Primitivism and Modern Art by Colin Rhodes (1994)

This is another in Thames and Hudson’s extensive ‘World of Art’ series, which means it has a serious and thorough text but that, of the 207 illustrations, only 28 are in colour, and all of them are small.

In Primitivism and Modern Art Rhodes aims ‘to give an overview of, and to highlight and clarify the often confused major issues and values at stake in the Primitivist world view through a discussion that focuses on the modern artists most closely associated with it’ – which straightaway explains the central theme and also gives you an example of the book’s rather clotted prose style.

Primitivism and political correctness

I was expecting there to be a fair amount of political correctness and I wasn’t disappointed, both in terms of sweeping generalisations and characteristic sociological jargon:

In [the late 19th century] the female body was deemed to be less specialised and women were generally typed as being essentially instinctive as opposed to rational thinkers. This conveniently situated them in a position closer to nature and so in this way the generic woman was defined, silenced and contained in male discourses of culture in precisely the same way as the savage.

‘Precisely’?

It is no coincidence that Pechstein’s image of female fecundity should be titled Early Morning (1911). The curving form of the apparently pregnant, exoticised woman is echoed in the arching sweep of the primordial landscape, suggesting that here creation can be understood simultaneously as a literal dawn, the dawn of time and as the promise of new life. (p.62)

For Rhodes, paintings are Evidence for the Prosecution, indictments of painters who are charged with being complicit in the racist, sexist, homophobic, imperialist value systems of their day (the book lingers longest on the imperial heyday at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries).

The artists’ work needs to be paraded before us so we can ridicule their absurdly antediluvian attitudes. After all, are not we in our own time, completely and perfectly enlightened? Are our times not the acme of human moral achievement? Do these old white guys from over a hundred years ago not merit our scorn and criticism?

For me it smacks too much of Hitler’s exhibitions of ‘Degenerate Art’ or Stalin’s persecution of any artist, musician, performer who failed to carry out the wishes of the Party. After all, was not the Soviet Union the Workers’ Paradise and the most morally advanced society in human history?

The art illustrated here and much of the detailed commentary is interesting, but there is too much of the intolerant commissar, permanently straining at the leash to find some aspect of every single painting and sculpture to criticise and judge to make it a very enjoyable experience.

Some of the criminals and their crimes

Here are some of the indictments on the charge sheet against white Western male art.

  • Paintings of women can only exploit their sexuality and offer the male viewer (apparently, no woman ever looked at a painting) ‘an eroticised vision of women’ resulting in ‘a sort of culturally endorsed voyeurism’ (p.82)
  • The artist (any artist) is guilty of using ‘the artist’s controlling gaze’ (p.81).
  • Gauguin, in finding Tahitian men and women rather androgynous, is guilty of ‘crude evolutionary reasoning’ (p.72).
  • Matisse’s odalisques are guilty of connotations of ‘white slavery and socially unacceptable indulgences’ (p.83).
  • Oskar Kokoschka is guilty of an ‘uncritical acceptance of a need to distinguish between different types of humanity and to classify them accordingly’ (p.83) and of ‘voyeurism’ (p.84).
  • Klee and Kokoschka are guilty of ‘conventional ideas about the Orient’ (p.84).
  • Orientalist paintings of the 19th century are, it goes without saying, guilty of voyeurism and racism (p.90).
  • The West was guilty of using ‘notions of the primitive’ as ‘mechanisms of domination and control over “outsiders”‘ (p.133)

Guilty guilty guilty. Rhodes fearlessly names and shames the guilty men, and indicts whole eras of history for their pitiful ignorance.

Cultural appropriation

The politically correct view of ‘primitivism in modern art’ is that white, Western male artists had run out of steam and inspiration by the turn of the twentieth century, and so invented modern art by ‘appropriating’ (i.e. stealing) images, motifs, ideas, designs and so on from the supposedly ‘primitive’ societies of Africa and Oceania (the Pacific).

They were able to do so because in the last years of the 19th century the European empires reached their zeniths i.e. ruthlessly exploitative imperialism was imposed over a huge part of the globe and countless artifacts were looted from the powerless inhabitants and sent back to European museums, art boutiques or junk shops.

Thus white male artists can be accused of a kind of double whammy, stealing ideas from already-stolen goods. And, being men, they are of course guilty of all kinds of sexism, conscious and unconscious.

Guilty three times over.

This idea of the criminal ‘cultural appropriation’ of non-European art was well-established in Rhodes’s day (1994), and has only grown more clamorous and strident as ‘identity politics’ have replaced effective class-based politics, especially in university humanities courses. (Thus the recent exhibition about Matisse in the studio was awash with the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ and earnest discussions of its wickedness.)

I don’t really understand the idea of cultural appropriation, in the sense that it seems to me to have been the basis of human culture since records began. Cro-Magnon man appears to have adopted aspects of Neanderthal culture. Japanese language and court ritual is based on the much older Chinese characters and etiquette. Christianity is a wholesale appropriation of the books, teachings and beliefs of Judaism. Islam incorporates elements of Jewish and Christian traditions. Notions of hellfire and damnation apparently derive from Persian Zoroastrianism. The Greeks took much of their astrological and numerical knowledge from the Egyptians. The Romans ripped off the Greeks wholesale. The Germanic tribes which overran the Roman Empire copied the laws, language, architecture and ceremonies of the Romans. And so on. Every culture we know of can be shown to have incorporated aspects of other cultures they came into contact with or defeated.

The suspicion is that white western-educated intellectuals only really apply the notion of cultural appropriation to themselves in a spasm of liberal guilt at the wickedness of western empires. In a tiresome example of reverse snobbery, is cultural appropriation something all cultures in all of recorded history have done, but is only bad when done by white people?

Problems with ‘primitivism’

What surprised me is how difficult it proves for Rhodes to sustain this idea, for a number of reasons. In fact the fundamental problem the book struggles with is that Rhodes’s definition of ‘the primitive’ is set far too wide to be effective:

1. Western history is full of the quest for the ‘primitive’

For a start Western civilisation is itself drenched in a huge number of intellectual movements which have sought to rejuvenate the present (generally seen as decadent and over-refined) by invoking some long-lost, more simple, utopia of ‘primitive’ belief or culture.

Jesus thought he was trying to restore Judaism away from the complex rules and regulations devised by the Sadducees and Pharisees back to its pure belief in the one God. 1,500 years later Martin Luther tried to throw out the vast intellectual edifice of the Roman Catholic church in order to restore Christianity to its pure founding beliefs.

On the pagan side, the ancient Greek and the Romans developed the idea that there had once been an early Golden Age, simpler, more peaceful and rural, before men fell into the corruption of the cosmopolitan cities. This fundamental dichotomy – rural innocence, urban corruption – has been a central thread of literature ever since. Part of the huge cultural movement known as the Renaissance wasn’t trying to be ‘modern’, but saw itself (as the word explicitly says) as a rebirth, a return to the ancient knowledge of the ancients, restoring their lost skills in sculpture, painting and perspective.

Politics and religion aside, just in the narrow field of art, there was a constant series of movement which all claimed to be returning to and restoring earlier, purer values and practices.

  • Rococo artists thought they were returning to a simpler, rural idyll after the extremely heavy, over-wrought emotion of the Baroque Counter-Reformation.
  • Jacques-Louis David and his neo-classical followers at the time of the French Revolution thought they were overthrowing the courtly decadence of the Rococo in order to revive the sterner, purer idealism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • The pre-Raphaelites did what their name suggests and tried to return to an idealised idea of medieval and early Renaissance art, before it was ‘corrupted’ by the perfectionism of Michelangelo and Raphael.

And so on.

In other words, western politics, religion and culture have repeatedly sought to restore, refresh and renovate themselves by seeking out more basic, simpler, more ‘primitive’ antecedents. The discovery and taste for African and Pacific art should surely be seen as the latest in a long line of quests for rejuvenation from idealised ‘simple’ and ‘pure’ sources.

2. Discussion of ‘primitive’ societies and artifacts belongs to anthropology not art criticism

Who exactly is Rhodes accusing and blaming? The opening pages make it clear that the main accusation is against late-Victorian biologists, anthropologists and ethnographers, figures like Ernst Haeckel the biologist, Herbert Spencer the social theorist or the French ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. Rhodes quotes them writing dismissively about ‘primitive’ cultures, ‘savage’ races, ‘inferior societies and so on, and it is not very difficult to indict them of racism, sexism, orientalism and so on.

These are the figures who took Darwin’s theory of evolution and remodelled it into Social Darwinism, the theory which applied the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to human societies (justifying the poverty of the poor by saying they just weren’t up to the struggle for life), and then applying it to the colonies of the huge European empires, whose populations, it was claimed, were savages, primitives, children who needed to be guided and nurtured until they evolved up to the level of our wonderful Western societies.

1. It’s easy to get whip up outrage against these kind of writers but:

  • It was quite a long time ago
  • Pointing out that the writings of some German sociologist of the 1880s was ‘racist’ is not exactly news. It’s the opposite, really. It is quite tediously well known.

2. Same with Imperialism. Rhodes thinks it was bad. Really? Golly. May I suggest that this is no longer news.

3. Overall, this is an argument to take up with modern anthropologists and social theorists. An art critic wading into the writings of pioneer anthropologists and ethnographers is bound to be able to find all kinds of quotes which offend modern sensibilities. His conclusion is ‘they were all sexist and racist’. This is so boring and predictable as to turn me off the whole book: is it all going to be written at this kindergarten level?

There’s something about art and literature critics who make a foray into completely different disciplines in order to froth and rage against the appalling racism and sexism of people writing 150 years ago. It’s so easy. It’s like Edward Said getting cross about the ‘orientalist’ writings of supposed ‘experts’ on the Middle East or Africa, who were writing in the 1850s.

And of course Rhodes and Said’s readers, their audiences (art students, literature students), are not experts in these fields – they are completely unqualified to comment on how the attitudes of 1880s ethnographers or orientalists have been superseded and transformed over the past 140 years – and so are liable to hoover up this sense of undifferentiated anger untroubled by detailed knowledge of how the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography have changed in the 140 years since then.

3. The assumption of influence

A second objection is that Rhodes makes the dubious assumption about these racist writings, namely that they are representative of everyone’s views at the time.

Were they? Has he carried out extensive historical researches into the attitudes of the entire colonial-administrative-government-ruling class attitudes? Or of ‘ordinary’ non-university-educated people? Because in Britain there was a broad range of Liberal and Socialist opinion which was passionately opposed to Empire and imperial discourse. The Indian National Congress party was established in 1885 on the initiative of a British official and had many British Liberal supporters.

Instead Rhodes cherry picks only the most outrageous bits of text he can find. It’s as if some art critic in 100 years’ time gives his students selected quotes from Donald Trump and then says, all Americans at this time agreed with everything Donald Trump said and wrote. We can all see that that’s a ludicrous simplification, right? Well, why apply the same kind of gross simplification to people 100 years ago?

The second dubious assumption is that the artists of the day (1880s, 1890s, 1900s) were in some way unquestioningly influenced by these imperialist, racist writings. Was Picasso a keen reader of the biology professor Haeckel? Was Matisse a devotee of Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer? I doubt it. And to claim that they somehow picked up these attitudes because they were ‘widespread’ or ‘in the air’ or ‘the spirit of the times’ is lazy and insulting.

Do you, the person reading this, share the widespread anti-democratic, right-wing populism which is without doubt ‘the mood of our times’, in the States, in Britain, and across Europe? Rhodes’s assumption is that everyone in a bygone era shares one unified set of values, the values he personally wants to assign them in order to then criticise and flay them.

This is an insultingly simplistic view of history or of society.

4. ‘Primitivism’ is just too vague a term for such an enormous cultural movement

Rhodes shows how the idea of the ‘primitive’ was much much bigger than just African masks and fetishes. The leading post-Impressionists in the 1880s (Gauguin and van Gogh, in his own way Cézanne) were already moving away from the Impressionist aim of giving a more accurate account of what the artist saw, towards emphasising what the artist saw made him feel.

And then the decade of 1900 to 1910 saw the decisive breaks with figuration of Matisse and the Fauves, of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism. Meanwhile, in Germany, in Scandinavia, in Russia, other artists were experimenting with rejecting traditional academic painting in favour of styles which emphasised feeling, seeking out more basic, simpler, starker effects.

In other words a whole generation of artists was rejecting the 450-year-old tradition which began with the Renaissance, the tradition of striving for a super-realistic depiction of reality, complete with realistic perspective, naturalistic colours and so on – the window on the world idea – and which had been brought to a peak of perfection in the academic Salon painters of the mid- and late-19th century.

In their different ways the post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, the Expressionists, Munch, Kandinsky, all across Europe leading artists sought ways to escape from this tradition, to free painting up so it could express a more modern variety of feeling and sensibility.

Rhodes shows that this is what spurred the Turn to the Primitive, in the broadest sense and that most of  this art had nothing whatever to do with African or Oceanic artefacts.

4. ‘Primitive’ is a crude umbrella term for all kinds of art

Because, in this broadest sense, ‘the primitive’ could refer to almost any type of art – any source of styles and images and metaphors and traditions and ways of seeing – which was simply not the sophisticated Western academic one. Thus Rhodes admits that the term can include:

  • medieval and very early – or ‘primitive’ – Renaissance art
  • children’s art – the artists of the German Blue Rider group were particularly interested in children’s art and published it untouched in their magazines around 1911-13
  • peasant art – simple motifs in textiles, cloth, curtains, ceramics and glass
  • folk art – just as the classical composers of the period went out into the field to collect folk songs and melodies
  • the art of the insane – a key work is Artistry of the Mentally Ill by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, published in 1922 which influenced Paul Klee’s exercises in mad drawing
  • the art of the self-taught, like Henri Rousseau
  • outsider art, such as the backdrops, masks, costumes, sets and designs for circuses, cabaret, vaudeville, puppet theatres and so on

The interest in African and Pacific art which came in around 1905 has to take its place in a far, far wider cultural movement, and among a whole range of ‘primitive’ sources, which the book goes on to describe.

To give just one example, Neo-primitivism was a specific Russian art movement which took its name from the 31-page pamphlet Neo-primitivizm by Aleksandr Shevchenko (1913). Shevchenko proposed a new style of modern painting which fused elements of Cézanne, Cubism and Futurism with traditional Russian ‘folk art’ conventions and motifs, notably the Russian icon and the lubok. ‘Primitive’ is in the very name but it has nothing to do with the art of Africa or the Pacific.

The best definition of this very broad ‘cultural primitivism’ Rhodes can find comes from a book written as long ago as 1935, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, whose authors Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas define it as:

The discontent of the civilised with civilisation, or with some conspicuous and characteristic feature of it. It is the belief of men living in a highly evolved and complex cultural condition that a life far simpler and less sophisticated in some or all respects is a more desirable life. (quoted on page 20)

Reading this I think, ‘but when was this impulse not present in Western culture (or indeed others, such as Chinese and Japanese culture)?’ I think of Spenser’s Fairie Queene which ends with the desire to escape the corruption of courtly life. Or back to the Roman poets of the early Empire, all fondly imagining a life among pie-tooting peasants.

Maybe the period at the end of the 19th century was distinguished by the fact that a lot of artists and writers really did leave the big cities to seek out a simpler life, among peasants or abroad? But not really – Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists and, later, the Surrealists stayed resolutely in the city.

Primitivism and modern art

So, I had all kinds of questions about the relatively short introduction to the book. I think Rhodes is trying to cover a subject which is too vast and stretches over a bewildering range of modern disciplines. The book is much more confident and interesting once it starts looking at specific artists in detail.

Gauguin is routinely criticised for ‘appropriating’ the style, motifs, myths and stories of the South Sea Islanders he went to live among in the 1890s. In fact Gauguin emerges as possibly the number one criminal cultural appropriator for ‘stealing’ South Sea motifs, styles, people (depicted ‘patronisingly’ in his paintings) and their language (which he used liberally written across his works).

But as Rhodes points out, Gauguin had already spent some time living among Breton peasants in the village of Pont-Aven, which is where he really developed his ‘primitive’ style, with its strong black outlines defining garish expressive areas of colour, the figures drawn in a deliberately naive, angular way.

In other words, Gauguin had established a powerfully ‘primitive’ art way before he went looking for ‘tribal’ art.

And he wasn’t the only one: Wassily Kandinsky went to stay in the Bavarian town of Murnau where he decorated the house he stayed in with folk crafts done in naive styles, as well as actually dressing like the local peasantry. Die Brücke painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner went to live among the peasants of Frauenkirch in Switzerland. Nothing African involved anywhere.

Rhodes mentions the Omega Workshop set up by English critic Roger Fry in 1915, including Duncan Grant and continued an Arts and Crafts vision of working with ‘primitive or peasant’ motifs and patterns in the making to textiles and furniture. They withdrew to a country house Sussex in 1916 and formed a kind of posh commune. Maybe they used tribal art as inspiration for some of their angular designs, but any account of their lives demonstrates their wish to rediscover simpler, rural patterns.

A similar ‘back to nature’ impulse lay behind the founding of the schools of art in Newlyn as early as 1882 (and would lead to the St Ives school of painting being set up in the 1940s). In fact Rhodes says it was a sign of the times, with ‘artistic colonies’ being set up all across the Western world, from America to Russia. Some 30 artists’ colonies existed in Germany alone.

All this coincided with the advent of nudism or naturism as a popular movement. The first serious book advocating naturism’s social and psychological advantages was published in 1902 (Nacktkultur by Dr. Heinrich Pudor).

Though Rhodes doesn’t mention him, the grand-daddy of this ‘back to the country’ spiritual cleansing was Count Leo Tolstoy who rejected his urban youth and successful middle age, to go live among the peasants on his country estate, progressively renouncing his earthly goods (such as the copyrights in all his books), and writing scores of essays promoting the simple good life.

Tolstoy’s powerfully-phrased arguments affected – among millions of others – young Mohandas Gandhi, who entered into correspondence with Tolstoy in 1909 and went on to preach a) non-violent revolt and b) a return to the ‘primitive’ culture and trade of rural India (in opposition to its sophisticated cities).

Graffiti Another way of rejecting the academic was to incorporate writing into pictures. Artists as varied as Mikhail Larionov, Picasso, George Grosz did just that. Jean Dubuffet’s work from after the Second World War is particularly brutal and primitive. I can see how it anticipates the interest of someone like Basquiat in graffiti.

To put it another way, it’s interesting to learn that graffiti as a ‘strategy’ for primitive art existed long before Basquiat reignited it in the 1980s.

Conclusions

The book goes on, pushing familiar buttons, repeating Edward Said’s criticisms of ‘orientalist’ artists of the 19th century and sniffing out ‘orientalist’ tendencies in early modern artists (stay behind for detention, Matisse), using key post-modern terms like ‘the other’, ‘difference’, ‘discourse’, ‘situate’, negotiate’, ‘subvert’ and so on, in the approved style, and making frequent mention of the ‘bourgeoisie’ (the people all these radical artists were endlessly trying to shock).

This limited vocabulary and stereotyped litany of ‘isshoos’ is mind-numbingly boring.

Some conclusions:

The primitive is too big As mentioned above, the idea of ‘the primitive’ is much, much more complex than it first appears, and its impingement on modern art is so complex, manifests itself so differently in every one of the major and minor artists from the 1880s until, say, the 1940s, that an overview like this may, in the end, be impossible to write. Just telling the story of the impact of ‘primitive’ art on Gauguin or Picasso or Matisse would take an entire book.

Tribal art Thus, the way Rhodes defines ‘the primitive’ and ‘Primitivism’ makes the African and Pacific art which I thought the book would be all about, only a part, only a sub-set of this much larger and in the end, very unwieldy idea of back to nature, outsider art, the art of children, the art of the mad and so on.

No definition of tribal art When we do get to the part of the book devoted to African and Pacific art, Rhodes appears to distinguish it from the very broad category of ‘the primitive’ by calling it ‘tribal art’. I was very disappointed that he nowhere gives a working definition of ‘tribal art’ which I thought itself sounded a bit simple-minded. Do all African and pacific peoples live in ‘tribes’? I doubt it. Is there no more nuanced and refined term for this kind of art?

Along with no working definition of ‘tribal art’, Rhodes nowhere gives any sense of its history and development in Africa, or the Pacific (or in north-western America, which also gets referenced).

He nowhere attempts an overview of its main features or aspects. It’s a shame and also surprising.

Among my most favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes in the British Museum, which I find riveting, dazzling, awesome, and I was hoping to read something which put into words their impact and power. But there is no mention of them.

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Contemporary writers on tribal art In fact by far the best writing about ‘tribal art’ comes from the artists and critics of the time. The people Rhodes accuses of patronisingly racist views, ironically, have much more sophisticated and interesting responses to this art than he does.

Take the German writer on modern and primitive art, Carl Einstein, who wrote an essay African Sculpture (1915) written after a stay in Paris where he’d met Picasso’s circle. His key insight is that African sculptures are self-contained. They are:

‘oriented not toward the viewer, but in terms of themselves’. They function, he continues, not so much as representations, but as things in themselves: ‘the art object is real because it is a closed form. Since it is self-contained and extremely powerful, the sense of distance between it and the viewer will necessarily produce an art of enormous intensity.’ (Quoted page 117)

When I myself have tried to put into words the impact of the African art I like, I’ve always ended up saying that these works feel somehow complete, utterly finished. They totally achieve what they set out to do. They have complete mastery of form and technique, so I was delighted to come across Einstein’s similar formulation of their self-containment.

Picasso on tribal art Probably the single most famous statement about the impact of ‘tribal art’ on a Western painter is Picasso’s own, a description he gave of his first visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Paris in 1905.

Picasso was no intellectual; he was one of the most instinctual artists who ever lived. He doesn’t even react to them as ‘works of art’, but far more profoundly reacts to their imaginative, spiritual force.

Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realised that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as mediation between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desire. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way. (p.116)

A passage of prose as vivid and expressive as his art. Many artists did directly copy motifs and patterns from ‘tribal art’ into their own works. But in this passage you can see that, for many others, it wasn’t a one-for-one transcription of individual pieces, it was the realisation that there was a whole other way of conceiving of the visual and of crafted objects, completely outside the Western academic tradition.

The general thrust of the book is that artists of this generation were looking for ways to escape the dead hand of the academic tradition and that they tried all kinds of routes – going off to the country, living among peasants, stripping naked, copying the art of children, peasants, the insane, anything.

And that ‘tribal art’ was just one among many means of escape, but one which opened a particularly powerful and massive door.

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

A narrowly politically correct reading claims that Western artists ‘stole’ the worldview, designs and motifs of tribal peoples. A more relaxed view suggests that the art of tribal peoples helped to crystallise alternative visions and ideas which artists and sculptures right across Europe were already looking for.

The artists who are blamed for exploiting tribal art are the ones who popularised it The avant-garde artists who Rhodes so casually criticises for ‘appropriating’ tribal and ‘primitive’ art, are in fact the means by which tribal and ‘primitive’ art itself became visually acceptable, stylish, fashionable and, in time, valued and judged in its own right.

The politically correct can (and do) slate off all those dead white men for stealing non-European ideas, motifs and designs, but there is a mirror image way of thinking about this: that all those dead white men placed tribal and ‘primitive’ art smack bang in the centre of modern art and so forced their viewers, buyers, collectors and curators, to take tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously.

Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists, the Surrealists – they made us see tribal and ‘primitive’ art as more than the relics of ‘savage’ or ‘degenerate’ or ‘backward’ cultures, but as the sophisticated products of cultures every bit as worthy of respect and serious study as any aspect of Western culture.

They created the attitude of taking tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously from which the very critics like Rhodes, who criticise them so fiercely, have personally and morally benefited – and then use this late-coming sense of moral superiority to lambast the very people who helped to develop it.

Gauguin Writing about art – writing about what you actually see, how it is made and how you respond to it – is difficult. It is far easier to give in to the easy temptation of criticising everything you see for not living up to your own impeccable moral standards. Being politically correct. The easy choice.

