetitions, or – his most frequent and characteristic fault – trying to express a simple fact by way of a complex, and would-be comic, circumlocution – choosing to go round the houses in an effort to be wry or sardonic and, more often than not, just ending up being puzzling.

Their problem, Revson reflected, was hardly one susceptible to the ready formation of a consensus of opinion. (p.88) [They were finding it hard to agree]

Branson could hardly be expected to be the person who would fail to recognise a cyanide air pistol when he saw it. (p.151) [Branson was unlikely not to notice a cyanide air pistol when he saw one]

By this time quite a number of curious journalists from the coach – activated, almost certainly, by the inbuilt curiosity that motivates all good journalists, were crowded around the unconscious Kowalski. (p.160)

Everyone there was instinctively aware that he was the leader of their kidnappers, the man behind their present troubles, and their reception of him did not even begin to border on the cordial. (p.43)

The five men appeared to be concentrating on two things only: not speaking to one another and not looking at one another. The bottoms of their glasses appeared to hold a singular fascination for them: comparatively, the average funeral parlour could have qualified as an amusement arcade. (p.152)

If this is an attempt at humour it is so heavy handed it has the opposite effect, stalling the onward flow of your reading.

There were, in fact, only seven people in sight. Six of those stood on the steps of the hotel which was that night housing more dollars on the hoof than it ever had remotely had in its long and illustrious career. (p.15) [I get the meaning but why make us work so hard for it?]

That the rain was now drumming was beyond dispute. It had been increasing steadily ever since the passengers had entered the coach and could now fairly be described as torrential. (p.159)

‘beyond dispute’? ‘could be fairly described’? Who is MacLean talking to in his mind when he writes these sentences? Who is disputing anything?

Repetition

In the Wikipedia article about types of repetition – as defined in Greek rhetoric – I can’t find a term to describe the way MacLean repeats entire sentences. And I can’t decide whether the technique is dramatically effective or a bit lame. It’s certainly a mannerism. It’s often done to link disparate sections, or even chapters – ending one with a sentence, opening the next one with a slightly tweaked repetition.

‘A dollar gets a cent that Branson’s asking some questions.’ —
Branson was indeed asking some questions. (p.166)

‘Two fire engines are there and the fire is under control.’ —
The fire was indeed under control. (p.166)

[End of chapter 10] ‘I wouldn’t worry.’ Hagenbach leaned back comfortably in his chair. ‘Revson will think of something.’ —
[Start of chapter 11] The only thing Revson was thinking about was how very pleasant it would be to have a few hours’ blissful sleep. (pp.179-80)

‘We’ve been having blackouts all over the city tonight. Hold on.’ —
In the Presidential coach, Branson held on. (p.188)

Chrysler said: ‘Those weren’t smoke bombs.’ —
In a few seconds it was clear that they were indeed not smoke bombs. (p.219)

Technical expertise

Where MacLean’s style slips perfectly into gear is where he’s describing gadgets, machines, technology and the swift expert movements of men who know just what they’re doing with them. Of course this is one of the key tropes in the thriller genre, but at these moments MacLean’s writing becomes taut and effective, a reminder of his peak in the 1960s. Here our hero is neutralising the remote bomb detonation mechanism in one of the hijacked helicopters.

With the screwdriver blade of his knife Revson had already removed the four screws that secured the top-plate and the top-plate itself. It was a simple enough device. On the outside of the device was a vertical lever padlocked in position in its top position. When this was depressed it brought a copper arm down between two spring-loaded interior copper arms, so completing the circuit. Twin pieces of flex led from those last two to two crocodile spring-loaded clamps, each secured to the terminals of two nickel-cadmium Nife cells connected up in series. That would produce a total of only three volts, enough… to activate the radio trigger. (p.170)

This technician’s-eye view of machinery and devices is one of MacLean’s great legacies to the thriller writers who came after him.

Hands up!

Another key trope is the knowing dialogue between people in a hold-up situation. There must be thousands of examples in books and movies of what is basically the same scene: baddie interrupts goodie in middle of surreptitiously doing something crucial to the plot (planting bomb, eavesdropping the baddies discussing their evil plans, radioing his contacts etc). Get to your feet. Turn round slowly. No false moves etc etc. When everyone in the cinema knows that Bruce or Harrison will get the better of the guy with the gun.

There’s a good example here, and I think MacLean does it well, it’s an example of where the Conspicuous Repetition I highlighted earlier positively works.

‘Strange hour to go fishing, Revson,’ Van Effen said behind him. For a second, no more, Revson remained immobilised… ‘Turn round, Revson, slow and easy. I’m a nervous character and you know what that can do to trigger fingers.’
Revson turned round, slow and easy, in the manner of a man who knows all about nervous trigger fingers. He already had the [sleeping gas] aerosol inside the bag. He said resignedly: ‘Well, I suppose it was too good to last.’
‘So Branson was right all along.’ Van Effen, moon-shaped face as expressionless as ever, was between five and six feet away. He had his machine-pistol in both hands, held loosely, but with his forefinger indubitably on the trigger. Revson would have been a dead man before he’d covered half the distance between them. But Van Effen was clearly expecting no resistance. ‘Let’s see what you have there. Slow and easy, now. Slow and easy.’
Slowly, easily, Revson withdrew the aerosol. It was so small that it was almost hidden in his hand. He knew that the can was pressurised to three times the normal and that its effective range was ten feet. Or so O’Hare had told him and Revson had a great deal of faith in O’Hare.
Van Effen shifted the gun under his right arm and pointed the barrel straight at Revson. ‘Let me see that.’
‘Slow and easy?’
‘Slow and easy.’
Revson stretched out his arm unhurriedly. Van Effen’s face was no more than three feet away when he pressed the button. He dropped the aerosol and snatched Van Effen’s machine-pistol: he wished to obviate any metallic sounds. He looked down at the crumpled figure at his feet. (p.177)

‘obviate’? Well, it’s good thriller writing and most of his classic novels are like this all the way through: knowing, lightly humorous, but focused and effective. When he’s envisioning tense scenes or men working quickly and deftly with machinery, MacLean’s writing gains precision and power. But far too many times in these 1970s books, it’s when he tries to do character, to portray people in untense, unfocused scenes, with ghastly humour, that his writing comes a cropper.

‘Good. Very good.’ This, from Hagenbach, was the equivalent to the Roman tribute offered a highly successful general after he’d conquered his second or third country in succession. (p.179)

It is an unnecessarily far-fetched comparison to begin with, but might just have come off if it had been conveyed with a light touch – but it’s at precisely these moments, when he’s trying to do humorous insights into his characters, that MacLean’s touch deserts him and he clumps like an elephant.

Branson had very definitely stopped both lounging and relaxing. He was sitting far forward in his chair and for once his feelings were showing: the expression on his face could be described as nothing else other than stunned disbelief. (p.208)

Ugh.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of the Golden Gate

Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Gate

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

Golden Soak by Hammond Innes (1973)

Old mines, like old houses, have their own atmosphere – a feel, an aura compounded of many things , but chiefly of the way men have handled the problems of working underground. It’s there in the construction of the galleries, the cross-cuts, drifts and winzes, the way they have stoped and handled the ore. But down here, on the third level of Golden Soak, it was something different, as though the rock itself had absorbed such a radiation of human fear that it could still infect the atmosphere of the place. (p.97)

Hammond Innes has three great strengths:

  • He writes about ordinary men who didn’t go to public school and who aren’t writers and artists – real people with real jobs: miners and engineers, merchant seamen and Royal Navy sailors, soldiers and solicitors, whalers and railroad builders, oil prospectors and surveyors, captains and fishermen, bulldozer drivers and cafe owners.
  • He describes work, real work, hard physical work, designing and building and excavating and constructing and navigating and fishing and diving and drilling.

The rig was on exploratory work, drilling a test hole high up on Mount Whaleback. Across from where it was spudded in the view was of a mountainside being gnawed to destruction by blasting and giant shovels. And beyond the huge stepped gashes of industrial erosion stretched the ever-endless wastes of the Australian outback, iron hills throbbing through a miasma of ore dust so fine it hung like a haze that half-obscured the sun. They were adding a fresh rod when we arrived, Duhamel and his off-sider working in unison, both of them stripped to the waist and red with the grime of ore dust. (p.177)

  • And – when his heroes are not battling physical and psychological odds – there is a feeling in his descriptions, especially of anything touching on his beloved sailing, of real joy, excitement and exhiliration, delight at being alive in a beautiful world.

Coming to Innes after reading Graham Greene is like stepping from a pitch-black confessional where a suicidally depressed man has told you all his pornographic fantasies, out into the light of a beautiful spring morning. Though a morning which turns out to be not without its problems…

Golden Soak part 1

The book opens at a fast pace as we watch mining engineer and surveyor Alec Falls driving drunkenly away from the meeting of the board of the tin mine in Cornwall which he set up, having punched one of the directors and facing the fact the mine was finished, all played out. Back at his house he finds his ‘bitch’ of a wife has left him and so, on a drunken whim, he fakes his own death and sets fire to his home. Drives drunk along the coast to Southampton, abandons his car and takes ship for Australia. He had met a young woman, Janet Garrety, touring mines in England who came from mining country in Western Australia and she’d invited him to go visit. By the end of chapter one he has travelled all the way out to her and her father’s ranch in Jarra Jarra, Western Australia, only to discover it is bankrupt, their mine is played out, no rain has fallen for a year and the cattle are dying.

Thus, like many an Innes’ protagonist, Alec is in a desperate plight.

I got suddenly to my feet. I must be mad even to think of it. I was a stranger in a strange land, alone, with no money and nobody to help me. (p.48)

The rest of the plot describes his attempts to secure a living in his new country and how, slowly, he becomes caught up in a web of old vendettas and allegiances to do with abandoned mines and legendary discoveries, overlaid with sharp business deals which see him accepting cash offers and then bribes to falsify geological reports, getting deeper and deeper into trouble though he doesn’t realise it until it’s too late.

Australia

As with all his novels, Golden Soak is the result of Innes’ own extensive travels through the territory described, a fact emphasised by the Author’s Note at the end of the text which carefully distinguishes the fictional locations and characters from the real-life places and people who helped and guided him on his tours. Viewed from one angle, Innes’ novels are really extended travelogues with sometimes rather contrived plots, or sometimes not even plots – just situations – embedded in them.

