Medusa by Hammond Innes (1988)

Mike Steele, the first person narrator of this adventure yarn, is a man with a past, a past which is only slowly revealed in this 350-page novel, Innes’ longest work.

Minorca

The novel opens with Mike going about his business on the island of Menorca in the western Mediterranean, where he runs a boat chandlery shop above the harbour of the capital, Port Mahon, has bought a couple of villas to rent out to tourists and manages his moody, pregnant wife Soo (Suzanne).

Mike’s a well-known figure about the harbour and among the ex-pat community on the island and we are plunged immediately into his networks of business and social contacts, checking the builders and decorators at the new villa, touching base with the crew of his two fishing boats, having lunch with local businessmen and attending a big gala hosted by the mayor to celebrate the opening of another urbanización, or building development.

The assassination

Mike is invited to the event and makes a little speech before introducing the charismatic mayor, Jorge Martinez, who stands and begins to say how valuable building developments like this are for the local economy etc. In mid-sentence, to the surprise and shock of the audience (and this reader), there’s the whip crack of a rifle shot and the back of his head is blown open by a sniper bullet (p.98).

Suddenly a lot of earlier incidents, a lot of scattered events from the first hundred pages, come into sharp focus. There’d been scattered references in the text to a political problem with ‘separatists’. Among other things, villas owned by foreigners are routinely broken into and daubed with graffiti (‘Minorca for the Minorcans’ etc) or squatted in. Is the assassination something to do with them?

Bosomy Petra

One of Mike’s wide circle of acquaintances is a young woman archaeologist, Petra Cassis, who Mike is strongly attracted to (he rarely encounters her without referring to her full shapely breasts – indeed, Innes is something of a boob man: all the female leads in the last four or five novels tend to have heaving bosoms – who can forget the passionate love-making on a mountainside in a storm between Colin Tait and Mary Delden, who rips open her blouse for the purpose?).

The cave paintings

Petra offers to show Mike round the archaeological dig she’s carrying out in caves near the villa he’s doing up for tourists. Soo comes along, heavily pregnant and grumpy with Mike, though flattered to be escorted by Gareth Lloyd Jones, a naval officer who’s visiting the island, has been introduced to the Steeles as local luminaries, and who Soo has taken a shine to.

Instead of the neolithic cave paintings Petra is so excited about, she and Mike discover someone has been digging through the back of the cave and, when they wriggle through a narrow gap in the rubble, find themselves emerging into a well-provisioned secret cave, complete with beds, heater and cooker, chemical lavatory and the cave mouth looking out over a ledge 20 yards below, at sea level. A perfect secret hideaway, but who for?

Soo loses her baby

Mike is at the cave mouth when he hears a cry from back at the rubble hole, two strange men have emerged from nowhere and pushed past Petra. Mike wriggles through the gap in pursuit, up to the landward entrance to the cave, emerging just in time to see figures in the distance jumping into a car. But then he is distracted by moaning nearer at hand. His wife, Soo, had left the safety of the car to come up to the cave entrance and had arrived just as the thugs ran out, pushing her out of the way. She had stumbled and fallen some yards down the steep gully, landing awkwardly on hard rock. Mike rushes her to the hospital where they operate to save her, but discover the baby was crushed to death in her womb. It was a boy.

Captain Lloyd Jones

Now more prominence is given Gareth Lloyd Jones, a Royal Navy officer who is on leave on Minorca before taking up captaincy of a ship, and has become friendly with the Steeles. A number of plotlines converge on this hesitant, troubled figure. 1. Soo, disgruntled with flashy Mike and his obvious attraction to Petra, quite quickly slides into friendship and then something more, with Jones. 2. Jones claims to be on holiday, but in fact is asking around whether anyone has seen the man shown in a photo who, it slowly, emerges, is one Pat Evans, a Brit with a long criminal record.

Pat Evans and his catamaran

Evans does show up, sailing into Port Mahon in a sleek catamaran, Thunderflash, which moors just below Steele’s shop. When Steele inevitably meets him he is amazed that Evans is prepared to sell the catamaran in exchange for one of Mike’s fishing boats, the Santa Maria, and one of his tourist villas. Mike sees it as a business opportunity, a chance to run much higher-class charters and make more money and so he agrees. But the assassination of Martinez takes place the same night as the deal is clinched with Evans and Mike suddenly has a bad feeling. Early the next morning he gets up, goes down to the cat and searches every inch of it. He is appalled to find a recently-fired rifle tied up in a bag and hidden in one of the hulls of the cat (p.110).

Mike breaks out in a sweat as he realises Evans is involved in the assassination and that he, Mike, is the victim of an elaborate frame-up. Flushed with panic, Mike carries the rifle off the boat in a bundle of linen, gets into his car and drives out to the villa he’s just sold to Evans. Finding it deserted, he gets in with the key he’s retained, and carefully conceals the rifle under floorboards in the kitchen.

The police interrogate Mike

Not before time, because when he drives back to the cat he finds the police waiting for him. Obviously they have been tipped off. One of Mike’s talents is as a sharp shooter and he shot for England, training at Bisley, and has a number of competition medals and cups in his living room. The police now suspect a well-known sharp shooter carried out the assassination, one Antonio Barragio (p. 121), and Mike has to admit he knows him, or has met him, at international shooting events. Then the police commence a detailed search of every inch of the cat and it becomes clear they’ve been tipped off where to find the rifle and are angry when it’s not there. The police leave, threatening to return and with the parting shot that they’ve confiscated his passport.

Escape to Malta

Now, the cat had been due to go on a test sail to Malta with his crew and Mike arranges for it to depart Port Mahon in full view of everyone, including the plain clothes cops set to watch him. But that night Mike slips out of his house and drives around the coast to a concealed bay and where he rendezvous with the cat which has doubled back, under the guidance of the entertaining East Anglian crew man, Carp (Carpenter).

The half-brothers

If Innes’ plots often don’t really stand up, if the psychology of his main characters is generally flat and uninvolving, he is good at creating a large cast of secondary characters and spending time filling in their backstories. Once he’s aboard the cat (illegally) heading towards Malta a) Innes can indulge his enthusiastic description of sea sailing b) Carp is able to fill in a lot of background about Captain Lloyd Jones.

Turns out Carp comes from the same small town on the Suffolk coast where Jones and Pat Evans grew up. Turns out the boys were both tearaways, brought up in the home of a local woman, Moira, the sons of the same father but by different women. After various tribulations as schoolboys roaming over the mudflats and learning to sail, they both ended up at HMS Ganges, a training camp for young would-be sailors. As so often with Innes, at the core of what is supposedly an adventure or thriller novel, there is an eerie, Gothic tale of twisted family ties, doomed siblings – here a pair of half-brothers, one on the right one very much on the wrong side, of the law, whose lives seem fated to intertwine.

After three blissful days free on the ocean, the cat arrives at Malta where they are surprised to see a British frigate, the Medusa, in the main harbour. Mike has no passport and is now on the run from the Spanish police, so he hesitates to go aboard until he realises the frigate is the one on which Jones has taken up his captaincy, he gets Carp to motor him over in the cat’s dinghy.

Aboard HMS Medusa

Jones welcomes Steele aboard and there now begins a long section set aboard the ship where Steele becomes a kind of spooky shadow to the captain. Surprisingly, improbably, Jones opens up about his eerie half-brotherhood with Evans, then tells Steele several stories: how he was forced on his first day to go up the mast of an old sailing ship kept at HMS Ganges, and it was Pat who came and rescued him, talking him down.

And how, a few years later, staying out late on the mudflats on the Suffolk coast, bird watching, he accidentally saw a catamaran, Pat’s catamaran, come inshore in complete silence and then start unloading crates to the beach. Hearing Irish voices, Jones’ worst suspicions are confirmed – Pat is mixed up with IRA terrorists. At which point, one of the terrorists emerges from the darkness and coshes him.

Jones awakes on the catamaran at sea and Pat hisses at him to keep quiet, the ‘clients’ wanted to kill him, Pat managed to persuade them to keep him alive, and then… Pat lets Jones escape over the side upstream of a famous buoy. Jones floats downstream to it, clambers aboard, and is rescued several hours later by a passing boat. This strange incident has blighted his professional career in the Navy but also dented his confidence. And why, we wonder, is he telling Steele all this. Because, in the few days’ leave he had on Minorca, Jones has developed this rather improbable crush on Soo, which she has responded to. Which means Mike is in the cabin of a Royal Navy ship, listening to the captain reveal some of the most shameful memories of his life, all the time an undercurrent of tension because Mike knows Jones is, or is about to, have an affair with his wife.

It just seems so misleading to market Innes’ books as thrillers, when they’re not very thrilling – the ‘action’ part of the plot often very unconvincing – whereas they all have these strange twisted melodramatic relationships which are actually what often drives events.

The Malta incident

We see Jones’ hesitancy in his new command in action when a crowd of Malta locals assembles at the foot of the Medusa‘s gangplank, shouting and jeering anti-British slogans. A shore party has to return through them so captain Jones despatches a sergeant with a small platoon down to the dockside to protect them on their return. But the crowd surges round them, starts rocking their car and eventually pushes it onto its side. As the shouting and threatening escalate a shot suddenly rings out and a British officer who was clambering out of the car window cries out and slumps bleeding. In a flash the sergeant tells his platoon to shoulder arms and fire over the heads of the crowd, which immediately disperses and runs in every direction. But the damage has been done. Within the hour the incident is being reported on the BBC World Service, and Jones is ordered to weigh anchor and leave port. In fact, he is ordered to steam to Minorca, where there have been some kind of civil disturbances.

At every step of these incidents Mike has asked to be allowed to go ashore or return to the cat but Jones finds a reason not to let him go. It reminds me a little of Conrad’s story, The Secret Sharer, about a doppelganger who is taken onboard a ship at sea and comes to haunt the captain. After supervising their departure to sea, Jones slumps in his cabin and, over a glass of booze, tells Steele more about his Gothic entanglement with his no-good half-brother, a section which creates a compelling fireside yarn atmosphere.

Back on Minorca

Captain Jones finally allows Steele to leave the Medusa as it steams into Minorca harbour. He lays on a windsurfing board and wetsuit, thus allowing a disguised Steele to appear in the harbour looking like any tourist, and not officially disembarking from the frigate. There is a passage of typical Innes, rejoicing in the innocence pleasure of pure physical exercise and is just one of the many passages which rejoice in the physical exuberance of sailing, being at sea, driving a fast car late at night, standing under the Mediterranean stars, putting his arms around a woman.

It was over two years since I had been on a sailboard. The technique doesn’t leave one, but, like skiing, the muscles lose their sharpness. I flipped onto it all right, but instead of getting myself and the sail up in virtually the same movement, it was all a bit of a scramble. The wind was funneling down the harbour, a good breeze that had me away on the starb’d tack and going fast before I was visible to the escort vessel, which was on the far side of Medusa and lying a little ahead of her, one of the old minesweepers by the look of it. There was a moment, of course, when I felt naked and unsure of myself, but as my arms and knees began to respond to the drive of the sail, confidence returned, and after I had snapped the harness on I began to enjoy myself, steering close to the wind, my weight a little further aft and the speed increasing, my exhiliration, too. (p.220)

Steele navigates to Bloody Island, in the middle of Mahon harbour, which just happens to be the location for sexy Petra’s main dig. He beaches the windboard and waits for her arrival not long after. a) She is robustly amused and delighted to see him, as he strips off his wetsuit he finds her getting involved with kisses and tickles and they are soon both naked and about to make love when b) there’s the buzz of an outboard motor approaching and she remembers she’s arranged for Lennie to come over with food and provisions.

Lennie is another one of Innes’ very believable secondary characters – an Aussie beach bum, described as completely indifferent what he wears or looks like or what work he does, forever cadging drinks and lifts BUT fanatically dedicated to his diving equipment, the best that money can buy. He was meant to be working on some of Mike’s villas but has transferred to Petra, picking up some pocket money helping her. Lennie and Petra bring Mike up to speed: while he was sailing to Malta and then caught up on the Medusa, bombs have been going off on Minorca. There is to be an election for a new Alcalde and the bombs are creating an atmosphere of crisis.

Lennie adds that he’s seen Mike’s old fishing boat in the cove beneath one of the clifftop villas he’s been working on for some German millionaire. Evans! More smuggling! So, with the unerring instinct of an Innes hero for getting himself into the wrong place at the wrong time, Steele decides to drive with Lennie and Petra to the suspicious villa. Here they discover that the underground wine cellar has a hole knocked through into a warren of tunnels looping down towards a big cavern open to the sea, in other words yet another handy place for smugglers to bring guns and weapons ashore. At which point a car and lorry come sweeping up and our heroes hold their breath, watching from the dark as the gang load the dodgy cases onto a lorry. They follow the lorries with their car lights off to another cove where they see the fishing boat guiding in two landing craft. From these emerge two armoured cars and several hundred armed men. Mercenaries!

Lennie, Petra and Mike sneak back to their car and drive at breakneck speed back to Port Mahon. Petra advises them to go into the port garrison and report what they’ve seen but Mike thinks they’ll arrest him first and ask questions later, so they all jump into the outboard and putter out to the frigate which has anchored by this time. Mike yells up at the duty officer to be taken onboard to see Captain Jones. Unfortunately, he’s barely begun explaining it all to a woken-up captain when firing starts ashore. The coup has started.