The forty or so illustrations of tribal artifacts which the book includes are infinitely more powerful than anything Rhodes can write about them. In fact nowhere does he attempt any kind of description of individual pieces of tribal or ‘primitive’ art; by and large they are used as evidence for the prosecution against the wicked, white, male artists who appropriated them.

One of the few really insightful bits of writing about art is a quote from (that wicked cultural appropriator) Gauguin, who wrote in 1888:

I love Brittany; here I find the savage, primitive quality. When my clogs echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting. (quoted on page 26)

‘The dull muted, powerful sound…’ Wow. That’s a really brilliant description of the hard outlines and slabs of colour you get in Gauguin’s works.

So by the end of this ambitious but unsatisfactory book I came to the conclusion that the African and Pacific art itself, the art of the Western painters who copied or were inspired by it, and the writings of those artists and their contemporary critics – are all more illuminating, exciting and inspiring than the clunky prose and lame politics of modern art critics and scholars.


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The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing (p.62)

Part one

Mersault is a young French man, born and bred in Algeria, living and working in the capital Algiers. He is directionless, aimless, never really knows what to say to people, goes along with whatever people suggest. His mother’s been living in a home for over a year and the story opens as Mersault receives news of her death. He doesn’t know which day she actually died on, the telegram could have been delayed a day or two. Doesn’t know and doesn’t really care. He never used to visit her. It would have been too much bother.

Mersault catches a bus out to the village of Marengo and walks to the home to attend a night-long vigil and then the funeral, all of which he finds a chore. When they ask him if he wants a last look at his mother before they put the coffin lid on he says no. They look at him. He realises it was a mistake. The home and church officials talk to him but he hesitates, says whatever comes into his mind and generally makes a bad impression. When asked, he guiltily realises that he doesn’t know how old she was. He looks out the window and thinks what a nice walk he could have had, if only his mother hadn’t gone and died.

Back in Algeria his boss commiserates with him but Mersault, typically, doesn’t know what to say, exactly. Once or twice he lets slip his real feelings which is that he doesn’t feel anything but this goes down badly so he errs on the side of keeping his mouth shut. We meet his neighbours in his shabby tenement block (he can hear his neighbours through the walls), notably the old guy, Salamano, who walks his mangy mutt every day, and spends all his energy shouting and abusing it, until one day it runs off never to return.

Mersault observes the street life of his quarter of Algiers, the hot sun climbing the sky, the shop shutters opening, a bourgeois family going to church. Later, in the evenings, he observes the lads, the local ‘bloods’, coming back from the cinema, eyeing a gaggle of girls on the corner. All very laid back and evocative.

Mersault himself has picked up a girlfriend he meets casually at the beach, Marie Cardona who used to be a typist at his office. There are long sensual descriptions of swimming at the public pool or at a secluded bay. On the beach, in the cinema he touches her breast. They kiss. They go back to his flat and make love. Sunday follows Sunday in this lazy sensual way. When she asks him whether he loves her, he shrugs: probably not. She asks if he wants to get married. OK. Why not? He has no idea how much his indifference hurts her. Doesn’t care, either.

Also in his block is a loud young man, Raymond Sintès, who the neighbours often hear beating up his Arab girlfriend. Local rumour has it he’s a pimp, though he denies it. Mersault, drifting as usual, finds himself getting to know Raymond. He listens passively to Raymond’s harrowing description of how he routinely beats up his girl. In fact he’s recently been in a fight with the girl’s Arab brother. Mersault nods vague approval.

This is enough for rough Raymond to think Mersault is his friend and he asks Mersault to write a letter to the girlfriend, asking her to come to Raymond’s flat so they can make up. Them he explains, he’ll get her sexually aroused, begin to make love to her – and spit in her face.

Mersault can’t see any reason not to. A few days later, after the unfortunate girl does come back to Raymond’s flat, he beats her up, the cops are called, Mersault even allows himself to accompany Raymond to the police station to testify that it was the girlfriend’s fault, that Raymond caught her cheating on him. He doesn’t know whether this is true, it’s just Raymond asked him to help out and, you know, why not.

Thinking Mersault is now his pal, Raymond invites Mersault and Marie out to the house of a friend of his, Masson, on the coast. As they leave the apartment building to head for the bus station, Raymond points out a couple of Arabs watching from across the street: it’s the brother of the woman he beat up, and a mate.

Out at Masson’s place, they swim. They cook. They drink and chat. Raymond flirts with Marie who is uncomfortable but Mersault doesn’t really care. They have a massive lunch, fried fish then steak and chips with lots of wine, till they’re all pretty tipsy.

The menfolk decide to go for a stroll. They notice they’re being followed by the brother and his mate. Suddenly there’s a confrontation. Masson beats up the mate while Raymond takes on the brother. The latter pulls a knife and cuts Raymond badly on the arm and lip but the Europeans manage to fight them off. Masson and Mersault help Raymond back to the beach cottage and Masson recommends a doctor who always spends his Sundays out there, so he takes Raymond off to get patched up. A hour later he reappears, stitched up and in a bad mood. He insists he wants to go for another walk, the others discourage him, he gets cross and sets off with Mersault following.

Inevitably they come across the Arabs, again, tending their wounds by a stream across the beach. Raymond is now packing a gun, a revolver. He asks Mersault whether he should plug the Arabs and Mersault finds himself saying the first thing which comes into his head which is – Not unless they strike first. ‘Here, let me take the gun,’ Mersault says, and Raymond passes it over. All four actors stare at each other, turned to stone under the pitiless sun.

Then the Arabs have gone, ‘like lizards’ disappearing into the rocks. The spell is broken and Raymond and Mersault return to the cottage, Raymond swaggering and happy. As they climb the steps Mersault decides, on a whim to go back along the beach. The sun is pressing on his skull. He’s vaguely thinking of the shade under the rock and the tinkling stream. But the Arab is there, the brother, lounging by the little stream. They look at each other. Mersault walks closer. The Arab pulls a knife and there is a still moment while he holds it up, glinting in the fierce sunlight. Mersault fires the gun. Pauses. Then fires four more shots.

Part two

He’s in prison, charged with murder. Mersault is held on remand for an interminable 11 months during which he carries on feeling nothing whatsoever, either about his plight or his responsibility, while he is interrogated by the magistrate, discusses the case with his lawyer, goes to trial and slowly rumbles along the conveyor belt of the Law.

The magistrate reveals that he is a devout Catholic and claims that if only Mersault will acknowledge God and throw himself on the mercy of the Lord etc will he experience forgiveness and be relieved of his guilt. But Mersault feels no guilt. He doesn’t know what the magistrate’s on about. Instead of regret and guilt Mersault appals the magistrate by saying he feels, on reflection, ‘a kind of vexation’ (p.74). From then on the magistrate humorously refers to Mersault as ‘Mr Antichrist’.

Killing a man has made no difference at all to Mersault. Marie comes to visit him but he can’t get very worked up. She’s in floods of tears, and says they’ll fight for his freedom and when he gets out they’ll get married. Oh. Alright, he shrugs, in his usual listless way.

When the trial finally comes round Mersault discovers that everything he did and said in since his mother’s death (and which we saw being carefully annotated in part one of the book) has been collected up and is now being thrown in his face and used against him. His lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral is reported as ‘great callousness’ (p.68). His listless replies to the people at the Home or at the funeral or to his boss incriminate him. Marie is made to admit that they started their liaison the day after the funeral, swimming on the beach and going to a comic movie. In the hands of the prosecution all this goes to demonstrate that Mersault is:

an inhuman monster wholly without moral sense. (p.97)

His lack of concern for his girlfriend is brought up. Even the way he fired once and then paused before firing a further four times. We know this is all the result of Mersault’s profoundly hollow lack of emotion, of affect or personality – but to the prosecuting lawyer it can all be built up into the image of a cold calculating killer.

The text reports the apparatus of the court and the palaver with the barristers for the prosecution and defence but Mersault, typically, zones in and out of their arguments and the development of the trial.

Finally, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution by a judge who finds him repellent, cold murderer.

In the last few pages there’s a set piece scene between Mersault and a priest who comes to try and persuade him to repent and have faith in God. This strikes me as unimaginative, a cliché of this kind of meaning-of-life novel stretching back to the vast arid wastes of Dostoyevsky’s obsession with religion. The priests’ persistence in trying to get Mersault repent finally drives him to his only display of emotion in the book, when he grabs the priest’s collar, shaking him, and shouting what right has he got to impose his lifeless creed on Mersault? Mersault’s destiny is what it is, when he’s dead that’ll be it, done, over.

Guards come and release the priest. Mersault collapses on  his bed exhausted and drifts into sleep. When he awakes it is the middle of the night and he can see the stars shining out of a pitch black sky. He knows in the morning he will die. But suddenly he feels cleansed and free.

For the first time, the first time, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. (p.120)

He realises that he is happy.


Commentary

Contemporary critics went mad for this book. It caught the mood of the times and made Camus a literary phenomenon.

  • It chimes with the tough guy films noirs coming out of America at the time (This Gun For Hire, Journey into Fear, The Glass Key), with their brutal but highly stylish violence. I visualised the scene where Marie visits Mersault in prison and has to struggle to make herself heard among the other prisoner-visitor conversations, in black and white, out of a James Cagney movie.
  • It chimes with something fatal about the Second World War, about the Nazi occupation of France and the undermining of French Enlightenment values, the end – possibly – of European civilisation.
  • It seems to say something about our post-Christian age and confirm Dostoyevsky’s worst fears – if there is no God, everything is permitted; Mersault kills with no guilt whatsoever.
  • For others Mersault is a symbol of the mindless superiority complex of European colonialism – a hollow shell himself, he doesn’t give a damn about the Arab woman getting beaten up or about murdering the Other, the Arab, the colonised. None of the Arabs are given names or even speak.
  • Or Mersault is a type of the rootless young European male, no values, no role models, living a casual empty life, a type of the tough or hoodlum threatening society, a precursor to the rebellious rockers of the 1950s.
  • To the Communists Mersault is the type of the rootless petit bourgeois, obsessed with his own petty affairs, whose life is meaningless and aimless – he needs to find solidarity with the working classes and join himself to the Forward March of History by joining the Communist Party.
  • To yet others, Mersault is like the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, an everyman figure who is caught up in a terrifying web of misunderstandings, whose life takes a turn for the worse through no fault of his own.
  • The long trial scene is enough to put anyone off getting involved in the Law, especially criminal law where barristers are paid to twist the truth out of all recognition in order to get a result
  • To the philosophically-minded, Mersault is an epitome of Camus’s own philosophy of ‘the Absurd’ as outlined in The Myth of Sisyphus: the lumbering mechanism of the rational, common sense Law can’t hope to capture the intensity, the weirdness, the irrationality of human nature.
  • To feminists The Outsider is a typical patriarchal story of men fighting over the body of a woman who isn’t even named – all three women in the story – his mother, Marie, the unnamed Arab woman – are victims of male indifference or violence.
  • To literary types Mersault’s central defining act is like the acte gratuit idea of André Gide – the notion that life is empty and meaningless and that we must rebel against its emptiness with one great decisive irrevocable act, which has no meaning in itself but represents our protest against meaningless existence.
  • To other commentators Mersault is a representative of ‘Mediterranean Man’, a kind of throwback to pagan times, untroubled by Christian conscience or guilt, he lives in a permanent present of the senses, a kind of post-Christian hero.
  • To yet others the protagonist of the story isn’t the man Mersault at all, it is the pitiless landscape of Algeria with its blistering heat and inhuman craggy landscape. Arguably, the ‘scorching hot’ sun is as much a character in the book as any human.

The light was almost vertical and the glare from the water seared one’s eyes. (0.58)

The sand was as hot as fire and i could have sworn it was glowing red. (p.59)

It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea. (p.60)

  • Rereading it carefully, it struck me that Mersault is an uneducated, working class man living in a pretty rough milieu. Surprisingly, he admits that he was once a student but, more true to form, says that when he was forced to give up his studies he realised ‘all that’ i.e. studying, was pretty futile anyway (p.48). He gets on just fine with the violent bullying abuser Raymond, Marie is a callow typist, his mate Emmanuel often doesn’t understand what’s going on at the cinema. Noscitur a socio. I think Mersault is rougher, chavvier, than is often realised. This is certainly the impression the prosecution lawyer seeks to give, that Mersault is part of a squalid low-life vendetta.
  • The final chapter, with its protagonist crying out against the ‘brutal certitude’ of his execution could easily be taken for a tract against the death penalty which was only abolished, in France, in 1981.
  • There’s even a theory that Mersault is on the autistic spectrum, possibly with Asperger’s Syndrome: incapable of making out other people, lacking the ability to know what is required in pretty much every social situation he finds himself in. Which also explains why he sees things in such uncomfortable detail – the blobby red ears of an old man, the sopping wet hand towel at work – while not having a clue what to say to people. An indication of this comes late on when we learn that he hasn’t looked once at Marie who has come day after day to support him through the trial. And when he does, for the once and only time, look at her and she smiles wanly and gives him a little wave – his face doesn’t flicker. He neither waves nor smiles back. Heart of stone.

I could go on.

What strikes me rereading The Outsider today is that the descriptions of lazy swimming in the sun are not quite as good as I remembered. I prefer Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of swimming off the Riviera in The Sun Also Rises. I liked the scene where he watches from his balcony a gang of young men sauntering along the boulevard, backchatting with young women – I feel I’ve seen that scene hundreds of times.

I’ve just read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. What bursts from Sartre’s texts is their enormous super-abundance of hyper-sensitive self-awareness, a prolific stream of profuse and varied perceptions, characters bursting with ideas about ‘existence’ and ‘freedom’, sensations turning into ideas, ideas turning into feelings, freedom and anguish mingled with night and the cold snow, a bombardment of ideas and concepts.

Camus’s novel, by contrast, feels empty. The hollow shell which is the central character goes about his life, barely involved in it, certainly not thinking anything, finding himself in situations with other people rather than creating them, and always taking the easy way, out, saying whatever first comes to mind. He is not even stupid, he’s just not there.

  • I just nodded to cut things short. I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
  • I had nothing to say and the silence lasted quite a while.
  • After that I don’t remember much. Somehow the night went by.
  • I nodded… I made no comment… I had no objection… I just listened without speaking… I didn’t say anything… I kept silence… I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I told him I hadn’t expected anything whatsoever… I told him I had no objection…
  • really I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I found him rather boring but I had nothing to do…
  • I said the first thing that came into my head…
  • I said the first thing that crossed my mind…
  • I found that my mind had gone blurred: everything was dissolving into a greyish, watery haze…
  • I had stopped thinking altogether…

As he says, with deliberate downbeat irony, ‘Imagination has never been one of my strong points’ (p.111).

It is a portrait of vacancy. And that’s why so many different critics and interest groups were able to fill the novel up with their own interpretations. It is an empty vessel, a mirror.

Algeria

The Algerian War of Independence broke out in 1954 but there had been violent incidents of rebellion and harsh repression immediately following the end of the Second World War. Knowledge of this later  history sheds a harsh historical light back on Camus’s novels set in Algeria. His people, the pieds noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, would eventually be forced to flee into exile back in France, all one million of them.

At the time of its publication the book was most widely read as an epitome of ‘existential man’, confronting the meaninglessness of existence on a rocky coastline stripped of all colour and help. Seventy years later it is hard not to read it, at least in part, as a record of the hollow, heedless, empty-headed arrogance of French colonial culture… whose days were numbered.


Credit

L’Étranger by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1946, and as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 60p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Malick Sidibé @ Somerset House

‘For me photography is all about youth.’ Malick Sidibé

Somerset House is a rabbit warren of attractions with at least two cafes, several art shops, and a number of exhibition spaces. In the terrace rooms in the South Wing (i.e. overlooking the Thames, next to Waterloo Bridge) are three rooms currently devoted to African photographer Malick Sidibé (1936-2016).

Sidibé was born in Mali. During the 1950s, using a lightweight Kodak camera, he cycled the countryside around the capital Bamako taking photos of weddings and other family occasions, establishing himself as the country’s only travelling photographer.

As the country was winning its independence from France in 1960, Sidibé set up a studio in Bamako and began making scores of studies of Malians, which capture the youthful enthusiasm, creativity and cool of the young nation. The exhibition brings together 45 high quality prints into three rooms arranged by theme:

Tiep à Bamako / Nightlife in Bamako

Contrast of the formal 1960s black and white suits with the exuberance of party

Au Fleuve Niger / Beside the Niger River

Le Studio / The Studio

Why do they work?

  1. Black and white is always better than colour.
  2. It makes the images crisp and well-defined. All the photos are clear and well lit, he’s not interested in shadows, grey or mystery. Everything stands out in clarity.
  3. They’re all of people, there are no landscapes or objects. And young people. Young, vibrant, energetic people, dancing or goofing by the river or pulling poses in the studio. This spirit of youth and energy comes over infectiously. They’re happy pictures.
  4. There are several levels of the ‘exotic’, or of distance, going on in the photos:
    1. The 1960s photos capture that faraway decade when people jived and twisted while wearing narrow-lapelled black and white suits.
    2. They’re all African i.e. black, in both respects a remote culture from the 100% white visitors to the gallery.
    3. Style. The 60s dancers could be white, the lads and lassies by the river could at a pinch be white – but the studio shots could only be African, in the super-confident brashness of their clothes and poses, the clashing styles and big shades and surreal accessories, the stripes and checks and leopard skin patterns of the wild pants and jackets. Much emphasised when he used a strong striped background, to give the sitters even more visual energy.

These explosions and clashes of geometric designs have something in common with the Op Art of the 1960s, for example the work of Bridget Riley. Except that it is real, walking, talking, singing, dancing art, created by the incredible disparate taste and confidence of Sidibé’s sitters and captured again and again in these wonderful photos.

African tracks

Playing on a loop are 31 tracks by African artists selected by DJ Rita Ray, including Miriam Makebe, Boubacar Traoré, Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré. It isn’t in the show, but my favourite Boubacar track is Adieu Pierrette.

This is a video prepared for a different exhibition, but which is very informative.

And here’s a full length documentary about Sidibé by Cosima Spender.

Related links

The Sixth Extinction by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (1995)

As a recent article by Tim Flannery in the New York Review of Books explains:

Ever since Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin published The Sixth Extinction in 1995, we have known that humanity is extirpating species at a rate unmatched since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Hunting, deforestation, the introduction of nonnative organisms and diseases, and now climate change have increased the rate of species loss to the point that scientists fear for the functioning of entire ecosystems…

In this pioneering book, Leakey and Lewin take us by the hand through recent (in 1995) discoveries in ecology, palaeontology, palaeoanthropology and geology, to present a whole new worldview, a new way of seeing the natural world and our place in it.

1. Human evolution is a random accident

This is that we – human beings – are NOT the product of some ineluctable force driving evolution towards higher and more sophisticated species and, ultimately, towards Mind and Consciousness. We are emphatically not the pinnacle of the universe. The reverse: we are a cosmic accident. We now know that the long fossil record of life on earth has been marked by countless disasters, accidents, extinctions, most of which have no intrinsic or logical rationale, and that we are the incredibly fortuitous outcome of these massively random events.

2. There is no balance of nature

Older naturalists held that there was a Balance of Nature whereby the complete global system of life worked together to keep things – oxygen levels, complex ecosystems – in a careful balance which favoured the optimum thriving of life forms. But the closer we look at the record, the more obvious it becomes that there is no balance of nature. The more we learn, the more we realise that nature is in fact given to chaotic  and random fluctuations. It is also much more complex than we ever suspected.

3. Fluctuation and accident are the norm

Taken together, these two ideas suggest that flux and fluctuation are an intrinsic part of the history of life on earth.

Humans long for predictability, in relation to the world of nature around us and, most particularly, in relation to our own existence and our future. But it is obvious that, in the realm of evolutionary biology and ecology, ours is an unpredictable world and our place in it an accident of history; it is a place of many possibilities that are influenced by forces beyond our control and, in some cases at least, beyond our comprehension. (p.231)

4. Extinction events

The most dramatic embodiment of this fluctuation – and of the workings of chance – are ‘extinction events’. In the 540 million years since multicellular life suddenly arose in what scientists call ‘the Cambrian Explosion’, there have been no fewer than 15 ‘extinction events’. These are relatively short periods in which – for some reason – the fossil record shows that between 15% and 40% of all species went out of existence, never to return.

Among these 15 were five really big extinction events, ‘the Big Five’, in each of which over 60% of all species went extinct. And king of the Big Five is one real monster, the extinction event at the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago, when an estimated 95% of all terrestrial species on earth were wiped out!

The more we learn about the extinction events, the more obvious it becomes that we are the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of a whole series of catastrophes, not through any intrinsic merit in our forebears (who, if you go back far enough, were worms) but from sheer dumb luck.

5. Darwin’s theory of evolution is over-ridden by extinction events

Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection is undoubtedly the mechanism by which new species come into being and by which all life forms are continually competing with all others. But in Leakey’s view, Darwin’s theory is only relevant in the relatively stable periods between these global catastrophes. These periods have lasted tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of years – but the history of life on earth is certainly not the slow, steady evolution of more and more sophisticated life forms, as portrayed in older evolutionary theory.

Instead Darwin’s process has been overshadowed time and again – in terms of impact of the history of life on earth – by extinction, catastrophe and random events. In other words, by the accidents and arbitrariness of History.

6. Humans are the most destructive species on the planet

This new emphasis on the importance of destruction, of the really breath-taking mass extinction of life forms, in the long story of life on earth, dovetails with other, recent discoveries about man’s role in nature. For a variety of sources now suggest that Homo sapiens is and always has been, immensely destructive of the ecosystems around him.

  1. For a long time Europeans have thought that when European explorers and colonisers encountered native peoples in places like America, the Pacific islands, Australia and so on, those peoples were living in a blessed ‘harmony’ with nature. Only in recent decades have scientists realised that the supposedly ‘pristine’ environments of all these places had in fact been severely damaged by the arrival of those peoples. One of the most dramatic examples is Hawaii, which looks like a tropical paradise to tourists, but where we have now discovered evidence that the hunter-gatherers who arrived there 1,500 years ago proceeded to burn down much of the rainforest and wipe out most of the larger species, including a majority of the bright songbirds.
  2. This pattern has been replicated wherever humans appeared, most notably in the Americas, where the arrival of the first hunter-gatherers around 12,000 years ago across the then-existing land-bridge from Asia, and their slow spread southwards, coincides exactly with the extermination of the continent’s megafauna i.e. all its large mammals. There is debate about whether other factors were involved as well but the case of New Zealand presents the case with brutal clarity. The Maori only arrived there 1,000 years ago, and promptly cleared much of the rainforest and hunted all the species of flightless birds and large mammals to extinction. So the native peoples which European explorers encountered in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were far from living in harmony with nature; they were living amid the ecological devastation their ancestors had wreaked wherever they – wherever humans – went.
  3. In the 1990s (this book was published in 1995) everybody knew that tropical rainforests around the world, especially in the vast Amazon basin, were being destroyed at an unprecedented rate (an acre a minute is one calculation), each acre home to millions of species. Since then the news about endangered species or about the rainforests has been overshadowed by the growing sense of crisis about man-made global warming. This has distracted attention away from the story on the ground, which is the alarming rate at which we are continuing to exterminate species throughout the world by the incessant demands of an ever-growing population. When Leakey wrote this book there were 6 billion people in the world. Now that number is 7.5 billion and climbing. The pressure to destroy natural habitat to convert it to farm or grazing land, along with the relentless polluting of the seas, the rivers and the air, can only escalate.

7. Humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction event in global history

Having given a thorough account of modern understanding of the 20 or so extinction events which punctuate the fossil record – and especially of the Big Five in which 60%-plus of species went extinct – Leakey’s last chapters introduce us to the final conclusion of their long survey – the idea that we, Homo sapiens, are now having such a destructive impact on the natural world that many if not most environmentalists think we are living through the Sixth Mass Extinction of life on earth.