Golden Soak is a classic example and contains scores of passages describing the bleak desert landscape of Western Australia: in the blistering heat of the day, at the mercifully cool dusk, in the chill hours before dawn. Because it is a novel about mining, special attention is paid to the geology of the region, with quite technical descriptions of geological formations, underlying rocks, the different types of dust, and to the sun-toughened flora which just about survive in this harsh environment.

We clambered the broken rock to the small trees at the top, taking our personal clouds of flies with us. The sun was already blazingly hot and away to the south-west a salt-white glimmer marked  the flat immensity of Lake Disappointment. All to the east now was nothing but desert, speckled with the golden yellow of spinifex, and the sandridges like a flat red swell coming in from the north-north-east. High overhead two wedge-tailed eagles worked the air currents, soaring on great wing spans, intent, searching for anything that still had life in that arid hell of drought-ridden sand. (p.215)

The book does demonstrate the full force of this weird Innes ability to describe oppressive and challenging landscapes, first and foremost the unrelenting descriptions of the desert in all its varieties, the different types of rock and dust and sand, the unforgiving heat, the buzz of the insects, the flights overhead of bright colourful birds, the dingoes crying at night, the sudden appearance of kangaroos one night – the whole book does very powerfully convey the strangeness of Australia.

(I guess Innes is not much read now: the fact that most of his novels are out of print suggests that. But a great anthology could be made of all the scores of stretches where he describes landscapes and scenery – and especially seascapes – in bold and striking colours.)

The human geography is described just as vividly (and presumably, as accurately): the rundown ranches, the abandoned mine workings, the hot metal shacks, the brick hotels, the dusty roadside diners. And the novel has a large number of incidental characters, of hard-pressed ranchers and embittered miners, who clump into the kitchens of their harassed wives after a long day of hard labour in the blistering sun, their faces and backs streaked with sweat and covered in the red dust, gagging for the first stubby of the day and some hot tucker.

Minor characters

Initially I thought the action would be confined to the Jarra Jarra ranch where Falls stays for a while with Janet Garrety, her tough old father, Ed Garrety, himself the son of local legend Big Bill Garrety who founded the ranch and homestead. But the father watches him getting closer to his daughter and doesn’t like it: there’s no work for Falls, the empty mine, Golden Soak, ruined his father and is long abandoned after a calamitous flood which killed seven men. And so Garrety none too politely suggest Falls leaves, and this kicks off his travels via harsh roadside cafes and tough pubs to raw frontier settlements like Nullagine, Meekathurra, Kalgoorlie and Ora Banda.

Which gives Innes the opportunity to depict different types of harsh Aussie terrain and to introduce us to a sizeable cast of vividly drawn minor characters.

  • Alec Falls: protagonist and narrator, embittered failed mining engineer and company owner
  • Rosa: his glamorous wife who never loved him and leaves him on the fateful night when he fights with his fellow directors and sets  his own house on fire
  • Ferdie Kaden: son of a Serbian immigrant who worked himself to death in the mines round Kalgoorlie. Ferdie vows not to be like his father and becomes a sharp businessman, a chancer, who also writes to Falls offering him a job in W. Australia, and then inveigles him into a number of dodgy financial deals
  • Janet Garrety: stocky snub-nosed young woman he meets in England, who tells him all about her ranch in Western Australia and sparks the fantasy of escaping there
  • Ed Garrety: her tough rancher father, who was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese during the war, and returns afterwards to a homestead ruined almost beyond recognition
  • Big Bill Garrety: grandfather, the legendary figure who founded the homestead in the 1890s then squandered the family money on the ill-fated Golden Soak mine
  • Henry Garrety: Janet’s brother, Ed’s son: joined the Australian Army to escape the barrenness of Jarra Jarra and was one of the first Australians to be killed in Vietnam, aged 18
  • Pat McIlroy: Garrety’s partner; when the ill-fated mine failed he took off into the interior and was never seen again, leaving behind the rumour of some legendary mineral discovery
  • Andie Andersen and his Italian wife, Maria, who keep a dusty roadside pasta restaurant at Lynn Peak
  • Wolli: drunk aborigine whose father was with McIlroy during his last ill-fated expedition and who, therefore, Falls tries to get the truth out of
  • Prophecy: fag-smoking card-playing owner of the bar in the flyblown settlement of Nullagine
  • Phil Westrop: ‘just an ordinary, hard-drinking, hard-driving, mind-your-own-bloody-business Australian’ (p.83)
  • George Duhamel, owner of a mining rig Falls meets in a pub, and then hires to drill on a bluff next to Golden Soak
  • Josh: plays the guitar with Duhamel’s drilling gang
  • Chris Culpin: tough embittered miner, working for Ferdie Kadek
  • Edith: Culpin’s thin unhappy wife
  • Kennie: Culpin’s son; after an argument with his father which comes to blows, he leaves home and heads back north with Falls, thereafter becoming his sidekick
  • Les Freeman: chaiman and MD of Lone Minerals, in partnership with Ferdie Kadek, who – it turns out – is conning him with the reluctant help of Falls
  • Petersen: head of Petersen Geophysics, a small geology and assaying company, characterful Swede always slapping people on the back
  • the old prostitute who was one of the last to see McIlroy before he disappeared

Mystery and stasis

Innes has many strengths, but his novels share one massive weakness, which is they don’t really have much plot. By plot I mean a sequence of events which reveal incidents from the past or which string together current events into a meaningful pattern. Instead Innes novels tend to focus around an obsessive figure who keeps to himself what, in the final analysis, is a very simple revelation, which many of the characters know or suspect, but which everyone refuses to express, articulate, spit out or share over several hundred pages of aborted conversations, shrugs and silences.

Thus, in this novel, the protagonist soon learns there are one or two ‘mysteries’ connected with the Garrety family – What happened in the Golden Soak mine to cause it to be abandoned after Big Bill Garrety had ruined his family by spending all his capital on it and borrowing more to develop it? What happened to Phil McIlroy who had told everyone in the local bars that he’d struck it rich and discovered ‘McIlroy’s Monster’, a big copper deposit, out in the desert somewhere – and then disappeared off the face of the earth? Both events happened in 1939, on the eve of war, and thirty years ago – are they connected?

A well-constructed thriller would plant these mysteries early on and then lead the narrator (and reader) through a cunning sequence of revelations to a final understanding of the ‘real events’ behind them. Innes, however, here as in almost all his other novels, uses a peculiar technique of Obstruction: the narrator talks to a wide range of people who don’t know, can’t shed light, clam up, hesitate and shrug. The text doesn’t proceed by dramatic or subtle revelations, it doesn’t proceed in a line, but circles around the central ‘mysteries’ via innumerable inconclusive and frustrating conversations where characters don’t reveal what they know, turn away, go silent and gaze into the distance. The narrator (and the reader) never gets any further forward for literally hundreds of pages – until suddenly it all comes tumbling out in the end.

This blockage, obstruction and frustrating stasis isn’t accidental or a minor feature: it is absolutely central to Innes’ conception of the novel, to his narrative methodology, and occurs on almost every page.

After that she didn’t say anything… I sat there at a loss for words, the silence growing… There was a sudden silence and I looked up to find her staring at me… He didn’t say anything for a moment, a stillness settling on the room… I hesitated… The silence deepened, his face frozen… The stillness was absolute then… He shrugged and got to his feet… He went out then, leaving me with questions still unanswered… She didn’t seem to know… she shook her head… She hesitated… ‘I can’t explain, I don’t really understand it myself’ … She shrugged turning quickly away…She shook her head… Again she shook her head… But she shook her head… But he didn’t answer… But Lenny shook his head… She knew no more than I did… But I couldn’t answer that… It seemed a lot longer with Culpin sitting morose and tense at the wheel, not saying a word… I just stood there, silent, wondering what sort of a man I was… Kadek didn’t say anything. Nor did Freeman… He didn’t know… I shrugged… I started to say something and then I turned away… We left immediately, Culpin driving in silence… Kennie sitting beside me, tight-lipped and silent… I didn’t answer… In the end I drove in silence… ‘I hope not, but I don’t know’… He didn’t answer… Nobody said anything… A silence settled on the room… He stared at me, the room suddenly deathly silent… I didn’t answer… Ed Garrety shook his head… ‘I don’t know’… There was a long silence… ‘He won’t say what he’s up to, won’t tell me anything’… ‘It’s something else, but he won’t say. He won’t tell me anything’… ‘It was something else, but I don’t know what. I just don’t know’… He didn’t answer… Kennie shrugged… He hesitated again, as though unwilling to put his thoughts into words…We didn’t talk. We just sat huddled there… I sat down beside him, both of us silent for a long time… There were questions I wanted to ask but I didn’t know how to begin… He didn’t finish, but continued staring down at the ground… he gave me a long slow look, the nodded and turned away… He didn’t say anything, his eyes glinting in the starlight… ‘All in good time. Don’t rush me.’ He stood for a moment in complete silence… His voice trailed off… After that he closed right up on me, wouldn’t say another word… He was silent then and I didn’t know what to say… He didn’t answer, the silence heavy between us… Silence still and I had to repeat the question… And after that he wouldn’t say any more… There was a long silence… So I kept my mouth shut, the two of us staring at each other in silence… I didn’t answer… I should have warned Kennie… but I didn’t… He hardly spoke, he seemed shut up inside himself… We didn’t talk much, both of us wrapped up in our own thoughts…

Falls tries to talk to Ed Garratty:

It was a closed look, the blank stare of a man on the defensive… He didn’t answer, the silence stretching uncomfortably between us… He relapsed into silence then… I didn’t say anything for a moment… He sat there for a moment, not saying anything… But Ed Garrety didn’t answer… I asked him where he was going but he didn’t seem to hear… I didn’t know, I just didn’t know what my motive was…

Falls tries to get answers out of Janet Garrety:

But she didn’t answer, just sat there, quite still as though she’d suddenly been struck dumb (156)…’I don’t know… I don’t know’… She shook her head, God knows’, she breathed… But Janet didn’t answer… She looked away towards the window. ‘I don’t know,’ she said… She hesitated, half-shaking her head…

Falls tries to get answers out of the aboriginal woman, Brighteyes:

She shook her head… She shook her head, ‘I don’t know’… I didn’t know what to say… She shook her head… She didn’t answer but her eyes moved, evasive, uneasy…

Falls tries to get answers from the barkeeper Prophecy:

After that there was silence… ‘I don’t know. Nobody knows.’… She didn’t answer… It seemed she knew no more than I did…

Falls tries to get answers from the aborigine, Wolli:

He shook his head… To all these questions he just shook his head…

Falls tries to get answers from Phil Westrop:

He didn’t say anything, standing there with his beer in his hand…

Falls meets Chris Culpin in Kalgoorlie

He was silent for a moment… He was silent after that… He didn’t say anything more, nursing his grievance in silence…

Falls tries to get answers from Chris Culpin’s wife, Edith:

Again that hesitation, as though she wanted to tell me something else… She was silent…

Golden Soak part 2

An early narrative climax comes when Golden Soak, precariously propped up as Falls discovers when he goes illicitly poking around in it, collapses with a boom and a lot of dust. Falls and Kennie were driving out towards it, chasing after Ed Garrety who had disappeared and, for a long ten minutes they think he must have been in it when it collapsed. Until he emerges covered in dust from the nearby workings…

Thereafter Falls goes touring round various townships in Western Australia, looking for work, having threatening conversations with various rough miners and prospectors and businessmen all looking after number one. Falls finds himself reluctantly taking money from the dodgy dealer, Kadek, in exchange for giving misleadingly optimistic information to the fairly honest businessman, Les Freeman. Falls then uses the money to hire the driller Duhamel and his crew to drill up at Golden Soak but is bitterly outwitted by the harsh, unforgiving Chris Culpin who has taken the trouble to get an official ‘claim’ made for the area: anything Falls finds will belong to Culpin. Falls ceases the drilling in disgust.

