Family Britain: A Thicker Cut, 1954-57 by David Kynaston (2009)

This is the second part of the second volume of David Kynaston’s social history of post-war Britain. As usual, it is a dense collage of quotes from the diaries, letters, interviews, surveys and speeches of an enormous range of people from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to vox pops of shoppers in the street via civil servants, actors, coal miners, housewives, writers who were kids at the time recalling their early memories (John Fowles, David Hare, Alan Bennett, Hunter Davies) – all combining to give you a really deeply felt sense of what it was like to live through these years.

Chronological events part one

Thus, without any preliminary introduction the book opens straight into a cabinet meeting discussing the problem of coloured workers, held on Wednesday 3 February 1954: ‘Are we to saddle ourselves with colour problems in the UK?’ Winston Churchill asked, a sentiment which is echoed half a dozen times as the race problem and the ‘colour bar’ are revisited throughout the book, reflecting the rising rate of immigration from the Commonwealth.

This very long book then touches on:

1954

  • the housing problem, the debate about whether to build flats or houses, and whether to shunt people out to the periphery (as believed by ‘dispersionists’) or keep them in high rise inner cities (‘urbanists’)
  • whether to decriminalise homosexuality, specifically in light of the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, which began in 15 March
  • Billy Graham’s Greater London Crusade starting 1 March
  • the campaign to set up a commercial TV channel to rival the BBC’s monopoly; the canny entrepreneurs lobbying for commercial TV choose Sir Kenneth Clarke as their ultra-respectable front man and he gives a speech supporting it; next time he enters his club, he is roundly booed
  • 5 April Commons debate about the H-bomb, necessary if Britain is to remain ‘a world power’
  • repeated crashes of the British-built Comet airliner result in it being grounded and overtaken by the American Boeing
  • newspapers report on fighting at youth clubs and dance halls involving teenagers with a new look, the Teddy Boys: ‘The effect of the whole décor is thin, mean and sinister, and is obviously meant to be’ (Cyril Dunn in his diary)
  • Doctor in the House starring Dirk Bogarde is the box office smash of 1954
  • 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road track in Oxford, Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile
  • on 27 May, Hungary beat England 7-1 (West Germany go on to beat Hungary in the World Cup Final in July)
  • Iris Murdoch publishes her first novel, Under the Net. She is a committed communist
  • butter comes off the ration
  • June, Benny Hill shoots to TV stardom doing impersonations on Showcase
  • the myxomatosis epidemic among wild rabbits continued, eventually 99% of the population is wiped out
  • refrigerators are beginning to be a sign of status, notes sociologist Phyllis Willmott (p.399); restrictions on hire-purchase are removed for a wide range of consumer goods such as fridges, hoovers, radios, TVs, motorbikes and cars, setting in train the consumer society
  • August – Salad Days is a surprise hit in the theatre, starting a run which continues till 1960
  • Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring published, followed in November by the Two Towers
  • September – the Third Programme’s live broadcast of Benjamin Britten’s new opera, A Turn of the Screw
  • Kidbrook school opens, London’s first purpose-built comprehensive
  • October – an exhibition of paintings by John Bratby leads critic David Sylvester to coin the term ‘kitchen sink’ school, which goes on to be widely applied to theatre and film
  • 2 November – début of Hancock’s Half Hour on BBC radio
  • by the end of the year there are nearly 4 million TV licences

1955

  • January – BBC documentary Has Britain a Colour Bar? to which the answer was emphatically yes
  • February: road traffic has almost doubled since 1938 and so the government publishes a major road expansion plan including the building of two motorways, M1 and M6
  • government also announces plans to build 12 nuclear power stations, the most advanced scheme of nuclear power anywhere in the world
  • January – debut on TV of The Sooty Show and The Benny Hill Show
  • February – debut of Kitchen Magic, presented by Fanny Cradock, first of the celebrity chefs, coinciding with the era of rationing passing into memory i.e. the start of conspicuous consumption
  • March – national newspaper strike
  • 5 April Winston Churchill (aged 80) steps down as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister
  • 6 April replaced by Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford) who announces a snap general election for 26 May (the voting age was still 21, as it continued to be until 1969)
  • May General Election: Conservatives 321 seats, Labour 277, Liberals 6, the 17 communist candidates polled 33,000 votes between them. Turnout was down from 82 to 76% amid what Kynaston portrays as widespread apathy, the general interpretation being that the economy was booming, rationing was over, consumer goods were becoming widely available, who cares about politics? Hugh Gaitskell, and Kynaston, attribute it to Tory success with housewives.
  • May Day – Stirling Moss became the first British driver to win the Mille Miglia in Italy
  • May – The Dam Busters released, the outstanding British film of the year ‘maybe of the decade’
  • Miners strike, train drivers strike, dockers’ strike
  • 13 July Ruth Ellis hanged for murder, last woman hanged (the last men hanged were executed in August 1964)
  • August – Kingsley Amis’s second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, and publication of the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records
  • September – Henry Fairlie writes an article in the Spectator describing the ‘Establishment’ that runs Britain
  • 22 September – commercial television (ITV) starts broadcasting in the London area
  • October was dominated by controversy among politicians, press and people on the long-running saga about whether young Princess Margaret Rose (25) should or should not marry divorced father-of-two Group-Captain Peter Townsend (30) with whom she was clearly in love. After dividing the nation, she decided not to.

Sociological studies

About two-thirds of the way through the text it abruptly stops giving a month-by-month overview of political and popular events and turns into an extended consideration of various sociological issues, moving seamlessly through religious belief, attitudes to marriage, sex, homosexuality, unmarried mothers, abortion, prostitution, the role of women, women in the home, women in the workplace and so on.

As usual Kynaston draws evidence from a wide range of sources: from social historians, from the surprising number of surveys and sociological studies carried out at the time, from the diaries or letters of ordinary people and politicians or the autobiographies of writers, from questionnaires carried out by contemporary magazines, from government-sponsored reports, and so on.

Inevitably, in the longish sequence about the social expectations on women in the 1950s, the white, private-school-educated man Kynaston bends over backwards to emphasise his feminist credentials and bring out how lazy and selfish 1950s men were, and the pressure of social expectations on women. There’s a lot less about the social expectations on men – to be financial provider, role model, father, and good companion in marriage.

In fact, although a huge amount of the content is informative and illuminating, not much is very surprising: the four books I’ve read so far tend to confirm everything you already suspected, but just with an awesome range of witnesses and voices adding texture and lived experience to the statistics and stereotypes, making the era really come to life.

Some of the sociological findings do raise a smile for confirming sociology’s tendency to state the bleeding obvious. For example, on pages 576-77 Kynaston quotes several surveys which, after hundreds of interviews and hard work compiling the data, present the dazzling conclusion that, for lots of working women, the main motivation for going out to work was — to earn money! 73% of married women gave ‘financial reasons’ as their main motive for going to work. Not, maybe, earth-shattering news.

This list gives you a sense of the scope and number of surveys Kynaston refers to, as well as indicating the subject matter they address:

  • Brian Abel-Smith and Richard Titmuss study of NHS services underpinned the 1956 Guillebaud Committee report on the NHS which recommended no major changes
  • BBC survey 1955-6 about Britain’s decline (28% thought there’d been a decline in Britain’s economic ranking, blaming the trade unions and strikes)
  • White and Coloured by Michael Banton (p.451) recorded how cities across the UK recruited west Indian bus drivers and conductors through the first half of the 1950s
  • 1956 survey of racial attitudes in Birmingham (two thirds thought coloured people were intrinsically less intelligent than white people)
  • Family and Social Network by Elizabeth Bott (1957), including the Bott hypothesis that the connectedness or the density of a husband’s and wife’s separate social networks is positively associated with marital role segregation
  • Tom Brennan, author of a 1956 study of occupants of the Gorbals and attitudes to redevelopment
  • The Sexual, Marital and Family Relationships of the English Woman (1956) by Eustace Chesser (women look for physical strength in man more than looks; the higher up the social scale the more likely a woman was to experience sexual satisfaction; husband doesn’t pet enough [foreplay]; ‘overwhelmingly it was felt by wives that men wanted sex more frequently than women did’, p.592)
  • Citizens of Tomorrow by a working party of educationalists and sociologists
  • Peter Collison – study of the Cutteslowe Wall in Oxford
  • Professor Kate Fisher, pioneering historian of sex e.g. , Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960 (2007)
  • February 1957 Gallup survey about church going
  • 1954 BBC-commissioned Gallup survey into church attendance
  • anthropologist Frank Girling spent 18 months on a Scottish housing estate studying the unskilled workers and their families (women had a dominant position in the social life of the area and their homes)
  • Social Mobility in Britain by David Glass finding a generally low level of social mobility (p.410)
  • 1951 survey of British life by Geoffrey Gorer
  • Ken Grainger did a study of Herbert’s the machine tool firm in Coventry
  • Natalie Higgins, author of a study of marriage in mid-twentieth century England (women looked for a man who was clean, decent and hard working)
  • Margot Jefferys author of a study of married women working in the civil service
  • Pearl Jephcott investigated youth clubs in London and Nottingham
  • 1956 survey by Joyce Joseph of 600 adolescent girls attending school in the Home Counties and the West Country
  • 1949 Mass-Observation on household income
  • 1951 Mass-Observation survey of 700 working class housewives
  • 1955 Mass-Observation survey into capital punishment
  • 1956 Mass-Observation study of the housewife’s day
  • 1957 Mass-Observation survey on women in work
  • John Barron May’s study of a police division in inner-city Liverpool
  • John Barron May’s 1956 study of Liverpool’s Crown Street area
  • John Mogey’s study of working class life in Oxford
  • 1954 NHS survey of services for the elderly
  • Anthony Richmond author of The Colour Problem
  • Elizabeth Roberts, author of a 1990s oral history of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston – parents became closer to their children, than their own parents had been
  • Women of the Streets (1955) edited by C.H. Rolph
  • English Life and Leisure (1951)  by Rowntree and Lavers
  • Lulie Shaw, author of a study of a working class suburb in the 1950s
  • John Smith in 1955 conducted field work at the Peak Freen biscuit factory in Bermondsey
  • Steven Tolliday’s study of Coventry engineering workers
  • The Family Life of Old People (1957) by Peter Townsend
  • Margaret Williamson – interviews in the ironstone region of Cleveland: post-war fathers more involved and willing to play with their children than pre-war fathers
  • Family and Kinship in East London (1957) by Michael Young and Peter Willmott
  • More About the Sex Factor by Dr Helena Wright (1947)

The single finding I found most interesting was the notion that the extended kinship system Young and Willmott found in the East End (grandparents and siblings living nearby and able to babysit and do errands) disappeared as young couples moved out to housing estates on the edge of town, and to new towns. Being isolated and thrown back on their own resources coincided or led to a) families being smaller (two children) and b) a greater sharing of household work and parenting, more involvement by dads i.e. the loss of an extended family network was compensated by more ‘modern’ gender roles. Although it did also just lead to lots of lonely, isolated mums.

Chronological events part two

1955

  • October 15 Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets enters the Billboard Top 20
  • November: Cabinet decided not to support the Home Secretary’s plan for legislation to limit immigration from the Commonwealth
  • books of the year: The Cruel Sea, Reach for the Sky, HMS Ulysses
  • Christmas Day: Somerset Maugham published an attack on Kingsley Amis’s characters, calling them ‘scum’
  • December Clement Attlee stands down as leader of the Labour Party, replaced by Hugh Gaitskell (aged 49, educated at Winchester Public School and New College, Oxford)

1956

  • January – a concert by young turks Harrison Birtwhistle and Peter Maxwell Davies
  • February – London Transport starts to recruit staff from Barbados, followed by Trinidad and Jamaica
  • high prices bring discontent, complaints about Eden’s premiership, and worries about growing manufacturing competition from Germany and Japan
  • March – politicians and commentators react to news of Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin and his crimes – a number of intellectuals quit the communist party and were to form the nucleus of the New Left which flourished in the 1960s
  • April – release of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier amid an orgy of merchandising
  • April – Khrushchev and Soviet premier Bulganin visit Britain, attending a race meeting, tea with the Queen, lunch at the House of Commons, and questions at the Oxford Union
  • 8 May – first night of Look Back In Anger by John Osborne divides the critics
  • 19 May – Elvis Presley entered the British charts for the first time with Heartbreak Hotel
  • May – opening of the This is Tomorrow art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, including Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing, the earliest example of Pop Art
Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

  • 12 June – bulldozers start clearing hedgerows for the building of the M6, Britain’s first motorway (opened in 1958, the M1 was opened in 1959)
  • winter, spring and summer dominated by strikes, strident speeches by trade union leaders and complaints from the media about their selfishness
  • October – Tommy Steele enters the top 20 with Rock with the Caveman becoming Britain’s first rock’n’roll star
  • 17 October Windscale nuclear power station became the first nuclear power plant to feed electricity into a national grid anywhere in the world
  • November – Post Office Premium Bonds launched

1957

  • Wednesday 9 January – Sir Anthony Eden resigns as Tory leader and Prime Minister on grounds of ill health
  • Thursday 10 January – replaced by Harold Macmillan (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford)

Suez and Hungary

Traditional history of the 1950s focus on the Suez Crisis as a symptom of the end of Britain’s role as a genuine global power. Characteristically Kynaston reserves it for almost an afterthought in the last fifteen or so pages of the book, and even then his account is interspersed with references to Elvis Presley, Fanny Cradock and petrol prices, and he doesn’t concern himself with the military or geopolitical issues, but focuses on how the unfolding crisis was received by his usual cast of diarists – Nella Last, Anthony Heap and so on – as well as the diary entries of Prime Minister Eden’s wife and the private thoughts of other politicians. Two things come over:

  • I hadn’t realised that the Anglo-French invasion of Suez and the Soviet tanks rukbling in to suppress the Hungarian Uprising were so closely synchronised – the first shots fired by the Hungarian security forces on protesters were on 23 October, the next day Soviet tanks occupied Budapest. On 29 October Israeli jets attacked Egyptian positions and on 31 October the British and French began bombing Egyptian positions on 31 October. Part of what made liberals so angry about Suez was that it was an illegal unilateral action not sanctioned by the UN. At a stroke this removed the moral superiority or ability of the West to criticise the Soviets. If there had been no Suez the West would have been infinitely better placed to protest the Soviet invasion and sanction the USSR.
  • I knew that Suez divided the nation but Kynaston’s strength, here as everywhere else in the book, is to use diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs to really bring home the virulent anger on both sides. As families and husbands and wives and generations bitterly fell out over the best course of action, it’s impossible not to see the parallels with Brexit.

Class

Of the Conservative Party’s 600 candidates in the 1955 general election, 80% went to private school, and 80 had gone to Eton. Ten of Anthony Eden’s 18-strong cabinet went to Eton, five of whom also went on to Christ Church, Oxford (‘the House’, as it is known). Small world, the ruling class.

The education dilemma

Nearly seventy years after the debates about education which Kynaston quotes so extensively in his book, we:

  • still have an extensive network of private schools, whose alumni continue to dominate all aspects of public and economic life
  • are still agonising and hand-wringing about whether selection at age 11, the 11-plus, and grammar schools are a good or a bad thing

Examples of such agonising and debating:

Why are the basic facts about education i.e. what works best for individuals and for society as a whole, still not definitely known? What have all those educationalists and university departments of education and educational psychologists and all the rest of them been doing for the past 65 years?

Consumer society

My impression of British history over the past 70 years is that people wanted more stuff.

Governments came and went, politicians agonised over the precise wording of manifestos and speeches, clever Oxbridge graduates devised wizard wheezes (the poll tax, universal credit) but Kynaston’s approach to history makes it crystal clear that most people don’t give a stuff about politics – again and again disillusioned politicians find themselves speaking to tiny audiences in the rain, or surveys show that half the people surveyed have never even heard the phrase ‘welfare state’, let alone have sophisticated ideas about how to fund it.

What comes over strongly – especially in the recurrent thread about housing, slum clearance, the creation of flats and so on – is that people want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Again and again we read that people want to live in houses because of the privacy and don’t want to live in flats because of the lack of privacy.

And all through the book there is a massive disconnect between the university-educated politicians and theorists and writers and planners and activators and sociologists and anthropologists who agonise about definitions of ‘community’ and the ‘working class’ and the ‘proletariat’ — and the people living in Coventry or Birmingham or Glasgow (the most rundown city in Britain) who want: a clean home, hot water, a sink, a bathroom, an inside toilet.

And once they’ve got that, they want one of those TV sets that everyone is talking about, and one of the new line of fridges in which they can put the new range of frozen foods which were just being launched in the mid-1950s, led by Birds Eye fish fingers, they want instant coffee and tinned beer they can bring home to sup as they watch Fabian of the Yard or Variety Hour..

An indication of how things were changing was Elizabeth David’s comment in the preface to the 1956 edition of A Book of Mediterranean Food that the food situation was ‘startlingly different’ to how it had been just two years before. Vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridge freezers, convenience foods, formica table and work tops, affordable eating out (Berni Inns opened in 1954 with their trademark meal of rump steak, chips and peas, a roll and butter and pudding for just 7/6d). Local traders were closing down while Marks and Spencer opened stores throughout the country. Tesco opened its first true supermarket (entirely self-service) in Maldon in 1956.

And the age of DIY was dawning, with cheap and effective Dulux paint going on sale in 1953 while Black and Decker decided to enter the domestic market in 1954, selling drills and lathes and saws, and the first DIY magazine, Practical Householder, was launched in October 1955.

While Doris Lessing was writing articles in praise of Stalin and E.P. Thompson was agonising about whether to leave the communist party over Hungary – precisely the type of upper-middle-class university-educated people and highfalutin’ issues that upper-middle-class university-educated historians usually focus on in their highfalutin’ histories – the people, the ‘masses’ who they so fatuously claimed to be speaking for – were going shopping, collecting the new green shield stamps and buying a new Morris Minor on the never-never.

They knew who the future belonged to – and it wasn’t Comrade Khrushchev.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Family Britain: The Certainties of Place by David Kynaston (2009)

Two more massive ‘books’ contained in one hefty 700-page paperback describing Britain after the war, the first one – The Certainties of Place, under review here – covering the period 1951-5 in immense detail. The main historical events are:

  • The Festival of Britain (May – August 1951)
  • October 1951 the Conservatives just about win the general election, despite polling quarter of a million fewer votes than Labour
  • Death of George VI (6 February 1952) and accession of young Queen Elizabeth II
  • 3 October 1952 Britain explodes its first atom bomb (in Western Australia)
  • The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash on the morning of 8 October 1952 – 112 were killed and 340 injured – the worst peacetime rail crash in the United Kingdom
  • The North Sea flood on the night of Saturday 31 January / Sunday, 1 February
  • Rationing: tea came off the ration in October 1952 and sweets in February 1953, but sugar, butter, cooking fats, cheese, meat and eggs continued on the ration
  • 2 June 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
  • 27 July 1953 end of Korean War
  • 12 August 1953 Russia detonates its first hydrogen bomb

The book ends in January 1954, with a literary coincidence. On Monday 25 Lucky Jim, the comic novel which began the career of Kingsley Amis was published and that evening saw the BBC broadcast the brilliant play for voices Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas who had in fact died two months earlier, on 9 November 1953.

