Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby (2006)

‘In politics one should be guided by the calculation of forces.’ (Stalin at Potsdam)

Alliance is a thorough, insightful and gripping account of the wartime meetings between ‘the Big Three’ Allied leaders – Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin – which determined the course of the Second World War and set the stage for the Cold War which followed it.

In actual fact the three leaders in question only met face to face on two occasions:

  1. Tehran 28 November-1 December 1943
  2. Yalta, 4-11 February 1945

The third great power conference, Potsdam July 1945, took place after Roosevelt’s death (12 April 1945) and with his successor, former vice-president Harry Truman

There were quite a few meetings between just Roosevelt and Churchill:

  1. Placentia Bay, Canada – 8 to 11 August 1941 – resulting in the Atlantic Charter
  2. First Washington Conference (codename: Arcadia), Washington DC, 22 December 1941 – 14 January 1942
  3. Second Washington Conference, 19-25 June 1942
  4. Casablanca, 14-24 January 1943 – Roosevelt’s first mention of the policy of ‘unconditional surrender’
  5. First Quebec Conference – 17-24 August 1943 (codename: Quadrant)
  6. Third Washington Conference (codename: Trident), 12-25 May 1943
  7. First Cairo Conference (codename: Sextant) November 22–26, 1943, outlined the Allied position against Japan during World War II and made decisions about postwar Asia
  8. Second Cairo Conference, December 4–6, 1943
  9. Second Quebec Conference (codename: Octagon) September 12-16, 1944 – Churchill strongly disapproved of the Morgenthau Plan, but had to support it in exchange for $6 billion of Lend-Lease aid to Britain

I hadn’t realised that Churchill flew to Moscow not once, but twice, for one-on-one meetings with Stalin. which had some very rocky moments.

  1. Second Moscow Conference (codename: Bracelet) 12-17 August 1942 – Churchill stayed in State Villa No. 7 and, when he told Stalin Britain would not be launching a second front any time soon, Stalin became insulting, asking why the British were so frightened of the Germans. Churchill responded with details of Operation Torch – Anglo-American landings in North Africa designed to open up the Mediterranean, and increased bombing of German cities.
  2. Fourth Moscow Conference (codename: Tolstoy) 9-19 October 1944 – this was the meeting where Churchill and Stalin discussed percentages of influence in post-war European nations: Russia 90% in Romania, UK 90% in Greece, Yugoslavia 50/50, and so on.

(The First and Third Moscow conferences were meetings of foreign ministers only i.e. not directly including Churchill or Stalin.)

These top level meetings are colourful and interesting, and Fenby covers them in minute detail, giving a blow by blow account of what was discussed at each of the conference sessions, on each of the days, but nonetheless, they are like the tips of the iceberg. Nine-tenths of the book is about the exchanges of messages between the Three leaders, by cable and telegram and phone calls, the texts of various speeches and declarations, and the complex matrix of diplomatic missions and exchanges which took place at a lower level, with special envoys shuttling between the three countries, meeting their opposite numbers or conveying messages from one to the other.

Since almost everyone concerned seems to have left diaries of these meetings, plus official memoranda and press announcements, Fenby is able to quote these liberally in order to recreate the complex web of communications which defined the ever-shifting diplomatic relations between the three powers.

The book sticks closely to a chronological account of all these meetings and messages and slowly I began to realise it might more accurately described as a diplomatic history of the alliance. Or a History of Allied Diplomacy During World War Two. And I came to realise the book can be enjoyed on a number of levels:

Character studies of the big three

The opening chapter is a kind of prelude, giving vivid pen portraits of the Big Three leaders:

Winston Spencer Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain

The stories about Churchill are often funny and loveable. We learn that he liked to go to bed in silk pyjamas. If he had no meetings he stayed in bed till noon reading all the papers. Time and again eye-witnesses describe him as an over-grown schoolboy, insisting on swimming naked off the coast on a trip to visit Roosevelt, on another occasion arriving at an American military display dressed in a romper suit with his topee brim turned up so that he looked like a small boy going down to the beach to dig a hole in the sand. En route to Yalta, Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, described him as looking like ‘a poor hot pink baby about to cry’ (p.351). After the Yalta conference ended, he ‘walked from room to room, genial and sprightly, like a boy let out of school’ (p.380). Unlike the two other leaders he appeared to have no sex drive whatsoever.

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Churchill drank like a fish, sherry for breakfast, wine with lunch, champagne, wine and brandy with dinner. On a striking number of occasions he is naked – swimming in pools naked, on one occasion padding round the bomber flying him back from Moscow naked from the waist down, appearing half-naked in front of the Moscow ambassador (who, memorably, drew a sketch of the naked PM), and once – allegedly – when staying at the White House, being caught by Roosevelt emerging naked from the bath and, unabashed, declaring, ‘The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States.’ Driven to the newly liberate area around Remagen, Churchill, surrounded by photographers, was caught short and unzipped to have a pee, telling the gentleman of the press that this particular moment of their great victory was not to be recorded. In his diary Brooke records that he will never forget ‘the childish grin of intense satisfaction that spread over his face (quoted page 388). He comes across as the ultimate naughty schoolboy.

Churchill was also given to flights of schoolboy sentimentality; he easily broke into tears, especially about loyal and trusty servants.

  • ‘I love that man’, he told his daughter Sarah, about Roosevelt, with tears in his eyes. (p.224)
  • Telling Moran that night of the [Polish diplomatic leader’s] request to be dropped into his homeland [to die fighting the Nazis rather than acquiesce in a diplomatic sell-out to the Russians], Churchill had tears in his eyes. (p.330)

And of course reams of magniloquent speech emerged effortlessly from his well-stocked mind. All us Brits have been brought up on the key moments from his wartime speeches. But as the book goes on, you come to realise this could also be a weakness. I watched his ‘historic’ address to both Houses of Congress on YouTube and realised that, if the spell drops for a moment, it is possible to see Churchill as a pompous old windbag. During the Tehran Conference, at the end of 1943, Roosevelt is reported as tiring of Churchill’s verbosity (p.236).

There’s lots of behind-the-scenes accounts and one eye witness memorably describes him as a tired old man who keeps going by sheer will power. But the windbag element opens the door to understanding the strong anti-British feeling which was present at all levels of the American administration and society, and grew steadily as the war progressed. In a telling phrase, Fenby says that by the time of Yalta, Britain was much the most junior partner of the alliance and Churchill knew it. Britain had lost its aura of 1940′ (p.353).

Franklin Delaware Roosevelt, President of the United States

It is quite a surprise to read so many of the senior staff who worked with Roosevelt describing him as a heartless SOB – that’s not at all how he comes over in the Pathé newsreels where he’s always laughing and joshing, but the eye-witnesses are 100% consistent.

The laughing and joshing is connected to another of Roosevelt’s qualities, which was his conviction that he could talk round anyone with banter and good humour. This partly explains his relationship with Stalin. a) Roosevelt, being an optimistic, can-do American, couldn’t really conceive the depths of evil which Stalin represented, b) Roosevelt believed he could manage Stalin as he had managed so many opponents in his long political career.

‘I know you will not mind my being brutally frank with you when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

What he thought he could do was to outwit Stalin as he had done with so many interlocutors. (Walter Lippmann, political commentator)

During the course of 1943 Roosevelt and Hopkins and their entourage became steadily more pro-Stalin and inclined to cold shoulder Churchill. Fenby records that some, more realistic, American diplomats resigned in protest at their boss’s wishful thinking about Soviet intentions and readiness to brush the show trials, gulags and famines under the carpet.

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Josef Stalin

It’s sometimes difficult to believe that a man as monstrous as Stalin ever lived and breathed and walked, let alone shook hands with the other two, made jokes and delivered gracious toasts. All the eye witness accounts confirm that he was extremely practical and factual. He had three demands and he made them right from the start –

  • for Britain and America to send more arms & munitions to help the Red Army fighting the Germans
  • for Britain and America to open a second front as soon as possible i.e. invade France
  • after the war to have a guaranteed security zone or buffer comprising Poland and the Baltic states in Europe (the situation in China/Manchuria was more complicated but Stalin’s basic principle was easily applied here, too: he supported whichever solution appeared to give Russia maximum security)

Uncle Joe often had a twinkle in his eye and charmed most of his guests. Only occasionally did the psychopath emerge. At one of the many drinks receptions and dinners accompanying the meetings, a Russian general was showing Kerr how to handle one of their tommy guns, when Stalin seized it and said, let me show you how a real politician behaves, and made a mock gesture of machine gunning everyone else in the room. At Yalta, Roosevelt asked Stalin who the quiet man with the pince-nez was. Stalin saw the president was gesturing towards Beria and laughed, ‘Oh that’s our Himmler’ (p.369). When Churchill explained to Stalin that he might lose the upcoming British general election, as he was only the leader of a particular party, Stalin replied, ‘One party is much better’ (p.377).

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Character studies of their many subordinates

But the book is by no means only about the Big Three. There’s a also a huge amount of highly enjoyable gossip about the cohorts of advisers and diplomats and military men the Big Leaders were surrounded by. Here are quick sketches of some of them:

The Brits

  • Major Arthur Birse – Churchill’s Russian translator
  • Field Marshal Alan Brooke – Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and, as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, was the foremost military advisor to Winston Churchill. He was nicknamed ‘Shrapnel’. In the 1950s his diaries were published which contained scathing criticisms of senior figures of the war, including Churchill. Brooke admired Stalin for his quick grasp of strategy and military reality – but still thought him a cold-hearted, mass murderer. He was a keen birdwatcher.
  • Sir Alexander Montagu George Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs from 1938 to 1946, kept extensive diaries which were later published.
  • Field Marshal Sir John Dill, May 1940 to December 1941 Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and in Washington, Senior British Representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Though much admired by Americans as senior as George Marshall, Churchill did not like him, nicknamed him Dilly-Dally, and replaced him with Alan Brooke.
  • Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary 1940-45 – Churchill’s loyal lieutenant, principles, vain, self-centred
  • Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, 1941 to 1946 British Ambassador in Washington –
  • Sir Archibald Clark Kerr – ambassador to China 1938- 1942, where he won the respect of Chiang, then ambassador to the Soviet Union 1942- 1946 where his tough approach and broken nose earned him the nickname, ‘the Partisan’.

The Americans

  • Averell Harriman – inherited $100 million from his father and was chosen to manage the massive Lend-Lease programme. US ambassador to the Soviet Union from October 1943 to January 24. Had an affair with Winston Churchill’s son’s wife.
  • Harry Hopkins – gangling son of an Iowa saddle-maker who ended up becoming instrumental in Roosevelt’s new deal scheme, and moved into the White House to become Roosevelt’s adviser throughout the war
  • George Marshall – supremely capable Chief of Staff of the US Army, September 1, 1939 – November 18, 1945
  • Cordell Hull – the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of State, 1933-44, at daggers drawn with his junior, Sumner Welles, who he eventually got fired in 1943. Hull was the underlying architect of the United Nations. Eden described him as ‘the old man’. Cadogan referred to him as ‘the old lunatic’.
  • Sumner Welles – Under secretary of state 1937-43: ‘the age of imperialism is ended’. Hull hated Welles and got him sacked when stories of his gay lifestyle began to leak to the press.
  • Henry L. Stimson – Secretary of War (1940–1945), principled grand old man in his 70s, he vehemently opposed the Morgenthau Plan, and kept a diary full of insights.

Americans in China

  • General Joseph Stilwell – in charge of some Chinese Nationalist forces, adviser to Chiang Kai-Shek, supervisor of American lend-Lease to the Nationalists. Known as “Vinegar Joe” he despised the British in India and Burma from the start, but came to loathe Chiang as he came to understand Chiang’s policies ignored ideas like efficiency and were entirely based on paying bribes to, and keeping in place, administrators and senior soldiers who supported him. This explained the Nationalists’ woeful record at fighting. Stilwell took to referring to him as the Peanut (because of the shape of Chiang’s shaven skull).
  • Claire Chennault – retired from the US Air Force in 1937, Chennault went to China to work as freelance adviser to the Chinese Air Force and after Japan invaded, found himself becoming Chiang Kai-shek’s chief air adviser, training Chinese Air Force pilots, and setting up the so-called Flying Tigers.

Roosevelt wanted to replace Stilwell who, by 1943, hated the Chinese with a passion. But Chief of Staff refused to accept the obvious replacement, Chennault, because he was outside the formal command structure and was far too close to Chiang. So nothing was done, one of several reasons why American policy in China was allowed to drift…

The Russians

  • Vyacheslav Molotov– USSR Foreign Minister. Molotov is a pseudonym like Stalin, it means ‘hammer’. According to witnesses completely inflexible, unbending, unyielding
  • Ivan Maisky – USSR Ambassador to Britain 1932 to 1943
  • Maxim Litvinov – Soviet ambassador to Washington 1941 – 1943

The French

  • Charles de Gaulle – leader of the Free French. A relatively junior officer in the french Army, de Gaulle escaped the German invasion and on 18 June made a radio appeal from London to the French to resist the occupiers. He was a legend in his own mind, remplis with a particuarly Gallic form of arrogance and hauteur, and eventually managed to convince the French nation of his historic uniqueness. But it is very funny to read how powerless he was in the context of the Great Powers, and how he was routinely ignored by all sides as irrelevant. Churchill was, in fact, generally respectful, we had fought side by side the French during the German invasion of 1940. I’d forgotten that Roosevelt hated de Gaulle. He was convinced he was a dictator in waiting in exactly the same mould as Mussolini.

The Americans dislike the Free French Even after the United States declared war on Germany (11 December 1941), it was only the beginning of what turned into a very long haul. Fenby quotes Charles de Gaulle who, on hearing the news of Pearl Harbour, declared (with typically French brio / arrogance) that the war was won, it was only a matter of time. Obviously almost everyone who was going to die over that matter of time was going to be Russian, American and British. It is heart-warming to read how much Roosevelt and the Americans disliked the Free French under de Gaulle. At Yalta, Roosevelt said the Americans would only give the French a sector of Germany to run ‘out of kindness’. Stalin concurred. Both men obeyed the well-known dictum:

Bad mouthing the French always has its appeal. (p.358)

De Gaulle was furious at not being invited to the Yalta Conference – despite the fact that the three participants gifted France control of a sector of post-war Germany – and, in a typical high-handed gesture, cancelled a post-conference meeting that had been arranged with Roosevelt. The president really lost his temper and drafted a flaming reply criticising not only de Gaulle but the entire French nation until his translator, career diplomat Charles ‘Chip’ Bohlen agreed that de Gaulle was ‘one of the biggest sons of bitches who ever straddled a pot’. This amused Roosevelt who calmed down and set his diplomats to working on a much toned-down reply.

Like a novel

So this 400-page book is a bit like a 19th century novel. You are formally introduced to each new character, with pen portraits, other people’s descriptions. Then settle in to watch the cast assemble, disperse, meet, take notes, observe each other and generally interact. By half way through, when Fenby describes a meeting involving Eden, Hopkins, you have a good idea of what they all looked like

Big ideas

So much for the gossip, but there’s also plenty of through-provoking stuff about the geopolitics.

I find it fascinating, reading about any war, to learn how war aims change and evolve during a prolonged conflict. History – the passage of time – simplifies everything to black and white, whereas at the time there was a blizzard of conflicting aims and goals on at least four levels:

  • the leaders of the big three nations (USA, Britain, USSR) disagreed among themselves, and as the war progresses, change their minds
  • their advisers often strongly disagreed with their leaders, and also amongst themselves
  • in the democracies, the opposition political parties and voices in the press & other commentators often strongly disagreed with government policy
  • and underlying all this froth is the deep, enduring reality of geography and the geopolitical priorities which that entails

This makes for a fascinating maze, a kind of four dimensional chess, which Fenby confidently steers us through, often with a wry smile on his face.

Stalin wanted arms and Russian security To take the last one first, Stalin knew what he wanted and he largely got it. It is bracing to read the eye witness accounts of the western diplomats who met and admired him. They knew he was a dictator, some were repelled by his history of brutality, but all admired the clarity and conviction of his thinking. When the war was over, Stalin wanted to ensure he had SECURITY in the West and the East. From the get-go he wanted to ensure a geographical buffer from any further attack from East or West. His methods were brutal and disregarded all humanitarian values, but he had the advantage of being absolutely clear about his aims. And he got it. In 1942 he asked for control of the Baltic states and Poland to provide his buffer, and this request caused quite a serious rift between Britain (who wanted to agree in order to pen Russia in) and America (who rejected all plans, pacts and alliances, and was committed to giving every nation ‘freedom’). In the event, he extended his buffer zone half way across Europe to take half of Germany.

And in the East, as I’ve just read in Fenby’s history of China, this simple priority – security – explains why Stalin initially allied with the right-wing Kuomintang against Mao’s communists. Stalin would deal with whoever seemed able to provide security, and the Kuomintang were, in 1945 anyway, the strongest power in China, once the Japanese had surrendered.

But Stalin’s had two more immediate concerns which he hammered away at repeatedly:

  1. More arms – he wanted the allies to send him much much more arms and munitions to help the Red Army fight the Germans who – be it remembered – advanced up to the outskirts of Moscow, up to the river Don and deep into the Caucasus.
  2. Second Front – he wanted Britain and America to invade France as soon as possible, a demand he kept up in every conversation and exchange throughout all of 1942 and 1943 and into 1944.

Winston Churchill wanted to preserve the British Empire This threw up all kinds of problems around the economic and political organising of the British Empire which took up a lot of his energy, and of the other conservative politicians around him – concerns about the preferential trading system within the Empire & Commonwealth which now seems as remote as the Corn Laws – as well as the responsibility of policing and trying to secure an extremely farflung set of territories, which beset the British chiefs of staff.

In the end, it was a failure. Fresh in my mind is J.G. Ballard’s eye-witness account in his autobiography of the seismic impact the loss of Singapore (15 February 1942) had on the British Empire in the East. It lost face. It was seen as defeatable. Everyone realised its days were numbered. In the event, Britain gave independence to India in 1947 just two years after the war ended, and over the next fifteen years the rest of the British Empire unravelled.

And all this comes to seem increasingly obvious when you read this book and see how utterly, helplessly dependent the British government and empire and, Churchill personally, were on the Americans – and then to read in detail, with extended quotes, Roosevelt’s cast-iron opposition to the British Empire.

Arguably, Churchill deluded himself about American intentions. Rather like Kipling, he saw the young United States coming under the tutelage of the wise and mature British Empire to organise a post-war world in which both would exercise the White Man’s Burden to tutor the native peoples of the world to democracy and statecraft.

The Anglo nations would need to be united in order to contain a Soviet Union which Churchill early spotted would try to extend its influence deep into Europe; whereas Churchill was rudely dismissive of China, which had displayed nothing but weakness under its despotic but inefficient Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek. (Stalin, it is interesting to note, was just as dismissive of Chiang’s regime and insisted he not be invited to the Big Three meeting at Tehran.)

Roosevelt wanted a post-imperial world of free nations If Stalin’s central inflexible idea was about gaining SECURITY for Russia, America’s was the idealistic notion that, when the war ended, all the old empires and old alliances and old European ideas about ‘balances of power’ – the kind of complex alliances which had triggered the First World War and failed to avoid the Second – would be abandoned for all time and be replaced by a comity of free nations engaged in free trade under the aegis of global governing bodies (United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund). In this world order about four major states would be the top players – US, Britain, USSR, China – and Britain would be one, but only one among many.

Churchill thought the Brits and the Americans were fighting to overthrow the tyrannies of Germany and Japan, and hoped that afterwards extended American power would mesh with a rejuvenated British Empire to promote Anglo-Saxon ideas of law and justice. But the Americans disagreed: they saw themselves as overthrowing all the European empires and establishing principles of democracy and free trade, and Roosevelt is repeatedly quoted telling trusted advisers (specially Harry Hopkins, also Roosevelt’s son, Elliott) that Churchill is wilfully misunderstanding him.

‘I can’t believe that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy? The peace cannot include any continued despotism … Equality of peoples involves the utmost freedom of competitive trade.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

‘I’ve tried to make it clear to Winston – and the others – that, while we’re their allies and in it to victory by their side, they must never get the idea that we’re in it just to help them hang on to the archaic, medieval Empire ideas … Great Britain signed [sic] the Atlantic Charter. I hope they realise the United States Government means to make them live up to it.’ (Roosevelt to his son, Elliott)

The Morgenthau Plan

An issue which emerged during 1944 was how to treat Germany after the war. Fenby goes into great detail about the Morgenthau Plan named after Henry Morgenthau, US Secretary of the Treasury, which planned to hammer Germany, permanently dividing it into smaller states and stripping it of all industrial capacity, denuding the Ruhr industrial heartland, and returning it to a pastoral, agricultural society for the foreseeable future.

Fenby brings out how some of the vengefulness of the plan stemmed from the Jewish ethnicity of Morgenthau and his even more extreme deputy, Harry Dexter White, who was also Jewish. (US Secretary of State Henry Stimson described the Morgenthau Plan as ‘Semitism gone wild for vengeance’ and ‘a crime against civilisation’.) As both men learned more about the Holocaust (initially a top secret known only to the administration) it didn’t soften their determination to destroy Germany. (Morgenthau estimated his model of a deindustrialised Germany would support about 60% of the population; the other 40% would starve to death.)

By contrast, Churchill, when he was presented with the plan at the Second Quebec Conference of September 1944, was extremely reluctant to agree with it and fought to water down its provisions. This was because Churchill could already see, with a clarity the Morgenthau backers (including Roosevelt, who told his cabinet Germany should only be allowed a ‘subsistence level’ of food) lacked, that the immediate post-war problem would be Russia, which was gearing up to conquer half of Europe. In this scenario, Churchill – correctly – predicted that a revitalised and economically strong Germany would be necessary a) to resist Russian encroachment b) to revive the European economy as a whole.

There was another element which is that, when details of the Morgenthau Plan were leaked to the press in September 1944, it had a damaging impact on the war effort.

  1. Goebbels leapt on it, making much of the Jewish heritage of its author, and was able to depict it as evidence for the global Jewish conspiracy against Germany which he and Hitler had been warning about for a generation (p.319)
  2. More significantly, US military figures as senior as George Marshall claimed the plan significantly stiffened German opposition, and directly led to the deaths of American soldiers. Roosevelt’s son-in-law Lt. Colonel John Boettiger worked in the War Department and claimed the Morgenthau Plan was ‘worth thirty divisions to the Germans’.

In the longer term the Morgenthau ideas of reducing German industrial output and deliberately impoverishing the German population turned out to be impractical and counter-productive. During the years of the Occupation from summer 1945 onwards it became clear that Germany was the economic and industrial heartland of Europe and impeding its developing condemned the entire continent to poverty. Plus, preventing the Germans producing their own goods threw the burden of supplying even elementary necessities onto the Americans who quickly realised how impractical this was.

Just a year after the war, the Morgenthau Policy was comprehensively overthrown in a famous speech titled Restatement of Policy on Germany delivered by James F. Byrnes, US Secretary of State, in Stuttgart on September 6, 1946, which became known as the ‘Speech of hope’.