Defeated and depressed, Falls drives back to Jarra Jarra to discover Janet in hysterics because her father, Ed Garrety, has driven off into the desert.

Finally, after 200 pages of incommunicative peregrinations, this is the (typically Innes) climax of the novel. Falls grabs young Kennie and together they undertake a fifty-page adventure, loading the Land Rover with petrol and water and driving off with an old map and compass into the inhospitable Gibson desert. Really inhospitable. So blisteringly hot during the day you can’t drive or be outside, so they drive at night. The journey, and the extreme conditions, force Falls to review what he’s doing in Australia and what the hell he’s doing driving into the heart of one of its worst deserts to find an ageing, bitter, dying man who possibly has gone off to end it all. However, Falls also knows Garrety has a map showing the location of the McIlroy Monster: so he’s pursuing Garrety in order to save Janet’s father for her, and to try and redeem his damn fool decision to emigrate by finding the legendary hill of copper.

But he doesn’t. When he finally catches up with Garrety it turns out the dying old man has come all the way out into the desert to find the place where, back in 1939, he shot McIlroy dead. Aha. So that’s what happened. Why? Because somehow, it is implied, McIlroy had ruined his old man, deluded him with his damn fool plans and then lured Ed into a crazy expedition into the desert so that when Ed awakes one morning to find McIlroy shooting the camels to eat, Garrety flips, they fight over the gun and Garrety shoots McIlroy dead.

That’s it. That’s the bitter secret which Garrety has concealed for 30 years, which has eaten into his conscience, which has made him bitter and grouchy and led all the local gossips to speculate whether he killed McIlroy in the Golden Soak and arranged the flooding, or whether there really is a big hill of copper which he’s keeping from everybody. After this anti-climactic revelation, Falls passes out. Next morning he wakes to find Garrety has headed off in a raging sandstorm like Captain Oates deliberately seeking the oblivion of death.

Falls and Kennie turn round and their knackered Land Rover just about makes it back to civilisation where Falls is promptly arrested. We learn that this entire narrative has been written from prison.

Coda

The technicalities of his arrest and the charges are described with typical Innes thoroughness: courts martial and trials, dodgy business deals and boardroom manoeuvres feature in many of his novels. But, in summary, Falls is eventually released and, among other developments, persuades Kennie to return with him to the Gibson Desert. Here, after further suffering, they do at last, indeed, find McIlroy’s Monster, a great plateau of copper-bearing rock but again, only to seem to be frustrated. A helicopter lands and men start staking out the claim with professional pegs: it is Chris Culpin – Falls’s repeated nemesis, who foiled him when he was drilling up at Golden Soak. At this, the climax of the novel, Innes persuades us that Culpin’s son, Kennie, is wound up to such a state that he rushes forward – father and son argue, then fight, then Kennie grabs a rifle and shoots his father dead.

The men take Culpin’s body and Kennie into the chopper and fly off.

This leaves Falls free to stake out the claim himself, then spend ten days struggling back through the desert to Jarra Jarra. During this time – symbolically – it rains for the first time since his arrival in Australia, and when he arrives at Jarra Jarra it is to find the desert blooming, the herds of cattle thriving after Janet, Ed Garrety’s daughter, followed his suggestion of watering them at the new pool formed in the crater of the ruined collapsed Golden Soak mineworkings, and Janet herself running into his arms for a Hollywood ending.

In the last pages, he says they are now a pair, awaiting his divorce to come through from Britain, and Janet is pregnant. He has never worked so hard in his life, refencing the farm, drilling waterholes, and hopes that, if the child is a girl,

pray God she grows up with the same qualities as her mother, the same love of this harsh demanding place where I have now put down my roots. (p.285)

Fathers and sons

As with Levkas ManThe Doomed Oasis and others of his later novels, Golden Soak ends up being a tragedy about a son and a father in which the father dies. Sons and fathers run like a thread through the text. Big Bill Garrety, founder of the dynasty, who goes mad and his son Ed, who goes off into the desert to die, and his son Henry, who is killed in Vietnam. Culpin’s son Kennie, who kills his father.

There is a strong Gothic element in these doomed relationships of fathers and sons.

A tale of two women

Innes also goes out of his way to contrast between the two lead female characters in the novel.

Falls repeatedly describes his wife, Rosalind, Rosa, as being stunningly good looking: there’s a page or so mulling over his marriage as he comes to realise that he never loved her, he just wanted – in the heady days of his success when the tin mine in Cornwall was showering money – to ‘own’ her, to possess her like a flash sports car.

Two thirds of the way through the story Falls is horrified to learn that Rosa has figured out he never died in the fire and tracked him down all the way to the ranch at Jarra Jarra. Falls returns from a day out drilling to find Rosa in a tense stand-off with Janet, her polar opposite. After an edgy dinner, later that night when he’s in bed, Rosa quietly slips into his room and there’s quite a powerful description of how they have sex, even though he hates her and he knows she despises him, but she is just so damn erotic. Here, as in a number of the other novels (eg Air Bridge) Innes is very good at honestly depicting the way a man can simply be overcome with lust and be attracted to a woman he positively dislikes.

All this is deliberately and repeatedly contrasted with not so attractive, stocky Janet with her turned-up nose and freckles, with her agonised love for her troubled father and her daily struggle to keep the ranch alive.

Innes is making a deliberate contrast between beautiful heartlessness and not-so-beautiful honesty and truth and, after everything they’ve been through, it is Janet and Alec’s honest, open, homely declaration of love right at the end of the story which, to be honest, brought a tear to my eye.

Environmentalism

It is fairly understated but at several points characters make the point that man has severely damaged the natural environment of Australia. Towards the end the opposition between Kennie Culpin and his father comes to represent the conflict between the older generation, grasping, selfish, only out to make a short-term profit from mining, and the younger generation who think their elders murdered the black aborigines and devastated the flora by over-farming it, until the place has become an inhospitable desert.

40 years later Australia is, of course, still inhabited, though I have read articles claiming that, with climate change, it might in the long term become unviable for human life.

Certainly Innes gives a sympathetic if unblinking portrayal of a number of aborigines, the original owners of the land who knew how to live in harmony with it, degraded by service to the white man and all too often addicted to white man’s alcohol, but many retaining their mysterious link to the soil, to their tribal languages and customs. And at one of the key moments, when Falls confronts Garrety out in the desert and he confesses his murder of McIlroy, the old man’s head is leant back against a rock covered in the strangely powerful geometric designs of the country’s long-dead aboriginal owners, as if this white man’s tragedy is unfolding against a much larger canvas of history and culture.

And the symbolic rainfall at the very end of the novel and the miraculous greening of the land, also represent an earnest, a glimmering gesture towards Garrety’s dying wish that the land not be raped for mineral deposits but that its human masters learn to use its resources more wisely to revive and restore it.

Adaptation

Golden Soak was made into a six part TV mini-series by Australian TV, which you can watch on YouTube, but only appears to be available in a version dubbed into German.

Related links

Fontanta paperback cover of Golden Soak

Fontanta paperback cover of Golden Soak

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene (1973)

‘Contrary to common belief the truth is nearly always funny. It’s only tragedy which people bother to imagine or invent.’ (p.21)

Greene in the 1970s

Greene was 69 when this novel was published, entering his fifth decade of astonishing productivity – an output which included prize-winning novels, short stories, Oscar-winning film scripts and plays – and was widely seen as the greatest living English writer of the day.

He had done this in part by mining a narrow vein of themes with obsessive repetitiveness until they were completely identified with him and the phrase ‘Greeneland’ had been coined to describe the imaginary landscape where they met:

  • a gloomy despairing Roman Catholic faith which tortures its believers more than it consoles or uplifts
  • a nihilistic view of human life which leads the protagonists in his most famous novels to kill themselves or seek out death
  • adultery, ideally of the kind that makes the lovers miserable as sin
  • an unerring eye for the seedy or squalid or shabby details of failed lives and disappointed souls
  • a fondness for poverty-stricken war-torn foreign locations such as Mexico, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Cuba, Congo and – in this novel – Argentina run by a military dictatorship

Therefore, part of the pleasure of reading Greene is not only for the prose and story, but in greeting all the familiar tropes which dominate his narratives: it is like saying hello to a gang of old lags: hello to the comfortably familiar pessimism, hello to the reassuringly predictable focus on the seedy side of life, a negativity so relentless that it risks becoming comic despite itself, a bit like Fraser’s cry, ‘We’re doomed, we’re doomed,’ in Dad’s Army.

Hope creaked in his throat like a piece of rusty machinery. (p.23)

The Honorary Consul part 1

The Honorary Consul does not disappoint in its heartless depiction of disappointment. It is set in a remote city in northern Argentina, near the river border with Paraguay (still under the military rule of General Stroessner). The Latin American location immediately is painted vividly: from the horribleness of the military government – one of the characters has three fingers missing, cut off by his torturers under the eye of CIA ‘supervisors’, and the narrator casually mentions the bodies of political murderees washed up on the Argentine side of the river – to the heat which makes everyone sweaty and weary, the ubiquitous atmosphere of Latino slackness and corruption.

