The Big Footprints by Hammond Innes (1977)

‘Just look at these pictures. That’s what happens when there are no game laws and men are allowed to let their lust for killing run away with them. Extermination,’ he thundered. (p.75)

Innes’ novels have half a dozen regular characteristics.

1. Exotic location Here, it’s Kenya, exhausted and dilapidated at the end of a (fictional) civil war, during which armies on both sides ravaged the wildlife, sometimes going on killing sprees and decimating the large mammals, especially elephants. Wildlife is also being destroyed by a severe drought and – the general message of the novel – by the growing demands of a spiralling population.

2. Ordinary bloke hero Colin Tait, a freelance TV producer/director, is in Kenya to attend a conference of wildlife activists. Sort of interesting though this is, he harbours an ambition to travel north to Lake Rudolf to confirm descriptions he’s read in an unpublished manuscript given him by his publisher uncle, of a mountain littered with ancient buildings, where pottery has been found depicting a pyramid hill capped with buildings, indications of one of the earliest cultures in the world, the so-called rock pyramid of Porr.

3. Mysterious, older figure who bears a secret The classic example is Captain Patch from The Wreck of The Mary Deare who keeps secret from the narrator for 250 pages the fact that his ship didn’t sink as everyone thinks, but that he beached it to keep it as evidence of company embezzlement and fraud. Here the mysterious older figure is Cornelius van Delden, a legendary Africa hand, tall, white-haired, an expert on Kenyan wildlife and environments, nicknamed Tembo. He is virtually banned in this fictional Kenya for speaking out against the government’s acquiescence in the mass murder of wildlife by their troops during the war and by the runaway population, and so he makes a lightning appearance at the conference before disappearing in a well-arranged stunt. Eventually the entire novel turns into his quixotic quest to save the area’s last wild elephants from hunters, aided – or witnessed – by Colin and American TV journalist, Abe Finkel.

4. The curse of the past For a writer so at home with the modern world of travel magazines, international flights, with the minutiae of business law and practice, and capable of inspiring descriptions of physical activity, Innes’ plots almost all feature a heavy Gothic sense of doomed family relationships. Here we learn that the environmentalist van Delden was once best friends and business partner of Alex Kirby-Smith, but whereas the former has gone into sharp criticism of the government, the latter has allied with the same government, seeing it as the best way to moderate its excesses and regulate surviving wildlife, also setting up a fleet of meat freezing trucks to capitalise on his hunting activities, and generally exposing himself to accusations of being a heartless butcher.

5. Woman, carrier of the past Van Delden has a daughter, Mary, who loves him but also gets drunk and cries about how he was never around when she was small, was always disappearing off into the bush, animals more important than her or her mother etc. Tait, as so many Innes’ protagonists, finds himself attracted to this strong-minded, tough woman (and eventually, on page 250, they do have wild sex during a thunderstorm on a mountain), but she is, as so often, heir to a twisted family legacy. For half way through the book she reveals that she is in fact Kirby-Smith’s daughter. Van Delden’s wife had an affair with his best friend, impregnating her, though it was van Delden who brought Mary up and who she spent her childhood calling father. No wonder she becomes very upset as the rivalry between the two men becomes more intense.

In fact, everyone has ‘a past’, as the book reveals that Colin’s parents committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, and he was raised by an uncle in the publishing trade, and routinely bullied at school for having no parents. And Abe Finkel, who he teams up with, reveals half way through that his reason for abandoning the journalistic mission he was on, is that his wife recently died of cancer, making him realise, if you don’t fulfil your dreams of roaming in the African bush now, when will you…?

6. Hesitation and miscommunication Presumably it’s intended to create tension, but on every page occurs Innes’ trademark technique of having more or less every conversation dominated by one or both sides turning away, stopping in mid-sentence, pausing, going silent, shrugging or hesitating. It creates the sense that everyone knows something they’re not telling. Intended to create ‘suspense’ and tension, it risks leaving the reader frustrated and irritated.

On one level there is a ‘plot’ – when the other conference delegates catch the bus back to Nairobi airport, Tait, influenced by New York TV man Abe Finkel, decides to stay on, to see if there’s mileage in the van Delden story, but really planning to head north to Lake Rudolph, to the mysterious mount Kulal and the archaeological finds he’s read about in the old manuscript his uncle left him.

This sounds like it should be a dynamic situation, but on a page by page, paragraph by paragraph level, the text is made up instead of these endless deferrals, postponements and delays.

She gave a little shrug…I hesitated…He didn’t say anything after that…She didn’t answer. The silence was oppressive…After that we didn’t talk…Karanja hesitated…She shook her head…She was silent now…She didn’t answer…He didn’t say anything…He hesitated…He nodded uncertainly…He shrugged. ‘How the hell do I know? It’s just a feeling.’..’I don’t know. Maybe’…Karanja shook his head. ‘I don’t know’…He shrugged…He hesitated, staring up the road ahead…He was silent for a moment. the smile gone. Then he gave a quick little shrug…Abe asked, ‘Any game left?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he said, uncertainly…Murphy hesitated…Abe gave a little shrug…He hesitated…Van Delden shook his head. ‘Who knows?’…Van Delden shook his head…Karanja hesitated, then he shrugged…He shook his head…I shook my head…She was silent for a moment…She gave a little shrug…I hesitated…I shook my head, not wanting to talk about it…Kirby-Smith hesitated..I shook my head…But Karanja shook his head…Her gaze went back to the mountains and she was silent for a long time…She hesitated…She shrugged…

On one page, 156 in the Fontana paperback edition, Colin and Abe are asking their tracker, previously a van Delden associate, where van Delden must be hiding out and every paragraph starts this way: ‘Karanja shrugged… Karanja didn’t answer…Karanja shook his head again…Karanja was silent…Karanja hesitated…He was suddenly silent…Karanja hesitated…staring urgently at Abe, who didn’t say anything for a long time…’

On the very next page, Mary joins Abe and Colin and asks whether they think van Delden shot the Africans (see below): ‘…Silence was the only answer I could give her…I didn’t say anything…She was silent for a moment…her voice trembling into silence…She was silent for a while…I sat there, silent, not knowing what to say…’

Though they’re meant to be adventure books and are set in adventurous locations and feature violent and tragic incidents, the actual page-by-page experience of reading a Hammond Innes book is often of stasis and paralysis.

7. Participle clauses There is another mannerism or part of Innes’ style perhaps worth commenting on, his tendency to write sentences which – after an active first clause – have two or three dependent clauses containing no active verb, but instead participles (generally the present participle or the past participle) or no verb form at all.

Short simple examples are obviously designed to create breathless excitement.

We waited, crouched in the gulley, listening. (p.166)

The elephants had all swung round, trunks weaving, seeking the new source of danger. (p.191)

And the effect can be strung out over longer distances:

Evergreens and patches of thick impenetrable bush, the boles of tall trees, twisted ropes of lianas, and my heart pounding as we climbed, following the beam of Karanja’s torch. (p.163)

But longer, slower sentences using this structure crop up throughout the novel, creating a particular effect which I can’t quite put my finger on.

I didn’t answer [main verb], suddenly aware of her reaching out [present participle clause], her hand on my arm [no-verb clause], pulling me down beside her [present participle clause]. (p.249)

Two possible interpretations occur to me – pictorial and static. Pictorial The main clause with the main verb introduces the sentence, and then the successive clauses, lacking an active verb, are like pictures, images, stills – as in a slideshow.

We were heading [main verb] across country in a more northerly direction, our speed gradually increasing [present participle], patches of soft sand, the scrub thicker and more trees [no verb]. (p.204)

From where we stood in the back of our truck we could see the flat expanse of the makeshift airstrip, scrub and boulders piled along the line of its single runway, and beyond it the thicker bush that marked the line of the lugga, acacias with flattened tops, and further still the greener growth spilling from the low arms of the mountains, the Horr Valley a sharp gash between cedar-dark slopes and the sky beginning to take on colour, the first rose tints of the rising sun. (p.139)

We were climbing now, the land sloping gently upward, the heat increasing rapidly. (p.180)

Static Or, conversely, the lack of active verbs – their replacement with verbless clauses – sometimes adds to the sense of stasis and paralysis created by the endless silences and hesitations of the characters.

I sat on by the fire for a while, smoking a last cigarette and listening to the stillness. (p.110)

the present participles – ‘smoking’ and ‘listening’ – embodying the static lingering of the sitting. Or:

The argument went on for several minutes while we sat there motionless, the engine throbbing and the heat trapped in the valley. (p.111)

where the second clause gives a kind of sensual amplification of the first part, so that you can hear the engine ticking over, feel the prickliness of the African heat.

Nobody spoke, van Delden sitting silent and withdrawn, the three Africans squatting round the embers, a stillness settling on the land. (p.283)


The plot

Abe Finkel persuades Colin to stay on after the conference is over. The army officials who supervised the conference and all the delegates’ travel let them travel north on the understanding they are going to link up with Kirby-Smith’s troop who are carrying out a cull. But a pilot they chatted to saw a small camp off west of the road and here they find van Delden and three loyal African beaters/shooters, who promptly commandeer their Land Rover. A little later Colin and Abe are picked up by an army patrol of surly Africans and driven on to the Kirby-Smith camp.

Here Kirby-Smith says you’re welcome to watch and film a modern culling – and so there is a sickening description of him and his men in Land Rovers and trucks corralling half a dozen elephants into a clearing where they are shot down in seconds – and their corpses then set on by the soldiers, quickly joined by truckloads of locals (who are suffering from the drought and almost starving) who hack the dead animals to pieces.

It was the sort of scene cameramen dream about, nomadic tribesmen, hunters with guns, and elephants being hacked to pieces, blood everywhere. Close-ups of men, half-naked, armed with spears and knives, dark skins stretched over staring rib cages, faces drawn and shrivelled looking, of dead elephants, of tusks and meat, of Kirby-Smith, the great white hunter, firing at a warrior with his red cloak flung back, his sleek ochred hair coming loose in coils like snakes and his knife flashing. (p.145)

The next day, the cullers head out to another location to intercept another herd but, just as the elephants come into view, warning shots are fired which make the herd turn and escape, then one of the Kirby-Smith trucks explodes in flames, burning to a crisp the Africans inside. An appalled Colin is forced to agree with Kirby-Smith and Abe’s assessment that the men in it were shot dead, then the petrol tank ignited, by van Delden and his renegades. Van Delden has crossed the line and, in his bid to defend animals, has himself become a murderer. This is the context for Mary’s agonised confession that she is Kirby-Smith’s daughter but raised by van Delden and so caught between the two enemies.

In fact Mary begs Colin and Abe slip away from their army minders and go warn Van Delden that K-S and the army will now hunt him down and kill him, and so they persuade the African scout, Karanja, to take them to an old poacher’s hideout where they think van Delden might be lurking. And so they set off on what turns into the prolonged trek which will dominate the rest of the book. Briefly they scramble through scrub, up slopes, through forest, scared by wildlife, with vivid descriptions of the landscape, the nightscape, the animals and so on.

Van Delden appears out of the darkness and takes Colin and Abe under his wing, travelling with him and his scouts in pursuit of the next group of elephants. There’s an encounter with Kirby-Smith where they interrupt his trailing of another group of elephants, commandeering his Land Rover and smashing his rifle. Now their rivalry has turned into outright hatred. Mary had been in the vehicle. Van Delden makes her choose: are you walking back with Kirby-Smith or coming with us? In fact, he bundles her into the Rover as it sets off, and so she is now part of the small team.

Colin, Abe, van Delden and his pair of scouts drive on across the bush, passing through varieties of landscape allowing Innes descriptive faculties full rein. Whenever they camp and eat and talk, conversation turns to how to help the elephants survive and, increasingly, speculation as to why so many of the groups they’re coming across are travelling north, away from the overpopulated plains, towards the bleaker landscape around Lake Rudolph. Can elephants communicate? Do they know it is safer up there? Can they sense and communicate more than humans are aware of?

Van Delden goes off with one of the scouts, leaving Colin, Abe, Mary and Karanja to trek up the side of the mysterious mount Kalula (although there are not one but two maps showing the routes of these journeys, I found it impossible to follow their paths, and the text is quite vague about which bit of savannah, scrub, forest, desert, lava bed, river, hillside or mountain they are scrambling over at any particular point). Abe is experiencing increasingly visionary episodes, at one point almost going off on his own to defend a troop of elephants from the pursuing hunters, though talked out of it by Colin.

This mountain, Kulal, within thirty miles of Lake Rudolph, is setting to the climax of the novel: beyond it is where all the elephant groups seem to be heading. At its foot is an abandoned missionary building and it is here, on the edge of a steep gorge, that van Delden leaves them, promising to return once he’s found the elephants.

Later they hear engines and realise an army patrol is approaching, and quickly slip out of the back of the building and into the foothills of Mount Kulal, climbing quickly through low forest into the mist. After hours of climbing, they get to a sort of shelter among the rocks and spend the night. Here the group split up, Abe going with the tracker Dima, downstream towards the plain and the lake, while Colin and Mary go with Karanja up the sides of the mountain; as they near the peak a violent storm breaks out and it is here, in a rock shelter, that Mary suddenly offers herself to Colin and the simmering tension between the two is lanced in a feverish act of love-making (p.249).

Climbing higher they come upon a confusion of jagged volcanic spikes and gulleys and realise this can’t be the inhabited mountain top of the old account. Maybe it is on top of Mount Porr, thirty miles to the north and west…

Descending the mountain they hear a human cry and come upon Abe badly injured. He was with Kanjara when a cow elephant came to a nearby waterhole and Abe couldn’t resist sneaking really close to take photos. Something alarmed the cow who bellowed and its nearby calf came thundering out of the bush and trampled over Abe. He has a badly broken arm and cuts to the head. Kanjara, Colin and Mary help him down the rest of the mountain and to the shores of Lake Rudolph. That night, as they camp round a fire by the lakeside, van Delden appears out of the darkness. They learn that he and his scout have disabled the plane Kirby-Smith was using, sneaking up on it as the pilot worked on it, and have stolen another army truck. Not popular.

Karanja deserts them to go contact an army patrol. He returns saying he’s made a deal, van Delden to be flown out, a nature reserve set up, Karanji in charge of it. But none of this seems real compared with the stillness of the vast lake, the flamingos in the shallows, the elephants plodding silently to the shore, the immense primitiveness of the setting which Innes conveys as the characters stay awake most of the night knowing the next day will bring the inevitable Showdown the whole narrative has been building towards.

Van Delden drops Mary and the injured Abe where they can walk, or stagger, back the Mission, then returns with his scouts and Colin to the culling zone. Here trucks appear to scare a herd of elephants hidden in the forest out into the open; they emerge and there is a moment’s pause as the Land-Rovers containing their killers approach, then they go wild, trumpeting and attacking the vehicles. Abe makes a last, mad attempt to intercede, to change their direction and Mary comes running to his help and to my surprise both are trampled to death by the elephants who go on to rampage through the hunters’ vehicles, killing and goring many men, themselves losing many to rifle shots before breaking off the attack and lumbering towards the lake.

In the aftermath van Delden and an injured Kirby-Smith confront each other over Mary’s dead body while a disbelieving Colin looks on. Karanja appears and has now secured what he wanted ever since we first met him at the conference, power and authority – the minister who van Delden humiliated at the conference has been replaced and Karanji made Warden of a new wildlife sanctuary of the north: Karanji orders Kirby-Smith to suspend the cull; van Delden’s elephants are safe.

The small group bury Mary and Abe, building a cairn over their bodies. As night falls Colin falls asleep at their camp, exhausted. In the morning he wakes to see the small figure of van Delden paddling the primitive raft they found by the lake, north, towards the elephants. Karanji stands with the other African scouts: they will give Colin a lift back to civilisation, and 12 hours later he is back in London, unable to believe everything he has experienced and felt, determined to write this account of his strange adventure.

Nature writing

Innes is not what I’d call a prose poet. He doesn’t have the magical way with words of a Chandler or Cruz Smith. But, unlike a thriller writer like, say, Desmond Bagley (who also wrote a novel set in Africa, Juggernaut) he goes out of his way to provide descriptions of animals and, especially, of natural landscapes and changing times of day. These are, I think, most effective when Innes is in his beloved environment, the sea, but there are numerous attempts in this novel to convey the immediacy of the African scene, and of the elephants which dominate the story.

We pushed on, silent again, walking in a pale, cool light that was the interregnum between night and day. But it was brightening all the time and then suddenly the sun pushed a great shield of burnished red up into the eastern sky, and instantly the land flared with colour. From the flat sepia of desert gravel it turned to a dried blood hue in which everything glistened with light, scrub and thorn and skittering birds all brilliant with the great red glow of heat to come. It was fantastic, breathtaking… (p.180)

Save elephants, save the environment

Innes presumably intended this whole novel as propaganda, warning of the consequences of unchecked population growth in developing countries and the disastrous impact on wildlife. 40 years later I, like most people, I think, take it for granted that we are poisoning the seas, wiping out most large mammals as well as countless other species, and that it is too late to prevent catastrophic global warming.

Therefore, this novel seems like a memory of a more innocent age, the 1970s, when writers and the educated middle classes founded environmental pressure groups (World Wide Fund for Nature founded 1961, Friends of the Earth founded 1969, Greenpeace founded 1971) and thought there was something they could do to protect wildlife and the environment…

[Karanja] was staring out to the darkness of the gorge and after a moment he said, ‘Is part of our heritage and one day, maybe, I live to see those same elephants crossing Kulal again, but going the other way, going south into the lands they live in when I am young man, going to protected areas where the world can see them again. Quiet, dignified elephants living in peace and rearing their calves. Not fleeing half-starved and in terror, charging everywhere.’ He shook his head, smiling to himself. ‘Is a dream maybe, but that is what I hope.’ (p.247)

Related links

Hardback cover of The Big Footprints showing Mary van Delden in front of a big elephant, with the image of her father superimposed on the elephant's ear

Hardback cover of The Big Footprints showing Mary van Delden in front of a big elephant, with the image of her father superimposed on the elephant’s ear

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.

Celts: art and identity @ The British Museum

The key words in this exhibition are ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘might’ and ‘may’. The most important single fact about the ‘Celts’ is that they were illiterate: they wrote nothing down. All we have is the relatively small number of artifacts they left behind and the scattered – often unreliable – references in texts by the literate Greeks and Romans. This means that almost every sentence on the wall panels and the exhibit labels was hedged around with ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’.

The second most important fact which emerges from this exhibition is that the word ‘Celt’ is loaded more with political, historical and cultural, than with racial, ethnic or archaeological, meanings. We know very little about the peoples we label ‘Celts’, who were in fact a diverse group of tribes and peoples – a ‘mosaic of communities’ – that inhabited Europe north of the Alps – a vast area stretching from Geneva to the Outer Hebrides – from around 500 BC until, well, when do you end the period? With the arrival of the Romans around 50 BC? Of the Angles and Saxons 500 AD? Of the Vikings 800 AD? Of the Normans in 1066?

By contrast with the obscurity of the historical record, most use of the word ‘Celt’ nowadays is dominated by the meanings it has acquired in the struggle for identity by nationalist movements of modern times (since the industrial revolution, say, roughly 1800) in countries like Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and in regions like Cornwall and Brittany.

In fact, from its use by the ancient Greeks to refer to people living ‘outside’ their literate Mediterranean culture, to its use by 20th century nationalists to distinguish themselves as ‘outsiders’ from the English Empire, the function of the word has always been to indicate difference.

It is this confusion between what the archaeological record shows us the people who lived in this area were actually like from 500 BC to 1000 AD – and the stories, legends and wishful thinking that writers, poets, politicians and myth-makers have concocted about them in the last couple of hundred years, that the exhibition seeks to untangle.

1. Pagan history 500 BC to 500 AD

The exhibition says (rather vaguely) that around 500 BC the people referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps. The term Keltoi was first used by the ancient Greeks but it isn’t a Greek word. Where exactly these people came from, and why, and what they believed and what language(s) they spoke, are challenging questions which this exhibition doesn’t really answer as clearly as you’d like.

The Glauberg statue, Holzgerlingen, Baden-Wüttemberg, Germany 500 – 400 BC. Sandstone; H 2.30 m. Wüttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.

