Every room in the National Gallery

A friend’s son is over from Spain. He’s studying art and so we spent one full day, from 10am till closing time at 6pm, on a mission to visit all 66 rooms in the National Gallery. We did it, and with 20 minutes left over to slip into the Goya exhibition as well.

The four sections

The Gallery holds some 2,300 works. They’re divided into four periods or themes, all of which are found in the 66 or so rooms spread over the gallery’s second floor:

  • 13th- to 15th-century paintings (rooms 51-60, west or Sainsbury wing) Duccio, Uccello, van Eyck, Lippi, Mantegna, Botticelli, Dürer, Memling, Bellini
  • 16th-century paintings (west wing, rooms 2-14) Leonardo, Cranach, Michelangelo, Raphael, Holbein, Bruegel, Bronzino, Titian, Veronese
  • 17th-century paintings (north wing, rooms 15-37) Caravaggio, Rubens, Poussin, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Claude, Rembrandt, Cuyp, Vermeer
  • 18th- to early 20th-century paintings (east wing, rooms 33-46) Canaletto, Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh

Floor plan of level 2 Hover your mouse over a room to see its title and click through to a detailed listing.

NB Rooms 41 and 42 are closed, some of the paintings have been moved to rooms C, D and E on level 0. Floor plan of level 0

Audioguide

There’s an audioguide: it costs £4, covers almost every painting in the collection and takes 5 hours to listen to non-stop. Obviously, if you pause it to wander from picture to picture, have lunch or take a comfort break, it will take longer. Maybe reckon on doing one of the four themes or periods on each visit.

Personal highlights

As with my recent trip to the British Museum, these are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note:

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Burlington House Cartoon') (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 - 1519. The National Gallery, London.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’) (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 – 1519. The National Gallery, London.

  • Leonardo da Vinci The Burlington House Cartoon (1500) This is kept in a small darkened room by the entrance to the Sainsbury wing where you can sit and admire genius. It is worth visiting the National Gallery to see this one image. Has any artist ever made any image more perfect, more mysterious and profound than this one? Leonardo is in a class of one. If you had to explain Western art to a Martian this painting would do it.
  • The Wilton Diptych (1395-9) This was a portable altarpiece made for the use of King Richard II (1377-99). I like the sideways posture of the young king and the generally static, hieratic posture of the figures. A gallery attendant explained Richard has ginger hair and therefore so do the angels. I really liked the image of the white hart on the reverse, with a crown round its neck and a golden chain. It was Richard’s personal emblem and therefore it is stamped onto the chests of the angels’ astonishingly blue tunics, like the logo of a football team.
  • Jan van Eyck Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) Next to the famous Arnolfini Portrait is this work. Like so many works of the northern Renaissance it is of a real person. No Christ child, Mary, angels, Magi, disciples or attendant saints. A real person commemorated for all time in their hereness, nowness, personhood.
  • Robert Campin A man and woman (1435) Real people.
  • Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family (about 1470) Swabian. A real person painted with great delicacy and sensitivity.
  • Sandro Botticelli Venus and Mars (1485) Not really looking like any human beings ever seen, this is like a high class cartoon, complete with lines around the figures, and the stylised neck, jaw and hair of the woman.
  • Giovanni Battista Moroni – Portrait of a Gentleman (‘Il Gentile Cavaliere’) (1564) Not a beautiful man but the rendition is perfect in every detail, including the gold lining and buttons up the front, and the loose binding of the leather-bound books under his left hand.
  • Titian emerges as one of the great geniuses of painting. He seems to have introduced a new much brighter palette. His portraits of 16th century notables are striking and individualistic. But I was struck by the handful of outdoors paintings which seem to have created a new way of conveying the human figure in outdoor settings, complete with realistic trees and earth and streams, old ruined buildings, in a brown palette. Before him there was nothing like this and after him everything looked like this for centuries: the effect on Gainsborough, for example, seems obvious:
  • Paolo Veronese The Dream of Helena (1570) The posture of the dreaming woman is perfect and the light on the dress, shimmers impressionistically.
  • Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) A whole room is devoted to Poussin (room 19) and I thought it significant that it was almost empty (three people). I’ve read that Poussin is a very intellectual painter and appreciating him is a developed taste. But I find his paintings empty of all passion or feeling, the characters positioned in stylised gestures, the overall composition draining the mythical events depicted of all energy or meaning. They are like a kind of abstract idea of painting, specimens of what painting would be if drained of all passion or feeling:
  • Peter Paul Rubens (room 29) is famous for his plump women. Out of his big compositions I noticed his subjects’ black eyes, white breasts and shiny armour, all three exemplified in Minerva protects Pax from Mars (1630). In The Judgement of Paris (1632-5) the black eyes and white boobs are obvious, but the shiny armour is there in the bottom left, in the shield with an image of the Gorgon and a discarded helmet on the ground.
  • Rembrandt van Rijn Portrait of Aechje Claesdr (1634) I like north European art because its humanism trumps the Mediterranean’s emphasis on Christian ideology. The compassion doesn’t come from choruses of angels or saints turning up their tearful eyes to heaven, but from the honest depiction of real people in all their frailty and humanity, deserving our empathy and compassion.
  • Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-6) by Rembrandt. His mistress, apparently, young, fresh faced, innocent, her open chemise hinting at her warm body, the whole image exudes intimacy, trust and love.
  • The solid, thick-waisted, small-breasted Rubens women make the Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Diego Velázquez in the next room (30) all the more striking, her very slender waist, narrow back and defined shoulder blades looking anorexic by contrast.
  • Frans Hal Portrait of a Young Woman (1650s) A real person, looking innocent and vulnerable. You expect her to start talking to you
  • The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy (about 1760) by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, only a sketch but the more powerful for that.
  • Thomas Gainsborough The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1760) What could be lovelier, more charming, more innocent. After all the friars, monks, weeping saints and tortured Jesuses of the Spanish and Italian Baroque, coming into the Gainsborough gallery was like being able to breathe again. Generally, arriving in the English gallery with its trees, open country and educated landowners was a great relief: sun and air, trees and rivers and not a tortured, bleeding Christ in sight.
  • La Coiffure (about 1896) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. In last year’s Impressionism exhibition I was surprised not to like more Degas. But this painting seems to me a masterpiece: the combination of reds; the unfinished parts on the left; the heavy black lines giving a cartoon quality; the ordinary everyday subject matter; the two quiet women, not kings or gods or angels; the intimacy. A ragged modern perfection.

I learned…

Ugly babies There are a lot, a really huge number, of terribly painted babies masquerading as the little baby Jesus. I don’t think we saw one believable image of an actual baby, and so many horrid ones we started a competition to find the ugliest baby Jesus. From a strong field (eg Virgin and Child (1475) by Hans Memling) the winner was The Virgin and Child in a Garden (late 15th century) in the style of Martin Schongauer. Enlarge the image to savour the full horror of the old man baby.

Geniuses who died young

  • Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483-1520) aged 37.
  • Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) aged 36.

Carlos’s Law All the Dutch winter landscapes under snow (room 26), of villages or towns with people ice skating on frozen rivers and so on, are immediately appealing:

My friend’s son is called Carlos and after he pointed this out we developed a hypothesis – maybe one day it will become Carlos’s Law – which is that: No painting of a winter scene can be bad. Or, Every painting of a winter scene is automatically good. This held pretty much true from the 17th century Dutch painters where it began to dawn on us, through the intervening centuries to the wintry Impressionist works at the end of the gallery eg:

Personal taste

Turns out I like medieval and Gothic art and don’t like the Renaissance. I like medieval art’s emphasis on the humane, on gorgeous or quirky detail, the prevalence of design and pattern over the clear and (to me) often empty or sterile backdrops which Italian Renaissance art uses to show off its mastery of perspective. Thus I prefer the tight composition, the symmetry, the packed and slightly claustrophobic feel, the sumptuous fabric and cracked floor tiles and the dense foliage climbing over the cloisters of The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (1510) by Gerard David to, say, The Nativity (1470-5) by Piero della Francesca, with its – to me – sense of abandonment in a sterile, rocky, Beckettian landscape.

And so I preferred almost any northern Renaissance painter – van Eyck and the fabulous Hans Holbein and Rogier van de Weyden – to the more famous Italians, because they seem to me to be more humane; to value the truly human, often ungainly, individual over the more religious types of the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars are smoothly executed cartoons: Robert Campin’s man and woman are people.

Related links

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

Every room in the British Museum

A friend’s son comes to stay from Spain. He’s studying art and culture and so we spent two days, from 10am till chucking out time at 5.30pm, on a mission to visit every room in the British Museum. And we did it.

The British Museum owns some 8 million artefacts, of which fewer than 1% are on display, amounting to around 50,000 objects. It is the most popular tourist attraction in the UK with nearly 7 million visitors annually. Before the doors even opened at 10, the crowds flocking into the main forecourt reminded me of the crowds heading for the turnstiles at a football match.

Confusing layout

  • The official floorplan gives 95 numbered rooms, but closer examination shows several are missing. For example, I couldn’t find mention of the 80s, whereas some numbers are used two or three times: eg 18, 18a and 18b are the rooms dedicated to the Elgin Marbles – or 33, 33a and 33b, sound like one number but turn out to label the long hall running along the north wing of the building, the room at the end and a long narrow hall running south from it, which between them contain all of India and China: two distinct and massive subjects/areas, covering a profusion of sub-subjects – all contained by one innocent sounding 33.
  • The collection is spread vertically between levels -2 to level 5, so there are lots of floors and lifts. But not all the stairs give access to all the levels ie some stairs only go from one level to another, or only to one or a few room: like the steps which only go from room 21a down to rooms 77 and 78 (devoted to Greek and Roman architecture, an interesting collection of just the tops of classical columns which allow you to get close to the various decorative styles and patterns, and to classical inscriptions). Or the one staircase (the North stairs) which are the only way to get up to the Japan displays (rooms 92 to 94).
  • The way some rational sequences of numbered rooms are suddenly interrupted or require a detour up or down back stairs, give the place a pleasing element of chance or randomness eg the way room 67 (the Korea Foundation Gallery) continues seamlessly into room 95 (the Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies). But overall, the visit prompted two big questions:
  • Why are the Egyptian and Roman and Greek collections split up? The massive long hall-type room 4 contains a wonderful collection of Egyptian sculptures and next to it are rooms displaying the similarly huge Assyrian sculptures (rooms 6 to 10) and then loads of rooms – 11 to 23 –  displaying the development of Greek sculpture (including the vast Duveen Galleries showing the Elgin Marbles). But then you have to go across the Museum and up to level 3 to visit the completely separate suite of rooms – 61 to 66 – displaying Egyptian mummies and sarcophaguses, in carefully explained chronological order. Why are the Egyptians split up like this? Why not have everything Egyptian all together? Similarly why, after you’ve done the evolution of Greek sculpture, do you have to go across and up to level 3 (rooms 69 to 73) to see more Greek pots and find out about the Greek colonies in the south of Italy before the rise of Rome?
  • Why is the chronological account of civilisations sometimes done in rooms numbered sequentially, but sometimes done against the order of the rooms? For example, rooms 11 to 23 on the ground floor take you through the history of Greek art in a nice logical sequence, from the earliest, primitive cycladic figures through to the artistic heights of the Parthenon, then on to Alexander the Great and the Romans. Whereas on the third floor, rooms 52 to 59 have to be visited in reverse order to experience the chronological progression, with 59 introducing the Levant ie Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkey – and then rooms moving forward in time as the numbers decrease (room 56 Mesopotamia 6000-1500, room 55 Mesopotamia 1500-539 and so on). Similarly, the history of Europe starts in room 51 (Europe and Middle East 10,000 to 800) then proceeds through rooms which count downwards: room 50 for Britain and Europe 800BC – 43 AD, room 49 for Roman Britain. Just when you’re getting used to this backwards progression, you have to leap straight to room 41 (Sutton Hoo and Europe 300-1100) and room 40 (Medieval Europe 1050-1500), because the missing rooms in between – rooms 46, 47, 48 (admittedly off to one side) turn out to contain rather unexpected and rather odd displays of Europe 1400-1800, Europe 1800-1900, and Europe 1900 to the present, respectively (mostly made up of ceramics, pottery, vases and plates).

In other words, finding your way around the British Museum is neither logical nor intuitive, making the visit of anyone with a limited amount of time really quite demanding. Especially if you’re trying to please impatient hectoring children. Don’t give up! It’s not you, it’s the museum.

On the other hand, if you do have the time or the opportunity to visit more than once, then the quirky layout, with countless unexpected and hidden treasures to stumble upon, maybe adds to the mystery and romance of the place…

Highlights

Obviously, not any kind of official highlights, this is a list of things that made me stop and think or want to make a note:

  • A dentil is a small block used as a repeating ornament in the ‘bedmould’ of a cornice. Picture of dentils.
  • African wooden fetishes contained the spirits of gods, ancestors or spirits. Banging nails or bits of metal into them activated the god, woke up the spirit. Photo of African fetish
  • Porcelain was invented around 600AD in China and was a practical cheap new way of making dishes, pots, cups etc.
  • In a traditional Korean house the male area or sarangbang, was prized for its simplicity and clarity: here the man of the house studied, worked, wrote poetry. The woman’s room, or anbang, was highly decorated, painted, adorned and ornamented.
  • Ganesh, the Hindu god, has the head of an elephant because his father, Shiva, cut off his human head in a fit of anger and said he’d replace it with the head of the first thing he saw.
  • The Buddhist chant Om mani padme om means ‘hail to the jewel in the lotus’.
  • The hands of the Buddha in statues can represent a number of meanings, in fact they are broken down into categories. The palm raised towards the viewer is the abhayamudra, which symbolises reassurance. (The right hand in this image.)
  • Many of the Indian statues are posed in the traditional tribhanga posture where the body is slightly bent at the neck, waist and knee, giving it a sensuous S shape. Tribhanga Wikipedia article
  • The Egyptian cat god was named Bastet. Epitomised by the famous Guyer-Andersen cat. The udjat-eye hieroglyph on its chest is a symbol of protection.
  • Egyptians were buried on the west bank of the Nile (eg the Valley of the Kings) right on the edge of the desert. They were buried facing east, facing back towards the living.
  • No-one knows who the mysterious figurines found in earliest cycladic sites represent or why they were nearly all female. Cycladic figure.
  • King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (685-627 BC) held lion hunts, where caged lions were brought to an enclosure and released so the king could chase after them on his chariot. He is depicted with one lion leaping up into the chariot and, while two soldiers hold it back with spears, Ashurbanipal in person leans forward to deliver the coup de grace with a short sword. Ashurbanipal killing a lion 640BC.
  • Egyptians believed the scarab beetle symbolised the sun, because each day as the sun rose beetles emerged from their dung balls or holes. Egyptian scarab statue.
  • At the temple complex of Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt, where crocodiles were worshipped as symbols of caring and nurturing, but also images of fear (?), over 300 mummified crocodiles have been found. The mummies include mummified versions of their tiny baby crocodiles, placed along the mother croc’s back. The crocodile god is Sobek.
  • My favourite thing in the Japanese gallery wasn’t the magnificent Samurai armour, it was the painted screen, ‘Pine trees at Maiko-no-hama beach‘, by Mori Ippo (1847).
  • Farming was invented about 12,000 years ago. Writing was invented about 5,000 years ago. Money was invented around 600AD.
  • The Queen of the Night dates from 1800BC in Mesopotamia.
  • The walls of ancient Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire in the 7th century BC, are now cheek-by-jowl with the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, which is currently held by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
  • The most beautiful statue I saw was of Antinous, the young man beloved of the Roman emperor Hadrian.
  • I learned that it was during the Hellenistic period after the death of Alexander the great (323BC) that Greek art became more individualised. When Greek statues reached their peak in the Athens of Pericles (495-429 BC) they depicted idealised images of power which reflected the communal values of the city state. After Alexander the Great (died 323 BC) effectively unified the Mediterranean world in one cosmopolitan culture, the rich became more individualistic, collecting rare and precious objects, and wanted to be depicted as they actually appeared. So by the time the Roman republic reached its peak and then became the Empire (27 BC), although bodies were still depicted with the Greek idealism – the super-defined muscles and bone structure etc – the faces had become the faces of individuals. Hence the faces of the Roman emperors, which are so individualised and evocative.
  • The invention of the pendulum clock in 1656 by Christiaan Huygens was a massive step forward in accurate measure of time and therefore of all kinds of processes, from the movement of the planets to new industrial or chemical processes. The super-accurate telling of time was one of the foundations of the industrial revolution and of the West’s dominance over the rest of the world.
  • When wound up this Mechanical Galleon, made in Germany in the 1590s, played music from a little organ as it trundled over the dinner table until it came to a stop and the model guns fired little puffs of gunpowder.
  • The Ram in a Thicket is one of a pair of figures excavated in Ur in southern Iraq. They date from 2600 to 2400 BC.
  • I’d heard of most of the other cultures mentioned here, but never of Urartu, a kingdom in the east of Turkey near Mount Ararat. This is a bronze winged bull’s head from the handle of a large cauldron, 8th to 7th century BC.
  • King Ashurbanipal established the world’s first library (as far as we know) consisting of thousands of clay tablets from the 7th century BC. The British Museum is embarked on a large project working with the University of Mosul to digitise the original texts and translations, making the entire library available online.
  • The double headed snake was important in Aztec mythology. The Museum houses an elaborate sculpture of a double headed snake covered in hundreds of tiny fragments of turquoise. What interested me is that this nearby mosaic skull also has snake motifs curling around the eyes of the nose and down to the lips.
  • A cabinet of curiosities is a display case an Enlightenment or Victorian collector might use to display his collection of interesting and unusual objects. It is in stark contrast to a ‘treasure room’ (exemplified by room 2, the The Waddesdon Bequest, donated by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild MP (1839–1898)) which contains objects of exquisite beauty and craftsmanship designed to highlight the owner’s refined taste. I preferred the cabinets.

Room one

Room 1 runs the length of the ground floor, along the right hand side as you enter the courtyard. The entry, opposite the east part of the bookshop, looks like a dusty old library, but don’t be put off: room 1 is dedicated to a permanent exhibition, in seven themed sections, showing why the Enlightenment period (roughly the 1700s) saw a new fashion among the rich and educated for collecting everything – stones, flints, flowers, trees, books, manuscripts, languages, paintings, sculptures, machinery, statues – you name it, someone somewhere, rich aristocrat or modestly funded vicar, was collecting it.

And how it was from the urge to collect and assess and categorise and compare all these innumerable specimens, that many of the disciplines we know today emerged – most notably archaeology, the science of dating and naming and categorising and understanding all the objects from the human past.