This is an event so momentous that many geologists and evolutionary scientists think it deserves to be defined as a distinct geological era – the Anthropocene Era – the era in which we human beings are irreversibly destroying the vast majority of life forms on the planet we share with them, on a scale only comparable with the devastation caused by the Big Five extinction events.

We are destroying the world.


Leakey and Lewin

Richard Leakey (b.1944) is a paleoanthropologist and ecologist, born and bred in Kenya, where he made significant discoveries of fossils of early humans, before going on to run the country’s national museums and then become its overall Director of the Wildlife Services.

Roger Lewin (b.1944) is a British prize-winning science writer, a staff member of New Scientist for nine years before going to America to become News Editor for Science. He’s written about 20 books, including three in collaboration with Leakey.

The first two of their collaborations are about Leakey’s work into the origins of the human species, in and around Lake Turkana in the north of Kenya, part of the enormous Rift Valley. Due to the fact that hominids need water, and the mud around rivers and lakes preserves footprints and the bones of dead animals better than the harsh savannah or bare rock, Lake Turkana has been a goldmine for fossil hunters looking for relics of our earliest ancestors. In his early explorations, Leakey’s team discovered Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever found, believed to be between 1.5 and 1.6 million years old.

In the late 1980s Leakey’s interest shifted away from paleoanthropology towards wildlife conservation and ecology. This book – itself now quite dated – combines his two areas of expertise to give a thorough and quite academic history of the evolution of life on earth and to situate the evolution of hominids and Homo sapiens within it, before going on to present its Big Issue.

Key dates

  • Age of the universe – 13.772 billion years
  • Age of the solar system – 5 billion years
  • Age of planet earth – 4.6 billion years
  • Simplest life forms – prokaryotes, single-celled organisms which lack a nucleus -3.5 billion years ago
  • Eukaryotic organisms, whose cells contain a nucleus – 1.8 billion years ago
  • 530 million year ago – the Cambrian Explosion, when suddenly a huge diversity of multi-celled life forms and body shapes and sizes emerges in the fossil record
  • The Cretaceous Period, the last and longest segment of the Mesozoic Era, lasted approximately 79 million years, from the minor extinction event that closed the Jurassic Period about 145.5 million years ago to the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event dated at 65.5 million years ago. Period when ‘dinosaurs ruled the earth’.
  • 7 million years ago, approximate parting of the line which led to humans from the lines which led to the great apes
  • 150,000 years ago, evolution of the new species, Homo sapiens
  • 13,000 years ago – end of the last Ice Age triggers the invention of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, which slowly spreads around the globe and with it the arrival of what we like to call human ‘civilisation’

It’s from the Cambrian Explosion – 530 million years ago – that everything most of us think of as life forms – fish and dinosaurs, plants and trees, then later we mammals – derive. Most of the epochs and periods we hear about – Jurassic, Triassic etc – occur during that 530 million period, most fossils of life forms derive from that period.

The sixth extinction

The central premise of the book, which gives it its title, is that, over the half-billion-year history of multi-celled life on earth, there have been a number of ‘moments’ in the geological record when a significant percentage of the flora and fauna of a certain era seem to have died out very suddenly (in geological terms) – known as ‘mass extinction events’. Having explained the background and possible reasons for them, the book then goes on to point out that we are living through a sixth mass extinction event, in which huge numbers of species are being driven to extinction. There is no doubt at all what is causing it: it is us – humans. Human beings are wiping out the earth’s ecosystems and wildlife.

The ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions

The Big Five are defined as extinction events in which at least 65% of species were obliterated. The end-Permian is the biggest, in which an estimated 95% of species on earth were wiped out.

  • at the end of the Ordovician Period – 440 million years ago
  • the Late Devonian 365 million years ago
  • the end-Permian 225 million years ago
  • the end-Triassic 210 million years ago
  • the end-Cretaceous 65 million years ago

There is huge debate about the possible causes of these great ‘dying outs’. Climate change? The conglomeration of all the continents through continental drift into one mega-continent? The most dramatic suggestion, first mooted in the 1970s by a team led by Luis Alvarez, is that it was asteroids. They found thin layers of iridium at the archaeological line marking the end of the Cretaceous period, an element which is extremely rare on earth but is found in asteroids. This discovery has been replicated at other end-Cretaceous sites, and then a candidate for the giant crater caused by a monster asteroid was discovered on the coast of Mexico. The idea is simple: monster asteroid hits earth with the power of a million hydrogen bombs, throws up vast amounts of dirt and dust into the air which blocks out the sun, as well as triggering widespread volcanic activity. Result: mass extinctions of life.

There’s a lot of evidence for it, but archaeologists and biologists are an argumentative lot, as this book amply demonstrates, and other scientists have piled in to claim that asteroids might have put only the finishing touches to what other causes – climate change, sea level rises, environmental or atmospheric fluctuations and so on – had started. Others – David Raup and Jack Sepkoski – have pointed out that there have been over twenty extinction events over that half billion year span, of which the Big Five are only the most notable (p.56), and which occur at roughly 26 million year intervals. Only the recurrent arrival of a shower of asteroids could explain this regularity, although more recently doubt has been cast on the evidence for this neat pattern. But there’s no doubting, now, that externally-prompted mass extinctions have been a recurrent feature of terrestrial evolution.

Which gives rise to an immense debate about the deep meaning of the theory of evolution, which can be summarised in the phrase ‘bad genes or bad luck’. Is there an inevitability in the way life has evolved? If we ran the tape of evolution again, would life forms turn out much as we see them around us? Is there a kind of deep logic to the way things would have evolved, to fit the available niches?

Or has the evolution of life on earth been subject to mind-boggling accidents and contingency? Could things easily have turned out wildly differently? Was it the merest luck which led to the various mass extinctions, to the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, to the rise of the mammals and then, right at the end of this string of improbable accidents – to us, reading these words?

These and many related questions are tackled – with the help of quite technical diagrams and explanations – in the first half of the book. It takes a few rereadings to get the timelines clear in your head, and then more rereading to understand what the numerous debates are about.

For example, uniformitarianism is the idea that evolution takes place gradually and slowly over vast periods of time. Darwin had to arrive at his theory by battling essentially religious ideas that species were suddenly created by a Creator God, so he and his followers were vehement uniformitarianists. However, from the birth of geology as a science in the early 19th century, geologists recognised sudden abrupt changes in the record – catastrophic changes in the fossil record which the extinction events seem to support. Broadly this view of evolution is called catastrophism. The American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould developed his own version of catastrophism, which he called punctuated equilibrium – long periods of stasis interrupted by abrupt changes in earth’s biota, or life systems. Modern thinking about the importance of mass extinction events has led to what some call ‘neo-catastrophism’ i.e. Darwin’s laws work most of the time, except when some external force steps in to overshadow them – be it drastic climate change, asteroids, volcanic activity, sea level changes or whatever.

Man the destroyer

We are but one of millions of species here on earth, products of half a billion years of life’s flow, lucky survivors of at least twenty biotic crises, including the catastrophic Big Five. (p.71)

But these and various other theories and debates about the detail of historical evolution are really just the background, the introduction to the meat of the book, which is a lament for man’s destruction of the natural world. Leakey uses numerous examples to show how modern science has revealed just how much life there is, all around us.

He reports Danish scientists who investigated one square metre of tropical rainforest and discovered 46,000 earthworms, 12 million roundworms and 46,000 insects. Just one gram of this soil contained more than a million bacteria, 100,000 yeast cells and 50,000 fragments of fungi (p.136).

The rape and destruction of the earth which we are causing is mind-blowing. It is estimated that ‘we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day on top of that. Along with this loss and degradation, we are losing some 135 plant, animal and insect species every day – or some 50,000 species a year.’ (Scientific American)

But all that’s new is the scale: man has always been a destroyer. Between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago 50 or so large mammal species went extinct in North America. The extinctions coincided with the arrival of the first peoples from Asia (across the land bridge across what is now the Bering Straits) and their slow fanning out across the continent. Although some paleontologists prefer climate change or disease as the cause, many think these first human settlers of the Americas hunted its large mammals to extinction. This theory is called the Overkill hypothesis. The case is even clearer in New Zealand, which Maori colonised about 1,000 years ago and where they hunted the large flightless birds to extinction, while the rats they’d brought from Australia wiped out whole systems of ground-roosting birds and other fauna.

‘The notion of man-the-exterminator is secure in New Zealand.’ (p.186)

Same on Hawaii (pp.188-190).

Numbers

How many species are there on earth? Nobody knows. Leakey quotes an early estimate from the 1960s of 3 million. Terry Irwin, in 1982, estimated there may be 30 million species of insects alone in the rainforest canopy. Elsewhere, Leakey quotes estimates of the total number of species as 50 million, and then references Robert May’s speculation from the 1990s that there may be as many as 100 million species. These appear to be the end points, which is why later articles refer to ‘anywhere between 3 and 100 million’.

More recently, a 2011 estimate using a new methodology gives the total number of species in the world as 8.7 million – 6.45 million on land, 2.2 million in the sea. According to this calculation, 86% of all species on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued. But googling the subject, though, one comes across a bang up-to-date estimate from 2016 which says there might be as many as 1 trillion species on earth!

In other words, despite E.O. Wilson’s calls for governments to invest more in finding out how many species we share the world with – a plea from the 1990s quoted in this book (p.123) – we still haven’t a clue how many there are. What we can be confident about is that we are wiping out most of the species we share the earth with before we ever get to discover, identify, record or analyse any of them.

In fact, we don’t even know precisely how many species have been identified and catalogued. It appears to be about 1.25 million species – roughly 1 million on land and 250,000 in the oceans – but as many as 700,000 more are thought to have been described by local scientists which have yet to reach the central databases and so be included in global counts…

Value in diversity

How do we preserve nature? Well, in our demystified, instrumental, capitalist world, we have to give it a value, the only thing most people understand. Leakey identifies three types of value:

  1. Tangible benefits we can extract from the environment, such as food, raw materials, medicine.
  2. Maintenance of the environment: we need the full web of life to continue its circulation of gases, chemicals and moisture in order to make the world inhabitable by humans.
  3. Psychological health: most people with the money, prefer to live in the country, people like to visit and roam in the country, patients in hospital with a bed by a window in a green space have better recovery rates than patients in a windowless room. The presence of greenery and nature keeps us psychologically healthy – and that greenery doesn’t exist in the abstract – it is made up of incalculably complex webs of organisms. E.O. Wilson has named this sense ‘biophilia’.

Food and drugs are the obvious ones. The world is dangerously dependent on monocultural varieties of a handful of food crops. If a pest devastated the world’s wheat or rice crops, billions would starve. Wild varieties contain genes we haven’t identified or analysed which would provide important genetic variations which could help develop new varieties, if the worst ever happened.

Similarly, important worldwide medicines have been sourced from wholly unexpected wild plants and flora. Aspirin and penicillin are the two obvious examples, which changed the world and saved hundreds of millions of lives. Who knows what cures for cancer or AIDS may be lurking undiscovered in some of the 250,000 species of plants? And in species we are merrily burning to extinction every day?

Theories and ideas

Even twenty years ago when this book was published, all educated people should have known about the destruction of the rainforests and endangered species. That aspect shouldn’t be news to anyone. I think the real revelation of this book is the extraordinary complexity and difficulty of ecological and biological and archaeological science – the range of areas and levels and expertises which are now brought to bear on the natural world, the complexity of computer models and the plethora of rival theories.

Leakey’s book is in many places quite dauntingly technical. Plenty of paragraphs contain numbered points or aspects or theories which we need to learn and bear in mind. For example, we learn about:

  • Allopatric speciation – or geographic speciation is speciation that occurs when biological populations of the same species become vicariant, or isolated from each other to an extent that prevents or interferes with genetic interchange.
  • Cambrian Explosion – ‘the relatively short evolutionary event, beginning around 541 million years ago in the Cambrian period, during which most major animal phyla appeared, as indicated by the fossil record’ (Wikipedia)
  • Chaos theory as it applies to ecosystems i.e. modern understanding has undermined the notion of a ‘balance of nature’ to reveal that all systems, even without any external influence, tend to boom and bust and be subject to other ‘internal’ pressures which create fluctuations. I.e. every ecosystem, and nature as a whole, is much more chaotic and unstable than had been appreciated.
  • The ‘protective network‘ of an ecosystem which places an ‘activation barrier‘ around it to prevent new species intruding (p.162-3).
  • The rivet-popper hypothesis and the redundancy hypothesis of how ecosystems are degraded. Rivet-popper = each species in a system is like the rivets in a ship – you can remove one or two without noticing but the more you remove the more you weaken the system until it reaches collapse. Redundancy = most species are passengers on a system held together by a few lynchpin systems: you can remove most with no change; but remove the lynchpins and the system collapses. (pp.140-141)

The relative importance of ‘history’ and evolution

One of the big points Leakey makes is that in his time older ideas like ‘the balance of nature’ and even the primacy of natural selection, have been thrown in doubt. Nature now appears to be much more chaotic than previously suspected. And he explains recent work which suggests that the world we see around us is radically contingent. Archaeologists examined the fossil record of animals off the North Atlantic coast over the past 60 million years, a huge duration during which sea levels rose and fell six times. They discovered that mature ecosystems repopulated the dry land once it was reflooded – but each time it was repopulated by a different combination of species. I.e. the reappearance of life was ‘inevitable’ – but which specific species fill all the niches and grow into a tangled web of an ecosystem – it can be different each time. There is nothing intrinsic or inevitable about the flourishing of particular species or combinations of species in ecosystems. Shake the dice and you get a different set.

As Leakey puts it, History matters. Life there will be, but what forms of life and how they combine, even in the same environment, can vary hugely depending on chance factors. Thus Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection still gives the best account of how species evolve over time – but in seeking an explanation for the natural world as we see it, the theory of evolution is dwarfed by the random events of what we call ‘history’.

Insights into human history

Obviously Leakey’s main concern is with nature and ecology but for someone like me who knows more about history than I do about biology or ecology, the multiple insights a scholarly book like this gives the reader into the natural world can also shed tremendous light on the deeper meaning of human history.

I’ve just finished Alan Taylor’s epic account of the colonisation of America. In it he emphasises that it wasn’t just European humans who arrived in the New World, but that they brought from the Old World , in order of importance – their devastating new diseases, new plants and new livestock. These spread like wildfire across the virgin continent, the diseases wiping out up to 95% of the native inhabitants of the Americas, while new plants spread like weeds, and livestock drove American rivals extinct.

Quite apart from its ostensible purpose as a warning and a plea, a book like Leakey’s can immeasurably increase our understanding of human history by giving us a deep sense of the mind-boggling complexity of the natural world which human beings have been blundering around, reshaping and destroying, burning and deforesting and planting and mixing up, for centuries – the process we refer to as ‘history’.

It makes us realise what was at stake back then, as well as now. It makes us realise the depth of the damage we have been doing, and for centuries.

Attitude

Obviously the planet is indifferent to individual human opinions, attitudes and stands. Clicking ‘like’ on facebook to a photo of a polar bear or the rainforest isn’t going to change anything. Only a wholesale and comprehensive change to all of our lifestyles, combined with drastic attempts to control and reduce human population, will have any real, practical impact on the problem.

On a personal level, this knowledge does suggest a truer, more accurate understanding of human nature (destructive) and our place in the natural world (destructive) which should have a chastening effect on everything we think and do. It transforms our understanding and it should transform our behaviour.

From time to time Leakey mentions, or quotes other ecologists criticising, humanity’s ‘narcissism’ or ‘arrogance’, each of us infested with thoughts and feelings and desires which a) are ultimately trivial b) obscure to ourselves our fundamental role as destroyers of the environment.

A correct attitude, the accurate honest attitude to the devastation we cause, would be one of modesty, shame and penance.

In a way, understanding these issues better should lead us to a kind of attitude and – ideally – lifestyle, characterised by simplicity and humility. All of us need to consume less, vastly less, than our arrogance and ignorance and selfishness prompt us to.

A proper understanding of our place in the world should lead to the virtues praised by monks and nuns of all religious orders: shun the world, shun consumption, shun exploitation, work in humility and honesty to supply our bare needs. Only then, maybe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, might there be a slight possibility of hope that we do not exterminate most life forms on the planet including, of course, many that we depend and rely on for our own existence.

In order to know ourselves as a species and to understand our place in the universe of things, we have to distance ourselves from our own experience, both in space and time. It is not easily done but it is essential if we are truly to see a larger reality. (p.6)


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Psychology

South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

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The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer (2011)

This is a very demanding and scholarly book. In the last thirty years major leaps forward in DNA science, the technology of dating fossils, our ability to CT scan and analyse old bones and skulls right down to atomic level and other impressive techniques, as well as a steady stream of new finds of the remains of our prehistoric ancestors, have hugely deepened and complicated our knowledge of human ancestry, of the lineage which stretches back 6 million years to when our ancestors split from the ancestors of modern apes. It’s a massive, complicated and ever-changing field of knowledge.

As the blurb on the back points out, Chris Stringer has been closely involved in much of the crucial research into the origins of humankind and sets out in this book to explain all the latest research, techniques, discoveries and theories in the area, which he does comprehensively and thoroughly.

However, the patchiness of the evidence, the changing results given by evolving techniques, the legacy of sharply conflicting theories and interpretations etc, take a lot of explaining and putting into context. As well as the actual finds and the science we use to interpret them, the book slowly opens up a jungle of differences and debate between archaeologists, paleo-anthropologists, psychologists, DNA researchers, ancient historians and so on, at numerous levels, from large-scale over-arching theories to the interpretation of almost every single find and specimen.

Chapter by chapter, Stringer introduces us to all the evidence and all the techniques and all the controversies – but it is a lot to take in. It doesn’t help that the same theories, techniques and finds recur in different chapters, but in the context of different approaches or discussion of different theories or ideas. You need your wits about you. It’s a book to be read at least twice.

Two theories of human origins

In 1988 Stringer co-wrote an article titled Genetic and Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Modern Humans. This sketched out the two main theories about human origins: Recent African Origin (RAO) and Multiregional Evolution.

1. The multi-regional theory dates from the 1930s and believes that Homo erectus (himself descended from Homo habilis and a distinct species by about 2 million years ago) spread out from Africa over 1 million years ago, settling across Eurasia and Africa, and it was these scattered populations who all transitioned to modern man, Homo sapiens, although with variations which explain the different appearance of modern ‘races’.

2. Recent African Origin (also known as the ‘Out of Africa’ theory) agrees that Homo erectus spread across Eurasia by around 1 million years ago (the original or ‘Out of Africa 1’ scenario), but then postulates the separate development of ‘modern’ man (Homo sapiens) around 100,000 years ago, probably in East Africa. These modern humans also spread out beyond Africa (in so-called ‘Out of Africa 2’), superseding (overwhelming, conquering, killing?) their more primitive cousins wherever the two came into contact.

But a) there are numerous other theories which conflict with both the above, starting with an ‘Assimilationist’ theory, e.g. that Homo sapiens bred with Homo erectus rather than wiping them out; and b) almost every year brings new discoveries which throw up new puzzles and complicate the picture. Also c) Homo sapiens himself seems to have undergone a sudden burst of technological, cultural and social complexity around 50,000 years ago, when better tools, cave art, necklaces etc suddenly appear in the fossil record. It was this new, improved Homo sapiens who appears in Europe from 35,000 years ago. How does that fit into the timeline?

Neanderthal Man In Europe a distinct branch of humans was named Neanderthal Man (after the first specimen whose skull and bones were found in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856). Neanderthal bodies were bigger, more muscly than ours, they had significantly larger brain cases (as Stringer humorously points out, in brains as with other things, size is not everything) but their most notable feature was really thick, heavy, threatening brow ridges over the eye sockets. Neanderthals are generally considered a distinct species, Homo neanderthalensis, and are thought to be descended from a more primitive species, Homo heidelbergensis, itself a branch of Homo erectus. Nenaderthal man became distinct from Heidelberg man around 600,000 years ago. (Typically, some paleoanthropologists disagree with the whole notion of defining these different specimens as distinct species, and consider Neanderthals and all the other ‘types’ which have been found in the past 150 years to be subspecies of Homo sapiens – thus Neanderthals would be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).

One of the most intriguing questions remains what it was when I was a boy: We have evidence that modern man (often called Cro-Magnon Man in his European incarnation, after the cave in south-west France where the first specimen was found in 1868) and Neanderthal man both inhabited Europe at the same period, around 40,000 years ago (the Neanderthals having been around in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, modern man being a new thing, fresh out of Africa). Shortly after the arrival of modern man, records of Neanderthals come to an end; there are no specimens more recent than 30,000 years ago.

So, did we wipe Neanderthals out? Archaeologist Nicolas Teyssandier has noted the period of overlap of the last Neanderthals and the first Moderns is characterised by a profusion of different types of spear tip – was there a stone age arms race? Or did ‘we’ interbreed with Neanderthals to become a cross-breed, Neanderthal records stopping because they had been ‘assimilated’ into our line – so that each of us has a little Neanderthal blood in us? Or did Neanderthals die out due to climate or other changes which they were too dim to adapt to, but which we with our super-smart brains managed to survive? The theories have become more intricate as new DNA evidence has emerged – but to this day, no-one knows.

Homo sapiens (left) Homo neanderthalensis (right)

Homo sapiens (left) Homo neanderthalensis (right)

Homo heidelbergensis This is another distinct form of human, that lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago (and named after the first specimen, discovered in 1907 near the German town of Heidelberg). Some paleoanthropologists think that a population of heidelbergensis migrated into Europe and western Asia between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago and evolved into Neanderthal man. A later branch of the same family had evolved into Homo sapiens in Africa by around 130,000 years ago and then also spread into south-west Asia and Europe where, for 100,000 years, both related species lived alongside each other.

Periods

The Pleistocene period is said to date from 2.5 million years ago (Ma) to 12,000 years ago.

The Stone Age or Paleolithic period period lasted roughly 3.4 million years and ended between 8700 BC and 2000 BC, with the advent of metalworking (the date varying according to location, since different human groups developed metal work at different dates).

The Lower Paleolithic Period is 2,500,000 to 200,000 years ago. The Middle Paleolithic is the era during which the Neanderthals lived in Europe and the Near East, c. 300,000–28,000 years ago. The Upper Paleolithic dates from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago in Europe, ending with the end of the Pleistocene Era and onset of the Holocene Era at the end of the last ice age.

The Holocene Era is marked by the end of the ice ages around 13,000 years ago, followed swiftly (in the Fertile Crescent of modern Iraq) by the birth of agriculture, in what Jared Diamond calls ‘the Neolithic Revolution’. This saw humans transition from a life of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, a transition whose causes and implicatoins Diamond deals with at length in his classic book, Guns, Germs and Steel.

Dating technologies

The modern technology used to date fossils and ancient remains is now bewilderingly complex and dauntingly sophisticated. Here are some terms; if you’re interested, you’ll have to google them for full accounts.

  • ABOX Acid Base Oxidation-Stepped Combustion pretreatment methods for dating charcoal thought to be over 30,000 years old
  • AMS accelerator mass spectrometry – a technique for measuring long-lived radionuclides that occur naturally in our environment
  • CT computerised tomography X-ray scan
  • ESR electronic spin resonance, method of dating
  • OSL – optically stimulated luminescence
  • TL thermoluminscence dating technique

New words and acronyms

I’m a humanities graduate, not a scientist; I get pleasure from new words and from new concepts (even ones I don’t fully understand).

