The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré (1990)

I had begun my quest idly – you may say frivolously – much as one might pick up an old copy of the Tatler in one’s club. (p.262)

The last of le Carré’s novels to feature tubby, unprepossessing, owlish cuckold George Smiley. It is a series of tales told in the first person by old British Intelligence man Ned (we never get his last name). He was in charge of the ‘Russia House’ wing of British Intelligence when the publisher/agent who he was managing, Barley Blair, went missing and defected for love (the story told in the novel, The Russia House.)

Partly as punishment for this foul-up, Ned is despatched to serve out his last years till retirement supervising the Intelligence training school at Sarratt. He invites Smiley up from his retirement in Cornwall to come and lecture the trainees, followed by whisky by the fire and reminiscences.

This is the frame narrative within which Ned proceeds to remember key moments in his career, starting in the early 1960s and proceeding up to the present – to the fall of the Berlin Wall and (the unthinkable) fact of senior Circus bosses being invited to Moscow to tour KGB headquarters! In light of the defeat of Soviet communism and the triumph of the West, Ned can’t help wondering all the failures and the betrayal were worth it.

1. Fat Boy and Panda One of Ned’s first assignments is to tail a rich Saudi prince, in London to finalise important arms sales. He quickly wins the nickname Fat Boy from the watchers, and his wife earns the nickname Panda for the dark rings round her eyes. It is a comic story, for the MI6 watchers following her soon realise that she is herself being tailed by a Middle Eastern man, and begin to panic whether it’s a kidnapper or even an assassin. Bit it turns out the Panda is a kleptomaniac, and this man is employed by her to hush up the outraged store detectives and pay for everything she’s walked off with stuffed into her handbag and up her sleeve.

2. Ben In training Ned is paired with Ben. They went to public school then Oxford at the same time, then both took commissions in the Army before joining British Intelligence. Ie their story is proof of the very narrow pool of like-minded, posh people who make up the Service. Ben is posted to Berlin. One day Smiley and a squad of searchers arrive at Ned’s place and start interrogating him. What’s going on? Ben has disappeared: kidnapped, gone over to the other side? And their main network in East Germany has been ‘rolled up’, betrayed, arrested. They know the pair were good friends and then, Smiley reveals, they have discovered a love letter to Ned from Ben. Turns out Ben was gay and in love with Ned, though Ned never knew. Ned remembers Ben had mentioned the old country estate of some cousins in the Western Isles of Scotland. Ned does a bunk, evading the watchers set on his flat, catches a train to Glasgow and then ferries out to the estate. Here he meets Ben’s aloof cousin – Stefanie – who, in this wild mountain scenery, he falls in love with on sight. Ben is out at the loch, fishing mournfully. Ned walks down and stands by him. After some manly silence Ben tells him the story: the boss at Berlin was an intimidating martinet, testing Ben again and again before his first meeting with the leader of the East German network. Ben, like a good swot, makes a set of prompt cards with complete details of all the agents, their names, address, passwords, secret codes. When the day for his first drop into the East and first meeting with the Top Agent arrives, Ben finds himself taking them with him in his jacket pocket. He has to get out of a not-quite-stationary car, pick up a bicycle, cycle to the rendezvous, lock it up, meet the Agent, exchange documents, back to the bike and unlock it, cycle back to a rendezvous with a different car. When he got back into this car, he realised the notes had all gone from his pocket. He had dropped them somewhere. East German agents must have found them and used the information to arrest the entire network, because by the end of that day the network had been betrayed. Distraught, Ben flew to London, then onto Glasgow, then the ferry boat to this Western Isle, where Stefanie cooks for him but leaves him to cope with despair at his ineptitude and failure. Soon afterwards, Smiley and his people arrive to arrest him. Ned returns to London, convinced he will be fired, and bewitched by the beautiful, artistic, remote Stefanie.

3. Bella and Captain Brand But Ned isn’t dismissed, he is sent to Hamburg. It is the early 1960s and Ned takes charge of Captain Brand and his circle of Latvian patriots, who run illicit missions along the Baltic coast. Brand is a big-hearted sailor with a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend, Bella. As soon as Brand and crew have departed on a mission to drop agents on the Latvian coast, Ned and Bella are at it like rabbits. Le Carré gives slightly cringe-inducing descriptions of her riding him, going down on him, offering him her rear for his penetration etc etc. When the mission to Latvia goes badly wrong – the patriots are met with machine guns, several killed – Ned is summoned back to England, to the executives on ‘the Fifth Floor’ who are convinced Bella is the traitor and Ned finds himself defending her, despite his own misgivings. Smiley plays an oblique role, appearing to defend Ned and his instincts against Bill Haydon, head of European operations, who insists Bella is the spy who betrayed the mission. Three years later the events described in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy take place, revealing Haydon to be a high-level Russian mole, confirming that it was hearty sailor Brand who was the spy, all the evidence against Bella having been cooked up by Moscow Central to protect him. She is shipped off to a new identity in Canada, never to see Ned again.

4. The Professor Ned is posted to Munich and tasked with managing a Hungarian professor, Teodor, who claims to be running a Hungarian network. Ned is suspicious of him from the start, him and his unhappy, ex-actress wife Helena, especially when he almost immediately starts asking for a British or American passport. But Toby Esterhase, one of the main characters in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and who survived the Bill Haydon revelations, insists he is a great source for the Americans. When Ned checks with the Americans they say, No, we were told he’s a great source for you. Hmm. One night Ned gets a melodramatic phone call from the Professor. A Hungarian assassin – Latzi – has come to kill him, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, confessed, and is now in his house. Ned rushes over. The shamefaced middle-aged, meek assassin empties his pockets of gun, cyanide bullets, garroting wire etc and tells an elaborate story about being briefed and sent to kill the Very Important Professor. All three are whisked away to a safe house where they are interrogated by MI6 and the CIA. Eventually, the Professor and wife are given US passports and put on the next flight Stateside. But not before the wife, walking down by the lakefront with Ned, admits it’s all a con. The ‘assassin’ is an out-of-work actor they hired to make the Prof look important. Ned doesn’t tell.

5. Colonel Jerzy Oskar, an agent in Poland who had gone quiet, suddenly activates again, sending messages in all the right codes, using all the right procedures. London is sceptical but Ned insists on going over to find out for himself whether it still is the same man. He flies into Poland on a forged Dutch passport and travels to Gdansk to meet Oskar. Instead, it is a trap and he is picked up by a group of well-organised communist security men who immediately start beating him up, then take him to a big empty house where he is really systematically beaten, losing several teeth, getting cracked ribs, before passing out, then waking up chained to a radiator burning his back and getting beaten some more. He sticks to his story that he is a Dutch businessman and this is all a terrible mistake and eventually, reluctantly, the officer in charge of the beating, stocky pock-marked Colonel Jerzy, orders him released. He is helped to a bath, cleaned and put in new clothes, then Jerzy drives him to an isolated spot and orders him out of the car. Dazed and in pain Ned wonders if he is going to be executed and pushed in the river. But no. Turns out Jerzy wants to become a spy for the West! Amazed, Ned sticks to his line of being a Dutch businessman and the exasperated Jerzy says, ‘OK, Have it your way, I will send you good information via such and such a channel when you are safely back in the West. We take it from there, OK?’ And indeed Jerzy becomes a totally reliable, high-level agent, revealing much about Polish and eastern Bloc security plans for the next five years. Ned speculates at length about Jerzy’s motives, but he appears simply to be bored. In a post-script, after the Berlin Wall has fallen, Ned is watching a TV report about a Catholic cardinal holding a huge open-air mass and, to his amazement, witnesses the moment when, among the throng pouring round him, the cardinal spots a hesitant Jerzy. The cardinal makes straight for him and there is a moment of recognition between them before Jerzy kneels to be blessed. And in that moment Ned knows the cardinal is one of the many many Poles that Jerzy has tortured and interrogated.

6. Britta Ned is in Beirut, in the depths of the Lebanon civil war (1975-1990), hearing the AK47s firing nightly, and the occasional car bomb. He is tracking down a German woman agent known as Britta. Eventually he discovers she is being held in an Israeli camp in the Negev Desert. Ned flies out there and interviews her under the supervision of some typically tough Israeli security officers. Britta turns out to be a) she is stunningly beautiful (as so many of the young women in le Carré are) b) phenomenally indoctrinated in a kind of sexual liberation / terrorist Marxism, a creed which justifies throwing bombs onto buses in order to ‘waken the slumbering masses’ etc. She refuses to co-operate in any way and Ned, in his self-absorbed way, departs shaken that her fanaticism speaks to something in him which wants to rebel. — [The whole episode feels like an off-cut from The Little Drummer Girl which dealt so intensively with the same milieu.]

7. Hansen Like Ned, half-Dutch, Hansen is an extraordinary figure, a wanderer and trouble-maker who, as a youth, is sent to the Jesuits in the hope they’ll make something of him, and becomes a fully qualified priest before being despatched to Dutch South-East Asia. Here he becomes a languages and culture scholar before sinking into more familiar le Carré territory ie reports soon emerge of his sexual escapades in villages and cities, with men, women and children. Finally, the Head of Station in Bangkok reports he’s been spotted by a Chinaman in their pay. Ned flies out to meet him and spends a long night in a hotel room listening to Hansen’s extraordinary story – how he lived in a safe part of Cambodia, well embedded in a village, with a native wife and young daughter, radioing in targets for the American bombers to pulverise. The Khmer Rouge are active in the area and one day he returns to the village to find it completely empty. He follows the trail of corpses to the Khmer Rouge camp, is captured but vows to survive the torture in order to protect his teenage daughter. To his dismay, she is successfully indoctrinated by the Khmer and denounces him as an imperialist bourgeois lackey etc. Still, it is probably her intervention which prevents him being murdered when the Khmers up sticks and move on. But Hansen follows them and her, discovering she left the group, scouring South-East Asia and eventually discovering her in a brothel in Bangkok. She is numbed, almost lobotimised by her experiences, and only finds authenticity in servicing her clients. But Hansen gets a job at the brothel as a jack-of-all-trades so he can keep an eye on her and take her home safely at night. Ned offers him money to be resettled somewhere. Hansen, totally embittered by the awful job he did calling in a holocaust of bombs on innocent villages and the disastrous effect it’s had on Cambodia, says, ‘Keep your stinking money’, and Ned returns to the office a sadder and wiser man.

This is the most powerful and the most Catholic of the stories. The violence and the casual attitude to prostitutes and brothels and the Catholic self-dramatisation of Hansen telling his story remind me of Graham Greene and of his novel set in Vietnam and with a prostitute as a central character, The Quiet American.

8. Ken Hawthorne A retired soldier sends a letter to the Service which George is tasked to handle. His tearaway son, in prison, insists he is a British agent, briefly returned from Russia and hiding in prison as a cover. ‘Don’t contact me again, Dad,’ he says: ‘but listen, there’s a club of us spies and we meet every year and, if we’ve done well, they award us special cufflinks.’ Dad gets letters from his son in various hand-writings hinting at secret missions. Then he is murdered in prison and his mum and dad bury him. The dad writes the letter to MI6: was his son an agent? Smiley calls him in for a slow patient questioning, then goes away and ransacks the Circus’s raddled files. No. He wasn’t. He never had anything to do with the Service and is indeed the sadistic thug his criminal record suggests. But, in a gesture of sweet kindness, Smiley invites the parents for a second interview: insists his son was nothing to do with them; never undertook any missions for them; he can disclose no more. And silently hands the dad a pair of beautiful gold cufflinks. They leave with tears in their eyes. Ned later finds out the cufflinks were a present to Smiley from his adulterous wife, Ann.

9. Frewin An anonymous letter denounces Cyril Frewin, an anonymous operative in the Cipher Section, as a spy, linking him with Modrian from the Soviet Embassy. Ned goes to Frewin’s sad suburban semi and the novel gives us a lengthy verbatim account of his interview of Frewin: over twenty pages or so we see precisely how a clever man like Ned can manipulate and play on the psychological weaknesses of a sad loner like Frewin to get him to finally confess that, yes, he was a spy for Modrian. But more than that, the story shows how Modrian and the Russians skillfully and elaborately played on Frewin’s sense of isolation in order to befriend him, to identify the things he loves (classical music, educated conversation), to persuade him they are on his side, in order to exploit him, and slowly increase the level of information they ask Frewin to send them. Ned realises he is guilty of just as much psychological exploitation as Modrian and (we’re getting used to it by this time) feels soiled and sickened.

Was love an ideology? Was loyalty a political party? Or had we, in our rush to divide the world, divided it in the wrong way, failing to notice that the real battle lay between those who were searching, and those who, in order to prevail, had reduced their vulnerability to the lowest common factor of indifference? I was on the brink of destroying a man for love. (p.332)

There is an awful lot of pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-theological discussion of love and betrayal and love and fidelity and love and loyalty in these stories. Who knew that British intelligence agents spent so much time thinking about love?


The style is deliberately, overtly posh, an attempt – I think – to give Ned a distinct voice. Public school, Oxford, a commission in the Army, then a spell in the Navy, before the Secret Service, Ned is impeccably pukkah and so is the world he moves in. When he mixes with the 95% of the population who didn’t go to private school – Monty and his team of ‘watchers’ or mum and dad of Ken Hawthorne – he is nervously aware he is mixing with ‘the other ranks’, the ‘NCOs’, people who can’t write a decent letter or are intimidated in the presence of their ‘betters’.

As in previous Circus novels there is a tone of complacency typified by the use of ‘we’. Back in those days we all this… We revered those senior figures… We felt that Smiley… In those days we…  etc. — Ned’s tone suggests a schoolmaster fondly recalling some of his more reprobate pupils, or a young master filled with awe and reverence for the old timers who embody the much-loved institution and its values. It is a tone of complacent self-justification, as if the ‘Circus’ and its internal squabbles is all that matters in the world.

After all, le Carré had a spell as a teacher at Eton. Eton. Is it possible to be more Establishment than that? And Ned’s role in the novel is as teacher or supervisor of trainee spies at Sarratt – so the patronising smugness of the old teacher – whoops, master – may be justified. Still, Ned’s tone often makes it seem as if British Intelligence was rather like a ramshackle public school, populated by eccentric, clever, spiteful masters, forever politicking among themselves and sending poor East European agents to their capture, torture and death. Oh well. Can’t be helped. Can I tempt you to another glass of this rather fine brandy?

Clive Bellamy, a gangly, mischievous Etonian, was in charge of Sarratt. (p.221)

Rumbelow (Station Head in Bangkok) spoke like an Etonian bookmaker. (p.225)

He put on an avuncular, friend-to-friend manner that reminded me of my preparatory-school headmaster. (p.318)

I continued writing to her from Tunbridge Wells but it became as difficult as writing home from [boarding] school. (p.334)

Even the enemy are seen in the same ‘what-ho, old Duffers eh, what a card’ public school tone of voice:

After my five years in the Russia House, Sergei Modrian was plain Sergei to me, as he had been to the rest of us: old Sergei, the crafty Armenian, head boy of Moscow Centre’s generously over-staffed residence at the Soviet Embassy in London. (p.274)

Head boy! Did the KGB see its operatives in terms of English public school positions?

At various points Ned has qualms and doubts and maybe the novel as a whole is meant to signify his ‘pilgrimage’ towards greater self-awareness and understanding of the role MI6 really played in these historical events. But it feels limited, like the master at a posh school who slowly comes to realise that maybe the senior staff aren’t the gods he was led to believe, and the mission to educate and civilise isn’t everything it was cracked up to be. But he doesn’t leave and he can’t leave, because deep down this is the only world, and these are only values, he knows.