‘Assassinations, kidnapping, the torture of prisoners – these things belong to our decade.’ (p.57)

It opens with middle-aged Dr Plarr looking across the wide river at sunset and remembering how he was abandoned by his English father, who shipped him and his mother off to Buenos Aires while staying on in Paraguay to fight the junta. Failure disappointment disillusion. His mother has, of course, not worn well, instead becoming a querulous old lady fussing about her lost estates –

He felt the same sense of wasted time as when he visited his mother and she complained of headaches and loneliness while she sat before a plate heaped up with éclairs in the best teashop of Buenos Aires. (p.51)

– and it was partly to escape her that he chose to take up the medical appointment here at this remote outpost near the border. (How 1930s it sounds.)

Dr Plarr goes to meet the only other Brit in town, Humphries, at the local hotel where, of course, the food is disgusting, produced by a depressed Hungarian chef, the restaurant is empty, the solitary waiter can barely summon up the life to serve them. Plarr, inevitably, notices that the nicotine stains in Humphries’ thin white hair are the same colour as the goulash stains on his napkin. The entire sequence is a showroom display of Greene’s eagle eye for the seedy, shabby, dispiriting and defeated in human existence.

Almost the only institution the narrator mentions with enthusiasm is the brothel, whose madam, we are assured (twice) and with heavy irony, is the wealthiest woman in town.

Señora Sanchez was a very stout lady with a dimpled face and a welcoming smile from which kindliness was oddly lacking, as though it had been mislaid accidentally a moment before like a pair of spectacles. (p.55)

‘like a pair of spectacles’ – it is a characteristically crisp and effective simile, but also characteristically detached and with the note of slightly lofty Edwardian gentility which is the tone of the whole book.

The general air of incompetence, failure and collapse is racked up as the plot is now disclosed to us: the American ambassador has been visiting the city and a gang of ‘rebels’ and ‘freedom fighters’ has used information which Dr Plarr provided them with to ambush his car. Except that, through a sequence of mistakes, they pull over the wrong car and stop the one carrying Dr Plarr’s friend, the ageing, fat British alcoholic Charley Fortnum. Some while ago Fortnum was made Britain’s ‘honorary consul’ in the city and he had been roped in at the last minute to translate from the local Spanish for the US ambassador – and now finds himself ambushed, kidnapped, drugged and carried off to a mud hut in one of the city’s poorest barrios. Plarr is rung up by the rebels in the middle of the night to be informed of this disastrous mistake.

Adultery 1 It wouldn’t be a Greene novel without adultery, his favourite subject and one he was an enthusiastic practitioner of in real life (see the numerous biographies). Dr Plarr is, inevitably, having an affair with ‘his friend’ Charley Fortnum’s wife, Clara. As Plarr tells the police inspector:

‘Charley Fortnum is a friend of mine.’
‘Oh, a friend… It is usually a friend one betrays, isn’t it, in these cases?’ (p.89)

In fact, he was first attracted to her when he saw her working in Señora Sanchez’ brothel – she is a prostitute who Fortnum, with his own kind of ageing white male condescension, fancies he has ‘rescued’. Some time after the marriage, Plarr meets Clara at a chemists shop where she’s buying fancy sunglasses, one thing leads to another and she goes back to his apartment to sleep with him. He’s not very enthusiastic about the situation but keeps on seeing and sleeping with her until he eventually gets her pregnant – she claims she knows for certain, since Fortnum rarely has sex with her – thus creating numerous ‘ironic’ situations where Plarr has to congratulate Fortnum on the old chap’s good fortune ha ha.

Betrayal And not only has Plarr betrayed Fortnum by impregnating his wife, but now – albeit inadvertently – he finds himself instrumental in the absurd mistake of kidnapping him. It all came about because Plarr was approached one day at his surgery by the rebel leader, who he was at school with decades ago, and who persuades Plarr to pass on the timetable of the ambassador’s trip. The plan is to kidnap the American ambassador and hold him hostage until the General, ruler of Paraguay, releases 10 political prisoners there, including Plarr’s own long-separated father – that’s Plarr’s motivation for agreeing. But nobody knew Fortnum would be going along to interpret for the ambassador, and so the rebels intercept the first car driving the agreed route and it turns out to be the one Fortnum is travelling in, since the ambassador’s one was full and following a little way behind.

The plot 2

In the first half the plot is meandering and leisurely with loads of flashbacks to earlier encounters and conversations, which makes it occasionally confusing. From about page 180 the pace picks up as Plarr finds himself agreeing to go out to the mud hut where the rebels are hiding to treat Fortnum, who they injured when he made an escape attempt.

Once he is there, however, they refuse to let him leave. And for the remaining 50 pages of the novel the rebel leader-cum-failed priest and his common law wife Marta, loverboy Plarr, injured drunk Fortnum, and three other rebels, are all trapped in the two rooms of the mud hut, a setting which quickly becomes a kind of pressure cooker or incubator for a whole stream of increasingly programmatic discussions about Greene’s favourite things: adultery, sex, God, sin, despair, the meaning of life.

Presumably these final 50 pages are meant to be nerve-racking – a small cast of characters trapped in a static and hermetic setting, they read as if cannibalised from a particularly claustrophobic play – all with the looming threat of an army attack closing in even as the victims squabble among themselves.

I suppose in 1973 it was new territory to describe what it’s like to be kidnapped by revolutionary terrorists, and it is immensely to Greene’s credit that he escaped the parochial Aga sagas of middle class English fiction to set his novels in such a wide variety of exotic settings.

It is unfortunate, then, that what the squabbling and discussions feel so sixth-formish, like sessions at a theological college, a rather lurid rehash of the usual Greene themes. Maybe if this was the first Greene novel you ever read it would hit you like a thunderbolt, the dramatic setting, the life and death debates. But if you’ve read more than three or four, the effect is more like a rather weary sense of déjà lu.

Meandering

The first 180 pages or so have a very slow leisurely meandering pace. After the revelation in the first 20 pages or so that the rebels have got the wrong man, the text switches to a long series of flashbacks describing Plarr’s first encounter with Fortnum, companionable trips to the brothel, dinners with the tiresome local novelist, visits to his mother in Buenos Aires. Each scene has a point in illuminating the characters, but they are described in a languid easygoing manner which, more than the meaning of the words, convey a certain Latin American laziness to the whole text.

Greene’s novels generally have complex time schemes which allow for plenty of hindsight and memory: The End of The Affair in particular has a cunning interweaving of scenes from multiple moments in the past, and this – for me – is the most impressive aspect of many of his novels, the construction of narratives which work at multiple moments, simultaneously.

But this one feels significantly slower than the others, more leisurely, the interweaving more of a meandering, most of the action having the quality almost of a dream.

There is no feeling that Dr Plarr – supposedly in his thirties – actually does any work. He wanders around the town, reading novels and chatting with the small group of characters in a supremely relaxed easygoing way. These first two-thirds of the novel have a pleasantly soporific effect.

Middle-aged male fantasy

This is not unconnected to the way it is tempting to read the whole novel as a kind of middle-aged male fantasy: you don’t do any work; you lie around all day reading; meet up with friends in the evening to enjoy a meal and a drink and a chat; nobody minds if you stroll round to the whorehouse which is full of attractive and compliant women; which one tonight, you wonder, as you puff on your cigar; or you may prefer to dally with one of your three or four mistresses. And all the time you can be mulling over your own sinfulness, tutting at the way you manipulate your women, elegantly toying with the psychology of sex and adultery and relationships and more sex.

Plarr looks at his devout secretary and wonders why he hasn’t slept with her yet. On the plane back from Buenos Aires he is buttonholed by one of his mistresses, a patient, which leads him to remember having sex with her at her home while her husband was in the room, though drunkenly asleep. He remembers bumping into this woman’s husband at the brothel where the husband was entertaining no fewer than four prostitutes. He remembers a number of other patients who became lovers. He wanders along to the brothel and has a girl and sizes up several others, including the future Mrs Fortnum. It’s in the same lazy inconsequential way that he starts the affair with Fortnum’s wife. After Fortnum is kidnapped he drives out to his house to comfort her, and again they have sex. When he chats to the chief of police they laugh and joke about the women they have both had affairs with. Ha ha ha. Everyone appears to be having sex with everyone else…

Apart from the descriptions of sex (on the whole mercifully brief) these many sexual situations allow Greene to write a lot about the psychology of sex in a man-of-the-world tone which many a modern woman might find offensive and I find rather complacent, but which appears to have appealed to lots of his male reviewers back in the 1970s. All his books contain these quotable quotes, sub-Wildean aphorisms, without the wit or the heart.

Secrecy, he thought, is part of the attraction in a sexual affair. An open affair has always a touch of absurdity. (p.90)

In a real love affair, he thought, you are interested in a woman because she is someone distinct from yourself; then bit by bit she adapts herself to you, she picks up your habits, your ideas, even your turns of phrase, she becomes part of you, and then what interest remains? One cannot love oneself, one cannot live for long close to oneself – everyone has need of a stranger in the bed, and a whore remains a stranger. Her body has been scrawled over by so many men that you can never decipher your own signature there. (p.90)

He began to comfort her with his hand as he would have comforted a frightened dog, and gently, without intention, they came together. He felt no lust, and when she moaned and tightened, he felt no sense of triumph. He wondered with sadness, why did I ever want this to happen? Why did I think it would be a victory? There seemed to be no point in playing the game since now he knew what moves he had to make to win. (p.97)

‘A husband is of great importance in a love affair. He is a way of escape when an affair begins to get boring.’ (p.174)

‘I’ve often noticed,’ Dr Plarr said, ‘when a man leaves a woman he begins to hate her. Or is it that he hates his own failures? Perhaps we want to destroy the only witness who knows exactly what we are like when we drop the comedy.’ (p.216)

And much, much more in the same worldly-wise, one man-of-the-world to another, vein. Maybe this depiction of characters with a very un-English, unashamed and liberal attitude to sex explains his popularity in the 1960s and 70s.

Catholicism In a move which should surprise nobody it turns out the alcoholic honorary consul is a lapsed Catholic, much given to maudlin, drunken, religiose self-pity. Just, in fact, like scores of other Greene characters. To double the dose, the leader of the ‘rebels’ is a lapsed Catholic priest, too. And Plarr was of course raised a Catholic: a trinity of religion-obsessed characters! Which enables them, in the final 50 pages of the book, to have numerous discussions of Catholic ‘issues’ ie for Greene to drop into the text numerous Catholic one liners or paragraphs of bumf, of which he seems able to spin a literally endless amount.