Tumult of events and impressions

But reading Kynaston’s books is not to proceed logically through the key events of the period accompanied by political and economic and diplomatic analysis: it is to be plunged into the unceasing turbulent flow of day-to-day events, mixing the trivial with the serious, it’s to see the world from the point of view of a contemporary tabloid newspaper – the Mirror and the Express competing for the title of Britain’s best-selling newspaper – with the big political issues jostling for space with the winner of the Grand National and gossip about the stars of stage and radio – and above all, to read quotes from a thousand and one contemporary voices.

Without any preface or introduction, the text throws you straight into the hurly-burly of events, festooned with comments by an enormous casts of diarists, speech-makers, article-writers, commentators, eye-witnesses and so on.

Thus at the top of page one it is Saturday 28 April 1951 and King George VI is presenting the F.A. Cup to the winners, Newcastle. Three days later, on Tuesday 1 May 1951 he is at Earls Court for the British Industries Fair. On Thursday 3 he is on the South Bank to open the new Royal Festival Hall and inaugurate the five-month-long Festival of Britain – ‘a patriotic prank’, according to the song Noel Coward wrote about it, ‘madly educative and very tiring’, according to Kenneth Williams (25).

What makes Kynastons’s books hugely enjoyable is the vast cavalcade of people, from kings to coal miners, via a jungle of ordinary housewives, newspaper columnists, industrialists, famous or yet-to-be-famous writers, actors, civil servants and politicians.

a) They are fascinating on their own account b) Kynaston deploys them not just to discuss the big issues of the day but quotes them on day to day trivia, the appearance of London, the menu at posh clubs, the ups and downs of rationing, the tribulations of shopping in the High Street. The breadth of witnesses, and the range of activities they describe, helps to make the reader feel that you really have experienced living in this era.

Labour exhausted, Conservatives win

Overall, the big impression which comes across is the way the Labour Party had run out of ideas by 1951, and how this contributed to their defeat in the October 1951 general election. (It is fascinating to learn that they only held an election that October because the king told Attlee he was going on a prolonged tour of the Commonwealth in 1952 and would prefer there to be an election while he was still in the country. Attlee duly obliged, and Labour lost. Thus are the fates of nations decided). (There is, by the by, absolutely nothing whatsoever about the Commonwealth or the British Empire: this is a book solely about the home front and domestic experiences of Britain.)

Labour were reduced to opposition in which they seem to waste a lot of energy squabbling between the ‘Bevanites’ on the left of the party, and the larger mainstream represented by Hugh Gaitskell. The bitter feud stemmed from the decision by Gaitskell, when Chancellor, to introduce charges for ‘teeth and spectacles’ in order to pay for Britain’s contribution to the Korean War (started June 1950).

The quiet Labour leader, Clement Attlee, now in his 70s, was mainly motivated to stay on by his determination to prevent Herbert Morrison becoming leader.

The most important political fact of the period was that the Conservatives accepted almost every element of the welfare state and even of the nationalised industries which they inherited from Labour.

Experts are quoted from the 1980s saying that this was a great lost opportunity for capitalism i.e. the Conservatives failed to privatise coal or steel or railways, and failed to adjust the tax system so as to reintroduce incentives and make British industry more competitive. To these critics, the 1950s Conservatives acquiesced in the stagnation which led to Britain’s long decline.

Rebuilding and new towns

What the Conservatives did do was live up to their manifesto promise of building 300,000 new houses a year, even if the houses were significantly reduced in size from Labour’s specifications (much to the growling disapproval of Nye Bevan), and to push ahead with the scheme for building twelve New Towns.

I grew up on the edge of one of these New Towns, Bracknell, which I and all my friends considered a soulless dump, so I was fascinated to read Kynaston’s extended passages about the massive housing crisis of post-war Britain and the endless squabbles of experts and architects who claimed to be able to solve it.

To some extent reading this book has changed my attitude as a result of reading the scores and scores of personal accounts Kynaston quotes of the people who moved out of one-room, condemned slums in places like Stepney and Poplar and were transported to two bedroom houses with things they’d never see before – like a bathroom, their own sink, an indoor toilet!

It’s true that almost immediately there were complaints that the new towns or estates lacked facilities, no pubs, not enough shops, were too far from town centres with not enough public transport, and so on. But it is a real education to see how these concerns were secondary to the genuine happiness brought to hundreds of thousands of families who finally escaped from hard-core slum conditions and, after years and years and years of living in squalor, to suddenly be living in clean, dry, properly plumbed palaces of their own.

At the higher level of town planners, architects and what Kynaston calls ‘activators’, he chronicles the ongoing fights between a) exponents of moving urban populations out to new towns versus rehousing them in new inner city accomodation b) the core architectural fight between hard-line modernist architects, lackeys of Le Corbusier’s modernism, and various forms of watered-down softer, more human modernism.

It is a highly diffused argument because different architects deployed different styles and solutions to a wide range of new buildings on sites all over the UK, from Plymouth to Glasgow: but it is one of the central and most fascinating themes of the Kynaston books, and inspires you to want to go and visit these sites.

Education

The other main issue the Conservatives (and all right-thinking social commentators and progressives) were tackling after the war was Education. The theme recurs again and again as Kynaston picks up manifesto pledges, speeches, or the publication of key policy documents to bring out the arguments of the day. Basically we watch two key things happen:

  1. despite the bleeding obvious fact that the public schools were (and are) the central engine of class division, privilege and inequality in British society, no political party came up with any serious proposals to abolish them or even tamper with their status (a pathetic ineffectiveness which, of course, lasts to the present day)
  2. instead the argument was all about the structure of the state education system and, in Kynaston’s three books so far, we watch the Labour party, and the teachers’ unions, move from broad support for grammar schools in 1944, to becoming evermore fervently against the 11-plus by the early 1950s

Kynaston uses his sociological approach to quote the impact of passing – or failing – the 11-plus exam (the one which decides whether you will go to a grammar school or a secondary modern school) on a wide variety of children from the time, from John Prescott to Glenda Jackson.

Passing obviously helped propel lots of boys and girls from ‘ordinary’ working class backgrounds on to successful careers. But Kynaston also quotes liberally from the experiences of those who failed, were crushed with humiliation and, in some cases, never forgave society.

The following list serves two purposes:

  1. To give a sense of the huge number of people the reader encounters and hears quoted in Kynaston’s collage-style of social history
  2. To really bring out how the commanding heights of politics, the economy, the arts and so on were overwhelmingly ruled by people who went to public school, with a smattering of people succeeding thanks to their grammar school opportunity, and then a rump of people who became successful in their fields despite attending neither public nor grammar schools and, often, being forced to leave school at 16, 15, 14 or 13 years of age.

Public school

Politicians

  • Clement Attlee (Haileybury and Oxford)
  • Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Westminster and New College, Oxford)
  • Anthony Blunt (Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Guy Burgess (Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Austen Butler (Marlborough and Cambridge)
  • Winston Churchill (Harrow then Royal Military College, Sandhurst)
  • Kim Cobbold (Governor of the Bank of England 49-61, Eton and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Stafford Cripps (Winchester College and University College London)
  • Anthony Crosland (Highbury and Oxford)
  • Richard Crossman (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Hugh Dalton (Eton and Cambridge)
  • Sir Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Michael Foot (Leighton Park School Reading and Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Sir David Maxwell Fyfe ( George Watson’s College and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Hugh Gaitskell (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Gerald Kaufman (Leeds Grammar School [private] and Queen’s College, Oxford)
  • Harold Macmillan (Eton)
  • Harold Nicholson (Wellington and Oxford)
  • Sir John Nott-Bower (Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Tonbridge School then the Indian Police Service)
  • Kim Philby (Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Enoch Powell (King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • John Profumo (Harrow and Oxford)
  • Shirley Williams (St Paul’s Girls’ School and Somerville College, Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Lindsay Anderson (film director, Saint Ronan’s School and Cheltenham College then Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Diana Athill (memoirist, Runton Hill School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • John Betjeman (poet, Marlborough and Oxford)
  • Cecil Beaton (photographer, Harrow and Cambridge)
  • John Berger (art critic, St Edward’s School, Oxford and Chelsea School of Art)
  • Michael Billington (theatre critic, Warwick School and Oxford)
  • Raymond Chandler (novelist, Dulwich College, then journalism)
  • Bruce Chatwin (travel writer, Marlborough)
  • Dr Alex Comfort (popular science author, Highgate School, Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Davenport-Hynes (historian, St Paul’s and Selwyn College, Cambridge)
  • Robin Day (BBC interviewer, Bembridge and Oxford)
  • Richard Dimbleby (Mill Hill School then the Richmond and Twickenham Times)
  • Richard Eyre (theatre director, Sherborne School and Peterhouse Cambridge)
  • Ian Fleming (novelist, Eton and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst)
  • John Fowles (novelist, Bedford School and Oxford)
  • Michael Frayn (novelist, Kingston Grammar School and Cambridge)
  • Alan Garner (novelist, Manchester Grammar School and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Graham Greene (novelist, Berkhamsted School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Joyce Grenfell (Francis Holland School and Mlle Ozanne’s finishing school in Paris)
  • Alec Guinness (actor, Fettes College)
  • Frank Richards (writer for popular comics, Thorn House School in Ealing then freelance writing)
  • Christopher Hill (Marxist historian, St Peter’s School, York and Balliol College, University of Oxford)
  • David Hockney (artist, Bradford Grammar School [private], Bradford College of Art, Royal College of Art)
  • Ludovic Kennedy (BBC, Eton then Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Gavin Lambert (film critic, Cheltenham College and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Humphrey Lyttelton (Eton, Grenadier Guards, Camberwell Art College)
  • David Kynaston (historian, Wellington College and New College, Oxford)
  • Kingsley Martin (editor of New StatesmanMill Hill School and Magdalene College, Cambridge)
  • Frances Partridge (Bloomsbury writer, Bedales School and Newnham College, Cambridge)
  • Raymond Postgate (founder of Good Food Guide, St John’s College, Oxford)
  • V.S. Pritchett (novelist, Alleyn’s School, and Dulwich College)
  • Barbara Pym (novelist, Queen’s Park School Oswestry and Oxford)
  • William Rees-Mogg (editor of The Times 1967-81, Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Richard Rogers (architect, St Johns School, Leatherhead then the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London)
  • Anthony Sampson (social analyst, Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Raphael Samuel (Marxist historian, Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Maggie Smith (actress, Oxford High School, then the Oxford Playhouse)
  • David Storey (novelist, Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield then Slade School of Fine Art)
  • AJP Taylor (left wing historian, Bootham School in York then Oriel College, Oxford)
  • E.P. Thompson (Marxist historian, Kingswood School Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Alan Turing (computer pioneer, Sherborne and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Kenneth Tynan (theatre critic, King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Chad Varah (founder of Samaritans, Worksop College [private] Nottinghamshire then Keble College, Oxford)
  • Angus Wilson (novelist, Westminster School and Merton College, Oxford)
  • Colin St John Wilson (architect of the British Library, Felsted School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Laurence Olivier (actor, prep school and choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street)

Grammar school

Politicians

  • Barbara Castle (Bradford Girls’ Grammar School and and St Hugh’s College, Oxford)
  • Roy Jenkins (Abersychan County Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Margaret Thatcher (Grantham Girls’ School and Oxford)
  • Harold Wilson (Royds Hall Grammar School and Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Paul Bailey (novelist, Sir Walter St John’s Grammar School For Boys, Battersea and the Central School of Speech and Drama)
  • Joan Bakewell (BBC, Stockport High School for Girls and Cambridge)
  • Stan Barstow (novelist, Ossett Grammar School then an engineering firm)
  • Alan Bennett (playwright, Leeds Modern School and Exeter College, Oxford)
  • Michael Caine (actor, Wilson’s Grammar School in Camberwell, left at 16 to become a runner for a film company)
  • David Cannadine (historian, King Edward VI Five Ways School and Clare College, Cambridge)
  • Noel Coward (dance academy)
  • Terence Davies (film director, left school at 16 to work as a shipping office clerk)
  • A.L. Halsey (sociologist, Kettering Grammar School then London School of Economics)
  • Sheila Hancock (actress, Dartford County Grammar School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)
  • Tony Harrison (poet, Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University)
  • Noddy Holder (musician, Walsall Grammar school until it closed, then T. P. Riley Comprehensive School)
  • Ted Hughes (poet, Mexborough Grammar School and Pembroke College, Cambridge)
  • Lynda Lee-Potter (columnist, Leigh Girls’ Grammar School and Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Roy Porter (historian, Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell then Christ’s College, Cambridge)
  • Terence Stamp (actor, Plaistow County Grammar School then advertising)
  • John Sutherland (English professor, University of Leicester)
  • Dylan Thomas (poet, Swansea Grammar School)
  • Dame Sybil Thorndike (actress, Rochester Grammar School for Girls then the Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Philip Toynbee (communist writer, Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Colin Welland (actor, Newton-le-Willows Grammar School then Goldsmiths College)
  • Kenneth Williams (actor, Lyulph Stanley Boys’ Central Council School)
  • Raymond Williams (Marxist social critic, King Henry VIII Grammar School, Abergavenny and Trinity College, Cambridge)

Secondary modern / left school early

  • Alice Bacon (Labour MP in favour of comprehensive schools, Normanton Girls’ High School and Stockwell Teachers’ Training College)
  • Raymond Baxter (BBC presenter, Ilford County High School, expelled after being caught smoking)
  • Aneurin Bevan (major figure in the Labour Party, left school at 13)
  • Jim Callaghan (Labour Prime Minister 1976-79, Portsmouth Northern Secondary School, left school at 17)
  • Ossie Clarke (fashion designer, Beamont Secondary Technical School then Regional College of Art in Manchester)
  • Hugh Cudlipp (Howard Gardens High School for boys, left at 14)
  • Ian Jack (Dunfermline High School, left to become a journalist)
  • Clive Jenkins (left school at 14, Port Talbot County Boys’ School)
  • Stanley Matthews (cricketer, left school at 14 to play football)
  • Herbert Morrison (St Andrew’s Church of England School, left at 14 to become an errand boy)
  • Joe Orton (playwright, Clark’s College in Leicester)
  • John Osborne (playwright, Belmont College, expelled aged 16)
  • John Prescott (failed 11 plus, Grange Secondary Modern School and Hull University)
  • Alan Sillitoe (novelist, left school at 14)

Sociology

There are definitely more sociologists quoted in this book than in the previous two, especially in the very long central section devoted to class, which seems to have been the central obsession of sociologists in that era. Kynaston quotes what seems to be hundreds but is probably only scores of sociologists who produced a flood of reports throughout the 1940s and 50s, as they went off to live with miners or dockers or housewives, produced in-depth studies of the social attitudes of East End slums, the industrial north, towns in Wales or Scotland, and so on and so on.

The central social fact of the era was that about 70% of the British population belonged to the manual working class. And therefore, for me, the obvious political question was and is: why did this country, which was 70% ‘working class’, vote for Conservative governments from 1951 to 1964? What did Labour do wrong, in order to lose the votes of what should – on paper – have been its natural constituency?

This central question is nowhere asked or answered. Instead I found myself being frequently distracted by the extreme obviousness of some of the sociologists’ conclusions. Lengthy fieldwork and detailed statistical analysis result in conclusions like such as the working class are marked off from the ‘middle class’ by:

  • lower income
  • by taking wages rather than a salary
  • their jobs are often precarious
  • they are more likely to belong to trade unions
  • have distinctive accents
  • wear distinctive types of clothes (e.g. the cloth cap)
  • have poorer education
  • have distinct manners and linguistic usages (for example calling the mid-day meal dinner instead of lunch)

Other revelations include that the children of working class parents did less well at school than children of middle-class parents, and were less likely to pass the 11-plus, that rugby league is a northern working class sport compared with the middle-class sport of rugby union, that cricket was mostly a middle and upper middle class interest while football was followed obsessively by the proles, that the proles read the News of the World and the People rather than the Times and Telegraph.

As to the great British institution of the pub, in the words of the Truman’s website:

Saloon bars were sit-down affairs for the middle class, carpets on the floor, cushions on the seats and slightly more expensive drinks. You were served at the table and expected to dress smart for the occasion. You would also pay a premium on the drinks for this and usually there would be some entertainment be it singing, dancing, drama or comedy. You would generally be served bitter and in half pints.

Public bars, or tap rooms, remained for the working class. Bare wooden floorboards with sawdust on the floor, hard bench seats and cheap beer were on offer. You didn’t have to change out of your work wear so this was generally were the working class would go for after work and drink in pints, generally of mild.

Altogether this central section about class in all its forms takes some 150 pages of this 350-page book – it is a seriously extended analysis or overview of class in early 1950s Britain drawing on a multitude of studies and surveys (it’s almost alarming to see how very, very many studies were carried out by academic sociologists during this period, alongside the regular Mass-Observation surveys, plus ad hoc commercial surveys by Gallup and a number of less well-known pollsters).

And yet almost nothing from this vast body of work comes as a surprise: Most kids in grammar schools were upper-middle or middle class i.e. it’s a myth to say grammar schools help the working and lower working classes. IQ tests can be fixed by intensive coaching. The working classes liked football. The most popular hobbies (by a long way) were gardening for men, and knitting for women. Pubs were a place of comforting familiarity, where you would find familiar friends and familiar drinks and familiar conversations in familiar surroundings.

Compared to all the effort put into these studies, there is remarkably little that comes out of them.