After the war it became known that White, never himself a communist, had been passing classified information to the Soviet Union, enough for him to be given a codename by his Soviet ‘handlers’. Called before the House Unamerican Activities committee in 1948, he denied being a communist, shortly after testifying had a heart attack, and a few days later died, aged just 55, apparently of an overdose.

Thus his enthusiastic support of the Morgenthau Plan could be reinterpreted as aiding the Soviets by ensuring Germany was rendered utterly powerless after the war. A great deal of debate still surrounds White’s role. Stepping back, you can see how the story of the Morgenthau Plan crystallises the complex, overlapping nexuses of geopolitics, economics, ethnicity, conflicts between the supposed Allies, and conflicts within the most powerful of the three, the United States.

Sick men

They were sick men. Several eye-witnesses testify how sick Churchill as and how he kept himself going by sheer willpower. But the facade crumbled after the Tehran Conference. Churchill was exhausted when he flew back to Cairo, and by the time he’d taken an onward flight to Tunis to meet General Eisenhower, he was almost too weak to walk, and was confined to a villa where doctors discovered he had pneumonia. His fever worsened and then he had a heart attack. His personal physician thought he was going to die.

It is amazing that, with rest and injections of the new-fangled drug penicillin, he not only made a full recovery, but after a week was full of energy, firing off messages to the Cabinet in London, to Stalin and Roosevelt and worrying about the next stage of the military campaign to take Italy. And little short of mind-boggling that he went on to live for another 21 years.

And of course Roosevelt was an ill man. In March 1944, shortly after his 62nd birthday, he underwent testing at Bethesda Hospital and was found to have high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease causing angina pectoris, and congestive heart failure. Fenby explains Roosevelt had a cluster of symptoms nowadays referred to as post-polio syndrome (p.280). He went to the estate of a rich friend in South Carolina and ended up staying four weeks, sleeping a lot, cutting down on his chain-smoking, drinking less. But he lacked his former ‘pep’.

The most revealing symptom of this – and typical of Fenby’s semi-humorous, gossipy touch – was that the President stopped tinkering with his beloved stamp collection, up till then a favourite way of unwinding last thing at night. His personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, created a daily schedule that banned business guests for lunch and incorporated two hours of rest each day. But when he returned to Washington, witnesses testify that from that point onwards he was a good deal more flippant and ill-informed. At meetings he lacked focus, increasingly telling rambling anecdotes about his forebears. Churchill thought him no longer the man he had been.

Choosing the vice-president

It beggars belief that this crippled and deeply ill man determined to run for president a record-breaking fourth time and spent a lot of 1944 criss-crossing his huge nation making election speeches. The election was held on 7 November 1944 and Roosevelt won 53.4% of the popular vote and 432 out of the 531 electoral votes. He had campaigned in favour of a strong United Nations, so his victory symbolized support for the nation’s future participation in the international community.

Roosevelt wanted to retain his vice-president, Henry Wallace. A contingent of the Democratic party wanted the Southern Democrat Harry Byrd. Roosevelt was persuaded to nominate a compromise candidate, Harry S Truman from Missouri. Did many people at the time realise what a momentous choice this would turn out to be?

And am I the only person who noticed hat all three contenders for the vice-presidency were named Harry?

One way of thinking about the Yalta Conference in February 1945, is that Stalin dragged a very ill man half way round the world and then, backed by his henchman Molotov, was able to run rings round him. Roosevelt no longer seemed to take in information, or push for solid agreements. His doctor thought his brain was going and gave him only months to live.

Roosevelt clings to Stalin till the last moment

I hadn’t realised the Roosevelt administration became so utterly pro-Soviet, and increasingly anti-British. All discussions about helping Britain after the war with loans were tempered by concern that Britain would rise to become a major economic rival of the US. It came as a big surprise to Roosevelt and his economic advisers when Churchill bluntly told them that Britain was broke, and would go bankrupt without major economic assistance (p.305)

In the last hundred pages Roosevelt’s administration starts gearing up for the presidential campaign of 1944, and for the first time you really hear about his Republican opponents, and suddenly realise that there was a great deal of domestic opposition throughout Roosevelt’s presidency, from Republicans who opposed the state socialism of the New Deal, to isolationists who fought tooth and nail to keep America out of the war, and then to an array of political figures and commentators who accused Roosevelt’s Democrats of being far to supportive to the Communist mass-murderer, Stalin, and not being supportive enough of the right-wing Nationalist government of China under Chiang.

In this context Fenby goes into detail of the diplomatic toing and froing surrounding the Warsaw Rising – not the fighting itself, but the increasingly desperate attempts of the Polish government in exile to get the Allies to support the rising, the repeated requests made by Roosevelt and Churchill to Stalin to get the Red Army – which had halted its advance only 50 kilometres from the Polish capital – to intervene, or to get permission to land & fly Western planes from Ukrainian airfields to drop supplies to the Polish resistance. All of which Stalin refused and stonewalled. It suited him to have the entire Free Polish Resistance massacred by the Germans, clearing the way for the puppet communist government he planned to put in place. Afterwards the Americans and Churchill fell in with Stalin’s obvious lies that only military shortcomings had prevented the Red Army from intervening. Only the tough-minded George Kennan felt the West should have had a full-fledged showdown with Russia about it.

Same with the Katyn Massacre – in which some 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were executed by the Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) in April and May 1940. The Nazis discovered the burial site and publicised it in 1943, but Stalin resolutely denied all responsibility and claimed it was a Nazi atrocity and Britain and America, once again, went along with his lies, for the sake of alliance unity.

The Cold War

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died just as the war ended. Every day made it plainer that the Soviets were going to ignore all promises and do whatever it took to impose communist governments across Eastern Europe, most notably in Poland whose governance was a running sore between the three ‘allies’ from the start of 1945. Right to the end Roosevelt hoped that, if he ignored this or that broken promise or atrocity by Stalin, the dictator would adhere to the main agreements.

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died and a new, simpler but arguably tougher man took over, Harry Truman, who was plunged into managing the future of the world as the greatest war in history came to a close. Truman had no idea relations with Moscow were so rocky. And he hadn’t been told about the atom bomb. Can you imagine the awesome burden which suddenly landed on his shoulders!

In some ways the last 20 pages are the most interesting: with the war in Europe over, Churchill – as Roosevelt predicted – became yesterday’s man. An exhausted Britain looked to the future and elected the Labour government with a landslide in July 1945. Roosevelt was dead and Truman replaced him as president with a completely new remit, sacking former advisers (e.g. Morgenthau while Roosevelt’s most loyal adviser, Harry Hopkins, retired), very much his own man from the start. The Labour Party leader Clement Attlee replaced Churchill. And on August 6 the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On 14 August Japan surrendered, bringing the world war to an end.

A new era had dawned – but Fenby’s highly detailed, fascinating and gripping account helps the reader understand how the outlines of what became known as the Cold War had been established long before the shooting stopped.


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The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (The Plague, page 63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence), a city which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims and slowly comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city.

The plague doesn’t relent but keeps getting gets worse and worse, and Rieux plays a key role in reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city and so on.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary 1940s ideas derived variously from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, and who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these characters come into contact with Dr Rieux at one stage or another, as acquaintances who he treats or as friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of Jacques, the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t stop till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, forced to face up to the fundamental questions of existence – and Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this completely believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself The Narrator, who explains how – after the plague had finally expired – he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and so is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character of The Narrator’s account. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age when he wrote the novel, it is Rieux who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards, and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city and separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big, strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s ‘flail’ or ‘scourge’ swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Father Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. The priest offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There then follow inevitable dialogues between Father Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in a conversation with Rieux, and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Father Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Father Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. It is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Father Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which The Narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of many of the other characters such as Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level of the narrative, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, and arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter of Oran when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates throughout existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned representative of a vengeful Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the ‘injustice’ of ‘bourgeois society’, which stood up for the workers and for the humiliated everywhere. But then Tarrou found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders of his movement (presumably the communists in Spain) claimed were necessary to overthrow the unjust regime.

Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic and brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying, all chime perfectly. It is a great scene. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois, legalistic world of his father, Tarrou has also walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register which domaintes the novel – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. But a saint without a God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books, I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He was a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague struck. When the city is closed, Rambert finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers.

This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another. He is told to be ready to be smuggled out of one of the city’s gates by ‘friendly’ guards, only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches.

Presumably Camus is deliberately trying for a realistic, unromantic and unexciting narrative effect – the opposite of a Hollywood adventure movie. Somewhere The Narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion, his loyalty, his quixotic quest, are contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of most of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows just after the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-stricken Oran, Rambert has realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the political and social issues of Camus’s time, great big issues of justice and commitment, loyalty and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something, somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic stereotype of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, Grand uses his real skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by The Narrator as demonstrating precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which The Narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them as a result of an incident, when Grand telephones the doctor to tell him that he’s just found Cottard as he was attempting to hang himself. The doctor rushes round and he and Grand save and revive Cottard. Cotard recovers but, from that point onwards, is shifty and consistently evades the police and the authorities, since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in Cottard becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks together. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises the disease is bubonic plague far more quickly than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally mass produced and administered, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague or whether the plague declines because it had worked its way through the population anyway.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children around Oran. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a plague victim, Othon is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising the characters like this makes it clearer than when you actually read the novel, just how schematic they are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity.

Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types. Additional comments:

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is lucky enough to be packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife, back in Paris. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist. (Algeria achieved its independence from France after a horrific war, 15 years after this novel was published, in 1962.)

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever and pain and the last-minute falling away of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically. It is described as a character with agency and intent.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto. Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends a serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus was not a philosopher. Although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to anywhere near the same level as Sartre, who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s coterie. But then, Camus himself was ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus can maybe be described as a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour, he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe.

Exile is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging.

He uses the word hope to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his later ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express, various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’ and the medical aspect, as I’ve pointed out, is medieval.

No, we read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter, at around 100 pages each. The Plague is by far the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The realisation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is much more important to Camus than the ideas around ‘the Absurd’
  3. Camus’s horribly long-winded style which makes stretches of The Plague almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post)

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18-year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England, where, by the 1970s, most people thought of ‘the Church’ as a retirement home for nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope via P.G.Wodehouse to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics.

The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its theological tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God.

Politically, the French Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them, deeply cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free – indeed that you are condemned to be free – to make your own set of values and decisions, derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this knowledge involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

So it seems reasonable to speculate that a lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something vital and life supporting – and that now it is lost.

In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is simply that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish, when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or ‘exiled’ by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse.

Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals, without feeling the need to burst into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of other facts about the world we live in, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

This line of thought was prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly ‘existential’ or ‘atheist’ worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. Christianity is key.

When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

Likewise, God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology.

This plucky godlessness only really has meaning by reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. Camus and his characters can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of the throat, some philosophical foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc? It’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before the characters finally feel able to get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity, and so on.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus.

The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his life and actions. But where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text saturated with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are a few passages about ‘the Absurd’ but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. The Law is absolutely central to these two novels, and it is a notion of the law inextricably interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice.

And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux, and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and ever since have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wonder why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and to be a member of the Resistance. That would have been of huge historic importance and also directly tied his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful.

Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels (published in 1942, 1947 and 1956) mention the Second World War, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all. Kafka was another author obsessed by the idea of law and justice.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything – a transparent reference to The Trial.)


Key terms in The Plague

Because the entire translated text is available online, it’s easy to do a word search for key terms. The following results tend, I think, to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

References to Camusian concepts

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

There are, then, surprisingly few direct references to the main concepts which made him famous.

References to Christian concepts

Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more fully expressed and explored.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

References to the law

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

Exile

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’.

This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from the (Christian) belief systems which give our lives purpose.

But it is typical of Camus that this key term is not a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word in the book is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

What the earth is saying

In January there were apocalyptic infernos in Australia.

In February there was unprecedented flooding around England.

Now it’s March and we’ve got a global pandemic.

It’s almost as if the planet is trying to tell us something.

I think she’s trying to say: ‘Stop it. Stop killing me. And stop murdering all the other life forms that live here.’

She’s been saying it gently for decades and nobody’s been listening. So now she’s decided to use a language that even the dimmest can understand.

The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2nd edition, 2013)

Westerners bore some blame for China’s plight, but the prime cause lay in the empire itself and its rulers. (p.94)

The bloodshed! The murders! The killings! The massacres! The public beheadings! The drownings! The executions! The torture! The mass rapes! The famines! The cannibalism! It’s a miracle China exists after so much death and destruction.

This is a huge book with 682 pages of text and on every page there are killings, murders, massacres, pogroms, famines, floods, executions, purges and liquidations. 150 years of murder, massacre and mayhem. It is a shattering and gruelling book to read.

An estimated 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion which dragged on from 1850 to 1871. 20 million! Maybe 14 million died in the 8-year-war against Japan 1937-45. And then maybe as many as 45 million died during the chaotic thirty-year misrule of Chairman Mao!!!!

Throw in the miscellaneous other rebellions of the Taiping era (the Nian Rebellion, 100,000+ killed and vast loss of property), the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (about 100,000 civilians and soldiers dead), the chaos of the Warlord Era (1916-28), immense losses during the long civil war between Nationalists and Communists (1927-49), and Fenby comes up with the commonly accepted figure that between 1850 and 1980 around 100 million Chinese died unnatural or unnecessary deaths.

100 million! The sheer scale of the killing, the torture and executions and butchery and burnings and beheadings and starving to death and burying alive is difficult to comprehend, and also difficult to cope with. Several times I lay the book down because I was so sickened by the butchery. Contemporary China is soaked in the blood of its forefathers as no other country on earth.

Here’s a few examples from just the opening pages:

  • In 1850 Han officials massacred tens of thousands of Muslims in remote Yunnan (p.18)
  • When the Taiping army reached the Wuhan cities in 1851, it massacred the inhabitants. When it took Nanjing it ‘systematically butchered’ all the Manchu inhabitants (p.20)
  • The mandarin in charge of putting down the revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded over 100,000 rebels and only lamented he couldn’t exterminate the entire class (p.22)
  • When the Xianfeng emperor died in 1861 he left the throne to a minor. A regency council was formed by a senior censor, Sushun. He was outwitted by the former emperor’s concubine Cixi, and was beheaded (the original plan had been to skin him alive) and two allied princes allowed to hang themselves. (p.24) Can you imagine anything remotely similar happening at the court of Queen Victoria? Skinning alive?
  • 13 days after the death of the emperor, a gentry army took the river port of Anqing. The river was full of the headless bodies of rebels (p.26)
  • The silk city of Suzhou was held by 40,000 Taiping rebels. General Li Hongzhang besieged it and the rebel leaders surrendered. Li had all the leaders executed and half the defenders massacred, then the city was comprehensively looted (p.28)
  • When the poet and Taiping rebel leader Shi Dakai surrendered to save his troops from imperial forces, he himself was slowly sliced to death in the process sometimes translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts‘ (a form of punishment and torture commonly used in China until it was officially banned in 1905), and 2,000 of his troops were massacred (p.28)
  • The last engagement of the Taiping Rebellion was the imperial reconquest of the rebels’ capital at Nanjing in 1864. At least 100,000 rebels were killed in the three-day battle and the imperial army went on to massacre the entire population of Nanjing (p.29)
  • While the Taiping devastated the south, northern China was rocked by the Nian Rebellion with its snappy motto: ‘kill the rich and aid the poor’. (The more you learn, the more the disasters of Mao’s communism reveal their deep roots in Chinese tradition i.e. he was invoking and repeating well-established cultural practices.)
  • Having finally conquered the Taiping rebels, Qing imperial forces went north to exterminate the Nians, at first by surrounding and starving them. In one canton the population was reduced to eating the crushed bones of the dead and then to cannibalism. Then they were massacred (p.30).
  • In 1872 the leader of the rebellious Hui Muslims in Yunnan, surrounded in his capital Dali by imperial armies, swallowed an overdose of opium and had his corpse carried in a sedan chair to the imperial camp, where it was ceremonially decapitated. Then the imperial army launched a ferocious attack on Dali, an eye-witness claiming that not a single Muslim man, woman or child was left living, while the streets ran ankle deep in blood. The ears of the dead were cut off and more than 20,000 ears were sent in baskets to the court in Beijing. Any surviving women and children were sold as sex slaves (p.30)
  • Imperial general Zuo Zongtang besieged the leader of the anti-Qing rebellion in Gansu province, Ma Hualong, in his capital at Jinjipu. Having reduced the population to cannibalism, Zuo accepted the surrender of Ma before having him sliced alive, executing his son and officials, then massacring the town’s inhabitants, and burning it to the ground (p.31).

That’s just 13 pages out of 680. On and on it goes, the mind-boggling violence and cruelty – with murders, massacres, battles and pogroms, torture and beheadings, floods and famine on nearly every page.

The complete absence of democracy or debate

If the accumulated disasters ram home one bitter lesson, it is that Chinese politics and culture entirely lacked the ability to cope with dissenting voices and differing opinions. The Imperial system was based on total obedience. It was backed up by the phenomenally hierarchical philosophy of Confucius, in which everyone is subordinate to superiors and must obey (sons obey fathers, wives obey husbands etc).

From the court down, through the gentry class, the army, intellectuals and students – it was either Total Obedience or Total Rebellion, no middle way was possible because no middle way was conceivable, was – literally – capable of being thought.

This top-down mindset was inherited by the Nationalist Party which imposed a sort of government over most of China between the wars – and then was repeated once again in the terrifying dictatorship of Mao Zedong from 1949 till his death in 1976.

The messy polyphony of Western democracies, with its satire, criticism, proliferating parties, all sorts of newspapers, magazines and outlets for opposition and dissent – with its free speech – was just one of the many things the Chinese despised about the West, and considered themselves loftily superior to.

Whether it was imperial China or Nationalist China or communist China: all Chinese disdained and mocked the uncultured buffoonery of western democracy.

And the result was war upon war upon war – your opponents weren’t guys you could just invite round for a smoke and a chat about their demands and do deals with: they were ‘impious rebels’, ‘imperial running dogs’, ‘idolatrous demons’, ‘surrenderists’, ‘mountaintopists’ and so on.

China doesn’t appear to have much political theory. Instead it has a rich vocabulary of abuse based on one fundamental idea – he who is not with me is against me. Hence a litany of dehumanising insults designed to turn your opponents into non-human vermin who must simply be exterminated. And exterminated they were, on an industrial scale.

None of this changed when the empire fell in 1911: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek carried on using the same language both about all their enemies (‘foreign devils’, ‘communist dogs’), while the communists developed their own special language of abuse and dehumanisation.

As Fenby shows in excruciating detail, both Nationalists and communists not only massacred each other, but were riven by internal splits which led to pogroms and mass liquidations of their own side.

People couldn’t just agree to disagree (and what a beautiful achievement of English civilisation that phrase seems in this context): they felt compelled to exterminate the ‘capitalist roaders’ or ‘communist dogs’ on their own side.

For, as Fenby shows, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to this day, the Chinese communist party leadership, despite having transformed their country into a peculiar type of state capitalism, is still incapable of managing dissenting voices and opinions. From mass movements like the Falun Gong, to the wishes of the Tibetan people kindly not to have their culture destroyed, to the Muslim separatists of Xinjiang, through to individual dissidents like the high-profile artist Ai Weiwei – there are no mechanisms for dialogue, there never have been: there is only the language of demonisation and total repression.

This utter inflexibility buried deep in the Chinese psyche, this inability of its leaders to tolerate any form of free speechers, combined with an unbending sense of their own superiority and rectitude, is the enduring characteristic of Chinese leaders and one which has plunged their country again and again and again into bloodshed and terror on an unimaginable scale.

This book covers the 170 years from 1850 to the present. It feels like it skimps a bit on the earlier years – not telling me much more about the vast, calamitous Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) that I hadn’t learned from John Keay’s history of China – in fact I wonder if there’s a good up-to-date history devoted to just the Taiping…

It’s really in the 1870s and 80s that the text becomes increasingly detailed, that you feel you are beginning to get to grips with the minutiae of the period, and to get a feel for the enormous cast of characters. The later 19th century in China rotates around the cunning dowager empress Cixi and the constellation of young emperors and courtiers who circle round her.

As with Keay’s book, there is no point trying to summarise such a vast and complex history. Instead, I’ll give a basic timeline and then highlight a few of the thoughts and issues that arose.

China timeline

  • 1644-1912 Qing Dynasty Although the Qing rulers adapted quickly to traditional Chinese rule they were ethnically different from the majority of the native, Han Chinese, hailing from Manchuria in the north. This provided a pretext for all sorts of nationalist rebellions against their rule from the 1850s onwards. The later Qing emperors are:
    • Emperor Xianfeng (1850 – 1861)
    • Emperor Tongzhi (1861 – 1875)
    • Emperor Guangxu (1875 – 1908)
    • Emperor Xuantong (1908 – 1911)
  • 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion – led by a religious zealot, Hong Xiuquan. Convinced he was Jesus’s younger brother, Hong whipped up his followers to expel all foreigners, which included not only westerners but the ‘alien’ Manchu dynasty. Wherever they triumphed, they massacred Manchus, and established a reign of terror based on countless public beheadings. The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war and the largest conflict of the 19th century, one of the bloodiest wars in human history, with estimate of deaths ranging as high as 70 million – more reasonably set at 20 million.
  • 1894-95 First Sino-Japanese War Fought over possession of Korea, until then a Chinese vassal, to secure its coal and iron and agricultural products for Japan. The Japanese seized not only Korea but the Liaodong Peninsula and Port Arthur, within marching distance of Beijing, as well as the island of Taiwan.

Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others, illustration by Utagawa Kokunimasa

  • 1898 The Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform is stopped in its tracks and reversed by the Dowager Empress Cixi.
Empress Dowager Cixi, maybe the central figure of the last 50 years of the Chinese empire

Empress Dowager Cixi, the central figure of the last 40 years of the Chinese empire

  • 1899-1901 The Boxer Rebellion – Han Chinese rose up against foreigners, the highlight being the siege of the Western embassies in Beijing.
  • 1911 Anti-Qing rebellions break out accidentally and spread sporadically across China with no single unifying force, just a wave of local strongmen who reject Qing rule.
  • 1912 The last Qing emperor abdicates Temporary presidency of republican hero Dr Sun Yat-sen.
  • 1912-1915 presidency of General Yuan Shikai, a military strongman who works through a network of allies and placemen around the provinces. Power goes to his head and he has himself declared emperor of a new dynasty, before dying of blood poisoning.
  • 1916-1928 The Warlord Era – China disintegrates into a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords, creating a ‘meritocracy of violence’.
  • 1919 May 4th – Student protests against the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace Treaty (China, who sent over 100,000 coolies to help the Allies, was given nothing, while Japan, who did nothing, was given all the territory previously held by the defeated Germany, including territory in the province of Shandong, birthplace of Confucius, creating the so-called Shandong Problem).
  • 1919 October – foundation of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party of China, a right-wing reaction against the pro-democracy 4th of May movement, which emphasised traditional Chinese values and, led by Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1920s and 30s, went on to form the nearest thing to a government China had, until defeated by the communists in 1949.
  • 1921 Inspired by the Fourth of May protests against imperialism and national humiliation the Communist Party of China is formed with help from Russian Bolsheviks
  • 1937-45 Second Sino-Japanese War (see the book about it by Rana Mitter)

Themes & thoughts

Mass killing

Wow, the sheer scale, the numbers who were killed. In the hundred and ten years from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, maybe 100 million Chinese died unnatural deaths, actively killed or dying from avoidable starvation or drowning. The Taiping Rebellion itself was responsible for maybe 20 million deaths. The war with Japan caused another 14 million or so. Mao’s famine and general mismanagement maybe 45 million. 45 million.

