The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Congo by Michael Crichton (1980)

This book recounts the thirteen days of the last American expedition to the Congo, in June 1979 (p.xii)

Crichton’s habit of stuffing his techno-thriller novels with factual digressions, losing no opportunity to give the reader the full fruits of his up-to-the-minute research about the geography and climate and culture and peoples of the book’s setting and then stuff it with a cornucopia of gee-whizz gadgets, especially anything relating to computers, often completely overwhelms the plot.

Sometimes his books feel like a series of educational magazine articles only just held together by contrived storylines, which, as soon as you stop and think about them, you realise are utterly preposterous. And then there are the so-called ‘characters’, who are given names, ages and CVs but remain little more than cardboard cutouts.

According to Wikipedia, Crichton pitched the idea of writing a modern-day version of King Solomon’s Mines to 20th Century Fox who bought the film rights before the story had even been written, paying him a $1.5 million advance for the novel, screenplay and as a directing fee.

It sounded like a good idea but the result of this big, expensive promise was a serious case of writer’s block, as Crichton struggled to make a start and then to create any kind of coherent narrative. And boy, does it show. He ended up throwing about five separate plot ideas into the mix in the hope that they’d somehow add up to a ripping yarn, and overloading the text with every factual digression he could think of in order to give the text a sense of substance.

Congo is a messy, scrappy, dumb mess of a book, but some of the factual background is interesting; you don’t get to read novels about Africa that often; it was interesting to see what was considered up-to-the-minute technology in 1980 and compare it to the present day; and there was a kind of dumb dogged interest in the narrative itself: I was curious to see what preposterous, contrived and absurd incident he’d chuck in next to try and keep the whole thing afloat. Probably the encounter with the angry hippopotamuses wins the prize for silliest episode.

No doubt hippopotami do have the character and temperament he describes in a typical Readers Digest digression about them, no doubt they do attack by raking their razor sharp teeth sideways over their intended victim, no doubt this would rip and deflate an inflatable raft. But it’s still silly.

1. Earth Resources Technology Services and the race for IIb diamonds

Earth Resources Technology Services Inc (ERTS) is a Houston-based American corporation devoted to locating and extracting rare and precious minerals and resources for industrial use. It is (inevitably) run by a maverick genius R.B. Travis (backstory p.17). The hottest computer analyst in the corps is 6 foot-tall, cold, calculating Karen Ellen Ross.

The entire plot rotates around the desperate search to locate a rumoured source of ‘Type IIb boron-coated blue diamonds’ (pp.109, 115) in the dense rainforests of the Virunga region, in the remote eastern part of the vast Congo jungle. Extended factual digressions explain that this particular type of diamond is very valuable as semiconductors, ‘important to microelectronics applications’, and since, as Crichton explains at length, the future is going to be all about faster and faster computing speeds, possession of a source of diamonds which speed up computer technology will be vastly valuable. Especially the future of weaponry.

Computer speed now stands at the centre of the armament race…The new generation of optical computers will be dependent on the availability of Type IIb boron-coated diamonds. (p.342)

This is why the ERTS expedition into the Congo is not alone, but is shadowed every step of the way by a ‘consortium’ of industrial rivals, made up of a temporary partnership of German and Japanese industrial interests. These guys are hacking into ERTS’s radio communications back to Houston as well as vying for important resources for such an expedition, not least the services of the renowned White African mercenary Charles Munro (backstory pp.101 to 103) who, after bargaining with all the interested parties at his plush pad in Tangiers, opts to go with the ERTS expedition.

So the fact that the ERTS team is trying to get to the rumoured location of the diamonds before their rivals is supposed to give the narrative grip and thrill. For me, it didn’t at all. If this had been a Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley novel, then this story in and of itself would have been enough, and people would have got killed, probably in gruesome circumstances and it would have felt desperate and tense. At no point did this book feel desperate and tense.

2. The ‘Consortium’

Anyway, it’s not as simple as that. Crichton adds in a few other plot strands which, in my opinion, had the effect of turning what could have been a decent thriller into a ridiculous cartoon. First, there is the important fact that the expedition led by Karen Ross and which recruits Charles Munro, is not the first one sent by ERTS. An earlier one had gone out and the novel actually starts with this first team, camped in the darkest rainforest as the old Africa hand they’ve hired to guide them, Jan Kruger, fires up a satellite video connection with ERTS Houston to report on progress.

But in the 5 or 6 minutes it takes both sides to establish contact (remember the book was written in 1979, 42 years ago, and all the technology is accordingly basic or old fashioned) the entire expedition is wiped out, every member massacred and the campsite wrecked. By the time the camera comes online there’s no-one there. Karen Ross is at the Houston end in charge and she gets the techs to rotate the camera on its tripod, thus surveying the wreckage, then a dark shadow moves across the screen and the camera is smashed, signal ends. What was it? What wiped out the expedition?

Very early on I figured it was either a lost tribe of humans or human-gorilla mutants, as anyone who’s watched a thousand rubbish American films or watched episodes of American adventure TV shows could entirely have predicted.

3. The lost city of Zinj

But meanwhile, I have to explain about the lost city of Zinj. Yes. That’s really what it’s called. Crichton gives us a number of digressions about the (patchy) history of Western exploration into the Congo jungle or up the Congo river (he is particularly fond of the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley for the simple reason that Stanley was the great pioneer and explored further and more definitively than all previous explorers).

Anyway, Crichton makes up a legendary lost city of Zinj (pp.58 to 60, 82), a clear hommage to the great late-Victorian adventure storytellers such as Rider Haggard (She) and Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and the novel reaches its climax when our heroes arrive after many adventures, at the lost city of Zinj and discover its connection both to a) a culture which use to mine the very type IIb diamonds they are looking for but which also holds the key to understanding

4. Amy the talking gorilla

Yes. A talking gorilla. Because after the first expedition is wiped out and while Karen Ross is persuading Travis that she is the person to lead the second expedition a) to find the diamonds b) to discover what happened to the first expedition, ERTS contacts one of the leading researchers in America into teaching apes American sign language. As you might expect this leads into several lengthy digressions about the entire history of trying to teach apes language, right up to the present (well, 1979 when the book was written) and researchers have managed to teach chimpanzees 200 or so ‘words’ in American Sign Language (vide Washoe, Koko) (pp.35 to 38 and 292).

The researcher is named Peter Elliott (backstory pp.35 to 41), 6 foot tall and bearded, and Peter has been leading Project Amy, i.e. seven years or so of teaching a tame gorilla named Amy to an advanced level of communication. The text settles into conveying their conversations as Peter signing or saying something and Amy’s replies are given in italics. In reality I understand communication between humans and gorillas is very limited, but in this tall story Peter and Amy can hold lengthy discussions.

Now why does ERTS and Karen Ross want a talking gorilla to go on an expedition to the lost city of Zinj in search of industrial diamonds (see how ludicrous the plot is when you spell it out in black and white?)? Because the brief shadow that flickered across the camera of the massacred first expedition looked like a gorilla. So why not take a talking gorilla along in the hope that it can act as ambassador to whoever or whatever massacred the first team.

But why would a comfortably placed American academic want to leave his cosy perch at the University of California at Berkeley to go on some cock and bull expedition into remote rainforest? Crichton must have spent a while mulling over what could possibly motivate Prof Peter Elliott to leave his crib and in the end comes up with a plausible reason.

He invents the notion that Elliott’s work just happens to have recently been picked upon by a high-minded organisation devoted to liberating primates from scientific experiments, the Primate Preservation Agency (p.43). They’ve written harsh articles, are picketing his university office and published Elliott’s address such that he is living in fear of a possible attack. Thus when he gets a call late one night from Karen Ross asking if he wants to pack up and go on a journey to gorilla country in eastern Congo, he leaps at the chance.

And Amy the gorilla is going along, too, of course. The practicalities of ‘explaining’ all this to Amy, and packing for her, and getting her onto a plane and so on, quickly become so ludicrous that…

There’s another element to Amy which is that, when Amy likes doing finger drawings of images she tells Peter she sees when she’s asleep. And these drawings are often of what might be taken for buildings with half-moon entrances. And guess what? Other illustrations of the conjectured lost city of Zinj show it as having half-moon-shaped entrances. Are the dreams actual memories of seeing such a place or ancestral (pp.41 to 42)? Or could this be an example of genetic memory (cue a Crichtonian digression about the history and provenance of genetic memory, ‘Genetic memory was first proposed by Marais in 1911…’ p.46).

5. Congo civil war

There have been a number of civil wars in the region known as the Congo including the massive Second Congo War (1998 to 2003). But back at the time Crichton was writing (1979) the war he refers to involved Ugandan troops fleeing across the border into Zaire when theior country was invaded by Tanzania (p.100). In Crichton’s hands this morphs into a campaign by some parts of the Zaire army to exterminate the Kigani tribe of cannibals. Our heroes go to lengths to avoid both these violent elements, the Zaire army and Kigani, at least until the very end of the book (see below).

Its relevance to the story is that at several key moments the Ross expedition finds itself enmeshed between warring parties, most importantly when they are flying in a small aircraft towards the site of the lost city of Zinj and come under attack from heat-seeking missiles. As you might imagine, the resourceful ERTS team have snappy modern technology to foil the missiles and survive. But it’s just one more element which triggers umpteen Crichtonian factual digressions, and which Crichton throws into the mix hoping something will stick.

Recap

An American company which specialises in sourcing rare and precious raw resources sends 24-year-old  computer whizzkid Karen Ross, along with ape linguist Peter Elliott, his talking gorilla Amy and African mercenary Charles Munro (plus half a dozen Kikuyu porters) into the remote eastern Congo to find the lost city of Zinj in order to find out what happened to the previous expedition and locate the source of the rumoured diamonds which are worth a fortune in industrial processes.

Fact obsessed

As well as the factual digressions on every page, Congo also features academic footnotes and no fewer than three pages of references at the end, including academic papers in learned journals to show just how much research Crichton has done. Some of the many magazine-style digressions concern:

  • Henry Morton Stanley (xii-xiii, 60, 83, 154, 169, )
  • animal rights (50-52)
  • the history of Congo (57-60)
  • the Pearl thesis of animal intelligence (pp.76-77)
  • competitive advantage in information technology (73)
  • the Great Rift Valley (pp.83-84)
  • albedo ie using different light reflection levels to distinguish ancient forest from secondary growth (85-87)
  • B-8 problems in computing (90)
  • holographic night goggles (99)
  • the future of superconducting computers (116-118)
  • computer message hacking (128)
  • electrophoresis and the difference between gorilla and human hair (129)
  • the character of Kikuyu tribesmen (they love to talk) (147, 155) and consider themselves all ‘brothers’ (190)
  • China’s spy operations, foreign aid to and influence in Zaire (147-149)
  • how to distract surface to air missiles with rolled up balls of in foil (156)
  • how automatic parachutes work (162)
  • the Kigani, a tribe of cannibals Crichton appears to have invented (170-172)
  • description of the Kigani’s belief in magic of Angawa
  • cannibalism in central Africa (172-173)
  • Zaire government genocide against the Kigani cannibals (175)
  • levels of electronic jamming and ‘interstitial coding’ (p.180)
  • the rate of global species extinction (189)
  • pygmies and their definitions of different types of ‘death’ (193-196)
  • the Congo river i.e. although it’s vast it’s not easily navigable (201)
  • the character of the hippopotamus (207-209) just before they attack our heroes
  • a history of the attempts to climb Mount Mukenko (which our heroes parachute onto and have to climb across) (218)
  • what to do when faced by a charging male silverback gorilla (don’t move and look at the ground) (230-231)
  • Degusto’s infra-red light technology for making out images hidden under dirt, sand, vegetable matter etc (250)
  • Maurice Cavalle’s 1955 paper ‘The Death of Nature’ (252)
  • the legend of the kakundakari, African equivalent of the yeti (262-263)
  • chimpanzee violent behaviour, especially kidnapping and eating human infants (266)
  • Freud’s theory that a dreamer, confronted with the reality their dream is based on, is often surprisingly apathetic (274)
  • British scientist R.V.S. Wright’s attempts to teach an orangutan to use tools (293)
  • DNA similarity between humans and chimps i.e. 99% identical (294)
  • S.L. Berensky’s 1975 paper about primate language suggesting the apes are smarter than humans (296)
  • the difference between different sign languages of different nations (297)
  • primates stop fighting if infants get in the way or are taken up by one or other of the combatants (312)
  • the origin and periodicity of solar flares, one of which interferes with our heroes communications back to Houston (314)
  • which part of the brain language comes from (Broca’s area) (335)
  • explanation of brontides, the loud explosions that accompany earthquakes (335)
  • most people caught in a volcanic eruption die from the poison gas (336)
  • General Franklin Martin’s Pentagon presentation which argued that Zaire had been vital to US military efforts since the war because of its mineral resources and also that super-fast computers would being to an end the age of nuclear weapons (340-343)
  • US military Project Vulcan to detonate timed resonance explosions in order to graduate the impact of eruptions of Mouna Loa in Hawaii (347-349)

But none of this blizzard of factual information can prevent Congo from being preposterous bollocks.

The expedition encounters a handful of problems such as flying through an anti-aircraft attack mounted by the Zaire army, parachuting into the jungle (everyone lands just fine), rafting down some river into the remote East (they are attacked by angry hippopotami), and trekking across the unstable crust of recently active volcanoes (the Virunga range of volcanoes, as described in an extended factual digression which names the main ones as being Mukenko, Mubuti, Kanagarawi, p.84), all in order to reach the lost bloody city of Zinj which, they eventually discover, is now an overgrown, empty ruin.

a) This is more extensive than they expected. They use high tech radar stuff to see through the layers of grime to the extensive reliefs which describe the ordinary life of the city centuries ago when it was inhabited. The carvings appear to show the inhabitants mined extensively and seem to have trained gorillas to act as security and police (!!) and this is the ridiculous reason for:

b) The final revelation that the previous expedition wasn’t wiped out by gorillas as science currently knows them, but by a new species of intelligent gorilla which the Zinjans bred and developed.

Luckily our heroes had put up an electrified fences round the perimeter of their camp and had brought along loads of fancy laser-guided machine guns which do a good job of killing some of the New Species of Gorilla when they launch their inevitable attack.

Other reasons this is a terrible book

1. Format

In The Andromeda Strain Crichton used the format of a report produced by an enquiry into what went wrong at a virus isolation unit. The pseudo-scientific/bureaucratic format worked well. Here he uses the tone of something more like a documentary. In particular he keeps writing that ‘many months later Peter Elliott realised his mistake’ or ‘speaking later, Karen Ross explained why she made this decision’.

Presumably the narrative is cast in this format to give it the feel of a later report or documentary. But it has the unintended side effect of confirming that the three main characters all survive. In other words, it destroys all suspense or sense of jeopardy. We know they all get out alive. OK, then, well, why bother reading to the end?

2. Out of date

Crichton busted a gut doing all that research and shoehorned it into his text throughout and yet… it’s all hilariously out of date. If you want to read about how fiddly it was to rig up a satellite camera link in 1979 or how big and fast people in 1979 thought computers would become in the 1980s then this is the book for you. There is, quite obviously, nothing about the internet, smart phones, social media or any of the other tech discoveries of the past 40 years. It’s sweet that Crichton thinks ERTS’ technology is ‘staggering’ because it can acquire 16 new satellite images of the earth per hour (p.20).

Acronyms and initialisms

I found it more enjoyable collecting a list of the acronyms than following the ridiculous plot which came more and more to resemble a movie-length episode of Scoobie Doo. My only excuse for reading such twaddle is I was on holiday and picked it up for £1 in a second hand shop.

ADP – Animal Defence Perimeter (p.238)

APE – Animal Pattern Explanation (p.307)

APNF – Animation Predicted Next Frame (p.27)

ASL – American Sign Language aka Ameslan (p.36)

BF – Bona fortuna = good luck (p.123)

C3I – Command, control, communications and intelligence units (p.74)

CFS – Congo Field Study (p.351)

CCR – Communications Control Room (p.12)

CCT – Computer Compatible Tape (p.21)

ECM – Electronic Countermeasures (p.179)

ERTS Earth Resources Technology Services

FZA – Forces Zairoises Armoises, Zaire army (p.157)

GPU – Geopolitical Update (p.98)

LAC – Local Atmospheric Conditions (p.351)

LATRAP – Laser-Tracking Projectile, which consists of multiple LGSDs attached to sequential RFSDs (p.280)

MERS – Mineral Exploration Rights, such as you negotiate with the host government (p.25)

NCNA – New China News Agency, cover for Chinese espionage (p.148)

PNF – Predicted Next Frame: technology for improving poor quality images (p.27)

PPA – Primate Protection Agency (p.43)

PSOPS – Prior Significant Orbital Passes by Satellite (p.97)

RC – Resonant Conventionals: timed explosives (p.345)

SESC – Space Environmental Services Centre in Boulder Colorado (p.315)

Triple E – Expedition Electronics Expert (p.74)

UECL – Unit Extraction Cost Limit (p.115)

WEIRD – Wilderness Environment Intruder Response Defences (p.242)

I work in the civil service and so I recognise the mindset which says that, if you spell something out in title case i.e. you capitalise the names of things it immediately makes them more important; and if you can make an acronym out of them, it makes them sound really grand and makes you sound very big and important when you casually allude to acronyms or initialisms which other people don’t understand.

Bearing this in mind helps to explain why America has some 35 distinct intelligence agencies, each with its own shiny logo and acronym and whip-smart, fast-talking executives, and they all failed to prevent 9/11. And why the US Army, possibly the world epicentre of grand-sounding acronyms, nonetheless made a complete bollocks of invading Iraq and liberating Afghanistan. (I mention this because America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan was all over the news as I read Congo so the comparison made itself.)

No amount of clever-sounding names and titles and acronyms and hi-tech gadgetry can redeem ignorance, stupidity and terrible decisions. Or, in this case, an embarrassing train wreck of a novel.

The end

Our heroes are attacked a couple of times in their camp. Elliott undertakes a ridiculous plan to record the grey gorillas’ strange whispering language, to use Houston’s computers to analyse and interpret it, and then to play it back to attacking gorillas in order to stall them. Despite all the improbabilities Elliott makes this work in a matter of hours and during the next gorilla attack it does, indeed, manage to slow and halt the attack of the puzzled silver gorillas, although a torrential tropical downpour interferes with the experiment.

What brings this farrago of nonsense to an end, in the best boys own adventure tradition, is a huge volcanic eruption which starts rocking the ground during what had promised to be the gorillas’ final assault, when they have killed a few more porters and have our heroes pinned to the ground about to crush their skulls.

The ground starts shaking, the gorillas flee, random lightning strikes electrocute a few more of the African porters, as our dazed heroes grab their most important possessions and flee the ruined camp, trekking through jungle while ash falls all around them, the earth trembles, the volcano spews ash and lava.

They arrive at the crashed container plane of the rival consortium which had been shot down a few days earlier by Zaire army forces (they’d heard the plane flying overhead and seen the surface to air missiles fired at it a few days earlier).

First our heroes have to fight off the Kigani cannibals who were in the middle of eating the dead consortium members and resent being turfed out of the plane’s treasure trove. But then Ross discovers huge tanks of propane in the plane which are designed to inflate a balloon which the consortium had brought along for precisely such an emergency!

And so the preposterous narrative ends with Ross, Elliott, Munro and the couple of porters who haven’t been killed by the silver gorillas or the bolts of lightning or the volcanic ash or the poison gas, inflating, climbing into and flying off over the jungle in a big balloon, a very Jules Vernes ending to a novel which sets out to be a homage to the great Victorian adventure writers but turns into a car crash of overcomplex but completely improbable narrative, drowning in endless Readers Digest factual digressions and hosted by characters which make a puddle look deep.

And the Lost City of Zinj? In the finest tradition of the old storytellers, is buried forever under half a mile of volcanic ash so nobody will ever be able to check the three explorers’ bold claims. It’s almost as juvenile as saying: ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream.’

The movie

The original deal had been for Crichton himself to direct the movie version and from 1981 to 1987 he maintained the hope of directing it with Sean Connery in the lead, but that version of the project never came to fruition.

Instead Congo was finally made into a movie in 1995, directed by Frank Marshall and starring Laura Linney as the permanently stressed-out woman scientist, Dylan Walsh as the sensitive primatologist, Ernie Hudson as the mercenary and hunter who leads the group and Tim Curry as the camp Romanian millionaire who finances the whole farrago.

I don’t mean to be rude but when two leads in what is meant to be a serious thriller played defining parts in Ghostbusters (Hudson) and The Rocky Horror Show (Curry) you know you’re talking about a turkey.

I’m not at all surprised to learn the movie version received a critical drubbing and was nominated for not one but several Golden Raspberry awards, given to real stinkers.


Michael Crichton reviews

Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome (1900)

I wish this book to be a strict record of fact, unmarred by exaggeration…

What is ‘the Bummel’?

Deliberately, but oddly, the book doesn’t explain what a Bummel is until the very last paragraph, where J, the narrator, writes:

‘A “Bummel”,’ I explained, ‘I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.’

Bummel is a German word, appropriately enough since the book describes a cycling tour around Germany. The American edition of the novel avoided this obscurity by being titled simply Three Men on Wheels.

Is Three Men on The Bummel a sequel to Three Men in a Boat?

Sort of. It was published in 1900, eleven years after his most famous work, Three Men in a Boat and features the exact same three characters – ‘J’ the narrator, George and Harris – 11 years further on, when two of them (J and Harris) have gotten married and had children.

What is it about?

It opens in the same way as Boat, with the same three chaps chatting and realising they need a break from their everyday lives. They consider hiring a boat for a sea cruise but remember various disasters when they’ve tried that before, at which point Harris suggests a cycling tour of Germany.

So if the twin narrative frames of Boat were the nature of boats and boating and descriptions of the River Thames and its surrounding towns and cities, the parallel frames in Bummel are comic meditations on the nature of cycling and descriptions of the Germany towns, cities and countryside which they pass through.

What was the bicycling craze?

The 1890s saw an outburst in the popularity of cycling. It was partly due to technical developments in 1880s which made bikes much easier to ride than the former, penny farthing, model, namely the invention of the ‘safety bicycle’ with its chain-drive transmission whose gear ratios allowed for smaller wheels without a loss of speed and then the invention of the pneumatic (inflatable air-filled) bicycle tire which made the whole experience significantly smoother, partly the ongoing development of mass manufacturing process which made bikes much more affordable.

So the two books have this in common: Boat was written to capitalise on the new fashion for pleasure boating on the Thames in the 1880s, and Bummel to capitalise on the 1890s fad for cycling.

(It’s worth noting that the up-and-coming young novelist H.G. Wells was one among many other authors who sought to take advantage of the new craze, publishing his light-hearted bicycling novel, The Wheels of Chance in 1896, between his two heavyweight science fiction classics, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897).)