Plarr said, ‘I doubt if her Confession will take very long.’
‘Those who have nothing to confess always take the longest,’ Léon Rivas said. ‘They want to please the priest and give him something to do.’ (p.102)

They always treated him with great courtesy, he noticed… Or was it perhaps the habitual courtesy which a prison warder is said to show even the most brutal murderer before his execution? People have the same awed respect for death as they have for a distinguished stranger, however unwelcome he may be, who visits their town. (p.119)

‘People have the same respect for death as they have for a distinguished stranger… who visits their town.’ That’s gibberish, isn’t it?

‘It is one of the duties of a father to provide.’
‘And God the Father, Léon? He doesn’t seem to provide much. I asked last night if you still believed in him. To me he has always seemed a bit of a swine. I would rather believe in Apollo. At least he was beautiful.’
‘The trouble is we have lost the power to believe in Apollo, Father Rivas said. ‘We have Jehovah in our blood. We can’t help it. After all these centuries Jehovah lives in our darkness like a worm in the intestines.’ (p.216)

It seems to me that Greene has the same attitude of amused complacency towards the Catholic faith as he does to sex, prostitution and infidelity: there is nothing genuinely threatening or disruptive in his description of either: you get the impression he could write hundreds and hundreds of pages of smoothly expressed truisms and bromides about sex or about religion, none of which are really true, none of which ever really making the reader sit up and think. They’re a sort of rhetorical accompaniment, pseudo-philosophical tinsel hung on the melodrama of the plot.

By the end the rebels, after much arguing, convince themselves they need to kill Fortnum if their demands are not met by the deadline they’ve set, otherwise this kind of kidnap will never be taken seriously, the revolution will never happen, justice will never be secured. Specifically, this leads to a series of debates between Plarr and the priest-turned-rebel, Father Rivas, which easily segue into colourful conversations about the character of God, which casually go off in all kinds of wild and imaginative directions.

‘When you shoot Fortnum in the back of the head, are you sure you won’t have a moment’s fear of old Jehovah and his anger? “Thou shalt not commit murder.”‘
‘If I kill it will be God’s fault as much as mine’
‘God’s fault.’
‘He made me what I am now. He will have loaded the gun and steadied my hand.’
‘I thought the Church teaches that he’s love.’
‘Was it love which sent six million Jews to the gas ovens? You are a doctor, you must often have seen intolerable pain – a child dying of meningitis – is that love? It was not love which cut off Aquino’s fingers. The police station where such things happen… He created them.’
‘I have never heard a priest blame God for things like that before.’
‘I don’t blame Him. I pity Him,’ Father Rivas said. (p.219)

Rubbing it in

In case anyone hadn’t realised Greene’s ultimately despairing view of the world, he rubs it in at the climax of the novel by having Dr Plarr killed as he tries to parley a truce with the surrounding military.

Fortnum is returned to his wife in one piece but, having discovered during his ordeal that the child she is carrying is really Plarr’s, his love, his happiness, is destroyed.

And, in a final bitter twist, the British ambassador in Buenos Aires, in a hurry to get Fortnum off the payroll but keen to ensure his acquiescence, tells him they’re relieving him of the position of honorary consul but will be offering compensation in the form of a medal for services rendered to Queen and country, in fact the Order of the British Empire.

Ha, the futility. Oh the humanity.

The movie

The Honorary Consul was made into a British movie, released in 1983, directed by John Mackenzie and starring Michael Caine in sweaty, middle-aged alcoholic mode, along with Richard Gere, Bob Hoskins and Elpidia Carrillo.

Related links

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

History is Now @ Hayward Gallery

This is a huge and rather bewildering exhibition, which could easily take a whole day to fully explore, but is full of little gems and big surprises.

In the run-up to the 2015 General Election (May 7) and the 70th anniversary of VE Day (May 8), Hayward curators asked six contemporary artists to curate mini-exhibitions designed to ‘evoke or explore or question’ the history of Britain since World War Two. The artists were free to choose the topic and the content, with the result that they vary wildly in size, shape and impact, some tackling big political issues of the era, some lingering more on the shiny consumerist surface of things.

Hipgnosis, Winkies (1975) © Hipgnosis. Photo: Aubrey Powell

Hipgnosis, Winkies (1975) © Hipgnosis. Photo: Aubrey Powell

So it is not an exhibition of work by these artists; it is a set of exhibitions of work by other artists (or artefacts from secular society) chosen by these artists. They are: John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Roger Hiorns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth and the twins Jane and Louise Wilson (who work together so count as one: seven artists; six mini-exhibitions).

Almost every possible medium is included from painting to video to installation, over 250 objects from public and private art collections as well as everyday objects including maps, clothes, books, newspapers, films and personal diaries, together with scientific and military displays.

Although there was a big board on the wall of each room explaining what each artist has set out to do, these were sometimes difficult to really understand, and once you had understood it, often difficult to reconcile with the apparently random selections of paintings, prints, sculptures, books, newspapers, and found objects which the visitor is presented with.

Trying to understand the rationales for the artist’s selections was challenging, given there were six of them and such a profusion of stuff to assimilate: the simplest ones worked best.


1. Richard Wentworth (b.1947) Maybe because he was the oldest of the artist-curators, Wentworth’s artefacts stretched back the earliest, to before the War, with works from the late 1930s like sculptures by Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson and Edward Paolozzi. His theme seemed to be the experience of war – with Paul Nash’s painting of the Battle of Britain and Bert Hardy’s b&w photos of the Blitz – carrying on into the post-war recovery period, through to the Festival of Britain (1951).

Festival of Britain Mural

Ben Nicholson, Festival of Britain Mural (1951) © Tate, London 2014

His room was deliberately cluttered, he said, as an antidote to the antiseptic way most exhibitions are hung: thus there were some 100 A4 and A5 pieces of paper showing photocopies of pages from newspapers, magazines, documents etc from the period pinned up along one wall, along with newspaper obituaries of notable figures, and a TV screen showing a b&w film of a King George VI speech about something, as well as shelves and coffee tables covered with agèd hardbacks and paperbacks from the 1940s and 50s and – my favourite – the box for an Airfix Control Tower, redolent of my boyhood in the 60s.

The overall impression was how dated, brown or grey and dusty, the books and papers and works by Nicholson seemed. But this contrasted with the vivid shiny metal sculptures by Henry Moore or Tony Cragg’s huge sculpture made from brightly-coloured consumer rubbish stuck to the wall to make the shapes of a man looking at the outline of Great Britain.

Tony Cragg - Britain Seen from the North (1981) © DACS 2015. Courtesy Tate Images

Tony Cragg – Britain Seen from the North (1981) © DACS 2015. Courtesy Tate Images

And the standout exhibit of the whole show, an actual surface to air missile parked on the Hayward Gallery terrace (last seen hosting the talking car in the brilliant Martin exhibition). The doorway out to the terrace had been boxed in to create a small room or ante-chamber hung with technical specifications of the missiles, along with photos of the RAF control room and operatives who launched them, the buildings where they were housed, and images of missiles being fired, as well as a TV showing footage of the space shuttle Challenger disaster ie it blowing up in mid-air (one of the many links and connections made throughout the exhibition, that one was free to ponder… or not…).

Bristol bloodhound at Richard Wentworth's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Bristol bloodhound at Richard Wentworth’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind


2. John Akomfrah (b.1957) His was one of the easier selections to grasp – he had gone along to the Arts Council collection of over 600 films and videos and selected 17 of them. If you watched each of them carefully once, that would take up your whole day, so I did what everyone else did which was watch whatever caught my eye for a minute or so. The most arresting one was The World of Gilbert and George, which featured them dancing in their stiff suits to some rock music and which made me and the other 3 people watching laugh out loud, and then have a friendly chat afterwards about how great G&G are.

Gilbert and George, World of Gilbert and George (1981) HD Projection, stereo sound © the artists, 2014

Gilbert and George, World of Gilbert and George (1981) HD Projection, stereo sound © the artists, 2014

The other films included:

  • a b&w one showing Bill Brandt‘s photos of sexy models set in the corner of bleak rooms which the same type of sexy models walked in and out of
  • a film showing a straightforward montage of works by Francis Bacon
  • the same respectful approach to the works by Barbara Hepworth
  • a far more dynamic film of a black dancer throwing amazing shapes in a film ‘about’ Winston Silcott
  • an ‘experimental’ film from the early 1970s with a couple of men and women naked in a constrained space bending and contorting around each other

Confirmed my feeling that film and video are difficult forms to work in becaus:

  • most artists are poor and therefore tend to show the same easily-affordable subject of faces or a handful of mates or art school models stripping off
  • it is very difficult to compete with – and subvert the imagery of – the highly professional adverts, pop and rock videos, TV and film which surround us on all sides.

3. Jane and Louise Wilson (b.1967) Jane and Louise’s theme was, apparently, architectural space and conflict. I am predisposed to like anything they do, after admiring their b&w photos of the sea defences on the French coast which were one of the best things in the Tate’s Ruin Lust exhibition.

The theme was exemplified by some huge (silk?) prints hanging from ceiling to floor showing b&w images of women breaking through the chain-link fences at Greenham Common back in the early 1980s; and a big painting by Richard Hamilton set in Northern Ireland.

Richard Hamilton, The State (1993) Tate, London 2014 © The Estate of Richard Hamilton, DACS 2014

Richard Hamilton, The State (1993) Tate, London 2014
© The Estate of Richard Hamilton, DACS 2014

There were several long metal rulers, stretching from floor to ceiling which were apparently used in nuclear fallout shelters, a photo of a beach ball flying over a tall wall, but the other dominating object was a large long rectangular metal cage full of gloves dangling from strings, 1=66,666 by Stuart Brisley (1983)  where each glove represented 66,666 unemployed in the 1980s.

Installation view of Jane and Louise Wilson's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Installation view of Jane and Louise Wilson’s curated section of History Is Now, showing 1=66,666 by Stuart Brisley. Photo Linda Nylind

Behind the cage (in the photo above) you can see six b&w photos hung on the wall: these are a set by Penelope Slinger featuring a naked nubile young woman in collages or treated images, which I found simple and striking and effective.