  • Allen’s Law – animals in cold climates have low surface-to-volume ratios; animals in hot climates, the reverse.
  • atlatl – a spear thrower.
  • Biological Species Concept – the notion that species are defined as groups which can interbreed
  • burins – engraving tools.
  • CI Campanian Ignimbrite – debris from a huge volcanic explosion which took place in Campania, central Italy, 39,000 years ago.
  • Doggerland – the area of land that connected Britain to mainland Europe during and after the last Ice Age until it was flooded by rising sea levels around 6,500–6,200 BC.
  • Dunbar’s Number – after researching primate brain size against the size of their social groups British anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated that humans can only form meaningful relationships with a maximum of 148 (generally rounded up to 150) other individuals.
  • EQ – encephalisation quotient, the ratio of brain volume to body mass.
  • glottology – the history or science of language.
  • Heinrich Event – brief but severe cold events when icebergs break off from northern ice caps and float south chilling the ocean and surrounding lands (pp.93-94)
  • microtephra – dust from a volcanic explosion which is invisible to the eye.
  • morphometrics – measuring shapes.
  • sapropels – dark layers of sediment laid down where the Nile reaches the Mediterranean.
  • survivorship – the proportion of a population surviving to a given age.
  • tang – edge or shoulder of a triangular stone point used to mount it as a projectile on a wooden handle.
  • varves – annually deposited layers in the bottom of deep lakes.

Snippets

  • Anthropologist Grover Krantz strapped on a fake thick protruding ‘brow ridge’ from a Homo erectus skull, and wore it for months (!) to see what advantages it brought. He discovered that it kept his hair out of his eyes, shielded his eyes from the sun – and scared the daylights out of people he met on dark nights. Stringer takes this last point seriously, saying the heavy brows of our ancestors possibly accentuated their stare, giving them an aggressive attitude which helped them intimidate other males and woo females, in the struggle for existence. (p.32)
  • Apparently, there are rumours in the paleoanthropology world that either the Americans or the Russians or both, in the 1940s and 50s, experimented by injecting human sperm into female chimps, bringing the resulting creatures to birth and experimenting on them. (p.33)
  • Male baboons gently fondle each other’s scrotums as a sign of friendship and trust – a defeated chimpanzee makes submissive noises and holds out its hand to the victor – if accepted the victor will embrace and kiss the supplicant, if rejected, he’ll bite it. (p.131)
  • Fire dates to around 1.6 million years ago in Africa, 800,000 years ago in Israel, 400,000 years ago in Britain. (p.140)
  • The Grandmother Hypothesis developed by James O’Connell and Kristen Hawkes proposes that human evolution favoured older women who lived on after the menopause (something which doesn’t happen in primates) who can help their daughters with child-rearing and food-gathering. (p.141)

Conclusion

The ninth and final chapter presents a conclusion of sorts – which is that, having extensively reviewed the current evidence, Stringer has modified his lifelong adherence to the Recent African Origin thesis in several ways:

  1. The one that surprised me the most has to do with the size of the communities we’re talking about. Up-to-date genetic evidence suggests that the groups which left Africa and moved out to populate Arabia and around the Indian coast, might have numbered in the hundreds. Even within Africa the various species may at any one time have only numbered in the thousands. (‘The long-term effective size of the ancestral population for modern humans might have been only about 10,000 breeding individuals’, p.175, whereas the number of breeding Neanderthal females in Europe might have been as little as 3,500). Given these numbers, the extinction of the Neanderthals is changed from being some kind of war of extermination (as it is sometimes painted) into the dwindling and going defunct of already tiny scattered communities (and the most attractive interpretation Stringer gives for this is the notion that Neanderthals were just bigger, heavier and needed more food than the lighter, nimbler Home sapiens – maybe in the unstable climatic situation in Europe 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, small and clever was simply more adaptable).
  2. The last two chapters bring together evidence which Stringer says can be interpreted, in light of these small numbers, to suggest a new hypothesis – that there were, at any given time, multiple human species living in Africa (he repeats several times that modern-day Africans show vastly more genetic diversity than any other continent – modern DNA evidence suggesting that the populations of Asia, the Far East, the Americas, Australia derive from very small bands of ancestors populations with the genetic diversity of modern populations dropping the further you go from the African source). In other words, the linear model of one species evolving into another species has been replaced by a much more complex scene of multiple species or sub-species flourishing in different places at different times. ‘100,000 years ago Africa may have comprised a collection of separate sub-groups’ (p.244). The evidence now suggests ‘that Africa contained archaic-looking people in some areas when, and even long after, the first modern-looking humans had appeared’ (p.255). In other words, the multiregion theory could be true within Africa, where multiple species, sub-species, varieties and groups of humans evolved along separate lines, developing widely different levels of tools, some isolated, some inter-breeding and leaving behind a patchwork of random relics to puzzle and confuse 21st century paleoanthropologists trying to create one continuous narrative.
  3. A recurrent problem in this new, more complex picture is that ‘superior’ technologies or skills seem sometimes, in some areas, to be replaced by inferior ones. Stringer uses the analogy of fires or beacons flaring up in the immense darkness of Africa for a millennium or so, then going out. Why? The brief answer, as with so much paleoanthropology, is that no-one knows. Climate change? Genetic drift? Drought, famine, conflict? But the stops and starts certainly fit with the newish idea of much greater diversity, variation, and contingency in our evolution than had previously been suspected.
  4. All of which brings Stringer to modify his initial RAO thesis: maybe there wasn’t one, but multiple out-of-Africa events. To me, as a layman, this doesn’t seem that surprising. Pre-human species didn’t have maps: they didn’t know they were ‘leaving’ Africa; they were just roaming, hunting and gathering wherever food could be found. It makes more sense to think there would have been multiple ‘exits’ from Africa. If our theories only posited two until recently, that could be because the archaeological record is so thin and patchy as not to spot the others – or it could be that numerous other ‘exit’ populations went extinct leaving no fossil or genetic trace. We think the exit event which led to us is important because it led to us; but it might have been just one among many, and its survival down to pure chance.
  5. And this leads to perhaps the most unsettling thought, which is all these theories tend to undermine our specialness. Even within scientific communities there has been a consensus that Homo sapiens is special because ‘we’ ended up inventing agriculture, cities, religion, states, navies, trains, rockets and all the rest of it – and therefore a tendency to try and identify the reason for that specialness and the moment when that specialness took hold. (Stringer thinks something happened around 50,000 years ago to change human behaviour, nudging it towards greater inventiveness – climate, size of social groups, who knows; but there are scores of other theories – he mentions the ‘Broad Spectrum Revolution’ theory proposed by Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery, a coming-together of climate, population size and innovation which they date to 20,000 years ago). But what if we’re not that special. What if Neanderthal man or some of the more obscure relics, such as Homo floriensis (the so-called ‘Hobbit’, a short version of modern humans found only in East Asia) or other sub-species and hominins as yet undiscovered, had just as much potential to develop and ‘succeed’ – but existed in such small populations that fairly limited events (drought, volcanic eruption, sudden chilling in an ice age) wiped them out and happened, just happened, to leave the field open to us? What if ‘we’ are only here by the merest luck or fluke but – with the arrogance typical of our species – have taken this as giving us an entirely spurious specialness, giving us the right to lord it over the earth and all the other species, when in fact our lucky ancestors just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

Credit

The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer was published by Allen Lane in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Penguin paperback edition.

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War Stories and Poems by Rudyard Kipling (1990)

An excellent Oxford University Press collection edited by Andrew Rutherford, showcasing Kipling’s fictional and poetic responses to three distinct military eras:

  • the small wars of the Late Victorian period 1889-1899
  • the Boer War 1899-1902
  • the Great War 1914-18.

Despite setbacks and defeats, in the first period nobody doubted the duty of Empire to expand and spread good government and law; the Boer War disheartened both the nation and Kipling with its evident mismanagement and incompetence; and the Great War left millions bereaved, not least Kipling himself, who lost his only son, John.

Thus, as Rutherford shrewdly points out, the tone of Kipling’s writing about the three periods can be broadly divided into epic, satiric, and elegiac.

Having seen the incompetence of the Boer War at first hand, Kipling spent the next decade warning the country that it wasn’t taking the threat to its security seriously enough, despite some military and naval reforms, in a series of minatory poems and warning stories.

When the Great War came, Kipling was goaded to fierce anger by the aggression and cruelty of the Hun, resulting in the white hot anger of the early war stories, such as ‘Swept and Garnished’ and Mary Postgate, both written in 1915. In September of the same year his son was declared missing presumed dead on his first day in action. For the rest of the war Kipling kept up a steady, indeed impressive, rate of journalistic reporting in support of the war effort – writing France at War, The Fringes of the Fleet, Destroyers at Jutland, The War in the Mountains and The Eyes of Asia – but avoided writing fiction about it.

Moreover, in 1917 Kipling took on the task of writing the official history of his son’s regiment, the Irish Guards, a task which required interviewing soldiers in person, and reading soldiers’ letters and diaries over a sustained period. It was a demanding labour which took until 1923 to complete.

It is only then, with his debt to the dead fulfilled, that Kipling seems to have been able to return to the subject of the War in fiction, and the stories he wrote in the 1920s – especially the series of tales set in the London Freemasons’ Lodge for ex-soldiers – ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’, The Janeites, A Madonna of the Trenches, A Friend of the Family – have a new depth and subtlety, an empathy and pity which is a new flavour in his work. This deeper mature tone is part of what helps to make his post-war collection, Debits and Credits, his best book.

Imperial Frontiers

  1. The Drums of Fore and Aft (1889)
  2. A Conference of The Powers (1890)
  3. The Light That Failed, chapter two (1891)
  4. The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891)
  5. The Lost Legion (1892)
  6. Slaves of The Lamp, part two (1897)

The Boer War

  1. The Way That He Took (1900)
  2. The Outsider (1900)
  3. A Sahibs’ War (1901)
  4. The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902)
  5. The Captive (1902)

The Great War

  1. ‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915)
  2. Mary Postgate (1915)
  3. Sea Constables (1915)
  4. Introduction to The Irish Guards in the Great War
  5. A Friend of the Family (1924)
  6. A Madonna of The Trenches (1924)
  7. The Gardener (1925)

1. The Imperial Frontiers

The Drums of Fore and Aft (1889) Quite a long story, the gist of which is that an inexperienced Indian Army regiment is brought up to the North-West Frontier, and involved in a massed attack on a force of Pathans, alongside a Gurkha regiment and some Highlanders. Being completely inexperienced and – crucially – lacking older soldiers and officers with experience of the terrain and of fighting Afghans, the first attack of fifty or so Muslim fanatics armed with terrifying man-high machetes makes the Fore and Aft break in a screaming panic and run back to the pass they emerged from. The two coarse orphan fourteen-year-old drummer boys who were with the band, Jakin and Lew, are left behind in the mad flight, recover a drum and fife, have a swig of rum from a canteen of one of the casualties, and set about playing the stirring military tune, ‘the British Grenadier’, marching up and down between the Afghan lines and the trembling regiment cowering in its retreat. Shamed by their officers and humiliated by the example of the boys Jakin and Lew, the regiment regroups and charges back out, this time co-ordinated with attacks by the Gurkhas and Highlanders on its flanks, and decimates the Afghans, though not before both boys have been shot dead by the enemy.

There’s story enough here, but not much below the surface is a blatant tract or pamphlet lamenting the lack of training, the shortness of service and the disorganisation which can lead to such lamentable catastrophes. Also it is very violent. Early on, while still in barracks, Lew and Jakin establish their street credentials by kicking the crap out of an officer’s son they find spying on them. The battle itself is described with, for its day, pretty stomach-churning realism.

The English were not running. They were hacking and hewing and stabbing, for though one white man is seldom physically a match for an Afghan in a sheepskin or wadded coat, yet, through the pressure of many white men behind, and a certain thirst for revenge in his heart, he becomes capable of doing much with both ends of his rifle. The Fore and Aft held their fire till one bullet could drive through five or six men, and the front of the Afghan force gave on the volley. They then selected their men, and slew them with deep gasps and short hacking coughs, and groanings of leather belts against strained bodies, and realised for the first time that an Afghan attacked is far less formidable than an Afghan attacking; which fact old soldiers might have told them.
But they had no old soldiers in their ranks.
The Gurkhas’ stall at the bazar was the noisiest, for the men were engaged — to a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block — with the kukri, which they preferred to the bayonet; well knowing how the Afghan hates the half-moon blade.

‘To a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block’. Wow.

A Conference of The Powers (1890) The narrator hosts a reunion in his London apartment for his friends, ‘Tick’ Boileau, ‘the Infant’ (who is to appear in other Kipling stories for the next 30 years), and Nevin. All are under 25 and have seen active service in India and on its frontiers. They are yarning away and putting the world to rights when there’s a knock and in comes the noted older novelist, ‘Eustace Cleever’. The rest of the ‘story’ amounts to the older man listening to the stories the young Army officers tell about their experiences and realising how little he understands about the lives of the men who maintain the Empire and keep him in the luxurious lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. Particularly a long account by the Infant of a punitive expedition he led into Upper Burma to capture the leader of some dacoits or bandits, known as the Boh.

The story emphasises the pampered ignorance of London-based Liberals – and contrasts it with the clear-eyed enthusiasm and modesty of the Empire’s devoted servants. It also doesn’t scant on the reality of guerilla warfare and the dacoits’ savagery:

The Burmese business was a subaltern’s war, and our forces were split up into little detachments, all running about the country and trying to keep the dacoits quiet. The dacoits were having a first-class time, y’ know — filling women up with kerosine and setting ’em alight, and burning villages, and crucifying people.’
The wonder in Eustace Cleever’s eyes deepened. He could not quite realise that the cross still existed in any form.
‘Have you ever seen a crucifixion?’ said he.
‘Of course not. ‘Shouldn’t have allowed it if I had; but I’ve seen the corpses. The dacoits had a trick of sending a crucified corpse down the river on a raft, just to show they were keeping their tail up and enjoying themselves. Well, that was the kind of people I had to deal with.’

No wonder Kipling’s forthrightness made such a shattering impact on a literary world used to Tennysonian idylls.

The Light That Failed, chapter 2 (1891) The protagonist of Kipling’s early novel is an artist, Dick Heldar. His boyhood love for Maisie is frustrated so, like so many Victorian young men, he goes off adventuring round the Empire, only not as a soldier but as a freelance war artist. He bumps into a journalist named Torpenhow and Kipling packs in references to a lot of the small wars of the late 1870s and 1880s which they report and illustrate together, before they find themselves part of the expeditionary force sent up the Nile to rescue General Gordon, trapped in Khartoum, capital of Sudan, by the forces of the Muslim religious leader, the Mahdi. In the climax of the novel, Dick, Torpenhow and a host of British troops are all relaxing by the Nile, fixing boats and sails and clothes when they are subject to a surprise attack by several thousand Sudanese. The Brits quickly form into a square to fight off wave after wave of fanatical attackers, until the square gives and becomes the cockpit for savage hand-to-hand fighting.

Dick waited with Torpenhow and a young doctor till the stress grew unendurable. It was hopeless to attend to the wounded till the attack was repulsed, so the three moved forward gingerly towards the weakest side of the square. There was a rush from without, the short hough-hough of the stabbing spears, and a man on a horse, followed by thirty or forty others, dashed through, yelling and hacking. The right flank of the square sucked in after them, and the other sides sent help. The wounded, who knew that they had but a few hours more to live, caught at the enemy’s feet and brought them down, or, staggering into a discarded rifle, fired blindly into the scuffle that raged in the centre of the square.
Dick was conscious that somebody had cut him violently across his helmet, that he had fired his revolver into a black, foam-flecked face which forthwith ceased to bear any resemblance to a face, and that Torpenhow had gone down under an Arab whom he had tried to ‘collar low,’ and was turning over and over with his captive, feeling for the man’s eyes. The doctor jabbed at a venture with a bayonet, and a helmetless soldier fired over Dick’s shoulder: the flying grains of powder stung his cheek. It was to Torpenhow that Dick turned by instinct. The representative of the Central Southern Syndicate had shaken himself clear of his enemy, and rose, wiping his thumb on his trousers. The Arab, both hands to his forehead, screamed aloud, then snatched up his spear and rushed at Torpenhow, who was panting under shelter of Dick’s revolver. Dick fired twice, and the man dropped limply. His upturned face lacked one eye.

I wonder if anyone had described contemporary warfare with quite such brutal honesty before.

The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891) A satirical and comic story about nameless conspirators in America (highly reminiscent of the American scenes in the early Sherlock Holmes novels) who fund an Irish conspirator to join ‘the Mavericks’, nickname of a (fictional) Irish regiment in the British Army in India. This conspirator, Mulcahey, tries to spread sedition and is quickly recognised for what he is by the men, led by Dan Grady and Horse Egan, who come up with the simple idea of playing along, and telling Mulcahey everything he wants to hear, in exchange for an endless supply of beer.

One fine day Mulcahey sees the barracks in uproar, the men chanting and shouting, officers running in fear, the men consorting with native Indians – at last! The mutiny has broken out! But Kipling is taking the mickey. The men have been told they’re going to the Frontier to see some fighting and are excited about it. Moreover, Dan and Horse now make it crystal clear to Mulcahey that he’s not wriggling out of it, he’s coming along too. And when the battle starts they’re digging a bayonet into Mulcahey’s calf, so the only way is forwards. In fact Mulcahey goes wild with panic-fear, storms a compound, leads others to capture enemy artillery and then runs on, bereft of gun, hat or belt after the fleeing Afghans, one of whom turns and runs him right through the chest with a large knife. Dead.

All this time Mulcahey had been drawing funds from his ‘mother’ in New York, a front for the anti-British conspirators. The story ends on a comic note as the ‘mother’ receives a letter of condolence saying Mulcahey died bravely in battle and would have been recommended for a Victoria Cross, had he survived – which happens to arrive at the same time as a crudely forged letter from Dan and Horse promising to keep up the subversive work, if only they can be sent some more funds, on behalf of Mulcahey, who’s a bit under the weather, like.

Kipling is astonishing assured and confident of his subject i.e. the structure, organisation and morale of Irish regiments within the British Army. The American secret society comes over as melodramatic, but events in Ireland during this period involved conspiracies and atrocities. Although he is optimistic about the attitude of the average Irish soldier, it’s the detail and thoroughness of the portrayal, combined with schoolboy high humour, which impresses. Who else was trying anything like this kind of depiction of the reality of the British Empire?

The Lost Legion (1892) Told as if to a journalist (as Kipling indeed was). Some officers are leading a night-time cavalry foray into the foothills of Afghanistan to arrest a persistent bandit leader, Gulla Kutta Mullah. But they keep on hearing the chinking of cavalry behind them rather than in front; it isn’t their own forces and the bandits’ horses are silent.

Our boys are able to penetrate beyond the watch towers of the bandits because the bandits are calling to each other in terror about something. Our chaps realise it’s because down in the valley the Afghan bandits can see the ghosts of an entire native Indian regiment, which rebelled in the Great Mutiny of 1857, which fled the British into the marches of Afghanistan, and which was massacred a generation earlier. Now their ghosts have returned to haunt and paralyse the Afghans. Their dread allows the little expeditionary force to take Gulla Kutta Mullah’s village by surprise and (much to Kipling’s ironic disgust) politely arrest him and his other men wanted for various crimes and murders.

Slaves of The Lamp, part two (1897) ‘The Infant’ who told the novelist Eustace Cleaver the long account of his capture of the dacoit Boh in Burma in the story ‘A Conference of the Powers’ – is now 30 and has inherited a vast country house. He invites the narrator – identified as ‘Beetle’ from the Stalky stories – to come along to a reunion of boys, now men, from the old Coll.

There’s much larking about and reminiscing which, basically, turns into hero worship of Stalky himself, three of the men describing their encounter with him in the North-West Frontier, fighting the Afghans. Stalky is portrayed as a super-hero, at one with his men (Sikhs) who worship him, given to sneaking off for acts of derring-do. Since he and his men are besieged in an old fort by two Afghan tribes, Stalky sneaks out and kills some of one tribe, marking them with the victor’s sign of the other tribe. Next day, when the fort is under attack, he again sneaks out of the secret passage he’s found, with his Sikhs, and shoots at one tribe from the lines of the other, thus leading both tribes to end up fighting each other.

The others compound this by saying Stalky went on to pacify the border, dragoon the tribes into building roads, doing everything bar mint his own coinage, before being called to Simla to explain himself to the Imperial authorities.

The story brims over with schoolboy slang and enthusiasm. Stalky had adopted a tune from the pantomime of Aladdin which the boys had put on as schoolboys, as a signal to his troops, and the group of men convened at the Infant’s house keep stopping their tale to sing it, falling about laughing, all clamouring for more details of Stalky’s acts of heroism. Alas, Kipling’s boundless schoolboy confidence was to come a cropper in the Boer War, where the true Stalkies, the canny, sassy, unconventional fighters, turned out to be the Boers.

2. The Boer War (1899-1902)

The Way That He Took (1900) One of four stories about the Boer War published in the Daily Express then collected in a volume called Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides. It is a good atmospheric depiction of the landscape and people of South Africa, showcasing Kipling’s trademark research and understanding. In the first part a troop train pulls into a siding where detachment of Mounted Infantry are waiting. A captain gets talking to a nurse from the train and she turns out to have been born in the country, and have wonderful memories of a carefree childhood in the wide open spaces. This is the only scene of a man and a woman being tender and speaking softly under the stars that I can recall in any Kipling.

The second part commences a few months later when the captain has joined his regiment and they are in operations out on the veldt. In fact we first of all have a long scene where the leader of a Boer commando outlines a cunning plan – to send off the cattle trucks and some auxiliaries to stir up a lot of dust, and then wait on the low hills surrounding a little valley for the British regiment to come up – and shoot them like pigs in a pen. He knows the Brits will send a scouting party – who will poke around, draw the false conclusion the Boers are retreating, and return to the main force – and then lure them into the trap. It is crucial that a handful of men on a slope take a few pot shots at the scouting troop, enough to give them the impression they’re a rear-guard action – this will make the retreat seem even more real.

Sure enough the Brits see the dust cloud and send a scouting party. It is led by the captain we met talking to the nurse. He trots with his men through the twisting valleys to the place where a camp has apparently been struck and seems to be falling for the ploy. But then in a few vivid paragraphs, he realises something is wrong. It is as vivid as a movie. The hairs on his neck rise as he realises it’s a trap and it seems like someone else’s voice speaking when he gives the order to his sergeant, calmly to turn the men and go back.

At the last minute he remembers something the nurse had told him about her childhood, about how she and her siblings, on all their many ramblings, never went back the way they came. And suddenly taking this as his inspiration, the captain orders the men not to go back through the winding valley where (we know) a handful of Boers are waiting to take pot shots at them and one of them had singled him out as the officer to be killed. Thus, into this very military story, an element of voodoo slips. For it was the happenstance of remembering the nurse’s casual words, which saves the captain’s life.

The Outsider (1900) Another of the stories originally published in June 1900 (i.e. still in the early phase of the Boer War) in the Daily Express and only much later collected in a volume called Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides. Like the one above, it is a vivid impassioned story. Simply, but with great detail and persuasiveness, it contrasts the hard professional life of Jerry Thumper, an engineer on the Rand, and the privileged, limited worldview of a dunderheaded Army officer named Walter Setton. While his father the vicar and his mother fuss about buying Walter the correct socks for his posting to South Africa, Jerry is commanding men at the gruelling work of gold-mining on the Rand.

Their separate lives and experiences clash when Walter – wounded after a stupid attempt to capture a solitary Boer which turned out to be a trap and from which he only escaped with his life due to the canniness and bravery of Australian Irregulars – is posted to the most out-of-the-way railway station the Army can find to hide him. But even here he causes damage, because Jerry and his mates – kicked out of the Rand by Dutch rebels – have formed a corps of Railway Volunteers and are skilfully repairing the railway lines which the Boers have been at pains to blow up, and which are vital for ferrying British troops around the battlefield.

Kipling describes in great technical detail the engineering challenge Jerry and his men face trying to rejoin two severed lengths of railway line, and are right at the vital moment of riveting them together, when ignorant, stupid, blinkered, narrow-minded, officious Lieutenant Setton intervenes, demanding to know who gave them orders to do this work, and insisting they stop immediately until he receives written authority etc etc – intervening just long enough for the girders to collapse and knock over some braziers which start a small bush fire, insisting his soldiers escort the furious engineers to his tent for a dressing-down. In fact later that day it is Setton who is visited by an incandescent Colonel of Engineers who gives him an epic bollocking, and we last see him reduced to overseeing a saddle-cloth and boot-lace division.