The coup

Briefly, the mercenaries are well armed and organised and take over the barracks, airport and radio station. Their president, the communist Ismail Fuxá, announces that the island is now an independent nation and calls on other nations to recognise the new regime. In and out of captain Jones’s cabin, Mike gathers that Soviet ships are on their way to Minorca. It is at this point he realises that Jones’s orders are to stay where he is and use the frigate to block the entrance to the largest harbour in the western Mediterranean. Suddenly the Americans and the Russians are sounding off at each other and Jones finds himself at the epicentre of a major international crisis.

And it is now that the personal relationships which we’ve heard so much about earlier in the book come into prominence. Because his brother, Pat, has kidnapped Soo, Mike’s wife, the woman Jones has come to love and threatens something very unpleasant will happen to her unless Jones orders his frigate to the leave the harbour. But Jones is under explicit orders from HM Government to stay put.

The stand-off

Several deadlines come and go and nothing happens. After Evans has delivered the ultimatum in person, Jones lets him and Mike go by dinghy to Bloody Island where Petra appears and is inadvertently grabbed by Evans, a knife to her throat, before there is a scuffle in which good old Aussie Lennie is badly carved up by Evans who makes his escape.

This final section is very characteristically and oddly Innes, because nothing happens. Once back on the island Mike is completely out of the picture, he just has a horrible foreboding that the Russian ships steaming towards them will arrive soon and then all hell might break loose, but he doesn’t really know what is going on, has no radio, and spends the night worrying about Soo. As the last deadline arrives captain Jones does something very weird and weighs anchor but the ship behaves very oddly as if its engines are broken and to Evans’ anger, the frigate steams backwards until it runs aground on the rocks of Bloody island.

Mike realises captain Jones has squared the circle: his ship can’t move now, there is no point bullying him or blackmailing him. His guns are still trained on the seized barracks, a British ship still has possession of Minorca harbour. It’s a very Innes’ non-event, a fitting climax to a novel which is full of blockages, hesitations, shrugs and mis-communication. None of the characters seems capable of normal, open conversation, nobody gets to the end of a paragraph without shrugging, breaking off, shaking their head and generally avoiding communication.

Innes’ dialogue is the opposite of snappy repartée, it is a kind of anti-dialogue. And, far from being full of action, his novels are full of inaction. The characters travel round and do things, but never seem able to shed light on anything, never tell each other what is going on. The ultimate destination of the inaction is complete stasis, frozen paralysis and at numerous points all dialogue and communication winds down to complete silence. The strange eerie silence which seems to be at the heart of Innes’ imagination.

Soo is found and rescued

Mike is woken in Petra’s tent on Bloody Island by Petra who tells him it’s all over. The Russians were deterred by the presence of the frigate, the Spanish navy has arrived in force to re-establish order, the temporary president and the mercenaries have fled. But no indication as to the whereabouts of the kidnapped Soo.

Mike immediately takes a dinghy to the mainland and spends a day on the phone to everyone he knows asking if they’ve seen Soo. Then it occurs to him – the villa he and Petra and Lennie investigated – the hole down into the caverns by the sea. What if the bad guys dumped Soo there? What if she’s dead? He drives like a madman out to the villa, now dark and deserted, breaks in, goes down to the cellar, then along the tunnel to the hole above the cavern – and here he finds Soo, dishevelled, hysterical, bruised, with a cut hand, but essentially safe. He helps her up out of the cavern, up the slippery tunnels, into the cool fresh air and she is delirious at being released, wants to run and shout and sing and insists on being taken to her favourite restaurant, before arriving back at their ransacked home.

Here she is irritated to find Petra, her husband’s fancy women, but there is another odd Innes scene when they discover captain Jones, the crisis completely over, has left the ship with his first officer, come ashore, and is now completely plastered in their living room. He drunkenly sways to his feet, calling out how relieved he is to see Soo alright, but she turns on her heel and walks out, Petra following.

In the realm of personal relations, like the realm of island politics, and in the overworld of superpower politics, the novel is about stasis, frustration, anti-climax, lack of fulfilment.

Court of enquiry

This long tangled and frustrating story comes to an end with a ten-page epilogue describing the court of enquiry the Navy holds on captain Jones for running his ship aground (reminiscent of the courts of enquiry in Maddon’s RockThe Wreck of the Mary Deare and Atlantic Fury to name only a few of its predecessors). Mike sticks up for captain Jones at the enquiry, and catagorically denies that he was having an affair with his wife. Next night the officer in command holds an informal party for Mike and Soo, Jones, a few Navy officials and some Spanish officers. Soo behaves perfectly, relaxed and friendly but obviously not intimate with Jones. To the latter’s surprise the Spanish official steps forward and awards him a medal from the King of Spain.

And then the captain of the enquiry announces that captain Lloyd Jones will be completely exonerated and the poor Welshman, who has grafted his way up from the ranks, dragged back on so many occasions by his wayward brother and his own emotional vulnerability, for once lets go, and bursts into tears.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

The Barjeel Art Foundation: Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism I @ The Whitechapel Gallery

The Barjeel Art Foundation

In 2010 the Barjeel Art Foundation was opened, a museum and cultural institution in the United Arab Emirates created to manage, preserve and exhibit the personal art collection of Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi.

Between now and January 2017 four consecutive exhibitions are going to take place at the Whitechapel Gallery next to Aldgate tube, hosting highlights from the BAF collection.

As the wall panel reminds us, the 22 nations of the Arab League are home to some 350 million people (same population as the USA). The aim is that the exhibitions, as a whole, will tell the story of Arab art over the past hundred years.

This is the first instalment – on show until 6 December – and it explores the emergence and subsequent development of an Arab art aesthetic through drawings and paintings from the early twentieth century to 1967, year of the fateful Six Day War which shattered many illusions about pan-Arab unity.

Entitled Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism I, the exhibition consists of forty oil paintings in one room.

The paintings

The immediate impression is that it is a very mixed bunch, with all kinds of schools and styles and approaches hanging side by side. There are a number of art-class level landscapes of desert and river. I chatted to another visitor who liked them, but they reminded me of the works you get pinned up to the railings of Green Park or Hyde Park. Tourist stuff.

The earliest work is a portrait of a young woman in profile by Armenian-Egyptian artist, Ervand Demirdjian, titled Nubian Girl, made around 1910. It is very dark in the flesh – this reproduction makes it look much sleeker, reminiscent of much late Victorian Orientalising art.

Ervand Demerdjian Nubian Girl (Undated) Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Safarkhan Art Gallery, Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.

Ervand Demerdjian Nubian Girl (Undated) Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Safarkhan Art Gallery, Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.

Each work is sui generis, often in wildly clashing styles, so that the overall impression is confusing.

  • The Bathers (1964) by Ahmad Nashaat Alzuaby, which is not bad exactly, but reminds me of maybe Picasso’s blue period. Many of the works remind me of better achievements in the same style by their European originators:
  • Shakir Hassan Al Said is ‘one of Iraq’s most revered artists’. His most famous work appears to be The Articulate Cockerel (1954)
  • Samir Rafi is represented by Two Sisters (1950)

A little more interesting is something like Assouan (1964) by Ragheb Ayad, but still somehow not finished. Would have been interesting to see how he worked up to or worked around this kind of vision.

Inji Efflatoun

Inji Efflatoun (1924-89) was a woman Egyptian painter. She’s represented here by five ink and paper works from the 1950s inspired by the Mathbahat Dinshaway or Dinshaway Massacre when, in 1906, some Egyptian peasants protested about British Army officers taking pot shots at local pigeons, an important source for the peasants’ food. This escalated into riots in which one British officer was killed and so the British hanged a number of peasants in reprisal.

Marwan

Marwan is a Syrian artist (1934) represented here by two of his characteristic, very big lampoon portraits, distortions, caricatures:

These are striking images, owing a little to the satirical portraits of Weimar Germany, maybe more to French political cartoons. Looking at Marwan’s website, his style seems to have changed almost out of recognition since these portraits from the 1960s.

Hamed Ewais

The ineptness (or deliberate naivete) of a lot of the works is captured in Le Guardien de la vie (1967-8) by Egyptian artist Hamed Ewais (1919-2011), a large-scale oil painting that depicts the looming figure of a ‘fighter’, weapon in hand, while underneath him throng ordinary people going about their everyday lives. Ewais is, apparently, a ‘pillar of revolutionary art in Egypt’, and quite obviously his work is related to / derives from / plays with, the political murals of Diego Rivera.

Hamed Ewais Le Gardien de la Vie (1967 - 1968) Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Christie’s, Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.

Hamed Ewais Le Gardien de la Vie (1967 – 1968) Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Christie’s, Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.

Not Pop

Most of the images I looked closely at dated from the 1960s and it does them no favours to compare them with the huge exhibition of global Pop Art from the same period, currently at Tate Modern. In the Tate, artists from South America and Europe show sophisticated, witty, satirical manipulations of images and motifs, confidently swimming in a world, a culture, informed by a deep history of figurative and realist art.

By contrast the paintings here seem to show artists struggling to master the basic means of painterly expression. I can’t help thinking that the Koranic prohibition on figurative art means the Arab tradition is utterly different, a long tradition of wonderful architecture, designs, mosaics and tiling, using Koranic script, quoting words from the Koran to create beautiful calligraphy and tiles, but not so familiar – so over-familiar – with figurative oil painting as the exhausted west.

Dia Al-Azzawi

Dia Al-Azzawi (b.1939) is Iraq’s most influential artist. Three of his works are here, two untitleds from 1964, and the powerful Mask of the Pretenders.

Azzawi is obviously a big figure with a major career and a large body of interesting work. That doesn’t really come out here, only from subsequent reading. If his three paintings had been grouped together, and if there’d been a wall label making more of a case for him, I’d have grasped his importance better…

Dia Azzawi Mask of the Pretenders (1966) Oil on canvas.Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.

Dia Azzawi Mask of the Pretenders (1966) Oil on canvas. Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.

Heading West

The biographies of a lot of the artists displayed here say they travelled to western academies and schools to learn how to paint, in the 1920s, 30s, 40s. As a whole, as a group gathered here together, they seem to be investigating and working through the possibilities of figurative painting at exactly the moment when most of Western art was turning away from its figurative tradition, towards all kinds of radical experiments (conceptual art, happenings, installations, video etc).

Not much of that experimental excitement is evident here. Experimentation with oils aplenty, but somehow it seems very old experimentation, Arab artists working through techniques and styles pioneered in the West, which gives a lot of the paintings a derivative feel.

Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing

One of the standout works is Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (The Martyrs Epic) by Kadhim Hayder (1965).

Kadhim Hayder, Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (The Martyrs Epic) (1965) Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

Kadhim Hayder, Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (The Martyrs Epic) (1965) Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

But it partly stands out because it is such a successful assimilation of 1930s Picasso, with maybe a pinch of Paul Nash thrown in. It has taken 30 years for this style, this vision, to be assimilated. But it’s still a striking image, maybe the boldest in the show, and so a logical choice for the poster.

Mohammed Issiakhem

I’ve left my favourite to last, the one painting which really stood out for me:

A strange, haunting image of an old woman more ghost than human, painted in muted greys and browns, with a taut, bird-like, dark-eyed face, wrapped in multiple layers, decorated with pallid circles and motifs. Close up you can see that layer after layer of paint have been applied, which somehow give it greater depth and power, as well as ridges caused by paper or fabric stuck to the canvas. Behind her are ghostly walls covered in graffiti and initials of the OAS and FLN, political movements involved in the Algerian war of independence.

It’s worth going just to admire this powerful, haunting piece.

Conclusion

I wonder if it was a mistake to present such a wide cross-section of works by so many different artists across the crucial years of the twentieth century – 1910 to 1966 – in such a small space. I’ve visited the show twice, skimmed the (enormous) catalogue and read up some of the artists online. Only with that much application have I begun to understand what significant artists, movements and stories are here very briefly referred to or represented by just one piece.

Maybe there should have been more works by fewer artists so you could get to know a select few better.

Or maybe the work should have been arranged to try and show a clearer narrative about how different schools or styles of Arab art emerged in the first half of the century.

As it is, works even by one artists are shown separately: paintings by Marwan or Dia Al-Azzawi are on different walls. Why? And the works as a whole are not in strict chronological order, which might have helped.

I’ve started, so I will now make a point of visiting the three further exhibitions, and am looking forward to learning how 20th century Arab art – and particularly the style and techniques of some of the best of the artists shown here – changes and develops.

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The World of Charles and Ray Eames @ the Barbican

Never heard of Charles and Ray Eames before. Didn’t realise Ray (b.1912) was the wife of Charles (b.1907). Didn’t know that, as a team, they are among the most influential (American) designers of the twentieth century.

Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides. © Eames Office LLC.

Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides. © Eames Office LLC.

Potted biography

They met in 1940 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where Charles was head of Industrial Design, married in 1941 and moved to Los Angeles. They were working on the problems of moulding plywood to make chairs and other furniture when war broke out (December 1941) and they quickly got a contract to supply a design of leg splint to the US Navy. They moved their workshop to 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, Los Angeles, which became the Eames office for the next 45 years.

Chairs

Design of chairs and other domestic furniture continued to be a central thread of their work – an entire room is dedicated to sketches, examples and videos of the manufacture of a new style of flexible, lightweight fibre-glass chairs. Their numerous designs for efficient, mass producible, stackable, storeable chairs revolutionised design, changing the feel of meeting rooms, assembly halls, conference centres all around the world.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames - Stacking Chairs, 1957. © Eames Office LLC.