It may look a bit unexciting, but room 1 not only contains many objects which are fascinating in their own right, but provides just the right introduction, not just to the museum but to the whole ‘idea’ of a museum and what museums are for. And since the British Museum was founded with the bequest of one such personal collection, that of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane, in 1753, room 1 is the ideal place to begin to understand the urge to collect and the urge to view, see and understand, which underlies the whole place and explains why you’re there.

Related links

MAMista by Len Deighton (1991)

In The Night Manager we saw how John le Carré reacted to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – the subjects which had provided his fictional bread and butter for nearly thirty years. He reacted by moving the same organisation – British Intelligence – and the same kind of plot motifs – the traitor within – seamlessly into the world of international arms smuggling.

The Samson novels

From 1983 Len Deighton had been engaged on an epic series of novels, the Samson series, which were based around the Cold War conflict, specifically the espionage war against the communist regime and agents of East Germany.

With one bound this, his first post-Berlin Wall novel, flies completely free of that entire world. It is set a hemisphere away, in the fictional South American country of Spanish Guiana. This is ruled by the moderately repressive regime of General Benz, but is plagued by the usual social problems eg poverty and squalor, and the discrepancy between the small, urban, middle class and the large number of illiterate peasants who work the land. The political landscape is filled with liberal politicians, communist intellectuals and Marxist guerrillas.

In the opening chapters we meet three central characters.

Angel Paz is a twenty-year-old explosives expert, a Latino based in America, sent to a good college and recommended by his father to a job with his mobster Uncle Arturo. Instead of taking the job, Paz takes his allowance and redirects the plane ticket to Spanish Guiana with a young man’s idealism and fervour to fight for a cause he believes in. Inevitably, he is swiftly disillusioned by the poverty and misery of the country, the ignorance of the peasants, and the squalid nature of the ‘struggle’ he gets involved in.

Coming from a completely different place is middle-aged Australian doctor Ralph Lucas. He left his comfortable farming family to serve in Vietnam as a combat doctor, where he saw bad things, before moving on to London and becoming involved in various charities. We see him in the board meeting of one of these which, among many other good works, is suggesting sending medical supplies to communities affected by the guerrilla fighting in the south of Spanish Guiana ie away from the urban centres in the north. Lucas finds himself manoeuvred at the meeting into going to the territory himself to assess the situation, but reassures his sister he’ll only be gone a few weeks.

In an early scene Paz is met off the boat into the Spanish Guiana capital, Tepolo, by Inez Cassidy, the improbably good-looking ‘press officer’ for the MAMista guerrillas. Her presence is tolerated in the capital because it suits the regime to have a conduit to communicate with the guerrillas through, and it demonstrates Benz’s liberal tolerance to foreign officials ie from the United States. Inez takes Paz to a safe house kept by a man named Chori, where Paz uses his skills to create a bomb which they then break into the Ministry of Pensions and plant, attached to a timer.

Fictional presidents

To my surprise and dismay these scenes are intercut with scenes set in the West Wing of the White House, where we meet John Curl, National Security Adviser to the President of the USA, described here as a tall, noble, intelligent decisive man.

I wonder if it could be a reliable yardstick that a novel is going to be rubbish, if it includes a fictional US President. The Golden Gate by Alistair MacLean, featuring the kidnap of a rugged intelligent US President, is one of his worst novels. The Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth is completely unbelievable at every level, but especially hindered by the improbably perfect characterisation of the tough, intelligent, decisive US President.

In reality the world has enjoyed a free world led by Ronald Reagan 1981-89, George Bush 1989-93, Bill Clinton 1993-2001, George W Bush 2001-09, Barack Obama 2009-. The gap between the fictional presidents of thriller writers – tall, rugged, extremely intelligent, tough but sensitive, decisive but caring – and the reality of Reagan, Bush, Clinton et al, is just too wide not to be ludicrous. And so renders any fiction depicting this kind of heroic, noble US President immediately vulnerable to ridicule.

Americans in Spanish Guiana

Anyway, the scenes between Curl and the Prez are to show that there’s a little US geological survey in the south of the Spanish Guiana and they’ve discovered the right conditions for oil. Curl has a plan to use this to sort out several problems: although the Americans aren’t fond of Benz (who they know turns a blind eye to the flourishing cocaine trade) they are equally unwilling to help the MAMista guerrillas.

But Curl may be able to act through a proxy: he arranges to bump into the head of a major oil firm, Steve Steinbeck, at his gym. Here, Curl puts to Steinbeck the possibility of having tax breaks and government help to develop and exploit the oil. In exchange, the oil company can take responsibility for security ie buy millions of dollars worth of guns and armaments, trucks and armoured personnel carriers.

Now it just so happens that the opening scenes describe the TV news showing pictures of protests and marches against the closing of large sections of the arms industry in California. Thus the Guiana deal could square several circles by:

  • supporting a US oil company
  • to provide an alternative source of oil to the ever-flaky Middle East
  • with government subsidies
  • which are actually funneled back to arms companies in California
  • new contracts which the President can announce in his upcoming trip to California
  • thus boosting his popularity

Ralph Lucas

Lucas flies into Guiana and is met by Inez Cassidy the day after the bomb went off in the Ministry, apparently injuring passersby. She takes him to the same squalid safe house where Paz is staying and they take an instant dislike to each other, which is a shame because the novel is going to be about how all three are thrown together.

This odd trio are invited to a reception at the American embassy, which is unexpectedly raided by Benz’s Federalista cops. Everyone is thrown into prison but because Lucas had wisely gone along with the arrest, he gets a blanket overnight in the cell with a straw mattress. Because Paz resists, like the young firebrand he is, he is beaten up, has his scalp shaved and thrown into a concrete cell with no bed blanket, bucket or anything. The next morning they are hauled up to be interrogated by chief of police, Cisnero, who eventually lets them go.

With the guerrillas

Inez, Paz and Lucas fly south in a dodgy prop plane to a ‘secret’ airfield. Here they are met by dishevelled remnants of the MAMistas. Along the way we’ve learned that one of the key political figures in Guiana is Dr Guizot, capable of rallying the urban middle class behind the Revolution. A large number – several hundred – MAMistas – took part in an attack on a convoy transporting Guizot between prisons. Unfortunately, the Army had been tipped off and massacred the guerrillas – of the several hundred, only thirty or so escaped – and it is these battle-worn troops who now arrive at the shack by the airstrip where Inez, Paz and Lucas are hiding out, led by their middle-aged peasant ‘general’, Ramón. Oh, and Dr Guizot was killed in the raid, so it was all for nothing and they have lost one of their main political allies.

Through Paz, Inez and Lucas we are now introduced to the MAMista guerillas, getting to know the wily Ramón, seeing them in their true poverty, beginning to get a feel for the implacable jungle, its heat and humidity, the insects and leeches. From now to the end of the novel scenes in the jungle with the bickering guerrillas are interspersed with scenes in the White House, contrasting events on the ground with the way they are reported to – and manipulated by – Curl and the American administration.

Bungled raid

The next thing that happens is the guerrillas raid the US geographical station: the guerrillas want its vehicles and fuel. Lucas finds himself dragged into a combat role when he is chosen to drive a decoy jeep into the compound – which is heavily defended from watchtowers with guards. Lucas drives in OK and walks to the main office where he meets the white paleographer, Charrington, and his sidekick, a big black guy named Singer. Things start to go wrong when we watch Inez use a rifle with scope to take out the two Indians in the watchtowers. Immediately two or three vehicles full of armed guerrillas screech through the open gates and the guerrillas deploy throughout the camp. Lucas realises Ramón lied to him when he said they’d rely on Lucas’s negotiating skills. In reality it’s an armed raid and Ramón’s deputy puts a gun to Charrington’s head. The latter sensibly hands over the keys to vehicles but Ramón decides they must take Charrington and Singer hostage.

A terrible accident happens as they’re leaving: Charrington yells at his wife that he’ll be OK and be back in a few days, but she insists on running down towards the departing vehicles and past the generator building, which is a bad idea, because Paz has primed the generator with lots of explosive and, just as she runs past, it explodes, throwing her wrecked, instantly dead body fifty yards against the perimeter fence. Which Charrington sees and so does his little boy who has been running after her.

Rosario

The guerrillas drive for a day or so to the nearest settlement, the typically slummy impoverished town of Rosario where the different characters respond in different ways to the US geographical survey raid debacle. Paz is angry and defensive; Inez is upset; Lucas seems to be entirely emotionless: I think the idea is that he was completely emotionally cauterised in Vietnam and has never recovered an emotional life. He is eating when news is brought that Charrington has tried to commit suicide by smashing up his glasses and eating the broken glass. We watch Lucas tend to him in his last agonies: what a terrible way to go.

The novel is written in deadpan sentences which are extremely effective at conveying atmosphere. Thus a day or two later I still remember details of the description of Rosario, especially the townspeople’s surly dislike of the guerrillas. Nervously they put on a feast for them, bringing out their best food and wine simply to avoid the guerrillas stealing it anyway. Reluctantly they let the MAMistas put up revolutionary posters around the town. Next day, as their trucks drive off we see the townspeople systematically taking them down, worried what the opposing Federalistas will do when they arrive.

Winter camp

Finally the convoy of trucks with Ramón, Paz, Inez and Lucas arrives at the so-called winter camp. The idea was this was to be the launching point for an attack on the more urbanised north, which never in fact came. The violencia has been going on at least five years, but seems completely bogged down and Lucas now discovers why. Thousands of guerrillas are living in this makeshift camp, partly based around an abandoned matchworks by the vast river, a tributary of the Amazon. Here hundreds of the men, volunteers from the soft north, are falling ill to all sorts of jungle ailments, fungus, bronchitis and throat diseases, cuts and scratches becoming infected and gangrenous. Lucas sets about a wholesale reform of healthcare, burning down the old ‘hospital’, building a new one from scratch, reviewing all the men and recommending a healthier diet, administering what antibiotics he has and painkillers and overseeing at least one death a day. He even reforms the diet, cancelling the tinned rations and insisting on fresh stew made from whatever ingredients can be caught or picked in the jungle, plus fresh vegetables.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the guerrillas are being defeated by illness, disease, bad health, by the jungle: they will never make any ‘revolution’.

Frente

It is in this context that Ramón travels to a safe house in the north (in fact one of the houses of the Minister of Agriculture) who has loaned it in a deal guaranteeing the safety of his own lands to the south from guerrilla attack. Here he meets the leaders of the other left leaning forces in the country: Big Jorge, who has risen to represent the coffee growers, a large rural constituency, and Dr Marti, a bespectacled intellectual who represents the urban intellectuals, the students and bourgeois communists.

It is an interesting meeting as Deighton explains each side’s constituencies, who they represent and what they are bargaining for. Ramón tells them all the key figure of Dr Guizot is alive and has sent him with instructions (despite the fact we saw him burying Guizot’s bullet-riddled body in the jungle earlier). Ramón is hoping to persuade the other two to launch attacks of their own, in order to present a united front against Benz’s regime but, we slowly realise, neither is willing to do that. Big Jorge’s coffee farmers have, in recent years, taken to cocaine farming and are now making big money which relies on the current regime being in power and giving them large bribes. Ie they have less and less interest in overthrowing anything; all they want is to field a militia force to defend their areas, against either MAMistas or Federalistas. Dr Marti for his part, is a comfortable old man: his students may stage sit-ins and protests but aren’t enough by themselves to overturn the majority in the urban centres which are prosperous under the Benz regime.

There is a gruesome moment: the rough old revolutionary, Chori, whose stinking boarding house our heroes assembled in at the start, was never released from his prison cells, unlike the foreigners Lucas and Paz. He – and then his father – were beaten and tortured until he reveals the location of this secret high-level summit. His torturers fly north until they are circling the minister’s house where the assembled guerrillas and leaders are alarmed but remain concealed. Convinced he has lied to them, the Benz regime torturers throw Chori’s body out of the circling plane. It falls a long way and is not a pretty sight when it lands.

There are a lot of not pretty sights in the novel. It is not a book for the squeamish. Deighton has a very disconcerting way of describing devastating injuries, murders, explosions, shootings, dismemberments in flat factual prose, leaving the reader reeling. This shock tactic was at the heart of Bomber, his upsetting epic novel about a bombing raid on Germany during World War II. Countless people die in all sorts of brutal, horrifying ways. This novel has a similarly cold-hearted and brutal impact.

Trek through the jungle

Ramón returns to the winter camp, thoroughly disillusioned and makes a decision. He has discovered that Singer, the black guy they took hostage at the US base, is in fact a CIA agent. He tells Paz and Lucas and his closest associates the CIA have a million dollar reward for Singer’s return and they must take him north, smuggle him into the city, get the money. It is a long long way north across trackless, pathless, roadless jungle. Even to me it seems like a hopeless futile task.

Thus begins the last third of the novel which is a long agonising description of the degeneration of the mission into collapse and failure. To summarise 100 pages or so: the thirty or so men who set off, led by the totally inexperienced Paz, attended by Lucas, accompanied by Inez, carrying Singer the valuable hostage, encounter the full range of jungle obstacles, having to hack their way through bamboo, wade through streams, fall into swamps, all the time being bitten by mosquitoes and clamped onto by leeches, all beneath almost non-stop torrential rain. Within days the pace has slowed right down and men are falling ill, dysentery appears along with other ailments.

The first really big challenge is crossing a massive river they come to which blocks their way to the mountains in the north. There is a horrible scene where a keen but weak young soldier volunteers and has nylon rope tied to his body so he can swim across and establish a line. He’s two thirds of the way across and in a fair way to drowning when a patrol boat appears out of nowhere and reduces his body to bloody hunks of meat with a rapid fire machine gun. Did I mention the book is bloody and violent? The guerrillas reply by chucking grenades into the boat, which eviscerate and cook its inhabitants. Another patrol boat was approaching from the south and, when the firing from the first one began, Lucas is able to open up with a rifle and shoot dead all four men in it. They use this boat to ferry men and supplies across the river.

The mountains

After the river come the mountains. They are staggering up the slopes, hacking through jungle or burned and sunstroked by the blistering sun, when Singer and Lucas realise they are being followed. A lot of these hundred pages are devoted to the shifting relationships between Paz the cocky leader who is slowly worn down, Lucas who is solid and dependable as doctor but has hardly any medicines and is cold-hearted, and Singer the black CIA agent who sings old Negro spirituals and generally mocks the revolutionaries’ stupid aspirations and uselessness at fieldcraft. But all three realise they’re being followed. And then that there are signs the trail has been used before: maybe there’s a force in front of them?

Down the other side of the mountains they go, in a state of high alert and into a wide swampy area. Here there is a sudden and unexpected firefight which draws the novel to a close. In one of the West Wing scenes, Curl had got the President to approve sending a warship to the coast of Guiana to extract the missing CIA agent. Unbeknown to Paz, Lucas and Inez, Ramón had been doing a deal with Singer and, via him, the Administration: having despaired of support from Jorge or Marti, and realising his army is dying, Ramón has agreed to a deal to allow US oil drilling to go ahead and take a cut of the profits in order to ensure safe transport of the oil from the south to the coast.

Deighton does a convincing job of describing the geopolitics or political machinations of the various players. Cutting the guerrillas in on the deal effectively puts them on the US payroll and draws their teeth. Eventually, on another level of complexity, it is revealed that Curl is planning to use the oil company to defoliate the cocaine growing areas on a big scale and arm or support the Marxist guerrillas in moving in on Big Jorge’s drug growers. The by-now-tamed MAMistas would be subsidised to grow coffee. So Curl gets: a new oil source for the US; Marxist guerrillas tamed; a major source of cocaine neutralised. Singer explains all this to Lucas, as well as the fall-back plan: if Ramón reneges on the deal the oil company can turn the large amount of arms, ammunition, trucks and APCs over to General Benz’s army to take on and destroy the guerrillas. All the angles have been smoothly calculated.

Firefight and farce

Suddenly shooting breaks out. Deighton gives a description of the fighting from both points of view. One minute the guerrillas are hacking through jungle the next machine guns and grenades are going off. The attackers are the group of American troops led by a West Point CIA graduate who had been helicoptered in to snatch Singer. Deighton has written a number of highly praised histories of World War Two, and has a deep knowledge of battles. This firefight is complete confusion. Both sides think they are being ambushed when in fact they have simply blundered into each other. The result is bloody brutal chaos. Half a dozen guerrillas are horribly killed, skulls split open, vaporised brains spraying their neighbours, arms shot off, guts spewing everywhere. Both sides break off, running into the jungle, and soon are not only not in contact but couldn’t even find their ways back to the battlefield if they wanted to.

Lucas stays with several men who die horribly in agony. Inez has been wounded by some small piece of shrapnel which has entered her body doing Lucas can’t tell how much damage. Santos, Paz’s number two, has his arm shot off and dies in stages. Once clear of the fight they regroup in the jungle but Paz volunteers to go back and fetch some of the panniers full of medical supplies. He never returns. He never returns because he blunders into the area where the American forces are recovering. They knock him out, but not before hearing him speaking in fluent American. The head of the CIA snatch squad is therefore convinced that this healthy looking young dude, speaking American, wearing a baseball cap and shades, must be the CIA agent he was sent to recover. He and his men carry the unconscious Paz to a clearing where they are recovered by their helicopter which flies them out of the forest to the coast and out to the waiting US warship.

The guerrillas continue struggling through the jungle, now with wounded men who slowly die, the rest decimated by disease. Singer is incapacitated with dysentery and is tied to a pole and carried. Lucas realises Inez is dying. On a desperate last stage, Lucas tells Singer to carry on without them, they’ll catch him up. An hour later Singer hears two shots and knows Lucas has shot dead Inez and killed himself. Some days later the last surviving guerrillas come across tracks and then a half-skinned dear. They collapse. Shyly the local pygmies who they’d disturbed return and lead them along more tracks to their village where they are greeted by a ravaged white man. In the latest in what is beginning to feel like an endless line of images of futility, he turns out to be an Austrian missionary who came to the area decades earlier, lost his faith but stayed on. He was hoping the new arrivals might be Europeans he could talk to. But the handful of surviving guerrillas are all too sick to go any further and the black man they’ve been carrying on a pole has been dead for days.

Last twists of the knife

Paz wakes up in hospital in Los Angeles. He is keeping silent through the medical treatment which is restoring his health, knowing that any minute the powers that be will realise he is not the real Singer. But he needn’t worry. At the start of the novel we saw Paz taking money and a plane ticket from his mobster uncle Arturo. Now Arturo visits him in hospital and, with an accomplice, performs a mafia-style execution, injecting Paz with poison.