The ‘we we we’ is one aspect of the comfortable self-dramatisation. Ned takes the mickey out of himself for doing it, but carries on regardless making epic drama out of his life and work. The trip to see Ben in Scotland talks about the ‘Wagnerian’ setting and the ‘Romantic’ situation. In all the other stories he reaches for grand comparisons from European culture. It is typical that he refers to the revelation that Haydon was a Russian spy as ‘The Fall’, and the periods before and after as ‘Before The Fall’ and ‘After The Fall’. Typically bombastic. And it conceals the reality. There was no Fall, it wasn’t a legendary, mythic event. You idiots let a Russian spy rise to become chief British Intelligence’s entire East European spy network. He passed on every important secret which crossed his desk for 15 years or more. All because he was a jolly good chap, went to a good public school and Cambridge, had a ‘first-rate mind’ and so on and so on. The bombast – the comparisons with Wagner or the Bible or Don Quixote or Shakespeare – conceal the incompetence. No wonder the Yanks distrusted us.

Although, on a conscious level, the narrator analyses the career of spying as shabby and full of moral qualms etc, he actually describes it with grandiose and self-aggrandising comparisons, with a mock heroism that is so consistently present that it eventually turns into just heroism.

Like Quixote, I had set out in life vowing to check the flow of evil. (p.186)

Only Ahmed behind the counter who for a few dollars and a smile, would tell you the secrets of the universe. (p.200)

[Was he] a high-school war tourist on the hippy trail, searching for kicks in the city of the damned? (P.201)

The language, the comparisons, all as inflated as Milton’s Grand Style. On the same page he describes being in bed with his mistress, Monica, when he gets a call saying his mother’s been taken ill.

By an act of divine ill taste I was in bed with Monica when I took the call. (p.186)

‘Divine ill taste?’ Really? You think God had something to do with it? Isn’t it just an accident? In fact, does it matter at all where he is or who he’s with? No. Only to someone used to dramatising their every step as divinely fated or divinely tasteful would this be worth noting. He goes on to write of  his mother’s death:

‘I was orphaned and elated all at once… At last I stood unencumbered before life’s challenges… And when I looked at myself in the mirror of the undertaker’s rose-tinted lavatory after my night’s vigil, I was horrified by what I saw. It was the face of a spy branded by his own deception.’ (p.187).

I think the expression is: Get over yourself!

Catholic melodrama

The tale about the Dutch Jesuit spy Hansen is the most powerful piece because of the intense description it gives of being captured and tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Le Carré, in my opinion, weakens it by having the very tough Hansen a) be a Roman Catholic priest b) be taken prisoner because he is on a religious quest to find his young daughter. Thus a story which is quite harrowing enough, piles on every possible opportunity to cast each event, from his torture to her assimilation by the guerrillas, as edge-of-the-seat threats to their immortal souls. Having recently completed reading all of Graham Greene’s novels, I’ve had enough to last me a lifetime of the self-obsession and overblown melodrama of literary Catholicism:

Hansen had glared into my face with eyes lit by the red hells from which he had returned. (p.217)

‘Once you have embarked upon the impossible concept of God, you will know that real love permits no rejection. Perhaps that is something only a sinner can properly understand. Only a sinner knows the scale of God’s forgiveness.’ (p.238)

Maybe. But it seems a certainty that once you come out of the closet as a Catholic novelist there is no end, literally no end, to the amount of sentences and paragraphs and chapters and novels you can fill with pseudo-theology and self-important attitudinising:

[Hansen was] in search of Marie, his pure love, the earth mother who was his daughter, the only keeper of his grace. (p.240)

With Marie to support him, he could bear anything. Each would be the salvation of the other. Her love for him was as fierce and single-minded as his for her. He did not doubt it. For all his loathing of captivity, he thanked God he had followed her. (p.242)

I am nourishing her from my own breast. I am her guardian, the protector of her chastity. I am her priest, giving her Christ’s Sacrament.

Once this tone of holy pretentiousness is broached it becomes catching. Chapter 11 starts with Smiley explaining to the young acolytes:

‘And some interrogations are not interrogations at all, but communions between damaged souls.’ (p.273)

The stories themselves are gripping and fascinating. The intellectual framework within which they’re cast – the self-dramatisation, the emphasis on love and redemption and grace and salvation and communion etc, give them a very strong flavour, a particular set of spices, which I think you either love or hate.

Stefanie, Bella, Mabel, Monica, Marie, Sally

Lots of nubile and sexually available or provocative young women in le Carré’s fiction:

  • Stefanie is the half-German artist cousin of his friend and incompetent Ben, who he falls for heavily but she ignores him and moves abroad. He carries a torch for her the rest of  his life.
  • Bella is the scorchingly sexy girlfriend of beefy Captain Brand, who introduces Ned to championship sex.
  • Mabel is the dull English woman he actually marries and who likes curling up on the sofa in the evening with the Daily Telegraph (p.181).
  • Monica is a girl in the Service’s Industrial Liaison Unit who he has an affair with (p.186).
  • Marie is the Asian daughter of Hansen, the Jesuit priest-turned-spy, who he pursues across South-East Asia only to find her turned into a numb prostitute in Bangkok. Before he finds Hansen Ned is given a display of her skills. The way she turns, raises and wiggles her bare bottom provocatively at him (p.231) reminds the reader of the gorgeous Bella doing the same (p.100). Lucky Ned.

In chapter 11 he is having an affair with Sally, a tall, fair designer and ‘dancer’. Colleagues irritate him by asking after his wife; are they separating? Divorcing? He has become a mirror image of Smiley, who is faithful and quiet, betrayed by his wife, Lady Ann, taking serial lovers. Here it is Ned who appears to have the serial affairs, betraying his staid wife, Mabel. But in both models, a marriage is actually about betrayal and is another way to justify the tone of world-weary self-importance which dominates the book.

Out with the old…

Once you look, you realise every reference to George Smiley lays on with a trowel his wisdom, his insight, his patient deduction, the way he is ahead of everyone. In the last few pages he is referred to as sitting on a ‘throne’ as he talks to the students. Earlier we had heard of the cup and saucer he bequeathed to the secretary pool at the Circus being treated like a ‘chalice’. This is ridiculously overblown; makes it sound like an Arthurian romance. Smiley delivers a suitably vague and bombastic peroration about Russia – characteristically referred to as ‘the Bear’ rather than any detail of actual administrations, actual leaders, actual complex policies – we must help her join the community of nations etc. But his parting shot to the trainees is they must also be alert to the way we in the West have ‘given up too many of our freedoms in order to be free’. We must be watchful of our own society, as well.

Like the farewell speech of a much beloved headmaster. And so, amid sentimental tears and wise admonishments, George Smiley leaves the scene.

… and in with the new

But that isn’t the end. Instead, with only days till his retirement, Ned is sent on one last mission, to persuade an arrogant financier, a man who has built a fortune, bought a knighthood and a vast landed estate, based on business deals he did for the Service, to now stop selling arms and munitions to unsuitable nations (Serbia, central Africa).

Rich, replete Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw offers him champagne and tells him to fuck off. With dismay Ned realises these are the new breed, the completely ruthless, amoral international financiers who he has made the world safe for. Ned toys with telling him that, now we’ve defeated communism we have to set about defeating capitalism. But Bradshaw pounds on about how if he doesn’t sell the buggers arms someone else will and good luck to them. Business is business. This country’s going soft. Where there’s money to be made, he will make it. Ned fails, He has made the world safe for people like Bradshaw, and now it is over to them…


The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré, published in 1991 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1991 Coronet paperback edition, 1994 impression.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Products for Organising by Simon Denny @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

This is really up-to-the-minute art. Simon Denny is a youthful 32-year-old New Zealander and arrives in Hyde Park hotfoot from an acclaimed installation at this year’s Venice Biennale, with a show designed specifically for the symmetrical space of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery and titled Products for Organising.

This is Denny’s first solo exhibition in London and it presents a number of challenges:

  • It tackles one of the major issues of our time, one which nobody in fact fully understands – the worldwide explosion of digital technologies, the role of hackers understood in the broadest sense, and their impact on large organisations.
  • It addresses this complex and multi-faceted subject in a visually and intellectually demanding way – not in tidy 2-D paintings but via scaffolding, vitrines, display cases and architects’ models, which are themselves stuffed with texts, notes, labels, TVs showing historic footage as well as countless objects, from cooling fans to the cuddly toys which IT dudes like throwing at each other in the office, magazines, corporate logos, books of management theory, T-shirts and trivia, all these and much more are stuck, glued, appended, inserted, stuffed into and dangle from Denny’s packed and hectic installations.

Whereas Transiencethe exhibition of paintings by Michael Craig-Martin up the road at the main Serpentine Gallery, deals with the surface, the look and design of modern digital products – smart phones, laptops, electronic door passes – Denny’s installation looks at how digital technologies are changing the way organisations are conceived and managed, and interrogates – ie displays for our wonder and dismay – the rhetorics of corporate language. Products for Organising digs beneath the surfaces Craig-Martin so lovingly depicts, goes behind the scenes of modern technologies. So it’s entirely appropriate that it’s made out of behind-the-scenes materials – scaffolding, computer racks, abandoned hardware. All the wrack and paraphernalia of the Big Data revolution.

Take Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) – basically the frame for a stack of computer components which has been adapted to incorporate a spiral train track on which runs a model train (a Roco steam locomotive BE 23.10, in case you wondered). Painted up the front is a snakes and ladders-style ladder listing key moments in this history of computer hacking.

The information on the base says the whole thing refers to technicians and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who, just after World War II, set up the ‘Tech Model Railway Club’, to experiment with ways of circumventing and altering official computer programs, experiments which later led, among many other things, to the first attempts to illicitly tap phone calls, so-called ‘phreaking’, in the 1950s.

They called this and other ways of getting round official technology, ‘hacking’ – and thus the word – and an attitude and a whole area of human activity – was born.

Simon Denny introduces Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny introduces Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking is a snapshot of history, explaining the origins of ‘hacking’ via the detailed information label, but also dramatising it in the form of an object taken from the milieu being described and then repurposed, with a large dollop of humour (the train, the ladders), as… as a what? A 3-D embodiment of the moment, of the movement? An art work in itself? A museum exhibit? A teaching device?

Products for Emergent Organisations

The space at the Sackler gallery is made up of four equal-sized corridors forming a square around a pair of rectangular central rooms. Denny’s installation is divided into two distinct parts, each with its own title – Products for Emergent Organisations and Products for Formalised Organisations.

On the left as you go in is Products for Emergent Organisations, dominated by a scaffold which you climb in shallow steps, next to which are a further series of computer racks modified to explain various moments in the history of hacking. They display old-fashioned payphones, computer screens and keyboards from the 1980s. The top one (visible in this photo) contains a carefully assembled pile of Red Bull energy drinks – classic fuel for the all-night ‘hackthons’ which the rack refers to.

Installation view of Products for Organising by Simon Denny at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Installation view of Products for Emergent Organisations by Simon Denny at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Continuing round the corner you come across more displays showing how information and objects, computer parts, motherboards and fans and keyboards and screens, embody the interpenetration of hacking activity and organisational logic, the spread of acronyms and attitudes from ‘breakout spaces’ to buttoned-up bureaucracies. It is a potentially overwhelming amount of stuff, but one which is maybe appropriate to the information overload of the subject matter…

So is hacking good or bad, I asked him? Too simplistic a question. The press and media and movies have given the word bad connotations – especially in light of the illegal hacking of celebrities’ phones by our bestselling newspapers – but it refers to a very diverse set of people and activities, the bad, the ugly but also the very good.

Many members of the far-flung and diverse hacking community are committed to liberal causes like keeping the internet accessible for all, developing free open-source software, exposing bad corporate practice and revealing illicit government surveillance.

Many large technology-based corporations employ computer whizz-kids solely to try and breach their security defences, to be constantly testing and probing their data protection. Many organisations have, over the past decades, encouraged off-the-wall and radical rethinking of their products, their marketing, their entire approaches to doing business.

Hacking as a concept, goes much wider than eavesdropping other peoples’ calls.

Products for Formalised Organisations

Which brings us to the other half of the installation, Products for Formalised Organisations. The objects in this second section show how management techniques, organisational structures, corporate governance, bureaucratic procedure and so on have, over recent decades, been penetrated and transformed by the looser, more ‘creative’, less structured approach pioneered among the software development community, by the hackers. So this section addresses a different, a more ‘formal’, application of the same movement of thought.

The Products for Formalised Organisations installations are on the right-hand side of the gallery as you go in, and – in contrast to the rectangular racks and scaffolding which convey something of the hand-made, individually constructed and therefore deconstructible nature of what Denny has broadly defined as hacking – over here on the right, in the world of corporations, it is all circles.

Simon Denny introduces Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny explains Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Thus, in the main right-hand corridor are lined up four large circular installations. The first one sets the tone (and physical pattern) by being a two-metre tall model of the building housing GCHQ, the UK Government Communications Headquarters, a hollow circle in shape and fondly known as ‘the Doughnut’. At the other the end of the row is a model of the proposed new Apple headquarters in California, ‘Campus 2’, already nicknamed ‘the Spaceship’, and next to it another architects’ model of the headquarters of Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer.

Agile as art

The installation in the photo above, pictured with the artist explaining, is titled Formalised Org Chart / Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015).

As the capitalised green sign AGILE suggests, this work refers to / draws from / demonstrates / explains the newish approach to project management known as Agile methodology. In old-fashioned project management you created detailed plans to be implemented over a year or more and stuck rigidly to them, come what may. Hence (its critics claim) the notorious overspend and calamities in (especially) large government procurement projects – the NHS database, Ministry of Defence aircraft carriers etc.

Agile takes the opposite approach: larger goals are broken up into small units which can be delivered quickly in so-called ‘sprints’, often run over as little as a week. If they’re completed earlier than planned, there is a backlog or ‘locker’ of similar sized components which can be incorporated into that sprint and completed ahead of schedule. Members of the team or stakeholders are invited to judge and assess the results of each sprint, so that the entire project’s goals can be re-evaluated, new learnings incorporated etc, on an ongoing basis. It is short-turnaround, iterable, flexible. You don’t have to wait two years and then have a ta-da! moment when the developers unveil the product and everyone looks at each other and says, No, that isn’t what we wanted.

The yellow post-it notes in a spiral in the centre of the piece explain the Agile methodology. The white shapes on the right-hand side contrast an old fashioned static layout of desks and tables with a modern agile or hot-desking approach, the desks arranged to encourage informal communication and debate. Various circular logos stuck elsewhere on the frame convey the importance of Agile being a process of continuous improvement, relentlessly seeking perfection.

I happen to work in government IT and so am very familiar both with Agile in theory and the problems large organisations face in implementing it in practice. I totally agree that these new ways of thinking and working ought to be registered in art somewhere, art which – after all – generally ignores the vast world of work which the majority of us inhabit for most of our day.


But is this the right way to do it? Does it shed light, explain, clarify these issues? Is it even intended to? Or is the subject a pretext for making things, making objects with their own value and aesthetic, making artworks out of the bric-a-brac of these big social, technological and organisational ideas? Hard to decide…

It’s certainly a way to do it, to communicate these topics, but it requires quite a lot of commitment on the part of the strolling visitor, commitment to read the labels for each piece – and it assumes a fair amount of background knowledge to relate what they see to their own lives and work practices. Only around that point, maybe, when you’ve done the preliminary study, can you start to ask whether this is art as we know it. Or a new type of art? Or management theory masquerading as art? Or the only way this kind of complexity could be captured and conveyed? Carefully contrived to appear spontaneous and slapdash? Is it agile theory turned into art, quick and effective rather than perfect, encouraging stakeholder criticism, do it again, do it better? Continuously improving art.