Stacking Chairs, 1957. © Eames Office LLC.

Interiors

Chairs are obviously only one element of interior design and one whole bay of the exhibition is dedicated to a display of the Charles and Ray Eames’ room created for the For Modern Living show, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1949. The commentary emphasises that the house was emblematic of a whole attitude to living. It included the pioneering flat-packed Eames Storage Units, as well Eames folding tables, plywood DCM chairs and other household accessories displayed in a clear uncluttered space. Looking remarkably like the mock-up of a living room in an Ikea superstore.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames. Ray Eames. Collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. The Work of Charles & Ray Eames, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © Eames Office LLC.

Ray Eames. Collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. The Work of Charles & Ray Eames, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © Eames Office LLC.

And interiors, of course, occur inside buildings – As early as 1944 Ray (an artist by training) was hired to design the covers of Arts & Architecture magazine, to which the pair contributed articles on prefabricated housing. The magazine then launched the ‘Case Study House’ series, by inviting eight leading designers to design and build their dream homes – think Grand Designs circa 1945.

The Eames house (1949)

One bay of the show displays architectural plans, photos of the construction and then a film of Case Study House number 8, designed by Eames, completed in 1949, and really striking for both its Mondrian-style, gridlike exterior and the cool, open, relaxed interior. The Eameses were very Californian, right from the start, in their emphasis on fun, play, curiosity.

Eames House Living Room. Photograph: Antonia Mulas. © Eames Office LLC.

Eames House Living Room. Photograph: Antonia Mulas. © Eames Office LLC.

Multimedia

The conjunction of architecture, art, design, photos and film is no accident – if the exhibition demonstrates one thing it is that the Eameses were pioneers of the multimedia presentation of information. The chronology of their achievements shows that each year there were developments on the furniture side (folding tables 1947, storage units 1950, wire chair and sofa 1951, stacking chairs 1955, and so on) and they also made toys and other practical items…

Glimpses of the USA (1959)

… but the exhibition is dominated by the films they made, and the multimedia presentations combining film, slideshows and music which they pioneered and perfected. A good place to start is the multi-screen installation Glimpses of the USA from 1959. It was commissioned by the US government for the first US-USSR cultural exchange. The result is a thirteen-minute film which was projected onto seven twenty-by-thirty foot screens, installed in a 250-foot diameter geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. Must have made a phenomenal impact.

Installation view of Glimpses of the U.S.A., American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959 © Eames Office LLC.

Installation view of Glimpses of the U.S.A., American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959 © Eames Office LLC.

The narrator is Charles Eames himself who, in rich slow sonorous American tones, describes a day in the life of contemporary America, with its huge freeways and soaring skyscrapers and humming computers and dirty factories and mighty dams. Accompanied by a soundtrack by long-term Eames collaborator, the Hollywood movie composer Elmer Bernstein (think The Magnificent Seven), it is booming propaganda for the American Way of Life.

Altogether the workshop made over 120 short films, you can buy a five-DVD set in the shop (as well as a CD of Bernstein’s scores for them). They are relentlessly educational and pedagogic, with titles like The Expanding AirportMathematica, the House of Science, A Computer Glossary, The World of Franklin and Jefferson.

National Fisheries Centre and Aquarium (1967)

The mid-sixties was a prolific period. One project was a film, slideshow, booklet and design for a new national aquatic museum – the National Fisheries Centre and Aquarium. One of the multimedia elements was a slideshow – playfully titled Tanks – which plays here in a darkened bay of its own, three screens next to each other showing beautiful and relaxing images of countless beautiful sea creatures, jellyfish and so on, with pleasant dopey music. I can’t find it online, but – characteristically – the Eameses made a 1967 film outlining their plans for the Aquatic centre which captures the bright confident tone.

House of Science (1960)

In 1960, the U.S. Department of State asked the Eames Office to create a film for the United States Science Exhibit, which took place at the Century 21 World’s Fair in Seattle, Washington.

‘Think’ (1964)

In 1964 New York hosted a World’s Fair and the Eameses created a huge multiscreen slide show in a large, egg-shaped structure called the ‘Ovoid Theater’. This sat above the canopy and central structure of the pavilion and up to 400 people at a time were brought up to it by means of the ‘People Wall’ built like a grandstand.

The slideshow – shown here in a dedicated room – was titled Think after IBM’s famous corporate motto. Once again narrated by Charles’s rich deep tones, Think explains how design is really only glorified common sense, that it is a systematic way of solving problems, both the technically complex and the ordinary everyday.

As a ‘humorous’ example of the latter it shows a fashionable 1964 hostess planning the perfect dinner party, analysing out the parameters and decision points she needs to take account of. Think projected animated, still and live-action images onto fourteen large and eight small screens of various shapes and sizes. Again, it must have been an extraordinary experience.

IBM at the Fair (1964)

The Eameses had a lifelong partnership with computer giant IBM and, as well as Think, produced this film as a souvenir of the Eames/Saarinen IBM Pavilion at the World’s Fair.

Note the soundtrack by Bernstein again, which – to me – combines a wide range of influences – slapstick film music is in there – with an overarching feel of The Soldier’s Tale-era Stravinsky.

Education and pedagogy

The partnership seems to have taken a steadily greater interest in education, in teaching people about good design, in trying to spread the word about how to analyse problems and reach elegant solutions. Typical titles from the later 1960s and 1970s include: The Smithsonian Institution, Babbage’s Calculating Machine, Computer Landscape, Design Q&A, Two Laws of Algebra: Distributive and Associative.

From the top of the stairs to the second floor of the exhibition, you can see seven different films all running simultaneously in different bays and rooms, and their sound and imagery tends to swamp the other artefacts, the small black and white photos, the collection of ethnic masks from India, a roomful of pioneering Modernist chairs.

Charles held a number of teaching posts throughout his career and was invited to lecture around the world, including here in London, at the V&A. One arena which combines teaching and design is The Exhibition. It was slightly vertiginous to be wandering around an exhibition about the people who pioneered the modern exhibition, with consistently creative and imaginative use of sounds and visuals anticipating the exhibition’s imaginative use of, er, sound and visuals.

The Eameses organised scores and scores of major exhibition events. Typical titles include: Mathematica: A World of Numbers, Photography and the City, What is Design?, Isaac Newton: Physics For a Moving Earth.

Powers of Ten (1977)

This eight-minute film – to give it its full title, Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero – does what it says on the tin, starting with a family having a picnic in a park by a lake, then moving up 1 metre, 10 metres, 100 metres, 1000 metres and so on up vertically away from the scene so that only a minute into the journey we are leaving the atmosphere before travelling at dizzying speed out to the edge of the universe.

This unashamedly didactic film, based on a Dutch children’s book, is quaint and interesting and innocent. The subject obviously attracted the Eameses because it exists in two distinct versions, one from 1968, one from 1977, comparison between them demonstrating the evolution of film-making technique during that period.

Conclusions

  • The films overwhelm the more traditional static displays.
  • The films give a stunning sense of the size, wealth and dynamism of American society in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • I didn’t realise multimedia, the concept of total immersion in sound and imagery, was so old. Made me realise the projection of imagery onto live bands (Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground 1967) was copying something pioneered by these very staid, sober educationalists over a decade earlier.
  • Quotable quotes. As a lifelong educator, Charles is famous for his quotes: the shop is selling numerous books, notebooks, posters and fridge magnets full of his pithy wisdom (eg ‘The details aren’t details. They make up the product.’)
  • Again and again, the books, lectures, pamphlets, films and slideshows make the same point – that good design is problem solving and that problem solving is based on having the information: we must have the means, the technology, the skills with which to process the exploding amounts of information we are being presented with in order to make the right decisions.

This awareness of information – their close collaboration with IBM and their pioneering ways of communicating and informing – explains why the Eameses are referred to as the godparents of The Information Age. One of their earliest films is the classic The Information Machine, produced for IBM’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

Optimism and pessimism

The IBM at the Fair film features speeded-up footage of Americans going about their daily business. It reminded me of the similar sequences in Koyaanisqatsi or ‘unbalanced life’, (1982), the cult movie directed by Godfrey Reggio and showcasing the music of American minimalist composer Philip Glass. But how much has changed – what a gulf there is – between 1964 and 1982! In the interim, along with the explosion of all sorts of political movements, black power, feminism, the oil crises and revolutionary terrorism, has come environmentalism and the realisation that the planet is finite and we are degrading and despoiling it at a now-measurable and noticeable rate, which cannot continue forever.

No doubt the Eameses would refer us to their umpteen films, books, pamphlets and quotes about the power of information, the ability of modern computing power to process and analyse new worlds of data and – to solve problems! But thinking about this reveals the weakness of their rationalist approach: unlimited amounts of data and the infinite computing power of the internet mean nothing unless people fundamentally change their behaviour. Although their approach can tell you how to plan the perfect dinner party or design a mass-producible chair, it cannot tell you how to wean your entire economy off fossil fuels and your entire culture away from wasteful consumerism.

Nothing can.

Audio For Travelling To, Or From, The World of Charles and Ray Eames

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High Stand by Hammond Innes (1985)

This is the fourth Innes novel I’ve read in a row and I think it’s fair to say that, although the locations are always original and refreshing, the background and subject matter are thoroughly researched, his evocations of place, and especially seascapes, are always enjoyable – nonetheless, his plots are often strangely and frustratingly static, depending on a large dollop of voodoo-Gothic melodrama to convey a menacing mood often unjustified by the actual action – but that by far his worst fault is the extremely limited range of behaviour his characters display.

She seemed on the point of saying something more, but then she turned her head away, locking whatever it was up inside herself, the silence dragging. (p.15)

Sometimes it seems like all the characters do in an Innes novel is shrug, mumble, break off in mid-sentence, stare away into the distance or get stuck in long meaningful silences. The frustrating thing is that most of them aren’t that meaningful at all – in general the characters actually have very little to say to each other but take ages, sometimes scores, in a few cases, hundreds of pages, not to say it.

The plot

The story is told in the first person by a typically ordinary Innes’ protagonist – staid Sussex solicitor, Philip Redfern. He has set up a nice little practice near Ditchling on the South Downs and has just bought a sailing dinghy, his new pride and joy, which he fits up and sails across the Channel to France. Into his boring world come the Halliday family.

Grandfather Josh Halliday struck it rich in the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s, buying up the land around his claim high in the Rocky Mountains of western Canada, setting up various companies and then dying. It was all inherited by his son, Tom, who has never had to work in his life but has enjoyed a jetset lifestyle and a fondness for sports cars. Philip Redfern ended up acting as his solicitor because Halliday’s English country house was a nice big place tucked away in a fold of the Downs near his office. One day Tom Halliday appears out of the blue and asks Philip to write and witness a codicil to his will, leaving the area of timber planted by grandfather Halliday in the area below the gold mine to his second son, Brian.

A few days later Tom’s wife, Miriam, arrives and asks Philip if he knows where Tom is: he’s disappeared, hasn’t been home, hasn’t left a message as he usually does: mystery. And this is where the novel begins.

Now, Innes tells us, Redfern has always had a bit of a thing about Mrs Halliday (Miriam), bumping into her at various official parties in the neighbourhood and – on one memorable evening – giving her a lift home from Brighton when she invited him in for coffee and one thing led to another… Even as she tells her story, Redfern is distracted by the sight of her cleavage showing through her blouse; he really is an everybloke figure.

Over the following weeks it emerges that old Josh’s goldmine has been running empty for some time and that playboy Tom had been living on an extended bank overdraft which has now been terminated. Suddenly the bills for the house are no longer being paid, ditto the bills at his son’s company. Philip (characteristically for Innes) hasn’t a clue where Tom has disappeared to and isn’t surprised when, a few days later, he learns Miriam has sold some of the family silver and set off for the mine in Western Canada to find out what’s going on. He gets a few postcards from her detailing her progress, saying he’s the only one she can write to, and so reviving the torch he carries for her but then – typically – silence…

Redfern next gets a disconcerting visit from Tom’s son by his first wife – by all accounts a fiery Latin American – the improbably named Brian, whose dark colouring and impulsive (ie angry) temperament reveal his Latino origins. Brian has also come to find out what Philip knows about his father’s disappearance, but ends up discussing the stand of timber old man Halliday planted over a hundred years ago and the ‘curse’ old man Halliday put on it.

As his ancestor is to the Indian, so will I be to my trees. They are my Totem. Let any man fell even one of them, even in the interests of sound forestry, then with the first cut of the saw or swing of the axe my curse will be upon him. Do that and I will never leave you, day or night, till your nerves are screaming and you are dead by your own hand, dead and damned for ever to rot in Hell. (p.41)

Quite a curse.

Despite it, though, it is now emerging that the redwoods old Josh planted (‘the finest plantation of western red cedar he had ever seen’) are probably worth something like $600,000 – a lot of money to the newly-impoverished family. This must be why Halliday turned up a few days earlier to change his will to leave the trees to Brian; Brian alone has a mystical feeling for the trees. He explains their life-giving attributes, their aura, the mystical importance of trees, with a vehemence the dull solicitor finds unnerving.

Thus, after 60 pages or so, we have all the ingredients of a classic Innes yarn: farflung location (Western Canada); Gothic family legacy (the old mine and the curse on the trees); mystery (where’s Tom?); violence (‘I’ll kill any man who touches those trees.’).