Now all the main characters have died horribly and futilely, the final scene is the arrival of the US President in California to announce the big new arms contracts which will save the industry in California and revive his popularity levels, all as Curl had planned. To be honest, I couldn’t work out whether the death of Singer, the CIA man, was meant to undercut this final scene, by suggesting the deal with the guerrillas would now fall through and everything he’s about to announce to the press will fail to happen. (I don’t think so because, although Singer might be dead, it would be easy enough to send another envoy to Ramón and reconfirm the deal ie a cut of the oil profits to suspend the ‘revolution’.) Or whether it is schoolboy irony that the President’s shiny announcements to the press ignore and belie the terrible tragedies we’ve seen happening ‘on the ground’ ie everyone dying.

Either way, like Bomber, the entire novel, by the end, feels as if it has been a vast exercise in deeply depressed and depressing futility.


Comments

Deighton’s earliest novels are notable for their witty tricksiness which, in the spy books, extended to including spy information packs and handy spy equipment in the hardback editions. This fondness for pattern and games extended to the Bernard Samson novels with their linked titles – Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match. Here, in this novel, thirty years into his writing career, it feels as if Deighton has completely jettisoned all attempts at humour and coyness. The story is told in straightforward linear fashion: one damn thing happens after another. In The Night Manager le Carré used flashbacks to attempt to create character, albeit in a rather obvious way. Deighton by contrast is tight-lipped. Things happen. And when he goes beyond description and plot you can maybe see why.

For, although he can create a gripping scenario and storyline, Deighton is uncomfortable investigating the human or psychological side of it. When the narrator does comment on his characters, his remarks are surprisingly superficial, disconcertingly so. As if a mature man wrote the story and then got his 12-year-old son to interpret it.

Ramon was the mystery man that chaos and revolution always attracted. (p.198) When the violencia came Big Jorge solved his problems in the way that so many other men had solved their problems before him: he marched off to war. (p.198)

[Lucas] considered [Ramón] a patient, and extended to him that paternalistic superiority that is a part of the physician’s role. (p.216)

The activities they engage in, the gruelling, crucifying torment of the jungle trek which Paz, Lucas, Inez and Singer undergo, are mercilessly described with clarity and vigour. But when they are thinking about each other, when the narrator describes their feelings or motivation, the results are surprisingly simple-minded, almost like a fairy story or children’s story, an effect created by the very simplicity of sentence structure which, in the descriptive passages, is Deighton’s strength.

Within Paz, there had built up an enormous anger. As he saw it, he’d tried to befriend Lucas and Singer but his overtures had been rebuffed. He resolved to be avenged on them at the first chance he had. But from now on he would try to conceal his feelings; he would be as deceitful as they were. (p.280)

It was Angel Paz who began to sing. Where he found the energy was hard to say but he took the responsibility of command very seriously. He recognised that morale needed help. (p.285)

Complicated, cruel, cold-hearted, violent and political plotlines – Yes.

Psychology, characterisation, much sign of warmth or humanity – No.


Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture @ Tate Modern

This is a much more fun, exuberant and uplifting exhibition than I expected. Also more varied.

Born in Pennsyslvania in 1898, the son of a sculptor father and artist mother, Calder showed promise in art from an early age but took a degree in mechanical engineering in 1919. During the 1920s he got work sketching for various periodicals including the Police Gazette, for which he sketched the Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1926 he moved to Paris to study art and quickly became friends with various masters of Modernism, including  Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp. Apparently, many were first attracted by his model circus in which he got various scale models of performers to put on circus acts, contraptions and wind-up devices with a charming Heath-Robinson air to them.

Much later, in the 1950s, a film was made of Calder recreating these early performances – the full 43 minutes is yours for £22 from the Tate shop.

But at the same time, Calder was also experimenting with larger scale subjects and with mediums and materials. In particular he was systematically exploring the potential of creating figure from wire and room one contains some striking examples of his early experiments. He seems to have leaped completely free of the Western tradition before the exhibition even starts: the earliest samples show him using strong wire to create very evocative three dimensional shapes, outlines, silhouettes:

Flat 2D photos don’t do any justice to their lightness, the way the works are (obviously) completely transparent, yet shaped so accurately and cleverly that they are brilliant evocations of their subjects. Also, many of them were cunningly made to move. At the bottom right of Goldfish you can see a bit of metal sticking out which is actually a handle: turn it and, via a simple cog mechanism, it turns the horizontal wires further up which make the goldfish rotate. Strongly related to the Heath-Robinson mentality of the Calder Circus, it marks an interest in moving sculpture which lasted  his whole career.

Room two is a small one with just one work, Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/3), basically two balls suspended from the ceiling on string or twine, and a few boxes and bottles of wine on the floor. You push the heavier ball and it and the other one begin to rotate and move in a series of unpredictable movements, knocking against the objects, creating sounds, thuds and notes.

You can see from this the interest in sound and sculpture, in movement, in abstraction.

Room three goes back a bit to explain Calder’s ongoing fascination with the circus and performers. Quite a large room it contains about 20 examples of his early wire frame versions of the human figure, of wonderful circus performs, intersperesed with amazingly evocative portraits of his friends in the avant-garde, Léger, Varèse, Miro and so on. Both circus performers and portraits are brilliantly done.

Their brightness and (literally) openness, their naivety and cunning, reminded me of the poetry of ee cummings.

Room four tells the story of Calder’s visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian in 1930. At a stroke Calder grasped the meaning and potential of pure abstraction. (As a side note, Calder apparently said to Mondrian, wouldn’t it be great to take his coloured squares and set them in motion; Mondrian was seriously shocked and, apparently, replied: ‘My painting is already fast enough.’ Fast. What a brilliant description of Mondrian’s utterly static images. What an insight into his perception of them.) Suddenly Calder began applying all his figurative and engineering skills to making wire and colour abstract sculptures.

  • Object with red ball The white horizontal rod can be moved up and down. The strings holding the red and black balls can be moved forward or back.
  • Small feathers (1931)
Red and Yellow Vane (1934) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

Red and Yellow Vane (1934) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

In these works you can see the wire bending and twisting technique of the earlier figures redirected into creating abstract objects, coloured with primary colours. Experiments in shape and form, just as countless Modernist painters were experimenting with the same. But what if he combined these abstract designs with his interest in mechanisms, clockwork, rails, cogs and pulleys, which had featured so heavily in his famous circus contraptions?

Room five brings together a collection of shapes cut in metal, coloured black and red and yellow, some on spindly mobile hangers but other consisting of sheets of metal or blocks, all of which have hidden mechanisms to make them move, rotate, corkscrew, up and around, pinging and looping in as many directions as he could devise. Kinetic art.

Disappointingly, all of them are now too fragile to work. Frankly, I’d have expected Tate to have the resources to recreate one or two actual working replicas, most of them were only a couple of feet big. Also,interesting though they may have been when they moved, static they are just assemblages of metal with half-concealed machinery. The exhibition commentary said Calder tired of the limited possibilities of mechanical sculptures. I’d have thought he also realised how limited it was in size.

It was, apparently, in a visit to Calder’s studio in 1930 that notorious modernist Marcel Duchamp described these works as ‘mobiles’. They moved. In 1933 Calder moved back to the States, buying a big farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut with his wife, Louisa.

After the move, Calder became interested in hanging coloured shapes themselves against a coloured background or block. The curators are pleased that Room six brings together a number of these works which have rarely if ever been exhibited before.

White Panel (1936) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

White Panel (1936) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

They have the abstract, vaguely zoomorphic feel of Matisse’s cutouts, and the same bright primary colouring. It is calming to stand in front of them and watch the shapes, suspended by wires from horizontal bars, slowly twisting in the slight ambient air movement in front of more bright colours. Relaxing, interesting – but you know this isn’t yet the full thing, the works he’s famous for.

The narrow Room seven also has an interim feel. It records Calder’s display at the 1937 Pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the International Exposition in Paris. There was a massive photo of Calder standing beside the abstract fountain he created to run with mercury, and in front of Picasso’s Guernica, at its debut.

In 1939 Calder exhibited at the New York World’s Fair. For this he created maquettes for proposed enormous sculptures of abstract shapes which would have moved and animated in choreographed movement. From his earliest Calder circus via the hand-cranked wire figures and the mechanized shapes in room 5, Calder consistently showed interest in sculpture that moves.

Room eight is dedicated to mobiles with the theme of the universe, stars and planets and solar systems. He made a series of Constellations, featuring pieces of painted wood connected by steel rods.

Along one wall are objects which look like astrolabes, globes of wire, with blocks and objects attached. The most commentaried work is Universe. Along circles of wire, two small balls move in different timings thus creating a complex cycle which, apparently took 40 minutes to completely finish.

Calder is quoted numerous times saying how much the notion of moving parts, objects, elements in a sculpture fascinated him. This made it all the more frustrating that all the works in this room, as all the mechanical examples earlier, are completely static. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to create an actually moving version of Universe for us to marvel at.

Interesting though all the previous work has bee, it is only in room nine that you feel you have finally arrived. It is a big room and it is packed with the final, mature version of the classic mobile design – ‘an elegantly balanced network of wires and painted pieces of metal, suspended from the ceiling’ (as the catalogue puts it). The room holds a dozen or more large, abstract, impressive, slowly moving mobiles which create an overwhelming impact.

This is the room to loiter in and slowly walk from one work to the next, savouring their shapes and achievement, for it is fascinating to see these mature mobiles after having followed the evolution of Calder’s work, the development of his thinking, his experiments with all sorts of unconventional sculptures – all to get to this point.

Antennae with Red and Blue Dots (1953) by Alexander Calder. Tate © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

Antennae with Red and Blue Dots (1953) by Alexander Calder. Tate © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

Free of the limitations of motors or cranks, therefore free to be as large as the main cable can bear, free to move but in complex and unpredictable interactions. Of about 15 big examples which fill the room, maybe the highlights are:

It’s amazing how completely finished and achieved and right these works feel, slowly slowly rotating and barely spinning in the cool air movements of the gallery. Like Miro he has achieved a completely persuasive language of abstraction, hinting and gesturing towards all kinds of other things and yet entirely self-contained. It feels like a universal language, a language anyone can speak.

Music or the incorporation of sound, as well as movement, had always been an interest of Calder’s. From early abstracts like Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere through various musical collaborations. Much earlier we were shown the large abstract set designs Calder created for a production of Erik Satie’s symphonic drama Socrate. In the 1940s Calder created mobiles incorporating small gongs of different pitches, with small beaters on nearby suspensions so that the movement of air produces random notes. I guess the domesticated version of this is the common wind chime.

The gong works are part of the long interplay Calder had throughout his career with avant-garde composers: remember his wire portrait of Varèse from one of the earlier rooms, and the commentary points out he worked with chorepographer Martha Graham and was part of the circle including experimental composer John Cage, the great proponent of randomness and chance in composition.

Triple Gong (c.1948) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

Triple Gong (c.1948) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

In fact, for the exhibition Tate recreated a piece Calder worked on with composer Earle Brown, titled Calder Piece from 1963. The music was designed to incorporate Calder’s mobile piece Chef d’orchestre, and the whole was staged and performed in the Turbine Hall in November 2015.

Room eleven contains one really big specimen, Black Widow, three and a half metres tall, designed to fill the atrium of the Institute of Architects in Sao Paolo. What a journey the exhibition has taken us on from cranky little handmade circus figures in the mid-twenties to monumental sculptures fit to set off official architecture, less than twenty years later.

Related links

The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis (1992)

Richard had reached a kind of steady state of indecision. Everything that had happened seemed to make it harder to know what to do about anything. (p.179)

Richard Vaisey’s circle

Another novel set among the professional middle classes in London, this time focusing on Dr Richard Vaisey, lecturer in Russian Literature at the (fictional) London Institute of Slavonic Studies. He is married to the stunningly beautiful if odd, the mannered but reassuringly rich, Cordelia. It’s Cordelia’s second marriage; previously she was married to theatrical set-designer Godfrey Radetsky. Richard has been surprised to find himself becoming quite friendly with Godfrey’s plummy brother, Crispin Radetsky, QC, i.e. top lawyer, less so with his bitchy wife, Freddie, who cordially dislikes Cordelia. Nonetheless, Richard goes by himself to a dinner party at their house, where there’s an unexpected third party, Sandy, a middle-aged woman friend of theirs who’s always fancied Richard.

Richard is flattered but also worried to realise that, during the dinner, Crispin is trying to steer the pair together. After dinner Richard finds himself giving in to Sandy’s invitation to accompany her to a party somewhere in north London. In the cab he is suddenly having a kiss and a grope with her but then, when the cab arrives, manages to find the resolve not to get out and accompany her into the house party and to further fleshly entanglements. Instead, he decides to go take up an alternative invitation and go to a dowdy, mouldy house lived in by various agéd Russian émigrés and exiles. Here he meets Anna Danilova, a young Russian woman poet on a fleeting visit to London – and this becomes the nub of the plot.

Anna Danilova

It is 1991, Russia is in turmoil following the fall of the Soviet Union. Anna’s brother has been arrested and held illegally for a year. She wants Richard to help get her poetry published, so that she can get well known enough for her to be able to rally top British literary figures into her campaign to get her brother released from prison. Unfortunately, Richard finds her poetry unspeakably appalling. Problem.

Eventually Anna wears him down, they have sex, and Richard realises he is having an affair. It is blindingly obvious to his wife and all those around him, as he spends every day arranging things to forward Anna’s campaign, taking calls from her and so on. Cordelia is unnervingly urbane about it all: ‘Just tell me when you want the divorce, darling.’

Richard plucks up the courage to ask Crispin to help and the plot, I think, crosses over into implausibility when this urbane and very worldly man improbably agrees, and starts using his impressive contacts book to arrange for Anna to do readings, have her book published, and so on.

He takes them on a memorable set-piece visit to an eminent old architect, Sir Stephen something or other, a leader of London’s artistic circles, who he hopes to recruit for The Petition. Alas, they find the eccentric old buffer kept under tight guard by his sister and an unnamed other woman in an odd household in Hampstead; browbeaten by his women, Sir S refuses to sign up, causing Crispin to politely leave and then walk up and down the elegant streets outside, swearing profusely.

Kotolynov

There’s another set piece when Richard motors Anna out to the country (‘full of fields and such’) to meet a well-known and successful Russian émigré, one Kotolynov. He turns out to live in a picture book thatched cottage and to have acquired a perfect American accent while in the States. He refuses to sign Anna’s petition and gives several pages of reasons why not, which might be a sort of Author’s Message, namely that Literature all over the world is being murdered by politics; Russian literature was more or less liquidated by the Bolsheviks and is everywhere else forced into the service of repressive regimes or strangled. Therefore, he refuses to put his name to yet another project entwining literature and politics i.e. bolstering Anna’s poetic reputation for the sole, worldly aim of discomfiting the Russian authorities.

Ippolitov

Richard drinks a lot at Kotolynov’s house, then more at the pub lunch in the village, then drives squiffily back to London where he is doorstepped by a heavily-built Russian who’s been trying to reach him by phone him for days.

Realising that his doorstep is not a good place to chat about life, Richard drives this man, Ippolitov, to a nearby hotel bar. Here Ippolitov claims to be from Russian domestic police on a mission to the UK to collaborate with our police about war crimes, but also with the time to pick up small side issues. One of them is that he has been instructed to strongly request Richard to call off The Petition. He explains that Anna’s brother is a genuine criminal who defrauded small investors of money, and throws in obscure references to child abuse as well. Richard is left confused (as so often) – not helped by the fact that he is by now pretty drunk.

Richard gets back into his sports car and drives, by now very drunk, blacking out large sections of the journey, back to his house. Here he senses there is no-one in and, on impulse, drives over to Crispin’s very grand mansion. He’s let in by Sandy (from the taxi, in the opening scene) who, realising how drunk he is, takes him off to a side room and begins molesting him again. Unfortunately, at this moment Crispin’s wife, Freddie, herself drunk, barges in, followed by Crispin himself. He explains he’s in the middle of hosting a loud party in the main rooms of the house, having won a small fortune on a racehorse bet. However, Richard delays him long enough to describe the whole Ippolitov incident and they speculate whether he truly can be a Russian copper, or is some kind of stooge. But why approach Richard in that way, and why care that much about The Petition?

Still very drunk, Richard drives home, and enters an empty abandoned house, for Cordelia is gone. Next morning there is a very funny, if rather obvious, description of his appalling hangover, from the depths of which he can’t remember where he left his car keys and, after going out to the car and not finding them, realises he’s closed the front door and doesn’t have his house keys, so has locked himself out.

He is forced, half-dressed and with hardly any money, to take a bus to the Institute, something he hasn’t done for years. A humiliation which is compounded when he finds himself sitting next to one of the trendy, left-wing lecturers who we had met in one of the opening scenes of the novel (which was set in a typically campus novel faculty meeting). Humiliatingly, this man, Duncan, offers Richard a handkerchief for the razor cuts on his chin, then a fag, then some money.

Criss-crossing London

Around about this point the wanderings of Richard get quite confusing, as the ‘plot’ becomes more a tangle of his hungover peregrinations around London. He takes a taxi to Crispin’s but has barely got £20 out of Sandy, who opens the door, before he jumps back into the cab to go to Anna’s lodging house. Here he confronts her with what Ippolitov told him and she admits that, yes, her brother is a crook, but that doesn’t stop The Petition being valid. He asks to borrow the phone and arranges to meet a man from the garage at his house, to let him into the car. He and Anna take a taxi there and, sure enough, the man has spare keys for the car. Then, when Richard is reluctant to do it, Anna uses a stone to smash a window and break into his house, where he’s now sober enough to finally remember where he left his house and car keys.

The next scene opens with Richard having driven Anna out of London to stay the night in a country hotel. Next morning he answers a phone call to find it is Godfrey, Cordelia’s first husband, strongly asking that Richard return home, so he jumps in his car and motors back to the London house. Here he finds an odd atmosphere, one of Cordelia’s female friends downstairs, while Godfrey and a complete stranger are upstairs in Cordelia’s bedroom. Here Cordelia delivers a long rambling speech less about his infidelity than about her childhood speech defect and how much effort she took to overcome it and how she knows it still sounds odd but how she still knows what’s going on around her, oh yes.

Godfrey and Richard against Cordelia

Downstairs, shaken, Richard agrees to accompany Godfrey to Crispin’s. Here Godfrey, for the first time, candidly describes his own marriage to Cordelia, and the two men agree how awful and manipulative she is. They both express one of Amis’s recurring accusations against women – that they communicate in a different way, that they don’t say what they mean, that you have to work damn hard to excavate the real meaning of their conversation from the snowstorm of distractions and emotions.

Cordelia’s two husbands then go on, over sandwiches and a rather fine bottle of red wine etc, to discuss the progress of The Petition, which Crispin now has an assistant in his office working on full time. Crispin is urbanely interested to learn that a) Ippolitov has cautioned Richard against the Petition b) Kotolynov himself refused to sign it – but Crispin is not deterred. He now shows Richard The Petition itself, on formal paper and with an empty slot at the top for his signature!