To quote a useful (American) blog on the subject:

The bicycling craze swept the nation in the 1890s, with insatiable demand keeping nearly 2,000 manufacturers in business. Numerous manuals were published to instruct riders on road etiquette, proper breathing and riding technique, and accident prevention. Sometimes referred to as steel horses, bikes were a cheaper, faster, and more adaptable means of transportation that fostered both self-reliance and sociability. Earlier uncomfortable and unsafe models transformed into safety bicycles featuring cushion and pneumatic tires, coaster brakes, and most importantly a drop frame that was easier for women to mount and navigate.

Which makes it all the stranger that there is actually almost no description at all of the actual bikes. We are told there’s one single bike and tandem, and that’s that. We’re not even told how they carry luggage and such; presumably it is sent ahead by train or somehow, but none of this is explained.

‘What bicycle did you say this was of yours?’ asked George.
Harris told him. I forget of what particular manufacture it happened to be; it is immaterial.
(Chapter ten)

But of course, it would have been of considerable interest, to keen cyclists in his own day and ever since.

Why is Three Men on the Bummel a disappointment?

I remember reading the Bummel immediately after the Boat 30 years ago and being disappointed. Three reasons:

1. Bachelors carefree When they were young bachelors they could do anything. They expected and forgave each other for their irresponsible antics, and so did the reader. The situation is transformed now they are family men and fathers. What is attractive in a 25 year old just starting a career feels immature in a 35 year old father.

2. Family men tied down Families add complexity. I admit to being confused by the entire first chapter of this book, confused about where it is set and who is speaking and who is related to whom. The second sentence is:

At this moment the door opened, and Mrs. Harris put her head in to say that Ethelbertha had sent her to remind me that we must not be late getting home because of Clarence.

Only in the next chapter did I firmly grasp that Ethelberta is J’s wife, Mrs Harris is Harris’s wife (could have been his mother) and – I’m still not sure, but think that Clarence must be J’s son. Anyway it took a bit of effort to figure out who was who and what was going on and effort is not what you want from a comic novel.

All this is in complete contrast to the opening of Boat where the setting is immediately clear and comprehensible: the three chaps are in someone’s apartment thinking about holidays and this segues into the brilliant extended passage about J’s hypochondria. The opening of Boat gripped me; the opening of Bummel confused and irritated me.

3. Cycling tour more random that a journey upriver But by far the most obvious reason why Bummel is less engaging than its predecessor is the setting. Boat follows a lazy boat trip along the River Thames, which, in itself, is packed with meaning and resonances and associations, historical, nautical and – to those of us who grew up or lived by the Thames – personal. Whatever flights of fancy ‘J’ indulges in, the narrative always returns to the simple, central plot of them slowly rowing or towing their way up the Thames. The very simplicity of the central theme is what allows for such wild and fanciful digressions.

Whereas a cycling holiday around Germany has at least 2 problems: 1. It is by its nature random; they could be going anywhere for any reason, there’s nothing compelling, there is no deeper logic to the narrative. 2. They could be anywhere. Next to none of its English readers, then or now, have any idea where the Black Forest or Hanover or Mecklenburg are. Whereas Boat had the deep, almost archetypical logic of the river, Bummel appears random and capricious. It may have many scenes of comedy as intense and fantastical as the previous book, but it lacks the slow steady underlying structure.

4. Less funny Sorry, but the simple fact of the matter is that a lot of Jerome’s comic digressions and sketches in this book are just less funny than in Boat.

5. Sometimes serious See the section below, about Mensurs.

Is it any good as a guide book?

No. I won’t give an exhaustive plot summary because there isn’t a lot of plot. There’s a rough itinerary of their progress around Germany but, even more so that Boat, it’s really just a pretext for a steady supply of digressions and comic tales, some short, some extending for 5, 6 or more pages.

Suddenly, with no mention of the sea crossing, they are in Hamburg, which is not described at all; a sentence later they are in Hanover.

There is an extended passage at the start of chapter 5 where the narrator describes his experiences working on a cheap periodical designed to convey ‘useful information’ on a huge range of topics to its naive readers, the titbits, snippets and advice in question generally having been cut and pasted out of cheap encyclopedias. (Presumably this genuinely funny passage was based on Jerome’s extensive experience as the editor of The Idler magazine, 1892 to 1897, and then of To-Day, 1893 to 1898.)

J tells a story about how a little boy misused a piece he wrote for the magazine about manufacturing hydrogen to cause a small explosion to comically justify why he made the editorial decision that BUmmel should contain no useful information whatsoever.

There will be no useful information in this book…nothing in the nature of practical instruction will be found, if I can help it, within these pages…There will be no description of towns, no historical reminiscences, no architecture, no morals…Lastly, in this book there will be no scenery.
(chapter 5)

This is quite funny as a comic conceit, but it strips away what might have been a useful structure to the text, not so much guide-book useful, but useful in creating some kind of narrative structure. Without even the pretence of trying to be useful, it really does become a long series of anecdotes, reminiscences, comic scenes and observations, many of which are funny, but it lacks the underlying imaginative punch or force or coherence which you want from a book.

Does it at least give their itinerary round Germany?

Up to a point. Although once they actually manage to get clear of England (which they only manage to do by chapter 6 of this 14-chapter book, so that almost half the book is digressive preamble), the first part of the ensuing travelogue is often little more than a name, a brief description, and then some extended comic digressions. Thus the text mentions Hamburg, Hanover, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Nuremberg, Carlsbad, Stuttgart, Carlsruhe, Baden, which they seem to have travelled between exclusively by train. There is some guide book-style content. Here’s a taste:

Stuttgart is a charming town, clean and bright, a smaller Dresden. It has the additional attraction of containing little that one need to go out of one’s way to see: a medium-sized picture gallery, a small museum of antiquities, and half a palace, and you are through with the entire thing and can enjoy yourself.

Brief and pithy, and then it’s off on another comic anecdote. His deflating comments on Berlin are interesting:

Berlin is a disappointing town; its centre over-crowded, its outlying parts lifeless; its one famous street, Unter den Linden, an attempt to combine Oxford Street with the Champs Elysée, singularly unimposing, being much too wide for its size; its theatres dainty and charming, where acting is considered of more importance than scenery or dress, where long runs are unknown, successful pieces being played again and again, but never consecutively, so that for a week running you may go to the same Berlin theatre, and see a fresh play every night; its opera house unworthy of it; its two music halls, with an unnecessary suggestion of vulgarity and commonness about them, ill-arranged and much too large for comfort.

So when does the actual cycling come in?

It is only in chapter ten (of this 14-chapter book) when they arrive in Baden that, as the narrator puts it, ‘we started bicycling in earnest’, from which the reader deduces that all the previous destinations have been little more than tourist visits, with the bikes mostly consigned to the baggage car of trains.

It is here in Baden, that they finally start the actual cycling holiday.

We planned a ten days’ tour, which, while completing the Black Forest, should include a spin down the Donau-Thal, which for the twenty miles from Tuttlingen to Sigmaringen is, perhaps, the finest valley in Germany…

But:

We did not succeed in carrying out our programme in its entirety.

As far as I can tell the cycling part of the tour takes them from Baden and features Todtmoos, Waldshut, ‘through Alt Breisach and Colmar to Münster; whence we started a short exploration of the Vosges range’, Barr and St Ottilienberg.

Comic moments, sometimes

Patriotism

Harris is inclined to be chronically severe on all British institutions… George, the opposite to Harris, is British to the core. I remember George quite patriotically indignant with Harris once for suggesting the introduction of the guillotine into England.
‘It is so much neater,’ said Harris.
‘I don’t care if it is,’ said George; ‘I’m an Englishman; hanging is good enough for me.’

The disastrous sea cruise

The long, long story about the time J and his wife hired a boat for a sea cruise and the extreme laziness of the captain, which dominates chapter 2, I found almost completely unfunny. Similarly, there was a long passage about the narrator’s fictional Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes in his house every time he leaves for work, which wasn’t a patch on the brilliantly funny description of the same Uncle Podger trying to hang a picture on the wall in Boat.

The hose fight

There is a funny description of Harris getting involved in a fight with a man who was hosing down the road outside Hanover and splashed a pretty woman cyclist, which leads to general mayhem.

German kisses

George visits a shop to buy a cushion (Kissen) but by mistake asks for a kiss (Kuss) leading the shop girls to collapse in fits of giggles, though not the reader.

Prague, windows and guides

Having read a very long book about the Thirty Years War recently, which starts with the Defenestration of Prague in 1618, when the disgruntled Protestant estates threw two royal governors out of a window of the Hradčany Castle, I appreciated his joke that the history of Prague would have been much more peaceful if only they’d their houses and castles ‘possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.’

In Prague they hire a guide for the day who takes them all round town and doesn’t stop talking in a rough mix of German and Slavonic. It is only late in the day they realise that almost he’s been saying hasn’t been elaborate descriptions of historic architecture but has a prolonged sales pitch for a patent hair restorer lotion the man has invented.

It is interesting that Jerome comments on the fierce enmity between German-speaking and Czech-speaking populations of Prague. Guides tell them not to speak German in certain parts of the city or they’ll get beaten up. This reinforces the prolonged explanation of the ethnic animosity given in Ernst Pawel’s excellent biography of Franz Kafka who was 7 years old when this book was published.

German law and order

Jerome has an extended comic disquisition on the German mania for order.

Your German likes his view from the summit of the hill, but he likes to find there a stone tablet telling him what to look at, find a table and bench at which he can sit to partake of the frugal beer and ‘belegte Semmel’ he has been careful to bring with him. If, in addition, he can find a police notice posted on a tree, forbidding him to do something or other, that gives him an extra sense of comfort and security.

And:

In Germany there is no nonsense talked about untrammelled nature. In Germany nature has got to behave herself, and not set a bad example to the children. A German poet, noticing waters coming down as Southey describes, somewhat inexactly, the waters coming down at Lodore, would be too shocked to stop and write alliterative verse about them. He would hurry away, and at once report them to the police. Then their foaming and their shrieking would be of short duration.

German regulations

And, naturally enough, for a (sort of) travel book set in Germany, the book has many passages describing the national character and especially the complicated nature of their laws. For example, none of our heroes appreciate the fact that you need not one but three tickets to travel on a train: one for general train travel, one for travel on a particular train, and one to specify whether you are seated or standing. George ignores this and related rules and is fined a hefty sum.

Our heroes are arrested

On the same theme of Order and Rules, the narrator is arrested because he takes a bicycle off a train which is just about to depart the station which he mistakenly believes is George’s. Only when he catches up with George does he realise George has his bicycle and the one the narrator has taken is some innocent German’s. He turns to see the train steaming out the station. He tries to stash it inconspicuously but is spotted by a typically officious German official. He only escapes actual prison because he happens to know a well-placed official in the town (Carlsbad) who testifies to his good character.

All of which leads to reflections on the ‘frequency with which one gets into trouble here in Germany’ and he gives a comic list of German bylaws. In Germany:

  • you must not wear fancy dress in the streets
  • you must not feed horses, mules, or donkeys, whether your own or those belonging to other people
  • you must not shoot a crossbow in the street
  • you must not ramble about after dark ‘in droves’
  • you must not throw anything out of a window
  • you must not joke with a policeman: it is treating them with disrespect
  • you must absolutely positively not walk on the grass
  • you must sit on the correct benches provided, marked for adults or for children
  • you must not leave your front door unlocked after ten o’clock at night, and you must not play the piano in your own house after eleven

Not very enticing, is it? ‘Go for a relaxing holiday in Germany and get arrested for laws you didn’t even know existed!’ is not a very convincing tourist slogan.

In Germany there is no law against a man standing on his head in the middle of the road; the idea has not occurred to them. One of these days a German statesman, visiting a circus and seeing acrobats, will reflect upon this omission. Then he will straightway set to work and frame a clause forbidding people from standing on their heads in the middle of the road, and fixing a fine. This is the charm of German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price.

German prams

Or take the humble pram. Apparently the Germans had a world of laws regarding what you may or may not do with a perambulator, which he cheerfully describes in all their absurdity, concluding, with typically Jeromian mischief:

I should say that in Germany you could go out with a perambulator and get into enough trouble in half an hour to last you for a month. Any young Englishman anxious for a row with the police could not do better than come over to Germany and bring his perambulator with him.

The deceptions of advertising

Plenty of contemporaries noticed and complained about the explosion in advertising during the 1890s and 1900s, in magazines, newspapers and increasingly intrusive hoardings. Jerome takes the mickey out of posters which very deceptively make cycling look wonderfully easy and relaxing and contrasts it with the often very hard work of puffing up a steep hill in Germany.

Generally speaking, the rider is a lady, and then one feels that, for perfect bodily rest combined with entire freedom from mental anxiety, slumber upon a water-bed cannot compare with bicycle-riding upon a hilly road. No fairy travelling on a summer cloud could take things more easily than does the bicycle girl, according to the poster.

Cycling and women’s liberation

Interestingly, Jerome confirms the comments of social historians I’ve been reading that bicycling amounted to a real social revolution and, in particular, liberated women, giving them an entirely new mobility, and, as a result, transforming the freedom of young couples to ‘date’ far from the eyes of their parents.

Occasionally the poster pictures a pair of cyclists; and then one grasps the fact how much superior for purposes of flirtation is the modern bicycle to the old-fashioned parlour or the played-out garden gate. He and she mount their bicycles, being careful, of course, that such are of the right make. After that they have nothing to think about but the old sweet tale. Down shady lanes, through busy towns on market days, merrily roll the wheels of the ‘Bermondsey Company’s Bottom Bracket Britain’s Best,’ or of the ‘Camberwell Company’s Jointless Eureka.’.. And the sun is always shining and the roads are always dry. No stern parent rides behind, no interfering aunt beside, no demon small boy brother is peeping round the corner…

And in the final chapter, where he delivers an extended review of the German character circa 1900, Jerome makes a special place for the German version of the New Woman sweeping Europe:

The German woman…is changing rapidly—advancing, as we call it. Ten years ago no German woman caring for her reputation, hoping for a husband, would have dared to ride a bicycle: to-day they spin about the country in their thousands. The old folks shake their heads at them; but the young men, I notice, overtake them and ride beside them. Not long ago it was considered unwomanly in Germany for a lady to be able to do the outside edge. Her proper skating attitude was thought to be that of clinging limpness to some male relative. Now she practises eights in a corner by herself, until some young man comes along to help her. She plays tennis, and, from a point of safety, I have even noticed her driving a dog-cart.

The insular English

In several places he satirises the English for their complete and utter failure to learn any foreign language, to get quickly exasperated with any foreigner who is dim enough not to speak fluent English, and the tendency of the English not to simplify their language when dealing with a foreigner, but to repeat the same thing, in difficult idiomatic English, but louder, a phenomenon I have observed countless times.

‘It is very disgraceful,’ I agreed. ‘Some of these German workmen know hardly any other language than their own.’

Taken alongside his comparison of the English and German education systems (the German infinitely superior) shows how some cultural stereotypes (the English are badly educated and useless at languages, the Germans are excellently educated and speak English among other languages, fluently) just never change.

German student duelling clubs

There’s some lovely frivolity in the cycling chapters, but the entire book ends with some unexpectedly serious thoughts. Jerome describes at length German student duelling societies which he candidly considers disgusting and squalid. They were expensive to join and the sole purpose was to spend time in a greasy dirty room with one opponent and two seconds, both your bodies well protected but your faces exposed to the slashes of heavy broadswords. The aim was to acquire as many impressive cuts as possible, which were then tended by not very competent student doctors and result in extravagant scars, in faces ‘cut and gashed, which prove your manliness and social status and are much desired by eligible young ladies. It was ‘a cruel and brutal game’.

Jerome describes the entire culture as being as inexplicable to outsiders but making perfect sense to insiders, as being as compelling to insiders, as bullfighting in Spain or fox hunting in England. But Jerome doesn’t find it at all funny. He thinks it brutalises both participants and arouses in onlookers ‘nothing but evil’.

Jerome on German character

Jerome had a good understanding of Germany. Soon after the the cycling trip the book was based on, he took his wife and children to live in Dresden for two years. When the First World War broke out 12 years later, Jerome made himself unpopular by speaking out against the torrent of anti-German propaganda the conflict unleashed in the press. When the many jokes wear off, you are left pondering his descriptions of the Germans as a nation obsessed with orders and regulations, over-willing to take instructions from every policeman or military officer.

Individualism makes no appeal to the German voter. He is willing, nay, anxious, to be controlled and regulated in all things… The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer. The policeman directs him where in the street to walk, and how fast to walk. At the end of each bridge stands a policeman to tell the German how to cross it. Were there no policeman there, he would probably sit down and wait till the river had passed by. At the railway station the policeman locks him up in the waiting-room, where he can do no harm to himself. When the proper time arrives, he fetches him out and hands him over to the guard of the train, who is only a policeman in another uniform. The guard tells him where to sit in the train, and when to get out, and sees that he does get out. In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well. You are not supposed to look after yourself; you are not blamed for being incapable of looking after yourself; it is the duty of the German policeman to look after you.

And with an officer class trained at university in the enjoyment and infliction of disfigurement and pain.

We prate about our civilisation and humanity, but those of us who do not carry hypocrisy to the length of self-deception know that underneath our starched shirts there lurks the savage, with all his savage instincts untouched…

And:

The German idea of it would appear to be: “blind obedience to everything in buttons.” It is the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon scheme; but as both the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton are prospering, there must be good in both methods. Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine. But maybe his method has the advantage of producing a continuous supply of good governors; it would certainly seem so…

Or not.

Summary

After a clumsy start, and some long, not very funny stories set in England and/or involving wives, the book gets more interesting when it actually gets to Germany in chapter 6, and, in my opinion, really blooms when they finally get to the actual cycling holiday bit in chapter 10.

A final thought is the odd tonal imbalance in Jerome, or the overlapping of historical periods. What I mean is that his naughty schoolboy relishing of hi-jinks and breaking the law and getting into comedy fights is completely at odds with the stuffy, mutton chops side-whiskers mental image we have of Victorian men, it seems hugely more modern. One minute he’s describing the fight over the water hose, which sounds like utterly contemporary, the next he is talking about chaperones and how young ladies are supervised by their families in drawing rooms and dances which takes us right back to Victorian values.

And then there’s the fantastical Monty Python aspect. He begins a digression about how you find more breeds of dog in Germany than in England but almost immediately steps over a boundary into the fantastical and absurd.

George stopped a dog in Sigmaringen and drew our attention to it. It suggested a cross between a codfish and a poodle. I would not like to be positive it was not a cross between a codfish and a poodle.

Jerome’s signature note is not the ‘gentle Edwardian humour’ I associated him with before I reread these books, it is the continual schoolboy urge to push every comic conceit far beyond the bounds of reason, into the utterly surreal.

I do not know what the German breeder’s idea is; at present he retains his secret. George suggests he is aiming at a griffin. There is much to bear out this theory… Yet I cannot bring myself to believe that such are anything more than mere accidents. The German is practical…about a house, a griffin would be so inconvenient: people would be continually treading on its tail. My own idea is that what the Germans are trying for is a mermaid, which they will then train to catch fish.

Or:

Orchards exist in the Vosges mountains in plenty; but to trespass into one for the purpose of stealing fruit would be as foolish as for a fish to try and get into a swimming bath without paying.

This is the wonderfully fantastical Jeromian note and, at the end of the day Bummel is not as good as Boat because in the later book we hear less of it, it is often more strained and contrived, and, in the final chapter completely eclipsed by the extended meditation on the German character which can’t help but evoke dark thoughts of the terrible events which were to come.


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Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’ He said we should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds (including what there was of Harris’s); and the hard work would give us a good appetite, and make us sleep well.

Three Men in A Boat is routinely included in any list of the funniest books ever written in any language. It describes the lazy dawdling progress of three late-Victorian ‘chaps’ on a 2-week boating holiday up the River Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back again. Despite being slapdash in ‘plot’ and very uneven in tone, it was wildly popular upon publication, has sold solidly ever since and been translated into loads of languages. Why?

Guidebook to a new type of activity

One answer is that the book caught the spirit of a moment when commercial activity on the Thames had all but died out, almost the entire barge traffic which dominated it having been decimated by the railway revolution of the 1840s and 1850s. As a result a new fashion had been developing since the 1870s for boating as a leisure activity. In fact at various points the narrator complains about the Thames becoming too busy with pleasure craft, with thousands of skiffs and rowboats and his particular bete noire, the steam pleasure cruiser.

The book was originally conceived as a mixture of history book and tourist guide to cash in on the newish pastime, and quite literally showed ‘how to do it’, with advice on how to hire a boat, what kind to get (our heroes hire ‘a Thames camping skiff’, ‘a double-sculling skiff’), an itinerary with top sights to spot, what to expect, how far to expect to travel each day, with historical notes about Romans and Saxons and kings and queens and the castles and monasteries of each Thames-side settlement.

‘We won’t take a tent,’ suggested George; ‘we will have a boat with a cover. It is ever so much simpler, and more comfortable.’

Admittedly the book as we have it now almost completely submerges this factual information in prolonged comic digressions and humorous sketches, but as a practical guide, it still has a vestigial interest: most of the route, the locks and so on are unchanged and most of the pubs and inns named are still open. Here’s an example of Jerome’s factual but dreamy guidebook style:

From Wallingford up to Dorchester the neighbourhood of the river grows more hilly, varied, and picturesque. Dorchester stands half a mile from the river. It can be reached by paddling up the Thame, if you have a small boat; but the best way is to leave the river at Day’s Lock, and take a walk across the fields. Dorchester is a delightfully peaceful old place, nestling in stillness and silence and drowsiness. Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times; it was then called Caer Doren, ‘the city on the water.’ In more recent times the Romans formed a great camp here, the fortifications surrounding which now seem like low, even hills. In Saxon days it was the capital of Wessex. It is very old, and it was very strong and great once. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.

How to holiday

The second element is it shows you what tone to approach such a holiday in, namely one of humorous self-deprecation. It is not only a guide to the route and its sights, but the mood and manner of insouciant larking around to take on such a holiday.

The book is less of a guidebook than a toolkit of whimsy, humour, comedy, irony, pranks, mishaps and ironic reversals. Reading any passage at random makes you feel lighter and gayer. In fact it is a model, in its simplicity and sustained good humour and sheer fun, of what a modest staycation should be like and, as most of us know to our cost, rarely is.

Humour

This brings us to the third and most obvious element which is the humour, the comedy, and the most striking thing about the book which is how incredibly well the humour has lasted. Much of Three Men in a Boat is still very funny indeed. Jerome manages to turn almost every incident and passing thought into comedy with the power of his whimsy and frivolous invention.

I was hooked from the moment in paragraph three when the narrator describes what a hypochondriac he is, how the minute he reads any advert for a new medicine he becomes convinced he has all the symptoms of the relevant illness, and proceeds to develop this into a comic riff about how he once went to the British Museum to read up on a slight ailment he thought he had, and then found his eye diverted by another entry in the medical encyclopedia and, in the end, ended up reading the entire thing from cover to cover, convinced he had every symptom of every ailment listed in the book, from Ague to Zymosis.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

He doesn’t stop there. His new-found health anxiety led him to pay a worried visit to a doctor friend who  sounded him out, discovered where he’d been and what he’d been reading and calmly gave him a prescription for… exercise, fresh air and to stop poking about in subjects he didn’t understand!