The Glauberg statue, Holzgerlingen, Baden-Wüttemberg, Germany 500 – 400 BC. Sandstone; H 2.30 m. Wüttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart. 1848,1

The Celts were pagans (although this is another word coined by Latin Christians to indicate ‘outsiders’ from their literate Mediterranean faith) and their paganism endured into the centuries when the Romans expanded across the Alps to the borders of the Danube and the Rhine and came into increasing contact with them. In encountering Celtic peoples the Romans recorded their lifestyles and culture, though in shreds and patches, sometimes exaggerating or basing their statements on rumour and hearsay.

As you would expect, there is a lot of detailed scholarship on display here, for example noting the subtle influence of Romano-Greek design on Celtic artefacts, as the Celts inevitably traded with the encroaching Romans and learned to incorporate imagery associated with the Empire. But it is the inexplicable, mysterious artifacts, the ones from the dark unexplored lands, which bespeak unknown religions, unknown beliefs, which gripped me.

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Maybe the wonderful Gundestrup Cauldron (‘the largest known example of European Iron Age silver work’) records the exploits of a hero as full of legend as Herakles. Maybe each panel records one of his famous adventures. The faces glaring from the inner panels are ‘probably’ gods. The cauldron as a whole was ‘probably’ reserved for important rituals. We don’t know. In fact the cauldron was discovered as disassembled plates and there is debate to this day about whether it has been reconstructed with the plates in the right order.

This lack of certainty, the prevalence of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’, was typified by a panel explaining the provenance of some treasure found in Lake Neufchâtel in Switzerland. These artifacts probably once lined a walkway out into the lake and they probably fell into the lake as the walkway decayed – though, the panel almost sheepishly adds, they might also have been a deliberate sacrifice to a water god. We don’t know.

So sparse is our information that the wall labels and commentary are sometimes forced back on rather obvious generalisations: The Celts liked feasting, which was probably the focus of their social life. The Celts probably worshiped an array of gods and revered nature. The Celts were a warlike race and the warrior had high status in their culture. Well, which ancient cultures is this not true of?

The Battersea Shield. Bronze, glass. Found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England, 350-50 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Battersea Shield. Bronze, glass. Found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England, 350-50 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

In our islands the key dates are Julius Caesar’s first expeditions (55-54 BC) and the commentary he wrote on his Gallic Wars with the north European Celts in what would later become France. Then came the Emperor Claudius’s conquest of 43 AD which led to the 400-year colonisation of the island the Romans named Britannia, their rule eventually stretching as far as the borders with Wales and with the highlands of Scotland. Famously, the Romans never colonised Hibernia, Ireland.

Whereas the Celtic natives lived in farms, villages or small hillforts, the Romans brought towns, cities even, stone buildings, straight roads. The administrative system they set up across England lasts to this day, whereas in the Celtic ‘fringes’ and in Ireland, it never penetrated. Largely obliterated by the Roman colonisation in continental Europe, ‘Celtic’ identity survived in these fringes. Hence artifacts found from these areas show the true Celtic strangeness lingering on long after the Romans had been and gone.

Tully Lough Cross. Wood, bronze. Tully Lough, north-west Ireland, AD 700–900. © National Museum of Ireland

Tully Lough Cross. Wood, bronze. Tully Lough, north-west Ireland, AD 700–900. © National Museum of Ireland

Torcs

The most characteristic artifact from ‘Celtic’ culture seems to have been the ‘torc’ and there are scores of them on display here. Torcs are large metal neck rings, sometimes made from a solid block of metal, more often from exquisitely spun and woven strands of precious metal. In recent years a number of archaeological finds, including the Snettisham hoard and the Blair Drummond hoard, have revealed hundreds of torcs, in a breath-taking variety of shapes and sizes, making us as confident as we can be that they were a common feature of Celtic life.

The Blair Drummond torcs. Blair Drummond, Stirling 300-100 BC. Gold; D of loop-terminal torc 15 cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

The Blair Drummond torcs. Blair Drummond, Stirling 300-100 BC. Gold; D of loop-terminal torc 15 cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh. 1968.L

The exhibition refers to the famous Greek sculpture called The Dying Gaul, showing a wounded Gaulish warrior naked except for a torc. The Greek historian Polybius described the wearing of torcs by the gaesatae, Celtic warriors from northern Italy, who fought at the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC. Torcs have been found at scores of locations across Europe and maybe 50 are on display here, the two obvious conclusions being:

a) they came in an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes, some massive and clunky, most of really exquisite craftsmanship
b) they must have been extremely uncomfortable and impractical to wear.

Bronze age bling.

How did Celtic art evolve?

Despite the wealth of scholarly information on display, I found myself becoming a little confused about Celtic art as the exhibition progressed. On the one hand there are images as raw and primitive, as unsymmetrical and crude, as the faces and animals on the Gundestrup cauldron, along with some of the earliest statues and figurines (eg the Glauberg statue, above) which resonate a great sense of virility and pagan power. These reminded me very much of the similar pagan, northern imagery in the Museum’s fabulous Viking exhibition.

But at some point there began to emerge alongside this the style that we nowadays think of as ‘classic Celtic art’ – characterised by beautifully crafted geometric shapes with complex interwoven patterns, the weaving lines often ending in animal heads, like birds of prey; or just wonderfully intricate, ordered patterns designed to fill the interstices of sword hilts, crosses, brooches, helmets.

Leaving me puzzled: so what is Celtic art? The pagan figures or the intricate craftsmanship? And if it’s both, it would have been good to have the process by which the classic patterns evolved more completely and explicitly explained (as far as possible).

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburght.1968.L

In fact, revisiting the exhibition to go over these objects more carefully, I noted:

  • In the bronze anklets and chariot fittings and shield bosses and some of the torcs a kind of bulbous, spherical decoration was far more characteristic of ‘Celtic’ art and for centuries before the knot motifs appeared – eg the spheres on the Roissy Dome, France, 300-200 BC, or this bronze hohlbuckelring from Plaňany in the Czech Republic (3rd century BC) . Referring to textbooks, I discover this bulbousness is characteristic of the ‘Plastic’ era of Celtic art in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, something not mentioned in the exhibition.
  • The torcs – by common consent the most widespread Celtic artifact – feature corkscrew, pearl, filigree and ‘crown’ designs but – strikingly – few if any of them display the so-called ‘Celtic knot’ patterns.
  • When the knot, the classic ‘Celtic’ design emerges, as in the Hunterston brooch, above – it is very late, well into the early middle ages, around 700 AD: as evidenced in objects like the St Chad gospels, the brooches or the contemporary bell shrine of St Cuileáin.

2. Christian history 500-1000 AD

The Romans abandoned us in 410 (as Gildas is quoted, plaintively lamenting) and after a confused period the Angles and Saxons and Jutes began arriving from 450 onwards. The Venerable Bede tells the story of the conversion to Christianity of each of the Saxon kingdoms in turn until the whole island was christianised by around 700. From late in this period date the enormous Celtic crosses, with their characteristic circle at the crux, and the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of bibles and psalters at the numerous monasteries and abbeys being founded across the land.

There are three or four mighty crosses here, towering over the visitor, and glass cases containing beautifully illuminated bibles. It is a powerful and distinctive style, but it is obviously Christian: how can it be said to be a continuation of the pagan primitivism of the cauldron? It looks completely different.

Cross-slab, Monifeith, Angus AD 700-800, stone; L 26 cm, W 30 cm, T 9cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

Cross-slab, Monifeith, Angus AD 700-800, stone; L 26 cm, W 30 cm, T 9cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

How does the figure with reindeer horns relate to the geometric patterning of the crosses and psalters? It seemed to me that it is only us, thousands of years later, who call both the primitive pre-Christian art ‘Celtic’ and the big stone crosses ‘Celtic’, it is we who group these peoples from all over Europe and across the immensely long period from 500 BC to the Norman Conquest, together into one cultural identity. I felt unsure whether we really are justified in doing so…


3. Cultural creation

The second half of the exhibition (art and identity) tells the story – or snapshots of the story – of how Celtic identity was created and shaped over the last couple of hundred years, resulting in the powerful sense of identity and nationhood felt in our time by the Scots and Welsh and Irish.

Apparently the word ‘Celt’ is recorded in no English text before 1600. The etymological dictionary says:

c. 1600, from Latin Celta, singular of Celtae, from the Greek Keltoi, Herodotus’ word for the Gauls (who also were called Galatai). Used by the Romans of continental Gauls but apparently not of the British Celtic tribes. Originally in English in reference to ancient peoples; extension to their modern descendants is from mid-19th century.

Aha, the mid-19th century, that’s the clue – when the industrious Victorians were recording, measuring, categorising and classifying everything in sight – animals, languages, stars, peoples – and cooking up all sorts of theories about race and language and ethnicity.

The exhibition shows interest in things Celtic and pre-Roman beginning to warm up in the 18th century: In 1757 Thomas Gray wrote a long poem about The Bard which prompted various artistic depictions. In the Tate Britain exhibition Fighting History there are several paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries showing highly romanticised scenes ‘from ancient British life’. It is emblematic – or typical – that one of the most influential texts glamorising Celtic life – the cycle of epic poems supposedly narrated by and featuring the hero Ossian, and published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson – later turned out to be fakes. A great deal of fake heroism and sentimentality is entangled with Celtic nationalism from the start.

But the revelation they were forgeries didn’t stop the Ossian poems having a huge influence in the creation of images of stirring, heroic, pre-Christian heroes, not only throughout these islands but far into continental Europe. Why? Because their time had arrived. People were looking for things wild and primitive and untamed.

The Romantic Movement represented a deepening of this moor, a continuation and broadening of interest in all things anti-modern, anti-industry, anti-mercantile, roaming over old poems, ‘native’ traditions, wild mountain landscapes, in search of what began to be seen as the purer, somehow more authentic, cultures of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

With typical efficiency the Victorians set about measuring, mapping, defining and categorising all things Celtic and the central part of this second section shows how supposedly ‘Celtic’ traditions were captured in Victorian oil paintings, poems and even in the ‘revival’ of ‘Celtic’ rituals and traditions, which were often invented for the purpose.

The Welsh Eisteddfod was founded in 1861 and the exhibition shows photos of the first event, detailing how robes for the ‘druid’ and ‘high priest’ were designed, along with a Celtic Welsh harp, a sword and other ceremonial paraphernalia. In Scotland, traditions surrounding characteristically Celtic dress, such as the Scottish kilt, were formalised.

Along with the creation of Celtic traditions went the complex relationship between the genuine beliefs of the practitioners, and the discovery that ‘Celtic’ means money: where the poets led, the tourists followed, coming on early package tours round ‘Sir Walter Scott’s highlands’, buying up tea towels and genuine ‘Celtic’ ornaments. If their Celtic identities have been a rallying cry for ardent nationalists in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, they have also been good copy for hoteliers, tour operators, gifte shoppe owners and whisky manufacturers.

‘Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts’ by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald. c.1894. Lithograph: ink on paper; 236 x 102 cm. Printer: Carter & Pratt, Glasgow. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

‘Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts’ by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald. c.1894. Lithograph: ink on paper; 236 x 102 cm. Printer: Carter & Pratt, Glasgow. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

Some of this material feels stretched to be included: The exhibition argues for the art nouveau of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his associates as being influenced by, or related to, those tall stone Celtic crosses. Maybe, though the debt to the elongated, lily patterns of European Jugendstil is surely more important.

More obviously showing ‘classic’ Celtic design are the umpteen medievalising paintings of the pre-Raphaelites and their Arts and Crafts heirs, a sample of which are on display here. But this isn’t because these artists were influenced by Celtic patterns, it’s because they’re depicting them, as appropriate trappings to their wildly romantic images of the era. (Hence the accurate depiction of the famous Battersea shield which the third rider in John Duncan’s painting is carrying.)

The Riders of the Sidhe. Tempera on canvas. John Duncan, 1911. © Dundee City Council (Dundee's Art Galleries and Museums)

The Riders of the Sidhe. Tempera on canvas. John Duncan, 1911. © Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums)

The last room of the exhibition is meant to be a celebration of modern Celtic identity, with a big video screen showing scenes of happy Celts dancing in kilts, strumming harps, blowing bagpipes and so on. Next to them is a display supposedly showing how interpenetrated contemporary culture is by ‘Celtic’ designs, and containing a copy of Asterix and the Picts, books of Celtic patterns to colour in or use as tattoos, to prove it. We are in every way in a very different world from the mystery and darkness of the pagan beginning, a less interesting world, the modern world. Next stop, the gift shop.

Conclusion

The first part of the exhibition brought together a lot of artifacts but failed, for me, to really nail down what Celtic art was or is. The wonderful war-horn or carnyx, the cauldron and some of the torcs made you feel close to these obscure people, but an impenetrable mystery remains – we don’t know what they spoke or thought or did or believed. And the exhibition didn’t tell a coherent narrative – something I’d dearly like to understand – of how the geometric patterns we all think of as Celtic, came about. Where are they first recorded? When? How did they change over time? How did the strictly mathematical patterns emerge from the cruder hand designs?

The second part, the cultural creation of the Celts, felt (rather like the Greek beauty exhibition) as if it was taking on too much: the creation of national myths of Scotland, Wales and Ireland is a vast subject, or series of subjects, too big, too complex, too fraught and often tragic, to be dealt with so sketchily.

Photos from the early Eisteddfods, of nationalist murals in Northern Ireland namechecking the legendary Irish hero Cú Chulainn, video footage of girls in kilts and men playing bagpipes – this doesn’t scratch the surface of how important the myth of a Celtic heritage is to modern-day Scots, Welsh and Irish and has been in British – and colonial – politics for centuries. Surely there are national museums of Scotland, Wales and Ireland which do this, in the necessary detail, and really well.

I think this British Museum exhibition would have been more powerful, more lasting, if it had stopped around the Norman Conquest, ditched the Celtic Revival kitsch, and instead dug deeper into those earlier, Iron Age aspects of Celtic life: instead of putting coins or cups from Switzerland next to ones from Suffolk and Romania, I’d like to have seen the vast continent of Europe broken down a bit more into regions and the story followed through in each of these areas.

Instead of a section telling me the Celts were warriors or the Celts liked feasting, I’d have preferred detailed accounts of the Celts of the Rhineland or of the Highlands, drilling down much closer to the actual course of events in each region, showing the uniqueness of the art and artefacts, the archaeological and historical record from that place, following what it seemed to mean to be a ‘Celt’ as closely as we can from the start of the period, through the encounters with the Roman Empire, and on into the christianisation of the 6th and 7th centuries.

This exhibition is full of marvellous, inspiring, mysterious and beautiful objects. I think I’d have got much more from it if they had been placed in a more deeply investigated and thoroughly explained historical and geographical context.

Related links

  • Celts: art and identity @ The British Museum continues until 31 January 2016
  • Celts: Art and Identity (book) on Amazon The book of the exhibition does give a detailed account of the historical development of the various Celtic styles – the so-called Early, Plastic, Sword, Mirror styles and so on – and explains more clearly that what we think of as the Celtic ‘interlacing’ pattern a) only appeared well after the Romans had left, in what is called the ‘Insular Fusion’ style b) isn’t Celtic at all, but an import from Roman and Germanic art. The exhibition is like edited highlights of the much more thorough account in the book.

Solomon’s Seal by Hammond Innes (1980)

He turned then, facing me reluctantly, his features crumpled by the intensity of the emotions that gripped him. He mumbled something, gripping hold of my arm, but the sound of his voice was lost in the crash of a wave. (p.140)

Roy Slingsby is a typical Innes protagonist, a decent, averagely honest man plunged into a bizarre adventure in a colourful foreign land. The book is carefully divided into five parts, but the following are my own divisions, based on the imaginative settings or backdrops which dominate.

Part one – East Anglia

Roy is 40, he’s knocked about a bit, skippered landing craft as part of his National Service, keeps a run-down sailing boat on the Suffolk coast and makes a so-so living as a contents valuer for an estate agent. A chance call leads him to a routine valuation of the now-empty home in Aldeburgh of one Tim Holland, a man about his own age who became seriously ill while working in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, came home to recuperate but is so poorly he’s been placed in a nursing home.

Roy is shown round by his sister, Perenna Holland, who had been looking after Tim. She is not only attractive but peculiar, showing an unusual interest in the grotesque and frightening native artifacts around the house and then revealing that her brother is suffering from a curse cast by a witch doctor among the islands. If only she could find the man who did it, she would… she would… Roy is startled by her belief in primitive magic and by her anger. Turns out there is one other sibling, Jona, who owns and runs an ex-army landing craft which he uses to trade around the islands.

Roy drives away from this innocuous-looking farmhouse in the flat Suffolk countryside, his mind fired by images of foreign lands, savage customs, the hot sun, the tang of the ocean.

In another plot strand Roy had been advising one of the firm’s clients about a farm in far away Australia. The client now wants to sell up, would Roy – a trusted agent for the firm in their English business – fly out and handle the sale, all expenses paid? In almost the same breath Roy’s employers make it plain he will never be made a partner of their firm and he has a stand-up row with the boss before walking out. Yes, he rings the client to say, yes, he’ll take the Australia job: please arrange the flights, tickets, hotels, tell the agent, the man on the ground who’s been running the farm, that he’ll be coming.

This first section is dominated by the mystery of a pair of old stamp albums Roy noted among the Suffolk house’s contents and which, being a bit of a collector himself, he knew who to pass onto for an assessment. To his surprise the expert says it contains the die for some rare stamps and the whole thing looks like a collection assembled by someone designing new stamps for a colony in the south seas. (The expert is himself a sailor; the scene where they meet aboard the expert’s boat are described with typical Innes gusto for the drift and smell and bob of the water.) The expert arranges a provisional sale and forwards the money to Perenna.

But here there is more complication, for it appears she has left the house – Roy drives there to find it stripped bare and a bonfire of most of its contents, old letters and photos – and some worryingly bizarre artifacts, arrows and barbed knives, carved from wood and painted blood colour – in the garden. Perenna left a message with her solicitor that she has taken a job on a cruise liner, all monies to be sent to the address of her Southampton bank. (Innes’ novels are always studded with the precise details of work, the practical details of everyday life.)

Part two – Australia

Roy flies to Australia, familiarises himself with Sydney before flying to Brisbane and then is driven by the agent out to the farm he’s charged with selling, with the absurd name of Munnobungle (p.85), a dried-up wreck of a place. This only happens for a few pages but Innes packs into it the familiarity with the Australian terrain, and with no-nonsense outback Aussies, which characterised his great book set there, Golden Soak. Just reading about the red soil and the dusty shack and the flaking eucalyptus trees, was pure pleasure.

Roy concludes the deal quickly and returns to Sydney where he spends time tracking down the landing craft of Perenna’s brother, among the huge throng of ships in the harbour. Eventually he finds it, goes aboard to discover the brother, the captain, Jona, pretty drunk, the first mate unconscious in his cabin, the boat crewed by various surly blacks, natives of the Solomon Islands, a typically fraught, tense, male environment.

On the spot Jona offers him a job as crew member who will, when they get out to sea, be promoted to first officer, and Roy, having come all this way, accepts it. What is he doing? Well, he has no ties back in England, his return flight is open-ended, ever since meeting that lonely woman in an empty farmhouse in the flat Suffolk countryside he has been fired by her stories of strange seas and exotic lands. Why not? The next journey is to take some Haulpaks to Bougainville island, 500 miles north-east of Australia, sandwiched between the Solomon islands to the south and Papua New Guinea, of which it is formally part, to the north-west.

Part three – At sea

Once they set sail from Sydney, Roy is a new man, confidently taking his place at the helm and his watch among those of Jona and the first mate, Luke, confidently ordering the sullen black crew about their tasks, worried by the neglect and dirt he finds everywhere, standing up to the alcoholic first officer, Mac. Innes is at sea and his prose shows his total familiarity and spirited enjoyment of the situation.

Roy learns that the ship is scheduled to land at a beach along the coastline, to lower its ramp and let a couple of vehicles drive on board. He is suspicious of this little detour, of the crew’s behaviour, of Jona’s evasiveness. Something crooked is obviously going on, but how crooked? He bullies the Indian radio officer into sending a message to Perenna’s ship, for her attention, due to be docking about now. The rendezvous on the beach isn’t for a few days: can Perenna fly to Australia, then on to this location and join the boat? It will infuriate Jona; but it will fulfil Perenna’s dream of being reunited with her brother and of going back to the islands to find the man who cursed her brother and getting him to repeal the curse.

