Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers @ Barbican Art

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, packed with poignant, arresting, funny and striking images, beautifully laid out, thoughtfully designed and carefully displayed.

The exhibition

It is an exhibition of photographs of Britain in the 20th century as observed by foreigners. 

Leading British photographer Martin Parr has chosen generous selections from 23 international photographers who visited Britain between the 1930s and the 2000s to convey how they captured the social, cultural, and political identity of the UK through the camera lens. As Parr explains, the subject matter maybe familiar (or over-familiar) to us inhabitants of these rainy islands – but seen through alien eyes and lenses it becomes something new and unexpected. Hence both familiar and strange at the same time.

Each photographer has an alcove or room to themselves with a selection of around 20 images each. Reading the lengthy wall labels about each photographer and then paying careful attention to each image is a profoundly pleasurable and satisfying experience but also very filling. It took me a good hour and a half just to do the top floor (13 photographers).

Photobooks

Alongside the photos on the wall, the exhibition is lined with display cases containing rare and out-of-print 20th century photobooks. In fact Parr, in his introductory speech at the opening of the exhibition, explained that the whole project arose from his habit of showing and sharing his own extensive collection of photobooks about Britain and wondering what a wonderful idea it would be to display their images more publicly.

Some of the photobooks are directly related to the exhibits on the walls; but others include work by photographers not actually included in the show (like several featuring the work of László Moholy-Nagy and, the one that caught my eye, The Battle for Waterloo Road with photos of bombed-out London by American photo legend Robert Capa). It is another element which adds to the feeling of profusion, of a super-abundance of imagery and art.

Accessible design

The exhibition is designed by London-based architects Witherford, Watson, Mann, and is noticeably stylish, subtly varying the colours of the walls, the way the photos are hung (different patterns and layouts for each photographer), for the way there are benches scattered about for the strolling punter to sit and reflect and, most strikingly, for the big ‘library’ space on the ground floor with tables and chairs and a generous selection of photobooks to sit and leaf through. It is a photography fan’s dream come true.


Part one – the first floor

Edith Tudor-Hart (1908-73) (15 photos) studied at the Bauhaus and was a communist émigré from Germany who married an English doctor and then used photography as a left-wing instrument to awaken social consciences. She took photos of the poor in London, south Wales and the industrial North East, among the slum housing of Tyneside.

Edith Tudor-Hart. Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

Edith Tudor-Hart – Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

She was also, the exhibition casually mentions, a world class spy for the USSR, who helped in the recruitment of Kim Philby and the Cambridge spies, which muddies your perception of her imagery and your sense of her motivations. But there’s no doubting the power of her photos and the variety of locations she was able to access.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) (24 photos) One of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment set out a theory of how to capture a moment which tells a story, and the 24 photos here are certainly vivid and telling moments in the great civic pageants he chose to attend (the coronation, Royal Ascot etc).

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Just from these first two photographers you get a strong sense of:

  1. England (not the rest of the UK)
  2. in fact, lots of London
  3. the weather’s awful, grey skies or rain
  4. toffs in hats…
  5. … contrasted with abject poverty

Robert Frank (b.1924) American photographer and film director (15 photos) the selection here is taken from his work London/Wales, a photobook resulting from his photographic forays into London (top hats, posh) and the coal mining districts of South Wales (bleak, poverty-stricken).

Six of his 15 photos were of miner Ben James or his family, depicted in their knackered poverty. There’s one of him washing his upper body in a tin baby bath in the front room which really brings home the privations of the period.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Of strong left-wing sympathies, American photographer Strand visited the Outer Hebrides in 1954 and took a series of photos there. Compared to the naked poverty recorded by Tudor-Hart, Strand’s portraits of the islanders seem highly posed, and they radiate the pride and dignity of their subjects. He is one of the few photographers in the exhibition to snap inanimate objects, framing square-on shots of natural or man-made material which powerfully captures their grittiness, their feltness. He feels more consciously artistic than the previous three.

Cas Oorthuys (1908-75) (24 photos) Dutch photographer Oorthuys was a left-wing artist in the 1930s. In the 1950s he collaborated on a series of pocket travel books featuring, among other locations, London and Oxford. There were the usual London buses, relaxers in Hyde Park, students at Oxford, they are all very well done, but I found his images a little posed.

Cas Oorthuys - London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Cas Oorthuys – London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Sergio Larrain (1931-2012) (22 photos) Larrain was from Chile and came to visit and photograph Britain in the winter of 1958-59. He brought a consciously modernist or arty approach, with shots deliberately taken at angles, from odd vantage points, with deliberately out of focus elements, all giving a sense of buzzy black-and-white dynamism.

Sergio Larrain - London. Baker Street underground station. 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Sergio Larrain – London, Baker Street underground station 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Larrain’s photos (and the preceding works) all give the accumulated sense of a hard-pressed, dogged people living in a cold, depressing climate, and dominated by the top hats of the effortlessly posh.

Evelyn Hofer (1922-2009) (20 photos) a German émigré to the US, Hofer provided the pictures to several 1960s photobooks, text by V.S.Pritchett, made during visits to England in 1962 (black and white) and 1974 (colour). She used a 4 x 5 viewfinder camera which was, apparently, cumbersome and slow. Hence her photos, especially of people, look very static and posed which, cumulatively, gives them a distinctively formal and rather solemn feel. Posing at a wedding.

Bruce Davidson (b.1933) The American Davidson is represented by 13 b&w shots from his trip here in 1960, and five colour pics from 1965. His photos of Brighton and Hastings beach make the English seaside look the forlorn pitiful thing it so often is.

Gian Butturini (b.1935) The Italian Butturini visited England in 1969 and captured images of the late-period Swinging city, hippies, stoned parties and loud gigs, which resulted in his coolly laid-out photobook, London. After soaking up 150 powerful images of poverty and discomfort, it is a relief to see some people actually enjoying themselves.

Frank Habicht (b.1938) A German, Habicht was a freelance photographer in the 1960s when he came to London and produced the photos which went into the photobook, We Live In London. London was, by all accounts, a permissive paradise, which means lots of beautiful young women took their clothes off, and his 12 photos here are the first to show a bare boob. The sight of these happy, scantily clad young women makes you stop and reflect what an incredibly long way the country had come in just thirty years from the bleak 1930s poverty so powerfully depicted by Tudor-Hart. (Not that we should make the common mistake of forgetting that lots of the country continued to live in one-up, one-down, outside toilet squalor for decades to come.)

In 1967 and again in 1969 American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928-84) travelled through the UK, using a wide angle lens and creating deliberately askew compositions.

  • man in bowler hat
  • posh man wearing monocle
  • man in kilt playing bagpipes in a public toilet
  • woman in top hat standing by a huge phonogram

Winogrand’s 24 images confirm the cumulative sense that England is neither nice nor lovable, and how little its essential infrastructure has changed: terraces of brick houses, cracked paving stones, ugly unhappy people, dogs barking at each other. The commentary says these photos are little known and this appears to be confirmed by the way I can’t find any trace of them on the internet.

Candida Höfer (b.1944) German photographer Höfer takes a very conceptual approach to photography, exemplified by her visit to Liverpool in 1968, the city of poets and the Beatles. But instead of bohemian hi-jinks, this installation shows precisely 22 square black and white photos arranged in a Teutonic grid shape, which strongly convey a sense of loneliness and alienation among the 1960s developments, in the windy bus stations, the grimly functional waiting rooms, the soon-to-be-demolished tenements and eerily empty docks.

Candida Höfer - Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Candida Höfer – Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Akihiko Okamura (1929-85) Japanese photojournalist Okamura moved to Dublin to cover the conflict in Northern Ireland right at the end of the 1960s. His work from this time is represented by 23 low-key, colour photos which I found absolutely brilliant – showing army barricades, road blocks, demonstrations and bombed out streets, and spots where civilians have been wounded or killed – but all underplayed and understated. Probably the most powerful is a simple image of six milk bottles on a doorstep – amid so much mayhem and death, it is impossible not to feel terrified by their fragility and vulnerability.

Akihiko Okamura - Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Akihiko Okamura – Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Gilles Peress (b.1946) Frenchman Gilles Peress is represented by an installation of 51 black and white photos presented as a continuous band along the wall, titled The Prods, the result of annual visits over nearly two decades to Northern Ireland. These were brilliant, ad hoc snaps, blurred, exposed, capturing people, life, a culture, in a stream-of-consciousness visual narrative, bowler-hatted Orangemen marching, two kids standing on the crappy brick gateway to a church, Protestant couples snogging after a march or lying in the sunshine.

Part two – Downstairs

Downstairs are ten photographers covering the period from 1977 to the present day, these works are generally a) in colour b) shown as massive prints.

Shinro Ohtake (b.1955) Ohtake is ‘one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists’. He came to England in 1977, year of the Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols, understanding nothing of the language and began photographing everything he saw, and also collecting detritus and ephemera and pasting them into scrapbooks. He is represented here by 24 big b&w photos arranged in a 4 x 6 grid of so-so scenes, plus display cases with maybe 100 small prints – so-so because they descend to almost everyday level ie are not as strikingly special as much of the work on offer elsewhere.

Tina Barney (b.1945) American, Barney’s portraits of the British upper classes are huge, three or four foot tall, colour photos of people posed in semi-formal surroundings. Because of their scale and colour, the commentary refers the tradition of big formal oil portraits and maybe there is the ghost of John Singer Sargent buried deep in these images (very deep). Big shots of two Eton boys, a waiter and customer in a posh restaurant, the butler attending on the owner of a big country house in the drawing room by a formally laid table. The commentary says they ‘touch’ on class ie they record the rich. The example below is the only one which doesn’t capture an overtly well-heeled subject.

Tina Barney - The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Tina Barney – The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Raymond Depardon (b.1942) Frenchman Raymond Depardon was commissioned to make a photobook of Glasgow and so came to visit in 1980. But his images of a city ravaged by unemployment and industrial decline were, in the end, turned down for being too depressing. The series is represented by 21 colour shots of drunks passed out in the street, urchins in back alleys, derelicts outside gambling shops, more drunks huddled in the gutter, a boy crying against a boarded up shop front. What a terrible place to be a child, or a human being.

Rineke Dijkstra (b.1959) From the Netherlands, Dijkstra came to prominence for her series of teenage girls on a beach (two of them are currently on show at the Botticelli exhibition at the V&A). In 1994 she came across the Buzz Club in Liverpool and was fascinated by the queues of under-dressed teenagers waiting outside in the shivery cold. She took a series of portraits of these young teenagers, represented by three massive colour examples here. I found these heart-breaking examples of the way barely pubescent girls are pushed into wholly inappropriate clothes and behaviour by an adult society obsessed with sex.

Jim Dow (b.1942) American photographer represented by six very big colour photos from his series Corner shops of Britain – no people at all, just the interiors of the disappearing breed of small local shops, a nostalgia for chippies, corner stores, haberdashers,  a general store, a woollen shop. Entirely empty of human presence, the humanity captured in the array of dowdy products.

Axel Hütte (b.1951) is a latterday representative of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit, the New Objectivity which flourished between the wars, recording with Teutonic precision modern social architecture. His 12 big b&w shots are empty of people, instead recording the lines, spaces and vistas created by Peabody estates, 1960s tower blocks, concrete walkways and stairwells of Brutalist concrete. I like clear lines, squares, rectangles, formality, so I warmed to these frigid images.

Bruce Gilden (b.1946) American Gilden was commissioned to take images of people in and around London, leading to the photobook A Complete Examination of Middlesex (2011), then another project to record the working class of the West Midlands, recorded in Black Country (2014). He is represented by six absolutely enormous colour photos in extremely big close-up of some staggeringly ugly English people, the faces of the men an exploding landscape of skin disease, scars and acne, and the several women all grotesquely made up, spouting hairs and wrinkles. It is quite an assault on the senses to face such ugliness in such unremitting detail.

Hans van der Meer (b.1955) Dutchman van der Meer goes to the other extreme, with his project to photograph Sunday league football matches. From an artfully placed step-ladder he uses a wide angle lens to capture the breadth of muddy football pitches on which the players scamper like matchstick figures, in fact the commentary points out his debt to the Dutch tradition of landscape painting in which teeming figures swarm over, say, an iced-over lake. The eight very big colour photos here were commissioned by the National Media Museum in Bradford in 2004.

Hans van der Meer - Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

Hans van der Meer – Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

The final room in the exhibition is given over to a video which, on closer examination, is a silent slideshow of hundreds of colour photos taken in the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham by Dutch photographer Hans Ejkkelboom (b.1949). He has arranged the images into grids and sequences according to similarities of dress, colour, shape, design, logos, patterns of what people are wearing etc. The commentary says he is ‘questioning the construction of identity and self-representation’, which means he is pointing out that huge numbers of people fondly imagine themselves to be individuals while wearing the same mass-produced tat. The slideshow is haunting and hypnotic and a fitting finale to an amazing show.


Thoughts

What an immense cultural change took place in the 30 years between around 1935 and 1965! It didn’t affect the majority of the population but still, it began opening doors to new ideas and higher expectations of life which are still clanging open for every succeeding generation.

Recurrent images

Certain topics are so recurrent as to become clichés – London with its top- or bowler-hatted gents in the City, and its posh extensions to Ascot or Glyndebourne, private school children and nannies in the park, London buses, the London Tube – compare and contrast with working class poverty, the slums of the East End or Liverpool or Tyneside or Glasgow, the terrible lives of South Wales coal miners, there are lots of urchins in countless back streets. And then a horrible glut of images from our very own civil war in Ulster.

Absent topics

Which makes you reflect on the subjects which aren’t here. Britain had quite a big theatre, classical music and art scene in the second half of the 20th century. Nothing of that here. In fact, Britain along with the United States more or less invented rock music and spawned some of the biggest names in pop and rock and disco and punk. Nothing here.

Although we all live in cities, the British are notoriously sentimental about our countryside which can be ravishing, from the cliffs of Cornwall through the rolling West Country to the mountains of Wales or the spectacular Lake District. Nothing of that here. We are also a nation of gardeners, in love with thousands of species of flower and plant. Not reflected here. We invented football and cricket and rugby. Not here (with the exception of Hans van der Meer’s Sunday league shots, the exception which proves the rule).

People

It’s overwhelmingly an exhibition of people, and people on the streets or in urban settings (with the notable exceptions of Hütte’s empty housing estates, Dow’s empty shops and Höfer’s derelict Liverpool).

I wondered if this is some kind of intrinsic bias in photography itself, which biases it towards the human face and form?

Are people just more interesting than buildings or hills – is the part of the brain which processes faces and expressions and postures capable of infinite stimulation?

Or, if you’re a freelance photographer and paid to produce a photobook on London or England, do you dare not include buses and taxis and men in bowler hats? Is the narrowness of the subject matter a function of the photobook commissioning process?

Or, given that the entire show is curated by Martin Parr who has a well-documented fascination with the strangeness and quirkiness of people, does the focus on people and the absence of many other ‘British’ subjects reflect his particular interests?

Or a bit of all three?

Trends

A few obvious trends emerge over the 70 years the show covers.

  1. The prints get bigger – a LOT bigger, reflecting maybe the technology which allows for bigger prints, maybe the trend for photographers to think of themselves as Artists, commanding the same size and status as painters.
  2. More colour – As you approach the present day more of the photos are in colour. Colour, as I noticed at the exhibition of Martin Parr’s big colour prints at the Guildhall Art Gallery – is more unsparing of its human subjects, showing up blemishes and imperfections. Black and white for romance and glamour (even scenes of poverty have a certain nostalgia in black and white); colour for irony and satire.
  3. Cynicism – As a result of the above two trends, the most obvious thing about the more recent photos is their distance and detachment, bordering on cruelty. Tudor-Hart or Strand’s photos are full of compassion. Modern colour photography, on this showing, is characterised by its heartlessness.

Photography and identity

One wall label suggests that it is a ‘timely’ moment for an exhibition like this to shed light on our national identity, at a time when the independent or devolved nations are threatening the complete unravelling of the United Kingdom. But is it?

That unravelling shows no sign of happening any time soon. And, anyway, the show doesn’t shed any systematic light on cultural identity – instead it captures scattered moments, personal views, or aspects of quite narrowly conceived photographic projects: only tiny aspects of Scotland (the Outer Hebrides in the 1950s, the mean streets of Glasgow circa 1980) or Wales (lots of miners), and only the Ulster of ‘the Troubles’. And time and again England is represented by London and London is represented by the same shots of buses and bowler hats, cheeky chappy market traders or hippies in Notting Hill.

So I don’t think the exhibition sheds that much light on issues of national identity. I just think it’s a massive collection of quite brilliant photos, which can be enjoyed in their own right as works of art and, taken together, comprise a fabulous journey of discovery through the visual worlds of some of the world’s greatest photographers. What’s not to love?


Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

Absolute Friends John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, it turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like another channeling of le Carré’s own lifestory. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional iteration to Berlin (the author went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical, but the product of research – nonetheless, the feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of prolonged sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is a defining characteristic of these books). Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Of course they do – just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel. Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but – like all le Carré leading men – the happy ‘conqueror’ of numberless women, and the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

For the first time in five or six novels, there were scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary or what total rotters they are. These scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat, there’s sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments – and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons to be found in the early 1970s. Ted teaches at schools (he has affair with one of the other master’s wives, natch), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (has affair with a painter’s wife, natch), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council. He also lowers his sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role he is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha! Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he becomes a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

By the time of this backstage meeting Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as red fascists. He had begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. Then he is amazed to see his friend’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel when he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling upper class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to us. The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy two the British spy, Mundy three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves, very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a shaggy, tall, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent. Then one day he’s gone, without goodbye or anything. Amory explains that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (ie the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project. (Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, ie in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March-May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again. Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, he returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

As ‘the present’ opens this school has shut down, bankrupted by the possibly criminal activities of his business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She is victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes her protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the significance of having had Ted born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But the description of his childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving. And above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

This brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex to be heard, for alternative discourses and theories to flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion. It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them. I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha, but the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, to find it full of farm equipment, and on up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky! Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’; he’s been a freelance advising the big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end he gets Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall. Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Alright.  OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in leg and shoulder, and makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside, at which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst in after him followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out and is stifled.

It is given out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, goddamit) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasis spy and failed radical. We learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists – always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy. The American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.