The narrative opens on this mood of restless and entirely fictional hypochondria, as the narrator (‘J’) and his two pals meet up for a drink and a pipe, and all agree they need some kind of break, some kind of rest cure… This leads into a comic consideration of all the alternative types of holiday available with the invariable disasters they entail, with a particular lingering taking a sea cruise and a vivid comic description of the prolonged sea sickness it so often leads to… until:

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’

They discuss the novel charms of a slow cruise up the River Thames… And off we go. (Actually, as the book progresses, we discover that they have been on quite a few boat trips up the Thames before, but somehow that doesn’t dampen the initial boyish enthusiasm.)

Play acting

And this is another aspect of it: the three chaps in the boat are in a sense playing at being late-Victorian larks. There is a strong element of play-acting, of theatricality, in many of the best scenes and this encourages the reader to take part in the acting.

When I was a student there were chaps who liked to wear boaters and blazers and hire punts on the river. They were acting the part of chaps punting along the willow-strewn river while their lady loves lay back among the pillows, trailing one hand in the river and holding a glass of chilled champagne in the other. It encourages a spirit of acting.

The models of the narrator’s two chums, Harris and George were, in real life, the founder of a London printing business (Harris) and a banker who would go on to become a senior manager in Barclays (George). But not on this trip. On this jolly jaunt they are acting the parts of incompetents and fools larking around.

Male friendship

Which brings us to the chappiness of the chaps, the fact that the book is not only a record of an idyllic trip through an idealised bit of English landscape, but is also an idealised account of male friendship. If only our real friends were as whimsical, funny, amusing and doggedly loyal as the chaps in the boat.

Having gone on various all-male holidays myself, I know that a key element of them is the sense of exaggerating each other’s shortcomings and characteristics. Things always go wrong and the sign of a good holiday, and of a good relationship, is to retain good spirits and a sense of humour whatever happens.

Without wanting to sound too pompous about it, a key element in this kind of practical, camping, outdoors-style venture is the element of forgiveness. If one of you sets the tent up all wrong so that it falls down in the middle of the night in the middle of a rainstorm, it takes a lot of character, and of love, not to get angry but to keep your sense of humour.

One way to manage this is to turn each other into cartoons. I had a couple of friends who went on an epic journey across South America. They had difficult times made worse by drunkenness and general incompetence. They discovered early on that the way to avoid anger and arguments was to treat each other as cartoon caricatures of themselves, so they weren’t criticising each other (which is hurtful) but were attacking each other’s cartoon avatars (which was funny and defused tensions).

In fact they developed a particularly powerful variation on this theme which was to mimic a couple of  fictional sports commentators, Brian and Peter, alternating commentary on their real-life activities in wheedling, whining, microphone voices of two fictional

‘In a long career of cocking up travel arrangements, surely this is Dave’s biggest screw-up of all, turning up at the airport a day after their flight had left. Brian.’

‘Thank you, Peter, yes in a lifetime of commentating on drunken Brits fouling up abroad, I think this definitely takes gold medal. It looks like young Dave now has no serious competition for the Most Incompetent Tourist of the Year award which he has, to be fair, put so much effort into winning’.

By turning each other into comic caricatures, male friends can be quite brutally critical about each other, but in a way which defuses tension and increases male bonding.

George and Harris

So the three chaps are not only characters but caricatures, types. Very early in the book we learn that Harris is caricatured as the Lazy One.

Harris said he didn’t think George ought to do anything that would have a tendency to make him sleepier than he always was, as it might be dangerous. He said he didn’t very well understand how George was going to sleep any more than he did now, seeing that there were only twenty-four hours in each day, summer and winter alike; but thought that if he did sleep any more, he might just as well be dead, and so save his board and lodging.

And the drinker.

I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: ‘Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;’ ‘Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of ’88;’ ‘Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886.’

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. ‘Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!’ The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.

And the glutton:

Harris said there was nothing like a swim before breakfast to give you an appetite.  He said it always gave him an appetite.  George said that if it was going to make Harris eat more than Harris ordinarily ate, then he should protest against Harris having a bath at all.

While George is caricatured as Dim, so that everyone can enjoy feigning surprise every time he makes a sensible suggestion (which he does, in fact, all the time; the whole idea of a trip up the river is his, after all). George always knows ‘a little place just round the corner’ which will serve a jolly fine whisky or brandy or whatever the occasion demands. ‘George said he felt thirsty (I never knew George when he didn’t)’.

And ‘J’, the narrator, thinks of himself as the imaginative, soulful one who does all the organising, a contention the other two vehemently deny.

Englishness

A central aspect of Englishness is a kind of dogged incompetence. I have Canadian cousins and I am quietly appalled at how good they are at everything. Their jobs, their cars, their airplane deals, the house on the lake, their camping, their barbecues, they’re just super capable at everything.

By comparison, whenever I try a barbecue the sausages are burned on one side, raw on the other or smell of paraffin; I not only can’t handle the massive armoured cars most people drive around in these days, but they terrify me. Whenever I went camping the inner tent always touched the outer tent so that the rain came through and, generally, dripped precisely on my face or that of my angry partner. I went canoeing once but, although I’m quite confident on water, ended up going round in circles and eventually gave it up in frustration.

In all these respects and more I think of myself as very English, in living a life of quiet frustration, putting up with endless humiliation by shop assistants, local government officials, crooked financial advisers, maladroit tradesmen, pestering insurance salesmen and countless other rip-off merchants, living in a small, over-crowded, angry country run by buffoons, painfully conscious all the time of my own failings and lack of ability.

For a whole year I’ve been meaning to fix the trellis currently leaning against the fence to the fence with battens and screws so I can plant some climbers for it. But in order to do that I need to figure out where to go to buy the wood to make the battens, how to saw them to length, which make of electric screwdriver to buy (battery or cord) and then which size of screws. It is a forest of impenetrable obstacles. I wonder if it’ll ever get done. Can’t help feeling my Canadian cousins would have done it in half an hour and then got on with organising another delicious barbecue.

(I’d written that paragraph, looking out the window at the trellis, before I came across the sequence in chapter 3 of Three Men In A Boat describing at comic length the legendary incompetence of the narrator’s Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes his entire extended family, the servants and neighbouring shopkeepers in his cack-handed attempts to simply hang a picture on a wall. The inability to do even the simplest household chore reminds me of all Charles Pooter’s domestic accidents in Diary of a Nobody. Both books show that being useless at even the simplest household tasks has been a hallmark of English comedy for at least 130 years.)

Heroic failure is the English way. As no end of commentators have pointed out, the British most remember their military disasters, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the massacre at Isandlwana, the Somme, Dunkirk and the Blitz. We like it when we’re being hammered. Until very recently our tennis players and our footballers have been notable for their dogged third-rateness (Tim Henman, any England squad since 1970).

American humour tends to be smart and snappy, a festival of fast-talking, wisecracking one-line-merchants from Groucho Marx through Cary Grant in his screwball comedies to Woody Allen. English humour is about fumbling and falling over things: Dad’s Army, Some Mothers Do Ave Em. Ooh Betty. They don’t like it up ’em, Captain Mainwaring. This tone of perplexed failure is perfectly captured in the narrator’s description of bathing in the sea from the start of the book:

It is the same when you go to the sea-side. I always determine—when thinking over the matter in London—that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast, and I religiously pack up a pair of drawers and a bath towel. I always get red bathing drawers. I rather fancy myself in red drawers. They suit my complexion so. But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town.

On the contrary, I feel more that I want to stop in bed till the last moment, and then come down and have my breakfast. Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off. But I haven’t enjoyed it. They seem to keep a specially cutting east wind, waiting for me, when I go to bathe in the early morning; and they pick out all the three-cornered stones, and put them on the top, and they sharpen up the rocks and cover the points over with a bit of sand so that I can’t see them, and they take the sea and put it two miles out, so that I have to huddle myself up in my arms and hop, shivering, through six inches of water. And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting.

English weather

Foreigners often accuse the English of being obsessed with the weather. This is because it is so perverse and unpredictable. Occasionally we do actually have hot summers but my lifetime has been marked by confident predictions of ‘barbecue summers’ which end up being dismal washouts. Not that the English weather’s particularly interesting, it’s rare that you have really hot blue-sky summer days and, where I live in London, we rarely if ever have snow in winter. English weather is usually boring and mundane, lacking vivid extremes, like English culture generally. I read once in the CIA Handbook that for more than 50% of the time the English sky is grey and overcast. I remember it feeling like that during the entire premiership of John Major, 1990 to 1997.

Anyway, any adult English person has had the experience of organising a barbecue or birthday party or wedding reception outdoors in a garden or park or grand mansion only to have it rained off by steady, grey. ‘Rain stopped play’ is one of the commonest terms in cricket. It’s amazing that Wimbledon ever makes it to the final on schedule given the amount of time lost to English summer rain. The gloomy weather is a big part of that heavy-hearted sense of entirely predictable failure and disappointment which is at the heart of the English character.

Hence the national obsession with weather forecasts, on telly, the radio, in all the papers, despite the fact that any rational adult knows the weather forecast is usually wildly wrong. I remember looking at the BBC’s weather forecast for my part of London which told me it was hot and sunny despite the fact that, out the window, at that very minute it was chucking down with rain. As in so many big organisations, reliance technology meant the weather forecasters were relying more on their expensive computer model than looking out the bloody window.

Three Men In A Boat shows you that nothing has changed, the weather forecast was just as rubbish 130 years ago:

I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper. ‘Heavy showers, with thunderstorms, may be expected to-day,’ it would say on Monday, and so we would give up our picnic, and stop indoors all day, waiting for the rain.—And people would pass the house, going off in wagonettes and coaches as jolly and merry as could be, the sun shining out, and not a cloud to be seen.

‘Ah!’ we said, as we stood looking out at them through the window, ‘won’t they come home soaked!’

And we chuckled to think how wet they were going to get, and came back and stirred the fire, and got our books, and arranged our specimens of seaweed and cockle shells. By twelve o’clock, with the sun pouring into the room, the heat became quite oppressive, and we wondered when those heavy showers and occasional thunderstorms were going to begin.

‘Ah! they’ll come in the afternoon, you’ll find,’ we said to each other. ‘Oh, won’t those people get wet. What a lark!’

At one o’clock, the landlady would come in to ask if we weren’t going out, as it seemed such a lovely day.

‘No, no,’ we replied, with a knowing chuckle, ‘not we. We don’t mean to get wet—no, no.’

And when the afternoon was nearly gone, and still there was no sign of rain, we tried to cheer ourselves up with the idea that it would come down all at once, just as the people had started for home, and were out of the reach of any shelter, and that they would thus get more drenched than ever. But not a drop ever fell, and it finished a grand day, and a lovely night after it.

The next morning we would read that it was going to be a ‘warm, fine to set-fair day; much heat;’ and we would dress ourselves in flimsy things, and go out, and, half-an-hour after we had started, it would commence to rain hard, and a bitterly cold wind would spring up, and both would keep on steadily for the whole day, and we would come home with colds and rheumatism all over us, and go to bed.

Voilà the English national characteristics: the complete incompetence of the forecasters, the blithe indifference of the newspapers (or radio or telly) which publish this twaddle day after day, the utter unreliability of official information, the inevitability that whatever you decide to do will be wrong, and the one over-riding certainty of disappointment. A Philip Larkin world.

Hence, the one time our trio of chums need a cab to collect their stuff from the front door and take them to Waterloo station in a hurry the road, which is usually packed with empty cabs hurtling back and forth, is empty. Similarly, when they get to Waterloo they can’t find anyone who knows the platform for the train to Kingston.

Activities the English (in the shape of J, Harris and George) are doomed to fail at

  • going on an ocean cruise – seasickness
  • putting up a tent in the rain – recipe for homicidal rage
  • hanging a picture on a wall – reduce entire family to tears
  • swimming in the sea – cut your feet to ribbons and get half drowned
  • running a train system – it was an over-priced shambles in the 1880s and still is
  • washing their own clothes in the river – disaster
  • rigging up the hoops and canvas over the boat for the night – they manage to get tangled in the cloth and nearly throttled
  • cooking scrambled eggs – J had never heard of this dish before but Harris turns it into a burned mess
  • opening a tin of pineapple with a knife – impossible to do without serious injury
  • finding a room for the night in Datchet – never do this
  • singing a comic song after dinner – Harris should be banned from even trying
  • playing the bagpipes – when a young fellow J knew practiced at home the neighbours called the police and accused him of murdering his family

To say nothing of the dog

I’m not a dog person, but I appreciate that many English people are, and so I can see that the character of the dog Montmorency, a mischievous fox terrier, is a vital component in the story. He brings a warm, snuffling supplement to the human narrative, either getting into mischief or shedding an ironic light on the human shambles, adding the final cherry on the cake to many a comic moment.

Take the scene in chapter 14 where the chaps knock up a supposed Irish stew by combining the leftovers in the party’s food hamper:

I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.

A cat couldn’t do that, add that final comic touch. Any sensible cat would have sloped off long ago to the warm lap of a homely lady happy to stroke and feed it fishy titbits all day. A dog sticks it out through thick and thin, no matter how incompetent his master(s). Mind you, Montmorency is not quite the tail-wagging, faithful hound some people make out.

When first he came to live at my expense, I never thought I should be able to get him to stop long. I used to sit down and look at him, as he sat on the rug and looked up at me, and think: ‘Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him.’

But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.

To hang about a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs, is Montmorency’s idea of ‘life’.

And again:

Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.

And:

We spent two very pleasant days at Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had got to heaven.

The dog is one more prompt for that amused exasperation which is the tone of the book throughout, that resigned tolerance of each other’s foibles (that’s to say inadequacies and incompetence), the cussed obstinacy of the universe, the stupidity of other river users, with the dog thrown in as an additional element of chaos and frustration.

Montmorency’s ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.

He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

Harris said I encouraged him. I didn’t encourage him. A dog like that don’t want any encouragement. It’s the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that.

Montmorency helping to untangle the tow line

The dog speaks, by the way. It is given a variety of opinions and several passages of dialogue, once with the cat in Marlow High Street, once when it challenges the kettle to a fight. And it’s not the only normally non-speaking entity to be attributed agency. I was particularly taken with the story of his earliest attempt to sail a boat in which he and his friend struggled to even erect the mast and then managed to get themselves completely tangled up in the sail.

The impression on the mind of the sail seemed to be that we were playing at funerals, and that I was the corpse and itself was the winding-sheet. When it found that this was not the idea, it hit me over the head with the boom, and refused to do anything.

Digressions

Three Men In A Boat in a sense consists almost entirely of digressions. It’s as if, having laid out the narrative of what actually happened in its logical order, Jerome then pondered how he could exaggerate every single incident into the most preposterous comic riff possible.

He has a fantastic comic conceit, i.e. the ability to take a simple idea and develop it into a preposterous and fantastical series of exaggerations. Thus when they’re discussing what food to take, they all solemnly agree no cheese, which prompts J to launch a fairly straightforward joke about the way cheese is very smelly.

For lunch, he said, we could have biscuits, cold meat, bread and butter, and jam—but no cheese. Cheese, like oil, makes too much of itself. It wants the whole boat to itself. It goes through the hamper, and gives a cheesy flavour to everything else there. You can’t tell whether you are eating apple-pie or German sausage, or strawberries and cream. It all seems cheese. There is too much odour about cheese.

But this is only the beginning: mention of cheese leads the narrator to remember the time a friend bought some cheeses in Liverpool –

I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool. Splendid cheeses they were, ripe and mellow, and with a two hundred horse-power scent about them that might have been warranted to carry three miles, and knock a man over at two hundred yards.

– a story which becomes steadily more inflated and preposterous over the next four pages, as the cheese proceeds to alienate all the passengers in the train back to London, his cab driver who collects him at the station. The wife of the man he transported it for announces she is moving out of her house (and taking the children) until the cheeses are removed, and then the story develops a surreal, almost horror story persistence as the narrator tries dumping the cheeses in a nearby canal only for the barge drivers to insist the smell is making them ill and that he trawls them back up; he next sneaks them into a mortuary, but the coroner complains that he is trying to wake the dead, and the entire, by this stage surreal and absurd fantasy, only comes to an end when he takes them all the way to the coast and buries them deep in the sand, although people can still smell their strong whiff, but (comically) attribute it to ‘bracing’ sea air.

So it’s: 1. a book of wonderful comic digressions, a kind of unscholarly, more mundane version of Tristram Shandy – but also 2. it struck me how extended these digressions are; he rarely stops a comic conceit after a sentence or two when he can carry it on for as many paragraphs as possible.

Look at the four paragraphs about Montmorency’s character quoted above. Jerome could have stopped after the first paragraph, he’s made his point, it’s very funny. But he presses on for another three paragraphs, milking the notion of Montmorency being a serious hindrance to anyone trying to pack a bag to the absolute max.

Or take the extended sequence about the utter rubbishness of weather forecasts which I quoted above. That’s only the beginning. The weather riff then goes on for twice as much again, leading into a prolonged passage about the barometer in a hotel in Oxford which obstinately pointed to ‘Dry weather’ while it was raining so hard the lower part of the town was flooded.

Probably the book’s central quality is the ability of these digressions to take a comic ball and run with it for a really extended period of time, never dropping it, but blowing the original comic balloon up to the size of a zeppelin.

The fantastical

This raises a third point, which is the tendency of many of the jokes to cross a border from the realistic  to the ridiculous and then continue on into the positively fantastical. Many if not most of J’s extended anecdotes have this quality of exorbitancy, meaning: ‘exceeding the bounds of custom, propriety, or reason’.

I realised this during the account of their inability to find the right platform at Waterloo for the train to Kingston. At first it is realistic, in the sense that big train stations often are chaotic. Then it becomes enjoyably farcical as porters, officials and even the station master give completely contradictory advice. But then it crosses a borderline from exaggeration into outright fantasy when they find a train driver who’ll take them wherever they want to go for half a crown, so they pay up and this man drives his train to Kingston, without telling the station authorities or any of the passengers aboard apart from our chums.

So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston. ‘Nobody will ever know, on this line,’ we said, ‘what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.’

‘Well, I don’t know, gents,’ replied the noble fellow, ‘but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”

By this point it’s become as fantastical as a children’s story. You feel it’s only a small hop and skip and a jump from here to the Hogwarts Express. And then the punchline:

We learnt, afterwards, that the train we had come by was really the Exeter mail, and that they had spent hours at Waterloo looking for it and nobody knew what had become of it.

The book is generally described as a heart-warming story of a trio of chaps messing about in a boat. This element of fantastical exaggeration is surprisingly under-reported.

And excess. Here is the narrator descanting at length about the types of people who insist on fencing or chaining off their little bits of the Thames waterfront, or erecting officious noticeboards:

The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

‘Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.’

People associate the book with mellow nostalgia, but I hope I’m showing that it’s quite a lot more extreme and disruptive than that suggests. There’s a surprising amount of this comic excess, talk of murdering and strangling and burning and trampling and so on.

There’s a good microcosm of the process in chapter 12 where in just a few sentences you can follow the thought process going from reasonable to exaggerated to manic.

Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant. It is the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion. It is the town of showy hotels, patronised chiefly by dudes and ballet girls. It is the witch’s kitchen from which go forth those demons of the river—steam-launches!

(The more I read, the more I realised Jerome isn’t dealing in jokes; he writes entire comic sketches. Although he doesn’t do the deliberate surrealism, the way he carries a comic conceit from the funny onto the exaggerated and then to outlandish conclusions reminds me a bit of Monty Python. It is no surprise to learn that he started his career in the arts, in the theatre, as an actor, and wrote a dozen or so plays alongside his career as a prose writer and magazine editor.)

Purple prose and historical fantasias

This brings us to the last aspect of the book worth noting which is the continual advent, in between the extended comic digressions, of passages of over-ripe purple prose. This comes in two flavours: 1. soppy rustic idylls about nature and 2. historical fantasias when the author presents sub-Walter Scott descriptions of the passage of Good Queen Bess or some such historical personage through whatever historic old town or castle they’re boating past.

The many over-ripe nature passages are clearly written with his tongue firmly in his cheek:

The red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing. The little sail stood out against the purple sky, the gloaming lay around us, wrapping the world in rainbow shadows; and, behind us, crept the night.

We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset.

And are nearly always the prelude to an almighty thump of bathos. In this case J experiences this great communing with Nature at its most spiritual just before he steers their boat into a punt full of anglers who proceed to curse and excoriate them in extensive and colourful terms. So the purple passages are, at bottom, another type of joke, a variation on the idea of the extended comic passage.

Although some of them are maybe just meant to be happy, light and evocative, slightly tongue in cheek, but also capturing the beauty of unspoilt countrside.

Down to Cookham, past the Quarry Woods and the meadows, is a lovely reach. Dear old Quarry Woods! with your narrow, climbing paths, and little winding glades, how scented to this hour you seem with memories of sunny summer days! How haunted are your shadowy vistas with the ghosts of laughing faces! how from your whispering leaves there softly fall the voices of long ago!

Like P.G. Wodehouse a couple of generations later, the over-egging of these descriptions is part of their knowing, light, good humour.

2. A good example of his historical fantasias is when the trio reach Runnymede and J gives an extended imagining of Bad King John being forced to meet his rebellious Barons and taken on a barge to the island where he is obliged to sign the historic Magna Carta, all visions of bluff, manly, hearts-of-oak Englishmen.

the heart of King John sinks before the stern faces of the English fighting men, and the arm of King John drops back on to his rein, and he dismounts and takes his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons follow in, with each mailed hand upon the sword-hilt, and the word is given to let go.

Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runningmede. Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Charta Island. And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air, and the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.

Many critics have objected to these passages as disrupting the flow of what they think of as a comic novel and feel ought to remain strictly in character as a Comic Novel. But I have already shown that the text is not as straightforwardly humorous as people think. To my mind both the rural visions and the historical fantasias are natural extensions of Jerome’s tendency to really extended comic fantasy. They are another type of tall tale. They share, along with the comic passages, the tendency to exorbitance, to overstep the bounds of ‘realism’ into fantasy.

Many critics have come down hard on these passages but, personally, I found them amusing and entertaining diversions, a relief from the need to be laughing all the time, so they added to the variety and pacing the text.

Also they have the charm of their time. It’s not as if we, nowadays, in 2021, get to read very much high-minded Victorian patriotic history. Modern historians are devoted to debunking the past and showing what a sexist, racist, slave-ridden society Britain has always been. It’s as pleasant to slip into Jerome’s manly, patriotic visions of English history as it is to pretend, for the duration of the reading, that one is a late-Victorian young buck messing about on the river.

Mock heroic

The mock heroic as a literary genre consists of:

satires or parodies that mock Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.