The ‘story’ seethes with Kipling’s anger at the grotesque incompetence, narrow-mindedness and baseless snobbery of the English officer class – a long way from the hero worship of Stalkey and his mates. Every other nationality – the Australians and New Zealanders, the Canadians and especially the Boers themselves, are superior men and soldiers in every way.

The life of Second-Lieutenant Walter Setton followed its appointed channel. His battalion, nominally efficient, was actually a training school for recruits; and to this lie, written, acted, and spoken many times a day, he adjusted himself. When he could by any means escape from the limited amount of toil expected by the Government, he did so; employing the same shameless excuses that he had used at school or Sandhurst. He knew his drills: he honestly believed that they covered the whole art of war. He knew the ‘internal economy of his regiment’. That is to say, he could answer leading questions about coal and wood allowances, cubic-footage of barrack accommodation, canteen-routine, and the men’s messing arrangements. For the rest, he devoted himself with no thought of wrong to getting as much as possible out of the richest and easiest life the world has yet made; and to despising the ‘outsider’ — the man beyond his circle. His training to this end was as complete as that of his brethren. He did it blindly, politely, unconsciously, with perfect sincerity. As a child he had learned early to despise his nurse, for she was a servant and a woman; his sisters he had looked down upon, and his governess, for much the same reasons. His home atmosphere had taught him to despise the terrible thing called ‘Dissent’. At his private school his seniors showed him how to despise the junior master who was poor, and here his home training served again. At his public school he despised the new boy — the boy who boated when Setton played cricket, or who wore a coloured tie when the order of the day was for black. They were all avatars of the outsider. If you got mixed up with an outsider, you ended by being ‘compromised’. He had no clear idea what that meant, but suspected the worst. His religion he took from his parents, and it had some very sound dogmas about outsiders behaving decently. Science to him was a name connected with examination papers. He could not work up any interest in foreign armies, because, after all, a foreigner was a foreigner, and the rankest form of outsider. Meals came when you rang for them. You were carried over the world, which is the Home Counties, in vehicles for which you paid. You were moved about London by the same means, and if you crossed the Channel you took a steamer. But how, or why, or when, these things were made, or worked, or begotten, or what they felt, or thought, or said, who belonged to them, he had not, nor ever wished to have, the shadow of an idea. It was sufficient for him and for high Heaven (this in his heart of hearts, well learned at his mother’s knee) that he was an officer and a gentleman incapable of a lie or a mean action. For the rest his code was simple. Money brought you half the things in this world; and your position secured you the others. If you had money, you took care to get your money’s worth. If you had a position, you did not compromise yourself by mixing with outsiders.

Rarely has Kipling’s dichotomy between the dirty-handed, practical-minded men who do things – his beloved engineer class – and the superior, snobbish, ignorant English upper-classes been more fiercely delineated. It’s brilliant.

A Sahibs’ War (1901) – Umr Singh is a Sikh in the British Army who is in South Africa, tasked with going to Stellenbosch to collect horses. The text is his monologue to a Sahib who helps him get a ticket for the right train, in which he a) shows off his knowledge of Indian customs, religion, traditions and service in the Indian Army b) laments the British setbacks in the Boer War due to their being too courteous and considerate of the Boer guerrillas. The Sikh thinks it silly of the British not to have used the Indian Army to put down the Boers, silly and subversive, for if the Brits fail in South Africa other colonies will take note of their weakness.

But privately to me Kurban Sahib said we should have loosed the Sikhs and the Gurkhas on these people till they came in with their foreheads in the dust.

The reason being it is a White Man’s war. Umr is not happy to be given command of a load of ‘niggers’, Kaffirs, who are ‘filth unspeakable’. But the core of the story is how Umr and his Sahib, Captain Corbyn – both of whom volunteered to take ‘sick leave’ from their Indian regiment to come and fight the Boers – are tricked by Boers in an ‘innocent’ farmhouse who in fact organise an ambush of them in which Corbyn is killed.

In a rage Umr and the Muslim servant Sikandar Khan go back to the farmhouse to take revenge, beheading one of the wounded Boers inside it and taking the mentally sub-normal son to hang him in a nearby tree as punishment for the treacherous farmer-priest and his wife. At which point the spirit of Kurban Sahib appears to Umr and three times forbids him from hanging the boy, ‘for it is a Sahibs’ war’.

This latter part of the text, the account of the ambush and then the narrator’s revenge, is vivid and powerful, and the appearance of the Sahib’s ghost eerie – it has a real imaginative force – Kipling’s daemon pushing through. But it is embedded in a text which overflows with contempt, hatred, resentment and is continually teetering on the edge of, not just violence but sadistic violence, vengeful hateful violence.

Epitomised in the last few lines when Umr returns to the site of his Sahib’s death and rejoices to find, not only a memorial carved by the Australians (a platoon of whom were with Corbyn and Umr when they were ambushed) – but that the farmhouse, the well, the water tank, the barn and fruit trees – all have been razed from the face of the earth, by the ‘manly’ Australians, who aren’t shackled by the British concern for ‘fair play’. The narrator rejoices, Kipling rejoices, and the reader is meant to rejoice in this act of nihilistic vengeance – the kind of scorched earth policy which will characterise so much of 20th century history.

The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902) – A Boer guerrilla captures Private Alf Copper who had strayed unwisely far from his platoon. The Boer descants at length to Alf about how his father, a Transvaal shop-keeper, was deceived out of his livelihood by the British. But he gets a shade too close to Alf, who lays him out with one well-aimed punch.

Kipling couldn’t be more frothingly on the side of the British Army and against the treacherous, arrogant, deceiving Boers. Now it’s Alf who takes the stunned Boer captive and marches him back to the the English lines. Here they arrive to discover that Alf’s mates are looking over a British Liberal paper, which is, as usual, blackening their names, attacking the whole idea of ‘Empire’ and accusing British soldiers of abuse and worse. A fellow Tommy of Alf’s jokingly quotes it:

‘You’re the uneducated ‘ireling of a callous aristocracy which ‘as sold itself to the ‘Ebrew financier. Meantime, Ducky”— he ran his finger down a column of assorted paragraphs —“you’re slakin’ your brutal instincks in furious excesses. Shriekin’ women an’ desolated ‘omesteads is what you enjoy, Alf . . ., Halloa! What’s a smokin’ ‘ektacomb?’

The general idea is that both the arrogant Boer and the treacherous Liberals back home think the British Tommy doesn’t know what he’s fighting for and is a poor, badly educated pawn – but, Oh yes he does, and Oh no he isn’t, respectively! The humiliation of the Boer is part of the enjoyment of the story and, by extension, the humiliation of the hated Liberals at home by the reality of the tough-minded, no-nonsense British soldier.

The Captive (1902) – Starts as a third-person account of a journalist visiting a Boer prisoner of war camp during the Boer War (1899 to 1902). He is free to walk among the prisoners and gets talking to one in particular, at which point the narrative changes into a long, rambling, first-person account given by an American – Laughton O. Zigler from Akron, Ohio.

Zigler brought over a field gun and ammunition of his own design to sell to the Boers and ended up getting involved with one of their commandos, led by Adrian Van Zyl, fighting in the field alongside them against the British, until finally captured and brought to this camp. Kipling characteristically stuffs the man’s monologue with technical know-how about the artillery piece, the ‘hopper-feed and recoil-cylinder’, trying to out-man and out-engineer the reader.

It’s hard not to find Zigler’s facetious tone as he jokes about ‘laying out’ the British boys with his gun, offensive.

‘They [the Boers] fought to kill, and, by what I could make out, the British fought to be killed. So both parties were accommodated.’

The war is seen as a comradely adventure between ‘friends’ and all the British officers admit to being ‘a bit pro-Boer’. Is this how combatants saw the Boer War? Or is it the sentimental self-serving view of a privileged observer? In this account both sides spend half the time trying to kill each other and the other half being complimentary; often the combatants had actually met socially, dined and gossiped: now they are trying to kill each other.

The second half of the monologue describes a dinner the British General and officers give for Zigler and Van Zyl, comparing notes like professionals. The British General is mighty lofty and complacent, hoping the war will go on another five years or so, so that he can knock his ragtag collection of floor-walkers and stevedores into a professional army. Nothing is mentioned of the rank incompetence and idiocy which made the Boer War such a shambles for the British. (See The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham.) And a ghost walks over the text when the General boomingly declares:

‘It’s a first-class dress-parade for Armageddon.’

These are the kind of heartless pro-war sentiments for which, although put into the mouths of fictional characters, Kipling was so criticised. The ‘story’ is rammed full of political point scoring, relentless sarcasm about the stupidity of politicians and so on – though these are couched in Zigler’s down-home Yankee terminology:

‘Well, you’ve an effete aristocracy running yours, and we’ve a crowd of politicians. The results are practically identical.’

‘I tell you, Sir, there’s not much of anything the matter with the Royal British Artillery. They’re brainy men languishing under an effete system which, when you take good holt of it, is England…’

Overall the story is of a piece with Kipling’s other ‘warning’ poems and stories, warning that only eternal vigilance could keep Britain safe from her ever-present enemies, and lamenting the failure of peacetime politicians to pay enough heed.

3. The Great War

‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915) It is the first autumn of the Great War. Old German widow Miss Ebermann is in bed in her apartment in Berlin with a heavy cold, whining at her maid to bring medication from the chemists, and the maid scuttles off. To Miss E’s surprise, when she next opens her eyes, she sees, first one little child poking about in her room, and a moment later, five little children.

Miss Ebermann shouts at them to get out of her apartment, telling them they have no right to break into her home like this. But the children reply that they have been told to come here until ‘their people’ come to reclaim them. And then, through a series of hints, the reader realises that the children are from a town in Belgium where someone fired on the German army passing through, who promptly massacred the inhabitants and burnt it to the ground. Miss Ebermann remembers letters from her son at the front claiming that the German army has to carry out ‘justice’ when it is attacked by treacherous civilians. Now she is seeing the ghostly victims of German ‘justice’.

Her and the reader’s suspicions are crystallised when the children finally agree to leave, but on their way out, as they turn to go, Miss Ebermann sees their horrific open wounds and they leave blood puddled all over her bedroom floor. When the maid comes back into the room she finds the old lady on her hands and knees trying to scrub the blood off the floorboards, so the place is ‘swept and garnished’ ready for the Lord.

The Kipling Society website gives useful historical notes to this story, listing genuine German atrocities from early in the war, including the rumours that the Germans cut off the right arms of Belgian boy children, so they wouldn’t be able to fight in the future. Kipling’s stories are no longer about helping tottering old ladies in health spas as they were only a few short years previously. All is changed, changed utterly.

Mary Postgate (1915) This is an extraordinary story, combining war, vengeance, sadism and barely suppressed sexuality. Mary Postgate is the plain Jane, 44-year-old personal maid to old Miss Fowler. She fetches and carries without question, is always well organised and emotionless. Miss Fowler’s nephew, Wynn, is orphaned and comes to live with them and Mary brings him up almost as a surrogate son though he is unceasingly rude, arrogant and unfeeling to her. When war comes all the sons go off and Wynn enlists in the Air Force, coming to visit them in his fine uniform until one day he is reported dead, having died in a training accident – the implication being that he fell, maybe 4,000 feet, from the cockpit of one of those primitive early aircraft.

Both Mary and Miss Fowler are strangely unemotional – Miss Fowler had expected Wynn’s death all along, Mary had completely repressed her anxiety. The two women agree to donate Wynn’s uniform to the Forces, but to burn all his private belongings. Kipling then gives is a moving page-long description of a young man’s belongings, stretching back through all his toys and school prizes, which Mary collects and takes to the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.

Then she has to go buy some paraffin in the village and, on the way back, she and a friend she’s bumped into, hear a bang and a wail and run behind a house to find a local child, Edna, has been blown up by a casual bomb dropped from a German plane, maybe returning from a bombing raid on London. The friend, a nurse, wraps the little girl’s body in a blanket, which immediately soaks with blood and they carry it indoors. Here the blanket falls open and Mary sees, for a second, poor little Edna’s body torn ‘into those vividly coloured strips and strings’. (Not so far-fetched. I was recently at Essendon, a little village in Hertfordshire. Here, in the early hours of 3 September 1916, a German airship returning from a raid on London dropped a bomb on the village which killed two sisters and damaged the east end of the church. Dead, out of the blue, for no reason, except the incompetence and stupidity of the German Army High Command which thought it could invade and conquer France in 6 weeks in August 1914.)

Staggering out of the house with the eviscerated child, Mary regains control of herself and walks back to the big house. Here she wheelbarrows dead Wynn’s belongings down to the incinerator and begins piling them in to burn. It is at this point that she hears a noise from the trees at the end of the garden and discovers a German airman who also seems to have fallen from the skies and crashed through trees, landing badly injured not far from the incinerator.

And this is the crux of the story: for although Mary gets an old revolver from the house (the kind of thing which seems to have been much more common in those days than now) she decides to deliberately let the man die in agony without calling for a doctor or any help.

And it is in the phrasing of the physical bodily pleasure this gives her, that many critics detect a sexual element, some going so far as to say that the dying man’s death throes give the lifelong repressed virgin an orgasm, as all kinds of anger and repressions brought to a climax.

As she thought — her underlip caught up by one faded canine, brows knit and nostrils wide — she wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom, and careful scrapes round the brick-work above… The exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones. She hummed — Mary never had a voice — to herself… A woman who had missed these things [love, a husband, children] could still be useful — more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it… She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling… Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly…

Anger, revenge, violence, sadism, repressed sex – this is an extraordinarily powerful, haunting concoction of a story.

Sea Constables (1915) ‘A tale of ’15. In February 1915 the German High Command declared the North Sea a war zone in which all merchant shipping, including neutral ships, were liable to be attacked and sunk without warning. This story describes four Royal Navy men meeting at a choice restaurant in London.

The four men sat down. They had the coarse-grained complexions of men who habitually did themselves well, and an air, too, of recent, red-eyed dissipation. Maddingham, the eldest, was a thick-set middle-aged presence, with crisped grizzled hair, of the type that one associates with Board Meetings. He limped slightly. Tegg, who followed him, blinking, was neat, small, and sandy, of unmistakable Navy cut, but sheepish aspect. Winchmore, the youngest, was more on the lines of the conventional prewar ‘nut,’ but his eyes were sunk in his head and his hands black-nailed and roughened. Portson, their host, with Vandyke beard and a comfortable little stomach, beamed upon them as they settled to their oysters.

In Kipling’s usual late manner they settle down to telling stories, then concentrate on swapping notes about the Neutral vessel (presumably American, though it isn’t stated) which they were all partly involved in tailing through the North Sea, down the Channel and round into the Irish Sea. Winchmore starts it and hands over to Maddingham who played the lion’s share. The ‘Newt’, as they nickname the neutral vessel and its captain, claims to be carrying oil for Antigua, which they think a likely story. Maddingham follows him into an unnamed West coast port where the American captain prompts a Court of Inquiry into the way he’s being closely tailed and chased. This is given as one of the several examples in Kipling where the British bend over backwards to be fair and above board to an enemy which is utterly unscrupulous – an approach he thought bedevilled our efforts in the Boer War, the kind of ‘health and safety gone mad’ sentiment you can read any day in the Daily Mail. One of the four at table, Tegg, was a lawyer during the inquiry.

And that’s what you get for trying to serve your country in your old age!’ Maddingham emptied and refilled his glass.
‘We did give you rather a grilling,’ said Tegg placidly. ‘It’s the national sense of fair play.’

The Newt goes back to sea, closely followed again by Maddingham who tags him up and down the Irish Sea, in stormy foggy weather, regularly hailing the captain on his bridge and exchanging insults. Maddingham and the others suspect he was planning to rendezvous with a German submarine and transfer his cargo of oil to it. Eventually the Newt puts into Cloone Harbour, where the captain takes to his bed, ill with bronchial pneumonia. Dying, he asks Manningham to help him organise his affairs and write a will. Manningham sticks to his orders and refuses.

This is taken as the crux of the story, where a usually decent man fails to show common humanity / oversteps some moral mark, and is interpreted in some commentaries as an example of how war deforms morality. As usual the text is dense with naval jargon as swished around by a bunch of chaps used to shorthand expressions, fleeting references, who share the same values and so don’t have to explain their sentiments and views. A number of critics point to the clipped approach of these later stories, and the way they’re couched in talk, in reams of highly technical or slang or dialect speech, as evidence that Kipling had forged a kind of ‘modernist’ style of his own. Maybe. This is how the main talker, Maddingham, talks:

‘He set the tops’ls in his watch. Hilarity won’t steer under any canvas, so we rather sported round our friend that afternoon, I believe. When I came up after dinner, she was biting his behind, first one side, then the other. Let’s see — that would be about thirty miles east-sou-east of Harry Island. We were running as near as nothing south. The wind had dropped, and there was a useful cross-rip coming up from the south-east. I took the wheel and, the way I nursed him from starboard, he had to take the sea over his port bow. I had my sciatica on me — buccaneering’s no game for a middle-aged man — but I gave that fellow sprudel! By Jove; I washed him out! He stood it as long as he could, and then he made a bolt for Harry Island. I had to ride in his pocket most of the way there because I didn’t know that coast. We had charts, but Sherrin never understood ’em, and I couldn’t leave the wheel. So we rubbed along together, and about midnight this Newt dodged in over the tail of Harry Shoals and anchored, if you please, in the lee of the Double Ricks. It was dead calm there, except for the swell, but there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre in, and I wasn’t going to anchor. It looked too like a submarine rendezvous. But first, I came alongside and asked him what his trouble was. He told me he had overheated his something-or-other bulb. I’ve never been shipmates with Diesel engines, but I took his word for it, and I said I ‘ud stand by till it cooled. Then he told me to go to hell.’

Introduction to The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923) A few years after his son’s death in 1915, serving with the Irish Guards, Kipling was approached to write the official history of the Irish Guards during the war. He took the task very seriously, suspending his fictional writing and working his way through a mountain of official records, soldiers’ letters and diaries, and also interviewing scores of survivors of the various battles and campaigns. The result has often been praised as a thorough and unflashy chronicle of the regiment’s war. Throughout Kipling is concerned with the life of the soldier, from the soldier’s point of view, consistent with the Tommy’s-eye-view he had developed even before the Barrack Room Ballads.

The introduction is short but powerfully conveys the speed of events, the complete unpreparedness of the British forces, the scale of the slaughter and the terrifying turnover of men, and all the time the buzz of men’s conversations.

They speculated on all things in Heaven and earth as they worked in piled filth among the carcases of their fellows, lay out under the stars on the eves of open battle, or vegetated through a month’s feeding and idleness between one sacrifice and the next.
But none have kept minutes of those incredible symposia that made for them a life apart from the mad world which was their portion; nor can any pen recreate that world’s brilliance, squalor, unreason, and heaped boredom. Recollection fades from men’s minds as common life closes over them, till even now they wonder what part they can ever have had in the shrewd, man-hunting savages who answered to their names so few years ago.
It is for the sake of these initiated that the compiler has loaded his records with detail and seeming triviality, since in a life where Death ruled every hour, nothing was trivial, and bald references to villages, billets, camps, fatigues, and sports, as well as hints of tales that can never now fully be told, carry each their separate significance to each survivor, intimate and incommunicable as family jests.

A Friend of the Family (1924) Frame: The fourth in a series of stories Kipling wrote set in the Masonic Lodge, ‘Faith and Works 5837’. Four chaps get chatting over dinner – Bevin, Pole, a sassy Australian with a glass eye named Orton, and the narrator. They yarn about their respective trades (Bevin owns a chicken farm and is diversifying into herbs). They all grumble that all they wanted after the War was Judgement and justice, instead of which they got talk talk talk. Grumble grumble grumble.

‘We didn’t want all that talk afterwards — we only wanted justice. What I say is, there must be a right and a wrong to things. It can’t all be kiss-an’-make-friends, no matter what you do.’

But if any generation had a right to grumble it’s the men who went through the war. Kipling conveys the way they fall to remembering incidents e.g. on the beach at Gallipolli, then go quiet, their faces suddenly tight, with the awful memories.

Story: Once they’re all comfortably settled after dinner, Bevin tells the story of Hickmot, a quiet Australian from the back of beyond, ‘brought up among blackfellas’, who was the only survivor of his battalion at Gallipolli and seconded to what was left of Bevin’s battalion. He was very quiet, very unobtrusive. Then a new draft came out including a man from the narrator, Bevin’s, village, one Bert Vigors. His dad was a market-gardener and they tried to exempt Bert on account of the family business but the local tribunal didn’t listen and he was drafted. The same tribunal exempted the son of a Mr Margetts, also a market gardener, because he hired a canny lawyer and was friends with some of the tribunes. Result: Vigors’ business goes bust, Margett’s old man buys it up.

Vigors won’t stop moaning to anyone who’ll listen about his Grievance, so quite quickly all the boys nickname him ‘the Grief’ and avoid him – all except Hickmot. He’ll listen to Vigors about his Grievance for hours so long as Vigors will then listen to him talking about sheep in the Outback. The two become inseparable. Soon Hickmot cops it in the leg and is shipped home and then Vigors is killed.

Bevin knows he right on the edge of a breakdown and wonders whether he’ll win a VC for some reckless exploit or go postal and shoot everyone around him. Just in time he is brought out of the trenches. He is posted back to England as a bomb instructor. Since the training camp is near his home village, he is able to marry his sweetheart – who just happens to have been Bert Vigors’s sister – and sleeps at home in his own bed, before going off to instruction duty every day.

Then they get a letter from the Brighton hospital where Hickmot is recovering from his wounds, asking if he can come and stay. Since Bert’s sister (now Bevin’s wife) had read so much about Hickmot in the letters which Bert sent home, she says Yes. Hickmot arrives for  his visit, with one leg amputated above the knee, hardly says a word, but fits right in and does all the chores. One day he unobtrusively accompanies Bevin to bomb instruction, holing up in the dugout where the duds are kept till used, then accompanying Bevin home at the end of the day. Then they see him onto the train to Roehampton, where he will be fitted with a prosthetic leg.

That night there is a series of explosions in the village, the villagers initially thinking they must be stray bombs from an air raid and running out into the street in panic. But Bevin and another officer quickly realise the damage is suspiciously localised; in fact, it is limited to the market gardener Margett’s property: the roof of his house has been bombed, so it burns down, two hay ricks set afire, the furnace in his greenhouse has exploded, demolishing the building and all his horses been mysteriously released to trample and graze in the new fields he’d bought off Vigors’s dad. Oddest of all, Bevin had applied to the local council to dam a local stream to create a duck-pond for his wife’s ducks but been refused permission. But a bomb happens to have exploded under the bank of the stream and blocked it exactly where Bevin wanted. Fancy that!

By now Bevin’s dinner companions are laughing. Silent Hickmot must have listened to all Vigor’s grievances in the trenches, and made a plan to enact justice for the injustice of Vigors’s drafting and his death. Asking to come and stay with Bevin was just a ruse to see the lie of the land and, when he learned that Bevin was giving bomb training, Hickmot hatched his brutal revenge on the all-conquering Margett family.

Revenge: So it is one of Kipling’s many ‘revenge’ stories, but this time the brutality of the war somehow justifies it, and also justifies it as comedy, or farce – and also – in the injustice of Vigors’s drafting and death – makes it very moving. On the surface it’s a story about how at least one soldier carried out poetic justice. But the real impact of the story comes from the many little touches in it indicating just how psychologically damaged and scarred by war the talkers are. There are several moments in his telling where Bevin’s face grows stiff and his hands go to tighten a belt he isn’t wearing, unconsciously carried back to the trenches.