A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood; the same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator is always an interloper in these secret worlds, the outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma: thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays the slick arms dealer Chief.

As part of his odd childhood, the young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever. From which he progressed to Oxford University – not backward in promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status – and then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (possibly the most famous school in the world) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars. The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero, the Old Etonian Justin Quayle from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which his fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced in with a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

  1. to be vastly patronising – ‘our dear old queen’, conveying a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148)
  2. appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)
  3. to pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’
  4. to dismiss serious characters and issues with mock affection – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.2550
  5. to conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany – ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)
  6. to puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’ ; one of the teenage actors is ‘Lexham our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)
  7. mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)
  8. normal standard ‘our’ – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)
  9. ‘our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – ‘our Kate’ is how Kate’s dad always refers to her (p.204)
  10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:
  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name the character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘the former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity?

Like boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • as he starts his career as a spy Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe, the breadth of the subject matter is fighting an often losing battle against the narrowing impact of the mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realise that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geo-political ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before quietly dropping it.)

  • The Night Manager – international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (here, Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower run riot (America)

The big issue this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex. ‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ he has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’ Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no. Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative. Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot – and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel. Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba). Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are on the whole right wing and ridicule lefty politics).

But it fails in this case because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes incandescent after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi et al I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes. But when a character has to explain the exact geo-political crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, alright, so you should, too.’ It’s also characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot.

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (Larry, Our Game, p.138)

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has key explanations of the big theme of each novel delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

So you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – and you don’t disagree with any of it.

Like most people I am aware of all this, read all about it in the papers at the time. I just don’t care very much because

a) There is nothing I can do about it .
b) It is the way of the world: which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry, which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to the over-mighty Superpower?
c) Things have moved on a lot since then.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris). But they are neither: too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should. The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make them look a bit childish and shallow.


My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony – In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character here doesn’t have a my-little-pony memory but the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210). So I’m still just about winning my bet…


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999) Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
  • Absolute Friends (2003) Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001)

‘It’s time educated men and women had some balls to speak out for truth instead of cringing in the shit-house like a bunch of craven cowards.’ (p.424)

This is a long novel at 560 pages in the paperback edition. It deals with serious social, medical and political issues, and also includes sections of great suspense and tension, but I found it very difficult to read because, like most of le Carré’s later novels, the focus is very much on a handful of terrifically upper-class chaps and chapesses.

The main protagonist is blessed with the ‘good manners and ancient chivalry that were bred in him from his Etonian cradle’ (p.439) – and the relentlessly upper-class patois, speech rhythms and habits of thought evinced by him and almost all the other characters (unless foreigners or servants), almost made me throw the book away more than once. But I’m glad I soldiered on to the end because there are lots of good, and even brilliant, things in it.

Part one – the High Commission

Like most late le Carre’s novels this one starts in media res, in the middle of the plot, and then cunningly interweaves multiple flashbacks and memories to paint in the backstory and build back up to ‘the present’ while also moving the action moving forward, with the result that multiple timeframes interpenetrate each other. This always makes for a satisfyingly complex and interesting reading experience.

The Constant Gardener opens by introducing us to Sandy Woodrow, Head of Chancery at the British High Commission in Nairobi and his gossipy wife Gloria. Sandy has been lusting after Tessa, the young, free-spirited wife of Justin, the Old Etonian British representative on the East African Donors’ Effective Committee (EADEC) at the Commission. But Tessa appears to have been having a long-term affair with a black doctor, Arnold Bluhm, and now – the central event in the novel which triggers everything else – she has been found dead, murdered in a jeep on a trip into the back country along with Bluhm, who is missing, apparently on her way to visit the (real life) Dr Richard Leakey.

Posh characters

In these early pages we realise with a sinking feeling, that we are, once again, among the very posh. All the main characters went to private school:

– When Sandy goes to the hospital to identify Tessa’s body it reminds him of the dormitory at his boarding school, the trestle the corpse is lying on like ‘matron’s ironing board’. Sandy’s father was a British Army General and he reads his two young sons bedtime stories from Biggles (p.144).

– His wife Gloria keeps in touch with her old boarding schools, likes to play act the school prefect, channeling her inner ‘head girl’ (p.472), and her thoughts – which we are given far more of than we could possibly want – are peppered with jolly hockeysticks expressions – Well played, that man! (p.52) Singing at Tessa’s funeral reminds both of them of chapel back at boarding school (p.138). And Justin is not just an Old Etonian, he is ‘the right sort of Etonian’ (p.98). (It is taken for granted that we all know how beastly it can be having to deal with the wrong sort of Etonian.)

– The High Commissioner’s jacket labels still say ‘P. Coleridge, Balliol’, to remind him of his jolly days at Oxford. Bernard Pellegrin, the Permanent Secretary, is always referred to as ‘the Pellegrin’ in that ho-ho public school drawl they all use, but he is always ready to take a chap to lunch at his club.

In other words, all the main characters dress, speak and think in the tones of Britain’s white, public school élite.

Part of their superior attitude is looking down on the lower classes. The impertinent secretary to the High Commissioner, Mildren (with typically mirthless ‘humour’ nicknamed Mildred, ha ha) has, in Sandy’s view, ‘the insolence peculiar to lower class secretaries’ (p.128). The police who arrive to interview Sandy also display tiresome characteristics of the lower classes, such as expecting their questions to be answered. Tut tut, what can one do about such ghastly people, darling?

I laughed out loud when Sandy drifts off during the church service for Tessa and a stained glass depiction of St Andrew reminds him of ‘Macpherson the gillie that time we drove the boys to Loch Awe to fish the salmon’ (p.139). Like the older Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s later novels, le Carré’s very pukka protagonists are only really comfortable with members of the working classes if they are servants or Victorian-style retainers. (Of the peasant fisherman who ferries Justin across the lake at the novel’s end, Justin thinks ‘this fellow was your born family retainer, which was why, to be honest, it was easy to confuse him with Mustafa’, p.564 – to even categorise the wily old peasant as a family retainer seems patronising and narrow-minded, and then to say it’s so easy to muddle up these helpful old black chaps…).

Because of course, here in Africa, each High Commission official has a large house staffed with plenty of servants who they forge sentimental bonds with. Justin in particular is held up as some kind of paragon for his close paternal friendship with his houseboy and his head servant Mustafa et al. The characters pour lofty scorn on their Victorian imperialist ancestors (and everything else) but their patronising self-regard, and their fondness for servants, seems absolutely unchanged since 1870.

The plot

Wayward young diplomat’s wife uncovers corporate misdoings in Africa, namely a pharmaceutical company recklessly trialling an experimental drug on Africa’s poorest. Big corporation bumps her off. Husband goes on quest to discover reason for her murder, uncovering conspiracy which includes FO staff and high-ups back in London. Just as he has satisfactorily dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, he is himself murdered and everything he’s discovered rubbished in a corporate cover-up.

Father a judge, mother a contessa, sent to boarding schools and Cambridge, Tessa Quayle showed her spirit and independence by rebelling against her privileged upper-class background. (I think she is meant to be a great romantic heroine – the stern Lara is made to say Tessa was ‘very beautiful and very tragic’, p.435 – but her breath-takingly privileged background and 100% saintly character made me laugh more than once.) Tessa falls in love with dry-as-dust Justin Quayle, an Old Etonian, who reminds her of her father (natch) and accompanies him as a ‘diplomatic wife’ on his next posting to Nairobi, capital of Kenya.

Here her rebellion takes the form of feeling sorry for the miserably poor Africans around her and angry at the outrageous corruption of Kenya’s ruling class and disgusted by the pusillanimous failure of the British to highlight their failings or hold them to account.

She harangues Sandy for his cowardice while he can only think about her firm young breasts. She has a more respectful relationship with her husband Justin, who lets her go off doing her charity work all day then spend all night tapping feverishly away at her computer, denouncing corruption and wrong-doing. It is understood that he maintains a presence inside the system while she is free to do whatever she wants outside it.

Tessa gets pregnant and insists on showing her solidarity for Africa’s impoverished women by having the baby in a local hospital, where it is promptly stillborn. Such is her commitment that she suckles the baby of a Kenyan mother, Wanzi, so poor and malnourished that she can’t herself produce milk. It is the wasting away, death and disappearance of this mother under the treatment of sinister Europeans in white coats, and then her complete erasure from the hospital records, which sets Tessa suspecting the drug she was being treated with in fact poisoned her, and Tessa’s strong-willed determination to get to the bottom of it which triggers the fateful sequence of events described in the novel. Tessa (and loyal black doctor and aid worker, Arnold Bluhm) become convinced that the mother was maltreated, was given some kind of experimental treatment by the sinister pharmaceutical conglomerate, ThreeBees, who dominate Kenya’s economy and sell everything from petrol to pills.

After burying her stillborn son, Tessa returns from hospital with a new determination to name the guilty men, and so she sends countless letters to various bodies, and tries to personally buttonhole the fat CEO of ThreeBees, Sir Kenneth K. Curtis. (He is a baddy and a symbol of corrupt Westerners bleeding Africa dry, so he is ‘vastly overweight’, p.186.)

Before, during and after the stillbirth she is accompanied everywhere by the legendary Dr Bluhm, godlike African activist, hero of Médecins sans Frontières, who has himself suffered, having been arrested and tortured in Algeria. Their relationship is so close that idle tongues in the ex-pat community (is there any other type) speculate that they are lovers and even that the baby was his.

Part two – a thriller

Elba

But around page 250 the novel emerges from the stiflingly posh atmosphere of the High Commission and develops some real pace. The main protagonist is still an Old Etonian with a network of posh friends, his wife is still the daughter of an Italian contessa, but the novel acquires the speed and nerve-racking edginess of a genuine thriller, something le Carré’s previous half dozen novels have (for me, at any rate) mostly lacked.

Justin goes on the run. He is recalled by the Foreign Office to London where he has what is clearly intended as a satirical debriefing from a senior woman in Personnel, who offers counselling, a rest break and other support for the bereaved husband. But Justin has his own plans. He gets his posh lawyer friend, Ham, to validate a fake passport, name of Peter Atkinson. Then he catches a ferry to France, travels incognito down to Italy and across to the island of Elba, where Tessa’s family own several ‘estates’ (handy). Here he greets the loyal old retainer (how nice to have these old retainers to smooth your passage through life) who manages the estate and unpacks. Now he has time and space to go through the haul of Tessa’s files and letters, piecing together the story of her investigations and, in the process, sharing it with the reader, namely:

The experimental drug Dypraxa is effective against multi-drug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis. The novel claims (with unfounded alarmism) that MDR TB will arrive in the West in the near future and that a handy treatment for it will make its owners a fortune. Dypraxa was discovered and developed by scientists in Canada working for a Swiss drug company, KVH (Karel Vita Hudson). Tessa’s documents identify the two women and man who worked on it. However, as it was rolled out for field trials in the developing world, reports began coming in of severe side effects, including blindness and death. Nonetheless large scale trials went ahead, although at least one of the drug’s inventors protested. KVH licensed the drug for distribution in Africa, and in Kenya, to the multinational, ThreeBees. Tess and Bluhm uncovered a trail of trials whose results have been systematically suppressed, patient deaths removed from the records, entire villages terrified into silence. Kenyan politicians were so corrupt they were happy to take the bribes from ThreeBees and ignore the deaths. KVH and ThreeBees insisted full and proper clinical trials had established the drug’s safety. Tessa and Bluhm had assembled an extremely detailed dossier of evidence and were travelling to northern Kenya to hand it over to Dr Richard Leakey, who they considered the only safe and independent voice in the country who could publicise their findings, when they were ambushed and murdered and all their documents disappeared.

The incorporation of different document types – magazine articles, newspaper reports, scientific papers, emails, letters, scribbled notes – though hardly a new device, gives the narrative a welcome sense of urgency and pace.

Holed up in one of the old buildings on the estate, Justin asks the 12-year-old son of the estate manager, Guido, to hack into Tessa’s computer. But when they open Tessa’s email program something has been sent to it which wipes the computer completely. Spooky.

Posh neighbours turn up unannounced with wine and commiserations, and peer over his shoulder, trying to see what old Justin is up to and old Justin is by now so spooked that he suspects they’ve been sent to spy on him. All good paranoid stuff.

In an interlude back at the High Commission we see Sandy Woodward struggling with his conscience, but not too hard, before delivering a speech to the assembled staff in which he has been ordered to lie for his country, and promote the official ‘line’, namely that the Kenyan police have issued an arrest warrant for Bluhm, who is obviously going to be made the scapegoat for Tessa’s murder, and going on to inform his staff that Justin has gone rogue, disappeared and, suffering from shock, appears to have concocted some cock and bull conspiracy theory. If he contacts anybody at the Commission, they must let him, Sandy, know immediately. Meanwhile part of him is sweating at the lies he knows he’s telling:

Who did this to me? he wondered while he talked. Who made me what I am? England? My father? My schools? My pathetic, terrified mother? Or seventeen years of lying for my country? (p.346)

Throughout the book the Foreign Office is depicted as populated by lickspittles, liars and corrupt politicians. It’s an amazing indictment from a man who once worked for it.

Bielefeld

Justin travels incognito to the little town of Bielefeld, near Hanover, in Germany. Here he arranges to meet someone mentioned in Tessa’s correspondence, Birgit, who works for a pharmaceutical-watching charity called Hippo. She tells Justin their charity was burgled a week before – the computer, all disks, and files of correspondence were taken, no money or valuables. More importantly she adds detail to the portrayal of Dypraxa and the scientists involved. First of all she explains the roles of its inventors, Dr Lara Emrich and Dr Kovacs overseen by a man named Markus Lorbeer, an odd character much given to quoting the Bible. Then she explains how big pharma companies bribe and seduce doctors with free trips and goodies, and other techniques of persuasion. But then she adds an important caveat:

Not all doctors can be seduced, not all pharmaceutical companies are careless and greedy. (p.370)

And more words to the effect that pharmaceutical companies contain many good and noble men and women researching the medicines that save all our lives. Maybe passages like this had to be put in at the insistence of lawyers, because the fictional indictment, the imaginative power of the novel, is so monumentally anti-pharma.

Convinced now that every passing car or pedestrian is spying on him, Justin makes it back to the hotel and walks into his room – only to be abruptly assaulted, have a hood slipped over his head, and be badly beaten up. A foreign voice warns him to lay off. His attackers eventually leave, allowing Justin to slowly recover and set about trying to untie his bonds…

Ghita’s quest

A junior member of the High Commission is Ghita Pearson, who Tessa had taken under her wing. Revolted by Sandy Woodward’s lecherous approaches, and then by his blatant lying about Tessa, Bluhm and Justin in the Big Speech he gives the Commission staff, she decides to find out what happened to them for herself. She makes an excuse to fly north to the same place Tessa visited, but under the pretext of having been asked by the WHO to check out a feminist support group. She flies to Lokichoggio, where she finds the aid camp where Tessa and Bluhm stayed. (Here – incidentally – there is lots of detail about what it’s like to be white people running this kind of place, designed to help African women be more independent, and the white women characters she meets, Sarah and Judith, are vividly described.) And Ghita is able to flesh out the Tess and Bluhm’s precise movements in their last days…

Switzerland

Justin just has the energy to stand, clean himself up, catch a cab to the station and a train to Zurich. It reminds him of childhood visits with his parents. He recuperates in a hotel with a trip to a medical clinic to be patched up. Then catches a train to Basel, home of many big pharmaceutical corporations. He struggles across town to the site of the huge gleaming KVH headquarters building.

Throughout this 250-page quest, Justin imagines that Tessa is with him. He jokes with her, shares his discoveries, asks her questions and, when he is dispirited, she spurs him on. His sections of the novel are marinated in her (fictional, hallucinated) presence. This is often very powerful and affecting.

Saskatchewan

Suddenly he is in Canada, in the town of Saskatchewan. This is one of the research centres of KVH pharmaceuticals (Canadian HQ in Vancouver) and he has come to meet one of the women involved in the original research, the fierce, humourless Dr Lara Emrich who, he discovers, has been hounded out of the university science department for criticising Dypraxa. KVH funds all kinds of research programs at the university, and so her out-spoken criticism a) jeopardises that b) leads quickly to her dismissal.

Emrich had done extensive research on the adverse side-effects of Dypraxa on 600 patients, submitted it to a learned journal where it was rejected, but the (supposedly independent) peer reviewers tipped off KVH and a) her contract was cancelled b) she received threatening notes in the post c) she started being followed. Emrich gives a summary of the situation:

  1. Dypraxa’s side effects are being concealed in the name of profit
  2. the world’s poorest communities are being used as guinea pigs by the world’s richest
  3. legitimate scientific debate is being stifled by threats and intimidation (p.429)

She and Justin are both so paranoid that they arrange to meet at neither her house nor his hotel but at the house of a third party, who turns out to be the fat, straight-talking Amy and her grumpy husband Ralph (p.423). As so often in a le Carré novel, it is this secondary character, a rumpled, foul-mouthed old geezer, who delivers the sweary ‘message’ of the book, that it’s time for all good men to speak out against corporate wickedness (see epigraph at the top of this review).

As they walk to Justin’s car, they see its wheels have been slashed. Two prowling cars approach, then one accelerates and tries to run them over. They jump into the car and drive off, the two flat tyres flumping against the road, just managing to evade the pursuing men long enough to make it to the ambulance station at the hospital. Here Emrich introduces Justin to an old Russian ambulance driver who has a soft spot for her, as a fellow Eastern émigré. This old man agrees to drive them back to Emrich’s house, where they are safe for the night and Justin sleeps.

Donohue and Curtiss

A creepy character who has appeared at the edges of various scenes is the tall, gaunt, childless Tim Donohue who is what the diplomats refer to as one of the ‘Friends’ ie works for British Intelligence. In a central scene we witness the head of ThreeBees, the obese very sweary Sir Kenny Curtiss yelling at Donohue, and the nature of their relationship is laid bare. Donohue of British Intelligence helps ThreeBees. This is made very explicit: Curtiss supplies good intelligence about dodgy arms deals or drug trading or other wrong-doing, and in exchange expects protection and support from the Commission and Donohue. He is, therefore, from his point of view, justified in being furious to discover that the High Commissioner, Porter Coleridge, has gone back to London to in person, to deliver a folder of Tessa’s evidence and demand a parliamentary enquiry into Dypraxa and ThreeBees. This scene would be a lot more plausible if Curtiss hadn’t been made into an obese monster who says ‘fuck’ in every sentence. The CEOs of big pharma companies are slender, well groomed and very clever men, to judge from their pics in the FT.