Obviously Three Men In A Boat isn’t a mock heroic work in this sense but, like much comedy, it uses mock heroic techniques. All I mean by this is two things:

1. As an extension of his habit of slipping into extended historical fantasies, Jerome also slips, often in the space of a sentence, into humorously comparing one or other of his companions or the dog, to heroic historical counterparts; as when Montmorency sees a cat in Marlow High Street:

We were, as I have said, returning from a dip, and half-way up the High Street a cat darted out from one of the houses in front of us, and began to trot across the road. Montmorency gave a cry of joy—the cry of a stern warrior who sees his enemy given over to his hands—the sort of cry Cromwell might have uttered when the Scots came down the hill—and flew after his prey.

He doesn’t say which of Cromwell’s battles he’s referring to, maybe to Cromwell’s decisive victory over them at the battle of Worcester in 1651. But the point is the humour in the vast dysjunction between a dog spying a cat in a road and one of the great battles of British history.

2. My other point is more specifically lexical, meaning specifically about language, and more specifically than that, about quotes. Like many comic authors before and after him, Jerome creates a comic effect by juxtaposing descriptions of his clumsy mates and their scrappy dog with solemn and portentous quotes, the more solemn and portentous the funnier the effect, and what language is more solemn and portentous than quotes from those twin peaks of the English language, Shakespeare and the Bible?

Thus he ends a comic passage about his school days and the unfairness of the way the only boy in his class who loved schoolwork was always ill and off school, whereas J and his mates, who hated schoolwork, always showed disgusting good health no matter how hard they tried to get ill and get days off school – he ends this passage with a mockingly solemn aphorism from the Bible:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven…

Although the naughty schoolboy in him can’t help adding a comic and demotic phrase to the end of this quote:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked.

You can almost imagine J or one of his friends solemnly intoning these phrases in the persona of a dreary vicar, delivering a wise and learned mock sermon on the subject of Harris falling into a stream or George driven mad with frustration at having a tin of juicy pineapple but no can opener to open it with.

(Compare and contrast with the use of Biblical quotes and phraseology by Jerome’s contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, who was saturated in the Bible, its phrases and rhythms, and aspired to, and sometimes matched, the solemnity of the original, as in Recessional.)

So much for comically inappropriate use of Biblical phraseology, as to Shakespeare, comic characters for centuries have used tags from the Bard out of context in order to heighten a comic moment. Thus when George forgets to wind his watch and wakes in the early hours to see, with panic, that it is a quarter past eight and he needs to be at the office by nine, his response is to repeat in comic mode an exclamation from Hamlet, tragically intense in its original context, but long since watered down to become a comic expostulation:

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ exclaimed George; ‘and here have I got to be in the City by nine.’

3. As I wrote this I realised that alongside the mock heroic presence of these two reliable old warhorses, the Bible and Shakespeare, in the text, there is a notable absence: there are no Latin tags. Jerome had a surprisingly harsh upbringing in the East End, attending a day school, unlike most of the authors and critics of the time, who enjoyed the blessings of a preparatory school followed by public school followed by Oxford or Cambridge, all of which of course, soaked them in the Classics and explains why later Victorian literature is littered with Latin tags which ‘everyone’ was supposed to understand.

Not so Jerome. The absence of Latin is one of the subtle indicators of the slightly lower class vibe of the text which contemporary critics picked up on and criticised (see section on Demotics, below).

The narrator as raconteur

This wide range of comic effects is possible because the narrator early on establishes his persona as a raconteur, a story-teller and memoirist, which allows him very casually to introduce as many memories and incidents and anecdotes as he wants. The narrator’s tone and voice immediately create a very relaxed, flexible and roomy atmosphere. It’s indicated by the number of passages or sequences which overtly begin as memories and tales:

  • I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was…
  • I remember my brother-in-law going for a short sea trip once…
  • Another fellow I knew went for a week’s voyage round the coast, and, before they started, the steward came to him to ask whether he would pay for each meal as he had it, or arrange beforehand for the whole series…
  • He always reminds me of my poor Uncle Podger…
  • I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool…
  • I lived with a man once who used to make me mad that way. He would loll on the sofa and watch me doing things by the hour together…
  • I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper…
  • There was a boy at our school, we used to call him Sandford and Merton…
  • It was my misfortune once to go for a water picnic with two ladies of this kind [fussed about their dresses]. We did have a lively time…
  • One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked, and drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene…
  • Speaking of comic songs and parties, reminds me of a rather curious incident at which I once assisted…
  • I remember being terribly upset once up the river (in a figurative sense, I mean). I was out with a young lady—cousin on my mother’s side…
  • I remember going up once from Staines to Windsor—a stretch of water peculiarly rich in these mechanical monstrosities—with a party containing three ladies of this description…
  • I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes…
  • I was one of a party who hired an up-river boat one summer, for a few days’ trip….

Some highlights

Passages that stood out for me included:

  • the time Harris not only got lost in the Hampton Court Maze but persuaded a whole load of other people to follow him until they were all lost
  • the time J took some young ladies dressed in the latest fashion for a boat trip and the comedy of their things getting wet and dirty
  • the comic passage about the time he was having a soulful moment in a graveyard which was interrupted by an interfering old man who wanted to show him all the tombs and monuments
  • the extended description of Harris making a complete fool of himself trying to sing a comic song after a dinner party
  • the comic anecdote of the German professor who sang a tragic song about a dying maiden but who two mischievous German students had told the foreign audience was actually a cheerfully comic song so that the foreigners guffawed and tittered all the way through, rendering the professor speechless with anger
  • the notion that the kettle can hear you expressing a wish for tea and so deliberately refuses to boil, so the best thing is to talk loudly about how the last thing you want is tea, then the perishing thing will boil, alright!
  • how, back in good King Henry’s day, the innocent day tripper couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into the bloody king and Ann Boleyn on one of their many snogging trips
  • the procession of our heroes down Marlow High Street after a shopping expedition for food and drink, accompanied by the ‘boys’ of almost every shop in the town, plus random urchins and various stray dogs

by the time we had finished, we had as fine a collection of boys with baskets following us around as heart could desire; and our final march down the middle of the High Street, to the river, must have been as imposing a spectacle as Marlow had seen for many a long day.

Jerome’s demotic tone

Nothing excuses violence of language and coarseness of expression…

Contemporary critics, upper-middle class to a man, tutted about Jerome’s slangy expressions and disapproved of the lower-middle-class character of the protagonists. They disliked their levity, their lack of respect for their elders and betters and authority figures of all types. Nothing is taken seriously, everything is debunked. Education.

I don’t understand German myself. I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since.

Or the high minded activities of worthy philanthropists.

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who ‘have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.’ Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year! It is not worth it.

Even the modern reader can, I think, detect moments when Jerome seems to be deliberately using slang expressions for effect:

  • She was nuts on public-houses, was England’s Virgin Queen.
  • For once in a way, we men are able to show our taste in colours, and I think we come out very natty, if you ask me.
  • We—George, Harris, and myself—took a ‘raw ’un’ up with us once last season, and we plied him with the customary stretchers about the wonderful things we had done all the way up. [where ‘stretchers’ seems to mean tall tales or whoppers]

The narrator has a habit of adding ‘like’ at the end of sentences, which is clearly non-orthodox and deliberately put in to make the tone just that bit East End.

  • Neither the beef nor the strawberries and cream seemed happy, either—seemed discontented like.
  • We had had a sail—a good all-round exciting, interesting sail—and now we thought we would have a row, just for a change like.

Equally non-U is the way the tone of many of the passages is surprisingly immoderate.

I never see a steam launch but I feel I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in the silence and the solitude, strangle it.

Take the extended passage about the wretched people who put up loud signs warning boaters from mooring on their river frontages which I quoted above, in which J tells us he’d like to burn down their houses and Harris declares he’d like to slaughter their entire families and sing comic songs on the ruins!

In addition to humorously contemplating murder and arson, the narrator cheerfully confesses to having, as a boy, been a thief, pure and simple:

Having acquired a taste for the water, I did a good deal of rafting in various suburban brickfields—an exercise providing more interest and excitement than might be imagined, especially when you are in the middle of the pond and the proprietor of the materials of which the raft is constructed suddenly appears on the bank, with a big stick in his hand.

And appears to recommend stealing a boat in the here and now:

To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would say, take your own boat—unless, of course, you can take someone else’s without any possible danger of being found out.

And the text contains a number of incitements to actual vandalism, which I can well imagine the property-owning classes and all right-minded critics sharply disapproving of.

Of course the entrance [to the Wargrave cut off the Thames] is studded with posts and chains, and surrounded with notice boards, menacing all kinds of torture, imprisonment, and death to everyone who dares set scull upon its waters—I wonder some of these riparian boors don’t claim the air of the river and threaten everyone with forty shillings fine who breathes it—but the posts and chains a little skill will easily avoid; and as for the boards, you might, if you have five minutes to spare, and there is nobody about, take one or two of them down and throw them into the river.

The three chaps come over as fairly middle class with their ‘drats’ and ‘dashes’ and ‘come on old chap’s so I was surprised when J admits a more working class accent in his circle. He describes going boating with a lady friend and how much it changed her temper for the worst. But it was her accent which surprised me.

‘Oh, drat the man!’ she would exclaim, when some unfortunate sculler would get in her way; ‘why don’t he look where he’s going?’

And it’s a telling detail that J doesn’t like Maidenhead because it is ‘too snobby’ and la-di-dah:

The London Journal duke always has his ‘little place’ at Maidenhead; and the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else’s husband.

To summarise: it’s not as posh as it seems. In fact it’s odd to think a book so entirely associated with Hooray Henries dressed in boaters and blazers, hiring punts and hampers and recreating what they considered to be the book’s ineffably upper class and joshing tone, was ever criticised for its lower class attitude

It is just a comedy, but it’s a good deal more rough, anti-social and subversive than most people remember.

It is an ancient place, Streatley, dating back, like most river-side towns and villages, to British and Saxon times. Goring is not nearly so pretty a little spot to stop at as Streatley, if you have your choice; but it is passing fair enough in its way, and is nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill.

What he thought of the nineteenth century

  • some quaint-perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.
  • The sun had got more powerful by the time we had finished breakfast, and the wind had dropped, and it was as lovely a morning as one could desire. Little was in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century.
  • I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.
  • Mr. W. Lee—five times Mayor of Abingdon—was, no doubt, a benefactor to his generation, but I hope there are not many of his kind about in this overcrowded nineteenth century.

A purple patch about the river Thames

The river—with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech-trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory—is a golden fairy stream.

But the river—chill and weary, with the ceaseless rain-drops falling on its brown and sluggish waters, with a sound as of a woman, weeping low in some dark chamber; while the woods, all dark and silent, shrouded in their mists of vapour, stand like ghosts upon the margin; silent ghosts with eyes reproachful, like the ghosts of evil actions, like the ghosts of friends neglected—is a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain regrets.

He’s fallen in the water

In chapter 13 they moor in a grassy spot for lunch. Harris makes himself comfortable on the loose edge of a little stream, starts to carve the appetising steak pie they’ve brought with them but, before anyone can do anything, the earth gives way and he falls into the stream, emerging moments later from amid the reeds muddy, wet and cross. The steak pie isn’t too happy, either.

The incident itself is fairly funny, but two things make it Jeromian. One is that Harris doesn’t just fall in the water, he vanishes! One minute he’s there, something distracts the other two for a second or so and, when they turn back, Harris has vanished leaving them utterly bewildered! For a moment they are thunderstruck… until they hear a wet groaning coming from the reeds. The book is full of moment like this, not just a bit funny, but extreme, like theatrical coups de grace, like a kind of verbal special effect, which stuns author and reader alike.

The second element is the cod Biblical, mockingly philosophical tone of the narrator as he describes the scene, a tone which marinates the entire book, by assuming a high-falutin’ tone in effect mocking all things earnest and pompous, mocking teachers and vicars and property owners and stationmasters and sextons, mocking Great Writers and Lofty Sentiments; contrasting the Timeless Wisdom of the Books of Books and the Immortal Spirit of Nature with the clumsy reality of three hapless young chaps who keep falling in the water and endlessly fighting.

Harris believes to this day that George and I planned it all beforehand. Thus does unjust suspicion follow even the most blameless for, as the poet says, ‘Who shall escape calumny?’ Who, indeed!

Shakespeare, again.


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The Diary of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (1892)

NOVEMBER 19,  Sunday. I don’t pretend to be able to express myself in fine language, but I feel I have the power of expressing my thoughts with simplicity and lucidness.
(from the diary of Charles Pooter)

It helps if you know that the diary’s authors, George and Weedon Grossmith, were both entertainers. George, or ‘Gee Gee’ as he liked to be known, was born in 1847, began his career as a singer and entertainer in 1870 and went on to work closely with Gilbert and Sullivan, being the first performer and ‘creator’ of many of their chief parts at the Savoy Theatre, from 1877 onwards. Gee Gee became a prolific writer of comic sketches and songs. Leaving the Savoy in 1889, he toured Britain and America as an entertainer and singer till 1901 and his autobiography was titled Reminiscences of a Clown.

Weedon Grossmith was George’s younger brother, born in 1854. At first he trained as an artist at the Slade, and exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and the Royal Academy. But art didn’t work out and he, too, succumbed to the lure of the theatre, joining a drama company in 1885 and touring the provinces and America. Weedon wrote a novel and a series of plays, and managed Terry’s theatre in London for over a decade, appearing in numerous roles, until 1917.

The point being, then, that the brothers were extremely well practiced in writing and performing comedy when they were approached by the editor of Punch magazine in 1888 to write a satirical skit about the humdrum life of a pompous, lower-middle-class ‘nobody’.

The whole thing was intended as a satire on the recent flurry of eminent ‘somebodies’ in the worlds of politics and the arts publishing autobiographies and diaries – why not the diary of someone of absolutely no significance whatsoever?

And thus was born the character of Charles Pooter, well-meaning but rather stuffy, priggish, married father of one, clerk in a stuffy, old-fashioned firm in the City, who tries to lead a dignified and respectable life but who fate is constantly twitting and undermining – in the form of a temperamental servant, a layabout son, numerous uppity tradesmen, unreliable friends and the sniggering mockery of the younger clerks at his work.

The first episode of the fictional diary was published in Punch magazine in May 1888 and it then ran for 26 fortnightly instalments until May 1889. At that point the text didn’t have illustrations and the story ended with an entry for 21 May, when Charles’s disrespectful, good-for-nothing son, Lupin, finally secures a job at Charles’s own firm, Perkupps.

However, when the text was prepared for publication in book form in 1892, the authors added a further four months’ entries to the text, and 26 illustrations by Weedon Grossmith. These are amiable pen and ink sketches typical for the time, none of them masterpieces, but they have a significant impact on the text, vividly bringing the characters to life and introducing a form of visual punctuation which makes you dwell a fraction longer on scenes and moments, letting them sink in.

APRIL 30 — I seized her round the waist, and we were silly enough to be executing a wild kind of polka when Sarah entered, grinning, and said: “There is a man, mum, at the door who wants to know if you want any good coals.”

Plot overview

Charles Pooter is a clerk in Perkupps, a firm in the City of London. He is happily married to Caroline or ‘Carrie’, as he affectionately calls her. He has two male friends, Gowing and Cummings, who pop round to see him most evenings, for a chats or a game of dominoes. The diary opens on 3 April, a week after Charles and Carries have moved into a new house:

‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway—a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour. We have a little front garden; and there is a flight of ten steps up to the front door, which, by-the-by, we keep locked with the chain up. Cummings, Gowing, and our other intimate friends always come to the little side entrance, which saves the servant the trouble of going up to the front door, thereby taking her from her work. We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway. We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent. He was certainly right; and beyond the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience.

This opening paragraph sets the tone. Unlike much Victorian writing, it is concise. With precision it not only describes the kind of suburban house in question, but immediately conveys the tone of fussing over details and concern over money which are such a large part of Charles Pooter’s existence.

The opening also conveys the Pooters’ social situation to a t. Having a house and a servant doubtless makes Charles and Carrie just about lower-middle class, but the detail of the railway roaring along the bottom of the garden every few minutes, so fiercely that it has cracked the garden wall, conveys just how precarious their achievement is. And the fussing and fretting about Sarah the servant which runs through the entire book shows the Pooters completely lack the money or savoir faire of the true middle classes.

Theirs is a world of continual small failures and petty humiliations which they are always trying to look on the bright side of. Charles is continually ripping his trousers or wearing ones which are too short or the wrong kinds of boots. The junior clerks at his work take the mickey out of him and throw scrunched-up paper balls at him or mutter nicknames as he walks past, such as ‘Hornpipe’ when he happens to be wearing trousers tight at the knee though loose over the boots, like a sailor.

Charles is thrilled when he is invited to the Mayor’s annual ball then deflated when he realises everyone else in his office has been invited, too, and further demoralised when he finds that the rude and incompetent ironmonger he’s paid to remove the scraper from outside the front door of The Laurels, is also there and boozily treats Charles – to his chagrin – as a social equal.

Charles is a well-meaning man entirely trapped in the prison of his own personality. He gives us quite a few examples of ripping jokes he makes which no-one else gets or thinks are as funny as he does. He reports his best friends, Gowing and Cummings, as casually putting him down about his sense of humour. In a hundred and one ways the diary cleverly reveals the discrepancy between how we see ourselves, how we experience our own lives and thoughts and ideas – and how other people perceive us, which, we can be confident, is with a lot less sympathy and understanding than we perceive ourselves. In fact, most of the time, it is with complete indifference occasionally interspersed with casual mockery.

Thus although all the book’s many incidents are funny to read about, it’s hard to avoid the underlying sadness of the thing. The comedy is mixed with poignancy at Charles’s entrapment within his own narrow life, values and hopes. The thoughtful reader might reflect that this is true of all of us; we think our hard work is acknowledged, we have a fine reputation, our friends talk about us with respect, and our jokes set the table on a roar. But what if none of these things are true? What if we have a reputation at work for being slow and getting things wrong; if our friends laugh at us behind our back; if our sense of humour is notorious for being laboured and obvious?

Charles thinks he is standing on his dignity when his name is omitted from the comprehensive list of all the guests who attended the Mansion House Ball which is given in the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News. But when he writes to complain, he is mortified to have his name included but mispelt in the addendum, as Mrs and Mrs Porter. When he writes for a third time, the journalists begin to take the mickey of this self-important little man.

May 16.—Absolutely disgusted on opening the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News of to-day, to find the following paragraph: ‘We have received two letters from Mr. and Mrs. Charles Pewter, requesting us to announce the important fact that they were at the Mansion House Ball.’ I tore up the paper and threw it in the waste-paper basket. My time is far too valuable to bother about such trifles.

It is not only his mortification, but his immediate justification to himself that he is ‘above’ such trifles, when it is he himself who has insisted on the importance of such trifles. The text constantly hovers on this borderline, laughing with Charles, then at him, then with him again.

May 25.—Carrie brought down some of my shirts and advised me to take them to Trillip’s round the corner. She said: ‘The fronts and cuffs are much frayed.’ I said without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I’m ’frayed they are.’ Lor! how we roared. I thought we should never stop laughing. As I happened to be sitting next the driver going to town on the ’bus, I told him my joke about the ‘frayed’ shirts. I thought he would have rolled off his seat. They laughed at the office a good bit too over it.

May 26.—Left the shirts to be repaired at Trillip’s. I said to him: ‘I’m ’fraid they are frayed.’ He said, without a smile: ‘They’re bound to do that, sir.’ Some people seem to be quite destitute of a sense of humour.

It’s a little like the comedy of the TV series The Office. The protagonist is painfully assured of his own point of view, his own wisdom, wit and good sense; while almost everything he says and does, and the responses of pretty much everyone else in the narrative, undermine this perspective. The humour is mixed with sympathy and poignancy and something occasionally like pity.

Charles is the butt of jokes between even his supposed ‘best friends’ Cummings and Gowing, none of the tradesmen he deals with take him seriously or show him any respect, the junior clerks at his workplace mutter nicknames as he walks past, his attempts at dignity are continually being undercut.

Charles and Carrie’s annual holiday goes predictably wrong when the landlady of the boarding house in Broadstairs which they always go to, initially confirms their places but then at the last minute announces she is fully booked. It is funny but also sad when he reveals that the rooms they eventually have to take with another landlady are near the station, which is fine, just fine, perfectly fine, because rooms on the cliffs would have been so much more expensive, anyway. Charles is continually justifying and looking on the bright side of the penny-pinching, scraping by, making do and mend that his limited income forces him to.

August 13.—Hurrah! at Broadstairs. Very nice apartments near the station. On the cliffs they would have been double the price. The landlady had a nice five o’clock dinner and tea ready, which we all enjoyed, though Lupin seemed fastidious because there happened to be a fly in the butter. It was very wet in the evening, for which I was thankful, as it was a good excuse for going to bed early.

The cheap rooms, the fly in the butter, the heavy rain on his holiday: he tries to rise above all the petty vexations of his little life. In fact it rains throughout their holiday week but Charles is determined to look on the bright side, despite his own son refusing to be seen with him wearing the ridiculous new straw hat he had made specially for the holiday.

‘August 16.—Lupin positively refused to walk down the Parade with me because I was wearing my new straw helmet with my frock-coat. I don’t know what the boy is coming to.’

His greatest humiliation is when he attends the Lord Mayor’s ball and tries to please Carrie by whisking her out onto the dancefloor but, because he is wearing new shoes, slips on the polished floor and falls heavily, banging his head nastily, pulling Carrie down with him, in front of everyone. Hard to live that one down.

But there are plenty of other humiliations, large and small. After church one Sunday he is flattered to be approached by ‘Mrs. Fernlosse, who is quite a grand lady, living in one of those large houses in the Camden Road’ and she is just about to start talking to him when a gust of wind blows his hat off and into the middle of the road, where he has to scamper about like an idiot to retrieve it only to turn and discover…. Mrs Fernlosse has moved on to chat to some of her swell friends.

It was a very shrewd move to introduce Charles and Carrie’s son in chapter 6 while Charles and his tribulations were still fresh i.e. before we’d got bored with his little escapades. The pacing bespeaks two authors who between them had written countless sketches and stage shows. Before Charles and Carrie’s little world has a chance to flag, the arrival of Pooter Junior introduces a whole new realm of comic possibilities for he is a son who blithely ignores all Charles’s advice, orders and attempts to stand on his dignity, as casually as his friends and tradesmen have been shown to.

The son has been christened William but much prefers his larky middle name, Lupin. He is 20 years old and had been working at a bank in Oldham but ‘got the chuck’ and has come back to live with his parents. Right from the start he demonstrates a breezy indifference to Charles’s well-meaning but stuffy rules and advice, stays out late with his mates, gets drunk, only gets up after lunch, is reluctant to get another job. Charles conscientiously writes a succession of letters to prospective employers and the steady stream of rejections becomes a comic leitmotiv of the second quarter of the book.

Things move on apace when Chapter 8 introduces us to the fact that Lupin has fallen in love and proposed to a young woman named Daisy Mutlar. Inevitably, when they finally meet the young lady, both Charles and Carrie think she is not quite right for Lupin:

We asked them in for a few minutes, and I had a good look at my future daughter-in-law. My heart quite sank. She is a big young woman, and I should think at least eight years older than Lupin. I did not even think her good-looking.