Penny Slinger,Perspective (1977) Copyright the artist. © the artist Courtesy Penny Slinger/Riflemaker, London

Penny Slinger,Perspective (1977) Copyright the artist. © the artist
Courtesy Penny Slinger/Riflemaker, London

Slinger was also involved in a 1969 film, Lilford Hall, shot by Peter Whitehead, the underground film maker of, among others, the 60s classic, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. Reminding me very much of the carefree sexuality of the novels of Adam Diment, the low budget b&w film shows establishing shots of the apparently abandoned manor of Lilford Hall, before settling down to show women taking their clothes off, on a fire escape, on the baronial staircase, etc.


4. Hannah Starkey (b.1971) One of the simplest, and therefore most effective, rationales: the Arts Council sponsored art photographers in the 1970s and 80s and Hannah has selected images 50 or so images from this huge archive.

This was an easily understood segment of the show and offered a large number of striking and immediately appealing images.

Chris Killip, Youth, Jarrow (1976) © the artist

Chris Killip, Youth, Jarrow (1976) © the artist

Other highlights included

  • Helen Robertson’s big photo showing a Navel in a sea of flesh
  • Sarah Lucas’s upside-down self-portrait smoking (visible on the left of the central column in the photo, below)
  • Martin Parr, whose work was featured in the brilliant Only In England exhibition at the Science Museum

Each column in the room had dense collages of colour adverts cut out from magazines of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Most of them could have been calls to action for outraged feminists, for the relentless use of idealised women in various forms of undress to flog things, though there were also cheesy images of men, along with a fair smattering of comedy ads, particularly political ones ridiculing the other side, for example Gordon Brown’s face on a tellytubby.

Installation View Hannah Starkey's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Installation View Hannah Starkey’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

  • Melanie Manchope’s large (2 metres tall?) and striking photo of her naked mother, the image then layered with oils to create a very powerful effect, Mrs Manchope
  • Several studies of working class people by Chris Killip, among which I particularly liked the strong characterful gaze of Mrs Hyslop

5. Roger Hiorns (b.1975) Probably the most controversial exhibit, a detailed timeline devoted to vCJD or mad cow disease, starting in 1750 and continuing up to the present day and including oil paintings, photos, TV news clips and documentaries on 10 or more TV screens, numerous shouty newspaper headlines, as well as government reports, records of questions asked in the House, and a library-style table with a dozen or more books about the disease and other food-related scandals.

If you really did read all this material and watched all the video clips you’d go mad.

British Cattle Movement Service (2011) Photo: Roger Wooldridge

British Cattle Movement Service (2011) Photo: Roger Wooldridge

Right at the end it said that, after all the fuss and hysteria, there were 177 deaths from vCJD, and there are currently no suspected cases in the UK.

a) 177 gruesome deaths, certainly, but not the devastating plague the media promised us. Compare it with the annual holocaust of traffic accidents, with the 1,713 deaths and 21,657 serious injuries on Britain’s roads in one year alone (2013). No-one’s suggesting we round up all Britain’s cars and burn them (more’s the pity).

b) If you didn’t realise a lot of Britain’s food is grown by slaves and produced using environmentally disastrous and disgusting practices, then you haven’t been paying attention, as the following pair of books make abundantly clear:

Most of the exhibits were factual, official, newspapers and videos but in among them were some ‘art works’, 18th century paintings of cows, which might appeal to some, and:

  • Tony-Ray Jones, last seen at the Only In England show, represented by his b&w photo of Glyndebourne (because it has cows in it)
  • A straightfaced hilarious 1982 video of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger
Jørgen Leth and Ole John ‘My Name is Andy Warhol’ from 66 Scenes from America (66 scener fra America), 1982 © the artist 1982/2014. Courtesy the artists and Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen

Jørgen Leth and Ole John
‘My Name is Andy Warhol’ from 66 Scenes from America (66 scener fra America), 1982
© the artist 1982/2014. Courtesy the artists and Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen

  • Rather inevitably, a couple of Damien Hurst cow’s heads in formaldehyde cases

6. Simon Fujiwara (b.1982) The youngest artist here, he chose a selection of more modern works, each placed democratically in equal space on plinths.

Gavin Turk Bag 9 (2001) Courtesy of Gavin Turk / Live Stock Market and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Photo: Gareth Winters

Gavin Turk Bag 9 (2001) Courtesy of Gavin Turk / Live Stock Market and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Photo: Gareth Winters

  • A big block of coal from Britain’s last working mine
  • Sam Taylor-Smith’s 64-minute-long video of David Beckham sleeping, David, looking beautiful and seraphic
  • A model of Orbit, the huge sculpture and observation tower made by Anish Kapoor for the Olympic park
  • A video promoting a government campaign – Imagineering – for everybody to be more imaginative 🙂
  • Serving spoons designed by Nigella Lawson
Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen, Serving Hands, Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen, Serving Hands, Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

  • One of David Hockney’s recent prints, a depiction of the Yorkshire countryside, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011
  • One of Damien Hirst’s countless dot works
  • the outfit worn by Meryl Streep in her depiction of Mrs Thatcher
Consolata Boyle, Costume designed for Meryl Streep in 'The Iron Lady' (2011) Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Consolata Boyle, Costume designed for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011) Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Conclusions

The main conclusion for me is that it is time to find a better cut-off point for ‘our era’ than World War II.

It is 70 years since VE day and that is just too long a period to try and completely survey: too much has happened: the Western world has passed through several intellectual paradigms in that period – the Cold War, the swinging 60s, the Oil Crisis, the Thatcher Years, the 90s boom etc – let alone the so-called developing world.

In those 70 years the world population has tripled from 2.5 billion in 1945 to getting on for 7.5 billion. We have vastly more consumer goods, infinitely more media for creative production and channels for distribution. It’s too much, too broad.

Which partly explains why, although the exhibition set out to ‘interrogate’ history, it ended being all about everything and therefore about nothing. I wasn’t really prompted to ‘question’ or ‘interrogate’ any of this history.

It felt like wandering round a high-class junk yard full of unexpected treasures, a random selection of the wreckage thrown up by Time’s unpredictable and plethoric passage.

Installation view of Simon Fujiwara's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Installation view of Simon Fujiwara’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Related links

Think Inc. by Adam Diment (1971)

I squeezed the trigger and there was a derisive click as the firing pin fell on nothing. The fucking gun wasn’t even loaded. (p.29)

And so we bid a sad farewell to the stoned and sex-mad ‘spy’, Philip McAlpine, in this, the fourth and final novel by young Adam Diment, all public school and swinging London, who knocked out four fun short novels before disappearing from the scene and writing no more. This is his swan song, his farewell to writing, and it is surprisingly downbeat.

There are still plenty of throwaway lines (‘Ostia is the Southend of Rome.’ p.8) but the book feels significantly more controlled and coherent than its predecessors, less larky. It is the best plotted and written of the four, the most psychologically persuasive, and significantly darker and more bitter.

Dirty old London

Though set in 1968 (it is explicitly stated that the Jewish character, David, goes home to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of Israel in 1948) the book was published in 1971 and it definitely feels like the long party which was the 1960s is over.

‘What’s London like now?’
‘Coming down off its high. The scene is shifting but nobody is sure where to.’ (p.43)

There is less London than before, no parties in bohemian flats or in dingy clubs off the King’s Road. In fact, when he does return briefly to London the text is packed with critical comments: how ugly it is; how the traffic is appalling; the unfriendliness of taxi drivers and people on buses, the quiet racism, the casual exploitation – ‘I was home and I hated it.’ (p.153)

At a loose end the night before a ‘job’ which has drawn him back to the capital, McAlpine picks up a prostitute in the luxury hotel he’s staying at and surprises himself – and the reader – by the depth of pity and compassion he feels for her. He buys her an expensive dinner and gets to know about her and her pitiful attempts to break into ‘modelling’ and suddenly realises he doesn’t want to sleep with her, at exactly the same time that the girl says she does want to sleep with him, but not be paid, because he’s actually treated her like a human being.

This is the first of the novels to have believable, and creditable, human emotions in it.

Plot

Having burned his bridges with British Intelligence after a job handling a defector goes badly wrong (defector gets shot, government money is lost) McAlpine hightails it to to Jamaica to lie low. When he finally and reluctantly returns to Blighty for an interview at a grouse shoot (!) with his hated boss Quine, the latter says a number of agencies and individuals are after his blood: fly you fool. So McAlpine packs a fake passport and flies to Rome.

Hardly has he settled into a routine of hanging round the beach at Ostia worrying where his next lira is coming from, than he is picked up by some armed goons and taken to see a gentle giant named Faustus, who runs a nice criminal syndicate, jokingly titled Think Inc. As in all the other novels, McAlpine is blackmailed into joining them; if he says no, Faustus will simply alert the British authorities and then a rat’s nest of baddies will come gunning for him.

So he is involved in three scams or ‘capers’, as Modesty Blaise would call them:

  • The faked kidnap On a light note, Think Inc. ‘kidnap’ a young gorgeous movie star, Solange Dore. In fact, she wants to be kidnapped and had contacted one of the gang to suggest it, because she wants to get out of her contract with a crappy Rome film studio. Solange flirts with the crew, creating dissension in the ranks, until giant Faustus drags her to his cabin for a good spanking; after which she behaves herself, and a few days later, after the ransom is paid, she is dropped at an isolated beach with a story of having been kept doped all the time, so she can’t identify her kidnappers.
  • Gun smuggling and catastophe The team are using a fine pleasure cruiser, and have set up base on a tiny Greek island where Faustus once did something heroic for the locals. The second scam is smuggling guns and here, in the middle of this short novel, things go wrong and the tone dramatically changes. The captain of the boat delivering the guns recognises the number two in Think Inc. against whom he obviously has a grudge, immediately pulls a gun and starts firing. Our boys fire back at which the crew of the other boat open up with a devastating M60 machine gun. Half of Think Inc. are killed in minutes. The badly wounded Faustus tells whimpering-with-fear McAlpine where to find a machine gun and grenades in the hold, so McA takes them, swims over to the enemy boat – which is still relatively close – and use the grenades and machine gun to kill everyone on board, before blowing it up. He swims back, then coaxes Think Inc.’s battered boat back to the Greek islands where the locals patch the survivors up.
  • Hijacking a Boeing 707 carrying a cargo of gold – part one McAlpine undergoes training to fly a 707 in a repressive Middle Eastern country. We have barely caught up with him before he is kidnapped, awaking in a concrete cellar where he is beaten to get him to reveal the details of the caper. He makes the baddies think he’s hurt worse than he is, then decks one, clouts the other and runs to the car outside. Here there is a short vicious fight with the main baddie, McAlpine using the car aerial to whip him round the face, then beating him to the ground before making his getaway, driving straight to the airport, and using his fake passport and a spare set of clothes to catch the next flight out.