Tristram Hallett and the Institute

Richard gets a taxi back to what used to be his home, and sneaks into his car without even going in the house. He drives to the flat of one of his colleagues from The Slavonic Institute, Tristram Hallett. The opening scene of the novel had been set in a faculty meeting at the Institute which had made the novel seem, for 10 or 15 pages, as if it might turn out to be a classic ‘campus novel‘ – for the Institute where Richard teaches is described, like all its fictional kindred, as being a hotbed of professional jealousy, scene of pointlessly bureaucratic meetings, stricken by perpetual financial crisis, and whose tutors have a cheerfully contemptuous attitude to the students.

Amis adds the comic, and ‘modern’, twist that the embattled older tutors feel they need to speak and dress rougher than they actually are in order to fit in with the younger, politically correct, faculty members. It’s sort of funny that, whenever one of these approaches in a corridor, Richard and Hallett instantly drop their aitches and lard their sentences with ‘sort of’ and ‘like’. Hallett is described as leaving all his new clothes on his wife’s washing line for three weeks before wearing them, so they look suitably rumpled and proletarian, ho ho.

But all this was before the book turned into an ‘adultery-among-London’s-professional-upper-middle-classes’ novel and, for the most part, left the campus behind.

Among all his other phone calls during this confusing period, Richard had had one from the faculty secretary saying his closest friend on the staff, Tristram Hallett, had been off work ill. Now Richard has come to visit Tristram in his rather shabby flat. He finds him looking pale and ill, having shaved off his beard, an act which suddenly reveals his age. Tristram has had a heart ‘incident’ and it looks like his working career is over. Richard commiserates for a while and then they go on to discuss Anna, since Tristram had helped organise her early readings and events and so has met her. They both sadly agree that Anna’s poetry is worthless ‘shit’ – the precise word they use. Richard leaves, wondering more than ever what he is doing with his life.

Richard’s dilemma

For Cordelia is not only his wife, she is very rich. By leaving her he will abandon his nice lifestyle, not least the sports car he loves cruising round in, drunk or otherwise. And how has he got mixed up in this Petition nonsense which, in Crispin’s capable hands, is escalating far beyond his original intentions? And just how much trouble might he get into if he ignores the warnings of Comrade Ippolitov? And all for a ‘poetess’ whose poetry, everyone agrees, is not just bad, but monstrously bad.

Richard phones Ippolitov’s number, hoping for some kind of second opinion, to discover he’s in London. So he phones the posh Piccadilly hotel number he’s been given, and pops round for a drink. Here Ippolitov is big, bearish and disconcertingly American in his manners and gets straight to the point: Richard’s professional self-esteem is all he has, right? Especially if he leaves his wife,in which eventuality he will be poor. So is he willing to destroy his professional self-esteem in his own eyes and that of all his colleagues’ by signing the petition on behalf of a worthless poet? No. He must keep his professional self-respect even if it means hurting the young woman he says he loves. There are plenty more fish in the sea. OK?

Dazed by this lecture, Richard drives home, only to find one of Cordelia’s friends, Pat, who’s been a peripheral presence throughout the book, in the kitchen, in tears. Tears of frustration at being bossed around and used, told to fetch this and go for that, and just took up a lovely breakfast in bed to Cordelia who did nothing but criticise.

However, her role in this scene is not to highlight what a bitch Cordelia is (though she is, she is) it is to sharpen Richard’s dilemma even more: for when Richard explains that he’s NOT going to sign the Petition in order to maintain his professional self-respect, Pat more or less laughs in his face, saying – ‘So you love this Anna enough to sleep with her, enough to abandon your wife for her, enough to drive your wife into a collapse for her, but… not enough to tell a little white lie for? You will, in fact, end up screwing up your whole life, losing rich wife and sexy lover… and for what?’

God. Who’s right? Ippolitov or Pat? What should he do?

The lie

In a repeat of earlier scenes Richard is alarmed by yet another phone call from Freddie, over at Crispin’s house, saying he’d better come over quickly, like NOW, because Anna is here in a complete state.

Richard drives over, kisses Anna and they go into Crispin’s garden. Here Anna explains that she’s got wind of Richard not liking her poetry: he’s never referred to it, never mentioned the edition of her latest work she gave him: she thinks he doesn’t like her poetry and, for her, being a poet is as important as being an academic, as his professional self-esteem, is for Richard. Therefore, last night she got drunk and burned all her poems, all her manuscripts and notebooks, and ceased to be a poet, carried on drinking vodka, rode round on the Tube, passed out and was brought home by the police.

With little or no description of his feelings or motivations, but aware of all the preceding conversations he has had, we see Richard rush to contradict her, to assert that her poems are the best he’s read in a long time, they stand out from the crowd, they are of the highest value, and he tells her they taped her readings so many of the new poems are preserved. Anna cries tears of joy and embraces him.

The ‘happy’ couple return to the house where Richard tells Crispin what he’s just told Anna. Crispin raises his eyebrows, but declares that champagne is called for, and hadn’t Richard better now sign The Petition?

Richard drives back to his house to see Cordelia. She is upstairs sitting before her dressing table. Richard begins a speech about how sorry he is, but… but Cordelia interrupts him. If he thinks she is going to sit through a sentimental scene in which he declares his heart is torn in two but, alas, he has fallen in love with the most beautiful etc etc, then he’s sorely mistaken. ‘You have been unfaithful. You want to leave me? There is nothing more to say. No. Nothing. Now please leave. I have things to do.’ (pp.264-65)

Cordelia’s revenge

The novel has many funny moments. Little things like descriptions of the roaring London traffic or the malign menace of one of Richard’s many taxi drivers, moments of exasperation or exaggeration, comic similes, the comic over-acting of many of the characters, Richard’s perpetual expectation of hearing a remote control rocket land on him – a lot of this is very funny.

But I found the final thirty pages or so consistently laugh-out-loud funny, because in them Cordelia, who has been so comprehensively trashed by the male characters, gets a sweeping and exhilirating revenge, confirming that she is either a) the monster the men make out or b) a strong independent woman taking justified revenge, according to your taste.

Cordelia’s revenge is thorough and systematic: Richard drives to a hotel to phone Anna and tell her he’s officially left Cordelia but when he goes outside he finds policemen standing around his sports car, who proceed to ask to see proof of his identity. They were rung and told the car was stolen 39 minutes ago. Aha. About the time Cordelia sent him packing…

The police insist on accompanying Richard to his house to confirm his identity but where, to his acute embarrassment, he finds the locks have been changed and his front door key no longer works (p.268). When he explains that he’s having a little difficulty with his wife, the police sympathise and simply ask him to attend the local police station with his driving license in the next three days.

A few hours later, fortified by lunch and with Anna he returns to the house (p.269). The key still doesn’t work and Anna is about to break in (as she did several scenes earlier) when merely touching the window she smashed last time prompts an enormous uproar (p.270). Richard thinks must be the sound of an airliner crashing into the garden, but turns out to be that every window and entrance is now booby-trapped to trigger loudspeakers playing the amplified howling of wild dogs. Probably also triggering an alarm at the local police station. Cordelia has been hard at work. Richard realises this is War.

Richard decides next to try the émigré house, owned by one Professor Léon. As they drive up to it they see it thronged by police and police cars. Richard parks a few streets away and walks back to find someone has given the police an anonymous tip-off that the house is used by drug dealers and contains stashes of illegal drugs. Also, it’s the same police sergeant as asked Richard about his sports car outside the hotel and watched him unable to get into his own house. Fortunately, the police have come to the conclusion it’s a false alarm and Richard is able to reassure the terrified old Russians there will be no further consequences. But wherever he turns, Cordelia is one step ahead.

Thoroughly rattled, Richard and Anna check into an obscure hotel in Bayswater and the next morning Richard makes a few phone calls to organise a subterfuge, namely to ask Pat, Cordelia’s hard-done-by ‘friend’, to open the door when another of his allies phones Cordelia to distract her attention. All goes exactly to plan, the phone rings, Pat opens the door and Richard slips inside his house and mounts the stairs to his study (p.274).

What he finds there amazes and horrifies him. His study has been stripped bare. All furniture, bookcases, desk, chair, all notes, folders and files, tax and VAT returns, driver’s license, his NHS records – all gone! At that moment Cordelia’s voice wakes him from his trance. She is standing in the doorway and confirms that all his clothes are on the way to charity shops which are thrilled with his generosity. All his notes and working papers have been shredded and burnt. Begone. (p.275)

Richard staggers back to the car and back to the hotel where he’d left Anna. Here he goes to pay the waitress for the coffees he and Anna have been drinking, but she returns a few moments later: his credit card is not accepted, does he have other means of payment? (p.276) Richard stalls and goes to visit a local branch of his bank. He isn’t surprised to find all money has been emptied from his account; he is officially penniless.

At that moment Harry, Pat’s husband calls, and in an upset phone conversation tells him that Pat has been arrested for shoplifting. Obviously she’s innocent, and he is angry and upset that Richard’s bloody wife is obviously behind it (p.277).

Richard phones Crispin to ask for a loan but when Crispin refers casually to the Institute, Richard’s eyes widen as he realises that this is another aspect of his life Cordelia might be sabotaging even as they speak. He drops the phone and runs for his car. Drives like a maniac to the central London location of the Institute of Slavonic Studies, parks, bounds up the stairs to his office to say hello to his secretary, Mrs Pearson. Yes, she confirms, he’s only just missed the nice gentleman who called to collect his stuff; they had a hand-written note from him and she rang his wife to check, just to be on the safe side, and she confirmed that Richard was leaving the Institute and could all his stuff be packed up and sent round, please?. Sure enough, when he walks into it, Richard finds his office has been gutted. A career’s worth of lecture notes, students’ work, as well as his ongoing notes for a study of Lermontov – all gone. Cordelia’s revenge is complete. (p.279)

He returns to collect Anna. As they drive off from the hotel and Richard updates her on all the bad news, she says, well, at least she can’t do any more damage. At that moment they both become aware of a horrible grinding noise, and as Richard brakes the car a little …. the front offside wheel goes trundling off ahead of them as the sports car, minus front wheel, comes grinding to a screeching halt. They both watch the wheel cross to the other side of the road and hit a motorbike, whose rider gets off lightly with only a broken collarbone, cuts and bruises. (p.280)

Aftermath

It may not sound it, but this is really a very funny sequence of disasters, beautifully paced with a mounting sense of hysteria. The final chapter cuts to days later, with Richard and Anna mercifully ensconced in a pleasant country cottage courtesy, of course, of Crispin’s contacts. Crispin, Freddie and Godfrey drop in to take them for lunch. Already Anna and Freddie are close friends. Godfrey and Richard swap notes about Cordelia and for the first time Richard learns that when Godfrey left her, she burnt down the theatre where his new stage production was opening. Wow. All this is presumably meant to bolster Richard’s side of the argument, that Cordelia is incontrovertibly mad. Kind of impressive, though.

A letter from Tristram has told Richard that the new head of the Institute is downgrading Russian studies; he’d better start looking for a new job. Luckily, Crispin has been asking around and a friend of a friend has a vacancy for a Russian translator at the EU in Brussels. Probably hard work, not the same kudos as being a literature prof, but the pay is significantly better, free flat, all the perks. Richard gratefully accepts. What it is to have wealthy and well-connected friends.

Anna writes Richard a love poem and it is rubbish. Richard tells her so and she accepts it but says it reflects her true feelings and hopes one day she will write something worthy of him, and they embrace. Once again, despite the strange plot and the unnerving style, I find myself moved at the end of an Amis novel.


Characters as puppets

Amis is (presumably) aiming to describe contemporary life and contemporary people, and I think he is admired by his fans for his precise recordings of the behaviour and thought processes of a certain type of professional middle-class, middle-aged Londoner – the emphasis generally being on the male protagonist although almost as much time is spent delineating female characters.

But it shouldn’t be overlooked that a big part of his style, of the way he gets his effects, is to describe everyone as performing ‘routines’, schticks, delivering lines and generally acting, or over-acting. From his first novel onwards it has been his consistent fictional position that people are almost incomprehensible, women doubly so: both first person and third person narrators have, through successive novels, observed the characters like an anthropologist among a rare tribe, or even a zoologist recording the peculiar behaviour of primates in the jungle. Amis can never get over the bizarreness of how people look and behave.

A human shape had passed the window and a sound was heard at the front door, soon identifiable as that of a key being inserted into a lock. Cordelia sat upright and went into a fast pantomime of eyes first dilated then close-shut, shaken head, brandished forefinger, shoulders raised to ear level, though anything less than a bellow would have been quite secure and perhaps more informative. Pat watched, vainly striving for detachment, for close observation only, as always at one of these shows. There came a final wrap-up gesture from Cordelia and her husband entered the room with a kind of skirmisher’s gait, quite unlike his familiar rather resolute stride… (p.82)

Nothing ever just happens; people are always doing jobs and ‘bits’ and performing.

This latest in a famous series – jewels of Cordelian taste and intellect – might not have been so noteworthy without the accompaniment of dilated Apache-type eyes and the gruff staccato bass-baritone delivery… (p.84)

In the theatre actors and directors talk about the need to be doing this or that piece of business, required to fill a gap or pad out a speech or bring out a character. Amis’s characters are always engaged in these kinds of bits of business:

‘If I can just break in there,’ said Godfrey, giving a brisk nod and doing something emphatic with his glasses like taking them off or putting them on. (p.97)

Not quite swinging her shoulders to and fro and not putting her head on one side exactly, just sort of round the corner… (p.103)

She listened closely with a slightly fixed smile, watched him closely too, with her eyes shooting out to the sides every now and again, as if he had been telling her how he was going to be collected presently by a flying saucer. (p.117)

As this was being handed to him, Sir Stephen started to put on a pair of spectacles. He did this in a furtive, shoulder-hunching way, like a man putting in or taking out false teeth. Then, like a stage actor now, he read through the list reacting visibly in one way or another to every name on it. (p.130)

After a moment 2nd woman interlaced her fingers pointing downwards, in the manner of somebody about to give another a leg-up on to a tree or high wall. (p.131)

Cordelia did her standard precision job on refilling the teapot… While this was going on… she went into a bit of muttering about time getting on, examining her watch etc.

Sometimes the purpose is plain and obvious comic exaggeration, like the comparisons of someone’s behaviour to a character in a B-movie or war movie or similar. But other times it is obviously not comic, the external point of view seems more bewildered, alienated, estranged.

And all the way through people are described, especially in their dialogue, as doing bits of this or bits of that, an aggressive bit, there was bit more of that before… he could see a bit more coming… there was no answer to that… after some more of the same he…. ‘after a bit more Good-Godding…'(p.279) and so on, throughout. The narrative is made out of umpteen bits of people bitting.

This approach, this worldview, of seeing people as puppets, automata, unknowable, unpredictable, opaque, their dialogue never really communicating, made up of performances, women especially never expressing themselves through words but through eccentric physical signs and signals – this observing people from the outside like clockwork dolls, is striking and peculiar.

At moments it is so alienated that it makes Amis, a notoriously grumpy anti-intellectual and anti-Modernist, end up seeming as Modernist as Samuel Beckett, and his novels – generally marketed as easy-going comedy classics – sometimes really difficult to read.


Moral questions

If this was a GCSE English Literature set text, then teachers and examiners would be asking: ‘Was Richard right to leave Cordelia?’ ‘Should poetry and politics mix?’ ‘Is infidelity ever justified?’ or some such puzzlers.

More than most Amis novels, The Russian Girl contains A Decision – Richard’s decision to leave his wife Cordelia and throw in his lot with Anna – and the chapters leading up to his declaration in Crispin’s garden are packed with characters giving him conflicting advice, so that the reader has loads of ammunition to interpret the characters’ behaviour (and the author’s attitude towards them) from multiple viewpoints, and prepare long essays about it.

For what it’s worth I think Richard was a fool, a man old enough to realise that a comfortable lifestyle (and well-provided-for old age) are worth hugely more than a short-term fling with a younger model, especially a talentless one who, deep down, he doesn’t believe in…

But I’m not very interested in the supposed ‘morality’ of fiction or the ‘moral’ questions it throws up or dramatises – in the ‘moralising’ approach which characterised literary criticism from the mid-twentieth century for several generations. Nor in judging the behaviour of characters as if they’re people I know through work or my children’s school.

For me, a fiction either ‘works’ or it doesn’t, it engages or it doesn’t, and this traction is created at the level of language. My interest is in the use of language to create the illusion of plot, characters and the ‘world’ in which they ‘move’. The basically white, middle-class, generally London-based world of Amis’s characters I find boring and predictable, if admittedly done with a mannered hyper-precision which does take you right into their lives.

For me the interest is in the acuteness of his perceptions and the slightly bonkers phraseology in which he articulates them, in the oddness of his worldview and the bizarre mannerism of the style he has created to express it. Long, and not necessarily very believable, The Russian Girl is still one of the funnier Amis novels, where his obviously humorous intentions outweigh the oddity of his style. I’d put it in the top three or four.


Credit

The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1992. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. But instead of being starkly punished Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged, London-based Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Was it worth it?
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

How to build a Kingsley Amis sentence

I find it mind boggling that the blurbs on the Penguin paperbacks routinely describe Amis as the premier serious novelist in Britain (in the late 1980s, early 1990s). Surely not for the originality of his subject matter (middle-aged white people having dinner parties in north London). Nor for his attitude (a perceptive but consistently grumpy old so-and-so). And emphatically not for his style, which is one of the weirdest I know. It seems normal at first, and many paragraphs start perfectly normally, but then regularly twist and contort themselves into his peculiar attitude and phraseology. Having read nearly all his novels, I think I have a good feel for what constitutes the Kingsley Amis style, a good understanding of How To Build A Kingsley Amis Sentence.

You start by taking an event, the simpler the better:

‘He had been waiting a long time’.

Well, Amis’s sentences are generally long, sometimes very long, so let’s make the verb into a noun phrase:

‘He had been waiting a long time and the waiting a long time…’

Too repetitive; let’s use one of Amis’s favourite words to describe an element of a performance or routine, that word being ‘bit’:

‘He had been waiting a long time and the waiting bit…’

Too clear, too declarative and certain; need to add in Amis’s characteristic uncertainty, the wobbling or wavering which is a crucial ingredient of his style:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit…’

Add a tag, one of those little sentence fillers which also water down the meaning and make it seem somehow doubtful:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause…’

Well it needs an ending now, so let’s give the waiting man an irritated look:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of Richard’s expression of irritation…’

‘Expression of irritation’ is a little straightforward, isn’t it? A little obvious. We must add style, darlings ie some periphrasis, some circumlocution, particularly as if the thing – event, person, object, expression – is being observed by a knowing and long-winded old buffer:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known was Richard’s expression of irritation…’

I think we can pad that out a bit:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation…’

Except we mustn’t forget the other prime ingredient of an Amis sentence – already knocked about by a perhaps or maybe or possibly and the insertion of at least one colloquial tag – sort of, in a way, after all, in the end etc – that prime ingredient being the little word ‘OR’, which comes in so handy to add another interpretation, or two, or three, to absolutely anything. Thus:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation, or pique, or exasperation.’