But, just as inevitably, Charles tries to put a brave face on it.

NOVEMBER 3. Lupin said: ‘I’m engaged to be married!’

From my description you might have thought Charles and Carrie’s lives would be dull and boring but in fact they have a surprising number of parties and get-togethers, albeit in a rather straitened, Victorian way.

Because Charles is always standing on his dignity, these ‘do’s’ involve no end of complications, resentments and bad feeling. Like when Lupin brings home his friend from the local amateur dramatic society he has joined, the Holloway Comedians, one Mr Burwin-Fosselton, who does a storming impersonation of the famous late Victorian actor, Mr Henry Irving. The evening is somewhat spoiled by the fact that Charles’s friend Gowing invites along a fat man named Padge, who insists on sitting in the best armchair all evening, and smoking a gross pipe.

‘NOVEMBER 23. The man Padge, who had got the best arm-chair, and was puffing away at a foul pipe into the fireplace.’

Or the extravagant engagement party Charles and Carrie hold for Lupin and Daisy where the guests scoff all the food and swill all the champagne so that when Charles’s boss arrives, coming late in the evening from another engagement, Charles is mortified not to be able to offer him anything, not even any soda water.

Charles is very clumsy. Take, for example, the time he visits Smirksons’, the drapers, in the Strand, who had created impressive displays of Christmas cards. He takes it upon himself to tell one of the shop assistants how careless the other customers were, when:

DECEMBER 20. The observation was scarcely out of my mouth, when my thick coat-sleeve caught against a large pile of expensive cards in boxes one on top of the other, and threw them down. The manager came forward, looking very much annoyed, and picking up several cards from the ground, said to one of the assistants, with a palpable side-glance at me: ‘Put these amongst the sixpenny goods; they can’t be sold for a shilling now.’ The result was, I felt it my duty to buy some of these damaged cards.

Or:

FEBRUARY 18. I was this morning trying to look at [my hair] by the aid of a small hand-glass, when somehow my elbow caught against the edge of the chest of drawers and knocked the glass out of my hand and smashed it. Carrie was in an awful way about it, as she is rather absurdly superstitious.

Or:

JULY 3, Sunday. In the afternoon, as I was looking out of the parlour window, which was open, a grand trap, driven by a lady, with a gentleman seated by the side of her, stopped at our door. Not wishing to be seen, I withdrew my head very quickly, knocking the back of it violently against the sharp edge of the window-sash. I was nearly stunned.

Clumsiness is connected to bathos, which is itself a kind of textual falling over, a stumble from the dignified to the comically clumsy. (Bathos is defined as a literary ‘effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.’) Take the moment when (December 21) Charles tells Lupin not to take Daisy breaking up with him to heart, at which Lupin loses his temper with his interfering father:

He jumped up and said: ‘I won’t allow one word to be uttered against her. She’s worth the whole bunch of your friends put together, that inflated, sloping-head of a Perkupp included.’ I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.

Or (March 21) after his boss, Mr Perkupp, has movingly paid tribute to Charles’s loyal, dogged character, on the bus home Charles feels like crying:

It was as much as I could do to prevent myself from crying in the ’bus; in fact, I should have done so, had my thoughts not been interrupted by Lupin, who was having a quarrel with a fat man in the ’bus, whom he accused of taking up too much room.

It is emblematic of the way Charles’s continual quest to have finer, more dignified feelings is continually undermined by the insensitive boorishness of the cut-price world around him.

Characters

Diary of a Nobody is generally taken as mocking the narrow, boring world of suburbia, which on one level it obviously is. But this doesn’t mean the narrative is restricted to a small number of people; quite the opposite. When you stop and count them there are far more characters in the book than you think:

  • Charles Pooter
  • Caroline ‘Carrie’ Pooter
  • William ‘Lupin’ Pooter
  • Sarah the servant
  • Mrs. Birrell the charwoman
  • Gowing, friend
  • Cummings, friend
  • Farmerson, the ironmonger
  • Horwin ‘a civil butcher with a nice clean shop’
  • Borset the butterman
  • the grocer’s boy
  • Mr. Putley, a painter and decorator
  • woman hired to make some chintz covers for our drawing-room chairs and sofa
  • ‘the little tailor’s round the corner’, presumably the same as Trillip’s round the corner which Carrie recommends to repair Charles’s shirts
  • Lockwood’s, a local store which sells ‘the Unsweetened’, some kind of spirit
  • the curate of the local church
  • Perkupp, Charles’s boss
  • Buckling, one of the senior clerks at Perkupp’s
  • Pitt, an impertinent junior clerk at Perkupp’s, aged just 17
  • Shoemach, friend of Gowing
  • Stillbrook, friend of Gowing and Cummings, accompanies them on the ill-fated walk to Hampstead, when Charles is refused admission to a pub which the others swan into
  • Merton, friend of Cummings, who is in the wine trade and promises to get him free tickets to the theatre which turn out to be anything but
  • Mr and Mrs James from Sutton, the wife being an old schoolfriend of Carrie’s
  • Mr. Willowly, manager of the Tank Theatre, Islington
  • Brickwell, friend of Charles’s who recommends the new Pinkford’s enamel paint
  • the Lord and Lady Mayoress
  • Franching, from Peckham, who Charles thinks he sees at the ball, then later invites round for tea, ‘a great swell in his way’
  • one of the sheriffs, in full Court costume
  • Darwitts, the gentleman who helps Carrie to a chair after she slips over at the Mayor’s ball
  • Brownish, the chemist
  • Miss Jibbons, makes Carrie’s dresses
  • Mrs. Beck, landlady of holiday apartments at Harbour View Terrace, Broadstairs
  • Edwards’s, men’s tailors
  • Mr. Higgsworth, friend who owns a telescope, ‘which he always lends me, knowing I know how to take care of it’
  • Mrs. Womming, another landlady in Broadstairs, who offers them rooms after Mrs Beck lets them down
  • the caddish new next door neighbours who throw a brick in his bed of geraniums
  • Mrs. Burtsett, an old friend of Carrie’s cousins, the Pommertons, late of Dalston
  • Daisy Mutlar, Lupin’s beloved
  • Black’s, the stationers
  • Harry Mutlar, Daisy’s brother, ‘rather a gawky youth’
  • Frank Mutlar, another brother
  • Mr Mutlar, Daisy’s father
  • Mr. Peters, the waiter at Lupin and Daisy’s big engagement party
  • Mr. Burwin-Fosselton, one of the ‘Holloway Comedians’, who gives gives his wild impersonation of Henry Irving to Charles, Carrie and guests
  • Mr Padge, a ‘very vulgar-looking man… who appeared to be all moustache’
  • the local laundress
  • Mrs. Fernlosse, ‘quite a grand lady, living in one of those large houses in the Camden Road’
  • Smirksons’, the drapers, in the Strand
  • Carrie’s mother who they visit for Christmas
  • ‘the dear old Reverend John Panzy Smith, who married us’
  • ‘a young fellow named Moss’ who shocks Charles at the Christmas lunch by grabbing a sprig of mistletoe and kissing all the ladies including Carrie
  • the unnamed rude man who opens the door to Gowing’s house when he is away
  • ‘Mr. Murray Posh was a tall, fat young man’ and rival for Daisy Mutlar’s hand
  • Job Cleanands, owner of Job Cleanands and Co., Stock and Share Brokers, who turns out to be a crook
  • Mr. and Mrs. Treane, members of their congregation
  • the rude and impertinent young Griffin boys next door
  • Mr Griffin, their rude father
  • Captain Welcut of the East Acton Volunteers
  • Mrs Lupkin, kind to Carrie at the Volunteers Ball
  • Putley the plumber
  • Teddy Finsworth, an old school friend of Charles’s
  • Mr. Edgar Paul Finsworth (of Finsworth and Pultwell), owner of a nice house, Watney Lodge, ‘only a few minutes’ walk from Muswell Hill Station’
  • Mrs Finsworth, defender of her rather aggressive dogs
  • Mr Short, luncheon guest at Mr Finsworth’s
  • Mr. Hardfur Huttle, ‘a very clever writer for the American papers’
  • Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Hillbutter, Mrs. Field, Mr. and Mrs. Purdick, Mr. Pratt, Mr. R. Kent – guests at Mr Franching’s dinner party in Peckham
  • Mr. Gilbert E. Gillam O. Crowbillon of Crowbillon Hall, the most valued customer of the firm Charles works for
  • Mr. Mezzini, Mr. Birks Spooner – guests at a meat-tea given by the James’s of Sutton
  • ‘Lillie Girl’, nickname of Mr and Mrs Posh’s daughter, ‘very tall, rather plain, and I thought she was a little painted round the eyes’, who, right at the end of the text, we discover is engaged to Lupin

My point being that it’s quite an extended world, isn’t it. Certainly most of the characters are from the lower middle and tradesmen classes the book is intended to portray, but there are also quite wealthy people like the Poshes and the Finsworths, not to mention the egregious American, Mr Hardfur Huttle who dominates the book’s ending. There are at least 70 characters in all.

In other words the book is a good deal more panoramic than people give it credit for, and the sheer number of people Charles interacts with helps to give the book, although it is ostensibly just about Charles and Carrie and Lupin, a surprising sense of capaciousness.

Making do and mending

I could not help thinking (as I told her) that half the pleasures of life were derived from the little struggles and small privations that one had to endure at the beginning of one’s married life.

Their world of little means and scraping by and making do and always counting the pennies is continually present. When Charles tells Carrie the big news that he’s been promoted and had a significant pay rise:

I need not say how dear Carrie received this joyful news. With perfect simplicity she said: ‘At last we shall be able to have a chimney-glass for the back drawing-room, which we always wanted.’ I added: ‘Yes, and at last you shall have that little costume which you saw at Peter Robinson’s so cheap.’

It is funny and pitiful at the same time. They are not poor, Charles can buy whiskey and champagne when he wants to. But only the cheap brands, and he smokes cheap cigars and has to fight with tradesmen about the costs of everything. He doesn’t buy an address book when he needs a new one, he buys ‘a cheap address book’.

It is a tiny detail but poignantly telling that they turn down an invitation to Miss Bird’s wedding, not so much because they’ve only met her a few times but because ‘it means a present’. I.e. they can’t really afford one. What a world of careful self-denial in that short, clipped phrase.

Charles has been steadily employed at Perkupp’s for 20 years and is used to getting a £10-a-year pay raise and they can afford an annual holiday. But only at ‘good old Broadstairs’ and, as mentioned above, happily put up with a boarding house near the station because, after all, one on the cliffs with a view would be a bit too expensive.

So it is in no way a tragically confined life, as the pitiful existence of the truly poverty stricken is in A Child of the Jago (1896) or Liza of Lambeth (1897). There is cheap champagne and card parties and evenings of dominoes or music. There is fun and life. But no avoiding the continual sense that overall their existence is narrow and scrimped.

Concision

Something else which has made the Diary a classic is its pithiness. Usually the Victorians, and their descendants, the Edwardians, wrote at lugubrious length in their fiction, whereas one of the book’s qualities is its crispness and clarity. Obviously this comes with the diary format, and the sense the author is writing brief notes for his own use. The best of these entries are masterpieces of charged brevity.

MAY 4. Carrie’s mother returned the Lord Mayor’s invitation, which was sent to her to look at, with apologies for having upset a glass of port over it. I was too angry to say anything.

Those two sentences say a huge amount. The fact they sent Carrie’s mother the invitation in the first place, to show off and share their pride in the invitation, and the rather claustrophobic presence of the mother-in-law; the rather inevitable fact that the mother spoils it, and the precise detail that it is a glass of port wine she spills; Charles’s characteristic seething rage at this petty accident and the characteristic way he cannot express it. ‘I was too angry to say anything’ sums up countless incidents throughout the book. Charles is a man of boundless silent seething. So these two short sentences are a perfect example of the aphoristic power of ‘the diary entry’ as a genre.

Part of the appeal is the way the mundaneness of his life, with its little psychological inflections, can be captured in the briefest of entries. After Gowing tells Charles he has ruined his favourite walking stick by painting it a shiny new black colour, Charles is (as so often) mortified and does his best to make amends. Hence:

MAY 22. Purchased a new stick mounted with silver, which cost seven-and-sixpence (shall tell Carrie five shillings), and sent it round with nice note to Gowing.

‘Shall tell Carrie five shillings’ says everything about the little velleities and grace notes of married life, manages to be sweet and funny at the same time.

It’s true that some of the set-piece scenes are much, much longer, go on for pages and can be very funny too. But a lot of the pleasure comes from these quick little hits, these bite-size bursts of insight into the protagonist’s everyday life and little fusses.

Charles Pooter’s jokes

Another part of the book’s complicated mixture of humour and pathos derives from Charles’s recounting of the many awful jokes he and those around him make. He is continually making terrible puns which crack his wife and friends up, but not his savvy disrespectful son and certainly not the numerous tradesmen and other ‘outsiders’ who never seem to show Charles the respect he feels he deserves.

APRIL 12. Gowing began his usual sniffing, so, anticipating him, I said: ‘You’re not going to complain of the smell of paint again?’ He said: ‘No, not this time; but I’ll tell you what, I distinctly smell dry rot.’ I don’t often make jokes, but I replied: ‘You’re talking a lot of dry rot yourself.’ I could not help roaring at this, and Carrie said her sides quite ached with laughter. I never was so immensely tickled by anything I have ever said before. I actually woke up twice during the night, and laughed till the bed shook.

MAY 25. Carrie brought down some of my shirts and advised me to take them to Trillip’s round the corner. She said: ‘The fronts and cuffs are much frayed.’ I said without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I’m ’frayed they are.’ Lor! how we roared. I thought we should never stop laughing.

NOVEMBER 16. I was starting for the office, when Lupin appeared, with a yellow complexion, and said: ‘Hulloh! Guv, what priced head have you this morning?’ I told him he might just as well speak to me in Dutch. He added: ‘When I woke this morning, my head was as big as Baldwin’s balloon.’ On the spur of the moment I said the cleverest thing I think I have ever said; viz: ‘Perhaps that accounts for the parashooting pains.’ We roared.

JANUARY 3. ‘Do you know anything about chalk pits, Guv?’ I said: ‘No, my boy, not that I’m aware of.’ Lupin said: ‘Well, I give you the tip; chalk pits are as safe as Consols, and pay six per cent at par.’ I said a rather neat thing, viz.: ‘They may be six per cent. at par, but your pa has no money to invest.’ Carrie and I both roared with laughter.

FEBRUARY 11. Gowing dropped in just in time, bringing with him a large sheet, with a print of a tailless donkey, which he fastened against the wall. He then produced several separate tails, and we spent the remainder of the evening trying blindfolded to pin a tail on in the proper place. My sides positively ached with laughter when I went to bed.

But even when they’re terrible, the reader is encouraged to laugh along with these jokes because they embody the humour of the character himself; their very badness is testament to the unchanging nature of the character himself, who we’ve come to sympathise with, as in all the best sitcoms. In a way, the badness of the jokes is what makes them funny, because we are not laughing at the joke itself but at the way the sweet and dim characters find it funny, and that is endearing.

Englishness

Many critics and later writers have praised the book for its essential Englishness. I would say theis ‘Englishness’ consists in the Diary‘s sense of constant embarrassment and humiliation.

This is exemplified in chapter 18 when Charles and Carrie accept a kind invitation to a dance given by the East Acton Volunteers, arrive late at the dance hall, help themselves to a delicious dinner, with plenty of champagne and ices and a cigar only to discover that… this wasn’t free provision and part of the invitation – it has to be paid for! As the waiter patiently explains:

‘Your party’s had four suppers at 5s. a head, five ices at 1s., three bottles of champagne at 11s. 6d., a glass of claret, and a sixpenny cigar for the stout gentleman—in all £3 0s. 6d!’ I don’t think I was ever so surprised in my life.

Never so surprised nor humiliated, Charles manages to scrape together almost all the money, lacking a few shillings which he promises to pay later. But this means that, when he and Carrie, at the end of the evening, take a cab back to North London, or at least to the Angel Islington which is far as the cabbie will take them, it’s only when they disembark that Charles realises he has no cash on him. The cab driver calls him every name under the sun and violently pulls his beard, all within view of a policeman who, when he learns Charles and Carrie have taken a long cab journey but cannot pay the driver, has no sympathy for them. They then have to walk the last two miles to Holloway, late at night, in the pouring rain, seething with humiliation and embarrassment.

The entire scene is a kind of apotheosis of English shame and embarrassment but the book is packed with plenty of other examples. Take the passage towards the end when Charles is being shown round Mr. Edgar Paul Finsworth’s drawing room full of fine pictures and Charles remarks of one of the portraits that ‘there was something about the expression of the face that was not quite pleasing. It looked pinched.’

Mr. Finsworth sorrowfully replied: ‘Yes, the face was done after death—my wife’s sister.’ I felt terribly awkward and bowed apologetically, and in a whisper said I hoped I had not hurt his feelings.

‘I felt terribly awkward.’ That could be Charles Pooter’s motto and also stand as the core essence of  a certain type of Englishness.

The final chapters

Possibly I’m influenced by reading in the introduction to the OUP edition, and in Wikipedia, that the last four chapters were added after the magazine serialisation was complete, and were written specially for the book edition – but they felt significantly different from everything else that had preceded.

Previously it had been a dawdling, enjoyably aimless diary of a suburban nobody’s quiet life and footling concerns but in the added chapters the narrative suddenly felt like the authors had decided it was A Novel and so needed to have a sense of a plot and of a climactic ending.

Hence the introduction of an unusually elaborate storyline wherein Lupin advises Perkupps’ oldest client, Gilbert E. Gillam O. Crowbillon, to leave the firm and use a rival. This ‘betrayal’ of the old firm mortified Charles and Mr Perkupp asks him to write a letter of apology to Crowbillon, explaining that his son is new at the firm and inexperienced in the ways of the City in the hope of winning him back. So far, so consistent with the mode of embarrassment and humiliation which characterises the earlier parts.

But then comes a Fairy Tale Ending. Crowbillon not only sends Lupin a check as thanks for giving him such good advice, but the firm Lupin recommended him to, Gylterson and Sons, hires Lupin and at the princely salary of £200 a year, which it is hinted is comparable to Charles’s pay (I don’t think we ever learn Charles’s precise salary).

As a result Lupin hires rooms in the far more fashionable district of Bayswater and announces he is engaged to the daughter of the well-off Posh family, who sell hats across the North of England and are opening ‘branch establishments at New York, Sydney, and Melbourne, and [are] negotiating for Kimberley and Johannesburg.’ Suddenly, Lupin is rich!

And although Charles’s letter fails to win back Crowbillon, in the very last pages we meet again a rather loud-mouthed opinionated American Hardfur Huttle, who had made his first appearance at a dinner party which he dominates with his none-too-subtle opinions.

Right at the very end of the book, and out of the blue, this American summons Charles to his hotel to tell him he’s been impressed by him and his firm and so will be directing an important American friend to give Perkupp his business! With the result that, right at the very end of the novel, Mr Perkupp grandly rewards Charles for bringing in the new American client by buying and giving Charles the freehold to ‘The Laurels’, an act of stunning generosity which leaves Carrie crying with joy and Charles sending out for champagne to celebrate with his old muckers, Gowing and Cummings.

My point being: chapters 18 to 24, although they continue with the same characters and include many of the same kinds of social embarrassments, nonetheless feel significantly different from their predecessors, because they suddenly feel like they have a direction and a plot, and because that plot acquires an increasingly fairy tale quality of happiness and (cheap) champagne all round.

The meandering, silly and inconsequential charm of the opening chapters which didn’t appear to have any direction or purpose feel long gone and something of the book’s initial charm and innocence is lost as a result


Related links

Edwardian reviews

Although King Edward VII reigned from the day his mother, Queen Victoria, died on 22 January 1901 to the day he passed away on 6 May 1910, to be replaced by his son, King George V (reigned 6 May 1910 to 20 January 1936), most historians define the ‘Edwardian period’ as stretching from Victoria’s death to the outbreak of World War One in August 1914 – with some historians, for example, Eric Hobsbawm extending it to 1915, the year the full scale and calamity of the war began to strike home.

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When William Came by Saki (1913)

Invasion literature

According to Wikipedia:

Invasion literature (also The Invasion Novel) is a literary genre that was popular in the period between 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War 1914. The invasion novel was first recognised as a literary genre in the UK, and is generally said to have started with George Tomkyns Chesney’s novella The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, published in 1871, an account of a German invasion of England prompted by the recent Franco-Prussian War. Invasion literature played to national anxieties about hypothetical invasions by foreign powers and was very popular, not only in the UK. By 1914 the invasion literature genre included more than 400 novels and stories.

Examples of classic invasion literature which I’ve reviewed include:

H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds is, arguably, the high point of one aspect of the genre, playing to anxieties of terrestrial invasion but adding an entirely new layer of alien invasion onto it, an idea which has, obviously, spawned tens of thousands of copycat alien invasion fictions.

When William Came

When William Came is a relatively late example of invasion literature, being published as it was only a year before the outbreak of real war with Germany, in August 1914. The novel starts when the Germans, under Kaiser Wilhelm, have already invaded and conquered Britain, sometime in 1915 (see below for how the date is calculated).

The entire brief conflict is over by the time the main male protagonist , Murrey Yeovil, arrives back in his defeated homeland to observe the atmosphere of a London and England superficially unchanged but now under the control of the Kaiser, his German army and police.

Plot summary

At the age of 24, handsome youngish Murrey Yeovil inherited a fortune and has spent it journeying and adventuring to the back of beyond. Somewhere in Siberia he came down with marsh fever and was nursed by local tribesmen for weeks before he finally staggered to the nearest settlement, and eventually made it to a Finnish town where he rested & recovered, read the papers, and heard the news that Britain had been conquered in a lightning naval strike by Germany.

Chapter 1 The singing bird and the barometer

The novel opens with pretty Cicely Yeovil in her house in Berkshire Street, in fashionable West London, sitting in a swing chair and observing herself in a mirror. She is, we are to take it, an emblem of precisely the sort of self-centred narcissism rampant among England’s upper classes, which allowed Britain to be defeated.

Cicely is in the company of Ronnie Storr, a handsome man about town. They discuss the fact that she is expecting her husband, Murrey Yeovil, to arrive home today. He was in Russia when Germany invaded: ‘Somewhere in the wilds of Eastern Siberia, shooting and bird collecting, miles away from a railway or telegraph line’.

They speculate how Murrey will take to the German domination of things, and review the attitudes which their friends have taken to England having been invaded: from the tragical tone of many of London’s High Society who have either taken themselves off to their country retreats or left the country altogether, either for exile in Continental capitals such as Paris, or have fled to Britain’s colonies abroad which, a trifle illogically, have remained British. The most notable of these is the king, who has set up a new court in Delhi, jewel of the British Empire. Everyone (in the high society Saki is concerned with) refers to the German invasion by the euphemism ‘the fait accompli‘.