Some of the sociologists mentioned or discussed in the text

  • Kenneth Allsop reported on Ebbw Vale
  • Michael Banton, author of numerous studies of race and ethnic relations
  • LSE sociologist Norman Birnbaum, criticising positive interpretations of the Coronation
  • Betting in Britain 1951 report by The Social Survey
  • Maurice Broady, sociologist who studied Coronation Day street parties (p.305)
  • Joanna Bourke, socialist feminist historian
  • Katherine Box, author of a 1946 study of cinema-going
  • British Institute of Public Opinion survey
  • Professor of cultural history, Robert Colls, author of When We Lived In Communities
  • Coal is our Life sociologial study of Featherstone in Yorkshire by Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Cliff Slaughter
  • Mark Clapson, historian of suburbia and Milton Keynes
  • David Glass author of Social Mobility in Britain (1954)
  • Geoffrey Gorer 1950-51 People survey of what class people saw themselves as belonging to
  • historian Richard Holt writing about football
  • 1949 Hulton Survey on smoking
  • Roy Lewis and Angus Maude authors of The English Middle Classes (1949)
  • F.M. Martin’s 1952 survey of parental attitudes to education in Hertfordshire
  • Mass-Observation 1949 survey, The Press and Its Readers
  • Mass-Observation survey 1947-8 on drinking habits
  • Mass-Observation survey 1951 on drunkenness in Cardiff, Nottingham, Leicester and Salford
  • Peter Townsend, social researcher (p.118)
  • Margaret Stacy studied Banbury (p.136)
  • T.H. Pear author of English Social Differences (1955)
  • Hilde Himmelweit study of four grammar schools in London
  • Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy (1957) which reminisces about working class Hunslet
  • sociologist Madeline Kerr’s five-year study The People of Ship Street in Liverpool (1958)
  • Tony Mason, football historian
  • Leo Kuper vox pops from Houghton in Coventry
  • John Barron Mays’ study of inner-city Liverpool in the early 1950s
  • Ross McKibbin author of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1955
  • Gavin Mellor research into football crowds in the north-west 1946-62
  • Peter Miskell’s study of the cimema in Wales
  • John Mogey, author of a study of the Jolly Waterman pub in St Ebbe’s, a suburb of Oxford
  • Alison Ravetz, author if a study of the model Quarry Hill estate in Leeds
  • Doris Rich authored a study of working men’s clubs in Coseley
  • James Robb, author of a study of Bethnal Green in the late 1940s
  • Elizabeth Robert conducted extensive interviews in north-west England into education (p.161)
  • Robert Roberts, author of The Classic Slum (1971) about Salford either side of the war
  • Rowntree and Lavers, author of the study English Life and Leisure
  • Alice Russell, historian of occupational welfare
  • sociologist Mike Savage (pp.148, 159)
  • American sociologist Edward Shils
  • Brian Simon, communist teacher then at Leicester University
  • Eliot Slater and Moya Woodside interviewed 200 servicemen just as the war ended about education
  • 1953 report on Southamptons’s housing estates
  • Peter Stead, author of a study of Barry in south Wales
  • Avram Taylor, historian of working class credit
  • Philip Vernon, professor of Educational Psychology at London University’s Institute of Education
  • John Walton, historian of Blackpool landladies
  • Michael Young, author of Is This the Classless Society (1951) among many others
  • Ferdynand Zweig, wide-ranging sociological investigator of the post war years

As far as I could see all of these studies were focused on the working class, their hobbies, activities, beliefs and attitudes – as well as an extended consideration of what ‘community’ meant to them. This latter was meant to help the town planners who agonised so much about trying to create new ‘communities’ in the new estates and the new towns, and so on – but two things are glaringly absent from the list of topics.

One is sex. Not one of the researchers mentioned above appears to have made any enquiries into the sex lives of their subjects. Given our modern (2019) obsession with sex and bodies, it is a startling omission which, in itself, speaks volumes about the constrained, conservative and essentially private character of the time.

(There are several mentions of homosexuality, brought into the public domain by several high-profile prosecutions of gays for soliciting in public toilets, which prompted a) righteous indignation from the right-wing press but b) soul searching among liberal politicians and some of the regular diarists Kynaston features, along the lines of: why should people be prosecuted by the law for the way God made them?)

Secondly, why just the working class? OK, so they made up some 70% of the population, but why are there no studies about the behaviour and belief systems of, say, architects and town planners? Kynaston quotes critics pointing out what a small, inbred world of self-congratulatory back-scratchers this was – but there appears to be no study of their educational backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices – or of any other middle-class milieu.

And this goes even more for the upper classes. What about all those cabinet ministers who went to Eton and Harrow and Westminster? Did no one do a sociological study of private schools, or of the Westminster village or of the posh London clubs? Apparently not. Why not?

And this tells you something, maybe, about sociology as a discipline: that it consists of generally left-wing, middle-class intellectuals and academics making forays into working class territory, expeditions into working class lives as if the working class were remote tribes in deepest New Guinea. The rhetoric of adventure and exploration which accompanies some of the studies is quite comic, if you read it in this way. As is the way they then report back their findings in prestigious journals and articles and books and win prizes for their bravery as if they’ve just come back from climbing Everest, instead of spending a couple of weeks in Middlesborough chatting to miners.

It’s only right at the end of the 150 or so pages of non-stop sociological analysis of ‘the working classes’ that you finally get some sociologists conceding that they are not the solid communities of socialist heroes of the revolution that so many of these left wingers wanted them to be: that in fact, many ‘working class’ communities were riven by jealousies, petty feuds and a crushing sense of snobbery. Umpteen housewives are quoted as saying that so-and-so thought she was ‘too good’ for the rest of us, was hoity-toity, told her children not to play with our kids etc. other mums told researchers they instructed their children not to play with the rough types from down the road.

People turned out to be acutely aware of even slight differences of behaviour or speech and drew divisive conclusions accordingly. The myth of one homogenous ‘working class’ with common interest turns out to be just that, a myth. THis goes some way to answering my question about why 70% of the population did not all vote for the workers’ party, far from it.

Above all, what comes over very strongly in the voices of ordinary people, is the wish to be left alone, to live and let live, and for privacy – to be allowed to live in what Geoffrey Gorer summed up as ‘distant cordiality’ with their neighbours.

‘You don’t get any privacy in flats,’ declared Mrs Essex from number 7 Battersea Church Road  (p.339).

Contrary to the ‘urbanists’, like Michael Young, who wanted to help working class communities remain in their city centres, large numbers of the ‘working classes’ were about to find themselves forced (by the ‘dispersionists’, the generation of high-minded, left-wing planners and architects who Kynaston quotes so extensively and devastatingly, p.340) to move into windy new estates miles from anywhere with no shops or even schools. Those that did remain near their old communities found themselves forced into high-rise blocks of flats with paper-thin walls and ‘shared facilities’ next to new ‘community centres’ which nobody wanted and nobody used and were quickly vandalised. It is a bleak picture.

Love/hate

Lindsay Anderson (b.1923) was ‘a British feature film, theatre and documentary director, film critic, and leading light of the Free Cinema movement and the British New Wave’ (Wikipedia).

But in Kynaston’s opinion, Anderson’s 10-minute film O Dreamland, shot in the Margate amusement park of the same name, ‘marked the start of a new, increasingly high-profile phase in the long, difficult, love-hate relationship of the left-leaning cultural elite with the poor old working class, just going about its business and thinking its own private, inscrutable thoughts (p.220).

Here it is, disapproval and condescension dripping from every frame.

Lady authors

For some reason women authors seem more prominent in the era than male authors. It was easy to compile a list of names which recurred and whose works I really ought to make an effort to familiarise myself with.

  • Jean Rhys b.1890 (private school and RADA)
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 (home schooled by her father, a house-master at Harrow School)
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 (private school and art school)
  • Catherine Cookson b.1906 (left school at 14 to take a job as a laundress at a workhouse)
  • Barbara Pym b.1913 (private school and Oxford)
  • Doris Lessing b.1919 (private school till she left home at 15)
  • Lorna Sage b.1943 (grammar school and Durham)
  • Sue Townshend b.1946 (secondary modern South Wigston High School, left school at 14)

Links

Austerity Britain: Smoke in the Valley, 1948–51 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contained two books:

This is a review, or notes on, book two of volume one, Austerity Britain: Smoke in The Valley, which covers the years 1948 to 1951 i.e. from the inauguration of the National Health Service on 5 July 1948 to Labour’s defeat in the October 1951 general election.

In 1940 Somerset Maugham published a collection of short stories titled The Mixture As BeforeSmoke in the Valley continues with the mixture exactly as before, carrying right on with exactly the same approach as its predecessor, mixing daily diary entries from the core of housewives, teachers and minor civil servants which he used in the first book, along with notes and memoirs of more senior political figures involved in the big issues of the day, and the third element is the reports and findings of ‘experts’ – the observers of Mass Observation, and reports and papers by economists and sociologists.

The book continues seamlessly on from its predecessor, with no preface or introduction, the opening paragraphs leaping straight in to describe the opening ceremony of the first Olympic Games held after the war, in London. This took place on Thursday 29 July 1948, only three weeks after the National Health Service came into operation – a celebration of health following straight on from a recognition of the nation’s massive unhealth.

The few pages about the Olympics lead onto a description of that year’s Bank Holiday weekend with trippers heading to the warm seaside, then onto the way the holiday was marked by some of the earliest race riots in England, starting in Liverpool white gangs attacked an Indian restaurant and then groups of blacks in the street. Then Kynaston describes Don Bradman playing his last Test match at the Oval on 14 August, then we’re on to Nella Last, housewife in Barrow, queueing for rationed food and grumbling, and then a consideration of that evening’s wireless programmes on the BBC Light Programme and then onto the first professional win, a few weeks later, by the 12-year-old Wunderkind jockey, Lester Piggott.

Thus the opening pages declare that it will follow A World to Build in being a social history of the period, which follows the people’s priorities i.e. sport and food, and that the dominating note is the people’s experience of austerity, dinginess and impoverishment, mental and physical. As Gladys Langford, a schoolteacher in North London, complains:

Streets are deserted, lighting is dim, people’s clothes are shabby, and their tables are bare,

But as winter 1948 turned to spring 1949 rationing, for the first time, began to ease off. All consumer goods were still expensive, but there was a ‘bonfire of restrictions,’ supervised by the young and canny Harold Wilson, President of the Board of Trade, who knew how much good that catchphrase and the public ending of some ration restrictions would do his own political career. In April 1949, after seven years, sweets came off the ration (though there was such a burst of demand, that they went back on in August).

Domestically, a major ideological struggle opened up within the Labour Party between the ‘consolidators’ who thought most of its work had been done by 1948, and the ‘continuers’, led by Nye Bevan, who thought there was much left to do, though they were a little short on the details of what.

Iron and steel nationalisation proved the last and most difficult of the nationalisations to carry out, but the book powerfully conveys the sense, even among its own activists and think tank wonks, that the Labour government had run out of steam and ideas.

I learned that the NHS almost immediately went over budget, revealing the previously unsuspected depths of poverty and ill health throughout Britain.

The Cold War deepened with the establishment, in April 1949, of NATO as an explicitly anti-Soviet alliance.

The fundamental economic weakness of Britain was exposed by the Devaluation crisis when the pound sterling was devalued from $4.03 to $2.80 in 19 September 1949. Britain had to negotiate a loan from the U.S. which we were still paying off at the beginning of this (the 21st) century.

Kynaston paints a vivid picture of how it felt to be living in Britain during these years, though – in terms of history – I could have done with a clearer explanation of why – really clearly laying out the economic fundamentals of the weakness of sterling and the need for all products to be chanelled into an export drive which left pitifully little left for domestic consumers. I deduced this from the book, but it was nowhere really explained.

The cast

As well as continuing with the well-known voices from book one such as the housewives Nella Last, Vere Hodgson, Marian Raynham, Judy Haines and the author of a regular ‘Letter to America’, Mollie Panter-Downes, we are introduced to new members of the cast, including:

  • Michael Blakemore, Australian actor
  • Stewart Dalton, grew up on a council estate in Sheffield
  • Ian Dury, catching polio in Southend open air swimming pool aged 7
  • Alec Cairncross, stern adviser to Harold Wilson
  • Valeie Gisborne, 16-year-old employee who goes on a Leicester clothing factory outing
  • Cynthia Gladwyn, diarist
  • Frankie Howerd, up and coming comedian
  • Harold Hamer, President of the Association of Headmasters, Headmistresses, and Matrons of Approved Schools
  • Evelyn S. Kerr of Gidea Park, Essex
  • John Mays, sociologist
  • Paul Vaughan, BBC science broadcaster

among many more.

Culture high and low

One of the joys of the book is the happy acceptance of low or popular culture placed right next to the Big Political Issues. Thus we learn that Noddy Goes To Toyland, the first of the Noddy stories, was published in late 1949. On the third Monday of 1950, at 1.45pm on the Light programme, Listen With Mother began.

Here’s an example of Kynaston’s strategy of interweaving high and low: He starts a section with a summary and brief analysis of the 1949 film The Blue Lamp, which helped to make young Dirk Bogarde a star – before moving on to consider the results of a number of sociological studies carried out at the time into crime rates, and the best form of policing – before naturally segueing into something that was considered then and ever since as a major brake on crime, National Service. Between 1945 and 1960 some 2.5 million men were called up. Why? To police the British Empire, although many of them, when they saw what it amounted to, i.e. repressing native movements for independence, came back as fierce critics.

This gives an idea of how the text flows fluently and easily from one topic to the next, from the ‘trivial’ to the weighty – carrying you effortlessly through brief summaries of the political, economic, social and cultural highlights and issues of the day.

However, the obvious risk is that the whole thing, immensely lengthy and stuffed with anecdote and story though it is, nonetheless comes over as superficial. As mentioned above, despite reading 650 pages of detail I don’t really understand why Britain’s economy remained so weak for so long after the war, or why rationing continued for so long.

Similarly, the little section on National Service is interesting, but there is nothing at all about the massive events of the independence of India/Pakistan (15 August 1947) or Israel (14 May 1948). I appreciate that this is a history of Britain but there must have been some domestic response, from British Jews, say, or the politicians and civil servants involved. But events from the empire are glossed over in almost complete silence.

More social sciencey

Also, having started off in the same vein as its predecessor, I think Smoke in the Valley betrays a noticable shift in content i.e. the nature of the contributors.

In this volume there felt to be more material from and about ‘experts’ than in the first book, from- for example – a steady stream of contemporary economists and, in particular, summaries of more polls and surveys – from his central and abiding source of information about attitudes, Mass-Observation, but also from new polling companies such as Gallup, or Research Services Ltd run by Mark Abrams.

Thus we hear a lot from Ferdynand Zweig, a Polish émigré sociologist, who did extensive fieldwork for a series of books whose findings Kynaston liberally quotes, namely Labour, Life and Poverty (1948), Men in the Pits (1948), The British Worker (1952) and Women’s Life and Labour.

Other sociologists and social scientists quoted and referenced include:

  • Norah M. Davis, University of London psychologist, 1946 study of 400 building workers
  • Allan Flanders, author of The System of Industrial relations in Great Britain
  • Geoffrey Thomas of The Social Survey, author of Incentives in Industry
  • Stanislas Wellisz, industrial sociologist
  • the Acton Society Trust
  • Coal is Our Life (1956) by sociologists Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques, Clifford Slaughter
  • Hilde Himmelweit’s study of 13 and 14-year-old boys at state schools
  • K.C. Wiggans, author of a 1950 survey of life and living conditions in Wallsend, Newcastle
  • The 1948 sociological study of Coventry carried out by Birmingham University

The main point

Maybe this reflects the way that, if the period 1945-48 was about rebuilding a ruined society, 1948 to 1951 was much more about trying to rebuild a ruined economy.

If the lasting impression of A World to Build is of rationing, austerity and impoverishment, the dominant theme of this volume is the failure of planning and investment. As he introduces this theme Kynaston refers repeatedly to Correlli Barnett’s scathing indictment of the post-war government, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, published in 1986.

The general idea is that in every conceivable way the British government muffed the opportunity to rethink and retool Britain for her role in the post-war world. All the senior figures in the Labour Goverment agreed that Britain needed a seat at the top table, needed a nuclear capability, must cling on to her empire. This resulted in the cost of Britain fighting to repress small wars of independence around the globe (Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Kenya – though none of these feature in the book) and led to decades of self-delusion.

Economically, in about 1950 Britain had a window of opportunity to systematically invest in its industry and infrastructure, but catastrophically failed. While Germany and Japan rebuilt their manufacturing sector from scratch, while the French embarked on a well-funded programme to make its railways the best in Europe, the Labour government nationalised the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ and then chronically failed to invest – in manufacturing, in railways or roads, in telecommunications or higher education.

The clash between the actual strength of the economy, and politicians’ delusions as to Britain’s role in the world issue, was highlighted when the Korean War broke out.

As soon as the government heard about it, all the Labour ministers lined up as one to immediately support the USA, and what became the UN response, to Korean aggression. The Labour government saw that, in the environment of the worsening Cold War, Britain needed to show unflinching solidarity with America, but also that by leaping in to support South Korea, Britain maintained the impression that it was still a global player with global interests to protect.

But critics at the time and ever since have wondered whether the money that was then redirected into war production (the MoD budget doubled as a result of the Korean War), and for the next three years, came at exactly the wrong time and delayed or derailed the investment which was so badly needed in home infrastructure.

The problems of domestic industry are exemplified in the fascinating little section on Britain’s motor industry which – despite all the bad things I grew up hearing about it in the 1970s – back in the post-war decade was still the largest car exporter in the world. It was fascinating to read about the plants of the different motor manufacturers in Dagenham, Luton, Cowley and so on, the particular brands of cars they made, and the oddities and shortcomings of the various owners and managing directors.

These are indicative of the way the failure of government to invest in new infrastructure went hand in hand with the pitiful amateurism to be found in lots of British industry, which was led by sons or relatives of founders, or chaps who went to the right school, or were members of the right gold club, a tendency raised to a rule in the stuffy and parochial world of the City of London.

Away from the housewives and films and FA Cup Finals, at a deeper level, when he looks at the economy, government, industry and finance, Kynaston paints a grim picture of the start of the Long Decline which lasted well into the 1970s, arguably into the 1980s.

Writers

Quite a few writers were quoted in the previous volume. In this one we hear for the first time from:

  • Alan Sillitoe b.1928 – author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
  • Hunter Davies b.1936 – author, journalist and broadcaster, grew up in Carlisle
  • Walter Greenwood b.1903 in Salford, famous for Love on the Dole
  • Norman Hunter, author of the hit play Waters of the Moon

Related links

Austerity Britain: A World to Build 1945–48 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories (to date; the plan is to take them up to 1979) have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contains two ‘books’:

Should one review the portmanteau volume – Austerity Britain (692 pages long in its current Bloomsbury paperback edition) – or the two ‘books’ it contains? I’ve chosen the latter option, because each of the ‘books’ is so dense and packed with information that they require separate posts.

Approach

What makes the books so delightful and addictive is that they are an oral history. Rather than the stats and graphs of an economic history, or the acts and votes of a political history, or the treaties and negotiations of a diplomatic history, Kynaston’s account quotes at length from diaries, letters, journals and accounts kept by the widest range of people alive during the period, as they react to events large and small, national, international and parochial.

Fairly regularly he stops to consider this or that ‘issue’ – rationing, nationalisation, town planning – in what you might call the traditional historical way, describing key publications or speeches in that area. But then he swiftly returns to the more gossipy main stream of his approach, to quote housewives, workers, local officials.