In Canada

Redfern sails across to France again, but lies lonely and bored in the bunk of his dinghy – and it’s then he conceives the plan of taking some time off to go and find Miriam. Just as Trevor Rodin drops everything to go off to the Persian Gulf (in Innes’ novel The Black Tide), Roy Slingsby drops everything to go off to the Solomon Islands (Solomons Seal), and Colin Tait drops everything to go into the Kenyan bush (The Big Footprints), so Philip Redfern decides to drop everything to go in quest of Miriam Halliday, to check on the mine and the famous stand of pine, and generally find out what’s happening.

Next thing we know he’s on a flight over the Arctic to western Canada, to Vancouver. Here he has interviews with Halliday’s lawyers, with the timber firm and shipping firm. Turns out some of the timber has been chopped down and is being brought by tug to Vancouver. Already Brian Halliday is being true to his threats, and has steered a dinghy in front of one huge log-bearing tug, wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt and nearly getting himself killed. All this by page 70 of this 330-page book.

From Vancouver Redfern flies to Edmonton and on the flight is lucky enough to run into a guy who can offer him a lift up into the mountains, to the Front Ranges and to Lake Dezadeash. He stays in the lodge here, asking after the Halliday mine – the Ice Cold mine, it is called – and meeting the usual Innes round of surly locals, Kevin and Eddie and Tony, who are obviously hiding something…but what?

And so the narrative continues, mixing improbable motivation with characters who adopt, who only seem capable of, the very limited gamut of Innes’ postures – shrugging, breaking off in mid-sentence, mumbling and just being plain silent – but all set against vivid descriptions of the breath-taking West Canadian landscape.

The rock-scoured mountain that overhung the town gleamed wet and wicked where the great slide had gashed it, tumbling millions of tons of debris down into the waters of the loch to form the hard standing that reached back from the quay. (p.221 cf p.243)

Geography and a map

There is a lot of travelling, travelling vast distances across western Canada. In fact the middle two hundred pages of the book barely make sense without a map and the book really should have included one. I also didn’t understand why Tom and Redfern went by boat into the Yukon, crossed the border into America, then crossed out again and sailed down past Vancouver Island – an entire section that was quite hard to follow unless you were studying the correct maps pretty closely.

I also found it hard to follow when Tom made Redfern travel by coastguard cutter upriver from the sea across numerous lakes to be dropped at a derelict lakeside town, Ocean Falls, before getting a canoe and carrying it up scrabbly rocky hillsides to higher lakes in order to eventually reach the lake above the famous high stand of timber, to look down on the activities of the (illegal) loggers.

A lot of the story is made up of journeys, full of detailed geographical references which are, presumably, accurate, but are just so many words without having a large scale map of the region open in front of you. Much of the text reads like a travelogue – here Redfern is describing the river journey he and Brian take in the coastguard cutter Kelsey, commanded by the friendly captain Cornish:

Ocean Falls was little more than thirty miles away… By the time we had finished lunch we were back in the Fisher Channel, just passing the entrance to Lama Passage. We continued northwards past Evans Inlet and into the narrows by Bold Point… Now the mountains above us were bleak as we followed the King Island shore until we came to the Dean Channel junction and headed up Cousins Inlet… Soon she would turn north-east up the Dean Channel to pass Echo Harbour and Mackenzie Rock and on towards Kimsquit until they opened Cascade Inlet and reached the Halliday Arm of it. (pp.221-222)

A map would have been a very good idea.

I reckoned by then we should be past the entrance to Cousins Inlet and headed into the Fisher Channel. Presuming they followed the same course as before, midnight should see us approaching the point where we altered course to the westward to pass through Hakai Passage. (p.293)

Tom Halliday is alive

Redfern finally makes it up to the old mine and is poking around when he is astonished to bump into a small mining operation further down the hillside being run single-handed by — none other than the missing Tom Halliday! Tom Halliday alive and well, though looking the worse for spending the past month drilling and surveying to little effect. He needs the gold, and he’s irrationally, almost feverishly convinced there’s more gold in the lower valley, if he only had time! As they talk Redfern becomes aware of Halliday’s mania and realises the gossip about him and drugs may be true…

Miriam is kidnapped

But hardly have they clambered back up to the cabin for some outback coffee and Tom goes to an outbuilding to get something, than he comes hurtling back to reveal he’s found a message slipped under the door – ‘They’ve got Miriam! They’ve kidnapped Miriam!!’ So that’s why her postcards to Redfern back in Sussex came to abrupt halt. Although Redfern has no idea who ‘they’ are and Tom is characteristically hesitant, shruggy and pausey about explaining anything…

The loggers want more

It takes the next hundred and fifty pages to screw out of the narrative and the usual network of shrugs, turning away, mumbling and silences from all the characters, the basic fact, the premise of the novel, which is – Tom, in his desperation to pay for his lifestyle and to fund his frantic efforts to strike a new claim further down the mountain, agreed to sell the right to fell some timber from the stand of old redwood planted by his father to an American company. Brian the activist and Redfern, from his own investigations, have realised the timber company has gone beyond the agreement and continuing to fell, shave and send downriver by vast logging barge more trees than was agreed or paid for.

So Brian and Redfern continue their journey to the logging camp under the misapprehension that some Latin American hoodlums – who we met earlier on in the book, back in Lake Dezadeash – a couple of ‘hunters’ with guns and a bad attitude, are probably involved in kidnapping Miriam in order to pressure Tom into signing over the rights to chop down the entire stand – worth a genuine fortune.

Tom is a cocaine addict

During these pages we see it confirmed that Tom Halliwell is indeed a cocaine addict, something the lawyer Redfern deprecates but accepts. His addiction explains why Tom’s speech and behaviour are often so unpredictable. It is only in the final desperate pages that Tom reveals to Redfern and Brian, hunkered down in the woods above the timber operation, hiding out from the timber company and their shady Latino henchmen, that the the whole thing isn’t about illegal timber felling – the timber operation is an elaborate front for the massive drug smuggling operation. The Latin Americans bring in large amounts of cocaine, which is hidden in the logging barge, which then sails freely across the relatively open border between Canada and so into America.

Miriam is being held hostage in the cabin on the lake

Redfern had met Brian at one of the myriad of places mentioned in the text, and Brian drags Redfern across the western outback to the series of lakes above the stand of trees. It is dark and they are hiding or aware they might be followed. They sneak past a cabin which has noisy guard dogs tethered outside on their way to paddle across the final lake, to beach the canoe and then look down at the timber operation. It is only hidden in the trees here that Redfern suddenly realises the significance of the dogs: that must be where they’re keeping Miriam hostage!

Shootout at the cabin

As he realises this, they see the boss man of the timber crew, Wolchak, despatch the two Latino goons, Camargo and Lopez, up the hill towards them. Brian vows to stay on the scene, so Redfern – the boring solicitor from Sussex – finds himself scrambling fast uphill through the trees to the lakeside. He pinches the bad guys’ powered boat and sets off cross the lake, beaches on the other side and creeps up towards the cabin in the dark.

At that moment the front door opens and the man inside, one of the shady characters who have threaded in and out of the narrative, at the Ice Cold mine and on various boats since, emerges saying goodbye to a companion. They walk down to the lake and this gives Redfern the opportunity to dart into the open doorway and immediately see two doors inside barred by makeshift timber bars.

He opens one and is appalled to see Tom Halliday in a wild and crazy state and another man lying badly beaten on the bed. In a rush Tom explains the body is the corpse of Thor Olsen, Tom’s forest manager for the stand of timber, who they were beating in front of Miriam to get her to say how much she and Tom knew about the drug smuggling operation. In the middle of the beating Olsen had a heart attack and died. (p.266)

And Miriam is in the other, barred, room. As Redfern turns to it he hears footsteps towards the main door, springs to it and locks it on the inside. An angry face appears at the window shouting to be let in as a) Redfern opens the other door to release a dirty, dazed-looking Miriam b) incensed beyond words, Tom grabs a hunting rifle lying against the wall and shoots the man knocking at the window, Aleksis.

Tom and Miriam and Redfern emerge, stunned, into the night air, Redfern having to restrain Tom from shooting their guard – now lying moaning on the ground nursing a shattered knee – in the face or heart to finish him off. Redfern warns that he pinched the goons’ powered dinghy but they’ll have found his canoe and be rowing after him across the lake. Let’s go, says Tom and leaps into the dinghy, kicking off the motor.

Half way across the lake they see the canoe with Camargo and Lopez in it, but to Redfern’s horror Tom turns the tiller and sets course for a collision. As the bad guys raise their guns, the powered boat crashes into the side of the canoe, tearing it in half, the goons miss their shots and are thrown into the lake. ‘Shouldn’t we go back and help them?’ Redfern asks. ‘You don’t understand’, Tom replies. He had overheard the radio conversation – the two guys were on their way to ‘play’ with Miriam till they could get her to spill what she knew about the drug operation – ‘drowning’s too good for them.’ (p.270)

Tom is killed by a chainsaw

It’s in this vengeful mood that Redfern, Miriam and Tom beach the dinghy on the shoreline above the stand and begin going down into the woods. Here Brian reappears, the first time he has seen his father since he went missing a month before. He surlily ignores him but is overjoyed to see his (step)mother released from captivity. Together they look down on the timber operation, two big burly lumberjacks chainsawing the trees, while Brian boils over with anger accusing his father of all kinds of derelictions of duty, of betraying Grandad Halliday’s wishes, of ‘raping’ the beautiful landscape out of greed, and so on.

Thus taunted, the (already coked-up) Tom snaps and steps out of their hiding place and walks towards the lumberjacks, shouting at them to stop, he is the owner of the land etc. But they lazily, arrogantly tell him to **** off, they have their orders, doesn’t matter who he is etc. At which Tom really loses it, fires off one shot with the rifle he’s brought and then, discovering there’s no more ammo, charges the lumberjack with the gun above his head like a club. The lumberjack swings the chainsaw round in front of him as a warning or defence but Tom keeps on charging him and at the critical moment, probably, it all happens so fast, stumbles, and falls full onto the roaring chainsaw which rips right through his chest, blood and flesh spurting everywhere (p.279).

Miriam screams, Brian launches forward with his gun as the two lumberjacks turn tail and run down the track back towards the camp to warn everyone. Old man Halliday’s curse has been fulfilled. Tom allowed the high stand to be injured and paid for it with his life!

Hiding on the barge

Our heroes take a moment to get over their shock, Miriam kneeling by the gory remains of her husband long enough to get her blouse and skirt covered in blood. They can hear the dogs being alerted down in the lumber camp and have to make a decision. Brian convinces them not to run back up to the lake and try and escape that way, but – as the heavens open into a torrential downpour – to double back towards the camp – they won’t be expecting that.

In fact, from the trees at the edge of the camp they can see the enormous barge moored in the river, already piled high with lumber. ‘Follow me’, says Brian and goes skidding across the mud in the torrential rain, up the barge ramp and into the (deserted) wheelhouse (p.285).

It turns out to be hours and hours until the now fully-laden barge is hooked up to a tug and begins the long journey across a lake into a river and out to the sea passage next to Vancouver Island. Early on they manage to use the short wave radio to get a message out to the Captain Cornish who piloted the coastguard cutter which brought Brian and Redfern up the river. Now they send out an SOS, with a coded message implying the barge is stashed with drugs and giving their position. Then they climb down into the hold, squeeze among the massive redwood logs and find good hiding places.

All this takes over 24 hours, during which they become very hungry, very thirsty and shivering with cold from the heavy downpour of rain. They lie in their hideouts, hearing the clumping of men overhead, the change of the roll of the barge as it leaves the river and enters the open sea. Being a sailor (the importance of Redfern’s forays across the Channel at the book’s opening become more relevant here, as they were at various points, in Captain Cornish’s cutter, and paddling across various lakes) Redfern can see in his mind’s eye the route the barge is taking.

This goes on for a long time, until they have been without food or water for three days and are in a bad way. The text gives detailed descriptions of the route east of Vancouver Island the narrator and the coastguard cutter think the barge will take, and the actual route they take around the west of the island, rolling along in high seas and through a thick fog.

Climax and arrest

It’s when they eventually spot a lighthouse beam on the port bow that Miriam snaps. 18 days imprisonment followed by three days freezing and starving hidden among logs on a seabound barge have pushed her over the edge and she tells Brian and Philip that either they cut the hawser to the tug towing them or she’s jumping overboard and taking her chances swimming to the mainland. So they go carefully up the barge’s wheelhouse, rifles in hand, to find it deserted. As Brian releases the hawser for’ard, Redfern takes the radio and radios a mayday alert, picking up the coastguard cutter almost immediately, which a) heads towards them b) alerts coastal air-sea rescue helicopter c) alerts any nearby vessels. So that when the tug has swung round to come and investigate the problem, rearing up over them in the heavy seas with armed men in the bows, not only is the coastguard warning them off but suddenly a helicopter packed with customs and police officials appears overhead. Their ordeal is over.

Epilogue

Map required.

It was the Gabriello herself that towed the leaking barge clear of the rocks past Friendly Cove and the entrance to Cook’s Channel and into the quiet of the Zuciarte Channel. This took us south and west of Bligh Island to the grey rock of Muchalat Inlet and so up to the pulp mill some eight miles south of Gold River. (p.319)

Briefly, the barge is tugged to port and strip searched but, while the police concentrate on the matter of Tom’s murder and Miriam’s kidnapping, the customs can find no drugs. Until Philip has an epiphany: the drill he’d seen up at the camp and the logs on their side on a special hoist. He gets customs to try it out and they discover each log has been hollowed out and a 4.5 metre long container of pure cocaine inserted, before being sealed very carefully with the plug from the same tree, accurately positioned to completely hide the seal. Criminal proceedings begin. Wolchak turns out to be the head of American mafia family based in Chicago.