A servant announces the arrival of Tony Luton.

Tony Luton was a young man who had sprung from the people, and had taken care that there should be no recoil. He was scarcely twenty years of age, but a tightly packed chronicle of vicissitudes lay behind his sprightly insouciant appearance.

Tony has made a career as a singer of popular songs. He is one of a number of anticipations of the slim, clever form of Noel Coward (who was to become famous during the 1920s) which crop up throughout Saki’s fiction.

The threesome discuss the impending first night of a performer they all support, the daughter of a landed family, Gorla Mustelford, who has taken up ‘expressive dance’. When Tony announces that the Kaiser himself is going to attend the first night, Ronnie tells Cicely she simply must hold a first-night party for Gorla and she willingly agrees. They all agree she must invite Lady Shalem.

Grace, Lady Shalem, was a woman who had blossomed into sudden importance by constituting herself a sort of foster-mother to the fait accompli. At a moment when London was denuded of most of its aforetime social leaders she had seen her opportunity, and made the most of it… Lady Shalem, without being a beauty or a wit, or a grand lady in the traditional sense of the word, was in a fair way to becoming a power in the land.

Chapter 2 The homecoming

Murrey Yeovil arrives at Victoria station and is irked when the taxi driver speaks to him in German. He arrives home and Cicely is full of sympathy as she listens to more details of how he got fever in the back of beyond, was tended by tribesmen, eventually made it across Russia to a health resort in Finland where he stayed for weeks to recover his strength.

Murrey is still only three-quarters well again, his face is grey and sallow. He is upset by the post-conquest changes: ‘the alterations on stamps and coinage, the intrusive Teuton element, the alien uniforms cropping up everywhere, the new orientation of social life.’

Chapter 3 The Metskie Tsar

Yeovil goes to see his doctor, Dr Holham, and this is an opportunity for Saki to describe in detail what happened to him in Russia, from the marsh fever he came down with to the slow and shocking realisation of Britain’s defeat.

It’s also an opportunity for the doctor to fill him (and the reader) in on a more precise description of the sequence of events, namely: the war was triggered by a frontier incident in East Africa, then next thing we knew the Germans attacked on all fronts. Their ships combined with aircraft defeated ours. They had numerical superiority so could defeat us in several places simultaneously. The Germans hadn’t initially planned annexation, but, once they realised it was a possibility, Warum nicht? and so Britain has become a sort of Alsace-Lorraine. (The king has fled to Delhi and set up an alternative court. Not the first time, as the narrator dryly points out, there has been a king ‘across the water’.)

Dr Holham says the Liberal Party had been in power for ‘nearly a decade’ and so were widely blamed for the defeat. (Since the Liberals won a landslide victory in the 1906 election this places the fictional invasion in about 1915, two years into the book’s future.) Yeovil expresses his bluff, manly patriotism:

‘But, surely—a nation such as ours, a virile, highly-civilised nation with an age-long tradition of mastery behind it, cannot be held under for ever by a few thousand bayonets and machine guns. We must surely rise up one day and drive them out.’

But Dr Holham crushes him by describing how quickly the British abandoned thoughts of resistance: for everyday life must go on, people must eat, work, earn money, business must trade. The golf links are filling up again, sport is resuming.

The doctor then goes on to make a special case of London, explaining that London is to an unusual extent a cosmopolitan city, and its art world is intrinsically cosmopolitan and less patriotic than the rest of the country:

You must remember that many things in modern life, especially in the big cities, are not national but international. In the world of music and art and the drama, for instance, the foreign names are legion, they confront you at every turn, and some of our British devotees of such arts are more acclimatised to the ways of Munich or Moscow than they are familiar with the life, say, of Stirling or York. For years they have lived and thought and spoken in an atmosphere and jargon of denationalised culture—even those of them who have never left our shores. They would take pains to be intimately familiar with the domestic affairs and views of life of some Galician gipsy dramatist, and gravely quote and discuss his opinions on debts and mistresses and cookery, while they would shudder at ‘D’ye ken John Peel?’ as a piece of uncouth barbarity. You cannot expect a world of that sort to be permanently concerned or downcast because the Crown of Charlemagne takes its place now on the top of the Royal box in the theatres, or at the head of programmes at State concerts.

So, in this view, London’s art world and High Society is, by its nature, less patriotic than the rest of the country, or even unpatriotic. It’s quite a vicious claim for Saki to be making and all the more surprising because he made his entire career out of detailed depictions of precisely this class.

Saki’s antisemitism

So far, so cutting. But then, to my surprise, the two characters step over a line and transition from being anti-London to becoming overtly antisemitic.

‘And then there are the Jews.’
‘There are many in the land, or at least in London,’ said Yeovil.
‘There are even more of them now than there used to be,’ said Holham. ‘I am to a great extent a disliker of Jews myself, but I will be fair to them, and admit that those of them who were in any genuine sense British have remained British and have stuck by us loyally in our misfortune; all honour to them. But of the others, the men who by temperament and everything else were far more Teuton or Polish or Latin than they were British, it was not to be expected that they would be heartbroken because London had suddenly lost its place among the political capitals of the world, and became a cosmopolitan city. They had appreciated the free and easy liberty of the old days, under British rule, but there was a stiff insularity in the ruling race that they chafed against. Now, putting aside some petty Government restrictions that Teutonic bureaucracy has brought in, there is really, in their eyes, more licence and social adaptability in London than before.’

This speech combines a number of antisemitic tropes:

Antisemitic trope 1: Jews everywhere

That the Jews were somehow everywhere, ‘many in the land’. Certainly the 1880s and 1890s had seen large-scale immigration of Jews to Britain fleeing from pogroms in Russia. Between 1880 and 1900 an estimated 150,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in London, mostly settling in the East End where competition for housing and work caused much ill feeling and gave rise to the nativist, anti-immigration party, the British Brothers League. It was lobbying by the League and a shrewd alliance with sympathetic MPs which led to the 1905 Aliens Act, which was the first attempt in British law to limit immigration.

But the rhetoric around Jewish immigration (astonishingly, hair-raisingly racist as it appears to modern sensibilities) exaggerated the impact that 150,000 people made on a filthy, over-crowded London whose population was already five million. If there was competition for sweatshop jobs and appalling housing conditions, these were present before the Jews arrived. These were English problems created by decades of English exploitation and neglect.

Antisemitic trope 2: Jews cosmopolitan

The second antisemitic trope is that the Jews are essentially ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘rootless’ and therefore intrinsically less patriotic or incapable of patriotism in the way that other ‘races’ are (the French ‘race’, the British ‘race’, the German ‘race’ etc); that they actively prefer London under enemy occupation as it is more like the continental capitals they are used to.

This is just a slur, a libel, which the doctor himself goes on to qualify as being untrue for most if not all British Jews. But that doesn’t stop him expressing it and Yeovil nodding sagely as if they’ve both made a penetratingly wise analysis of Edwardian society’s many ills.

Edwardian anxieties

Because that’s what’s at the root of the problem: Edwardian society’s profound anxiety about itself.

The Boer War and poverty The ruling classes and their cronies in the Press had been shocked by Britain’s poor showing in the Boer War, which should have been over in a few months but dragged on for two and a half painful years (1899 to 1902). They were shocked to discover the terrible state of the working class men rounded up from the slums of London, Birmingham and Glasgow and packed off to the distant Veldt where they were easily outclassed by the fit guerrilla fighters of the Boers. (The most quoted statistic is that, of the young men recruited for the war from the slums of Britain’s cities, as many as 40% were unfit for military service and suffered from medical problems such as rickets and other poverty-related illnesses.)

The decadence At the other end of the social scale there was an ongoing moral panic about the moral decline of the sons of the super-rich upper classes, what the antisemitic polemicist Arnold White called ‘bad smart society’ in his 1901 diatribe Empire and Efficiency. The worry that the British Empire would go the way of the Roman Empire, which everyone agreed had collapsed due to its moral decadence and self-indulgence. To every decent chap’s horror there were even artistic and literary movements which prided themselves on their ‘decadence.’

The Oscar Wilde trial (1895) gave the enemies of decadence a focal point and symbol with which to whip all these decadent tendencies, and try to enforce more martial virtues, the old Roman Republican virtues of heroism and self-sacrifice. But, as Saki’s own stories amply demonstrate, set as they are among fantastically decadent, orchidaceous young men and catty Society women, this campaign had a very limited impact. While the Germans were aggressively building up their fleet of Dreadnoughts, Imperialists of the Kipling brand warned of the dangers of attack, and called for a physical and moral revolution across the land, but Kipling’s tone is one of a prophet in the wilderness who becomes all the more anxious the more he is ignored.

Military rivalry In addition to the threat of moral collapse from within and armed threat from Europe, Edwardian England was faced with other seemingly intractable problems. Civil war was threatening in Ireland and the entire political class was taking sides over the conflict. An evermore militant trade union movement supported a Labour Party which was threatening to gain more MPs and overturn the duopoly of power between Conservatives and Liberals which had lasted over a century. Women of all classes were united in the surprisingly disruptive and divisive Suffragette Movement. And various colonies threatened rebellion and revolt, not least the jewel in the Crown, India, with its growing Indian National Congress  party, founded 1885.

Jews as scapegoats

The great advantage of having a scapegoat is that everything can be blamed on them. All the anxieties and resentments and furies of all the different classes and parties in Edwardian society could be focused on just one convenient figure – the ‘Jew’. Society becoming too luxurious and decadent? Blame it on the corrupt spirit of the Oriental Jew. Society too greedy and money-minded? Blame it on the Jewish banker. Society aflame with Socialist agitation? Blame it on the Jewish Socialists. The East End packed with filthy hovels? Blame it on Jewish immigration or rackrenting Jewish landords. Good, solid British culture being borne down in a welter of cosmopolitan art and radical theatre? Blame it on Jewish intellectuals and Jewish impresarios (later on, Saki goes to lengths to point out that the Caravansery Theatre of Varieties which features in the story is managed by Messrs. Isaac Grosvenor and Leon Hebhardt, continuing his theme that cosmopolitan Jews run everything).

There was no social, political or cultural problem too large or too small which couldn’t be laid at the door of the scapegoat figure of ‘the Jew’, stereotypically seen as rootless, cosmopolitan, with no fixed homeland, and therefore the enemy of all the good, solid, traditional British blah blah blah values.

Against this backdrop Saki creates a fine, upstanding, huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Aryan hero who is associated with clean, healthy living, either in the wild, among wolves on the distant steppes of Russia, or fox hunting across unspoilt Wessex. Murrey Yeovil’s structural role in the narrative is to act as a clean, upstanding contrast to cosmopolitan London and its moral corruption and idle, upper-class chatter, as described by his sidekick Dr Holham:

‘People of the world that I am speaking of, our dominant world at the present moment, herd together as closely packed to the square yard as possible, doing nothing worth doing, and saying nothing worth saying, but doing it and saying it over and over again, listening to the same melodies, watching the same artistes, echoing the same catchwords, ordering the same dishes in the same restaurants, suffering each other’s cigarette smoke and perfumes and conversation, feverishly, anxiously making arrangements to meet each other again to-morrow, next week, and the week after next, and repeat the same gregarious experience.’

It was psychologically easy for people like Saki or his characters to channel their ill-focused dislike of modern life, with all its rapid changes and stresses and anxieties, first onto The City, the embodiment of alienating Modernity, and then onto the figure which generations of antisemitic prejudice had created as somehow the embodiment of everything which was corrupting about modern urban life, ‘the Jew’.

Antisemitism as problem avoidance

Like all racist stereotypes, antisemitism allows the believer to avoid having to confront the intractably complex and difficult issues about his own society and his own relationship to it. Just possibly it was not foreigners who were responsible for the corruption and superficiality of London life, for mass poverty and slums, for high crime rates and the growth of radical socialist politics: maybe it was the British ruling class themselves who were responsible for creating this anxious and divided society. But you can see how an entire class would prefer not to look its own failure in the face, and much prefer to blame them, the others, the outsiders, the rich Jews, the poor Jews, the bankers, the Socialists, they’re all in it together, it’s a great Jewish conspiracy!

Antisemitism as a bonding force for antisemites

And like all socially shared stereotypes, antisemitism also allows its exponents to bond together, to cement friendships, to assert shared values, exactly as Yeovil and the doctor do in this chapter. There’s a particularly unpleasant and telling way in which the antisemites use periphrases to refer to Jews: referring to ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen’, or people whose ancestors hale from ‘the Jordan valley’, or use cod Biblical phrases like the alleged fact that they are ‘many in the land’. The antisemites think they’re being so clever, so civilisé, using their fancy codes and crossword-clue style allusions to Jews. But they’re not; they’re being thick and racist. Antisemitism is a stupid person’s idea of ‘clever’.

Summary of discussion of antisemitism

To sum up: antisemitism is not actually the central theme of this book, it is ‘merely’ an unpleasantly recurring leitmotif, a subset of the bigger issue the text sets out to investigate, namely Britain’s moral, political, cultural and military collapse. But it has an impact on the modern reader out of proportion to its relatively minor presence in the text, because of the calamitous history which was to come later and which we, now, know so much about.

Considered as a fiction, it is fascinating to see how Saki shows that antisemitism has arisen in Murrey Yeovil’s character, how it derives from this simplistic city-country dichotomy, and how it has become horribly intertwined with notions of patriotism versus ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’, corrupt town versus noble country and so on. Saki the novelist gives Murrey’s antisemitism a great psychological plausibility.

And it is always possible that Saki is pulling the basic fictional trick on us of fooling us into sympathising with, or taking seriously, a character who he himself despises. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like Murrey Yeovil really is the ‘hero’, albeit flawed, of this slender novel, and that his bitter resentment of Jews is included in the novel because Saki himself, at least in part, shared it.

And so I’m afraid the broad vein of antisemitism which runs through this novel has permanently tainted my enjoyment of all Saki’s other works. Anyway. Back to the plot summary:

Chapter 4 ‘Es ist verboten’

The morning after Yeovil’s long chat with the doctor, he comes downstairs to a scumptious breakfast prepared by servants (when did servants stop being a thing in England? The 1940s?). Cicely explains to Yeovil how many of their upper-class friends have either retreated to their country estates, or have moved to one of the colonies. (It is, on the face of it, an anomaly that the colonies continue to remain British, though this is directly addressed later on by a German character who says the Germans simply have no interest in winning or running them. All they want is the freedom to develop their own colonies, which they have now won.)

Yeovil goes for a walk through Hyde Park where he notices Teutonic changes: for example, the tea rooms have changed to a continental bar serving lager and coffee, a troop of shiny German cavaliers rides by, and a policeman gives him an on-the-spot fine for walking on the grass (as they do in Switzerland), warning him that walking on the grass is, under the new regime, ‘verboten’.

Chapter 5 L’art d’etre cousine

Cicely holds a lunch party to which come her sort-of boyfriend Ronnie Storr, as well as the insufferable chatterbox Joan Mardle. After idle chat, Joan moves on to discuss the law about the House of Lords. All titles will lapse unless the holder takes an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser.

Then to the issue of Gorla Mustelford and her first night of ‘suggestive dancing’ at the Caravansery Theatre. Interestingly, ‘suggestive’ doesn’t seem to have the meaning it has for us now i.e. sexual suggestiveness, for Gorla is doing a dance ‘suggestive of the life of a fern’, so it seems to mean something more like imitative or mimicking.

Joan Mardle has realised the Yeovils are poles apart on the great question of the day, which is whether to acquiesce in the German conquest or resist. Cicely insists she will throw a party for Gorla’s first night though, out of consideration for Murrey’s views, not at their home but at a restaurant.

Chapter 6 Herr von Kwarl

Portrait of an adviser to the government, Herr Von Kwarl, sat at his favourite table in the Brandenburg Café at the bottom of Regentstrasse (i.e. in Berlin), and discussing the Occupation with Herr Rebinok, the plump little Pomeranian banker. They play chess (with comically aggressive comments) then discuss the future of the Occupation. Von Kwarl dismisses the notion of Delhi assembling a coalition against them. No, the pressure point is the young generation of Brits: will they acquiesce or revolt? In particular, over German plans to introduce national service which Britain has never had before.

Chapter 7 The Lure

Cicely and Murrey have diametrically opposed reactions to the Occupation. She is given very persuasive arguments that the old values and ways must be maintained despite everything. She is a ‘gradualist’. She believes British values may come to infiltrate the German Empire, a kind of reverse takeover which may end up dictating the whole drift of German policy. Alternatively, there may come a moment in the future which is propitious to an armed uprising. But not now: for the moment, normal British life and values must be preserved. In particular she holds out to Murrey ‘the lure’ of the chapter’s title, which is that he should resume his place with the East Wessex Hunt, maintaining the best traditions of an independent England.

Among the small squires and yeoman farmers, doctors, country tradesmen, auctioneers and so forth who would gather at the covert-side and at the hunt breakfasts, there might be a local nucleus of revolt against the enslavement of the land, a discouraged and leaderless band waiting for some one to mould their resistance into effective shape and keep their loyalty to the old dynasty and the old national cause steadily burning.

Chapter 8 The First Night

The first night of Gorla Mustelford’s dance show, included on a mixed bill at the Caravansery Theatre of Varieties. ‘Everyone’ is there but the chapter is mainly a vehicle for Yeovil’s jaded reflections on London’s sell-out society with its ‘babble of tongues and shrill mechanical repartee.’ There is an unpleasantly antisemitic passage about the prevalence of Jews from many countries in the audience.

At first sight and first hearing the bulk of the audience seemed to comprise representatives of the chief European races in well-distributed proportions, but if one gave it closer consideration it could be seen that the distribution was geographically rather than ethnographically diversified. Men and women there were from Paris, Munich, Rome, Moscow and Vienna, from Sweden and Holland and divers other cities and countries, but in the majority of cases the Jordan Valley had supplied their forefathers with a common cradle-ground. The lack of a fire burning on a national altar seemed to have drawn them by universal impulse to the congenial flare of the footlights, whether as artists, producers, impresarios, critics, agents, go-betweens, or merely as highly intelligent and fearsomely well-informed spectators. They were prominent in the chief seats, they were represented, more sparsely but still in fair numbers, in the cheaper places, and everywhere they were voluble, emphatic, sanguine or sceptical, prodigal of word and gesture, with eyes that seemed to miss nothing and acknowledge nothing, and a general restless dread of not being seen and noticed.

This soon segues into Yeovil’s equally bitter meditations on other classes who have too-readily accepted occupation, but nonetheless, its rank antisemitism leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. Yeovil contrasts the English high society sellouts with the Bulgarian people who put up a fight against their oppressor and so are now (1913) independent (of the Ottoman Empire).

Thoughts about those who have sold out or accepted ‘the fait accompli’ focus on the figure of ambitious social climber Lady Shalem, who has kept London society going and whose husband will soon be rewarded with a Barony by a grateful Kaiser.

There is also a loud tiresome American. Saki clearly hates Americans cf. the honeymoon chapter in The Unbearable Bassington. They’re one more symptom of the ghastly modern world which he hates, along with motor cars and continental cafés and cosmopolitan Jews.

The ‘redoubtable von Kwarl’ makes a ‘visit of ceremony’ to Cicely’s box. Yes, she is very well in with the new ruling class, her husband observes, bitterly.

Chapter 9 An evening ‘to be remembered’

The narrator fiercely criticises Gorla Mustelford’s graceless, restless dancing and lambasts the superficiality of the audience. By contrast with the fine balance of his short stories, in this novel Saki’s contempt and almost hatred of the English upper classes is revealed in all its bile and anger.

The Kaiser arrives, slipping into his box with no fuss except that the entire theatre stops to stare. Yeovil is disgusted at their sycophancy.

And then the performance is over and everyone goes to the party Cicely has arranged at a restaurant where the narrator lets rip his contempt for the pretentious loudmouth prattle of ghastly London High Society, awful people shouting their banal opinions at the tops of their voices.

The narrative pans over various groups until arriving at the popular singer Tony Luton, who had himself performed at the evening’s gala, sweet-talking the elderly and very rich Gräfin von Tolb, who has taken up residence in Berkeley Square.

Chapter 10 Some reflections and a Te Deum

It is the day after the Mustelford first night and Cicely’s wildly successful party. The chapter shares with us Cicely’s strategic analysis of how the success of the party has positioned her within London’s new, post-conquest world. The friendship of Lady Shalem was important, but the patronage of the Gräfin is vital. She tries to be polite to Murrey over breakfast but he gets bitter when she asks if he has read about her supper-party. He makes another antisemitic remark.

‘There is a notice of it in two of the morning papers, with a list of those present,’ said Yeovil; ‘The conquering race seems to have been very well represented.’
‘Several races were represented,’ said Cicely; ‘a function of that sort, celebrating a dramatic first-night, was bound to be cosmopolitan. In fact, blending of races and nationalities is the tendency of the age we live in.’
‘The blending of races seems to have been consummated already in one of the individuals at your party,’ said Yeovil drily; ‘the name Mentieth-Mendlesohnn struck me as a particularly happy obliteration of racial landmarks.’
Cicely laughed.

It shows you how, for people of Yeovil and Saki’s ilk, the nations of the world were composed of clearly defined races, the Teuton, the Anglo-Saxon, the Latin, the Muslim, the Arab and so on. More controversially, they have a primitive feeling that miscegenation, or the marrying across racial lines, is unfortunate, and hence the joke about Mrs Mentieth-Mendlesohnn, whose name shows she is a ‘cross’ between Scottish and Jewish ‘blood’. For some reason the very rootlessness of Jews, the way they have no fixed nation but crop up as citizens of many other nations, offends Yeovil and brings out these unpleasant cracks.

On a separate subject, considered as a fiction, it is a simple but effective idea to position a husband and wife with polar opposite views about the novel’s central issue, i.e. how to respond to the catastrophe of being conquered and humiliated; to have the differing attitudes to being conquered dramatised within a marriage, with the wife, in particular, worried that her plans to become force in London High Society, might be derailed by her begrudging husband.

Chapter 11 The tea shop

Yeovil goes for a walk down Piccadilly and into Burlington Arcade, whose entire west side of shops has been removed to make way for German-style café tables at which a very cosmopolitan mix of peoples and languages are drinking their coffees and syrups and listening to a band playing the latest transatlantic jingles.

From around the tightly-packed tables arose a babble of tongues, made up chiefly of German, a South American rendering of Spanish, and a North American rendering of English, with here and there the sharp shaken-out staccato of Japanese. A sleepy-looking boy, in a nondescript uniform, was wandering to and fro among the customers, offering for sale the Matin, New York Herald, Berliner Tageblatt, and a host of crudely coloured illustrated papers, embodying the hard-worked wit of a world-legion of comic artists. Yeovil hurried through the Arcade; it was not here, in this atmosphere of staring alien eyes and jangling tongues, that he wanted to read the news of the Imperial Aufklärung.

So, as I stated earlier, Yeovil’s animus against Jews is only a part of his broader revulsion against the entire mixed-up, multiracial, polyglot, cosmopolitan world which he hates.