The result is to be led through the key events and debates of the period, but to see it overwhelmingly in human terms, in the words of the people who shed and led debate but also the reactions of the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Some of the voices

The Famous

  • Neil Kinnock, future leader of the Labour Party, aged 3 when the war ends in 1945
  • Patrick Stewart, 5, moved along by a policeman for singing outside a polling booth in 1945
  • Bill Wyman, bassist with the Rolling Stones, starts grammar school, 8
  • Glenda Jackson, aged 9 when the war ends, starts grammar school in 1947
  • Alan Bennett, 11, spent VE Day in Guildford
  • Kenneth Tynan, drama critic to be, now Birmingham schoolboy, 18
  • Humphrey Lyttleton, 24
  • ultra-royalist James Lees-Milne, diarist, architectural historian, worked for the National Trust, 36
  • Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon literary magazine, 41
  • Noel Coward, playwright, aged 45
  • J.B. Priestley, novelist and radio broadcaster, 50
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, 53, commenting on the insanity of the atom bomb
  • Harold Nicholson, British diplomat, author, diarist and politician, 58
  • Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, politician and diarist, 58

There are hundreds more but this gives a flavour. Kinnock is quoted as remembering the prefab house his parents moved into. Bill Wyman remembers how going to grammar school in 1947 cut him off from his working class roots, though the boys at his new school teased him for being poor. Lees-Milne is very posh and quoted liberally throughout with his generally negative reactions to the Labour government.

Connolly, as a magazine editor and essayist, wrote reams of material, but Kynaston quotes him, fascinatingly, commenting on the way the great wall of left-wing / communist solidarity among artists, writers, poets and so on during the 1930s simply evaporated after the war and had quite disappeared by 1947. The problem was that they finally had a ‘socialist’ government and there wasn’t a man or woman in ‘the movement’ who wasn’t bitterly disappointed at the reality (p.235). The same sentiment is expressed by George Orwell, who in his long essay, The Lion and the Unicorn (1942), wrote confidently about the general public’s swing to the Left and the notion of central planning but, by 1946, had become disillusioned (pp.45, 173).

All this was exacerbated by the Berlin Airlift, the coup in Czechoslovakia, and the general start of the Cold War. I hadn’t realised that this led to actual legislation banning car carrying communists from public office, with the ruin of many a career.

There are also extensive quotes from key players in politics, from the diaries or letters or speeches of men like Clement Attlee (Labour Prime Minister), Hugh Gaitskell (Minister of Fuel and Power), Aneurin Bevan (Minister of Health overseeing the creation of the National Health Service), Ernest Bevin (Foreign Secretary who oversaw the independence of India, Israel etc), Herbert Morrison (Deputy Prime Minister), Stafford Cripps (Chancellor of the Exchequer).

Slowly you get a feel for their personalities, achievements and disagreements. Around them swim all kinds of minor figures, private secretaries, and MPs, and policy makers such as Michael Young, who wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto (Let Us Face The Future), coined the term meritocracy and went on to play a key role in setting up the Consumer Association and the Open University.

The Obscure

Kynaston takes his lead from Mass Observation, set up in 1937 by three Cambridge graduates, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Mass Observation aimed to:

record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events. (Wikipedia)

Kynaston relies heavily on material from the M-O archive now held at the University of Sussex. This takes many forms. M-O carried out tailored surveys on specific issues throwing up statistical results of the numbers in favour or against particular policies. Their contributors often reported on conversations overheard on the street, on the buses or tube, at the theatre etc. And other contributors kept detailed diaries. The most famous of these was Nella Last (1889-1968), who wrote over two million words about everything she died, heard and observed, from 1939 to 1966, making her one of the single largest contributors to M-O.

But Kynaston quotes from a large number of other diarists and recorders, including:

  • Michael Burns, grew up in Tolworth
  • Lawrence Daly, coalminer
  • Alice ‘Judy’ Haines, a young married mother of two living in Chingford
  • Anthony Heap, a middle-aged local government officer from St Pancras
  • Mary King, retired teacher
  • Gladys Langford, deserted by her husband, living alone in the Woodstock Hotel
  • Ernest Loftus, headmaster of Barking Abbey School
  • Edith Palmer, ex-pat’s daughter, late-20s, arriving in England from Kenya
  • Mrs Michael Pleydell-Bouverie who spent three years on behalf of the Daily Mail speaking to ‘the Women of Britain’ about homes and housing
  • Kenneth Preston, a middle-aged English teacher at Keighley Grammar School
  • Marian Raynham, a housewife from Surbiton
  • Henry St John, son of a sweetshop owner, living in Bristol
  • Sir Raymond Streat, head of the Cotton Board
  • Rose Uttin, housewife from Wembley
  • Mrs Madge Waller

Post-war issues

So what do these people comment on and discuss? A huge array of issues and problems which faced Britain right from the moment war ended (Victory in Europe 8 May 1945, Victory in Japan and the final end of the war, 15 August). As stated, Kynaston is not a conventional historian of diplomacy or economics. Issues appear insofar as they impinged on the minds of his huge cast of Britons. None of them are pursued in detail and, after 300 pages, I realised that he rarely comes to a conclusion about any of them. Instead we are presented with a variety of opinions, from top politicians and expert down to housewives and coalminers – and then he moves on.

Domestic affairs

  • Rationing
  • The General Election 5 July 1945
  • The Labour government’s attempts to:
    • nationalise industry
    • set up a National Health Service (launched, after much struggles with the doctors, on 5 July 1948)
  • The housing crisis
  • Education  (everyone accepted the 11-plus, the division between grammar and technical schools, and nobody touched the public schools which were [and are], according to Kynaston, ‘the single most important source of political, social and economic privilege’, p.153)

International affairs

  • Surrender of Germany, suicide of Hitler
  • Atom bombs dropped on Japan
  • Berlin Blockade and airlift
  • June 1947 Marshall Plan
  • February 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia

But most of the people Kynaston quotes have little or no interest in international affairs. After initial relief that the war is over, and then shock at the revelation of the atom bomb, most people sink back into their customary indifference to international affairs (and to politics generally).

Britain might as well not have an empire at all. The independence of Israel and India/Pakistan are not mentioned. Decades ago I read the comment by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, that the tragedy of the British was that all their history took place abroad – by which he meant in the empire.

One of the biggest aspects of the book is the way the British Empire is almost completely absent from it. The people Kynaston quotes are struggling to make ends meet, to find somewhere to live, find a job, and then find food to eat. He quotes a survey of 2,000 adults made in 1948 which revealed that only 49% could name a single British colony. The majority of those surveyed could not name a single British colony.

And so, since so few people knew or cared about the empire, Kynaston devotes much space to popular radio programmes (Woman’s Hour, first broadcast on 7 October 1946 on the BBC’s Light Programme, the popular comedy It’s That Man Again), to the very slow spread of television (only 50,000 sets in 1945). There is more about the Grand National than there is about Gandhi, more about Stanley Matthews (the footballer) than Stalin.

In this book nobody travels abroad (nobody can afford it) but plenty of people have a summer holiday at Margate or Morecambe or at Billy Butlin’s new holiday camps (first one at Skegness in 1936).

Kynaston gives us the results of the key test matches and FA Cup Finals for 1945, 46, and 47, as well as the Epsom Derby, and reports from greyhound races and boxing matches – while all kinds of high-minded middle-class commentators lament that the average working man seems more interested in a pint, a packet of fags and the sports results than he does about the Iron Curtain.

The intellectuals and the masses

This reflects what, for me, is the main impression of the book, which is the enormous divide between the relatively small educated liberal intelligentsia – the policy makers and politicians and thinkers and writers and architects and planners – and the vast majority of the population, still very working class, often illiterate or, as Kynaston puts it:

the profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon (p.267)

Kynaston shows how all of the 1945 Labour government’s policies were not just controversial but opposed by large number of people, even the working people the Labour Party claimed to represent. For example, efforts to pass laws guaranteeing the trade unions representatives on boards of the new nationalised industries (a policy followed in Germany) were rejected by the unions. Why? Because they preferred to negotiate wages from a position of freedom and strength (p.229) It was a mindset which, arguably, crippled British industry for generations.

Similarly, it is fascinating to read how many ordinary people (not just the usual suspects, Tory MPs and toff writers), really hard core working class people, were suspicious of, or actively against, the welfare state, the new system of national insurance and the National Health Service.

The gaping chasm between well-meaning left-leaning university-educated intellectuals and ‘the masses’ is probably best demonstrated in the area of housing. Vast amounts of Britain’s housing stock was destroyed by German bombing. But a fair percentage of what survived was desperately rundown slums, particularly in the industrial cities – London’s East End, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and so on contained acres of slums, houses with no running water, gas or electricity, millions of people living with no indoor toilet.

The chasm comes about when the planners and architects put their heads together to solve the problem. There was debate and argument at all levels, but roughly speaking, people wanted houses with a little garden of their own, and the planners wanted to put them in blocks of flats. People wanted their bombed out city centres to be restored to how they were before the war. Urban planners and go-ahead young architects wanted, on the contrary, to demolish what old buildings were left, and create sweeping new town centres, dominated by pedestrian precincts and car parks, surrounded by ring roads. As he writes of the brave new plan devised to demolish and rebuild central Plymouth:

There was little or no local consultation, with all objections overruled. (p.36)

The opening of the book is devoted to arguments about how to rebuild Britain and, through the thicket of specific details about new schemes for Plymouth or Hull, one gets a really clear feel for the divide between those who know best what the people want, and the people themselves – not least, of course, because Kynaston’s whole book is devoted to the people’s voices. He quotes one of the founders of Mass Observation, Tom Harrison:

worried most by the way that planners and others associated with the matter talked as if they were winning over the general public when they were only winning over each other. He had never met any group of people who ‘scratched each other’s backs’ more than planners did. (p.47)

In Bristol the local retail association organised a poll which showed that only 400 were in favour of the new Broadmead shopping centre, while 13,000 opposed it. The planners ignored this and all other opposition, and went ahead and built it.

This Great Divide, this sense of a mass population profoundly alienated from their lords and masters, grows as the book progresses from the May 1945 General Election through to its end point, 5 July 1948, the day the National Health Service was inaugurated. Intellectuals at the time were agonisingly aware of it. Various papers and reports guesstimated that ‘the thinking minority’ ranged from 20% down to a mere 5% of the population (p.55). How could they break out of their bubble to really engage with the great unwashed (an expression coined around 1830 by the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton)?

Ronald

Maybe the single biggest surprise is the couple of pages devoted to the four months spent by American actor, Ronald Reagan at Elstree Studios making a war movie called The Hasty Heart (pp.314-315). Reagan was appalled by the filthy London smogs and rundown hotels, and – although he went out of his way to praise the director and all the other technicians he worked with – it was a grim first-hand sight of socialism in action which, in his view, amounted to stoppages dictated by the militant trade unions, six-hour queues at hospitals, gaunt impoverished passersby and mile after mile of slate-roofed council houses in the rain.

So far so anecdotal: but Kynaston goes on to say that Reagan himself, writing twenty years later in the 1970s, pointed to this trip to Britain – to seeing the ‘natural’ economic order of free markets replaced by rationing and state interference at every level, and the resulting lack of all basic facilities in a culture dominated by the petty tyrannies of trade union shop stewards and local government officials – as a defining moment in his journey to the Right.

So that, considering Reagan’s centrality to world politics during the 1980s and the role he played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, of communism, and even of full-blooded socialism as a viable political programme, there’s a case for saying that these few months in rainy Hertfordshire changed the history of the world.

General impoverishment

Kynaston devotes pages to political debates about Marshall Aid, about the end of Lend-Lease, about the currency crisis and devaluation of sterling, and so on.

But by far the biggest and most enduring subject of the book is RATIONING, the rationing of food and clothing, which not only continued after the war, but got worse, a lot worse. From the poshest in the land down to a variety of housewives, Kynaston’s quotes convey the sheer numbing crushing effect of days and months and year after year of shortages of meat, bacon, milk, sugar, butter, even of bread.

Demobbed soldiers, or visitors from abroad (including the American playwright Tennessee Williams), or British children arriving in Britain back from the colonies (Cliff Richard arriving from India in 1948, aged 8) all noticed how pale and underfed the population looked. For years after the war the gas supply was weak and the electricity was turned off at certain times of day. Witnesses like Harold Nicholson testify that even in the best London clubs, the food came in minuscule portions and was barely edible.

And then in February 1948 the population was afflicted by the coldest winter of the 20th century. Young Roy Hattersley remembers sledging down the middle of usually busy streets (p.199) but thousands of the elderly and the infirm died. And millions had to dig a path from their back doors to their outside toilets.

There are thousands of wonderful anecdotes, gems and insights throughout the book – but the predominating image is of impoverishment and endurance.

The queue for rationed food - symbol of post-war Britain

The queue for rationed food – symbol of post-war Britain

P.S. Obscure novelists

A lot of the people Kynaston quotes are, inevitably, writers, a self-selecting cohort since he is himself a writer dealing with written records which ‘writers’ dominate.

Your ears prick up at the famous ones (Graham Greene, Noel Coward, Doris Lessing) but he also introduces us to a cocktail party of less well-known writers from the period, a list which has the effect o making you realise how selective ‘literary history’ is, picking out the half dozen ‘serious’ writers from each era or decade, and letting plenty of other authors drop into obscurity.

It is one of the many many pleasures of the book to come across forgotten authors he mentions, and google them and toy with tracking down and reading their (mostly forgotten) works:

  • Ruby Mildred Ayres b.1881 – one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century
  • Ethel M. Dell b.1881 – author of over 30 popular romance novels
  • Naomi Jacob b.1884 – author and actress
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett b.1884 – novelist
  • Angela Thirkell b.1890 – author of a series of 19 novels set in Home Counties ‘Barsetshire’
  • James Lansdale Hodson b.1891 – journalist and novelist
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 – novelist and poet
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 – Irish novelist and short story writer
  • Mollie Panter-Downes b.1906 – novelist and writer of Letters from England for the New Yorker magazine
  • Pamela Hansford Johnson, Baroness Snow b.1912 – novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic
  • Denton Welch b.1915 – writer and painter
  • Sid Chaplin b.1916 coal miner who wrote novels about mining communities in the North-East
  • Joan Wyndham b.1921 – rose to literary prominence late in life through the diaries she had kept about her romantic adventures during the Second World War

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I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria @ the British Museum

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was ruler of the Assyrian Empire from 669 to about 630 BC. From his capital at Nineveh on the edge of present-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Ashurbanipal ruled a vast and diverse empire, reaching from upper Egypt, via the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (modern Cyprus, Israel Lebanon and Syria) and along a corridor either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Persian Gulf. During his reign he was probably the most powerful person on earth.

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

This blockbuster exhibition examines the life and times and cultural achievements and social context of Ashurbanipal’s rule alongside detailed profiles of the different kingdoms and cultures which he ruled over and exhaustive accounts of his numerous military campaigns.

Topics

The quickest way to give you a sense of the scope might be to list some of the headings which introduce different areas of the exhibition and displays:

  • Nineveh, a city without rival
  • The royal family
  • Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh
  • Aqueducts and canals (agriculture and pleasure gardens)
  • Training to be a king (featuring numerous lions hunts in which the king displays his mastery of the natural world)
  • The scholar king (in inscriptions he boasts of being able to read numerous languages)
  • Knowledge is power (his surprisingly large library)
  • Coronation
  • Assyria’s world domination (introducing the various kingdoms and people the empire ruled over)
    • The southern Levant
    • Babylonia
    • Elam
    • The kingdoms of Cyprus
    • The kingdom of Urartu
    • Western Iran
    • Aramaean kingdoms
    • Ashurbanipal at war
    • Ashurbanipal conquers Egypt
    • Trouble in the East (Urtak, king of Elam, invades Babylonia)
    • Sibling rivalry (with his older brother Shamash-shumu-ukin)
  • Retaliation (against Elam for its rebellion)
  • Order restored
  • The empire falls apart (after Ashurbanipal’s death)
  • Ashurbanipal’s fate (a mystery to this day)
  • Legend, discovery and revival (Victorian archaeologists uncover the key sites and ship statues and carvings back to the British Museum in London)
Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights

This is the first ever major exhibition to explore the life of Ashurbanipal in such depth and a dream come true for anyone interested in this period. Anyone familiar with the Assyrians knows that they were a strongly militaristic culture characterised, above all, by the immense statues of lions with the heads of bearded men. These tend to covered in cuneiform inscriptions which, when deciphered, amount to world class bragging about the emperor’s might and strength, king of kings, and then go on to give a long list of the emperor’s achievements.

Maybe even more famous are the numerous enormous friezes we have depicting the emperor on one of his countless lion hunts. Elsewhere in the British Museum (rooms 6, 7 and 8) you can walk along a corridor entirely lined by stone friezes depicting the lion hunt which was a central icon and symbol of Assyrian kingship. Why? Because the emperor’s role was to impose order on the world. The lion was the fiercest beast in the world. By beating it, by killing lions single handed (although surrounded by scores of courtiers and warriors) the emperor showed his fitness to rule and, symbolically, enacted the ordering of the world.

Both these types of imagery are familiar to anyone who knows a bit about the ancient Middle East.

Social history What is new and striking about the exhibition was a lot of the non-military social history. For example, the section on the immense library which Ashurbanipal assembled, and which led him to boast about his learning.  His library at Nineveh may have contained as many as 10,000 texts and the exhibition powerfully conveys this by displaying them in a massive glass wall divided into grids, each containing a cuneiform text, carved into a clay tablet, covering a wide range of subjects – astrology, medicine, legends and so on. Ashurbanipal claimed to be unlike his predecessors in that he could read, write and debate with expert scholars.

The canals of Nineveh Nearby is a section devoted to the orderly agriculture and watering of the capital city, conveyed via a big carving showing canals, tilled fields and a path leading to a gazebo with a happy looking emperor standing in it. Apparently it was Asurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib (mentioned in the Bible) who built the canals which watered Nineveh.

Clever lighting What brings this all alive is the clever use of lighting which animates bands of blue slowly colouring the canals, and of green, slowly colouring in the fields, and white indicating the path. The information panel tells us that all of these carvings and sculptures would have been brightly coloured. But the use of son et lumiere to animate the colouring was inspired.

Battle scenes The same goes for several of the battle panels. One of them is maybe 30 feet wide and depicts the Battle of Til-Tuba in 653 BC, as Ashurbanipal led an invasion of the kingdom of Elam. As with many of these battle panels, the figures are carved in horizontal bands, each of which tells a story, in this case the Elamites retreating in panic down a hill before triumphant Assyrians who drive them into a river.

There are information panels along the bottom of the long frieze picking out scenes, but there was also another display of lighting effects for a sequence of spotlights picked out a particular scene – not only picked it out but highlighted the silhouettes of the relevant figures – and then text was projected onto a blank part of the frieze explaining what was going on.

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition contains a number of maps and, in the main area you realise that the entire floor you are walking on is a schematic map of the Assyrian Empire.

There are several timelines, twenty of more large information panels and, of course, hundreds of smaller information panels relating to each of the 200 or so artefacts on display.

Partitions The exhibition is divided into different ‘rooms’ or areas by immense partitions on which are printed patterns and designs found on the tiled rooms of the emperor’s palace, abstract geometric patterns.

In fact these vast decorated partitions dominate the exhibition visually, much bigger than any one object on display, and encourage you to pay attention to the section of the show which focuses on Assyrian tiles and glazed bricks, explaining the evolution of their decorative patterns and styles.