In one of the two central rooms, where the brick of the building has been left raw and unplastered, is a further series of circular installations. Here Denny explained some of the thoughts / issues / ideas related to or arising out of the concept of HOLACRACY. This is, apparently, ‘a system for redistributing authority throughout the organisation’. As well as the bunny-bright, hand-made wording stuck all over it (see the photo below) there are attached to the steel circle more detailed texts explaining the theory of holacracy, as well as books with titles like Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It and The Happy Manifesto and Peopleware. Hacker mentality, hipster thinking, coming to your workplace, any day now…

Simon Denny introduces Products for Organising at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny explains Formalised Org Chart/Model: GCHQ 3 Agile/Holacracy Workspace (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Despite the larky presentation, the handmade signs and the cuddly toys (see the toy alligator bottom left in the photo above – there are plenty more hacker-related toys elsewhere) I don’t know how accessible, how assimilable, how comprehensible this arresting and challenging show will be to visitors without a background in computers or big organisations.

There’s no doubt it addresses head-on massive issues and ideas – the relatively unexplored history of hacking and the way new, looser ways of thinking about all manner of social relations have passed into the practice of big and influential organisations and are percolating everywhere.

It puts into quirky, striking and unexpectedly physical form some of the difficult and quite abstract concepts which underpin the ongoing social, organisational and technological transformations which are affecting all of us. If you make the effort to read and study everything displayed for your attention, then it raises all manner of thoughts and implications to take away and ponder.

Not an easy show to visit, though. Not easy at all.

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Michael Craig-Martin’s tour of his exhibition, Transience @ the Serpentine Gallery

At the opening of his new exhibition, Transience, at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Michael Craig-Martin gave a tour of the gallery and answered questions. He is a warm, humorous presence, unpretentious, a tremendous communicator, and the more he talked the more depth and interest and variation and meaning his paintings acquired.

I was lucky enough to be there and these are my notes of what he said. (This post is twinned with my review of the show.)


In 1978 Craig-Martin began to do black and white drawings on walls, no colour involved, just outlines. He emphasised that the more you persist with something in art, the more likely you are to find interest and depth in an approach and so it was with these simple line drawings of everyday objects – he began to see more and more possibilities. When he started doing these line drawings as a form of experiment in the 1980s he had no idea it would turn into ‘a life’s work’, and end up defining him and his style…

Installation view of Vertigo by Michael Craig-Martin (1981) at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Installation view of Vertigo (1981), Untitled (card reader) (2015) and Untitled (electric sockets) (2014) by Michael Craig-Martin at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Painting objects

He stopped painting in the 1980s for several years, but when he returned to it in the 1990s, he began by painting entire rooms and then sequences of rooms. He found that integrating the earlier line drawings onto coloured walls created a surprising variety of effects. Thus the thirty or so pieces in this exhibition explore the permutations and, once you start looking closely, you realise there are significant differences between:

As you walk around the show, you begin to realise the large number of permutations this apparently ‘simple’ approach permits.

Craig-Martin said he was ‘interested in what these objects allow me to do in the language of image making.’ So they are, among other things, exercises and experiments in image making. Explorations. (Although the works are very obviously paintings, I was struck how Craig-Martin referred to them consistently as ‘drawings’.)

Transience by Michael Craig-Martin at the Serpentine Gallery - installation view

Installation view of Untitled (headphones medium) (2014) and Untitled (x box control) (2014) by Michael Craig-Martin at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo: Simon Port.

Subject matter

As to the subject matter of the drawings, he said he started off drawing what was around him – shoes, a garden fork, a book. But one of the things that doing this for over thirty years slowly made clear is how the nature of ‘everyday’ objects has changed significantly.

For a start, most objects these days are branded, which is thought-provoking…

More obvious is the way many of the technological objects have become obsolete. Someone asked why all the drawings are of technological subjects (there are only two which aren’t – an image of a McDonalds pack of fries and a trainer). He explained that the works on show have been selected precisely to highlight the changes in the world of technology over the period of their creation, the period from the early 1980s to the present day which broadly covers the massive change from the analogue to digital technology.

Hence the title of the show – Transience. And hence one of the earliest pieces is a massive painting of a portable analogue TV – Untitled (television) 1989 – a product which no longer exists. Without intending it, Craig-Martin’s oeuvre has turned into a sort of memento mori of vanished objects, vanished lifestyles, vanished worlds…


He wants the moment of viewing the object to be intense, to be memorable, he wants the painting to command the space. That’s why the colours are so strong. He explained that, although computers can generate millions of colours there are in fact only ten key ones. Do his colours have a special name or are they a certain type? No. He only uses colours with a name: red, yellow, pink, magenta.

So they are the simple obvious colours, he just ensures that his use of them is pure, intense and deep. The canvas is completely covered in multiple layers with no shading, no perspective or aspect. It is as rich and as vibrant as can be.

The result is a particularly powerful insight: he is interested in creating a tension between the stability of the drawings and the intensity of the colour applied to it. This helps to explain the paintings’ strange hypnotic power. Order and passion. Stasis and excitement.

Michael Craig-Martin explains his work at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Michael Craig-Martin explains his work at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo: Simon Port


The vast central room is painted deep green. Other walls are white or pink. But the opening couple of rooms are covered in a Craig-Martin wallpaper created specially for the show (you can see it in the photo above). He pointed out two interesting features of the wallpaper:

  1. It is seamless. He discovered a firm in Austria which creates wallpaper designed for specific environments which is run off to the required size and shape and not in sections or pieces.
  2. The characteristic outlines of the objects depicted do not overlap. I’d never have noticed if he hadn’t pointed it out, but they all touch each other as if they are balanced in an incredibly precarious construction. Fragility. Evanescence.


The room layout of the newly refurbished Serpentine galleries is tremendously symmetrical. Craig-Martin thinks he’s never worked in such a symmetrical building. To suit the space the works themselves are carefully balanced and Craig-Martin likes the way, among other things, this draws attention to the huge central room, in which hangs the largest work in the show, Eye of the Storm (2003) over three metres tall by 2.8 metres wide, and a kaleidoscopic summary of objects and colours.

Installation view of Eye of The Storm (2003) by Michael Craig-Martin at the Serpentine Galley. Photo: Simon Port

Installation view of Eye of The Storm (2003) by Michael Craig-Martin at the Serpentine Galley. Photo: Simon Port

Narrative and value

He ascribes no value to the artefacts in his drawings. They aren’t particularly favourite objects or chosen for any special reasons. He isn’t an especial fan of industrial design promoting this or that look or style. He is merely a ‘witness’ of the objects in the world around him.

The way technologies have become obsolete has created a narrative of time and change which he never intended when he started. The possibility of something like a show titled Transience only slowly emerged from the drift of time.

And, at the end of the tour, Michael was quick to point out that the paintings need no narrative because human beings pack everything they see or do or hear with meaning and narrative. The gallery is a clean open space in which each of the visitors’ lives, histories, stories, memories and intentions jostle and brim.

Installation view of Untitled (smoke alarm) (2014), Untitled (hotel door handle) (2014) and Untitled (light bulb) (2014) by Michael Craig-Martin at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Installation view of Untitled (smoke alarm) (2014), Untitled (hotel door handle) (2014) and Untitled (light bulb) (2014) by Michael Craig-Martin at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

(I asked him why all of the pieces are labeled Untitled but then have brackets after describing what they depict eg Untitled (Chips), Untitled (battery), Untitled (bulb). He explained they are all untitled precisely to avoid creating assumptions, to keep them as free from connotation as possible. Yes, but why then give them titles in brackets? Well, he replied with a big smile, we have to be able to tell them apart somehow 🙂

Outside the gallery is a sculpture of a light bulb, nearly 4 metres high, cast in powder-coated steel, and in Craig-Martin’s favourite magenta. If you stand in the right place you can make it frame nearby Kensington Palace. In his tour Craig-Martin offered a casual insight which clarified it when he said, it isn’t a sculpture of a lightbulb. It is a sculpture of a drawing of a lightbulb.

Lightbulb (magenta) (2015) by Michael Craig-Martin

Lightbulb (magenta) (2015) by Michael Craig-Martin. Photo: Simon Port

This exhibition is FREE. It is big and bright and beautiful, the perfect antidote to the dark, wet winter. Go and see it.

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Transience by Michael Craig-Martin @ the Serpentine Gallery

Michael Craig-Martin was born in Ireland in 1941. He studied in New York and Paris before moving to London in 1966. Through the early 1970s he made many conceptual works but he also began experimenting with ‘simple’ line drawings of everyday objects. In the early 1980s he experimented with drawing the cartoonish technical outline of objects directly on walls, before dropping painting altogether to do conceptual work.

In the 1990s he returned to the line drawings, experimenting with the use of colour and his style crystallised into the creation of large, highly stylised line drawings of everyday objects, the designs and backgrounds filled with bright flat primary colours. No light or shade. No perspective or depth. The thing itself, in plain view, with no secrets, like a designer’s, a draughtsman’s, diagram.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (light bulb) 2014 Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (light bulb) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin

The Serpentine Galleries are half a mile north of the Science and Natural History Museums, just into Hyde Park. They have been closed for refurbishment are re-opening with Transience, a show of 30 or so prime examples of this, Craig-Martin’s late style. It is the first solo show of Craig-Martin’s work in a London public institution since 1989 and brings together works from 1981 to 2015.

(This post is twinned with my account of the artist’s tour around the exhibition at the press launch.)

Platonic ideals

Each work depicts one object. The object is, in general, an example of the devices and accessories associated with our increasingly technological way of life: a laptop, a games consoles, a black-and-white television, a lightbulb, a mobile phone, pair of headphones and so on.

They exist in an ideal world of forms, the forms which the Greek philosopher Plato thought existed in the mind of God, and of which everything in this, our ‘fallen’ world, were mere copies and – if humans made works of art about them, copies of copies of copies.

Our world is full of copies of Craig-Martin’s perfect objects. Poor copies, shabby copies, used copies, broken copies. He offers us the source, the original template, restored to vibrant but silent perfection.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (headphones medium) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (headphones medium) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

The joy of design

The most immediate impression is how big the paintings are. The biggest are 4 or 5 metres high. Completely absorbing. Paintings to be hypnotised by.

Then how bright and bold and unhesitant the colours are, none of the murk or gloom, none of the expressive splashes or splats or writhing splurges with a lot of modern art, say, Pollock or Cy Twombly. They are fantastically restrained. Self-contained. The colour, like the good king’s snow, is deep and crisp and even. And very beautiful.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (xbox control) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 200 x 200 cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (xbox control) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 200 x 200 cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Celebration of the everyday

Craig-Martin has reproduced the everyday artefacts of his time. One obvious result is that the time in question passes and is soon ten, twenty, thirty years ago. And then History. And the objects we were once so familiar with become obsolete.

Thus the works are mementi mori in the classic European tradition, reminders that tempus fugit. In fact, in one way, their perfection is ironic.

In Keith Douglas’s tremendous Second World War poem, Vergissmeinnicht, the poet compares the decayed corpse of the dead German with the shiny perfection of the Panzer tank it is trapped in:

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

‘Mocked at by his own equipment’.

We may smile indulgently at these relics of a fast-receding past – tape cassettes ha ha ha – but it is we that are ageing and decaying, and the tape cassette remains permanently new in the heaven of its perfection.

Michael Craig-Martin Cassette (2002) Acrylic on canvas 289.6 x 208.3cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Michael Craig-Martin Cassette (2002) Acrylic on canvas 289.6 x 208.3cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

In a very obvious but completely convincing way, Craig-Martin’s work transforms the world by delivering it to us in perfect form. As Sir Philip Sidney pointed out in his Defense of Poesy (1583):

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied on any such subjugation, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention doeth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than nature brings forth, or quite anew… Nature’s world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

The designers who conceived, the manufacturers who produced, the consumers who used, broke and threw away these wonderful implements, are here superseded by a heaven of consumer objects, restored to their rightful place, at the centre of our culture, fit recipients of our worship.

A perfect and perfected style

The objects have a finality, a wonderful completeness. There is nothing more to say. They are so perfectly encapsulated in Craig-Martin’s formulations. And embalmed in these immaculate reproductions. The way they sit there, blank and mute, reminded me of a great poem about the secret lives of objects by a contemporary of Craig-Martin’s, the (Northern) Irish poet, Derek Mahon – The Mute Phenomena.

Michael Craig-Martin Biding Time (magenta) (2004) Acrylic on aluminium panel 243.8 x 182.9cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Michael Craig-Martin Biding Time (magenta) (2004) Acrylic on aluminium panel 243.8 x 182.9cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

What lost civilisation do these beautiful, these magical objects bespeak? Is their collocation in these bright  surfaces the result of some lost religion? Did their viewers bow down before artefacts so perfect in their design and function, so immaculately conceived, so perfectly portrayed?

They should have. And here in the Serpentine Gallery – they can.

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Giacometti: Pure Presence @ National Portrait Gallery

Drawing together over 60 paintings, sculptures, atmospheric photos and a documentary film, this exhibition presents a comprehensive overview of the development of one of the 20th century’s most distinctive artists, giving you key insights into the evolution of his style and the thinking behind it.

Childhood and boyhood in Switzerland

Giacometti was born in 1901 in the picturesque village of Borgonovo in Switzerland. His father, Giovanni, was a well-known post-Impressionist painter and the boy was encouraged to draw, paint and even sculpt from an early age. In fact his first sculpture was done when he was just 14, a portrait head of his brother Diego, and portraits of the family were to play a key role in his career.

His father’s post-impressionism strongly influenced Giacometti’s own early paintings and the show’s first room displays a number of attractive and ‘traditional’ portraits made of pink and yellow blotches of colour, deployed very skilfully to depict his younger brother Diego, his father, and in a winning self portrait.

Small Self-portrait by Alberto Giacometti (1921) Kunsthaus Zurich, Legat Bruno Giacometti © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Small Self-portrait by Alberto Giacometti (1921) Kunsthaus Zurich, Legat Bruno Giacometti © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Paris 1922

He travelled to a Paris art academy where he studied from 1922 to 1927 and almost immediately encountered ‘problems’ depicting the reality of what lay before him, problems which lasted his entire life and underpin his achievement. For what he saw in front of him, what he perceived, was constantly changing, not just in the obvious way of light changing through the day, but his own hurrying perceptions crowding in and overwhelming what he was actually seeing, cluttering and confusing his perceptions. The exhibition contains numerous insightful quotes from the man himself on the subject:

Once I began to look at it and want to draw, paint or, rather, sculpt it, everything changes into a form that is taut and it always seems to me, intense in a highly contained way.’

In 1925 he abandoned the struggle to portray ‘the real’ and drifted into the camp of the Surrealists. Paris was home to these young iconoclasts and Giacommeti produced a range of work which can be described as Surrealist, none of which is on show here – though in the room of photographs there is a solarised portrait by Man Ray and Giacommeti features in a chessboard of portraits of the movement (which you can use to play ‘spot the surrealist’).

Instead, the exhibition describes how Giacometti’s practice became almost schizophrenic, experimental and avant-garde in Paris, but, when he returned to his Swiss home, continuing the series of more obviously figurative portraits of his family. The second room contains more attractive portraits, such as another Portrait of Diego (1925), and a series of realistic heads of his father, as well as a striking Head of Isabel (1936), channeling obvious Egyptian influence.