Diment’s spy novels have always felt like an uneasy marriage between the convincing pothead, dolly bird-shagging narrator (based rather closely, one suspects, on the author) and a lot of rather implausible spy palavah tacked on to justify their existence. Most of the shooting has been like an episode of The Man from UNCLE where bullets ricochet around and only faceless baddies fall unlamented. Only at the very end of The Great Spy Race and The Bang Bang Birds was there the real killing of characters we’d got to know – which gave both books peculiarly sour endings – but even these were quickly forgotten compared to the generally light-hearted, dope smoking, sunbathing and girl-ogling antics which dominated the texts.

In Think Inc., by contrast, it is as if Diment is making a conscious effort to mimic the mainstream thrillers of, say, Alistair MacLean, with their focus on the knuckle-crunching reality of physical violence. The shootout between the boats is very detailed and gory. Him taking a beating in the concrete cellar, then the way he hits and whips his gaolers to escape, is similarly visceral.

  • Hijacking a Boeing 707 carrying a cargo of gold – part two McAlpine escapes the gang who’d kidnapped him and, as with the other books, the text races, hurtles full pace to the final scene which is McAlpine playing the part of a replacement second pilot on a 707 (hence the training). There’s a detailed account of how he and his faked credentials take in the real crew, how they go aboard, do all the checks, and fly to Rome. Land, refuel, eat dinner etc before taking off for the Middle East – and it is on this leg that he slips a mickey finn into the crew’s coffees. They all pass out and McAlpine is free to reroute the plane to an abandoned RAF airstrip in the empty desert of Muscat. In a nailbiting sequence he just about manages to land the monster of a plan on his own, on a poor quality strip. He undoes the door as Faustus and the remainder of Think Inc. drive over in a lorry to unload the gold but – at this moment of triumph, a powerful machine gun opens up, ripping holes in the side of the plane, in Faustus and the ground team. Presumably it is the same set of crims who kidnapped him during his training, though in the panic he doesn’t wait to find out, but ducks and weaves back to the cockpit, starts the still warm engines, wheels the plane around and takes off…

Sex and love and escape

In the previous novels McAlpine spends a lot of effort eyeing up every woman he meets, and sleeping with as many as he could get his hands on, in an atmosphere of unlimited randiness set against the miniskirts and hash haze of the Summer of Love.

This final novel is distinctly different and, although it still has enough casual sexist remarks to give any feminist apoplexy, Diment goes out of his way to have his hero actually fall in love with a woman he respects for the first time in his life. His inamorata is Charity, the only woman in Faustus’s gang, and black (itself very interesting) but the point is that the narrator shows a new sensitivity and depth in his feelings for her.

She smiled softly as she undid the towel round my waist with long cool fingers and ran her nails across my stomach. I shivered and hooked my fingers into the neck of her shift. She raised her arms and wriggled slightly as I pulled it off. Her breasts were hard and small as two apples with pointed, dark chocolate nipples. Her skin was very soft and taut and had a slight, sub-cutaneous luminosity. As though there were lights just under the surface. We kissed for a long time as I stared into the wells of her gentle brown eyes and we lay in a slowly shuddering tangle of touching limbs. She closed her thighs and squeezed, trapping me and I jerked like a startled horse. (p.44)

Well, I like it. Not the fact that it’s pornographic – but that it has a scattering of unexpected phrases and sweet insights.

Half way through the novel there is an unprecedented event: McAlpine spends a couple of pages (pp.85-86) thinking about his life and, specifically, wondering whether he has ever loved someone and whether he ever will. These thoughts are closely tied in to reflections on his career as a murderer: including the men on the boat, he has murdered some 10 people, even though he’s never been in a war and is still not 26 (p.103). He’s sick of it.

The love interest in the previous novels had existed solely to provide the hero with sex, and the girls’ main plot function was to turn out to have been agents all along, sleeping with him only to keep an eye on him – ie providing a not-very-convincing burst of fashionable cynicism or disillusion at the end of the story.

Here the feeling is completely different. McAlpine is given numerous moments of introspection in which he realises he is sick of the life of murder and crime, and wants out. After the trauma of the shipboard massacre, when he is finally safely back on the Greek island, he falls into Chastity’s arms and weeps and weeps. When he awakes he realises he is genuinely in love for the first time in his life.

Already he had had the novel experience of – when Solange offered herself to him – turning her down, more worried about its impact on his relationship with Chastity than the offer of quick sex. Changed. In a previous novel, when a girlfriend had revealed she was pregnant, all he could think was ‘Dozy cow! Why didn’t she take her pill?’ just like the thoughtless philanderer Alfie in the film of the same name.

But now, when Chastity reveals that she is pregnant, McAlpine is genuinely overjoyed and kisses her and kisses her stomach. They have both been involved in abortions and, Diment laments, his generation has been brought up to expect instant gratification, there is rarely time to form a bond with a lover of the opposite sex before the sex has become familiar and boring and you’re on to the next partner.

Now he wants to escape all of that: he realises he hates cold, ugly, polluted London with its rude racist population; he wants to give up a life of spying, crime and killing and go live somewhere peaceful with his love; and he wants to give up the shallow promiscuity that dominated the earlier novels and commit himself to marrying Chastity and becoming a husband and father. It is genuinely touching when McAlpine says he wants the baby to be a little girl because he’s always liked them.

Which makes it all the more heart-rending when, in the final scene, on the final page, as the ambushers open up with the heavy machine gun, scything down Faustus and the others beside the plane, and Chastity leaps screaming with fear, reaching up to McAlpine to pull her inside the plane, at the last moment she is hit by a volley of large-calibre bullets and is already bleeding heavily and unconscious when McAlpine drags her inside, then has to duck back to the cockpit and make an emergency take-off.

The novel – and McAlpine’s fictional existence – ends on a very bitter note as, once in the air, he sets the plane on autopilot, heaves himself up out of the pilot’s seat, and steels himself to go back into the cabin to confront the fact that the woman who taught him how to love, and who represented all his hopes of escape and a new life, is probably bleeding to death and might already be dead.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Think Inc.

Pan paperback edition of Think Inc.

Adam Diment’s novels

  • The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967) Introducing Philip McAlpine, dope-smoking, randy and reluctant secret agent who is blackmailed into going undercover with a dodgy international charter air firm, then kidnapping a dangerous ex-Nazi.
  • The Great Spy Race (1968) A retired masterspy organises an international spy competition, where agents from every country’s Intelligence agencies have to follow a trail of clues across Europe and out to the Indian Ocean to win a complete breakdown of Red China’s spy network, with our man McAlpine reluctantly out in front all the way.
  • The Bang Bang Birds (1968) Our man is bullied (once again) into undertaking a mission in Sweden, to infiltrate an elite club-cum-brothel and retrieve top secret information which is being seduced out of its powerful clientele. Cue an acid-fueled orgy, a duel in a speedboat, a helicopter getaway, a high-speed car chase, lots of sex, and some rather sober and bitter killings.
  • Think, Inc (1971) Stoner spy Philip McAlpine is back in his last adventure, blackmailed into joining the ranks of an international crime syndicate based in Rome and working on three crime capers which turn out disastrously. In a new departure for the series, McAlpine falls in love, with a black Londoner named Chastity and dreams of escaping, from filthy horrible London, from his former life of promiscuity, and from his career as a spy and hit man – dreams which are horribly crushed in the novel’s final pages.

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

Not only Walter, she realised suddenly. They would all be out looking for her, cruising the road with flashlights, spotlights. How could they let her get away and tell? Every man was a threat, every car a danger. (p.124)

Plot

A clean-cut, white, all-American young family move out of the big bad city to the idyllic small town of Stepford. The lead character, Joanna Eberhart, is oppressed by how domestic and submissive so many of the other wives are. Her husband joins the men-only Men’s Association, vowing to change it from within. Slowly, through an accumulation of details, Joanna begins to suspect there’s something actively wrong with all the other wives.

Eventually, as her two closest friends are transformed overnight into compliant, characterless housewives, she – and the reader – realise they have all been murdered and replaced by robots, androids created by the town’s menfolk, in order to create a race of ideally servile, completely submissive, domestic servants and sex slaves.

Satire

Obviously the novel is a satire on a certain kind of male backlash against the women’s rights, women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s, combined with equally topical anxieties about androids, robots, artificial intelligence, to create a short powerful horror story-cum-parable. It had a big cultural impact on its publication in 1972 though it is a little hard, in 2015, to recapture the thrill of either strand.

It could be (and obviously was) read as being ‘about’ Women’s Liberation, as Rosemary’s Baby is ‘about’ Satanism and The Boys From Brazil is ‘about’ ex-Nazis. But all three novels are also canny commercial moves to exploit hot cultural issues of the day in order to create thrilling narratives – and make money.

Points

The main things I noticed are:

  • it’s short and quick, as the best parables often are (eg Animal Farm), a brisk two-hour read
  • it’s another novel told largely from the perspective of a young woman (cf Rosemary’s Baby)
  • it takes the classic narrative template of the narrator arriving in a new community and slowly realising it is the setting for a horrifying conspiracy (cf RB)
  • a surprising number of the secondary topics and issues which it references are still with us
  • Levin’s casual, make-it-up style is fresh and easy compared to the stodgy prose of contemporary English writers

Women’s Liberation

Apparently the term Women’s Liberation refers to the late 1960s/early 70s, early forms of the feminist movement, nowadays referred to as second wave feminism. 1970 was a pivotal year:

– A snapshot of some of the events and books published 45 years ago, as Levin was writing this novel.

According to Wikipedia, 45 years later, we are currently in third wave feminism. Compared to the post-structuralist, Derridean deconstruction of gender, race and identity stereotypes implied in TWF, the discussions of Levin’s lead character, Joanna, seem rather simplistic – her most articulated concern is simply that it’s unfair and out of date to have a men-only club. Then again, she’s not a tenured academic expert in Queer Studies, and a lot, an awful lot of thinking – academic and political – has taken place in the 43 years since the novel’s publication.

Other issues

Town versus country The Eberharts have made a decision to leave the big bad city (‘the filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city’ p.8) now their children are 7 or so, a debate had by almost all the parents of children of the same age who I know. The city is polluted, stressful but exciting; the country is peaceful, clean but boring.

There is a familiar Gothic strand to the story: in how many novels and movies have a young couple moved into their ideal suburban house only to find it contains dark secrets?