If the central section focuses on Ashurbanipal’s military campaigns, with cases explaining the history and culture of each of the dozen or so areas which made up the empire, and then a series of displays about each of his major campaigns (against Egypt and Elam in particular), there are also plenty of more modest cases highlighting what we know about Assyrian religion, culture, design, even cookery – displaying ‘delicately carved ivories, extravagant metalwork, cosmetic vessels and gold ornaments’ – one case showing an enormous bronze cauldron decorated around the lip with what seem to be dragon heads.

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Criticism

Overall the exhibition layout is imaginative and over-awing, and the use of the light animations to bring old stone friezes to life is really inspiring.

However the curators make the same mistake they made with the Viking exhibition. A good number of the information labels are at waist height. When I went the exhibition was absolutely crammed. Imagine the crowd at a football stadium. It was impossible to process through it in sequential order because some display cases were simply unapproachable. Early on, there is a display of a characteristic battle relief, maybe 20 feet long by 7 or eight feet high. As usual it shows a series of incidents during a battle and it was accompanied by about ten informative and interesting panels picking out and explaining specific incidents.

But because they were at waist height, they were completely hidden by the crowd of twenty of more people in front of them. Whereas, there was plenty of space above the relief. Why not put the information panels above the objects where anybody can read them, instead of at waist height, where they are inevitably hidden?

The end

The final sections of the show peter out a bit, after the dense concentration of information and huge reliefs depicting his famous victories which dominate the centre.

I was fascinated to learn that we don’t know when Ashurbanipal died. Nobody knows whether he died of natural causes, was murdered or abdicated. The last public inscription about him dates from 638. His kingship may have ended as early as 631 or as late as 627 – there is no written record in the sources of Assyria or its neighbours.

We do know that Ashurbanipal was briefly succeeded by a son, then another one. The significant event was that in 626 a former general, Nabopolassar, claimed the throne of Babylon and started a war of independence which led to the entire empire unravelling. The Iranian Medes led by Cyaxares, joined Nabopolassar and their forces sacked the city of Ashur, home to Assyria’s chief deity. This alliance then marched on Nineveh, the beautiful city of canals and decorated palaces built up by Ashurbanipal’s forebears and himself – and sacked it, burning it to the ground.

The Victorian rediscovery

It was only in the 1840s that Victorian archaeologists began systematically to uncover the site of Nineveh, discovering the massive lions statues, thousands of clay tables covered in writing, and other treasures. Some of these treasures were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sparked a short-lived enthusiasm for Assyrian motifs on such things as tankards and dishes, and their use in jewellery and necklaces, a handful of which are on display here.

Until these discoveries, the reputation of the Assyrians and of Nineveh was taken from the Bible, where its rulers are depicted as gross, corrupt, Sybarites, who fully deserved their destruction by the Israelites’ jealous God.

The archaeological discoveries began to overthrow that old view and restore the more rounded view of Assyrian civilisation which, we like to think, we enjoy today.

War and destruction

The final section of the exhibition is staged in a long narrow corridor. It contains a timeline of modern archaeology (i.e. since the 1840s) and two short films.

One uses computer technology to match together aerial photos of the site of Nineveh as it appeared from the 1930s up to the present day, a rough square in a bend of the River Tigris. The camera, or point of view, slowly circles down from the high vantage point of early 20th century photos, spiralling down to show us how the site has changed and developed over the past eighty years or so, until we are at ground level looking up at the rather pitiful remains.

The second film features the head of the British Museum’s Iraq section explaining the scheme whereby archaeologists from Iraq are being brought to London and trained in various techniques, and then supported as they return to Iraq in the task of ongoing digging and preservation of that country’s heritage – the ‘Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme’.

(This isn’t exactly the same one, but covers the same scheme)

I couldn’t help noticing the world class irony here.

For the previous half hour I had been reading numerous inscriptions in which Ashurbanipal had his sculptors inscribe words describing how he not only defeated his enemies in Egypt or Elam, but annihilated them and their cities, leaving not a blade of grass standing, how he ransacked the tombs of their royal families, destroyed their monuments, killed their sheep and goats and left not an animal stirring in the barren wastelands he created.

This is the man who is being held up, not exactly for our admiration but for our awe, a man who destroyed and killed wantonly in pursuit of his worldview, namely that the known world should be ruled by a man like him, with his beliefs.

The irony being that two and a half thousand years later, another cohort of warriors seized control of this region, also convinced that they had a God-given right to rule, to impose their beliefs on all the inhabitants, and to destroy anything, any relics or remains of civilisations which they saw as infidel and blasphemous.

Difficult not to see a certain continuity of culture reaching across two and a half millennia.

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a second final thought. Many bien-pensant liberals, as well as hard core identity politicians and virtue warriors, think the British Museum is a guilt-filled testimony to the wholesale looting carried out by the British Empire, and that all of its artefacts, starting with the Elgin Marbles, should be returned to their countries of origin.

But if all of these objects had been in the Baghdad Museum in 2003 or the Mosul Museum in 2015, they would all have been looted or simply destroyed.

That doesn’t settle the debate about the Marbles or thousands of other objects, but these are the thoughts which the final section, all about the Iraq War and ISIS, leave you pondering.

Video

Here’s an excellent visual overview of the show from Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut (1979)

The most embarrassing thing to me about this autobiography, surely, is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me. (p.178)

This is Vonnegut’s ninth novel, published 27 years after his first, Player Piano (1952).

A hell of a lot had happened in those years – most of the 1950s, the entire 1960s and most of the 1970s – sex and drugs and rock and roll, the swinging sixties, hippies, glam rock, prog rock, punk – the Vietnam War with all its student protests segueing into the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement morphing into the Black Panthers and Black Power, the entire Space Age from Sputnik through the moon landings to the Space Shuttle, the oil crisis, Watergate and the discrediting of the American presidency.

Reading Vonnegut’s novels in sequence is like following him and his country on an enormous bender, and then waking up dazed and incredibly hungover the morning after.

A return to sobriety

That’s how reading Jailbird feels (at first, anyway). In comparison with the freaky experimentalism of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and of his most fragmented and experimental novel, Breakfast of Champions (1973) which comes complete with Vonnegut’s own illustrations – and unlike the knackered sci-fi of the dystopian novel Slapstick (1976), Jailbird seems like a return to sobriety and convention.

For example, unlike those three novels whose texts are split up into fragmented sections and paragraphs by asterisks or arrows, garnished with illustrations, packed with digressions, including the author’s speculations about his own characters – Jailbird is visually a return to convention, the prose arranged without gimmicks into consecutive paragraphs, themselves grouped into 23 normal-length chapters (unlike the page or half-page-long chapters of its predecessors). Jailbird looks like a normal book.

The long preface

And it does indeed turn out to be a much more conventional read, in tone, mood and style. This is signalled by the thirty-page preface.

Vonnegut hadn’t been shy of writing prefaces to his novels which, as the 60s turned into the 70s, had contained more and more personal, almost intimate, information (for example, about his mother’s suicide and his own depression).

In striking contrast to the ‘letting it all hang out’ approach of those introductions, the introduction to 1979’s Jailbird is strikingly serious and earnest. In tones close to that of a history book or journalistic feature, it recounts the story of the Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre, in which, in 1894, peaceful and mostly female protesters outside an iron works which had laid off their menfolk for rejecting a pay cut, were shot down by freelance ‘security men’ brought in from outside the state.

The link to the rest of the book is that one of the sons of the brutal Scottish immigrant who owned the iron works – Daniel McCone – who was, therefore, responsible for the massacre, is Alexander Hamilton McCone. Well-meaning and well educated Alexander had tried to intervene to break up the protest but is forced to watch the massacre take place, nonetheless.

This results in him withdrawing to live as a traumatised recluse cut off from society, from even his own wife and daughter, by an extreme stammer. His only company is a young boy, the son of the McCone family’s cook and chauffeur Walter F. Starbuck. In return for keeping him company, Alexander promises to send the lad to Harvard when he grows up.

And Jailbird turns out to be the story of Walter F. Starbuck’s life, as told by himself.

First person memoir

In this respect it is like the first-person memoirs which make up Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle and Slapstick. In all of these an ageing man (66 at the time of writing, p.47) looks back over his life from a current situation in which it is drawing to an end. Use of this retrospective point of view means the narrative can jump around from scene to scene, can set up expectations of the future, can signpost major incidents coming up numerous times before actually getting round to describing them.

And it leaves the narrator free to lard the text with his own comments, thoughts and interpretations, something Vonnegut was very inclined to do in those earlier books.

So this memoir or biography is being written by by Walter F. Starbuck.

Right on the first page he gives us the straightforward chronology of his life (just as he did the life of Billy Pilgrim on page one of Slaughterhouse-Five). He was born in 1913, went to Harvard in 1931, got his first government job in 1938. In 1945 he was sent to Germany ‘to oversee the feeding and housing of the American, British, French, and Russian delegations to the War Crimes Trials’ (p.51) and ends up spending four years in Germany.

In 1946 he married a Jewish translator he met in Germany and quickly had a son from whom he is estranged. In 1953 he was sacked from the federal government and ended up helping his wife with her interior decoration company throughout the 1960s. In 1970 he was offered a job in the Nixon White House, and in 1975 tried and convicted of involvement in the Watergate conspiracies, followed by early release from prison in 1977.

Somewhere in the blurbs for the book it says that this is Vonnegut’s Watergate novel but that is wildly misleading. That makes you think you’re going to be taken into the labyrinthine complexities of the Watergate conspiracies, meet the various bad guys in the Nixon administration, maybe there will be some thriller-style suspense and uncovering of new evidence.

Imagine how thrilling and exciting a write like Robert Harris would make a thriller about Watergate.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Jailbird is neither thrilling nor exciting, it is weird and – the temptation is to say ‘surreal’, but really it is nonsensical in the Edward Lear sense of putting nonsensical, non-sequitur and bizarre ideas together to see what effect they give.

RAMJAC Corps

Thus throughout the book we keep hearing that almost any company you can think of is being bought up by the huge and anonymous RAMJAC Corporation. It is only at the end of the book that we realise RAMJAC is run by one of Starbuck’s old girlfriends, in fact one of the only four women he’s ever loved, Mary Kathleen O’Looney. She lives as a bag lady on the streets of New York, wearing enormous black trainers in which she keeps all her legal documentation, and carrying six stuffed filthy bags around. She stinks, her hair is falling out and she is physically disgusting as Starbuck discovers the day after he is released from prison and a friend hails him in the street.

O’Looney hears his name, grabs hold of his hand, refuses to let go, and takes him down into her secret hideaway in a disused train station beneath Manhattan (to be precise, an abandoned locomotive repair shop beneath Grand Central Station). She reveals that she is the CEO of RAMJAC Corp and sends instructions by mail to the lawyer who administers her wishes under the pseudonym of Mrs Jack Graham. These are verified by including fingerprints of all her fingers and thumbs. This means that criminals who have learned about this system, try to kidnap her and cut off her hands in order to use the fingerprints to steal her money. This is not as paranoid as it sounds: one time she was staying in a hotel suite in Nicaragua waited on only by Mormons, the only people she trusts. She met a woman whose husband had just died of amoebic dysentry and put her up in her rooms, while she (Mary) went to make arrangements to ship the body home.

When she came back the Mormon had been murdered – and both her hands cut off and stolen (p.217).

In the couple of days after being released from prison Starbuck receives kindly treatment from a number of people – a prison guard, the chauffeur who brings him into Manhattan, a waiter at a restaurant, the owner of a deep fat frying joint, and so on.

Chatting to the disgusting, half-bald, filthy O’Looney he mentions their names only to have her straightaway write a letter to her executive lawyer, Arpad Leen, instructing that these eight people (including Starbuck himself) be immediately made Vice Presidents of various divisions of RAMJAC Corps, and that’s how the book ends, with a party attended by this random selection of eight guys who now find themselves executives in a massive American corporation.

Starbuck himself ends up as Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, along with Clyde Carter the prison guard, Cleveland Lawes the limousine driver, Dr Israel Edel the night clerk at the Arapahoe Hotel, Frank Ubriaco owner of the Coffee Shop who once deep-fat-fried his own hand when his expensive watch fell off into the fryer and on impulse he reached in to get it – all Vice presidents of one bit or another of the multinational corporation.

Hopefully, this summary of the RAMJAC/O’Looney thread of the novel shows you that this is not a book about Watergate, nor a thriller, nor really a conventional novel at all.

Satire or ridicule?

And it’s not really a satire on corporate America. A satire usually aims to undermine its target by making accurate, insightful hits on it. Inventing the idea that the most powerful corporation in America is run by a baglady hiding out in a derelict station under Manhattan isn’t really satirising corporate America, it is ridiculing it. This book – maybe all Vonnegut’s books – are less satires than ridicules.

In his view the whole world is so absurd and nonsensical that ridiculing it is the only rational response – including ridiculing the very idea of being a writer and writing novels (which is why I think I like Breakfast of Champions best of the seven novels I’ve read). There is no subtlety or insight to it.

I will say further, as an officer of an enormous international conglomerate, that nobody who is doing well in this economy ever even wonders what is really going on.
We are chimpanzees. We are orangutans. (p.123)

This is not satire. It is the despairing ridicule of a man who has given up trying to understand.

Watergate

The Watergate theme, such as it is, is limited to the following. Starbuck tells us that back in the 1950s he was called on to testify about communists in government. Before the famous House Un-American Activities Committee Starbuck lists a number of colleagues who he knows were communists in the 1930s buthave changed their views and present no threat to the American people. Among these he mistakenly includes a colleague named Leland Clewes. Clewes in fact had never been a communist and tries to clear his name.

Starbuck explains that the young assistant to Senator Joe McCarthy, one Richard Milhous Nixon, then spends two years hounding and investigating Clewes and eventually getting him convicted and sent to jail. This drew Nixon into the public eye. In a roundabout way, then, Starbuck takes the blame for having made Nixon’s career. This is why, a long time later, Starbuck finds himself offered a job at the Nixon White House. Nixon one day remembered his name, asked his aides what Starbuck was doing, wondered if he’d accept a lowly job.

This nothing job is ‘President’s special advisor on youth affairs’ (p.46). Starbuck was given a windowless room in the basement of the White House (‘a sub-basement in the Executive Office Building’), from where he churned out some 200 reports over five years about youth activities, none of which were ever read by anyone. Salary: $36,000 pa.

Starbuck’s sole connection with any of the Watergate conspiracy was twofold. Throughout his time there he could hear people stomping about upstairs. One day he coughed loudly and immediately there was a rumpus down the stairs and a couple of senior staffers burst in demanding to know whether he’d been listening in on their conversations. They then tested the soundproofing, with one of them shouting and swearing upstairs, while another one stood in Starbuck’s office until he was satisfied that even shouting didn’t travel through the floorboards and he could never have heard anything.

And then, in 1975, when police came to search the White House, some of the guilty staffers came rushing downstairs with several crates packed with cash. These were illegal donations to Nixon’s re-election campaign, which they thought they could stash in Starbuck’s out-of-the-way office. But the cops searched even down here, found it, arrested Starbuck, and that was what he was tried and convicted and sent to gaol for, conspiracy to hide, defraud, illegal contributions etc.

So you see, the book offers little or no insight into Watergate or Nixon, or the intricacies of the conspiracy (there is one scene where Starbuck attends a meeting of the entire cabinet, seated far away, the lowest of the low, and chain smoking so much that Nixon makes a joke about him – that is Starbuck’s one and only encounter and anecdote about Nixon pp.61-62. He takes the opportunity to name a number of the men around the table who would end up in prison. But it isn’t an insight or exploration or explanation of the Nixon White House. It is one joke and a list of names).

It’s more as if Starbuck is an innocent bystander, an inoffensive drone right on the periphery of the administration who gets sent to prison because the bad guys stashed some hot money in his office and he was too dutiful to reveal their names. This could have been the basis of a comedy if the rest of the book wasn’t so weird and nonsensical, and about so much else.

Ruth

For example, there is much more about is wife Ruth, her history, how they met and their life together, than there is about politics. Jewish, Ruth had been hidden for the first part of the war, but then discovered and sent to a concentration camp which she survived to be liberated by the Americans and Starbuck met her only hours after they had been requisitioned by an American army unit which needed a translator at a checkpoint. Starbuck himself requisitioned her, took her to a good hotel, fed her up, and employed her as a translator for his work with the War Trials. He takes ten or so pages to describe their work in some detail, to paint a picture of her earnest pessimism, and the determination with which she sets up an interior design company once they return to American in 1949.

Kilgore Trout

Trout was, by this stage, a well known recurrent figure in Vonnegut’s fiction, maybe his most eminent creation, having appeared in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five. In Champions he is one of the two major protagonists and we learn a lot about his life. He is definitely a ‘real person’. So it comes as a surprise in Jailbird to learn that Trout is in fact one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves his two year sentence, in fact the only ‘lifer’ in the Federal Minimum Security Adult Correctional Facility near Finletter Air Force Base, Georgia. His real name is Dr Robert Fender and he has a doctorate is in veterinary science. While in prison, Fender also writes science fiction novels under another pseudonym, Frank X. Barlow (p.67).

I have seen the way Trout’s character changes in different novels as an example of Vonnegut’s use of ‘unreliable narrators’, but I think it’s far bigger than that. If we agree that Vonnegut’s strategy goes far beyond ‘satire’ into the realm I’ve described as ‘ridicule’, then Jailbird‘s revealing that Kilgore Trout in fact doesn’t exist, is another example of Vonnegut’s full-spectrum ridiculing of all stable and sensible ideas about fiction. It is an example of his ‘nonsense’ approach to fiction.

One strategy Vonnegut retains from earlier books, especially Breakfast of Champions, is that the narrator summarises entire novels or stories by Trout. The result is that, instead of having to read an entire trout novel, you can simply read the narrator’s one or two-page summary which are much zippier, funnier or wackier.

There are other echoes of earlier techniques as well. You know I said that Jailbird looks more conventional in the sense that the prose is arranged into consecutive paragraphs and the chapters are a sensible length (unlike all three of his previous novels). Yes, but he redeploys the catchphrase. In Slaughterhouse many paragraphs or anecdotes ended with the phrase ‘So it goes’. Here it is ‘And so on’. Similarly, it doesn’t happen often, but every now and then Vonnegut just inserts a one-word paragraph saying ‘Peace’. Just to remind us that the same wacky nonsensicalist of the earlier experimental books is still there, lurking.

And the spirit of the nonsensicalist emerges more and more as the book progresses. There is an extended description of the night in 1931 he took the ‘Yankee clock heiress’ Sarah Wyatt to dinner at the swanky Hotel Arapahoe in Manhattan. Partly because he remembers it all when, having just been released from prison in 1977, Starbuck returns to the same hotel to see it much reduced, shabby and dingy and half boarded up. In fact, the receptionist tells him, the entire area where the restaurant used to be has been converted into a porn movie cinema which specialises in gay porn, many of the movies climaxing with scenes of anal fisting, something which, unsurprisingly, shocks and horrifies the narrator (p.130).