They reach the rendezvous on the coast of Queensland, beach the landing craft, lower the ramp and the two lorries are driven on board by their surly drivers, who go back down the ramp and into a waiting car and are driven off, the ramp is raised and the landing craft steams backwards and out to sea. When, at the end of his shift, Roy stumbles down the steep metal steps to his cramped cabin, he is amazed to find Perenna in his bed: she got his message, took the first flights and a car out to the meeting place, and paid the first driver to smuggle her aboard in one of the trucks.

She stays in Roy’s cabin for the first day and they find themselves having sex, but it is an uneasy relationship. Eventually she presents herself to Jona who is angry but can live with the situation. Roy and Perenna grow more suspicious about the contents of the crates which came aboard in the trucks. In a tense scene, in the middle of the night, eluding the watchful Buka native sailors, they break one open and discover it is full of guns and ammunition.

Somewhere along the line it is revealed that, when they were living in the islands, there was an outbreak of Cargo fever (related to the religion of Cargoism) and a force of Buka men, worked up into a frenzy, broke into Perenna’s house, hacked her mother to death in front of her and began to attack her, but she fought back with a kitchen cleaver, herself killing one native and driving the others off. Not without suffering a severe cut to the neck. a) Whenever Roy sees the scar he is reminded of this terrible incident b) it explains Perenna’s obsession with native beliefs and fear of violence.

I barely caught Perenna’s words as she said, ‘Are we all going to die – violently?’ Her eyes were wide and staring, full of fear – a fear that was inside her, part of her being. ‘Did he say anything about the curse?’ she said. (p.278)

Part four – the coup

They dock at Anewa Bay to unload the Haulpaks and trucks, and there is some classic Innes research as they are met by an engineer who shows them the extraordinary amount of development which has taken place in the past decade, with the construction of a power station by the Japanese which fuels a vast copper and silver mine up in the mountain as well as power for the new towns which have grown up around it.

Driving round that night, Roy and Perenna see a lorryful of Baku natives go into the District Governor’s office with machine guns. They drive to the nearest houses to call the police but all the phone lines are down. They drive to the huge mine to find the manager is on leave, but are witnesses as the rebels blow a key bridge in the road. Ditching the car, Perenna and Roy make it by foot down the mountainside to the port and to the landing craft, seeking safety from the coup, only to be captured at the last minute.

The coup president is a native named Sapuru but most of the practical details are being organised by Hans Holland, the red-haired cousin of Jona and Perenna, one of the tangled Holland clan. Apparently his father was killed, in his own house, by being surrounded by Colonel Holland, Perenna’s father, and a band of natives who fired flaming arrows into it, causing it to burn to the ground. This was during the war when all elements of Bougainville society were caught in the fighting between Japanese and the Allies: Hans’s father sided with the Japs and that was the reason given out for years why Colonel Holland killed him.

But throughout the book Roy has been learning there may be other reasons, that the twisted history of the Holland clan lies behind many mysteries.

Part five – the haunted house

Hans shows Roy that the landing craft is now full of captured police and local officials under armed guard of the gloating Baku natives, armed with the machine guns Jona smuggled in. Jona has drunk himself incoherent, therefore can Roy captain the ship up the coast of Bougainville to the smaller island of Buka, to drop them with the Buka Co-operative, the organisation of natives which is behind the coup. There they will be safe and can be held as hostages while Suparu negotiates independence with the Papua New Guinea authorities.

So there is some fine Innes writing describing sailing by night around a south Pacific island, marred for Roy, of course, by the extreme anxiety of the situation. Ever since he joined the landing craft relations have been rocky with its 60-year-old first officer, the alcoholic McAvoy, who is kept on by Jona because he served under Jona and Perenna’s father. Now Mac comes into his own as he hexes the Buka insurgent stationed on the bridge with a machine gun to guard Roy. Mac starts using the Buka language, babbling and gesticulating, hypnotising the guard just long enough to step forward and stab him in the guts with a long knife. Taking his machine gun he gets the horrified Roy to call the leader of the Buka men, the swaggering cocky Tualeg, up to the bridge where, with no preamble, Mac riddles his body with bullets.

Invoking the native beliefs in power and magic, Mac tells Roy to display Tualeg’s dead body on the bridge wing to the armed insurgents below. This he does with the result that the four or so insurgents simply drop their weapons, seeing their omnipowerful leader dead, and the hundred or so police and officials swarm up out of the hold and commandeer the ship. They tell Roy to continue steering it up towards the north coast, near to the airport. This they successfully storm and call for planes carrying troops from Papua New Guinea. This is the beginning of the end of the coup.

Meanwhile, Perenna, Mac and Roy, with a newly sober Jona, are recovering for this stressful adventure in the channel between Bougainville and Baku, close to the tiny island Madehas, home of the old Holland clan, location of the house built by Perenna’s grandfather and where her mother was slaughtered before her eyes. Old Mac takes Roy up there in the pouring rain, to enter the big, Gothic house, with its baronial fireplace and grand staircases, all fallen into rack and ruin now, old Mac speculating about the motives and purposes of the legendary figures, Red Holland, Black Holland, Colonel Holland, muddling them up with his adventures during the war, fighting against the Japs.

Mac shows him the house safe under the stairs, opens it and reveals whole sheets of Solomon seal stamps – the stamps whose die Roy discovered in the Suffolk house so long ago, as well as ‘the letter’, the one which drove the old Colonel into such a fury. He repeats the story that the Colonel was so fired up by it that he took his native troops and surrounded the log cabin of Red Holland, setting it aflame. He adds the detail that as the other natives fled, there was a single shot from the flaming house. Red shooting himself.

After returning to the landing craft, chewing things over with Perenna and Jona, and falling asleep, Roy is rudely awoken by the surprise appearance of Hans Holland. He is angry that old Mac stabbed his troops and released the police, but he thinks he can still make the coup work by driving trucks across the nearby airport, keeping the main plotters down in Anewa safe. But while they’re discussing it they hear the drone of planes flying overhead to land government (ie Papua New Guinea government) troops there. The cynical Australian who had been acting as Hans’s help and fixer says, ‘Well that’s that, then’. The coup will fail, Hans’s dreams of running a big shipping empire on behalf of the independent Bougainville organisation are in tatters.

Hans pulls a gun on Roy and insists he accompany him in a dinghy to the shore and then up the familiar path to the haunted house. Here – like many a doomed Innes character – Hans slumps in a chair and mutters fragments of the past, fragments the narrator (and the reader) struggles to put together. He is insistent on the letter, where is the letter? Has Roy shown the letter to Perenna? Again they discuss the complex fates of the Holland family but this time Roy tells him what Mac told him, about old Red shooting himself in the on-fire house.

Hans’ passion subsides and he tells Roy to get out, get out I tell you! Roy goes back down the path, catches the dinghy back to the landing craft and is wondering with Perenna what Hans will do now, how soon before police arrive to arrest him, whether he’ll get a life sentence etc, when one of the crew yells and points up the hill. The house is on fire, yes, flames are leaping up. And then they hear a single shot! History has repeated itself: Hans Holland has killed himself amid his own funeral pyre, just as his father did.

Jona, Perenna, Mac and Roy go up to the now burnt out house to find nothing but a pile of ashes and embers. Jona takes some, puts them in a tin and later carries out a formal burial at sea. Perenna and Roy wonder if Hans really was that depressed, or was it a ruse: has he faked his death and slipped away…?

Part six – savage customs

Jona receives radio orders from the police to sail back south to Anewa bay. Here there is an extraordinary scene, for Sapuru and the other failed coup men have barricaded themselves into one of the offices near the power station. They are surrounded by the armed police and NPG troops but themselves holding a number of white hostages. Standoff. They had been asking, demanding, the presence of Perenna, something to do with her father’s memory, with her influence.

And indeed Perenna consults with the leader of the Chimbu people who are surrounding the office. These native people are local to this place, the south of the island, unrelated to the Buka men from across the strait, and unhappy that their new-found prosperity, working up at the mine, is threatened.

Now they have stripped off their western clothes and painted their bodies with paint, lipstick, cosmetics, oil, whatever they can find, and similarly armed themselves with any weapons to hand, some have even made bows and arrows out of saplings.

Perenna counsels them to make a traditional show of strength outside the blockhouse and this is what they do, advancing and retreating and shouting their haka-like warrior chants. Finally the leader, Tagup, advances forward of his men and shouts for the coup leader, Sapuru, to come out and face him. And he does. Watched by police, army and the painted warriors the two men confer. And then Sapuru gives in and orders his men out, to lay down their arms, to release the hostages. The spirit has left him; he has no power. The coup is over. And later that evening Sapuru lays down and dies, all his strength, power and sorcery gone. It is at this moment, Perenna later finds out, that her brother Tim, back in England, long languishing under the curse of the sorcerer, at a stroke begins to show energy and life again.

Now, the whole coup, all the sailing about and adventures, gun running, shooting and midnight escapes are definitively, finally over, and Roy has a long shower and then sleeps for 12 hours in the lovely clean bed of a motel which the authorities find for him.

Part six – epilogue

Even the epilogue is complex.

The Holland shipping line Jona is arrested by the authorities but let off a gaol sentence for gun running because he pleaded ignorance, but more because of the key role played by his sister, Perenna, in the peaceful end of the coup. Nonetheless, his company turns out to be technically bankrupt. Roy flies to Australia and a) settles the sale of the Munnobungle ranch b) puts in time in Sydney drumming up custom for the last ship in the Holland line.

The Holland curse All the way through the book, on almost every page, running in parallel with the story of the gun running and the coup, has been the much deeper narrative concerning the Holland family and all the stories and rumours involving murder, incest, miscegenation and so on. While in the outback Roy travels to Cooktown to find the aborigine he’d heard about who is famous for killing one of the Hollands. He buys him a few drinks and wangles the story out of him, sort of, it’s still not totally clear.

In the late 1800s two adventurers tramping through the Australian outback came across a gold mine, which they named, because of their exhaustion, Dog Weary mine. One of them, Holland, took all the food and water and slipped away in the night to register the claim, leaving the other, Lewis, to die in the desert but Lewis didn’t die, he was found by aborigines who took him walkabout eventually returning him to ‘civilisation’. Here he discovered that Holland had used the money from the mine to set up a successful shipping line, the Holland line, with fine schooners and black and white photos of men in panama hats which were to find their way into Perenna’s house and the Madehas safe. Lewis, consumed with revenge, concocted a bomb and installed it on one of the line’s biggest ships but old man Holland discovered the plan, had Lewis killed and his body put in the captain’s cabin, then paddled away from the ship, clutching, among other things, his albums of stamps, until the ship exploded and went down with all hands. This man – Red Holland – was one and the same as the Carlos Holland who we’ve heard about throughout the novel, and he fled to Madehas island. And Hans Holland was his son. And the letter which obsessed Hans so much, reveals Carlos/Red’s identity and confirms that he is a callous mass murderer. It was this letter and this revelation which made Mac’s friend, Colonel Lawrence Holland, shake with anger and sent him along with a gang of natives to besiege and burn Carlos’s house. It was the knowledge that he’d murdered his own brother, which, years later, prompted the Colonel to get in his canoe and paddle off into the sea to die, seen by only a few servants whose garbled accounts have added to the legends. And it has been living with the knowledge that his father was a murderer which led to Hans becoming a wrong ‘un.

He was suddenly leaning forward, the red hair blazing in the slanting sunlight, his eyes staring into mine. ‘You marry Perenna, you marry the Holland Line.’ He came towards me, smiling. ‘You do that and you marry a curse. It was built on hate and fear and disaster and it’s done for every one of us – every man that has tried to make his fortune out of it. My father started it and he died an unnatural death. So did the old Colonel and Perenna’s mother, now Tim’s dying, he’s given up and he’ll die hating me, hating his sister, hating everyone, the whole world.’ He pointed his finger at me. ‘You too. You try and succeed where I failed and you’ll never know a minute’s peace. I’ll haunt you, Slingsby. Even as my father has haunted me. I’ll haunt you.’ (p.274)

The Solomon seal Here my understanding gave out and I admit I couldn’t follow why the old seal and the sheet of stamps Roy took from the safe in Madehas house were so important. The last ten pages are filled with astonishing detail around the history and manufacture of stamps and appear – from the author’s note at the end of the book – to be a complex fictional explanation of a historical fact which is that the reputable firm of note and stamp printers, Perkins Bacon, admitted in the mid 1850s to having a thief in their midst. Precisely how this is related to the Solomon dies I didn’t understand: maybe they are a rare example of the thief in action, the die was stolen, and so the stamps are a very rare example of illegally printed stamps fro the Perkins Bacon stable.

The practical upshot is that Roy and Perenna fly back to England to oversee the sale at auction of the stamps and albums and, because of this unique (but to me incomprehensible) history, they fetch an astonishing £30,000. This is enough to get Jona’s ship out of hock and with some left over to invest in the business. The Holland line is reborn. And brother Tim is well on the way to recovery.

Roy asks Perenna to marry him and she laughingly says yes. After all the byzantine complexity of the plot, and the bewildering detail of much of the background information, it all ends, as do so many Innes’ novels, on what you feel is a psychologically balanced and happy ending.

Maybe this happiness, this joy in life and physical activities like sailing, swimming or skiiing, combined with the baroque complexities of his plots (which generally boil down to ancestral curses and Gothic family tragedies) prevent Innes being given much due or scholarly attention. But it is a gift to entertain, thrill and then leave your readers uplifted and inspired.

The night after the stamp auction, knowing their futures are assured, Perenna and Roy walk around his old farmhouse in Suffolk, and then start fooling.

I was kissing her as I carried her over the threshold. ‘Tomorrow I’ll think about making an honest woman of you.’ We were both of us laughing as we went up to bed. The moon was very bright that night and there were owls hooting – Bougainville and the Pacific seemed a million miles away, and so did reality. What fun life is! What a glorious everlasting struggle to survive and to build something worthwhile! And as I fell asleep I was thinking of that indomitable old man, her grandfather, sailing out in his canoe towards the horizon and infinity. (p.318)

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Solomon's Seal

Fontana paperback edition of Solomon’s Seal

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 Captain and The Enemy by Graham Greene (1988)

Of the Captain I have heard nothing for years, and Liza, whom I left of my own accord, I see only from time to time, always with a sense of guilt. It’s not because of any love I feel for them. It is as though I had taken them quite coldbloodedly as fictional characters to satisfy this passionate desire of mine to write. (p.51)

Part one

12-year-old Victor Baxter is in the playground at his boarding school (sounding suspiciously similar to Greene’s own boarding school, Berkhamsted) when a man arrives with a letter from his father, giving him permission to take Victor out for the afternoon. The man asks to be called ‘the Captain’ and they stroll down towards what sounds like Berkhamsted castle to a pub beside what sounds like Berkhamsted canal, where the Captain wangles lunch and a few drinks off the publican before leaving without paying. Aha. He is a swindler, a con man. And instead of taking Victor back to school the Captain takes him to Berkhamsted train station where they catch the next train to London. ‘You see, Victor,’ he explains, ‘I won you from your father over a game of backgammon.’ Oh,’ thinks Victor.

In London the Captain takes him along to a rundown house which is managed by young Liza. The Captain asks Victor to call her ‘Mum’. Liza and the Captain decide to call him Jim, a much nicer name. Jim is taking all this in his stride, chooses an empty room in the rackety old house to be his bedroom, then settles into life being fed and watered by Liza and getting used to the Captain’s long disappearances and mysterious reappearances.

One day the Captain hands a newspaper to Liza, highlighting an article. Later Jim reads it and it describes how a smartly dressed con man entered a jewellers shop after it was closed and, while the door was open, a gang barged in and stole the man’s stock. It gives the con man’s name as one the Captain has mentioned. Aha. That’s what he does for a living. Jim is sublimely untroubled by being removed from school: he hated it, he was bullied by the other boys, his mother died years previously and his father rarely came to see him; outside of term time he had to stay with an aunt who he hated. He nicknames his father the Devil.

A few weeks later his father in fact knocks on the door. ‘Tut tut,’ says the Devil, ‘so this is where you are’ – not at all outraged or upset by his abduction. We gather from his conversation with Liza that the two were once lovers, but he got her pregnant and paid for a back-street abortion which was bungled, leaving her ill for a long time and unable to have children. That’s when the Captain met her, looked after her and nursed her back to health, hence their connection. After some chat, the Devil leaves, making no effort to take Jim with him.

On another occasion the Devil arrives with the awful aunt, Muriel, who complains about the boy’s lack of schooling. This prompts the Captain to make an effort at home schooling, though this mainly takes the form of telling the impressionable boy tall tales about being shot down and taken prisoner in Germany during the war, before escaping across occupied France into neutral Spain.

The Captain’s absences get longer and longer, and during these long periods Victor finds himself forced to go to the local state school, and growing more independent of the increasingly sad Liza.

Part two

Greene was always interested in time shifts in a narrative. Sometimes a section of text embeds not one but several flashbacks, sometimes reverting from one period to another with next to no warning. Part two opens by announcing that all of part one is a fragment (of autobiography? of fiction?) which the older, mature Victor found among the boxes of Liza’s flat, when he came to go through it, after – years later – she was seriously injured in a car accident. Now – we learn – he is a journalist with years of experience behind, him, a grown adult.

He finds the fragment in a box of old letters in the basement of the house which is now identified as being in Camden. He reads old letters the Captain wrote to Liza, vague promises that he’ll make his fortune, latterly from south America. In fact one arrives during these days, post-marked Panama, including a check ‘payable to bearer’ and details of the flight Liza should catch to go out and join the Captain. This prompts Victor to contact his dad, who invites him to lunch at the Reform Club (posh) where they discuss the morality of cashing a check obviously intended for Liza. Jim discusses it at length, then does it anyway, packs in his journalism job and makes arrangements to fly to Panama. Oh and he brings the fragment up to date, thus writing the text we have seen in the previous two sections…

Part three

Victor flies to Panama and is met by Mr Quigly, a tall, thin man who claims to be a British journalist but speaks with an American twang. He takes him to the stylish hotel where the Captain has arranged a room and a bodyguard for Jim. A bodyguard? Apparently arranged by a certain Colonel Martínez who ‘looks after’ the Captain. If this seems vague that is because it is left deliberately vague: right to the end of the book we (and Jim) are not sure whether the Captain is working for the Colonel, or just given some kind of protection, just as we never completely learn what Quigly is doing. But it does lend the narrative a spurious sense of threat and edge.

After a few days, the Captain appears and Victor, when it comes to it, can’t bring himself to reveal that Liza is dead. This leads him into a series of lies, explaining her lack of letters etc with evermore elaborate excuses. To me, this simply seemed a pretext to allow the narrator to feel Guilt about his Betrayal of the Captain, or Liza, or both.

At various points the bodyguard or Quigly or the Captain take Victor out for drinks and meals. On one occasion the Captain – whose birth name, we learn, is Brown, but who is currently calling himself Smith – takes Victor out to the second hand airplane he keeps. He was a flyer during the war, remember. Maybe the dodgy activities he’s involved in include drug smuggling. It is striking how boring Greene manages to make the description of a small plane flight over the south American jungle. It’s mostly an opportunity for Victor to feel Guilty.

Finally, provoked after too many drinks, Victor tells the Captain that Liza is dead. Obviously I don’t give a damn about these shallow puppets, but I was interested in the choice of words, in the description of the scene:

He took a step towards me and I thought he was preparing to strike me. I backed towards the door and threw the truth at him like a glass of vitriol. ‘There’s no one to go back to. Liza’s dead.’ (p.153)

Isn’t this a scene from a Victorian melodrama? Isn’t ‘vitriol’ an old, almost obsolete word. Why not ‘acid’? And ‘strike’ – the Captain could have been advancing to hit, slap or punch Victor; but no, Greene chooses the most generic term, the one with literary or even biblical overtones, also, somehow, the emptiest.

Jim walks straight out and goes to see Mr Quigly who, based on Jim’s experience as a journalist back in England, offers him a job as a stringer ie a freelance journalist, providing ‘information’. But Jim is savvy enough to realise Quigly is some kinds of agent, probably for the Americans who run the American Zone and the Panama Canal.