Head of Isabel by Alberto Giacometti (1936) Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Head of Isabel by Alberto Giacometti (1936) Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

But next to these are some strange experimental works. It is disconcerting to compare the realistic heads with this extreme head of his father, in which the human head has become a flat bronze plaque, with the features scrawled on.

The Artist’s Father (flat and engraved) by Alberto Giacometti (1927) Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

The Artist’s Father (flat and engraved) by Alberto Giacometti (1927) Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Half way between figurative and flat are omelette shaped busts of his mother. The works reveal a mind restlessly interrogating ‘what is seen, what is known, what is real.’

the room contains evidence of a sort of breakthrough in the later 1930s, when he finds himself depicting heads as he actually sees them ie small and far away, and this leads to a series of tiny metal heads on display here. He knows the ‘real’ head to be life-sized and three dimensional, yet in paintings they appear far away and flat. So should the heads he makes be big, small, flat, rounded, far away, right here? He is trying to portray heads as he sees them not as he knows them. In a way it’s surprising he wasn’t drawn more towards cubism with its attempt to see all sides at the same time – except that it was probably dead as a movement by the late 1920s.

Portrait of the artist’s mother

His father’s death in 1933 deeply affected Giacometti and the following year he broke with Surrealism and returned to making portraits from life, struggling with what he still called ‘the contained violence of depiction’.

A darkened room in the show – atmosphere of a shrine – is dedicated to four paintings of his mother, Annetta, who lived far beyond her husband, dying in 1964, only two years before the artist. The portraits are from 1937, 1947, 1950 and 1962 and show a sudden and decisive break with the earlier attempts, the arrival of a whole new style, and then the ongoing evolution of this new approach. By the time of the 1937 portrait he has arrived at a style which involves:

  • placing the subject face on to the artist
  • sitting
  • in the centre of a wide space
  • the focus of energy going on the face and the eyes
  • drab colours – grey, muddy browns and oranges
  • the lavish use of scratching, scraping, scarring lines, pencil or pen or stylus or brush strokes frenetically applied over the surface to indicate the studio space, objects in it, but also all over the subject’s body

The portraits of Annetta are:

  • 1937 The Artist’s Mother: an early version in which the figure is superscratched and the face is distorted and repellent
  • 1950: The Artist’s Mother: mature version, the room is scratched in in great detail and the busy manic lines almost make it seem like a horror movie with the furniture moved by poltergeists
The Artist’s Mother by Alberto Giacometti, 1950; The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015. Digital image The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

The Artist’s Mother by Alberto Giacometti, 1950; The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015. Digital image The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

  • 1947: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother: My favourite work in the show, a strange haunting image, the intense scratching and scouring of the earlier version have disappeared, subsumed in the muddy brown background while the eye is drawn to the almond shaped sliver of face, especially the haunted eyes, before taking in the grey curves and swirls merely hinting at the body and shape of the arms barely emerging. It is the record of a struggle, the struggle of perceiving and depicting.
  • 1962: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother: I can’t find this work online but it is typical of his later style in being more grey and more unfinished, with wet grey paint dripping down the bottom of the canvas, and the return of black, sketchy lines which, for me, are too dominant and pull your eye away from the human subject.

The exhibition tells the anecdote that, just before the war, he saw his friend and model, Isabel, from a distance in the Boulevard St Michel and had an epiphany. He became obsessed with the idea of a slender figure, seen from a distance, existing in a void. During the war, in exile in Geneva in a makeshift studio, he worked away at innumerable tiny heads and figures, a return to the miniatures presaged in the second room. They were so small that, after the Liberation of France, he was able to bring them back to Paris in matchboxes!

Breakthrough: the totems

It was immediately after the war that, returned to Paris, Giacometti began experimenting with the super-thin, elongated human figures cast in metal sculpture which were to make him internationally famous.

His aim was ‘to create an object capable of conveying a sensation as close as possible as one felt at the sight of the object’. In fact there is only ONE of these elongated sculptures in the whole exhibition which, in a way, makes it the more powerful.

Woman of Venice VIII by Alberto Giacometti (1956) Kunsthaus Zurich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Woman of Venice VIII by Alberto Giacometti (1956) Kunsthaus Zurich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

The next room contains documentary evidence of his career, a suite of 23 black-and-white photos of the artist in his studio, with friends and so on, and a BBC documentary filming him actually at work and commenting on his practice. In a revealing remark, he says that the inertness of traditional sculptural depiction of the human body is ‘at odds with the vitality he wished to convey’. The spindly elongations are the result of paring away of the ‘stuff’ of the body in search of the essence. It is as if he is digging down through the skin, fat and muscle to expose the twitching nervous system beneath.

In the documentary you see him at work and note the restlessness, the constant touching and adjustment of the clay, the fidgeting and fussing, the ceaseless quest to create the right object. You can see the thumb prints, the gougings and impress of his restless fingers. The finished, tall, spindly humanoids are terrifying. Totems of the 20th century. Nuclear war survivors, their eyes hollow and empty, occasionally with mouths open as if silently crying out. At the same time reminiscent, for me, of some of the artefacts in the British Museum’s brilliant Ice Age Art exhibition from 2013.

Giacometti’s achievement was to create something utterly modern which manages to link us back to the earliest recorded visions of our ancestors.


The next room is devoted to Annette, the vivacious 20-year-old he met in Geneva, brought back to Paris, married in 1949, and who became his model and assistant. There are lots of paintings and busts of her. Here, in the 1950s, we can see the very roughly done overpainting, the obsessively repeated scouring and underlining, the black or white or grey curves and loops which incise an image onto the still-raw canvas.

Just the muddy feel of it reminds me of Graham Sutherland, or Henry Moore’s paintings, or early Francis Bacon. It was an era of real austerity and post-war greys, of Camus huddling against the Paris fog in a turned-up raincoat smoking a Gaulois. But also the ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation. Is any of that present in the gouged black eyes of this survivor of the European holocaust?

Bust of Annette by Alberto Giacometti (1954) Private Collection © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Bust of Annette by Alberto Giacometti (1954) Private Collection © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Many of these later paintings are notable for having three frames. An actual physical frame. A gap between frame and canvas. And then the painting itself often has a frame painted round the subject. Emphasising the pre-eminence of the artist’s view, non-naturalistic, captured and caught only provisionally. Try again. Reminding me of Samuel Beckett’s words: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

‘The artist of existentialism’

In 1948 Giacommetti had a one-man show in New York and Jean-Paul Sartre, the superstar French philosopher, wrote an essay on Giacometti for it – ‘The Quest For The Absolute’. In 1954 he was described in a magazine article as ‘the artist of existentialism’, and he doesn’t seem to have objected. For a later exhibition at the Galerie Maeght, Sartre wrote another essay, ‘The Paintings of Giacometti’ in which Sartre describes the painter as always trying ‘to give sensible expression to pure presence’.

You can see the point, see that his figures are always isolated, always solitary. And, if you want to see it this way, always trapped in a space which is also a void, a void – if you like – where the structures that support us have been brutally swept away (as Sartre’s human is trapped in existence but bereft of any guidance or guidelines, utterly, terrifyingly free to create its own value system).

At the height of his fame, he painted portraits and is photographed hobnobbing with the stars of existentialist Paris – Sartre, de Beauvoir, there’s a photo of Samuel Beckett in his studio – and pride of place in the room dedicated to this period is the portrait of fashionable taboo breaker Jean Genet, gay ex-convict turned poet and playwright.

Jean Genet by Alberto Giacometti, c1954-5; Tate London 2015 © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Jean Genet by Alberto Giacometti, c1954-5; Tate London 2015 © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

Are Giacometti’s figures epitomes of this terrible freedom and the helplessness of the human subject? Are his clothed figures as helpless as Francis Bacon’s men-becoming-meat? The paradox – or disproof, maybe – is the impassiveness and the compulsive sameness of their pose, adopted in the 1930s and consistent until his death in 1966 – a solitary figure, sitting in a chair, facing the artist straight-on, with no discernible expression. Nobody smiles or laughs or even moves in a Giacometti painting. Certainly no screaming popes.

Last portraits

By the early 1960s he was famous and feted, awarded: in 1961 the Carnegie Sculpture Prize, 1962 the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale, in 1964 the Guggenheim International Painting Award, in 1965 the French government awarded him the Grand Prize for Art.

But in 1963 he had had an operation for stomach cancer and in 1964 his mother died, badly affecting a man so close to his family and to her in particular.

There is a raw, unfinished quality to his last portraits, the works of the 1960s in which the struggle to depict the real continues to the end, but in a new way. They are all BIG pictures, and the palette has narrowed to grey with only occasional browns. He met ‘Caroline’, a denizen of the Paris underworld and was bewitched by her. Giacometti ended up painting over thirty portraits of her, of which six are gathered in this room.

Placed side by side like this, you can see the obsessiveness of the pursuit of the fleeting reality of a person, their appearance, their presence – and the haste with which the faces are frenetically gone over and over again in black and grey paint, the eyes emerging as owlish goggles, stricken in a frozen body, staring out from the unfinished surface.

Though she was petite in ‘real life’, ‘Caroline’s’ many faces emerge in these works as hieratic, daunting, as primitive and profound as ancient Egyptian or African art works. The rest of the body is shaded in with repeated black and grey lines and then the energy dissipates away to a generally washed-out grey background which hasn’t even the energy to crawl to the edge of the canvas.

In the documentary we hear him say the attempt to ‘capture’ a human presence on canvas is ‘impossible not only for me, but for everyone and forever.’ This reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s famous words from his 1940 poem, ‘East Coker’:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.

Obviously Eliot is talking about the effort to write, but the general sentiment seems appropriate for Giacometti’s lifelong battle to capture the living presence of the human subject in the cold medium of cast metal or the flat surface of a canvas, a battle this exhibition brilliantly describes and explains.

Related links

The Negotiator by Frederick Forsyth (1989)

Of all the thriller writers I’ve been reading, Forsyth’s come closest to the Wikipedia definition of ‘airport novels’. They are big (this one has 506 pages), with shiny covers embossed with the author’s name bigger than the title (branding), the plot is long and complex and absolutely stuffed with factual background, all of which you completely forget the second you put it down.

The plot

Like The Fourth Protocol, the plot begins in the present and goes forward into an increasingly hypothetical (and, as it turns out, completely inaccurate) future, dealing with the highest possible international politics – the superpower relationship between the USA and the USSR. This one goes on through 1990 and 1991 ie into the future relative to when it was published.

In this parallel universe Ronald Reagan wasn’t succeeded as US President by George Bush Snr but by a tall, noble academic, John Cormack. He meets and gets on amazingly well with Russia’s new young leader, Mikhail Gorbachev and they both move their nations towards a massive arms reduction deal, named the Nantucket Plan, after the East Coast American resort where they meet and agree it.

But elements in both countries are, predictably, unhappy.


In the US a top oil man, Cyrus Miller, having received a report claiming the US will run out of oil in 30 years, sets in train a wild conspiracy to have Iranian terrorists assassinate the entire House of Saud in Saudi Arabia and set up a fundamentalist Shia regime in the country. The other countries in the region will beg the USA to intervene and overthrow it, after which they’ll be able to impose their own ‘puppet’ Arab leader who will give the US preferential oil deals forever. Sounds realistic, eh?

Miller and his rich, mad Yankee colleagues call themselves the Alamo Group and the plan to overthrow the Saudis in what they dub Plan Bowie. But they realise a major stumbling block to the scheme is the decent honourable man who sits in the White House. He must be undermined somehow. This is doubly advantageous since the patriots among them think Cormack must be a commie for making a deal with Gorbachev. And they are able to recruit some very senior arms manufacturers into the conspiracy, since they will suffer badly if the government stops buying their expensive weaponry. With all this motivation, the Group hire lobbyists and brief tame politicians to start a whispering campaign against Cormack.

But one of the wilder of the conspirators hires an ex-CIA maverick, Irving Moss (it turns out, a known torturer and fan of child pornography), who devises a much quicker, more vicious approach. Known only to a handful of the Alamo, Moss hires some ruthless European mercenary soldiers to kidnap the President’s son, Simon Cormack, who is on a year’s study at Oxford University.

The kidnap

On page 97, Simon is out on his usual early morning country run – as so many American scholars to Oxford he is a very fit athlete as well as an intellectual achiever – when he is ambushed by a group of balaclavaed men. They leap out of an innocent-looking grocer’s van, brutally machine gun the Special Branch and CIA guards following Simon and bundle him into the back of the van. This then trundles off through the countryside to a nearby farm, where they switch to a saloon car and drive fast down to London, round the M25, and out to an anonymous house in an anonymous estate in an anonymous town where they lock Simon in a purpose-built cellar-cum-dungeon and settle down for the negotiations.

For the next 200 pages, from roughly page 100 to page 300, the novel is as exciting and nailbiting as The Day of The Jackal, easily the best, most involving prose Forsyth had written since then. He gives one of his characteristically thorough, hugely well-informed and completely convincing accounts of how alarm bells ring with the local police, the Special Branch, the Met, the SAS, how Whitehall is alerted and the Prime Minster woken up to phone the US President in person, and all branches of US security dragged out of their beds to deal with the crisis.

The man they call, simply, Quinn

Even the deployment of some hefty clichés doesn’t disturb the drive of the narrative. For when the President asks his cabinet who is the best hostage negotiator in the country, the head of the CIA says there’s only one man for the job, the man they call simply – Quinn. ‘But Mr President, I warn you he’s a maverick’. Yes, he’s a tough-minded loner who insists on doing it his own way etc. A lot later in the book, a hotel receptionist thinks to herself that Quinn ‘looked a bit like that gentleman who was always asking people to make his day’ (p.264) and the scenes where we track down Quinn to the quiet Spanish village where he has retired to reminded me of the opening of Clint Eastwood’s movie Firefox (1982), in which the Army/CIA etc come begging the grizzled old vet to come out of retirement ‘to do one last job’. ‘Your country needs you Bob [Hank, Chuck, Quinn etc]’.

Despite the corniness of many elements – Quinn is assigned two CIA minders, one a naive young newbie (McCrea), one a stunning young woman who he ends up falling in love with (Sam Somerville) – the description of his recruitment and briefing and transport to London, the setting up of a safe house, the elaborate wiring and phone tapping laid on by the CIA and MI5 and then the genuinely nerve-racking negotiations with the tough, professional kidnappers is all brilliantly and meticulously described.

I was willing the final exchange of hostage and ransom to go smoothly and was genuinely devastated when it goes very badly wrong, devastatingly wrong, with the horrible murder of the young American.

Part two – payback

Quinn is not exactly implicated in young Simon’s death, but he is widely blamed for his unconventional and maverick approach and so he drops off the radar for part two of the novel in which he and the gorgeous, nubile CIA agent Sam Somerville set about tracking down the kidnappers.

Again with meticulous and in-depth background research Forsyth lays a fascinating trail for them to follow across northern Europe as the kidnappers are revealed to be mercenaries who met in Africa during various post-colonial wars, most notably in the Congo. (The background here overlaps with the deep knowledge of the subject Forsyth displayed in his ‘manual for mercenaries’, The Dogs of War.)

The tiny clue which gives them away is that Quinn spotted on one of the hands of the otherwise hooded and anonymous men, the tattoo of a spider and web, the symbol of one of the African mercenary groups, and which explains the spider in a web logo on all versions of the novel’s cover.

But, despite their brilliant detective work and calling in favours from well-placed policemen in Belgium, Germany and Holland, Quinn and Sam arrive at each location only to find the man they want already assassinated. Someone is one step ahead of them and liquidating the witnesses.