Even what sound like fairly minor revolts in cities and towns, rural disturbances, seem to result in thousands of deaths almost every year. Every dozen or so pages Fenby quotes another western journalist arriving at the scene of another massacre by the Taiping rebels or Boxer rebels or warlord rebels, by the imperial forces or Muslim rebels, by the Nian or the nationalists or the communists – and finding the city razed to the ground and the river choked with corpses

  • In 1895 James Creelman of the New York World finds Port Arthur devastated and the unarmed civilians butchered in their houses, the streets lined with corpses and heads stuck on pikes by the rampaging Japanese army (p.51)
  • In 1900 Richard Steel witnessed the aftermath of Boxer rebels’ attempt to take the foreign section of Tianjin, where they were mown down by Japanese and Russian soldiers, leaving the city in ruins and the river choked with Chinese corpses (p.90)

Brutality

Being made to kneel and have your head sliced off with a scimitar was a standard punishment for all sorts of crimes. As the empire crumbled and was subject to countless rebellions small and large across its vast territory, their suppression and punishment required an astonishing number of Chinese to chop each others’ heads off.

The Mandarin in charge of suppressing the Taiping Revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded 100,000 rebels (p.22). During the 1911 revolution the new governor of Sichuan had his predecessor decapitated and rode through the streets brandishing his head (p.121).

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, then head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Resistance to change

I was staggered by the absolute, dead-set determination from top to bottom of Chinese society to set its face against modernisation, industrialisation, liberalisation, democracy and all the other new-fangled ideas from the West, which it so despised. From 1850 to about 1980, all Chinese governments were determined to reject, deny, censor and prevent any incorporation of corrupt, decadent, capitalist Western ideas and techniques.

As John Keay remarked, a central characteristic of the Chinese is an ingrained superiority complex – their leaders, from the emperor to Chaing Kai-shek to Mao, just know that China is the centre of the world and is superior to the rest of the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Fenby describes the late-imperial world as ‘a system which was not designed to accommodate, let alone encourage, change’ (p.38.) As the late 19th century reformer Li Hongzhang admitted in 1884,

‘Affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.’ (p.41)

The first railway in China, built by the British in Shanghai, was bought by the local council who had the rails torn up and the station turned into a temple. Railways interfered with feng shui and local customs. They brought in foreign devils. Like every other western innovation i.e. like every single aspect of the modern world, they were resisted hammer and tong by Chinese at all levels. As an edict from the Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform put it, China was afflicted by:

‘the bane of the deeply-rooted system of inertness and a clinging to obsolete customs.’ (p.67)

Reformers were always in a minority, within the court itself, let alone in a country overwhelmingly populated by illiterate peasants. Which explains why it took China about 100 years – from the 1880s when it began to grasp some of the implications of capitalism – until well into the 1980s, to even begin to implement it.

Fenby’s immensely detailed picture takes account of the endless war, violence and conflict China was caught up in. But what comes over most is that Chinese of all ranks and levels of education didn’t want it – western ‘democracy’, ‘free speech’, competition, egalitarianism, innovation, entrepreneurism, disruptive technologies.

没有! Méiyǒu! NO!

Foreign devils

Rana Mitter’s book about the China-Japanese war contains a surprising amount of anti-western and anti-British feeling and he frequently refers to the ‘unequal treaties’ of the nineteenth century between European powers and a weakened China, but since his book is about the war of the 1930s, he doesn’t give a lot of detail.

Fenby’s book by contrast covers exactly the period of ‘unequal treaties’ (where European countries took advantage of China’s weakness to get her to sign away rights to trade, legal coverage of foreigners, entire treaty ports like Hong Kong), gives a lot more detail, and really drills home why the century from 1840 to 1940 was a period of sustained national humiliation for the Chinese – it is in fact known as ‘the century of humiliation’ or ‘the hundred years of national humiliation’.

Basically, Westerners imposed an unceasing stream of treaties designed, initially, to create special trading cantonments on the coast, but which one by one encroached further inland, ensured Westerners were exempt from Chinese law (in effect, free to do what they wanted) and could force trade with the Chinese on unfavourable and biased terms.

Moreover, there were so many foreign nations each scrambling to get a piece of the action in China – most obviously trading basic commodities but also competing for the broader opportunities which opened up later in the 19th century, for example building railways or setting up banks. I hadn’t realised how many western countries queued up to get their slice of the action.

I knew about the usual suspects – Britain with its powerful navy, and France encroaching up from its colony down in Indo-China i.e. Vietnam-Laos. But Bismarck’s unification of Germany by the 1870s announced the arrival of a new, more brutal competitor who was determined not to miss out in either Africa or China.

And Fenby makes clear that the Chinese feared neighbouring Russia more than all the others, because of its steady expansion into the north of the country and Manchuria (‘The British, French and Germans were a constant irritant, but the Tsarist empire and its communist successor represented a much greater territorial threat to China.’ p.31). And above all, the Chinese should, of course, really have been most scared of Japan, another ‘divine empire’, which turned out to be by far its worst destroyer.

I was startled when Fenby gives the process the overall title ‘the Scramble for China’, since this is a term usually reserved for the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ – but as he piled example on example of the countless unequal trading deals, the intimidation of Chinese authorities with gunships and punitive armed raids by European armies, I came to realise how true it was, how carved up, humiliated and exploited China became – and so why getting rid of foreigners and foreign influence came to be such a dominating strand in the mindset of 20th century Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries.

'China - the cake of kings and emperors' French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

‘China – the cake of kings and emperors’ French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

Ratcheting A key element of the unequal treaties was the way each of the European nations was able to out-trump the others… and then all the others demanded parity. Some German missionaries were harmed in a remote province? Germany demanded reparations and increased trading rights. At which the British, French, Russians and Americans all demanded a similar ratcheting up of their rights and accessibility. Some British merchants were attacked in Canton? The British sent in gunboats, demanded reparations and the rights to entire industries – and all the other European nations then demanded parity or they’d send in their gunboats.

So it went on with an apparently endless ratcheting up of the legal and commercial privileges and the sums demanded by the rapacious Europeans.

Unequal treaties

  • 1839–42 The First Opium War leading to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing – granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island
  • 1844 The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, which was signed by Théodore de Lagrené and Qiying on October 24, 1844, extended the same privileged trading terms to France as already exacted by Britain
  • 1845 The Treaty of Wanghia between China and the United States, signed on July 3, 1844 in the Kun Iam Temple.
  • 1856-60 The Second Opium War pitting the British Empire and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China.
  • 1858 – British attack on Canton after Chinese sailors were arrested aboard a ship carrying the British flag. British houses were burned and a price put on the heads of foreigners. British forces secured Canton. British and French forces attacked Tienjin, the coastal area east of Beijing. The westerners marched on Beijing and burned down the emperor’s Summer Palace (1860), among the looters being Charles Gordon, later to make his name at Khartoum. In the final peace treaty the allies were paid a large indemnity, trading concessions and Russia was given 300,000 square miles of territory in the far north!
  • 1884-5 The Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War, in which the French seized control of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).
  • 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the first Sino-Japanese war cedes to Japan Taiwan, the Pescadores islands and the Liaodong Peninsula, along with an indemnity of 16.5 million pounds of silver as well as opening five coastal ports to Japanese trade.

Fenby’s account makes vividly and appallingly clear the kind of treadmill of endless humiliation and dismemberment which educated Chinese felt their country was being remorselessly subject to. And the hypocrisy of the Western nations who went on about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, while all the time lining their pockets and showing no morality whatsoever.

Western advantages

All that said, the Chinese needed the West and Fenby (thankfully) paints a nuanced and complex picture. Just as not all Chinese were pigtailed ignoramuses, so not all Westerners were hypocritical exploiters. A shining example is Robert Hart, an Ulsterman from a poor family, who rose to become the head of the China’s Customs Service, just one of many Westerners employed by the imperial court for their (Western) knowledge and expertise. Hart ran the service from 1863 to 1911 and transformed it from a corrupt, antiquated and inefficient sinecure into a well-run organisation which ended up being one of the main contributors to imperial finances. He became a byword for honesty and dependability, and was awarded a number of China’s highest honours.

Hart’s story reminds us that it is a complicated world, then as now, and that many Westerners made significant contributions to China, establishing a range of businesses, banks, building railways, developing areas of the economy. If there was a lot of shameful gunboat diplomacy, there was also a lot of genuine collaboration and contribution.

Fleeing to the West

It is also notable the number of times that native Chinese reformers, dissidents, disgraced court officials and so on fled to the European ports to find sanctuary. Here they found law and order, cleanliness and hygiene which, if not perfect, were vastly superior to the dirt, zero plumbing and violence of their native China.

In 1912, as revolutionary violence swept China, many members of the Imperial court took refuge in the foreign compounds.

After the Tiananmen Square ‘Massacre’ of June 1989, as many of the student leaders as could manage it fled abroad, most ending up in America, for example prominent student leader Chai Ling who went on to head up a successful internet company.

The Japanese

‘As we entered the town of Port Arthur, we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; by and large, there wasn’t a single house without from three to six dead. Blood was flowing and the smell was awful. We sent out search parties. We shot some, hacked at others. The Chinese troops just dropped their arms and fled. Firing and slashing, it was unbounded joy. At this time, our artillery troops were at the rear, giving three cheers [banzai] for the emperor.’
– Diary of Japanese soldier, Makio Okabe, describing the capture of Port Arthur, November 1894

Multiply this several million times to get the full impact of what it meant to be a neighbour of Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth century: Korea, Manchuria, mainland China all benefited from Japan’s goal of building a glorious Asian empire. This is described at great length in Rana Mitter’s history of the China-Japanese war.

Maoist madness

The madness of the Mao Zedong era is described in my reviews of Frank Dikotter’s book:

But Fenby dwells at length on the paranoia and crazed whims of the Great Helmsman, with results that eclipse the horrors of the late Qing Empire. The famine which resulted from his Great Leap Forward policy (1958 to 1962) resulted in anything from 30 to 55 million deaths. And that’s before the separate category of deaths actively caused by the security forces implementing their brutal policy of forced collectivisation.

Plus ça change…

Countries are like people, they rarely change. The modern history of Chinese history is a fascinating case study. Again and again Fenby points out that certain patterns of behaviour recur and recur, the most notorious being the attempt to impose reform of Chinese society from the top, reform which threatens to get out of hand, and then is harshly repressed. As predictable as a, b, c.

Thus his description of a) the attempted reforms of the Guangxu Emperor in 1898, which b) began to get out of hand c) were brought to an abrupt halt by the power behind the throne, the Dowager empress Cixi, eerily pre-echo a) Mao’s unleashing of revolutionary change from above in the Cultural Revolution b) which even he realises is getting out of hand and c) represses.

Or the way the a) very mild liberal reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to b) the unpredictable outburst of student protests in Tiananmen Square which the party hierarchy tolerated for a few weeks before c) brutally suppressing.

To this day the rulers of China daren’t institute anything like real democracy because they know the chaos they would unleash, they remember the history of the Warlord Era, indeed the terrifyingly violent history this book describes. Maybe such a vast and varied terrain, containing so many ethnicities and levels of economic development, can still only be managed by a strong central authority?

And the more you read and learn about the Chinese history of the past century – the more you sympathise with them. Fenby’s long and gruelling narrative ends with the repeated conclusion that China’s rulers are as repressive as ever – indeed, given the arrival of the internet, they are able to practice surveillance and social control of their populations which previous dictators could only have dreamed of.

And yet they are all too aware that they are sitting astride a bubbling cauldron of vast social inequality, political corruption, popular resentment, ethnic division (most obvious in Tibet and Xinjiang but present among a hundred other ethnic minorities), and the pressures and strains caused by creating a dynamic go-head 21st century economy controlled by a fossilised, top-down, 20th century Leninist political structure.

This is an extraordinarily insightful and horrifying book. Anybody who reads it will have their knowledge of China hugely increased and their opinion of China and the Chinese irreparably damaged.


Related links

Other reviews about China

Putting coronavirus death rates into perspective

So far 177 deaths from coronavirus have been reported in the UK and the media are full of wild speculation about how big the death toll could eventually become. They stoke up hysteria by adding in the ever-increasing figures from Italy and Spain, and showing the empty freeways of Los Angeles or Venice abandoned to the fishes as if that’s going to be us, soon.

I just want to calm things down, and take a minute to look at the ordinary background rate of deaths in the United Kingdom, and try to put all these numbers in perspective.

In my opinion, this involves really grasping how common death is in the UK. In 2018 616,000 deaths were recorded in the UK. A little maths shows that that is an average of 1,687 every day, or 70 per hour.

All I’m suggesting is that people stop and meditate on that figure for a minute.

If you live your life through the media, through the newspapers and magazines, the internet, social media, film and TV, you get the impression that everyone is young and sexy, and is going to live forever.

Death is only occasionally reported in all these optimistic media, almost all of which are funded by adverts showing images of astonishingly beautiful healthy people buying cars, or meeting at nightclubs, or holidaying on golden sands.

This is all a misleading lie. In reality a large number of people in the UK are ill, suffer from chronic health conditions or disabilities.

And about 616,000 of these die every year. 616,000 is the average, ordinary, ‘normal’ rate of background deaths. On average someone dies in the UK every minute.

616,000 strikes me as a huge number of deaths. If you think about the care homes and nurses and doctors required to give these mostly elderly people end-stage care, the ambulance drivers and paramedics and pharmacists, and then the funeral homes and crematoria and their staff, then you begin to realise that there is a huge infrastructure devoted to the management of death in the UK.

It is a big subject and a big sector of the economy which almost never gets any media coverage and which, therefore, people rarely think or talk about until it’s their relatives dying.

Consider with the amount of publicity that pregnancy and birth get, from all the magazines and products surrounding pregnancy to media representations of actual births in popular TV shows such as Call The Midwife.

Then compare and contrast with media representations of death – not the sensational deaths of film and TV thrillers – but ordinary everyday death, slowly expiring in a hospital ward, doubly incontinent, your body full of tubes, pumped full of drugs and painkillers.

You rarely see it accurately portrayed, do you? Instead the media usually only report on exceptional deaths, such as the occasional terrorist atrocity or motorway pile-up or the death of a celebrity.

All of which gives the quite false impression that, somehow, death is a rare and horrific event which we should all be shocked and terrified by. Whereas, what I’m trying to establish is that death is surprisingly common. 1 a minute, 1,687 a day, 616,000 a year.

My point is that death is all around us all the time. It is not only an inevitable part of life, it is quite a significant part of the British economy, with maybe a million or so personnel, in total, devoted to managing it.

So now let’s return to the coronavirus outbreak. Maybe the total deaths in the UK will rise to match Italian rates. Maybe it will hit 3,000, 10,000, 20,000. You can see why the government wants to control the spread (ideally to halt the spread, though that seems unlikely in any country which is not a totalitarian regime) in order to reduce the impact on the existing health services which are already running at capacity.

I understand all of that. But just in terms of total deaths, even 20,000 fatalities from coronavirus would only represent 3% of the standard background rate of 616,000.

I’m not saying every one of those deaths doesn’t count. But where was the national mourning and lamentation over the 616,000 who died in 2018? There was none because we all of us get on with our busy lives, rarely thinking about the elderly and frail who are dying in our midst all the time, never giving the subject or the numbers a second thought.

All I am suggesting is that a proper understanding of the relative commonness of death in our country ought to place a few thousand more deaths in their proper perspective, and maybe moderate and damp down the hysteria and panic which the media are helping to stoke up.

Related articles

Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Aubrey Beardsley must be the most distinctive British artist. If you see any of his mature works, they are immediately recognisable and almost always deeply satisfying, their elegance of line and composition emphasised by the stylish use of huge areas of unmediated black or white, and the sophistication of his sensually charged portrayal of the human figure.

The Black Cape, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) Photo © Tate

This exhibition is a feast of Beardsleiana, bringing together 200 spectacular works to make the largest display of his original drawings in over 50 years and the first exhibition of his work at Tate since 1923.

The wall labels to the fifteen or so sections the exhibition is divided into are available online:

And it contains a detailed timeline of his career. Rather than repeat all that, I’ll just single out what were, for me, the key learnings or best bits.

Key learnings

As he turned 18 and needed a job, Beardsley got a job working in an insurance office which, as you might imagine, he hated. What other early modern ‘great’ worked in an insurance office, created a distinctive body of work, and died of tuberculosis? Franz Kafka

Arts & Crafts It is interesting to see Beardsley’s tremendous indebtedness to Arts & Crafts ideas of total design, and the importance of intertwining flower and stem motifs. And considering he was only 19!

Withered Spring by Aubrey Beardsley (1891)

Beardsley began his career just as William Morris was producing his luxury designed books from the Kelmscott Press. The curators usefully summarise the elements of a Kelmscott production as:

  • elaborate decorated borders
  • decorated initial letters
  • full page illustration

The hair-line style The exhibition shows how Beardsley quickly moved from this relatively ‘heavy’ line to move to the extreme opposite, to complex compositions which are covered in a crazy network of super-fine lines. The curators call this his ‘hair line’ style.

How Arthur saw the Questing Beast by Aubrey Beardsley (1893) Victoria and Albert Museum

It is also an early example of Beardsley slipping surreptitious rudeness or irrelevancies into his pictures. At the bottom left of the ‘river bank’, right up against the frame, is the silhouette of an erect penis and scrotum. Towards the top right is a concealed treble clef.

Morte d’Arthur The picture above is one of the Morte d’Arthur series which made Beardsley’s reputation. He was commissioned to make a hefty 353 illustrations for a new edition of the Morte by publisher J.M. Dent, including full and double-page illustrations, elaborate border designs and numerous small-scale ornamental chapter headings.

However, Beardsley quickly became bored and irked by the subject limitations and began introducing extraneous elements and flights of fancy. Thus the picture above is supposed to be of a medieval knight and a dragon though you wouldn’t really think so. Most disruptive of all is the presence of a pan or satyr from Greek mythology, absolutely nothing to do with medieval legend.

Japanese influence The exhibition includes one print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a lovely coloured woodblock which exemplifies the kind of Japanese influence which impacted European art from the 1870s onwards, and influenced everyone with their:

  • abstract depiction of pictorial space
  • linear intricacy
  • emphasis on flat pattern

Kakemonokakemono is a Japanese hanging scroll used to display and exhibit paintings and calligraphy inscriptions and designs mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage. It is a distinctly different shape from traditional Western portrait shape, and Beardsley was to incorporate it into many later works.

Mantegna Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a key influence for Beardsley. The Italian was famous for his frescos and murals showing parades and processions and groups of people, and Beardsley used ideas and figures and compositions from Mantegna throughout his career. Even in his last accommodation, a hotel room in the south of France, he had a set of photos of works by Mantegna pinned to his wall. Indeed Beardsley produced several Mantegna-style processions, notably The Procession of Joan of Arc which was included as a foldout supplement to the second edition of The Studio magazine in 1892.

Wagnerite Beardsley was a keen fan of Wagner, attending productions of his operas and illustrating scenes from them. He had ambitions as a writer as well as illustrator and in his last few years worked at a text which was a comic version of the legend of Tannhäuser which Wagner had made into an opera. Given the working title of the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, excerpts were eventually published in The Savoy magazine under the title Under The Hill, an oddly Hobbit-like title for such a grand Wagnerian subject.

Photo Lineblock Just as important for the quick evolution of Beardsley’s style was the introduction in the 1890s of the new technology of photo lineblock printing, a photomechanical process. Beardsley was disappointed at the poor reproduction of his washes and shading using this new method, but quickly adapted and made a virtue of leaving large areas of a page completely untouched, others pure black, and ensuring the lines and patterns were crisp and clear. The result is startling.

How la Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram by Aubrey Beardsley (c.1893) Alessandra and Simon Wilson

In fact this picture is singled out by the curators as exemplifying another of Beardsley’s traits which was his extraordinary ability to assimilate influences and make them his own. Thus the curators point out in this image:

  • Isoud resembles Jane Morris, with the classic pre-Raphaelite jutting chin and mountain of frizzy hair
  • the Germanic form of the desk is borrowed from Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in his Study
  • the flattened use of space recalls the influence of Japanese prints
  • whereas the elaborate border of intertwining flower motifs recalls Arts & Crafts designs

Salomé In 1892 Beardsley made a drawing in response to Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s play, originally written in French and based on the biblical story. Wilde admired the drawing and he and his publisher, John Lane, chose Beardsley to illustrate the English translation of the play. Beardsley produced eighteen designs in total, of which only ten appeared in the first printing of the play. Publisher John Lane suppressed or censored three of Beardsley’s illustrations for their overt sexual references, in particular when female characters’ hands are wandering towards their privates, as if about to masturbate, or unnecessary depictions of the male characters’ phalluses.

The Climax – illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) by Aubrey Beardsley. Photo © Tate

The Yellow Book The exhibition clarified the timeline around the Yellow Book, and has an entire room devoted to it. Beardsley was made its art editor at its inception in 1894 and contributed the front and back covers for the first five editions. But Beardsley was closely associated with Oscar Wilde (having contributed a suite of illustrations for Wilde’s ‘immoral’ play about Salome), and so soon after Wilde’s arrest in May 1895, Beardsley was fired from the Yellow Book.

On one of the days of his trial, Wilde was seen going into court holding a copy of the Yellow Book and that clinched it for the angry mobs and journalists outside. The offices of the Yellow Book’s publishers, Bodley Head, were attacked by a mob who smashed its windows. In order tonsure the survival of the firm, and its staff, and the continuity of publication of the magazine and all his other titles, publisher John Lane had little choice but to distance himself from Beardsley. The sixth volume, of July 1895, still had the cover and several illustrations by Beardsley but he no longer worked for it. (Later it transpired that Wilde hadn’t been holding a copy of the Yellow Book at all, but a French novel, which tended to be published with yellow covers.)

The Yellow Book Volume I (1894) bound volume. Photo © Tate

It looks as if you can examine every volume of the Yellow Book, all its literary and art contents, online

The room has an example of all five volumes of the Yellow Book that Beardsley was involved with. I’ve read about it ever since I was a teenager at school forty years ago, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a copy before and certainly not six. I’d always envisioned it as magazine-size, but it does indeed look like a hardback book, in size and shape and leather binding.

Beardsley’s work desk The exhibition includes the very table or desk which Beardsley used during his glory years. Standing a few feet from it, it is hard to imagine that the man produced all these pitch-perfect works without the aid of architects’ tools or computers – just him, a ruler and a pen.