Having done this deal, Jim goes back to the hotel room to sleep but is woken and requested to attend a meeting with the sinister Colonel Martínez. In fact the Colonel – something in the National Guard – turns out to be a tubby affable man. He asks Jim if he knows his father’s whereabouts? Jim says no. The Colonel tells him to avoid Quigly and ends the interview. He doesn’t tell us what the relationship is between him and the Captain nor what Quigly’s role is. It is all left deliberately vague and menacing.

Back at the hotel room Jim finds a last letter the Captain has written him, upset that he didn’t tell him Liza was dead immediately on arriving, saying Jim has Betrayed him, telling him to go back to England, and declaring that, now he (the Captain) is free of all duties and responsibility, he can do what he wants. Funnily enough a letter had arrived just today addressed to the Captain at the hotel and Jim had pocketed it. Now he opens it to discovers it is from Liza, written just before she died, knowing she’s dying, telling the Captain how much she Loved him. Ie it is created and positioned in the narrative to create the maximum sense of pathos in the reader, and the maximum sense of Guilt in Jim.

Then comes the sudden ending of the whole Captain narrative. Quigly phones, then comes to the hotel in person to tell Jim the Captain is dead. He uses an odd phrase – he Captain flew ‘in the wrong direction’ – a phrase repeated half a dozen times, as if it will gain symbolism or pathos, but doesn’t really. Soon afterwards the Colonel requests another meeting, and sends Pablo the bodyguard to fetch him. The Colonel informs Jim that the Captain flew his plane packed with explosives into the mountainside home of the Nicaraguan dictator Somosa. But Somosa wasn’t there, so all the Captain managed was to kill himself and shatter windows in a nearby hotel. It is a typically Greene ending for a character and a final image of complete futility.

Jim/Victor announces he is concluding this narrative, a failed attempt to create sense or meaning out of his lifelong association with a man and his beloved for whom, in the end, he felt nothing at all. He’s throwing it in the waste bin and drawing a line under this whole part of his life. He’s taking the money and setting off to start anew.

Part four

This last short section marks a complete departure in the text. It is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who describes the scene where Colonel Martínez calls in Quigly and asks him about Jim’s whereabouts and the meaning of this long mysterious narrative they found in the waste paper basket in his hotel room.

(They are discussing the long narrative Jim had written about his association with the Captain and which we saw/heard/read him planning to throw in the hotel waste paper basket. It is grimly, blackly funny that the Panama intelligence are taking Jim’s completely personal text as some kind of set of instructions or hidden messages).

The Colonel asks Quigly: what does it mean? Is it written in code? Obviously Quigly doesn’t know so then the Colonel tells Quigly that Jim has caught a plane to Chile: has he been sent by his masters to spy on Pinochet? Does he work for the Americans? Again, we get no answers to these questions but they powerfully suggest the milieu the Captain inhabited in this country, somehow involved in running, what? guns, munitions, in his plane, though we never learn why or for who.

Martinez tells Quigly to pack in his espionage activities and quietly go to the American Zone before an ‘accident’ befalls him.

Then, in the last few pages, the Colonel orders Jim’s narrative to be translated into Spanish so he can read it and puzzle out its meaning and the light it sheds on the murky espionage activities of the man they called the Captain. Who knows, one day it might even be published and win literary prizes, ha ha ha. The phone rings, the Colonel listens then replaces the handset, turning to tell the translator, Alas the son has gone the same way as the father, killed in an ‘accident’ on the way to the airport.

Greene’s epilogues

At the end of two of his greatest novels, The Power and The Glory and The Heart of the Matter, the point of view pulls away in the last few pages to reveal the point of view of people previously outside the magic circle of the Greene’s fraught narrative: to describe bystanders in a hotel near the prison where the whisky priest is being executed in Power and – devastatingly, in Heart – to reveal that Scobie’s wife and colleagues knew he was having an affair all along; his agonised decisions, his terrible suicide, were pointless.

Greene creates a similar effect here – the last few pages pull the rug out from everything which had gone before, making the Captain and his suburban devotion to the uneducated Liza look pathetic, and strangely pointless Jim’s efforts, revived at various points, to write his and their story in the preceding narrative, knowing it will all end up in a waste bin, and then be retrieved to be pawed over by army officers with no sympathy or understanding for what Jim was trying to achieve.

It’s a kind of knickerbocker glory of futility – adding to the futility of the Captain’s death and the futility of Jim’s death, an added layer of futility by explaining how Jim’s carefully worked narrative has fallen into the hands of people uniquely qualified never to understand a word of it. A bright red cherry of pointlessness sitting on top of the whole depressed concoction.


Style

The story is told in Greene’s later style, which is settled and formal and old-fashioned. These last books often feel as if the prose is tired out after the hysterical scenes of the middle period. It feels drained, calm, resigned, the morning after a wild party or a big emotional scene.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was free from school. Liza was out buying bread and for once she left me alone with my lesson books. Then the bell rang. It wasn’t the Captain’s code, nor was it my father’s. This was a ring, quiet, reassuring, even friendly. The ringer waited what seemed to be a polite time before he rang again, and the ring still remained unurgent, undemanding. (p.75)

It is always well-behaved and minds its manners, after all he went to a good public school and Oxford, you know. If it does go on a bit about despair and guilt, at least it’s wearing the right tie and knows which knife and fork to use for the fish course.

I had heard of Liza’s grave state in hospital from the police and so I came to what I still reluctantly called my home to do all the tiresome things which are required when one prepares for the death of a parent. There was no real next of kin to whom I could pass the disagreeable task. (p.83)

‘when one prepares…’ ‘to whom I could pass’. You can almost hear the knees creaking, see the liver spots on the hands of this prose, nice old gent prose, prose from a bygone era. Safe, correct, dull as ditchwater.

A message came. I went to the hospital. Liza had lapsed into a coma and she died the next day. There was nothing left to do but bury her. She had left no will: if she had money it was in some unknown account. (p.105)

Greene was never a prose stylist: Evelyn Waugh said it best when he commented that Greene’s prose treats words as if they have no history or overtones. He writes with a complete lack of poetry or colour. Greene’s prose is as cold and fishlike as his pale eyes in the countless black and white photos of him.

When they told me at the hospital that she was dead I felt no more emotion than when I had left her behind after a weekly visit to go to my bed-sitting room in Soho. If there was any emotion it was the emotion of relief, of duty finished. (p.133)

‘passionate desire’ – he would rather use clichés than colour. Greene’s prose makes its impact in his entertainments and the Catholic thrillers, not by his stylish deployment of language, but by the obsessive repetition of a handful of key ideas and key words – sin, fear, despair, doubt, betrayal etc, a shopping list of teenage angst dressed up – in the ‘serious’ novels – in Catholic voodoo. Mercifully, Catholic melodrama is mostly absent from this work of his old age but his buzz words, his weasel words, still litter the text:

I refuse to feel guilt at leaving her (79)… a letter which… near her death gave me a passing sense of guilt at having left her (83)… I had no sense of guilt (87)… I had a certain sense of guilt [about cashing someone else’s check] (102)… I was afraid of him, but I felt no guilt at all (153)…

Having just read his first novel, The Man Within, an over-the-top historical melodrama, the word ‘fear’ is still ringing in my ears, as it appears on every page of that novel, conveying the panic-stricken cowardice of the protagonist – so I was surprised to find it cropping up here, 60 years later, to describe the relationship between the Captain and Liza, and then increasingly throughout the text:

What remained afterwards was shyness in both of them and a kind of fear. (p.38)

Love and fear – fear and love – I know now how inextricably they are linked, but they were both beyond my understanding at the age I was then, and how can I be sure that I really understand them even now? (p.39)

Love, it was quite clear to me now, meant fear, and I suppose it was the same fear which made Liza go out every Thursday morning… (p.51)

(Are love and fear really inextricably linked? It sounds good, it sounds profound: but I think that’s all it is, empty rhetoric, part of the pretentious rhetoric of Greeneland which, on closer examination, evaporates.)

In my experience love was like an attack of flu and one recovered as quickly. Each love affair was like a vaccine. It helped you to get through the next attack more easily. (p.105)

In previous reviews I’ve suspected Greene had a notebook in which he wrote down these ‘wonderful’ aperçus and insights, and then waited to insert them into appropriate places in his stories which, since they are always about betrayal guilt and despair, was easy to do.

A closely observed world captured in careful and deft phrases is what you do NOT get in Greene. What you get is incidents, often pretty banal and mundane incidents, just enough to justify his mind leaping to his comfort zone – to large, portentous abstract nouns, to flights of pseudo-profundity, to bucket psychology; to the same mental slums, the unhealthy territory the wretched man inhabited all his life, of fear and despair and futility.

I could remember… how she once told me with a kind of despair, ‘He writes such a lot of rubbish.’ (p.88)

Despair? Really? Is that the appropriate description of such an everyday remark? How about ‘a kind of affection’ or ‘exasperation’ or ‘impatience’ or ‘indignation’ or ‘peevishness’ or ‘pique’? No? No, because these are wide-ranging words, words which would open the text up to the chaotic diversity of the real world and to real unpredictable people and would require a completely different, wide-ranging and open imagination, and an open, adventurous and interesting vocabulary to match it.

Whereas, in Greeneland, there are always only three or four people, trapped in doomed relationships, who think love is cognate with fear because being in love is always followed by harming the one you love, and who only have a clutch of the same negative dull emotions – fear, despair, guilt.

I get frightened when I think that one day I may harm you too like I’ve harmed the others. (p.92)

Despite the mellow story and the old man style, a surprising number of these sentiments could have come from Greene’s preposterous first novel: the sense of self pity, the claustrophobic feeling of a tiny emotional world, above all the fundamentally unhappy, grey, depressed and negative view of life, is never far below the surface.

‘Where’s the Captain?’ I asked.
‘How would I know?’ Liza said in a tone which, when I think of it now, comes back to me as almost a cry of despair. (p.68)

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

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.

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1986)

The area had once been called Monmouthshire but because of a decision taken in London was now called Gwent, after an ancient Welsh kingdom or whatever it was that might have formerly existed there or thereabouts. Anyway, it was Wales all right. (p.60)

Overview

A long novel by Amis’s standards, at 384 pages, The Old Devils is set in South Wales and describes in gory detail the daily lives and routines of half a dozen, heavy-drinking old men (one is said to be aged 61, another implies they’re closer to 70) and their middle-aged, heavy-drinking wives. Booze, booze and more booze, in restaurants and bars, round each other’s houses, down the pub, knocking back the whisky or wine, lighting up another tab and endlessly moaning about each other.

Into this little pool of alcoholic mediocrity arrives one-time poet, media celebrity and professional Welshman, Alun Weaver and his wife Rhiannon. He’s had enough of being a B-lister in Hampstead and wants to storm back into his native country, look you. In fact there is little or no description or attention paid to writing, broadcasting or thinking of any kind in these long 400 pages (the one exception being Alun revising the manuscript of a novel he knows is rubbish for a bit from page 284, and showing it to Charlie who candidly tells him it’s garbage).

Instead, the return of boy bach prompts a flurry of inter-marital liaisons: Alun has barely unpacked before he is bedding one of his best friend’s wives, Sophie, and then moves on to shag Gwen. Rhiannon, for her part, has a moving reunion with her first love, Peter Thomas, now grotesquely and unrecognisably fat, before allowing herself to be taken for a drive out to a formerly romantic church down by the sea by the hopelessly boring old sod, Malcolm Cellan-Davies. The main players are:

  • Boring Malcolm Cellan-Davies, married to Gwen
  • Fat Peter Thomas, married to cold Muriel (grown-up son Robert)
  • Philandering Alun Weaver, married to the attractive Rhiannon (grown-up daughter Rosemary)
  • Scared of the dark alcoholic Charlie Norris, married to Sophie
  • Victor, Charlie’s gay brother
  • Tarc Jones, landlord of the Bible and Crown

Decrepitude

Plenty of time is spent on unflinching portrayals of the physical and mental weaknesses of age. The first section opens with Malcolm struggling to instal his dentures and battle against his failing body to get dressed. Later we start the day with Peter Thomas (‘a bloated, beaten-up old slob’ p.346), so fat he can’t bend over enough to cut his toenails, his wife refuses to do it, so they grow long and snaggy and tear his socks, the ones with the elastic to keep them up over his varicose veins (pp.157-58).

Another chapter opens with Charlie Norris in the single bed he’s been exiled to by his wife because he is a full-on alcoholic, woken by the nightmares and visions caused by delirium tremens, and only managing to heave himself out of bed after fortification with tea and whisky.

A sequence of scenes

The plot amounts to a sequence of scenes: Three old buddies getting pissed in Charlie’s gay brother’s restaurant (the ‘Owen Glendower Tavern and Grill’). Their regular daily piss-up session in the Bible and Crown, landlord Tarquin ‘Tarc’ Jones. Charlie drinking so much before breakfast he is completely pissed by the time he arrives at the unveiling of a statue to the great national bard ‘Brydan’ (a thinly disguised Dylan Thomas?).

There’s a party for oldies at the gold club where Gwen gets pissed enough to harangue Alan for being an adulterous shit. Charlie, Alun and Malcolm are getting pissed in a pub somewhere and talking loudly enough about how shit everything is to provoke three younger men to push their table over and punch harmless Malcolm on the nose. There’s quite a touching scene where all the blokes storm into Malcolm’s house and paw his priceless collection of 1930s 78 rpm jazz records, leading to moans about modern (ie anything after 1936) music; men drinking, smoking, playing their favourite records.

And so, pissedly, grumpily, on, just about this side of despair, though frank despair occasionally breaks through:

With a conviction undimmed by having survived countless run-offs he felt that everything he had was lost and everyone he knew was gone. (p.107)

Funny

Some of this is so grotesque it’s funny: Charlie tottering at the grand unveiling of the statue stands out for its dazed humour, for its Amis-like taking the piss out of a supposedly solemn occasion. Then again, quite a few moments make you shiver with horror at the prospect of getting old and bald, with varicose veins and bad-fitting dentures, subject to fierce pains in the side, all kinds of physical limits and ailments, unable to bend over or even stand up by yourself.

Offensive

Lots of it is deliberately offensive, what the reviewers call ‘Amis on the rampage’ ie Amis attacking the same old targets as in his previous novels: horribly modern pubs, all cheap mirrors, pointless old photos, disgusting beer and awful pumping rock music; modern roads rammed full of ghastly modern cars; young people, wandering round half-naked, speaking in their long-haired argot.

And of course, where not so long ago it had been hake and chips, bottled cockles, pork pies and pints of Troeth bitter, these days it was canneloni, paella, stifado, cans of Fosters, bottles of Rioja and – of course – large Courvoisiers and long panatellas, just like everywhere else. (p.79)

Misogynist

Women come in for scathing, bitter criticism throughout, by all the men, for being incomprehensible enemies liable to make emotionally wounding attacks at any moment.

Part of men’s earlier average age at death than women’s, perhaps a substantial part, might be traceable to wives driving husbands to coronaries single-handed by winding them up with anxiety and rage. (p.166)

Amis doesn’t make any pretences or excuses: the anger and resentment at women is nakedly connected to the men’s consuming fear, fear of women’s irrationality, of their bewilderingly obtuse thought processes, fear of being ganged-up on. Peter’s wife, Muriel, starts having a go at him in the car and he

thought as many times before of a film he had seen about half a century earlier. In it, a sadistic sergeant broke the spirit of a soldier in a military prison by beating him up at systematically random intervals, from more than a day down to a quarter of an hour, so that the victim never knew when the next attack was coming, never felt safe. Life with Muriel, it seemed to Peter, had over the last seven or eight years turned into a decreasingly bearable version of that. There were times, it was true, and this was one of them, when you could be morally certain a drubbing was on the way, not from anything she said or did but because you had spotted something disagreeable to her, either in itself or in its associations, drifting to the surface over the past few minutes or so; that was enough for her. For some strange reason, though, this kind of early warning did little to soften the eventual impact. He actually felt the sweat break out now on his forehead. (p.57)

I read these passages with a mixture of discomfort and indulgence, indulgence because I have heard, or used to hear, men making the same points in conversation; why shouldn’t these views be recorded in a novel, it is part of the human condition, it is how men of that generation (presumably) thought and spoke? Discomfort because these old bastards express their views about women far more crudely and angrily than anything I remember.

‘Once you’ve – Christ – relinquished the perverse, pig-headed expectation that women should mean what they say and say what they mean except when they’re actually lying, this sort of thing gets to be all in a day’s work.’ (p.246)

This cantankerous railing against the modern world, against women and pop music and modern pubs, and no-one fixes anything any more and no-one knows how to dress properly, it does capture a generation, an attitude, a grumpy, small-minded, ungenerous complaint which I associate with (some) older relatives.

But from the standpoint of 2015, it feels as if we came through the psychological and economic depressions of the 1980s into a less angry fraught world in the 1990s: one benefiting from the collapse of communism and the ‘peace dividend’, the release of Nelson Mandela, the Good Friday Agreement and so on; and then that the advent of digital technology, the internet, the transition to a gender-neutral service economy, not to mention the tremendous influx of immigrants from all nations, have made for a modern, globalised, cosmopolitan culture, an open rainbow culture, which makes the tight little nationalist and sexist world of Amis’s fiction feel as distant as the Middle Ages.

Wales

‘Wales is a subject that can’t be talked about. Unless you’re making a collection of dishonesty and self-deception and sentimental bullshit.’ (p.373)

The novel is set in Wales, all the characters are Welsh and there is a great deal of chat about Welshness, which is treated with varieties of cantankerous affection, with a running theme about whether the poet they all pretend to revere – the Dylan Thomas figure, Brydan – was a genius or a selfish, drunken charlatan, and whether he was really Welsh at all.

I’ve no idea what a Welsh person would make of it, or what its reputation is among the Welsh, and I’m not qualified to comment.

Old age

Amis would have done us a favour if he had produced a penetrating novel about old age since we now, in 2015, are more aware than ever of the coming boom in numbers of the elderly, living longer, dominating our society, requiring expensive healthcare and support.

But this isn’t that novel. It is dominated by the characters’ Welshness (4.8% of the UK population), by their universal drunkenness, and by the almost complete absence of thought or reflection, the space where it should be filled with rancorous, cantankerous, grumpy old git moaning and complaining and bitching about each other.

Put another way, the ostensible subject matter of this novel – old age – should make it more relevant, a more compelling read, than ever before. Instead I think it, and Amis generally, were never so marginalised and forgotten. His earlier novel about old age, the cruelly black comedy Ending Up, is more penetrating and a lot shorter.


Style

These grotesques and their dismal affairs are painted in prose which is slack, repetitive and aimless. It is like reading soggy cardboard. In my review of Stanley and The Women I itemised features of Amis’s late style and hoped they were in fact exaggerations designed to characterise the first person narrator of that novel, Stanley. But no. They are Amis’s late style.

1. Dangling clauses at the end of sentences, making them weaker and vaguer. Afterthoughts, second opinions, demotic tags and fragments, just one more bit, after all, in the end, so to speak, at the end of the day, in general, more or less, and all the rest of it, or part of it, or something…

But they were soon past there now and on to where she had not been for at least ten years, probably a good deal more. (p.205)

But when it came it was fine, in the same style as before, covering rather more ground, not much though. (p.212)

[Performances like that] brought out your awkwardness and almost your resentment of each other, or some if it. (p.218)

‘The fact you minded so much about not remembering, that’s worth as much to me as if you had remembered, very nearly.’ (p.225)

Gwen gave him a farewell twiddle of the fingers and stylised simper that made him feel sorry for Malcolm, but only in passing. (p.2540

2. Or Instead of stating something confidently and clearly, it has become a real mannerism for Amis to use ‘or’ to tack on an extra interpretation or two to even the most banal action, thus weakening and undermining countless sentences. In my Stanley review I said this has at least three effects:

  1. A wavering of meaning, a permanent uncertainty or inability to express himself which is almost senile.
  2. If there are several ‘or’ alternatives, the effect tends – explicitly or implicitly – towards a concluding ‘or whatever’, a throwaway dismissal of the attempt to be clear; a sod-you, who cares attitude, sometimes open contempt.
  3. Possibly an attempt to recreate the running-out of steam of a drunk who just doesn’t have the energy to finish a sentence clearly but runs on in a diminuendo of pointless rambling additions.