Leaving Curtiss with his threats to stop helping MI6 ringing in his ears, Donohue encounters his side-kick, Crick, a scary ex-soldier who says he has a friend who has a friend who heard a little something about a contract being put out on Tess and Bluhm. Donohue has a bad feeling that Crick might have been directly involved himself.

Part three – death and cover-up

With a hundred pages still to go the reader has now got a very good sense of the story. Tess and Bluhm were murdered by contract killers hired at a remote distance by ThreeBees and/or KVH because they had created a detailed dossier proving that Dypraxa, although a potentially good drug, was being trialled irresponsibly which was leading to unreported deaths among its African patients. And the generally ominous, tragic atmosphere of the book (when it is not being laughably posh and legendary) strongly suggests that Justin himself will come to no good. Therefore, the book has little sense of the unexpected or of suspense.

Kenya

In the final hundred pages Justin returns to Kenya under a false passport for the last part of the tragedy.

Dismayingly, this section returns to the point of view of the sweatily lecherous and duplicitous Sandy Woodward as he hosts a gala party organised by his wife, part of his bid to replace the High Commissioner who – as far as he and the staff know – is on an extended trip to London (only we know, because of the previous scene, that he is arguing with the people at the top about the enquiry into ThreeBees and Tessa’s murder.)

Sandy is busy eyeing up Tessa’s young Asian assistant, Ghita, who has returned from her trip up north with information about Bluhm and Tessa’s last movement – when Tessa and Justin’s loyal servant, Mustafa, hands him a note asking him to come to the gate. Here he is hussled into a car containing the well-disguised Justin, who proceeds to make it clear that he knows all about the conspiracy, all about Dypraxa. Devastatingly, he knows that Tessa entrusted a copy of her findings to Sandy to give to someone trustworthy to publicise, but that instead Sandy simply handed them over to his boss, Coleridge. Justin takes Woodward to an empty house and gets him to confess everything, blubbering like the cowardly reptile he is. Above all, he confirms that the evidence Tessa and Bluhm had collected was ‘massive’ – interviews, dates, places, scope of trials, secret documents, and then full documentation of the cover-up, dead bodies disappearing, whole villages intimidated into silence.

These pages confirm the corrupt intertwining between the ThreeBees corporation, British officials in the High Commission, the corrupt Kenyan government and powerful forces back in London. All of them have a vested interest in hushing up the story and thus are, to some extent or other, complicit in Tessa’s murder.

Immediately following this Justin has a final interview with Donohue, who fills in the rest of the picture. At some risk to his own career, Donohue fills in the gaps about the links between Curtiss, Crick and the murderers. But he also emphasises that Curtiss is himself in big financial trouble. The City has got wind of bad news about Dypraxa, ThreeBees shares are falling, Curtiss is in financial meltdown.

Lokichoggio

In the last act of the novel Justin takes a plane up to the northern outpost from which where Tessa and Bluhm had gone on their ill-fated drive, Lokichoggio, where Ghita had earlier visited. He meets the tubby man Brandt – ‘everyone loves him, everyone knows Brandt’ – who manages the arrival of food aid and its distribution. But Justin confronts him because now he knows that Brandt is also the villainous Lorbeer, who oversaw the development of Dypraxa, who is in cahoots with KVH. In fact, now Justin recognises him as the furtive figure in a white coat who sometimes attended on the dying African mother Wanzi, when Justin was visiting Tessa in the maternity hospital

In a hot sweaty African tent Justin confronts him with all the evidence and Lorbeer collapses in tears, weeping and wailing and calling on God to forgive his sins etc. Along with Ghita’s earlier visit to the Women’s Refuge, this long section gives the reader a good feel for the nitty gritty, for the dusty outhouses and drops of food aid from twin-prop airplanes, for the pride of local tribesmen and the appallingness of the never-ending feuds and tribal wars which underpin African poverty, and for the pressures such aid officials are under. But its main purpose is for the chivalrous Etonian Justin to confront the wicked Germanic baddy. Buried beneath the modern trappings, is the spirit of John Buchan.

In the final sequence Justin flies in the little propellor plane further north and is dropped at a remote outpost, from which he charters a peasant fishing boat to take him across the lake, the only way of getting to the very remote location of Tess and Bluhm’s murder – where Tessa’s car was ambushed, where she was raped and murdered, and the driver killed and Bluhm dragged off into the desert to be tortured and killed.

While sitting there he hears, first the little fishing boat tactfully putting back across the lake, abandoning him – and then the sound of vehicles drawing up. He knows it is the same collection of mercenaries. He hears them scrabbling towards him over the loose sand and rock and knows he is going to die.

The cover-up

In a nifty bit of structuring le Carré has actually described the aftermath of Justin’s death before it happens. He gives a dismaying account of how, following his death, Justin is systematically rubbished by the system, how the press & PR ‘machine’ makes sure a consistent message is broadcast from the High Commission, the Foreign Office back in London and by ThreeBees, carefully co-ordinated to portray Justin as an irresponsible loner, sadly unhinged by the murder of his wife, who had rejected help from the FO, shown signs of mental disturbance, disappeared on a faked passport to visit a number of discredited ex-employees with a grudge, before making a raft of wild and unfounded accusations against ThreeBees etc. Porter Coleridge – who, we are told, tried to present Tessa’s case – is ‘retired’ early. Bernard Pellegrin, the Foreign Office’s Head of Africa, takes early retirement and slips very neatly into a place on the Board of ThreeBees.

A court case is launched using the documents Justin had, throughout his investigation, been posting to a safe house in Italy, where his lawyer friend Ham could access them. But it is quickly silenced by powerful lawyers acting for ThreeBees which will ensure the case drags on forever. Nobody escapes the corporate ‘monstering’, or uncrushed by the courts or discredited by paid-for journalists and corporate spokespersons. Or murdered. Evil wins.

The novel is designed to leave you terrified at the power of Big Pharma, at the scale of the links between big business and government, at the ease with which they can repress the truth.


Issues raised by the novel

1. Third World corruption Nobody reading the novel can be unaware that corruption is endemic throughout the developing world. It comes as no news that some African rulers are corrupt, that a lot of the foreign aid given to Third World countries is siphoned off by corrupt officials, that white ex-pats in Africa live like kings while the majority of Africans around them subsist in squalid shanties and die like flies. And, a little closer to the content of this novel, no surprise that multinational corporations screw profits out of the poorest of the poor, that drug companies have not always behaved charitably in Third World companies, nor that Britain’s embassies and high commissions are stuffed with upper class twits.

2. Neo-imperialism Throughout the book JLC’s white, upper-class characters routinely look back at the folly of their Victorian forebears, with their arrogant assumption that they could run African countries. Yet they just as routinely deplore the corruption and inefficiency of the current regime, reflecting, by implication or overtly, on how much better they would run the damn place. Tessa is on a one-woman mission to save Africa, especially all African women. If only African women could be empowered to run the place, what a better job they’d make of it than the men (a sentiment powerfully echoed by Lorbeer in his isolated aid station).

Doesn’t she realise she is the latest in a long line of do-gooding Imperial wives, from the same kind of lofty background (the contessa mother, boarding school, Cambridge), with the same exuberant idealism and with the same burning conviction that something must be done which, in the end, doesn’t change anything.

3. Big pharma, bad pharma The most controversial aspect of the novel must be the central claim that one or some pharmaceutical companies unscrupulously trial new drugs in developing countries, happy to use poor Africans (who were going to die anyway, as Sir Kenneth Curtiss angrily points out) as guinea pigs to establish safe dosages which will then be used back in the Western world. Could such things happen? I know various scandals about pharma behaviour in Third World countries have been documented, especially around the pricing of life-saving drugs (particularly for AIDS). The second accusation is that these companies, or high-up people associated with them, could have a word with someone who has a word with someone who puts the word out that so-and-so public critics of said company should meet with an unfortunate accident. Could such things happen? No doubt. Have I ever read of such a thing? No, but then I haven’t spent a career following the behaviour of large pharmaceutical companies.

British physician and academic Ben Goldacre has made such a study, resulting in his book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. That would be one place to begin an exploration of the subject, and I don’t doubt it’s full of hair-raising stories. But it was published. And he’s still alive.

Unlike in this novel, where the central whistleblowers die horrible deaths.

Issues in the novel

The novel, with its baggy definition as a long piece of prose fiction, can include any amount of fact, history, politics, denunciation and journalism. The question is – or a question is – do these accusations work in the context of this novel? For a young person who is new to these issues I can imagine this book might be a devastating wake-up call. As a grown-up who’s spent thirty years reading about the wickedness of multinational corporations and the hopeless plight of the Third World I don’t think I read anything I hadn’t read before. In fact the one thought which I hadn’t seen expressed so well, is where one of the High Commission officials angrily tells the idealistic Tessa that it is not the job of the Foreign Office to save the world, it is not the job of the High Commission to set itself up as judge and jury over its host government and spend all its time carping and criticising. Their job is to protect the persons of the 30,000 or so British citizens living in Kenya and their business interests. What else would you expect? What else would she expect?

If these issues were new to you, maybe you would be drawn into the sense of horrible dark revelations and the ominous atmosphere the novel is, presumably, setting out to create. But for me:

  • I’d heard a lot of the ‘big issues’ before
  • in a sense the plot was given away early on – Tessa is dead and I felt we learned that she was bumped off by someone acting in the pharma company’s interests also very early, and so it didn’t come as any surprise that Justin himself ends up being bumped off – it didn’t create the frisson of fear which, I think, was intended
  • the style – the upper class cant of most of the characters – kept me repelled, or amused, or distracted so continuously that I never had any real sympathy for them

Is the thriller a suitable vehicle to make serious political points?

No, is the short answer. The thriller genre takes for granted scheming baddies, evil drug dealers or arms dealers, Blofeld or the KGB. The idea that the good guys themselves turn out to be penetrated by corruption and evil goes back at least as far as the 1970s and the outburst of conspiracy thrillers following Watergate, in fact probably back to the Kennedy assassination in the 1960s, maybe to the McCarthyite paranoia of the 1950s, or possibly to John Buchanite concerns about communists and Jews in the government of dear old Blighty. In a thriller, you expect there to be assassins in doorways and mystery cars trying to run over our hero, and all the computers to be hacked, and the government to deny any knowledge of your devastating findings because they’re in fact part of the dreadful conspiracy.

In other words, le Carré is writing his serious indictments of great social evils (the arms trade in The Night Manager, bad pharma here, American hyper-power in Absolute Friends) in a genre which teaches you not to take its grandiose conspiracies seriously; which is based on the idea that you thrill to the scale of some absurd conspiracy (like the computerised plan to invade and conquer Russia in Len Deighton’s Billion Dollar Brain), then put the book down and completely forget about it.


Thoughts about style

Legends

As usual, the characters are all legends in each other’s minds, routinely hyped up and overegged by the myth-making narrator. Sandy’s wife, Gloria, is ‘famously loquacious’ (famous to who?), Tessa’s aristocratic mother and sister were ‘fabled beauties’ (p.198), Justin visits ‘that fabled valley of the upper Rhine where pharma-giants have their castles’ (p.412), the repellent Kenny Curtiss turns on ‘the fabled charm’ (p.461), when Donohue refers to Tessa’s killers, he offensively calls them ‘the celebrated Marsabit Two’ (p.510), we read of Foreign Office mandarin Bernard Pellegrin’s ‘fabled skills at networking’ (p.549). And Tessa’s co-conspirator, Bluhm, is not just a doctor, he is:

Bluhm the Westerner’s African, bearded Apollo of the Nairobi cocktail round, charismatic, witty, beautiful. (p.35)

His colleague in an aid camp in the north of the country is ‘Reuben the legendary camp organiser’ (p.392). And so on.

Tessa, who the plot rotates around is – as you are continually reminded – the daughter of a High Court judge and an Italian contessa! She has a ‘teasing, foxing, classy voice’ (p.57). She comes from the same ‘thoroughbred stable’ as her husband, Justin. She isn’t, in other words, any old totty. She is phenomenally posh totty. She is a legend to everyone who’s met her.

God forbid le Carré’s stories should happen to ‘ordinary’ people. His characters come from Britain’s social élite and are gods and legends in their own minds. If you like this exalted atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, if you like characters talking like they are still at Eton and Harrow and Winchester and convinced they are the only people in the world who matter, then you will enjoy this book, old boy.

Lechery

Sandy Woodward is a middle-aged man with wife and children, but the opening of the novel is drenched in his unrequited leching after Tessa.

I tried not to notice her naked silhouette… trying to wrest the lower half of his gaze from the shadow of her breasts through the puff of her dress… shoulders back, dress stretched across her breasts… her naked silhouette still taunting his memory… (pp.58-63)

She is cradling the child to her left breast, her right breast free and waiting. Her upper body is slender and translucent. Her breasts, even in the aftermath of childbirth, are as light and flawless as he has so often imagined them. (p.83)

Bit of a boob man, old Sandy.

This is before we get on to Justin’s memories of meeting Tessa. How it happened is he was called up at the last minute by a chap in the FO who he knew at Eton, asking if he could deliver a lecture at Cambridge at short notice. Tessa is there, half his age, asks feisty questions, they go for a stroll by the Cam, then a spot of punting, then she takes him back to her little apartment for heady ‘sexual delights’ (p.164). She is sick of boys her own age and looking for a kindly father figure; and he, a confirmed bachelor (although with an impressive track record of affairs, of course) is blown away by her life and enthusiasm. And body. They make a pact that Justin will carry on being Mr Dull and Conventional on the inside of the diplomatic service, giving Tessa a free hand to do her thing.

Fuck

All the characters say ‘fuck’. The High Commissioner, Head of Chancery, Foreign Office Personnel, Permanent Secretary, the police, all say fuck and shit a lot.

‘You try,’ Amy said. ‘If you don’t try, you’re fucked.’
‘Fucked if you try, fucked if you don’t.’ (p.424)

As far as I can remember this is the first le Carré novel to use the word ‘fart’ (the Permanent Secretary at the FO takes Justin for lunch at his club and explains that the fish makes him fart). The opening words of the first scene in which we finally meet Sir Kenny Curtiss, head of the villainous ThreeBees pharma company, are:

‘What the fuck does your man Quayle think he’s playing at, Tim?’ (p.451)

What made George Smiley a totemic character was his quiet dignity, his restraint, his subtle intelligence. In these later novels all the characters roar:

‘This is Turkana we’re talking about, not fucking Surrey.’ (p.452) ‘I’m Sir fucking Kenneth Curtiss! I have subscribed – last year alone – half a fucking million quid to party funds. I have provided you – British fucking Intelligence – with nuggets of pure gold.’ (p.457)

Italics

This loss of self-restraint (either in the characters or by the author) is mirrored by another, which is the eruption of italics throughout the text. For some reason everyone starts emphasising every third or fourth word they say in order to really ram home the importance of what they’re saying. Get it?

‘I’m sure Justin would like me to write to him… I mean I wouldn’t tell him anything that was going to hurt him… I mean Justin knows that Tessa and Arnold were travelling together… Whatever was between them, he’s reconciled to that… There must be something you remember that she did or said… Well, I won’t say she did contribute to that discussion…

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper le Carré spoke about how angry he’s become as he grows older. It’s unfortunate that this wrath and frustration at the wicked world spill over into continual emphasis of almost everything that everybody says.

‘I just don’t see how you could survive like that… Would that be your feeling, basically?… You negotiate with other countries, don’t you? You cut deals with them. You legitimise them through trading partnerships… We really like Bluhm… Bluhm’s as close as you’ll ever get to a good man… With those big fireplaces she always had an eye for soot! And no, Mr Justin, the chimney sweep certainly didn’t have a key… Don’t tell me you’ve abandoned your computer, Guido!… But that’s awful, Guido!… You cover this bit up, then out pops another bit. So you cover that bit up… I am quite sure there was nothing of the kind on either side… What were the side effects?…

The excessive use of italics throughout the text becomes quite wearing quite quickly, but is also indicative of characters – and a narrative – which are increasingly shouting to get your attention.

‘But why did you sign the wretched contract in the first place?’…
‘Because I trusted them. I was a fool.’ (p.426)

Timeframes

If we accept that the main characters are off-puttingly posh and privileged, and that the love triangle at the heart of the novel is described with a lachrymose sentimentality that would make Mills and Boon blush, that the ‘political’ insights about the book are the kind of thing my son learns in school (Africa poor & corrupt, big business bad etc), then the most interesting thing left about the book is its structure.

In a way which reminds me of his major influence, Graham Greene, le Carré is very canny, very clever about the way the narrative of his novels are constructed from multiple timeframes. The ‘present’ of the book is the High Commission as news of Tessa’s murder comes in, followed in forward chronological order by Justin coming to stay with Sandy, both being questioned by the cops, then flying back to London.

From the vantage point of this stretch of ‘present’ narrative, both Justin and Sandy scan back over the past, remembering key moments in their lusting after or marriage to, Tessa. The plot, what happened, is relatively straightforward – but the sophisticated flashback structure allows le Carré to move at will between different key moments, building up their emotional resonance by repetition of scenes or phrases, or to suddenly reveal a previously unsuspected past of the puzzle, taking the reader by surprise with a new twist.

Interview

The interview or interrogation is a key location for this kind of timeshift and for a long stretch at the start of this novel, both Sandy and Justin are questioned at length by the two police officers who’ve flown out from London to investigate Tessa’s death. The official interview is such a handy device for an author because it allows him or her to insert long sections of narrative and plot dressed up as reminiscence, memory or just answers to the interviewers’ questions. Thus Justin replies to the cops’ persistent questions about Tessa, but also drifts off into reveries, remembering their meeting and courtship etc. Very handy, very effective.

The way a beautiful, wilful young woman falls into bed with a dowdy old diplomat I found laughably like middle-aged male wish-fulfilment, as I found the revelation that Big Pharma employs dodgy business practices in the Third World tiresomely familiar – but the structure of the narrative, the way moments and scenes from multiple moments in the past are juggled and ordered to create a multi-layered timeframe, I found immensely skillful and rewarding.