More overtly, he admits that, after Hickmot’s wounding and Vigors’s death, he was reaching breaking point: he had a funny taste in his mouth and a sense of being distant from everything – just when his superiors had the sense to post him home as a bomb instructor. He is, in fact, just one more of Kipling’s many, many men on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

‘It took ’em five minutes to make me understand I was saved. Then I vomited, an’ then I cried. You know!’ The fat face of Bevin had changed and grown drawn, even as he spoke; and his hands tugged as though to tighten an imaginary belt.’

A Madonna of The Trenches (1924) Frame: One of several post-War stories set in the Freemason Lodge ‘Faith and Works 5837’. The narrator is helping the Senior Warden who is also a doctor, Dr Keede. During a lecture a new recruit, Strangwick, has a nervous attack, has to be helped out and administered a sedative. The noise of scraping chairs had reminded Strangwick of the noise made by the leather straps of the corpses which the French used to build their trenches over, of the squeaking noise the straps made when you walked on the duckboards laid over them. God. What horror. But as Keede gently questions and sympathetically listens to the stammering man, he draws out a story which is far weirder and stranger than mere post-traumatic stress.

Story: Strangwick was in the same regiment as an older man, Sergeant Godsoe, who he’d known since a boy and had been a father figure to him and his sister. On the day in question, Godsoe was found dead in a sealed gas room in the trenches, with two lighted braziers. Asphyxiation. Dr Keede knew about the incident but thought, like everyone else, it was an accident – that the gas-proof door banged shut and locked Godsoe in by accident.

Now Strangwick slowly, hesitantly, in his working class idiom, explains that Godsoe had been having an affair with his (Strangwick’s) auntie Armine, his mum’s sister (real name, in fact, Bella). Auntie Armine had given Strangwick, on his most recent leave, a note to take back to Godsoe, saying her little trouble would be over on the 21st and she was dying to meet him as soon as possible thereafter.

Strangwick, in his job as a runner on the fateful 21 January, thinks he sees his Auntie Armine at a corner of an old French trench, and, when he tells Godsoe, the latter realises what it means and makes Strangwick take him back to the scene. Here Strangwick’s hair stands on end as he realises that the apparition he thought was a trick of the light earlier on, really is the ghost of his Auntie who – he later finds out – had died of cancer that morning. The ghostly figure is holding out her arms to Sergeant Godsoe, imploring him with a terrifying look on her face to join her – and the Sergeant calmly beckons her into the gas room with the braziers and barricades the door behind him. He deliberately asphyxiated himself, killed himself, so that he can be with his lover for all eternity.

Frame: Having got all this out of his system, Strangwick sleeps. The Brother who introduced him comes along and apologises for his behaviour. He’s been under a lot of strain, he explains, on account of a ‘breach of promise’ action brought against him by his sweetheart, after Strangwick broke off the engagement. The Brother doesn’t know why he broke it off – but we know the full story and the way the sight of a) a middle-aged love affair b) and the ghostly horror of his ‘uncle’s death, have unhinged Strangwick. And there is a final irony because the Brother who brought him to the Lodge… is his actual Uncle, Auntie Armine’s husband! Only Strangwick knows that his Uncle’s wife was so totally unfaithful to him. And this is another element or level in his hysteria.

A spooky story, sure enough – but for me the ghost story element is outweighed by the touching sensitivity to hysterical soldiers shown by the narrator, the doctor and the other Masonic members, who quietly come to enquire if they can help. It is a community of men looking after men.

Strangwick, who had been fidgeting and twitching for some minutes, rose, drove back his chair grinding across the tesselated floor, and yelped ‘Oh, My Aunt! I can’t stand this any longer.’ Under cover of a general laugh of assent he brushed past us and stumbled towards the door.
‘I thought so!’ Keede whispered to me. ‘Come along!’ We overtook him in the passage, crowing hysterically and wringing his hands. Keede led him into the Tyler’s Room, a small office where we stored odds and ends of regalia and furniture, and locked the door.
‘I’m — I’m all right,’ the boy began, piteously.
‘‘Course you are.’ Keede opened a small cupboard which I had seen called upon before, mixed sal volatile and water in a graduated glass, and, as Strangwick drank, pushed him gently on to an old sofa. ‘There,’ he went on. ‘It’s nothing to write home about. I’ve seen you ten times worse. I expect our talk has brought things back.’
He hooked up a chair behind him with one foot, held the patient’s hands in his own, and sat down.

It feels a world away from the cocky young men kicking their native servants in Plain Tales, nearly 40 years earlier.

The Gardener (1925) Written 10 years after Kipling’s own son, Jack, went missing during the Battle of Loos, this short story is about a well-off single woman, Helen, who adopts the orphaned son of her scapegrace brother, George, who had got an unmarried woman pregnant.

When George died in India, Helen arranged the passage home of the baby, named him Michael, and raised him as his ‘Aunty’. Michael goes through prep and public school and is scheduled to go up to Oxford when the Great War breaks out. He enlists into a regiment which is posted to fill the gap in the Loos Offensive. (This is the prolonged battle during which Kipling’s only son was killed, aged barely 18.)

Helen at once accepts the terrible message of the telegram, and communes with the vicar and others in the village who have also lost sons.

After some years she gets an official letter notifying her that Michael’s body has finally been found and buried in Hagenzeele Third graveyard, the letter giving the grave’s row and number.

Helen decides to go and visit it and finds herself entering what Kipling describes as a well-established process for travelling to France, feeling like she is entering a sausage factory, a production-line type machine, which had been set up to process literally millions of grieving relatives.

She arrives at the pre-booked hotel in France, where she has a strange encounter with an insistent fellow grave visitor, who insists on sitting with her at dinner and nattering on about this and that, before she more or less forces her way into Helen’s bedroom to confess that, when she said she was visiting her friends’ sons’ graves, she was lying – she is in fact compulsively visiting and revisiting the grave of the only man she ever loved but who belonged to another.

Helen gets rid of her and lies in bed shaking. Everybody’s lives seem wracked. Next morning she walks to the graveyard and is appalled by the rows upon rows of graves, some 20,000 in total. A young man planting flowers helps her, asking the number of Michael’s grave and takes her to it. In the very last line there is the strong, ghostly implication, that the young man is Christ.

A man knelt behind a line of headstones — evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: ‘Who are you looking for?’
‘Lieutenant Michael Turrell — my nephew,’ said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’
When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.

A masterpiece, a genuinely great story, which is all in the selection, the paring back to the barest essentials, just three short scenes conveying the relationship between the growing Michael and his Aunt – the disconcerting scene at the hotel with a distraught fellow grave visitor – and then just these seven sentences at the end. I’m crying as I write this.


Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish and accessible layout, and to the comprehensive notes provided on The Kipling Society’s website.

Other Kipling reviews

Actions and Reactions by Rudyard Kipling (1909)

By this date Kipling had been publishing short story collections for twenty years and his audience was familiar with the format: every four or five years Kipling pulled together the short stories he’d published in various magazines into a one-volume collection, giving it a pithy and evocative title, and often writing poems specially to preface or follow each story. Actions and Reactions contains nine stories:

1. An Habitation Enforced (1905) An American couple, George and Sophie Chapin, buy a house in Sussex, finding themselves slowly falling in love with it, and getting to know and respect the local gentry and peasants, discovering that the wife’s ancestors used to live right in this parish, and eventually giving birth to a son and heir in the house, in a story which idealises Kipling’s deepening feelings for England and for Sussex specifically. A little obvious though the general drift of the story is, it is the style which impresses. It is noticeably more clipped and swift than any previous story and, somehow, feels more mature.

2. Garm – a Hostage (1899) This is the sixteenth story Kipling wrote featuring one or all of the ‘three soldiers’ which featured among his earliest tales. The narrator nearly runs over Private Stanley Ortheris who is drunkenly pretending to be a highway robber, and being pursued by Military Police. The kindly narrator takes Ortheris home to sleep it off, then delivers him back to barracks next day, with a note to his superior officer explaining that Ortheris was injured, hence his overnight stay – and thus saving Ortheris from punishment.

A few days later Ortheris calls round with his amazing pet dog, a bull-terrier which can do all kinds of tricks, and gives it to the narrator, as a thank-you and as a kind of hostage for Ortheris’s ongoing good behaviour. The narrator already has a dog, Vixen, who is at first resentful until the bull-terrier rescues Vixen from a pack of local strays after which they become firm friends.

The narrator christens the dog ‘Garm’, an abbreviation of the legendary ‘Garin of the Bloody Breast’. Garm is loyal and intelligent, but the narrator soon realises that Ortheris misses him dreadfully and is in fact paying the dog secret visits at night, which is having the effect of making Garm pine during the day for his old owner. When the hot season comes Ortheris, pining away and ill, is sent by his regiment off to the hills, but the narrator follows him there and reunites man and dog.

Like a lot of the ‘three soldiers’ stories it’s not really much of a story. Kipling wrote a lot of dog stories, enough to make up several anthologies later in his career. If they’re all this boring, they’ll be no loss to avoid.

3. The Mother Hive (1908) One reason to read Kipling is to have one’s own ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ ideas challenged – although sometimes it feels like they’re just being insulted. Kipling established several ways of doing this: one was to mock the foolishness of the White Man, i.e. the weakness of his country and its Liberal rulers, through the unsparing eyes of his black subjects e.g. the Muslim author of the London letter who ridicules the weakness of London Liberals, or the Sikh narrator in A Sahibs’ War who can’t believe the British’s damn-fool, sportsmanlike conduct of the Boer War.

Another way is through animal fables. Thus all the Jungle Book stories rotate around The Law of The Jungle and embody the way Kipling believes – like many conservatives – that Freedom is only possible in a well-regulated society bound by a common Law.

One of the classic metaphors for society is the bee hive, which has been used for this purpose by authors for over 2,000 years. In Kipling’s version the well-regulated hive is invaded by the Wax Moth who represents all the progressive forces he disliked about Edwardian society – ‘progressivism, liberal individualism, pacifism, cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism, little Englandism, class division’. It couldn’t have done this unless society was decadent.

If the stock had not been old and overcrowded, the Wax-moth would never have entered; but where bees are too thick on the comb there must be sickness or parasites.

Wax-moth only succeed when weak bees let them in… All this is full of laying workers’ brood. That never happens till the stock’s weakened.

The Kipling Society notes tell me that Kipling became an enthusiastic bee-keeper at his Sussex home and the story is certainly brimming over with bee-keeping facts, as his stories about ships, cars, mills, radios and electricity brim over with boyish enthusiasm for technicalities and jargon.

The Mother Hive is a complete, rounded fable, which starts with the entrance of the one Wax Moth, satirises the deceitful way she deploys her rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ while all the while she sets about laying eggs of the parasitical caterpillars who will destroy it – the one metaphorically, the other literally, undermining and polluting the hive and its structure.

Until the giant human Bee Keeper comes, as prophesied by the Old Queen, to destroy and rebuild the hive. Right up the end the deceitful Wax Moth is telling the misfits, abortions and genetic freaks her poison has helped to spawn that this is the Dawn of a New Age. But in fact the Bee Keeper realises the entire hive is worthless and polluted and so systematically destroys it – only a few loyal bees and a new Queen survive to create a new society. Based, of course, on Law and Order and Tradition.

I note that Conan Doyle made his hero Sherlock Holmes retire to the South Downs where he became an enthusiastic bee-keeper. The most obvious thing about bees, in our time, is not whether they can be used by conservative authors to symbolise a well-regulated society – but the fact that we are wiping them out.

4. With the Night Mail (1905) Kipling was nothing if not varied and ambitious as an author. Just the first four tales in this collection consist of a down-home Sussex story, a dog story, a political fable, and now a science fiction fantasy.

It is 2000 AD and the narrator takes a trip aboard the latest GPO airship. Just ploughing through the long, long technical descriptions of Kipling’s imagined futuristic airship brings home how excessively much his stories rely on technical detail, jargon and specialist terms (in this story, largely made-up) – and how very little on sympathetic emotion. There is almost no emotional flicker in any of his stories except Anger or Fear. For the rest, the narrator is generally an unmoved and objective reporter of conversations he hears or things he sees, as emotional as a block of wood.

So in this tale of the future, once the reporter is up in the airship which is trundling through the skies, and the captain says, ‘Would you like a look round the engine room?’ the reader’s heart sinks.

“If you want to see the coach locked you’d better go aboard. It’s due now,” says Mr. Geary. I enter through the door amidships. There is nothing here for display. The inner skin of the gas-tanks comes down to within a foot or two of my head and turns over just short of the turn of the bilges. Liners and yachts disguise their tanks with decoration, but the G.P.O. serves them raw under a lick of grey official paint. The inner skin shuts off fifty feet of the bow and as much of the stern, but the bow-bulkhead is recessed for the lift-shunting apparatus as the stern is pierced for the shaft-tunnels. The engine-room lies almost amidships. Forward of it, extending to the turn of the bow tanks, is an aperture – a bottomless hatch at present – into which our coach will be locked. One looks down over the coamings three hundred feet to the despatching-caisson whence voices boom upward. The light below is obscured to a sound of thunder, as our coach rises on its guides. It enlarges rapidly from a postage-stamp to a playing-card; to a punt and last a pontoon. The two clerks, its crew, do not even look up as it comes into place. The Quebec letters fly under their fingers and leap into the docketed racks, while both captains and Mr. Geary satisfy themselves that the coach is locked home. A clerk passes the way-bill over the hatch coaming. Captain Purnall thumb-marks and passes it to Mr. Geary. Receipt has been given and taken. “Pleasant run,” says Mr. Geary, and disappears through the door which a foot high pneumatic compressor locks after him.

This is reportage, not fiction. Kipling is always a journalist eavesdropping on other people’s lives – never imaginatively inhabiting them. And instead of conversations where characters exchange feelings or thoughts or subtle nuances, in Kipling nine times out of ten you have working men exchanging the gruff manly slang of their trades.

“Hello, Williams!” he cried. “A degree or two out o’ station, ain’t you?”
“May be,” was the answer from the Mark Boat. “I’ve had some company this evening.”
“So I noticed. Wasn’t that quite a little draught?”
“I warned you. Why didn’t you pull out north? The east-bound packets have.”
“Me? Not till I’m running a Polar consumptives’ sanatorium boat. I was squinting through a colloid before you were out of your cradle, my son.”
“I’d be the last man to deny it,” the captain of the Mark Boat replies softly. “The way you handled her just now — I’m a pretty fair judge of traffic in a volt-hurry — it was a thousand revolutions beyond anything even I’ve ever seen.”

You have to make quite an effort to buy into his detailed, highly technical descriptions. It feels like a story for engineers. For the more casual reader, the illustrations to this story are infinitely more interesting and evocative than the prose.

Illustration of With The Night Mail

Illustration of With The Night Mail

The most extraordinary thing about this bit of reportage from the future is that, after the main ‘story’, a further long part of the text consists of fictional ‘excerpts’ from newspapers and magazines contemporary with the narrator’s imagined journey. Thus we get:

  • a series of weather reports for different parts of the sky on the night the narrator took his trip
  • notes on the prevalence of sleet
  • the problem of ‘bat boat’ racing (whatever that is)
  • an anecdote from Crete
  • various letters to the Editor about aerial travelling along with 14 replies from the Editor
  • a long review of a fictional book about a fictional pioneer of aerial travel – one Xavier Lavalle
  • and then mocked-up adverts selling all kinds of paraphernalia connected with flying

This is a stunning tribute to Kipling’s readiness to prepare a full, complete and exhaustive factual apparatus for each of his ‘stories’ – to work over and over the surface of his texts to create an astonishing intricacy of realistic detail. But the more detail you read, the more you realise there is a big hole where the ‘story’ should be, and a huge emotional and psychological hole at the centre of most of his stories.

And yet… Kipling’s vision clearly spoke to the men who do, who make things happen. Thus Charles Carrington’s excellent biography includes the story that when the first Atlantic flight was achieved by the British airship ‘R.34’ in 1919, the crew took with them a single book, this one, so that they could refer to this story. Then they all autographed the edition, and presented it to its author. Kipling’s audience and impact were on such a different group and class than the ‘literature’ and readership we are educated to expect.

6. A Deal in Cotton A meeting up of old pals from India, who featured in various Plain Tales From The Hills. The man nicknamed ‘the Infant’ has inherited a vast estate, whither he invites the narrator who finds an old pal, Colonel Corkran (Stalky from the Stalky stories, now grown up) and Strickland of the Punjab Police (who also featured in a number of the early India stories), now retired and bringing along his son, who has just returned from service in Africa very ill.

The son tells a long story about how he’s setting up a cotton growing concern in his District and trying to tame the local tribe of cannibals to work on it. He partly financed this by fining a slave trader he caught transporting slaves through British territory. His audience, experienced administrators to a man – Corkran, the Infant, Strickland – hear him out but, when he’s gone, ask his loyal Muslim servant, Imam Din, for his version of events.

From reading the story alone, I couldn’t make head nor tail of what went on, except the Muslim and the slave trader seem to have done some deal to do some kind of scam to help young Adam with his cotton scheme: I think they burned down the village of the cannibals and terrified them into helping Adam. I think the man who was brought before him as a slave trader was also a friend and devotee of young Adam – but I found the technique of telling two conflicting versions of the same events through the jargon, slang and argot of two completely different men – posh Sahib and deferential Mussulman – too obscure to understand.

7. The Puzzler (1909) A sort of Ealing comedy which starts with the improbably named Penfentenyou, Premier in his own Province (somewhere in the Empire) who imposes himself on the narrator on a trip to England, turning the study into a Cabinet Room, sending and receiving endless telegrams.

Penfentenyou hears that one of the British politicians he needs to speak to, Lord Lundie, lives only 40 miles away. Next day he insists on being driven there to discuss his oh-so-important business. Arriving in Lundie’s village they notice a) a removal van with several men having a beer outside the local pub b) an organ grinder and monkey.

As they walk towards the hedge of Lord Lundie’s manor house they notice a fine monkey puzzle tree dominating the lawn outside and then hear the braying of upper class voices. Creeping nearer they overhear Lundie, a famous Society painter James Loman and Sir Christopher Tomling the engineer, who are all discussing whether a monkey really can climb a monkey puzzle tree.

They remember the organ grinder in the village and one of them gets sweets and biscuits from the house to plant a trail of goodies to the top of the tree, then they approach the organ grinder with their proposition – can they borrow the monkey to see if he can climb to the top of a monkey puzzle tree?

Unfortunately, the monkey is upset by all these people crowding round it and runs for it, leaping through the open window of a nearby house. The organ grinder detaches his instrument from its trolley, straps it over its shoulder and, along with the three eminent Englishmen, runs into the (empty) house. Closely followed by the narrator and Penfentenyou.

So far so Ealing comedy as the narrator and Penfentenyou hear the posh chaps running around the upstairs of the house, crashing and banging everywhere, trying to capture the monkey. The confusion is compounded when a young married couple pull up outside the house. It is their house and they are moving out and they rouse the removal men from the pub to come and finish the job – at which point the Lord and society painter and eminent engineer and organ grinder all come face to face with an outraged bourgeois couple and their surprised workers. The woman is outraged and demands to know what is going on and the whole action pauses for a comic moment.

The Eternal Bad Boy in every man hung its head before the Eternal Mother in every woman.

But at this comically crucial moment, the noble Englishman keeps his cool and shows his class, as the painter on the spot comes up with the explanation that the monkey has just got away from the organ grinder into the house and the passing aristocrats were so worried that the wild animal might harm any children inside, that they have nobly given chase and are on the verge of capturing it.

The young couple’s mood changes from anger to relief and gratitude, they thank the posh chaps profusely, who then calmly stroll back to their big mansion, followed by the narrator and Penfentenyou, who is only now formally introduced to the man of influence. After this unconventional encounter Penfentenyou manages to get his political plan and budget approved by the much relieved Lord Lundie.

This story is genuinely funny, and it’s a relief to read a Kipling story not made incomprehensible by technical jargon, impenetrable dialect, or the complex overlapping of narrators. The narrator and Penfentenyou reappear in the later farce, The Vortex, collected in A Diversity of Creatures, which is just as funny.

Illustration of The Puzzle

8. Little Foxes: A Tale of The Gihon Hunt (1909) The Gihon is a river which rises in Ethiopia. This is a comic story about the British Governor of the region and his Inspector, who are trying to establish order after the defeat of the Mahdi in Sudan (in the 1880s). When the Governor learns that real genuine foxes – not hyenas, foxes – inhabit the area, he sends for his pack of fox hunting beagles from Ireland, they duly arrive and he teaches the locals the joys of fox hunting.

Order is shown rippling outwards from this strange importation of such a British pastime – for the Governor pays for holes where foxes are caught and fines for holes where foxes are let escape – and this inadvertently clarifies innumerable land disputes. Also villages are motivated to repair their water wheels in order to fuel their crops, because the Hunt buys the crops at a good rate to feed the horses.

A local boy, Farag, immediately falls in love with the dogs and is allowed to become their groom, allowed to dress in traditional hunting outfit, absorbing the Sahib’s virtues of discipline and loyalty, and radiating these out among his people. Great tales are told in the villages of the Hunt’s mighty achievements. As quite a few of the dogs die in service in what, after all, is an alien land with unusual hazards, the Governor dispatches the Inspector back to Britain to get more huntin’ dogs. The Inspector is passed round the ‘county’ set of fox-hunting aristocrats, until a fateful dinner at a swank country house which happens to include among the guests a spluttering Liberal politician. The Inspector is tempted into exaggerating various aspects of British rule, mentioning the administration of physical punishment to the natives, comically exaggerating it and, in a mad moment, using a very crude local Ethiopian name, little thinking his dinner joke will have any consequences.

Part two of the story tells of the visit to Ethiopia of the spluttering Liberal politician who, before he even arrives, causes a lot of concern and potential bloodshed by writing pamphlets criticising Imperial rule. When these are read by the locals they think the Government is about to overthrow all the hard-won land ownership agreements which the Governor has taken so much trouble to establish. As discontent rises, the Governor finds his work cut out dealing with the effects of the ignorant, meddling, undermining stay-at-home anti-Imperialists’ writings and threats.

When the splutterer, Mr Groombride, arrives the locals have been well briefed by Farag, the dog boy, to expect ridicule and farce. They arrange for a willing translator, Abdul, to take the mickey out of Groombride’s speeches. As he reaches the peroration of a particularly virulent anti-Imperial diatribe to Farag’s assembled village, the unfortunate Groombride uses the taboo word mentioned to him ages ago over dinner by the Inspector, and is taken aback when the whole village falls about laughing at him, pointing at him, ridiculing him. Showing the typical thin skin and anger which (Kipling implies) underlies all shallow Liberals, Groombride is so outraged at this reaction that he turns and beats his translator Abdul with an umbrella — just as the Governor and Inspector ride up to witness the ‘native-loving’ Liberal caught in the peak of hypocrisy.

Groombride abjectly pleads for them not to report the matter and to suppress the law suit for assault which Abdul threatens to bring. Thus the blustering, bullying, ignorant, meddling Liberal anti-Imperialist is brought low and transformed into a whining hypocrite. Well, this era saw much Liberal, Labour, Radical and even communist literature and propaganda, so it is only fair to savour the propaganda of the extreme opposite, the virulent die-hard rhetoric of the hard-core Imperialist.

9. The House Surgeon (1909) On a steamer the narrator gets talking to L. Maxwell M’Leod who bought a big old house – Holmescroft – in the Home Counties off the three Moultrie sisters through their lawyer, Baxter. M’Leod invites the narrator for a weekend, where he is no sooner inside the building than he experiences the extraordinary sense of depression, guilt and despair it throws over everyone who inhabits it. Intrigued and disturbed, the narrator decides to investigate and goes off to visit this lawyer, Baxter, working his way into his favours by taking up golf (which he detests) under Baxter’s tutelage and eventually being invited to a health spa, along with the spinster sisters.

What emerges is that only two of three sisters survive – Miss Elizabeth and Miss Mary. The youngest, Miss Agnes, died when they owned and lived in Holmescroft – she was found on the path beneath an open first floor window, having committed suicide. And both sisters, and to some extent the lawyer, believe her ghost haunts the house and accounts for the terrible sense of oppression and gloom inside it.