Either way it is the opposite of clarity of thought, precision of language.

In a flash Malcolm knew or as good as knew… a row of men in hats standing outside a thatched cottage in Ireland or some such place… none of his audience showed any sign of responding, then or at any future time… someone else pronounced a few phrases of thanks or thanksgiving or anyway termination… Charlie’s first breath or sniff of air brought some redolence or other… when the pain or series of pains began… ‘Mario’ or very possibly Mario… Garth’s laughter was heard again faintly, or fairly faintly… there would still be times like tonight, with her too pissed, or about to become too pissed, to drive… He poured himself a treble, or another treble…

On leaving Malcolm’s in a mood of heavily qualified satisfaction he had happened to find himself passing, or as good as passing, the house of an old friend. (p.265)… Although he often said where he was going, or might have been going, he never said where he had been. (p.269)

Short of that, she would most probably have Rosemary with her, back from her evening out (or somewhere) with William Thomas, who seemed to have been around since first light or thereabouts. (p.267)

‘You must be tremendously relieved, or a bit relieved rather.’ (p.292)

‘There are plenty of people about who talk like that for real, or semi-real…’ (p.305)

It is the opposite of alertness, curiosity, keenness of intelligence. It is in love with blurry, drunken, half-arsed incuriosity and everything’s going to hell. There are half a dozen passages which begin to capture the run-down, depressed atmosphere of South Wales in the decade when coal mines, steel and other heavy industries were being decimated by Mrs Thatcher, glimmers of something which might become interesting but then… fade into the characteristic Amis ‘something or other’.

With the end of its function as a port and the closure of the metal works and the silica quarry, Birdarthur had shown marks of unemployment, but none were visible now that the town had been designated or turned into an enterprise zone and the unemployed had gone away somewhere else. (p.279)

Oh well. It’s all a mess. Too hard to think about. Who’s up for another drink?

3. Pointless qualifications

It was miles and miles away from saying she was beginning to grow reconciled to what had taken place, what had almost failed to take place, between herself and Alun. (p.260)

From his earliest novels I noticed Amis’s tendency to produce sentences so full of qualifications, equivocations and slangy parentheses (after all, in a manner of speaking, certainly, at least, one had to admit, for instance) as sometimes to border on gibberish.

It was not very good, though surely better than nothing, and he had done his best to sound quite pleasant, at any rate for him, but nobody seemed to hear much and nobody came over, not even Dorothy, until Sophie brought him a gin and tonic, offering to fetch ice which he forbade. (p.56)

Much of the book is this badly, this contortedly and meanderingly written.

Quite a lot of time had indeed passed, but so far to surprisingly small effect. What he had said to Sophie just now about her appearance and so on was of course untrue, though it would have been much untruer, one had to admit, of most other people he had known that long. But in a general way, applied to experience, it had a bearing. All sorts of stuff, for instance what had been taking place a little earlier, seemed much as before, or at any rate not different enough to start making a song and dance about. This state of affairs might well not last for ever, but for the moment, certainly, the less it changed the more it was the same thing, and the most noticeable characteristic of the past, as seen by him, at least, was that there was so much more of it now than formerly, with bits that were longer ago than had once seemed possible. (p.100)

This is shit writing, isn’t it? Long-winded, saying nothing, full of pointless qualifications which give an impression of thought, of pausing for careful consideration where, whenever you look at it closely, there is absolutely none. Clumsy, hobbled sentences delivering nothing except rancour and unhappiness, 383 pages of them.

On the upside

From this great mass of verbiage there do emerge characters depicted with consistency and a cold eye, there are insights into the tribulations of old age, there are funny and outrageous scenes where old farts behave like naughty teenagers. You are drawn into their lives, their little kindnesses, their colossal rudeness and unhappiness. There is even an unexpectedly moving finale where wrecked old Peter and Rhiannon, at the wedding of their respective grown-up children, are reconciled, after a lifetime of being in love with each other but married to the wrong partners, and the book actually finishes on an upbeat note, with these two old lovers moving in together, smelly socks, dentures and all… There are moments of real tenderness and sweetness among the insults and blether.

The Old Devils is a long, very thoroughly imagined novel and there is much here to consider and savour and sometimes really enjoy. But God it is such a struggle, sometimes an almost physical ordeal, to wade through the strangely mannered gloop of Amis’s late style in order to see it.


TV series

The Old Devils was dramatised by Andrew Davies for the BBC in 1992, directed by Adrian Mourby and starring John Stride, Bernard Hepton, James Grout and Ray Smith. It isn’t available on Amazon or eBay and this is the only snippet on YouTube. Not, one deduces, a particularly sought-after item.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers; in particular, dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful and sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving him at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver.
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

Here Lies: An Autobiography by Eric Ambler (1985)

Only an idiot believes that he can write the truth about himself. (p.18)

This autobiography was written when Ambler was in his mid-seventies, living in tax exile in Switzerland. It has the same relaxed, urbane, ironic and amused tone of voice as his later novels. The anecdotes about family, friends, lovers, publishers and fans are rounded and pat. Emotion or confusion or uncertainty are eschewed in favour of crisp declarative sentences and sly humour.

For me, money troubles and puberty arrived together. At about the same time that I became a lecher I also became a thief. (p.58)

It must have been at about that time, I think, that he began his remarkably long career as an embezzler. (p.81)

It contains a lot of information, yet you have the sense that nothing is really revealed, nothing of emotional or personal value, anyway.

Twelve chapters:

1: An odd mixture of an account of a car crash he had in his 70s which appears to have crystallised his decision to write an autobiography, with satirical memories of book tours of America.

2: His grandfather came from Preston. His father was born in Salford. In 1903 the Amblers moved to Charlton in south-east London. His mum and dad tried for many years to make a go of a marionette stage act, The Whatnots, in addition to his dad’s day job in a factory in Silvertown. Born in 1909, Eric went to school during the Great War and remembers zeppelin raids. Uncle Frank was captured by the Germans. He passes the exam to go to Colfe’s Grammar School.

3: School and its strange teachers, piano lessons, a pushbike and a passion for chemistry shared with his friend, Sims. Schoolboy discussions about sex. Eric wins a scholarship to an engineering college, unfortunately, just as he decides to become a playwright.

4: Attends trials to observe characters and performances, with playwriting in mind. Attends engineering courses. Joins the Territorial army and helps employers during the General Strike. Dad gets him a job as trainee at the Edison Swan Electric Company in Ponders End. Learns about the manufacture of light bulbs, drilling copper plates, storage batteries, dynamos, radio components.

5: Still a trainee, he is sent to Lydbrook colliery in south Wales, learns about vulcanising rubber, insulated wires etc. Moved into the Publicity department where he concocts copy to promote a batch of duff bulbs. They sell out. He has a gift! Reading Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler. His father collapses and dies. Funeral. Very throwaway reference to an affair with a married woman. He has to pay for her to have an abortion. Good old Uncle Frank lends him the 16 guineas required. His boss secures him a job at the advertising agency which has the Edison Swan Electric Company contact.

6: Thrives in advertising. Meets colourful characters. Begins to meet theatrical people and has his plays read and even performed. Visits a colleague who’s moved to an Italian village and realises many things are done better abroad. Encounters Italian blackshirts. Back in England, taken to court by the Inland Revenue. His plays are read & performed by the Guildhall Arts School: for example, one about a young man who tries to gas himself, is confronted by a supernatural Prosecutor who calls witnesses to his life, and then condemns him – to live! In Marseilles Eric is conned out of all his money by a gambler. He fantasises about assassinating him with a rifle from his hotel window. A few weeks later a Croat assassin kills King Alexander of Yugoslavia at the same road junction. ‘In the Mediterranean sunshine there were strange and violent men with whom I could identify, and with whom, in a way, I was now in touch.’ (p.115)

7: Relationship with Betty Dyson. First novel, The Dark Frontier, published. Thinks the contemporary thriller was very poor: ‘As I saw it, the thriller had nowhere to go but up.’ (p.121) Frontier starts as a parody, with peculiar elements, such as the dual identity of the protagonist, but develops into something genuinely gripping. Eric becomes director of the advertising agency and writes his second novel, Uncommon Danger. He casually refers to going to lectures by communists. ‘If the term fellow-travellers had been used in its present pejorative sense at the time I think that many of us could well have been described in that way.’ (p.124) The precise nature of his political allegiances is debated to this day, but it’s clear he was never politically active. After delivering his third novel, Epitaph For A Spy, to his publisher Eric quits his job at the advertising agency to become a full-time writer. Epitaph is serialised in the Daily Express in March 1938, for which he is paid the princely sum of £135.

8: Eric uses the money to go and live on the Continent, in an out-of-season skiing resort where he completes his fourth novel, Cause For Alarm. He has barely submitted that to his publisher before he is planning the fifth, Mask of Dimitrios from an apartment in Paris. More film offers come in. Eric takes a cargo liner with 30 passengers across the Atlantic to be wined and dined by his publisher in New York, go to literary parties and jazz clubs. Steamer back to London then back to his apartment in Paris where he falls in love with Louise Crombie, an American divorcee with three children working in Paris fashion (p.150). The Nazi-Soviet Pact is announced and they squeeze onto a ferry back to London and are married in Croydon. The Mask of Dimitrios has the distinction of being the Daily Mail book-of-the-month in the same week Britain and France go to war with Germany (p.154). He tries to enrol in various bits of the Armed Forces and starts writing Journey Into Fear, partly based on his recent transAtlantic voyage. Eric makes another brief transAtlantic foray, is briefly reunited with his American wife, before returning to Britain. Journey Into Fear is the Evening Standard‘s book-of-the-month in July 1940, the month the third Republic ceases to exist and the Battle of Britain begins (p.158).

9: Army. Royal Artillery Driver Training. Then motor bike training. RKO pay Ambler $20,000 for the movie rights to Journey Into Fear (Here Lies, p.170). Applies to become a gunnery officer. Commands the artillery unit protecting Winston Churchill at Chequers, near Wendover. An evening with Winston Churchill watching a movie featuring his favourite Hollywood film star, Deanna Durbin. A few more artillery posts, then he is ordered to join ADAK.

10: Assistant Director of Army Kinematography, a unit consisting of Thorold Dickinson, Carol Reed, 21-year-old Peter Ustinov and now Eric, set up to make training films. They collaborate with Army psychiatrists to make The New Lot, designed to bolster confidence among new recruits, but it is suppressed by higher-ups who think it is not sufficiently patriotic. After typical movie production negotiations, The New Lot is converted into a full-scale commercial movie, The Way Ahead, starring David Niven and shot at Denham Studios. Eric is seconded to the American Office of War Information to go to Italy with a film unit led by John Huston. Prolonged negotiations with generals and so on about what is suitable or possible to film. Story of the GI propositioning the wrong Italian lady in daylight. Story of the priest and the dog poo.

11: Detailed account of the unit’s progress along the bombed road into the devastated village of San Pietro. The plan had been to make a film showing the benefits of being ‘liberated’ by the Allies. However, what they find is fields full of dead soldiers and the village an abandoned, booby-trapped pile of rubble. They come under artillery attack, where (according to John Huston’s later reminiscences, Ambler displays characteristic insouciance). The documentary Huston cobbles together is later banned by the US Army. Back in Naples Eric meets and drinks with Humphrey Bogart and his wife. Then flies back to England.

12: Ordered to make a film for British troops profiling the American war contribution, United States, voiced by Niven. Travels to New York to get archive footage. It’s well-received, Eric is promoted and put in charge of a series of educational films. He recounts making 95 of these in 1945, and lists the range of subjects. The issue of informing released POWs and demobbed soldiers. Rents a house in St Margaret’s Bay, near Noël Coward. Rediscovers the wellsprings of his novelist’s imagination. Eric describes the real-life sources for The Schirmer Inheritance and Judgement on Deltchev. His acquaintance with Somerset Maugham, who comes over as very difficult. The reminiscences end with a lecture Eric gave several times about the different frustrations and rewards of writing novels and writing screenplays.


The text is a smooth, untroubled flow of events and anecdotes. Who knows what real emotional crises, passions and affairs it artfully conceals. The anecdotes are amusing but rarely funny. There is very little about the actual process of writing. He refers once to ‘obsessive rewriting’ which certainly explains the pared-down and controlled tone of his novels. Only at the very end does he shed a little light on his collaborations with another novelist, Charles Rodda.

I am touchy, pernickety and possessive about work in progress… when writing for myself I never follow a set story line. I try things out, I rewrite and I change my mind about the characters as I go along. At the end, I make further changes. (p.227)

This certainly accounts for the sense of many of the characters winging it in the plots, and of the plots themselves hingeing on arbitrary and random cruces. Overall, Ambler’s novels lack a kind of depth of conception and inevitability of plot, a lack which prevents them becoming real ‘classics’, which explains why they almost all went out of print in the 70s and 80s, and why they will probably remain the preserve of a small but dedicated fan-base for the foreseeable future.


This autobiography has no index, which makes it difficult to look up references to the novels or films etc and makes the text appear more like a novel than a factual reference book. As, possibly, it is intended to be…

Related links

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Care of Time by Eric Ambler (1981)

Even the little I knew of his history made him, by any standards that had more to them than simple endurance, a considerable survivor. He had had physical strength and plenty of courage, of course, but it had been his wits that had really counted, his wits and his ability to adapt to cultures utterly foreign to those of his youth and early manhood. It had been a remarkable performance. What I suspected, though, was that he was now a survivor for whom the care of time was becoming hard to ignore. He had started to falter. (p.137)

This was Ambler’s final novel, though he lived for another 17 years (1909-98). A fairly long (299 pages) first-person narrative told by American ghost writer Robert Halliday, who’s got wide experience co-writing books with sports stars, movie stars, politicians and so on. A postcard pops through his letterbox saying a bomb will arrive in a few days. It duly does and Halliday takes it to his local cops who bring in the FBI who confirm its provenance. The postcard was signed Karlis Zander (German for ‘pike’).

Then he gets a call from his agent in New York saying she’s been approached by an Italian publishing house who want him to fly to Italy to co-write (ie pull into shape) a book about terrorism. Meeting a representative of the publisher – McGuire – in NY, Halliday learns that there is a manuscript by noted 19th century theorist of terrorism, Sergey Nechayev. A modern-day expert wants Halliday to a) help edit the manuscript b) help write a long commentary which will link it to contemporary terrorist networks. Name of the expert – Dr Luccio – Italian for ‘pike’. Aha. A joke, of sorts.

Barely has he arrived in his hotel in Milan before he is kidnapped and driven blindfolded to the safe house containing Dr Luccio/Karlis Zander. Zander is all James-Bond-baddy suaveness, offering drinks and apologising for the roughness of his abduction. Yes, he wishes Halliday to help him write a book which will blow open the connections between various states in the Middle East and contemporary terrorism. His sidekicks, led by the lissom Simone Chihanel, escort Halliday back to his hotel.

Here he finds three men waiting, his Italian publisher, an American and a German. It emerges – to the reader’s complete surprise – that Halliday once worked for the CIA and the American was his controller. Something went wrong on a mission in Iraq where he was captured and held prisoner for eight long months. To this day he blames the controller, whom he loathes. Having vouched for his identity, the American and Italian publisher leave him with the German, Dieter Schelm, ‘a senior official in West German intelligence’ – who brings him further up to speed.

Halliday reveals he had another career, a spin-off from the writing, a short-lived career as a TV presenter, paid to use his forthright manner to harass smug politicians, but in fact he was no good at it. Somehow Zander has seen him on the box, and knows of it as well as his book writing skills.

Thus: Zander isn’t interested in having a book published, that is all a front, a fig leaf, a pretext to get Halliday to him. He sent the bomb because he knew Halliday would report it to the authorities and it would reactivate his CIA contacts -which it has certainly done: the book is a cover to get Halliday into contact with him. What he wants to do is transmit a long complex message to the CIA using Halliday as a middleman.

Zander is doing all this in such a roundabout way because a contract has been put out for his assassination, to the tune of 20 million Swiss francs. The contract has been taken up by Mukhabarat Zentrum, an Arab organisation dedicated to murder, extortion, terrorism etc, itself the rejuvenated rump of an originally PLO revenge service called Rasd, reorganised by two mafiosi from Croatia. NATO has a different name for it, Rasmuk. All this is in Schelm’s briefing.

By now we realise the narrator has a habit of keeping secrets from the reader. Only on page 95 are we told that the picture on the postcard Zander sent Halliday, warning of the advent of the bomb, was of the Hotel Mansour in Iraq, which just happens to be where Halliday was arrested by Iraqi police all those years ago.

On page 99 he tells us what Zander has to offer the West and the CIA in exchange for help escaping from the contract and getting to live happily ever after with his wife and children by previous marriages – but Halliday doesn’t tell us. It’s something to do with a ‘defence development programme’ Zander is ‘touting’ on behalf of ‘his patron’, the person they agree to call The Ruler, one of the hereditary sheikhs who rule the United Arab Emirates. Schelm and Halliday speculate that the personage paying Rasmuk to assassinate Zander probably comes from among The Ruler’s fellow sheikhs, who are embarrassed at his defence plan or his approaches to Nato.

By the end of the meeting it is agreed that the German Schelm is going to become Halliday’s new ‘control’, for an operation which will last only as long as it takes for negotiations to take place between Zander and the CIA, via Schelm. Why the proxies? Because the CIA wants to benefit from what Zander has to sell – but be able to reassure all their Gulf Arab allies they haven’t had any contact with him, no of course not, not direct contact.

That’s the first hundred pages. Tortuous enough for you?

Second hundred pages

After the long conference with Schelm, Halliday sleeps, wakes and attends a pre-arranged rendezvous with Zander’s people at Malpensa airport, where he is contacted by a fake air stewardess, taken down to a car park and whisked out to the airport boundary, where they quickly change number plates and drive to a small town on Lake Gardo, down sidestreets to a dilapidated hotel. All these precautions are to escape the pursuing team of Rasmuk assassins.

Halliday realises this is the place he was brought the night before blindfolded. Here, now considerably better informed than previously, he has a long second interview with Zander who is joined by one Jean-Pierre Vielle. A great deal more plot is revealed: one of the seven Rulers of the United Arab Emirates wants to send a message to the American government that he is ready to enter into a defensive pact, specifically to allow the building of a Nato air and military base at Abra Bay in his territory. Only a few years ago the UAE as a whole vetoed such a proposal but since then the USSR, its East German and Cuban allies have secured bases in Yemen and the Russians have invaded Afghanistan. They are feeling less secure.

The Ruler has hired Zander to be his go-between because he wants to sound the waters before making a move. Zander very cleverly selected Halliday, concocting the co-writing of a book cover story – appropiate because Halliday is now an author – but sending the bomb to activate Halliday’s old CIA contacts. Now they move to the next step, which is to arrange a meeting between NATO officials and the Ruler at the latter’s place in south Austria, a new clinic for people with lung conditions, which he is building. Again there will be an elaborate cover story picking up on one of Halliday’s former careers, namely that The Ruler is paying a pre-arranged visit there ie nothing special  and a camera crew led by former TV presenter Bob Halliday just happens to be around to interview him about his charitable work. The TV crew will be NATO and intelligence representatives. Ie the TV interview will be a front for all and anyone observing, purely to smuggle in the Nato representatives and secure a face-to-face meeting between them and the Ruler.

For the rest of the novel there is a vast amount of time and energy put into making the TV interview cover story secure. Halliday borrows some vans from a local TV company and briefs Zander’s team on how to look and behave like TV technicians. But Halliday realises that it will go better if they have a real crew with them and so gets  his German ‘control’ to find one: the only one available at very short notice is a genuine Dutch crew who are on their way back from making a documentary in Yugoslavia, led by a director named Kluvers.

Zander, Halliday, Simone and Jean-Pierre set off in several vehicles, one of them a camera van, for the long drive from Lake Garda to a village in Austria, with minor adventures and inconveniences along the way. Simone and Jean-Pierre bicker while Zander looks on amused. Halliday proves his good intentions by overcoming obstacles and planning ahead, growing in stature as the plan becomes more complicated. For supporting her in an argument with Jean-Pierre, later that night Simone slips into his darkened bedroom and into his bed. Halliday is not complaining.

