City of Gold by Len Deighton (1992)

Part one – Plot summary

Cairo during the war

Because of the chameleon on the book cover I thought this might be another novel set in South America, the setting of MAMista, but in fact this one is set in wartime Cairo – apparently known back then as the ‘city of gold’ – in January 1942, as Rommel and Montgomery push each other’s armies back and forth across North Africa.

The novel opens with Army Special Investigator, Major Albert Cutler accompanying a soldier, Jimmy Ross (accused of killing a superior officer under fire) back to Cairo by train to stand trial. Cutler has a heart attack giving Ross a golden opportunity to swap clothes, identity cards and so on, and arrive in Cairo masquerading as the special investigator. A confident actor, he hands over Cutler’s body to the officer meeting him at the station, Captain Marker, claiming it is Ross’s. From that point onwards Ross-as-Cutler is on tenterhooks, scared that at any moment his impersonation of the investigator will be discovered by the soldiers surrounding him. Captain Marker escorts him to the Army’s main barracks at Bab el-Hadid, where he is assigned rooms, introduced to his staff, and then shown around town by Marker, who is puzzled as to why he seems so nervous.

By this route we enter the lives of a circle of people living in the Cairo at this moment in history. Peggy West, a good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse, who lost her only child to illness and whose husband, Karl, has been away on active service in Iraq for eighteen long months. We see her supervising her sometimes difficult or emotional nurses at the Base Hospital, often overcome by the sight of so many dying and mutilated young men.

Peggy relies on money from the slippery Solomon Marx, who lives on a houseboat on the Nile, and who we see talking with his partner, Yigal, in a conversation which seems to reveal that they’re working for the Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine. Solomon asks Peggy to keep and eye on Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff, a large, imposing Russian émigré who rents the entire top floor at the Hotel Magnifico. Its Italian owner, Lucio wants him out so she can rent the individual rooms at much greater profit to the hordes of Allied officers swarming into the city and looking for stylish bolt-holes. Everybody gossips that the Prince is Rommel’s spy in the city – it is well known that Rommel is getting verbatim reports of British troop deployments from a well-placed spy. But the Prince rises above it all, continuing to host his stylish parties, one of which Ross is taken to by the only woman on his staff at the barracks, the phenomenally posh Alice Stanhope. Alice’s mother, also living in Cairo, knows absolutely everyone dahling.

Meanwhile, in the Lady Fitzherbert brothel in the notorious El Birkeh district of the city, we see two partners in crime, Sergeants Percy and Smith, not their real names, who have booked a room to share the money from their latest deals. But Smith is getting cold feet: the Army appointed a new auditor at his stores who is bound to find out that he’s been embezzling them on a grand scale. As he whines and wails, Deighton surprises us by having Percy move forward, place his hand over his mouth and stab him through the heart with an oriental dagger. A young Arab serving girl looks on while this happens, then goes to fetch towels and cloth to clear up the mess.

All this takes place in the first 60 or so pages of this 320-page novel to set the scene, the location, the atmosphere, to establish quite a large cast of characters, all with secrets or agendas or plans afoot, which the remaining 250 pages will bring to light and work through. I’ve been to Cairo; the city is fairly well evoked, but the dominant impression from these early pages is Deighton’s humourlessness and the flat, blank, factual, heartless way he describes violence and death.

Stereotypes and clichés

So the plus sides are: large cast of characters, intriguing setting, interesting plot arcs, Deighton’s in-depth knowledge of military history, strategy and hardware, and his taut clipped sentences.

Unfortunately, these strengths are related to a number of weaknesses. Many characters, yes, but too many of them are stereotypes, too many of them are famous for x, or a classic example of y, or a stock type of z.

She recognised it as one of Darymple’s stories. His skill as a storyteller was renowned throughout the clubs and bars of Cairo. (p.51)

Jeannie MacGregor’s grand-father had lived in a castle, and through him Jeannie claimed to be a direct descendant of Rob Roy, the famous Scots outlaw. (p.61)

Sayed was a handsome young man. His light-coloured skin and clear blue eyes were said in Cairo to be the legacy of Circassian concubines, women renowned for their beauty. (p.64)

‘I met an old chum in Shepheard’s bar last week. Toby Wallingford, RNVR, a very good pal. I thrashed him countless times at school; he says he still has the scars.’ (p.68)

‘Cleo’s club. Just about every crook and black-marketeer in Cairo visits this place at some time or other.’ (p.75)

‘They call him Zooly; he’s one of the richest men in this town. If you want a tank, or a virgin, or your enemy murdered, he’ll fix it for you – at a price.’ (p.75)

Short clipped sentences, yes, but this means the characters’ feelings or psychology are generally conveyed with crushing bluntness and obviousness. Deighton proved himself a brilliant popular historian with Blitzkrieg and Fighter. His thumbnail sketches of key figures in those histories, eg the tank commander Guderian or Wing Commander ‘Bomber’ Harris are more interesting and thorough than you might expect in a history. But they are nowhere near subtle or nuanced enough to appear in a novel, the form most concerned with psychological development and insight.

You could say that, as novelists go, Deighton is a very good military historian – a writer who is much more at home with the technical specifications of a Messerchmitt 109E or a brisk explanation of Rommel’s attack formation at El Alamein, than with the foibles of the human heart. Again and again you read sentences that might have come from a Mills & Boon novelette, especially when he’s dealing with his female characters. The issue of Peggy West having lost a young baby, thus making her forlorn, seems like something out of Catherine Cookson.

Had the baby lived, everything might have gone differently. (p.56)

It was a glorious smile, the sort of smile that a woman saves for the man she adores. Was it possible that she could fall in love with a man she’d only just met? The answer was yes. (p.97)

She wondered if this man would ever realise that she was desperately in love with him. Everyone who had seen her with him in the last few days seemed to guess. No matter how hard she tried, Alice could not keep it a secret from anyone except from him. (p.100)

She was beautiful, yet shy. She was eternally reticent, yet she knew so much. What a wicked twist of fate that he’d met her at a time like this. (p.98)

Yes, what a wicked, wicked twist of fate.

The plot(s)

Wallingford’s criminal gang

The 20 or so characters intertwine and interact. We have been introduced several times to a Lieutenant Commander Toby Wallingford, a posh boy who went to the same public school as some of the other officers, namely Captain Darymple. Wallingford gives out to his officer colleagues that he’s part of a hush-hush secret unit, often deployed to the front on high risk missions. Now we learn he is in fact a deserter who has set up a smuggling operation. Key to it is Percy, in fact a German deserter, the man we saw murder Smith in one of the opening scenes. Percy knows the position of various German and Italian arms dumps which were abandoned in the last retreat. Thus he is able to navigate Wallingford’s crew of criminals in lorries through the front line on what Wallingford tells everyone are hush-hush missions, to load up the guns and ammo, and drive them back to Cairo to flog on the black market.

One aspect of Wallingford’s operations is to kindly arrange a loan for his superior, Captain Darymple, who is always in debt. Wallingford drives him to a dingy Arab house, where Darymple signs a loan agreement with the cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman, Mahmoud. Inevitably, within days, Mahmoud is calling for the short term to be repaid with interest, Darymple is begging Wallingford to help him, and Wallingford is kindly offering to intercede if Darymple will just sign a few forms and arrange the transit of some, er, goods. In other words, he co-opts Darymple into becoming an accessory to his black market organisation.

Another and persisting element is the existence of a massive arms dump, packed with Italian Beretta machines guns, at a place in no man’s land between the armies called Al Jaghbub. Wallingford’s plan is simple: to go and collect them and transport them back to Cairo and sell to Solomon. However, various things go wrong. For a start, we are introduced to a gung-ho American journalist, Harry Wechsler, and his Irish fixer, Chips O’Riley, who somehow get wind of the secret, and undertake a perilous drive out into the desert. Turns out British Army investigators are also there, question Wechsler, then order him to push off. The authorities decide to leave the guns where they are but spike them. Aware they’ve been found, but not of the decision to sabotage them, Wallingford tells Percy he’ll go ahead and sell them to Solomon Marx’s Jewish organisation, but they’ll have to collect them themselves.

Sayed el-Shazli

In a separate strand, Peggy West and Alice take an Army lorry and follow Sayed el-Shazli, a young well-connected Egyptian who’s part of the Prince’s circle, out onto the perilous Western road and then off to an out-of-the-way native village. Ross-as-Cutler had ordered Alice to tail him, thinking it would be a safe assignment around Cairo bars. Alice parks the lorry, tells Peggy to guard it, and walks into the village unaccompanied, ignored by the sullen villagers. Suddenly she realises she’s being followed and the Arab man moves closer then speaks to her. The atmosphere becomes sinister, as she is accompanied to the big house of the village where she finds Sayed and a fat, rich old pasha who proceeds to read her fortune as she sips the tea, becomes woozy and then passes out. I thought something bad might happen to her, but it turns out to be simple heatstroke. Sayed’s people look after her, and then return her to Peggy’s care.

King Farouk

On a higher political and diplomatic level, we see through the eyes of nervous Jimmy Ross the political crisis which flares up when the British diplomats (foolishly, in the opinion of the Army) force young King Farouk to change his government. The crisis atmosphere comes about because it seems as if the King will refuse, in which case the British will force him to abdicate. This is all told from the point of view of Ross who appears in the square in front of the palace at night, the whole city in an atmosphere of great tension, the soldiers on duty who Ross talks to uncertain what is going on. Eventually, in the early hours, Farouk concedes, changes government and remains king. The senior officers, brigadiers and the like that Ross talks to, think it’s all the fault of the damn fool diplomats, that the Army has enough on its plate fighting Rommel out West without having to worry about riots and insurrection back in Cairo.

Sayed’s humiliation

Prince Piotr takes his friends (Sayed, Peggy, Alice, Wallingford, Darymple) to one of Cairo’s swankiest restaurants to celebrate his birthday, partly because he knows the tubby 22-year-old King Farouk will be there (nickname: ‘fatty Farouk’) and he’ll be able to show off his acquaintanceship with him. The king grandly enters with his entourage, emphatically countering the rumours surrounding his abdication and the knife-edge political situation of just a few days before. Alice, Peggy and the other bien-pensant liberals are favourably inclined to him. Half way through the evening he sends over an equerry who conveys very polite birthday felicitations to Prince Piotr, compliments to the ladies, and then addresses Zeinab, the beautiful sister of Sayed: the king requests the honour of a dance. A private dance. At his palace. Leaving in fifteen minutes.

Stricken, tense, muttered conversations ensue, in which the Prince explains that neither Sayed nor Zeinab can refuse this ‘honour’; if they do Sayed will wake up dead at the bottom of the Nile. The Western women are outraged, and suddenly not so fond of the good-looking young king who now makes his exit, returning to the palace to prepare himself for his ‘dance’ with Zeinab. And then she goes mournfully, to be accompanied away by an equerry, in reality a glorified pimp for the fornicating king.

This proves an important turning point in one of the numerous plot strands, because Sayed is so embittered by this public and personal humiliation that he reveals to Alice, then Ross, that he is a member of the illegal Free Officers revolutionary organisation, working to overthrow British rule and establish a free monarchy. Not any more. Now he agrees to spy on it for the British. Alice fixes up a meeting with her boss Ross (all the time masquerading as the dead Special Investigator, Bert Cutler, and increasingly feeling relaxed and comfortable in the role) who conducts a fraught conversation which ends with him producing a blank piece of paper. ‘Write their names’, he says, knowing that once Sayed has crossed that Rubicon, and betrayed his colleagues, there will be no going back.

The tense psychology of spying, interrogation, betrayal, the links between individual behaviour and the broader political scene, descriptions of a lorry driven by nervous criminals making its way through a minefield in the Western desert – all of this is powerfully and persuasively done. It’s the softer, social sides of life, cocktail party chatter, and especially anything to do with women, their thoughts as they try on outfits for the party, their feelings and emotions, and especially his descriptions of falling in love or being in love, where Deighton is at his weakest.

The Jewish plotline

Ross/Cutler’s relationship with his boss, an unpredictable brigadier, is reminiscent of the Ipcress novels and the narrator’s insubordinate opinion of his superiors. There is a hilarious scene two-thirds of the way through where Ross has to listen to his boss banging on about the Jews, about the origin of Christianity, and about Jewish freedom fighters in Palestine. But the Jewish thread is compounded a few pages later when Captain Marker reports to Ross that the American journalist, Wechsler, has posted a long detailed piece to US newspapers explaining how the British used Jewish spies in the Levant from as early as 1940, on a promise to help them secure independence / fight the Arabs. Now the British are reneging on that promise, various underground Jewish organisations are finding ways to secure Axis munitions left in dumps in no man’s land.

These revelations put into context the activities of Solomon Marx and his colleague, who we met early on; they are one of these teams securing arms for the Jewish homeland. It explains the activities of Peggy West, who in a low-level way collects a stipend from Marx for spying for him. It puts in context Wallingford’s plan to flog the Italian machine guns at Al Jaghbub to Solomon which, we now realise, will be passed on to the Haganah or other Jewish militias in Palestine. It explains why the brigadier wants to set up a new unit to monitor Religious Subversives, namely whatever Jewish organisations they can locate. It explains why Captain Marker is riveted to discover, after extensive investigation, that Peggy West’s missing husband, Karl, is in fact a Haganah operative, with a long record of criminal convictions and two escapes from captivity. And explains why Marker decides to help Peggy’s long-expressed wish to find her missing husband; if they trail her, and she finds him, they can arrest him.

The Italian guns

Marker informs Ross that there’s been an incident at the Italian arms dump. Some Arabs turned up and insisted they had authorisation to remove them. The brigadier’s men were a bit trigger happy and the incident degenerated into a shootout in which eight Arabs were killed. So we have this information as we watch Solomon and Yigal drive to an appointment with Mahmoud. Wallingford had sub-contracted collecting the arms to Mahmoud, whose men are the ones who’ve been killed. The interview is tense because Mahmoud is convinced Solomon is in league with the British and partly responsible for the deaths, whereas Solomon doesn’t even understand what’s happened. On leaving the house Solomon and Yigal are arrested by British Army cops who Mahmoud has tipped off in revenge.

The Desert War

The scene then shifts for the last forty pages or so to a forward base in the desert. Captain Darymple has managed to arrange a transfer here, back to his old armoured car brigade, and away from Cairo where he learns there is now a contract out on him for non-repayment of Mahmoud’s debt. Here, by coincidence arrives Wallingford, along with Percy and a gang of his criminals. They are planning to go forward to steal more munitions from the desert. At the same time, Ross-as-Cutler arrives to seek help from the commanding officer. And also here is the ubiquitous Harry Wechsler and his gofer, Chips, wanting to see some real action for a change.

All these strands come together when the Germans make their presence felt and threaten to attack. The entire unit is ordered to withdraw, lorries, armoured cars and all. Their commanding officer, nickname Thunder, is just admiring the size and power of Wechsler’s V-8-powered lorry when it runs over a mine, exploding, killing Chips outright, fatally crushing Wechsler behind the engine block, burning and crippling all the passengers. The medic helps out as best he can before the rest of the convoy continues on to their main base.