The movie

If only there was some way to enjoy the structure and pacing of this well-thought out and dramatic story without having to wade through le Carres’ highly mannered and irritating prose, without having to endure the smug self-satisfaction of his intolerably posh characters… How about – making it into a movie?

Released in 2005, the film at a stroke removes the pukka prose style and upper-class twit dialogue (what a relief, darling) to make it acceptable to an audience which was not lucky enough to attend one of England’s top public schools. It converts the long-winded, multi-levelled and circuitous text into a fast-moving action thriller with a heart-stopping soundtrack à la Bourne Identity.

It was directed by Fernando Meirelles and the timid, old bachelor Justin Quayle is transformed by the magic of the movies into the impossibly handsome Ralph Fiennes, while Rachel Weisz perfectly recreates the gorgeous, headstrong heroine, a performance which won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and a Golden Globe award.


My little pony

Rummaging in the dead woman’s room, Sandy finds a photo of Tessa as a ten-year-old riding her first pony (p.69). In his previous two novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies and gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama). I am winning a bet with my son that all le Carré’s later novels will turn out to have a my-first-pony moment.

Credit

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré was published in 2001 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes are from the 2005 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999) Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events leading up to her murder, with her husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
  • Absolute Friends (2003) Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Botticelli Reimagined @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is widely recognised as one of the masters of the Italian Renaissance and a handful of his images – Spring, The Birth of Venus – have become almost universal due to their reproduction on posters etc.

This exhibition brings together the largest number of works by Botticelli, his pupils and followers, seen in Britain since 1930, but there is a twist. For Botticelli’s reputation underwent a strange decline after his death and for 300 years he was eclipsed by his more famous contemporaries Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. Only in the mid-Victorian period did his fortunes revive and then flourished as he was copied and emulated by, in this country especially, the pre-Raphaelites.

This era of new appreciation was followed, in the 20th century, by a mixture of homage and parody as some of his most famous imagery became ripe for re-appropriation, satire and comedy.

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli (c.1490) Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna . Image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna .

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli (c.1490) Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna. Image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna.

And so this exhibition is in three parts: 20th century homage; the 19th century rediscovery; the original Botticelli, pupils and followers. The exhibition is laid out in reverse chronological order, starting with the 20th century, and the first thing you see is a video screen showing the clip from the movie Dr No where Sean Connery wakes up on the island of Dr No to see Ursula Andress emerge from the sea in a bikini. This is taken as homage to Botticelli’s most famous image, The Birth of Venus, as is the other clip in the sequence, from Terry Gilliam’s movie Baron Munchausen, the scene where the picture comes alive and the statuesque Uma Thurman emerges naked from a huge sea shell.

Having grasped this layout I preferred to start in the opposite order from the exhibition, and spend my Saturday morning energy soaking up the real thing, before progressing to the Victorians, and only then returning the shiny plastic modern spoofs and homages.

Sandro Botticelli

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (c. 1445-1510) belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici. By 1470 he had his own workshop in which numerous pupils and craftsmen worked. One of the problems of Botticelli scholarship is that of attribution: only two paintings have his signature on them; all the rest are scholarly guesses, many causing controversy to this day.

In this respect the exhibition fascinatingly hangs sequences of paintings of the same subject in the same style next to each other: six Madonna and Childs, one (?) by the man himself, several (?) from his workshop, the rest (?) by contemporaries working in the same style, allow you to fine tune your understanding of his style and, incidentally, to understand a little the challenging world of art attribution.

The distinctive thing about Botticelli’s style is the way it is flat and diagrammatic, with no attempt at light and shade, of chiaroscuro, of blurring or shadowing. 1) The outlines of faces, noses, chins, arms and especially tresses of hair are all conveyed with a cartoon clarity 2) In particular the women’s faces all look the same or similar, oval with a strongly defined chin and jawbone which continues in a graceful curve round to the earlobe 3) The hair is stylised into into a kind of schematic diagram of hair 4) The women are  tall and slender with high small boobs, the body generally covered in a light diaphanous-feeling, many-folded robe.

 Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1490s) Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz . Photo: Volker-H. Schneider.

Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1490s) Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz . Photo: Volker-H. Schneider.

My favourite work in these rooms was Portrait of a young woman, possibly Simonetta Vespucci (1484) the hair in particular more like a flat book illustration than a painting, each pearl painted with the same amount of detail, no attempt at modelling light and shade, further and nearer, blurring some area to create a sense of depth or shadow: everything in the same hyper-clarity, but all against an impenetrable black background, itself a change and a rest from the stereotypical broken columns or distant lakes with a boat on it which populate so many Renaissance paintings. Just her, in super-clarity.

In these two rooms are gather some 40 paintings by Sandro or his workshop as well as 11 pen and ink drawings and half a dozen early books from the period. A Renaissance junky could probably spend the whole morning poring over these marvellous works. The really classic works, the Spring and Birth of Venus are held in the Uffizi in Florence and are never leaving. I was surprised that the National Gallery’s Venus and Mars hadn’t made the 3 mile trip to be included (note Venus’s strong jawline and statuesque white neck). The nearest thing to them was the large and beautiful Pallas and the Centaur, with the slender grace of the goddess and the vines twining over her arms and breast.

Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli (c.1482) © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2015 . Photo: Scala, Florence - courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Cultura

Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli (c.1482) © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence – courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Cultura

The main thing I learned was about his later style. In his last years Botticelli fell under the influence of the fundamentalist preacher Savonarola, a period shrouded in rumour. Some say he abandoned painting, others that he burned all his paintings (the ones which weren’t hanging in the villas of his rich patrons the Medicis). What the show illustrates is that is later style was heavier. Two paintings represent it, notably the Flight from Egypt. In this the figures fill the frame, looming and heavy, the composition no longer feels light and dainty but heavy and threatening and the cartoon element is even more to the fore. Look at the donkey. Joseph’s head looks as if it was done by a completely different artist.

Off to one side in a separate room were the prints and drawings. These included five illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (there is currently a fabulous exhibition of thirty of these drawings at London’s Courtauld Gallery). The best of them was the Allegory of Abundance – or by ‘best’, do we just mean the one that looks most like the figures in Prinmavera and Venus? The paintings include a lot of Biblical subjects, a lot of Madonnas in tondi (round paintings). None of these are canonical i.e. none of these are what we expect our Botticelli to be: we expect slender graceful women, and so…

Allegory of Abundance or Autumn by Sandro Botticelli (c.1470-5) The British Museum (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Allegory of Abundance or Autumn by Sandro Botticelli (c.1470-5) The British Museum (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Victorian rediscovery

The exhibition suggests that it was the heaviness of these later works which caused Botticelli’s eclipse. For three hundred years or so (1510 to 1810) he was largely overlooked in history books and art teaching.

The exhibition claims that the first step in his revival was the way that, during the Napoleonic Wars, lots of Catholic religious houses were closed down and the art works they contained came onto the market. That began to revive interest in his name.

But the story then fast-forwards to the 1860s and to an essay written by English critic Walter Pater praising Botticelli, and especially to the patronage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelite painters. Their joint enthusiasm created a revival of Botticelli’s reputation.

There is a smallish room with Victorian books and magazines and posters explaining the Victorian resurgence in his reputation; and then there is a stunning long room full of beautiful sumptuous pre-Raphalite masterpieces. If you like Victorian painting it is worth visiting for these alone, with lovely big sensual works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and many more.

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1873) © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence/Heritage Images .

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1873) © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence/Heritage Images.

Rossetti has taken the shape of the female head – all strong jawline and statuesque neck – and overlaid a whole world of Victorian sensuality and green velvet. Next to these images of sensuality Botticelli’s women look blankly emotionless. It is fascinating – and an amazing experience and opportunity – to wander back and forth between the Botticelli originals and what artists three hundred years later made of them.

The end wall of the room is covered by a fabulous William Morris tapestry, The Orchard, dominated by four female figures, loosely based on the Botticelli lightness and grace, but note the changing fruits of the trees which make up the background pattern of foliage. A reproduction doesn’t do justice to the scale and impact of this beautiful tapestry. Obviously Morris felt at home with, or was inspired by, the foliage themes of the Primavera.

The Orchard by William Morris (1890) V&A. John Henry Dearle, Morris & Co (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Orchard by William Morris (1890) V&A. John Henry Dearle, Morris & Co (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

There were also lovely works by Aubrey Beardsley and artists I’m less familiar with such as Arnold Böcklin, Simeon Solomon, Sartorio, and a couple of works by woman artist Evelyn de Morgan, including her Flora from 1895.

The twentieth century response

The thing about the twentieth century is how big and messy it was. From between the wars were traditional (sort of) paintings by the likes of:

But the lion’s share of the 20th century room is dominated by post-war art which, from one point of view, becomes progressively bigger and more facile. There is:

  • Orlan – Occasional strip-tease (1974) Like many of the women photographers featured in Performing for the camera at Tate Modern, Orlan thinks taking her clothes off is an artistic or subversive act, here done in homage, at last in the penultimate shot, to Sandro’s Venus.
  • Cindy Sherman – #225 (1990) homage to one of Sandro’s Madonnas
  • Vik Munix – VantagePoint X This is a huge work. Only when you go close do you realise every element in it is junk, rubbish collected from the streets and garbage bins, arranged to reproduice the famous image.
  • Tomoko Nagao – The Birth of Venus Apparently a homage to the instantly recognisable Japanese style of ‘Superflat’

Here is an image chosen to publicise the show, David Lachapelle’s kitchy, campy studio re-enactment of the Birth of Venus with some fit young men from the YMCA in attendance.

Rebirth of Venus by David LaChapelle (2009) Creative Exchange Agency, New York, Steven Pranica / Studio LaChapelle (c) David LaChapelle.

Rebirth of Venus by David LaChapelle (2009) Creative Exchange Agency, New York, Steven Pranica / Studio LaChapelle (c) David LaChapelle.

The ‘best’ of the 20th century homages had to be the Andy Warhol silk screens of Venus’s face from 1984. God knows how many exist in what combinations of colours, but this exhibition featured two with strikingly different colour schemes. The most attractive one, with a pink face, is used as the exhibition poster.

Warhol had a great eye for classic design, from Campbell’s soup tins to Elvis pulling a gun from his holster. These silks are an appropriate homage from one master of clarity of design and strength of line to another, Sandro’s cartoon-like tresses and features highlighted and retouched for the age of plastic and imacs.

Related links

Reviews of other V&A exhibitions

Imran Qureshi Where the Shadows are so Deep @ The Curve

The Curve

The Curve is an exhibition space at the Barbican, just inside the Silk Street entrance. It is a 90-metres-long, narrow but very high and gently curving room, which follows the contour of the main auditorium above it.

Imran Qureshi

The Barbican commissions contemporary artists to create works or installations to fill the Curve and it is currently showing an installation by Pakistani artist, Imran Qureshi, titled Where the Shadows are so Deep. Qureshi is an award-winning painter of miniatures – ornate, exquisite, delicately-coloured, small (18 inches tall?) paintings in a tradition which goes back to the Mughal emperors of India.

He has created 34 exquisitely detailed miniatures for this, his first exhibition in London.

Threatened by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection of Amna and Ali Naqvi, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Threatened by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection of Amna and Ali Naqvi, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Blood stains

But the small paintings are not the first thing you see. The first thing you see is a spotlight highlighting a big spattery bloodstain on the floor. Looking up you realise there are similar large splats of blood spaced across the floor and disappearing around the Curve. And on the wall too, lots of bloody shellbursts with one particular example of something horrible daubed onto the wall maybe 20 feet up, and then long strands of dried blood trickling down to the floor.

Early part of the installation showing bloodstains on floor and wall

Early part of the installation showing bloodstains on floor and wall

Looking closer you can see that what at first looks like chaotic splatters of blood (presumably paint) has been graced with white flecks and swirls to introduce shape and pattern. In fact some of the blood stains, on closer examination, are turned by this white flecking into the petals and whorls of large flowers, like enormous, blood-red roses. The twenty-foot cascade of blood is turned by its white curlicues into plaits of blood-red rope or hair. Rapunzel in the abattoir.

Blood spatter turning in to a flower (?)

Blood spatter turning into a flower (?)

Even some of the frames of the miniatures are blood sprinkled or contain what look like blood stains across their surfaces (see the fourth image, below).

The effect is of a slaughterhouse – as if big mammals have been eviscerated here and their blood spurted across the floor, walls and exhibits. The echoes of their dying screams reverberate silently around the curving space…

And Will There Be A Spring When The Garden is Unblighted by Imran Qureshi (2014)Private Collection (Hong Kong)

And Will There Be A Spring When The Garden is Unblighted by Imran Qureshi (2014)Private Collection (Hong Kong)

The miniatures

Only after you’ve taken in this, the gloomy blood-soaked environment, do you lean in to see the individual paintings. They are portrait shaped, and almost all depict stylised trees or bushes, described with incredibly fine and precise brush or pen strokes, against a variety of idealised backgrounds in solid washes of subdued colour – scarlet or orange or olive.

All the works are painted on wasli, ‘also referred to as wasli paper, a type of handmade paper used specifically for painting miniatures’ (Wikipedia). Some are covered in shining gold leaf, some leave the paper bare and exposed, there is an understated ringing of themes and variations.

The images are hung at various heights – a few by the floor, one or two too high up to be examined in detail. Quite often, superimposed onto the image are vertical cascades of tiny silver droplets, like beaded curtains. Rain? Snow? Tears?

Rise and Fall by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection Claire Hsu and Benjamin Vochot, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Rise and Fall by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection Claire Hsu and Benjamin Vochot, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Only in one painting that I could see does a human figure, rather reluctantly, appear. These are strange and mysterious landscapes, untroubled by human presence… Many of the paintings have small passages of Arabic script written in blue ink – The title of the work? A quote? It remains mysterious.

But even the pictures themselves are not exempt from the surrounding carnage. Right from the start blood red tendrils have woven in and out of the trees or bushes. In some images red blood cascades down over the fictional landscape, blood red capillaries climb up bushes and blood red blotches even stain the parchment itself.

And Will There be A Spring When the Garden is Unblighted by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection of Amna and Ali Naqvi, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

And Will There be A Spring When the Garden is Unblighted by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection of Amna and Ali Naqvi, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Into the darkness

As you saunter further along the Curve it gets darker. Blood spatters continue to mark floor and wall right until the end but are harder to make out as you walk into almost total darkness, the lighting progressively diminishing. By the end only tiny, focused spotlights point out the rectangles of art and beauty, the miniature paintings creating light in the darkness, beauty balancing blood.

Into the darkness

Into the darkness

Not only does the gallery darken, so do the pictures. In three of the final four the landscape has ceased to be green or orange or gold but has become blasted black. Low thorn bushes appear on the rim of this terrain and, along with the darkness you are now standing in, it is impossible to avoid a premonition of complete disaster. The desolation of a nuclear blast.

Over the blackened waste land hover fleets of white-winged dragonflies, which have flitted in and out of the miniatures from the start. You can see them clearly in the first three paintings, above.

Maybe all that will survive of us is darting insects.


The video

Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

The Veteran by Frederick Forsyth (2001)

He was carrying his preferred weapon of choice, the M-16 carbine: short-barrelled, light and utterly dependable. His right thumb slipped the catch silently to ‘automatic’ mode and then he fired. (p.442)

The Veteran is a collection of five short stories:

1. The Veteran (98 pages)

An old man with a limp is mugged in Tottenham, foolishly puts up a fight, is knocked to the floor and kicked about the body and head with steel-capped boots, all witnessed by an Asian shopkeeper. For the next hundred pages Forsyth gives a super-detailed account of the police investigation and of the processes and procedures which the medical services, police, Crown Prosecution Service, the magistrate, the solicitor and the barrister go through in order to investigate this crime, any crime.

During the weeks that this all takes the patient’s condition worsens and he finally dies still, despite the police’s best efforts, unidentified. Throughout this period his medical status and treatment are also described in typically Forsythian detail.

The villains are quickly identified, tracked down and arrested. After a tremendous amount of work to get them into court, the copper leading the case, Detective Inspector Burns, watches as the smarmy barrister who’s doing his one Legal Aid case of the year, effortlessly destroys the prosecution argument and gets the guilty men off. We share Burns’s outrage and despair as they walk free and then laugh and give him the finger outside the courthouse.

‘Hope you’re proud of yourself’, Burns snarls at the perfumed QC. ‘It has to do with the triumph of justice,’ the QC murmurs in reply. It is now at the end of the process that the police have a breakthrough in identifying the victim, hitherto anonymous, when someone comes forward in answer to a newspaper appeal, and Burns finally gets the man’s full name and address.

Going to the dead man’s flat Burns finds it full of Army memorabilia and books. There is a photo of the dead man with a small group of fellow soldiers and Burns a) learns that he was a member of the SAS b) realises with a jolt that the officer in the photo is the same man who went on to become the smarmy QC who got the villains off and who he was so rude to earlier that day ie he worked with and knew the murder victim very closely.

Suddenly Burns (and the reader) realises that the QC’s whispered words about justice can be taken in a completely different sense, not as supercilious indifference to the savage kicking of the old veteran but as the very opposite, an ominous threat. That night the bodies of two men are found in Hackney Marshes and the coroner reports they had been murdered in an unusual way – strangled with piano wire. They are, of course, the two murderers we saw walking free from the courtroom…

a) I don’t think I’ve ever read such a thorough and complete account of police and medical and court procedure surrounding a crime. Usually in a work of fiction the interest is in the experiences of one or two of the characters: here there is no exploration of human personality, instead a meticulous fascination with the ‘machinery’ of justice.

b) After accompanying the good and honest copper DI Burns on his long quest to make sure all the paperwork is correct, all the processes are strictly adhered to and all the civil rights are respected, we too share DI Burns’s bitter disgust at the ease with which two obvious criminals are let off the hook by the system.

c) Which makes the twists in the last few pages – the revelation of the victim’s heroism (making his murder all the more bitter and unjust), and then the final twist in which the QC, by implication, dishes out his own kind of justice to the two murderers, all the more emotionally fulfilling. Yes! We cheer, justice is done.

I put down the story in a daze realising I had just read a long, powerful and convincing apology for extra-judicial revenge.