The President Quinn needs to be replaced

Meanwhile, in a separate strand, forensic scientists in Britain have established beyond doubt that the small bomb used to blow up poor Simon Cormack was manufactured in every detail in the Soviet Union. ‘Accidentally’ leaked to the press and TV, this revelation causes a storm of indignation – the President’s son murdered by the commies!! – with Soviet embassies attacked and burned in US cities etc and the whole arms reduction, Nantucket Treaty, in tatters. Excellent news – for the military and arms manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Plan Bowie has had exactly the effect on the President which its wicked progenitors intended, and he is photographed at his son’s funeral, a broken man, and is almost incapable of governing in the weeks that follow. Slowly his cabinet realises they might have to invoke Amendment 25 of the US Constitution, which allows them to relieve the President of his duties. So Quinn and Sam’s travels around Europe in quest of the kidnappers are set against the timeline to the President’s deposition in Washington.

On Quinn’s tail

When they finally track down the leader of the kidnappers – ‘Zack’ – to a bar in Paris they barely have time to establish that a) they didn’t murder the President’s son b) they took detailed instructions from ‘that fat man’, before assassins riddle the bar with Armalite bullets, killing Zack with Quinn and Sam only just escaping through the back and over the wall.

Quinn realises their steps are being tracked and they locate a tracker and bug which have somehow been placed in the handbag Sam bought in London. Aha. That’s how the bad guys were always one step ahead – they were listening to Quinn and Sam working out the location of each of the kidnappers, then beating them to the man in time to execute him.


Quinn despatches Sam to a safe house on the Costa del Sol (minded by some London gangland crooks who owe him a few favours) and goes after the last of the suspects, a hardened Corsican mafia boss, Orsini, holed up in his tiny village in the mountains of Corsica. This sequence is powerfully described – the attempt to assassinate Quinn in his village hotel room (which he foils), followed by his tracking of the man through the dense underbrush on the mountainside, the famous maquis.

Quinn is kidnapped

But in the inevitable shootout Orsini dies without revealing the name of ‘the fat man’ who hired them all, the trail goes cold and Quinn heads back to London, dejected. He has only just arrived in a taxi from Heathrow and is walking up the steps to the hotel he’s booked into when a posh Englishman stabs him in the leg with a poisoned umbrella tip, then and asks the hotel staff to help carry a collapsing Quinn into a waiting car.

Quinn wakes up in a cell and for a moment thinks he has been kidnapped by the gang or whoever is behind them. But he is treated civilly and brought upstairs into the stylish surroundings of – the Russian embassy in Kensington! The urbane and civilised Russian KGB colonel apologises for abducting him like this, but the Russians are very upset at being framed like this. They have tracked down a party of Americans who flew to Yugoslavia a few months earlier, and then took a helicopter to Baku. Here they visited a weapons research centre. The Russians now think this was by agreement with the Head of KGB South (himself now under arrest) and it was here they got the parts necessary to build the micro-bomb into the leather belt which Orsini gave Simon Cormack to wear, along with clean jeans and T-shirt just before he was released. The KGB man shows him all the photographic and documentary evidence and Quinn believes him.

The Russians now give Quinn a new identity, a new haircut, a Canadian passport and money, instruct him to fly to Dublin, then to Canada, then travel into America and find the men who organised the kidnap and publish the truth. Quinn accepts.


Quinn flies into Canada then makes his way across the border and holes up in a log cabin high in the mountains of Vermont where at this time of year (November) it is absolutely freezing cold and deep in snow – think the Alps or Siberia. From here he sends several messages: one a phone call to Sam designed to be intercepted, telling her the trail has gone cold. Another is a letter he arranges to be delivered her by hand telling her to bring his trusted friend David Weintraub up to the Vermont retreat, where they can plan how to track down the mysterious ‘fat man’.

Except that this message, also, was intercepted and the fat man comes to him. Sam dutifully collects the person she is told is David Weintraub, along with the junior CIA agent (McCrea) assigned to stay with Quinn in his hotel room all those weeks before. But as Quinn steps out of the cabin into the snow to greet the arriving car, it is not Weintraub but the psychopath Irving Moss who steps out, pointing a gun at him. And the innocent, youthful-looking Duncan McCrea pulls a gun too. Turns out they met in Central America, on one of the US’s countless dirty assignments, discovered they shared a taste for torture and assassination, and Moss recruited McCrea to the CIA (before he was himself sacked).

So McCrea, in Quinn’s room all through the negotiations, was a hired hand of Moss and therefore of the Alamo Conspiracy all along. Now Moss interrogates Quinn for everything he knows, realises he doesn’t know the identities of the men at the top, no harm has been done and so takes him out into the snowdrift woods at the back of the hut to execute him then throw his body into a crevasse. Except that a shot rings out and it is Moss who falls to the ground, gushing blood. Crikey. In a brilliantly preposterous, witty and laugh-out loud moment, it turns out it is the ‘posh Englishman’ – Andrei – who stabbed Quinn with the poisoned umbrella tip back in London. The KGB colonel who had briefed Quinn and given him his Canadian passport back in London, had already revealed that Andrei the Cossack was one of his best operatives; now we learn that Andrei tailed Quinn to Canada, then Vermont, and has been staking out his cabin for precisely such an eventuality.

Quinn called across to him.
‘As they say in your country, spasibo.’
The man’s half-frozen face gave a flicker of a smile. When he spoke, Andrei the Cossack still used the tones of London’s clubland.
‘As they say in your country, old boy, have a nice day.’ (p.483)

Sometimes you wonder whether Forsyth is testing how preposterous he can make his plots before the reader puts down the book in disgust. Quinn takes the dead man’s rifle and returns to find the baby-faced sadist McCrea has got as far as stripping Sam naked, tying her to the bed face down and is about to start whipping her with wire. Quinn shoots him dead, unties Sam and cradles her as she cries, which she does for days.

Washington finale

Sam returns to Washington while Quinn searches Moss’s body and comes up with an ancient address book. All the names and numbers are in code. In these last few pages, Quinn works in partnership with Sam, working out permutations of the code, then communicating over a safe line to get Sam to check the numbers in Washington. Finally, a likely contender emerges, a phone number in the prestigious Georgetown district.

Quinn phones this number, pretending to be Moss and the voice at the other end acknowledges him. Bingo! It’s their man. Quinn/Moss demands more money. The voice at the other end hesitates, and then agrees. Quinn recognises it now. It belongs to a member of the President’s cabinet, a close personal adviser. My God, he was behind the whole thing. Forsyth doesn’t identify him, to keep the tension up.

Now Moss/Quinn claims he has liquidated Quinn and the girl but found a manuscript which tells the whole story. He wants more money to hand it over. The voice reluctantly agrees and they arrange a meeting after midnight near the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall. There is an atmospheric sequence in which Quinn stakes out the VIP’s house and then quietly follows his long limousine to the rendezvous.

When the nervous VIP sees it is Quinn and not Moss come to meet him, he nearly wets himself. There is a classic ‘recognition’ scene where he admits full responsibility for the entire conspiracy, saying it had to be done, President Cormack has to be brought down in order to save the US of A. He hands over the check for $5 million and Quinn gives him a (worthless) manuscript. He is more relaxed and feeling safe when Quinn says he got a cab there and asks for a lift, so the now-relieved man says sure, my limousine is just over here…


In the final scenes Quinn phones the President (who had given him his personal number during the hostage negotiations) and tells him to take receipt of the manuscript he’s couriering over. A few days later the President chairs a meeting of his cabinet. a) He is completely restored to his old self, masterful, in control. b) The assembled forces of CIA, FBI, various security forces, all confirm every detail of Quinn’s report down to the make of the bullets at each execution scene. It was not the Russians. It was a homegrown cadre of lunatic right-wing conspirators. c) We see the conspirators being rounded up and arrested or managing to commit suicide as the cops arrive, including the men who had been planning the mad coup in Saudi Arabia. d) The President’s men unanimously agree Quinn was completely right all the way through and did as much as any man could do. e) The President calls off the manhunt for Quinn. Let him go free.

In the final scene Quinn boards a BA flight to Spain, He is going back to tend his vineyard. He is met by his beloved Sam. Yes she will come with him to Spain, yes she will marry him. They embrace and he drops his newspaper which carries two news stories:

  • The President’s close friend and Treasury Secretary Hubert Reed was found dead at the wheel of his limousine which seems to have crashed into the river Potomac. Aha. So it was he that Quinn met near the Memorial. Are we to assume that Quinn murdered him in an act of vigilante justice?
  • An anonymous donation of $5 million has been received by a hospital for paraplegic Vietnam veterans. Quinn has paid his dues and, in some measure, Forsyth has paid his respects to the 58,000 men who died in that war, and to the hundreds of thousands who were physically or mentally scarred by it.

Facts facts facts

If you like pages of factual explanation and background, you will love Forsyth’s novels. Pages and pages are devoted to brisk, no-nonsense briefings about every place, organisation, person, country, city, town, every piece of hardware and equipment the story touches. If you want to know:

  • what the career of a senior KGB man looks like
  • a history of OPEC
  • an explanation of Islam with special emphasis on the distinction between Shia and Sunni
  • the precise layout of Neill Air Force base
  • who the martyrs commemorated in Oxford’s Martys Memorial were
  • a history of Special Forces operations in Vietnam
  • a detailed breakdown of US military spend in Europe
  • an explanation of KGB personnel in Amman, Jordan
  • exactly who attends British Government COBRA meetings and what their roles and responsibilities are
  • what the 13 branches of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Operations Department do
  • that a USAF VC20A is the military equivalent of the Gulfstream Three, complete with two Rolls Royce Spey 511 engines
  • how to negotiate with professional kidnappers
  • how much fuel a stripped down F-15 Eagle needs to cross the Atlantic
  • a potted history of European mercenaries involved in Congo, Biafra and Rwanda in the 1960s
  • the street layouts of central London, Washington, Paris, Brussels
  • the precise location of MOSSAD’s headquarters in Tel Aviv

and much much more along the same lines, then you will love this novel.

As for complaining out that there is little or no psychology in these books, that the characters are paper-thin stereotypes (tall dignified US President, tough Euro mercenaries, tall taciturn hero, nubile sexually available girly sidekick) that doesn’t stop lots of people loving the James Bond novels and the even shallower Bond movies.

Too much plot

What stops Forsyth’s novels being made into the movies they feel like they want to be, or even being taken seriously, is the quite obvious overload of plot. Just American right-wingers seeking to sabotage a liberal President’s arms reduction treaty with the commies would have been enough, more than enough. It is way over-egging it to add in a massive conspiracy to overthrow the entire government of Saudi Arabia and replace it with a firebreathing Shia cleric (as the book progresses that whole storyline, which dominates the first 100 pages, is slowly forgotten). But also in the first hundred pages had been some kind of parallel conspiracy the KGB was hatching to invade an unnamed Arab country (?) This is completely forgotten about by the end of the book, which turns into something very different, ‘the Americans are their own worst enemies’ yarn.

If you can buy into the conventions of the genre and put to one side the stereotypical characters and the over-complex plot, this book is worth reading for the very thrilling central 200 pages.

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.

Difficulties With Girls by Kingsley Amis (1988)

‘You selfish pig.’ (p.210)

Difficulties With Girls is Kingsley Amis’s 19th novel and a sequel to his fourth, Take A Girl Like You, published nearly 30 years earlier, in 1960. In that book we met twenty-year-old Jenny Bunn, a northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets and, eventually, after a lot of bad behaviour on his part, more or less resigns herself to marrying the lecherous, amoral public school teacher Patrick Standish.

On page 3 of Difficulties With Girls we learn that Jenny is now 28, ie it is set in 1968, not the 1988 when it was published. Jenny and Patrick had married partly because she was pregnant, but we learn in this book that she had a miscarriage in her fifth month and has since stopped ovulating. Meanwhile, Patrick, significantly older than her, at 35, was talked into leaving teaching and joining a ‘young go-ahead’ publishing company by its MD, Simon Giles.

As the novel opens Patrick and Jenny are settling into a new flat, one of a row in what sounds like a modernist concrete block on the South Bank near Waterloo. The ‘plot’, such as it is, will be largely about Patrick’s affairs and their eccentric neighbours.

We discover that the ‘glamour’ of publishing has long ago worn off, Patrick hates reading manuscripts at home and is waspishly critical of his dandruffy, dim, all-male colleagues at the little publishing house, while Jenny is haunted by not having a child and continually reminded of the fact since she took a job teaching mornings-only at a children’s hospital.

But none of this conveys the main points of the book which are:

  • the repeated theme that women are mad and unpredictable
  • Patrick’s fondness for pretty girls and porn mags (Titter 2Twosome 3) and adulterous affairs
  • Amis’s depressing philistinism: all poets are wankers, novelists are full of cack, writers are awful, artists are ghastly, publishers are frauds, agents are crooks, and on and on it goes, a relentless undermining and lowering of all creative endeavour. What a depressing old fart. It started out as a young man being wittily anti-cant and arty bollocks in the 1940s and by the late 1980s had hardened into a cult of blundering, boozy insensitivity, deliberate, wilful contempt for everything and everyone.

Shocking prose

Dominating all other aspects of the book is Amis’s bloody odd prose style. What began as funny voices and cheeky insubordination in the early novels has congealed into a really idiosyncratic way with English prose, rendering Amis almost incapable of writing a straightforward sentence without the addition of slangy tags and afterthoughts – ‘in a manner of speaking’, ‘well, not really’, ‘to be fair’, ‘so to speak’, ‘all the same’, ‘in so many words’, ‘not to mention’, ‘sort of thing’, ‘not really’, ‘in any case’, ‘at any rate’, ‘if indeed’, ‘worse really’, ‘let it be said’, ‘quite honestly’, ‘to some extent’, ‘and much else’ – the addition of these otiose tags and redundant qualifiers giving a completely spurious impression of precision of thought or observation when the actual effect is the opposite, a weakening, a diffusing, an unending watering-down, sometimes into complete obscurity, of whatever he’s trying to say.

For example, Patrick is sitting in a park, calculating how many acts of sex it would require the average couple to conceive the average 2.5 children over the average 12.5 years of active sex life assuming a 10 to one ration of sex to fertilisation. It works out at a fuck a month. So far so offensive. Then:

Patrick rather abruptly changed his position on the public bench where he now sat. Only then did it strike him that his train of thought had been fanciful in a special sense, in the unfortunate sense that Jenny and he were not normally fertile people, had not been since her miscarriage nearly seven years before, no great direct grief to him, but he shared in hers. It was something that, perhaps excusably, he tried to forget when he could. All the same, it had surely been unfeeling of him to forget it just then. Well, not really, not in any way that mattered. What was unfeeling, and much else, and what did matter, his reflections ran on without pause, was tolerating for a single instant that demented little bitch Barbara’s proposal to come and live on his doorstep, and in no spirit of chummy neighbourliness either. (p.34)

‘Well, not really, not in any way that mattered’ could be the motto of the whole text. Paragraph after paragraph is padded out with pointless equivocations, the addition of unnecessary alternatives (or this, or that, or the other) and automatic and pointless qualifications of the main clauses. Thought after thought is watered down and mucked about with until it is mush. In Amis’s hands the English language is like one of those cardboard boxes full of empty wine bottles left out in the rain all night after a house party, which you see in the morning by the front door gone all soggy, its colours run, its shape and structure collapsing, a forlorn wreck.