Here, there are dramatic scenes as the commander in chief, Anderson, lets Wallingford know in no uncertain terms that he knows that Walingford and most of his men are deserters and criminals: they’ll be given guns to fight against the advancing Germans, but no forgiveness or amnesty, and all he can offer them is a decent burial.

The entire Wallingford gang plotline is over in a stroke. As part of this round-up Ross-as-Cutler goes to arrest Percy who he suspects (correctly) of being German. But Percy makes a break for it and runs off, scrambling up the nearest sand dune. Ross chases him, up sand dunes then down into a dry, hard, creviced valley bottom, all the time coming under fire from the German positions which are less than a kilometre away. Finally he rugby tackles him and starts violently beating him. An armoured car arrives, German rifle bullets pinging off it, sent by the commanding officer, and Ross pushes Percy into it and it returns them to the base. Here Ross interrogates Percy and finally cracks the ‘Rommel’s spy’ case which has hung over the whole novel.

The spy isn’t Percy, who is simply the low-level crook and black marketeer we’ve been led to believe. But before he deserted, Percy worked on Rommel’s signals unit, and here he had access to the signals being sent by the spy. So he is able to tell Ross that the information is being sent by an Axis spy within the US embassy in Cairo, the Americans being given privileged access to all British troop movements and strategy. Aha.

In the last page of this section, Ross has himself handcuffed to Percy, as they prepare for the final German assault, and tells him one of the commander’s staff has orders to shoot them both if the compound is over-run (to prevent knowledge that they know about the master spy, from being revealed to the enemy).

Tying up the threads

The setting cuts away to Cairo.

1. Alice is informed that Ross is alive. Just. He and the survivors of the unit were found some days after the Germans attacked and wiped them out. Almost all of them were dead, in fact the patrol thought Ross was dead, with badly burnt legs and exposure. But he was alive, still handcuffed to the dead Percy. She rushes to be by his side, convinced now that she loves him.

2. Ross is recovering in bed when visited by his ever-efficient adjutant in Special Investigations, Ponsonby. Unfortunately, when he was brought in he was so delirious that he gave his true name (Ross) to his rescuers, was tagged as such all the way to the hospital, where questions started to be asked. Ooops. They know he is Corporal Jimmy Ross; they know he was only masquerading as Major Cutler.

But Ponsonby has carried on being loyal to him and, it is implied, the brigadier has turned a blind eye while Ponsonby worked bureaucratic wonders. Ross has been declared dead some months ago, his death certificate associated with Cutler’s corpse from the train. But now ‘Cutler’ has also been declared dead, thus neatly solving the problem from an administrative point of view: for if the truth ever came out, that Ross had managed to fool all those people, including his superior, for so many months, everyone involved would look a complete ass. Better that ‘Cutler’ dies, and dies a hero, in the desert, giving his life fighting the Hun. And to those in the know, making the breakthrough with the Rommel spy case.

Ross will be given a completely new identity and packed off out east somewhere, India, Burma. Ross is briefly miffed that he won’t get any recognition for unmasking Rommel’s spy, but then is grateful to be free. Well, still in the army… Alice arrives full of love. Presumably their romance will blossom…

3. Peggy West arrives at Solomon’s houseboat after dark. She finds him badly wounded, sitting in the dark. He and Yigal were ambushed by Mahmoud’s men. Yigal is dead. A felucca of his people, the Jewish underground, is coming to rescue them. While they wait Peggy tries to clean and bind his wound. Solomon tells her that her husband, Karl, is dead. Maybe he only ever wanted the British passport. In a last gesture Solomon tells Peggy he’s giving her the houseboat. Its name is City of Gold. 

Peggy helps Solomon into the felucca which starts up an outboard and putters away in the dark night. Moments later soldiers arrive led by Captain Marker. He was the officer who met Ross-Cutler all those months earlier on his arrival in Cairo station. During the ‘trouble with Jews’ conversations he had mentioned to Ross that he was himself Jewish. Now we, Peggy and his own soldiers strongly suspect he has timed his ‘arrest’ of Solomon just too late to actually capture him. And, after his men have searched the houseboat and found nothing, he sends them away, and settles down for a drink with Peggy. She is realising she has no husband, no ties, a new property (the houseboat) maybe she can stretch her wings and live a free life for the first time. Marker finds her especially attractive and they flirt. Maybe their story, too, will have a happy ending.

Conclusion

The last 100 pages or so really pick up pace and intensity, Deighton’s clipped style well-suited to situations of men deceiving, double crossing and manipulating each other, to the edginess of combat situations, to moments of violence and physical action – like the lorry blown up by a mine and its grisly aftermath, or Ross’s desperate pursuit of Percy across the sand dunes under enemy fire.

It is the intensity of these closing scenes which stays in the memory and persuades you this was a good thriller, helping you to forget the first two hundred pages of social chit-chat, party conversation and attempts to convey a feminine perspective on emotions and feelings, which are a lot less convincing.

El Alamein

Throughout the book, there has been a continuous chorus of characters speculating about whether and when Rommel will reach Cairo, and the more thoughtful of them predicting that, if he does, the entire Middle East will fall to the Germans, who will then be able to push north and reinforce their forces fighting in Russia and, ultimately, win the war. (Deighton is, of course, no stranger to counter-factual speculation as one of his most successful novels, SS-GB, describes what England would feel like after the Nazis had in fact invaded and conquered us.) The speculation is in part fuelled by rumours that Rommel knows everything the British Army is planning to do before it does it, and therefore to win victory after victory. Therefore, the discovery by Ross that the enemy is getting their information from sources inside the US Embassy is absolutely vital.

Deighton tops and tails the narrative with quotes from a history of codebreaking which confirm that Rommel’s victories were in part based on these intelligence tip-offs – and that they abruptly stopped in the summer of 1942, therefore leaving him, for the first time, blind about British intentions.

A few months after the narrative ends, in October 1942, there took place the decisive battle of the Desert War, and one of the great battles of the entire war – the battle of El Alamein. Deighton has seeded clues about it by having characters refer to stopovers there, for Alamein was just an insignificant train stop in the desert until this historic event made its name famous. It was here that the British decisively beat Rommel and pushed his Afrika Corps into retreat. The very last lines quote Churchill as saying that, before El Alamein we never had a victory; but after El Alamein, we never had a defeat.

This places Jimmy Ross’s behaviour in impersonating a Special Investigator so thoroughly that he begins to solve his cases, and in particular his heroic chasing of the German deserter Percy across desert dunes under enemy fire, and, back at the base, his beating out of Percy the truth about the sources of Rommel’s intelligence – in a completely new light. In case it wasn’t obvious, Deighton is implying that Ross played a decisive role in winning the war. It is an example of Deighton’s super-dry humour that this entire novel makes a stroppy criminal corporal from Glasgow turn out to be a figure of world historical importance.


Part Two – First and third person narrators

If my summary of City of Gold seems a bit chaotic, if it’s hard to grasp who the lead characters are, I think this is a strategy or effect which Deighton deliberately seeks. In all his third-person novels characters are killed off almost on a whim because most of those novels, especially the ones about war (Bomber, Goodbye Mickey Mouse, SSGB) seek to depict the horrifying arbitrariness of accidents, pain and death.

In most of Deighton’s fiction – rather like in ‘real life’ – you are deliberately kept guessing which characters are ‘important’ and which ones are going to die horribly grisly deaths. As in ‘real life’, there’s a large cast and wildly unpredictable things happen ie the heart attack in the first chapter of City of Gold or Wechsler, who I was just getting to like, being killed in the blown-up lorry. In his 3rd-person narratives, it is as if Deighton is trying to teach his readers a lesson about how bloody awful life is.

This is one of the things which makes the first-person narratives so different from the third-person ones. In the third-person narratives, the narrator is rather formal and anything can happen, horrible unpredictable things can happen at any moment. It is a tense experience reading them, and often upsetting.

By contrast, the first-person narratives eg the Ipcress novels, the first-person Bernard Samson narratives or a novel like Violent Ward, feel warmer and funnier for several reasons, but a main one is because you are on the solid ground of knowing that at least the narrator himself is not going to be blown up in a lorry, cut down in a jungle ambush, vapourised by ack ack fire, or any of the numerous other fates awaiting characters in the 3rd-person texts.

Deighton is happier in the first-person narratives, and so is the reader.

City of Gold Dramatis personae

THE BRITISH ARMY

Major Albert Cutler – Army Special Investigator, recruited from Glasgow police force, accompanying Corporal Jimmy Ross in handcuffs back to Cairo for trial for assaulting an officer under fire, when he has a heart attack and dies.

Corporal Jimmy Ross, also from Scotland, is travelling in custody of Major Cutler until the latter has a heart attack, whereupon Jimmy gets the keys to the handcuffs, frees himself and swaps clothes and identity cards with Cutler. When the train arrives in Cairo Ross confidently adopts Cutler’s identity, handing over the body to Captain Marker and being escorted to his new offices in the huge Bab el-Hadid barracks. He was hoping he could do a runner and disappear into the Cairo crowds but now finds himself trapped in his new identity. But after a nervous few days he discovers that everyone accords an Army Special Investigator lots of respect, he discovers he likes ordering around other officers, having a slavish assistant (Sergeant Ponsonby) and very much likes the only woman on his staff, the stunning Alice Stanhope. He finds excuses to be near her, and gives in to her requests to actually do something instead of hanging round looking decorative. Thus he lets her follow Sayed, the personable, western-educated young Egyptian who is part of their social circle, a simple request which becomes complicated when she finds herself driving out to an isolated village and then surrounded by threatening armed men… In the event it is Sayed’s home village and she is perfectly safe. Through various encounters, at work and at the various cocktails parties described in the first half of the novel, we watch her and
Ross fall in love. As the months go by he begins to use his powers to seriously track down Rommel’s spy who everyone is talking about. This eventually leads him to the Western Desert where he tracks down Percy, the German deserter who is part of Major Wallingford’s criminal gang, and beats the truth out of him, before himself being badly wounded in a German attack on the Allied base. Badly burned and half dead, Ross is recovered after the battle is over, and brought back to hospital in Cairo.

Sergeant Ponsonby – ever efficient adjutant, always ready with his disgusting tea made with cloying evaporated milk, always ready with the correct file and always shifting responsibility for dodgy tasks, missions and reports onto other units so as to keep his boss squeaky clean. He carries on being super efficient even after, right at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Ross has been impersonating Cutler all along. Ponsonby manages all the paperwork so that Ross can remain free (although in the Army), assume a new identity, and start a new career out East.

The brigadier – Ross-Cutler’s superior at the Bab el-Hadid barracks. He is eccentric and unpredictable – as demonstrated in a long and very funny scene in the last third of the novel, when he prattles on about Jewish conspiracies and links it somehow to the founding of Christianity by that rascal, St Paul.

Captain Lionel Marker – Ross’s number one, the upright, punctilious officer who meets Ross at Cairo station and is taken in by him from the start, who escorts him around Cairo, introducing him to its criminal and ethnic communities, as well as to the polite society of various bars and hotels and into the elite social circle gather round Prince Piotr. When the issue of Jewish spies securing arms for the Jewish forces in Occupied Palestine rears its head, Marker points out to his boss, Ross, that he, Marker, is Jewish. This doesn’t bother Ross one way or the other, but it may explain the slight undercurrent when Marker, early on in the novel, is tasked with searching Solomon Marx’s houseboat, along with all the other houseboats moored along the Nile, for guns or other smuggled goods. At the very end of the novel, he definitely arrives to carry out another search of The City of Gold just after Solomon has left. Moreover, we know that Peggy West was married to a Jew and considers herself part Jewish. This may or may not explain the mild flirtation that Marker feels relaxed enough to begin with Peggy right at the end of the novel.

Captain Robin Darymple (page 50) – dashing public school chap who knew Wallingford at school and finds himself blackmailed, via his gambling debts, into getting involved in Wallingford’s shady schemes.

Lieutenant Commander Wallingford RNVR (page 76) Public school chap who happens to have deserted his unit and uses his public school connections (with, among others, Darymple) to maintain the fiction that he is commander of a hush-hush secret unit tasked with carrying our daring raids out behind enemy lines. Giving himself a naval rank was a smart move, since naval records are stored in Alexandria and difficult for Cairo Army intelligence to access. Wallingford is actually running a black market racket with a bunch of other deserters and Sergeant Percy, masquerading as a South African, in fact a deserter from the German Army.

Mogg and Powell, two deserters who are part of Wallingford’s gang.

Sergeant Percy is a German deserter. His unit was completely decimated in an Allied advance and so he walked East into our arms but managed to escape capture, dressing in British Army gear, pretending to be a South African and finding his way into ‘Major’ Wallingford’s criminal gang of black marketeers. He becomes an invaluable source for the location of various ammo dumps which he leads Wallingford’s gang to in the desert, which they can load up, drive back to Cairo and sell. Nonetheless, he has an uneasy relationship with Wallingford, having announced that it will soon be time for him to leave the gang, and I spent some time wondering whether this would lead to a fight, shootout or brutal stabbing, as in the early brothel scene. Instead, the entire Wallingford storyline comes to an abrupt end when they are revealed for the crooks they are in a British forward base which is then attacked by the Germans. We hear nothing more of Wallingford and can assume, as Ponsonby says in the hospital much later, that he like everyone else in the base was killed. But not before Ross, who is also there, chases Percy, captures him and beats the truth out of him about Rommel’s spy being a senior official in the US Embassy in Cairo. When the rescuing troops reach the destroyed base they find the badly injured and unconscious Ross still handcuffed to Percy, who is dead.

Lieutenant Andy Anderson (page 54) A blunt-spoken Yorkshireman who’s risen from sergeant in 12 months of hard fighting, and now commands the unit out in the desert where the novel reaches its climax: where Harry Wechsler and his gofer Chips, Jimmy Ross, and Wallingford and his black market team, all find themselves as the Germans launch an attack.

THE WOMEN

Alice Stanhope (page 46) Phenomenally posh and very attractive daughter of the woman who knows everyone, who has got her a job in the British Army investigations department, where she comes under Ross-Cutler’s authority, on the condition she doesn’t actually do any dangerous work, preferably no work at all. She chafes at these restrictions and so Ross, who is badly smitten by her beauty and grace, first makes her his personal assistant, then gives in and gives her some elementary trailing to do. A lot later, at the end of the novel, she is in agonies waiting to find out what happened to the forward unit she knows Ross was off to visit and whether he’s still alive. As soon as she knows he is, she runs off to visit him, in what promises to blossom into a wartime romance.

Peggy West (page 30) A good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse. She married a Jewish man, Karl, in the 1930s and came to Egypt looking for adventure. Karl was despatched to Iraq on a five-year contract protecting oil wells, and she hasn’t seen for 18 months. We meet her as she collects a small stipend from Solomon al-Masri, which the latter claims comes from Karl. Deighton spends a lot of time describing her background, her parents’ hopes for her, the difficulties in her married life, but she doesn’t come alive for me as a character. She becomes a sort of chaperone figure to Alice Stanhope through the middle of the book. Near the end she visits the City of Gold houseboat to find Solomon Marx badly wounded in a shootout with Mahmoud’s men. She helps him leave, during which he hands over ownership of the houseboat to her, so that she greets Captain Marker, who arrives to search the houseboat, as its new owner, with a heady sense of freedom and the strong hint that they might be about to become an item.