2. The Art of the Matter (88 pages)

A talented young state-educated art expert working for one of London’s leading auctioneers points out to his boss that a grimy old painting handed in by an actor down on his luck is in fact a rare Renaissance masterpiece. His boss unscrupulously pays the original owner a pittance then sells the piece on to another gallery for a nominal price, where it is a) revealed in all its glory with much press & publicity b) sold for a fortune, which the unscrupulous dealer splits with the second gallery. The first art house holds an enquiry into why such a valuable piece was allowed to slip through their fingers, in which the smarmy public school management band together and blame it all on the innocent young expert (‘not one of us, old boy’), who is fired.

Now, the sacked employee’s girlfriend just happens to be a peroxided, tattooed computer expert. They track down the original owner of the painting and explain that he was diddled out of hundreds of thousands of pounds, at which point the three of them decide to go into business as a group of con artists.

In the rest of the story they take elaborate revenge on the unscrupulous managers at the auctioneers by faking another work of art and hacking into business computers to create fake authentication papers. They persuade the smarmy gallery manager that he’s stumbled upon another masterpiece and encourage him into a plan whereby he once again tries to stitch up his bosses by acquiring the (fake) picture he thinks is worth millions.

He instructs one of the ‘house’ employees to make tame bids for it, imagining the house will pick it up for 5 or 10 grand, get it restored, and then sell it for millions. Unfortunately, the scammers have a counter-plan which is for the actor to pretend to be a toff who, inexplicably to the to smarmy manager, insists on counter-bidding what looks to everyone else like a grimy piece of tat. Having set the ball rolling the smarmy manager is forced to go with his scam even as the actor/bidder pushes the price up to quarter of a million pounds.

He stops there and makes a smart exit and the smarmy manager has to explain to a furious head of the auction house that the grimy old painting is really worth a fortune – Look, he has the authentication documents from one of London’s leading experts. But he doesn’t know that authentication is a fake. And so when the house pay a leading art restorer to wipe away the grime of centuries he reveals — a Madonna and Child with a nice shiny Mercedes Benz in the background. Ha ha ha. You’ve been conned! The smarmy boss is sacked. The good guys walk off with the money. Justice, as always in Forsyth – though not necessarily always according to the Law – is done.

As usual in Forsyth, the procedures whereby auction houses value ‘hand-in’ art works, the mechanics of a major auction, the way computers can be hacked into and fake letters and transactions created, all this and much more is described by Forsyth in meticulous detail, whereas the characters are the thinnest of cogs necessary to drive the plot forwards. It reminded me a little of an Ealing comedy, even more of a Terry Thomas comedy from the late 1950s, something like Make Mine Mink, a world where crooks are decent chaps and the smarmy posh boy in the top hat gets his richly deserved come-uppance.

3. The Miracle (42 pages)

An American tourist and his wife are visiting Siena in Italy. She trips and sprains her ankle and they take shelter in a nearby courtyard. Here they meet a tall leathery stranger who spins them an incredible story about how every year he comes back to this courtyard to celebrate the ‘miracle’ of the title.

He explains that he was a young German Army doctor during the retreat up Italy in 1944 and that here, in this courtyard, he was given charge of looking after hundreds of injured and wounded Germans, Allies and other nationalities. He had no painkillers and soon ran out of bandages and everything needed to treat men in terrible pain, but then a strange shadowy woman appeared, swabbing their wounds and stroking their brows. Amazingly, none of the mortally injured servicemen died. This inexplicable behaviour, this ‘miracle’, continued for four nights until the Germans evacuated their wounded and the Allies arrived.

Years later the German was revisiting the place and got into conversation with a German priest who told him the story about a young woman who lived in Siena during the Renaissance and who disobeyed her family to set up a convent of nuns caring for the sick. Eventually her disobedience provoked her family to hire mercenaries to seize her back, who overstepped the mark and and beat and killed her, plunging her family into mourning and regret.

Could it have been the ghost of this nun, herself martyred for her compassion, who had returned to tend and save the German doctor’s injured troops during those four intense days in 1944?

The American (along with the reader) has been completely entranced by this long powerful narrative and, at the end of the story, on an impulse, crams hundreds of dollars into the offertory box for the convent next door, before helping his wife off towards their hotel saying that was the most amazing story he’d ever heard.

Out of the shadows steps the German doctor’s partner, a hippy chick. ‘That story works every time,’ she jokes, as they both open the offertory box and remove the American dollars. The entire mind-bogglingly detailed narrative turns out to have been an elaborate scam.

a) The story is told with complete deadpan conviction. As usual Forsyth provides a 100% plausible account of the horrors of the Italian campaign, the bloodiness of the soldiers’ wounds as inflicted by various types of bullet, shell, flak and shrapnel, with lots of high level explanation of the strategies of the US general attacking, and German general defending, Siena. When the narrator switches to telling the story of the young Italian nun-saint, the Renaissance period details are equally thorough and convincing.

b) In addition the whole story is set against the backdrop of the famous pageant, the procession of the medieval guilds of Siena which climaxes in the Palio, the horse race around the main square. As you would expect, this is not so much described as explained, as if in an encyclopedia. Forsyth doesn’t describe the horse slipping; he explains that only a little layer of sand separates their hooves from the rounded cobbles beneath, which makes slipping inevitable, so that there is almost always an equine casualty every year. Not description; factual explanation.

c) Is the twist in the tail, where the whole thing is revealed to be an outrageous fiction, a shallow ‘boom boom’ joke, or a clever post-modern disruption of readerly expectation? Or both.

4. The Citizen (44 pages)

Another fantastically detailed account of the processes and procedures of highly qualified professionals, in this case pilots flying a British Airways plane from Bangkok to London, and the Customs official who is alerted by a phone call that drugs are being smuggled on the flight.

A family man with a naggy wife and a querulous little daughter spots a scruffy hippy and a very smooth businessman having an improbable conversation by the loos half way through the long haul flight. He writes an anonymous tip-off to the pilots, who radio ahead to Customs at Heathrow who stop and search both suspects – and find nothing.

In the final scene the head Customs officer leads a raid on a suburban house where they’d followed one of the men, to find the drug smuggling gang dividing up the proceeds and the twist is —- their boss turns out to be the harassed family man who wrote the note to throw the officials off the track. Ah ha.

In a final double twist it turns out that the hippy he implicated in the note, and who is seized in the raid on the house, is himself an undercover agent for Her Majesty’s Customs, which we only learn from a hurried aside between him and the Customs man. Double ah ha.

But the real weight of the story consists of the tremendous detail it goes into about the processes and procedures involved in flying a massive 747 jet, in securing departure and arrival times at international airports, showing us how windspeed affects flying time, introducing us to the hierarchy of staff on a plane like this, and then to the home life, the long hours and the devotion to duty of the drug fighting Customs officer.

There is a plot, of course, but Forsyth’s admiration of the professionalism of the lead pilot and the Customs officer is so burnished and unstinting as to almost amount to an advert for a career in those professions.

5. Whispering Wind (180 pages)

The longest story in the collection it is in two parts, the first believable, the second preposterous.

1. Ben Craig was raised in the wilderness of Western United States after the Civil War, becoming a seasoned hunter and scout. He is hired by the troop of General George Custer on his ill-fated march into the Yellowstone area to track down and expel Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. On the way, he’s with a small platoon which raids an isolated camp of Indians, butchering the woman, old people and children. (The story makes you hate the US Army of this period and the US authorities with their continual breaking of treaties and murdering of Indians.)

Craig manages to save the life of an attractive young squaw who had escaped into the riverside reeds, though shot through the thigh. Later, in the General’s camp, when an Army captain tortures her a little to make her talk, then gives his men permission to rape her, Craig, undoes her bonds, sets her on a pony, and helps her escape. When this is discovered, he is beaten up and hog-tied to the back of a horse. Next morning, in this condition he is led along with Custer’s troop into the valley of the Little Big Horn and witnesses at first hand the massacre of Custer and his men. When his horse is shot from under him he falls, strikes his head and is rendered unconscious.

When he awakes the chief supervising the looting of the Army corpses orders him brought before the elders of the tribe where, of course, the squaw he saved – named Whispering Wind – tells her story. Because of his chivalry his life is spared, but he must remain with the tribe. He follows them as they split up and head to mountains to be safe from Army revenge.

After living with them for months he and Whispering Wind fall slowly in love. One night she wakes him and frees him from his teepee, takes him to the pony she’s prepared with supplies and they ride off for the inaccessible mountains. The Indians awaken to their escape and a Cheyenne party set off, determined to avenge their honour. This party is then spotted by a troop of US cavalry, who have also been ordered to capture Craig who, unknown to him, is now widely being accused of being a spy who led Custer into an Indian trap.

Craig keeps one step ahead of them right up into the remotest mountain fastness where they hole up in a cave. Here they see a vision of an ancient Indian spirit who tells them that Whispering Wind must return to her people: if they stay here together they will both die; if she returns to her tribe and people, they will one day be reunited.

The story itself having adopted a tone of guileless primitivism, they both accept this prophecy, she saddles up and rides sadly back down the mountain, Craig wraps himself in a blanket in his remote cave and falls asleep. And while he sleeps a strange darkness covers the sky and then a torrential snowfall falls from the sky covering everything.

— As you would expect, Forsyth’s account of the build up to the massacre of Little Big Horn is crisply factual and thoroughly researched, as is his account of the customs and culture of Cheyenne Indians, or Craig’s backwoods tracking, hunting and survivalist skills.

2. In part two Craig wakes up to find the snow gone, trots down the mountainside keeping an eye open for the Cheyenne party or US troops but we, the readers, are swiftly told that the year is no longer 1872, it is 1972! Goodness, it’s a Rip Van Winkle story! Wrapped in his snug blanket Craig has slept for a century.

To cut a long story short, he discovers a replica fort, a perfect copy from his era, which has been built as a tourist attraction and study centre for young students of the period. For a humorous 10 or 15 pages Craig thinks it is the real thing and they accept him as a rather smelly, oddly spoken volunteer. But then the penny drops and he is distraught, well, for a page or two. Any attempt at exploring the psychological impact of a devastating situation like this is briskly skipped over. Within a few pages Craig is reconciled to his lot but continues to believe the Prophecy of the Holy Man on the Mountain.

And so, as in all good fairy stories, one day among all of the teachers bringing a coachload of excited kids to explore the replica fort and the students all dressed in frontier outfits and playing at living the frontier lifestyle, appears the spitting image of Whispering Wind. Craig is thunderstruck and pretty quickly explains that she is his true love reincarnated. Her name is Linda Pickett and ‘she is a very beautiful and healthy young woman.’ (p.407) Initially puzzled and then irritated, Linda finds Craig’s open-eyed honesty somehow persuasive. It takes her a few visits to realise she is smitten.

3. Which is complicated because it turns out she is engaged to Kevin, the spoilt son of Big Bill Braddock, you know, the South Dakota Beef King, and he is not taking no for an answer. He threatens to ruin Linda’s father, owner of a small local bank, if she backs out of the wedding to his son. Seeing the impact it will have on her father, Linda reluctantly agrees to go ahead, like the princess in a fairy tale. But even as she is stepping up to the outdoors altar, in the sumptuously decorated lawn of the Bar T ranch, surrounded by a 1,000 local notables dressed to the nines, and as the preacher gets to the ‘If any man knows any just cause etc’ part, Craig rides forth on his horse, and says,

‘I so speak. She is betrothed to me.’ (p.410)

He gallops up the aisle, grabs Linda up onto his horse, kicks over a few security guards, leaps over the high table shattering the big champagne fountain, jumps a few fences and gallops off into the blue. The scene is vividly and humorously described, reminding me of one of the car pile-ups involving the hick southern sheriff (the tobacco-chewing Sheriff J.W. Pepper) in the Roger Moore-era James Bond movies.

Big Bill gets his private helicopter and all his security guards onto chasing the couple, while the State police, under the control of wise old sheriff Paul Lewis, also set off in pursuit. All eerily echoing events 100 years before…

The pursuit up into the mountains is long and eventful. Craig chops down some trees to block the only road up there (causing a crash in which some of Braddock’s men are injured). Then shoots several of the pursuers with a hand-made bow and arrow as they cross the creek. Then the most committed of Braddock’s men, a Special Forces man who saw action in ‘Nam, tracks Craig silently through the pine woods. But he too is tricked into an ambush and almost has his arm severed when Craig throws an Indian hatchet at him.

Finally, after his gruelling quest, Craig lifts the young woman, now wholly identifying as Whispering Wind, off his exhausted horse who lays down and dies. They roll themselves up in the same blanket as Craig had done 100 years before. The sheriff and his men have caught up with Braddock by this stage and disarmed them. ‘No more shooting, goddamit.’

In the morning he’ll go up the mountain with a white flag of truce. But now the sun has set, it has gotten too dark to continue the pursuit, and the cops make a base and light a fire. Suddenly through the gloom they hear a sharp piercing scream, a cry of ecstasy, as Craig finally takes, possesses and owns his squaw, after waiting a hundred years.

But the temperature keeps falling, down to zero and then lower. Now the men can’t sleep, can barely talk as the sky grows heavy with cloud. The cops retreat back to the forest line where it is a bit warmer, leaving an obstinate Braddock still camped up at the high point. The local ranger explains to Lewis that there is an ancient Indian tradition that sometimes the Everywhere Spirit comes to visit these mountains bringing with him the Cold of the Long Sleep. Aha. So that is what got Craig first time round.

In the early hours, just as 100 years before, steady snowfall gives rise to an avalanche which sweeps down the valley burying Braddock and his men. In the morning Lewis calls in a chopper which flies him up to the ledge where they had seen Craig’s distant fire the night before. They find Linda/Whispering Wind almost frozen to death, and she is choppered out to an ICU at Billings hospital. Next to her is a ragged pile of fibres, hair, the rusted relics of a gun and knife, next to that the bones of a horse long rotted and eaten by scavengers. It is the body of Craig and his horse, given a ghostly existence for these past few months, finally liberated and returned to ashes.

His spirit has returned to the ancestors. Whispering Wind was mated by a ghost, and the whole narrative now has the strangeness of a ghost story, a ghost story with M-16s and police helicopters. The sheriff bundles all these organic remains into a blanket and then gets himself choppered out.

Cut to the funeral for the unknown bones. Whispering Wind is there and, shucks, so is kindly Sheriff Paul. He throws a flower onto the coffin then offers her a lift home. Now Linda Pickett once more, she was visited in hospital by Big Braddock’s widow who liked her, forgave her dumping her good-for-nothing son, and offered her a cottage on the ranch and a job as secretary. As Linda turns her winter coat flaps open and reveals she is four months pregnant with the child of a hundred-year-old ghost! Spooky!

— This story is as free of adult emotion or feeling, but as deep and compelling, as a fairy tale. It doesn’t bother anyone that the three little pigs or the troll under the bridge can talk. In the same spirit, why get upset at the story of a Wild West frontiersman who falls asleep for a hundred years and is then reunited with the reincarnation of the love of his life? Looking for verisimilitude is looking for the wrong thing.

Then she smiled, for she loved him very much, and believed his promise, and was happy again. (p.426)

Or maybe the strangely ‘magical’ affect comes from the way the narrative taps into Jungian archetypes which, no matter how naive and simplistic the surface narrative, stir something deep in all of us. The improbability, in fact the ludicrous implausibility, of the story doesn’t matter at all because of the deeper psychological patterns and emotional needs which it addresses and fulfils, a sense of conflicts faced and reconciled, of mysteries evoked, dramatised and then overcome, which triumphs over the story’s surface corniness.

In fact this last tale, in particular, reminds me of Henry Rider Haggard’s ripping yarns, King Solomon’s Mines or She or the haunting Nada the Lily. It’s odd to think of Forsyth, whose stories are always studded with hi-tech info about guns and helicopters and radios, being in some sense the modern heir to the chaste, unsubtle, unpsychological, yet weirdly compelling yarns of the late Victorians. Kipling would have loved this story.


Humour

Jack Burns was a man of simple pleasures and one of them was his Sunday morning lie-in. That day he did not get it. The phone rang at seven fifteen. It was the desk sergeant at Dover nick. ‘There’s a man just come in here who takes his dog for a walk early in the morning,’ said the sergeant. Burns wondered blearily just how long, if he really put his mind to it, it would take to strangle the sergeant. (p.52)

In among all these facts, though, Forsyth has a suavely dry sense of humour. He understands the world and he finds its ways and people amusing. This humour comes more to the fore in the short stories because short stories often rely on a twist or sting in the tail and unexpected twists are, by definition, ironic, the opposite of what you had up to that moment expected. There are structural ironies or reversals in most of them, the revelation that the narrator has been fooling the reader all along, as in The Citizen, or describing a complicated confidence trick as in The Art of the Matter.

Forsyth’s prose is well turned out, brisk and factual, but he does allow himself the occasional humorous aside, and when they come they generally capture the blokey humour of hard-pressed, hard working police officers, customs officers, pilots and so on. Jokes from the professional classes.

The official view

Sheriff Paul Lewis was a good peace officer, unflappable, firm but kindly. He preferred to help people out rather than lock them up, but the law was the law and he had no hesitation in enforcing it. (p.416)

Forsyth is always squarely on the side of the authorities. His military adventure books (such as The Fist of God) describe in mind-boggling detail how all the relevant sections of the army, navy, air force, special forces and so on take part in Operation Desert Shield. Two of the stories here, about the murder and the drug smuggling, carry on that vein of thorough explanation of the processes and procedures of police, A&E doctors, magistrates, lawyers, of airline pilots and drugs officers. His protagonists may operate outside the letter of the law, but they are good guys with their hearts in the right place.