And then, the cherry on the cake, the sprig of garnish which brings the whole thing to perfection – the follow-up sentence which undermines everything you’ve just said:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation, or pique, or exasperation. Or something.’

Serve piping hot, accompanied by several hundred others of the same vintage.

Examples of the real thing

All these quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition of Amis’s 1992 novel, The Russian Girl. 

Reflecting on Anna Danilova’s poetry, Richard thinks:

Without any abatement of its horribleness in memory it was more easily borne there, becoming at that distance the almost funny phenomenon it very much was not when seen from closer. (p.103)

Later he contemplates what will happen if his wife meets his mistress.

More important, when and if the dread confrontation took place, then if he was present, which he unquestionably would have to be, whatever he said or did or failed to do or say, Cordelia would only have to see him looking or not looking at Anna and something awful but unforeseeable, but still awful and uncontrollable, would happen and oh God. (p.104)

Here’s an example of taking a perfectly everyday phrase and turning it into the subject of the sentence (there must be technical term for this in linguistics):

For the rest of that day and for the whole of the next, Richard saw nothing of his wife.

This is innocuous enough. But with Amis, the innocuous is only there to lull you into a false sense of normality. The next sentence is:

None of the individual bits of seeing nothing of her meant anything much in itself.

The Amis touch! ‘Saw nothing’ is turned into a noun phrase – ‘seeing nothing of her’ – which can then be picked apart and played with: first it turns out to have ‘bits’ [as previously mentioned, favourite Amis word and concept] implying more complexity than is maybe justified; there’s an accidental but handy chime between ‘None’ and ‘nothing’, which introduces a momentary flicker of confusion, and there’s a characteristic dismissive ‘hedging’ phrase – ‘anything much’. From being clear and declarative, the paragraph has quickly become blurry, unfocused, dismissive, vague and woolly.

Afterwards Richard could not remember telling the chauffeur he could or must go, though obviously something of the kind must have occurred, nor was he at all sure where he had got the idea of telling him that, though he felt he knew he would never have done so without some sign coming or not coming from Anna. (p.137)

Is this fine style? I can’t believe so. But it is a striking and peculiar achievement, so consistently, over so many hundreds of pages, to keep cooking up from such plain English ingredients so many bewilderingly contorted, broken-backed, baffling and sometimes very funny sentences. Somewhere in Amis’s novels are plots and characters but, for me, their adventures are overshadowed and often obscured by the continual blind-siding of his convoluted and perplexing periods.

We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis (1991)

This is a very short novella, barely 80 pages long, written in a simple style and marketed as Puffin Teenage Fiction. I doubt it would appeal to many teenagers in 2015 and wonder how many read it in 1991. Despite its naturalistic setting, I think this is more a ‘novel of ideas’, a fictionalised pamphlet, a newspaper article with characters, because its main aim is to make a polemical point about contemporary society and culture and morality. First – the plot.

The set-up

Clive Rayner is a bored, white working class lad without a job or direction. He lives in an end-of-terrace house next to the approach road to a western motorway (maybe the Westway) with his mum and step-father, an angry man named Don MacIntyre. He hangs round with his mate Terry and two young trollopes, Marilyn and Paula who, despite their post-punk leather jackets and purple haircuts are not particularly sexually available, as he discovers when he gropes makes a pass at Paula and she smacks him in the mouth. He hangs round the house all day watching horror videos then spends the evenings at a cheap curry house with the gang. Once, hanging round the grass verge of the motorway, a police car stops and an intimidating plain clothes copper checks him over…

Clive nicks a tenner from his mum’s purse. When his step-dad gets home he gives Clive a bollocking, though his mum relents and tries to calm him down. That evening at the curry house Clive is wound up with anger and, having despatched the girls on their night bus, he suggests to Terry they break into a nearby warehouse belonging to Butterfield Brothers.

Terry is sceptical, all that’s in there is toasters and bulky electrical goods, but he goes along with it. They smash a window and clamber in, discovering a railed gantry or walkway which runs the length of the building, so they’re up and walking across that when the alarm goes off and an angry middle-aged man emerges from an office and runs towards them. He grabs Clive by the collar and they wrestle rather than fight, Clive pushing him away just where the gantry railing happens to be broken and the man falls to the warehouse floor with a sickening thud.

The scene cuts to Clive and Terry in custody. They ran into the police almost directly outside the warehouse, didn’t struggle and admitted everything. The warehouse security man, a Mr Harris, is now in hospital with a badly hurt back, possibly crippled for life.

The message

Clive now finds himself dealing with a series of adults and their various reactions to his crime or accident:

His step-dad is furious, as might have been expected.

Sergeant Parnell, the copper who checked him over from a passing police car, is the officer in charge of the case. There is a really powerful scene where he explains what will probably happen to Clive ie let off with a caution, but goes on to say, if he had his way, Clive and Terry would be sent down for five years, very hard labour. He delivers the central speech, from everything we know of crusty old Kingsley, presumably the author’s message:

‘I’d just like you to know that there are one or two people around who don’t feel sorry for you and do want to punish you and understand you already, from top to bottom. You’re scum, the pair of you, and you’ll never hear about it, except from me. I’m going to do everything in my power to see that you have a bad time. I don’t expect to succeed because this whole place, the whole system, the whole country’s rotten with so-called experts and social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists and what-not who’ve forgotten two little words – right and wrong.’ (p.37)

Parnell’s prediction comes true when Clive is allotted a social worker, a Miss (inevitably) Adams. She arrives with a whole set of preconceptions and interviews Clive in such a way as to get him to agree to her agenda, that he is the product of a broken home, his step-father is ‘abusive’, his school let him down. Eventually Clive realises how she is manipulating him to fit her stereotype of the ‘victim’, and begins to rebel. ‘I done it’, he shouts, no-one else, it was me, if I hadn’t broken in the old man would still be able to walk. But she is too well educated and too drilled in her fixed world view to listen to the boy she is ‘helping’, and goes on to make the counter-argument, the one we can be confident Amis is satirising:

‘In any meaningful sense… you, Clive Rayner, are not guilty of anything at all. Anything relevant, anything that really matters. It’s society that’s guilty, the system and the people who live off it and in it and around it. We all made it happen. We are all guilty.’ (p.60)

Confused, Clive is packed off by his mother to the local church, where he expects to take a further pasting. Here he discovers a bunch of hairy people setting up amps and speakers for a rock concert and then meets the trendy vicar, ‘call me Robin’ Foster. Robin takes Clive aside and explains that God doesn’t want him to feel full of shame and guilt, God wants human beings to be full of light and happiness, God wants him to overcome his guilt and forgive himself.

Before his case comes to court, Clive is again menaced by Sergeant Parnell who explains that the wife of the crippled night watchman will make a tearful witness to the terrible thing the boys have done. They’ll get five years if they’re lucky. In the event and to his amazement, the wife doesn’t appear, the social worker makes a good case for Clive’s ‘deprived’ background and he is let off with a year’s probation and £100 fine which, looking round, he sees Robin the vicar who signals that he’ll pay that (p.71). His family and friends mill around outside the court room, clapping and cheering and shaking hands as if it’s a great victory. Only Clive himself is distraught. He knows he did it. He knows he is guilty. Why can’t he get anyone to acknowledge it.

He sneaks off and goes to the hospital to visit the caretaker, Mr Harris (previously he had been forbidden, on legal advice). The old man stricken in bed is philosophical, says the accident won’t change him. And it turns out their solicitor warned the couple that emphasising Clive’s culpability would jeopardise the case they’re bringing against his employer for negligent maintenance of the gantry railing. Clive is appalled that even the man he crippled is pressurised by ‘the system’ to downplay his, Clive’s, guilt. And then Harris’s tearful wife, at his bed-side, starts crying and saying God would want her to forgive him, God ‘wants us to forgive people their sins. It’s our sacred duty.’ (p.83)

Sickened at the way everybody is falling over themselves to forgive him, Clive spends a sleepless night before getting up early and going back to the church. Here Robin the vicar repeats the message that God forgives him no matter what, and the book ends with Chris walking beside the roaring traffic, until a wall converges with the busy road and he finds himself pressing his face and hands against it, confused and distraught. For a moment I thought he would throw himself under a lorry in his despair, but another police car draws up and a copper, not Sergeant Parnell, asks if he’s alright, sonny. The policeman is genuinely concerned that he’s OK which, in a way, makes it all worse. Yes, yes, I’m fine Clive replies. The car pulls off. Clive turns and starts walking home. The End.

The need for punishment

Some of the characterisation was a bit weak, even for a fable: Clive’s parents aren’t very strong presences and the type of the social worker with a pre-determined agenda and the trendy vicar could be dismissed as Daily Mail clichés: except I recognised the do-gooding, naive social worker and her milieu from when I went out with a trainee social worker, and was sharing a house with three women psychologists, in the early 1990s when this book was published. And I recognised the trendy vicar from the several I met and got to know when I took my children to church kindergartens and creches in the 2000s.

Whether or not ‘the whole country’s rotten with so-called experts and social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists’ I have no idea, and am not sure how you could actually find out. It sounds like the kind of thing you read in the right-wing press with which Amis agreed (and who he often wrote for) but which might not stand up to a morning in an actual juvenile court.

But leaving aside the accuracy or inaccuracy of the social ‘analysis’ and editorialising, looking at it just as a piece of fiction, I found the character of Sergeant Parnell tremendously powerful, his speech about Clive and Terry being scum, as well as his other remarks and comments throughout, to be wonderfully virile and menacing.

Similarly, although the lead character of Clive is not a terribly persuasive teenager (no drugs, no drunkenness, no sex, not much about music or fashion, instead he routinely refers to people as ‘fellows’ ie uses Amis’s 1950s lingo), nonetheless his predicament is powerfully conveyed, as powerful and simple as Gregor Samsa waking up and finding he’s been turned into an insect.

The book makes a short sharp case that teenagers, all humans, just as much as children, need boundaries and rules, and to know they will be punished if they step over them. Without rules we can do anything, and if we can do anything our actions become weightless, meaningless. Complete freedom can itself be oppressive.

‘Why did you lie to me outside the courtroom, before the case,’ Clive asks Parnell, ‘why did you lead me on that the weeping wife’s testimony would get me five years?’ Because, replies Parnell:

‘I wanted to punish you. One, because criminals deserve to be punished. Two, for my own personal satisfaction. And three, because punishment’s good for the soul.’ (p.74)

Is punishment good for the soul? Who knows whether this is ‘true’? Or true at least for some people? But this slender novella, if you accept its conventions and its teenage audience, does a surprisingly powerful job of making you believe it, at least while you’re reading it. And what else is fiction for?

Credit

We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis, published by Reinhardt Books in association with Viking, in 1991. All quotes from the 1993 Puffin teenage fiction paperback edition.


Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings, but which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella in which Amis dramatises his sense that society has become rotten with social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. But instead of being punished, as no-nonsense Sergeant Parnell wishes, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Folks That Live on the Hill by Kingsley Amis (1990)

For more than just a moment Harry had the horrible feeling that he had finally lost all ability to understand why other people behaved as they did, and even to know what his own emotions or wishes were beyond a longing to be by himself indefinitely, unreachable by others, not necessarily in this room, just anywhere. (p.89)

I haven’t liked the last few Kingsley Amis novels I’ve read because of their sexist-verging-on-misogynist attitude and their convoluted, sometimes incomprehensible style. But this one I found funny and sympathetic. A lot of his stylistic and narratorial oddities are still in evidence but are outweighed by a sympathetic and quietly moving depiction of a pleasingly varied cast of characters.

Mise en scène

In and around the fictional park of Shepherd’s Hill live a ménage of modern life people: retired librarian Harry Caldecott who lives with his sister Clare, both doting on their ineffectual brother Freddie who is married to the ‘ghastly’ Désirée. Harry is twice divorced, first from Gillian and then Daisy. He has several children, notably 40-year-old son Piers. Clare married a man named Arnold Morrison who played the flute until he dropped dead, having spent almost all their money. Thus Harry very kindly invites her to come and share his big house with him. Around the same time a lesbian, Bunty Streatfield, who had been married to nice Desmond Streatfield, moves in. Bunty has a rather aggressive lesbian lover, Popsy, who she is slightly scared of and who Harry cordially dislikes.

Nearby there’s a parade of typical London shops, wine bars and bistros etc, and we get to know the proprietors of these, including a couple of Asian brothers, a bistro owner who talks like a wing commander, Kenneth the landlord of the King’s (Head?) pub who asks Harry about his decor, the regulars at Harry’s drinking club, the Irving, and more.

What happens to these characters? Well, they meet for drinks, and chats, gossiping and bitching about each other behind their backs, and generally carry on like ordinary people – well, ordinary university-educated, white middle-class people who say ‘one does this’ or ‘one does that’; a certain class of person. Quite posh. For example, this is Freddie, encountered at the barber’s:

‘If you’re not in the most absolute tearing hurry for the next few minutes I should be terribly grateful for a quick word.’ (p.134)

I think what makes this Amis novel distinct from the previous four or five is that it isn’t dominated by the point of view of one clever, angry, reactionary, sexist character – as Jake and Stanley dominated the novels named after them and were quite unpleasant company. Instead the narration is spread across incidents involving quite a large cast: it feels more like a soap opera about this particular part of London and entering into the minds of so many different characters forces Amis to be more sympathetic to them all. And so there’s no opportunity for the angry rants, for the prolonged bitterness and misogyny, which disfigure previous books, and so the overall effect is lighter and therefore the humour (which was present but, for me, swamped in previous novels) comes more to the fore. It feels lighter and funnier.

Chapters

1 It opens with Bunty Streatfield making coffee and breakfast and chatting to Piers Caldecote who lives in a flat in the same shared house, before she heads down to the shops on Shepherds Hill, there encountering the two Asian brother shopkeepers (improbably named Howard and Charles), before catching the tube to Chelsea, and a posh house party. She’s barely been there a few minutes when her lover, Popsy, insists they leave. They go to a restaurant to eat, then back to Popsy’s flat to make love (always, in Amis, skirted over in silence).

2 Introducing Harry Caldecote, twice divorced and living with his sister Clare. Clare lost her husband, Arnold, a few years previously and discovered he had no money left, so her brother kindly took her in as, effectively, the housekeeper. Barking reminds them they have to look after Towser, a massive dog (a great Dane? wolfhound?) which slobbers and spills hair everywhere. Harry takes phone calls from Desmond, Bunty’s estranged husband, and Maureen, a friend who lives nearby.

3 Chris Markou, dodgy Greek from the Shepherds Hill Wine Centre, pops into the Asian shop and asks Howard and Charles if they can lend him a few hundred quid; that Harry Caldecote just came in and cashed a cheque and cleared him out. When he’s gone the brothers remark Chris is a crook, and then notice cheap, probably illegal, booze being offloaded into the wine centre. The narrator reveals it is knocked-off vodka.

4 Opens with the ghastly Désirée meeting with her dim husband Freddie and his brother Harry in the King’s. Over beers she loudly describes Freddie’s prostate operation, then goes on to explain that ever since he’s become an animal in the sack. Harry asks Freddie to get drinks and, in a comedy moment, has to explain to his idiot brother how to go about the process. He finds himself alone with Désirée for five horrible moments during which he realises she completely mistakenly thinks he has a crush on her, God how can the woman be so wrong? She starts to explain that, thanks to Harry’s encouragement, Freddie is thinking about writing poetry. Inspired, Harry insists that Freddie be given complete peace and quiet to do so and on no account must be interrupted or must he show or share or discuss his work in progress with Désirée. She reluctantly agrees. The phone rings and the landlord calls Harry over. It’s another landlord, of the Rifle Volunteer in Blackheath. There’s a Miss Fiona almost passed out on the floor, drunk, after causing a lot of havoc: he’s ready to call the police, but she claims Harry’s her father. Harry says he’ll be straight over. Back at the table he explains to Freddie and Désirée he has to leave, though the latter clarifies that Fiona is his first wife (Gillian’s) sister’s daughter ie his ex-wife’s niece, his niece by marriage. Nonetheless, for obscure reasons, Harry feels responsible for her.

5 Desmond meets is ex-wife Bunty in the Shepherds Crook bistro where, despite being distracted by the super posh owner and a string of noisy diners, Desmond says he still loves her and can’t they just, you know, somehow, does she want to come back to his? At which she very gently and meekly tries to withdraw, saying he knows it’ll end up with kissing and him trying to get her into bed and that just isn’t going to happen.

6 The huge dog Towser is pining and scratching at the front door when Piers arrives, Harry’s grown-up son. Clare lets him in and they chat until the purpose of the visit becomes clear and he asks if she can give him a loan, just to tide him over, like. She writes a cheque and he leaves and Clare is alone with her memories, her feelings about her dead husband. She goes to look at his collection of antique and valuable flutes, almost the only things he left which are worth hanging onto and which she has gathered into an alcove, a shrine to his memory.

7 Fiona Carr-Stewart, the posh alcoholic Harry went to rescue from the pub in Blackheath, surfaces in her manky council flat, hauls bags of rubbish to the bins under the disapproving eye of her 70-year-old neighbour and tries to establish order in the flat’s filthy interior when a young, surly man arrives to read the gas meter. I’m not sure but I think she then seduces him or performs a sexual act, after which he leaves promptly. She drinks more then makes her way to Linda’s house where a gang of other reprobates are, there’s more drinking then they’re at a pub, where there’s more drinks, the lights are spinning, the music is loud, her friends seem to have left, a taxi is called which refuses to take her, somehow she is home and someone is helping her up the steps to her flat, muttering at what a disgraceful state she’s in and it not even ten at night yet. This is a grim and persuasive description of someone getting completely, horribly hammered.

8 Harry gets out of a taxi and the Shepherd’s Hill Wine Centre where he has an unpleasant, insulting exchange with Popsy. Harry takes a taxi to Maureen’s house, she’s married to Leonard, who’s hardly ever there. They drink gin, flirt and then have sex on the sofa.