Yeovil hurries through the Arcade, on through Hanover Square and then drops into a tea shop off Oxford Street. Here he gets talking to a pastor, a man with ‘a keen, clever, hard-lined face, the face of a man who, in an earlier stage of European history, might have been a warlike prior’, who explains that the working classes blame the defeat on the politicians and ruling classes, despite the fact it was they themselves who voted for peace-making politicians (i.e. the pacifist Liberal Party).

All morning Yeovil and everyone else has been expecting a Royal Proclamation announcing that the British will be compelled to perform the same military service as the Germans. It is a brutal humiliation, then, when the newsboys shout a special edition of the papers is hitting the streets, and the pastor grabs a copy and shares it with Yeovil to discover that: the Imperial Aufklärung is precisely the opposite. From now on no Britons will do military service, training, wear a uniform or be able to bear arms.

The martial trappings, the swaggering joy of life, the comradeship of camp and barracks, the hard discipline of drill yard and fatigue duty, the long sentry watches, the trench digging, forced marches, wounds, cold, hunger, makeshift hospitals, and the blood-wet laurels—these were not for them. Such things they might only guess at, or see on a cinema film, darkly; they belonged to the civilian nation.

In other words the Germans consider the British have proved themselves unworthy of bearing arms. It is the extreme of national humiliation.

Chapter 12 The travelling companions

Yeovil takes a train down through an idealised countryside to ‘Torywood’. It was plain from The Unbearable Bassington and becomes plainer still here, that Saki loathed the city and fetishised the idealised English countryside.

Tall grasses and meadow-weeds stood in deep shocks, field after field, between the leafy boundaries of hedge or coppice, thrusting themselves higher and higher till they touched the low sweeping branches of the trees that here and there overshadowed them. Broad streams, bordered with a heavy fringe of reed and sedge, went winding away into a green distance where woodland and meadowland seemed indefinitely prolonged; narrow streamlets, lost to view in the growth that they fostered, disclosed their presence merely by the water-weed that showed in a riband of rank verdure threading the mellower green of the fields.

On the stream banks moorhens walked with jerky confident steps, in the easy boldness of those who had a couple of other elements at their disposal in an emergency; more timorous partridges raced away from the apparition of the train, looking all leg and neck, like little forest elves fleeing from human encounter. And in the distance, over the tree line, a heron or two flapped with slow measured wing-beats and an air of being bent on an immeasurably longer journey than the train that hurtled so frantically along the rails.

Now and then the meadowland changed itself suddenly into orchard, with close-growing trees already showing the measure of their coming harvest, and then strawyard and farm buildings would slide into view; heavy dairy cattle, roan and skewbald and dappled, stood near the gates, drowsily resentful of insect stings, and bunched-up companies of ducks halted in seeming irresolution between the charms of the horse-pond and the alluring neighbourhood of the farm kitchen. Away by the banks of some rushing mill-stream, in a setting of copse and cornfield, a village might be guessed at, just a hint of red roof, grey wreathed chimney and old church tower as seen from the windows of the passing train, and over it all brooded a happy, settled calm, like the dreaming murmur of a trout-stream and the far-away cawing of rooks.

It was a land where it seemed as if it must be always summer and generally afternoon, a land where bees hummed among the wild thyme and in the flower beds of cottage gardens, where the harvest-mice rustled amid the corn and nettles, and the mill-race flowed cool and silent through water-weeds and dark tunnelled sluices, and made soft droning music with the wooden mill-wheel. And the music carried with it the wording of old undying rhymes, and sang of the jolly, uncaring, uncared-for miller, of the farmer who went riding upon his grey mare, of the mouse who lived beneath the merry mill-pin, of the sweet music on yonder green hill and the dancers all in yellow—the songs and fancies of a lingering olden time, when men took life as children take a long summer day, and went to bed at last with a simple trust in something they could not have explained.

On the train journey, very schematically Yeovil meets two ‘types’. The first is a visiting Hungarian who tuts about Britain’s fate, saying Britain grew soft: ‘great world-commerce brings great luxury, and luxury brings softness.’ The British lost faith in their Christian religion but were not virile enough to restore Paganism.

A word on paganism

Paganism and its embodiment in the great Greek nature god Pan, are threads which occasionally surface in Saki’s stories, notably the one specifically about Pan, The Music on the Hill, from The Chronicles of Clovis (1911). But a very strong feel for the countryside is present in many of his stories and both of the novels and this sometimes rises to the level of almost visionary or religious intensity, which is where the spirit of Pan comes in.

This blog post by John Coulthart gives a useful background to Pan in the art and literary world of the 1890s. At least five different things were involved. 1. The rejection by legions of sensitive artists and writers of the urban world of commerce and industry in preference for the unspoilt pagan countryside. 2. The sense that Christianity had become completely hollowed out as the vehicle for any kind of religious raptures or ecstatic visions. 3. Whereas many of these artists were the product of a century or more of the Classical literature which was taught in all private schools, giving rise to the cult of evermore exquisite classicism. 4. It was strongly tinged with homosexuality. Pan is a beautiful, svelte but wickedly immoral young man; in other words a fantasy object for many gay writers and artists, of which Oscar Wilde was one and Saki clearly another. The two occurrences of the word ‘pagan’ in this novel associate it with young, manly virility. The first one is here, in this passage, where the Hungarian train traveller tells Yeovil that true paganism is associated with a level of virile manliness which the English have lost:

‘I know many English of the country parts, and always they tell me they go to church once in each week to set the good example to the servants. They were tired of their faith, but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a sort of Socialism which made for the greatest dullness of the greatest number.’

And the second is when Yeovil witnesses some young German soldiers marching by, exciting and glamorous in their uniforms and virile young manliness:

A sudden roll of drums and crash of brass music filled the air. A company of Bavarian infantry went by, in all the pomp and circumstance of martial array and the joyous swing of rapid rhythmic movement. The street echoed and throbbed in the Englishman’s ears with the exultant pulse of youth and mastery set to loud Pagan music. (Chapter 11)

OK, there’s nothing overtly gay about either passage, but we know it is there. In fact ‘pagan’ could, in the right context, virtually be a codeword for gay.

5. Lastly, alas, I think there is also an antisemitic element to Saki’s paganism, too. In the sense that Saki appears to find the organised Christianity, the Church of England, of his day, risible, as, admittedly, many other writers of the time did too, and states his preference for full-blooded and virile paganism. But it’s only a small step from this position to identifying the really repressive part of Christianity as the Old Testament with its forbidding God Jehovah and his long list of prohibitions and his repressive attitude towards the clean, young, healthy male body worshipped by the Greeks – and from there it’s only a small further step to blame the Old Testament on ‘the Jews’ and – bang! – you can, once again, blame ‘the Jews’ for everything bad and repressive about society, and the antisemite is back on his familiar stomping ground.

Back to the plot

Back on the train, the Hungarian asks Murrey to compare and contrast the pusillanimous Brits with his own people, the Hungarians, who ‘live too much cheek by jowl with our racial neighbours to have many illusions about them.’ Interestingly, by ‘race’ he doesn’t mean the modern notion of skin colour, but is clearly referring to Austrians, Roumanians, Serbs, Italians, Czechs, what we would think of as ‘nationalities’. These terms have changed their meaning over the last century. Anyway, his point is you always have to have your guard up and Britain let hers lapse.

The Hungarian gets out at the next station and is replaced by a big, red-faced English angler. This is a classic type of the pub bore and Yeovil gets angry when the bore booms on about Britain’s intrinsic superiority, a nation such as ours is bound to kick out the sausage-eaters, and so on. Not, replies Yeovil, without great effort and self-sacrifice. By the end of their short conversation Yeovil is filled with Kiplingesque contempt for the jingoist who is full of words with no understanding of the hard work and sacrificed involved.

And with that parting shot he [the jingoist] left the carriage and lounged heavily down the platform, a patriot who had never handled a rifle or mounted a horse or pulled an oar, but who had never flinched from demolishing his country’s enemies with his tongue. ‘England has never had any lack of patriots of that type,’ thought Yeovil sadly; ‘so many patriots and so little patriotism.’

Chapter 13 Torywood

Murrey has been taking the train down to the hilariously named ‘Torywood’, whose train station is, of course, the epitome of bucolic England. Yeovil is picked up by a dogcart, which gives him opportunity to vent his grumpy spleen about the horrid new invention of the motor car, which, of course, began its ruinous ascent in the Edwardian decade (see Wind In The Willows).

Torywood is the country seat of Eleanor, Dowager Lady Greymarten. She has devoted her life to the maintenance of the county and the country which is described in woolly, Kiplingesque rhetoric.

In her town house or down at Torywood, with her writing-pad on her knee and the telephone at her elbow, or in personal counsel with some trusted colleague or persuasive argument with a halting adherent or half-convinced opponent, she had laboured on behalf of the poor and the ill-equipped, had fought for her idea of the Right, and above all, for the safety and sanity of her Fatherland. Spadework when necessary and leadership when called for, came alike within the scope of her activities, and not least of her achievements, though perhaps she hardly realised it, was the force of her example, a lone, indomitable fighter calling to the half-caring and the half-discouraged, to the laggard and the slow-moving.

This is a laughable portrait of the Tory fantasy of the benevolent aristocrat, conveniently eliding the centuries of oppression of rural workers which had brought her family to this happy state. Lady Greymarten is old and frail now, but she enjoins Yeovil to fight on. The contrast between old and fading but still unbowed gentility and the preening exuberance of ‘cosmopolitan’ London couldn’t be more clearly expressed:

Yeovil said good-bye to her as she stood there, a wan, shrunken shadow, yet with a greater strength and reality in her flickering life than those parrot men and women that fluttered and chattered through London drawing-rooms and theatre foyers.

It is clearly designed to bring tears of patriotism to your eyes, although it may bring tears of mocking laughter to the modern reader’s eye. If things are defined by contrast with what they are not, then the clean and healthy countryside needs there to be a corrupt and dirty city, to set itself against.

His own country had never seemed in his eyes so comfort-yielding and to-be-desired as it did now when it had passed into alien keeping and become a prison land as much as a homeland. London with its thin mockery of a Season, and its chattering horde of empty-hearted self-seekers, held no attraction for him, but the spell of English country life was weaving itself round him, now that the charm of the desert was receding into a mist of memories. The waning of pleasant autumn days in an English woodland, the whir of game birds in the clean harvested fields, the grey moist mornings in the saddle, with the magical cry of hounds coming up from some misty hollow, and then the delicious abandon of physical weariness in bathroom and bedroom after a long run, and the heavenly snatched hour of luxurious sleep, before stirring back to life and hunger, the coming of the dinner hour and the jollity of a well-chosen house-party.

Fantasy of English upper class, ‘timeless’, country life conveniently emptied of the its actual inhabitants, the farm workers and small town merchants and lawyers and increasing number of commuters. Fantasy.

Chapter 14 A perfectly glorious afternoon

We are plunged back into the subtle corruptions of London life, with Yeovil’s wife, Cicely, ensconced in the fashionable Anchorage restaurant, along with fashionable young Ronnie Storr, the musician who she refers to as her ‘lover’ and ‘boyfriend’. She has, apparently, had many during her marriage to Murrey.

They discuss in a languid Noel Coward sort of way how Tony is becoming too famous as a musician to remain her lover much longer. ‘You’ve got a charming young body and you’ve no soul, and that’s such a fascinating combination.’ He is giving a piano recital that afternoon and they go through a typical Saki list of London High Society who will be attending which, of course, includes some well-placed Germans.

Storr performs magnificently to the loud applause of the gentry and nobles present. But when the Duchess of Dreyshire asks Yeovil (now back in London) what he thinks, he replies by quoting a fierce piece of verse about patriotism, Boadicea, an Ode by William Cowper. To Murrey’s surprise, young working class Tony Luton takes up the refrain before himself storming out.

The flow of polite chatter resumes and Saki describes at length the chitter-chatter of the privileged, including Canon Mousepace, Mrs. Menteith-Mendlesohnn, the popular novelist Rhapsodie Pantril, the Gräfin von Tolb, Leutnant von Gabelroth, Joan Mardle, the Landgraf.

Later, it was reported in the newspapers that the popular singer Tony Luton had turned down an offer by Messrs. Isaac Grosvenor and Leon Hebhardt to renew his contract and had signed on instead with the Canadian merchant marine. The point being that he has quit the shallow world of ‘art’, the theatre and endless London gossip for a real job in the ‘real’ world. Which Saki approves with editorial heavy-handedness:

Perhaps after all there had been some shred of glory amid the trumpet triumph of that July afternoon.

Chapter 15 The intelligent anticipator of wants

Both of Yeovil’s old clubs have disappeared, one off the face of the earth, the other off to Delhi. He tries its replacement, the Cartwheel, which turns out to be as busy as Piccadilly Circus and with a distinct presence of ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen, wearing tartan waistcoats of the clans of their adoption, flitted restlessly between the tape machines and telephone boxes’. Another one of the many throwaway antisemitic remarks which litter the book.

Yeovil is about to turn round and leave when he is buttonholed by Hubert Herlton who has become a ‘fixer’, a putter together of buyer and seller, a sort of early version of the World War Two spiv. Hubert predicts that German immigration will slowly increase and more cities and towns develop a majority German population. Herlton is sharp enough to remember Yeovil is a hunting man and used to hunt in East Wessex, so briskly announces that he has a fine horse lined up for him, and a ‘hunting box’ or country base, complete with paddock and garden.

Yeovil points out a chap named Pitherby crossing the vestibule. Herlton reveals the Pitherby is set fair to acquire a barony and so has been laying a goodly stock of game to be hunted, in accord with his new status, and is buying off Herlton some Hereford cows, a swannery, a heronry, and a carp pond!

Chapter 16 Sunrise

A strange chapter, standing completely alone from the rest of the text, in which a Frenchman in what we take to be remote India, comes across an English woman bringing up her children in a remote isolated farmstead, where they can swim in the lake and shoot among the reeds. Her husband is dead and she is in exile from occupied England.

The chapter title is explained because, as the sun rises on the Frenchman talking to this woman, her children unfurl the Union Jack on a flagpole on a hill and everyone stops to salute it. Presumably this interlude exists to show the patriotic sacrifice that some people are prepared to make for good old England, and to compare and contrast this with the London society which is carrying on as if nothing has happened, even sucking up to their German conquerors.

Chapter 17 The event of the season

In a Turkish bath in Cork Street W1 a vapid young man Cornelian Valpy regales his fellow bathers with details of the frightfully clever ball held at Shalem House last night, where guests went as a character from history and their partners had to be their prevailing characteristics, such as George Washington and Truth.

It is a long roll call of the hypocritical Quisling high society we have been meeting throughout the novel: the Duchess of Dreyshire as Aholibah, Billy Carnset for her shadow, Unspeakable Depravity; Leutnant von Gabelroth as George Washington, Joan Mardle as his shadow, typifying Inconvenient Candour; the loud-voiced Bessimer woman as the Goddess Juno, with Ronnie Storre to represent Green-eyed Jealousy; the author Pitherby dressed as Frederick the Great to promote his sycophantic biography of the German ruler, accompanied by an uninspiring-looking woman, supposed to represent Military Genius; Cornelian Valpy dressed as the Emperor Nero and Miss Kate Lerra, typifying Insensate Vanity.

Valpy has time to explain that Cicely Yeovil has found herself a new boyfriend, much prettier than her old one, Ronnie Storre. What he doesn’t realise is that Ronnie is in the Turkish bath, overhears this comment, and stalks out. The point of the chapter is to demonstrate London’s cesspit of narcissistic partying and vapid gossip.

Chapter 18 The dead who do not understand

November in the country, country wives putting up shutters and the fox which has been hunted but not caught, retreats into the depths of a spinney as the hunters return to their kennels and stables. We are in the country so, of course, it is Yeovil we find riding home exhausted by a good day’s hunting.

So far, so stereotypes, but there is a smidgeon of interesting psychology in the way that, having been vaunted as the man who hates the fait accompli and loathes the facile acceptance of the new conquerors by his wife and her smart set, and was told by Eleanor, Dowager Lady Greymarten to ‘fight on’… actually, he rather likes the life of a country squire, he likes the hunting:

The pleasures of the chase, well-provided for in every detail, and dovetailed in with the assured luxury of a well-ordered, well-staffed establishment, were exactly what he wanted and exactly what his life down here afforded him. He was experiencing, too, that passionate recurring devotion to an old loved scene that comes at times to men who have travelled far and willingly up and down the world. He was very much at home… Horse and hound-craft, harvest, game broods, the planting and felling of timber, the rearing and selling of stock, the letting of grasslands, the care of fisheries, the up-keep of markets and fairs, they were the things that immediately mattered.

In other words he is tempted to forget all about the ‘good fight’ and relapse into a life of rural contentment. He is tempted.

Except that it’s gotten late, night is drawing on and when Yeovil stops at a pub to enquire directions he discovers he’s a long way from home. The publican tells him there’s a young man with a motor car in the bar heading in his direction, why not stable his horse here for the night and get a lift? Yeovil says yes, then is mortified to discover the motorist is one of ‘them’, Leutnant von Gabelroth, who had, by a wild coincidence, been present at the musical afternoon at Berkshire Street.

The drive takes them past a village church where Yeovil’s ancestors are buried and he is so ashamed that he turns his head in the opposite direction. That is the meaning of the chapter’s title. In Yeovil’s mind, his dead, his ancestors, will not understand his betrayal of their country.

Thus, after being dropped at his spacious and comfortable country house, having had a lovely bath and a fine dinner in the company of the local doctor, at the end of a perfect day, Yeovil is alone with his thoughts and the guilty self-accusation that he is somehow betraying his country, his race and his ancestors.

Here, installed under his own roof-tree, with as good horseflesh in his stable as man could desire, with sport lying almost at his door, with his wife ready to come down and help him to entertain his neighbours, Murrey Yeovil had found the life that he wanted—and was accursed in his own eyes. He argued with himself, and palliated and explained, but he knew why he had turned his eyes away that evening from the little graveyard under the trees; one cannot explain things to the dead.

Chapter 19 The little foxes

It is May, ten months after Yeovil’s return from Siberia, and his wife Cicely is enjoying luncheon in the Park in company of her latest toyboy, Larry Meadowfield. They are there because there is to be a Grand Parade of boy scouts. This organisation has been given all manner of privileges by the Kaiser. Via the usual selection of Quislings and collaborators – Cicely Yeovil, Gräfin von Tolb, Joan Mardle, Sir Leonard Pitherby, Lady Bailquist, Herr Rebinok, the little Pomeranian banker – we learn that there is trouble brewing in the Balkans and so it is all the more important that the grand parade of boy scouts pledges its allegiance to the Kaiser who is waiting, with his son and foreign dignitaries, on a specially erected stage.

But the boy scouts do not come, the crowd starts whistling and booing in mockery and an unnamed young man with a worn grey face (Murrey Yeovil) realises that although he himself might have made a shameful peace with the new regime, hundreds of thousands of the younger generation have not, and will fight on.

In thousands of English homes throughout the land there were young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield.

So the novel ends on this rousing patriotic note of defiance.


Thoughts

1. Is it even a novel?

When you first read that the subject matter of When William Came is a fictional German invasion of Edwardian England, you wonder whether it will be action-packed, whether there will be fighting, that it might be a ‘thriller’. In the event, it is none of these things. It is a study in the psychology of defeat and one which, in its mannered superficiality, and in comparison with accounts of the disasters which were to follow in the rest of the twentieth century, would be easy to overlook or dismiss as trivial.

In terms of structure, it was a simple but effective idea to divide the psychology of defeat into two broad streams or strategies and to allot one to a husband and one to a wife, so that the different paths of acquiescence can interplay with domestic psychology, and with ‘gender identity’: the woman’s approach, the man’s approach. Makes it more rich and complicated, or, perhaps, less simple-minded.

Even less original is the notion of dividing the responses to enemy occupation into a broadly Town and a ‘Country’ response, given that this is one of the oldest dichotomies in world literature. But Saki’s intimate knowledge of High Society and his malicious wit make the London scenes deliciously satirical; and his less well-known but deep love of the English countryside gives the rural scenes a sumptuously sensual depth.

Above all, he really can write, creating long, luscious sentences ripe with description, which build into huge paragraphs which, especially in the rural scenes, have an almost physical impact on the senses.

The pale light of a November afternoon faded rapidly into the dusk of a November evening. Far over the countryside housewives put up their cottage shutters, lit their lamps, and made the customary remark that the days were drawing in. In barn yards and poultry-runs the greediest pullets made a final tour of inspection, picking up the stray remaining morsels of the evening meal, and then, with much scrambling and squawking, sought the places on the roosting-pole that they thought should belong to them. Labourers working in yard and field began to turn their thoughts homeward or tavernward as the case might be. And through the cold squelching slush of a water-logged meadow a weary, bedraggled, but unbeaten fox stiffly picked his way, climbed a high bramble-grown bank, and flung himself into the sheltering labyrinth of a stretching tangle of woods.

2. Nationhood and patriotism

From a historical point of view, the book is an interesting stroll round the different ways notions of patriotism, race and identity were discussed in 1913 England. One of the most striking things, for me, was philological: Saki uses the word ‘race’ not in our modern sense of ethnicity and skin colour but more as we nowadays say ‘nation’. Thus he talks about the French race, the Italian race, the British race, ‘our’ race, and so on. It seems to have been a much more specific and much more clearly defined idea.

For Saki, or for his characters Yeovil and Dr Holham, each race must remain, in some sense, pure and undefiled by mixing with foreigners (hence the running joke about a character named Mrs Mentieth-Mendlesohnn who exists solely to demonstrate the perceived incongruity of a Jew marrying a Scot; it’s worth remembering that Saki, real name Hector Munro, was himself of Scottish descent).

This is more than what we mean today by racism, because it isn’t defined by skin colour; it’s a deeper sense that every nation has its unique culture, language and traditions and that these are weakened when they are blended into a mongrel mix. Hence Yeovil and Holham’s shared dislike of London’s cosmopolitanism, as evidenced in the ‘Munich or Moscow’ speech I quoted earlier.

On this interpretation, cosmopolitanism creates a fake metropolitan culture which neglects national traditions in preference for the magpie highlights of international art and culture. (Interesting to reflect how this negative view of London as an international city cut off from the rest of the country, hotbed of a cosmopolitan liberal elite, has persisted through the past 110 years, and is generally agreed to have been an issue in the drawn-out Brexit debate and then to have played a part in Labour’s shattering defeat in the 2019 general election.)

London is seen as being in some sense unfaithful to its own native traditions; its cosmopolitanism is a form of betrayal.

3. Jaundiced view of London High Society

One of the things that comes over most strongly throughout the book is Saki’s real hatred of the vapid, pleasure-seeking, shallow, unpatriotic and narcissistic London upper classes.