Karl West – A Jew who marries Peggy and then disappears off to Iraq, allegedly on a five year oil contract. Solomon al-Masri claims to receive money from Karl which he forwards to Peggy but Peggy wonders if it’s just a way of getting her to spy for Solomon. Near the end of the novel, Captain Marker’s investigations show him that Karl is in fact a crook with a long criminal record, some of it connected to the Haganah and Stern Gangs in Palestine. He also discovers that Karl is dead.

Jeannie MacGregor (page 61) One of the nurses under Peggy West’s command.

THE JEWS

Solomon al-Masri, real name Solomon Marx (page 30) Lives on a houseboat on the Nile, which he has named The City of Gold. He and his partner, Yigal, are working for Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine, sourcing information about the British, the Germans, the Arabs, where they can, and arranging the purchase and shipment of arms to the Jewish militias in Palestine. Wallingford, the black marketeer, over various scenes, tries to arrange the sale of Italian machine guns from an arms dump in the desert to Solomon. When Wallingford refuses to deliver them in person (knowing the British Army have seized them) Solomon in good faith commissions Mahmoud and his men to do it. But they are shot and eight killed by the Brits, making Mahmoud think it was a trap. Which explains why, when Solomon and Yizgal motor over to Mahmoud’s house, tucked away down Cairo’s narrow medieval streets, they are greeted very coldly and emerge from a puzzling meeting to be arrested by the British police who have been tipped off by Mahmoud. At the end of the novel Peggy West finds Mahmoud slumped in his unlit houseboat, late at night, having been badly wounded in an assassination attempt by Mahmoud’s men. A felucca of his people arrive and unload the badly wounded man who, in parting gesture, gifts Peggy the houseboat and reveals what she’s suspected – her husband is long dead. She is a free woman.

Yigal Arad (page 40) Palestinian born Jew and Solomon’s partner in their mission to get information and guns for their Jewish masters in Palestine.

THE ARABS

Mahmoud is a cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman. We seem him in league with Major’ Wallingford, lending Datymple money solely to snare him in Wallingford’s schemes. We also learn that Solomon sub-contracted collecting the Italian Beretta machine guns from the oasis to Mahmoud for an appreciable sum. What Solomon didn’t realise is that the British Army had already found and claimed the cache. Therefore when Mahmoud’s men arrive to collect it they find themselves stopped, questioned and then fired upon by the Brits. Eight men die. Which explains why he greets Solomon and Yigal very coldly when they go to exchange payment, why he tips off the British police to arrest them both and then, at the end of the novel, is responsible for an assassination attempt on Solomon.

Sayed el-Shazli (page 64) Personable young westernised Egyptian who lives in the same hotel as Prince Piotr and so has become part of his social circle. He’s a student at the American University and an Egyptian Army reserve officer, but also active in a secret organisation of Egyptian Army officers who are planning to overthrow British rule and establish King Farouk on the throne of an independent Egypt. But after the King arrogantly commands his sister to attend him at his palace for a royal rogering, the bitterly humiliated Sayed agrees to become a spy on his independence organisation for the British.

Zeinab el-Shazli (page 64) Stunningly beautiful sister of Sayed. Her main function is to be propositioned by King Farouk’s staff in a stylish nightclub and, since she can’t refuse, going off with them, much to the anger of the white ladies present.

King Farouk Nicknamed ‘Fatty Farouk’, The 22-year-old king chafes at British rule over his country, nominally a free independent nation. But meanwhile he has time and money to live a sumptuous lifestyle and, as the Zeinab storyline shows, commandeer women for his pleasure.

THE ÉMIGRÉS

Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff (page 65) Large, tall, imposing Russian émigré who rents a whole floor at the Hotel Magnifico. He was abroad when his father died and he inherited vast estates, and when the Revolution broke out and he lost them all. He claims a general’s rank on doubtful grounds, lives magnificently and is widely – and incorrectly – thought to be Rommel’s spy in the city.

Lucia Magnifico (page 50) Daughter of Signor Mario Magnifico who founded the hotel of the same name in Cairo, where Prince Piotr now occupies an entire floor.

Harry Wechsler – Gung-ho American journalist, not particularly friendly to the Brits, pointing out that the US is now funding their war effort while the Brits are managing to lose everywhere. He is shrewd enough to figure out there’s some kind of scam surrounding arms dumps in the desert, and writes a long op-ed piece which gets published in American newspapers, explaining how the Brits gratefully used Jewish intelligence resources in Palestine and the wider Middle East at the start of the war, and promised help with the creation of a Jewish homeland. Now the Brits are trying to wriggle out of their promises, with the result that the Jewish organisations are engaged in securing arms from any source possible, preparing for the upcoming war with the Arabs, and this includes using agents like Solomon to secure abandoned weaponry. He’s following up on this story at a forward unit in the desert which comes under German attack. Leading a convoy of armoured cars and lorries, at the wheel of his own V 8-powered lorry, Wechsler runs over a German mine. Chips is killed instantly and Wechsler loses his legs and is impaled by various bits of the engine. He survives long enough to experience unbearable pain, before being given an overdose of morphine by the unit’s unqualified medical officer.

Chips O’Riley – Irish soldier, journalist who’s found a niche as a fixer and gofer and attaches himself to Wechsler. Has some witty repartee before being killed instantly in the lorry blown up by a mine.


Credit

City of Gold published by Pluriform Publishing in 1992. All page references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

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.

Every room in Tate Britain (part two)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a striking neo-classical building (opened 1897) complete with columned portico and grand steps leading up to the entrance, which faces out onto the river Thames. To the left of the main entrance a ramp and steps lead down to the lower floor, which holds a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened in 1987) – nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s enormous collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a small room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Haunting, scattered sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, to walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of the main chronological sequence are seven or eight single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1910

I left off my coverage of every room in Tate Britain (part one) with the advent of the Great War, half way through the 1910 room. The second half of the room includes post-War art:

  • Alfred Wallis St Ives (1928) Wallis was a ‘naive’ artist, a retired sea captain who took up painting on scraps of cardboard or wood he could scrounge. He was discovered and taken up by professional artists Ben Nicholson, was exhibited in London and became a sensation.
  • Eric Gill The East Wind (1929) Gill was commissioned to create relief sculptures for various public buildings including the BBC building in Portland Square. This is a scale model of one of a series commissioned for London Underground headquarters. I venerate it for its combination of medieval and modernist influences.
  • Stanley Spencer The Resurrection (1927) From my visit to Cookham and the Stanley Spencer gallery there, I got a powerful sense of Spencer’s very English, eccentric reverence for his birthplace, which he saw as an earthly paradise suffused with God’s presence. Thus his resurrection is placed in the homely graveyard of Cookham church.
  • Frank Dobson Sir Osbert Sitwell, Bt (1923) Both Dobson and Sitwell were part of the packed but somehow second-rate literary and artistic world of the 1920s. This is modernism watered down to become Art Deco.
  • Charles Sargeant Jagger No Man’s Land (1919–20) The wall label makes the interesting point that in the immediate post-war years there was a flood of memorials. Jagger served and was wounded twice. His most famous memorial is the stunning Royal Artillery memorial (1921–5) at Hyde Park corner.
  • William Roberts The Cinema (1920) Typical of the way the Futurist and Vorticist experiments on the eve of the war were turned into a formula afterwards.
  • Wyndham Lewis Edith Sitwell (1923-35) I’ve loved Lewis for thirty years. This comes from his later ‘portraits of poets and writers’ phase, when the harsh Vorticism of the pre-War had been softened right down to create realistic though still beautifully stylised portraits. Apparently the sittings were fraught, with Lewis unable to conceal his growing contempt for Sitwell and her brothers and the shallow English dilettantism he thought she epitomised.

Just in this one room I think you can see the damage the Great War did. On its eve there was a tremendous sense of excitement and anticipation as the European figurative tradition was rejected and transcended by artists in Paris and London and Rome and Moscow and Berlin and Vienna. But, apart from killing off many of these artists, the War somehow damaged Modernism. The post-War saw a great retrenchment and retreat from the heady visions of its eve. Moscow was taken over by revolutionary utopianism; Berlin was characterised by the bitterness of the losers, Grosz and Dix; Paris saw a bewildering confusion of styles; and here in England, although Modernist mannerisms and styles dominated, they somehow feel secondary, lacking the first fine careless rapture. Compare and contrast the phenomenal excitement of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (1913) with the smooth professionalism of Dobson’s Sitwell (1923).

  • Related maybe to Spencer’s naive view of the English landscape but rerouted into an uncanny proto-surrealism is the work of Paul Nash, demonstrated here by Landscape at Iden (1929). The discretely placed, carefully spaced, unconnected objects are reminiscent of the strange dream landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, only in a bucolic Sussex landscape not the Italian’s eerily emptied Renaissance piazzas.

Henry Moore

There are two rooms dedicated to Henry Moore, one of England’s most famous twentieth century artists, one of the most successful, prolific and easily recognisable. Typifying the philistinism which crippled the nation’s art collections in the 1920s and 1930s, the Tate’s then Director, JB Manson is quoted as saying in 1938 that Henry Moore would enter the Tate over his dead body. The wall label quietly crows that Tate now owns 634 works by Moore, who ended up a director of Tate, as well as a Companion of Honour and Order of Merit. The first three acquisitions were:

It may be blasphemy but seeing two rooms full of his work assembled like this gave me the overwhelming impression how morbid and dated Moore is. His international reputation was sealed when he won first prize at the 1948 Venice Biennale and from then onwards commissions flooded in and work poured out. The first room is long and narrow, with half a dozen smaller works and some of the wartime sketches of Londoners sheltering in the Tube during the Blitz. The second room contains a video of the artist at work and half a dozen enormous sculptures such as Draped seated figure (1958). Je n’aime pas.

One of the wall panels shows how one of his works ended up on the windswept Stifford council estate in Stepney and photos of the proud councillors in suits and ties and pearl twinsets and horn-rimmed glasses standing nervously around this object from another planet. The recent Barbara Hepworth exhibition included sections showing how Hepworth, Moore and their contemporaries’ work was in part driven by utopian hopes for a new, more egalitarian or even socialist society, after the sufferings of the Second World War. Their sculptures are part of the world, the mindset, the culture of the exciting new high-rise flats of the 1950s and 60s. Is the art as much of an optimistic failure as the utopian and now discredited architecture?

1930

  • Edward Burra Snack bar (1930) Burra is undervalued, an English combination of the strange detachment of surrealism – then flourishing in France – with the biting social satire of a Georg Grosz.
  • There are several examples of Ben and Winifred Nicholson’s pallid white relief sculptures.
  • Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (c.1931) A traditional technique applied in unpropitious times, the darkness of catastrophe creeping in from the East. It’s an oddly haunting image.

The room is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel (1940–1), the other works barely exist next to it. Monumental primitivist sculpture is one of the enduringly successful strands of the first half of the century of catastrophes, as practiced by Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill, Epstein.

1940

In my opinion something bad happened to English art during the 1930s and 1940s and lingered on into the 50s. Although there is a wide range of works on display, most by people I’ve never heard of, the main works by the main figures all seem to me depressed, dark and murky. The overcast climate, the windswept streets, the London fogs become part of the terrible political situation, which went rapidly downhill into the horror of the Second World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, in a vortex which seems to have dispirited and demoralised so much art from this period.

  • Graham Sutherland Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods (1940) the reproduction makes this picture appear more interesting than it is, in a science fiction-y kind of way. In fact it is a good specimen of Sutherland’s horrifying distortions. I like his portrait of Somerset Maugham (not on display). It’s fitting that Churchill’s wife destroyed Sutherland’s portrait of her husband, it was so revolting. But much of his painting seems damaged, stricken, scary.
  • David Bomberg Bomb store (1942) Compare and contrast with the same artist’s phenomenal Mud bath from 1914. Hasn’t there been a tragic decline from clarity and excitement into static murk?
  • Alan Davie Entrance to Paradise (1949) You can’t blame them for being depressed but a lot of the English work from this period is black, psychologically and pictorially. Paradise looks like this?
  • Francis Bacon Study for three figures at the foot of the cross (1944) It may be a masterpiece and Bacon a vast presence in post-war English and international art and it’s hard not to respond to its power and horror. But I don’t like it. It adds to the circumambient murk the added flavours of despair and nihilism.
  • Stanley Spencer Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (1937) Spencer had the same naive approach to painting himself, his wife or mistresses naked as he did to painting Jesus preaching in Cookham. But I find it depressing that even he shares in the ‘human beings are hunks of meat’ mentality epitomised by Francis Bacon’s screaming, tortured beasts. There was something dehumanising about the times, which light, politely experimental pieces like Ben Nicholson’s white reliefs struggle against in vain eg White relief (1935)

1950

  • R.B. Kitaj Erasmus Variations (1958) Kitaj, an American, moved to Britain in 1958 to study art after serving in the US Army. This is, therefore, a very early work. Interesting, but unrepresentative of what was to follow.
  • F.N. Souza Crucifixion (1959) Born to Catholic parents in the Indian state of Goa, Souza moved to Britain to study art. 1. It’s noticeable that there is more explicitly Christian art in the Tate’s display of the 20th century, than in the displays of previous 400 years. 2. This is actually a strikingly modern work, with its consciously third World feel. Alternatively, you could say more recent works by artists from former colonies haven’t progressed much beyond where Souza was in 1959. Dark, though.
  • Lowry The Pond (1950) Last year’s big Lowry exhibition crystallised why I don’t like him. For some reason people in the North see him as some kind of advocate or champion of their culture, when the art very obviously embodies a faceless, anonymous, grey-skied, depressive worldview, fully reinforced by interviews with the miserable old so-and-so.
  • Peter Lanyon St Just (1953) This painting is darker, murkier in the flesh. I’d have dismissed it as another 1950s abstract in the dirty greens I associate with Graham Sutherland, but for the lucky coincidence that I happen to have visited the smashing exhibition of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings earlier this week and saw how his work would evolve into bigger, brighter, happier pictures.

1960

An explosion of talent, which contemporaries must have experienced with tremendous excitement.