9 Harry takes a taxi home, arriving in time to help his sister Clare finalise preparations for dinner with their brother, Freddie, and wife Désirée. Things go well until Désirée returns to the theme of Freddie’s new-found sexual prowess after his recent prostate operation, at which Harry politely demurs prompting Désirée to become bitchy and sarcastic, ‘Oh is there anything else we are not allowed to discuss at your chaste table’ etc. At which point Clare intervenes, genuinely upset, asking her to shut up. The party winds up soon after and Harry is sorry if the whole subject upset Clare and made her think of her dead husband.

10 Explains the location and setup of the Cafe Cabana, the bistro owned by Desmond Streatfield, Bunty’s ex-husband. After she moved out he got Philippa, a bit more working class, to move in, but she turns out to be a limited cook and a nag. We see him supervising the 17-year-old black kitchen assistant Sandra and fobbing off the dodgy wine dealer, Clive, before the scene shifts to Desmond sharing a few drinks with Harry at the pub. Here they mull over trouble with girls and both agree that old Brahms had it sorted, seeing the same prostitute once a week for twenty five years, at which point he switched to her daughter. Women, eh! Tsk. Bunty turns up, the men had invited her, but she is instantly on edge and after a few innocuous comments from Desmond, rounds on him, asking why they are always trying to run her life for her. At this moment Popsy appears, drinks half the Campari Harry had bought for Bunty and says, ‘Right! Off we go Bunty’ and they leave the two men to prop up the bar wondering what it is that lesbians actually do.

11 Fiona. She doses herself with drinks as she delivers shopping to various customers in council flats, posh Rob, an old boy named Roger Greenhough in the flat next to her who has the temerity to suggest ways of helping get her off her ruinous alcoholism. Humiliated she stumbles back to her flat and toys with slashing her wrists with the bread knife.

12 Fiona meets Harry in the King’s and he is kind and concerned and listens to her explaining that she’s been on the wagon for six whole days. She tells the anecdote about her sister, Elspeth, the one who died when her car hit a wall, telling her she’d been looking through family albums and saw a great-aunt who was the spitting image of her, Fiona, and had died young of alcoholism: is it hereditary? Is Fiona doomed? Harry tries to cheer her up, and when they part she makes her way through London streets back to her flat where she starts on a bottle of White Nun, reminiscing about her father (or husband?) the Right Honourable Iain Menzies Carr-Stewart. She is a very posh alcoholic. The doorbell rings and it’s a taxi driver who she asks in for a moment. It’s not totally sure but I think she is servicing almost all men who call on her. Hence the references in the text to her reputation spreading far and wide…

13 Harry is getting his hair cut at Andy’s Hair Bar when he spots brother Freddie. They stroll along to a nasty greasy spoon where Freddie explains Désirée thinks he takes a cab to St James’s to get a trim at a super-classy salon, whereas he gets it cut round the corner, spends a happy hour eating fat food, and generally feels like he’s escaping the clutches of his all-controlling wife. Which he has also done by starting up a stamp collection. Désirée co-opted the last one, so he has found a stamp dealer tucked away in a side street and spends free time admiring, sorting and buying new stamps to add to the collection he proudly shows Harry.

14 Harry’s disreputable son, Piers, meets him at his club, the Irving (a parody of the Garrick, round the corner) where he is phenomenally posh, ordering all the right champagne, wine and port, before asking Harry to front him £50,000 for a cast-iron, copper-bottom, can’t-fail business venture. Harry demurs. As they’re walking out they bump into a publisher who amazes Harry by telling him he’s going to make Freddie an offer for the long poem of his which Harry showed him. Obviously it’s crap, but they can package it up in their European Political Testaments series and lots of earnest foreign intellectuals will snap it up.

15 Harry, Clare and Freddie take a taxi to their mother’s house, a rundown brick mansion in derelict grounds. This is sort of funny as Amis describes the knackered lawns, ruined greenhouse, then the musty smell inside, his mother’s affected tones, and then the ghastly lunch served with undrinkable plonk. Harry discovers Piers has been cosying up to Freddie, discussing money (obviously intending to dun him) and has also sent their mum a nice letter, brown-nosing and asking for an investment. After lunch Harry happens upon Clare and mother looking at photo albums and stumbles across the same photo of Great Aunt Anne which Elspeth had told Fiona about. Looks nothing like Fiona; Harry must tell her, to bolster her morale. While Freddie is tripping over a ladder in the hall, Harry rips the page with the photo out of the album and stuffs it in his pocket.

16 Harry is at the Irving listening to some fart of a Cabinet Secretary or other bore the other members into a coma when he’s called to the phone to have the old lady who lives in a flat in the same house as Bunty tell him that Bunty’s husband, Desmond, has turned up, very drunk and shouty and Bunty has barricaded herself into the bathroom. Harry takes a taxi to the house, in a dodgy area, and succeeds in talking Desmond down. He pathetically clings to the notion that Bunty can be talked out of her lesbianism. Harry says she really likes Desmond but he just happens to be the wrong sex for her, nothing anyone can do about it. He leaves Desmond to make up with Bunty and takes a taxi home where he finds his sister Clare distraught because she’s lost a valuable piece of chalcedony from the antique flute collected by her deceased husband. Aha, thinks Harry. Bet Piers nicked it.

17 Next morning Clare is still looking for her chalcedony while Harry has breakfast and opens a letter from the Adams Institute in north-west USA which is looking for an experienced librarian and has had him recommended by a colleague. This gives Amis an opportunity to sound off about how ghastly Americans are, before there’s a phone call and a prim nurse from some kind of private hospital informs him that Fiona has been taken into their care. She refuses to give more details, leaving Harry worried. After his lunchtime trip to the pub he returns to get a message from Clare saying Bunty had called asking for a spare bed for the night. Have she and Popsy split up? It’s all getting a bit fraught.

18 A short chapter in which the two Asian shopkeepers, Howard and Charles, natter about developments in the neighbourhood, namely Chris the conman disappearing with a load of money, the unnatural relationship of Bunty and Popsy coming to an end, and Harry such a ghastly snob floating through it all…

19 Harry ponders his life and his options before getting a taxi round to Maureen’s for another companionable afternoon screw. She obliges but he notices the carpet is up, all the pictures in the hall on the floor and other signs. She explains she’s moving back in with her husband, Leonard. She’s never really liked the sex they have, like many other women she only does it for the companionship and she doesn’t get much of that, to be honest, so she’s giving her marriage a second chance. Harry is flabbergasted and even more so when a few minutes later Leonard, the erring husband, himself arrives and invites Harry to a slap-up lunch, as an old friend of the family.

20 Freddie reflects, in his dim way, on the way his wife Désirée moved into his life and took it over twenty years ago, leading him almost immediately to start uselessly wishing ‘she could somehow be smaller, quieter, further away, less there all the time’ (p.208). This chapter describes his incredibly regimented life, the hand-knitted socks, the pills at precise times throughout the day, the set meal-times and organic wholemeal food, the fixed chairs in which to sit and read books he was long ago bored with, the dinner at fixed time and then, periodically, the compulsory and always-the-same sex.

21 Harry and Clare have dinner at Odile’s where they discuss whether he should take the job in the States. It is an odd, like all Amis, but at bottom very decent and affectionate evening. They walk back to their house and, in the drawing room, agree Harry is not going to take the job but stay with her and his little group of friends and dependents. At that moment the doorbell rings. It is Bunty, her dress torn, slapped, bleeding a little. Popsy beat her up and threw her out.

22 Another nightmare episode for Fiona’s degradation. She invites the minicab driver in for a quick shag (so that is what she’s been doing to random men, and confirms the ‘reputation’ she’s described as having acquired), although he ends up telling her off for being such a degenerate. She stays in getting drunk, then Sean and Brendan are suddenly in the flat telling her she’s disgusting and saying this is the end. Then they’re gone and she’s drinking more and it feels as if her face is melting. And light through the window means it’s morning, so she drinks a bottle of sherry to help her cope and then feels really peculiar and rings Sean who tells her to lie still till he can be over. All told in blurred, rushing prose.

23 Harry is phoned by the Asian brothers who say he’d better come quick, Fiona’s had an accident. When he and Clare get to the shop they find a crowd gathered round Fiona who is on the ground, having a fit, lying in a pool of blood from a head wound. Charles explains a van drew up and she was thrown out the back without it really stopping. It was those Irish guys (presumably Sean and Brendan: why would they do that?) Explaining that the ambulances round here take forever, Charles and Howard very kindly volunteer to take Fiona, Harry and Clare to the nearest A&E in their cars, and do so. Harry holds Fiona’s hand in triage as a doctor pokes and prods her, then leaves. Harry finally gets to say his piece about Fiona not looking like her alcoholic great-aunt and has the photo to prove it. She is not doomed by alcoholic genes. She can change her life. All this seems human and kind, like the affection we saw between brother and sister in the previous chapter.

24 A week or so later and the new landlord of the King’s celebrates his first year there by having a little party, a handy way to bring together Harry, Clare and Fiona who is a) still alive b) proudly shows off that she’s drinking soft drinks. Bunty has a little chat with Clare who insists she moves in with them permanently. In a very funny moment Désirée gets Harry in a corner and horrifies him by suggesting the real reason he chose not to take the American job was because he’s in love with his sister. Really in love. Sexually in love. Harry is so outraged and bolts so fast he bangs the table and knocks over loads of drinks, but can see the bright side which is that, in future, he’ll be able to hate Désirée with a clear conscience! Desmond summons up the courage to tell Bunty he understands now, after Harry explained it to him, why she doesn’t want and will never want to sleep with him; but can they still be friends, can he meet her regularly and take her for dinner etc? She is relieved and pleased. Piers arrives with his newly announced fiancée, Priscilla, who it turns out Fiona was at school with. They are very posh together until Fiona takes Piers aside after they both spot the vile Popsy lurking at the other end of the bar. Piers wishes he could do something to remove the threat of Popsy and Fiona says she knows some unpleasant men who could put the frighteners on her if Piers has the money. They do a deal to arrange it… Then Piers saunters over to Uncle Freddie and we learn that Piers’ dodgy business deal, the one about illicit vodka which Harry refused to invest in, well it came off and not only is Piers suddenly affluent but he repaid his investors eg Uncle Freddie, who now has a tidy sum stashed away in the bank. And, Freddie tells an incredulous Piers, the local stamp collector company has given Freddie his own cubicle to take out and peruse his albums in. He is happy as a kid. And then it’s all back to Harry’s where Clare and Désirée and Bunty prepare a big salad lunch.

25 After the lunch party is dispersed, Clare is standing in the peace and quiet of the house looking out the window, remembering the special look Arnold used to have when nobody was looking at him, and knowing she had enjoyed real love, true love, which so many people never really know. And at that moment a ray of sunshine penetrates the clouds and she sees the gleam of the missing piece of chalcedony, tucked down by the wainscoting, where it fell out when the cleaner was dusting and accidentally dropped the ancient flute on the floor. Clare restores it to its place in the old flute, and the flute to the alcove which is her shrine to her beloved husband.

It is a luminous ending to a rich and satisfying (if oddly written) novel.

Amis’s style

The characters and narrator are never quite sure of anything. Or never quite finish anything. Amis is addicted to presenting alternatives to almost every description or fact. Things are something, or something else, or maybe something else. Amis uses ‘or’ a lot to present two or three or four ways of looking at any situation or bit of dialogue: is it intended to be a more precise rendition of quavering human thought; or in order to defocus and blur perceptions? Hard to tell, but no train of thought is ever clear or finished. More can always be added. Or appended. Or something (p.141). Or whatever it is (p.159). Or thereabouts (p.211). Or whatever it’s called (p.214)

With it she wore no jewellery or other ornamentation, not out of good taste or any of those but because everything she had ever had in that line had been sold or stolen or, most often, lost. Or as good as lost. (p.124)

‘I see,’ said Harry. He did too, or partly did, or might for the next five minutes or so. (p.154)

One of the things he came up with was that probable or possible or very short or only rather short (versions varied) affair that Harry and Désirée had had in the long ago. (p.210)

She gave him back a special glance or moue or wrinkling of the eyelids or all of the three that he knew he would see again whenever they met… (p.238)

Amis also deploys lots of conditional phrases, fillers, to hedge around and defocus perceptions and descriptions –

‘On the whole, maybe, in other words, on the off chance, in some way, perhaps, up to a point, so to speak, sort of, indeed, really, more or less, literally, as it were, after a fashion, at any rate, you know, in so many words, mind you, what do you call it, not to say, when you come to think about it, no doubt, such as it was, quite well enough, to put it mildly, for the most part, not by a long chalk, in a way, on the face of it, at all, actually, if you follow my meaning, and suchlike, and all that, and more besides’.

Any one example looks innocuous on its own, but there are two or three on every page and they have the effect of steadily, continuously chipping away at the clarity and conciseness of sentences, making them seem conditional, unsettled, blurry. I can’t decide whether Amis has his narrator and all his characters use them liberally as a satire on the bad useage of his day or because he’s keen to capture modern useage, in all its sort of, like, kind of casualness.

And he enjoys using words in unlikely combinations, especially phrases which take prepositions where he can butt them up against other prepositions and create odd jarring effects enjoying creating sentences which teeter on incomprehension or force you to read them twice.

Fiona spent most of her days and a lot of her nights looking forward to getting towards the end of whichever bit of either she happened to be in, but this was one she would have let go on as long as it liked. (p.125)

Clare put all she had, instead of being absolutely marvellous about the way she was putting all she had, into concealing the fact that she had given up hope that it would ever be found. (p.182)

Or just deliberately jar. Why?

Harry followed both these suggestions and when he came back found Clare looking nearly normal and sounding completely it. (p.221)

A long time ago this might have been funny. From one point of view it’s almost experimental – an anti-Modernist’s experiment with stream of consciousness, with getting inside people’s heads; or just for the fun of playing with the language.

On the table stood a bottle of White Nun with a glassful or so out of it and there was more, much more than enough more, where that had come from. The glassful or so was inside Fiona. (p.130)

But for a long time these three or four mannerisms, taken together, are Amis’s Late Style, ensuring you are continually stumbling over sentences which puzzle and perplex and give the text a sense of light-headedness, as if it is permanently tipsy, not quite making sense.

‘Of course, he’s very fond of you, you know,’ he said, trying not to make this sound like a good or any other sort of Harry’s marvellousnesses. (p.103)

If there could ever have been truly said to be more of something where something came from, the two at present conversing had run across it. (p.195)

Amis’s women

Amis’s misogyny is more restrained in this novel for the simple reason that he covers a wider range of characters and at least three lead characters – Clare, Bunty, Fiona – are not only women, but sympathetically portrayed. Nonetheless, given half a chance, his men start in on the same tiresome sexist comments about women being incomprehensible, mad etc which characterise most of his previous novels.

In the human or material sphere the nearest comparable disparity was between the number of words that women said and the number that would have to have been said about what they had said in order to produce a full or clear or straight account of any matter. (p.103)

But, as I’ve said a) there’s a lot less of it than before b) Harry is given several passages where he realises he is a trial to live with and that women, in fact, deep down, are the ones who end up cooking and cleaning and tidying and looking after the sick and generally making the world go round and c) regardless of these trivial views, held by some characters on a surface level, the novel itself shows the warmest empathy and compassion for its women characters, for dependable Clare, for nervous Bunty, for poor wrecked Fiona. Not perhaps for ghastly Désirée, but it isn’t a political tract, it’s a novel about all sorts, and it is Amis’s most balanced and enjoyable for years.

Amis’s humour

He became conscious that Désirée was sort of staring at him. He smiled encouragingly, instead of asking her what she bloody wanted. (p.84)

But in the midst of all this there are some really funny moments. The full description of the old fart boring members of the Irving is supplemented by the description of the hypnotically stealthy approach of one of the doddering old servants. Some of the dialogue escapes from Amis’s circumlocutionary style to have a real punch and sparkle. His dislike of rock music, London traffic, and greasy spoon cafes are all conveyed with a kind of brio that made me smile. Brother Freddie being so dim he has to have it explained to him twice how to buy a round in a pub made me laugh out loud, it is phrased with such energetic frustration. Lots to enjoy.

Credit

The Folks That Live On The Hill by Kingsley Amis, published by Hutchinson 1990. All quotes from the 1991 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings, but which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Night Manager by John le Carré (1993)

Jonathan Pine, orphaned only son of a cancer-ridden German beauty and a British sergeant of infantry killed in one of his country’s many post-colonial wars, graduate of a rainy archipelago of orphanages, foster homes, half-mothers, cadet units and training camps, sometimes army wolfchild with a special unit in even rainier Northern Ireland, caterer, chef, itinerant hotelier, perpetual escapee from emotional entanglements, volunteer, collector of other people’s languages, self-exiled creature of the night and sailor without a destination. (p.57)

Jonathan Pine

Jonathan Pine is a haunted man. He was in the British Army in Northern Ireland, where he killed two IRA men in an ambush. He still has nightmares about their heads blowing off (pp.129-30) and flashbacks recur scores of times throughout the text to emphasise just how haunted he is. He quit the forces and hid away as the manager of a luxury hotel in Cairo. Here – in a very flimsy scene – Sophie, the beautiful Arab moll of a powerful Cairo criminal, Freddie Hamid, asks him to keep some incriminating documents in the safe overnight: Hamid is doing a big arms deal with some Brit called Roper, Richard Onslow Roper.

Intrigued, Pine reads the documents, photocopies them and – despite her warnings that Hamid is jealous/watching her/has contacts in British Intelligence – Pine gives a copy to a man he knows is British Intelligence in Cairo, Mark Ogilvey. Although Pine then spirits Sophie away to Luxor, where they fall passionately in love, have lots of warm weather sex etc, he returns to the apartment one day to find her brutally murdered and disfigured. Hamid caught up with her and punished her for her betrayal. A guilty, haunted man he flees to another hotel, Meister’s, far away in the Austrian Alps, where he now suffers from flashbacks of killing the IRA men and memories of murdered Sophie.

In other words, he is the stereotypical thriller protagonist – the psychologically wounded, self-pitying, hard drinking, no-nonsense, loner hero of a thousand spy novels.

Then, one day, into the Austrian hotel arrives the very Richard Onslow Roper he’d heard so much about, and his creepy entourage of accountants, fixers, bodyguards and the (inevitable) over-glamorous dolly bird, Jemima (aka ‘Jed’), who flirts dangerously with Pine. Worried they might know or discover his association with the murdered Sophie, that they might realise he knows about Roper’s activities, Pine makes his way to the British Embassy in Zurich and, after passing a message to the consul, finds himself being handed on to an Intelligence officer named Leonard Burr.

Here begins the plot proper, for Burr wants to recruit Pine and infiltrate him into Roper’s inner circle in order to nail the man who, we now have it confirmed, is a major league international arms dealer.