Only when they arrive at a hotel near The Ruler’s planned health spa do they learn that this Arab’s plan to build a luxury compound in a pretty Alpine village has caused outrage among local press and politicians, exacerbated by his refusal to talk to the Press, thus making everything seem sinister. So when Halliday and his fake TV crew arrive and confidently announce that they’re about to interview the reclusive sheikh, instead of being a perfectly bland cover story, it prompts a news frenzy in its own right. The hotel keeper phones the local press who contact the national press and TV, prompting an influx of radio and journalists eager for the story. Oops.

While Zander and Simone go stay at the Ruler’s place, Halliday is called to a meeting with Schelm at which he is introduced to the NATO negotiator, Lieutenant-General Sir Patrick Newell, Military Deputy to Commander Nato Strike Force South. They have a long conversation over whisky during which they puzzle out the Ruler and Zander’s motives, as in a chess game, working through the various deceits, gambits and strategems each player could be playing. The analysis is provisional because we are told The Ruler is unbalanced, like his father, in fact has been diagnosed by western doctors as a paranoid schizophrenic. Great.

Back at Halliday’s Gasthaus Simone slips into his room and into his bed again. He confronts her with his theory that a) it is The Ruler himself who has put out the contract on Zander – yes, she says, they have reluctantly realised this is true b) the men who followed them on various occasions back in Italy did so half-heartedly because they were under orders to appear threatening but not do any harm, because c) The Ruler will arrange to have Zander killed immediately after the conclusion of business. This is so The Ruler can persuade his brother sheikhs that the approach came from Nato, he is humbly replying to a western initiative, he had nothing to do with arranging it. If Zander lived he would threaten that story.

Simone also admits she is Zander’s daughter and that the two younger assistants (barely named and who don’t get to speak) are Zander’s other children by a more recent marriage. Aha. Halliday’s support of Team Zander just got more personal.

Meanwhile, what is getting almost out of control complicated is this TV cover story. As well as meeting with a genuine film crew, Halliday now finds himself buttonholed by Austrian TV, ORF. Their producer, Rainer corners Halliday at the hotel, asking awkward questions, first about the obvious amateurishness of the interview arrangements, then warning him about The Ruler and his unpopularity in Austria.

With the knowledge that The Ruler intends to murder Zander as soon as the interview has taken place, and that he is now involved with Zander and probably included in the hit, Halliday begins to concoct complicated plans to exploit the presence of the ‘innocent’ TV companies:

He will use the Dutch crew to shoot a genuine interview with The Ruler. He will make two copies of the tapes in case The Ruler’s people demand the rushes. He will make sure the Dutch crew’s two bulky vans accompany him and Zander’s vans to the German border. Where he will hand over the rushes to Rainer. This latter involves assuring Rainer he has a genuine US sponsor for the interview (which requires him to phone his agent in New York and get her to phone a PBS producer friend, and ask him to pretend to be the exec producer of the project, before giving his number to Rainer to phone and check.)

Complicated.

Third hundred pages

Next day everyone drives out to the old silver mine which The Ruler is allegedly converting into a health spa/sanatorium, at present surrounded by wire fences and security guards with barking dogs. They are let in and at the museum created by a dotty antiquarian who bought the place generations ago, Halliday is reunited with Zander who prepares him for the vaunted interview.

Here Zander casually confirms something the Austrian TV producer said was common gossip: that The Ruler doesn’t want the silver mine as an unorthodox cure for his sinusitis or asthma – in fact he is planning to build an airtight bunker to sit out World War Three. Zander even explains how the mine’s natural hydraulics will keep it supplied with fresh air for up to eight months, until it is safe for The Ruler and his loved ones to re-emerge.

The TV interview Slightly dazed by this revelation, Halliday is then introduced to The Ruler’s Secretary and then on into the company of the Great Man himself. They agree to carry out the interview a hundred steps down into the bowels of the silver mine, at ‘the first level’. Why? Why is Halliday going to this much trouble? Why is The Ruler agreeing to it at all, since the whole TV interview is purely a cover for introducing the General and Schelm to The Ruler. This has already been achieved: they arrived from their hotel soon after the film crews and, immediately after Halliday’s brief introduction to the Ruler, went into conclave with him. Why not just drop the whole TV fiction, hang around till the VIPs have had their meeting, and leave?

Ambler’s later fictions often have this odd or freakish aspect, a compelling unnecessariness.

Here a lot of pages are spent describing the second crew arriving dirty from Yugoslavia and the technical difficulties of lighting and prepping a room deep underground and surrounded by water dripping off the walls, for a major interview. To add to the sense of the bizarre, when he arrives The Ruler is obviously high on something, cackling manically. More oddly still, after the scores of pages in which his assistants, Zander and Simone have all emphasised how he must treat the Ruler with vast respect, Halliday’s interview is almost rude, certainly impertinent, implying the Ruler knows nothing about the medical conditions he’s supposedly creating the clinic for.

And then, with wild improbability, Halliday takes the interview into bizarre territory by directly accusing The Ruler of planning to build a nuclear bunker. The Ruler airily dismisses this, but Halliday picks up on some of his denial to lead him into revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of germ warfare! Turns out The Ruler knows the latest research about nerve agents and antidotes, that he has personally attended experiments of nerve agents on apes, that he is more than an expert, he is an obsessive on the subject.

Finally it is over and the Ruler gets rather shakily to his feet and walks out. His Secretary, realising what a PR disaster it could be, reiterates that the whole interview is just a cover, right, and will never be used? The Dutch crew who Halliday has employed are stunned by what they’ve heard but the director, Kluver, agrees to switch the tapes – Halliday gets them to number unused film with the date and titles etc as if they were the rushes, and slips the actual rushes to his team to hide. Sure enough, at the barbed wire fence, the crew are held up by the guards while the Secretary comes running after them demanding the rushes. There is an angry standoff but, after some playacting, Halliday gives them the film – the blank film. Hah, he is smuggling out the incriminating interview which, if broadcast, will ruin The Ruler’s reputation and scupper his building plans.

Final scenes

As arranged Zander and Halliday’s vehicles drive in tight convoy formation surrounded by the Dutch crew’s bigger vehicles. And as expected the Rasmuk assassins make their appearance almost immediately, four of them in an old Citroen.

While they drive north to the German border to meet Rainer, Halliday confronts Simone: ‘How long have you and your father realised the Ruler’s price for allowing Nato to build an air base in the UAE is access to US nerve gas and permission to build facilities where it can be tested on human beings, the inmates of his many prisons?’ Now it makes sense that, before they were called in to start the interview, Halliday and crew had seen the General and the German spy emerge from their face-to-face with the Ruler looking dazed. That is why. Being able to test nerve gas and its antidotes was The Ruler’s quid pro quo for letting Nato build a base in his emirate.

Throughout, the novel has proceeded by Halliday either knowing things about himself (his CIA career) or realising things about the plan (the book is a cover, the contractor for the hit is The Ruler himself, and now, that The Ruler demands nerve gas facilities) which are deliberately concealed from the reader. It gives you a constant sense of playing catch-up with a world, with a reality, that is constantly beyond your grasp.

Just before the border they rendezvous with Rainer from Austrian TV and give him tape one of two, the one with the main body of the interview, including The Ruler’s mad cackle and his crazed fantasies about experimenting on human beings. Halliday will hang on to the second tape which contains a bit more of the same and then the ‘reverse shots’ and other shots of the location. While the cars are parked – in a typical piece of Ambler oddity – one of the Rasmuk assassins strolls over to the parked cars and introduces himself to Zander. He is Bourger, now a paid assassin but they knew him as a boy back in Algeria where they lived for a while and where Simone grew up. Bourger is embarrassed about having to do this job, but he will do no killing. He explains he is merely here to confirm the identification of Zander and Simone which, sadly, he has done.

The tape handed over to Rainer, the Dutch crew now free to go their way north, our guys are alone in their van and Zander reveals he’s made a change to the plans. They drive off south but at a junction don’t take the expected route to Italy, but turn left towards Yugoslavia. Bourger and the hitmen pursue them and, contrary to promises, machine gun the van behind them, badly wounding one of Zanders assistants, Guido.

Seeing this from the van in front, our guys accelerate ahead (Simone is feministically driving) and head off down a side track, past abandoned buildings to where the track ends in footpaths up into the hills. Here they grab the machine guns and ammunition Zander had thoughtfully packed and scramble into hiding positions. When Bourger and his men begin to tentatively fan out across the hillside, our team massacres them, in a few seconds killing all four goons.

Having anticipated this turn of events, Zander had readied Jean-Pierre, who now arrives in a hire car. He’ll drive back to the scene of the Guido shooting with a cock and bull story for the police about Zander, Simone and Halliday having caught a train north. Quickly Zander, Simon, Halliday jump into the station wagon and head off in another direction.

After hard driving they turn in the rental car at Salzberg airport and take a taxi to the German border, walking across it with hand luggage then going into an all-night cafe for food. Here Schelm and his forces meet them and spirit them away. It is goodbye, goodbye to Zander, goodbye to Simone. Schelm tells Halliday he’s arranged a flight for him from Frankfurt to New York. It’s goodbye to Schelm.

But Halliday showers and shaves, catches a cab to the airport and onto an earlier plane than Schelm had arranged. He figures Schelm will have organised a reception committee at New York and intends to evade it. In fact, he still walks into it and is stopped and searched at US Customs. However, he had taken the precaution of posting the can of film separately from Frankfurt direct to his agent, who forwards it to the producer at PBS. So all can still be broadcast, right?

Wrong. In the final reversal of the novel, the PBS producer phones him to explain a) the big publishing company that started the whole thing rolling is a major sponsor of PBS and broadcasting the remaining content would antagonise them. Worse, b) after Austrian TV aired the majority of the interview, The Ruler was checked into a sanatorium for people with mental problems by his caring family. Ie broadcasting the interview now would be victimising a poor, helpless, unwell man.

Oh well. He tried to do the right thing. He feels pretty safe from Rasmuk as Zander and co had speculated that, if Rasmuk didn’t get its targets on the first day, it would probably hush the whole thing up. Plus the person who put out the contract, The Ruler, has become incapable of free action so, presumably, the contract has expired.

A few months later Halliday sees a newspaper reports that rumours of discussions between Nato and the UAE about the setting up of a military base in Abra Bay are all false. Ie they’re all true.

And, finally, he gets a postcard from Simone saying the Zander family is being given a new identity and safe place to live, courtesy of the US authorities. Will Halliday want to be in touch once they’re settled?

Time is taking care of Zander, as it is taking care of me, steadily and, presumably, without much more fuss. His family, however, still has a long way to go. I am really not sure how I will reply. (Last words, p.299)

Thoughts

The Care of Time is a long, convoluted story, at every stage involving lengthy conversations in which the characters tease out all the logical alternative plans of action they and their various opponents may or may not embark on. Reminds me slightly of the kinds of process flow diagrams I see at work. Sometimes hard to follow – or you wonder why you are bothering to follow the intricate possibilities when you could skip ten pages and find out what actually happens. 

It is about nominally serious subjects – Nato involvement with the Arab world, fear of chemical warfare – which somehow, through the lens of Ambler’s peculiarly detached and clinical style and his dry sense of irony, become almost empty tokens in an ornate and baroque perplexity of text. It is like a very very very dry martini.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a traditional thriller because, despite containing many of the classic components, it isn’t one. It is something odder and stranger than that. A genuine puzzle. A puzzle which enjoys puzzling over its own puzzlement.

The TV movie

The book was turned into ‘a major television film’, directed by John Davies, starring Michael Brandon as Robert Halliday and Christopher Lee as Karlis Zander, and broadcast in 1990.

Related links

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his own boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which fails and leaves Firman, in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first ever British exhibition of the work of Dutch graphic artist, Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), well known for the mind-boggling optical illusions he created in scores of prints, reproduced in posters, book covers and throughout the culture. Over 100 prints are gathered together along with an extremely informative audio commentary and fascinating wall labels.

Parents and patterns

Escher’s father was a civil engineer and he himself started out training as an architect before switching to graphic art. In 1922 he visited Spain and the Alhambra where he was smitten by the beauty of Islamic tiles, tiles laid in a vast variety of geometric patterns. This introduced the notion of tessalation, where tiles or geometric elements are arranged with no gaps to create a continuous surface. In the first room the commentary gives a useful list of the character of Escher’s prints, whatever the subject matter:

  • pattern
  • the whole surface covered equally, with no fading at the edges or foregrounding of key elements
  • minute attention to detail

Italy

As to subject matter, from the start he showed an interest in optical effects. His 1922 trip to Spain also included Italy and it was here he met his wife, settled and lived for a decade, spent months on trips to remote out of the way mountain villages, and created scores of images of those Italian towns built on the edges of hills and steep slopes.

The first room has lots of these showing his interest in a) buildings b) buildings and landscape together considered as semi-abstract patterns c) odd points of view, from either high up or low down.

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (Self-Portait in Spherical Mirror) (January 1935) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Hand with Reflecting Sphere (Self-Portait in Spherical Mirror) (January 1935) Lithograph. Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

During the later 1920s and 1930s he produced a wide range of these landscapes along with figurative prints of the images around him, including a number of self-portraits, though refracted through his interest in oddities of perspective.

Weak faces

One thing we learn from the exhibition is Escher wasn’t so good at the human figure or face. In the image above the striking thing is, obviously, the distorting effect of the glass globe he’s reflected in. The detail of the hand is marvellous. And the head… it’s simplistic, cartoon-y. Later there are several close-ups of a human eye, presumably the artist’s own, featuring the reflection of a skull in the pupil. Reminds me of the kind of thing you see in sixth form art departments, very capable but trite.

Compare and contrast with Balcony from 1945, displaying a similar interest in the distorting effect of a convex mirror, but  this time applying it – surreally – to a building. Semi-abstract tessalations excellent – buildings good – people, not so hot.

Back to northern Europe

It was the growing impact of Mussolini’s Fascism on Italian life, the fact his sons had to wear semi-military uniforms to school and so on, that drove Escher to leave Italy in 1935, moving first to Switzerland, then to Brussels, then early in the war to the Netherlands, where he lived the rest of his life.

The exhibition suggests that, deprived of the – itself slightly fantastical – scenery of Italy and now immersed in the grey, cloudy, flat and dull landscape of northern Europe, Escher sought solace or expression in an increasingly inner vision.

A classic example of this is one of his most popular prints, Day and Night (1938), where you can see landscape changing into abstract pattern, combined with the trick or device of having one half of the picture in day, one in night. The commentary says it was very popular and Escher was pestered by agents to run off more prints. Eventually he became so sick of it, he started raising the price to deter buyers, but that only made them more keen. Human nature. It also points out a good example of Escher’s attention to detail. In the town on the left, it is daytime and the streets are filled with tiny figures going about their work. In the night-time town, there are no figures, everyone is at home which is why the lights are on.

M.C. Escher, Day and Night (February 1938) Woodcut in black and grey Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Day and Night (February 1938) Woodcut in black and grey
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

Another classic from this period is Still Life and Street (1937). It takes a moment for the viewer to realise that the perfectly naturalistic street scene has been set on top of a table next to some books and a pipe.

Throughout the exhibition runs Escher’s sense that there is something absurd about trying to convey three dimensional images in a two dimensional medium. This recurring fascination with the absurdity of his own craft is reflected in Reptiles, where miniature lizard-crocodiles clamber out of a two dimensional illustration, over the artist’s desktop clutter, and back into the original flat image. It’s funny but (as the saying goes) is it art? Or a higher form of cartoon?

M.C. Escher, Reptiles (March 1943) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher, Reptiles (March 1943) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

Shape over symbol

It’s interesting that Escher eschewed any symbolism in his works. There is no psychology or politics or personal messages or any meaning of any kind. He wanted to amaze and entertain. On the one hand this is admirable. On the other, it might contribute to the sense that the images are somehow not serious. Continuing that thought, the exhibition points out that the kind of shapes he used – for example the frequently-found lizard motif – is little to do with their ‘meaning’, everything to do with their usefulness in creating tessalations and patterns, as the title of this one suggests – Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/ Lizards.

M.C. Escher Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/ Lizards no.56 (November 1942) Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/ Lizards no.56 (November 1942) Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

The pathos of hands

This is one his great images, Drawing hands from 1948, after the horrors of the war were over. It shows the same interest in the 2D/3D conundrum as the lizards from 1943, combined with the jokey circularity of a hand drawing the first hand drawing the second hand etc. For my money this is the only work among the 100 here which really qualifies as a ‘work of art’ because of the extraordinary pathos of the hands, drawn with a challenging insight into age, mortality, experience and suffering.

The commentary emphasises that Escher was uninfluenced by all the art movements of his day, was a one-man art movement and more interested in the precise draughtsmanship of late medieval artists. Well, I’d suggest a kinship between this image and Albrecht Dürer’s famous image of praying hands.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands (1948) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Drawing Hands (1948) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

The 1950s

By the 1950s he had found his voice and the works from this period include many of his most famous visual paradoxes. He became more widely known and attracted the attention of a number of mathematicians who collaborated and shared ideas about mathematical patterns and paradoxes. There is a lengthy explanation of Escher’s relationship with British father-and-son mathematicians, Lionel and Roger Penrose, inventors of the Penrose Stairs, which Escher then used as the basis for Ascending and Descending (below).

M.C. Escher, Bond of Union (April 1956) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Bond of Union (April 1956) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

He perfected the depiction of impossible buildings, buildings which contain two perspectives at the same time, the most famous being the image of the figures going up a flight of steps arranged in a square which never seems to end, but there are plenty of other examples of the same mind-bending games with perspective.

  • Up and Down (1947) At the bottom you are looking at the scene from below, but due to some alchemy of the arrangement of the images by the time you’ve scanned to the top you are looking at the same image from above. The commentary points out that if you had two copies and laid them one on top of the other they would join seamlessly. the series is potentially infinitely replicable.
  • Relativity (1953)
  • Convex and Concave (1953)
  • Ascending and Descending (1960)

Note his early training as an architect. Note, also, the cartoon, storybook-illustration level of the human figures.

M.C. Escher, Belvedere (May 1958) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Belvedere (May 1958) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

1960s and fame

In 1961 a book of his work was published and, as the decade of drugs and experiments with consciousness and mind-altering experiences unfolded, his work was taken up, turned into posters adorning a million student bedrooms, became part of pop culture. The commentary tells us that Mick Jagger contacted him, asking if he could design a gatefold cover for a Rolling Stones album, and Stanley Kubrick got in touch wondering if he’d be interested in collaborating on 2001 A Space Odyssey.

No, was the short answer. Escher’s methods, the painstaking creation of minutely-detailed woodcuts, lithographs, linotypes and engravings, took up a tremendous amount of time, and also he was a shy, private and meticulous man.

Favourites

Having walked back and forth through the exhibition three or four times, I found myself impressed but not ‘taken’ by the famous optical puzzle pictures. I also didn’t like the many images consisting just of patterns, whether abstract geometrical ones or ones made out of tessalations of lizards or frogs or seagulls.

If I had the money I would like to own two or three of his most figurative works. I absolutely loved Freighter, one of many prints he made from several months spent on a freighter steaming around the Mediterranean in 1936. I can’t find a copy of it large enough to do justice on the internet, but in the flesh it is large and bold and totally convincing. Its clarity of line reminded me of the beautiful draughtsmanship of the classic Tintin cartoons.

And, in the last room of the show, among more geometric trickery, was a cluster of prints showing that, right up to the end Escher retained an interest in purely figurative subject matter and a particular interest in water, including Rippled Surface, a lino cut from 1950, and Puddle. This said more to me than all the puzzles and perturbations. It is a northern landscape of mud and water, a wintry landscape. For some reason it reminds me of the line drawings in Tove Jansson’s moomintroll books. It has the hard black outlines of a good book illustration. For me it opens a doorway into a far more mysterious world than the neverending staircases, but a world Escher also knew and beautifully captures.