Patrick was in first class shape one morning the following week as he walked across the square to his office. There had been more days of rain, but the trees in the central garden, far from being discouraged, had responded with a rather showy outburst of foliage, both in quantity and in concentration of greenness. He liked trees. They reminded him of sex in a way, or at any rate were a distinguished form of life, and he made a point of being on the side of life, though he would have done so with an easier mind had it not been for all the terrible craps who volunteered the information that that was what they were. (p.111)

The anthropomorphising of the trees starts out fresh and inventive and then something dreadful happens to the train of thought as it becomes, firstly a bit repetitive, hits a couple of typical tags – ‘in a way’, ‘or at any rate’ – then goes off-piste with the introduction of sex until it is careering downhill into a grumpy and not immediately intelligible diatribe against ‘craps’ ie everyone he doesn’t like. Which is everyone.

Wherever you look Amis is addicted to very odd turns of phrase, reflecting a permanently odd frame of mind – popping with jarring or peripheral observations which run on into verbosely long sentences, topped with unexpected afterthoughts, larded with his trademark tags (‘after all’) and pointless alternatives (‘or this, or that, or something’).

She had said enough to remind him in full of her unpleasant accent, which differed so radically from his own. But she had not said enough to let him decide whether she was somebody who had never liked or approved of him and now had sensational cause to do even less of either, or somebody who had never liked or approved of him. She had sounded exactly like both. (p.166)

Takes a moment to work out what the jokey middle sentence is doing, and then a moment or two more to realise you don’t care. It doesn’t advance the ‘story’ one iota. It’s padding made out of not very funny playing with words and phrases. There’s a hell of a lot of it in Amis’s later novels which is why they’re so long.

After a board meeting at the publishers, his boss, Simon, says his wife Barbara is going to be in the neighbourhood, visiting the Young Vic theatre, so would it be OK if she pops in? He explains they’re thinking about buying the vacant flat along the row from Patrick and Jenny’s.

Patrick was nearly sure he stipulated a phone call in advance. He was even closer to being sure that there had been some unbearable theatrical or dramaturgical thing in Barbara’s earlier life that he was supposed to know about. He had still not finished trying to make up his mind to bother to try to remember what it was when Simon left. (p.179)

Is it a genuine attempt to capture the fleeting nature of human thought? Or is it meant to tell us about Patrick’s contorted mental processes? Is it meant to be funny?

One of the eccentric neighbours introduces himself as Tim Valentine, 36, dresses posh, has independent means, is a prison visitor in his spare time, has bad allergies and sneezes a lot. He and Patrick go to the pub where Tim reveals some of his ‘difficulties with girls’ ie he loses interest after the initial seduction and can’t perform when it comes to the act of love. Patrick is amused and waits for the ‘big unburdening’ to come and, predictably enough, Tim goes on to say he’s now seeing a psychiatrist who thinks Tim’s problem is his ‘suppressed homosexuality’. Patrick stifles his laughter.

Of course anybody could have seen it coming, but not from all that far off, and in any case a hundred miles away would have been too close for it to have arrived without some kind of shock. (p.78)

Is this funny? If not, what is it doing? Later in the novel Patrick is disconcerted when Tim barges in on Patrick’s uneasy reunion with his old teaching colleague, Graham McClintock (who we met in Take A Girl Like You).

Patrick introduced them in three and a half words apiece and rather wearily poured drinks. In silence, the two almost bowed almost stiffly to each other, behaving rather like two – well, two somethings-or-other, thought Patrick. Two climatological dendrologists or career torturers, pre-eminent in their respective domains but divided on some technical points. There seemed nothing to be done. Perhaps if he waited for a minute one or other of them would fall down dead. (p.197)

I can see that this is meant to be funny and it does raise a smile, but at rather a cost and the drop down dead punchline is just cold. But in many other places Amis’s compulsion to tinker, adjust, qualify and add waffle onto the basic proposition makes his sentences almost incomprehensible. The notion that Amis was ever considered some kind of guide to ‘good English’ prose style beggars belief.

Anybody could have told that that day he was not going anywhere he ought not to be going. (p.143)

Uncomfortable prose for an uncomfortable pose

Linked to the ever-equivocating, tag-happy prose is the detached and alienated point of view of the narrator and all the characters. Amis was famous as a student for his hilarious impersonations, funny voices and gurning faces. The habit hardened into an attitude of seeing everything everyone does or says as a racket, a turn, a routine, something to be summed up and dismissed in a witty definition, or a performance or rigmarole which – oh God – you just have to go through. Maybe once witty, this also has become tiresome.

Thus, in the extended scene in chapter nine where he seduces Wendy Porter-King in a friend’s house he’s borrowed expressly for the purpose, Patrick – as a jaded roué – interprets every single thing she says as elements of her ‘routine’, the standard stuff you have to put up with from women before you can screw them. He charmingly christens it ‘cock tax’. Yaddah yaddah yaddah, she goes, and we are meant to be amused at the running commentary the narrator gives us on Patrick’s ‘hilarious’ attempts to match her mood, agree with her girlish whimsy, refrain from kicking her in the teeth when she says something stupid, and generally manipulate her into getting her pants down. Ha ha ha.

People are always doing a bit of business with their eyes or going through a routine with their cigarettes or performing a part in a conversation or playing a role at a party or in a meeting or down the pub. On page 147 Tim’s sister turns up out of the blue on Jenny’s doorstep:

‘I’m his sister.’
Jenny’s first thought was that a true sister of Tim’s would have been more likely to say she was the Shah of Persia, only the Shah of Persia would not have been claiming to be Tim’s sister. Or something. In other words she was confused. But she successfully said, ‘How nice to see you,’ blocking off the dreaded pleased-to-meet-you formula without turning a hair.
‘Is he all right, old Tim?’
Jenny mentioned his telephone call that morning, and reminded herself he had not asked her not to say anything or anything.

Leaving aside the classic Amis pointless afterthought – ‘Or something’ – how about “She successfully said, ‘How nice to see you'”? As if this achievement required wit or sharp intellect on the part of either character or author. Time after time even the most mundane exchanges are treated to the Amis routine of placing them in inverted commas and having the characters ‘go through’ the ‘hello how are you bit’ or deliver the ‘oh so sorry to hear that’ performance. The overall effect is of someone who finds almost all conversation or contact with other people tiresome and inconvenient, and it shows, it really shows, throughout the novel, helping to make it a tiresome read.

When Patrick finally brings himself to confess his affair to Jenny, she is dreading it because it will all be so predictable:

She would have given a lot to have been able to stop the whole thing cold… He went into a swallowing routine, pushing his chin down and opening his lips… She bent forward in her chair, waiting for him to get on to the next bit… Jenny watched the pleased relieved expression drain away from Patrick’s face as he got himself ready for the last serious part that would round the whole business off. (pp.208-212)

At the end of chapter thirteen Patrick has a panic attack (a ‘spell of sudden extreme fear’, p.200). I’ve noticed in some of Amis’s other novels that the narrator or protagonist’s rather desperate and unfunny humour, their turning of everything into a joke, a game, a patter, a routine, stems from a deep-seated fear of just being, of existence, of simply doing and saying thing like normal people do. Seen in this light the novels dramatise, both in their characters and in their restless fidgety language, Amis’s inability to just watch and observe and describe. To be content.

The plot

Despite all his promises to Jenny to the contrary, Patrick has a cold-hearted affair with Wendy Porter-King, the female half of the couple who have moved into a flat along the way. Tall, creepy Tim Valentine reveals to Patrick that the therapist he’s been seeing thinks he’s gay, and so Tim tries out mincing and lisping in a couple of hard London pubs to Patrick’s horror. (From that point onwards there are quite a few references to how stupid and dangerous psychiatrists can be.) Patrick meets Eric, one of the pair of gay neighbours, in a dingy club in Soho and tries to persuade him to have a word with Tim and convince him he is not gay. There’s a party at Eric’s where they all meet Stevie, his gay partner, once a well-known actor and now given to throwing tremendous hissy fits.

A few days later the Porter-Kings hold a horrible, crowded party full of ghastly people talking about their gurus (it is 1968) and Jenny glimpses Patrick and Wendy exchanging, just for a few seconds, a look which unmistakably signals that they’ve had sex. Disgusted and mortified, she walks out of the party, packs her travel bag and moves out of the flat to stay with her friend Elsie in Enfield.

(There’s a sub-plot at Patrick’s work where his hard-faced boss wants to squeeze out an older employee, Jack, and uses the bidding and fussing around the new novel by a 70-something Irish author, Deirdre, to do it. Amis gives Patrick a presumably ‘hilarious’ set-piece dinner with Deirdre – or, as he charmlessly describes her, ‘the old mick’ (p.171) – who turns out to be every bit as calculating and cynical as Pat himself, and together they come up with an elaborate scheme to shaft his boss and save Jack’s job.)

Patrick calls Elsie and leaves messages for Jenny but when she doesn’t return his calls, after a few days Patrick begins to realise that Jenny has twigged his adultery with Wendy. Jenny returns a few days later and has to go through the excruciating ‘performance’ of Patrick’s a) finding something else to apologise about (the cat’s gone missing) in order to screw his nerve up to b) confessing everything to Jenny, who then has to decide just how angry/upset/indifferent to pretend to be before c) the whole routine ends up with them in bed for forgiveness sex. Again, as usual, as always. There is an overwhelming sense of the deadeningness of this routine. We know Amis was a serial adulterer to his wives. It all feels too familiar, too true, too painful and too bleak to be at all funny.

Later Patrick takes Jenny to another party (it is London in the 60s) at a big impressive house with a conservatory and garden and big Victorian kitchen. Here, among ha ha descriptions of children’s writers, literary agents, historians and reviewers getting sloshed and behaving badly, Patrick introduces Jenny to his old friend Oswald Hart, back from being a correspondent in Washington and they go for a walk in the gardens where Oswald tells her about his ‘difficulties with girls’, well, his wife, from whom he’s separated.

In a scene which changes the tone of the novel, back at their flat, Jenny rounds on Patrick in a sustained diatribe. Not only is he a selfish, lecherous pig, but he was trying to fix Jenny up with Oswald, virtually egging them on to have an affair, so that would make it alright for Patrick to continue being adulterous. As he shrinks into his chair, Jenny says not only is that disgusting but reveals just how little he knows her or understands her or women in general, and reaches the conclusion that there really is nowhere for their relationship to go because she is not putting up with this kind of behaviour any more.

The gay stabbing

At which point Tim knocks on the door, interrupting the climax of Jenny’s tirade and inviting himself in for a nightcap. Patrick suddenly remembers this was the night the gay couple next door, Eric and Stevie, were scheduled to take Tim on a tour of gay clubs. So they ask Tim what it was like and it is now that he gives the earth-shattering news about what homosexual men ‘do’. During his horror-stricken explanation, they all hear mounting talking, then shouting, from Errc and Stevie next door.

Now, up to this point the whole strand of Tim Valentine being a quite tall but stooping, shy, sneezing loser who preposterously thinks he’s gay, and the linked thread of the genuinely gay couple next door – Eric and Stevie – had been very much a side issue in a novel predominantly about Patrick and Jenny.

But in these few pages this changes dramatically. 1. Tim gives Patrick and Jenny a preposterous account of going to some gay clubs. He can barely bring himself to describe what he’s discovered which is, apparently, that one person does it to another person and that person receives it and what kind of person does that make him, or even worse that the other person does it to the first person and they even like it and what kind of person does that make that person?? — (It is difficult to take this muddled twaddle, and hence the novel, seriously.) 2. In their previous scenes Patrick’s main reason for trying to talk Tim out of his ludicrous delusion that he’s gay, was Patrick’s assertion that the queer scene was so violent – ‘They’ll kick your head in,’ he’d warned Tim. — This, at the time, had seemed so preposterous I didn’t take it seriously.

But now all three hear the shouting next door rise in tone and then scuffling outside their door and then Tim opens it to have Stevie stumble inside, blood pouring from a stab wound to his neck. While Jenny immediately fetches tea towels to staunch the bleeding, Tim wrestles with Eric in the doorway and for a bad moment I thought Tim might get killed, but he manages to disarm Eric and wrestle him into the Standish’s living room ,where he sits in a daze while the others call an ambulance and try to keep Stevie alive till it arrives. Then the police arrive, question everyone, and arrest Eric.

Well. That was unexpected. Having upset women in most of his books, insulted artists and writers whenever he gets the chance, satirised the psychiatric profession in Jake’s Thing and Stanley and the Women, Amis appears to have set out to slander gay men with this ludicrously melodramatic plotline.

In the next chapter Patrick goes to visit Eric, who has been let out on bail and is staying with his tut-tutting sister. I forgot to mention that the night Jenny turned on Patrick and Eric and Stevie took Tim for a trawl of gay clubs and then Eric stabbed Stevie was also the night the House of Commons was voting on decriminalising homosexuality. Possibly homosexuality is meant to be an Important Theme in the book, if only it hadn’t been handled so monstrously.

Eric delivers some kind of author’s message about him and Patrick being two of a kind, they are hopelessly attracted to the Other, the non-man, the Feminine: in Patrick’s case to actual women, in Eric’s case, to feminine men. They seem to agree this is a fate and a destiny which can’t be avoided and in some obscure way it justifies Patrick (and maybe Amis’s) adulteries.

‘It’s the clash between male and non-male that causes all the trouble. They’re different from us. More like children. Crying when things go wrong. Making difficulties just so as to be a person.’ (p.256)

In the office Patrick is amazed when his boss, Simon, confesses he’s been having ‘difficulties’ with his girl ie wife, Barbara, who, since reading a book about women’s liberation has been demanding ‘fulfilment’ in bed, which Simon just isn’t up to giving her. In an extraordinary moment, he makes it clear he’d like Patrick to step into the breach and, er, give her fulfilment – hence their interest in acquiring the vacant flat in Patrick’s row, so he could pop round and service her on demand. Patrick needs no time at all to assert that this is a very bad idea, and would never work.

As he is motoring back to the flat, Jenny takes a phone call from Tim, who has decided he isn’t gay and has returned to live with his wife, Augusta. He confesses he is still having ‘difficulties’ ie he can’t get it up for the act of love, but he is determined to stick it out.

Now, Tim, we have learned, is supposed to be a barrister. All the barristers I’ve ever met are very clever and very canny. Tim is depicted as a moron who is completely ignorant about sex and devastated when he learns the reality of gay sex, which had, ludicrously, never occurred to him before. He is just one of the many elements which make this book almost unreadably obtuse, thick-headed and irrelevant.

Patrick arrives home just as Jenny is putting the phone down on Tim. She announces she is pregnant. They are going to have a baby. Patrick’s face is covered in tears as he embraces her. He says she has saved their marriage, and Jenny is happy, too.

She was going to have him all to herself for at least three years, probably more like five, and a part of him for ever, and now she could put it all out of her mind. (p.276)

In other words it ends very like the first novel, with the ill-matched pair forlornly committing to each other over a pregnancy, leaving the reader with the ominous feeling that it will all work out very badly, all over again.


There are many good reasons not to read Kingsley Amis – the tiresome misogyny, driven by alternating fear of women and hatred of women – the relentlessly pathetic, juvenile addiction to sex – the some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews anti-semitism – the Stone Age attitude towards homosexuality. There’s the way the ‘plots’ are rarely worth making much effort to follow, since not much really changes or develops in them. There’s the way the whole world his characters inhabit is not like any world I’ve observed, a world in which behaviour and attitudes which are totally unacceptable here on planet earth are humorously encouraged.