In the closing pages Miriam phones Philip in his hotel room overlooking the bay in Vancouver and takes him out for a meal. Guess what! Halliday’s men back at Ice Cold have discovered gold nuggets where Tom was prospecting. If only he’d found them a month ago, if only he’d found them a year ago, he would still be alive, sob. Philip comforts her and they are finally heading back to his hotel room, when a car tries to run them down and armed men leap out and start taking pot shots.

They run down to the marina just as a boat is docking and Philip yells, ‘Mayday mayday’, leaping aboard and shouting at the owner to pull away, they’re being chased by armed men. The owner, a phlegmatic Yank, steers them out into the safety of the bay and asks for their story. You want my opinion? he asks at the end of it. Drug cartels are tough, very tough. Go back to England and don’t come back unless you’ve got an armed guard.

And so Miriam and Philip make it back to their hotel room and perform the act of love which has been in the offing ever since Philip was entranced by her heaving breasts back in the opening pages. But afterwards he lays awake, worried how they are going to balance returning at some point to open up the new gold diggings up in Ice Cold, with what is now the permanent threat of revenge by a drug cartel.

And on this ambivalent note, the novel ends.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of High Stand

Fontana paperback cover of High Stand

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop @ Tate Modern

Pop Art is not exactly a neglected movement. As recently as two years ago the Barbican hosted a comprehensive exhibition of Pop Design while at the same time Tate Modern was hosting a vast Roy Lichtenstein retrospective. In the spring of 2014 Tate Modern did a big Richard Hamilton show and earlier this year the Barbican’s exhibition about artists’ personal collections devoted a room each to the artifacts hoarded by Andy Warhol and Peter Blake. Who hasn’t heard of Warhol, seen the Elvis or Marilyn silk screen paintings or doesn’t know about Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper cover?

In this blockbuster show, The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop, Tate Modern turns its back on these well-worn artists and familiar images to examine the impact of pop everywhere outside the bubble of Britain and America, taking a comprehensive look at Pop Art from around the world. Thus the show brings together over 100 colourful, exuberant works from Latin America and Asia, from Europe and the Middle East.

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection) © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood
Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection). © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Art in the USA and Britain was essentially free, artists could more or less say or do anything and had the machinery of pop music and consumer adverts to play off against, to incorporate into their work and (the Beatles, the Velvet Underground) to help propagate their images.

If the exhibition says one thing it is how untrue this was of most of the rest of the world, where whole populations and their artists languished under all manner of dictatorships and repression: the entire communist bloc frozen by Soviet domination, southern Europe and a lot of Latin American nations ruled by traditionalist military juntas, African nations torn by civil wars (Biafra 1967-70), Pakistan heading towards the catastrophic Bangladesh genocide (1971), China about to experience the persecution and chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the war in Vietnam spilling over into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. And looming behind it all, the ongoing Cold War confrontation between the superpowers with the ever-present threat of nuclear apocalypse.

Pop offered a new idiom with which to capture the absurdity of living in a society increasingly dominated by adverts for glossy lifestyle products while the whole world could be blown up at any moment.

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) Acrylic on canvas MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund Photo: Tony Coll © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund. Photo: Tony Coll. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Thus the global Pop Art the curators have gathered here is far more confrontational, troubled and often explicitly political than the Campbell soup tins and dated album covers of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. If Pop was an orgiastic celebration of the fabulousness of consumer culture here in the West, in most other places it was a language of protest, using the language and imagery of consumer goods and popular culture to satirise the repressive regimes of the artist’s homeland, to ironically comment on the shallow values of the fabulous West, which very often shaded into mild or not so mild anti-American sentiment.

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Bombs in Love 1962 Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

The 100+ works are packed with ideas and references, but several themes emerge strongly:

  • Satirising American consumerism The basic premise of Pop Art is its re-use of the explosion of new consumer products, advertising and popular culture in the post-war USA, seen at its most fatuous in the 1950s, and satirised and mocked from the mid-1950s onwards. The early 1960s saw the creation of several iconic pop images including Warhol’s Marilyn silks and Lichtenstein’s Wham. The effects of the post-war boom and the use of imagery from popular culture – cartoons, film posters, adverts, TV stills – to celebrate and/or undercut it ripple outwards from the Anglo heartland: what is loving homage in the States (cans and cartoons) becomes mild mockery in England, and turns to satire, scorn and sometimes overtly anti-American feeling, in further flung countries, typified by French artist Bernard Rancillac‘s savege At Last, a Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist.
  • Pro-revolution pro-communist imagery, texts, works, ideas – power to the people, Maoism, the cult of Che Guevara, exemplified here by Henri Cueco‘s Large Protest, a room-sized sculpture using comic-strip silhouettes cast in metal of figures enacting the glorious Revolution.
  • Anti-communist works voicing rebellion against the dead hand of actual communist regimes in the countries of the Eastern bloc eg Jerzy Zielinski‘s Without Rebellion or Sanja Iveković‘s Sweet violence.
  • Feminism 1960s-style eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellÁngela GarcíaMari ChordàJana Želibská.
  • The Triumph of Youth

1. The Revolution

Revolutionary sentiment was in the air throughout the 1960s, leading up to the strikes and civil disorder across much of Europe which climaxed in ‘events’ in Paris in May 1968, when students joined with striking workers to create a crisis which came close to overthrowing the government. Throughout the 60s and well into the 1970s, the rhetoric of revolution dominated the thinking of many writers and artists.

The wall labels and the audioguide reflect this, echoing the rhetoric of the time and reiterating the rather samey sentiments about this or that ‘radical’ artwork ‘subverting’ or ‘engaging with’ or ‘ironising’ the values of ‘patriarchal’, ‘capitalist’ or ‘consumer’ culture. Each time I read another label about a work which encouraged the overthrow of capitalism, supported the Revolution, heralded the dawn of a classless society, romanticised guerilla fighters and marching strikers and the May 1968 événements, I thought how very, very old all this now sounds and how completely these attitudes and approaches have been vanquished.

In our time, from China to Brazil, hyper-consumer capitalism rules the world, underpinned by the all-powerful banks, implemented by the all-pervading digital culture which most of us have voluntarily signed up to. Instead of overthrowing American corporations, we have welcomed them into every aspect of our lives (Google est.1998, turnover $66 billion, Facebook est. 2004, 1.5 billion users, Twitter 300 million users). The often fading paintings, creaking sculptures and flickery videos on display here come from a distant time when people thought there was an alternative to the finance capitalism and all-encompassing American corporations which now dominate our lives.

2. Communist oppression

Looking back, one of the massive contradictions or ironies of the period was that all the radical artists in the West wanted a communist revolution to overthrow beastly American capitalism, while all the dissidents in the East wanted to escape from the stifling straitjacket of inefficient, repressive, brutal and philistine communist regimes to the wonderful freedom of the West.

The exhibition displays works from the two halves of Europe (and the world) next to each other as if they were both the same kind of ‘subversion’ and criticism, but I don’t think they were: the conditions of their production and the mindsets of their producers were drastically different.

Anti-capitalist movements linger on into our day as ineffectual student-style groups like the Occupy movement; ‘third wave’ feminism endures in all sorts of forms; but the struggles of dissident artists and samizdat writers under communist regimes have completely disappeared and it’s hard to now recall what that world was like.

I can discuss feminism with my teenage daughter because she is learning about the exploitation of women at school, I can discuss the power of multinational banks and corporations with my teenage son because he’s got accounts with some of them and reads about their tax avoidance, criminal miss-selling of products etc on a daily basis.

But if I try to explain that when I was growing up all of Eastern Europe was under Russian communist control, and enormous fences topped with barbed wire formed the border between capitalism and communism, that anyone trying to escape over them was blown up by the landmines or shot dead by the guards, that artists and writers who protested against the state were locked up in psychiatric institutions or disappeared into prison camps, they look at me as if I’m mad.

There are plenty of artists from the Eastern bloc in this show – one even has a room dedicated to him, the Romanian Cornel Brudaşcu. But I felt the extremely difficult, often dangerous, conditions of producing any kind of art in the Eastern Bloc could well have justified a room to itself, a space which really tried to recreate the terrible claustrophobia and fear of the time. This could have described and examined the situations in the different countries (Poland, East Germany, Slovakia etc), whose regimes and cultural traditions were often quite different. This would have given much more depth when it came to describing the strategies specific artists adopted to circumvent the censors and the authorities.

Maybe there are the seeds of an entirely different exhibition here: ‘The Art of the Eastern Bloc 1945-90’.

3. Feminism

Feminism, the women’s movement, women’s liberation, is a very big presence in the show, with three of the ten rooms dedicated to women’s issues, women making up about 26 of the 60 or so artists, and a lot, if not all, the women artists, ‘engaging’ one way or another with the problems of gender.

In the 1960s women intellectuals and artists began to rebel against all kinds of constraints society placed on them: against the way advertising used women’s bodies to sell products, against the way society confined women to stereotyped gender roles – having to be ‘the mother’, ‘the good housewife’, ‘the perfect hostess’ and so on – while depriving them of involvement in a great swathe of social activity, from business to politics. Society was dominated by all-male establishments which women challenged in all manner of ways, from the courts to the classroom.

What emerges from this exhibition is that many of the women artists featured here seemed to think that merely being more forthright about the reality of women’s bodies was a kind of ‘subversive’ and liberating act – that if women themselves created, controlled and published images of the female body, it would liberate them from the prison-house of the ‘male gaze’ and assert the autonomy of female sexuality and therefore of the female subject.

For example, according to the wall label, Evelyne Axell (Belgian, 1935-72), thought that ‘Space represented an emancipation site for women’. Her striking work, Valentine, represents Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who on June 16, 1963, became the first woman in space. The helmet taped to the screen represents the space part, the stripper-style silhouette with the fabric rising up off the picture as it comes unzipped to reveal her breasts and pubic hair beneath, represent her female sexuality. She is, according to the commentary, ‘a feminist heroine and a monument to female eroticism’.

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Valentine 1966 Collection of Philippe Axell Photo: Paul Louis © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Collection of Philippe Axell. Photo: Paul Louis. © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

I understand celebrating a woman pioneer. I understand and like the helmet tacked to the canvas. But I didn’t so much understand why the outline of a sexy woman whose zipper is coming undone Austen Powers-style is liberating. To me, it conforms to all the sexist stereotypes of the era, precisely the commodification of an absurdly idealised woman-as-sex-object which I thought we were meant to disapprove of.

Fifty years later any sense of irony or empowerment at the display of naked women has surely long vanished. Instead of the ‘subversion’ and ‘irony’ which the commentary and labels attributed to much of this imagery, I just registered lots of female artists depicting the female body, legs, thighs, breasts and a number of vulvas, in photos, silhouettes, realistic or abstract painting, in satirical videos and even – strikingly – in mirrors (see Jana Želibská below).

Presumably, at some point, it dawned on women artists and women more generally, that displaying images of naked or semi-naked women in ‘art’ really just amounts to displaying naked or semi-naked women. The particular audience who view them (‘art lovers’) are just a tiny, statistically insignificant, sub-set of the great naked-women-viewing public, who don’t get the joke. It doesn’t change anything. In fact, surely it’s just another way of packaging and commodifying the female body.

4. Young and old

The exhibition’s achievement in including women artists and foregrounding women’s issues tends to mask another 1960s theme, maybe the theme of the 1960s, so that it goes strangely unremarked. It was the decade of Youth. In all spheres the 1960s saw the rebellion of the young against the old. ‘Hope I die before I get old‘ and ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30‘ were the catch phrases of the time. So for me the striking thing isn’t that there were lots of breasts, bellies, thighs, vulvas, sexy silhouettes and licking lips on show – it is that they are all young, fit and nubile breasts and hips etc.

Dorothée Selz could create a series of photos of herself copying the poses of scantily-clad glamour models from magazines because she herself looks like a model. The outlines of women which dominate Jana Želibská‘s feminist work Kandarya-Mahadeva look like they’re from the title sequence of a James Bond movie.

A lot of the dolly bird nudity on show here doesn’t make much sense if viewed through a feminist paradigm because it seems so obviously self-defeating: but it does make sense if seen as part of the overthrow of the Fat and Old by the Young and Beautiful. In this context, taking off your clothes proves you are on the right side, immediately shows you are on the side of the young and beautiful, man, we’re going to get rid of war and capitalism and all that bourgeois crap, man, and all those creepy sexual hangups our parents had, we’re going to get naked and get high and come together and create world peace.

Thus Evelyne Axell‘s work The Pretty Month of May in which she paints herself naked, is surely a failure if it’s seen as a ‘feminist’ work, seeking to ‘subvert the male gaze’, since all I can see is a young naked woman whose patch of black pubic hair deliberately emphasises her sexuality. But it does make sense if we recapture the spirit of 1968 and see it as a typical gesture of openness and honesty and frankness about sexual pleasure, all of which (at the time) put her on the side of the angels against the stuffy, repressive older generation.