M.C. Escher,Puddle (February 1952) Woodcut Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher Puddle (February 1952) Woodcut
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

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Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Wilt On High by Tom Sharpe (1984)

‘And don’t get the idea I’m on a right-wing, flog ’em and hang ’em reactionary high because I’m not… I’m just mister stick-in-the-middle who doesn’t know which way to jump.’ (p.138)

Third outing for Henry Wilt, bilious lecturer and Head of Liberal Studies at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology (‘the Tech’). The brilliant first novel (Wilt, 1976) rotated around the consequences of Wilt’s mishaps with a blow-up sex doll, which managed to spawn enough comic consequences to fill a book. This one, like later Sharpe generally, has its moments but struggles to be as funny.

The plot

Dead junkie A student dies of a heroin overdose at the college (straightaway, not that funny), prompting panic among the various time-serving lecturers and officials. Wilt is inadvertently involved because it was his secretary who reported seeing the young girl shooting up in the ladies loo, prompting Wilt to go running to the nearest toilets, where there is no junky but an outraged female Physical Exercise lecturer, who accuses Wilt of being a peeping Tom. She assaults him very violently and makes an official complaint. (Later, too late, Wilt’s secretary tells him she meant the upstairs toilets. Oops.)

A little later the poor girl is found dead in the boiler room and the police called. Turns out she is the daughter of Lord Lynchknowle, a cold-hearted aristocrat who doesn’t care much but has to make a show of grief to placate his ghastly wife, and so asks his good chum, the Home Secretary, to bring pressure to bear on the Chief Constable to sort out the drug problem in the county.

‘Fireworks’ Harry Wilt, meanwhile, has been picking up extra money by giving tuition to prisoners at Ipford prison. When a particularly unpleasant crook (‘Fireworks’ Harry McCullum, p.60) gets angry with Wilt, threatening to break out to come and ‘do’ him, a shaken Wilt – a few hours later from the safety of his local pub – phones the governor to ask if there’s been a breakout. It’s a bad line and the governor thinks Wilt has inside knowledge that there’s about to be a breakout and he moves to the prison to battle stations. All the prisoners on the higher floors are transferred down into the already cramped lower cells, prompting actual outbreaks of violence, fights and mattress burning. The over-officious Chief Warden decides to issue double strength tranquilisers to the inmates in their cocoa, which has the unfortunate result of killing ‘Fireworks’ Harry when he drinks his own and his cellmates’ portions.

Bugging Wilt The prison authorities find a load of heroin in Harry’s mattress and decide to hush up the tranquiliser angle and emphasise the illegal drugs. Which brings things to the attention of the local constabulary. Here, Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, always on the lookout for ways to nail Wilt, stumbles on the idea of giving all this incriminating evidence (Wilt somehow involved with the dead student, Wilt giving tuition to the dead convict) to the stupid, over-ambitious head of the drug squad, Inspector Hodge. Hodge, along with his idiot sidekick Sergeant Runk, promptly bugs Wilt’s house and car, from that point onwards misinterpreting everything which happens in the (admittedly bizarre) Wilt household, as further evidence incriminating Wilt, who ends up seeming like a drug-smuggling criminal mastermind.

Painful penis In a separate plotline Wilt’s wife had been persuaded by her friend the militant feminist, Mavis Mottram, to pay a visit to a disreputable herbalist, Dr Kores, seeking a remedy for Wilt’s low sex drive. She slips the resulting potion into Wilt’s home brew, which he drinks rather too much of after a crappy day at work with the result that, for the rest of the novel, Wilt’s penis gives him a lot of trouble – at first burning, then feeling like it is full of broken glass, then marching ants.

There’s an archetypal ‘Sharpe’ scene where the pain drives Wilt to go down to the kitchen in the middle of the night desperate for any kind of relief, in his desperation even using Eva’s icing cake syringe to try and inject cream up his penis. It is at this unfortunate moment that Eva walks in and catches him – which is bad enough – but he’s in the middle of explaining his behaviour to his wife when his four daughters burst in and see their daddy in this compromising position! Even after a few days, the painful penis is still liable to go to full erection at the drop of a hat – or the bending over of a pretty woman.

US Air Force It is in this state – liable to instant hard-ons at the most embarrassing moments and in a car stuffed full of bugging devices – that Wilt motors off to the nearby US Air Force Base, Baconheath, to deliver his regular Friday evening lecture about British culture. Except the base security officers locate the sonic devices planted by Inspector Hodge in Wilt’s car and, while he is lecturing, call a full scale security alert, sending in a SWAT team with immobilising gas (the new and experimental ‘Agent Incapacitating’) which sends lecturer and audience into a drug-induced delirium.

Interrogation Wilt comes round to find himself being interrogated by the dim but madly ambitious Major Glaushof who is convinced he is a Soviet spy and threatens him with such violence that Wilt eagerly co-operates, supplying him with the names of fake Russian contacts. Meanwhile, the much more sensible Head of Intelligence, Colonel Urwin, works out the truth that Wilt is under surveillance by the local cops.

But not before, in a characteristically wild scene, Glaushof takes Wilt back to his house to ever so cunningly get him seduced by Glaushof’s randy wife, dolled up for the occasion in bra, stockings and suspenders. Mrs Glaushof enters into the spirit of the thing much too enthusiastically, locking the bedroom door and taking Wilt’s swollen penis in hand, at which point the Major tries to abort proceedings, banging loudly on the door. As his wife manoeuvres herself to sit on Wilt’s face, the latter in disgusted desperation bites her thigh, drawing blood, at which she goes for the service pistol kept in the bedroom, shooting wildly through the door and injuring her own husband in the shoulder, before Wilt clobbers her with the bedside table.

When the unhappy trio are dragged before the base commandant (nickname: ‘old B52’), he is not impressed and swings behind Colonel Urwin’s more boring interpretation of Wilt’s innocence.

Mothers Against The Bomb Meanwhile Eva, sick with worry about her missing Henry, makes enquiries and is upset to discover Henry’s been deceiving her about teaching at the USAAF base: he told her he was teaching at the prison on Friday nights. Eva’s friend, Mavis Mottram puts the blackest possible interpretation on this deceit, accusing Wilt of visiting a mistress there (whereas Wilt simply didn’t want to prompt an anti-nuclear, anti-American diatribe from his trendy lefty wife). After driving out to the base and being turned away at the gate, Eva returns more determined, along with the quadruplets, and co-ordinating her arrival with Mavis calling up coachloads of ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’, the anti-nuclear pressure group, and arranging for local TV, radio  and journalists to report on the ‘protest’.

While the Mothers set up loudspeakers and start dancing the can-can, the quads attack guards who have come unwisely near them with a variety of home-made weapons, seizing their guns and then managing to threaten the driver of an oil tanker into pouring a massive slick of oil over the entrance gates. Think the mayhem of a St Trinians movie. The oil causes Major Glaushof’s car to skid and crash into the fencing, while the Attack Alert siren is set off, and the redoubtable Eva lays into the troops trying to restrain her. The whole riotous scene climaxes in the Mothers setting off an enormous inflatable penis – a symbol of the oppressive patriarchy – to float serenely over the chaotic scenes below and which, at the click of a switch, sheds its its skin to reveal underneath an enormous (balloon) nuclear missile. It’s at  this moment that dim Inspector Hodge arrives in a police car which skids over the oil and crashes into the TV vans.

Wilt was being questioned by the relatively benign camp commander when all this breaks out and it is he who – as in his previous novels – suddenly shows a burst of common-sense heroism. Into the mayhem he wades, retrieving his wife and daughters from the gatehouse and is joined by the practical Colonel Urwin who hustles them over to a waiting helicopter which, in moments, flies them high up over the scene and away to peaceful Ipford. As they alight in a field well clear of the base:

In the distance there was a sudden flash and a small ball of flame. Major Glaushof had fired a tracer round into Mavis Mottram’s inflated penis. (p.246)

Aftermath A short epilogue ties up all the loose ends: Wilt is back at the Tech. After fraught negotiations between US lawyers and MI5, Wilt and Eva agree to sign the Official Secrets Act in return for secret damages from the Americans, which Wilt uses to pay for a quarter of a million pounds worth of books for the Tech, from a supposedly ‘anonymous’ donor, but credited to Wilt’s influence. The Principal is gutted. He’ll never get rid of Wilt now.

Hodge is busted back to sergeant and Inspector Flint emerges as not such a shouty stereotype after all: quietly in the background he had been tracking down the real circle of heroin smugglers, work he shows to the Chief Constable who is duly impressed, even if he doesn’t realise that Flint is now going to get his convictions by framing the guilty men, planting heroin and equipment at their homes…

Mavis’s ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’ shoot to nationwide fame after TV pictures show them being gassed and dragged about by brutal US guards, and women flock from all over Britain to set up a ‘peace camp’ outside Baconheath. ‘Old B52’ never recovers from the sight of a giant penis morphing into a floating nuke and is retired early to a rest home for the demented in Arizona. And so peace returns to Ipford and the Wilt household. Until his next adventure…


Penises and Police

are both stock features of Sharpe’s savage satires. His first (and arguably best) novel, Riotous Assembly, is a madcap satire on the South African police and features their burly leader, Kommandant van Heerden, being tied up, dressed in plastic fetish outfit by a perverted old lady and threatened with having a syringe of novocaine plunged in his penis. In the sequel, Indecent Exposure, the ambitious but dim Luitenant Verkramp has the mad idea of attaching the entire police force’s penises to electrodes and giving them electric shocks at the sight of naked black women, in a crazed attempt to cut down on miscegenation.

The plot of Blott leads to the involvement of the police and then the Army in the bizarre goings-on at Handyman Hall, and a good deal of the first Wilt novel consists of the prolonged (and comically frustrated) interrogation of Wilt by Inspector Flint. The Throwback involves the police being called in to besiege Flawse Hall in Northumberland before the tremendous scene where various sections of the Army open fire on each other in the explosive climax at the Close. The Wilt Alternative shows the shambolic police handling the kidnap of Wilt and his wife by international terrorists, though the early section dwells long on Wilt’s penis after he has a drunken pee in a rose bush and badly gashes it, resulting in comic visits to his doctor and hospital.

This quick review suggests that it’s a close run thing, but although penises supply a useful comic topic of embarrassment, pain, shame and humiliation, in the long run it’s the police and the army which seem the most consistent feature of Sharpe’s satires. Again and again the protagonists – the unwitting victims of wildly improbable sequences of events – are hauled in for prolonged and humiliating interrogation at the hands of the authorities.

Is this because Sharpe has a Hitchcock-like fear of the police, or because there is something fundamentally comic about the Interrogation of an Innocent Man by Incompetent Cops?


Hysteria instead of comedy

Early on in the novel an observer from the Ministry of Education visits to monitor teaching at the college prompting the ever-obstinate Wilt to quickly become obstructive and abusive. Pages later Wilt’s nemesis on the local police force, Inspector Flint, meets his doctor to discuss his problems with his waterworks. Neither situation is particularly funny and nothing particularly funny happens. What does happen is the characters swiftly become seething with anger and aggression, start swearing and insulting everyone they can think of.

… a sense of grievance against Henry fucking Wilt… Wilt had buggered his career… The little sod was sitting pretty… and a right smart-arse he was too… the number of brainy bastards… ‘I don’t want any more of the piss pills… The bleeding things are dehydrating me. I’m on the bloody trot all the time… I’m not some bleeding dog you know… Fucking awful is all I know… have a prick parade and  ask the victims to go along studying cocks… I couldn’t get the fucking thing up even if I wanted to…’ (pp.29-32)

And so on and so on, almost all the characters effing and blinding, routinely referring to each other as sods and buggers and bastards, throughout the book. I’ve got nothing against swearwords, I enjoy them when deployed with style, but these characters are swearing at each other for no real reason. In the first half of the book, at least, there is a gap between the unnecessary maliciousness of the language and the relatively banal, not to say boring, underlying situations.

For me that gap lasts throughout the book, which is written in a frenzied style, describing characters constantly going off the deep end, effing and blinding at each other – when the storyline and the scenes don’t really justify it. Only in the last quarter of the book, the scenes set in the USAAF base, does the mayhem of the plot catch up with the profanity of the swearing when, ironically, the swearing actually drops off, as if it’s not needed; as if the madcap plot is now enough.

Sharpe’s earlier novels concocted fantastic, farcical, grotesque scenarios which fully justified their characters’ hysteria and mania. In the later novels the scenarios tend to lag behind the characters’ frenzied language. Put another way: although the storylines reliably build up to grotesque climaxes, it is jarring that the characters start at an unnecessarily high pitch; it would be more effective if the characters’ swearing crept in, if previously restrained people started losing it in proportion to their world going to pieces.


Social history

Only intermittently funny – at least until the climactic fiasco – the novel is often more as interesting as a record of social attitudes seen through the eyes of a rather right-wing, 56-year-old, public school-educated man. What’s most striking for me is the way so many of these issues are still with us:

  • Crisis in higher education It’s a time of austerity and the college faces swingeing cuts.
  • Bureaucracy Wilt is driven to distraction by endless meetings which generate long pointless documents full of impenetrable management speak about ‘aims’ and ‘values’.
  • Feminism Eva Wilt’s friend Mavis Mottram is a militant feminist constantly lecturing Eva about the awfulness of men, about evil multinational corporations, about the wickedness of the wars men start and the weapons of mass destruction they have created, never losing an opportunity to point out the everyday sexism of the book’s male characters.
  • Kids education Wilt is impoverishing himself and working overtime to pay fees to send his four daughters – the fiendish quadruplets – to a School for the Mentally Gifted, lacking faith in the state education system.
  • Computers Wilt jokes that the kids are better at computers than the adults, in fact worries that his girls are addicted to their computers.
  • Porn Eva and Wilt discuss (well, shout at each other about) the tide of video nasties and pornographic filth washing over the country.
  • Drugs Although, as with other Sharpe novels, the initial plot is soon lost sight of, the whole book does start off being about a tragic death from a heroin overdose and Flint’s detective work tracking down the drug smuggling ring continues right up to the last pages.

It’s as if, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a kind of hinge or turn in history, and a lot of ‘issues’, along with related stock social ‘types’, first appeared – trendy lefties, strident feminists, tiresome vegetarians, environmental activists, anti-nuclear marchers, alongside social features like the widespread availability of drugs (producing the stock figure of the ‘junkie’) and the proliferation of hard-core pornography.

These don’t appear in the fiction of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s – but have been permanent features of newspapers, magazines and middle class conversation ever since the 1970s, ‘issues’ and social types which have been with us for at least forty years, but – and this is the really puzzling thing – are continually treated as if unprecedented, front page news.


Author’s message

Right at the end of the book, as the helicopter lifts Wilt, Eva and the terrible quads high above the fray, Wilt has a moment of insight, an epiphany, which we can’t help but reading as also reflecting Sharpe’s view. It’s worth quoting at length for at least two reasons:

a) it’s a reminder that, although he pokes fun at trendy lefty lecturer, at feminists etc, Sharpe can’t be easily pigeon-holed as a right-wing writer; his satire, his contrarianism, is more wide-ranging than that;

b) it shows the mental pressure, the weight of anxiety, that the threat of nuclear war pressed down on everyone who lived through those years, and especially the sense of heightened fear that characterised the era of President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher, when many, maybe most, people genuinely thought there might be a world-annihilating nuclear war. (For some reason I think of Raymond Briggs’ deliberately shocking animation, When the Wind Blows, 1982. Or compare with the other novel from 1984 I’ve just read, Frederick Forysth’s The Fourth Protocol, which boils down to a plot to detonate a nuclear weapon at a US Air Force base in Suffolk and also features a march by largely female peace protestors. It is interesting to compare Forsyth’s attitude to these women – unmitigated contempt – with Sharpe, who sympathises with them.)

Ten minutes later Wilt looked down from a thousand feet at the pattern of runways and roads, buildings and bunkers and at the tiny group of women being carried from the gate to waiting ambulances. For the first time he felt some sympathy for Mavis Mottram. For all her faults she had been right to pit herself against the banal enormity of the airbase. The place had all the characteristics of a potential extermination camp. True, nobody was being herded into gas chambers and there was no smoke rising from crematoria. But the blind obedience to orders was there, instilled in Glaushof and even in Colonel Urwin. Everyone in fact, except Mavis Mottram and the human chain of women at the gate. The others would all obey orders if the time came and the real holocaust would begin. And this time there would be no liberators, no successive generations to erect memorials to the dead or learn lessons from past horrors. There would be only silence. The wind and the sea the only voices left. (p.245)

Reading both books made me realise how completely this terrible anxiety has disappeared from the culture of our time, 2015, and how impossible it is to convey what it felt like to anyone who didn’t live through it.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, illustrated by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, illustrated by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story.

The cover above shows: top left Ipford prison where Wilt starts a riot; middle left Mothers Against The Bomb doing the can-can; bottom left a canister of Agent Incapacitating releasing clouds of gas which have knocked out a couple of the nice ladies who attend Wilt’s lectures at USAF Baconheath; at right the frenzied faces of the US security officers during the climactic riot, one of them being lustily kneed in the balls by an outraged Eva Wilt; all dominated by the figure of Wilt, the skinny terrified man being mounted by Major Glaushof’s randy wife, at his feet the icing-cake syringe which he used to try and inject moisturising cream up his penis, and the revolver with which she shoots her own husband, and over it all the image of the giant penis-balloon shedding its skin to become a nuclear missile. It’s a mad world.

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.


Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (1984)

My feeling that the characters and institutions in this novel are almost surreally perfect, that all the soldiers, police, Special Branch, secret agents, intelligence operatives, forensic scientists, nuclear advisers, Customs & Excise officials perform their duty with exemplary efficiency, like the Photoshopped figures in a government recruitment poster – was crystallised when our hero catches the 9.25 train from St Pancras to Sheffield and it not only leaves on time but stops at each station stop along the way bang on time. Not in the real world, not in the Britain I live in, and not in the Britain of the 1980s, it wouldn’t have.

As I noted in my review of The Devil’s Alternative, Forsyth’s novels are supremely confident in tackling high-level, diplomatic and geopolitical subjects and stuffed full of a high-end journalist’s obsession with organisational and administrative detail. But the way all the officials behave impeccably, the police, army, agents are all epitomes, exemplars and models of their type, gives the whole story a plastic, unreal feel. So many of the humans mentioned in the plot are wafer-thin, Action Man figurines who perform their function in the clockwork plot like automata.

Short plot summary

Set in what was then the future – 1987 – the Russians hatch a plan, Operation Aurora, to discredit the current Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher and secure the election of a Labour government. The plan is based on the premise – described in great detail (pp.60-74 and pp.94-104) – that the Labour Party has been penetrated at all levels by hard-core Marxist-Leninists who, once the Party is elected, will promptly overthrow the Labour leader and institute a communist government. This government will immediately withdraw from NATO, the EEC, expel all American troops along with their Cruise missiles, and declare unilateral nuclear disarmament. And this will weaken the Western world so that the Russians can, er, will be able to, er… well, that much isn’t defined. It is just stated that the above policies will ‘fatally weaken’ the West and so are devoutly to be wished for by Moscow.

As to the specifics of the plan, the KGB send their best man, Valeri Petrofsky, to adopt the ‘legend’ (ie clean identity) of James Ross and rent an inconspicuous house in Ipswich. 10 couriers will be sent via different routes to meet him at various locations around England. Each will deliver (unknown to themselves) the components of a ‘small’ nuclear bomb. The eleventh man, Vassiliev, will be a weapons expert who assembles the device. Then Petrofsky will detonate it at a US air base in Suffolk, devastating the base and local area. Moscow will publish warnings it has sent the US about the recklessness of using small and unstable nukes, along with technical information designed to blame the Americans’ recklessness for the ‘accident’.

It is this disastrous ‘accident’ which will prompt revulsion against the pro-American, pro-nuke Mrs Thatcher and cause a last-minute swing in the electorate in favour of Labour with its strong anti-nuclear policy, leading to the election of a Labour government and to the communist coup described above. When Mrs Thatcher (for she is named in the novel) announces a snap election for June 1987, the plan kicks into action and the clock starts ticking…

1. Kim Philby Rather amazingly, the real-life character of Kim Philby plays a large part in the first half of the book. We meet him miserable and disillusioned in his Moscow flat, married with young kids but still a respected member of the KGB establishment. To his surprise he is called to a meeting with the old and sick General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who requests a detailed summary of the political situation in Britain. Philby’s report is included in the text, all 25 pages of it, which gives a thorough and fantastical account of the extent to which the British Labour Party and the Trades Unions have been infiltrated at every level by hard-core revolutionary communists. This is the seed of the daring plan which the novel describes.