  • Anthony Caro Early one morning (1962) His unashamed use of industrial materials must have blown a few minds.
  • Bridget Riley. My understanding of Riley was recently improved by the exhibition of her early work at the Courtauld Gallery, so that I enjoyed and appreciated her two works here as among the most original and exciting in the 1960s room: Hesitate (1962) and Late morning (1967-8), both examples of her interest in optical effects or Op Art.
  • John Hoyland 28. 5. 66 (1966) A kind of missing link between Riley’s clean and precise line paintings and the shimmering blocks of colour made by Mark Rothko, which I recently saw at Tate Modern.
  • Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) Born of Italian parents, Paolozzi was a sculptor, collagist, printmaker, filmmaker and writer. The Tate search engine suggests they have nearly 400 of his works. He’s represented here by Konsul (1962) a big, impressive abstract sculpture, reminiscent of the found materials used by the Italian Arte Povera artists.
  • David Hockney is here of course, represented by the early Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961) which is Pop but ruined by a very mid-century urge to deform the human figure, and the later A bigger splash (1967), one of his countless California swimming pool series.
  • John Latham Film Star (1960) The books are stuck to the surface of the canvas and stick out prominently. I like art with stuff stuck to the surface, from the cubists onwards, as if the art is enacting the struggle to emerge from the actual world of junk and rubbish which surrounds us.
  • Patrick Heron Azalea Garden : May 1956 (1956) I don’t know much about Heron but this was a welcome relief from so many dark images.
  • Peter Blake is associated with happy shiny Pop Art so it comes as surprise to see just how dark are works like On the balcony (1955-57) and Self portrait with badges (1961). Very dark. Painted at night.

1980

  • Gilbert and George England 1980 Either you like G&G or you don’t. I find the scale, the brightness and the humour of their stuff a terrific relief from the murk and darkness and nihilism of so much of the painting of the 1940s to 1970s.
  • A case in point is Leon Kossoff. This reproduction of Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground (1987) in no way conveys the three dimensional nature of the painting, with its gloops and loops of oil rising above the surface like muddy waves in the North Sea.
  • Prunella Clough Wire and Demolition (1982) One of the stories of these rooms is the steady increase in the number of women artists. I know nothing about Clough but I liked the brightness and kookiness of the composition.
  • Richard Long has been making walking art for decades, either creating art works along the way of his massive hikes across the UK or in remote foreign locations, then photographing them; or bringing raw materials back from his trips and creating generally simple geometrical shapes with them. The sculptures are genuinely connected to the source locations. In the middle of the 1980s room is Red Slate Circle (1988) and very wonderful it is, too.

1990 and 2000

After a series of same-shaped rooms, the space devoted to the 1990s and 2000s is much larger, irregularly shaped, brighter, with bigger sculptures and installations as well as bigger, more brightly coloured paintings and several videos.

  • Damien Hirst Forms without life (1991) One of his many vitrines or cabinet pieces. There it is. Hirst is the Henry Moore or David Hockney of our generation, an initially exciting and liberating presence who has turned himself into an international brand amid an unstoppable torrent of output, of never-ceasing product.
  • Jane and Louise Wilson Blind landings (2013) These sisters produce black and white photos of ruined buildings and sites. I learned about them via Tate’s exhibition of Ruin Art, which featured their massive and hugely evocative photos of abandoned Nazi defences on the Normandy coast. What’s not to like, indeed love, about their beautifully framed and shot and composed images of architectural desolation?
  • Howard Hodgkin Porlock (2012) Born in 1932 Hodgkin has been a presence in English painting for 60 years. Lots of his work is big and bright and colourful so it’s disappointing he’s represented by this brown and grey daub.
  • Martin Boyce Suspended fall (2005) Anyone who’s visited Tate Modern’s Alexander Calder exhibition will know about the history and evolution of the ‘mobile’. Instead of lovingly crafted organic shapes, Boyce has smashed up a modern chair and suspended its pieces from metal brackets. An apt image of English vandalism.

One-off rooms

  • Charlotte Moth Downstairs, next to the cafe, is the Archive display room. This is currently given over to a display by Charlotte Moth, born in 1978. According to the wall label Tate has over 1 million items in its archive and 800 full collections. Moth was given free run of it and came up with a show titled ‘Inserts 2015’. It consists of 10 vitrines ie glass-fronted cabinets displaying photos, magazines, newspaper cuttings and other ephemera from the 1930s to the 1960s, inspired by and often depicting the staging and positioning and unveiling of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth. Plus a ten-minute video, Filmic sketches, taken in places mentioned in the cases. My favourite was a b&w photo of a clutch of civil dignities uncomfortably posed around a lean modernist sculpture in front of a new red-brick civic centre. Standing there in their black suits and ties and twin pearls and horn-rimmed glasses, how they hope it will all somehow make sense. But it won’t. 15 years later, the Sex Pistols will be playing in that civic centre, the failure of the post-war dream converted into sonic fury.
  • Bruce McLean This room is dedicated to a a 23-minute black and white film McLean made in 1970 titled In the shadow of your smile, which consists of the artist sitting behind a desk with bits of studio bric-a-brac in vision, talking into a microphone about how he is struggling to create work in the shadow of his art school teachers Anthony Caro and such like, with deliberate bad edits, sound interference, drifting in and out of synch with shapes or tape damage appearing in the image. Phenomenally dated.
  • Gustav Metzger (b.1926) Metzger was born of Polish Jews in Nuremberg. He was lucky enough to get out of Germany on the eve of World War II but, obviously, a lot of his family will have been murdered along with tens of millions of others between 1939 and 1945. This room is devoted to the idea of Auto-Destructive Art which Metzger developed right at the start of the 1960s, art made on transient, destructible media like wood or cardboard. He was a vociferous political activist who managed to get arrested a few times. The act of making things and then destroying them is as important as displaying them, so there are photos and pamphlets and brochures about his work. Images of auto destructive art.
  • John Gerrard The room is devoted to Sow Farm (near Libbey, Oklahoma) (2009) consists of one continuous tracking shot around the Sow Farm of the title, an industrial buildings isolated in a perfectly flat landscape, looking like… well, you can bring your own associations to this flat, silent, eerie moving image.
  • Tracey Emin This small room contains My bed (1998) looking as dirty, unmade and surrounded with detritus as ever, along with several Francis Bacon paintings which she’s chosen – Study of a dog (1952) and Reclining woman (1961), and some of her drawings, apparently of a female nude. To quote the wall label: ‘By virtue of bringing the domestic into the public sphere, without directly representing specific events, the installation is forcefully and compellingly suggestive of personal narratives.’
  • Art Now: Vanilla and concrete In a room off to the side near the main entrance is an exhibition of art now, comprising works by three women artists:
    • Marie Lund Stills What look like big brown abstracts but, on closer investigation, turn out to be four large canvases painted to convey the effect of curtains. Raising the vessel, a couple of attractive bronze plates each with what looks like the impact of a meteorite denting them. Loads a bunch of sacks cast in concrete with polyester sewing. Not so impressive, rather like Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts.
    • Rallou Panagiotou A Pop Art-ish interest in mass-produced everyday objects. These made me smile, what a relief after the murk and Bacon pieces of meat. Liquid Degrade white is a straw and lessons in eye liner is two eyebrow shaped black swirls stuck to the wall.
    • Mary Ramsden Her work, according to the wall label, is inspired by the smears and traces left by fingers on touch screens and smart phones. Hyper modern subject matter, but I felt I’d seen many, many abstract works in the preceding galleries which looked just like her paintings, so I liked her least of the three.

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Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

The aim of doing all the rooms in a gallery isn’t necessarily to look at every exhibit in the place. It is to:

  • discover the out-of-the-way corners where treasures are sometimes hidden
  • get a feel for the complete geography of a place, to understand how it fits together as a building
  • and understand how the works exhibited in it fit together to tell a story (or multiple stories)

Background

The Courtauld Gallery houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London specialising in the study of the history of art.

The Courtauld collection was formed largely through donations and bequests and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works from medieval to modern times. It’s a kind of miniature National Gallery, following the same story of Western art through a much smaller selection of, in many ways more exquisite, pieces. It’s best known for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; those rooms are always packed.

In total, the collection contains some 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints, displayed in 12 rooms over three floors reached via the charming old stone circular staircase.

The rooms

Room one: 13th-15th century 30 paintings and altar pieces, a big statue of the crowned Virgin Mary, 12 exquisite little ivory carvings, five caskets, a marriage chest and 12 pieces of Islamic metalwork. I liked:

  • The ivory Virgin and child with a chaffinch. I understand the symbolism, having seen the same subject at the V&A ie the chaffinch was thought to eat seeds from thorny plants, thus prefiguring the crown of thorns which the little baby Jesus was destined to wear 33 years later.
  • An ivory depicting ‘Scenes from the life of Jesus’, with an Ascension scene where the crowd are, Monty Python-style, looking up at a tunic and pair of sandals disappearing out of the frame (top left section).
  • What I liked about the medieval ivories is that the figures are cramped and packed into the composition, yet important ones, the Virgin in particular, are still willowy and sinuous; it’s the combination of cramped with willowy which is one of their appeals.
  • I discovered I like Robert Campin at the National Gallery: here, I liked his Seilern Triptych (1425). The most obvious thing is how dark it is; he uses an intense black to create variety or drama across the picture plane. On a separate level, I also liked the use of the grapes motif in the gilt background. And homely details like the handmade hedge in the bottom right.
  • Compare, in terms of light, with the nearby Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, amazingly sumptuous and golden, but without the extremes of black, the density and drama of the Campin.
  • I realised at the National Gallery that I like northern European medieval and Renaissance painting for its concern for individuals. A good example here is the portrait of Guillaume Fillastre from the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (1430s)
  • Ugliest baby award went to Virgin and Child with angels by Quentin Massys

Mezzanine room: ‘Panorama’ Half-way up the stairs to the first floor is a small room which holds changing displays of prints. Currently it houses 14 drawings or prints on the theme of ‘the panoramic view’, including Canaletto, two Turners, a Towne etc. The wall label said the panorama derives from Dutch interest in landscapes, confirming my view of northern Europe as being humanist, interested in individuals and places, as opposed to Italy and Spain, home to countless images of the simpering Madonna, weeping saints and the limp corpse of Jesus, all set in rocky, barren deserts.

Room two: 16th century Renaissance Europe 19 paintings and some painted marriage chests, objects whose long narrow front panels are well suited to paintings depicting processions or battle scenes. There are also 23 Renaissance ceramics in an exhibition case, but the room is dominated by Botticelli’s Trinity with saints. As I discovered in the National Gallery, I like Botticelli as a cartoonist but not as a serious painter of the human condition.

Room three: 17th century Rubens and the Baroque 18 paintings, 11 of them Rubens, and a chest. My favourites were:

  • Cranach Adam and Eve (1526) for the medieval feel, the sumptuous northern flora, and the symbolic animals. Although it’s a well known story, the painting has a strange mysterious air, as if pregnant with additional, hidden meanings.
  • Hans Mielich Portrait of Anna Reitnor (1539) A typically north European, humanistic and individualistic portrait of a specific person. Compare and contrast with…
  • Rubens Cain killing Abel The wall label can go on about what Rubens had learned from his visit to Italy and his debt to Michelangelo – this still seems to me an over-muscled, deformed account of the human body, glorifying in a kind of murder porn.
  • Similarly, I disliked the nine sketches by Tiepolo, typified by St Aloysius Gonzaga. Words can’t convey the kitsch nastiness of this Catholic propaganda.

Room four: 18th century Enlightenment As at the National Gallery, it is a great relief to walk from rooms full of tortured saints, crucified Christs and weeping Maries into the common sense, calmness and reason of the English Enlightenment. This rooms contains a pleasant selection of comfortable, bourgeois paintings by Romney, Ramsay, Gainsborough and display cases full of silver plate, cups and so on. I liked:

Room five: 19th century Early Impressionism And now for something completely different, the rooms the Courtauld is famous for, this one holding 6 paintings, 2 sculptures. I liked:

  • Degas Two dancers on stage (1874) He did hundreds of studies and oils of this subject, this one is good.
  • Renoir La Loge (1874) When I went to see the Inventing Impressionism show at the National Gallery, Renoir emerged for me as the most consistent of the Impressionists, finding his style early and sticking to it, in paintings that look more consistently finished than his colleagues’ ones.
  • Monet Autumn effect at Argenteuil (1873) Exactly the kind of Monet which looks better compacted onto a computer screen or chocolate box, than how it appears here, in the flesh, where it is much larger, much blurrier and wispier.
  • Compare and contrast with Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The wall label says this is the most impressionist painting Manet ever did, made while he was staying at Monet’s house at Argenteuil. Although using the same short dabs of paint and showing the same hazy disregard for detail, as his friend, the striking thing is the quality of the black in the painting, a really deep, intense, black black, there in the boat but especially the woman’s hat, and giving the other colours, especially the blue, a darker hue. This gives the whole painting a greater intensity. It kind of roots it into a starker world, a firmer world, than anything in the pink and yellow creations of Monet’s which are hanging near it.

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

  • Manet The bar at the Folies Bergers (1880) This isn’t a very good reproduction, but again it highlights the importance of black in Manet’s compositions.
  • Cézanne The card players (1896) The stylisation of the human form is completely convincing.
  • Cézanne Mont St Victoire (1887) Characteristic deployment of the blocks and rectangles of colour which anticipate cubism.
  • Gauguin Te Rerioa (1897) I didn’t like Gauguin when I was young. I think exposure to lots and lots of tribal and native art has helped me ‘read’ him better, so that now I just accept and enjoy the whole composition.
  • Gauguin Nevermore (1897)

Room seven: 19th century Post-impressionism Just seven paintings, the standout specimen being Self-portrait with a bandaged ear by Vincent van Gogh. I like the strong back lines and the forceful, not necessarily realistic colouring.

Room eight: An exhibition room this is currently dedicated to Bridget Riley: learning from Seurat.

Room nine: 20th century French painting 12 paintings and statues by among others Derain, Braque, early Matisse, Vlaminck.

Room ten: 20th century French painting 1905-20 12 paintings, including specimens by Dufy, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, all dominated by the Modigliani.

  • Modigliani Female nude (1916) Perfectly and completely itself.

Room eleven a: Late 19th-early 20th century painting 8 paintings.

  • Cézanne Route tournante (1905) a) Unfinished, so I like it. b) Even more of Cézanne’s characteristic cubes and blocks of paint, creating a powerfully dynamic image.
  • Degas Woman at a window Unfinished and with strong black lines, a wonderful visionary image.

Room eleven b: 19th century Seurat sketches. A small room with 8 tiny paintings by Seurat (died 1891)

Room 12: 20th century German Expressionists A bit of a relief to emerge from the fuzziness of France into the bright, barbarian virility of strident German expressionism. 12 big bold crude paintings.

Room 13: 20th century British painting Half a dozen big horrible paintings by Leon Kossof and Frank Auerbach, with an early Lucien Freud to brighten the gloom.

Rooms 14 and 15 are devoted to temporary exhibitions – earlier in the year Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, currently the wonderful show of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings.

Conclusions

If I didn’t know before, spending three hours walking slowly through these wonderful rooms packed with treasures, made me realise a few simple things about my taste:

  • I like unfinished paintings, sketches and cartoons, where the image/work/composition is struggling to emerge, struggling to create order and beauty from the chaos of perception, or has the pathos and fragility of incompletion
  • I like firm lines which define the subject, especially the human subject, as in Degas or van Gogh
  • I like works which contain black blacks: for some reason its presence makes the entire work seem deeper, as if the spectrum from a really deep black to the light which reveals the object is wider, the experience of the colours on the canvas or wood, deeper and richer.