(For the attitude to parents, to businessmen, to accountants in bowler hats, see The Beatles track The Piggies (‘Everywhere there’s little piggies, leading piggy lives/You can see them out to dinner with their piggy wives.’). For the attitude of the cool sexual revolutionaries, listen to Come Together, which ends, as so many songs from this time, in a simulated orgasm. The orgasm was a political gesture, symbolising the overthrow of capitalism/the old/the bourgeoisie and all their controlling repression of sexuality, which should be free and unfettered, shared and liberating.)

5. The missing black artists

The three women curators have included lots of women artists and lengthy explanations of women’s issues throughout. This is a striking achievement and an enjoyable introduction to many artists who were new to me. In fact, all the works I liked best were by women artists eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellDorothée SelzEulàlia Grau to name a few.

But towards the end of the show I realised I hadn’t seen a single black Pop artist. Maybe there weren’t any. And I don’t think there was a single artist from Africa, 10% of the global population in 1970, in a show which is meant to be about global art. a) In the industrialised West, especially America, were there really no black artists who could have been included? b) Was there really no African art which could have been included, especially considering this period saw a large number of independence struggles/civil wars across the continent which would surely have fit into the Mao and Che-themed revolution sections?

Fun

If all this sounds a bit earnest, it is and the wall labels do tend to be full of ‘issues’ and ‘concerns’.

But most of the works themselves are lots of fun – bright, confident, experimental, exuberant – men and women from around the world playing with a western idiom and transmuting it for their own purposes. Some pieces seemed to me weak (I didn’t like the folk art room, the works of Beatriz GonzálezParviz Tanavoli or Raúl Martinez – details below – seemed to me drab and dull); lots of others are great or great fun, for example, the strikingly clear and bold ‘American interiors’ of Icelandic artist Erró – American Interior 1; and much I couldn’t quite decide what I thought, leaving me puzzled or thoughtful. Altogether there is plenty here to discuss and mull over.

Some reviews have criticised the curators’ decision to paint the walls of each room bright primary colours, but I thought it was funky and accurately reflects the dayglo, plastic world of Pop: it is entirely fitting that the final room is completely covered in a tongue-in-cheek ‘subversion’ of consumer capitalism, Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle, made up of multiple copies of the famous cheese logo. As subversion it scores 0 – as funky wallpaper, 10.

And then the shop…

And if you had any lingering doubt about art’s complete inability to change society, you emerge from the last room (‘Consuming Pop’, full of works ‘subverting’ consumer capitalism) into the exhibition shop! Here you can purchase a whole range of desirable consumer products – Pop mugs, Pop posters, Pop tea towels, Pop books, Pop cushions, Pop scarves and Pop bags – to adorn your dream home and impress your friends.


List of artworks

Room 1 – Introduction

Room 2 – Eulàlia Grau (1946-, Spain) and Joe Tilson (English)

Room 3 – Pop politics

Room 4 – Cornel Brudaşcu (1937-, Romania)

It was good to have a room devoted to the enormous subject of art in the communist bloc but I’m not sure the four or five big paintings by Brudaşcu could quite carry that much burden. They are coloured solarisations of images mined from pop sources eg newspaper photos, album covers.

Room 5 – Pop at home

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968) Private Collection Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm © Teresa Burga

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968), Private Collection. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm. © Teresa Burga

Room 6 – Pop bodies

Room 7 – devoted to one work by Jana Želibská (1941-, Czechoslovakia)

  • Kandarya-Mahadeva – based on a temple in India, consists of a massive rectangular pillar constructed of 48 panels, each one depicting the silhouette of a woman’s body in a Bond girl pose, clad in the outline of skimpy bra and panties. BUT the subversive thing is that at the crotch of each woman is embedded a mirror! Ha, gotcha, male gaze! According to the audioguide, the mirrors ‘virtually put a woman’s sexuality right in your face!!!’ Take that, male chauvinist pigs!!
  • The room itself is lined with swags of orange and white paper flowers and the walls painted with enormous baby pink silhouettes of naked women also with big mirrors in the crotch.

I like breasts and vulvas as much as the next man but by this stage I’d seen quite a few, and occasionally it’s nice to think about something else, so it was a relief to walk into a room which was not dominated by images of women’s bodies.

Room 8 – Pop crowd

Room 9 – Folk Pop

Room 10- Consuming Pop

All the walls of this room are covered with the Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle. That’s sticking it to international brands! I wonder if Vache qui rit ever approached him to use it.

  • Boris Bućan (1947-, Croatia) Bućan Art – a series of images spelling ART in the styles of various corporate brands. It ‘denounces consumerism and global brands’. a) nice idea, quite funny, though zero impact on brands (unless they rip the idea off for publicity) b) note the Vache qui rit wallpaper in the background.
  • Sanja Iveković (1949-, Croatia) Sweet violence (1974) This five-minute, black-and-white video stitched together adverts from communist Yugoslavia and superimposed prison bars over them, a brave thing to do at the time.
  • Toshio Matsumoto (1932-, Japan) Mona Lisa, experimental 3-minute video using then-revolutionary techniques to phase and overcolour the image.

The final taboo

Trawling through the biographies to create the list above, I came across several women artists saying, sadly and alas, that their work ‘subverting the patriarchy’ and ‘exploring issues of gender and femininity’ are just as relevant – as necessary – today as they were 50 years ago. The rather tiresome quote from Einstein comes to mind: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

If some of the women artists ‘exploring issues’ around the ‘representation of sexuality and eroticism within a social context’ genuinely think little has changed in 50 years, maybe they should consider changing their tactics. Or consider that there might be some kind of biological basis for the social structures and attitudes they have spent 50 years failing to alter.

Their comments tie up with one of the main learnings from the show, which is the complete failure of all the revolutionary hopes of the majority of the artists. Capitalism wasn’t overthrown. It has a stronger, more pervasive grip on all aspects of our lives than ever before. Everything is being monetised.

Which prompts a further uncomfortable thought: maybe the ultimate taboo in art is not (as one of the wall labels asserts) creating images of the vulva, or of the penis or of shit (Gilbert and George have made some very nice images of shit) or any other bodily parts or functions, come to that.

Maybe the ultimate taboo, the dirty little secret that artists and curators dare not mention, is that art subverts nothing. You can assert that it ‘questions’ and ‘engages with’ and ‘interrogates’ whatever you fancy, till the cows come home – the result is nothing. Nothing except more exhibitions, more commentaries and more audioguides, more subject matter for the ever-increasing numbers of people doing MAs and PhDs in art criticism. A small clique of art professionals who have a vested interest in believing – or persuading or reassuring themselves – that art plays a critical role in society, and isn’t – as all the evidence suggests, as the Tate shop suggests – just a decorative hobby and shopping opportunity for the well-heeled middle classes.

Could it be that there is nothing ‘revolutionary’ or ‘radical’ about art, not today? Soviet art, communist art, conceptual art, dada, surrealism, stuckist art, shit art, minimal art, heads made of blood and handprints of child murderers, piles of bricks and sharks cut in half, all these were done years ago, some over a century ago.

Instead, the audio commentary and wall labels of this show come close to proving that art and art criticism today merely play with ageing tropes of ‘revolutionary’ politics or feminist ‘subversion’, talking a special language to itself about ‘engagement’ and ‘questioning’ and ‘situating issues’ and ‘negotiating paradigms’ – while leaving the actual power structures of society, the economic constraints we all live by, the concentration of money into fewer and fewer hands, the infiltration of every aspect of our lives by surveilling digital technology, the indignities of ageing, the difficulties of earning enough money to pay for rent, heat and food, completely unchanged.

In the commentary of this and other shows about twentieth century art, I get the feeling the curators are nostalgic for a time when art did have some kind of impact, when artists really did suffer for their art, when they genuinely risked being arrest and imprisoned, when art genuinely did ‘subvert’ various forms of authority, patriarchy, western consumerism etc.

Now you’d be hard pressed to create a work of art which won’t be bought up by Russian billionaires or sovereign wealth funds looking to diversify their investment portfolio. Very difficult to escape form the process whereby everything becomes an investment, everything is monetised.

Art’s irrelevance

According to a press release, all the Tate locations had a total 7 million visitors in 2013/14. This is an extremely impressive achievement – especially the standout fact that Tate Modern is the most visited gallery of modern art in the world. Respect to the enormous achievements of Tate’s leadership and staff in reaching out to more people than ever before.

But I also read in today’s paper that Snapchat reported 6 billion views of videos on its digital platform, every day. It is sneaking up on Facebook which claims some 8 billion video views per day, and that some 500 million people use its video app every day. When I told my teenage son, he said had I read Pornhub’s results (much shared among his mates, apparently)?

Pornhub claims to be the world’s number one porn website and allows users to upload and share pornographic videos. In 2014 about 50 gigabytes of porn video was uploaded to the site every second. Over the course of the year 78.9 billion videos were viewed, 11 for every man, woman and child on the planet. The top two search terms were ‘teen’ and ‘lesbian’.

I love art and will continue to go to art galleries and support artists. I love the space, the quiet, the opportunity to admire beauty and reflect on interesting ideas. But when you situate traditional ‘art’ – small paintings and silent sculptures – in the context of this unprecedented tsunami of images, an unparalleled explosion of imagery flooding out of every screen into everyone’s faces all across the planet, the art of all of these artists doesn’t just not seem subversive: statistically, it doesn’t exist. Its impact is immeasurably tiny.

Judy Chicago’s funky car hoods, Jana Želibská’s dolly birds with mirror crotches, Dorothée Selz’s small photos of herself adopting glamour model poses – I like them: they’re funny, attractive to look at, inventive, cheeky, maybe they played their part in changing attitudes for the better. But to imagine that they are subverting anything in our time seems to me the height of self-delusion.

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Ai Weiwei @ the Royal Academy

I like contemporary art at least in part because I find it light and frivolous, an airy alternative to the world which, as Wordsworth pointed out, is too much with us – more than ever in the brave new matrix of 24/7 social media and unstoppable information overload.

Thus Agnes Martin‘s variations on the grid format are open to any number of interpretations – the exhibition of her work at Tate Modern is full of pattern, space and light. Barbara Hepworth‘s sculptures at Tate Britain inspire new ways of seeing shapes and being aware of space.

By contrast I felt this blockbuster exhibition of work by world-famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is too heavily overshadowed by the glare of his own fame, his personal trials and ongoing tribulations with the Chinese authorities, too weighed down with ‘real world’ issues, to be enjoyable – unless you buy into the ‘artist as hero’ story.

Ai Weiwei bio and politics

Ai’s biography is long and eventful. He comes from an artistic family which suffered internal exile under Mao. He spent 12 formative years in New York soaking up the mood of modern conceptual and pop art, its interest in ready-mades, ‘found art’, junk etc, before moving back to China to establish his practice.

Through the 1990s and 2000s he was a consistent critic of the Chinese government, but this came to a head with his video and documentary exposure of the cheap, shoddy building materials which led to the collapse of numerous schools when the Sichuan earthquake hit in 2008, causing the deaths of some 5,000 schoolchildren. Ai took to social media and dedicated his prolific blogs and tweets to scathing criticism of the authorities who he – along with many others – blamed for the appalling death toll.

As a result of this and other fierce criticism of the government, in 2010 the studio he’d been building in Shanghai was declared illegal by the authorities and demolished. Ai organised a ‘crab feast’ party – a traditional festival of the riverside city – to ironically celebrate its demolition, but was himself arrested and unable to attend the party.

On 3 April 2011 Ai was arrested and spent three months in close confinement on what the government claimed were tax evasion and economic crimes. He was imprisoned in two small rooms and accompanied at all times by two guards, obviously subjected to intense psychological pressure, stress, harm. He has several medical conditions, including diabetes, which were exacerbated by the imprisonment.

As I write he is in the news again because Lego have refused to supply him the bricks he needs to make another ‘controversial’ installation, prompting a typical ‘crowd-sourcing’ flood of support from fans around the world who are being encouraged to donate him their Lego – Australia gallery collects Lego for Ai Weiwei.

Prison art

Thus, to a disconcerting extent, Ai Weiwei’s art is about himself, and this exhibition reflects that, big time. One huge room is full of skip-sized steel boxes with small windows cut into them. If you peer through the windows you can see a scale model of the cell Ai was imprisoned in, bed, lamp, chairs and the connecting toilet, complete with lifelike mannequins of him and the two guards posted to watch him at all times, even on the toilet.

The walls of this big room are covered with vibrant gold wallpaper bearing a pattern made up of handcuffs and CCTV cameras (bad) and the twitter logo of a chirruping bird symbolising – you understand – the power of social media to spread his message, despite the worst the authorities can do (good). On close examination the round chest of the twitter logo includes an image of Ai’s face curved and burnished, which I found more sly and cheeky than much of his other stuff.

Souvenirs of Shanghai

After the authorities demolished Ai’s workshop in Shanghai, he recovered a lot of the rubble and constructed this work, a room-sized cube of masonry with samples of traditional wood carvings embedded into the brickwork. The irony, you see: the rubble of contemporary life, wreckage of a repressive regime, juxtaposed with exquisite artefacts from a more elegant age.

No fewer than 800 supporters attended the memorial feast to ‘celebrate’ the demolition and this is marked by a pile of realistic life-size model river crabs stacked up in the corner of the same room. Apparently river crabs are a symbol of dictatorial government but also sound like the Chinese word for ‘harmony’. I wondered what would happen if I was ‘subversive’ enough to reach out and touch one. Or nick one.