Beardsley’s address With the money he made from the Salome illustrations and a small legacy Beardsley bought a house at 111 Cambridge Street, Pimlico with his mother and sister, Mabel, to both of whom he remained very close throughout his short life. Only a few hundred yards from Tate Britain where this exhibition is being held…

Oscar Wilde Wilde was an established writer when he saw the first of Beardsley’s drawings and immediately liked them. He approved the suggestion that Beardsley illustrate the original French version of Salomé and they socialised. So far, so well known. I hadn’t realised that Beardsley satirised Wilde quite so much. There are straightforward lampoons of the increasingly fat and pompous aesthete, but he also slyly slips Wilde’s epicene features into numerous other illustrations, in one giving the moon the eyes and nose of Wilde.

The Woman in the Moon by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

The Rape of The Lock is the title of Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic 18th century satire. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that ‘rape’ in the title doesn’t mean rape in our modern sense, but the older sense of ‘theft’ or stealing away. Thus Pope conceived an extended poem which uses all the devices and machinery of the classical epic to describe how one jaded aristocrat cuts a lock of hair from the head of another jaded aristocrat, and this leads to a feud between their families. Believe it or not this elaborate literary joke extends to five cantos with many extended scenes. Beardsley created nine photo-engravings for an 1896 republication of the poem, five of which are on display here for the first time.

Beardsley had been a fan of 18th century rococo prints, maybe because they – like him – are sophisticated, worldly, stylish and much more open about sexuality than the Victorians. The exhibition shows us some of the original 18th century prints which Beardsley bought at auction in Paris, and then goes on to show all the Pope pictures.

The Dream by Aubrey Beardsley (1896) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

What’s immediately obvious is the that the stark clarity of the Salome illustrations has been abandoned for a much more elaborate style, characterised above all by the stippling that creates a sort of lace doily effect on almost all the fabrics. And look at the patterning of the carpet. A long way from the stark black and white of the Salome illustrations. Many critics thought these his best works as an illustrator.

Posters the 1890s were the glory decade for poster design in Paris, led by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. I didn’t realise Beardsley produced a number of posters which modified his own style to take on board the need for a) size b) colour.

There’s a room devoted to half a dozen of his posters, none of which match the quality of Lautre or Chéret, and most of which are advertiser’s promotions of new ranges of childrens books or books by women, alongside promotional posters for The Yellow Book and several plays and operas. The section contains the telling quote:

I have no great care for colour, but [in posters] colour is essential.

‘I have no great care for colour’. Worth pondering. And relevant to the one and only oil painting Beardsley is known to have made.

Oil painting There’s a rare outing for Beardsley’s only oil painting and you can see why – it’s rubbish. His entire style was built around absences, around huge areas of untouched whiteness. Trying to translate that into oil, which specialises in depth and shadow, was a hopeless task.

Porn After Beardsley was sacked from The Yellow Book, almost the only publisher who would use his drawings was Leonard Smithers. Smithers operated on the fringes of the rare book trade, issuing small, clandestine editions of risqué books with the boast: ‘I will publish the things the others are afraid to touch’. Smithers encouraged Beardsley’s already growing interest in risqué French, Latin and Greek texts and commissioned drawings to illustrate the Satires of the late Roman poet Juvenal and, most famously, Aristophanes’s bawdy satirical play Lysistrata.

In Lysistrata the women of Athens go on a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their menfolk until they stop the ridiculous war against Sparta. Beardsley made eight outrageously sexual illustrations for Smithers’ edition. Among other subjects, this is the set which includes start, beautifully made black and white line drawings of ancient Greeks with humongous erect penises. Maybe if you’re very young or innocent these are ‘shocking’ images, but to the modern viewer they are vaguely reassuring, certainly humorous. The two figures on the right are mildly realistic but it’s the guy on the left who gets the attention, not because of  his phallus as such but because the entire character is obviously created for grotesque comedy.

Illustration for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896)

The grotesque He knew he was attracted to ‘the grotesque’ and there is a wall label which usefully explains the origins of the grotesque in art. Grotesque originally referred to the decoration of grottos, and came to denote the depiction of deliberately hybrid and monstrous forms, which often combined body parts from different animals, like a centaur or mermaid. As the man himself said:

I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them. .. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.

Foetuses Nobody knows to this day why he drew so many foetuses, either as insets in frames or as characters in the more grotesque illustrations. Maybe it was simply because they are a kind of quintessence of the grotesque.

My favourite Venus framed by two statues of male gods in the form of herms (a sculpture with a head and perhaps a torso above a plain, usually squared lower section’). I like it because of its formal precision, its symmetry which is, however, broken by the asymmetric sway of Venus’s long dress. I like it because there is no indecency, boobs or penises in sight. Instead there is a sense of genuine menace from the devil eyes of the two herms. And I like it because it is a kind of reversion or revisiting of the Arts & Crafts theme of incredibly ornately interwoven bushes, stems and flowers of (I think) roses. But mostly because it is a pleasingly complete, formal, complex and rather threatening image.

Venus between Terminal Gods (1895) Drawing with india ink by Aubrey Beardsley. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford

Walter Sickert Almost the best thing in the exhibition is the full-length portrait painting of Beardsley made by the English painter Walter Sickert, after they’d both attended a commemoration ceremony for John Keats. Its sketchy unfinished quality makes it a haunting gesture to the memory of the dandy and artist who died aged just 25.

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Sickert (1894)

Crucifix The exhibition includes the last photo of Beardsley, taken in the hotel room in the Hotel Cosmopolitain in Menton where he had gone in search of a warmer dryer climate which would be more favourable to his tuberculosis. The photo shows Beardsley looking tremendously smart in a suit and well-polished shoes opposite a wall on which are pinned reproductions of his beloved Mantegna, and a mantelpiece on which sits a crucifix.

Because although I’ve probably read it numerous times, I’d forgotten that in his last months Beardsley converted to Catholicism. He died holding a crucifix. Just a few days before he died he wrote a letter to Leonard Smithers asking him to destroy all of Beardsley’s risqué images, the Lysistrata illustrations etc. Smithers refused and so they were saved for generations of schoolboys to giggle over.

Who does a deathbed request to destroy his works which its address completely ignored remind you of? Franz Kafka.

Film There is a room with benches so you can watch Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent movie version of Salomé immediately following the room of Beardsley’s illustrations. For some reason the gallery lights had been left on full power in this room which made it harder to see the image on the screen.

Legacy The exhibition closes with a sketchy overview of Beardsley’s legacy from his influence on the long sinuous lines of Art Nouveau via a string of now mostly forgotten book illustrators who copied his style (Harry Clarke, Hans Henning Voigt) through the revival of Beardley’s reputation and style which was sparked by a major retrospective of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966 which led to the incorporation of Beardsleyesque black and white swirling lines into lots of psychedelic posters and, most famously of all, into the portrait of the four Beatles in the cover art for their LP Revolver.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley 1893 by Frederick Evans. Photo-etching and platinum print on paper. Wilson Centre for Photography

This is a long, very thorough, exhaustive and informative exhibition about a truly world class and utterly distinctive English artist.

Curators

  • Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of British Art 1850 – 1915
  • Stephen Calloway
  • with Alice Insley, Assistant Curator of Historic British Art

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard (2008)

Finally, right at the end of his life (he died the year after it was published), Ballard wrote a genuine autobiography which actually sets the record straight.

His previous two books Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) had been marketed as autobiographies but, as time went by, it became clearer and clearer that they contained large slices of invention, fictional characters and imaginary events, as well as playing fast and loose with the few actual events of his life which they retold.

(For example, in Kindness his wife is described as dying after slipping and cracking her head against stone steps at a holiday villa in Spain; in fact she died of pneumonia, so the moving description of her slipping, the crack as her head hit the stone, Ballard rushing over and cradling her, seeing the growing bruise behind her ear, her loss of feeling down one side as the ambulance rushed her to hospital – all of that is entirely fictional.)

In interviews Ballard emphasised that both books were novels presented in autobiographical form and this is what a careful reading confirms.

Still, Miracles of Life is an odd book because although it adds new detail about, for example, his parents and their family origins in the West Midlands, or his decision to become a science fiction writer in the mid 1950s, or the passages describing the art and literary world of the 50s and 60s – it doesn’t really alter the essential shape of his biography, and anyone who has read The Kindness of Women will experience a strong sense of déjà vu.

Some incidents, like his description of the famous exhibition of crashed cars he organised in 1970 and how the visitors’ bad behaviour inspired him to write the novel Crash – or the passages about his visit to the set of the Spielberg filming of Empire of the Sun, right down to the words 12-year-old Christian Bale used to introduce himself (‘Hello, I’m you’) feel like they’ve been copied almost word for word from Kindness.

He knew he was dying. Maybe he ran out of time to revise and expand the familiar stories…

J.G. Ballard outline biography

  • born in 1930 and raised in the International Settlement in Shanghai
  • plays as a carefree boy among the privileged ex-pats, goes on cycle rides across the vast teeming fantasy land of Shanghai
  • 1941 Pacific War breaks out: interned along with his parents in Lunghua civilian internment centre 1943-45
  • 1945 the end of the war and strange months of disorientation back in the International Settlement
  • 1946 travels back to England with his mother and younger sister
  • 1946-49 public school in Cambridge
  • 1949 undergraduate at Cambridge studying medicine
  • 1954 packs it in to go and train to be an RAF pilot in Canada
  • 1955 returns to England and takes a string of unsatisfactory jobs, as an advertising copywriter, a porter in a London market, door to door encyclopedia salesman; marries Mary Matthews
  • sells first short story in 1956, commencing a prolific burst of story writing – over the next ten years he writes some 70 stories
  • This Is Tomorrow art exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery kick starts Pop Art and confirms his sense that he should be writing about the psychological impact of the new world of consumer capitalism, advertising, TV and so on
  • 1957 daughter Fay born
  • 1959 daughter Beatrice born
  • knocks out first pulp novel The Wind From Nowhere on a fortnight’s holiday in 1961
  • second, more serious novel, The Drowned World  published in 1963
  • summer 1963 his wife Mary dies of pneumonia on holiday in Spain, leaving him a widower to bring up three small children; he never remarries
  • after wife’s death his subject matter becomes darker (according to critics), more radical and penetrating (in his opinion)
  • 1966 starts writing the short pieces which go to make The Atrocity Exhibition
  • 1970 supervises an exhibition of (three) crashed cars at the Arts Lab
  • 1973 Crash
  • 1974 Concrete Island
  • 1975 High Rise
  • 1984 Empire of the Sun, the novel
  • 1988 Empire of The Sun, the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg

So the basic outline is not that different from what we’d read in The Kindness of Women, and has been sketched out in the biographical blurb at the front of all his books since the 1960s.

Also, it’s no great revelation but it’s worth noting how much the book is weighted towards those 15 formative years in China – it’s only on page 121 of the 278 pages of my paperback edition that Jim finally arrives back in Blighty i.e. nearly half the text covers about a fifth of his life (he died, aged 79, in 2009).


New learnings

Fantasyland Shanghai was a surreal phantasmagoria, from its exotic street life, to its markets, aromatic food, crooks and gangsters and whores, to the dead bodies which lined the streets and the public stranglings which he attended, and streets full of food vendors and shiny American cars cruising past people in rags literally starving to death, and first nights of new glamorous Hollywood movies. His childhood in Shanghai marked him for life, even before the Japs turned on the Europeans and interned them all. As he eloquently puts it:

Anything was possible, and everything could be bought and sold. In many ways, it seems like a stage set, but at the time it was real, and I think a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.

‘A large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.’ That’s quite a thought-provoking comment. If you add together the descriptions of Shanghai in Kindness and here, it does add up to an extraordinary phantasmagoria of possibilities, and the often comic-book exaggeration of many of his scenarios and characters may well derive from a child’s cartoon version of an already garish reality.

Cynical By the age of 14 he had become quite as blasé and cynical about life as the long-suffering Chinese around him. His boyhood was just full of dead bodies, the peasants who died overnight in Shanghai, poor beggars who died in doorways, the river full of corpses floating gently to the sea because they couldn’t afford decent burials. And over and above this the public stranglings as a form of justice. And then when the Japanese took over in 1937, public beheadings.

A vast cruelty lay over the world, and was all we knew.

Chilly sex This primal, founding view of the world – as packed with brutal cruelty – helps to explain Ballard’s clinical description of bodies and the thousand and one horrific mutilations they are vulnerable to. And it underpins his view of sex, which – as any reader knows – he depicts with a compellingly clinical detachment.

America From an early age he devoured American comics (Buck Rogers, Superman) and worshipped the big American cars he saw cruising the streets of Shanghai, the American suits worn by Chinese gangsters.

In the confusion of traffic on the Bund he pointed out ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen, the then famous bodyguard of Chinese warlords, and I gazed with all a small boy’s awe at a large American car with armed men standing on the running-boards, Chicago-style

He read comic books by the score and, a little later, Time and Newsweek, and soaked American can-do optimism into every pore of his body. It is interesting to learn that his father was also a can-do optimist, a fan of H.G. Wells and ‘an enthusiast for all things American’.

This worship of Americana underpins the first 25 years of his fiction, with its obsessions with the American space programme and the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and Hollywood movie stars, and its many stories set in America – for example the entire Vermilion Sands series about a desert resort much like Palm Springs – and finds an unsatisfactory climax in the strangely disappointing novel Hello America.

Reading this book you get a really deep sense of the vast cultural and economic difference between America and Britain after the war and can totally understand why America represented money and gadgets and big shiny cars and exciting music and The Future, a feeling which lasted through the 1960s and then somehow went astray during the 1970s.

The last clutch of novels, from Running Wild to Kingdom Come may be problematic in various ways, but at least they have escaped from the America-worship which dominates the earlier ones.

Lunghua There are two massive revelations about Ballard’s time in Lunghua internment camp:

1. He was there with his parents Both Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women depict young Jim as being entirely on his own, abandoned and thrown back on his own resources. In both books it is said that his parents were taken by the Japanese to a different internment camp. But they weren’t. They were with him throughout.

This is a staggering deception and/or aesthetic choice because it quite clearly makes the prison accounts of both books massively more intense. Whereas his real life wasn’t, it was far more mediated by the fact that, at the end of every day’s adventures, he returned to the ‘Ballard family room’ in the block of the abandoned teacher training college which was used as the camp.

Something confirmed by…

He says in many ways his years in the Lunghua internment camp were the happiest of his life! Well, this is a stunning surprise.

All in all, this was a relaxed and easy-going world that I had never known, except during our holidays in Tsingtao, and this favourable first impression stayed with me to the end, when conditions in the camp took a marked turn for the worse. I enjoyed my years in Lunghua, made a huge number of friends of all ages (far more than I did in adult life) and on the whole felt buoyant and optimistic.

Lunghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom… Despite the food shortages in the last year, the bitterly cold winters (we lived in unheated concrete buildings) and the uncertainties of the future, I was happier in the camp than I was until my marriage and children.

This is a staggering sentiment to set beside the searingly intense text of Empire of the Sun.

Empire’s End Maybe it’s a truism, but I was fascinated to read here, as we did in The Kindness of Women, how decisive the sinking of British ships and the surrender at Singapore (February 1942) were in ending all respect for the British across the Far East. (dream of empire)

The fall of Singapore, and the sinking of the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, devastated us all. British prestige plummeted from that moment. The surrender of Singapore, the capture of the Philippines and the threat to India and Australia sounded the death knell of Western power in the Far East and the end of a way of life. It would take the British years to recover from Dunkirk, and the German armies were already deep inside Russia. Despite my admiration for the Japanese soldiers and pilots, I was intensely patriotic, but I could see that the British Empire had failed.

Again, it’s one thing to read about this in histories, but more impactful to read about its impact from someone who was there.

Pro the atom bomb Here, as in Kindness it is mildly surprising, given the baleful shadow they cast over his early fiction, to learn that Ballard was whole-heartedly in favour of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Fortunately the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs brought the war to an abrupt end. Like my parents, and everyone else who lived through Lunghua, I have long supported the American dropping of the bombs. Prompted by Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast, the still-intact Japanese war machine ground to a complete halt within days, so saving millions of Chinese lives, as well as our own. For a hint of what might otherwise have happened, we can look at the vicious battle for Manila, the only large city in the Pacific War fought for by the Americans, where some 100,000 Philippine civilians died.

Part of the psychosis of the post-war years was that the bombs quite clearly saved many (especially American) lives, and so can be justified by this argument; but also incinerated nearly 100,000 mostly innocent civilians, men, women and children and so, on another level, are utterly indefensible. The psychosis derives from the way both these opposite views are ‘true’.

The railway station The startling image which is described in chapter three of The Kindness of Women and which dominates the rest of that book – the experience of coming across four Japanese soldiers at a small train station in the midst of the abandoned rice paddies between Lunghua and Shanghai, and being forced to watch as one of them garrots a young Chinese peasant to death with telegraph wire – in Kindness the scene had a gruesome perfection, and is then made to haunt adult Jim for the rest of his life – in a way I thought was too good (or too bad) to be true. Yet it is described here as being true. Or at least it is repeated here (which may not be the same thing).

Back to Blighty Ballard only first visited England when he was 16. This explains why he felt and writes about it as a bizarre foreign country. His father’s memories of the Lancashire he had lived in during the Great Depression had already primed the pump.

Most of his memories of Lancashire before and after the First World War seemed fairly bleak, and he would shake his head as he described the dreadful poverty. Eating an apple as he left school, he was often followed by working-class boys badgering him for the core.

Now, arriving at Southampton, he immediately saw how small and shabby and badly designed and impoverished everything was. It was immediately clear to him that Britain had, in effect, lost the war, and this impression of post-war shabbiness, rationing and austerity never left him, compared and contrasted with the amazing consumer boom the American economy underwent during those years.

Looking at the English people around me, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war. They behaved like a defeated population. I wrote in The Kindness of Women that the English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it. They were clearly exhausted by the war, and expected little of the future. Everything was rationed – food, clothing, petrol – or simply unobtainable. People moved in a herd-like way, queueing for everything. Ration books and clothing coupons were all-important, endlessly counted and fussed over, even though there was almost nothing in the shops to buy. Tracking down a few light bulbs could take all day. Everything was poorly designed – my grandparents’ three-storey house was heated by one or two single-bar electric fires and an open coal fire. Most of the house was icy, and we slept under huge eiderdowns like marooned Arctic travellers in their survival gear, a frozen air numbing our faces, the plumes of our breath visible in the darkness. More importantly, hope itself was rationed, and people’s spirits were bent low.

His mother dumped 16-year-old Jim with her parents in the West Midlands when she returned to Shanghai, and had a very bad time. ‘Narrow-minded’ doesn’t begin to convey the sense of his grand-parents’ claustrophobic provincialism.

I met him at the worst time, when England was exhausted by the war. There had been heavy bombing in the Birmingham area, and I suspect that they felt my mother’s years in Lunghua were a holiday by comparison. The war had made them mean, as it made a lot of the English mean…

His grandfather loathed the Labour government, which he thought was a form of fascism.

Yet all around him was the desperate poverty of the Black Country, with some of the most ill-housed and poorly educated people in western Europe, still giving their lives after the war to maintain an empire that had never been of the least benefit to them. My grandfather’s attitude was common, and based less on feelings of social class than on a visceral resistance to change. Change was the enemy of everything he believed in.

Later, when he got a job as a door to door encyclopedia salesman in the West Midlands, he for the first time really got to meet the working class and appreciate what poverty means.

For the first time, I was meeting large numbers of working-class people, with a range of regional accents that took a trained ear to decode. Travelling around the Birmingham area, I was amazed at how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid they were, poorly educated, housed and fed. To me they were a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai. I think it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of political control, and not a picturesque social relic. Middle-class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working class as almost another species, and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes.

When he phrases it like that you can see why teenage Jim developed a sense that change was vital, that only radical change could revive this dead country; and how the obvious source of hope for change was from rich, powerful and glamorous America.

Contempt for Cambridge In Kindness Jim is amusingly contemptuous of almost everything about Cambridge University, and its fake medievalism. Its only justification was as a tourist trap. In this book we get a bit more detail: he respected the science done at Cambridge, the Rutherfords et al, the work being done in physics and medicine. But he has nothing but contempt for all its traditions of scholars gowns and High Table and madrigals in the college chapel.

There’s a one line reminiscence of him attending an English lecture by F.R. Leavis who was a kind of god among critics, with his insistence that readers feel the life evinced in Jane Austen and Henry James and D.H. Lawrence – and being appalled at the man’s narrowness of understanding; and telling a fellow undergraduate that ‘It’s more important to go to T-Men (a classic noir film) than to Leavis’s lectures. He loathed it all. As in Kindness, his main interest was in investigating the US air force bases dotted all across the Fens.

No one seemed aware that the nostalgic pageant called ‘Cambridge’ was made possible by the fleets of American bombers waiting in the quiet fields around the city.

Francis Bacon He thinks Bacon is central though there is a chastening reminiscence of actually meeting the great man and being dismayed at how little he talked about the inspiration for his work, preferring to erect a buffer, a barrier and talking about perspective and paint and its formal qualities. Nonetheless, Bacon is right up Ballard’s alley:

Bacon’s paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War II. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontiffs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His popes screamed because they knew there was no God. Bacon went even further than the surrealists, assuming our complicity in the mid-century’s horrors. It was we who sat in those claustrophobic rooms, like TV hospitality suites in need of a coat of paint, under a naked light bulb that might signal the arrival of the dead, the only witnesses at our last interview.

Yet Bacon kept hope alive at a dark time, and looking at his paintings gave me a surge of confidence. I knew there was a link of some kind with the surrealists, with the dead doctors lying in their wooden chests in the dissecting room, with film noir and with the peacock and the loaf of bread in Crivelli’s Annunciation. There were links to Hemingway and Camus and Nathanael West. A jigsaw inside my head was trying to assemble itself, but the picture when it finally emerged would appear in an unexpected place.

This passage conveys the sense which dominates the middle part of the book, that Ballard was driven into paroxysms of frustration by everything he saw wrong about stuffy and impoverished and class-ridden and nostalgic post-war England, and which he was determined to undermine and change.

Friends

  • Kingsley Amis from 1962 to 1964 – Amis was a keen science fiction buff and wrote a glowing review of Ballard’s first novel, and then was personally helpful and supportive after Ballard’s wife died; Ballard emphasises all Amis’s good qualities before he became disillusioned with England, and then life, and turned into a professional curmudgeon
  • Michael Moorcock who became editor of Britain’s leading sci fi magazine New Worlds in 1964 and worked with Ballard to shake up the staid world of SF
  • Eduardo Paolozzo the sculptor and artist who remained a close friend for 30 years

About writing

There’s more here about his writing and his career as a writer than in The Kindness of Women, which isn’t difficult because there was next to nothing about it in that book. In several places he gives several overarching speculations about the nature or motivation of his entire career. Was it all an attempt to recapture the strangeness of his boyhood in Shanghai? Was it all an attempt to stitch together all the psychotic impressions of his boyhood, along with the senseless death of his wife?