When he expresses an opinion, Starbuck just sounds dazed at what his country has come to.

Mary Kathleen O’Looney wasn’t the only shopping-bag lady in the United States of America. There were tens of thousands of them in major cities throughout the country. Ragged regiments of them had been produced accidentally, and to imaginable purpose, by the great engine of the economy. Another part of the machine was spitting out unrepentant murderers ten years old, and dope fiends, and child batterers and many other bad things. People claimed to be investigating. Unspecified repairs were to be made at some future time. (p.151)

Sacco and Vanzetti

He’s obviously been thinking, or reading, about the celebrated case of the Italian-born American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who were controversially convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during the April 15, 1920 armed robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts. They were both executed in the electric chair just after midnight on August 23, 1927.

Vonnegut refers to them in the preface to the book, and the preface ends with a quote from Nicola Sacco writing to his 13-year-old son Dante, a quote which went on to be turned into a song, and rallying cry for the Socialist cause in America.

Help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because they are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.

Towards the end of the book, the narrative stops altogether while Vonnegut gives an extended summary of the events surrounding the supposed crimes, trial and execution of the pair. This chimes with the fact that Starbuck, although a Harvard man, was himself a student activist, and an actual member of the communist party.

This is par for the course in Vonnegut’s novels all of which contain large chunks of random subject matter thrown in from all sides. It’s part of what makes them surprisingly chewy and dense.

But it’s difficult to reconcile this apparent earnestness about Sacco and Vanzetti and the anarchist / socialist cause – the totally straight description of the 1894 Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre (fictional, although based on similar worker killings which took place around that time), and descriptions of Starbuck’s own student activism (it was while editing a communist student paper at Harvard that he first met the beautiful and idealistic Mary Kathleen O’Toole) — with the helpless nonsensicality of the main plot i.e. the way a ruined baglady turns out to be running the largest corporation in America. It doesn’t cohere. It’a as if they’re from different worlds – the serious, and the utterly nonsensical.

The nonsense is entertaining and sometimes funny but the trouble is it makes all his ‘serious’ criticisms of America or war or capitalism tremendously easy to ignore, take with a pinch of salt, and dismiss.

Epilogue

In the epilogue Starbuck describes how, soon after being made Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, he goes to see Mary Kathleen O’Looney in her secret base under grand Central Station and discovers her in a very poor way. In fact she dies in his arms. The epilogue then describes how Starbuck disposes of her body secretly and doesn’t tell anyone. RAMJAC Corporation continues for another two years before the discovery of its CEO’s demise is finally made. At which point Starbuck is taken to court once again, and convicted of not reporting her death, fraud etc.

The book ends with a party given for him by all the other vice-presidents, which has the effect of tying up any loose strands of the ‘plot’, before he is scheduled to be sent back to the slammer. And that is the story of this inveterate jailbird.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr (1976)

This is a really weird story, a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife.

The main story (pp.15-170) is narrated by the two-metre tall man, christened Wilbur Rockefeller Swain but now known as Dr Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain.

It is a morbid and depressing story. Swain is just coming up to his 101st birthday. He lives amid the ruins of New York. The rest of America has been depopulated by Albanian Flu (p.33), but New York had a special plague of its own, known as the Green Plague. Now it is almost empty, with only Swain and a handful or relatives and friends living in the overgrown ruins. To survivors on the mainland it is known only as ‘the Island of Death’.

So Slapstick is a post-apocalypse story.

As so often in fictional memoirs, two timelines run in parallel 1. The ‘present’ in which the narrator wakes up and potters round and we are introduced to the main characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world. Thus Swain starts each chapter with a bit of gossip about his current companions, his emaciated though pregnant grand-daughter Melody, and her husband Isidore, or about their best friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa who keeps a farm worked by ‘slaves’.

Before 2. returning to a conventional chronological account which begins with the birth of him and his twin sister, follows them through their early life, and on to the series of events which led up to the disaster.

Vonnegut uses Vonnegutian tricks such as:

  • The entire text is broken up into very short sections, sometimes a few paragraphs, but sometimes just a few words, all divided by three asterisks in the centre of the page, creating the sense that the whole book is made of fragments glued together, a suitable feel, maybe, for post-apocalyptic fragments.
  • And just as the catchphrase ‘So it goes’ appeared on every page of Slaughterhouse-Five and ‘And so on’ capped every anecdote in Breakfast of Champions, so almost every bit of prose which tells a significant story or anecdote in this book is capped with ‘Hi ho’. At one point the narrator says he must go back through the book and delete all the ‘Hi ho’s’. Which he follows with another Hi ho. Hi ho. I think it is safe to say this use of ironically off-hand taglines has become a mannerism.

From his birth up to the age of 15, Wilbur and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, pretend to be drooling idiots. In fact they are geniuses, especially if they physically touch their heads together. When they do this they share a joint super-intelligence. But for 15 years all they do is pretend to be retards, and are locked by their parents in their posh Boston home. (They are from a super-rich family.)

This is every bit as weird as it sounds. On their fifteenth birthdays, they overhear their parents discussing sending them to separate homes and so make the startling announcement that they are not brain damaged but the reverse – hyper-intelligent and articulate young people.

This shocks their parents even more, who promptly call in a high-powered women psychiatrist who, vindictively knowing the damage it will cause them, recommends they be separated, declaring Wilbur is the clever one and Eliza is the defect.

So Wilbur is packed off to medical school and becomes a successful pediatrician, while Eliza goes to rot in a home for the mentally defective.

Cut to about ten years later when Wilbur is confronted by Eliza, who has been sprung from the home by a money-grabbing lawyer on the news that their parents have died. She is a wreck, distraught and determined on revenge as she confronts him at his grand mansion. But the moment they actually make physical contact, the old telepathic communication is revived and they have a five-day long orgy during which they tie up all the servants.

Maybe this whole plotline is intended as satirical but it comes over as a kind of poor man’s Philip K. Dick, with its dwelling on identity and reality, and sick obsession with a dead sibling (both Dick and Vonnegut had dead sisters).

Meanwhile, in the background of the story, we learn that oil has been running low, and that American science and technology has stagnated. The sky has turned yellow because of gases released by underarm deodorants. The Chinese are making all kinds of new discoveries. The West is collapsing. Americans are becoming more lonely.

Eliza takes her cut of Swain’s estate and goes to Macchu Picchu. Why? Because it

was then becoming a haven for rich people and their parasites, people fleeing social reforms and economic declines, not just in America, but in all parts of the world. (p.93)

An absurdist theme which runs through the book is that the Chinese, as part of their transformation into top economic power in the world, undertake a programme of miniaturising human beings. There are so many of them, they can only survive if they get smaller.

Thus it is that a lot later in the book, Swain is visited by the Chinese ambassador who is only a few inches tall (the size of Wilbur’s thumb, p.101). Piling absurdity on absurdity, he is named Fu Manchu. He asks Swain to take him to the family mausoleum in which are hidden the various writings Swain and Eliza did when their heads were together and they were a super-genius. Swain doesn’t understand why, but some of these writings are of immense importance to the Chinese – now the leading scientific and technological country in the world.

A second major idea has to do with gravity. When Swain describes life in post-apocalyptic America, he has dropped hints about there being a problem with gravity, that it varies from day to day like the weather, with some days of heavy gravity, some of light. This is, apparently, caused by scientific experiments by the Chinese, though by this stage nobody in America understands what or how or has the power to stop it.

The first time gravity changes is on the day Swain picks up a telegram at his local post office which tells him that Eliza is dead, crushed under an avalanche on Mars (p.106). Mars? Yes she had tipped off the Chinese about the secret documents hidden in the mausoleum and, as a reward, was transported to the new Chinese colony on Mars. Ill-fatedly, as it turns out.

As he walks out onto the steps outside his local post office, gravity changes – for just a minute or so it is doubled, quintupled, and Wilbur falls through the wooden steps he’s standing on, people fall through ladders, chairs, and flimsy flooring. Bridges and tall buildings collapse, elevators plummet to the ground and so on.

The Gravity Shift only lasts a minute or so but undermines the confidence of Americans even more than the failing oil supply and yellow sky.

It is against this backdrop of America’s economic, scientific and political decline, that Swain runs for president on a platform of radically reorganising society. He decides the problem with Americans is they are lonely and isolated. He comes up with a scheme whereby all Americans will be given new middle names by computer. The number of names will be calculated so that each new ‘family’ has about 10,000 members. I.e. if something happens to you there will be 9,999 other ‘family members’ you can call on.

He runs for senator, then president, on the slogan of ‘Lonesome no more’ – which is the sub-title of this book (p.112).

It is hard not to think that this plotline – the satire on American loneliness – is a separate short story or plot idea which Vonnegut has bolted onto the weird story of two twin giants who are cruelly separated. Chucking in Chinese miniaturisation, and the notion that the Earth’s gravity can be played with, as additional sweeties.

By this stage we learn that, because of the end of oil and technology, America has collapsed as a political entity. There are no more printing presses, no more radio or TV – because there is no more fuel (p.117). it has been replaced by warlords which control territories like Michigan or Dakota – hence the King of Michigan, the Great Lake pirates, and other satirical names the narrator casually mentions in passing.

(In a satirical touch, the only way to power the computer which doles out new middle names to the population of America, is by systematically burning all the paper archives in the White House and Congress.)

(In another satirical touch he throws in the fact that the new religion which the general crisis gives rise to is the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped.)

Also, by this stage, Wilbur tells us he has become addicted to some kind of tranquiliser named tri-benzo-Deportamil, which helps him to cope with all the ups and downs of his life with equanimity.

Vonnegut devotes an extensive passage to describing his happiness at visiting a lodge of his own ‘family’, the Daffodils, in Indiana, how kind and welcoming they are. And to explaining how his successful family plan meshes or overlaps with the numerous small wars which the King of Michigan and so on are fighting against each other.

In fact there is a satirical scene where Swain is summoned by the grandiose young King of Michigan who wishes him to solemnly sign a document reversing the famous Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and handing over rule of what was then the vast territory in the centre of the USA over the king. Fine, thinks Swain, and signs.

Epilogue

At this point the memoir written by Wilbur Swain comes to an abrupt end. It is succeeded by an epilogue tying up loose ends.

This takes the story from the meeting with the King of Michigan to his death.

Swain had been contacted by a woman who had discovered a way of contacting the dead. An old farmer arranged a bucket and antique pipe in just such a way atop a defunct particle accelerator (no more electricity; hadn’t worked for years) and, to his surprise, began hearing voices out of the pipe.

Swain, still nominally president although now with few if any powers over a disintegrated country, is told about this and invited to try it. He manages to get through to his sister Eliza, who tells him the afterlife is dreadful. Swain can hear a babble of people coughing, shouting and farting in the background. Eliza says the afterlife is like a badly managed Turkey Farm. She begs him to die and join her. The device for communicating with the dead is known as ‘the Hooligan’ after the name of the farmer who accidentally created it. (p.160-164)

Convinced that she needs his help, and in a hurry to die, Swain persuades the pilot of the helicopter (Captain Bernard O’Hare – sharp-eyed Vonnegut readers might remember that Bernard O’Hare plays an important role in his 1962 novel Mother Night) which flew him to the Daffodil reunion in Indiana (and is himself a member of the Daffodil family) to fly him to Manhattan, long since known as ‘the Island of Death’ because of the mysterious epidemic which wiped out almost its entire population.

Hovering over the empty, overgrown avenues, Swain climbs down a rope ladder and onto the balcony of the Empire State Building, whose staircase he proceeds to walk down. But instead of quickly dying, in the ruined lobby of the building Swain is kidnapped by some ‘Raspberries’ a really primitive clan of humans who live by eating nuts, and berries and whatever they can forage.

As it happens these people have unwittingly stumbled on an antidote to the Green Death, namely fish from the rivers either side of Manhattan which are so polluted that some of the rare chemicals in them act as antidotes.

Now the narrator now tells us that the flu which killed everyone was caused by an invasion of microscopic Martians, whose invasion was repelled by antibodies in the systems of the survivors (p.163). While the Green Death was caused by microscopic Chinese floating through the air who were peace-loving but were invariably fatal to normal-sized human who inhaled or ingested them (p.164).

Swain proceeds to live on derelict Manhattan for a very, very long time. Back around the time when he used the Hooligan and sold Louisiana to the King of Michigan, his last few pills of tri-benzo-Deportamil ran out and he went mental. He had to be tied down for five days in the farmhouse, but managed – in the impossible way characteristic of this narrative – to have sex and impregnate the wife of the old farmer.

She had a son.

He had a daughter, who was packed off to join the seraglio of the King of Michigan who was, by this time, a disgusting old man.  She managed to escape and set off East towards New York to try and track down the mythical grandfather her dad had told her about. Her name is Melody Oriole-2. She was helped along the odyssey by strangers who gave her a baby pram, a candlestick, a compass and an umbrella. And one who rowed her across to the Island of Death.

And that’s how Swain was reunited with his grand-daughter and came to be chatting about her at the start of the book’s 49 chapters. He has his drunken 102nd birthday, organised for him by his old friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, and drops dead.

Thoughts

It’s a short book (170 pages) but with enough ideas in it to blow anyone’s mind.

Whether any of them – plausible, fantastical, surreal, satirical – are any good, was hard to tell. I was so dazed by the relentless nonsensicality of much of the narrative that it was difficult to take a view. Is it a farrago of rubbish, which a summary of the plot might lead you to think? Or, as a friend of mine who’s a Vonnegut fan thinks, one of his best books?

I couldn’t work out if the four or five hours it took me to read it were time well spent or not.

I think it feels to me like a last hurrah of the absurdist approach, and typographical experimentation, which took off in Slaughterhouse-Five. But then Cat’s Cradle also has an end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic setting. In fact, both books consist of the memoir of one of the few people who survived the end of the world.

And when I saw how his next novel, Jailbird, reverts to a much more conventional layout and prose style, and realistic subject matter, this adds to the sense that Slapstick is like the fagged-out hangover of the absurdist approach which characterised its three predecessors.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions is longer than the average Vonnegut novel at 270 pages in an old Panther paperback edition I have.

It’s experimental in several ways. Each paragraph is introduced with an arrow → making them seem more like disconnected apothegms than part of a consecutive prose text, and sometimes the paragraphs reduce to totally disconnected sentences. More like reading Nietzsche than a novel.

Then there’s the author’s amateurish but quite appealing drawings, at least one every two pages, sometimes two on a page, squeezing the prose out, like in a children’s book. I counted 119 of them. Here’s an example.

Page from Breakfast of Champions

And another one.

Goodbye Blue Monday by Kurt Vonnegut

It took Vonnegut a long four years to grind out Breakfast of Champions and several times he abandoned it. It had poor reviews and in later life he gave it a low rating among his works. But I like it. I think it demonstrates two of his leading characteristics.

1. It is chatty. It is like listening to an interesting guy who’s knocked about the world a bit, telling you funny anecdotes, about pornography, explaining how we’re all actually machines, leaning forward to impress on you that war is wrong, and so on.

2. And it is roomy. Having established this chatty, informal persona, Vonnegut can casually rope just about any subjects he wants into the so-called ‘story’.

For example, out of nowhere in particular comes this paragraph:

The Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, shook Trout’s hand in a Cohoes grocery story one time. Trout had no idea who he was. As a science-fiction writer, he should have been flabbergasted to come so close to such a man. Rockefeller wasn’t merely Governor. Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.
‘How’s it going, fella?’ Governor Rockefeller asked him.
‘About the same,’ said Kilgore Trout.

That is the complete ‘section’, that’s all we hear about Governor Rockefeller. On the face of it this is some kind of satire against obscene wealth – the kind of stoned oppositionism which made Vonnegut such a hero of the counterculture and 1970s students. What I like about it though is its irrelevance. Its irreverent irrelevance. Its insouciance. He tells a story. Nothing much happened. It was a thing. OK. So long.

As to ‘plot’, well, the story follows events in the lives of two American men, Kilgore Trout, the failed author of hundreds of science fiction novels who we met a few years back in Slaughterhouse-Five and who appears in about five other Vonnegut novels; and Dwayne Hoover,  a Pontiac car dealer in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, who is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The plot comes to a climax with them both meeting, by accident in a bar, and Trout’s presence being the thing which topples Hoover into his psychotic episode (beating up a bunch of people in the bar, his mistress and a couple of cops before being overpowered and taken to gaol).

Both characters contain elements of self-portraiture: Trout since Vonnegut himself struggled a) in his early, poor days against indifference and bad reviews, then b) when he was famous, against writer’s block; and Hoover since Vonnegut (apparently) suffered lifelong from depression, was on anti-depression medication and tried to commit suicide at least once. It is relevant that Vonnegut’s own mother committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills when he was 21 – not least because he tells us as much in chapter 17.

‘This is a very bad book you’re writing,’ I said to myself behind my leaks.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said.
‘I know,’ I said.

And he makes Dwayne’s wife, Celia, kill herself by drinking Drāno.

a mixture of sodium hydroxide and aluminum flakes, which was meant to clear drains. Celia became a small volcano, since she was composed of the same sorts of substances which commonly clogged drains.

For the richest and most powerful country in the world, America sure was, and apparently still is, full of very unhappy people.

The narrative arc is that Trout – based in New York – is invited to an arts festival taking place in (the fictional) Midland City, and has a string of adventures getting there, while Hoover is going mad in Midland City, disconcerting his various staff and employees at the Pontiac salesroom he owns.

But the real point of the novel is, I think, the way Vonnegut just adds all sorts of anecdotes, stories, jokes, pictures and reflections into it.

For example, the notion that Trout is almost supernaturally prolific allows Vonnegut to add in one-page synopses of Trout’s far-out science fiction novels. They come across as too simple to even be worked up into short stories, but they make excellent one-page diversions. There are at least ten of them, which add an extra layer of wackiness to the mix.

The fake naive style

What most distinguishes Breakfast of Champions from Vonnegut’s other books, and from any other book I’ve ever read, is the author’s deployment of a strategy of describing everything, even the most minute and obvious elements of life and society – as if to an alien who has never heard of them before.

Everything he mentions, almost anything, he stops the narrative to explain it as if to someone who has never heard of it before, often adding one of his drawings.

For example, right in the opening pages he sets out to piss off any conservative readers, and whip up his student fanbase, by treating America and its iconography as if it is inexplicably weird.

Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously… (Vonnegut quotes the entire lyric of the American national anthem)

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

And:

If they studied their paper money for clues as to what their country was all about, they found, among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top of it, like this: (a hand-drawn illustration of the logo on an American dollar) Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength’.

A lot of the nonsense was the innocent result of playfulness on the part of the founding fathers of the nation of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times.

As to American foreign policy:

When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to drop things on them from airplanes.

All this was written as the Vietnam War reached its bloody climax:

Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

If American authors want to say their country is rubbish, that’s fine by me – although I’d love to read about the backlash there must have been against Vonnegut by any kind of conservative writers, publications or institutions.