The way so many of these works directly refer back to these ‘political’ events, for me, drains them of the ambiguity and lightness of fancy which I value in ‘art’. But they are also not all that impressive in themselves. A pile of model crabs. Yes.

Self congratulation

Ai Weiwei’s career, art, his self presentation and the promotional machinery of the western countries where he is an art superstar, allow us to feel good about the part we’re playing in the ‘struggle for free expression in China’ – namely, wandering round a big art exhibition in central London, then doing a spot of shopping.

Many of the works are striking but the whole show is dominated by his story, his biography, the account of his suffering and his heroism standing up to power – then flying out to London to do media interviews and arrange this show. I am not minimising the unpleasantness of his experiences. I am just saying such a weight of art so heavily reliant on his experiences makes me feel uneasy, and exposes – in its western audience – a raft of ironies, mismatches of meaning and hypocrisies.

Irony of technology

I couldn’t help noticing many people taking photos of the art works on their smart phones. Surely everyone knows by now that many of our shiny digital devices are produced in Chinese factories where conditions are little better than slavery, labour camps, the suicide factories. Ie by buying these products we prop up the economic miracle which keeps the repressive Chinese authorities in power. But the exhibition goes nowhere near this.

Nor does it tackle the glaring irony that for Ai, social media, facebook and twitter are all unalloyed goods whereas many of us in the fabulous free West are deeply sceptical and/or anxious about the extent to which these digital devices have penetrated every interstice of our lives, relaying our every move, thought, word and action back to vast databases which are ploughed by immensely powerful algorithms creating digital profiles which can then be used to sell us products wherever we go and whatever we do and are routinely, as Snowden showed us, harvested by security services and police forces who know more about their national populations than ever before in human history.

Irony of the Royal Academy

The guides, introduction, audio guide, wall labels and Ai’s quotes all emphasise what a rebel he is, always exploring and pushing the barriers, a subversive to his fingertips… It felt odd reading all this rock and roll subversion in the hallowed rooms of the Royal Academy.

Looking up at his chandelier made of strings of crystals hanging in a cunningly constructed lattice of bicycle frames and wheels, your eye also takes in the rich gilding of the RA’s covings and ceiling. If you’re an optimist maybe you see this exhibition in the RA as the art establishment’s ‘acceptance’ of Ai and his politics. If you’re like me, you see it as paradoxical that a man who prides himself on being such a subversive shows his works in such a sterile, formal, carefully patrolled setting, complete with close circuit cameras and security guards in every room. Does no one see the irony? Around every exhibit was a grey tape line which you mustn’t step over. If you stepped over the line a guard was quick to ask you to step back. It felt about as subversive as progressing around a cathedral from one Holy Relic to another.

Irony of the bourgeoisie

An enormous room is dedicated to the Sichuan earthquake and Ai’s response to it. The long walls are covered with an enormous grid or table recording the name of every one of the students who died in the disaster. I am a liberal, I think almost anything can be ‘art’, but the literalism of this made me think this is actually a memorial like, say, the Vietnam memorial in Washington. Because it doesn’t say anything more than it says: a list of the names of the Chinese students who died in the earthquake.

In a corner of the room is a video of a Chinese factory where steel cables for buildings are being made. The video screen was surrounded by a crowd of middle-class, white English people who have never been inside a factory, staring intently at the screen and empathising with the Chinese workers doing this demanding manual labour in a noisy dirty environment – before moving on to the shop and wondering whether to buy an Ai Weiwei poster or mug or apron or coffee table book, made by the same or similar Chinese factory workers.

Irony of the Great Thinker

On sale in the shop is a Penguin paperback of a series of interviews conducted with Ai Weiwei by curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist – Ai Weiwei speaks. The blurb says it is a marvellous insight into the thought of this Great Artist. That use of the word ‘thought’, the Great Man’s Thought, reminded me that this was the kind of adulation and even phraseology which surrounded the insights and writings of another great Chinaman, Mao Zedong – Mao Zedong Thought – who hypnotised the western liberals of an earlier generation. 50 years ago pretty much the same art-going classes would have been forming the same sort of respectful queues to enjoy the insights and thoughts of another Great Chinese subversive, radical and deep thinker. Uneasy.

Irony of Indifference

British Chancellor George Osborne spent last week in China drumming up trade with one of the strongest economies in the world. Maybe he did say a few words about China’s human rights record, about the Dalai Lama, Tibet, the imprisonment of numerous political protestors – and maybe he didn’t. Either way it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. China’s economy is vital to the West and we want a slice of their economic pie, we want closer trade and industrial ties with this superpower. Us citizens can donate all the Lego we like to the latest Ai Appeal, but in the tough-minded negotiations of the powerful we aren’t even dust on their shoes…

George Osborne’s epic kowtow to China

Ai Weiwei’s stance is obviously brave, there’s no doubting he went to prison and may go again, but still bravely refuses to stop exposing government corruption and repression where he sees it, there’s no doubting the authorities (foolishly) block his name and websites from the internet, demolish his workshops, harass his assistants and associates, but:

  • Despite this he was still here in London supervising this blockbuster show. In my boyhood dissident writers disappeared into mental institutes or died in the gulag – this one is jetting round the world saying whatever he wants in interviews with the world’s media, featuring in glitzy magazines, and collecting awards – it’s a genuinely bizarre situation.
  • And anyway, it doesn’t appear to make the slightest bit of difference.

Samples of the art

In the courtyard of the RA are installed a sort of avenue of ‘trees’ made out of lumber and spare wood. I should like this kind of thing, but… I didn’t. I go for regular walks in the countryside: I prefer real trees.

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Inside, one of the RAs’ rooms contains a vast assembly of rusting metal cables. I think the labels said the cables are arranged so that, from above, they form the shape of China as seen on the map – and then unravelled to lay on the floor. So far so, well, familiar from New York minimalists from the 1960s. Of course, when you learn that the cables are salvaged from some of the schools which so disastrously collapsed in the earthquake, then your reaction to them changes. They are no longer ‘art’, they are a memorial. It is impious, it insults the dead, to be anything other than respectful.

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015)
Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

These three photos of Ai dropping a Han dynasty vase have become pretty widespread. The black and whiteness, the deliberate naivety of the images, the crude vandalism, bespeak experimental art of the 1960s or 70s. Or even Dada from the 1910s… The only novelty is that this is a Chinaman indulging in western art-vandalism…

In fact, a whole room of the show is dedicated to Ai’s ‘engagement’ with the Chinese ceramic tradition: which involves him taking genuine antique vases and painting them modern primary colours (as the Guardian puts it: ‘Ai dips ancient pottery into paint’) or with provocative slogans: one had Coca Cola emblazoned on it. Coca Cola. You see, it’s because Coke is an icon of American consumerism. It’s like it’s a comment on the contemporary world. Wow. — In fact they looked very like the kind of thing my kids used to get up to at their half-term art club.

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

The metal cables referred to earlier, seen from above.

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars Lisson Gallery, London Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars. Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Ceramic tiles forming the outline of China, each with a Chinese text about ‘freedom’. China. Freedom. It’s almost like there’s a message here somewhere.

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style, Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style,
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

A lovingly-crafted copy of a video camera carved out of marble. State surveillance is bad, apparently – though the technology itself has a clumsy/spooky/slickly designed outline and shape.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Irony of the dissident superstar

Art is now a global business, and deals in brands, assets and products. The international art market this year topped €50 billion. After a certain level of success a modern ‘artist’ establishes workshops and employs significant numbers of ‘assistants’, as well as the retinue of PAs, organisers, accountants, and probably brand managers, social media consultants and so on, some to create the ‘work’ but other, more importantly, to manage the brand in the global marketplace, to plan and curate the never-ending schedule of ‘major’ exhibitions, to co-ordinate sales at the major sales houses.

Eventually Ai reminded me of Damien Hirst, another ‘rebel’ become international superstar whose art has ended up about money. Like Hirst, Ai stumbles on a new concept and then milks it. So one room in the show includes samples of his ‘cube’ art. At some point he ‘discovered’ the attractiveness of the metre-cube and began to think of variations on the theme: a glass cube, a polished steel cube, a granite cube, a rusted metal cube, a cube made of traditional Chinese wooden panels which can be moved in and out and re-arranged like a Rubik’s cube. (Except that you cannot touch it, of course. God forbid the rebel’s artworks got fingerprints on them.)

This reminded me of Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde: initially it was a liberating, original idea but, at some point, after the first 4 or 5 years, became a formula, and then a production line turned out by ‘assistants’ in the Ai or Hirst factories. As with Hirst’s vitrines or spot paintings or butterflies, so with Ai’s painted vases or metre cubes or big wooden sculptures – what once had the shock of the new now has the feel of a showroom for Russian billionaires or Arab princes looking for sound investments to add to their portfolios.

Summary

The final irony is that someone who is undoubtedly a dissident in his own country, a threat to the authorities who are in turn a permanent threat to his freedom and practice, can at the same time be such an unparalleled success in the west, an art superstar, a mover and shaker, curator of international exhibitions, winner of countless prizes and awards, sitter on numerous panels of judges.

But for me his art is so heavily overwritten by the newspaper-type stories of his dissident activities, and then overwritten again by his bestselling super-artist status, as to lose the freshness, the space for idle interpretation and the free play of the imagination which, for me, is the main value of ‘art’.

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The Black Tide by Hammond Innes (1982)

I was alone now, intensely, intolerably alone, with only anger and hatred for company. (p.76)

This novel opens with an interesting ‘prelude’ which describes a vast modern oil tanker (a VLCC – very large crude carrier) the Petros Jupiter, losing power in its engines and drifting onto the rocks near Land’s End. What’s interesting is it is done in prose completely unlike Innes’, in a style which is clinical and factual, much closer to the journalistic style of a Frederick Forsyth.

The plot

But turn the page to the next chapter and Innes’ usual ‘adventure’ style begins. Trevor Rodin is a former merchant seaman who has quit the sea to settle down with the woman he’s known and loved for three years, Karen, at a cottage – named Balkaer – on the Cornish coast. The oil slick from the Petros Jupiter washes up right at the foot of their cottage, covering the rocks in thick black ooze, killing countless birds. Keen nature-lover and conservationist Karen collects some, trying to wash and save them, but it’s hopeless. In her rage and frustration, she turns on Trevor and they have a stand-up row, her shouting, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Trevor says he’s off to a town hall meeting attended by the local MP and the man from the Ministry who, in the event, spout the usual platitudes about doing everything they can to contain and control the spill.

Karen’s self-immolation

Meanwhile, Karen, angry and upset at the ruining of the country hideaway they’ve worked so hard to build, visita neighbours to borrow a flame-based weedkiller machine, then takes Trevor’s powered dinghy out toward the tanker. When Trevor returns from the meeting the neighbour tells him this so he gets the local lifeguard to saddle up and take him out towards the ship. As they approach, through the Cornish mist, they see a light moving about the infrastructure of the tanker, and towards the (fume and oxygen-filled) tanks. They are just saying how suicidally dangerous that is when BOOM! the tanker explodes in a vast sheet of flame.

Quest for revenge

In the aftermath there’s an enquiry, the press and media descend wanting interviews, sight-seers come intruding on his land, and Trevor moves through it all in a daze, devastated by the loss of his beloved and all their plans for a quiet life. Among the other confused incidents of this period, a dubious character, Len Baldwick, comes knocking asking if he’ll need a berth on a ship again, leaving his contact details. Out of the emotional mayhem emerges a plan to track down the crew of the Petros Jupiter and discover whether it was wilfully and maliciously driven onto the rocks, to find who’s responsible for Karen’s death.

Lloyds of London

His quest takes him to Lloyds – described in some detail, presumably after thorough research and visits by Innes – where he learns several of the Petros Jupiter crew had dubious pasts, and might be connected with two other tankers which have recently disappeared, the Aurora B and Howdo Stranger. Rodin is struck to see photos of Len Baldwick mixed in with others of the ships’ crews. He conceives a plan to contact Baldwick and see what his offer of a berth involves and if it leads to the men he’s after. Via Lloyds Rodin is introduced to the firm of lawyers following up the missing ships and to one partner, Saltley, who will become a central character in the story.

We knew from various references that Rodin was not only a sailor, but grew up in the Gulf, raised by his hard-working mother, a nurse and single mum. So the solicitors, realising they have a man who is himself a sailor familiar with the Gulf, and who has a personal interest in the ship disappearances, hire him to investigate. Saltley introduces him to one of the underwriters of the syndicate which has taken heavy losses on the vanished ships, Michael Stewart. Rodin goes for dinner with him and meets his pretty daughter, Pamela, who – in a surprising sub-plot – later writes him a letter telling him how much she admires and, er, fancies him.

Nantes and Parnay

Armed with names and information Trevor sets off to track the suspect crew down. His quest takes him first to Nantes, where he rendezvous with Lloyd’s agent and then drives to the address of the crew member named Choffel. He is, disappointingly, not there but Rodin confronts Choffel’s daughter (oddly named Guinevere), who insists her father is a good man, doing his best for his family. She takes photos of Rodin and threatens him with reprisals if any harm comes to her father. But Rodin hardens his heart and flies on to the Gulf.

Dubai

Here he rendezvous with Len Baldwick and the rest of the crew, all vivid depictions of crooks and scoundrels, before they are shipped on a dhow out to a tanker anchored in a hidden bay, one of the khawrs of the Musandam Peninsula. Once aboard ship they are shepherded into their quarters and, even though nominally the boat’s officers, are forbidden from leaving their quarters by the captain backed up by surly Arabs with machine guns.