Acronyms and initialisms

The first story in particular contains a blizzard of acronyms and initialisms. I wondered whether, by listing them in the order they appear, you could piece together the story just from the acronyms. As in an experimental text, a story just from initialisms:

  • A&E – Accident and Emergency unit of a hospital
  • CID – Criminal Investigation Department
  • DI – Detective Inspector
  • POLSA – Police Search Adviser
  • DS – Detective Sergeant
  • ID – identity
  • ABCD – A&E process for securing an accident victim by checking Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability.
  • ICU – Intensive Care Unit.
  • UAM – Unidentified Adult Male
  • CRO Criminal Records Office
  • FMO – Force Medical Officer
  • DNA – Deoxyribonucleic acid
  • PC – Police Constable
  • RIP – Rest In Peace
  • WPC – Woman Police Officer
  • CPS – Crown Prosecution Service
  • GBH – Grievous Bodily Harm
  • SLR – Self Loading Rifle
  • NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
  • QC – Queen’s Counsel
  • DSS – Department of Social Security
  • BATT – British Army Training Team
  • SAS – Special Air Service

Not really. But the exercise gives a good flavour of the official processes and the bodies and titles into which Forsyth puts all his energy, making little or no attempt at psychology or depth of character. In the two procedural tales, especially, the characters are just cogs in the interplay of organisations, the slender wires which keep the big machinery ticking over.

Not bothering with emotion, motive or unnecessary colour gives the stories an absorbing, no-nonsense, ‘get on with the identification parade’ kind of briskness. In Forsyth, speed of action and detailed factual accuracy completely replace the traditional virtues of the novel. And very enjoyable too.


Credit

The Veteran by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2001. All quotes from the 2002 Corgi paperback 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.

Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) is one of Norway’s favourite painters, but a well-kept secret everywhere else. This typically thorough, persuasive, well-hung and attractive exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is the first major show of his work in the UK and a wonderful opportunity to explore a rare and beguiling sensibility.

Astrup grew up in a remote part of coastal Norway, born in the village of Ålhus in Jølster, where his father was the Lutheran pastor. One of his early paintings shows a funeral procession to the local graveyard, set against the stunning scenery of the place. His father is the isolated figure at the front, still wearing the black robes and white tunic of the 17th century.

Funeral Day in Jølster by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Funeral Day in Jølster by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Nikolai was one of eight children. They grew up in a cold damp climate in a cold damp wooden parsonage, which was later condemned and demolished, but not before many of the Astrup children died of childhood ailments (scarcely believably, no fewer than three died in one traumatising week). Nikolai was a sickly child and spent a lot of time in bed, staring out of the windows.

The parsonage

The views of the lake and surrounding mountains, and the feeling of warmth and security, impressed themselves deeply on his childhood mind. When a young man he travelled to Paris, to Berlin, to study contemporary art, but his heart was always here in his native country, where he returned and lived and painted until his early death, aged 47 in 1928.

The Parsonage by Nikolai Astrup. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

The Parsonage by Nikolai Astrup. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Repetition

Based in the same valley (he moved in adult life to a village across the lake) and haunted or inspired by those childhood memories, Astrup painted the same views, the same scenes, from different perspectives or viewpoints, over and again. Repetition with variations is a key aspect of Astrup’s art.

Thus the first room contains a selection of early works, the most impressive of which are half a dozen versions of the same view – from the lakeside looking back at the village nestling in the shadow of its hills. Seen from this vantage point the most striking thing is the pattern of bright yellow marsh marigolds forming a striking yellow diagonal across the canvas.

A Clear Night in June by Nikolai Astrup (1905-1907) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen.Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

A Clear Night in June by Nikolai Astrup (1905-1907) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen.Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Night works

These marigolds appear in numerous paintings and prints and, in another characteristic motif, often at night. The parsonage at night, the village at night, the marsh at night, even housework, even sowing and planting crops, a surprising range of activities are depicted being done at night. And then you realise – it’s Norway, with a short growing season and long, long nights. Of course night life, in this broadest of senses, would be a subject for him. And hence the large number of shimmering mysterious scenes painted by moonlight.

Landscape

So Astrup’s art is entirely rural: there is nothing urban at all in these images, no towns let alone cities. Painting at the turn of the century, he is the opposite of the cosmopolitan Fauves and Expressionists and Futurists who were grabbing the headlines and who are the artists we mostly remember from that period. Astrup paints archetypal scenes of Norway – a lake, a snow-capped mountain and the brief spring and summer when the yellow marigolds and foxgloves blossom. A wet, green and often breath-taking country.

March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) Private Collection, Oslo. Photo © Anders Bergersen

March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) Private Collection, Oslo. Photo © Anders Bergersen

People

Astrup’s human figures are not his strong point and could be described as naive or clumsy – at one point the commentary compares some distant figures to Lowry’s matchstick men – elsewhere the commentary mentions his liking for the paintings of the super-naive French painter, ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau, which he saw in Paris. There is something unrealistic about the hang of his subjects’ bodies and the faces are vague or unseen. But in this he was not unlike the more experimental contemporary painters who were abandoning a Renaissance-inspired, scientific accuracy of human depiction, in favour of shaping the human form into emblems, patterns or motifs in an art work.

In this as in so many ways, Astrup’s work shimmers with the influence of his radical contemporaries, incorporates hints of it, but goes its own way. Take one of his most famous images, apparently a famous print in Norway, Foxgloves.

Foxgloves by Nikolai Astrup (1927) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Anders Bergersen

Foxgloves by Nikolai Astrup (1927) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Anders BergersenPicture 008

Would it be better without the two girls picking mushrooms? Are they emphasising the gawky naivety of much of the detail in the image, or helping place it in a naturalistic tradition? This, like many of the other paintings, gave me a warm, happy, childhood feeling. His occasional clumsiness, the imperfection of the figures, just doesn’t matter compared to the warmth of his vision.

Marriage and home

Astrup married Engel, a farmer’s daughter from across the lake. She was just 15 so he would be arrested, named and shamed and called out on social media these days, but in those less intrusive and judgmental times it developed into a full and loving marriage. After some renting and moving about, in 1913 he bought a plot of land and buildings on the opposite side of the lake from Ålhus, at a place called Sandalstrand.

In the following years he and his wife had no fewer than eight children. They built more buildings on the plot and planted and tended a wonderful garden. The roofs were covered in turves to keep them warm, on which the couple planted wild flowers. It looks magical and the exhibition includes enchanting black and white photos from the time showing loads of little children playing in what must have seemed a fairy land.

Here Nikolai designed, planted and tended his beautiful garden (reminding me of the continent-wide passion for gardening which is recorded in the Royal Academy’s current show, Painting the Modern Garden). In fact he became well known in the area for cultivating over ten varieties of rhubarb and from the tasty wine he made from them. The buildings and garden are there to this day and have been turned into a museum, named Astrupnet. The exhibition has some stunning photos of them.

Engel became a designer in her own right, showing an Arts and Crafts style interest in ‘the House Beautiful’, designing tapesties and carpets, curtains and rugs, ensuring the house was always full of flowers and fruit. Photos of the house show the very table cloth featured in this painting.

Still Life Interior by Nikolai Astrup

Still Life Interior by Nikolai Astrup

Mystery and symbolism

But often there is something extra in these paintings. Hints and suggestions of the uncanny. He was aware of the Symbolists working in Paris and of other mystical trends in contemporary art and philosophy. But like the other influences of the time – the bold colour of the Fauves, the nonchalant attitude to human figures of the post-Impressionists – they are only hinted at, and only in some of Astrup’s work. The naked figure in the painting above: is she one of Astrup’s daughters come down for a midnight feast? Or something more arcane: a pixie or sprite from local folklore?

Paganism

Probably the image in which he lets himself go to express his native mysticism or paganism is the much-repeated image of a pollarded tree willow by a lake. The exhibition shows four or five versions of it, painted on canvas, and then made into a woodcut. The willow tree is obviously turning into a… what? A troll? A goblin? A human figure? A distant relative of the screaming man in his older contemporary, Edvard Munch’s, most famous painting?

Spring Night and Willow by Nikolai Astrup (1917/after 1920) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

Spring Night and Willow by Nikolai Astrup (1917/after 1920) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

The (sensitive and informative) commentary tells us that Astrup himself pollarded the trees on his property and deliberately crafted them into semi-human shapes. It goes on to explain that the mountain on the horizon, painted in off-white, can be interpreted as the body of a naked woman lying on her back. He didn’t invent this, it’s actually what it looks like and was known in the vicinity as the ‘Ice Queen Mountain’.

The Ice Queen wasn’t alone. In another painting of an apparently mundane village scene with hill, the commentary points out how you can make out in the snow-capped hilltop the features of an old friend of Astrup’s who had recently died. Most striking of all is the painting known as Grain poles, in which a group of spindly straw poles have magically been given eyes, and one has a stick leaning against it, like the walking stick of an old man. The paganism, if that’s what it is, the sense that the landscape is somehow responsive to human presence, is so subtle it is barely there. It flickers at the edge of the paintings’ consciousness.

Midsummer bonfire celebration

The sixth and final room in the show explores this side of Astrup, his understated pagan feel for the world around him and which is embodied in his numerous paintings of the Midsummer bonfire festival, which took place in all the surrounding valleys. His strict Lutheran father tried to keep young Nikolai and the other children away from this obviously pagan event, with its licentious music and the scandalous mingling of men and women, dancing to the leaping light of the shimmering flames. What a scene it must have made, and what a variety of ‘naive’, colourful and stylised images Astrup has made of it.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire by Nikolai Astrup (After c.1917) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

Midsummer Eve Bonfire by Nikolai Astrup (After c.1917) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

This is one of the many images which exist as oil paintings and as woodcuts, giving you the chance to see which medium you prefer. Astrup depended for his livelihood on woodcuts and prints, hussling friends to buy them or publicise them. The exhibition features many of these woodcuts and explains in fascinating detail how they were made and the arduous technical and physical difficulties Astrup faced (not least because the heavy wood he laboriously carved his images into sometimes warped, making the process of pressing paper against it to get a full, clean image, sometimes impossible, and always difficult).

Since he reworked the same subjects over and over, you are able to directly compare the paintings and the woodcuts of similar viewpoints, ideas and motifs. Because I’ve always like strong lines and composition, I found myself warming to the woodcuts a bit more than the oils.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire woodcut

Midsummer Eve Bonfire woodcut

Favourites

Among so many to choose from, I liked:

  • A clear night in June (See top of this review) The commentary points out that you can see the silhouettes of two large figures in the foreground, which Astrup subsequently painted over. Maybe he lacked confidence in his human figures; maybe he realised the landscape was enough. Whatever the reason, they shed a typically ambiguous ghostly presence onto the scene.
  • Growing season in Sandalstrand A later image which he recycled as black and white and colour prints, an image of simplicity, peacefulness and beauty.
  • The moon in May
  • Birthday in the garden A party of laughing children. Note Engel’s dress which, like many, she made herself.

I wanted to feature several more but none of them were available on the internet.

The contemporary scene

Compare and contrast Astrup with similar scenes from a) the lingering 19th century figurative tradition:

and b) the bold new avant-garde of someone like Cezanne

to see how Astrup reconciles the influences of his time, simplifying the human figure, using unnaturally bright and primary colours, but not departing in feel from a faithful naturalistic depiction of the scene in front of him. One of the pleasures of his paintings is the way they hold the powerfully conflicting influences of turn of the century art in such a delicate balance. They foreshadow much of the simplified rural art of between the wars, the childlike, book-illustration quality to be found in this country in the work of Paul Nash, or simpler, in Eric Ravilious.

Conclusion

Astrup is not an instant classic. You don’t go Wow yes! at the sight of many of his paintings, and it is easy to pick out flaws of composition and colouring, especially of the people. But cumulatively, this gorgeous exhibition gives you a powerful sense of the landscape and climate and customs and quiet beauty of this under-explored part of the world and of a unique artist who ‘recorded Norway for the Norwegians’, but also left a legacy of lovely, colourful, life-affirming pictures for all of us.

The video

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith (1999)

Havana had been the staging area for the treasure fleets of the Spanish empire. Over time silver and gold were replaced by American automobiles, which were replaced by Russian oil. All of this was handled in the warehouses of a barrio called Atares, and when the Soviet Union collapsed parts of Atares, like a half-empty vein, did too. One decrepit warehouse dragged down its neighbour, which destabilised a third and spewed steel and timbers into the street until they looked like a city that had undergone a siege, stone pulverised in heaps, garlands of twisted steel, not to mention the potholes and shit and doorways heady with the reek of urine. (p.230)

This is not the Havana of the tourist brochures.

Arkady Renko

The fourth in Martin Cruz Smith’s series of novels about Russian investigator, Arkady Renko, opens on a down note with the deaths of two main characters from previous books. Arkady was contacted from the Russian Embassy in Havana by an official asking him to come and investigate the disappearance of his old friend/sparring partner, ex-KGB Colonel Sergei Pribluda.

Pribluda was working undercover at the Russian Embassy in Cuba, something to do with investigating the murky world of sugar and trade deals. His body – or a horribly bloated, waterlogged version of it – has been discovered in the broad Havana Bay. He was copying the local neumáticos, poor fishermen who can’t afford even the simplest boat, and so fish suspended inside inflated car inner tubes, with a bit of netting strung underneath to support the body. Not much protection against sharks or other underwater perils, but it wasn’t a shark that killed Pribluda. What did?

Much worse, we discover that Arkady had finally married Irina, the woman he met in the first novel of the series, the best-selling Gorky Park, but that she has died in a stupid mix-up in a shambolic Russian medical clinic, injected with penicillin when she had expressly stated her allergy to it. Arkady had popped out for a newspaper and returned to find her stone dead. After smashing the place up in a fury, he retreated to his apartment, from which he rarely emerges any more, no matter who comes knocking on the door, his mood not helped by the futility of police work in a post-communist Russia where crime rates have soared and half the politicians are from the mafia.

The call from Cuba offered a journey as pointless as everything else. Why not go?

Suicide

In fact so completely dark and ashen is Arkady’s world that in the opening scenes we see him steal a syringe from the forensic lab where Pribulda’s body is being cut open and later, back in his temporary apartment, get as far as raising a vein and pricking it, right on the verge of injecting 10 centilitres of air into his system, which will make his heart stop and kill him. Committing suicide.

But it’s at this moment that the burly minder and translator he’s been assigned by the local police, one Rufo Pinero, breaks open the apartment door and hurtles Arkady back against the apartment wall, stabbing once with a knife, narrowly missing and retracting his arm to try again when – he realises the long needle of a syringe is sticking out his ear, through which it has entered his brain. Arkady has stabbed him in self defence with the needle he was holding, without even realising it. Rufo staggers away, slumps to the floor and dies. That changes things.

The case

The cops are called and, ironically, Arkady who came to investigate a death now finds himself at the centre of a murder investigation. He is removed from his flat – now a crime scene – and parked at the empty apartment of the (presumed dead) Pribluda. Here, true to his incurably nosy character, Arkady searches everything and hacks into Pribluda’s computer, finding only hints and tips, nothing massively revealing.

Having stolen Rufo’s key from his still warm body before the cops came, Arkady now searches Rufo’s apartment, finding cryptic notes written on the wall by the phone. After some deciphering they appear to refer to his arrival in Havana and to another event occurring in a week’s time, with Angola written next to the time and date. Angola? Arkady is far from convinced that the bloated body found in the bay is Pribluda, anyway. And he finds a photo showing Pribluda, Rufo and some of the other police he’s met, with the words ‘Havana Bay Yacht Club’ scribbled on the back. What’s that about?

The tension is ratcheted up a notch after Arkady lets one of the investigating cops, sergeant Luna, into the apartment only for him to pull out a baseball bat and start jabbing Arkady with it, asking him what he knows about the Havana Bay Yacht Club. Swiftly the jabbing escalates to a full blown attack, Luna beating Arkady’s legs from under him and then mercilessly battering him on the ribcage, with a few final blows on the face for good measure.

Luna warns him to stay in the apartment and not to go out until the weekly flight to Moscow comes round, when Luna will drive him direct to the airport and put him on the plane. ‘Got that, Russian? Stay here. Don’t move.’

Ofelia Osorio

In fact it takes Arkady a few hours to recover consciousness and several days before he can even walk. But as soon as he can, he finds himself drawn out of the apartment, by visitors and invitations, though all against his better judgement. Slowly – and very enjoyably for the reader – a complex web of relationships is revealed as Arkady meets a cast of 20 or so disparate and colourful characters, each of them contributing fragments to the plot but also acting as a cross-section of Cuban types: cops, scientists, prostitutes, businessmen, garage mechanics, neumáticos, voodoo worshipers, as well as the few surviving old timers from the former Soviet Embassy, and a couple of sinister American exiles…

Lead character is the black policewoman Ofelia Osorio. We see her being harassed by her sexist colleagues at work, returning to her tiny apartment which she shares with her two daughters and her nagging mother, and we get a strong sense of their poverty, fighting over a banana, discussing how best to cook a mango skin.

We are also introduced to Ofelia’s one-woman crusade to try and cut down on teenage prostitution in Havana, or at least try to tackle the ubiquitous police corruption which turns a blind eye to it. She arrests a middle-aged German at a well-known love motel where foreign men take Cuban teenage girls – in this case the 14-year-old Teresa. As Ofelia interviews the German we get a feel for the impossibility of her task, as he ignores all her threats, confident in his foreign passport and his dollars.

And the young prostitute – or jinetera – turns the tables on Ofelia by bragging about how much money she makes a month, multiple times Ofelia’s own pitiful salary. And we are sadly shown how Ofelia’s crusade is driven by fears that her own young daughters, just a few years from jinetera age, will end up the same, walking the seafront touting for rich foreign men to sleep with. She is trying to secure the future for them but knows she can’t.

Frustrated, Ofelia returns to the hotel, the ‘Casa de Amor’, to pick up the other foreign man seen taking in a teenage Cuban, but stumbles into a blood bath. The foreigner has been comprehensively cut to pieces with a machete and the Cuban girl he was with has had her head almost completely severed. Ofelia realises she knows the girl, Hedy, and runs to throw up in the toilet. But it overflows, she realises it’s blocked and, pushing her hand through the blood and puke, she pulls out a scrunched-up passport and photo blocking the U-bend. It is a photo of Renko taken at the airport. The assassin must have mistaken the foreigner, similar build, even a similar name – Franco / Renko – for the Russian. Someone really has got it in for him, but why?

Slowly, through the course of the novel, these two lonely, damaged people, Arkady and Ofelia, find themselves being pushed together. She tells him about the hotel bloodbath; they discuss theories about a) what’s happening b) why someone’s trying to kill him. Later – in a film-like sequence – Arkady rescues Ofelia from the car boot where the increasingly wayward sergeant Luna had tied and locked her. After this harrowing event, they drive to a remote hotel, like bandits on the run, shower, calm down and, in the warm Havana evening, in a safe hotel room far from their enemies, become lovers.