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Isvik by Hammond Innes (1991)

It was a strange wild world, the long ribbon of water stretching out ahead, leaden under the lowering overcast. The great mass of the Darwin Cordillera was behind us now and though heavy banks of cloud obscured the towering peak of Sarmiento I could feel the menace of it in the sudden wind shifts, the violence of the gusts. It made me very conscious that I was now at the bottom of the world. Cape Horn ahead and the Screaming Fifties; after that the frozen wastes of the pack, the icebergs, the whole mass  of Antarctica with its blizzards. (p.223)

Norfolk

Peter Kettil has a mundane job as a wood specialist, assessing damp and rot and worms in the ageing buildings of his native East Anglia, spending the weekends on his sailing boat moored in Blakeney harbour. Without any warning he is made redundant when the traditional firm he works for is sold to a larger modern conglomerate. He is, in other words, the classic Innes’ protagonist, the ordinary bloke suddenly at a loose end and ready for an adventure. Scouting round for work he is invited to a meeting at the National Maritime Museum.

London

Here he is introduced to the mystery which dominates the novel. Besides the Director of the NMM he is introduced to one Iain Ward, a broad Glaswegian chancer and possible criminal who claims to have won the pools and wants to fulfil a lifelong dream of going on an ‘adventure’. The adventure is offered by the sexy Iris Sunderby, wife of an English glaciologist, whose plane crashed in the Antarctic but on whose body, when recovered, was found Sunderby’s diary in which he’d described seeing a perfectly preserved three-masted frigate trapped in the Antarctic ice of the Wadell Sea. And this is where the NMM comes in, since this is just the kind of antique ship they would love to get their hands on. So. They need an expert in wood preservation who can sail: does Peter want to join the expedition? Hesitantly, he says yes.

Mystery and intrigue are present from the start for, as Iris gives him a lift back to central London, they find themselves tailed by the flashy young man Peter had noticed hanging round the museum and eyeing Iris up. Now she reveals he’s Carlos, working for a Latino man, Mario Ángel Gómez, who she hates, and mentions something about her brother, Eduardo, one of the Desaparecidos, the ‘Disappeareds’ ie the people kidnapped and killed by the Argentine military dictatorship whose bodies were never found. What? This is a whole extra and complex layer of narrative…

Stunned at the sudden prospect of packing off to the Antarctic for months, and deeply concerned by the murky background to Iris’s South American connections, Peter returns to Norfolk to think it over, only – in another unexpected surprise – to be called back to London a few weeks later to identify Iris’ badly mangled body. Seems she fell, or was pushed, into one of the docks in the newly developed Docklands where she lives, and her body mangled by the propeller of one of the various pleasure boats. It’s her clothes and her handbag all right, and Peter leaves the mortuary dazed and upset. Like everyone who met her he had been dazzled by her vitality and determination and sexiness.

So he’s even more puzzled when the Scotsman, Ward, phones him a few days later and not only tells him the expedition is still on, but that they are leaving the next day! What! He must pack his things, come down to London to collect his and Ward’s passport with all the correct visas from an East End lawyer, then meet Ward at Heathrow. Despite all his misgivings, Peter does this and then sets about interrogating Ward: Why the hurry? Who’s paying for the expedition? Where is the diary and information about the ship?

On the plane

On the plane he is stunned to learn that Iris is still alive and flying out ahead of them: Ward goes on to explain her tangled family background, her mother a Latin American prostitute, her father connected to the Naples mafia, her half-brother tangled up in all sorts of crime. And then Ward tells a long cock and bull story about his own upbringing in Glasgow slums, hiking down to London as a boy and getting attached to an East End barrow boy who makes good but then dies, prescribing in his will that Ward is sent to prep school and then to Eton! Really! Kettil doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Is the man mad? Can this farrago possibly be true?

By now they’re through passport control and onto the plane to Mexico City and, in the first 100 pages, Innes has set up the complicated strands of another one of his Gothic thrillers. All the ingredients are here: an ordinary bloke (Peter); an exotic location (Antarctica); an obscure quest (for the alleged frozen clipper); and very dubious company (Sunderby and Ward).

In South America

The main action in this section is Ward persuading the narrator that they don’t fly straight down to Puntas Arenas where the boat is docked, but instead drive 600 kilometers to visit Mario Ángel Gómez, the baddy, at his place, the Hacienda Lucina, high in the Cordelliras mountains. They do so in a monsoon downpour caused by El Niño, encountering sections of the road which have been washed away by floods. At one point Ward drives the 4-wheel drive Toyota onto the rail line and along the line through a tunnel and across a bridge because the road has been washed away.

Then there is a dramatic scene where, driving around hairpin bends high in the mountains, above the noise of the torrential downpour they hear a bang and the first few rocks bouncing down and realise a rockslide has been triggered to bury them. Kettil accelerates like mad and just escapes the rocks while Ward jumps out and goes legging up the mountainside. Minutes later Kettil sees a frightened Latino descending a path chased by Ward who pursues him to the edge of the road and beats and hits him till he falls over the cliff screaming. Ward returns to the car streaming wet, carrying the detonator which the Latino used to set off the avalanche. Someone is trying to kill them but who? Kettil realises Ward is mad and that he is in way over his head.

They arrive at the Hacienda Lucinda high in the mountains, as the rain ceases and the sun comes out, and meet the devilishly handsome Ángel, urbane and smooth-talking like all thriller baddies. They also discover Iris Sunderby has been there for some time. It is difficult to understand why Ward has insisted in driving all this way, and at such great risk, just to see this guy: it’s something to do with establishing that Ángel is an ex-Argentine air force pilot who has himself seen the ice-bound frigate on one of his test flights or reconnaissance flights. Thus he is important to Iris because he confirms her husband’s sighting, and he knows its precise whereabouts.

But there is an extra layer of meaning and mystery which the narrator (and therefore we) don’t fully understand, in fact two levels, because Ward seems determined to find out whether Ángel was somehow involved in the fate of the ‘Disappeareds’, and therefore of Iris’s brother: is he, in other words, a baddy from the old military regime? And, in yet another of the incestuous Gothic family sagas which characterise Innes’ fictions, Ward is determined to find out whether Ángel is in fact related to Iris, is in fact her half-brother by the same father! Why he or we should care is never explained, it’s just part of the air of forced, compulsive obsession which is always a key element in an Innes thriller.

So Ward and Ángel go off arguing about these various issues while Kettil falls asleep in a chair in the garden wondering what the hell it’s all about. In a bizarre scene, he awakens to find Iris kissing him and stroking his manhood, giving him a hearty erection. But she has a dazed, glazed look on her face and is staring at the hacienda as if only doing it to provoke someone. As Ward and Ángel reappear she pulls Kettil out of his chair and onto the ground on top of her. Ward picks her up and diagnoses that she is high as a kite on cocaine, angrily yelling at Ángel that he’s been keeping her drugged.

Over the succeeding pages, it leaks out that she did it as part of the weird psycho-sexual games she plays with Ángel, because she is in fact infatuated with him. Kettil, an ordinary Englishman, is bewildered by these multiple levels of bizarreness. As he packs Iris’s stuff for her to leave with them, she admits that she has been with Ángel at the hacienda and, apparently, letting him use her in all kinds of sexual ways. It seems she did this from tangled motives, partly to extract from him the location of the iced-up ship in order to vindicate her dead husband’s sighting of the ship.

Because, as in all Innes’ thrillers, it is clearly way more than that, there is an out of control, Gothic, sexually obsessive side to the whole plot. Innes had always been candid about the sexual side of his characters: his male narrators have given frank assessments of the sexual appeal of women in the stories right from the earliest novels in the 1930s. Here he appears to be reacting to the hugely more ‘liberated’ culture of the 1980s, to describe head-on the peculiar sexual obsession of this gorgeous Latin American woman who is prepared to prostitute herself to a man who may be her half-brother, in order to vindicate her dead husband.

While the reader tries to puzzle out what the devil is going on and what the strange, twisted motivations are of Ward, Iris or Ángel, there is a completely separate thread in the book, which is that Ward, the larger-than-life, crippled Glaswegian street urchin, is very well read and insists on visiting key Aztec and Inca historic sites along the way. Thus, in between meeting disreputable contacts in Mexico City to dig up dirt about Ángel Gómez, he insists on driving Kettil out to the ancient site of Teotihuacan. And after they’ve collected Iris, on their hair-raising, mountain-path-washed-away-or-blown-up-by-assassins drive up to Gomez’s hideaway – he insists that they go out of their way to visit the vast ruined city of Chamchán, the old Chimú capital city. Here Kettil has what amounts to a religious experience, about life and destiny and history, which colours his perception of everything which follows.

If all this sounds weird for a ‘thriller’, it is, it really is.

If Innes’ novels don’t sell much any more it’s because they’re such an idiosyncratic mix of traditional thriller – innocent man gets caught up in some scam which leads to violence and intrigue – with these other, peculiar elements – one or more characters’ obtuse, impenetrably obsessive pursuit of some quixotic quest (after all, why are they all going on this cock-and-bull expedition to find an old ship in the ice, anyway?) – twisted, vengeful, doomed families (mad fathers, vengeful siblings) – along with heavy dollops of would-be profundity about human beings, nature, history etc (how man is exterminating wildlife in The Big Footprints or polluting the world in The Black Tide). The result is odd, uncanny, irrational and weirdly compelling.

The boat Isvik

After the peculiar mountain top scenes with coked-up Iris and mysterious Ángel and the ominous ruined cities, it is a relief when they fly and drive and fly again to arrive at the southernmost tip of South America, at the port of Puntas Arenas, where they check into the boarding house of a grizzled old sailor, ‘Captain Freddie’, and finally clap eyes on the famed Isvik. This is the boat which will take them south to the Antarctic. It was built for an American millionaire who lost interest, bought by an Antarctic prospecting company which went bankrupt, and which Ward’s money has now bought them for the madcap expedition. (Innes gives a full technical description on page 173.)

Here there is a month or more of hard work to get the ship into shape, with Innes displaying his in-depth knowledge of boats and sailing to dazzle us with precise detail of all the aspects of keel and sail and rigging and motors which have to be renovated, fixed, repaired or replaced before the ship is seaworthy.

Still no real explanation of why they’re doing it all, though – it’s not for money. But a new element enters along with the strange psycho-sexual ones: for the grizzled old sea-dog they’re staying with happens to have been shown round the old frigate when she docked here. In case I haven’t made this clear, the antique clipper ship they’re seeking hasn’t been lost in the ice for hundreds of years. The reverse. It sailed down the Argentine coast just a few years before and the grizzled old landlord had been able to go ashore and look around. He found her not only very seaworthy, but could see that various aerials and electric equipment had been attached to the masts and, presumably, linked to radios and who-knows-what electronic kit in the cabins.

Was all this something to do with the Falklands War (April 2, 1982 – June 14, 1982)? The war has already been mentioned in connection with Gomez, who we know flew fighters during it but, like all Innes characters, refuses to answer questions about it. Was the ship some part of that war, rigged up with secret equipment which could sneak past British radar because the ship was made of wood not metal?

The characters speculate about all this and the reader is left even more confused than before as to what this novel is really about. Is it a spy thriller? A Falklands War tale? A lurid psycho-sexual exploration? Is it about hidden treasure? Or the tragic impact of the Disappeared on their families? Or a Gothic fantasy about Ward and Iris’s different but equally intense obsessions with the ship? Or a psychological tragedy about Iris and Ángel Gómez’s incestuous, half-brother and sister, sexual madness? Or all of the above?

The voyage south

Finally they set sail, having recruited some more crew members starting with Nils, a standard-issue big bluff Scandinavian sailor. But after that it gets weird again: Carlos, the sleek good looking young man who had tailed Iris back in London turns up and begs to be taken along. Because now, Ward tells Kettil, they are to collect Ángel from the far south of South America, in fact he is vital as the only one who knows the ship’s location. And two Australians had answered the advert to crew for them but when they turn up, one turns out to be an Aborigenal woman, Go-Go, married to the white Aussie Andy. As the voyage progresses Kettil observes that she is obsessed with her husband, refusing to let him out of her sight and appears to be ‘sexually voracious’. This results in Andy’s shattered appearance in the mornings and his attempts to escape from her and into the safety of slipping on his headphones and communicating with local radio hams and guides.

It is a long difficult fraught voyage east towards the Falklands and then south towards Antarctica, all described with Innes’ trademark vivid detail and an impressive wealth of information about currents, winds, wave sizes and the thousand details of sailing in these unforgiving seas. There’s such a stark contrast between the cleanness and clarity of the sailing information and the peculiar, twisted psycho-sexual strands which inform the plot, for Kettil is still powerfully attracted to Iris, Iris is still attracted to Ángel, but it turns out young Carlos is Ángel’s gay lover – Kettil finds them in bed together. And there’s the smouldering tension between the bickering Australian couple. No wonder Kettil likes the company of straightforward, heterosexual and not at all incestuous Nils.

On the ice

They navigate the Isvik slowly into the ice pack, going as far south as they can before mooring, planning to set off the next morning. Next morning Ward isn’t at all surprised to wake and find Ángel and Carlos have stolen the snow scooter and set off early. Ward orders Kettil to have a hearty breakfast and then the pair of them set off, pulling their sledges with equipment, food, tents etc behind them, following the tracks in the snow. Many pages follow describing the extreme physical hardship of the three day journey that follows – the hail, the snow, the melting ice, the cracked ice, the jumbled up ice, the fierce sun at noon, the midnight storms.

Eventually they sight the ship in the ice and things speed up. After 300 pages of build-up the climax of the novel is played out in thirty intense, breathless pages. They find Carlos lying mortally wounded beneath the ice-bound bows of the ship. He’s been shot in the back and pushed over the bows to the hard ice below. Carlos has time to whisper,’I wouldn’t have told’ and then expires. In very tense and atmospheric scenes Ward and Kettil climb aboard the ship and explore it. Someone has lived here for the past two and a half years. There is a living quarter, food hung in strips, still some tins of food, coffee jars etc. Suddenly they hear a sound from a distant part of the ship: is it Ángel who we now know has murdered his boyfriend, Carlos? But why? What secret didn’t he want Carlos to reveal? And then as in the corniest thriller, the door to the cabin they’re in slowly creaks open…

The death ship

It is Eduardo, Iris’s half-brother, the one she thought was dead. He was one of the Disappeareds kept prisoner in the abandoned labour camp Ward took Kettil to see in an eerie scene, just before they collected Ángel from the tip of South America. He is in a terrible state, stinking of fish and faeces, filthy dirty, unshaved, hair and beard matted and stinking. At first barely able to speak, he slowly unburdens himself of his terrible story.

The political prisoners kept on the camp were rounded up and driven on board the sailing ship, along with a cargo of sheep. Almost everything metal had been removed from it. Eduardo knew how to sail and so he was chosen to be a ‘trusty’, allowed out of the stinking hold to perform various tasks around the ship as it set sail. And it was here that he was let in on its terrible secret. The Argentine authorities, having lost the Falklands War, planned to spray the prisoners and sheep in the hold with anthrax spores, reach the Falkland Islands undetected by radar, and then release the infected humans and sheep to mingle with the native population. Sheep and people would be utterly decimated and the islands become uninhabitable forever.