What interests me more is the wide-eyed innocence of this narratorial approach – as if he were not only explaining America to aliens, but to alien children.

Thus later on the narrator explains what a beaver is (with a drawing), what a clocktower is (with a drawing) what a gun is (a device for making holes in other people, along with a drawing), what an apple is (with a drawing), what a lamb is:

A lamb was a young animal which was legendary for sleeping well on the planet Earth. It looked like this:

To a large extent whether you like the book or not will be based on whether you can read hundreds of pages written in this faux innocent style, whether you find it liberating, or at least interesting, to see all human activity through these alien child’s point of view. Or whether you find it tiresome and almost demented.

Machines and chemicals

Closely related to the style is the delusion the author attributes to Dwayne Hoover of seeing all other human beings as machines. This is one of the ‘hallucinations’ which tips Hoover over into full-blown madness but we know, from the preface and from comments liberally sprinkled throughout the text, that Vonnegut often feels the same.

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collisions, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe.

This conceit is used more for humour than bleakness. In fact the idea is most fully expressed in a book by Kilgore Trout which Dwayne reads in the cocktail bar at the climax of the novel and which brings on his fit. In the book, Trout writes:

‘Your parents were fighting machines and self-pitying machines,’ said the book. ‘Your mother was programmed to bawl out your father for being a defective moneymaking machine, and your father was programmed to bawl her out for being a defective housekeeping machine. They were programmed to bawl each other out for being defective loving machines.

‘Then your father was programmed to stomp out of the house and slam the door. This automatically turned your mother into a weeping machine. And your father would go down to a tavern where he would get drunk with some other drinking machines. Then all the drinking machines would go to a whorehouse and rent fucking machines. And then your father would drag himself home to become an apologizing machine. And your mother would become a very slow forgiving machine.’

If read in the right mood, this is pretty funny.

And Vonnegut sees human beings not only as machines, but as bags of chemicals:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside.

This comes over in the thread running throughout the text whereby the author refers to all kinds of aspects of the characters’ behaviours as being determined, not by free will, but by ‘the chemicals in their brains’.

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads.

Vonnegut tells us in the preface that:

My own mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep. When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.

I know from personal experience what a huge difference medication for mental illness can make to a person. Chemical imbalances in the brain can certainly be life defining, character defining. Vonnegut lays this fact out with the same wide-eyed fake naivety as everything else from the American flag to apples.

Taken together the ideas that people are a) machines b) whose behaviour is largely determined by chemicals in their brains, dominate the book’s worldview.

Race

There’s a lot about race in the book. Of course the 1960s in America saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of its leaders, and the growth of Black Power. How exactly the historical background seeps into the book, I couldn’t say except that it is very aware of ‘the black problem’ and, as you would expect, Vonnegut is 110% on the liberal side, depicting southern slavery, southern bigotry, black crime rates and black incarceration rates as all aspects of white oppression.

Francine mused about the prison, where the guards were all white and most of the prisoners were black.

Then again, he crosses all kinds of lines we, in 2019, have been taught to avoid. He uses the N word more than any modern writer would dare, mostly setting it down in his standard fake naive way, a way that conveys the outrage and injustice embodied in the word all the more powerfully for being used flat and blank.

Harry knew Dwayne better than did any other man. He had been with Dwayne for twenty years. He came to work for him when the agency was right on the edge of the Nigger part of town. A Nigger was a human being who was black.

There’s a lot more in the same ilk, some of it pretty disturbing. Here is Harry LeSabre, sales manager at Dwayne Hoover’s Pontiac dealership, talking with his wife, Grace.

‘Can the reindeer hear you?’ said Harry. ‘Fuck the reindeer,’ said Grace. Then she added, ‘No, the reindeer cannot hear.’ Reindeer was their code word for the black maid, who was far away in the kitchen at the time. It was their code word for black people in general. It allowed them to speak of the black problem in the city, which was a big one, without giving offense to any black person who might overhear. ‘The reindeer’s asleep – or reading the Black Panther Digest,’ she said.

The reindeer problem was essentially this: Nobody white had much use for black people anymore – except for the gangsters who sold the black people used cars and dope and furniture. Still, the reindeer went on reproducing. There were these useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions. They were given small amounts of money every month, so they wouldn’t have to steal. There was talk of giving them very cheap dope, too – to keep them listless and cheerful, and uninterested in reproduction.

The Midland City Police Department, and the Midland County Sheriffs Department, were composed mainly of white men. They had racks and racks of submachine guns and twelve-gauge automatic shotguns for an open season on reindeer, which was bound to come.

This is bleak whichever way you view it. Is Vonnegut agreeing that there is a big race problem in America? The idea that blacks are given a small dole to stop them stealing is bleak satire. Should Harry and Grace’s attitude be taken as the average white middle class view of the day? And then the mass arming of the police against the coming of a race war even bleaker.

Sometimes Vonnegut combines his fake-naive approach to race with the conceit that humans are machines, to produce really biting dark satire. Thus, emerging from a porn cinema in Times Square, Kilgore Trout is propositioned by two hookers.

These were country girls. They had grown up in the rural south of the nation, where their ancestors had been used as agricultural machinery. The white farmers down there weren’t using machines made out of meat anymore, though, because machines made out of metal were cheaper and more reliable, and required simpler homes.

All America’s social problems are treated in the same way, with huge detachment as if we are all machines in a grotesquely malfunctioning factory.

Sex

Slaughterhouse-Five offended many Americans because of its dwelling on pornography. Not the writing of pornography, just Vonnegut dwelling on it as a symptom of human beings’ madness. Well, men’s. There’s a lot more of it in Breakfast of Champions.

Sex shops It turns out that Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels are generally bought up by pornographers purely to pad out their wank mags. This means that, before he sets off to the arts festival in Midland City, Trout spends some time cruising the sex shops around Times Square in New York.

Beaver shots Vonnegut goes to town on this, describing how hard core sex magazines advertise that they contain ‘wide open beaver’ shots i.e. photos of women with their legs and labia apart, for men to masturbate to. It’s a classic opportunity to use the false-naive approach to highlight the absurdity of men, women, sex, humanity.

At the time he met Dwayne Hoover, Trout’s most widely-distributed book was Plague on Wheels. The publisher didn’t change the title, but he obliterated most of it and all of Trout’s name with a lurid banner which made this promise:

WIDE-OPEN BEAVERS INSIDE!!!!!

A wide-open beaver was a photograph of a woman not wearing underpants, and with her legs far apart, so that the mouth of her vagina could be seen. The expression was first used by news photographers, who often got to see up women’s skirts at accidents and sporting events and from underneath fire escapes and so on. They needed a code word to yell to other newsmen and friendly policemen and firemen and so on, to let them know what could be seen, in case they wanted to see it. The word was this: “Beaver!”

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

When Dwayne was a boy, when Kilgore Trout was a boy, when I was a boy, and even when we became middle-aged men and older, it was the duty of the police and the courts to keep representations of such ordinary apertures from being examined and discussed by persons not engaged in the practice of medicine. It was somehow decided that wide-open beavers, which were ten thousand times as common as real beavers, should be the most massively defended secret under law.

There you have Vonnegut’s satirical view of the absurdity of sex, pornography and society.

The clitoris Trout has written an entire book about the clitoris (p.144) and how a man should pleasure a woman.

Penis size There is also a longish passage half way through the book, where Vonnegut tells us the precise penis lengths of all the make characters in the book. This feels like Tristram Shandy, the most famous example of learnèd wit, i.e. taking the mickey out of absurd scholarship and learning, updated to the era of the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour. In case you’re wondering:

Dwayne Hoover, incidentally, had an unusually large penis, and didn’t even know it

while:

Kilgore Trout had a penis seven inches long, but only one and one-quarter inches in diameter

at which point, in his fake-naive style, Vonnegut includes a drawing of an inch so that we know what we’re talking about.

Orgasms And this segues into a discussion of how many orgasms the main characters have per month.

Dwayne’s monthly orgasm rate on the average over the past ten years, which included the last years of his marriage, was two and one quarter. [Grace]’s monthly average over the same period was eighty-seven. Her husband [an assistant in Dwayne’s car dealership]’s average was thirty-six.

Cross dressing I was struck that Harry LeSabre is a transvestite. At weekends he likes to dress up in women’s clothes. His wife, Grace, is fine with this, but Harry is petrified lest it get out among his work colleagues.

Homosexuality And Dwayne is bothered because his son, George, has come out as gay, after having a terrible time at the military academy Dwayne sent him to when he was only a boy –

George Hoover went to Prairie Military Academy for eight years of uninterrupted sports, buggery and Fascism. Buggery consisted of sticking one’s penis in somebody else’s asshole or mouth, or having it done to one by somebody else.

with the result that he now insists on being called Bunny and plays piano in the cocktail lounge of the town’s Holiday Inn.

Role playing Earlier Dwayne took his secretary and lover, Francine Pefko, to the Holiday Inn where they made love but then Dwayne a) got really angry with her, shouting accusations, after which b) he collapsed into self pity and wanted her to be his Mommy.

He begged her to just hold him for a while, which she did.
‘I’m so confused,’ he said.
‘We all are,’ she said.
She cradled his head against her breasts.
‘I’ve got to talk to somebody,’ said Dwayne.
‘You can talk to Mommy, if you want,’ said Francine. She meant that she was Mommy.
‘Tell me what life is all about,’ Dwayne begged her fragrant bosom.

Prison sex A minor character, a black man just out of prison named Wayne Hoobler who’s been hanging round Dwayne’s Pontiac salesroom, reminisces about sex in prison.

He missed the clash of steel doors. He missed the bread and the stew and the pitchers of milk and coffee. He missed fucking other men in the mouth and the asshole, and being fucked in the mouth and the asshole, and jerking off – and fucking cows in the prison dairy, all events in a normal sex life on the planet, as far as he knew.

My point being that if a contemporary novel tackled these ‘issues’ it would be praised for being up to date and contemporary. But here’s Vonnegut writing about them 45 years ago. Nothing changes. Sex deranges everything.

The environment

But amid the satire about humans being machines driven by malfunctioning brain chemistry, about the madness of patriotism and wars, about the crazy attitudes to sex and the brutal racism of American society, there’s another strong theme which is environmentalism.

Right at the start of the novel Vonnegut describes Earth as a damaged planet, a dying planet, a wrecked planet, before we learn Trout’s theory that the atmosphere will soon become unbreathable and goes on:

He told Bill that humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.

The theme is picked up by the truck driver who Trout hitches a lift east out of New York with. As they drive through the wastelands of New Jersey, the driver laments how dirty and polluted the whole state has become.

‘And when you think of the shit that most of these factories make – wash day products, catfood, pop…’ He had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.

He said he knew that his truck was turning the atmosphere into poison gas, and that the planet was being turned into pavement so his truck could go anywhere.

And the theme is repeated big time when they drive through West Virginia and see how the landscape has been devastated by coal mining and Vonnegut, using the fake-naive approach, laments how crazy it is that people, because they own the minerals and oil and coal deep within the Earth, are allowed by our laws to devastate and pollute the surface of the Earth which we all inhabit.

The truck carrying Kilgore Trout was in West Virginia now. The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

Summary

The experience of reading Breakfast of Champions is funny if disconcerting. The fake naive style, the casual way all kinds of topics are – race, sex, politics, war, environment – are treated with a deadpan straight face and reduced to absurdity by being illustrated with the author’s drawings, all this is often quite amusing.

But as soon as you stop and tabulate the themes, as I’ve done, you can see that just beneath the surface – and quite often on the surface – is world class depression, pessimism and nihilism.

In the last third of the novel Vonnegut himself appears as the author of the book and begins to play a role in it. We learn how he bought a pair of dark glasses on his way to Midland City where he walks into the same cocktail bar where Kilgore Trout is sitting and then watches the entrance of his character, Dwayne Hoover. He then shares with us the process of making up various secondary characters, giving them names and attributes and generally orchestrating the events which follow.

Not only does he tell us how he’s making the story up – in standard post-modern style – but he shares with us his worries about his mental illness (‘leaks’ in this extract is the term Vonnegut has developed to describe glasses and sunglasses).

There in the cocktail lounge, peering out through my leaks at a world of my own invention, I mouthed this word: schizophrenia. The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soapflakes. I did not and do not know for certain that I have that disease. This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbours believed.

I am better now.
Word of honour: I am better now

Much of these personal anxieties are present in Slaughterhouse-Five but there they are contained and channelled into the vivid description of, and emotional reaction to, Billy Pilgrim’s terrible war experiences. They are justified by the genuine nihilism of war. That’s what makes Slaughterhouse-Five a classic. The subject justifies the deranged treatment. The reader thinks: well, having been through what Vonnegut went through, I’ll give him any amount of leeway in how he presents it.

But Vonnegut is all too aware that this novel completely lacks the historical authenticity and punch of its predecessor. It lacks the excuse of being about a Big Subject.

For sure, he excoriates every aspect of American society and human nature which he can get his hands on, but as a result the book not only lacks focus but lacks a justification. Instead, you keep circling back to find Vonnegut’s face, staring out at the reader in mute despair.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

This was Vonnegut’s sixth novel and his commercial and critical breakthrough, quickly becoming a classic of counter-culture literature, its anti-war message chiming perfectly with the widespread protests across America against the Vietnam War, and then given an extra boost when it was made into a hit movie in 1972.

Both the anti-war message and Vonnegut’s laid-back, sardonic attitude are captured in the book’s jokey author biography:

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
A fourth-generation German-American
now living in easy circumstances
on Cape Cod
[and smoking too much],
who, as an American infantry scout
hors de combat,
as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany,
‘The Florence of the Elbe,’
a long time ago,
and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel
somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic
manner of tales
of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers
come from.
Peace.

That final ‘Peace’ says it all. You can almost smell the dope and patchouli oil.

Vonnegut was an American POW during the Second World War. He was taken to Dresden and set to work along with other POWs – among other things in a syrup factory – and so happened to be there during the notorious Allied bombing raid which flattened this beautiful and historic city on the night of 13 February 1945.

Vonnegut survived because he and other POWs had been billeted in a disused slaughterhouse. This happened to have no fewer than three levels underground of natural cold rooms where meat had been stored. Vonnegut, fellow POWs and their guards took refuge there on the night of the Allied raid and firestorm.

Vonnegut gives this experience and much else of his own life to the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, but mixes it – bewilderingly but powerfully – with a science fiction story wherein Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. And with a third element – which is that during the war Billy came ‘unstuck in time’ and from then on, periodically through the rest of his life, Billy’s consciousness keeps moving between different key moments of his life – one moment a POW captured in the snow in 1944, the next making a speech to fellow Lion’s Club members in 1967, one moment a boy of 12 taken to the Grand Canyon by his parents, the next a middle-aged man at his daughter’s wedding, and so on, for a number of other cardinal scenes in his life.

The text therefore mostly consists of fragments, any lengthy description of a particular scene liable to switch, with no warning, to another.

The odd thing is that despite this staginess, this artifice – it works. In fact it works more effectively than any straightforward account of the facts could have.

Even despite the opening chapter (pp.9-22) which consists mainly of fragments describing Vonnegut’s repeated failure to write this book. In these introductory pages he describes his visits to fellow war veterans and how, after a few drinks, they found they had nothing to say to each other. He candidly admits that, as a middle-aged man, he has gotten into the habit of staying up to late with a bottle of scotch, getting drunk and then ringing up old friends and acquaintances from the past, sometimes maundering on to complete strangers.

In other words, he sounds fucked. But it’s the inclusion of the admission of his failure to make his traumatic memories cohere, and his openness about the obvious emotional toll they’ve taken on him, which make the narrative which follows, deeply fragmented though it is, all the more powerful.

Billy’s biography

Despite all the apparent tricksiness, it is not too difficult to piece together Billy’s biography, in fact Vonnegut summarises most of it right at the start of chapter two, which is where the narrative proper begins.

Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. (p23)

Vonnegut likes short declarative sentences. And short paragraphs. He worked on newspapers for a while. Then as a press officer. Which taught him to keep it short. And snappy.

Bill Pilgrim was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, the only son of a barber. He grew up to be tall and gangly, looking like a Coke bottle. He attended the Ilium school of optometry for one term before being drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner during the German advance of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). There is an extended sequence describing his miserable march through the snow with two scouts and an aggressive bullying corporal named Roland Weary. The scouts eventually leave them and, a little later, they hear them being shot by a German patrol. So it goes.

He and hundreds of other American POWs were transported by overcrowded trains to a POW camp. The bully who gave him such a time on the march, Roland Weary, dies on the train. The base is really an extermination camp for Russian soldiers who were being starved to death. Within this camp was a small number of British officers who’d been captured at the start of the war and were living very well on Red Cross parcels. After various incidents here (such as witnessing the British stage a production of Cinderella). Billy starts laughing at this, the laugh becomes uncontrollable and turns into a shriek. They give him a shot of morphine. So it goes.

Then he is shipped to Dresden where he is billeted in a disused slaughterhouse and set to various labouring jobs, clearing rubble, and helping out in a syrup factory (where everyone steals as much syrup as they can eat).

One night 600 Allied bombers come and destroy Dresden, sparking a firestorm which incinerates everyone above ground. When Billy and the Germans emerge they discover the entire city reduced to smoking rubble littered with what seem planks of burning wood but are, in fact, smouldering corpses. So it goes.

Billy is liberated by the Russians, repatriated to Allied lines, and then back to the States. He re-enrols in the Ilium School of Optometry and becomes engaged to Valencia, the fat, ugly daughter of the founder of the school, who is addicted to eating candy bars and cries on their wedding night because she thought no-one would ever marry her.

In 1948 Billy suffers a mental breakdown and checks himself into a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans’ hospital near Lake Placid, New York.

Here he meets a character mentioned in previous novels, namely Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the works of a prolific science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (who will be one of the two main figures in Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions). Later on, in 1964, Billy bumps into Trout, as he tyrannises the pack of newspaper boys who he bullies into delivering papers, his only form of income since nobody will publish his numerous novels and, even if they do, Trout never sees any money from them. Rosewater has a big trunk of Trout’s sci-fi novels under his bed and during his stay in the hospital, Billy becomes a big fan.

Then he checks out and resumes his career as an optometrist. Marrying the boss’s fat daughter was a shrewd career move. His father-in-law gifts him a successful optometrist’s practice and Billy goes from strength to strength. He gets rich. He has two children, Barbara and Robert. Barbara marries an optometrist. Robert has a troubled school career (alcoholic at 16, desecrates graveyards) but turns his life round when he joins the Marines and goes to Vietnam.

In 1964 Billy meets Kilgore Trout and invites him to a party of optometrists. Trout chats up the most sensationally sexy woman in the room. When, in his excitement, he coughs on a canape, fragments of wet food land in her cleavage. Trout is that kind of character. Vonnegut is that kind of writer. Billy had planned to give his wife a big jewel as a wedding anniversary present, but is overcome with memories.