Exaggeration and self importance

And it’s about here that le Carré’s particularly inflated style, his mannered worldview and approach really kick in because as we find out more about them, Burr and his small team – mandarin Rex Goodhew and pipe-smoking Bob Rooke – are treated as legends in their own lunchtimes. Rex was once called ‘Whitehall’s Talleyrand without the limp’ (p.82), Bob Rooke ‘was Burr’s restraining hand, a retired soldier with grizzled hair and a rugged, weather-beaten jaw’ (p.82), ministers are always ironically referred to as ‘our masters’. The Pine Case soon becomes a ‘legendary’ business, for Roper isn’t just a criminal under investigation, he is Burr’s ‘personal Antichrist’. After all ‘there were few insiders who did not remember Burr’s vendettas’ against various crooks — in fact, Burr himself is so legendary that there are people in the Department who the narrator calls ‘Burr-watchers’ (p.86), who study and ponder his every move.

But it is not just Burr who is a legend: When the American team arrives to co-ordinate the investigation into Roper, the first to land is ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’ (p.93). Strelski’s assistant is Pat Flynn from US Customs and ‘legend attached to Flynn’ (p.94). Of course it does.

Even old Pearl, the lady who trundles a trolley with files about ‘the Antichrist’ along the dirty corridors, well, it turns out that ‘they’ – ie Burr’s legions of adoring fans – even give her wonky squeaking trolley a legendary name – ‘They called it Roper’s tumbril.’ (p.87)

Nothing goes unlegended or just simply, factually reported. When Burr gives Pine a radio to keep in touch, it isn’t referred to as a radio. It is ‘the magic box’ (p.396). Everything seems overblown, turned up too loud, exaggerated – the sense of careful detail slowly accumulated which gave the classic Smiley novels of the 1970s their plausibility, has somehow been lost.

Thus the Americans are never the Americans, nor the CIA the CIA: they are ‘our gallant American cousins’ (p.91). The illegal arms traffickers are ‘Burr’s declared foe’. The people who know about Burr’s plan are not just in the know, they are in ‘the charmed circle’. Strelski’s source isn’t just a source, he is ‘his most sacred and delicate source, and this was holy ground.’ (p.95) The civil servants at MI6 aren’t the civil servants at MI6, they are ‘the wayward barons at the River House.’ (p.101) Saddam Hussein isn’t Saddam Hussein, he’s ‘the Thief of Baghdad.’ (p.106) Sophie isn’t the girl he loved who was murdered, she is ‘his accusing angel’ (p.161). The arms dealer Roper is ‘the Roper’, if not (frequently) ‘the worst man in the world’.

When Pine stays in Madame Latulipe’s guest house in a remote Canadian town, she is of course the famous Madame Latulipe, who knows everything that goes on in the small town and who everyone knows and loves. When Pine is working as a cook in a restaurant in the Bahamas, the owner is, naturally, a legend on the island who every night performs for the rich tourists in ‘his famous black basket and riding crop.’ (p.275) Later, on Roper’s private Caribbean island, there are stories about Woody, old Woody, you remember old Woody, ‘Everybody knew who Woody was.’ (p.388). When Pine asks Corky where Roper met Jed, Corky replies: ‘Legend has it, at a French horse sale.’ (p.391) Because all these larger-than-life characters can’t move without myths and legends attaching to them.

Thus Pine, once ensconced in Roper’s circle, is less and less referred to by name, and more and more referred to as ‘the close observer’. Now it becomes clear what the whole Army and Ulster back story was for – all the flashbacks to Ulster showing us Pine lying ‘doggo’ in ditches and hides for days on end waiting for the bad guys to appear. It is to create and justify the attitude of the detached observer which is what le Carré really wants to convey: the book is less about the ‘plot’ than exploring the psychology of being ‘the close observer’ of the shenanigans of a disreputable crew, about being an ‘outsider’, a detached, trained, tough observer. And haunted.

Even when Pine is hiding out in a tiny Cornish coastal village, le Carré immediately makes it a club or school where, once again, everyone knows everyone and has jolly nicknames for each other, old William down the pub, he’s always got a tale or two worth the telling, there’s hunting and shooting and fishing, the woman he stays with is legendary, as is her randy daughter. When Jed reminisces about her youth back in Shropshire, going to horsey events, gymkhanas and such, she tells the story of a certain local named Archie because, inevitably, ‘Everyone loved Archie.’ (p.446). When Corky takes Pine on a bar crawl in Nassau, ‘Everyone seemed to know Corkoran’ (p.455). There are no anonymous characters. Everyone is famous and well-known and a legend and tells cracking jokes and the whole room explodes in jolly laughter.

The actual Britain, the country of big anonymous cities, crappy council estates, windswept shopping centres, of the millions of people who commute to jobs in factories, offices, hospitals, supermarkets, of huge alienated environments, of loneliness, is nowhere in these novels. Instead le Carré’s novels recreate again and again small, self-contained and self-important communities, awash with dashing characters who all bathe in each other’s admiration and play out their romantic and improbable plots in isolation from the rest of the world.

Public school mindset

A lot of the exaggeration is schoolboy – specifically English public schoolboy – slang, and the entire book is dogged by this tone of exaggerating, mocking, superior banter. When there’s a long pause in a phone conversation, Rex doesn’t say, ‘Leonard, are you still there?’ he says, ‘Leonard, art though sleeping there below?’ quoting the poem Drake’s Drum (1897) by the late-Victorian poet, Sir Henry Newbolt, author of the quintessential public school and Empire poem, Vitaï Lampada, with its refrain, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game.’ They’re all chaps together and they all get the same spiffing jokes and references.

In my review of Le Carré’s previous novel, The Secret Pilgrim, I pointed out how the self-congratulatory, self-mythologising tone of Ned the narrator, an about-to-retire Intelligence officer, sounded just like Mr Chips, like a senior master at a jolly public school reminiscing about some of the rags and japes he got up to as a young master, albeit tempered by more mature respect for the old school and its legendary senior masters: ‘It may have its faults, but St Bede’s is not such a terrible place, you know, I think you’re going to like it here, young Chalmondeley.’

As rugged old Bob Rooke takes the pipe from his mouth to respond to another jesting sally from the legendary Leonard Burr, the scene is straight out of the Common Room of a provincial public school, circa 1950. You expect Ian Carmichael to come running through the door, asking if any of his fellow masters can help out at this afternoon’s upper-fifth rugger match.

Thus Burr and the chaps in his close circle have the habit of referring to the bad guys not by their names but as ‘brother this’ and ‘brother that’ and the police aren’t the police, but the ‘heavy-footed brethren’. And Corky turns out to have the same habit, referring to ‘Brother Harlow’ (p.358) and ‘Brother Meister’ (p.361). When Pine thinks back to the period before the mission began he doesn’t call it the period before the mission began, he calls it ‘the days of his youth.’ (p.452). When Rex Goodhew considers his career in Whitehall it isn’t described as his career in Whitehall, it is his ‘quarter-century before the Whitehall mast.’ (p.465) The Foreign Office Registrar doesn’t have an office – he has a lair. Like a dragon in a fairy tale.

Public school slang. Self-mocking grandiosity, Latin tags and scraps of Victorian poetry – the book and its characters are saturated in it.

I was especially staggered on page 98 when Rex Goodhew ( ‘Whitehall’s Talleyrand without the limp’) is at his Whitehall club, taking a bit of chafing from the other chaps, senior civil servants, Tory MPs, you know the sort — until one of them particularly needles him and Rex replies: ‘Sheer balderdash!’— Sheer balderdash? Maybe these characters aren’t from the 1950s, they’re from the 1920s. Or the 1880s.

Public school characters

Pine is meant not to have come from a traditional professional upper-middle-class background. It is carefully explained that his father was a sergeant in the Army, who died a hero in some hush-hush operation and who Pine has always tried to live up to – and his mother died of cancer, after which he was brought up by various aunts. But when he is recuperating from a beating, he remembers the chaps ragging him at his boarding school and various beastly tricks they played on him. Jed’s voice as he lies in bed sounds like the matron. Matron? When he visits his ex-wife he remembers she’s now married to a chap who’s something in the local hunt. The local hunt? His unpublic school persona keeps slipping, to reveal the basically privileged, elite worldview of the narrator.

And the circle of bad guys he is sent to infiltrate is overwhelmingly, stiflingly posh. Roper (not a cynical arms dealer, remember, but ‘the worst man in the world’) affects an upper-class drawl. And so does his sidekick, Major Corkoran (‘I’m rooting for you. So’s the Chief. This isn’t England. Men of the world, all that.’). And Roper’s moll, Jed, is described as ‘an upper-class waif’ (p.164) who ran away from her posh boarding school, got in with a crowd of Hooray Henries in London, before being picked up by ‘the Roper’. And one of the Roper’s key associates is fellow posh British arms dealer, Lord ‘Sandy’ Langbourne and his phenomenally posh wife, Caroline. At one remove is Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw, Roper’s man on the ground in the UK (and who we were introduced to in the very last pages of The Secret Pilgrim) posh, very. All these frightfully upper-class chaps means that the majority of the conversations are in the slurred, dismissive, entitled, exaggerating tones of the very posh English upper classes. Slightly different characters, slightly different takes on it, but all within a very narrow range.

Reading this novel is a bit like being stuck in a garden party thrown by a millionaire at his Berkshire mansion during Royal Ascot: occasionally you hear the rough voices of the servants or some state school oik, but overwhelmingly the sound is of the guffawing and braying of the ruling classes behaving disgracefully. 700 pages is a long time to have to spend in their company.

Jemima, also known as Jed

‘Gosh, Arno! But, darling, you’ve lost pounds! Georgina, darling, how are you? Super! Gosh Hullo!‘ (p.404)

Daniel, Roper’s 8-year-old son, known as Dans

‘Why’s Roper in a bait with Jed?’ (p.413)

‘Corky’ Corkoran

‘Message from the Chief for you, Mr Pine. H-hour is upon us. Prepare to kiss Crystal and everybody else goodbye. Firing squad assembles at dawn.’ (p.453)

‘Sandy’ Bradshaw

‘Fuck should I take orders from you, Christ’s sake?… No executive powers, lot of wankers on the touchline.’ (p.634

‘the’ Roper

‘Whole things a stag hunt… You trek, you wear yourself out. Things pull you down, trip you up, you press on. And one day you get a glimpse of what you’re after, and if you’re bloody lucky you get a shot at it. The right place. The right woman. The right company. Other chaps lie, dither, cheat, fiddle their expenses, crawl around. We do – and to hell with it! Goodnight gang. Thanks, cook. Where’s the cook? Gone to bed. Wise chap.’ (p.562)

Was this really the face, the voice, of international arms dealing in the 1990s?

Humourless

Le Carré often has his common rooms laughing at jokes which aren’t really funny at all. Burr asks Joe Strelski to stop going for daily jogs because just thinking about it is giving his team heart attacks. ‘Everyone laughed.’ (p.94). Is it that funny? The only woman in the team running Pine is an American called Katherine Dulling but in this little self-congratulatory world she is nicknamed ‘Darling Katie’. At the one big meeting with the ‘gallant American cousins’ she accuses an attending senator of calling her a femagogue and claims she is as harmless as a mouse. ‘Jolly laughter fills the room’ (p.180). Really? That funny? (Jelly’s off p.486) In the guerrilla camp in the jungle Roper is the centre of attention and holds court at the evening, telling humourless jokes which have everyone roaring. ‘Remember Mickey?’ he asks Langbourne.

‘Oh too bloody well,’ Langbourne drawls, and once more earns the merriment of the house: these English lords, you’ve got to hand it to them! (p.560)

Funny? Nope. Like the legends and nicknames and tags, it is all exaggeration. Le Carré asserts that his characters are funny; but they never are. There’s a lot of chafing and ragging and people telling duff jokes ‘to the helpless mirth of all’ (p.560) but in fact, nobody says or does anything remotely funny in the whole 700 pages. It is a remarkably humourless book.

Pompous

In a similar gap between promise and delivery, le Carré has a regular manoeuvre of describing someone’s pronouncements (particularly Smiley’s) as profound, insightful, the fruit of years of legendary experience – but when they’re actually quoted so that we can read them for ourselves, these pithy sayings all too often turn out to be disappointments: ‘The Russians are only human, you know.’ John Sutherland, in his London Review of Books review of The Secret Pilgrim, declares that Smiley’s lectures to the young students reveal him, alas, to be a bore – ‘Like other old-boys, his speech-day truths sound pompous and self-important’. The same is true of too many of the characters in this book, as well as the smug and sentimental narrator.

Self pity

Pine’s self-pitying self-image seems scandalously overblown: repeatedly we overhear him thinking, God, I am such a tough guy, I am a loner, every woman I touch is doomed.

‘Stay away from me. I betray. I kill. Go home.’ (p.165)

‘That’s what I do for a living, he thought: I obliterate faces.’ (p.253)

And in the last few pages, despite having been beaten to a pulp, he is still self dramatising:

I kill, I do wrong, there is good and bad and I am bad! (p.706)

Must be hard being such a tough guy. And yet so sensitive. So stricken with sensitive guilt.

Catholic

But just in case the Pine character didn’t seem sufficiently self-important and doomed and tough and haunted, the narrator and character add in a dollop of Catholic guilt and Christian imagery. The night before he and Burr’s team are going to stage manage the ‘death’ of his business partner and his own flight from the little Cornish village (all part of giving Pine a convincing criminal back story for when he infiltrates Roper’s setup and they check his background), Jonathan knows that ‘the ordeal that awaited him was a mere foretaste of a lifetime of penance.’ (p.167) When he goes to see his ex-wife one last time because he knows he’s going to end up either dead or with a new identity, it is a journey ‘in search of atonement’ (p.174). He practices what he’s going to say to her until it becomes ‘a heroic song in his mind’ (p.174). Earlier in this review I quoted references to the Antichrist, to holy ground, to Sophie the accusing angel. When Pine meets  his ex briefly and they discuss her attempts to become an artist, he doesn’t make a reasonable assessment of her skills, her strengths and weaknesses, whether she had any shows or sold anything, nothing factual and, potentially, interesting – no, everything is cast in a tone of Victorian melodrama as he remembers how:

they had both worshipped her great talent, how he had abased himself in order to elevate it, cooked and carried and swept for her, believing she would paint better for his self-denial. (p.175)

At a late stage Burr discovers Joyston has been ripping off Roper, as he goes round Europe buying up illegal arms, but Burr doesn’t set about tabulating the embezzlements, he sets about ‘the length record of Joyston Bradshaw’s sins.’ (p.615) Similarly, when Jed confronts Roper with the truth of his activities as an arms smuggler, she ‘taxes him with his sins’ (p.489). When Roper takes Pine to see the actual shipment of arms in their vast containers in the port, he stands in the darkness of one of the containers surrounded by ultra modern weaponry and

He was in the presence of his own accomplishment. He was in a state of grace. (p.521)

And the last word of the whole novel is souls.

But I don’t think there’s any theology in these statements. There isn’t the slightest sense of religion or the numinous. It’s just another rhetoric, another set of tags and quotes and exaggerations, like the bits of Bible and bobs of Victorian poetry, which can be used to over-egg the situation, a self-mocking inflation of language.


Like the jokes which aren’t funny and the wisdom of Smiley which is banal and the protagonist who thinks he’s a medieval crusader but is in fact just an ex-soldier going undercover – in a similar way the narrator talks up the plots themselves in these later novels, plots which take hundreds of pages to describe and yet which, on closer examination, don’t really live up to their own billing.

The plot

Jonathan Pine is an ex-British soldier. He is recruited by a section of British Intelligence led by legendary Leonard Burr to infiltrate the social circle of British arms dealer, the Roper. They name it Operation Limpet. To build up a back story as a bit of a crook he is sent to live for a while in a small Cornish community where he makes just enough impression – especially on the good looking and willing local totty, Marilyn – before disappearing after having, apparently, murdered his partner (an actor put up to the job, just as the local police are recruited to make the whole elaborate scam look real). Then he is sent to a small town in Canada where he makes just enough impression before being chased out of town by the hotel owner where he’d been working, for seducing his beautiful and very willing daughter, Yvonne.

Then – still part of the elaborate scheme – he gets a job at a restaurant by the beach in some island in the Bahamas where Roper’s cruiser often puts in for meals. Here Burr’s team pull off an elaborate scam: on the night the Roper and his entourage dine there, the team arrange for two CIA-arranged goons to stage a phony hold-up of all the guests; the goons not only relieve the guests of all their jewellery and money but begin to make off with the Roper’s 8-year-old son, Daniel as hostage. This is Pine’s cue to intervene and heroically save Daniel. Unfortunately, the red mist descends – suddenly his mind is full of flashbacks of those IRA men through the night scope of his rifle, and the look of Sophie’s badly beaten face – and he overdoes it, breaking one of the ‘friendly’ goons’ arms, whereupon the other goon goes nuts, hammers him in the face with his gun, knocks him to the ground and kicks him in the head and balls, before they both run off.

As he lies bleeding he hears Roper and his entourage come running up and Roper ordering his sidekick, Corkoran, to ring up his private helicopter to take the man who saved his son’s life to a private hospital where his private surgeon will fix him. Thus, at around page 320, Pine has finally arrived in the Roper’s world, and his mission can begin.

Plot part two

Pine recuperates on Roper’s island in the Caribbean, observing the luxury lifestyle of posh Roper – the Roper – glamorous girlfriend Jemima ‘Jed’ Marshall, camp ex-military fixer Major ‘Corky’ Corkoran, Roper’s son by his first marriage Daniel ‘Dans’, several security guards (even the security guards have schoolboy nicknames, ‘Frisky’ and ‘Tabby’), Lord ‘Sandy’ Langbourne and an ever-changing population of the international elite, the elite of arms smuggling, that is.

His controller, Burr, told Pine on no account to break into Roper’s inner sanctum nor to have an affair with his dolly bird, Jed, but Pine, inevitably, does both. For just at this moment Jemima has suddenly realised what a crook Roper is and what a fool she’s been! And immediately responds by sneaking out of the big mansion and down to Pine’s quarters for soulful conversations and snogs. Obviously Pine has never seen a James Bond movie or he’d know that plooking the billionaire bad guy’s dishy girlfriend is always a bad idea. And he is a 1,000% aware that’s he’s repeating the pattern of Sophie – screws billionaire crook Hamid’s dolly bird; she is beaten to death: screws billionaire Roper’s dolly bird.. what do you expect?

A Darker plot

Meanwhile, a major new thread and theme emerge. The team back in London running Pine become aware that another Intelligence section, the Procurement Studies Group, run by a man named (rather ludicrously) Geoffrey Darker, has embargoed many of the files and much of the information about Roper, under the codename of an operation ‘Frigate’. It turns out, without much probing, that leading people in British Intelligence and US Intelligence are directly involved in Roper’s latest, biggest deal – the selling of a huge shipment of European, American and British arms to Colombian drug cartels in exchange for vast amounts (‘tens of tons’ p.481) of cocaine, which will be shipped back to Europe.