Eduardo took part in the opening of the hold and spraying the whimpering men and bleating animals. Then the crew, appalled at their own actions, got drunk. Eduardo, an educated man (hence imprisoned in the first place for his left wing views) had spotted amobarbital in the first aid supplies and took the opportunity to spike the crew’s drinks to knock them out. When they awoke he had tied most of them up and had them covered with a machine gun. He forced them to abandon ship into a little dinghy and set them adrift in the south Atlantic; none of them survived.

But then the weather turned stormy and Eduardo was completely unable to control such a massive ship on his own, and she was tossed in storms, her sails and masts ripped off, turned by the elements completely away from her course towards the Falklands and driven hundreds of miles south while Eduardo lay helpless in his bunk listening to the screams of the dying victims in the hold. Eventually she beached on the ice, on the buried shoreline beneath the ice and there she had stayed for the past two years, slowly drifting with the drift of the ice eastwards, while he lived on tinned supplies, on the occasional seal and fish.

Ward and Kettil listen to this appalling story in silence. Ward establishes that Ángel had come all this way with stocks of semtex on a mission to blow up the ship and destroy the evidence; but while Kettil and he were investigating one end of the ship, Eduardo successfully lured Ángel towards a trapdoor into the hold and the noise they heard earlier was the sleek, sexy Ángel tumbling to his doom in the hold full of half-rotted anthrax victims.

They bundle Eduardo in warmer clothes and secure him to the sledges and return to the Isvik, a nightmare three-day journey through terrible blizzard conditions across melting ice. Once there, despite persistent questioning, neither of them can bring themselves to tell the full story of what they’ve seen: the others have themselves been through a hard week of foul weather and the psychological stresses of being cooped up together. Iris is overwhelmed to see her brother and help him recover but when she asks about Carlos or Ángel, Kettil, like every other Hammond Innes characters, buttons up, goes silent, hesitates, shrugs and generally avoids spitting it out. It is too terrible to repeat. She eventually sinks into a sullen silence of her own as Nils turns the Isvik and sails her north through more terrible weather.

All this is skipped across to reach the point where they radio for a helicopter from South Georgia, saying they have a sick man aboard. The chopper hovers over the pitching ship as they load the sick Eduardo into its net but everyone is surprised when the net returns and Ward swiftly climbs aboard with all his gear. A wave of the hand and he is gone. What the…? So was he some kind of government agent tasked with finding out the truth behind the mysterious frigate, with confirming terrible rumours about a ghost ship full of anthrax?

The Falkland Islands

In the closing pages, after a gruelling further eleven days of sailing, the Isvik weights anchor in the lee of the Falkland Islands. Nils packs his bags saying, ‘Never again’. The Aussies take their pay and leave. That night over a coffee laced with rum Iris shows Kettil the package Ward left behind: it leaves her 100% ownership of the Isvik and a small fortune in pre-signed travellers cheques. She owns a fine sailing vessel and quite a lot of money. She puts her hand on Kettil’s: does he really want to go back to flat Norfolk, to a little sailing dinghy, to a Job Centre in Cromer looking for a new career? Or will he stay with her and try their luck together, here at the ends of the earth in this strange, bracing, terrifying environment?

After the bizarre psycho-sexual relationships, the incest and gay murder and the central horror of the anthrax plot, it is a surprising and surprisingly old-fashioned happy ending. As with so many of Innes’ novels I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.


Credit

Isvik by Hammond Innes, published by Chapmans 1991. All references to the 1992 Pan paperback edition.

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Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat @ the Courtauld Gallery

The English painter Bridget Riley was born in south London in 1931. She’s considered a leading exponent of Op Art, short for Optical Art – art which uses visual illusions to create effects.

This is a one-room exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery focusing on Riley’s early breakthrough encounter with Georges Seurat’s painting Bridge at Courbevoie, a highlight of The Courtauld’s famous collection of Impressionist paintings. Seurat (1859-91) was a pioneer of pointillism, the technique of building up a painting using dabs and spots of colour, as the Bridge painting amply demonstrates.

Riley was fascinated by Seurat’s approach, by the systematic juxtaposition of colours unrelated to each other, and the dynamic visual effects this created. In 1959 she made a close copy of Seurat’s painting to discover and experience the technique ‘from the inside’. Both Seurat’s original and Riley’s copy are in this room, allowing you to compare and contrast.

Bridget Riley Copy after Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie (1959) Oil on canvas © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Bridget Riley Copy after Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie (1959) Oil on canvas © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

The exhibition hangs the Seurat and Riley’s homage to it next to each other, with half a dozen of Riley’s paintings from her subsequent career, so investigating the enduring impact it had on her. This is most obvious in a work like Pink landscape, from the very next year. It is still recognisably figurative, a tranquil landscape in the Seurat manner, the changing palette of colour spots used to create the image of a landscape, but also a mood, and a dynamic change of coloration from top to bottom.

Bridget Riley Pink Landscape (1960) Oil on canvas © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved,courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Bridget Riley Pink Landscape (1960) Oil on canvas © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved,courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

But this figurative period didn’t last long. All the other paintings on display here show the dramatic evolution of her style towards total abstraction – not the deeply expressive swirls and folds and washes of Peter Lanyon, working at exactly the same time and featured in the rooms next door.

It is a highly technical abstraction, which takes Seurat’s explorations off into the realm of mathematical patterns. Over her career Riley has explored countless variations on repeating shapes and designs which create powerful optical illusions, static images which exploit the idiosyncrasies and foibles in human perception to appear shimmering and moving.

The earliest moves in this direction came with black and white works like Tremor (1962), which is on display here, entertaining and bright and puzzling in the way such a static image produces such a strangely moving image. It is achieved in part because the static black and white triangles slowly become more sinuous and curvy as the move towards the centre of the canvas before reverting to the more mathematical rigidity at the other side.

A few years later and, along with many other experiments, a work like Late Morning I shows the progression from spots to stripes, and to the austere geometry of parallel vertical bars. The exhibition helps you see how something so formal nonetheless stems from the same enduring interest in placing pure colours next to each other and seeing what happens. Here elongated, narrow strips of several shades of green, red and blue are lined up side by side.

Bridget Riley Late Morning I (1967) Acrylic on linen © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Bridget Riley Late Morning I (1967) Acrylic on linen © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

The advantage of seeing these paintings in the flesh is that only then can you appreciate the artfulness which has gone into them. For example, Vapour (1970) looks drab, like the Brutalist concrete car parks which characterised the architecture of the period. It’s only when you look closely that you realise each vertical bar is made up of two colours which themselves subtly change shape across the painting. Many of them are predominantly green at the bottom but the green, like a sliver of ice, gets slowly narrower as you go up the surface. Some do this to the left of the grey column, some to the right, and it is this change and the variety of the change, which help explain why what should be a flat static image has a peculiar shimmering, or indeterminate, or slightly disorientating effect.

Bridget Riley Vapour (1970) Acrylic on linen © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Bridget Riley Vapour (1970) Acrylic on linen © Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

Later still, in the 1980s, in a work like Ecclesia (1985), you can see how the fascination with what happens when you juxtapose colours is still at work, here taking the hard lines of the radical 1960s and 70s and blurring the edges to create a kind of abstract impressionism.

Riley’s ceaseless experimentation in what has turned out to be such a productive field have been a constant element of abstract art since the 1960s, and this one-room exhibition sheds fascinating light on its roots and on her development over the past 50 years.

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Soaring flight: Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings @ the Courtauld Gallery

I’d never heard of him before but apparently Peter Lanyon (born 1918) was one of Britain’s most important post-war artists, forging a name in the 1950s as a painter of large abstracts which are, in fact, based on the landscape of his native Cornwall. A good example is Silent Coast from 1957.

In the late 1950s he took up gliding, partly for the fun of it but partly to see the landscape he loved in a new way. The experience turned out to be a liberation, not only in how he viewed the landscape below, but how he experienced the ‘airscape’, a medium he described as being as full of life and variation as the sea.

Between his taking up of the sport in 1959 and his tragically young death in 1964, Lanyon painted a series of works (and made some sculptures) based on his experience gliding through the skies. This exhibition is the first one anywhere devoted to these gliding paintings.

It is in two rooms. The first one contains seven abstracts from just before the gliding phase. Room two contains 11 paintings and 3 constructions. The change is tangible: the glider paintings are bigger and brighter and bluer.

Peter Lanyon Thermal (1960) Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Courtesy of The Tate Gallery

Peter Lanyon Thermal (1960) Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Courtesy of The Tate Gallery

There are lots of blues, lots of shades of blue as, I imagine, you experience them high in the sky, from dark navy to airy azure. The wall panels quote liberally from Lanyon’s own descriptions of flying and the titles themselves indicate the underlying figurative basis of each work. Thermal (above) is, apparently, one of the most famous glider paintings and was bought by Tate at its first showing. The wall label explains what a thermal is and describes the process of warm air rising, creating turbulence and the lift needed to support the motorless glider, and sees it enacted in this painting. Maybe. But it is also a pleasing and imaginative arrangement of colours.

Similarly, Near Cloud from a few years later, may be an attempt to convey what it feels like to be thousands of feet in the air and near cloud. But it may also be that the pleasure comes from the abstract arrangement of colours and patterns: I just like the red squiggle; and I like the way there are some red droplets in the V it makes and off up in the top left hand corner.

Having seen abstract paintings by Malevich, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern recently, they made me realise how many approaches there can be to abstract painting. In these works Lanyon seems to have created a formula which is distinctive, but results in strikingly different paintings. Or, despite their apparent variety, there is still a recognisable style at work.

Peter Lanyon Near Cloud (1964) Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches Private Collection

Peter Lanyon Near Cloud (1964) Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches. Private Collection

The commentary situates Lanyon’s work in the great tradition of English landscape painting and references Turner, who he particularly liked apparently. He saw himself as ‘extending the landscape traditions of earlier artists’. Maybe.

But he was also painting in the Pop Art era, as we’re reminded by Glide Path. The two black lines are in fact strips of rubber nailed onto the canvas and represent, well, glide paths. They enact the way the man-made vehicle cuts its way in straight or gently curving lines above a landscape characterised by much more jagged and abrupt demarcations – fields, roads, hedges, walls, cliffs, sea patterned by waves, clouds and fragments of clouds strewn across the sky.

Peter Lanyon Glide Path (1964) Oil and plastic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches Courtesy of The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Peter Lanyon Glide Path (1964) Oil and plastic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy of The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Although many of the paintings play with blue, and get lighter and airier as they evolve between 1960 and 1964, when I analysed the ones I liked I realised it was because they all had touches of red in them. Drama. Colour. Pop.

The three constructions on display are interesting, but don’t capture the sense of exuberance, colour and freedom that the paintings do.

What a great body of work it is! And how bitterly ironic that his life was cut short prematurely, aged 46, by complications in hospital while recovering from a gliding accident, killed by the thing he loved. Maybe the slashes of red which I like in several of the paintings spookily anticipate his fate. Maybe, in light of his biography, they can be reread as slender threads of human existence which can be snuffed out so casually and so finally.

Peter Lanyon Soaring Flight (1960) Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Peter Lanyon Soaring Flight (1960) Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

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The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth (1991)

‘Don’t worry, old boy,’ he said to Dobbs. ‘If one of them moves I’ll just blow his nuts off.’ (p.464)

Intriguingly, this novel which Forsyth published at the end of the Cold War and as the USSR collapsed is, like John le Carré’s novel of the same era, The Secret Pilgrim, not really a novel but a collection of linked but self-contained stories, four in this case. For both writers the linked short story format gives them an opportunity to review the Cold War years through different episodes. Or to use up old plots before they become irrelevant…

The frame story is set in 1990 as senior civil servants in Whitehall set about reforming the intelligence services. Convinced the world will now be a safer place they want to save money by offering older intelligence officers alternative, lower paid positions, or compelling them to retire. They decide to kick off the process with a high-profile example and so offer a selection of accounting or admin jobs to the legendary Sam McCready, the so-called ‘Deceiver’, a rumpled, unclubbable man (shades of George Smiley) who was unexpectedly appointed head of the SIS in 1983 and surprised everyone by running it efficiently for the past seven years.

When McCready turns down the jobs he’s offered, and refuses retirement, it triggers a tribunal into his case. Here his number two, Denis Gaunt, presents evidence of The Deceiver’s sterling work for the nation, and makes the case for keeping him on as a senior intelligence officer, via the four long tales which make up the body of the text.

1. Pride and Extreme Prejudice McCready sends a German agent, Bruno Morenz, over to the East to rendezvous with a Russian General and collect a book containing Russian Army deployments. But Morenz is already unbalanced by a crime of passion – murdering the prostitute he thought loved him, when she taunts him. And so his trip across the border, and then to the arranged rendezvous, is fraught. Serioulsy on edge, Morenze collects the book as arranged, but is in no position to handle the fairly minor road accident which happens ten minutes later. Panicking, he flees the scene by nicking the police car which had come to attend the accident, sparking a giant man-hunt led by East German security. Meanwhile, a scarily efficient and cold-hearted woman KGB Colonel has been tracking the movements of the General who handed over the book, suspecting him of being a traitor and now becomes involved in the hunt for Morenz. Thus it is with multiple enemies that McCready has himself smuggled across the border and sets out to find Morenz. By good investigative skills, he interviews Morenz’s old schoolteacher and so deduces the childhood hideout where he might have gone to ground. Sure enough, he is there but a complete nervous wreck, incapable of moving and so, with the Stasi closing in, McCready is forced to put the distraught agent out of his misery, before returning successfully through the wire with the vital book. Surprisingly entertaining.

2. The Price of the Bride A KGB officer, Colonel Pyotr Alexandrovitch Orlov, with the usual secrets, does a bunk from a British Army exercise where he and post-Soviet comrades are being shown British troops on manoeuvre. He insists on going straight to the Americans and the next 100 pages develop a very tangled web whereby it is slowly wormed out of him that there is a high-level Russian mole in the CIA. The lead American character, Joe Roth, handles his initial defection, then is tasked with his prolonged debriefing, and then gets caught up in the investigation into Orlov’s accusations. Forsyth has total mastery of the organisational structure and processes, the rivalries and tensions, within MI5, MI6, the CIA, the FBI, and their overlaps into the British Army, police, the Met and Special Branch. He shows us American investigators meticulously gathering the circumstantial evidence which points the finger at senior CIA man, Calvin Bailey. Unfortunately, it is a frame-up, laboriously created over many years by senior KGB officials, to create dissension and demoralise the CIA. We know this because McCready has himself been running a senior KGB mole in the Russian embassy – codename Keepsake – who explains it all to the Brits. Keepsake is himself at high risk of being captured-tortured-shot by his own side, until rescued from Moscow by McCready in a complex, high-stakes heist. But too late to save Bailey, bumped off by his own side. War is hell, kids.

The story is fairly thrilling, and bubbles over with Forsyth’s trademark factual accuracy, the big chunks of journalistic background, about names, the addresses and organisational structures, processes and procedures of the KGB, CIA and SIS. And at moments the story is almost believable – but ends up too pat, too symmetrical, too easily cynical, like one of those War Commando comics.