Cast of characters

But while their love affair is slowly building in the background, plenty of other things happen in this multi-stranded narrative. At a party in his apartment block Arkady meets a whole roomful of disparate characters who will help shape the warp and woof of the narrative as well as providing all sorts of insights into Cuban culture and history.

For a start there is a black woman devotee of Santeria, a form of voodoo, who goes into a frenzy, moaning to the beating drums and picking up live coals for the fire. In fact there are several extended sequences explaining the differences between the various voodoo gods of Cuba and their present-day followers. Even Ofelia knows which voodoo clan she belongs to.

Then there is the desperate ballet dancer, Elaine Lindo, whose father was executed after he became involved in one of the many conspiracies against Castro, and who hopes against hope that a Russian like Arkady can get her out of the country so she can pursue her dancing career in the free world. She targets Arkady for seduction but underestimates her man and his disillusioned world-weariness.

The American exiles

And then there is a middle-aged black American, George Washington Walls who, back in the 1960s, was a well-known radical and urban guerrilla, who hijacked a plane and got it to bring him to Cuba: and now we see what the afterlife of such a figure looks like.

It looks very like being a capitalist entrepreneur, as he takes Arkady for a drive in his 1950s car and introduces him to an older American exile, John O’Brien. The two Americans take Arkady on a tour of the casinos abandoned after the revolution and explain their grand scheme to revive them, to make Cuba once again the playground of the Caribbean. They even offer Arkady a job as ‘head of security’ in their bright new empire.

Arkady has a shrewd suspicion they are bribing him, coaxing him into revealing other secrets: like what he knows about this damn Havana Bay Yacht Club. Later, when Arkady makes his way out to what was once the yacht club out at one end of the bay, he finds its luxury buildings fallen into disrepair – it became first a socialised sports club and then was abandoned. And he finds Walls waiting for him on a power yacht moored at the pier. What are they up to, these two smooth-talking, post-radical Yanks?

The scam

Among other colourful locations around Havana, Renko’s investigations take him to the city’s Chinatown. He knows from Pribluda’s computer records that Pribluda went for a ‘karate lesson’ here every week, with $100 cash. But when he asks the way to the address given on the computer, he finds it is now a hairdressing salon. Walking back Arkady passes a cinema where a ridiculous karate film is playing and suddenly recognises the film’s title as mentioned on Pribluda’s files. On an impulse he pays a few pesos and goes in. Barely has he sat in the darkened auditorium than a stylishly dressed, middle-aged man sits next to him and they get into a muttered conversation, the man wanting the money in return for a briefcase. OK.

Back at the apartment, Arkady finds the briefcase contains documents detailing how, at a very high governmental level, the Cubans have been defrauding the Russians out of about possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in their Russo-Cuban sugar trades. Partly by paying ‘commission fees’ to a supposedly neutral Panamanian company, which had been acting as referees in a trade dispute between the two countries, but which the papers show is owned by senior Cuban officials. Is this what Pribluda was investigating? Was this enough to get him murdered? But what has it go to do with the Havana Bay Yacht Club? Or with O’Brien and Walls’ plans to make Havana the Las Vegas of the Caribbean?

Only in the last thirty pages or so do all these disparate threads and characters suddenly and powerfully come together, as Arkady and Ofelia stumble over the conspiracy at the heart of the book – discovering too late that they have been trapped into taking part in it.

Dramatis personae

  • Arkady Renko – Moscow militia investigator with a colourful past as described in the three previous novels about him. Called to Cuba to investigate the death of his old adversary-friend Colonel Pribluda.
  • Colonel Sergei Pribluda – Arkady’s sparring partner in previous novels. The plot is triggered when his corpse is found in Havana Bay, so bloated the pathologist and Arkady aren’t even sure it is him.
  • Ofelia Osorio – black Cuban police officer, waging a one-woman campaign against the exploitation of Havana’s teenage prostitutes or jineteras. Through her eyes we explore Cuba’s poverty and corruption, its ambivalence about the communist regime and Castro, its hatred of the Russians who abandoned them, its deep attachment to voodoo beliefs and practices.
  • Sergeant Luna – big black ex-Cuban soldier-turned-cop who beats Arkady up and turns out to be a strong man for Walls and O’Brien’s conspiracy.
  • Dr Blas – Forensic pathologist, cynical witness to Havana’s murders and deaths, an educated amiable father figure, who shrewdly discusses the Pribluda case with Arkady, half-heartedly invites Ofelia to foreign conferences as a way of chatting her up, and is revealed at the end to be in on the conspiracy.
  • Rufo Pinero – ex-boxer, ex-soldier and now translator for the Havana police. The mystery really begins when he makes an unprovoked attempt to murder Arkady who, up to that moment, he’d been perfectly friendly with.
  • Erasmo – mechanic in the illegal garage downstairs from Pribluda’s apartment where Arkady is staying. He fought in Angola where his legs were blown off by a mine, and now gets about in a wheelchair or trolley. He introduces Arkady to elements of Cuba’s black economy and to the beauty of the many 1950s American cars which still cruise the streets. He is included in several old soldier photos Arkady finds, along with Luna and several of the other characters. Slowly it emerges that they all forged a bond as soldiers in Africa, and have brought that unity back to Havana, but for what purpose?
  • Mostovoi – Russian photographer working at the Russian Embassy. When Arkady breaks into his apartment he finds official photos, then a predictable range of porn photos, and then sinister photos of crime scenes, some of them connected with his case.
  • Olga Petrovna – a plump old lady who works at the Russian Embassy. Arkady eventually finds out that she and Pribluda were lovers, it was she who knew about Arkady from Pribluda’s occasional references to him, and it was she who wired him using Embassy facilities when Pribluda went missing, asking him to come investigate.
  • Bugai – official at the Russian Embassy. Arkady tricks him into confessing that Pribluda was on the trail of the Cuban government’s defrauding Russia out of millions of dollars over its sugar deals, and that Pribluda had to be ‘got out of the way’. And ensures that this confession is heard and taped by Olga Petrovna and police officials. Bugai’s fate will not be nice…
  • George Washington Walls – runaway American 1960s radical and airplane hijacker from the same generation of black radicals as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, who he name checks. But Walls is now a fully-fledged capitalist and entrepreneur, involved in O’Brien’s plans to revive Cuba’s casinos, and other, murkier plots.
  • John O’Brien – 70-year-old American exile who owns luxury yachts, fancy cars, and beguiles Arkady with his plans to revive Cuba’s casino business. Freely admits to running the Havana Bay Yacht Club which, he claims, is a harmless social club, ‘Come along and see for yourself!’ But underneath the charm he is planning something big… but what?

Fidel Castro

Dictator of Cuba after the communist revolution in 1959, well known for always wearing his Army fatigues, smoking an enormous cigar, for his big beard and interminable speeches, Fidel looms over the whole novel, all the Cuban characters not even referring to him by name, but just stroking an imaginary beard or pointing to their chins. (When Cruz Smith describes Fidel’s habit of never making his plans public, sleeping in any number of secret locations, decoying assassins with fake motorcades while he slips off in the opposite direction in an unmarked car and so on, it immediately reminded me of Frederick Forsyth’s description of the identically paranoid behaviour of Saddam Hussein in The Fist of God.)

The crux of the novel turns out to be a conspiracy among Fidel’s senior army officers to assassinate him, with the organisational help and technical know-how of O’Brien and Walls, and their cohort of soldiers who met and bonded while serving in Angola – including Luna, Erasmo, Mostovoi and a few others.

Fidel’s one and only actual appearance in the novel is to attend a waterfront cultural display, a Noche Folklórica, with live music and dancing. He is given pride of place in a purpose-built stand and – in a gruesome touch – sat next to a life-size voodoo doll. Watching in the boat in which O’Brien and Walls have brought him, just offshore of the big musical performance, Arkady realises with a jolt that the doll is one which he and Ofelia discovered, earlier in the book, had been specially constructed so as to hold radio-controlled explosives. (It’s a long story). But now he sees the connection: Mercenaries in Angola + Their expertise in mines and explosives + Resentment of Fidel among the general population and especially the military + Walls and O’Brien’s grandiose plans for a post-communist Cuba = assassination of Fidel.

It all fits together. The Havana Bay Yacht Club was just an innocent name the conspirators gave themselves as cover for their meetings. And, in the final twist, O’Brien now reveals to a horrified Arkady that all they needed to make the conspiracy complete was the involvement of an outsider, of a hated Russian, to push the remote controlled switch, blow up the dummy, and then be gunned down by distraught patriots – thus disposing of the dictator and pinning the blame on Cuba’s now most-hated-enemy. Perfect! as he forces Arkady at gunpoint to take the remote control device.

Since we know that Castro is still, in fact, alive, it is giving nothing away to say that the conspiracy doesn’t succeed. But it comes desperately close. The assassination makes a thrilling central plot, it brings together the social and political themes of failed communism and disillusioned soldiers – and it also gives Cruz Smith the opportunity to do what he does best, describe the great man in a few lines of typical, throwaway brilliance.

In the front row’s places of honour were an empty chair and a man with a grey beard who looked as if he had been big once but had since shrunk into a stiff green shell of ironed fatigues. He had the abstracted expression of an old man regarding a thousand grandchildren whose names he could no longer keep track of. (p.314)

Angles

So it’s essentially a crime novel, but with interesting twists:

a) It’s set in Cuba (no doubt lots of other crime novels are, but I’ve never read any). The novel is drenched in descriptions of the sights and sounds of Havana, the smells and music, the scantily clad prostitutes and their razor-thin pimps and the somnolent cops, the rusting balconies of 1930s houses and the streets full of colourful 1950s American cars. And the pages devoted to explaining the voodoo cults which Cubans still believe in and widely practice are fascinating and compelling.

b) The hero is a disillusioned Russian, thus giving us a) an outsider’s view of everything but b) the outsider not just to the exotic location, but to us, the readers – not the usual Brit referring things back to London, but a melancholy, middle-aged man homesick for the frozen streets of his own crime-ridden, corrupt Moscow.

c) The combination allows Cruz Smith to spend pages describing Cuba, the streets of Havana and its bay, in particular; but to overlay or underpin these with continual references to the troubled political history between the USSR and Cuba. Russia spent billions supporting Cuba as one of the few countries which could boast a successful communist revolution, making it a flagship to the whole of the Americas and funding Cuban soldiers to fight in Africa and support other revolutionaries around the world. So much so that Arkady blames the Cubans for bankrupting Russia. Then, when the USSR collapsed, the tap was abruptly turned off. And now, in 1996 (when the novel appears to be set) the Cubans’ respect for Russia has turned to bitter hatred. As Rufo tells Arkady, the Soviet Embassy shed thousands of officials as Russia withdrew its technical and financial aid to the island. And so infuriated were the locals that they slashed the tyres of every Russian car and local taxis refused to give them a lift, so that the fleeing Soviet staff ended up having to walk to the airport.

So, as well as the pacey plot, there are numerous other levels, cultural, historical and political, on which to enjoy this novel.

Magic prose

The most obvious of them is Cruz Smith’s graceful command of the English language. Many people write novels, but not so many are actual writers, people who can make the language perform magic tricks.

‘It’s perfect.’ Arkady let out a plume of smoke as blue as the exhaust of a car in distress. (p.10)

‘Habit.’ Going through the motions, Arkady thought, as if his body were a suit that shuffled to the scene of the crime, any crime, anywhere. (p.25)

He lived in Miramar, the same area as the Embassy, in an oceanfront hotel named the Sierra Maestra, which offered many of the features of a sinking freighter: listing balconies, rusted railings, a view of the water. (p.63)

Mostovoi pondered the photograph of a Cuban girl lightly breaded in sand. (p.63)

Luna held up a key to illustrate and put it in a pocket. He had a voice like wet cement being turned by a shovel. (p.77)

They went past high rises that had the dinginess of fingered postcards… (p.137)

Most of the prose isn’t this showy but it is consistently enjoyable, fluent, casually poetic or, where it needs to be, to the point, factual, understated. It is effortlessly competent and appropriate. After recently reading several novels by John le Carré it is a relief to get away from the British class system, from obsessive references to jolly public schools and characters who say ‘old boy’ at the end of every sentence. To enter a realm where the writing is pure and free to fly, to perform acrobatics, a prose which simply tells you what is going on with a consistently wry, detached humour, and with poetry to throw away in wonderful asides.

Fishing boats with rod racks and flying bridges slid by, speedboats as low and colourful as sun visors, and power yachts with sun lounges and Jet Ski launches, oceangoing palaces of affluence and indolence sculpted in white fiberglass. (p.164)

There were no streetlamps on the Malecón, only a couple of faint headlights like the sort on luminescent fish found in an ocean trench. Although he latched the shutters closed and lit a candle, darkness continued to seep into the room with a solid, tarry quality. (p.208)

From its perch a canary seemed to examine Arkady for a tail. (p.226)

Outside they heard the ocean say, This is the wave that will sweep away the sand, topple the buildings and flood the streets. This is the wave. This is the wave. (p.244)


Credit

Havana Bay was published by Random House in 1999. All quotes and references to the 1999 Macmillan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Performing for the Camera @ Tate Modern

Performing for the Camera examines the relationship between photography and performance, from the invention of photography in the 19th century to the selfie culture of today. Bringing together over 500 images spanning 150 years, the exhibition engages with the serious business of art and performance, as well as the humour and improvisation of posing for the camera. (Press release)

This is a good exhibition to visit if you like arty photographs or bare boobs. Several points emerged:

Saturation

1) 500 images across 14 rooms is too many to take in: either you begin skipping whole walls of images in search of something, anything, novel and distracting, or you’d have to give each image and each set of photos a really thorough scientific scrutiny, but be prepared to come back on several visits.

2) This links into the broader thought that almost all these images come from the golden era before the internet. Nowadays, we are bombarded, saturated, awash in countless billions of images, as well as being able to take limitless selfies with our phones and tablets, to crop and treat them an infinite number of ways, to post them in a million places or send them to anyone, anywhere. The images on show here come from Before The Fall, from when taking photographs was an achievement, a distinction, and they carry a certain aura of privilege and authenticity.

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

People It’s fairly obvious but took a while to sink in that the exhibition’s focus on photography and performance dictates that the images are overwhelmingly of the human body, clothed or unclothed. No buildings, trees, landscapes, cars, architecture, nature, seas or forests. 500 photos, almost all of them black and white, of people people people. You can get a bit bored of photos of people.

Performance Also, strikingly, there were relatively few photos of what most people might first think of when they hear the word ‘performance’ – almost no photos of actual theatrical or film performances, no famous actors or performers.

Art stars, yes – Warhol, Koons, Beuys, Man Ray, Duchamp. But this is ‘performance’ defined in quite a narrow, art-school kind of way to mean 1960s ‘happenings’, Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp-style posing, and scores of ‘art performances’.

Take, for example, the African photographer who takes self-portraits of himself dressed as iconic black figures; the Japanese photographer who took a series of images of himself in the bath; another Japanese photographer who took a series of a young man almost naked who, in each successive photo, has an additional playing card stuck to his body until he is completely covered in cards; the women photographers who take shots of themselves naked with various props.

Performance in that sense. Performing for the camera.

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Series And a bit more reflection made me realise the sheer number of images follows naturally from the way the photos come in series and sets. The photos recording performances and ‘happenings’ – a bunch of young people strip naked and are painted with psychedelic swirls and circles in some 1960s happening; Japanese art students carry placards across a road junction in Tokyo then trample them to the ground; some other Japanese students drop objects with small parachutes from a tall building – naturally require quite a few shots to convey the full action events, so it is not unusual to come across series of 20 or more photos, whole walls covered with images recording one ‘event’.

Naked women

1. There were quite a few images of naked women. Less than half the total, probably less than a quarter of the images, but still a steady stream of boobs and loins and shapely female bodies, which prompted a few thoughts.

2. Without exception these were young white women, ablebodied, in their 20s and 30s. There are shots of  two or three happenings taken by male photographers – notably the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender who became well-known for photographing avant-garde and counter-cultural performances. But most of these images of naked women are self-portraits of the photographer by herself.

3. The wall labels go to some lengths to explain that these naked ladies set out to ‘subvert’ conventions, raise issues of gender identity, and the other half dozen or so phrases used on these occasions. But what you actually saw was a lot of images of scantily-clad young women. In the first three rooms I counted 43 photos of naked women. Later highlights included:

Hannah Wilke made a number of 1970s ‘performative works’ of herself in which ‘she used her own body to challenge ideas of spectatorship and desire’. In the series, Super-T-Art (1974), we see 20 b&w images of her wearing a toga which, oops, slips off her shoulders and exposes first her breasts, then all of her. With the best will in the world I don’t see how this is challenging anything: it looks to me like it is wholeheartedly taking part in the opposite of challenge, in the marketing and distribution of images of naked women and, worse, of images of a perfect, very American, healthy young female form, precisely the kind of image which helps to create the general social environment in which most women feel some measure of guilt and anxiety at failing to live up to this kind of idealised image of femininity and sexuality.

Adrian Piper took 14 self portraits of herself – Food For The Spirit – some in a dress, some in panties, some butt naked – the twist is they are very underexposed so at first sight appeared to be completely black. Only on by peering quite close to the print could you start to make out the image of the artist – and suddenly realise you are looking at a skinny young naked woman.

In 1999 and 2000 artist Jemima Stehli asked male art critics to sit in her studio while she stripped naked in front of them. The critics had control of a camera which was placed behind her as she stripped, an angle which catches the critics full face, squirming with embarrassment or grinning with enjoyment and captures her slowly declothed body from the rear. Strip consists of 56 big colour images of Stehli taking off her jeans and bra and panties until she is standing splendidly naked, apart from black high heels which make her look exactly a Bond girl from a movie poster. Apparently this work ‘explores themes of voyeurism, spectacle and control.’ I admire the phrasing and the art school rhetoric of this explanation, but Stehli is also a stunningly shapely woman, and she chose to strip off, photograph herself and hang scores of images of herself naked on gallery walls. As my son pointed out, so she’s making a career out of selling naked photos of herself? Er, yes. In case you were disappointed at the way all these shots are of her rear, Stehli has thoughtfully published numerous photos of herself naked from the front as well.