Now a) the narrator himself had stayed in the very room Miss Agnes was supposed to have thrown herself from just a few weeks earlier, and he had noticed that the catch to the window was both low down towards the floor and very stiff, so that in forcing it up and open he very nearly fell out of the window.

b) At this spa there is an excited scene when Miss Mary shrieks for help and Baxter and the narrator burst into the sisters’ bedroom to find Miss Mary, her hand and throat covered with blood, wrestling with the open window while her sister grips her knees to stop her throwing herself out and repeating Miss Agnes’s suicide. Miss Elizabeth claimed her sister had slashed her throat and was trying to throw herself out of the window.

BUT after the hysterical women have been calmed down, it emerges that Miss Mary had done no such thing – she hadn’t slashed anything, but had been struggling with the stiff catchment of the window with such force that when it finally gave, her wrist went through a pane and she accidentally cut herself. Suddenly all four of them – the two sisters, the narrator and Baxter – realise that this must be what happened to their sister, Agnes, at Holmescroft. She had been struggling with the wretched window, yanked it open and fell to her death by accident. He spirit has been haunting the place and trying to explain. It is this which explains the terrible sense of foreboding, depression and above all, that something unspeakable is trying to tell you something that afflicts M’Leod’s family and afflicted the narrator, when he stayed.

The narrator phones the M’Leod family and tells them to vacate the old house while he brings the two spinster sisters over. The sisters go up to the fatal bedroom (while the narrator and Baxter wait tactfully downstairs) and have some kind of communion with the dead. When the sisters return they have, somehow, spoken to the spirit of their sister, they have accepted that her death was an accident, the terrible secret the house needed to speak has been spoken, and now, magically, Holmescroft is a happy, well-lit, beautiful house again. The M’Leod family are delighted, and romp through their beautiful and now-released home, and happy young Miss M’Leod sings an old English air.

The name of the story comes from the fact that on the night of the panic at the spa when they think Miss Elizabeth is trying to kill herself, the narrator is introduced as the hospital doctor (to spare the embarrassment of Baxter having to explain that he’s in fact more or less a stranger who he – Baxter – has been telling the family secrets to). But it also has another, ironic, meaning by the end of the story, when the narrator emerges as the hero of the hour who discovered the secret of Holmescroft’s haunting and managed to exorcise it. — Early on the narrator says he is no Sherlock Holmes and this draws our attention to the Holmes in the name of the house, Holmescroft.

Comment

These nine stories are hugely varied in setting and subject matter but the two things which come over most strongly are:

  1. Kipling’s ideology, the devotion to duty as exemplified in Imperial rule over the colonies, a duty reflected in and welcomed by the colonised themselves, like Farag the dog boy or the loyal Imam Din — and its mirror image, a fierce, unremitting contempt and hatred of Liberals and do-gooders who don’t understand the basis of Imperial rule and blunder in without understanding the land, the people or the culture, and so are wrecking all the good work of the Imperial administrators (in the stories of the hive and the Ethiopian hunt)
  2. Kipling’s fantastic addiction to technical terminology, jargon and cant, whether it’s the technical terms and slang associated with fox hunting or bee keeping or motoring or even, in the Night Mail story, a huge lexicon of technical terms which he appears to have invented purely for the story.

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

The Mission Song by John le Carré (2006)

I don’t like le Carré’s later fiction. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) set the tone, a series of tales told by a self-important retirement-age security bore which revealed le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, to be a pompous ass. The series of novels from The Night Manager onwards seem to me:

  • to almost exclusively feature repellently posh, upper-class, public-school-educated ‘heroes’
  • who have no trouble ‘bagging’ lots of posh totty, with James Bondish ease
  • who form self-regarding cliques in which everyone is a ‘legend’ – the incomparable X, the well-known Y, the notorious Z – our loyal A, our famous B, our legendary C
  • but who also enjoy sensitive and doomed love affairs with one spectacularly beautiful, incomparably intelligent etc etc love object (whose epitome is the saintly Tessa in The Constant Gardener)
  • with each novel dominated by a Major Contemporary Issue (the wickedness of arms dealers in The Night Manager – the wickedness of big pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener – the wickedness of the ‘war on terror’ in Absolute Friends)
  • and all told in repetitive, bombastic prose

For the first few pages, The Mission Song seems like it’s evaded these dangers. Unusually, it is

a) told in the first person
b) and – in a bold experiment – told by the orphaned, illegitimate son of an Irish Catholic missionary and a native Congolese woman, one Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo.

However, the all-too-familiar features of le Carré’s fiction soon comes flooding back in. For Salvador, it turns out, was raised by highly educated Catholic missionaries before being sent to an English public school where, like all le Carré’s later protagonists, he has picked up the irritatingly pompous turns of phrase which dominate his style and, therefore, the entire book. Far from attempting ‘black’ speech rhythms, Salvo’s half-caste nature and public school background do the reverse, with the result that le Carré’s naturally overblown prose style is actually turned up! Half the time Salvo sounds like Bertie Wooster.

It is a known fact that the thoughts of the most loyal raw recruit on the eve of battle stray in unforeseen directions, some of them downright mutinous. And I will not pretend that my own were in this regard exempt… (p.88)

Not exactly ‘street’, is it, nor particularly African. The extraordinarily PG Wodehouse style is matched by the high class circles Salvo moves in by virtue of having married a journalist. Being le Carré, she is of course the famous, the legendary female journalist, Penelope, described as the shining star in the firmament of her famous Fleet Street proprietor, and consorting with her gives him access to high-toned parties and eminent movers and shakers. The book becomes posher by the minute.

Adultery being a standard le Carré theme, it is no surprise to learn that the legendary Penelope is in fact having an affair with her boss, Thorne, nicknamed with characteristically leaden humour, ‘Thorne the Horn’. Feeling thus released from his marriage vows, the novel opens with Salvo energetically screwing the new love of his life, a black Congolese nurse named Hannah, who he’s met while interpreting at a local hospital.

For, like so many of the later novels, this one drips with sex sex sex sex – the hero thinks about sex on almost every page. This opening scene sets the tone and thereafter, almost every page recalls Salvo and Hannah ripping each other’s clothes off, her cry as she climaxes, her scent on his clothes and his mobile phone, memories of her startled open mouth, her wide eyes as he penetrates her, her lips moving down from his, the bed sheets revealing her breast, falling between her parted thighs, and so on and on, a leitmotiv through the rest of the text.

Claiming to believe I am not taking her seriously, she wilfully flings back the bedclothes and sits up. And you have to know how beautiful she is… (p.122)

Salvo’s general lecherousness is to the fore when he is escorted round the British Intelligence offices by a functionary, Bridget, while Salvo admires her tight jeans and imagines undressing her. When, a lot later, he packs and leaves his flat, he is button-holed in the hallway by his wife’s best friend, Paula, wearing only a dressing gown, who asks if he wants to have sex with her, then begs him to have sex with her (p.280). Truly, he is a babe magnet and a stud muffin.

In summary, then, within a few pages, the reader has been introduced to yet another public-school-educated protagonist, who moves in swanky London circles, beds women with effortless ease, but is also a sensitive soul, in love with his ravishing new belle, Hannah, who he describes in the same sentimental terms as the beautiful, uniquely intelligent love objects of the previous six novels, and whose story is going to be told in pompously self-important prose.

And the Major Contemporary Issue without which it wouldn’t be late le Carré? The endless war in the Congo.

If you read the Wikipedia article or any contemporary reporting from Congo, you will find this conflict has been raging since about 1995, if not before, and has claimed more casualties than the Second World War. It is a vast panorama of death and atrocity and rape, which most of us don’t read about because the papers don’t write about it much. All of which – the Western hypocrisy and the media indifference – make le Carré very angry.

But burning anger isn’t enough. Social media and online newspaper comments show the world is full of incoherently angry people. The ability to analyse the problem out into readable prose is what a reader has a right to expect of an author.

The plot

Part one – the conference

After public school Salvo has made a career in England as a translator, translating from a range of obscure African languages in which he is expert, into English or French. It was doing a translation job for Penelope (translating an African claiming to have a great scoop, but who turned out to be a con-man) that so impressed her that she took him to bed, where he was so impressed by her sexual technique that he proposed to her and so – to shock her Surrey parents – she married a black man.

He also, we learn, has done work from time to time for a Mr Anderson, from Britain’s Security Services. The following passage gives a good feel for Salvo’s rhetorical magniloquence, his self-importance, and for the entertaining lack of self-awareness with which he refers to himself as a sexual stud.

Did I bubble out the rest to Bridget? Appoint her my substitute confessor in Hannah’s absence? Unveil to her how, until I met Penelope, I was a twenty-three-year-old closet virgin, a dandy in my personal appearance but, underneath my carefully constructed facade, saddled with enough hang-ups to fill a walk-in cupboard? – that brother Michael’s attentions and Père André’s before him had left me in a sexual twilight from which I feared to emerge? [he was abused by Catholic missionaries in Africa] – that my dear late father’s guilt regarding his explosion of the senses [late in life, Salvo’s Catholic priest father discovered sex] had transferred itself wholesale and without deductions to his son? – and how as our taxi sped towards Penelope’s flat I had dreaded the moment that she would literally uncover my inadequacy, such was my timidity regarding the female sex? – and that thanks to her knowhow and micro-management all ended well? – extremely well – more well than she could have imagined, she assured me, Salvo being her dream mustang – the best in her stable, she might have added – her Alpha Male Plus? Or, as she later put it to her friend Paula when they thought I wasn’t listening, her chocolate soldier always standing to attention? (p.66)

En route from his clandestine fuck with the African nurse Hannah to the VIP party for his wife, this Alpha Male Plus is waylaid by a mobile phone call from Mr Anderson, asking him for a meeting. Anderson persuades him to ditch the party and come do some really important work for the old country, the ‘Britain’ to which Salvo feels ludicrously, naively, attached. And so he gets a taxi to South Audley Street where, in between ogling Bridget in her tight jeans, Anderson gives him a deliberately vague outline of the mission and he finds himself Bertie Woosterishly agreeing to do it, for the Old Country.

The Alpha Male Plus is given casual clothes (all the time lecherously imagining the beautiful assistant’s clothes magically falling off and them making love there and then), then taxied across London to a helicopter, which flies to Luton airport where he is taken aboard a secret flight.

On board the plane Salvo meets some rough mercenary types – Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider – who shout and swear a lot and give him further vague info about the ‘conference’ he’s booked to translate at. For the first time he learns it’s something to do with his ostensible homeland, the Congo. The plane lands at an isolated airstrip and they all drive in the dark to an old, castle-style mansion on a coast somewhere, maybe Scotland? Denmark?

Here Maxie (aka the Skipper) explains that a big peace conference is taking place in Denmark between various interested parties in the Congo conflict. Some combination of British interests have arranged a ‘side meeting’ to the conference, to take place at this isolated and discreet location. Here they have invited three representatives of the Congo’s warring tribes and factions to be brought together with a charismatic Congolese leader, the Mwangaza. The Mwazanga allegedly represents some ‘third way’ for the country, although when we meet him, his expository speech is so blustering and bombastic – as is almost all the dialogue in this terrible book – that it’s either difficult to understand or childishly crude:

‘I am the Mwazanga, the messenger of harmonious coexistence and prosperity for all Kivu. I think with my head, not with my gun, or my panga, or my penis.’ (p.150)

The central 150 pages of this novel claim to describe this meeting of the leaders of political factions from a war-torn country. You would expect there to be cunning and wheeler-dealing, gambit and counter-gambit, a subtle exposition of the situation and possible areas of agreement – the kind of thing, for example, I heard when I worked at the Department for International Development at around the period this novel was published. These kind of meetings are generally well prepared in advance, and even if the talk is frank, there are identifiable positions and interests at stake.

Swearing instead of analysis

But if you expected analysis of the situation in Congo, or a clear-headed account of the history which led to the current shambles, or an explanation of the various peace plans on the table – you will be sorely disappointed by this book. Instead of cool analysis you get people swearing: first the mercenaries on the plane deliver an insultingly crude and sweary account of the situation. Fair enough, they are military hard men. But the (lengthy) scenes with the three political leaders and their aides is a farrago of effing and blinding.

Haj: Holy shit! My dad warned me the old boy was heavy duty, but this is something else. Aw, aw, aw. Why does he talk Swahili like a Tanzanian with a paw-paw stuck up his arse?’ (p.175)

It’s like being in the men’s toilet at a football match. The foul language goes on for scores of pages. It is interspersed with Salvo’s weirdly out-of-date and preening prose. And his fuck-filled accounts of the ‘negotiations’ are themselves interspersed with his memories of fucking young Hannah just before he left England. Taken together, this brew creates the most revolting pages of prose I’ve read in years.

This book represents an incredible come-down from the author of the brilliantly cunning classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, or who gave us the under-stated, coolly calibrating spy-master George Smiley. That author is long dead and now le Carré’s characters routinely swear and shout and grandstand – the more some kind of intelligence is required, the more the reader expects analysis and information – the more foul-mouthed the dialogue becomes.

Here one of the delegates, Haj, is ridiculing the Mwazanga’s lofty rhetoric:

Allies in what, for fuck’s sake? To achieve what? A united Kivu? North and South? My friends. Let us seize hold of our resources and thereby control our destiny. Humph humph. They’ve been seized, arsehole! By a bunch of Rwandan crazies who are armed to the eyeballs and raping our women in their spare time! Those interahamwe guys up there are so well dug in, the fucking UN doesn’t dare to fly over them, without asking their permission first. (p.179)

It is like this for page after page.

As to the plot, Salvo, as official translator during the ‘sessions’, is given free rein of the multiple bugs and microphones hidden everywhere around the building and its grounds in order to report to his superiors, Maxie and the new arrival, the posh upper-class (of course) Englishman, Philip.

But (predictably) Salvo also hears ‘things he shouldn’t’. With incredible naivety, he appears to have expected everyone to behave nobly and virtuously, to be motivated by love of their country and humanity. So he is horrified to discover that the Brits appear to want something out of the deal, and the three delegates are demanding up-front payments for themselves.

The deal

The plan being proposed by ‘our guys’ is that before Congo’s next elections – due to be held in just two weeks time – the ‘Syndicate’ ie British interests – will, with the three leaders’ help, foment disorder on the streets. This will prompt armed intervention which will instal ‘our redeemer’, the Mwazanga, as a moderate middle-of-the-road leader who will restore peace. In other words the Brits are planning to stage an undemocratic coup.

The ‘Syndicate’ will station mercenaries at air bases in each of the three leaders’ territories for six months, during which they will be able to extract ore from conveniently nearby mines and sell it on the world market at a tidy profit.

Only an idiot would be surprised to learn all the players in this squalid meeting are in it for what they can get, instead of bringing Peace and Freedom to Congo – but Salvo comes across, throughout, as just such a preening, sex-mad imbecile. Every aspect of his character is literally unbelievable: the absurdly Wodehousian diction; the absurdly unironic references to himself as a sexual stud; the absurdly unthinking British patriotism; and the naivety with which he approaches a political conference.

Salvo is disillusioned

Not only is Salvo disillusioned at the participants’ motivation. To his amazement he hears, on headphones in the ‘control room’, one of the delegates, Haj, during a break in the negotiations, apparently being tortured with some kind of cattle prod. It becomes clear Haj is being tortured by Maxie, the hard man in the plane over, into admitting that he represents not only his father’s tribe and interests, but a French corporation which, on closer examination, turns out to be run by a group of Halliburton-type American corporate executives. He also appears to confess that the 30% of takings from the Syndicate’s operations which were pledged to the Mwazanga – and which the Mwazanga had pledged to improving the Congo’s lost – schools, hospitals etc – will in fact go directly to this US corporation. Tut tut. Secret deals. At a diplomatic conference!

Then Haj, once they’ve stopped torturing him and he’s recovered, himself demands $3 million before he’ll sign the ‘agreement’ drawn up by the team’s slippery lawyer, Monsieur Jasper. (I found the way Haj was tied down and electrocuted, and then only ten minutes later is making deals with his torturers, a little hard to believe.)

So upset is he at this bitter disillusionment that Salvo makes the stupid decision to smuggle the tapes which have been recording the conference, and the notebooks he’s been scribbling it all down in, back to Blighty. At the conclusion of the ‘conference’, the delegates sign the ‘contract’ with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The coup is set for a few weeks time. Can Salvo stop it?

Part two – back in London

The ‘contract’ signed, the Africans fly back to their big conference in Denmark and our boys drive back to the little airport, get their charter plane back to Luton, and this is where Salvo is dropped off. He makes his way, guiltily laden with his bag of contraband tapes and notebooks, back to the up-market Battersea flat he shares with the Top Journalist Penelope. Here he makes the decision to leave her for the new Love of His Life, Hannah. So he packs a few belongings, takes off his wedding ring, skips past his wife’s friend, Paula, who chooses this moment to offer to fuck him – and goes look for the beautiful African nurse.

They rent a room in a flop house kept by an Asian couple, the Hakims, and have sex. Quite a few times. And in between discuss what to do. In among all the conversations and hurried phone calls during the conference, Salvo had heard Philip put one through to one Lord Brinkley in London, a character he (conveniently) happens to have met through his wife’s high society contacts. From what Salvo could hear,  posh Philip was on the phone to Brinkley giving feedback on the conference and asking Brinkley for the go-ahead to the coup.

Salvo very stupidly decides that if he can only confront Lord B, the latter will realise that he has – oh dear – been led astray and will immediately call the wicked plan off. So, with stupefying naivety, he goes to visit Lord Brinkley and his terrifically posh wife Kitty – ‘We’re in the drawing room, dahling‘. To nobody’s surprise except stupid Salvo, they both deny ever having met him before or having had the phone conversation he alludes to or knowing the people he mentions.

But now the conspirators know that Salvo has gone loco on them. Bad. To nobody’s surprise except his own, the apartment he shared with Penelope is comprehensively turned over. If Salvo had read any kind of thriller, or seen a movie, or ever watched a TV detective series, Salvo would have known this is absolutely par for the course. But he hasn’t, and he doesn’t, because he’s an idiot. It is impossible to belive in a thriller whose protagonist is an idiot.

Baptiste

Hannah says she knows a true Congolese patriot, Baptiste who can help so they arrange a meeting. Here Baptiste – all wraparound shades, gold bling and aggressive attitude – listens to the chocolate soldier’s story but alas, he is as potty-mouthed as all the other characters.

‘Let’s do facts. Here are the facts. Your friend here fucks you, right? Your friend’s friend knows he fucks you, so he comes to your friend. And he tells your friend a story, which your friend repeats to you because he’s fucking you. You are rightly incensed by this story, so you bring your friend who is fucking you to me, so that he can tell it all over again, which is what your friend’s friend reckoned would happen all along. We call that disinformation.‘ (p.329)

Do we? Is that a shrewd summary of disinformation? Despite the idiotic swearing, Baptiste claims to be some kind of sophisticated political mover and shaker – but in the next breath he also is revealed as a naive fool, because he point blank refuses to believe that his hero, the Mwazanga, has sold out to the West, to the White Man, to the fat cats in Kinshasa. So he simply refuses to believe Salvo’s story that the conference is a stitch-up and tells him and Hannah to get the fuck out.

Well, that wasn’t very helpful.

Mr Anderson

Next, Salvo catches a train to Sevenoaks where he tracks down his ‘control’, the man who represents ‘the Security Services’, who has given him various jobs in the past and gave him this particular job just a few days ago, the man he trusts most in the world, Mr Anderson. He tracks Anderson down to the very fine public school (is there any other type, old boy?) where he is rehearsing with his choir, and interrupts the practice.

They go to a quiet room and Salvo hands him the 20-page dossier he has written about the whole affair named, with stunning unoriginality, J’Accuse. Salvo naively tells this Security Service high-up that ‘we must stop the coup’. Guess what? Go on. Mr Anderson hears him out, then very politely says he has gone out of his way to help Salvo in the past and now is very saddened that in exchange Salvo has betrayed his trust and broken the Official Secrets Act. He gets out his phone to call someone ominous, maybe some heavies to come collect Salvo. Imbecile that he is, Salvo is surprised and stunned that someone high up in British Intelligence doesn’t want to betray or cancel a top secret operation. Salvo stalks out.

The only thing surprising in this sequence is what being back in a public school setting does to the already antiquated prose.

Seconds later Mr Anderson himself squeezed his bulk round the door and, looking past me as if I wasn’t there, addressed his womenfolk in tones of command. ‘Mary, I’ll trouble you both to go home and await my return.’ (p.339)

A lot of le Carré’s prose is like seeing a rare animal in a zoo – you didn’t realise stuff this pompous, stuffy and out of date was still alive.

Thorne the Horn

Fergus Thorn is nicknamed ‘Thorn the Horn’ because he’s notorious for screwing women. The horn? Sex? Gettit? (If you think that’s a hilarious nickname, this book is for you.) He is Penelope’s boss at the high-end newspaper where we are repeatedly told she is the rising star. Sometime in the past they had a run-in with Lord Brinkley who sued them for defamation and nearly bankrupted them. So Salvo phones a sceptical Horn and asks for a meeting. Here in a darkened wine bar, Salvo hands over the 20-page dossier and says he has phone recordings of Brinkley’s voice authorising the money for the coup.

Unfortunately, the Horn is another character who le Carré thinks will sound modern and thrusting and contemporary if he’s made to think crudely and swear a lot. And talk in italics. Thus, taking Salvo up on his offer, the Horn briefs the hacks who’ve come with him:

‘Sophie. Flash your tits at the security firms. Who’s MaxieColonel Maxie? Maxie who? If he’s a mercenary, he’s ex-Special Forces. How ex? Who does he fuck? What schools did he go to?’ (p.356)

Presumably this must be the approach which bags him so many women. But when Salvo rifles in his bag to find the incriminating tapes, he finds them gone. The Horn becomes progressively more sarcastic as Salvo’s search becomes more desperate, until the latter finally gives up and is forced to leave with his tail between his legs, the deal unconcluded.

On the way back to the hostel, Salvo realises what must have happened. Hannah stole the tapes. (For a moment I thought Hannah would turn out to be MI6’s woman all along and only having the affair with Salvo to monitor him in case he turned out to be unreliable; that would have been a bit clever. But no. She is every inch the high-minded social warrior Salvo and le Carré paint her as. She took the tapes for her own purposes.)

Turns out Hannah has transferred them to a sound file and emailed them, but to who, exactly? Salvo tries phoning her to find out but Hannah has decamped on an ‘outing’ to the seaside with her friend Grace, which they thought would give Hannah a good cover and protection, and her phone doesn’t answer.

So Salvo lies on his own in their room back at Mr Hakim’s boarding house, with the radio and TV on, and is astonished when reports start coming in of how an attempt at a coup in Eastern Congo have failed. To his consternation, the TV news shows pictures of Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider shackled and shuffling under the guard of their captors, along with the twenty or so other mercenaries they were leading. The apparent leader of the coup, the man they call ‘the Enlightener’ (p.367) – ie the Mwazanga – has disappeared.

So the coup failed after all. Salvo calls Hannah’s friend Grace’s mobile to tell Hannah to discover Grace is hysterical, because Hannah was arrested as they walked down the street in broad daylight. At this point it finally sinks into Salvo’s head what he has set himself up against. For the first time he loses the will to fight. Up to then he’d been careful about using his own mobile phone in case it was traced. But it had been a kind of patriotic love for Hannah which had kept him going through all this. Now he turns on and uses his own mobile for the first time, not caring if the call is traced, not caring if he is arrested, beyond caring.

He finds an answerphone message from smooth-talking Philip, who had masterminded events at the mansion, suggesting a meeting.

Climax

And so Salvo goes to the house of posh, silver-haired Foreign Office-type Philip, where he is let in by two tough young bodyguards. As soon as he enters his presence, in the stylish drawing room, Salvo tries to attack him, but is knocked unconscious by his bully boys.