3. Casualty of War Tom Rowse is a disillusioned SAS man who quit after service in Northern Ireland and publicly criticised the British operation there. He’s got a nice new life, writing thrillers and living in Gloucestershire with his new young wife, who makes rugs. All the bigger surprise when Sam McCready turns up and says MI6 have information about a major arms shipment for the IRA. Involved is one particular IRA man who Tom has reason to hate which is enough to pull him out of retirement and send him on travels to Hamburg, Malta, Libya, then on to Cyprus, as he investigates the connections between the IRA and a major shipment of arms despatched by Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya.

The details of police operations, the world of mercenaries and arms dealing, the atmosphere of Hamburg and Valletta and Tripoli, the co-operation between MI6 and the CIA, the description of airports and remote monasteries and luxury hotels and a fishing boat in the Atlantic, are all fluent and persuasive. Only when Forsyth describes people do the shallow psychology, the paper-thin characters and the trite moralising let down the otherwise ripping yarns.

The exotic locations and the smooth-talking baddies (cold-eyed IRA man Kevin Mahoney and suave, gambling, threatening Head of Libyan Intelligence, Hakim al-Mansour, who both enjoy watching Rowse get beaten up while filing their nails or sipping a brandy), the way the gorgeous blonde, Monica Browne, first tends Rowse’s wounds and then unzips her dress and slips off her bra to have sex with him and then, inevitably, turns out to be a gun-toting member of the gang herself – all this is strongly reminiscent of James Bond.

4. A Little Bit of Sunshine Sunshine is a fictional island in the Bahamas. An American cop is on holiday fishing, when he catches sight of a drugs cartel contract killer he and his buddy interrogated years before. He trails the baddie to his remote villa but, unfortunately, is seen and identified. Afraid, he makes his way to the tiny airfield where he blags a seat aboard a flight out but the killer has a man tailing him who slips a bomb aboard the little charter plane and it blows up high above the Caribbean. In a separate storyline the Foreign Office are compelling the islanders to leave the Commonwealth, become independent and hold an election. Two wealthy candidates return from abroad, each presenting themselves as the island’s saviour. But a sizeable part of the population wants neither independence or election, they want to stay British. They go to petition the British Governor, the lofty Sir Marston Moberley, who refuses their requests and, a few days later, is shot dead in what looks like a professional ‘hit’. The stage is set for the murdered American cop’s partner to fly in from Miami, for British detectives to fly in from London and – guess who was taking a few days’ holiday in the region, after a boring conference in the States? Yes, Sam McCready, the Deceiver himself.

Despite the killings, this story is played for laughs, for example the way old pro Detective Chief Superintendent Desmond Hannah is lumbered with a deputy who’s never been on a murder case before ‘but loves reading about criminology in his spare time’. He is further exasperated by the inexperienced local authorities in Sunshine, and harassed at every turn by the Press who’ve flown in to cover the ‘murder in Paradise’ story. At many places it was laugh-out-loud funny – interesting to see how funny Forsyth can be when he puts his years of experience as a high end journalist to comic ends.

The climax is like an Ealing Comedy when McCready finds an investiture form in the dead governor’s desk and appoints himself Governor for a day, using his power to deputise various locals and – with a helping hand from Forsyth’s beloved SAS – they run the two crooked political candidates out of town.

Facts and fictions

Interwoven into the stories are countless chunks of recent history as Forsyth does his trademark thing of interweaving recent events with fictional characters and plots. Unsurprisingly, the story about the fake Soviet defector is littered with references to other famed double agents including the British Cambridge spies and US double agents from the 1960s onwards. The story makes repeated reference to various Soviet defectors – eg Anatoly Golitsyn who defected in 1960 and fuelled the paranoia of CIA chief James Jesus Angleton for years (p.164). Also stories about defectors who made the catastrophic mistake of returning to the Soviet side – only to be interrogated and executed. And there is the particularly gruesome fate of the CIA’s Beirut chief, William Buckley.

The third story, about Libyan arms bound for the IRA, is dense with references to the IRA’s terrorist campaigns, to its ways of meeting and procedures. I’d forgotten about the Hyde Park Barracks bombing (1982: 11 soldiers dead, 52 soldiers and civilians injured), and the Harrods bombing (1983: three police and three civilians killed). Forsyth actually takes us into the presence of Libyan leader, Colonel Qaddafi, and explains his twitchiness and need to move between safe locations, following the US-led air raid on his palace 15 April 1986. It references the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight 181 on 13 October 1977 – a factual event – and spuriously claims that the hero of the story, Tom Rowse, was one of the SAS stormers of the plane.

It is this interweaving of completely true events (the various double agents, spies and defectors, the IRA campaigns or Arab hijackings) and real contemporary figures (Ronald Reagan is name-checked, we are taken into Chequers to observe Mrs Thatcher at close quarters, reading the paper, having lunch and intervening in the Sunshine case) with completely fictional characters and storylines, which gives Forsyth’s fiction its particular factual density and verisimilitude.

The four qualities of a successful terrorist organisation

In a typically factual aside, Forsyth spends several pages early in The Casualties of War section (pp.273-274), describing in brisk, authoritative fashion the four qualities required by a terrorist organisation if it is going to last:

  1. a pool of keen young recruits
  2. safe havens or bolt holes to retreat to
  3. ‘the ruthlessness to stop at no threshold of atrocity’
  4. money

Interesting to apply these criteria to the terrorist organisations currently dominating our headlines some thirty years later.

Swearing

It is a relief to come from other, more literary authors, to the clarity of Forysth’s brisk, virile, no-nonsense, upper-class tones. Part of the enjoyment is the way he not only details the organisational structures and procedures of the spy organisations, police and army which he appears to know inside out, but also lets us in on their foibles, nicknames, shortcomings and rivalries: the Americans this, the Russians that, MI5 the other.

Forsyth is unreservedly on the side of the authorities – the police, Special Branch, the SAS, can do no wrong – but it is typically Forysthian that in the fourth story, where he details the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the satellite technology the Yanks use to monitor every flight and ship movement in the Caribbean, as well as the satellites which monitor all phone traffic, that in fact one radio ham hearing gossip in the island bar radios it to a pal in Washington so that

About a billion dollars’ worth of technology worked it out three hours after a radio ham with a home-made set in a shack on the side of Spyglass Hill had told a pal in Chevy Chase. (p.387)

In fact he makes this point in several places: technology is no replacement for men on the ground, for human contacts. Which is why – as le Carré has Smiley emphasise in The Secret Pilgrim – spying will always be with us.

But apart from Forsyth’s usual sardonic attitude, it was a surprise in this book to come across some uncharacteristically vulgar language. On page 254 McCready describes the number two in SIS who pompously claims that the fall of the USSR will be followed by a new era of peace and harmony, as a ‘dick brain’. On page 272 McCready describes the same man, Timothy Edwards, as an ‘arsehole’ for his sneaky, conniving ways. And on page 358:

You really are a prize arsehole, Timothy, he thought.

I had already been surprised when Forsyth tells us on page 153 that MI5 sometimes refer to MI6 as TSAR, standing for ‘Those Shits Across the River’, but I wasn’t prepared for the Author’s Message on the ante-penultimate page. Gaunt realises McCready is resigned to resigning, and so asks him why he bothered going through the farce of the tribunal:

‘Because I care about this fucking service and they’re getting it wrong. Because there’s a bloody dangerous world out there and it’s not getting less dangerous but more so. And because dick-heads like Edwards are going to be left looking after the security of the old country, which I happen to love, and that frightens the shit out of me.’ (p.475)

The characters’ swearing presumably reflects Forsyth’s own genuine concerns about misconceptions surrounding the end of the Cold War (concerns which are exactly the same as Smiley’s in The Secret Pilgrim). But, on the level of language, it’s also connected to the greater humour in these stories, as if Forsyth feels more relaxed not having to create one 500-page blockbusting thriller and is happier, shoutier, swearier in the shorter format. It feels like these stories were more enjoyable to write and they are certainly more enjoyable to read, than his last couple of novels.

Credit

The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth, published by Bantam Press in 1991. All quotes from the 1992 paperback Corgi edition.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

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

Medieval and Renaissance art at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance collection is scattered over different floors and different parts of the building. (See the V&A floor plan to understand what follows.)

If you enter the main entrance on Cromwell Road, turn immediately right, then left down the narrow steps (past the men’s loo) into rooms 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c, to begin at the chronologically earliest part of the display, covering the years 300 – 1500.

Stairs at the end take you up to level 2, where rooms 62 to 64 continue ‘Medieval & Renaissance 300-1600’. From this balcony level you can descend back to ground level and to the huge east hall (probably the first thing you see when you’re buying tickets or asking for information in the entrance lobby) this hall comprising rooms 50a, 50b, 50c and 50d, which house monumental sculptures and a vast stone church screen.

Also on the ground floor, though in the opposite wing, is another huge room 48a, which houses some Raphael cartoons and, in the corridor beside the main bookshop, rooms 16a, 26 and 27, which house a series of sculptures from 1300 to 1600. Close to this are the two large rooms 46a and 46b, which contain casts of Renaissance sculptures, the so-called ‘Cast Courts’.

Early medieval

A visit to all of these rooms confirmed me in my sense that I prefer art from what used to be called the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period, and my interest falls away during the religious revival of the 14th century – although I still like its humanistic medieval approach – and then falls off a cliff as the technically perfect artists of the Renaissance put their gifts to the service of hundreds of horrible Italian princes and the manufacture of countless pastiche classical statues, or gold-larded altars adorned with simpering Madonnas and halo-happy saints.

Why visit galleries or museums?

You visit museums or galleries not only to learn about the ostensible subject matter of what you’re seeing, but also:

1. Visiting helps you find out what you like and don’t like and so helps you define your tastes and preferences – helps inform and improve those tastes and preferences. In this day and age you don’t have to conform to pre-set canons of taste, but how do you know what you like till you try it?

2. It is also a form of therapy. By clarifying what you like and don’t like you find out who you are, the kind of person you are – an art lover, a science lover, a weapons lover, a photograph lover: there are museums and galleries for every taste. And finding out what you like is part of understanding who you are.

3. Exhibits are not only data for value judgements they are witnesses to the past and since all art is produced in some part of the past, it is difficult to avoid engaging with history, in one or other sense of the word. And understanding fragments of the past may help you better understand the troubled present.

Personal prejudices

If I ask myself why I like the pieces I warmed to, it is for one of two reasons:

1. Real Dark Age art is original, weird and different from the Classical or Renaissance periods which bookend it. It speaks of pagan mysteries, the Teutonic forests, a northern ecosystem, a barbarian bestiary of ravens, foxes, gargoyles, green men and grotesques, not laid out in expensive open perspectives, but crammed together into constricted spaces which make them adopt strange stylised postures.

In its avoidance of the the perfection of classical statuary, in its interest in energy compacted into a stylised space, it has obvious similarities with the Modernist art, especially from the period of the Great War, which I also love.

2. When the art of painting revives from the 1200s onwards, I dislike almost all religious ie Catholic, subject matter, and warm to the depiction of people in their own right, for their humanity, for the love of suffering humanity which they evoke. Linked to that view, I warm to animals, flowers, trees and all the indications of a lush, fertile northern environment, and am almost physically repelled by the harsh, barren, rocky landscapes under a pitilessly blue sky, which characterise so much Italian Renaissance painting.

Personal highlights

So this isn’t an attempt to be definitive or authoritative; it is a very personal list of highlights.

Rooms 8 to 10

  • Ivory Last Judgement and Transfiguration (800, recarved 860) I liked the very literal way the coffin lids were coming off in the middle of the image and how, at the bottom right, a big devil’s head is swallowing naughty sinners.
  • Elephant ivory comb (875) Ceremonial combs were used to comb the hair of a priest before he conducted the Mass. Combing was a symbolic process, which established bodily order. It also stopped unruly hair falling in the communion wine.
  • Tabernacle with deposition (1150) I liked the polished crystal in the base, the cartoon bendiness of the human figures and the way they blend into the crucifix which, unusually, has the form of an actual, organically growing tress, rather than the usual straight planks.
  • non-classical animals, bestiaries
  • Relief of the Virgin and Child in orange-red Verona marble (1160-80). The flat smooth expressionless faces remind me of Modernist sculpture, maybe of the Eric Gill reliefs on display at Tate Britain.
  • Grotesque corbel, made from carved sandstone between 1125 and 1150. Corbels stick out from walls to support other features. Why were grotesques and gargoyles so common on medieval buildings?
  • The Becket Casket (1180-90) I liked the stylised hieratic figures, especially the dancing knights beheading the saint, and the prominent polished rock crystals.
  • Virgin and child with goldfinch (1280-1300) made from elephant ivory. What caught my attention was the way Jesus is holding a bird like a toy. It is a goldfinch, symbolic of the crucifixion because it (supposedly) eats seeds of thistles, prickles, thorns.
  • Morse ivory fragment with the Deposition (c. 1190-1200) The humanity of the effort, the closeness, the physical intimacy of the task.
  • Relief of Saints Philip, Jude, and Bartholomew (1150) from limestone. I like the flat stylised effect. Again, like modern art.

There were two touchscreen information panels (complete with a quiz to take after you’ve read the content) about the Romanesque and Gothic.

Romanesque 1000-1200 (so named in the 1820s to refer to a ‘debased Roman style’.) Round arches lined by chevron or dogtooth patterns, scrolling plants, the human form more decorative than realistic, imaginary creatures. Characteristic buildings: Durham Cathedral. People: Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen of England.

Gothic 1200-1500 (used by the 16th century Italian Renaissance critic Vasari to refer to the ‘barbarous German style’ which defeated and repressed good classical taste until the revival of classical style in the 15th century.) Pointed arches, flying buttresses, curving human figures, naturalism of detail eg leaves, expressive emotion. Key buildings: Notre Dame Paris, York Minster (still the largest building in York, it took 250 years to build).

  • The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries; Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-30) This fills one big wall and has an audioguide of its own with a touchscreen which allows you to pick out particular details and hear them interpreted. Ever since I read the wall labels for the wall painting of Nebamun at the British Museum, I’ve realised the symbolic importance of hunting scenes: they may have value as naturalistic depictions, but their primary purpose is to assert the hierarchies of authority in a society, to show the ruling classes enacting, imposing and creating order in the natural world and, by extension, in their culture.

Rooms 50a, 50b, 50c, 50d

Nothing. I disliked everything in this huge space, the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast oppressive ‘s-Hertogenbosch Choir Screen which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection.

Rooms 62 to 64

  • The huge timber staircase from Morlaix in Brittany (1530) redolent of Henry IV and Falstaff’s tavern scenes.
  • Room 1 at the British Museum has an extended explanation of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as created by collectors in northern Europe. One room here contains a small but striking collection of luxury items from the Cabinet of Curiosities or Kunstkammer of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564).
  • Towel holder (1520-25) The missing arms would have held a pole over which a towel would have been draped. Apparently, the fool towel holder was a common feature.
  • Virgin and very ugly Child by Carlo Crivelli (1480) Note the fly on the parapet. And the carnation and two violets.