But by far the biggest reason not to read Kingsley Amis is to avoid witnessing the peculiar deformations of the English language which his idiosyncratic style so routinely produces. He belongs to the no-nonsense generation of the 1950s who turned their backs on the modish experiments of the Modernism of the 1920s and 1930s but – in writing about modern people – he finds he needs some of its techniques, especially the near stream-of-consciousness which he uses when he is describing Jenny. Having spent his career denouncing the stuff and nonsense of experimental prose he finds himself, much to his embarrassment, regularly writing something close to it himself, but in a peculiarly ham-fisted, home-made fashion.

‘I love you,’ she said, and was honestly surprised when he came round the kitchen table and took her in his arms, and even more surprised (well, in a way) at what followed, which went on until a very short time before Tim came. In fact she brought up the question of what they would do if he turned up early like last time, and was glad she was the only one there to hear some of the things Patrick said to that. But there was no problem, and everything got eaten up and nobody quarrelled or went quiet. (p.222)

Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. 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 his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small 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 school teacher Patrick Standish, who is 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 its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, 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, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged 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 actually 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 which 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 somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country 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 is 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 selected for the great honour of being 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 poor old Stan 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 magnum 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. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

Goya: The Portraits @ the National Gallery

Goya (1746-1828)

Francisco de Goya Self Portrait (1815) © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francisco de Goya Self Portrait (1815) © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes is often considered the last of the Old Masters. I have never been able to put him in the same class as Rembrandt or Vermeer, let alone the masters of the Renaissance, and this exhibition didn’t change my mind.

It is the first major exhibition of Goya’s portraits ever held. It was, according to the audioguide, ten years in the making as the curators negotiated the loan of works from major international galleries and many private owners, and I think we should be grateful for their efforts in bringing together an unparalleled 71 portraits, ranging from wall-sized commissions to tiny sketches and a set of family miniatures – all in one place as never before.


You can read Goya’s biography on his Wikipedia page. What was new to me was the detail the exhibition provided about Spanish politics of the second half of the 18th century and how Goya’s life intertwined with it:

After the glory years at the height of its empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain had sunk by the 18th century into being a cultural and economic backwater. During the later 1700s a group of liberal thinkers and politicians, taking their lead from the Enlightenment in France, wanted to modernise Spain and Goya very much befriended and took part in this group.

At the same time he was fiercely ambitious in his chosen career. In the 1780s King Charles III appointed Goya Painter to the King, despite its name, a relatively lowly position. In 1789, following the death of Charles III and the advent of Charles IV, Goya was promoted to Court Painter. And in 1799 Goya was finally appointed First Court Painter ie top dog. Via persistent lobbying and creating a network of aristocratic contacts, he had arrived.

But he did so as the continent of Europe sank ever deeper into prolonged war. By 1804 Spain, allied with Napoleonic France, was at war with Britain. In 1808 Napoleon’s troops seized major Spanish cities and Napoleon appointed his brother, Joseph, to the position of king of Spain. Guerilla resistance to the French invaders and their reprisals spurred Goya to create his terrifying Disasters of War etchings.

However, the French were liberals after Goya’s own heart: for example they abolished the Inquisition with its legal right to torture and execute anyone who had insulted the dignity of Spain or the Catholic church. Goya made many contacts within the French regime and painted some of its members.

The Duke of Wellington portraits

But in 1812 the Duke of Wellington led the British army to victory over the French and expelled them from Spain. Goya was commissioned to paint the Duke’s portrait and it is included here and – seen close to – is a much more rushed and bodged looking affair than I remembered (look at the hanging right eye, look at the ineptly done mouth). Compare and contrast Goya’s amateurish work with the superb portrait of Wellington by British painter Sir Thomas Lawrence just three years later – a brilliantly penetrating, superbly finished and completely convincing portrait.

Alas for Goya and Spanish liberals, the restored Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, turned out to be as reactionary as the soon-to-be-restored Bourbons in France. He swiftly restored the Inquisition, its spies and secret police and Goya had to undergo inquisition and ‘rehabilitation’ for his earlier contacts with the French regime. Doubts about his loyalty persisted and in 1824 Goya was forced first to go into hiding and then to flee to France, to join the community of Spanish emigrés in Bordeaux, where he died in 1828.

The portraits

I thought the great majority of the portraits were amateurish, badly composed and badly executed. Even the audio commentary had to concede there are elements of ‘naivety’, ‘awkwardness’, ‘inelegance’ in many of the paintings. He was nearly 40 when he painted the group portrait below. The composition is clumsy. The commentary points out the table only has one leg. Perspective and colour emphasise flatness and not depth. Some of the faces seem in a different plane or level than others. The old bloke at the table is very badly done.

Francisco de Goya The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón (1783-4) © Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Parma, Italy

Francisco de Goya The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón (1783-4) © Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Parma, Italy

Here is Goya, aged 40, doing a portrait of the king – the king – which looks like a cartoon and makes the king look like a rascally yokel. I don’t understand how this can be said to be the work of a ‘master’ of painting. The digs, the gun, the boots are typical of the period. But the face?

Francisco de Goya Charles III in Hunting Dress (1786-8) Duquesa del Arco

Francisco de Goya Charles III in Hunting Dress (1786-8) Duquesa del Arco

The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children is a terrible picture, isn’t it? The stagey pose, the inability to draw the human figure or face, the ineptness of the children’s poses and faces. This is one of the exhibition’s coups, a loan from the prestigious Prado in Madrid. It looks like some of the primitive American colonial art I saw at the Brooklyn Museum last year.

Francisco de Goya The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children (1788) © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francisco de Goya The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children (1788) © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Below is a well-known self portrait from the 1790s. The commentary points out that the window may or may not have existed in this form in Goya’s studio, but it is anyway symbolic of the light flooding in from the 18th century Enlightenment. Maybe so, but close up you can see the shakiness of the brush strokes throughout and the indecisiveness of the features.

Francisco de Goya Self Portrait before an Easel (1792-5) © Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

Francisco de Goya Self Portrait before an Easel (1792-5) © Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

The Duchess of Alba was an important patron and the work below is a famous painting, chosen to head the National Gallery’s twitter feed. But the background looks unreal, there is no connection between the background and the figure dumped in it and her face is dire, oddly modelled and blank. She is pointing at an inscription in the sand which says ‘Solo Goya’ ie ‘Only Goya’, which sentimental old art historians used to think proved she and Goya were lovers. More realistic modern critics think it is simply a reference to Goya considering himself the best portrait painter in Spain.

Francisco de Goya The Duchess of Alba (1797) © Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Francisco de Goya The Duchess of Alba (1797) © Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Charles III died in 1788 and his successor, Charles IV, promoted Goya to be court painter. Goya, presumably keen to display his absolute powers, produced this portrait of the king as hunter. A reproduction makes it look much more finished than it is in real life, especially the repainting around the dog’s head to make him look more adoringly at his master.

Francisco de Goya Charles IV in Hunting Dress (1799) Colecciones Reales, Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de Madrid © Patrimonio Nacional

Francisco de Goya Charles IV in Hunting Dress (1799) Colecciones Reales, Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de Madrid © Patrimonio Nacional

The portrait of the Marchioness of Santa Cruz reflects the early 19th century fashion for portraying sitters – generally women – as classical personifications. Here the marchioness, with her hand on a lute, is portraying a classical muse. This reproduction smooths out the rough brush strokes and makes the silk dress and fabric of the couch look well done; they look a lot less so in real life. Her face is as blankly expressionless, as bereft of life, as the Duchess of Alba’s.

Francisco de Goya The Marchioness of Santa Cruz (1805) © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francisco de Goya The Marchioness of Santa Cruz (1805) © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

After the defeat of Napoleon, King Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne and brought back all the reactionary institutions of his forebears. Despite Goya’s known sympathies for the French regime, Ferdinand kept him on as court painter, though appointing a more traditionalist painter (Vicente López) to accompany him. It is hard to understand how a proud and dignified king can possibly have accepted this official portrait from Goya without insisting it was burned. It makes him look like a tubby cretin.

Francisco de Goya Ferdinand VII in Court Dress (1814-5) © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francisco de Goya Ferdinand VII in Court Dress (1814-5) © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Some good paintings

It is unfortunate that the first room, full of early works, rather overwhelms you with how poor Goya was as a draughtsman and painter. Thus prepared it was easy to see faults in everything which followed. But I was pleasantly surprised to see about half a dozen works I thought were good, and one or two that might be very good, that almost stand comparison with Gainsborough, Reynolds or Thomas Lawrence.

This portrait of the Count of Altamira has a unity of colour and composition which I found uncommon in most of the other exhibits, although the audio commentary chose it as an example of the way that Goya almost always has something quirky or ungainly or clumsy in his paintings (I couldn’t agree more). In this case the chair is evidently too small for the table and the sitter’s body isn’t quite sitting on it, but sort of hovering just above.

Francisco de Goya The Count of Altamira (1787) Colección Banco de España P-132 © Colección Banco de España

Francisco de Goya The Count of Altamira (1787) Colección Banco de España P-132 © Colección Banco de España

The portrait of the Countess-Duchess of Benavente reminded me of Gainsborough. She was, apparently, an intellectual in her day, famous for her salon, but the commentary went on mostly about her hair and how the four large folds at the back were probably created using a sort of cardboard onto which human hair was stuck before the assemblage was attached to the back of her head with hairpins. Once they’d drawn attention to this area it became impossible not to notice the way the hat isn’t really sitting on her head, but looks tacked on behind it.

Francisco de Goya The Countess-Duchess of Benavente (1785) Private Collection, Spain © Joaquín Cortés

Francisco de Goya The Countess-Duchess of Benavente (1785) Private Collection, Spain © Joaquín Cortés

Others I liked include:

Goya’s friends

The exhibition very much follows the highs and lows in Goya’s personal life, dwelling on the illness in the 1790s which left him profoundly deaf, and referring to the albums of cartoons and sketches in which he kept satirical images of the court and of humanity in general. It has two rooms devoted to portraits of family and close friends which, as with anyone’s life story, introduce an element of pathos.

  • Antonia Zárate (1805) A close friend of the artist, her face has the same blankness of many other female portraits, there’s something wrong with the top lip and the dress hangs oddly on her bust and shoulders but still, a striking pose.
  • Friar Juan Fernández de Rojas (1800?) A personal friend of the artist and progressive theologian, this is one of the few really persuasive portraits in the show.
  • Martín Zapater (1797) Goya’s lifelong friend and correspondent, this portrait has more depth than all the kings put together.

The commentary told us about his relationship with Dr Arrieta, who nursed Goya through a severe illness in 1819. These and the other moving stories about his wife’s death, about the loss of most of his children, may all be true and raise some sympathy. But surely none of that stops Goya’s painting of himself and Arrieta from being anything other than embarrassingly amateurish. The idea of fellowship, care and support may be humane and worthy – but the execution…

Francisco de Goya Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta (1820) Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund © Minneapolis Institute of Art

Francisco de Goya Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta (1820) Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund © Minneapolis Institute of Art

I am grateful to the National Gallery for assembling all these works in one place and allowing us to take a really detailed overview of Goya’s career. But I would expect a ‘master’ to have created at least one ‘masterpiece’, a work you can only marvel at, a work that seems created by angels, that you could stand anyone in front of and say, ‘There! That is Western Art at its finest’. Although there are quite a few ‘interesting’ portraits and a handful of fairly good ones, there are no paintings here that take your breath away.

The video

Related links

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

Emily Jacir: Europa @ Whitechapel Art Gallery

The first UK retrospective of Emily Jacir, the Palestinian artist and film-maker, born in Bethlehem in 1972, raised in Saudi Arabia, and now based in Italy, a matrix of locations and identities reflected in her work. According to the introductory wall panel the show ‘investigates movement, exchange, transformation, resistance and silenced historical narratives.’

The exhibition is very white, with large expanses of white wall supporting often very small photos, letters, texts. Or very black, as you enter womb-like rooms to watch the four or five videos included in the show.

Emily Jacir - Europa (Material for a film) (, 2004 - ) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

Emily Jacir – Europa (Material for a film) (2004 – ) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

In the year of Jacir’s birth, 1972, Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter was gunned down by Israeli Mossad agents outside his Rome apartment after being wrongly identified as one of the terrorists reponsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Material for a film (2004 – ) is a large installation in several rooms bringing together documents, letters, photographs, newspaper cuttings associated with Zuaiter, as well as audio clips of Mahler’s 9th symphony, a transcription of which was found on his desk, and photos of the neighbourhood which Jacir got friends of the murdered man to walk her around while reminiscing about him. There’s a grim photo of the copy of 1001 Nights which he wanted to translate into Italian: 12 of the bullets fired at him entered his body, a 13th wedged in the spine of this book, as you can actually see.

Emily Jacir Material for a film (detail) (Wael Zuaiter's 1001 Nights) 2004 – Multimedia installation, 3 sound pieces, 1 video, texts, photos, archival material, devised in part with the support of La Biennale di Venezia. © Emily Jacir.

Emily Jacir Material for a film (detail) (Wael Zuaiter’s 1001 Nights) 2004 – Multimedia installation, 3 sound pieces, 1 video, texts, photos, archival material, devised in part with the support of La Biennale di Venezia. © Emily Jacir.

My opinion: Initially rather scrappy and patchy, slowly these fragments coalesce to give a sense of the possibilities inherent in a documentary film about Zuaiter and the shooting; the disparate elements create a sense of potentiality, of numerous ways the visuals, the texts and the music could be combined to create different flavours, shed different lights, tell different narratives.

linz diary (2003) Jacir posed at 6pm for 26 days in a row by a fountain in a public square in Linz, then got stills of her pose, in rain or shine, in sickness and in health, from a webcam positioned on a rooftop looking down at the square. Result: 26 x 6-inch-square, colour photographs with winningly banal comments underneath (‘posing with umbrella in the rain’, ‘here despite flu’ etc).

My opinion: So-so snaps. Didn’t light my fire.

from Paris to Riyadh (1998-2001) Throughout her girlhood Jacir regularly flew with her mother from Europe to Saudi Arabia. En route her mother took a marker pen and blacked out every scrap of female flesh in her copy of Vogue magazine in order for it to clear Saudi customs. Now Jacir has gone back over library copies of every Vogue between 1977 and 1997, selected one page, and re-enacted her mother’s action, but first placing transparent sheets of vellum over the pages. Result: 249 page-size sheets of vellum pinned to the wall in two massive rectangular blocks, each one covered in apparently random black shapes. Except they are not random, they are the traces of the images of women’s bodies. Thus Jacir can claim the work ‘speaks about traversing the space in between two forms of repressing women; a space in which the image of women is commodified and a space in which the image of women is banned’.

My opinion: The more I looked, the more I liked it. The more the two poles made sense, the more the polarity of black and white exemplified it. The more the randomness of the shapes took on several layers of meaning, not least the personal homage to her mother’s memory.

stazione (2008-9) Created for the 53rd Venice Biennale, Jacir translated the names of each vaporetto station along Route 1 of the Grand Canal in Venice into Arabic and placed her translations alongside the official signs. Result: 30 or so colour photos of the bilingual signs. As if on cue, the municipal authorities stepped in and curtailed the ‘project’ ordering them to be removed.

Emily Jacir stazione (2008 – 2009) Public intervention on Line 1 vaporetto stops (Arsenale) Commissioned for Palestine c/o Venice, Collateral event of the 53rd International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Veneza. © Emily Jacir.

Emily Jacir stazione (2008 – 2009) Public intervention on Line 1 vaporetto stops (Arsenale) Commissioned for Palestine c/o Venice, Collateral event of the 53rd International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Veneza. © Emily Jacir.

My opinion: 20 or so very average colour photos of boat stops along the canal with Arabic next to the Italian. Not earth-shattering.

ex libris (2010-12) 160 photos in various sizes, ranged around the walls of a medium size room, just some examples of the thousands of books belonging to Palestinians which were looted in 1948 and have ended up in the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem.