My direction as a writer changed after Mary’s death, and many readers thought that I became far darker. But I like to think I was much more radical, in a desperate attempt to prove that black was white, that two and two made five in the moral arithmetic of the 1960s. I was trying to construct an imaginative logic that made sense of Mary’s death and would prove that the assassination of President Kennedy and the countless deaths of the Second World War had been worthwhile or even meaningful in some as yet undiscovered way. Then, perhaps, the ghosts inside my head, the old beggar under his quilt of snow, the strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to rest.

This really helps to explain the content and approach of The Atrocity Exhibition.

Later on he gives us another wording of what is basically the same idea:

My years in the [Cambridge Medical School] dissection room were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution. In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world, from the threat of nuclear war to the assassination of President Kennedy, from the death of my wife to the violence that underpinned the entertainment culture of the last decades of the century.

Either of these notions provide plenty to chew over, but one aspect of them stands out to me. His beloved wife Mary died of pneumonia on a holiday in Spain in August 1963. Three months later Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The closeness of the dates suggests how Ballard must have still been in deep grief over his wife when the Kennedy assassination traumatised a generation, and this helps explain why his writings evince just such a deeply traumatised reaction.

Science fiction It is fascinating to read his opinions about the science fiction of the day and why he gravitated towards it. Basically, the ‘serious’ literature of the 1950s simply seemed ludicrously remote from the realities of everyday life. Even the Angry Young Men were still stuck in a world of public schools and tweed jackets, which – coming from Americanised Shanghai – he simply found ridiculous.

And, if that wasn’t enough, Ballard was reaching for some way to investigate what he saw as the psychopathologies underlying that everyday life – the new forces of consumerism and advertising and television which he watched slowly wash over wrecked, grey England in the 1950s. Nobody was capturing the new psychological and social forces which were being unleashed.

The combination of the two motives explains why he a) wanted to write science fiction – because it seemed untrammelled, liberated, free to explore in a way the novels of old buffers like CP Snow or Anthony Powell never could b) but at the same time he wanted to drastically change what science fiction was about, from soap operas about hunky heroes in space suits brandishing ray guns on distant planets, to an exploration of the weird implications of life in the here and now. It was a two-fold rebellion.

Above all, the s-f genre had a huge vitality. Without thinking up a plan of action, I decided that this was a field I should enter. I could see that here was a literary form that placed a premium on originality, and gave a great deal of latitude to its writers, many of whom had their own trademark styles and approaches. I felt too that for all its vitality, magazine science fiction was limited by its ‘what if?’ approach, and that the genre was ripe for change, if not outright takeover. I was more interested in a ‘what now?’ approach. After weekend trips across the border [this is from the period when he was in Canada briefly training to become an RAF pilot] I could see that both Canada and the USA were changing rapidly, and that change would in time reach even Britain. I would interiorise science fiction, looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility.

As he famously declared, he wanted to explore not outer, but inner space, and he gives a couple of handy clarifications of what this meant for him:

[E.J. Carnell, editor of New Worlds magazine] urged me not to imitate the American writers, and to concentrate on what I termed ‘inner space’, psychological tales close in spirit to the surrealists.

And:

My first decade as a writer coincided with a period of sustained change in England, as well as in the USA and Europe. The mood of post-war depression had begun to lift, and the death of Stalin eased international tensions, despite the Soviet development of the H-bomb. Cheap jet travel arrived with the Boeing 707, and the consumer society, already well established in America, began to appear in Britain. Change was in the air, affecting the nation’s psychology for good or bad. Change was what I wrote about, especially the hidden agendas for change that people were already exposing. Invisible persuaders were manipulating politics and the consumer market, affecting habits and assumptions in ways that few people fully realised. It seemed to me that psychological space, what I termed ‘inner space’, was where science fiction should be heading.

And:

In 1964 Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of the leading British science fiction magazine, New Worlds, determined to change it in every way he could. For years we had carried on noisy but friendly arguments about the right direction for science fiction to take. American and Russian astronauts were carrying out regular orbital flights in their spacecraft, and everyone assumed that NASA would land an American on the moon in 1969 and fulfil President Kennedy’s vow on coming to office. Communications satellites had transformed the media landscape of the planet, bringing the Vietnam War live into every living room. Surprisingly, though, science fiction had failed to prosper. Most of the American magazines had closed, and the sales of New Worlds were a fraction of what they had been in the 1950s. I believed that science fiction had run its course, and would soon either die or mutate into outright fantasy. I flew the flag for what I termed ‘inner space’, in effect the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs and research institutes where [his friend, psychologist] Chris Evans had thrived, and which formed the setting for part of The Atrocity Exhibition.

And this is what he did. After his dystopia trilogy of the early 1960s, almost all the rest of Ballard’s novels are set in the present day, and deal with psychosis and mental collapse or obsession i.e. with

the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs

Which is linked to the fact, or helps explain why, so many of his characters are doctors or psychiatrists, from Dr Kerans in his first novel The Drowned World through to the wicked psychiatrist Dr Wilder Penrose in Cocaine Nights.

(although many of his short stories, including some of the best of them continued to be set in the future or in outer space).

Swimming pools Anybody familiar with the first half of Ballard’s career knows that one of his recurring images is the drained swimming pool, which recurs with obsessive regularity, charged with ominous meaning. In Miracles of Life Ballard finally gives his own interpretation of what all those drained swimming pools meant, going back (as so many things in his fiction do) to his boyhood experiences in Shanghai:

In the coming years I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left Shanghai for Australia and Canada, or the assumed ‘safety’ of Hong Kong and Singapore, and they all seemed as mysterious as that first pool in the French Concession. I was unaware of the obvious symbolism that British power was ebbing away, because no one thought so at the time, and faith in the British Empire was at its jingoistic height. Right up to, and beyond, Pearl Harbour it was taken for granted that the dispatch of a few Royal Navy warships would send the Japanese scuttling back to Tokyo Bay. I think now that the drained pool represented the unknown, a concept that had played no part in my life. Shanghai in the 1930s was full of extravagant fantasies, but these spectacles were designed to promote a new hotel or airport, a new department store, nightclub or dog-racing track. Nothing was unknown.

As it happens, I disagree. The symbolism of the drained swimming pool and their function seem simpler to me: swimming pools are a luxury and so drained swimming pools are symbols of a society which, at one point, had it all and has now lost it all.

So, in my view, the drained pools (and their cousins, the drained fountains) are powerful symbols of the collapse of the kind of moneyed and advanced civilisation which is necessary to maintain them. And, indeed, later in the book Ballard acknowledges this – I think – more obvious interpretation.

Other, more sympathetic readers of my earlier novels and short stories were quick to spot echoes of Empire of the Sun. The trademark images that I had set out over the previous thirty years – the drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels and nightclubs, deserted runways and flooded rivers – could all be traced back to wartime Shanghai. For a long time I resisted this, but I accept now that it is almost certainly true. The memories of Shanghai that I had tried to repress had been knocking at the floorboards under my feet, and had slipped quietly into my fiction.

Quietly? Shouting and screaming more like.

Taste for the abandoned Because the drained swimming pools are merely a sub-set of Ballard’s absolute obsession with abandoned buildings, with the trappings of cities and advanced civilisations which have gone into terminal decline and been left abandoned and derelict by their creators.

His short stories are absolutely rammed with abandoned hotels, drained swimming pools and dead or dying airplanes – think of all those stories set amid the rusting gantries of the abandoned space centre at Cape Canavarel, the abandoned resort in Low Flying Aircraft or the entire abandoned city in The Ultimate City or the vision of New York a hundred years after it has been abandoned and filled with sand dunes in Hello America.

Anyway, in this book there’s a memory of exploring a casino in Shanghai which had been abandoned after the Japanese invasion of the city in 1937, and which expands to explain the importance of ‘the abandoned building’ for him. His father had told him not to go inside, but:

After a few minutes I could no longer restrain myself, and walked on tiptoe through the silent gaming rooms where roulette tables lay on their sides and the floor was covered with broken glasses and betting chips. Gilded statues propped up the canopy of the bars that ran the length of the casino, and on the floor ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales.

But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past. I also felt that the ruined casino, like the city and the world beyond it, was more real and more meaningful than it had been when it was thronged with gamblers and dancers. Abandoned houses and office buildings held a special magic and on my way home from school I often paused outside an empty apartment block. Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in a haphazard way gave me my first taste of the surrealism of everyday life, though Shanghai was already surrealist enough.

It’s that feel for the strange magic of abandoned buildings, eerily empty cities and drained swimming pools which absolutely drenches Ballard’s best and most distinctive short stories.

Miracles of Life Lastly, what makes the book truly wonderful is the quality of love which permeates it. He has nothing but kind words for his wife who died so tragically, so long ago, and then for the strong, intelligent and funny woman, Claire Walsh, who became his lifelong partner in the mid-1960s (the one who appears in two of Ballard’s subversive advertisements, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere).

But it’s the passages about his children which overflow with love and pride and set the tone of the book, from his descriptions of helping at the actual births, through bringing them up by himself and spending all his time with them, through to the pride he felt when they married, and in his grandchildren.

Despite the atrocities described in the war years, and the terrible poverty he saw in post-war England, and then his determination to subvert and change the hidebound worlds of literature and science fiction, as he himself points out, all this was froth compared to the deep, rich core of his family life. His easy-going expressions of love for his children are enough to move any parent to tears.

Concs

Miracles of Life is a wonderfully clear, intelligent and warm book. Its leading feature for me is the intelligence of the content. What I mean is that every paragraph says something interesting. It isn’t a meandering ramble. Every paragraph makes a point, paints a scene, depicts a character, and contains thoughtful and thought-provoking insights.

As with all Ballard there’s a chilly, if not clinical feel to some of it. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, its very honesty and candour, first about his parents, and then overwhelmingly about his children, creates a powerful sense of warmth and affection. It isn’t sentimental, he regards the whole of life and the world with a detached and lucid eye: but that makes the love which suffuses the book all the more valuable and moving.

We spent hours with little fish nets, hunting for shrimps, which were always taken home in jam jars and watched as they refused to cooperate and gave up the ghost. Fay and Bea were fascinated by the daisies that seemed to grow underwater when the stream rose to flood the meadow. Shepperton Studios were easy to enter in those wonderful summers nearly fifty years ago, and I would take the children past the sound stages to the field where unwanted props were left to the elements: figureheads of sailing ships, giant chess-pieces, half an American car, stairways that led up to the sky and amazed my three infants. And their father: days of wonder that I wish had lasted for ever. I thought of my children then, and still think of them, as miracles of life, and I dedicate this autobiography to them.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

The idea of performance in the later fiction of J.G. Ballard

This essay suggests that a focus on Ballard’s interest in television and the unreal effects which TV or film cameras have on anyone they’re pointed at, obscures the fact that TV and film are only part of a much wider sense, demonstrated throughout Ballard’s work, that we are all self consciously playing roles, most of the time.

1. The ubiquity of television in the fiction of J.G. Ballard

It’s common to observe that a lot of J.G. Ballard’s fiction is aware of, or focuses on, the role of television in modern life. From his novels we can deduce several central ideas:

TV desensitises The idea that television news with its relentless images of war atrocities desensitises its viewers, numbs them, and that therefore denizens of the TV Age need waking up by evermore outlandish, transgressive behaviour. This is a central premise of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in particular, where the idea is that the jaded sexual taste of the adult protagonists need exposure to a whole new range of fetishes. But the same idea runs through Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes where the central protagonists are taught the lesson that violence and crime energise communities, which otherwise tend to spend their evenings slumped in front of their tellies like zombies.

Making telly is addictive The addiction to making TV, or films, is portrayed in a succession of characters, starting with Richard Wilder, the TV documentary-maker in High Rise, who insists on taking his ciné-camera with him on his epic quest to climb the high rise tower. There’s the similarly obsessive scientist-turned-TV star Sangar in The Day of Creation who keeps talking about his documentary, and surrounds himself with camera and monitors and editing machines even as he slowly dies of malnutrition.

Academic turned TV star The dashing academic who transforms himself into a media star-science populariser-TV presenter is another repeated figure featuring at least three times:

  • Dr. Robert Vaughan, ‘former TV-scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways’, who is the lead pervert in Crash
  • Richard Sutherland, the Cambridge professor of psychology, who turns himself into a star presenter of TV documentaries in The Kindness of Women
  • Sangar in The Day of Creation

Of all the novels, television is probably most important in Rushing To Paradise (1994) where the importance of filming environmental activism and broadcasting it to a worldwide audience is central (at least in the first half of the book), where the characters sail on their environmentalist quest aboard a ship fitted with an editing suite and satellite dishes, where the death of one of the characters is broadcast live, and the lead character gives countless interviews to the world’s TV news channels about her work. Each of these recurring incidents triggering authorial comment about the power and importance of TV.

The purpose of this essay is simply to point out that it is easy to think about the concept of performance in Ballard’s fiction solely in terms of this very high-profile obsession with TV and TV news and TV footage and TV presenters, and how these characters are continually getting people to pose and perform for the camera…

But that performing for the cameras is only really a sub-set of Ballard’s much broader interest in performance as a whole – in the way modern human beings routinely conceive of themselves as acting parts, playing roles – sometimes in settings which obviously call for a degree of performance, such as the workplace, the courthouse, in the bedroom – but a lot of the rest of the time catching themselves dressing for a part, adopting a persona, playing a role, working to a script.

2. Key words

All this becomes very clear if we ignore the references to TV and television and film in his books (numerous though they are) and look instead for key words which denote theatre and theatricality, performance and roles, words such as:

  • Actor
  • Drama
  • Performance
  • Play
  • Role
  • Scene
  • Script
  • Set
  • Stage
  • Theatre

Running Wild (1988)

  • The camera fixes on him, and like a badly trained actor he steps forward to the gatehouse, a tic jumping across his sallow cheek.
  • Perhaps the planned documentary was the last straw – the children knew they’d have to play their parts for the cameras, doing all the interviews, acting out their ‘happiness’ under the eyes of their doting parents
  • Just as the older children required Marion to play her part willingly in the murder of her parents, so they need her now to believe in the rightness of their cause.
  • I had ample time to replay in my mind that terrifying scene at the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.
  • ‘Let me set the stage, Sergeant.” I pulled open the shower curtain and turned on the bath taps.
  • The camera tracked to and fro, as if searching for a fallen leaf, tirelessly hunting a panorama as silent as a stage set

The Kindness of Women (1991)

  • Olga and my school friends, my mother and father on their evening visits, were like actors in the old silent films that David Hunter’s father screened for us
  • I was happy to be with them, but we were like actors playing parts presented to us at short notice.
  • More like a film actor than a Cambridge don, he was a handsome Scotsman with a shock of red hair…
  • Richard watched me with his friendly actor’s smile.
  • He had moved around the podium like an actor delivering Hamlet’s soliloquy
  • ‘When I visit Mother and Dad in Cambridge I look around the house and can’t believe I was ever a child there. It’s like a film set with these two old actors… even they can’t remember the script.’
  • Rio was filled with old actor-managers trapped within their images of themselves
  • The medium of film had turned us all into minor actors in an endlessly running daytime serial.
  • Dick had side-stepped all these, accepting that the electronic image of himself was the real one, and that his off-screen self was an ambitious but modest actor who had successfully auditioned for a far more glamorous role
  • I had never consciously manipulated them, but they had accepted their assigned roles like actors recruited to play their parts in a drama whose script they had never seen.
  • Dons with their faux-eccentric manners posed outside the chapel with the self-consciousness of minor character actors, waiting as a Spanish TV crew set up its lights.
  • Watching them, I was struck by their self-conscious pose, like dancers arrested in an audience-catching flourish at the end of their performance
  • They seemed almost to be rehearsing themselves for a performance to come, some even more elaborately staged collision.
  • His performance seemed oddly subdued, as if he were trying to shrug off the repertory of television mannerisms he had cultivated so carefully since the Cambridge days.
  • Despite playing the role of her father, I felt surprisingly dependent on her and hoped that I could give her the happy childhood that she was helping to give to my own children
  • I was impressed by his easy command of his situation – he had found a role for himself
  • Together we gazed at this scene, the ladies fanning away the flies, their husbands murmuring to each other, like a group of investors visiting the stage set of an uncompleted war film.
  • As we put away the scattered toys and clothes I had the sense that we were scene-shifters changing a set of props.
  • Even Dorothy’s resemblances to her sister, the echo of Miriam’s broad cheekbones and small hands, strong walk and determined hips, made me feel that we were extras rehearsing a scene to be played by others.
  • They look like film extras ready to play a party scene.
  • I sometimes felt that Miriam and I were playing our parts in some happily chaotic sitcom whose script we extemporised as we went along.
  • He caught my eye in the mirror, as if aware that a dimension had entered the script for which all his years in television had never prepared him
  • Beyond the bedroom door I could hear Dick laughing as he chased Fortunata around the workroom and the women in the corridor shouting to the straying child. By comparison, the bedroom was a stage set.

Rushing to Paradise (1994)

  • Overnight Saint-Esprit had become a stage-set whose cast had disappeared in mid-drama, carrying away every copy of the prompt-script.
  • Surrounded by the pregnant women, he uneasily sank his teeth into the meat and returned their approving smiles, aware that his real part in this intense drama had yet to be assigned to him.
  • An elaborate air-and-sea ballet was taking place, an over-rehearsed performance that rarely deviated from its agreed scenario
  • Neil stood on the foredeck of the Dugong, shielded from the cold spray by the white bowl of the satellite dish, at that moment transmitting the afternoon’s first performance to the watching world.
  • ‘Take lots of film of the island,’ she told him, now directing the documentary of which she was already star and scriptwriter
  • He sensed that he and Carline were reading from an old script.
  • Neil had been unsettled by the fate of the huge birds, but he already realized that he was filming a well-rehearsed scene in the theatre of protest.
  • Trying to forget the botanist, whose little body had impressed its contours into the sodden mattress beneath Neil’s shoulders, he listened to his widow’s tantrums as she supervised the re-hanging of the banner. This mini-drama she staged at least twice a day, as if keeping alive some archaic form of Japanese theatre with its repertoire of grunts and rages.
  • Meanwhile, a single volley of shots from the Champlain would sink the inflatables and put them out of action for good. Yet so far, for whatever political and diplomatic reasons, the French had been sticking to the script. They allowed the Dugong to approach the island, and waited patiently as the inflatables performed their water-borne pas de deux. In the late afternoon the corvette Sagittaire would arrive and escort the trawler to the perimeter of the thirty-mile exclusion zone, its signal lamp signing off with a choice obscenity that sent Monique enraged to her cabin. The arrangement suited everyone, and provided the maximum of national dignity and TV coverage at the minimum of risk. But now there would be a radical change to the script, and the French had not been consulted
  • His forced good cheer depressed Neil, as did his self-appointed role as second-in-command to Dr Barbara
  • Carline was sitting in the radio-cabin, head-phones over his pale hair, enjoying his new role as air-traffic controller.
  • For the first time Neil realized that he too had played a modest role in giving the expedition members their sense of purpose.
  • Aware that he had been ruthlessly milked, but accepting his real role on Saint-Esprit, Neil walked past the silent tents towards the runway
  • Sometimes he suspected that he had completed his role for Dr Barbara, and that his successor had already been appointed. Their words no longer matched the reality of Saint-Esprit. He spoke truthfully to his mother, saying that the mosquitoes and sand-flies bothered him, that he was working hard, ate well and had not been ill, and that the bullet wound on his foot had healed completely. But he sensed that he and Carline were reading from an old script.
  • Ten minutes later, as he replayed the sound-track to a critical Dr Barbara, Neil became aware that he was not the only person to film this contrived scene.
  • Lying in his bed on the sixth floor of the Nimitz Memorial Hospital, Neil watched the familiar scene on his television set.
  • The Hawaiian had hidden for a few last moments among the waist-deep ferns, and had filmed Neil being shot down by the sergeant, a scene endlessly replayed on television across the world.
  • Standing in the shadow of the prayer-shack, the captain of the Sagittaire and two his officers waited while the camera-men from the American news agencies recorded the sombre scene
  • Watching the scene from the steps of the clinic, Neil sensed that he was witnessing a shrewd but cruel experiment.
  • Sea, sun and sky could not have been arranged more skilfully had Dr Barbara herself been in charge of the mise en scene.
  • The American’s eyes were closed in a frown, nervous of the soil that covered his cheeks, and his hands were clasped around the Swedes’ video-camera. Neil could imagine him standing by the graves, unsure whether to film the macabre scene for Dr Barbara and never realizing that he was about to become part of it.

Cocaine nights (1996)

  • The scene last night was bizarre, I wish I’d filmed it. The whole waterfront came to life. People were sexually charged, like spectators after a bloody bull-fight.’

In the ex-pat colony where the book is set there are constant references to the thriving theatre scene with its endless revivals of plays by Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Joe Orton.

  • They played their roles like members of an amateur theatrical group taking part in a bawdy Restoration farce
  • I frequently played bridge with Betty Shand and the Hennessys, reluctant though I was to leave the Residencia for Estrella de Mar and its baleful memories of the Hollinger fire, and had even been tempted to play a small part in a forthcoming production of Orton’s What the Butler Saw.

The narrator discovers that some of the posh wives like dressing up as hookers, and that other couples – including his brother’s lover – liked role-playing rapes and rough sex play. Slowly the narrator comes to realise that the entire place is a sort of set for numerous staged dramas.

  • The grooves in the sitting-room rugs indicated where the sofa, easy chairs and desk had stood before the police search. Pushing them back into place, I felt like a props man on a darkened stage, preparing the scene for the next day’s performance.

The narrator discovers a porn film in which the actors play very clichéd roles… up until one of them is genuinely raped.

  • The lesbian porno-film had been a set-up, designed to lure her to this anonymous apartment, the mise-en-scene for a real rape for which the bridesmaids, but not the heroine, had been prepared.
  • As I watched this parodic lesbian scene, I was sure that none of the women was a professional actress.

Being an actor.

  • His voice had sounded sincere but curiously distant, lines from a previous week’s play spoken by a distracted actor.
  • With his dark shades, he resembled a likeable young actor in his James Dean phase, chewing a knuckle as he pondered his next film role
  • As he spoke he watched himself in the mirror, touching his eyebrows and adjusting his hair like an actor in his dressing room.

Playing a part.

  • The empty rooms lay around us, their white walls enclosing nothing, ready for dramas of boredom and ennui
  • Together they seemed like figures in a dream-play, trying to remind me of memories I could never recover.
  • Then Frank, for some weird reason of his own, begins to play Joseph K.
  • He’s one of those psychiatrists with a knack of forming little ménages around themselves.’ ‘Ménages of vulnerable young women?’ ‘Exactly. He enjoys playing Svengali to them.’
  • ‘I’m trying to play the older brother, without any success.’
  • ‘Paula, stop playing the head girl.’
  • ‘He’s a shy, rather sad man.’ ‘With a taste for playing the guru to young women.’
  • ‘And who played the villain? Or the hero, I should say?’