It’s odd this storyline, because there’s no suspense in it. After a routine meeting with ‘the Cousins’, one of them takes Goodhew for a walk down to the Embankment and there tells Goodhew to back off Roper or they’ll kill him. No suspense whatsoever. A different novel might have focused on the slow revelation of this dark secret, with an investigator peeling away layers over hundreds of pages. Here it is tossed away in a few paragraphs.

After casually blowing the secret at the centre of the story, Le Carré goes on to mention that various senior bankers and other Establishment figures are piling in to invest in the deal — the widespread corruption of the Establishment is not any kind of revelation, but a given. On page 478 the upright civil servant Rex Goodhew learns that his contact inside the Procurement Studies Group, a lily-livered, alcoholic, civil servant lawyer named Palfrey has made a gross error. Palfrey has revealed to Darker the secret that one of Roper’s associates – a Latino named Apostoll – is working for the CIA, is in fact the key source and lynchpin of the US project to penetrate Roper’s operations. And Palfrey further revealed to Darker that Apostoll was briefed specifically to blacken Corky’s name, to discredit Corky so that the infiltrated Pine will be installed in his place, thus giving Pine access to full details of Roper’s operations. In the last 100 pages Burr’s efforts to nail Darker and expose Operation Frigate become a lot more prominent in the story.

This ought to be exciting, there ought to be something at stake: but the novel fails to generate any real tension: it is much more interested in the psyche of Pine, the orphaned child and lonely watcher, the detached observer, his tortured soul and his doomed love affairs, and the garden party atmosphere of Roper’s private island, than in conventional mystery, suspense and so on.

On around page 520 Burr, who has flown to Miami to be closer to the operation he’s running, realises it is going badly wrong. First of all he is called in by ‘the Cousins’ to a crime scene packed with ambulances and cops to find that Apostoll has – almost certainly as a result of Palfrey’s blabbing – been blown, and promptly tortured to death (along with the unlucky girlfriend they found him with). Confirmation that the supposed Brit intelligence officer Darker is passing secrets straight on to Roper’s gang. And which ends the close working relationship Burr had forged with ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’.

But worse, the rattled civil servant Goodhew reveals to Burr that he tried to stir his minister to action by showing him a detailed list of all the investors in Roper’s big deal (p.528). He innocently assures Burr that he changed the page layout and implied it came from a different source, but Burr is horrified nonetheless. There was only one source list and Pine photographed it when he broke into Roper’s office and Roper’s gang will realise that immediately. Should Burr signal Pine to pull out immediately? Yes. But he doesn’t.

So the last 150 pages or so are spent wondering whether the bad guys will realise Pine is a spy sent to gather incriminating evidence and foil the scheme and, if so, whether he’ll be beaten and tortured like James Bond always is, and whether the Baddy’s moll he’s seduced, Jed, will also be roughed up, maybe staked out for the crabs to eat as in Dr No.

Deal in the jungle

Blissfully ignorant of these murky doings back in Whitehall, back in the Tropics Pine is taken by Roper, Langbourne and various fixers to locations deep in the Panama jungle. There is a guerrilla training camp run by Latinos but staffed by mercenaries from round the world – renegade Russian special forces, pissed-off Israelis, bored Europeans. Here, in a vastly improbable but typical scene, Roper holds court at the evening meal, he and Langbourne reminiscing about arms dealers they have known in their languid London clubland voices and – this is the improbable part – holding the whole room of dirty killers from the world’s warzones, holding them enthralled, ‘delighting their admirers’ and making priceless quips ‘to the helpless mirth of all’ (p.560). Even though most of them can’t speak English? Yes, because wherever le Carré’s characters go they quickly install the atmosphere of a self-congratulatory and superior staff room.

The purpose of the visit is to fly on the next day to a good imitation mockup of an airbase complete with tanks, cars and a tame plane which flies overhead, all of which are shot up and exploded by the mercenaries demonstrating the effectiveness of the weapons Roper is selling, to an invited audience of potential buyers. After the war games Roper moves among the rich guests, pressing the flesh with Pine in attendance as his new fixer. But at the end of the day everything changes. Roper receives a telegram from Bradshaw back in England, confirming the information Goodhew and Palfrey had leaked ie that Corky was framed by (the now dead) Apostoll and Pine is a spy. Pine is bundled into a car by Roper’s heavies and they all drive to the Canal Zone.

Having had the scene where the buyers view the arms, now there is a scene in a vast warehouse where Roper and  his people test the cocaine packed into innocent-looking crates labelled with coffee ads. It is the scene from a hundred drug dealer movies where the drug tester is wheeled in for one appearance, slashes packs of white powder taken from a random selection of crates, tastes it, subjects it to a few tests with his arcane equipment, and nods at the Head Baddy, getting to deliver his one, clichéd line: ‘A1 stuff’, or ‘Weapons grade’, or ‘100% pure’. Whereupon the Head Baddy nods wisely, the expert takes his wad and disappears, the two sides exchange suitcase stuffed with dollars or, in this case, sign the elaborate bills of lading and bankers drafts.

After which Pine is hustled away. He has a last few moments in a disgusting toilet where he scribbles a message, hides it in an envelope slipped into a pocket, planning to stash it with address and money to be found by whichever taxi driver drives them away from the warehouse. He knows now that Roper knows about him, and that he is going to die.

More Darker

That’s on page 587. For the next 80 pages we hear nothing more of Pine. The point of view cuts to London, to Whitehall and to Leonard Burr worrying about his agent and his operation. Over the next few days they learn that ships are leaving the docks Pine indicated and passing through the Panama Canal, ships Burr is convinced are carrying weapons to the Colombian drug cartels and cocaine to Europe. But he meets dead ends as he tries to find out more: even old colleagues say they can’t help out, as the entire operation Limpet has been sequestered by the Joint Steering Committee, under a new operational codename, Frigate.

This conflict escalates to a formal meeting of the Joint Steering Committee, attended by the Minister, at which Goodhew, defending the independence of the Enforcement side of the Department, and Burr’s Operation Limpet in particular, takes on Darker, head of Pure Intelligence, and comes as close as he can to accusing Darker of squashing the investigation.

This long scene is a set-piece depiction of a high-level Whitehall meeting where opposing views clash before an innocent Minister while we, the reader, know Darker’s agency to be actively involved in a massive crime. And Darker and his sidekick win the contest by successfully blackening Pine’s name, by reinterpreting his record as that of a psychopath fantasist who murdered two Irishmen, beat his Egyptian girlfriend to death, was seriously involved in drug running and has been trying to hawk intelligence agencies rubbish information for years. And this, they say, is the source, the evidence, the basis for arresting foreign-owned ships in international waters? Goodhew is ridiculed and in fact stalks out of the meeting. The minister is persuaded. Darker has won.

Paralleling this scene, across the pond in Florida ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’ is called in by his boss who has received much the same briefing from CIA Langley ie rubbishing Pine as a source, a scene which leaves Strelski incandescent with rage. Strelski and Burr are the good guys. They are up against profoundly corrupt organisations.

Burr’s sting

Which is why Burr, hearing about Goodhew’s defeat at the Joint Steering Committee meeting, takes matters into his own hands. He arrests the alcoholic lawyer Palfrey, and beats him up in an MoD cell until palfrey agrees tearfully to sign three phone intercepts, each to one of Darker’s offices. Then Burr drives out to Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw’s run-down country pile where he confronts him with the complete lie that Darker and his sidekicks have been arrested for treason and corruption: he makes Bradshaw phone Darker’s numbers, calls which are intercepted by Burr’s assistant, Rooke who, at the first address, impersonates the police and confirms Darker is under arrest; a further call to Palfrey himself has the wretched man quailing and reciting his lines that Darker’s under arrest, the game is up.

Burr goes on to tell Bradshaw the Americans are closing in on Roper, he expects Bradshaw himself might get off with ten years. What does he want? He wants Bradshaw to phone Roper’s yacht, the Iron Pasha and tell Roper that he will drop all charges if Roper releases Pine and the girl.

Pine in prison

On page 672, we rejoin Pine aboard Dicky Roper’s luxuriously appointed yacht, as it sets out for a cruise round the Bahamas, accompanied by various celebrity and high life guests, while Pine languishes in a secure room in the bowels of the ship being beaten to a pulp by Corky and his assistants. There are some intense pages describing Jed’s fear and guilt as she continues to perform the role of Roper’s hostess to the rich guests, and even lets him screw her every day. But all the time she is trying to find out where they’re keeping Pine and how to free him. Then there are several pages describing Pine’s state of mind, kept chained in the dungeon cabin, regularly beaten, punched, kicked, chained in agonising positions. Things look bleak for our heroes.

And then Roper is woken by the phone call from Bradshaw we saw him making under duress from Burr 30 pages earlier, the call claiming Darker has been arrested and the Yanks are onto Roper, but Burr will call all the arresting agencies off if he just releases Pine ‘and the girl’. So Jed finds herself told to dress in practical clothes and Roper orders the goons to unchain Pine, dress him in something clean; in a delirious semi-collapsed state the pair are loaded into the yacht’s dinghy and ferried over to the nearest island, presumably to contact the authorities.

Happy ending

The last chapter cuts away to a completely different scene, to the yokel-ish inhabitants of the little Cornish village where Pine had hidden out during the creation of his backstory. We don’t see or hear him or Jed, we just hear the matriarch of the village explaining to the denser inhabitants that, although it looks a bit like him, this is definitely NOT the Jack Linden who left under such suspicious circumstances all that time ago, that was explained to her very clearly by the senior policeman from Yorkshire who had a word (obviously Burr, the man whose sting appears to have freed Pine and saved his life).

The unnamed couple now living in the old cottage are going to breed horses and paint and lead a quiet uneventful life. She concludes her lecture to the yokels: ‘So I’ll trouble you never to talk out of turn again, because if you do, you’ll hurt two precious souls.’ (p.714)

What happened to Roper? What happened to the shipments of arms and drugs? What happened to Burr for breaking rules around phone tapping? What happened to Darker (did he just win?)? We are not told. All that matters is the happy couple are returned to Eden.

This is such a sentimental, consequence-free and improbably happy ending, that it brought a tear to my eye. Though whether at the Disney ending or simply from having made it through these 714 long pages, I’m not sure.


Le Carré and sex

Le Carré’s initial branding and positioning was as a gritty, realistic, street-level antidote to glamorous James Bond heroics, typified by the classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963) and easily contrastable with Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, published the same year. But thirty years later, le Carré is writing about a flashy international arms dealer, glamorous dolly bird on his arm, and the lone spy sent to bring him down – exactly as in a James Bond movie.

And the soulful-but-tough hero has a James Bond-like way with women as well: Pine’s ex-wife is gorgeous; he has an affair at the drop of a hat with the spirited Arab woman, Sophie; in Cornwall his strong silent good looks attract gorgeous young Marilyn; in Canada his strong, silent good looks lead to him having an affair with gorgeous young Yvonne. And once in the Roper’s circle he is immediately drawn to the flirtatious and stunningly attractive Jed, who he ends up having an affair with. Everywhere he goes women throw themselves at him.

This is pure Bond, isn’t it? Middle-aged male fantasy. And yet, the book is quick to point out, he is no normal shagger. Dear me, no. He is a soulful, sensitive shagger. A haunted shagger. A shagger with a dream of higher things.

He remembered his early women, no different from his later ones, each a bigger disillusionment than the last as he struggled to elevate them to the divine status of the woman he had never had. (p.163)

‘Divine status’? Pine is a sentimental, self-important James Bond.

But in fact everybody’s at it in this book. On the plane from his island to the mainland, we watch Roper flirt archly with the stewardess, praising her service and patting her bum. Later, at the hotel, Pine overhears Roper screwing her. Posh sidekick Langbourne is making his wife miserable by openly having an affair with the nanny; he comes down to Roper’s shack and asks to borrow his bed for some shagging. Corkoran generously informs Pine, when he first arrives on the island, that he is free to screw any of the women servants, just ‘no touchee Jed’. Corky is himself gay and free with his references to screwing and shagging and ‘having’ various partners.

Towards the end, even after they’ve had a fierce argument in which Roper doesn’t deny he’s keeping Pine prisoner and having him tortured, Jed still has sex with him. Really? And her memories are all sexual: she remembers being deflowered by a village tough, she remembers being raped by two brutes in Hammersmith, she remembers the orgies among the Hooray Henries. When he needs an example of Jed’s intuition about the atmosphere on board the ship, he cites the pretty Filipino maid and the eerie way Jed knows whether she’s been screwing the captain or the bosun or even ‘Sandy’ Langbourne. In fact, whenever a woman is mentioned in the text there is the strong possibility that it is her sexuality which will be described, humorously referred to, exploited.

If you add in Pine’s obsessive flashbacks/memories of lying next to a naked Sophie in the apartment in Luxor or, later on, his memories of Jed’s soft hands on his face (‘He remembered a morning when Jed wore a yellow blouse, and touched him with her eyes.’ p.554), the text is marinated in a particular kind of male fantasy eroticism.

Eventually, it’s hard to tell which is more tiresome, the soft porn atmosphere or the upper class banter. Both completely swamp the plot. This is le Carré for devoted fans only.


Credit

The Night Manager by John le Carré, published 1993 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1994 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

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

Twelfth century chroniclers

The 12th century was rather a golden time for chroniclers and historians:

Orderic Vitalis (1070-1142) a Benedictine monk who wrote a Historia Ecclesiastica in eight books. Books I and II are an unreliable history of Christianity from Jesus onwards which, by the 800s, has deteriorated to a simple list of Popes and their dates. Books III to VI are a history of the monastery in France where he lived, but contains a long and important digression on the life of William the Conqueror: the first part copies the extant Gesta Normannorum Ducum by William of Jumieges, but from the 1070s onwards Orderic is a unique source. Books VII to XIII cover the events of his own time, focusing on the three sons of William the Conqueror:

  • Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy who tried and failed to gain the throne of England
  • King William Rufus (1087-1100)
  • King Henry I (1100-1135)

and going on into the period known as the Anarchy, when the heirs of Henry I fell out and England was torn between Stephen of Blois, son of King Henry’s sister, who aggressively seized the kingdom upon Henry’s death, and Matilda, Henry’s daughter ie more directly in line to the throne but a) a woman b) married to Geoffrey count of Anjou, a family and region traditionally at odds with the Norman aristocracy. The conflict between the two heirs, their followers and the thousands of mercenaries they imported into England kept the country in ruinous anarchy for nearly twenty years (1135-1154).

John of Worcester (1080?-1140?) A monk and historian who worked at Worcester Priory, John is credited with being the author of the Chronicon ex chronicis, a world history which begins with the creation and ends in 1140.

Henry of Huntingdon (1088-1156) archdeacon of Huntingdon and author of the Historia Anglorum or History of the English from the earliest times to the author’s day and age. Especially valued for the last three books which cover the period from Aethelred the Unready through the conquest of Cnut, Edward the Confessor and the Norman Conquest and the rule of the Conqueror’s successors, William II, Henry I, through to the Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign. His history ends with a paean to the newly-crowned King Henry II, hoping he will bring peace to an exhausted nation.

William of Malmesbury (1095-1143) credited as being possibly the most learned man in 12th century Europe! Inspired by Bede, he amassed a great collection of historical and theological texts and in 1125 produced his Gesta Regum Anglorum or Deeds of the English Kings.

That same bishop Alexander of Lincoln who had commissioned Henry to write his history, a little later, in the 1130s, asked Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155) to translate the prophecies of Merlin into Latin from Welsh. Geoffrey incorporated them into a longer work, his Historia Regum Britanniae or History of the Kings of England, an almost farrago of myths and legends from the legendary Brutus down to the death of King Caedwalla in the 600s.

Gesta Stephani or The Deeds of King Stephen is an anonymous history of the reign of Stephen (1135-1154) and is one of the main sources for this period in English history. It consists of two books which a leading scholar reckons were written: Book I in about 1148, Book II up to the accession of Henry II, after 1154.

John of Salisbury (c. 1120–1180) was an English author, educationalist, diplomat and bishop of Chartres, whose chief works – Policraticus, sive de nugis curialium et de vestigiis philosophorum and the Metalogicon – are concerned with theology and philosophy but also contain references to contemporary courtly life and politics.

Ralph de Diceto (c.1125-c.1202) archdeacon of Middlesex, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and author of two chronicles, the Abbreviationes chronicorum and the Ymagines historiarum, the former a history of the world since its beginning, the latter containing original material after 1170 and becoming a useful contemporary record from 1181.

William of Newburgh (1136?-1198?) was an Augustinian monk who lived in Bridlington, Yorkshire, where he published his major work, the Historia rerum Anglicarum or History of English Affairs, a history of England from 1066 to 1198. He is entertainingly critical of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who he accuses of publishing ‘shameless lies’.

Roger of Hoveden or Howden (fl. 1174–1201) was a 12th-century English chronicler who served as a diplomat for Henry II and went on the Third Crusade with Richard I. He wrote a history of the reigns of the two kings whose courts he knew well, Gesta Henrici II et Gesta Regis Ricardi, and later in life a Chronica, a history of England from 732 to his own time, which is mostly derivative but for the period 1092 to 1201 (when it breaks off) is a unique source.

Walter Map (1140-1210) a cleric who was a courtier to Henry II before holding various positions at Lincoln, St Paul’s and Hereford. He is known for one work, De nugis curialium or Trifles of courtiers, a series of gossipy, scandalous anecdotes about contemporaries or notable people from the recent past, from Saladin at the fall of Jerusalem to St Anthony meeting a unicorn, from the character of Godwine the Saxon noble to the character of mermaids! It contains some of the earliest recorded tales about vampires. Sounds like an entertaining gallimaufry.

Gervase of Canterbury (c. 1141 – c. 1210) was a monk at Canterbury. He helped bury the murdered Thomas a Becket (December 29 1170) and went on to serve succeeding archbishops. He wrote The Chronicle, covering the period from 1100 to 1199 and the Gesta Regum, in part an abridgment of the earlier chronicle but from the year 1199 an independent source for the early years of King John’s reign.

Gerald of Wales aka Giraldus Cambrensis (c.1146-c.1223) a monk of Welsh and Norman descent, who spent time studying in Paris and England but is most known for his books about Wales and Ireland, specially the Itinerarium Cambriae or Journey through Wales (1191). This was the result of accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde, on a tour of Wales in 1188 to drum up support for the Third Crusade, and was swiftly followed by the Descriptio Cambriae in 1194, two vital sources of information for the Welsh history and culture of the time.

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