And in a way the sci-fi fantasy element of the story is not only about mad male scientists concocting sexist robot slaves; it is the uncanny way the stress and inhumanity of the city follow urban exiles, revealing the country to be even more artificial, constructed and manipulated than the city.

Androids Androids have appeared in a range of 20th century novels, movies and TV series with increasing frequency from the 1970s onwards – in Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Terminator franchise, to name some obvious ones. Almost always they are bad.

As to the thinking about artificial intelligence at the precise moment when Levin published this novel, it is tempting to link it with the sci-fi movie Westworld (1973) in which the androids in a futuristic kind of Disneyworld malfunction and start attacking the paying guests. Though the plot and even the plot archetype are different, novel and movie both share an anxiety about the anti-human, destructive potential of lifelike robots.

Feminism and a male backlash against feminism; the perils of artificial intelligence; the suburban Gothic horror story – The Stepford Wives can be viewed as a text where a number of contemporary anxieties or tropes meet and up the ante on each other.

(I note that female androids have been named gynoids.)

Pesticides and pollution As topical as women’s liberation – the ostensible subject of the book – was concern about pollution. The early 1970s not only saw the formation of the first women’s groups, but were also a period when the first Green parties were set up to reflect widespread concern about the destruction of the natural envinronment, and all forms of industrial pollution.

Levin is, therefore, tapping into another very newsy and hot topic when he makes Joanna’s only friend among the wives, Bobbie, as she begins to realise something is wrong, point the finger at the local drinking water supply. She suspects there is effluent from the industrial estate just outside the town which has got into the water and is causing the zombification of the women.

She’s right to be afraid of industry – for these are the computer and tech companies where the men work and have realised they have the combined skills to create lifelike androids – but just wrong about which aspect to be blaming.


Style

As usual the style, the way with words, interests me as much as the subject matter. Levin is bright and breezy, coining neologisms and phrases with Yanky confidence.

She was about a third of the way down the stairs, going by foot-feel, holding the damn laundry basket to her face because of the damn banister, when wouldn’t you know it, the double-damn phone rang.

She couldn’t put the basket down, it would fall, and there wasn’t enough room to turn around with it and go back up; so she kept going slowly down, foot-feeling and thinking Okay, okay to the phone’s answer-me-this-instant ringing. (p.19)

As with Rosemary’s Baby it’s partly the jazzy modernity of the characters’ attitudes and phraseology which makes the story all the more plausible, and the heavy leaning on the female protagonist’s point of view, as the walls close in, which make it all the more terrifying.


Conclusions

From one point of view Rosemary’s Baby and this are identical: the husband in a young married couple completely betrays his wife into a horrifying conspiracy. In Rosemary the husband betrays her to satanists in order to further his acting career; this one goes further as the husband, Walter, acquiesces in the murder of his wife.

The novels are pulp, or horror, or genre fiction because no consideration is given to the husband’s character or motivation. The plot is purely a pretext to create (again) the character of a vulnerable young(ish) woman and then terrify the daylights out of her (and the audience). It’s intelligently and precisely done, but it’s exploitative nonetheless.

References to the story (and the title, after all) generally focus on the perfect wives; but all the wives are dead. It’s actually about a town of male murderers, about a community of men who have ganged together to murder all of their wives. Imagine what JG Ballard would have made of that – I can’t believe they wouldn’t all be pretty damaged by the act, some of them would become unhinged, and therein would lie some really interesting fictive material.

But the purpose of this book is to be a quick, intense jolt of horror and so the entire psychology of the men is excluded; in the final hunting down of Joanna, who goes on the run across country in the winter snow, the men appear (very effectively) just as silhouettes holding the bright torches which surround her, simply as ‘shapes darker than the darkness’ (p.126).

They are the eternal bogeymen of our childhood nightmares.


The movie

Two movies have been made: the 1975 version directed by Bryan Forbes with a screenplay by William Goldman, starring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman and Tina Louise; and the 2004 version, directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Faith Hill and Glenn Close.

Related links

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the truth.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972) Young housewife Joanna Eberhart moves with her husband and two children to the idyllic small town of Stepford where she slowly realises the men are part of a conspiracy to murder their wives and replace them with perfectly submissive androids.
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)

Salt and Silver @ Tate Britain

Running concurrently with the Sculpture Victorious exhibition at Tate Britain is a smaller show of four rooms hung with the earliest photographs from Britain, France and America. Co-curated with the Wilson Centre for Photography, it is obvious that time and thought have gone into preparing the show and it is certainly informative about the precise dates and the technical developments in early image-making – but the images themselves are of mostly academic interest; only a handful of the 80 or so on display made me stop and look harder.

Room 1 Paper photography

I hadn’t realised photography was quite so old. Henry Fox Talbot discovered the chemical capacity to fix a shadow on light-sensitive paper coated in silver salts around the time Victoria came to the throne (1837) and presented his first salt prints to the world in 1839. He took many images of family and servants at his Lacock Abbey home along with the countryside nearby.

At the same time the Frenchman Louis Daguerre was perfecting the technique of recording an image on a silver plate, the so-called daguerrotype.

So photography was invented in Britain and France in the years just before 1840, just as the ‘Victorian era’ began. The new technology spread quickly: by the mid-1840s a notable studio was established in Edinburgh by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, whose name echoes in the history books as a pioneer.

Nelson's Column under construction by Henry Fox Talbot

Nelson’s Column under construction by Henry Fox Talbot

Historic/academic interest aside, only a few of these pics rang my bell, one in particular – ‘Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, London’, first week of April 1844 William Henry Fox Talbot. If there had been more images genuinely throwing light on Victorian life and achievements I’d have been riveted.

Also standing out from the run-of-the-mill portraits of Victorian families and servants were three photos from a series by David Octavius Hill showing Newhaven fishermen, their wives, and children, captured in varying poses.

Newhaven fishermen by David Octavius Hill

Newhaven fishermen by David Octavius Hill

Room 2 Modern life

Lots of photos of buildings, mainly in France. Louise-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard developed Talbot’s process in order to mass produce prints and launched the first successful photographically-illustrated publications. In 1851 he invented a new process, the albumen print, which quickly replaced salt prints.

This image of an ‘abandoned’ cart is by far the most striking pic in the room: mysterious and atmospheric, an effect doubled when you learn that the white crosses on the wall indicate disease and are warning passersby to keep clear.

Ox Cart, Brittany by Paul Marès (c.1857 )

Ox Cart, Brittany by Paul Marès (c.1857 )

Room 3 Epic

‘People in the nineteenth century saw their present as part of a much longer sweep of history’ says the commentary. a) Haven’t most intelligent people at most times had similar thoughts? b) What this means in practice is almost as soon as photography had been invented people were travelling abroad with bulky cameras to take holiday snaps of cultural sites, especially, for some reason, ancient Egyptian ruins.

In 1851 the painter-photographer Gustave Le Gray introduced his waxed paper negative process which captured greater detail and allowed much larger compositions, very suitable for historical sites and ruins.

I’ve been round the Egyptian ruins several times myself over the years and have my own holiday snaps of them. It’s sort of interesting that Egypt was such a popular destination but the photos on display added little or nothing to my knowledge.

Auguste Salzmann, Statuette en Calcaire; Type Chypriot 1858-1865 © Wilson Centre for Photography

Auguste Salzmann, Statuette en Calcaire; Type Chypriot 1858-1865 © Wilson Centre for Photography

My favourite photo was of an old temple by Linnaeus Tripe, solely because of his name.

Room 4 Presence

Photography allowed the capturing of a person, their face and body and stance and expression, with more precision than ever before in human history.

Roger Fenton made his name by lugging the heavy equipment all across Europe to the Crimea where he recorded soldiers and support personnel engaged in the war there (1853-56), rather static awkward images, such as of this cantiniére. Yes it has historic interest: to see so clearly the faces of people involved in such a thing, yes it’s quite interesting to see the outfits they wore; but you can say that about almost any semi-official photograph taken anytime in the last 170 years.

Roger Fenton, Cantiniére 1855 © Wilson Centre for Photography

Roger Fenton, Cantiniére 1855 © Wilson Centre for Photography

In Paris Félix Nadar emerged as one of the best portrait photographers, making portraits of the Paris literary and art world which remain atmospheric to this day. He also persuaded a number of lithe young women to strip off for the camera, not the last time that was to happen.

Mariette, by Félix Nadar (c. 1855)

Mariette, by Félix Nadar (c. 1855)

It made me laugh out loud to compare French useage of the camera – quickly persuading girls to strip off – with the Englishmen Talbot and Hill a decade earlier, whose very respectable subjects in Lacock or Newhaven could hardly be wearing more clothes if they tried.

Also, Mariette’s pose is meant to be copying the attitude of a classical heroine, for the purposes of a painting she was modelling for at the time – but it reminded me of the tens of thousand of photos of movie stars and rock stars and politicians and everyone else who has instinctively flung their hands up over their faces in a futile attempt to conceal their features from the intrusive lenses of the paparazzi.

Photography pries.

The uneasy nature of photography

Photography is always treated in art galleries as if it is a rare and precious art form, as fragile as a Leonardo cartoon, whereas it is, of course, a technology for the exploitation of people and places for an extraordinary diversity of commercial reasons, in newspapers, in magazines devoted to every subject under the sun, and now in the limitless playground of the internet.

I worked in television for 15 years and have plenty of experience asking people we’d interviewed, or who just appear in background sequences, to sign ‘release’ forms’ giving us permission to use their images however we wanted, in any medium, existing or not yet invented, in perpetuity.

This is the basis for my feeling that photography is not an ‘innocent’ art. I sympathise with the native Americans who, according to urban legend, refused to have their photos taken because the machine would steal their souls. Oh, how we laughed. But I think they were right. I think every photograph is taken with a purpose or aim, more often than not to control and shape and define a narrative about the scene or person or thing being ‘captured’ on film.

Photography puts the power to control a scene and the people in it, into your hands. ‘Stand here. Can you just move over there. Everyone smile. Take your clothes off. Point that gun at him. Can we just raise that flag at a better angle for the camera. Smile for the folks back home.’

I think the proliferation of digital cameras and the arrival of the internet as a medium to publish and distribute an overwhelming number of photographic images has brought many of these issues of control and ownership and exploitation right out into the open and is giving us a new understanding of the risks and dangers involved in taking part in the power plays inherent in photography.

And I think this new knowledge sheds a cautionary light back over the small, precious images collected together in this interesting and informative exhibition.

Related links

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