Adopting roles

  • I had imagined myself in Frank’s role, and Paula playing his lover
  • ‘Charles, I don’t think I can play your mother.’
  • Already we were assuming our familiar roles first set out in childhood. He was the imaginative and wayward spirit, and I was the stolid older brother
  • He took no part in the proceedings, but listened intently to his translator, emphasizing for the magistrate’s benefit his central role in the events described.
  • As Bobby Crawford had said, behind the professional poise she presented to the world she seemed distracted and vulnerable, like an intelligent teenaged girl unable to decide who she really was, perhaps suspecting that the role of efficient and capable doctor was something of a pose.
  • Enjoying his new role as stately home tour guide, Cabrera led us around the house

3. Reflections

Focusing on these key words highlights the extent to which everyone in Ballardland is playing a role or thinking about playing a role or adopting a pose.

The TV thing is just a sub-set of a much larger vision in which all of Ballard’s characters play roles almost all the time. Within a family they play the parts of mother, father, elder or younger children. In relationships they play the role of solid chap or flustered girlfriend (or whichever roles they want to adopt). In their professional lives they dress up smart, put on their best smile and try to impress. In the bedroom people adopt all kinds of roles and fantasies, dressing up in costumes like the women in the porn film in Cocaine Nights or wearing teenage hooker gear like Jane in Super-Cannes.

As I watched her through the mirror I had the sense that we were still inside a film, and that everything taking place between us in the bedroom had been prefigured in a master script that Paula had read.

Before going out the house, his characters dress for the roles they are going to play. And at any moment events can happen in the street which suddenly cast them in roles – the Victim, the Bystander, the First Aider, and so on.

  • She was doing her best to play the whore, fleshing out her mouth and rolling her hips, and I wondered if this was all the whim of some avant-garde theatre director staging a street production of Mahagonny or Irma la Douce.
  • ‘It was a piece of night-theatre, a water-borne spectacular to perk up the restaurant trade. A party of Middle East tourists played the clowns, with a chorus line of French good-time girls. Brutal, but great fun.’
  • I assumed that the thief would be swimming towards the rocks below the watch-tower, to a rendezvous previously arranged with the car’s driver, who waited for him like a chauffeur outside a stage-door after the evening’s performance.
  • ‘It was a show, David. Whoever stole the speedboat was putting on a performance. Someone with a taste for fire . . .’ ‘

In encounters with the police, Ballard’s characters tend to smarten up and become hyper-aware of their stance and expressions and words, trying to calculate the effect they’re having, even more so when dealing with a lawyer or in a court of law, where everyone is on their mettle and playing pre-assigned roles.

  • [Inspector] Cabrera had unnerved me, as if he had read the secret script that Crawford had written and was aware of the role assigned to me
  • [Inspector] Cabrera was watching me in his thoughtful way, as if expecting that I, in turn, would admit my role in the crime
  • ‘Your retired stockbrokers and accountants are remarkably adept in the role of small-town criminals…’

At particular moments the sense of playing a role can become vertiginous, dizzying, prompting the characters to try to regain control of the scene. The presence of the police or security guards will do that to you. Make everyone fantastically self conscious:

I placed my hands on the desk, trying to steady the scene.

If there’s any conclusion it’s that Ballard’s sense that modern people are continually acting versions of themselves extends far beyond his interest in television and film. TV and film are just the most obvious and stylised peaks of a worldview in which all of us are acting roles – either ones we’ve chosen for ourselves or ones other people have allotted to us – almost all of the time.


Reviews of J.G. Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard (2000)

‘Madness – that’s all they have, after working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Going mad is their only way of staying sane.’ (Frank Halder to Paul Sinclair)

You can tell late-period Ballard novels by their sheer size – Super-Cannes is a whopping 392 pages long, in the shiny Flamingo paperback edition I own.

The swimming pool had calmed.

The book is on the same topic and has much the same structure as its predecessor, Cocaine Night, but is, at least to begin with, noticeably more believable and enjoyable.

I circled the artificial lakes, with their eerily calm surfaces…

The plot – 1

First the plot: As with its predecessor, we’re among an élite of the well-educated, prosperous, professional middle-classes again. And abroad again: in the Costa del Sol for Cocaine Nights, the South of France for Super-Cannes.

At Eden-Olympia the medical staff were calm and unrushed…

And Super-Cannes is, like Cocaine Nights, told by a first-person narrator, in this case Paul Sinclair (how does Ballard manage to come up with such boring names for his protagonists?).

Trying to calm her, I took the phone from her surprisingly soft hand…

Paul is a pilot of small planes and editor of a couple of aviation magazines. He was injured in a flying accident nine months earlier and his knee refuses to heal properly. As the novel opens it is still in an uncomfortable brace.

Calming myself, I stared down at the dappled floor…

His new young wife, Jane, has taken up a post at the newish Eden-Olympia complex, part of the European Silicon Valley being built north-west of Cannes (in the south of France), a self-contained luxury business park which contains the European headquarters of major European banks and car manufacturers, along with exquisitely manicured villas, a world of tennis courts and swimming pools, luxury homes where all these busy executives spend the little time left over when they’re not at their offices.

 Jane sat calmly in her white coat, dwarfed by a black leather chair contoured like an astronaut’s couch…

The story opens with even more doctors than usual for a Ballard story (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor): Paul’s wife, Jane, is a doctor and is replacing the previous doctor working in the Eden-Olympia clinic, Dr Greenwood, and they’re met on arrival at the park by its head psychiatrist, Dr Wilder Penrose, who plays a pivotal role in the story.

Sitting by the open doors of the limousines, they were almost Roman in their steely-eyed calm…

The similarities to Cocaine Nights are obvious from the start: just like Estrella da Mar in that novel, Eden-Olympia looks, on the surface, to be a perfectly organised, self-contained, respectable and hard-working bourgeois paradise, located in an idyllic setting on the Mediterranean, and yet… it has a dark side! Oooh, yes, I know… who would have imagined!

Halder gave up his attempt to calm me…

The two books share the same basic structure in the sense that a 1. mass murder 2. triggers a visit from 3. an outsider who proceeds to 4. investigate deeper and deeper into this self-enclosed sub-culture’s 5. murky depths, and 6. finds himself becoming changed and depraved by it.

Calmly, I said: ‘You’ve had a bump. Cutting corners too fast?’

In Cocaine Nights it was the arson attack on one of the ex-pat community’s luxury villas in which five leading figures burned to death which led to the narrator’s brother being arrested for the crime (because of the strong evidence against him), and prompts the protagonist to fly out to the beach resort to investigate…

Her fingers moved towards a salt sachet, stopped and calmed themselves by eviscerating the stub of her cigarette…

In this book, Jane’s predecessor as doctor at the business park’s clinic, Dr Greenwood, ‘went postal’, went on the rampage with a rifle, locking three chauffeurs hostage in his garage, before going to the business district and cold-bloodedly assassinating seven managing directors and top executives, before returning to his villa and executing the three ‘hostages’ in his garage.

Or did he? [Cue spooky made-for-TV thriller music]

The first person narrator, Paul Sinclair, is disconcerted to discover that he and his wife have been allotted the very same villa Greenwood lived in, and where the hostages were kept and then shot dead – though he is assured the house has been deep-cleaned and, in the case of the garage, rebuilt.

I imagined her lying awake at night, in this electrified but nerveless world, thinking that if only she had forgone her holiday she might have reached out to Greenwood and calmed his dream of death…

Except that Paul finds some evidence overlooked by the police, three bullets in and around the swimming pool which conflict with the official version of events. And, with his wife quickly drawn into the austere work culture of this dream executive-class business park, Paul finds himself with plenty of time on his hands to hobble round the manicured woodland, and explore the office blocks, and to start to make appointments to interview people involved in ‘the tragic events’, including, for example, the three widows of the hostages supposedly shot in cold blood.

He calmed himself, trying to steady his pulse…

Thus, on one level, the book amounts to a long investigation, as Paul slowly increases elements of the chain of events which are at odds with the official story put out by the business park’s press and PR people, and is given (pretty heavy-handed) clues from various officials – from Wilder Penrose the psychologist to Frank Halder, a senior security guard, who takes a strange watchful interest in Paul’s well-being.

‘He helps me park my car, and hangs around the clinic with those calm eyes. He’s waiting for something to happen.’

Slowly pretty much the same picture emerges as in Cocaine Nights, which is that the pampered, bored, professional bourgeoisie need livening up, need excitement – and that this takes the form of random crime, drug dealing, BDSM sex and so on. The usual suspects, then. The characters don’t really hide this, it is mentioned right from the start thus killing off any sense of suspense.

‘I like to stir things up, keep the adrenalin flowing. The more they hate you, the more they stay on their toes.’ (Wilder in chapter 1)

The posh neighbours, Simone and Alain Delage, don’t mind parading round in the nude. Pretty soon they are coming over to Jane and Paul’s to smoke dope and watch porn movies. Paul sees plastic sachets of white powder in various offices and in still photos of the crime scenes and he, and we, are quick to suspect they contain cocaine or heroin.

Halder raised a hand to calm me…

On one of his forays into Cannes proper, Paul stays on into the evening and watches the streets bloom with prostitutes and their terrifying East European pimps. He’s particularly struck, attracted and appalled at the same time by the vision of an 11-year-old girl wearing inappropriate make-up and sexualised clothes and finds himself approaching her pimp and asking how much she is with a view to ‘saving’ her. At least that’s what he tells himself.

Halder pinched his nose, and calmed his fluttering nostrils…

In the event he doesn’t get far with the transaction because a squad of three Range Rovers screech onto the scene, out of which leap a bunch of men in tight black leather jackets wielding baseball bats who proceed to beat the crap out of the little crowd of pimps. The leatherjackets beat the East Europeans and Arabs to the floor, smashing their teeth and smashing in the windscreens of their cars. Paul himself receives a hefty whack over the back before he’s pulled into a doorway by a figure he realises is the park security guy, Halder, a figure who slowly develops into his guardian angel. Paul is to discover that these are regular outings by the more psychopathically-minded senior executives at the business park and are jocularly referred to as ratissages.

He opened his envelope of photographs, waiting for me to calm myself.

Thus it comes as little surprise to the savvy reader when, once the mayhem is over, some of the leather-jacketed vigilantes remove their balaclavas and are revealed as the head of security at Eden-Olympia and several of its younger chief executives. Do they do it out of morality, policing Cannes’ underworld? Paul asks Halder. ‘No,’ Halder replies. ‘For kicks.’

Later, when Paul mentions why he got caught up in the vigilante attack to Penrose, the latter quizzes him about his interest in the 11-year-old girl and then goes on to be as plain as can be about the worldview which underpins the book:

‘Sordid. What can one say? Tragic for the child, but sexual pathology is such an energizing force. People know that, and will stoop to any depravity that excites them.’

So before we’re half way through the book we are fully informed that the business park full of hard-working European professionals is also a hotbed of drugs, kinky sex and violent vigilante squads, and we know at least one of them went off the deep end and went on a killing spree.

‘Some people say she tried to calm him down.’ ‘Brave woman.’

So there’s little surprise about the story. There’s not much place for it to go if we’ve established before we’re even half way through, that the main character is at least partly attracted to the idea of child sex, that the business park’s resident psychiatrist more than half sympathises with him and finds an attitude like that perfectly natural.

He composed himself, waiting for the muscles of his face to calm themselves…

Savvy and grip

Still, what makes Super-Cannes feel significantly better than the previous three or four novels is the savviness of the narrator.

He thrust the envelope of photographs through the open window, his face fully calm for the first time that day.

Rushing to Paradise is an unsatisfactory book because, although the plot has a certain plausibility (oddball environmentalists left on a remote Pacific atoll forget their eco crusade and descend into Lord of the Flies psychosis) the central character whose eyes we see it all through, 16-year Neil Dempsey, is very slow on the uptake. Slow and dim. It takes him ages to cotton on to things the savvy reader has spotted hundreds of pages earlier, such as that the leader of the eco-warriors is a psychopath. The reader is way ahead of the characters, which makes for a frustrating read.

She spoke calmly, her face only a few inches from mine, and I could smell the sweet Turkish tobacco on her breath.

A bald summery of Cocaine Nights also makes it seem groovy (man arrives at self-contained ex-pat community on the Costa del Sol to discover its cheerful bourgeois daytime life conceals a jungle of dark-side activities such as hard drugs, wifeswapping, BDSM and, at its extreme, murder). It’s a good idea but, again, lacks suspense because the reader is way ahead of the plodding narrator.

‘Forget it.’ I tried to calm her. ‘They’ve gone.’

Grip No, if you’re going to write in the thriller genre (which Ballard seems to have decided to do in his last books) you need to demonstrate the quality that one of its founding fathers, Henry Rider Haggard, called ‘grip’.

In romance ‘grip’ is almost everything. Whatever its faults, if a book has ‘grip’, these may be forgiven. (The Days of My Life by Henry Rider Haggard, 1912)

By ‘grip’ Haggard means that the reader’s imagination is so gripped, so thrilled and excited that you can’t stop turning the pages.

The last book I read which had ‘grip’ in the way Haggard describes was Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, a few years ago. I was on a weekend break and picked it up in the hotel library. I planned to get up the next morning in time to a) go for a swim in order to b) enjoy the massive hotel breakfast before c) going to visit a nearby castle. But all my plans were wrecked because I found myself literally unable to put Mutant 59 down. I knew it was pulpy rubbish and at midnight, and 2 and 3 o’clock I tried to mark the page and turn the light off, telling myself I’d finish it tomorrow – but each time ended up picking it up again to read ‘just one more chapter’, and the next thing I knew dawn was coming up. That’s grip.

Alarmed, Frances held my wrist. ‘Calm down. You’re safe here.’

So Cocaine Nights is clever: its basic plot proposes a sociological theory about human nature and culture (humans need excitement and their society must find some way of providing that or they’ll engineer their own wayward forms).

Penrose tried to calm me…

It is carefully plotted, contains a number of vivid scenes, and is written in Ballard’s artful style which combines incisive descriptions with a careful deployment of his key terms and phrases (characters are constantly unsettled, need calming, sooner or later become ‘demented’ or ‘deranged’; have their ‘reasons’ and their ‘motives’ which the narrator always struggles to figure out; the narrator never notices, guess or intuits, he always ‘senses’: thus Ballard artfully creates a claustrophobic world by the almost incantatory repetition of the same words, same attitudes, same situations, etc).

‘Jane…’ I stepped through the clutter of unpaired shoes that she was rooting from the cupboard, placed my hands under her arms and lifted her to her feet, surprised by how much weight she had lost. ‘Calm down…’

But I found Cocaine Nights a struggle because it was so obvious what was going on, and when the ‘revelation’ came I thought, ‘oh, OK, that’s clever’ and went to sleep.

I wanted to calm her, and took away her cigarettes.

Part of the reason for this is that the narrator is depicted as implausibly naive, in order that he can then be ‘shocked’ when he discovers some of the prim bourgeois types he’s introduced to take drugs or have rough sex.

Frances had calmed herself, and waited for me to reply.

Shocked? That’s standard behaviour in a Ballard novel. That’s what we come to a Ballard novel expecting.

So part of the reason Super-Cannes is distinctly better than Cocaine Nights – even though it has a similar structure and is putting forward much the same view of human nature – is that the central character is that much more sophisticated and savvy.

As we took the lift to the basement garage she touched the dinner jacket, trying to calm a fleeting ghost.

Paul Sinclair is funny. His wife, Jane, is funny. Thus he or she can engage in banter that is genuinely funny. Super-Cannes is a better book despite the fact that the plot structure and worldview are almost identical to its predecessor, largely because the narrator is more sympathetic.

‘Frances, relax…’ I moved her edgy hand from the gear lever, trying to calm her.

Some of the exchanges with Wilder made me smile and, as I did so, I realised that’s a quality you rarely associate with Ballard – humour. Here are Paul and Jane in their car, just as they arrive at Eden-Olympia and the psychiatrist Penrose has gotten into the car and is guiding them through the quiet avenues to their villa.

We were driving along the shore of a large ornamental lake, an ellipse of glassy water that reflected the nearby mountains and reminded me of Lake Geneva with its old League of Nations headquarters, another attempt to blueprint a kingdom of saints. Apartment houses lined the waterfront, synchronized brises-soleils shielding the balconies. Jane slowed the car, and searched the windows for a single off-duty resident.
‘A fifth of the workforce live on-site,’ Penrose told us. ‘Middle and junior management in apartments and townhouses, senior people in the residential estate where you’re going. The parkland buffers the impact of all the steel and concrete. People like the facilities yachting and water-skiing, tennis and basketball, those body-building things that obsess the French.’
‘And you?’ Jane queried.
‘Well…’ Penrose pressed his large hands against the roof, and lazily flexed his shoulders. ‘I prefer to exercise the mind. Jane, are you keen on sport?’
‘Not me.’
‘Squash, aerobics, roller-blading?’
‘The wrong kind of sweat.’
‘Bridge? There are keen amateurs here you could make an income off.’
‘Sorry. Better things to do.’
‘Interesting…’ Penrose leaned forward, so close to Jane that he seemed to be sniffing her neck. ‘Tell me more.’
‘You know…’ Straight-faced, Jane explained: ‘Wife-swapping, the latest designer amphetamines, kiddy porn. What else do we like, Paul?’
Penrose slumped back, chuckling good-humouredly.

A rare burst of genuine comedy in Ballard. And a moment’s reflection suggests why: it’s because humour, to some extent, relies on the unexpected. A good punchline reveals a hidden connection or punning misinterpretation you hadn’t seen, and the sudden short circuit makes you laugh.

Careful to remain calm, and glad of the day’s first injection, I returned the sergeant’s salute…

Pondering this made me realise that there is little or no humour in Ballard because, in a way, everything in his stories is totally predictable and expected. In pretty much all his novels and short stories the characters do one and the same thing, which is go downhill – from an initial position of pukka British correctness they descend by carefully calibrated steps into mania and psychosis.

Frances gripped the steering wheel as if to brace herself before a collision. Trying to calm her, I moved her hands to her lap…

Arguably High Rise is the epitome of this narrative arc because it pushes the classic Ballard narrative of decline and fall to genuinely gruesome depths, into final scenes where it is revealed that some of the characters have resorted to cannibalism, which did come as a surprise.

The release of this long-repressed material seemed to calm her, rage diffused into the cooling waters of truth.

This is one of the reasons Rushing to Paradise is disappointing, because the characters follow exactly the same downward spiral as in all the other novels, but the descent only gets as far as the vengeful women hunting Neil through the tropical rainforest in scenes which, far from taking us into new levels of late 20th-century psychosis, ought to remind any reader of Lord of the Flies. I.e. instead of going forward, the novel, in the end, takes the reader (surprisingly) backward to a conclusion about human nature first made (much more powerfully) in the 1950s. That’s not prophecy: in a twisted kind of way, it’s almost nostalgia.

Her moment of panic had passed, and she spoke calmly.

Anyway, in a sentence, Super-Cannes is the best of these later novels because the narrator is as funny and savvy as the reader. And these moments of banter with the resident shrink, Dr Wilder Penrose, are indicative of a kind of confidence which the book exudes overall. It’s not perfect as a thriller, but I actively wanted to get back to reading it, whereas I had to more or less force myself to read Rushing To Paradise which is brilliantly written but whose plot I found a predictable chore.

I wrenched myself from him, and raised a fist to strike his face, but he clamped his hand over my mouth, trying to calm me. ‘Mr Sinclair… take it easy. I’m with you.’

The plot – 2

The tour of the murder scene  Running WildCocaine Nights and Super-Cannes are all set in gated communities of upper-middle-class professionals which go badly off the rails and become the scenes of massacres. Each of them features a tour of the crime scene, in the company of a police or security guard, which allows Ballard to describe the gruesome and sadistic killings with lipsmacking precision. Thus the nervy black security guard, Halder, takes Paul on an extended recreation of the route taken by Dr Greenwood as he went on his killing spree.

 I pulled away from them and leaned against the roof of the Mercedes. Calmly, I said: ‘I’m glad I came. What exactly is going on?’

The Big Speech explaining everything In the second half Paul – with breath-taking naivety – decides he’ll go meet and share with the business park psychiatrist, Dr Wilder Penrose, what he’s discovered so far, and the scenes he’s witnessed, specifically the gangs of leatherjacketed vigilantes who let off steam by beating up pimps and low-level crims in the backstreets of Cannes.

Only to discover that, of course, Wilder knows all about it. In fact Wilder is given a BIG SPEECH in which he explains the secret of life at the business park. He explains that the park managers slowly realised that these busy executives were working themselves to death and coming down with all kinds of psychosomatic ailments. They needed some RELEASE. What started as tentative suggestions that they try transgressive behaviours (the usual checklist of banned drugs, BDSM sex, combined with violent forays into the rougher parts of Cannes where they beat the crap out of East European pimps and Arab immigrants) turned out to be spectacularly successful at curing the busy executives’ many psychosomatic illnesses, boosting their immune systems and, above all, improving their decision-making and managerial effectiveness. Boosting profits. Thus every level of Eden-Olympia has been drawn into turning a blind eye to, or actively encouraging, the violence and decadent behaviour of the most aggressive executives.

She peered at me over her sunglasses, unsettled by my restless and eager manner.

The whole conception that our ‘innocent’ hero confronts the mastermind behind a wicked plan, who then proceeds to give an extended explanation of what is really going on, and how the hero ought to ‘join us’, comes straight out of a James Bond movie or any number of other tuppenny thrillers.

The victim turns out to be as bad as the baddies Similarly, just as we slowly learned that Frank, who’s been locked up for the arson attack in Cocaine Nights, is not as innocent as his brother thinks, in fact by the end we learn that he is deeply implicated in all the criminal activities at Estrella de Mar; so we now slowly learn that the Dr Greenwood who went nuts and went on the shooting spree that triggers the start of Super-Cannes, was himself deeply implicated in some very unsavoury behaviour. He was a volunteer at a clinic for immigrant children in a poor part of Cannes which sounds noble enough, he has thirty or more copies of Alice Through The Looking Glass in his spare bedroom which – apparently -he read to them;, but slowly the truth emerges that he took these vulnerable children back to his villa in Eden-Olympia for sex. The other doctor in the clinic, who he shot? She helped round up likely child sex victims from the slums of Cannes. They were both in it together.

The hero’s wife becomes involved Paul has realised from quite early on that his wife Jane is perfectly suited to the park. She loves working long hours. He has previously told us that she’s always been a rebel, a loose cannon, previously a punk and into drugs, she did a medical degree to piss her parents off, and was insubordinate to the male medical hierarchy. As the months go by Paul realises she only married him on an impulsive whim, and also begins to realise their marriage is ending at Eden-Olympia.

Jane becomes notable for two things:

1. She starts to have a lesbian affair with the Belgian woman who lives opposite and often traipses around naked on her balcony, Simone Delage, late-night sex with marijuana. Which turns into a threesome with the husband, Alain.

2. Paul’s knee continues to play him up and Jane takes to prescribing him painkillers, so much so that he wanders round in a daze and finds himself going along with the increasingly outrageous behaviour he sees around him. Eventually he stops taking the painkillers Jane is mixing for him, and has them analysed in a lab and discovers they contain a very strong tranquiliser used on mental patients. I.e. Jane has gone over to Eden-Olympia and is doping him.