In the eight rooms on this level, by far the best, the most stunning, original, powerful and sophisticated exhibit was a Benin bronze on loan from the British Museum, demonstrating the sophistication of other cultures as the Europeans began faring forth to discover and then colonise the world.


Related links

Other museums

The Lewis Chessman by James Robinson

The British Museum published a dozen or so ‘Objects in focus’ books, short paperbacks (60 pages) focusing on one specific object from their vast collection (of some 8 million artefacts). Subjects include the Franks Casket, the Sutton Hoo helmet, the Rosetta Stone etc.

This one is devoted to the Lewis chessmen, 78 small (10cm high) chess pieces, carved from walrus ivory sometime in the 12th century. They were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and chapter one tells the obscure story of their discovery and sale in Edinburgh and London. The actual finder, supposedly a local peasant, is never interviewed, instead various collectors and antiquaries generated improbable and conflicting accounts of their provenance and discovery.

Number

What is certain is that there are in existence 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen (flat discs with a hole in the middle) and one belt buckle. 82 pieces are owned by the British Museum in London, and the other 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Origin

They’re Scandinavian in origin, but from where? The most popular theory is that they come from Trondheim in Norway because Trondheim was one of the centres of the essentially Scandinavian trade in walrus tusks from further north in the Arctic circle or from overseas in Greenland. As such it was home to a number of walrus-ivory carving workshops.

So what were they doing buried on a beach in the Outer Hebrides? We’ll never know, but an educated guess is that they were temporarily hidden there by a merchant taking them to sell in part of what was then the network of Scandinavian kingdoms and earldoms stretching from Norway across the mainland and islands of northern Scotland, to Iceland in the north and Ireland in the south.

The kings The eight kings all sit on square thrones, hold swords in both hands, have long braided hair and patriarchal beards although two of them, surprisingly, are clean shaven.

The queens The eight queens sit on similar square thrones, their hair covered by lace-like drapery, holding their chins in their right hand, cupping the right elbow with their left hand – is this a stylised gesture of throughtfulness and wisdom? Whatever it is, it’s not uniform as two aren’t i that pose, instead holding a drinking horn.

The bishops Sixteen bishops, seven sitting on thrones, nine standing. All the standing bishops hold croziers and their full-frontal depiction helps date the pieces to after 1150 when this way of representing bishops came in. Also, surprisingly, no earlier known representation of the bishop in the game of chess survives. The arrival of the bishop in the game coincides with a surge in worldly power of bishops in the real world, epitomised by the conflict between Henry I and Thomas Becket (martyred 1170) in England, and warrior bishops who fought in the Third Crusade (1189-92).

The knights The fifteen knights sit on shaggy little ponies and hold kite-shaped shields in their left arms. Apparently, the range of arms, armour and equipment they carry has been a useful source of information on 12th century warfare.

The warders There are twelve warders, or rooks, wearing conical helmets and holding shields in their left hands, swords in their right. Three of the BM warders are biting the tops of their shields in the gesture described in contemporary texts as characteristic of berserkers, Norse warriors who whipped themselves up into a psychopathic frenzy before battle. Grettir fights one in the Norse saga, Grettir the Strong.

The pawns The 19 pawns are simple geometric salt cellar shapes.

The book goes on to describe the spread of chess from its origins in India into Persia and on into the Muslim world which, in the early Middle Ages included not only the Middle East and north African coast, but Sicily and most of Spain. It was probably through cultural interaction in these centres that chess spread north through Spain and into France, and up through Italy and across the Alps.

The Indian game consisted of four pieces: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry. Rukh was the Persian for chariot, which morphed into our castle. The bishop, who first appears in these pieces, was previously known as the ‘prince’ and, in the original Indian game, ‘the elephant’.

The existence of chess in the West in the 11th century is evidenced by a number of texts, including the 11th century poem Ruodlieb, in which a knightly guest is challenged to a series of games by his king host. The book mentions wills in which various rulers left their sets to religious houses, but in fact the Church had a big problem with chess as a time-consuming distraction from religious contemplation and made repeated attempts to ban it. On the other hand some writers thought the ability to play chess as one of the skills necessary to the elegant courtier. The book quotes texts from the 1100s and 1200s to bring out the pros and cons of what seems to have been a burning issue of the day.

I also learned that the heyday of carving in walrus tusk was from the 11th to the 13th centuries. It expanded to fill a gap in the market caused by the decline of elephant tusk imports, no-one is sure why, maybe because of conflict with the Muslim world. So while it lasted, the walrus ivory trade provided economic underpinning to the Viking settlement of Greenland (settled 985, flourishing in the 11th and 12th centuries). When elephant ivory again became accessible during the 13th century, the walrus trade fell off, possibly contributing the economic decline of the Greenland settlement which was abandoned in the 1400s.

Related links

Every room in Tate Britain (part one)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a beautiful neo-classical building facing onto the river Thames. To the left a ramp and steps lead to the lower floor with a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened 1987), nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s big collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Sweet haunting sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of these chronological sequences are single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1540

  • Full length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen. I like the still-medieval feel, the flatness, the compaction, and the gorgeousness of the detail, the tremendously patterned gold background to the left, but also the idealised plants, flowers and fruit to the right.
  • Sir Peter Lely Two Ladies of the Lake Family (c.1660) I love the stylised round-cheeked cherub look of all Lely’s women. He was Dutch and emigrated here to become the principal portrait-painter at the court of Charles II, filling the position Sir Anthony van Dyck held for Charles I.

1730

  • Samuel Richardson, the Novelist, Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740–1 by Francis Hayman. This isn’t a particularly good painting, I’m just surprised to learn of its existence. Richardson was a printer whose long epistolary novel about a 15-year-old serving girl named Pamela who writes letters to her parents about fighting off the ‘attentions’ of her country landowner master, Mr B, became the first bestseller and prompted a flood of merchandising and imitations. I enjoyed the attention paid to the silk of the dresses and the detail of the leaves on the trees.
  • William Hogarth The Painter and his Pug (1745) embodying a certain kind of pugnacious bully-boy philistinism. I’ve always enjoyed his O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) which is a pictorial list of reasons why the French are rubbish.
  • Hogarth’s crudity is highlighted by comparison with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773). Here the focus not now on the depiction of static fabric, as in the Hayman painting of 30 years earlier, but on the effect of the overall composition, the diagonal made by the three women, and the softening effect of light and shade on the numerous decorative details, flowers, rug, plinth, jug and so on.
  • Sir William Beechey Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited 1793) reflecting the later 18th century fashion for ‘sentiment’, for subjects depicting finer feelings.
  • Henry Fuseli Titania and Bottom (c.1790) stands out from the other 18th century works, mainly portraits in the country, for its dark fantasy, note the tiny old man with the long white beard at the end of a lady’s leash in the bottom right.

Foreign painters in England

À propos Fuseli, it’s worth pointing out how many of these ‘British’ painters are foreign. Not featured at all here is the great Hans Holbein (German Swiss painter to the court of Henry VIII), but other foreign painters ‘incorporated’ into the British tradition include van Dyck (Flemish), Rubens (Flemish), Lely (Dutch), Fuseli (Swiss), James Tissot (French), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Netherlands), John Singer Sergeant (American), Percy Wyndham Lewis (Canadian).

  • I liked George Stubbs’ Reapers (1785) rather than the several dramatic horse pictures on display because it is unusual and it shows a very human, almost Dutch landscape-type scene.
  • Next to Reynolds the other great genius of the 18th century is of course Thomas Gainsborough, represented here by half a dozen enormous portraits and a few landscapes. I liked Henry Bate-Dudley: it is not a magnificent picture, the opposite, it has a quiet, a calm superiority or confidence. Note Gainsborough’s distinctively loose brushstrokes on coat, silver birch bark and among the leaves, but somehow coinciding with precise detail.

Looking back down the long 1780 room to compare them, you can see that Gainsborough is dainty and Reynolds is stately.

No religion

After five rooms I noticed a striking contrast with the National Gallery with its in-depth collection of European paintings from the same period – the lack of religious paintings. Overwhelmingly, the works here are portraits, with some landscapes. I counted only two religious paintings in these rooms:

  • Henry Thomson The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (exhibited 1820) with the stagey Poussinesque figures to the right but the rather haunting central figure of the dead daughter.
  • William Dyce’s Madonna and Child (c.1827–30) a sport, a freak, a careful pastiche of a Raphael painting and completely unlike anything else being painted at the time.

Our British tradition of painting may be thin until the time of Reynolds (1770s) but I think it is typical of the national culture that it focuses on real people and places, and very often on touching and moving personal stories, rather than the tearful Maries and crucified Jesuses of the continental tradition.

All of that, the heavy earnestness of the Baroque tradition of languishing saints, weeping Madonnas and annunciating angels, is completely absent from these displays. For me the religion is in the attention to ordinary life, the valuing of people and their feelings, the same emphasis on psychology and the human scale which saw the English pioneer the novel, the art form which more than any other penetrates the human mind. This sensitivity and refinement of everyday human feeling is exemplified in:

  • George Romney Mrs Johnstone and her Son (?) (c.1775–80) Sure they’re rich, sure it’s partly to show off the sumptuousness of the fabric. But it also shows real love.
  • It’s actually at the National Gallery, but Gainsborough’s unfinished portrait of his young daughters, The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1761) epitomises the English ability to capture love and affection, not Holy Love for a Martyred Saint, but real human love, and childishness and innocence and intimacy and aliveness.

Even when we do intense and visionary, rather than angels floating round the heads of saints, it is embodied in people and real landscapes:

  • Take Samuel Palmer’s paintings strange, vivid, jewelled depictions of the landscape around Shoreham in Kent, eg The Gleaning Field (c.1833)
  • And striking because it is so unlike Constable and Turner and his other contemporaries is William Etty’s Standing Female Nude (c.1835–40), very modern in its frankness, not trying to be Greek or statuesque.

The Turner Collection

There is so much Turner. Enough to fill eight good size rooms in the Clore Gallery off to the east of the main building, and this is only a small selection of what Tate owns. Turner’s history paintings, Turner’s classical landscapes, Turner’s mountains, Turner’s figures, Turner’s watercolours. And in all states of finish, from vast formal commissions to sketches to unfinished canvases to the wispiest watercolours. Despite trying hard I find Turner difficult to really like, and the task is not helped by the sheer volume of material. There is a room here dedicated to ‘Turner and the human figure’ which proves conclusively how bad he was at it:

He went on the Grand Tour and I find the resulting huge Roman landscapes strained, pretentious, overblown, bad in a number of ways:

Senses blunted by the vast Roman landscapes, I perked up when I saw the much more modest, and therefore impactful:

All in all, I preferred the one room dedicated to Constable, which is hidden away in a corner of the Clore Gallery, to the eight preceding Turner rooms:

  • Fen Lane, East Bergholt (?1817) Like gently sloping farmland I’ve seen in my walks around Kent.
  • Glebe Farm (c.1830) the church nestling among trees, the solitary cow at the pond, the thoughtful little girl, all artfully composed to create a stock feeling, but a feeling I like.

Pre-Raphaelite Works on Paper

In the far corner of the Clore gallery is stairs up to the smallish room displaying pre-Raphaelite works on paper, lots of sketches but some oils as well. A wall label reminds me that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) only lasted from 1848 to 1853. I liked the strange, visionary, angular, amateurish but atmospheric work of early Rossetti, like Arthur’s Tomb (1860). Technically not as innovatory as Constable or Turner, but these small works convey an experimental psychology, using medieval motifs for very modern reasons, to convey the troubled inter-personal relationships of the Brotherhood and their various muses, anticipating the tensions of, say, the Viennese Expressionists fifty years later.

But there are also examples of Rossetti in his smooth, glowing, bosomy phase: Monna Pomona (1864). I liked the wall label’s description of the medievalising tendency in PRB work, its use of: ‘shallow space, tight interlocking composition and rich colour of medieval manuscripts’. A handy description of what I like about medieval art.

I liked Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6) the oddities of composition riffing off medieval ideas of space to create a very modern psychology.

The glory years

Although the earlier rooms contain many good paintings, in my opinion British art explodes into a glory of masterpieces between the mid 1880s and the Great War, the period which saw Victorian academic art reach its height of verisimilitude before being swept away by the exhilarating eruption of the new Modernism. Rooms 1840, 1890 and 1900 contain painting after painting of pure visual pleasure, greatest hits which make everything before them pale by comparison.

  • James Tissot The Ball on Shipboard (c.1874) Illustration of a Trollope novel.
  • John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6) Barely a century after Reynolds, and how far not only painting, but the understanding of mood and psychology, has expanded and deepened.
  • John William Waterhouse Saint Eulalia (exhibited 1885) Exotic realism.
  • William Logsdail St Martin-in-the-Fields (1888) The figures, hmm, but the depiction of the church itself is amazing, conveying the cold and drizzle…
  • John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott (1888) Late Victorian Arthurianism.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Silent Greeting (1889) A fantasy of the classical world.
  • Stanhope Alexander Forbes The Health of the Bride (1889) Illustration for a Tomas Hardy novel.
  • Anna Lea Merritt Love Locked Out (1890)
  • Sir George Clausen Brown Eyes (1891) Haunting the way strangers glimpsed in a crowd sometimes are.
  • Henry Scott Tuke August Blue (1893–4) Why is it always naked women? Why not some beautiful boys for a change?
  • Thomas Cooper Gotch Alleluia (exhibited 1896) Peculiar, odd, immaculate in some ways, but look at their lips.
  • John Singer Sargent Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer (1901) The figures are impressive but it’s the vase that takes my breath away. Close up to the painting in the flesh you can see the casual mastery of oil with which it’s done.

And then, suddenly, bang! It is the Modernists with their Futurism and Vorticism and Fauvism and fancy European ways:

In the 1910 room are works for well after the Great War, like Eric Gill sculptures or Stanley Spencer or Alfred Wallis, but I’ll leave them for part two.

One-off rooms

  • One room contains three big bright double portraits by David Hockney. Hockney’s art has always seemed to me bright and empty, and also badly drawn, but I know I am in a minority.
  • Jo Spence Feminist artist-activist in the 1970s and 80s, member of the Hackney Flashers who spent a lot of time interrogating traditions, exploring issues, situating their practices. This seemed to involve quite a few photos of herself naked or topless, especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer. No doubt making serious feminist points, but also a treat for admirers of the larger woman.
  • Art and Alcohol Half a dozen historical paintings on the subject of the English and alcohol, one wall dominated by Cruickshank’s famous panorama of a pissed society (at one stage place in a room by itself with lengthy commentary). The highlight is the series of b&w photos Gilbert and George took in the 1970s of them and others getting pissed in a pub in the East End, the photos treated with various effects, blurring and distortion conveying a sense of the evening degenerating.
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–1985) Never heard of him, a leading artist, novelist, playwright and poet born in north-west India, which then became Pakistan, where he made a reputation before moving to England in 1962 – presumably he’s represented here because Tate bought his works thereafter. The wall label explained that he used Islamic texts as the basis for his abstract-looking paintings, but I was caught by some of the images which reminded me powerfully of Paul Klee, one of my heroes.

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