When he comes to, the baddy – suave and posh, English upper class, like most of the baddies in le Carré’s later novels (the ‘worst man in the world’ Roper in The Night Manager, the head of the FO who covers up Tessa Quayle’s murder in The Constant Gardener, and so on) smoothly tells him that Hannah has confessed all and is being deported to Kampala.

It turns out that once the authorities start digging, they’ve discovered that he, Salvo, has a fake identity, presumably concocted all those years ago to protect his priest father from charges of impropriety. Having entered Britain on a false ID, he also is now being deported. Bye, old chap.

Epilogue

The last ten pages are the only good thing in the book. It consists of a long letter written by Salvo to Hannah’s son, Noah, back in the Congo somewhere, describing conditions in the internment camp where Salvo is being kept – surrounded by barbed wire and beaten up by the police from time to time, where he is waiting to be deported.

There’s a letter within a letter as Salvo unexpectedly gets a missive from Haj, the wide boy political leader he overheard being tortured, who gives a last cynical but exuberant vision of contemporary Congo, with its shootings, rapes, corruption and disease. Haj confirms that in the end nothing Salvo or Hannah did had any significance. It was he, Haj, who alerted the authorities to the coup the moment he got home, and thus had it forestalled and defused.

Now there will be elections in Congo, ramshackle and corrupt, ‘they won’t deliver solutions but they’re ours.’ All Hannah and Salvo’s efforts were for nothing.


Blustering explanations

As in all the other late le Carré novels, when the time comes for some kind of explanation of the political situation, what we get instead is the drunken loudmouth bluster of sweary braggarts. (Exactly the same happened in the Night Manager, Our Game and The Tailor of Panama.) Le Carré likes to ‘tackle’ big geopolitical issues but, when push comes to shove, seems to lack the analytical intelligence to write anything interesting about them. Even entry-level explication of the situations is beyond his characters. This is how the organiser of the team flying Salvo to this mystery mansion – Maxie aka the Skipper – explains the situation.

‘We’re sorting the place, Sinclair, for Christ’s sake!’ he expostulated in a pent-up voice. ‘We’re bringing sanity to a fucking madhouse. We’re giving piss-poor, downtrodden people their country back and forcing ’em to tolerate each other, make money get a fucking life. Have you got a problem with that?’ (p.125)

This is pathetically inadequate. But it’s not just Maxie. The ‘delegates’ to the micro-conference, instead of putting reasoned arguments for their respective parties, all sound like swearing teenagers and their ‘discussions’ are just rants. I worked for three years on Channel 4’s international affairs TV show. Nobody who is the leader of a political party or group talks like this.

‘So it’s a coup, right?’ the Dolphin [one of the delegates] demands, in the shrill, hectoring French of a Parisian sophisticate. ‘Peace, prosperity, inclusiveness. But when you strip away the bullshit, we’re grabbing power. Bukavu today, Goma tomorrow, Rwandans out, screw the UN, and Kinshasa can kiss our arses.’ (p.167)


Appalling style

The poshest African

On paper having an African narrate the story might seem a bold experiment. Alas, in the event, the ‘African’ character comes out sounding even more phenomenally posh than the usually posh le Carré product. Not just posh, but out-of-date, stilted posh.

I was surprised to register the presence of a recording angel in the room, for such as I construed him, male. He was ensconced at a desk in the bay window, which I briefly confused with the bay window in our bedroom at Mr Hakim’s. Sunlight was streaming over him, making him divine. (p.375)

I well understand that it is a deliberate ploy to make Salvo’s English more orotund than usual, in order to give him a verbal style, and to convey his odd background – Africa and public school. But it is murder to read.

Our

As in all the late novels, the word ‘our’ used to create the rather smothering sense of a ‘gang’ – our boys, our lady of the night, our saviour, our flying ace. The ‘our’ in these sentences doesn’t refer to the character’s relationship to the other characters. It refers to the character’s relationship with the author and with the reader. Le Carré uses ‘our’ to hustle the reader into reluctant agreement, to shoulder him into being one of ‘the gang’ – like a bully in a pub – you’re one of our boys now, you’re one of our gang now.

Our ace crime reporter… our supergrass (65)… our neophyte secret agent… our great enterprise (93) our great venture (106)… Monsieur Jasper Albin our specialist lawyer from Beançon (144)… our Mission’s self-appointed and rascally protector (144)… our Enlightener (216)… our Redeemer (250).. the Great Coming… our distinguished notary (251)

At the same time it is also tremendously facetious; it tends to be used in an ironic and deliberately grandiose way. It sounds like a Victorian music hall maestro bombastically introducing our very own, the one and only, the stupendous, the once in a lifetime etc:

big Benny our gentle giant (259)… Haj our French-trained Bukavu wide boy and nightclub owner (278)… our skipper Maxie (365) … our gallant Canadian allies (382)…

He seems unable to mention any of the characters without facetiously over-describing them. For example, Salvo identifies one of the voices on the tapes he’s stolen as belonging to ‘none other than my long-time hero and scourge of Penelope’s great newspaper, Lord Brinkley of the sands’ (p.272). ‘None other than…’ It is ostensibly a serious novel treating a serious subject, and yet the narrator consistently treats all his characters like cartoons.

The narrator sounds like a circus ring-master introducing a series of world-beating acts, rather than human beings. Everything feels like it’s shouting at you – the way the characters are over-hyped, the way they swear at each other in all the dialogue, and the narrator’s plentiful use if italics to really emphasise when something important is happening – or just when he’s astonished that people seem to be behaving really badly.

Isn’t the advice they give in all the creative writing courses, Don’t tell – show? Le Carré always tells, repeating again and again how wonderful, eminent, clever, successful etc his characters are, whereas in fact – like Smiley when he actually says something in The Secret Pilgrim – they are all-too-often revealed to be tiresome, self-important bores.

He sets characters up as if they’re about to reveal some especially acute insight into the geopolitical situation, the reader is dying for intelligence and insight, but – all too often what we are actually given is a bunch of characters swearing like chavs at chucking-out time. A lucid introduction to the dire political situation of the Congo would have been useful. Instead we get this summary from Maxie the mercenary leader, telling Salvo how the Congolese have been:

‘Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, half the world’s carpet-baggers, their own government in Kinshasa and any minute now they’re going to be fucked by the oil companies … Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ’em.’

England versus America

I came to this novel from reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant Wolves Eat Dogs. The comparison really highlights how Cruz Smith is a poet, a nimble magician of prose, whereas le Carré’s style has gotten more clotted, more pompous and convoluted, as he’s gotten older.

It is frankly a conundrum to me, observing these events from where I sit today, that as I followed Bridget down the stairs and back onto the pavement of South Audley Street, attired as I was in the garb of a secondary-school master up from the country, and with nothing to attach me to the world except a bunch of bogus business cards and the assurance that I was about to endure unfamiliar perils, I should have counted myself the most blessed fellow in London that night, if not the whole of England, the most intrepid patriot and civil servant, but such was indeed the case. (p.61)

I know the style is meant to reflect the peculiar heritage of the frankly unbelievable character, Salvo. But it must have been painful to write and it is excruciating to read. The comparison of MCS with JLC makes you think the Yanks represent the future of English as a flexible expressive tool and the Brits represent a sclerotic past.

I will not deny that I was a touch nervous following Maxie down the cramped cellar steps, albeit the sight of Spider, Welsh eyes twinkling with honest mischief as he doffed his cap to us in humorous salutation, eased my apprehensions. (p.115)

I read novels less for the plot than for the style, and I thought the style of this book was almost unreadable. Maybe this would be redeemed if the story held up, but the plot is silly, based as it is entirely on the central character’s unbelievable stupidity and naivety, and there isn’t even the saving grace that book offers any insight at all into the very real, ongoing tragedy of the Congo and its long-suffering people.


Credit

The Mission Song by John le Carré was published in 2006 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

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

The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth (2015)

The chief reporter was the veteran Frank Keeler, a terrific journalist who became my mentor. He was a stickler for accuracy, dunning into all cubs he ever mentored his personal philosophy: check, check and check again. Then write. I still do. (p.107)

This is a very entertaining, amusing, informative and life-affirming book. What a great life Forsyth has had and with what brio he sets it down in his brisk, non-nonsense style.

The challenge of autobiography

We think and feel and speak and interact with other people all the time in a myriad of complex ways. Just writing down everything that happens in a day would be challenging, because so much of our interactions have a long history of interactions preceding them, and ramify out in all directions. So if describing everything that happens in a day would be challenging, how do you go about writing about your entire life? I was born here. My dad did this, he started out doing that but someone offered him a job, but he was never really happy, I remember him saying one day that… It could go on forever.

Forsyth solves the problem of what to write about yourself by converting his life story into a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales. He has been turning complex political and social issues into 500-word columns for the Daily Express for decades. Briskly told in short declarative sentences, he now applies the same style and technique to his own life, turning it into 60 short (3- or 4-page) chapters, each focusing on a telling moment, incident or event, generally concluding with a humorous or resonant punchline.

A month later I turned six and the dream [of one day flying a Spitfire] did not die.

That summer of 1948 was the first time I had seen a human corpse. It would not be the last. Not by fifty thousand. (p.36)

So much for official denials. (p.245)

I have never emigrated and never will. (p.314)

And that is why I hate mortars. (p.250)

Biographical sketch

Forsyth was born in 1938 and turned out to be an only child. His parents appear to have run a furrier shop in Ashford, Kent (only referred to once or twice with, alas, no detail of furs, skins, pelts etc).

His father had started out as a rubber planter in Malaya in the 1930s but – as is described in one of the early ‘articles’ – was advised to get out and return to England. He did so, a few years later the war started, the Japanese invaded, and none of his fellow planters ever returned from the Japanese prison camps.

Forsyth was evacuated from Kent during the Blitz, but returned later in the war and then had what sounds like an idyllic childhood – camping in the countryside, learning to skin and cook rabbits, cycling round country lanes, fishing in lakes etc. Towards the end there were Americans who let him climb up on their tanks and introduced him to chewing gum.

Around age 10 he was sent to France for four consecutive summers and learned perfect colloquial French. Then to Germany for several more summers and learned perfect German. There followed a spell staying with a Russian countess in Paris to pick up colloquial Russian. His language skills were to hold him in good stead throughout his career.

But the most personal moment comes when he was five and his dad took him to an RAF airfield where, while dad did business, the crew played with the little boy and put him in the cockpit of a Spitfire. From that moment he became determined to fly one.

Tonbridge school and travelling abroad

The furrier shop obviously makes OK money because his parents send him to the fee-paying Tonbridge school which, like so many beneficiaries of a private education of his generation, he hates. We hear nothing about his fellow pupils or teachers. Instead he takes his O- and A-levels precociously young but his main focus is getting onto an RAF training course. Here he secures 30 hours flying training and becomes a qualified pilot capable of solo flying by the age of 17.

He hitch-hikes across France with a friend, having the usual adventures. Back in Blighty he is sent to Cambridge for an interview, where he candidly tells the Master of Clare college that he doesn’t want to go there, he wants to be a fighter pilot.

Age 17 he gets a scholarship to Granada University for a three-month course in Spanish language, history and culture but he skips every lecture and instead enrols in the bullfighting college (where he discovers he is not a natural). He gives a typically interesting account of the training school, the cape and equipment, the moves and the fake bull machine you train with.

Oh and has an affair with a 35-year-old German countess, an ex-Nazi who likes to sing the Horst Wessel song at the critical moment. Too good to be true? At the end of the course, his parents fly in and take him for a week’s holiday in Tangiers, where he encounters Africa, Islam, Third World poverty and a group of Marines from a Royal Navy ship moored in the harbour. Not for the last time his fluent languages come in handy and he becomes the squaddies’ unofficial translator and drinking buddy. God, what a life!

Learning to fly then becoming a journalist

Back in Blighty strings are pulled (his father, the furrier, donates a leopard-skin to the local OTC for their band drummer) and he gets permission to go to RAF training camp before his 18th birthday. His RAF training reads just like the military CVs he gives to so many of the heroes of the books, being mainly a list of bases: RAF Hornchurch, RAF Cardington, RAF Ternhill, RAF Worksop, training first on a Tiger Moth then a Provost, then a de Havilland Vampire!

He gets his flying wings 44 days before his 19th birthday, the award ceremony being the proudest day of his life. But career prospects in the RAF are not good, the real high flyers go to a special fast track college and his training so far will only qualify him for cargo flights or just a lot of desk work, whereas he wants to fly fly fly.

And see the world. So he quits at the end of his short-term contract and makes a complete switch, applying to become a journalist, with a view to working his way up to be foreign correspondent.

He gets an apprenticeship at the Eastern Daily Press and is posted to the westernmost outpost at King’s Lynn, under the tutelage of the veteran Frank Keeler. Three years of reporting magistrates court, births, marriages, deaths and local fetes. Excellent training.

Reuters, in Paris and Berlin

In 1961 Forsyth spends a day walking along Fleet Street, walking unannounced into every newspaper office and trying to get an interview with the editor. Obviously he is turned down everywhere and is taking lunch at a pub when he gets chatting to a hack who had also served apprenticeship in East Anglia, and knows old Frank.

They finish their pints and the veteran takes him to Reuters, where the domestic editor, hearing he can speak four languages, sends him upstairs to the Foreign Desk. They test his French on a genuine Frenchman working in the office – his teenage years in the depths of France come up trumps – and he is offered a posting in Paris.

Here he is taken under the wing of another old pro, the renowned Harold King, just as the Algeria crisis is reaching a head. Thus Forsyth finds himself reporting the various attempts on the life of Charles de Gaulle, which – though he didn’t know it at the time – were to form the basis of his bestseller, The Day of The Jackal, ten years later.

After two years getting to know Paris, following the crisis and sharing drinks with de Gaulle’s bodyguards, Forsyth is offered sole charge of the East German office, with responsibility for other Redland countries eg Czecho, Hungary etc.

Cue anecdotes about life in East Berlin, sending scotch and cigarettes to the surveillance team watching him, disappearing into the countryside for days on end to interview real people, and cultivating a dim Bertie Wooster persona, complete with shocking German accent, to disarm suspicion whenever he’s stopped. There are short bite-sized accounts of the time:

  • He tracked down the US spy plane shot down near Magdeburg, by disappearing off the main roads and using his fluent German to wheedle the location out of local peasants.
  • He nearly set off World War Three by reporting on the huge convoy of tanks he saw rumbling through East Berlin towards the Wall, in the dead hours of one spring morning – only for Western diplomats panicking that the Sovs are about to invade to extract from their puzzled Russian counterparts that the convoys are practicing for the annual May Day parade.

Man of the world bonhomie is the tone throughout these stories, which have the feel of having been honed to perfection at a thousand dinner parties and diplomatic receptions.

Forsyth decides it’s time to leave, and fast, when he discovers the young woman he’s been sleeping with is the mistress of the East German Defence Minister who, if he found out, could have FF locked away forever. He packs his bags and asks London to be withdrawn immediately, which they do.

Bad time at the BBC

Back in Blighty Forsyth joins the BBC full of optimism and ambition to become a foreign correspondent. In the event he had a very bad experience, which obviously still rankles 50 years later. Here, as everywhere in the book, you feel you’re not getting the full picture, that there must be more to it, but Forsyth’s view is that he joined at a chaotic moment when the heads of the Beeb were under fire and resigning, and that – fatally – his head of department was cross that he wasn’t involved in FF’s recruitment and so bore him a grudge right from the start.

Biafra

Forsyth was packed off to Biafra to cover what he was assured, at a Foreign Office and then a BBC briefing, would be a two-week insurrection. Biafra was the eastern most part of Nigeria, which had gained independence in 1960. The majority population belonged to the Ibo people; there had been attacks on the successful, and therefore unpopular Ibos in the north and west of the country and this slowly escalated into a demand for full independence.

As soon as he arrived in the capital of the newly-declared Biafra, FF realised the conflict was much larger than he’d been told and reported back to this effect – but his reports were quashed. He slowly began to realise that the BBC was parroting the line put out by the Foreign Office, itself generated by the High Commissioner in Lagos, all of which supported the official Nigerian government view that Biafra had no right to secede from Nigeria and the ‘rebels’ would soon be quashed. It was the way the BBC didn’t question the official, deeply misleading, line – in fact collaborated with it – which disgusted Forsyth then and now.

In the event the war dragged on for three years (1967-70) and, in its final year, with Biafra totally sealed off from the outside world, approximately 1 million Nigerian children starved to death. It was the first time photos of black children with distended bellies, covered in flies, and dying like flies, had been widely distributed in the West, and caused outrage, as well as mobilising charities and public calls for action.

Forsyth remains disgusted to this day by the deceitfulness of the Labour government of the day, which a) held to the fatuous claim that it would all be over in a few weeks, and b) denied supplying the Nigerians with arms – while all along doing so. He was disgusted with the Foreign Office for supporting such an immoral policy, refusing to concede Bifran claims and help broker a ceasefire or peace conference. And he was disgusted with the BBC for parroting the official line, instead of ripping it to shreds as a proper news operation should.

The experience made him realise the BBC is not a news operation, but a bloated bureaucracy, not a caller-to-account of the powers-that-be, but merely an extension of the smug, sanctimonious Establishment. Fifty years later he is still angry.

That is why I believe this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honour of my country for ever and I will never forgive them. (p.239)

Forsyth quit the BBC and returned to Biafra to report the whole of the rest of the conflict as a freelancer, and these years have more space devoted to them than any other subject, about 90 pages in the middle of the book. When the war ended in January 1970 Forsyth was on one of the last planes out (itself a thrilling adventure, and a scene he reuses in the opening of The Dogs of War).

Accidental novelist

Forsyth’s career as a novelist is dealt with briskly. Back in London after his African adventure, he found himself broke with no hope of a job, having blotted his copybook with the all-powerful FO and BBC. He was able to doss on a friend’s sofa for a while and conceived the mad plan of writing a novel, having never written one before or never thought about it. In 35 days, through January and February 1970, Forsyth knocked out The Day of The Jackal on a second-hand typewriter.

He then hawked it round publishers with predictable rejections, until he met a man at a party and hassled him into reading the manuscript. When he returned to his office, the agent offered him a three-book deal on the spot! Soon afterwards a film company offered £20,000 cash for all rights in perpetuity to the Jackal which, like the innocent he was, he accepted (it’s made millions over the past 50 years).

Writing was only ever meant to be a stopgap measure and his attitude to writing fiction is as dismissive as can be.

It just occurred to me that if I could make a good living dashing off this nonsense, why get my head blown off in an African rain ditch? (p.271)

Forced to think of two other book subjects he revisited his knowledge of Germany and alighted on the issue of the networks of surviving Nazis. He undertook his trademark in-depth research with the help of famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal – and this led to The Odessa File.

Then he put his knowledge of Africa – and the white mercenaries he’d met in Nigeria – to use for The Dogs of War, his incredibly long, detailed account of how to mount an armed coup.

We knew about the thoroughness of the research he did for both books – it’s interesting to discover how autobiographical they are, in that he based whole scenes, journey and encounters on the ones he actually had. Thus the journey of discovery which the hero of The Odessa File goes on closely follows the actual driving round Germany and interviewing ex-Nazis, lawyers and journalists which Forsyth himself undertook. The long interview with a Jewish survivor early on in the book is a retelling of a long interview with a Jewish survivor which Forsyth carried out, with only the name and the city changed.

A little showbiz gossip

There are one or two stories about the director of Jackal, Fred Zinneman, and the actor Edward Fox, but by and large the book is striking for the complete absence of gossip or stories about other writers or people in the arts.

Once these three key books are published, the text reverts to anecdotes which leap over big periods of his life, leaving huge gaps. Thus a chapter on the time he went fishing in a boat off Mauritius and nearly got killed when a tropical cyclone changed course and bore down on the boat. (This experience was recycled into the powerful short story The Emperor.Or accounts of taking his two young sons game hunting in Africa, or scuba diving in the Indian Ocean.

It’s almost like being shown a book of holiday snaps, each one coming with a well-polished comic story.

Jobs for ‘the Firm’

In its final sections Forsyth breaks the omerta of the security services by describing several jobs he did for ‘the Firm’ aka MI6 aka the Secret Intelligence Service. One was a full-scale mission, carrying a package containing documents to a rendezvous with a top agent, a communist General inside East Germany, which reads exactly like the rendezvous you read about in Deighton, le Carré and so on and which Forsyth used as the basis for a similar incident in one of his novels.

On a different occasion his contact at ‘the Firm’ asked him to take advantage of his friendship with senior South African officials, specifically Defence Minister Pik Botha, to ask about the future of SA’s nuclear weapons after the upcoming multi-racial elections and the end of the apartheid system (1994). Botha disarms Forsyth by matter-of-factly telling him to tell ‘his masters’ back in London, that SA will safely dispose of them before the ANC government comes to power.

He loses his money and has to start again

In the early 1990s Forsyth’s financial adviser was revealed to be a crook who had stolen the investments of all his clients, not only leaving them penniless but, in Forsyth’s case, £1 million in debt. Result? He had to start all over again to restore his fortunes.

Forsyth doesn’t spell it out but presumably this explains the latter part of his bibliography, the series of thrillers from The Fist of God onwards which, as I’ve pointed out in my reviews of individual novels, become increasingly repetitive in terms of setting (Islamic terrorism), of factual references (the same anecdotes from the same recent conflicts) and of repeated (wafer-thin) characters.

But his first three novels (Jackal, Odessa, Dogs) are the only ones which merit even a page or two of explanation – the majority of his books aren’t even mentioned in this brisk, business-like overview. The short stories? Not mentioned. The experimental continuation of The Phantom of the OperaThe Phantom of Manhattan? Not a whisper. The genesis, writing and reception of each book? Silence.

This would be an odd oversight if this were the autobiography of a writer, but more than anything this series of well-honed, after-dinner anecdotes is keen to emphasise that Forsyth is a man who has lived, been a journalist, travelled widely, had many adventures and, only last and very much least, been lucky enough to fund it all by churning out his impressively-researched, shallow and undemanding poolside thrillers.

Barely any family

The same skimming over the surface applies to his almost complete absence of references to his family. Only a passing mention of the end of his first marriage, and similarly only a handful of allusions to the second Mrs Forsyth, Sandy. The two boys, Stuart and Shane, are referred to in the context of the fishing or hunting expeditions but barely anywhere else: there’s certainly no detail or feeling about family life, of the prolonged trials and tribulations of being a parent.

His autobiography is, in other words, as devoid of emotion and character as any of his books. Except that, like the books, the lack of character is the character, and instead of the usual sympathies for family or friends, what there very much is is the love of machines – of cars, fishing boats, of recent military history, armies, weapons and, above all, of planes.

A dream come true

Thus it is entirely fitting, and unexpectedly moving, that in the autumn of his years, the 76-year-old author was finally able to fulfil his childhood dream and not only go up in a Spitfire, but (being a specially adjusted two-seater model) was able to fly it solo for a spell. It is a wonderfully uplifting ending to this account of a charmed life and I found it impossible not to be moved by Forsyth’s simple, boyish joy.

It was over too soon but it was done. The seventy-year-old promise was fulfilled and the little boy’s dream had come true. (p.366)

Comment

If this book is anything to go by Forsyth has led a charmed and wonderful life in a world he regards with tolerant good humour, flecked with occasional outrage at injustice and suffering. The most attractive thing about the book is its buoyancy. Nothing seems to get him down. With the unflinching nervelessness displayed in all his novels, he just gets on with it, waltzing through extraordinary situations and the direst peril (as when he gets caught, a white man in his 70s, in a real-life coup in Guinea-Bissau) with extraordinary sang-froid.

He has been a happy man, a lucky man, a man with the knack of presenting himself in the right place at the right time, and if this autobiography lacks almost any psychological or emotional depth or complexity, it is still a marvellous record of an extraordinary life, and its robust optimism is a welcome counterbalance to the all-too-familiar negativity and pessimism of our age.


Credit

The Outsider: My life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2015. All quotes and references are from the 2016 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

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

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