The party at the Villa Grimaldi How far they have both fallen becomes clear on the night of a swanky party at the Villa Grimaldi overlooking Cannes attended by lots of swells from the Cannes Film Festival. After some satire about the film world, a complex little sequence of events follows. Greenwood had shot dead the park’s previous head of security. He had been replaced by a big boorish drunk, Pascal Zander. Paul learns that on one of the many evenings when he’s in Cannes late, Zander had been at his house and had come on very strong to his wife Jane. When Paul arrived home that night it was to find Jane in bed with a bruised mouth and face where Zander hit her.

Now, at this party, Paul goes in search of Zander and nearly has a fight with him,. He’s dragged away to her car by his lover Frances Baring (Paul has started an affair with this nervy woman who works in Eden-Olympia’s personnel department and had herself had an affair with Dr Greenwood). They leave the party a few moments later and slowly become aware that they’re being followed by an Audi. But then Paul realises that the Audi is itself being chased by two huge BMW limousines. He and Frances duck into a side street to let the other cars overtake them, then pull out again and watch the chase become more intense, like a scene from Crash. Eventually the big BMWs railroad the Audi into crashing through a roadside barrier and flying down onto the beach below, landing on its roof upside down on the edge of the surf.

Paul and Frances park up and Paul goes down onto the beach where he discovers the driver – who is dead – is Pascal Zander. He was a loose cannon, he had been finding out too much about the illegal activities at Eden-Olympia and so the leatherjackets killed him.

But here’s the thing. Paul walks up from the beach to the limos, opens the door and discovers… his wife Jane cowering in the back seat, stoned off her face. Next morning he describes all this to her and she point blank rejects it. She has been told Zander died in a freak car accident, that she went down to the beach to verify the body – neither of which is true. But she believes it. Paul grasps the extent to which she really has been sucked into Eden-Olympia’s dark underbelly.

She had relaxed a little, no longer unsettled by my presence,

Racism And just a note that this is the first Ballard novel I can remember where the issue of race is mentioned. Frank Halder, who guards Paul and intervenes at key moments to rescue him, is black and resentful of the way he is made to feel it by the powers-that-be at the park. Paul witnesses half a dozen violent outings or ratissages carried out by the leatherjackets, and it is obvious that they target Arab immigrants. Early on he witnesses some park security guards severely beating a harmless Arab street vendor. There’s a strong element of racism in the fact that Pascal Zander, the admittedly fat, sweaty, creepy drunk who takes over as head of park security, is eventually hounded to his death, partly because he was trying to blackmail the leading organisers of the park’s criminal activities, but just as much because he was an Arab.

This element of race-awareness is new in Ballard, and permeates the entire novel, and is part of the justification for characters making rather wild comparisons with Hitler and the Nazis (both mentioned twice in the text), which lead up to the preposterous idea that European business parks might be the breeding ground for the next fascist leaders (see below).

A lot more happens but it closely follows the same broad trajectory as Cocaine Nights, namely Paul finds himself drawn more and more into Eden-Olympia’s dark underbelly, but not in a good way. There are two more key elements:

Paul’s presence in Eden-Olympia is an experiment Between Wilder Penrose and the security man, Halder, Paul realises that the park authorities housed Paul and Jane in Dr Greenwood’s old villa as an experiment. They wanted to understand what made Greenwood snap. Why? Out of more than scientific interest. As the novel approaches its climax we learn that a second, far more extensive business park is being planned and laid-out close to the original Eden-Olympia. 20,000 people will end up living here, and Penrose and his clique will be wanting to extend their experiments in psychopathy to the new inhabitants. Therefore it’s vital they understand what factors drove Greenwood off the rails. And thus Paul realises he is the lab rat in an experiment; they are trying to recreate the circumstances which led to Greenwood snapping, so they can prevent it happening in the future. That’s why Penrose approved Paul’s ambiguous interest in the 11-year-old sex worker in the back streets of Cannes; he was excited that Paul really did seem to be going down the same track of paedophile exploitation which eventually led Greenwood to such a pitch of self-loathing that he set out on his killing spree which, Paul now realises, was designed to expose what was really going on at the park to the world at large.

They murder Paul’s lover, Frances Baring The key trigger point comes when he drives out to his lover Frances’s apartment and discovers she has been beaten to death by the leatherjackets. At that point something in him snaps, and he realises he is going to have to repeat Greenwood’s modus operandi. He acquires guns and ammunition from the brother of one of the chauffeur-hostages who was killed in the Greenwood massacre, and gets Halder’s co-operation. Halder gives him his gun and then promises to take Jane, stoned off her box, to the British consul in Marseilles and then packed on a plane back to London.

And the novel ends early in the morning as Paul psychs himself up to go and finish what Greenwood began, to kill all the senior personnel at the park starting with Penrose. Just as Charles Prentice turns into his predecessor, his transgressive brother, in Cocaine Nights, so Paul Sinclair turns into his predecessor, Dr Greenwood, on the last page of Super-Cannes.

I loaded the shotgun, and then stowed it under the rear seat. By the time I reached Eden-Olympia my targets would still be asleep. I would start with Alain and Simone Delage, drowsy after their late night in the Rue Valentin. Jane had told me that Simone kept a small chromium pistol in her bedside table, so she would be the first. I would kill her while she slept, using Halder’s handgun, and avoid having to stare back into her accusing eyes. Then I would shoot Alain as he sat up, drenched in his wife’s blood, moustache bristling while he reached for his glasses, unable to comprehend the administrative blunder that had led to his own death. The Delages slept with their air-conditioning on, and no one would hear the shots through the sealed windows.

Wilder Penrose would be next, ordered from his bed at gunpoint and brought down to the bare white room where he had set out his manifesto. He would be amiable, devious and concerned for me to the end, trying to win me with his brotherly charm while unsettling my eyes with the sight of his raw fingernails. I admired him for his hold over me, but I would shoot him down in front of the shattered mirror, one more door to the Alice world now closed for ever.

Destivelle and Kalman would follow, and the last would be Dmitri Golyadkin, asleep in his bunk in the security building. I would reach the TV centre in time for a newsflash on the early-afternoon news, but whatever happened I knew that Eden-Olympia would lead the bulletins. This time there would be questions as well as answers… I drove on, thinking of Jane and Frances Baring and Wilder Penrose, ready to finish the task that David Greenwood had begun.

In both cases I think the reader is meant to be shocked and horrified by this last-page revelation, and that we are meant to have shared the hero’s descent into psychosis. But, I’m afraid to say, in both instances I saw it coming a mile off and felt the endings were cheesy and predictable.

Ballard’s bogus futurology

‘The future is going to be like a suburb of Stuttgart.’ (Paul Sinclair to Frank Halder)

Only it isn’t, is it? It’s going to be a world of sprawling slums without clean water or enough food, in an overheating world subject to more and more extreme weather events and characterised by the extinction of species, the destruction of entire eco-systems, and increasingly desperate mass migrations of people.

The future is emphatically not going to be a sanitised business park full of trim, fit chief executives of Siemens and BMW who are so bored they indulge in heavy drugs and kinky sex with a bit of vigilante work against foreign pimps thrown in on the side.

You could only possibly believe that this is a useful idea of the future if you live in an upper-middle-class professional bubble, or have the poor grasp on reality of a literary critic or a university-bound academic, both groups which tend to mix with unrepresentative, well-educated, young cosmopolitan progressives.

But the London I live in is now 45% white i.e. the majority of modern Londoners in the London I live in come from an amazing range of non-caucasian ethnic groups.

At the 2011 census, London had a population of 8,173,941. Of this number 44.9% were White British. 37% of the population were born outside the UK, including 24.5% born outside of Europe

In my borough there are high-profile Somali and Brazilian communities, plus a whole range of African and Caribbean nationalities, alongside the usual groundswell of hard-working Polish labourers. Every day I’m amazed at the number of dirty, exhausted-looking Chinese labourers on my train home, and I don’t understand why most of the people having loud mobile phone conversations on my commuter train are Spanish.

So the future I’m already living in is one where huge mongrel populations from all over the world inhabit sprawling cities and live in a sort of surly indifference alongside each other, none of them speak what was once the native language, most scratching a living on zero hour jobs, as Uber drivers or riding Deliveroo scooters, work long hours labouring on building sites or as cleaners or who knows what activities in the black economy.

Towards the end of the book Paul’s lover, nervy Frances Baring, wails that ‘they’re’ coming to get us, the business parks are expanding in all directions, that one day a new Hitler or Pol Pot will emerge from them.

‘Their moral perception of evil was so eroded that it failed to warn them of danger. Places like Eden-Olympia are fertile ground for any messiah with a grudge. The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won’t walk out of the desert. They’ll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks.’

That just struck me as modish twaddle.

‘Wilder Penrose and Delage have to be stopped, along with their lunatic scheme. Not because it’s crazy, but because it’s going to work. The whole world will soon be a business-park colony, run by a lot of tight-lipped men who pretend to be weekend psychos.’

That’s just melodramatic tripe.

They are entertaining, written with real style and inventivness and full of hundreds of brilliantly perceived details – but Ballard’s three novels about über-privileged, gated communities full of entirely white, upper-middle-class professional types  – Running WildCocaine Nights and Super-Cannes – might as well be messages from the moon for all the relevance they have to my life and the life of my times.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

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Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard (1996)

‘Leisure societies lie ahead of us…’ (Irving Sanger, p.180)

A poolside thriller

Although it’s longer than almost any of Ballard’s other novels, Cocaine Nights feels like a nice easy read, an airport or poolside thriller with an increasingly psychotic edge.

I found Day of Creation and Rushing to Paradise a struggle to finish because their stories were so preposterous, but Cocaine Nights fits much more easily into the thriller genre and for much of the time was as easy as eating an ice cream at the cinema. It was published 26 long years after Ballard had published the angular, challenging, Atrocity Exhibition and, reading this book, it feels worlds away in size, form and approach…

Cocaine Nights is a confident first-person narrative told by Charles Prentice, a seasoned travel writer who’s knocked about a bit and knows the ways of the world. When he learns that his kid brother Frank has been arrested and will be going on trial in Marbella, in the south of Spain, Charles flies to Gibraltar, hires a car and drives up the Spanish coast.

Frank has been living for the past few years in an exclusive resort named Estrella de Mar where he was manager of the popular Club Nautico, overseeing ‘a familiar world of squash courts, jacuzzis and plunge-pools’.

Charles checks into a nearby hotel, and makes an appointment to meet Frank’s Spanish lawyer. Here, for the first time, he discovers the charges against his brother. A swanky holiday house overlooking the resort was set on fire in an act of deliberate arson, and the retired British couple who lived there, the Hollingers, along with their niece Anne, an au pair and the male secretary, Roger Sansom, were all burned to death in the arson attack.

Frank was discovered by the police a few hours later in possession of molotov cocktails – wine bottles filled with a highly flammable mix of ether and petrol – of the kind which without doubt started the fire. When Charles finally manages to visit Frank at his Spanish prison he discovers, to his bewilderment and consternation, that Frank is going to plead guilty.

Charles spends a week snooping round Estrella, interviewing as many of the inhabitants as he can. On the surface it’s bustling with good, clean, wholesome bourgeois activities, a theatre club putting on plays by Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, an arts cinema, pottery classes, tennis lessons, choral societies – it’s Surrey by the sea.

In many ways Estrella de Mar was the halcyon county-town England of the mythical 1930s, brought back to life and moved south into the sun. Here there were no gangs of bored teenagers, no deracinated suburbs where neighbours scarcely knew each other and their only civic loyalties were to the nearest hypermarket and DIY store. As everyone never tired of saying, Estrella de Mar was a true community, with schools for the French and British children, a thriving Anglican church and a local council of elected members which met at the Club Nautico. However modestly, a happier twentieth century had rediscovered itself in this corner of the Costa del Sol…

And:

Purpose-built in the 1970s by a consortium of Anglo-Dutch developers, Estrella de Mar was a residential retreat for the professional classes of northern Europe. The resort had turned its back on mass tourism, and there were none of the skyscraper blocks that rose from the water’s edge at Benalmadena and Torremolinos. The old town by the harbour had been pleasantly bijouized, the fishermen’s cottages converted to wine bars and antique shops. Taking the road that led to the Club Nautico, I passed an elegant tea salon, a bureau de change decorated with Tudor half-timbering, and a boutique whose demure window displayed a solitary but exquisite designer gown. I waited as a van emblazoned with trompe-l’œil traffic scenes reversed into the courtyard of a sculpture studio…

What with this thriving art scene, drama club, art classes, pilates, swimming lessons, sailing, tennis and much, much more, Estrella de Mar seems like paradise:

Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

But the more ‘amateur sleuthing’ Charles does and the more he finds out, the stranger the place appears.

One night, sitting in his car outside the resort’s main nightclub, the Club Nautico, pondering his next move, he sees what he takes to be a violent rape taking place in a car parked nearby. He runs over to rescue the woman, the man makes a getaway out the other door, but the woman, although obviously assaulted, with her knickers round her ankles and bleeding from the mouth, shrugs him off, pulls herself together and walks away. More disconcerting, as he stands there confused, Charles realises there was an audience watching: there are couples sitting in all the cars facing the one where the assault was taking place. Exasperated, Charles bangs his fists on their windshields:

‘What are you people playing at?’ I shouted. ‘For God’s sake . . .’

But one by one the cars turn on their ignitions, and slowly drive way.

Similarly, Charles notices prostitutes hanging round some of the streets in micro-skirts and boob tubes, mingling with the traffic, waiters, delivery men, shopkeepers and so on of the busy resort. But, on closer examination, he is disconcerted to realise that they are two ‘respectable’ women, wives of two men who run the town’s travel agency. Is it a kind of sex game, played to excite their husbands, or themselves? Or do they need the money?

A similar sense of bafflement surrounds descriptions of the fateful fire which killed the Hollingers. It happened on the Queen’s birthday, 15 June, and wasn’t a secret affair, the opposite. The villa was hosting a big party with everyone who was anyone at the resort invited, and so there was a crowd of over 200 drinking, partying, laughing, around the villa’s massive swimming pool. Hollinger even proposed a loyal toast to the Queen from his balcony, before going back inside (he was, Charles is repeatedly told, patriotic but aloof and rather pompous). Then suddenly the crowd started to realise that the big villa was on fire. Various guests tried to smash in the patio doors or windows, but they were fire-sealed and security-locked. Some guests tried to put ladders up to the first floor balcony and windows but the ladder caught fire.

So a) everyone saw the fire happen happen b) a lot of people tried to intervene but c) the Hollingers didn’t try to open any doors or windows but, apparently, stayed snug inside their separate bedrooms while their villa burned to the ground around them.

Charles visits the scene of the burned-out villa with one of the ex-pats who was there that night and who takes him through the events in detail. He closely questions all the other ex-pats who’ll agree to see him. He has long conversations with Frank himself, on his visits to him in prison, but his brother is infuriatingly vague about what happened or who is to blame. Charles is stunned when Frank’s lawyer tells him Frank is definitely going to please guilty to all five counts of murder.

Why? Why confess to a crime he didn’t commit? What the hell is going on?

To find out Charles decides he has to move into Estrella de Mar itself, so he checks out of the hotel up the coast where he’d been staying (the Los Monteros Hotel) and takes up occupation of Frank’s now-empty apartment, and starts digging deeper into the place and its inhabitants. All this has taken place by about page 70 – chapter 6 of the book’s 28 chapters – and the rest of the novel describes what he finds out.

And he finds out… that there is, as the BBC Sunday night drama has it, Death in Paradise. From the start Ballard had set a tone of aggressive sexuality – Charles has only just got into his hire car at Gibraltar when he spies a sultry woman driver in a nearby car fixing her make-up and has sexual fantasies about her. He is quick to spot the hookers on the streets of Estrella da Mar and quick to embark on a sexual affair with the resort’s troubled doctor, Paula Hamilton, and quickly suspects the bruises around her face are not from some harmless accident, but from the rough sex games, the S&M scene he quickly suspects exists behind closed doors at the resort.

So far so BDSM, so Crash, so porny. But if you park the porn – and Charless quick realisation that a certain amount of drugs is being consumed at the resort, mainly speed and cocaine – if you put all this modish window dressing to one side, the basic structure of the story is the same as a hundred Agatha Christie novels, and a thousand sleepy, Sunday night BBC ‘dramas’, the same basic structure:

  1. at an idyllic country community / stately home / happy family
  2. a mysterious death occurs
  3. an outsider comes in to investigate (Poirot, Miss Marple, Charles Prentice)
  4. who conducts a series of interviews with half a dozen key players
  5. which slowly reveal that any one of half a dozen characters might have had motives to carry out the murder(s)
  6. in which he or she uncovers clues carefully placed by the writer to keep us guessing
  7. so that the outsider/investigator slowly discovers that the idyllic community / stately home / happy family has dark (and hopefully depraved) secrets
  8. until by a process of induction, or through further incriminating events, the outsider/investigator finally discovers ‘the truth’

Thus, although the sex and drugs elements are fashionably depraved, and some of the details are quirky (like when Charles is buzz-bombed by a man-powered glider, which is a throwback to his weirder sci-fi stories) on the whole the narrative unfolds with the utter predictability of a 1930s murder mystery.

As you might have predicted, ‘shadowy figures’ try to warn Charles off, starting with a half-hearted attempt to strangle him on the balcony of Frank’s apartment, which is arranged to frighten him but not to actually hurt him.

As you might expect, Charles accompanies the Spanish detective in charge of the investigation on an extended tour of the burned-out villa as they retrace the stages of the crime, step by gruesome step, lingering over each room in which one or more of the victims were found burned or asphyxiated to death.

As you might expect, the detective reveals some unusual facts, such as that old Hollinger died in the house jacuzzi (good idea) but not with his wife, with young Anna the au pair. And that Anna was pregnant – but with whose child? Tut tut. And that Mrs Hollinger wasn’t in her room but in bed with the male secretary, Sansom. Saucy goings-on. ‘Lawks a-mercy, Monsieur Poirot, whoever would have thought it!’

As you might expect, Charles discovers a videotape in the melted VHS player of the burned-out villa – which the police have somehow overlooked – and takes it back to Frank’s apartment to view. It is, to no-one’s surprise, a porno, an amateur hand-held affair which starts with a standard lesbian romp, but turns nasty when some tough young men enter and appear to genuinely rape the tearful central figure. Yes, Estrella de Mar has a darker side, which grows a lot darker when Charles discovers it was his new girlfriend, Dr Paula Hamilton, who filmed the whole event.

As you might expect, there is a morose outsider, who has his own secrets to hide. In a Christie novel it’s often the gamekeeper or family retainer who turns out to have his own secrets. In this book it is the gloomy Swede Andersson, who maintains high powered speedboats which – on investigation – defy the Spanish navy to import hashish and heroin from North Africa. Drug smuggling.

Stuff happens. Someone sets fire to a stolen speedboat in the harbour. Someone sets fire to Prentice’s hire car. Someone dive bombs him with a hang glider when he climbs to the lemon grove above the Hollingers’ burned-out villa looking for evidence.

He feels himself settling into this world of casual crime, drug-taking and porn film-making, a ‘hidden Estrella de Mar, a shadow world of backstreet bars, hard-core video-stores and fringe pharmacies’, his brother Frank, stuck in gaol, becoming an ever more notional figure. Sanger the resort psychiatrist says he’s beginning to resemble his brother.

The Bobby Crawford effect

Bobby Crawford, the resort’s energetic tennis coach, was drifting down the coast from one sleepy resort to the next. When he arrived at Estrella da Mar he found it as torpid and somnolent as all the others he’d been at. But party by accident he was involved in some petty crimes and observed that it pepped the victims up no end. Experimentally, he embarked on a one-man crime wave, breaking into the luxury villas, nicking video players, pouring wine on precious carpets, spraying graffiti on garage doors, vandalising cars.

The effect is dramatic. People come out of their TV-induced coma to come to the resort offices to complain. They set up neighbourhood watch schemes. Having met each other they have parties to discuss latest developments, discover they have a taste for amateur dramatics or sports. People started turning up at what had previously been Crawford’s moribund tennis club.

I understood how [Frank] had fallen under Crawford’s spell, accepting the irresistible logic that had revived the Club Nautico and the moribund town around it. Crime would always be rife, but Crawford had put vice and prostitution and drug-dealing to positive social ends. Estrella de Mar had rediscovered itself.

The owners and investors – notably the shark-like Betty Shand – in the resort observe all this. They egg Crawford on. Encouraged he explores how far he can take the notion of energising crime. Some of the members of the newly founded film club are encouraged to make saucy films. A handful of the tougher sports club members are recruited into Crawford’s gang which carries out random attacks or thefts.

Ballard’s thesis

So bit by bit, Ballard’s thesis is at first hinted at by various characters, and then finally explained at length by Crawford in what might as well be a Shakespearian soliloquy addressed directly to the audience. The thesis is that society is sinking into a profound slump of boredom and accidie, addicted to TV while its mind vegetates. But people need excitement and an environment of petty crime energises and enlivens entire communities.

What they need, though they refuse to accept it, is a certain amount of amoral crime. And the person who supplies it, the impresario of crime, is the unacknowledged saviour of moribund communities. In the right time and place, the psychopath can be a saint.

‘The psychopath plays a vital role. He meets the needs of the hour, touches our graceless lives with the only magic we know…’ (Bobby Crawford explaining to Charles)

Put to the test – the Residencia Costasol

And all this is put to the test, when the likeable energetic Crawford recruits Charles in him and his rich sponsors’ next project which is to move on to the next sleepy ex-pat resort down the coast, the Residencia Costasol.

Half-reluctant but intrigued, Charles allows himself to be persuaded to become the manager of the main nightclub in the resort down the road. It is dead in the water, an utterly moribund community of numbed zombies who stay indoors all day watching TV. Charles watches how just a few incidents of petty crime begin to waken the dead. Crawford takes him on a car tour of the empty, perfectly manicured streets, with Crawford stopping every so often to break into an empty villa and steal a video recorder, or some jewellery, to spraypaint a garage door or vandalise a slumbering Porsche.

Charles is initially sceptical but then amazed when people start visiting the resort offices to complain, stop to buy some stuff, go into the bars for a drink, a few of them sign up with Crawford’s tennis club, some of them ask about entertainment at Charles’s nightclub.

Charles finds himself sucked into the scheme and becoming compliant to ever greater scandals. When a luxury yacht is burned down in the marina, it not only shocks the inhabitants, it reminds everyone that they own yachts, and soon the yacht club is booming. And so is Charles’s nightclub, doing a roaring trade, with people staying up late partying to the dance music. Which of course attracts drug dealers who Crawford, we find out, is managing and running. Similarly, some prostitutes arrive but Charles is stunned when he realises some of the women tottering in high heels, micro-skirts and boob tubes are wives of well-to-do residents. The Crawford Effect works. Residencia Costasol is becoming another Estrella da Mar.