But Rodin is more disconcerted to be shoved into the presence of ‘Choffel’ who turns out to be a nervous slender man, not at all the pantomime villain he’d imagined. Morever, Choffel turns out to be Welsh and going by his actual name, David Price. In several encounters, he tells Rodin some his story, about his own wretched upbringing in Welsh poverty, his father the miner dying of silicosis, then his mother getting ill when he was only a 21 year old sailor on his first ship. He has also, Rodin realises, received a letter from his daughter warning him that Rodin is after him. Price is scared of him, trying to exonerate himself, leaving Rodin baffled about what to do next.

In among these scenes Rodin meets the captain, Pieter Hals. This bluff Dutchman reveals that the ship is the Aurora B, a 120,000 ton tanker, one of the tankers that went ‘missing’ in the past few months (causing Lloyds the concern we investigated so thoroughly earlier in the novel) and that he – Hals – is a fanatical environmentalist.

Hals gives a long speech about his lifelong hatred of the oil tankers which void, spill, wash and decant oil into the sea all around the world, destroying habitats at will. Well, now they’re going to do something which will make the governments of the world sit up and seriously address the issue! Hence getting shifty Len Baldwick to do the hiring; hence the men with guns; and hence the appearance of a very hard Arab named Sadeq who looks to be the leader.

Rodin jumps ship

Shaken by the captain’s fanaticism, Rodin is taken under guard back to his cabin where, peering out of his porthole later that night, he sees the crew, who look like Pakistanis and who have presumably been held captive in the hold, brought up on deck by armed guards for some fresh air. But when one of them makes a bid for the side of the ship, he is machine-gunned down. Stunned, Rodin is unable to sleep and, a few hours later, sneaks out of his cabin, down on to the deck, and goes exploring.

This is a very powerful account of him clambering over all the obstacles on an unlit oil tanker at the dead of night. By accident he comes across no other than Choffal/Price, the man he is after, climbing down the gangplank towards the dhow and begins to follow him: what the devil is he up to? Suddenly lights go on, there are shots, he sees the Arabs abandoning the dhow for their escape dinghy just as Price makes a jump for the dhow and Rodin, on the spur of the moment, follows him.

There is a brief view of Sadeq the terrorist firing down at them with a machine gun and then – the engine started up – the dhow reels away from the tanker, and then they are out of range, the shots cease, and Rodin is taken up with the task of navigating clear of the tanker but also avoiding the cliffs at the side of the creek.

On the dhow – backgrounds

As day dawns Rodin finds himself alone, hungry, dirty, in charge of an Arab dhow in the Persian Gulf, and the man he came all this way to confront, now lying bleeding and badly wounded in the scuppers – Sadeq’s burst of machine gun fire hit Price. Now, ironically, Rodin finds himself having to minister to his ‘enemy’, bringing water and listening to him sob out his hard-luck story: his Welsh childhood, the father whose trade of miner led to his early death from silicosis, his impoverished mother struggling to make ends meet and then falling ill; and Price, on his first voyage, presented with the opportunity of big money if he will help scuttle the ship…

All this chimes uncomfortably with Rodin’s own background. Throughout the text he has had flashbacks of his own unusual upbringing, the son of a sailor who married a Pakistani woman and was raised around the ports of Pakistan and who, when his mother, a trained nurse, died from overwork, went on an epic hike up along the coast of Pakistan and then northwards up to the Khyber Pass and into the Hindu Kush. He certainly has been about a bit…

In fact Innes goes to great trouble to present all his characters with full and persuasive back stories. We learn of Michael Stewart, the lead underwriter for the Petros Jupiter cover, that he inherited the role from his father, that the loss of Petros and Aurora B and the third ship, Howdo Stranger, is likely to bankrupt him. Hence his daughter’s perhaps excessive gratitude to Rodin. Of the baddy fixer, the man who goes round recruiting crooked crew for the wreckers, Len Baldwick, we learn that he was a communist shop steward and organiser in Sheffield. Most of the characters have these back stories, just as most of the organisational setups are thoroughly documented.

There is a powerful description of Rodin desperately trying to stay awake as he steers the dhow without compass or chart out of the Gulf, periodically checking on the mortally wounded Choffal, sometimes forced to listen to his meandering, self-pitying stories, until the inevitable happens – Rodin falls asleep at the rudder and the boat crashes into rocks near the coast. There is a nightmareish description of the boat breaking up, water rushing in, the helpless Choffal disappearing beneath the waves, his mouth open in a scream and then – oblivion…

Karachi

Rodin awakes on the shore of Baluchistan, discovered by two children who fetch an elder, who fetches the local policemen, who take him to the nearest station, who take him to their offices at the Gwadar Peninsula. The army officers here evidently don’t believe his story; of a shipwrecked dhow, yes, but the other man – there is no body – and the hidden tankers – well, they institute a search and nothing is found. Rodin had been on the dhow for two days, he realises, long enough for the Aurora B to have steamed out into the Indian Ocean.

The army fly him down to Karachi where the officials – even the man from Lloyds – are just as sceptical. Armed terrorists seizing a 120,000 ton tanker on the high seas? And hiding it? The Lloyds man points out that Rodin better hope Choffal/Price’s body doesn’t wash up because, by his own admission, Rodin had the motive and the opportunity to murder him. He is booked into a good hotel, gets sleep and a shower and new clothes and awakes to find he is being deported back to England. The officials accompany him onto the flight, right into his actual seat. 11 hours later he is at Heathrow.

Back in England

Where no-one believes him. The Lloyds people, Michael Stewart and his daughter, the Forthright lawyers and Saltley, nor the hard-faced man from Special Branch who comes to interview him. In fact the police tell him there’s every risk he’ll be tried for murder if Choffal’s corpse turns up. After holing up at his digs in Stepney, he realises he’s sick of London and catches an early morning train back to Penzance and travels back to the cottage where it all started. He sleeps on the sofa. He stares out to sea, at the mast which is all left showing above water of the Petros Jupiter. He remembers his wife’s flashing eyes and loud laugh and soft touch.

A few days in he receives a message from Saltley, who now believes him. He wants Rodin to take the ferry to France, catch a flight to Tangiers and then the ferry across to Gibraltar. Here he will be met and brought to the yacht – the Prospero – belonging to Michael Stewart’s son, Mark. And so, puzzled, Rodin obeys. He finds that Stewart and Saltley believe him; believe the two tankers are still out there. But where would they be headed and why? Rodin remembers that in one of Choffal’s delirious rants he had kept mentioning ‘the savages’. Saltley points out this could refer to the Selvagem Islands north of Tenerife, off the African coast. Aha.

There now follows a whole section devoted to life on board the Prospero, with the older lawyer Saltley, another sailor, Tony, young Mark and his sister Pamela, who Rodin finds himself rather yearningly alone with on several occasions. The descriptions of sailing in this small-ish yacht the large distance to the islands, the changing weather in the Atlantic and their eventual sighting of the missing ships close to the islands, are all masterly, evocative sea writing.

Thus they confirm the two tankers are indeed the missing ones, though now repainted and renamed and hung with the Iraqi flag. In fact they make themselves a bit too conspicuous, sailing close by to get photographs and – in a thrilling scene – find themselves being chased and nearly run down by the vast tankers.

Having survived these near misses, they sail fast for Madeira, where Saltley and Rodin ring Lloyds, then take flights to Lisbon. They say goodbye to the other three (Tony, Mark, Pamela) who are going to sail back to Blighty. At the last minute there is an excruciating scene between Pamela and Rodin, Shamefacedly she says she was inspired by his bravery and meant it when she wrote him her letter but now, well, she sort of… Rodin tactfully interrupts her, thanks her, says No need to go on. He has had lots of experience being dumped by a woman. She leaves him heart-broken, empty all over again.

The Black Tide

Back in England he finds himself back in hot water. This last section of the novel is packed with various officials whose hands Rodin passes through, from the police who meet him at Heathrow, through the hard-faced Special Branch man (again) and officials from various ministries. He is placed under surveillance in a hotel in Charing Cross, before being urgently summoned to Langdon Battery at Dover, base of HM Coastguards Channel Navigation Information Service. Here, as at the Lloyds centre at Colchester, the writing feels like an eye witness account of a visit Innes must have made, with precise descriptions of corridors and offices and viewing platforms, of map rooms and computer rooms, all of which read as if taken from a magazine article.

Here they are joined by the Secretary of State, to monitor the progress of the two rogue tankers which are now advancing up the English Channel. This whole scene has documentary accuracy, with emphasis on the different maritime law regimes affecting the French and the English halves of the channel, we being the more liberal, and so the rogue tankers steaming up the Channel the wrong way, to remain on our side.

The coastguard chopper Rodin out to the bridge of a frigate which is shadowing the tankers so he can go out on the bridge wing with a loud hailer to try and talk to captain Hals. Once there Rodin sees Hals although, as soon as he starts to parley, he sees the Dutchman being pulled away by dark men with guns. And then just when everyone is wondering where they’re headed and what their plan is, Aurora B turns and rams full steam into Howdo Stranger, ripping it open along its full length, and tens of thousands of tons of crude oil pour out into the English Channel.

So, er, the convoluted attempts of everyone over the previous 200 pages have been completely pointless. Tons of crude oil will blow onto the Kent coastline, devastating its wildlife, the same old same old that Rodin’s wife died trying to campaign against, is happening again.

Epilogue

Rodin returns, an exhausted, lonely, disillusioned man, to the empty cottage in Cornwall. As he opens the door he sees a woman sitting by the fire and for a second he thinks it’s Karen come back from the dead – and this reader thought it might by sexy young Pamela regretting her decision to dump him on the Prospero. But it is neither: it is Guinevere, Choffel/Price’s daughter, come to apologise and seek closure. The crew, freed from the tankers, confirmed Rodin’s report ie that Choffal was shot by Sadeq. Therefore she withdraws all threats against Rodin and apologises; now, will he please tell her about her father’s last days and hours aboard the dhow before it crashed.

And so the novel ends with sad lonely Rodin telling the sorry story of her father’s wretched, delirious, pain-filled, bleeding final hours to the distraught daughter. It is a bleak, comfortless end. What happens to Hals or Sadeq, to the other crew members we’d been (briefly) introduced to? Are they captured, does the SAS storm the ships (as they would in a Frederick Forsyth novel)? We don’t know. Rodin doesn’t care. The story is ended.


Knowledge and expertise

At numerous places the text evidences the research and in-depth knowledge Innes brings to his novels. The first hundred pages are dominated by a very thorough explanation of how Lloyds Insurance of London actually works, with visits to its various offices in London and Colchester (Lloyd’s Intelligence Services), lunch and dinner with underwriters who explain its procedures in detail, and then meeting the lawyers who investigate dodgy claims, descriptions of offices, desks, ledgers, microfiche and visual display unit equipment, all very modern in 1982.

Similarly, once we are in the Gulf, we are in the hands of a master sailor and the text is a supremely confident description of all aspects of sailing and shipping, from a powerful sense of being trapped aboard the Aurora B to a full description of sailing the rickety old dhow, along with precise information about the shipping lanes, the tides, the wind, the lighthouses and navigational aids.

The best bit of the novel is the voyage of the yacht Prospero, the tang of the sea, the changing weather of the Atlantic, the reefing of sails and taking turns clutching a mug of coffee in the dark watches of the night with only the stars for company.

And then the final sequence in HM Coastguard Dover Castle has the feel of a guided tour, complete with a map of the layout of the modern (Innes refers to Star Wars!) building full of computerised maps and charts and information and chaps in white shorts saluting each other. What fun it must have been researching these novels.

Place and atmosphere

The Cornish coast. London at Christmas. Suffolk (location of some Lloyds offices) in the snow. Rural France in winter. And then the bustling cities and the searingly hot open sea of the Persian Gulf. Gibraltar. Madeira. Lisbon. The Atlantic Ocean at dawn. Innes describes them all powerfully and persuasively. One of the great pleasures and strengths of his novels is his sense of place, his ability to create an atmosphere. Nowhere is this truer than of the scores of descriptions of the sea which lace the text. The Cornish sea with its fogs, the metallic flat Persian Gulf, a gale force storm in the Atlantic. The sounds and smells of boats and the sea, this is Innes’ inextinguishable forte.

We were making towards Selvagem Grande then and by the time breakfast was over and everything washed up and stowed, the sun was beginning to burn up the mist and just visible as a golden disc hung in a golden glow. Water dripped in rainbow drops from the gold-painted metal of the main boom and the only sound on deck was the tinkling gurgle of water slipping past the hull. (p.293)

Environmentalism

In one of Innes’ mysterious, almost magical, transformations, Rodin, stricken at his wife’s death, feels himself assuming her mantle, adopting her own passionate concern for the wildlife mankind is endlessly butchering and exterminating. It allows Innes, at a number of places throughout the book, to let rip at humanity’s gruesome behaviour, and at the anger at the destruction of the natural world which fuels the novel.

Greed! Stupid, senseless greed!.. It was a curse affecting us all, the whole human race, harvesting the sea till there was nothing left but oceans and oceans of dead water, drilling for energy, tanking it round the world, feeding factories that poured toxic waste into the rivers, supplying farms with pesticides that poisoned the land, pumping heat and fumes into the life-giving atmosphere until it was a lethal hothouse. (p.117)

Has anything changed in the 33 years since this novel was published?

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

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