2. The burglary The first hundred pages or so interweave elements of this plot with the straightforward narrative of a south London burglar, Jim Rawlings, who breaks into the home of upper-class George Berenson to steal his wife’s legendary diamonds. He also nicks an attache case to put his swag in but is surprised to discover it contains a cache of Top Secret documents. Being an honest crook, guvnor, he posts the documents back to the police, who pass them on to MI5.

3. Special agent John Preston Enter four-square, ex-Paratrooper, now the upright and thorough MI5 agent, John Preston. He and the authorities only have the documents posted to them, showing there’s been a leak but with no evidence who stole them. Preston undertakes a meticulous, and meticulously described by Forsyth, investigation which eventually narrows it down to Berenson. The process by which this is done is fascinating, a master class in Forsyth’s astonishing grasp of bureaucratic and administrative detail.

4. South Africa Preston then tails Berenson and discovers his ‘control’ is an agent in the South African embassy, one Jan Marais. In a long, immensely detailed and extraordinary tour de force of investigation, Preston flies to South Africa, where he is loaned a senior officer to help him out and take him round. This officer, Viljoen, is at first sceptical but Preston demonstrates the superiority of the British secret services by piecing together the extraordinary story of Jan Marais’s life and his career during the second world war to prove that he is in fact a Soviet spy. The South Africans are appalled, grateful and impressed. Back in Britain Berenson is horrified at his own stupidity and treachery; contrary to his intentions he has been passing key documents to the very Soviets he purports to despise. Forsyth has several pungent passages on the narcissism and stupidity of such imbeciles who set themselves against the wisdom of the authorities.

5. Agency rivalries All this ‘action’ – ie Preston’s adventures – is cleverly interwoven not only with developments in Moscow, as Philby’s plan is assessed and adopted, but with detailed descriptions of a power struggle at the top of British security where MI5’s sickly boss Sir Bernard Hemmings is being manouevred out the door by his number two, Brian Harcourt-Smith. Harcourt-Smith hates Preston and suppresses a report he presented right at the start of the book about the left-wing penetration of the Labour Party. The way he did this made me think, for most of the book, that he, Harcourt-Smith, must be a deeper ‘mole’ or agent for the Soviets… Meanwhile, as the evidence mounts that the Sovs are mounting some kind of major operation, the head of MI6, Sir Nigel Irvine, poaches Preston from MI5 where he’s been sidelined, and gives him authority to pursue the investigation as he sees fit.

6. Thrill of the chase The last 150 pages of the novel are structurally similar to Day of The Jackal in the way it becomes a chase: with Honest John slowly piecing together the horrific plan and desperately trying to track down the Russian agent while, in alternating scenes, we follow in detail the preparations, travel, rendezvous of each courier with Evil Valeri. Thus the tension is very effectively ratcheted up and up…

Implausibility

BUT – The plot is fundamentally laughable. The more you think about it, it seems ludicrously paranoid. Sure the Militant Tendency had infiltrated many local Labour parties during the early 1980s, but Neil Kinnock effectively faced them down, and then the year-long Miners’ Strike (1984-85), which began about the time this novel was published, highlighted the superficial power but ultimate weakness of the entire British Trade Union movement, ending in complete defeat and helping Mrs Thatcher to her record third election victory in 1987.

In the scenario of this book, the nuclear ‘accident’ was to swing the electorate at the last moment against Mrs Thatcher and in favour of Labour; and within days of being elected Neil Kinnock would be overthrown in a Party coup and replaced by – …. who exactly? Tony Benn? Really? A few moments’ reflection suggest that, in the light of a nuclear explosion, the electorate would probably be scared and afraid and flee to the party of Law and Order. In fact, such an event would have played to all Mrs Thatcher’s strengths, the resolution she showed during the Falklands War (April-June 1982), her bravery after the Brighton Bombing (12 October 1984).

Even as a political fantasy, the plot doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Elements

The Wikipedia article on ‘airport novels’ doesn’t specify exactly when they were invented or when it evolved into a distinct genre, but it does mention that an airport novel must be:

  • long
  • absorbing
  • exciting and thrilling
  • superficial, containing no depth of characterisation, no profound meaning, no message
  • since the airplane passenger has no works of reference about, it must include its own background information
  • and be forgettable

Long

The Fourth Protocol is the longest novel I’ve read in a while, at 526 pages in the Corgi paperback edition. In fact it feels like several novels crammed into one: a first half which starts with the burglary, segues into identifying the ‘mole’ in the service, before taking John Preston to South Africa to perform his brilliant detective work. This takes hundreds of pages but, fascinating and rewardingly complex though it is, the first half feels only tangentially related to the nuclear plot in the second half.

Absorbing / providing its own background information

Forsyth was a high end journalist before he was a novelist and good gracious it shows. Nothing is mentioned without at least half a page of explanation and description. Every gun, piece of equipment – cameras, microphones, burglar alarms and so on – are lovingly described, along with their complete spec and functionality. How to create a small nuclear weapon is described in minute detail over seven pages, a description which became so intricate I could have done with a diagram (pp.440-447).

But it’s the administrative functions of bureaucracies which really fire Forsyth. We are told at great length about MI5:

The British Security Service, better known as MI5, does not live in one single building. Discreetly, but inconveniently, it is split up into four office blocks. The Headquarters are in Charles Street, and no longer at the old HQ, Leconfield House, so habitually mentioned in the newspapers.

The next biggest block is in Gordon Street, known simply as ‘Gordon’, and nothing else just as the head office is known as ‘Charles’. the other two premises are in Cork Street (known as ‘Cork’) and a humble annexe in Marlborough Street, again known simply by the street name.

The department is divided into six branches scattered throughout the buildings. Again, discreetly but confusingly, some of the branches have sections in different buildings. In order to avoid an inordinate use of shoe leather, all are linked by extremely secure telephone lines, with a flawless system for identification of the credentials of the caller.

‘A’ branch handles in its various sections Policy, Technical Support, Property Establishment, Registry, Data Processing, the office of the Legal Adviser and the Watcher Service. The last named is the home of that idiosyncratic group of men and (some) women, of all ages and types, street wise and ingenious, who can mount the finest personal surveillance teams in the world. Even ‘hostiles’ have had to concede that on their own ground MI5’s watchers are just about unbeatable… (p.42)

And so on for another three highly detailed, flag-waving pages. Want to know about the Joint Intelligence Committee?

The full JIC is a rather large committee. Apart from half a dozen ministries and several agencies, the three armed forces and the two intelligence services, it would also include the London-based representatives of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America’s CIA… (pp.112-113)

The KGB? Specifically, the KGB’s operations in Japan? Yes, we have that in stock:

The First Chief Directorate of the KGB, responsible for all overseas activities, is divided into Directorates, Special Departments and Ordinary Departments. Ordinary KGB agents under diplomatic cover come from one of the ‘territorial’ departments – the Seventh Department happens to cover Japan. These staffers are called PR Line when on posting abroad and they do the run-of-the-mill trawling for information, making of useful contacts, reading of technical publications, etc. (pp.151-152)

In the exciting finale the SAS are called in to storm the house where Petrofsky is hiding out with the bomb. Since I know that no nuclear device went off in 1987, and that Mrs Thatcher won that year’s election and – more importantly – that Brave John Preston never loses a case – I was never in doubt that Bad Russian Petrofsky would be foiled. Nor is Forsyth.

Instead, strangely coldly, factually, there is page after page about the SAS’s structure and organisation, all the things which make it unique etc.

The fighting arm of the SAS is based on a module of four. Four men make up a patrol, four patrols a troop and four troops a squadron. They rotate through the various SAS commitments: Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Jungle Training and Special projects, apart from the continuing NATO tasks and the maintenance of one squadron on standby at Hereford. (p.484)

More, far more time, effort and text is spent on this encyclopedia-style content about the SAS and its thorough and careful preparations than on the storming of the house which is over in a brisk, no-nonsense two pages (pp.505-507): one chap shot but not wounded thanks to latest Kevlar body armour; wicked Russkie eliminated; nuke recovered intact, Suh!

Buildings

The text follows the different characters as they travel round quite a bit, to Moscow and various parts of the USSR, all over South Africa to uncover the Jan Marais plotline, back and forth across London and the Home Counties, then journeys up to Derbyshire and, finally, car and motorbike trips criss-crossing East Anglia.

In every place the characters visit we are told not just the building they go to, but the exact layout of that building, sometimes (as with the KGB or MI6 headquarters) pages and pages linking the administrative structure of the organisation with the buildings, annexes, wings occupied by each section. I kept thinking the text was crying out for those Sunday Times, Insight article-type illustrations and schematic diagrams of buildings’ layout, with those little human figures added to give scale.

That’s often how the novel feels – a fascinating tour through the key organisations and buildings involved in Cold War espionage and security, with small black silhouettes, the merest human outline possible, to tie them together.

High level plot

There’s a meta-plot, a higher-level narrative which underpins or overarches the on-the-ground pursuit of the agents. Operation Aurora is top secret and being carried out on the sole order of the ailing General Secretary of the USSR but there is rivalry between Generals in the highest ranks of the KGB. And in Britain, the rivalry between MI6 and its boss Sir Nigel Irvine and MI5 with its ailing leader Sir Bernard Hemmings and its ambitious number two Brian Harcourt-Smith, are the background to Irvine poaching the omnicapable Preston to solve the case.

But at the very end of the book Irvine informs Preston that the whole Operation was deliberately ‘blown’ by a senior figure on the Russian side (one General Karpov). Part of Preston’s investigation had been to follow an agent flagged up by passport control at Heathrow. Preston and his team of ‘watchers’ trailed him to a house in Chesterfield, which the watchers stake out for over a week, on a hunch it contains important information or equipment and Preston’s gamble pays off when key baddy, Petrofsky, eventually arrives. It is this slender thread which allows Preston to tail Petrofsky back to his house in Ipswich and foil the entire plot.

But now Irvine informs him that the sending of the agent, Winkler, was a deliberate gesture by KGB supremo Karpov to ensure that the plot failed, that an atomic bomb was not detonated in Britain, that the Labour Party did not win the election.

The quid pro quo was that our side – Sir Nigel – ordered Petrofsky to be not just captured, but liquidated. And indeed, in the climax of the SAS raid, he was only badly wounded when, to Preston’s horror, the SAS captain steps forward and shoots him in the head. Now Preston discovers that was part of the ‘deal’. KGB scupper their own plot; we ensure their best agent isn’t interrogated, ‘blown’, and spread all over the newspapers.

In the final pages we see Irvine meet Karpov at a safe house in Geneva and exchange documents, Irvine satisfied that the plot was aborted, Karpov with the documentary proof of the Operation’s existence which he will take back to the USSR and use to undermine his rivals, maybe even topple the General Secretary himself, certainly gain promotion, and win debts and favours from the British.

It is almost as if espionage is a dirty, cynical business.

Forgettable and out of date

But as with all the immense detail of organisational structure, the buildings and their layouts, you close the book and instantly forget it. Like any airport novel it is totally absorbing as you read and instantly erased once you arrive at your destination.

Added to which, every element of the story is 30 years out of date. There is no longer a KGB, are MI5 and MI6 still based at the same locations and structured into the same Departments? More to the point, there is no longer a USSR nor a Cold War. And real history turned out to be much more fascinating than this fiction. The Miners Strike was a more concrete demonstration of class war than anything Forsyth could cook up, much deeper, much longer, much more bitter and harrowing – and the arrival of Mikhael Gorbachev in the USSR much more complex and tragic than any fiction.

Forsyth’s novel, like most others of the time, is based on the frozen timelessness of a Cold War it was assumed would go on for generations. Instead, five short years later it was over, the Berlin Wall was coming down and a few years later the USSR passed into history.

The appeal of Forsyth’s novels must largely rest on their documentary thoroughness (it certainly doesn’t depend on their psychological insight or depth of character, of which there is next to none). Which means they are as vulnerable as the newspapers where he learned his trade. Who wants yesterday’s papers? Let alone newspapers from 30 years ago, written in (what now seems like) crippling ignorance of what was about to happen.

Like John Buchan or Eric Ambler’s novels, Forsyth’s speak of a world which has fast receded into the past, which will soon be of historical and antiquarian interest only.

Upper class

Forsyth is incredibly posh. You can almost hear his plummy tones as you read. All the British characters went to public school ie the heads of MI5, MI6, Special Branch etc. I laughed out loud when, in the first half, the head of MI6 reveals that he not only knows the suspected mole, he went to the same school as him! The mole was his fag and cleaned his shoes. Of course he was.

These are the people, this narrow clique of privately educated, inter-married and inter-related, upper class toffs, who claimed then – as now – to speak for ‘the nation’ of 60 million extremely diverse people, the 95% of the population which didn’t go to private school, are not part of the many overlapping sets and cliques and groups which comprise the Ruling Class, the Establishment. In fact there’s a paragraph describing just this:

Brian Harcourt-Smith was the product of a very minor private school and carried on his shoulder a sizeable and quite unnecessary chip. Beneath his polished veneer he had a considerable capacity for resentment. All his life he had resented the seemingly effortless ease which the men around him could bring to the business of life. He resented their endless and interwoven network of contacts and friendships, often forged long ago in schools, universities or fighting regiments, on which they could draw when they wished. It was called the ‘old boy network’ or the ‘magic circle’, and he resented most of all that he was not a member of it. (p.126)

Even the hero, Honest John Preston, the tough, professional Army man turned agent, of course went to private school and is now sending his son to exactly the same kind of school, where he will learn the same values: cricket, philistinism, bad food, snobbery.

In this context, the very early sections of the book are unconsciously funny. Forsyth chooses to have the mole in MI6 revealed via the accident of a break-in to his posh apartment in Belgravia. These opening 30 or so pages describe in customary detail the professional burglar casing the joint and then carrying out the job, complete with minute descriptions of how he neutralises the alarm system, picks the lock, and exactly how he blows the safe. Slick, technically informed professionalism is what we expect of absolutely every character in a Forsyth novel. But as this one is a south London crook Forsyth feels he has to explain to his readers a number of facts about south London and its criminal classes. I particularly enjoyed him explaining what a ‘manor’ is, ie the territory in which a crook operates, what a ‘face’ is, ie a criminal known to the authorities, and so on. I laughed when he daintily explained that a ‘slag’ is the term of art for a hard man, a ‘heavy’.

He expects his audience to know all about Whites and Brooks and the Army and Navy (exclusive clubs for the upper classes) but to have to be carefully informed about criminal argot or south London landmarks.

[Walking to the dining room at Brooks] they passed the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Martin Flannery, coming the other way. Although they knew each other, Sir Martin saw at once that his colleague was ‘in conference’. The mandarins acknowledged each other’s presence with an imperceptible inclination of the head, sufficient for two scholars of Oxford. Backslapping is best left to foreigners. (p.510)

In fact Forsyth’s novels read as if written for the Sunday Times-reading classes, in between the Style and the Arts sections, the parts which advise you which Caribbean island to holiday on or which opera to go to. Sometimes I feel a bit too common to be reading them. Sometimes I’m surprised that anyone without an old school tie is allowed to buy them.

Benefits of the old boy network

That said, Forsyth makes a point I don’t think I’ve seen expressed quite so clearly before, which is that the old boy network works and it works precisely because its network of contacts covers the entire political, security, police and Whitehall machine. Because Nigel was at school with Jeremy, it means that now they’re the heads of MI6 and the SAS, respectively, they can talk quickly, informally, and get things done:

That the procedure can work within minutes is due in part to the fact that it has been rehearsed and honed to a fine art over and over again; and partly to the fact that the British establishment, when required to move fast, contains enough interpersonal relationships to permit a great deal of procedure to be kept at verbal level, with the inevitable paperwork left to catch up later. British bureaucracy may appear slow and cumbersome to the British but it is greased lightning compared with its European and American counterparts. (p.483)

He then goes on into characteristically Forsythian detail, explaining how: the Chief Constable of Suffolk, informed of the terrorist threat, contacts Sir Hubert Villiers in Whitehall, who briefs  his Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, who informs the Prime Minister, who gives approval to deploy the SAS, which is relayed to Sire Peregrine Jones at Defence, who knew about it anyway because he’s already had a little chat with Sir Martin, so that within sixty minutes of the first contact between the head of Suffolk constabulary and Home Office, the Director of Military Operations is talking on a scrambled line to the commanding officer of the SAS at Hereford. Phew. There is no doubting the depth of Forsyth’s research and knowledge. But it is possible to question the way he deploys it.

Condescending attitude

Given the profile of the author implied by his text with its worship of the British police and intelligence services, its rabid suspicion of the Labour Party, its smooth familiarity with the clubs and banter of Britain’s elite, it is no great surprise to read the witheringly condescending opinions of anyone left-wing which sprinkle the text. The anti-nuclear protesters and marchers who play a minor role in the novel (they hold up the Baddy as he drives back to his safe house with the nuke in his boot) prompt a few snooty put-downs.

The Tornadoes had gone back to Scotland but in their place the peace of the rustic neighbourhood had been shattered by protestors, mainly female and possessed of the strangest personal habits, who had infested the fields and set up shanty camps on patches of common ground…. [Behind the leaders of the march] came the column of pacifists, pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninists, anti-Soviet Trotskyites, lecturers and Labour activists, with an admixture of unemployed, punks, gays and bearded ecologists… Up the two sides of the road were scattered the resident female protestors, most sporting placards and banners, some in anoraks and crewcuts, who held hands with their younger lady friends or clapped the approaching marchers… (pp.462-463)

Bet none of them went to a decent school, eh?

The title

The Fourth Protocol is one of the (fictional) secret appendices to a 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by the USSR and USA. It specifies that neither side may deliver nuclear devices by sneaky underhand methods eg in suitcases. They have to be dropped from planes and on the end of inter-continental ballistic missiles. Thus, the plot consists of Preston and his MI6 boss slowly realising the Russians are breaking the Fourth Protocol. Which is just not cricket, is it?


The movie

It was swiftly made into a movie, directed by John Mackenzie, starring Michael Caine and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan. It’s much better shot than the film adaptation of Gorky Park, much nicer to look at.

There are no women in the book (except for John Preston’s ex-wife, who has run off with a millionaire and we never meet, and the scared wife of the innocent middle-aged neighbour whose house the authorities commandeer to keep a watch on what they suspect is a Soviet ‘drop’ house in Chesterfield. She’s good at making tea, exactly as a middle-aged, non-public school Englishwoman ought to be.)

But a Hollywood movie must have sex in it, so they first invent a neighbour, who works at the air base and has a horny wife who makes a pass at Petrofsky/Brosnan. And then the bomb maker, Vassiliev, turns out not to be the cold, calculating agent of the novel but the gorgeous Joanna Cassidy. They assemble the bomb together and then the camera closes up on the sweat dripping down her cleavage. When Pierce moves in to snog her she says, ‘I thought you’d get to that,’ and so must every single person who’s ever seen the film have felt the same heavy clang of inevitability. There is a vivid sequence of them having sex before – just as inevitably – he kills her. What a thankless role for this beautiful actress.

Indeed, there is a lot of callous killing in the movie, much more than in the book. The tone is set in the opening scene where, after a long car journey to a remote dacha in the snowy Russian countryside, Philby, who has come all this way to meet the General, is instead shot in the face by his subordinate. It is crude and shocking and doesn’t happen, couldn’t happen, in the original, for we need Philby to write the very long analysis of the Labour Party which is the premise of the whole thing.

Here, his being shot in the face lacks any of the intelligence or subtlety and, of course, none of the amazing wealth of background information, which is the dominant characteristic of the book. In the final scenes of the novel, when he learns about the Russian double-cross which underpins the plot, Preston mulls over the complexity of his trade and in the postscript is seen happily leaving intelligence to go and work for a commercial security firm.

The movie, typically for this and so many other film adaptations of novels, ditches all the subtlety, reducing pages of thoughtfulness to the absolute minimum number of words, to have Michael Caine’s Preston confront Irvine and Karpov, and yell, ‘It’s about time they put you in a fucking museum’ – a trite and immature outburst nicely suited to the petulant teenagers most films are aimed at.

Glad it only cost me £1 in a charity shop.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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