Carolee Schneemann: Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963). The artist naked adorned with various props and paints found in the studio. The density and clutteredness and the abandonment of the poses (and the density of her pubic hair, something not seen so much these days) dates the images to an era when graphic full-frontal nudity still had the power to shock.

4. There were some naked young men in the 1960s ‘happenings’ photos, and some scattered elsewhere throughout (particularly young Japanese men). But it was a room dedicated to the way art superstars of the 70s and 80s used photos to dominate press and PR, in the form of posters and magazine covers featuring Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Joseph Beuys, that brought home to me the contrast between the naked women and the clothed men.

Contrary to all the claims in the wall labels that women artists taking their clothes off somehow ‘subverts’ convention, it in fact screamingly asserts and confirms society’s worst sexist assumption, which is that women, asked to be creative, to do or say something, can only start with their bodies, use their bodies, think of their bodies first. Whereas men asked to do something creative have ideas, insights, make things external to them, come up with gags or performances or plays or art works – and remain fully clothed throughout.

Warhol, Koons, Beuys, photographers Martin Parr and Lee Friedlander – all fully dressed, having creative, insightful, novel ideas.

Amalia Ulman, Jemima Strehli, Hannah Wilke – when prompted to do art – take their clothes off, resulting in the same tired old images of lovely, young naked women. Just a few score more naked women to add to the tens of millions of naked women who overflow the internet, newspapers, magazines, adverts, TV, film, everywhere.

I’m not saying this is true of these women artists actual practices and achievements. I am saying this is the unfortunate impression which this selection and this hang and this exhibition gave this viewer on this particular visit.

Fully clothed women

It was a relief to see the work of women photographers who had not got their kit off, such as the wonderful sequence Seven Twists by Dora Maurer, one of the standout pieces of the Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitehall Art Gallery.

There was just one photo of/by Sarah Lucas, Fighting fire with fire, enough to convey her wonderful ‘fuck you’ attitude. Could have happily seen some more.

Cindy Sherman was represented by a number of photos she took of herself mocked up as stereotypical characters from fictitious movies; and a different series of her with no make-up shrouded in a dressing gown which was constantly threatening to fall off her naked body. Looking her up online I got a sense of Sherman as much more interesting than the selection here made out.

Some of the naked exhibits

Twenty two b&w photos of Yves Klein’s 1960 art event, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, in which several gorgeous women stripped naked in front of a po-faced audience wearing formal evening dress, and then painted their naked bodies and pressed themselves against canvases to create art.

Man Ray – Erotique Voilee. There were a few other tiny Man Rays later, one of his portrait of Marcel Duchamp dressing up as a woman. You’d have thought Man Ray’s entire oeuvre consisted of stunning ‘performances’ and so justified hundreds of entries here, but no – two was your lot 😦

The Anatomic Explosion i.e. 20 or so b&w photos of naked young men and women on Brooklyn Bridge in the heady 1960s, along with another sequence of young people getting naked at a party in a studio, both shot by the cool, avant-garde team of Harry Shunk and János Kender.

Jimmy de Sana’s sequence of stylised art photos of male and female nudes in odd poses from the 1980s.

A whole room was devoted to Francesca Woodman who started taking photos as a child and took reams of photos of herself as a young woman, clothed, half clothed or bare naked, often posing in derelict, empty rooms. To her, personally, this may have been a brave voyage of self-exploration – and I am sensitive to the eerie, disconnected atmosphere in many of the photos, which are genuinely haunting.

But to the viewer who has already seen several hundred bare boobs by this stage, Woodman risks, in a photo like Untitled, just falling into line with all the other nubile young women in our culture who seem so keen to get their kit off. Half of them do it for the Sun and ‘glamour’ mags and are looked down on; the other half do it for ‘performance’ and ‘art’ and have respectful feminist monographs written about them. The vibe I got off these photos of unhealthy self-obsession was joltingly confirmed when I read that she committed suicide aged 22. The more I looked at her photos, the more powerful I found them…

Orphée by Tokyo Rumando, a sequence of black and white photos of the artist standing in front of a mirror which ‘explore Anxiety and fear, dark desire and pleasure, decadence and madness, and then death and the void’ — but for which it’s important that she is often topless.

Whatever else they are meant to be ‘questioning’, ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’, absolutely none of these photos question the fundamental axiom that the best kind of body is young, white and female, a whole, taut, streamlined, slender female body with brown-tipped nipples and prominent pubic hair. The old, the fat and ugly, the disabled, the disfigured, women with mastectomies or C section scars or the countless other marks of time and disease – are 100% absent from this large selection.

The most contemporary work seemed to be Amalia Ulman‘s series including Excellencies and Perfections (below). Once more a woman photographer is ‘exploring’ something or other by taking countless photographs of herself and her body in all manner of costumes and poses, often very scantily clad. Probably this does reflect contemporary selfie culture which, more than ever before in human history, foregrounds and values and sells perfect young, smoothly unlined women’s bodies in unprecedented numbers – except the ones doing the posing, packaging, commodifying and distribution are no longer the male publishers of porn mags, but the young women themselves. Maybe that’s progress…

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Exhibits with their clothes on

Eikoh Hosoe‘s b&w pictures of rehearsals for plays or films stood out because of their exotic setting and the foreign dress and faces of the performers. Also featured is his Kamataichi, a collaboration with the choreographer and founder of the Butoh movement Tatsumi Hijikata, from 1969. There are extraordinary shots of a male performer running wild in the rice fields, leaping in front of traditional houses, grimacing and leering into the camera. Incomprehensible but tremendously dynamic. What is the meaning of the man in make-up with a parasol on a wooden bridge?

Nadar, the most famous 19th century French photographer, active in the 1850s and 1860s. Stage performers came and posed in his studio, in an era when performance meant putting interesting costumes on instead of taking all your clothes off. The 20 or so photos here include shots of Charles Deburau acting out poses as the character ‘Pierrot’ and Sarah Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth.

A sequence of photos showing how Yves Klein’s over-familiar leap into the void photo was prepared, staged and manufactured.

Many of the performance sequences were shot by the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender, two of the most important photographers to have worked with performance artists. Their photos of various ‘happenings’ in the New York of the 1960s show how sweetly and naively young people from that time thought that taking all their clothes off said something or changed anything.

Chinese art superstar Ai Weiwei (beneficiary of a recent massive retrospective at the Royal Academy) is represented by the iconic trio of photos of him dropping and smashing a supposedly valuable Chinese vase. The prints are vast, over 6 foot tall, maybe 5 wide, as merits Ai’s outsize reputation. The only other images as large were those of Warhol and Koons and Beuys in the PR and marketing room, making you realise that Ai is the contemporary equivalent of those masters of press and marketing.

I liked Erwin Wurm‘s photos of instant sculptures, people imaginatively using household props to create unlikely poses e.g. lady on oranges. Tate invited Wurm to give two events explaining and showing visitors how to create one-minute sculptures.

Two of Wurm’s pics here were from a separate sequence using the supermodel Claudia Schiffer. They’re fun and creative and the best thing about them is the way she keeps her clothes on, so that she comes over as a person and not as a body. I like the orange motif. Who suspected that oranges could open up a whole new world of performance art?

Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits 2008, in which the artist photographs himself in the guise of iconic figures like Malcolm X and Miles Davis. The hang affects your perception of the images. These prints were a) very big, 203 foot tall b) hung as a regular grid (as opposed to a row of pics or an irregular patterning, as some others are). The effect was to give them a pleasing sense of order and symmetry before you even considered the subject matter.

British photographer Martin Parr (who also has an exhibition of photos, Unseen City, at the Guildhall Art Gallery) was represented by Autoportraits, a series of images where he’s superimposed his very English, slightly gormless-looking face onto a variety of the trite, kitsch backdrops found in photographers studios around the world. Charmingly eccentric. Note the way comedy or surrealness comes over better in colour.

In a break from the overwhelming majority of black and white photos, there was a series of sepia prints by Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism. The wall label was a bit difficult to follow, but I think these are simply photos of himself, wife and friends on holiday in the Crimea, during which they amused themselves by ‘posing’ as people on holiday, playing up to stereotypes of tourists and holidaymakers, performing for the camera. If anyone who plays up for the camera in their holiday snaps is an artist then the world is over-run with them.

I liked Keith Arnatt’s series of gardeners in their gardens  but I wondered what they had to do with the theme of ‘performance’. If you call gardening a ‘performance’ then almost any kind of activity can turn out to be a performance and the word ceases to have much meaning.

A wall of unsmiling self portraits by veteran American photographer Lee Friedlander. He captures himself in different poses, as anybody who takes a selfie does. Whether these qualify as ‘performances’ I couldn’t quite decide. Certainly he has an ‘eye’ for an arresting composition…

Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase is represented by a series of images of his wife in various clothes on various days seen from the window of their apartment – From Window (1974). I’d like to add something clever and intellectual but it did seem to just be a series of photos of his wife going off to work wearing a different outfit each day.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

He is also has a separate series of b&w pics of himself in a bath – Bukubuku (Bubbling) from 1991.  Very tight close-ups of his face, above the water, under the water blowing bubbles, half-submerged, and so on. I particularly like the one of him wearing a dapper hat, shades and smoking a fag in the bath. With art school pompousness his Wikipedia article describes these as ‘Fukase’s last great work, a whimsical if somewhat morbid game of solitaire that charts new territory for the photographic self-portrait.’

Niki de Saint Phalle appeared in the Global Pop Art exhibition in these very rooms a few months ago, represented by her shooting art works where she filled sacks with poster paints, tied them to canvases and covered the lot in whitewash. She then invited friends and fellow artists round to the shooting gallery at the rear of her studios, where they were given guns and told to shoot the canvases. The Pop Art show included some of the resulting whitewashed canvases covered with spurts of colour paint. Here we have a sequence of b&w photos of her making the canvases, shooting the guns, organising her pals into firing squads and so on. Everyone is wearing clothes. Odd, really, that these works were all about chaotic spurts of colour and yet all the records of it are dully monochrome.

Favourites

  • Charles Ray’s Plank Pieces I and II. Simple, clean, elegant and powerful.
  • Harry Shunk and János Kender’s sequence of 27 photos of Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe rehearsing and performing. Here the blurred or somehow treated outlines of the human form assume a science fiction otherness. Can’t find any of them on the internet.
  • David Wojnarowicz’s sequence Arthur Rimbaud in New York. Wojnarowicz printed out the French poet’s face from the iconic Étienne Carjat 1871 portrait of him, cut it out and attached elastic to make it a strap-on mask, and got various native New Yorkers to wear it in their everyday settings. Simple, funny, stylish.

Conclusions

The press release claims the exhibition ‘shows not only that photography has always been performative, but that much performance art is inherently photographic.’ OK.

It was possible to look at all the photos, read all the wall labels, read the programme and press release and assimilate all the information, insights, opinions and interpretations and still emerge with your understanding of the basic axioms of photography completely unchanged: Naked or scantily clad young women are artistic. Black and white is artistic. (Colour pics are less forgiving, more tacky, better suited to irony.) Men doing wacky things is artistic (jumping out windows, dropping vases, playing bubbles in the bath). The rule seems to be: Men do, women strip.

Oh, and the 1960s and 70s overflowed with avant-garde art most of which is now, frankly, embarrassing.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Unseen City: Photos by Martin Parr @ Guildhall Art Gallery

I first came across Martin’s Parr’s photography at the Only In England exhibition at the Science Museum a few years ago, but it turns out I’m way behind the curve: Parr is one of Britain’s best-known photographers. To be precise he is:

  • a documentary photographer
  • a photojournalist
  • a photobook collector

with an impressive 40 solo photobooks and 80 exhibitions worldwide to his name.

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Parr uses his camera to produce deadpan, documentary-style, images of the way we live now, unstaged scenes of real people, not models, going about their daily lives, in an unsparingly recorded England of ugly people and dismal weather. Thus, apart from any aesthetic considerations, his photos have value as sociological and anthropological investigations.

Above all his photos are of people, caught in motion, unbuttoned, behind the scenes, in photos which are often taken on the hoof, sometimes blurred or out of focus, sometimes not on the level, askew, not perfectly framed. Not beautiful architecture or artefacts or art – Parr is about people in all their rumpled humanity.

This unsparing quality is helped by the fact the images are in colour. Black and white immediately distances a photo, begins to make it look ‘classic’. These unposed, colour images have all the embarrassing immediacy of holiday snaps.

Cart Making, Guildhall, City of London, 2015. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Cart Making, Guildhall, City of London, 2015. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Photographer in residence to the City of London

Parr approached the City of London with the suggestion of becoming its photographer-in-residence, and took up the post in 2013. He was given unrestricted access to all aspects of the ancient, venerable and sometimes peculiar traditions, costume and people who populate the famous ‘Square Mile’.

This exhibition is the first display of the work he created during that period and consists of over 100 photographic prints showing the people and the numerous events – the ceremonies, traditions, processions, banquets and public occasions which make up the calendar of this historic location.

Forty or so of them are in prints about a foot tall and displayed all together, but the majority of them are huge, a yard wide or more. Their informality is emphasised by the lack of formal frames: the prints are pinned to the walls.

The City is home to numerous medieval guilds whose outfits, officers and observances have lived on into the present day. Thus we see photos of members of the Mercers Company, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the Worshipful Company of Glovers, of cavalry officers, the Bishop of London, the Gentlemen of Trinity Hospital Greenwich, the Town Clerk, Sheriff and – of course – the Lord Mayor, from 2013-14 Fiona Woolf.

Silent Ceremony, swearing in of new Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, Guildhall, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Silent Ceremony, swearing in of new Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, Guildhall, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Red

The overwhelming impression was red. Red seems to be the ceremonial colour for an awful lot of institutions and organisations. The red robes of the Mercers Company, the red robes of the Aldermen, the red outfits of the Company of Watermen, of the Lord Mayor, and so on. I was particularly struck by a group of Musketeers, in red tunics with brown leather belts and straps, looking like an illustration from the Civil War.

There’s an obvious military link because right up until the Boer War the British Army wore bright red coats and were known as the redcoats. This is made unmissably clear because the exhibition shares the downstairs space at the Guildhall Art Gallery with John Singleton Copley’s vast history painting, The Defeat of The Floating Batteries at Gibraltar which, although a naval scene, is packed with red-coated soldiers.

Why red? Was it an expensive colour? Did it stand out from the muddy browns and blacks of the poor? As it happens, the walls of the exhibition itself were a bright red fabric onto which the prints were pinned. Hooray for red!!

Lord Mayor’s Show, Guildhall, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, Guildhall, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

People-free shots

I counted only two photos without people in them and both conveyed a forlorn sense of abandonment. The only one which approached the condition of an ‘art’ shot, was a perfectly framed pic of a white bench in front of a whitish wall at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich, on which sat six formal black top hats laid neatly – but not too neatly – in a row. That I would buy. That one I could see in the Royal Academy Summer Show.

St Matthew’s Day Parade, Mayoral Car, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

St Matthew’s Day Parade, Mayoral Car, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Satirical…

The rest, though, are more anthropological than artistic. The interest is surely in how strange people are. What are they wearing? What are they doing? Why are they so unprepossessing? Why are they all holding little posies of flowers?

You can feel their self-importance coming off them in waves, you can imagine the braying upper-class voices, but also the nerves and the teeters of confusion as the procession forms up.

Election of the new Lord Mayor, Alan Yarrow, Guildhall, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Election of the new Lord Mayor, Alan Yarrow, Guildhall, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

It’s this unsparing quality – the sense that the people in his photos are really exposed and vulnerable, not at all at their best, not as they’d like to see themselves – which prompts some critics to see Parr’s works as satirical, as much more bleakly anti-human than they at first seem. That he is quietly ridiculing his subjects.

Certainly there are some very unattractive people on display – a cadaverous man, all teeth and medals, standing behind a barrier in the rain at the Lord Mayor’s show, and a group of old men from one of the worshipful companies who look like a troupe of medieval gargoyles.

… or humanist?

I suspect Parr’s attitude is broader than this: he takes what he sees and what he sees is people, in all their unlovely, unaesthetic reality. And their ambiguity. They are what they are. Some people might see these venerable organisations and their antique customs (beating the bounds, swan upping on the Thames) as ludicrous and irrelevant; conversely, some people might revel in our historical traditions (and enjoy the booklet accompanying the show which contains a comprehensive Glossary of the People, Places and Events of the City of London featured in the photos).

Some people might find the photos unfairly emphasise the ungainly and ugly in their subjects; others might find them honest and candid.

But I think this is the artfulness in Parr’s art, an art which completely conceals itself while it reveals everything about the viewer.

I happen to have recently read a number of history books comparing stuffy English law and homely tradition with the lawlessness and horrific violence of some of the mid-20th century alternatives, with the stylish black-and-white photos and beautifully shot films full of strong-jawed heroes and athletic heroines fighting for the Nazi Fatherland or creating a Workers’ Paradise in the Soviet Union.

Next to those images, of perfect youthful bodies martialled into orderly phalanxes, the subjects of Parr’s photos seem clumsy and awkward, bumbling in their fur-lined tunics and silly hats.

Nick Kenyon, head of the Barbican, spoke at the launch of the exhibition and was eloquent in his praise of Parr who he called him one of the greatest living English artists. One phrase he used stood out for me, when he praised Parr for his very English qualities of ‘tolerance and humanity’. If there are no beautiful people or carefully staged shots or iconic moments in these photos, if they’re full of not-particularly-attractive people caught at awkward moments wearing funny hats – it is because they are us.

We are the English, a messy mongrel people, the people who queue for hours to wave our little Union Jacks in the pouring rain. Who keep up the embarrassing traditions and the lovely costumes because they mean something to us. Because your Dad did it, or because it was your ambition since your were a child to dress up and drive a coach in the Lord Mayor’s Parade.

Lord Mayor’s Show, Guildhall, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, Guildhall, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

It’s not a dazzling exhibition. The publicity might make you think it’s about the pomp and circumstance of the City and its grand traditions, and then you’d get here and be disappointed by scrappy-seeming images of milling crowds and hurrying waitresses and middle-aged men absurdly dressed like 16th century cavaliers.

And then slowly, cumulatively, if you let them, I think these images subtly convey a ‘deeper’ patriotism, an unillusioned affection for the oddities and awkwardness and embarrassment of being English.


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