My opinion: So-so photos. Poignant subject matter.

ENTRY DENIED (a concert in Jerusalem) (2003) Austrian musicians Marwan Abado, Peter Rosmanith and Frantz Hautzinger were invited to stage a concert in Jerusalem. Marwan was arrested on arrival at Tel Aviv airport on 20 July 2003, held for 24 hours, and then expelled on grounds of ‘security’. Jacir invited the trio to stage the concert they would have put on in Israel, in an empty theatre in Vienna and filmed it. You can watch the whole concert projected on a large screen in a blacked out room.

My opinion: By now I was getting a feel for how Jacir’s works are about silencing and repressing – voices, thought and, here, music. The music is brilliant, by the way, two guys playing traditional drums and a stringed instrument, the third playing mellow jazzy trumpet in a wonderful world music fusion. But in an empty theatre. And deprived of its intended audience in Palestine.

Change/Exchange (1998) Jacir set out with a hundred dollar bill and changed it into francs. Then back into dollars. then into francs. And so on. After 60 exchanges she was left with just small change which no shop would accept. The work is a series of colour photos of the money change booths and shops she used, with each receipt tacked underneath.

My opinion: As photos these are nothing special, but I like the flappy, blu-tacked receipts underneath them (I like sculpture or artifacts made from day-to-day objects). And I liked the basic idea of watching capital whittled down to nothing. Another example of the movement towards the silence, dwindling, reduction, which is a core theme of Jacir’s.

Lydda airport (2009) The old Lydda airport was a stopping off point for British Imperial airways. This five minute black and white film uses an old Handley Page propeller plane from the time to create a nostalgic sense of a vanished age. Lydda airport itself has disappeared, built over by the renamed Ben Gurion airport (repression). And the film also tells the story of a man tasked with meeting world famous flyer Amelia Earheart off a plane with a bunch of flowers but the flight never arrived. (Theme of silence).

Emily Jacir Lydda Airport (2009) Photo: Jason Mandella © Emily Jacir, courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York.

Emily Jacir Lydda Airport (2009) Photo: Jason Mandella © Emily Jacir, courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York.

Four layers of sadness and absence – the vanished empire, the beautiful old planes, the renamed airport, the disappeared woman flyer. This is in a way the most incharacteristic of all the works because it has the sentimentality of an actual movie – the gallery chose a still from it for the poster advertising the show as if she were a fashion photographer from the 1940s, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

embrace (2005) A circular motorised sculpture which looks like an empty luggage conveyor system reduced to the size of a circular sofa, going round in circles, going nowhere.

la mia mappa (2013) A large colour photo of a blue puddle with the reflection of an Italian building.

luggage (1998) A colour photo of paper in a river, with a small duck.

nothing will happen (eight normal days in Linz) (2003) Colour video from a static camera positioned on a rooftop overlooking a square in Linz watching people walk around, trams come and go, church bells ring, a siren go off…

Installation view: Emily Jacir: Europa (Nothing Will Happen (eight normal Saturdays in Linz) (2003) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

Installation view: Emily Jacir – Europa: Nothing Will Happen (eight normal Saturdays in Linz) (2003) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

Maybe I missed a key moment, but this seemed very dull.

Tal al Zaater (1977/2014) In another act of reclamation or republishing, Jacir has been heavily involved in reconstructing footage of a black and white documentary made about the August 12 1976 massacre which took place in the Tal al Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp north east of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

My opinion: Obviously the events themselves are horrific but the viewer judges it as film and it has a cool, non-European, black-and-white stylishness of, say, The Battle of Algiers, the unfamiliar street sounds and language intercut with posturing politicians and the sound of gunfire and screaming. I didn’t wait or want to find out if we actually see people being machine gunned or shots of bloody bodies. This happened, but in the 20th century so many disgusting things happened that it is impossible to even list them all, let alone have any emotional reaction. But Jacir is putting it back on the map, the big, bloody, horrible map of twentieth century atrocities.

Related links

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain @ Victoria & Albert Museum

A wonderful exhibition of the fantastical designs, shapes, engineering, ingenuity and expertise the human imagination has brought to the humble shoe, a basic item of equipment invented to protect feet from the environment which, throughout human history and around the globe, has mutated into thousands of patterns and purposes and continues, in our time, to inspire designers and craftsmen to ever giddier flights of fancy.

The show brings together over 200 pairs of shoes, ranging from a sandal decorated in pure gold leaf from ancient Egypt to the most elaborate concoctions of contemporary makers.

One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt (c.30 BCE-300 CE ) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt
(c.30 BCE-300 CE) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The exhibition is divided into two parts:

  • Downstairs the carpet, walls and curtains are all a dark purple, creating a womb-like ambience as soothing new age music pipes through hidden speakers and visitors process past glass panels each showing 10 or 15 or 20 shoes of amazing variety, antiquity and geographical spread.
  • Upstairs is light and white, the stands are on a big circular podium open to the enormous atrium room, with huge video screens suspended from the ceiling showing craftsmen at work creating shoes, a series of cases showing how shoes are designed and constructed, as well as several cases dedicated to the collections of some epic shoeaholics, and a 12-minute video featuring interviews with such shoe gods as Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi and Christian Louboutin.

Killer Heels at the Brooklyn Museum

It just so happens that I went to the ‘Killer Heels’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum this time last year. It focused more on the glitz and glamour of contemporary designers whereas the V&A show features more examples from around the world and from past eras – as befits the world’s leading historical museum of design. The V&A show definitely brought together a much wider range of footwear but, I think, was less penetrating in its analysis.

For example, where the V&A points out that shoes can be sexy and seductive, the Brooklyn show goes the extra mile to show exactly why, explaining that high heels:

  • push the chest out
  • lift the bottom
  • make the legs appear longer and therefore thinner
  • make the calves more taut and rounded
  • make the feet appear smaller

In other words, high heels make the wearer’s body seem less stumpy and clumpy (less like the body most of us actually possess) and taller, leaner, more agile and athletic, while emphasising bust and buttocks. In biological terms, they highlight a woman’s fertility, youth and fitness as a mate. On a cultural plane, they dramatise a woman’s sexuality and have done for centuries.

 'Parakeet’ shoes Artist: Caroline Groves, England (2014 ) Photography by Dan Lowe .

‘Parakeet’ shoes by Caroline Groves, England (2014) Photography by Dan Lowe.

Folklore, fairy tales and myths

The show starts with the Cinderella fairy story which dates in one form or another back to the first centuries AD. It makes the central point of the show: Cinderella is the virtuous girl whose shoes elevate her literally and socially. Cinderella’s life is transformed because wearing high-heeled shoes gets her noticed by the heir to the throne, the handsome prince. This is the focus of the exhibition – the way that across space and time, the wearing of fancy shoes signals privilege, rank and status.

The same display case goes on to mention other examples of powerful and transformative footwear: the Seven League Boots worn by Hop o’ my Thumb. Reference is also made to Puss In Boots, surely the smartest cat to wear shoes, but not to the Old Lady Who Lived In A Shoe, nor to Hermes, the messenger god with little wings attached to his ankle boots. I would have liked more about the importance of footwear in myth and legend. I bet Marina Warner could write an entire book on the subject – I’d have liked a thoughtful paragraph or two.

Film footwear

Too quickly for my taste the eye was drawn away from the depths of myth and legend to the shallows of shoe-ey film clips: There’s a short bit of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz tapping her ruby slippers, as well as clips of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain and Marilyn Monroe tottering along on high heels which emphasise her waggling bottom. On actual display are the red shoes worn by dancer and actress Moira Shearer in the classic Powell & Pressburger film The Red Shoes, which give their wearer her semi-magical power of dance, but also propel her to her death. Yes, and, and…?

Again I bet there are umpteen studies of footwear in films and it would have been interesting to have had even a few sentences analysing how, for example, close-ups of footwear are a useful shorthand to quickly identify character types, or any other suggestions or thoughts…

Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England Artist: Freed of London (founded in 1929), Date: 1948 . Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery.

Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England. Freed of London (founded in 1929). Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery.

Status and display

Instead the exhibition is rarely distracted from its core mission which is to show how footwear is overwhelmingly about status and display. It is about how rich you are, how your footwear asserts your membership of an elite group or class or circle. Many of the shoes are celebrated for their impracticality: they display and assert that the wearer is quite incapable of physical labour or looking after themselves or managing even the slightest physical obstacle, they are so pampered.

One wall label rather casually pairs Queen Henrietta Maria and Sex and the City‘s Sarah Jessica Parker as ‘style leaders’ whose shoes (and overall look) other people copied. Well, Henrietta’s main achievement was contributing, via her Catholicism, her luxury and her inflexible snobbery, to the unpopularity of her husband King Charles I who plunged his country into civil war and was eventually beheaded.

The exhibition treats ‘status’, being a member of an ‘elite’, of ‘an exclusive circle’, as cost-free activities, as if this appetite for inclusion doesn’t imply a mass exclusion, keeping out the vast majority of people who aren’t in the charmed circle.

The displays range impressively far and wide in its examples: there are shoes from the Ottoman Empire, Ming Dynasty China, Meiji Japan, from Caroline England, from a rajah in pre-Independence India – all regimes which were overthrown in violent revolutions. What role did (and do) ostentatious shoes play in alienating the 99% of the population not allowed or too poor to wear them? Maybe there is no meaningful answer, but the question goes unasked…

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600


In the (surprisingly) small panel about fetish boots and sex, the commentary makes some rather sweeping generalisations:

  • The modern high heel is associated with sexual availability rather than just desirability.‘ Really? As I wrote in my review of the Brooklyn show, I’d have thought it’s more that expensive shoes, especially heels, are about adopting a role, assuming a pose, feeling more glamorous and attractive. Not at all the same thing as making yourself sexually available. For most people most of the time, I’d have thought the sexual suggestiveness of high heels and glamour shoes is implicit, repressed, unacknowledged, beneath the socially (and personally) acceptable activity of making yourself look ‘glamorous’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘classy’, ‘enchanting’, ‘smart’.
  • Further, the commentary asserts that ‘sexy shoes affect the movements of the body, titillating the watcher and creating a sensual experience for the wearer…  Shoes equal sex.’ Well, quite obviously most shoes do not equal sex. And, as and when they do, it’s surely in a number of ways: the Brooklyn exhibition put into words precisely how heels cantilever the female form to emphasise its sexual characteristics. But thigh length boots, stilletoes, studded shoes? I could have done with more explanation, from psychologists or sexologists, about just why shoes can be so erotic.

Scores of the shoes and boots scattered randomly throughout the exhibition are doubtless ‘sexy’, designed to emphasise a woman’s sexuality, designed to cater to (changing) sexual tastes through the ages – but restricting this big theme to one small display case, for me raised but then didn’t sufficiently explore the idea.

‘Invisible Naked Version' by Andreia Chaves (2011) Photo by Andrew Bradley .

‘Invisible Naked Version’ by Andreia Chaves (2011) Photo by Andrew Bradley.

Shoes and control

In fact, one of the themes that emerges from the show is that many shoes through history were designed not to flaunt their wearer’s sexuality, but to cripple the wearer, to severely restrict their ability to walk. The Japanese prostitute heels linked to above, are one example. Another well-known extreme is the terrifying traditional shoes worn by Chinese women, whose feet had been broken and bound in order to look petite and exquisite.

Clearly some cultures developed traditions designed to hamper walking in all sorts of ingenious ways. For some cultures the motive was to highlight the wearer’s wealth and status, emphasising that they didn’t need to move very much because everything was done for them, brought to them. For another large group, mainly women, their ability to walk was limited by their masters, who thereby demonstrated their power and control.

Again, I’d have welcomed some thoughtful commentary about the importance of shoes as implements of power and control through the ages. Maybe sustained investigation of these themes is in the exhibition book…

Below are silver platform shoes, named padukas, traditionally given to brides in India to create height, and to emphasise (as usual) their wealth and status. I imagine the most the wearer could manage would be a shuffle. Maybe a cautious totter…

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India (1800s)

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India (1800s)

Work and gender

The curators know their audience, white, middle-class, older, female. The world of work, and especially the vast world of male physical labour, was largely invisible. All forms of working boot, steel-capped boots, footwear worn on building sites and in factories, by sailors and truck drivers, was not here. I particularly missed Doc Martens, that symbol of skinheads and the violent 1970s (which have, in fact, largely reinvented themselves as style accessories).

For as well as physical labour, the equally male world of violence is largely invisible, the bloody civil war which the extravagance of Henrietta Marie helped to spark and the elaborately beshoed Charles II managed to escape, nowhere mentioned.

The Duke of Wellington is here because of his well-known boots but nothing else about Army or Navy or Air Force footwear, riding wear, driving wear, flying wear, climbing wear. Tucked away in a corner of one display were some fantastic glam rock platform boots from 1973, which the original owner is quoted as saying were good for ‘kicking the shit’ out of other men. But for the most part, marching, tramping, working, kicking, fighting, all these male foot-related activities are invisible.

NOVA by Zaha Hadid for United Nude (c) Image Courtesty of United Nude.

NOVA by Zaha Hadid for United Nude (c) Image Courtesty of United Nude.

Makers and collectors

Upstairs the focus shifted to the making and collecting of shoes. There were several stands devoted to explaining just how shoes are designed, how patterns are generated from the prototype and then the necessary shapes cut from leather. There was an array of heels, the same shape, but painted different colours and with various diamante applications, which I found fascinating. I was also interested to learn that the metal spike heel was invented in the 1950s, which allowed designers to play with a whole new type of look.

Around the corner is a brilliant semi-circular 7-foot-high wall made of everyday cardboard shoeboxes. I really liked this as a piece of sculpture, but it’s also practical for it creates an auditorium effect, there are benches placed in front of it and in the middle is suspended a big video screen on which plays the 12-minute video I mentioned earlier, featuring interviews with shoe gods Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi, Christian Louboutin and others.

The final section of the exhibition contains a number of cases which display the collections of several notable collectors of shoes. Lionel Ernest Bussey collected shoes from about 1914 until his death in 1969, all ladies shoes bought from fairly ordinary shoe shops. By the time of his death he’d collected about 600 pairs, all new and unworn, many not even taken out of their boxes. He left his collection to the V&A. Robert Brooks (age 42) collects just adidas trainers and travels the world to acquire rare items for a collection which now numbers over 800 pairs. Also featured is Katie Porter from west London who has more than 230 shoes in her collection.

Why? We are invited to marvel at these impressive collections, but I’d have welcomed a sentence or two exploring and explaining the psychology of collecting, and of collecting shoes in particular.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain , Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Note the wall of shoe boxes in the background and the display of Robert Brooks’s adidas trainers in the foreground.

Lighten up

But maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe I’m missing the point: maybe it is simply that all these shoes – removed from their historical contexts, from too much depth or meaning – are all transformed by this exhibition into objects of fantasy and escape. The exhibition invites us to gawp and marvel and not dig too deep.

We ordinary folk who can never afford Henrietta Maria chopines or Sarah Jessica Parker’s Blahniks, can enjoy them, and hundreds of other weird and exotic specimens, here in the V&A and, by extension, on the internet, in magazines, in videos. Via all these channels we can enter, without too much thought, into magical worlds where we are all thinner, taller and richer, where we all live for a moment more interesting, colourful lives, in remote historical eras and exotic countries, inhabiting the countless fantasies these amazing and endlessly inventive objects offer us. Maybe marvelling and admiring is enough.

On YouTube

A good overview of the show by Euromaxx TV.

Related links

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