Charles turns into his brother

All this has taken some months and Charles changes. He had rushed out to Spain on the first flight to help his brother and pestered his lawyers and the police for his first few weeks. Then, as he uncovers more about Estrella’s secret sub-culture, he put off seeing his brother until he understands more. And this quest to understand takes him down the road we’ve described, until he realises he has become his brother – performing exactly the role in the Residencia Costasol that Frank played in Estrella, a lynchpin in the resort’s social life, turning a blind eye to activities which skirt illegality and, increasingly, veer into outright immorality, but not taking an active part so much as trying to restrain or channel Bobby Crawford’s boyish, unstoppable, amoral appetite for stirring things up.

And so it is that Charles puts off opportunities to visit his brother for months on end, and slowly comes to the realisation that he doesn’t want to or need to. When Paul Hamilton tells him that Frank’s much-delayed trial is about to start the next day, Charles brushes it off. His metamorphosis into his amoral brother is complete.

Whodunnit

Eventually we get to the payoff, which comes as little or no surprise. Who set fire to the Hollingers’ villa? They all did or, to be more precise, all the main characters Charles has met played a part. There wasn’t really a central mastermind or fixed plan, but some of the people he’s met got hold of petrol and ether, others filled the villa’s air conditioning with this flammable mix. Each individual told themselves they were preparing a prank, a practical joke, a bit extreme maybe, but essentially harmless. In an act of collective psychosis none of them acknowledged what they were doing, until it began to happen and then it was too late – the fire spread too fast and aggressively for anyone to stop it or the villa’s inhabitants to escape.

And then the collective act had performed its function. The entire community felt bound together by collective guilt, like members of some primitive tribe who kill, cook and eat their chief. They have all partaken of the blood sacrifice. They are bound more closely than ever together.

‘He [Bobby Crawford] stumbled on the first and last truth about the leisure society, and perhaps all societies. Crime and creativity go together, and always have done. The greater the sense of crime, the greater the civic awareness and richer the civilization. Nothing else binds a community together. It’s a strange paradox.’ (Paula Hamilton explaining to Charles)

And in fact, to his dismay, his lover Paul Hamilton who finally reveals all this to him, also reveals that Frank did in fact play a key role in the arson. And that’s why he has decided to plead guilty. By pleading guilty he saves the others, saves the community.

Novel or fable?

By this stage you can see how the book has ceased to be a realistic novel or thriller. It is making a case. It is what the French call a roman à thèse – a novel which is didactic or which expounds a theory. Humans are animals. Despite all propaganda to the opposite, they need excitement and thrills. The person who provides this excitement – the psychopath as saint – is reviled but secretly welcomed. The sequence of petty crimes leads inexorably to a great act of collective murder which binds the community in collective guilt.

By this point the book has ceased being a realistic novel and become a kind of elaboration of Sigmund Freud’s highly questionable anthropological theories. In his later writings Freud speculated that early human societies were bound together through the ritual murder of The Father, and claimed to have found evidence for this in ancient mythology, from the Greeks to the ancient Israelites.

If you buy into this logic, or if you are now reading the book more as a Freudian fable than as a Christie-style whodunnit, the final section comes as no surprise, but has a pleasing inevitability about it. Things are thriving at the Residencia Costasol but Charles picks up more and more signals that another extreme event is in the offing, though he can’t discover what it is, and for a while the reader is alarmed that he himself might be the target, or his erstwhile lover, Paul Hamilton.

Or, in a big red herring, maybe the target will be Dr Irwin Sanger, the resident psychotherapist at Estrella de Mar who, we come to learn, has a fetish for under-age girls, and is more or less driven out of Estralla, taking refuge in a villa he’s bought at the Residencia Costasol, close to the one Charles is living in. Is a gang of vigilantes going to attack the increasingly fragile old man and torch his villa?

In the event it is Bobby Crawford. He’d made an appointment to meet Charles, but as Charles approaches the tennis court where Bobby spends all his time between supervising the community’s criminal activities, he finds Crawford lying on the court, shot through the heart. Charles stoops and picks up the small handgun which killed him, moves Bobby’s head, gets blood all over his shirt and hands… just as he hears the siren of the police car, looks up to see Inspector Cabrera, who had investigated the original arson attack, who had quizzed him at length about his brother, who had watched his character slowly transform… Inspector Cabrera walks towards him across the court and in the last sentences Charles realises that he, Charles Prentice, will take the blame, take the rap, plead guilty of Bobby’s murder… for the greater good of the community.

And the novel ends on this Grand Guignol, Edgar Allen Poe moment.


Characters

An indication of its difference from previous novels is the sheer number of characters. A novel like The Crystal World had about eight named characters, Concrete Island only about four, whereas Cocaine Nights feels has the extended cast of Eastenders.

The narrator

  • Charles Prentice, travel writer and older brother of Frank
  • Frank Prentice, long term inhabitant of Estrella de Mar, accused of the murder by arson of the Hollingers

The ex pats

  • David Hennessy, retired Lloyd’s underwriter, now doddery the treasurer of the Club Nautico
  • Bobby Crawford, Club Nautico’s tennis professional and impresario of crime and transgressive behaviour
  • Dr Paula Hamilton, physician at the Princess Margaret Clinic, formerly Frank’s girlfriend
  • Sonny Gardner, barman and crew member on  Frank’s thirty-foot yacht
  • Elizabeth Shand, Estrella de Mar’s most successful businesswoman, a former partner of Hollinger’s
  • Dr Irwin Sanger, Bibi’s psychiatrist
  • Anthony Bevis, owner of the Cabo D’Ora Gallery
  • Colin Dewhurst, manager of a bookshop in the Plaza Iglesias
  • Blanche and Marion Keswick, two jaunty Englishwomen who ran the Restaurant du Cap, an elegant brasserie by the harbour
  • Gunnar Andersson, a young Swede who tuned speedboat engines at the marina, boyfriend of Bibi
  • a retired Bournemouth accountant and his sharp-eyed wife who runs a video-rental store in the Avenida Ortega
  • the Reverend Davis, the pale and earnest vicar of the Anglican church (officiates at one of the funerals of the arson victims)

The five arson victims

  • the Hollingers – he a retired British film producer, she (Alice) one of the last of the Rank Charm School starlets
  • Anne, their niece
  • Bibi Jansen, the Swedish au pair who died in the fire
  • the gay male secretary, Roger Sansom

The Spanish authorities

  • Senor Danvila – Frank’s lawyer
  • Inspector Cabrera, detective investigating the arson case
  • Rodney Lewis, Charles’s agent in London

Strengths

Ballard writes so vividly. Almost every paragraph has a phrase which scintillates with linguistic charge. There is a wonderful clarity and precision to his vision.

  • The pool terrace was deserted, the choppy water settling itself for the night
  • I walked into the dining room, listening to my footsteps as they dogged me across the parquet flooring
  • [after the fire] The remote-control unit lay on the bedside table, melted like black chocolate
  • Shreds of burnt chintz clung to the walls, and the dressing room resembled a coal scuttle in a rage
  • Dominating all the other craft in the yard was a fibre-glass powerboat almost forty feet long, three immense outboards at its stern like the genitalia of a giant aquatic machine

He’s not always on song. Sometimes the rhetoric can become overwrought, almost always when he lapses into cliché, into the expected:

  •  The faint scent of bath gel still clung to my skin, the perfume of my own strangulation that embraced me like a forbidden memory

And so part of the pleasure of reading the book comes from watching Ballard navigate the fine line between acuity and pretentiousness, between vivid originality and something a little more clumsy. For example, which side of the line is this?

He left the boatyard and led me along the walkway between the moored yachts and cabin-cruisers. The white-hulled craft seemed almost spectral in the dusk, a fleet waiting to sail on a phantom wind.

That’s a little over-ripe for me, a bit too self-consciously Gothic. A phrase like this overlays the scene with a forced or pretentious comparison. It moves from the specific outwards to the general and so diffuses the effect. I prefer descriptions which travel in the opposite direction, which zero in, which make you sit up and pay closer attention to the thing itself:

Andersson stopped at the end of the quay, where a small sloop rode at anchor. Beneath the Club Nautico pennant at the stern was its name: Halcyon. Police exclusion tapes looped along its rails, falling into the water where they drifted like streamers from a forgotten party.

This acuteness also applies to his perceptions of people.

As his eyes searched the sky over the town I noticed that he was looking everywhere but at the Hollinger house. His natural aloofness shaded into some unhappy emotion that I could only glimpse around the bony corners of his face.

That feels acute to me, and original. Very simple vocabulary, but conveying a way of perceiving new to most of us. Only prose fiction can do this, surprise us in this way.

Ballard’s sardonic vision of ex-pat communities

The whole narrative is premised on the idea that the ex-pat communities along the Mediterranean have a special atmosphere of zombified inanition. Sometimes Ballard describes this with the seriousness that the premise of a fable requires, but other times he is wonderfully acute and funny at describing the strange limbo world of these kind of over-heated ex-pat resorts. He doesn’t hold back:

While a young Frenchwoman topped up my tank I strolled past the supermarket that shared the forecourt,where elderly women in fluffy towelling suits drifted like clouds along the lines of ice-cold merchandise. I climbed a pathway of blue tiles to a grass knoll and looked down on an endless terrain of picture windows, patios and miniature pools. Together they had a curiously calming effect, as if these residential compounds -British, Dutch and German – were a series of psychological pens that soothed and domesticated these émigré populations…

The retirement pueblos lay by the motorway, embalmed in a dream of the sun from which they would never awake. As always, when I drove along the coast to Marbella, I seemed to be moving through a zone that was fully accessible only to a neuroscientist, and scarcely at all to a travel writer. The white facades of the villas and apartment houses were like blocks of time that had crystallised beside the road. Here on the Costa del Sol nothing would ever happen again, and the people of the pueblos were already the ghosts of themselves…

Estrella de Mar seemed a place without shadows, its charms worn as openly as the bare breasts of the women of all ages who sunbathed at the Club Nautico. Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

Via his characters, Ballard can be even more forthright in his opinions:

‘Have you seen the pueblos along the coast? Zombieland. Fifty thousand Brits, one huge liver perfused by vodka and tonic. Embalming fluid piped door to door…’

Charles is more detached and analytical – he is, after all, a writer by profession – but is given the same point of view:

Already thinking of a travel article, I noted the features of this silent world: the memory-erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilised the nervous system; the almost Africanised aspect, but a North Africa invented by someone who had never visited the Maghreb; the apparent absence of any social structure; the timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present. Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…

Empty pools and full pools

One symbolic way of indicating the difference between Ballard’s pre-Empire of the Sun fiction and the novels he wrote after that catharsis, is that, in all his pre-Empire stories and novels, the swimming pools are drained and empty; in all the post-Empire stories, the swimming pools are filled to the brim, reflecting the bright blue Mediterranean sky, and denoting a world of timeless, affectless plenty.

Weaknesses

It’s hard not to notice Ballard’s use of a deliberately limited descriptive vocabulary, a very restricted number of moods or gestures which all the characters display, as if they are androids with about five settings. This lexical narrowness bespeaks, indicates and enacts a sort of emotional and cognitive narrowness in his characters.

People are always needing to be ‘calmed’, because something is ‘unsettling’ or over-exciting them; many of the characters or situations are described almost from the start as ‘deranged’ or ‘demented’; the narrator does no end of ‘sensing’, ‘sensing’ that people know more than they let on, ‘sensing’ that he is unwelcome, ‘sensing’ that characters really mean this or that secret motive.

Calm

  • Paula tried to calm me, sitting me in the leather armchair and putting a cushion behind my head…
  • Cabrera watched me from the door, restraining Paula when she tried to calm me…
  • She turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • Before I could remonstrate with her she turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • ‘Now, sit down and try to calm yourself,’ Sanger steered me from the garden door, whose handle I was trying to turn, concerned for my overexcited state…
  • One of them touched my cheek, as if calming a child…
  • Trying to calm myself, I sipped Frank’s whisky and listened to the shrieks and laughter as the sun came up over the sea…
  • I put my hands on her shoulders to calm her.

Demented/deranged

  • I remembered the disagreeable Guardia Civil at Gibraltar and speculated that the fire had been started by a deranged Spanish policeman protesting at Britain’s occupation of the Rock.
  • Andersson stood astride the grave, spade held across his chest like a jousting pole, glaring in a deranged way at the psychiatrist.
  • Repeated cleanings had blurred the pigments, and the triptych of garage, windows and door resembled the self-accusing effort of a deranged Expressionist painter
  • The bedrooms were daubed with graffiti, a riot of black and silver whorls, a demented EEG trace searching for a brain
  • As Laurie Fox screamed in her demented way, spitting out the blood she had sucked into her mouth, Sanger seized her around the waist.
  • In the soil scattered from the plant tubs a demented geometer had set out the diagram of a bizarre dance of death…

Unsettled

  • ‘You’ve unsettled a great many people since you arrived, understandably so…’
  • His talk of re-opening the case unsettled me…
  • The frankness of her erotic response, the unashamed way in which she used her sex, seemed to unsettle Crawford..
  • I fingered the plastic sachet, tempted to help myself to this forgotten cache, but I was too unsettled by the visit to the Hollinger house
  • The testy humour, and the edgy manner of someone unsettled by standing more than a few seconds in front of a mirror, would have appealed to Frank…
  • Cabrera hesitated before getting into his car, unsettled by my change of tack
  • Crawford sat forward, speaking quietly as if not wanting to unsettle the silence.

Sensed

He uses the phrase ‘Already I…’ to convey the sense that something is creeping up on the narrator, that things are overtaking him, that things are moving at pace…

  • Already I sensed that she was looking on me with more favour, for whatever reasons of her own…
  • Already I sensed that I was being kept under surveillance…
  • Already I could sense the freedom that this intimate world would have given to Alice Hollinger…

Narrowness and repetition

Obviously we all have restricted vocabularies, our own idiolects (‘the speech habits peculiar to a particular person’) and Ballard is a very clever, self-aware writer.

Sol much so that I wonder whether the repetition of actions, of moods and of the relatively small range of words that he uses to describe them is deliberate – that he accepts the same narrow set of words which suggest themselves as he writes, because doing this adds to the stylisation of the text. That the repetitions not only of plot, but of specific words and phrases, adds to the sense of stylisation which accompanied, in the old days, coronations and religious rituals, and in our media age, define the camera angles and gestures of movie actors.

So that when the any of the other characters tell Charles to ‘calm’ himself, we remember Jim in Empire of the Sun continually being told by the adults to calm down. When the narrator remembers his father sparring with the Saudi police and so ‘unsettling’ his mother, we remember all the other Ballard characters who have been ‘unsettled’ by a drowned world, crystallising forests, the inhabitants of high rises killing each other, and so on.

This narrowness of plotting, and the narrowness of vocabulary, are central issues in critiquing Ballard’s work.

Running Wild is about a luxury gated community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Cocaine Nights is about a luxury ex-pat community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Super-Cannes is about a luxury business park for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Is the repetition of the same basic plot, told in prose which heavily features the same stylised attitudes and words (unsettle, calm, deranged) a bad thing or a good thing? Does the repetition of ideas and phrases cumulatively build up a powerful vision of the world?

Or feel like the repetition of a writer who’s lost inspiration? I think it’s more the former, that the hammering away of the same vocabulary is like a miner hammering away at a coal seam underground, relentlessly chipping away at the same pressure point to try and achieve a breakthrough into a new way of seeing.

Ballard’s improbable dialogue

Dialogue in thrillers is always pat, neat and snappy. Think of any of the classic American writers, Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler. By this late stage in his career Ballard had evolved his own version of this stagey dialogue in which characters don’t speak like hard-boiled gangsters but like lecturers in media studies, all very savvy and smart about Freud and Fellini. Here’s Crawford the tennis coach talking to Charles the narrator about his brother, Frank:

He stared at the air with his arms raised to the sky, as if waiting for a sympathetic genie to materialize out of the spiralling dust.
‘Charles, I know. What’s going on? This is Kafka re-shot in the style of Psycho. You’ve talked to him?’
‘Of course. He insists he’s guilty. Why?’
‘No one knows. We’re all racking our brains. I think it’s Frank playing his strange games again, like those peculiar chess problems he’s always making up. King to move and mate in one, though this time there are no other pieces on the board and he has to mate himself.’

‘This is Kafka reshot in the style of Psycho‘ and then moving on to make comparisons with chess games. Do you think anyone, anywhere has ever spoken like that, let alone a professional tennis coach?

Here’s Charles sparring with nervous Dr Paul Hamilton.

‘Besides, my patients need me. Someone has to wean them off the Valium and Mogadon, teach them how to face the day without a bottle and a half of vodka.’
‘So what Joan of Arc was to the English soldiery you are to the pharmaceutical industry?’

Has anyone ever said something is sharp and snappy as that to you? Here’s Charles talking to Inspector Cabrera:

‘Inspector, when I meet Frank I’ll say that I’ve seen the house. If he knows I’ve been here he’ll realize how absurd his confession is. The idea that he’s guilty is preposterous.’
Cabrera seemed disappointed in me. ‘It’s possible, Mr Prentice. Guilt is so flexible, it’s a currency that changes hands . . . each time losing a little value.’

Ah, the literary policeman as philosopher. Here’s Charles with Dr Hamilton, again:

‘Who is he exactly?’
‘Not even Bobby Crawford knows that. He’s three different people before breakfast. Every morning he takes his personalities out of the wardrobe and decides which one he’ll wear for the day.’

Snappy. Or:

As we stood together I placed my hand on her breast, my index finger following the blue vein that rose to the surface of her sunburnt skin before descending into the warm deeps below her nipple. She watched me uncritically, curious to see what I would do next. Without moving my hand from her breast, she said: ‘Charles, this is your doctor speaking. You’ve had enough stress for one day.’
‘Would making love to you be very stressful?’
‘Making love to me is always stressful. Quite a few men in Estrella de Mar would confirm that. I don’t want to visit the cemetery again.’
‘Next time I’m there I’ll read the epitaphs. Is it full of your lovers, Paula?’
‘One or two. As they say, doctors can bury their mistakes.’

Boom boom, as artful as Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton. Here’s Charles interviewing Andersson the boat repair man:

‘You don’t like looking at the Hollinger house, do you?’
‘I don’t like looking at anything, Mr Prentice. I dream in Braille.’

It’s all as slick and stylised as the dialogue in a Noel Coward play, mingled with a pleasant stream of sub-Wildean paradoxes.

‘Money, sex, drugs. What else is there these days? Outside Estrella de Mar no one gives a damn about the arts. The only real philosophers left are the police.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘Selfish men make the best lovers. They’re prepared to invest in the woman’s pleasure so that they can collect an even bigger dividend for themselves.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘The arts and criminality have always flourished side by side.’ (Dr Sanger)

This whip-smart repartee mixes oddly with Ballard’s very limited set of emotional responses, and then again with the off-hand references to hard drugs or kiddie-porn or BDSM sex. It’s an odd combination.


Ballard’s erroneous futurology

‘Everything comes sooner these days. The future rushes towards us like a tennis player charging the net.’ (The psychiatrist Irwin Sanger)

Ballard is routinely trotted out as a ‘prophet’ or ‘futurologist’, but this strikes me as plain wrong.

Cocaine Nights obsessively repeats the idea that the enclaves of bored wealthy ex-pats along the Costa del Sol somehow indicate what the future will be like:

  • Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…
  • ‘Frank always claimed that Estrella de Mar is what the future will be like…’
  • ‘In Estrella de Mar, like everywhere in the future, crimes have no motives…’
  • ‘I talked to Sanger the other day – he thinks we’re the prototype of all the leisure communities of the future…’
  • ‘Charles, this is the way the world is going. You’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work or play. The Costasols of this planet are spreading outwards. I’ve toured them in Florida and New Mexico. You should visit the Fontainebleau Sud complex outside Paris – it’s a replica of this, ten times the size. The Residencia Costasol wasn’t thrown together by some gimcrack developer; it was carefully planned to give people the chance of a better life. And what have they got? Brain-death…’
  • ‘It’s Europe‘s future. Everywhere will be like this soon…’

At its bluntest, here is Dr Sanger lecturing Charles:

‘Our governments are preparing for a future without work, and that includes the petty criminals. Leisure societies lie ahead of us, like those you see on this coast. People will still work – or, rather, some people will work, but only for a decade of their lives. They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.’
‘A billion balconies facing the sun. Still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies.’

Has anything more inaccurate and misleading ever been written? This is spectacularly wrong, isn’t it? Ballard was reading from a script first devised in the 1970s, which looked forward to a utopian leisure society in which we’d all struggle to fill our countless hours of pampered idleness. Is that what happened? No. The exact opposite has happened:

Money-rich, time-poor is an expression which arose in Britain at the end of the 20th century to describe groups of people who, whilst having a high disposable income through well-paid employment, have relatively little leisure time as a result. Time poverty has also been coined as a noun for the phenomenon. (Wikipedia)

Spending day after day with nothing to do is not really an accurate portrait of Britain in 2020. Do you feel like you live in ‘a leisure-dominated future’? Plus, this whole discussion only takes place among the moneyed bourgeoisie. Most normal people are having to work harder than ever to make ends meet.

More women are in the workforce not because of abstract principles of ‘equality’ but because they’ve been forced to go to work to supplement their husband’s wages. More people than ever before are working on zero hours contracts. All the articles I read are about how work has invaded people’s ‘leisure’ hours, their evenings and weekends because work emails, texts and documents are now sent to people’s personal devices 24/7. And that’s before you get to the dire condition of the underclass, which I was reading about recently.

A few numbers: In 2014 the officially registered population of British nationals in Spain was 236,669, let’s call it 240,000. In 2014 the UK population numbered about 65 million. So British ex-pats in Spain make up less than 0.4% of the UK population. Hardly at the cutting edge of British social trends.

And even more obviously, this kind of thing is highly Eurocentric – it describes a world of overwhelmingly white chaps and chapesses from the professional classes who are all very comfortably off, thank you very much – Estrella de Mar is full of retired bank managers and accountants and doctors and property developers. What has come to be referred to by their impoverished children as the ‘boomers’.

As a vision of the future of the entire world it is obviously flawed for the simple reason that it totally omits, not only most of the population of European countries, but the whole of the rest of the world. A moment’s reflection on the condition of the population of either China or India (combined populations 2.75 billion people) suggests that the future of the planet is not one of luxury resorts offering a wide range of sports activities…

Ballard’s view of the future. My view of the present

Ballard’s vision of an affluent society where the well-off retire at 30 and have so much time on their hands that they take to drugs and murder to spice up their lives is plausible enough when you read it, as is much science fiction or genre fiction.

But the moment you start seriously thinking about it, you realise it is a ludicrously out-of-touch fantasy. The kind of thing only a writer – a person who spends almost all their time at home, staring out of windows, or meeting other like-minded middle class types – could conceive of, and that only academics who’ve spent a lifetime reading about transgressive sex and literary tropes, but who have precious little knowledge of international affairs, geopolitics, environmental or population trends, could take seriously.

This is a clever, very educated and very literary book, with an enormous amount of pleasure to be had from Ballard’s often inspired way with language and his endless stream of acute insights and vivid turns of phrase.

And yet the social vision at the heart of the narrative felt to me curiously dated, remote and out of touch with the actual world the rest of us live in, and are going to live in.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

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