In 1967 Billy claims he was kidnapped by Tralfamodorians and taken to their planet in a flying saucer, where he was put in a zoo for the entertainment of Tralfamadorian crowds, and was soon joined by former movie star Montana Wildhack. Billy is laid back about the experience. He’s seen worse. He’s seen nearly the worst that human beings can do to each other. But Montana is hysterical for the first few weeks. Eventually they settle down together in their cage and mate, much to the cheers of the Tralfamadorian crowds.

In 1968 Billy is aboard a planeload of optometrists flying to a convention which crashes into Sugarloaf Mountain, Vermont. Billy is the only survivor. His wife, Valencia, in her worry, drives to the hospital but at one stage hits the central reservation, scraping the exhaust off the car. By the time she gets to the hospital where Billy is she is suffering from a fatal dose of carbon monoxide poisoning, and dies. So it goes.

After getting out of the hospital Billy goes to New York City where he gets airtime on a radio station telling everyone about how he was kidnapped by aliens from outer space and kept in a zoo. His grown-up daughter, Barbara, is furious and insists on coming to look after him (which feels a lot to Billy like nagging, hectoring bullying).

Billy is killed on 13 February 1976. Remember the soldier who died on the train, Roland Weary. Well another soldier, a really unpleasant psychopath named Paul Lazzarro, gives Weary his word of honour that he’ll take care of the dirty rotten fink who Weary blames for his death – the entirely innocent Billy.

And so it is that in 1976 that same Paul Lazzaro assassinates Billy using a laser gun with telescopic sights, while Billy is addressing a big rally about his flying saucer experiences. So it goes.

(It’s worth noting that, in a few throwaway sentences, Vonnegut tells us that by 1976 the USA has been divided into twenty smaller nations ‘so that it will never again be a threat to world peace’. Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen, p.96. This is not intended as any kind of prediction, it just continues the vein of pointless absurdity.)

POW

Central to the impact of the book is the powerful account of being taken prisoner, packed into cattle trucks so full people take it in turns to lie down, for days surrounded by the smells of poo and piss, and then arriving at the death camp more dead than alive. The surrealism of the brisk well-fed British officers among the starving Russians (kept in a separate area, behind barbed wire) and then onto the detailed, first hand account of a) labouring in Dresden in the build-up and then b) the night of the firestorm and then c) the aftermath.

These scenes, in their winter misery, reminded me of concentration camp memoirs I’ve read:

They also account in a roundabout way for the comment Vonnegut makes about the nature of his own book (he is prone to stop and comment on the text at random moments.)

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters. (p.110)

This fictional worldview, or attitude towards fiction, is related to the way Vonnegut repeatedly refers to people as machines. All the inhabitants of Tralfamadore are machines and don’t understand why the inhabitants of planet Earth won’t just accept this simple truth.

Tralfamadore

From the start of his career Vonnegut played the textual/fictional joke of having characters from one novel reappear in others.

Thus the town Billy’s born in, Ilium, is the setting for the first part of the novel Cat’s Cradle as is its General Forge and Foundry Company.

In hospital Billy is put in a bed next to Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord of Harvard, official Historian of the United States Air Force. This is a coincidence because the main character and master of destiny in The Sirens of Titan is Winston Niles Rumfoord.

The biggest recurring topic is the planet named Tralfamadore (which appears in five of Vonnegut’s novels). Anyone who’s read The Sirens of Titan knows that, on one level, it is all about a denizen of Tralfamadore marooned on Titan after his spaceship breaks down, and that all of human history (in this version, anyway) has in fact been shaped entirely by his home planet sending messages to him.

In Slaughterhouse-Five we learn that Tramalfadorians are:

two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.

So far, so frivolous and silly. But the biggest thing Billy learns from the Tramalfadorians is that:

’The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’

Various other aspects and quirks of Tralfamadorian life and thought are made up for our amusement (such as that the Tralfamadorians have five sexes, all of which are required for successful reproduction). But this is the key one. They explain a) how all moments of time exist simultaneously so b) that is why Billy can slip between them so easily and c) that’s why it doesn’t matter. Which brings us to ‘so it goes’.

So it goes

The book popularised Vonnegut’s catch-phrase, ‘so it goes’.

The author writes this every time he describes anyone dying, either in the war or by accident or of old age. It appears several times on each page, and 99 times in the whole (relatively short) book. Once upon a time it was cool but I eventually found it irritating and distracting.

But on the same page as he explains the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about, and seeing, time, he also explains the phrase’s origin:

‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”’

So this phrase ‘so it goes’ turns out to have more philosophical (or theological) than first appears. It indicates why the Tralfamadorians are relaxed about death – because it is only one stage in a person’s existence, and all the other stages of his or her existence continue unaffected by their death. And so it indicates how the author, too, has adopted this point of view.

That’s the nominal aim. But having read the first chapter in which Vonnegut describes the psychological problems he had writing this book – plus the scenes of Billy Pilgrim in the mental hospital – it’s difficult not to read the entire ‘so it goes’, throwaway kind of levity as in fact a form of psychological defence mechanism.

As he describes atrocities, random deaths, cruel accidents, suicides, immolations, plane crashes and the endless dumb pointlessness of the world, it’s hard not to see the ‘so it goes’ mentality as the coping mechanisms of a very unhappy man.

Folk wisdom

Vonnegut is addicted to sharing his wisdom with us. He is in the line of what Saul Bellow described as ‘reality instructors’, a line which goes back to Thoreau and beyond.

All Vonnegut’s novels are designed to persuade us that there is no meaning to life… and it doesn’t matter.

The same thing is said time and again. Thus a German guard punches an American POW, knocking him to the ground. The American asks: ‘Why me?’ The German guard replies: ‘Vy you? Vy anybody?’

Similarly, when the Tralfamadorians abduct him, Billy asks them: ‘Why me?’ to which they reply that they are all of them just embedded in this moment of time, like a prehistoric ant embalmed in amber.

‘There is no why?’ ‘Why?’ is the wrong question to be asking.

You can see why this Zen-like sidestepping of the anxious questions of Western philosophy appealed to the 60s generation, the spirit that made Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance such an instant best seller when it was published in 1974.

But pretty often it sounds no different from homespun folk wisdom, with no particular secret or mystique about it. Here’s Billy chatting with a Tramalfadorian:

‘But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
‘Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments – like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’

‘Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’ Not a dazzling revelation, is it? But then the thing about living wisely – as of eating a healthy diet – is everyone knows what they ought to be doing, it’s just that most people can’t or won’t or don’t do it.

Vivid writing

Notwithstanding that Vonnegut’s baseline style is the crisp brevity of newspaper journalism, he routinely comes up with great lines, descriptions and verbal effects.

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

This description is charged by the fact that Billy is himself lying in a hospital bed, too weak to get out.

Elsewhere Vonnegut nails aspects of his society and times with an accuracy made all the more lethal by the calm simplicity of his phrasing.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Set pieces

And like the other Vonnegut novels I’ve read, it is just crammed full of stuff. Characters, events, insights, jokes, wisdom, the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations.

While he is in the prison camp Billy meets an American traitor, Howard W. Campbell Jnr who is trying to raise an American Nazi regiment to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Obviously he’s a traitor Fascist, but he is not stupid and Billy reads the lengthy monograph Campbell has written which is a cunning blend of truths and falsehoods about the American character, and which allows Vonnegut to slip in some pretty bitter home truths:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor… Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.

In a different mode, there is an impressive writerly tour de force where Billy has a vision of the bombing of Dresden happening in reverse, with miraculous old buildings rising from a rubble-strewn wasteland, friendly planes flying over hoovering up all those nasty bombs, flying back to England in pretty poor shape but, luckily, fleets of fighter planes meet them and suck out all the bullets and flak so that they finally land back at their airfields in pristine condition, and everyone is happy!

Shell shocked prose

But the most consistent style or tone is shell-shocked numbness. The author tells things in sequence like a zombie. Zombie prose. Then this then this then this.

Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines. Three other wanderers, not quite so dazed, allowed Billy to tag along. Two of them were scouts, and one was an antitank gunner. They were without food or maps. Avoiding Germans they were delivering themselves into rural silences ever more profound. They ate snow.

Dazed wanderer prose. Sometimes, when applied to actual combat, to soldiers shooting each other or planes dropping bombs, you can see how describing things in this simpleton, child’s eye way, is designed to undermine the army press release, conventional ways of seeing atrocities. To force us to realise that ‘combat’ means one bunch of men trying to send bits of metal at high velocity through other men’s bodies.

But at other moments this numb, dumb, dazed, zombie prose seems to me to convey nothing more than shell shock. Mental disturbance. An inability to function which isn’t glamorous or counter-cultural, but masks deep pain and unhappiness.

As a part of a gun crew, [Weary] had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.

Telling what happened with no emotion, affect or intellectual intervention, no defences, no assimilation. The wound still red raw and gaping.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Vonnegut suffered from chronic depression, and within a few years of Slaughterhouse being published, a difficult break-up with his wife and his son’s mental collapse prompted him to start taking anti-depressants. In 1984 he tried to commit suicide. I think you can hear not only Vonnegut’s war-torn past, but also his troubled future, in the prose of Slaughterhouse-Five.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

This is an end-of-the-world apocalypse novel, made all the bleaker by the warm chatty style of everything which precedes the final doom.

The plot – Ice-nine

For 150 or so pages the narrator (named John, but on the first page he suggests we call him Jonah, in line with the usage indicating someone who brings bad luck) pursues an elaborate and good-humoured picaresque as he tracks down the grown-up children of the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker.

The narrator is planning to write a book about what people were doing on the day the atom bomb was dropped, although he never really gets much further than talking to the members of Hoenikker’s family and his boss and co-workers.

John corresponds with Newton Hoenikker, and his sister, Angela Hoenikker Conners, then travels to the town of Ilium to meet them, and also Hoenniker’s former employer, Dr. Asa Breed, head of the General Forge and Foundry Company where the late Felix worked.

He explains that the company is really a top secret government agency. Breed explains that Hoenniker was like a child who just liked solving whatever problem was put in front of him. The agency had a request from the U.S. Marines who (in Vonnegut’s cheerfully childish way) are described as being fed up of crawling through mud. Can’t the scientists do anything to clear up all this mud?

And so we are told that Hoenniker came up with the notion that ice may potentially be formed in different ways from usual. He starts by considering that ice is just a solid way for molecules of H2O to exist. It consists of a latticework of molecules in a steady state. But plenty of other chemical substances, ones we think of as crystalline, in fact form crystals in a variety of ways. They are all crystals but she shape of the latticework which makes them solid can be altered in the laboratory by ‘seeding’ the chemical solution, as it approaches solidifying point, with the desired pattern. Then all the other molecules in the chemical crystalise in that pattern.

To cut a long story short, John discovers that Dr Hoenikker had discovered a new way of making water solidify at a higher than usual temperature, roughly room temperature. After experimenting with seven other versions he has called this ice-nine. If crystals of ice-nine touch any other form of water, it will all immediately solidify according to the ice-nine crystal or lattice structure.

Now all this was done to help out the U.S. Marines who were fed up of getting dirty and muddy while they went about their work. (See the absurdity on which all Vonnegut’s stories are based?) But of course, you and I – having read hundreds of end-of-the-world books and watched hundreds of end-of-the-world movies – instantly spot the risk involved. Potentially one little sliver of ice-nine could end the world by converting all the water – all the seas and oceans and rivers and lakes and streams and all the rain and, yes, all human beings (who are, after all, mostly made of water) into solid blocks if ice-nine.

And that, after another 100 pages of very entertaining travelogue, is exactly what happens.

The book is extremely readable (I couldn’t put it down, I read it in one four-hour sitting) because:

  1. it is broken up into dinky little two-page chapters, so it feels like it moves very fast
  2. in almost each chapter we are introduced to new and strikingly drawn characters, often very secondary – like the secretary at the General Forge and Foundry Company, the old black lift boy, Lynton Enders Knowles, a taxi driver, a bartender, a headstone salesman – but all of whom have zippy cameos
  3. it is often very funny – it is certainly much more upbeat than The Sirens of Titan which I found unpleasantly nihilistic – with light humorous touches all over the place

When John stops by at Ilium’s gravestone dealership he discovers the owner is the brother of Ava Breed, head of the General Forge and Foundry Company.

‘It’s a small world,’ I observed.
‘When you put it in a cemetery, it is.’ Marvin breed was a sleek and vulgar, a smart and sentimental man. (p.44)

When he stops off at Jack’s Hobby Shop the page or two describing the shop and its owner and all its hundreds of miniature trains and dioramas is sweet. For a two-page chapter we learn that during his trip to Ilium John lent out his room to a New York poet, Sherman Krebbs, who proceeded to have wild parties and trash it. Someone had written in lipstick over his bed, ‘No, no, no, said Chicken-licken’ (p.53).

Apparently Vonnegut himself claimed that his books ‘are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips…and each chip is a joke.’ That is eminently true of Cat’s Cradle.

The whimsy in Sirens felt utterly contrived. Here it is genuinely charming and helps you whizz through the story. Part two of it is set on the dirt poor Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. This is because both Newton and Angela Hoenikker thought their older brother, Franklin, was dead. (On Hiroshima Day Newton had told John he remembers discovering Franklin under a bush trying to persuade some red ants he’d captured and put in a jam jar to fight some red ants.)

Newton (nickname ‘Newt’ and a midget) and Angela thought Franklin was dead because he got caught up in some car-smuggling racket in Florida and disappeared, assumed wasted by the Mob. But suddenly he turns up as the right-hand man of San Lorenzo’s dictator, ‘Papa’ Monzano.

The second and longest part of the story is set on the island, although it takes a few pages to get there as Vonnegut enjoys describing the wacky characters who share the small charter plane there with John – a hustling bustling businessman, H. Lowe Crosby, who wants to set up a bicycle factory on the island (and his wife Hazel), and the new U.S. ambassador, Horlick Minton, a picture of haughty aloofness (and his wife Claire).

There’s also the figure of Julian Castle, once the multi-millionaire ex-owner of Castle Sugar Cooperation, who gave up business in order to set up a charity in the jungle, the whom John travels to San Lorenzo to interview. He abandoned his business ventures to set up and operate a humanitarian hospital, the House of Hope and Charity, in the jungle. And he has a son, Philip, who has a wonderful dry wit: there are several really funny dialogues between him and the narrator.

To cut a long story short, the dictator ‘Papa’ Monzano is really ill with excruciatingly terminal cancer, and so he hands over power to his military adviser, Franklin Hoenikker. But Franklin doesn’t want the job and hands it over to the narrator. A big fireworks display and flyover by the San Lorenzo air force is planned for inauguration day. Just hours before it, the narrator discovers that Papa has committed suicide (to escape the unbearable pain of his terminal illness) by touching a fragment of ice-nine to his lips. One of the bloody Hoenikker kids must have given him some.

So John and Newt very very carefully use a blow torch to raise the temperature of the ice-nine and scoop up every sliver into a bucket of hot water and generally quarantine it. But all this comes to nothing when one of the six jets flying overhead crashes into the big castle on a cliff where John, Frank, Newt, Angela, the ambassador and Crosby are standing. The particular tower they’re on cracks and crumbles, half of it toppling into the sea.

And then, with all the horror of full knowledge of what is coming, John is forced to watch the bed on which the ice-nined body of Papa Monzano was lying, slowly slide across the slanting floor and into the ocean.

In a flash the entire ocean is solidified, every river, lake and sea in the world is solidified, all rain turns to hail, and almost everyone in the world who is touching the contaminated water dies. The sky immediately turns into a hell of thousands of tornadoes, like an endless sack full of grey wriggling worms.

John and Papa’s beautiful adopted daughter, Mona, who he has lusted after throughout the novel, escape down to a bunker where there is food and safe drink for three or four days. When they go back above ground, nothing has changed. The world has come to an end.

Exploring the island and looking for survivors, they discover a mass grave where all the surviving San Lorenzans had killed themselves with ice-nine, on the facetious advice of Bokonon. Displaying a mix of grief and resigned amusement, Mona kills herself as well.

John later discovers Newt and Franklin survived, as did H. Lowe Crosby and his wife. They eke out a living not touching any of the ice and heating all water before they drink it. It is in the months since the apocalypse that John has written this account, the book we hold in our hands.

The religion – Bokononism

But this summary has so far completely ignored what is arguably the more important aspect of the book which is that John, right at the end of the story, had become a convert to a new religion known as Bokonism, with the result that the book is packed, from start to finish, with explanations of key Bokononist terms and ideas, as well as quotes from the calypso songs in which Bokonon expressed himself collected in the so-called Books of Bokonon.

In essence, Bokononism teaches that life is empty and meaningless and therefore we must comfort ourselves with useless lies.

There’s a lot of fol-de-rol surrounding the religion but the basic idea is that it was dreamed up by two castaways on the island (a merchant seaman from Tobago, Lionel Boyd Johnson, and a deserting U.S. marine, Corporal Earl McCabe) who set out to create a utopian religion from scratch.

They initially ruled San Lorenzo (giving it, in a typical piece of sardonic Vonnegut humour, a national anthem based on the tune ‘Home, Home on the Range’) but quickly realised that a religion needs the ‘glamour’ of being struggled and suffered for. And so they banned their own religion, and Bokonon himself (in fact his name was Johnson but the islanders couldn’t pronounce it) went into hiding. Any followers were liable to be hung up on a giant meathook which was set up in the centre of the capital city.

After which Bokononism really took off. (You see Vonnegut’s sardonic humour / understanding of human nature?)

Throughout the book the author takes particular incidents and demonstrates how they are good examples of Bokononism’s main concepts. Some twenty of these are demonstrated and explained in the text, but about three are important because they will recur in Vonnegut’s later works.

karass – a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.

granfalloon – a false karass i.e. a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist, for example ‘Hoosiers’ are people from Indiana, and Hoosiers have no true spiritual destiny in common, so really share little more than a name. Another example Vonnegut gives is Americans.

wampeter – the central theme or purpose of a karass. Each karass has two wampeters at any given time, one waxing and one waning

foma – harmless untruths

There’s much more, and the weaving of Bokononism into the plot is very cleverly done (well, ‘clever’ in the sense that it is obvious nonsense invented to demonstrate the power of obvious nonsense over the stupid human mind).

More to the point, it is funny, often very funny – and the combination of the a) fairly normal social comedy of fat bicycle manufacturer, waspish hotel owners and so on with b) the very thoroughly worked-out integration of this imaginary religion into all aspects of the plot all leading up to a c) all-too-believable sci-fi apocalypse make this a compelling and disorientating read.

Anti-war

Here, as in all his books, Vonnegut makes his anti-war sentiments crystal clear. He has the U.S. ambassador, at a commemoration service for San Lorenzans who died in the Second World War, remark:

‘And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.

‘Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.’

Right on, man.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

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1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
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1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

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1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
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1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
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1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

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