‘People of the world that I am speaking of, our dominant world at the present moment, herd together as closely packed to the square yard as possible, doing nothing worth doing, and saying nothing worth saying, but doing it and saying it over and over again, listening to the same melodies, watching the same artistes, echoing the same catchwords, ordering the same dishes in the same restaurants, suffering each other’s cigarette smoke and perfumes and conversation, feverishly, anxiously making arrangements to meet each other again to-morrow, next week, and the week after next, and repeat the same gregarious experience. If they were not herded together in a corner of western London, watching each other with restless intelligent eyes, they would be herded together at Brighton or Dieppe, doing the same thing.’

Again and again he criticises this class’s smallness, its incestuousness, and its smug, narcissistic self-congratulation. In a sense the entire premise of the plot, that the Germans will easily defeat us if it comes to a fight, can be seen as an extended slap in the face for these people and this culture which utterly failed to appreciate that there is a Real World of never-ending conflict and competition out there, and you need to be armed and ready to defend yourself against it. It was Kipling’s warning, rephrased in Saki’s very different, mordant and ironic style, but with the same sense of urgency.

4. Antisemitism

I’ve said enough earlier, but Munro’s antisemitism is a blot or stain on this book which also casts a long shadow over all his other works. It is interesting to see how antisemitism can be derived so simply from the postulates listed above, almost like a mathematical formula:

  • each nation or race should remain pure and true to its traditions
  • big cities are places where cosmopolitan elites deny and mock their national traditions, go soft, and indulge in evermore luxury and decadence
  • this is not only ‘immoral’ but leads to the fatal neglect of army and navy, leading to military defeat, France in 1870, England in this novel
  • ‘Jews’ are the most ‘cosmopolitan’ ‘rootless’ elements in modern urban society
  • ‘therefore’ these ‘rootless’ ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews are the greatest threats to the nation

A twisted logic whereby all these anxieties about national safety and resentments at the heedlessness of the rich and fury at everything you don’t like about the modern world can be focused onto the convenient and defenceless figure of the ‘Jew’, stereotypically seen as rootless, cosmopolitan, with no fixed homeland, and therefore the enemy of all the values listed above.

And how narrowing the focus onto this convenient scapegoat lets the antisemite off the hook of having to confront the real causes of England’s unease: the centuries of exploitation of her own deeply immiserated working classes, the Victorian century of ever-wider conquest and exploitation of peoples right around the world. Edwardian England was racked with social and political issues:

  • the rise of militant trade unions and the new Labour Party
  • the suffragettes
  • rebellion in Ireland
  • revolt across much of the Empire, not least the jewel in the Crown, India

But none of this is mentioned in the novel. Instead, and standing in for them, we have his sick obsession with ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen’ and their untoward prominence in show business. How stupid. How entirely inadequate to the complexities of the time.

When William Came made me realise that antisemitism is a way for people to refuse to face up to the uncomfortable facts about their own country and society and social failings. It is a stupid ‘solution’ for stupid people who aren’t capable of grasping, defining or analysing the genuinely difficult questions  their society needs to address. It is a cop-out. Antisemitism is an explanation for idiots.

A note on spelling antisemitism

I checked online to find out whether to use a capital S in antisemitism and discovered that I shouldn’t be using the hyphenated form of either the thing or the person. The advice of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is to use the forms ‘antisemitism’ and ‘antisemite’, so that’s what I’ve done here and will do in future.


Related links

Saki’s works

The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen (2020)

The purpling corpse of Uric Burns still hung from the bridge abutment. Photographers clambered around like coked-up marmosets.
(Squeeze Me, page 186)

I suspect that the outstanding feature of this novel was intended to be the extended mockery of President Donald Trump and the First Lady, Melania Trump, who both appear as speaking characters, the former blustering at press conferences or failing to get it up with his mistress, the latter relieving the boredom of her gilded cage by having an affair with her Secret Service bodyguard, on one memorable occasion emerging dripping naked from her bath and ordering her to **** her.

However, two things militate against the book being quite the excoriating sensation Hiaasen and his editors may have planned:

  1. Trump has finally gone, as of January 2021, and it’s surprising – but then again, maybe not – how quickly we’ve stopped giving a damn about him.
  2. Trump has been trumped by the small matter of a worldwide pandemic which has rocked every aspect of our societies, and shows no signs of going away.

Presumably Hiaasen was putting the finishing touches to this novel in spring 2020 when the pandemic first arrived. He’s been canny enough to slip references to it into the narrative but it doesn’t affect the plot at all, indeed, it would be difficult to see how you could have a comedy thriller set during a lockdown. But somehow even the fleeting references to COVID (pages 8, 29, 56, 105) are enough to drag the reader out of Hiaasen’s grotesque fantasy-land and into our all-too-real present.

Plot summary

As usual, as soon as you open a Hiaasen novel the reader is bombarded with a host of characters, each with their own complex backstories and history, who are brought together by a a premise, by one specific incident, the more garish and grotesque the better, whose ramifications rumble on and spread out and ensnare everyone in comic (and sometimes very violent) consequences for just shy of 400 pages.

Angie Armstrong

Angela ‘Angie’ Armstrong runs a wild animal control company ‘Discreet Captures’ i.e. if you’ve got a wild raccoon in your kitchen or a bear blunders into your garden, Angie’s the woman you call to sort it out. She’s five foot three tall and her Army father taught her to address all males as ‘sir’. She was married for a while to Dustin, 21 years older and a good-looking life coach (p.44). However, Dustin didn’t like critters at all, which put a strain on the marriage, then Angie caught him being unfaithful (as happens in most Hiaasen marriages), in this case with an equestrian named Alexandria, so they divorced. She still keeps in touch with Dustin’s son, grown-up, reasonable Joel, who comes to stay every other weekend. Angie’s latest boyfriend is a Merrill Lynch banker named Jesse, who gets casually dumped fairly early on (p.106).

Angie got a job as a wildlife officer with the state of Florida but blew this when out on patrol she saw a drunken slob deliberately run his airboat over a grazing deer. Angie motored straight over and arrested the ‘fuckstick’ (p.37) who continued to insult and abuse her so intensely that she fed his left arm into the maw of a tame alligator named Lola. Yes. Angie takes no nonsense.

The case went to court where she learned the fuckstick’s name was Pruitt. He was fined but Angie was sent to Gadsden prison for 14 months for use of excessive force and discharged from state service. Now, every day at 6pm, Pruitt phones up from a different payphone and breathes revolting threats and abuse down the phone. Angie gives sardonic replies and drives him mad by never losing her temper and referring to him as ‘sir’ throughout.

Angie is, in other words, the latest in a line of tough Hiaasen heroines such as Merry Mansfield in Razor Girl, Honey Santana in Nature Girl, Jolayne Lucks in Lucky You or Erin in Strip Tease.

The Burmese python

Late one night Angie gets a call from Tripp Teabull, manager of the Lipid Estate in Palm Beach. This is a huge mansion complete with ballroom, manicured grounds and ornamental lake where very up-scale parties, receptions and fund raisers are held. Costs quarter of a million to hire for the night without catering.

Teabull is calling because the head gardener, Mauricio, and his crew have discovered an eighteen-foot-long Burmese python lazing in the branches of one of the trees in the grounds with a big lump half way down it. As so often, Hiaasen pauses the narrative for a few pages to give a background explanation of an aspect of his novel, in this case the genuine proliferation of Burmese pythons in South Florida: they were originally bought as pets but managed to escape into the wild, whose tropical climate suits them perfectly.

The novel opens on the night of a big right-wing political fundraiser being given at the Lipid Estate and attended by the usual set of South Florida millionaires, their wives and widows. It opens just at the moment when one of a circle of rich widows, 72-year-old Katherine ‘Kiki’ Pew Fitzsimmons has gone missing, leaving only a cocktail glass and one shoe down by the lake.

Little old lady missing? Huge python with a suggestive bulge in its gut? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to instantly suspect the two are connected.

So Angie is called out to the Estate and charged with getting rid of the python without using a gun or anything which might scare the super-rich guests up in the main house. After some faffing she decapitates the python with a razor sharp machete and gets some of the estate’s bigger guys to roll it up into a coil, stuff it into a box along with ice, put the head in a separate (smaller) box, and carry them to her pickup truck.

Then she drives it to the storage units (Safe’n’Sound) where she stores dead animals on ice before she’s got enough to make a full load and it’s worth driving a hundred miles west into the wilderness where she’s developed a secret burial ground for them. More respectful, and causes less questions, than just dumping them in the garbage.

Uric and the Prince

Job done, right? However, shortly afterwards Angie’s apartment is burglarised, the crims taking her checkbook and laptop. This, we discover, is at the behest of none other than Teabull, the Lipid Estate manager. Terrified that the python really ate the old millionairess Kiki, he wants to totally get rid of the evidence and so commissioned a couple of lowlifes, Uric Burns, and his assistant, ‘a dull-eyed fuckwit’ (p.48) who insists on being called Prince Paladin (real name is Keever Bracco, p.83) to find out where Angie stores her dead animals and to steal back the python corpse and safely dispose of it where cops will never find it.

These two dumb gimps stole Angie’s laptop in order to find out what storage depot Angie uses, in order to break into that and steal the python, but they are so immensely dim that after driving round all night, they report right back to the Lipid estate to ask Teabull where to take it. The latter is understandably  furious since the whole purpose of the heist was to remove the snake as far as humanly possible from the Lipid Estate and here they are, having brought it right back and risking maximum incrimination!

Teabull hurriedly gives the crooks details of a new construction site going up out west, which is still having the foundations laid, with big holes being filled with cement. Teabull pulls a favour with the site foreman, Jackson, buying his crew lunch at a local restaurant so that the site is empty at just the right time for Uric and the Prince to rock up and excavate a hole in the soggy cement. But when they open the boot to bury the snake they find it has thoroughly defrosted and not only that, it has kind of unzipped to reveal a little old lady folded up inside its gut. After they’ve stopped throwing up, the pair bury the lady in the hole in the concrete but there isn’t time to find a new bit of fresh cement and dig a hole in it, before the crew start arriving back from lunch so the two dimwits drive off at speed with a decomposing python in their boot.

However, there’s a detail. Uric is quicker to stop leaning away and throwing up when they first open the boot than his accomplice Prince Paladin and so spots that the decaying lady is wearing big diamond earrings and a necklace of conch pearls. He grabs them while the Prince is still puking. But in trying to get the pearl necklace off, Uric snaps it and a number of pearls roll free into the boot.

Second unfortunate thing is that, when the crims drive off at speed they, hit one of those railway lines crossing the road and embedded in it, which gives the car enough of a big bump to spring the boot open with the result that the snake corpse goes flying out along with some of the incriminating pearls…

Fay Riptoad

Back to Kiki’s rich friends. It is a minor riff but quite funny the way Hiaasen characterises the really rich whose circle old Kiki inhabited by showing that everyone belongs to this or that eminent family the source of whose wealth is humorously signposted along with their surname. Thus Kiki was the grand-daughter of Dallas Austin Pew ‘of the aerosol Pews’; her first husband was Huff Cornbright, ‘of the anti-freeze and real estate Cornbrights’; after Huff drowned while fishing, she remarried Mott Fitzsimmons ‘of the asbestos and textile Fitzsimmonses’; and she is good friends with Fay Alex Riptoad ‘of the compost and iron ore Riptoads’. (The same gag is repeated again on page 122).

This latter lady, Fay Alex, is head of the POTUS Pussies, shrill ageing cheerleaders for ‘the new, crude-spoken commander-in-chief’ (p.8). Being tremendously bossy, on the night Kiki goes missing, Fay takes it on herself to phone and summon the local Palm Beach chief of police, Jerry Crosby (backstory p.53) and insisting that he drop everything to search for her missing friend. Luckily Jerry has developed ample skills at handling the very rich without losing his temper.

Enter the First Lady

Now, I hear you ask, where does the president’s wife come into all this? Well, she is travelling in the usual ten-car motorcade from the president’s residence, the ironically named Casa Bellicosa, when it draws to a halt because the car in front has come across a decapitated python lying across the road. Yep, the First Lady’s motorcade has come across the very same snake corpse which flew out the boot as Uric and the Prince fled the building site where they’d buried Kiki only a few minutes earlier.

In other words, Tripp Teabull wanted the python disposed of as discreetly as possible but instead, due to Uric’s incompetence, it has come to the attention of the President’s wife and the US Secret Service.

The president’s wife’s bodyguards and secret agents swarm everywhere talking into their lapel radios like they do in the movies, before establishing it’s just a weird coincidence rather than some kind of terrorist threat. But one thing leads to another and the security forces identify Angie Armstrong as a leading animal wrangler in the locality. With the result that the Secret Service calls her in to deal with the snake corpse and she is, understandably puzzled, that she is dealing with the very snake corpse she had safely stashed in the storage depot a day earlier. At this point she tells the authorities all about how her apartment was burgled and then her storage area broken into and the snake being stolen, and they all ask themselves: Why?

So this is how Angie finds herself being interviewed by Special Agent Paul Ryskamp, who’s tasked by the Feds with following up on the weird incident which delayed the First Lady’s motorcade. He’s a nice guy. She’s a nice girl. Can you see where this is heading?

Diego Beltrán

So far, so macabre and gruesome and satirical. Things take a notably more serious turn when we discover that on the very same night that a drunk, stoned Kiki was eaten by a giant python, a small people smuggling boat hit the beach not far away, carrying illegal immigrants from Central America including one Diego Beltrán who is to become a dominant figure in the narrative.

As it happens, Diego has already been resident in the States where he had a visa to stay while he completed a degree, so he’s well educated and fluent in English and duly returned to his native Honduras. But life didn’t work out back home, so now here he is, having paid to be smuggled back into the States, along with 20 other illegals.

After they’re dumped on the beach, the passengers all split up. Diego is tramping along a highway when he discovers, at the place a rail line crosses it, something gleaming down in the groove of the track and picks up a shiny conch pearl, obviously one of the pearls from Kiki’s necklace. It is a fateful moment.

Diego goes on to get a low-paid manual job but a few days later is picked up in a sweep by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When he’s taken to the police station and turns out his pockets, everyone sees the conch pearl. It is listed and reported, and this triggers a match with missing person Kiki Fitzsimmons, who is reported as last seen wearing diamond earrings and a conch pearl necklace.

So before he knows it, Diego has been accused by the cops of murdering Kiki. Not only that but, because the python corpse held up the First Lady’s motorcade, the FBI get involved, too. Not only that, but the name of this suspect and the fact that he’s an illegal have been quickly gathered by the poisonous Fay Riptoad and passed on, via her close contacts, to the dim, racist, know-nothing, knee-jerk ‘commander in chief’ and, to the horror of all the good reasonable people in the book (namely Angie,  local police chief Jerry Crosby and Paul Ryskamp) the C-in-C delivers an ad lib speech from his golf course, where he singles out the murder of his ‘good friend’ Kiki Fitzsimmons by illegal immigrant Diego Beltrán as just the kind of dire threat from foreigners and criminals which America is facing. ‘That’s why we gotta build a wall, folks, to keep these murderers and rapists out of our beautiful country’ etc.

Within hours an angry mob of C-in-C supporters has assembled outside the Palm Beach County jailhouse where Diego is being held, egged on by right-wing talk-show radio hosts, demanding his immediate lynching or hanging. His name is quickly converted into a slogan chanted by the mob and repeated in the media: ‘No More Diegos!’

This barely needs any commentary. It is intended to be scalding satire on the stupidity and bigoted xenophobia of the moronic president and his base.

Uric and the Prince are identified

Angie, Jerry and Paul had each in their ways been quietly following up on identifying the crooks who burgled Angie and stole the python. They have got as far as identifying Uric and the Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco from various photos and CCTV footage.

Now there is a further plot development because, when a reward is offered for any news about Kiki, not too bright Uric decides he’ll claim it, so he calls the anonymous crime hotline and reveals where the body of Kiki is buried in the recently laid concrete of a new housing development and also accuses the Prince of carrying out the crime.

When Kiki’s body is then found, it confirms Uric’s story, and closed circuit TV from the site confirms the make of car the crims used, and also shows it driving off at speed. A related camera at the railway crossing shows clear as day how this same car momentarily jumped into the air as it hit the rail bump, the boot flew open and a massive snake corpse flew out.

The good guys form a team

Angie is the link between Jerry the police chief and Paul the FBI agent and by about page 200 she invites them both to a bar for a meal where they meet and form a kind of team. By now they have pretty much all the evidence they need to piece together the sequence of events:

  • python swallows Kiki
  • Angie kills python and takes it to storage on ice
  • Teabull commissions Uric and the Prince to break into Angie’s apartment, find the name of the storage site, break into that and steal the python
  • they go to bury it at the building site but discover Kiki’s body inside the snake, bury that and run out of time to dig a separate body for the snake so drive off at speed
  • when they hit the rail line the boot flies open and the snake flies out but they carry on driving
  • minutes later the First Lady’s motorcade arrives and is halted while the Feds check out the weird dead snake, then eventually move on
  • Angie is called for a second time to dispose of the snake and is brought into contact with the authorities
  • that night Diego Beltrán is walking along the same road when he spots a conch pearl amid the rails
  • a few days later he’s picked up by the authorities as an illegal and the pearl is discovered, connecting him to Kiki
  • somehow the connection between dead Kiki, the pearls and an illegal immigrant is leaked to the President who immediately shapes it to his anti-immigrant narrative and he gives an extempore speech in which he blames Diego for Kiki’s murder
  • a crowd assembles outside the Palm Beach County Gaol where he’s being held, the story goes all over the national press and Diego becomes a symptom of everything evil and wicked which is threatening the US of A

Angie, Jerry and Paul are agonisingly aware that Diego is completely innocent, but the thing has now got so big and so inflamed that it’s going to be hard if not impossible to shift the narrative, and risky for the two lawmen to get involved. Difficult for individuals to go up against the full force of the Presidential propaganda machine and his attack media. The whole thing has spiralled into, as Angie puts it: ‘a five-star clusterfuck’ (p.153).

Donald and Melania Trump

I knew Trump was referenced in the book but I was curious to see how Hiaasen would handle it. Initially he is a peripheral figure, satirically referred to throughout as ‘the commander in chief’. Presumably it is for legal purposes that he is never referred to by name. His Miami home is jokily referred to as ‘Casa Bellicosa’. Some of his (fictional tweets) are quote verbatim, full of spelling and grammar mistakes.

It is a winning piece of satire that the rich old ladies have formed a club named the POTUS Pussies, referencing the commander-in-chief’s famous quote about grabbing pussy. He is referred to as crude and blustering, as ‘that dysfunctional hump in the White House’ (p.189) – all in all, par for the course, by the standards of American liberals who subjected Trump to four years of scathing criticism.

Then about half way through the novel things change when the Trump figure directly intervenes in the Diego case. Things change from being generalised satire about his crude blustering character to becoming a concrete demonstration of what his rabble-rousing xenophobia means for a real individual, a real person whose life is being wrecked. The commander-in-chief figure changes from being merely pathetic to becoming positively malevolent.

In the earlier parts of the book there are more scenes featuring Melania Trump, riding in the motorcade, prowling her private apartments at the Casa Bellicosa, bored and horny.

I wonder whether it was for legal reasons that neither of them are named. The president is referred to as  the president or commander-in-chief, never by name. Indeed, early on Hiaasen adopts the comic strategy of referring to both of them by the codewords assigned to them by the Secret Service.

Thus Melania is never named, but referred to throughout as Mockingbird, her codename, a curiously poignant name. The president’s codeword is Mastodon, which he loves because it sounds mighty. With typical ignorance he asks if he can visit a zoo to see some real-life mastodons but nobody is brave enough to tell him that mastodons, a generic term for woolly mammoths and suchlike, died out during the last ice age.

We see Mockingbird in her car, interacting with her dishy bodyguard, named ‘Keith Josephson’ (which is actually a pseudonym assigned him by the service; his birth name was Ahmet Youssef which, understandably, the Service want to keep concealed from the xenophobic commander in chief, p.86, another piece of satire on the president’s idiotic xenophobia. Youssef’s full backstory is given on pages 281 to 283).

Possibly the most scandalous thing in the book is that Mockingbird is described as having an affair with Youssef/Keith. We first realise this when she insists he hands her a towel as she emerges naked from a luxury bath, and she then orders him to **** her. Then we get used to her ordering him to service her at short notice in a variety of luxury locations. But as the story progresses we realise he, Keith/Youssef, is genuinely in love with her, genuinely thinks she is different with him, even after people start to talk and rumours about them to circulate.

Trump insults

The funny thing is that Donald Trump had already been referenced in a number of earlier Hiaasen novels, way before he showed any political ambitions, as an epitome of American over-wealthy  narcissism. It’s an epic irony that the man Hiaasen had been mocking for decades as an embodiment of American shallowness ended up becoming 45th President of the United States. The fact it happened is beyond satire and what it says about contemporary American society needs no comment.

The president, according to those who know him best:

  • has no memory
  • has feet like moist loaves
  • is a ‘fat toad’ (p.248)
  • is ‘paranoid, draft-dodging, whore hopping…’ (p.261)
  • is described as ‘Presidential Shitweasel’ (p.300) and ‘the climate-denier-in-chief’ (p.301) by Skink
  • is an ‘ignorant clown’ – Ryskval (p.369)
  • is a ‘lying puke-bucket’ – Angie (p.371)

He has a mistress, Suzy Spooner (p.293), a chunky pole dancer who calls herself a nutritionist. We meet the poor woman on several occasions, desperately helping the president to adopt a sex position which can work round his bloated gut and the fact he can no longer sustain an erection. It is typical Hiaasen/typical America, that Suzy is at the same time hawking round New York publishers a kiss-and-tell memoir in which she compares the President’s gonads to ‘dessicated chickpeas’ and describes how he snorts like a wildebeest when he climaxes (pages 293 and 294).

The president struggles mightily to have a bowel motion, emerging from the can puffing and panting, and then struggles to get a hold of his belt buckle ‘below the rolling sea of his gut’ (p.313). He’s portrayed as being fully aware of the ‘phoney Facebook ads’ paid for by his supporters (p.314). When he forgets that her dog died over a year ago, Mockingbird simply calls him ‘such a dick’ (p.315).

Tut tut. Not very respectful.

Plot developments

Uric proves what a scumbag he is by murdering his assistant, the dim-witted Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco, weighingt down his body and dumping it in a canal near where he dumped the stolen car they drove the snake around in. This is a rookie crim error, meaning both are soon discovered by the cops.

Uric’s anxiety about the cops’ discovery is itself short-lived as he himself is swiftly bumped off by a hitman hired by the Lipid Estate manager Teabull, who is quickly emerging as the daemon ex machina of the plot.

Rather unprofessionally, Uric’s body is hanged from a suspension bridge along with a suicide note in which he claims complete responsibility for killing Kiki, stealing her jewels and then murdering his accomplice – this is Teabull’s pathetic attempt to get the whole damn story shut down. To little avail. When ‘our team’ of Angie, Jerry and Paul hear about it and read the note they realise how fake it is.

The paranoid rich i.e. Fay Alex Riptoad et al, and their attack dog media, soon embellish the Diego situation to have him being a member of the fearsome DBC-88, the ‘Diego Border Cartel’. Nobody knows what 88 means but it sounds scary (p.221). It is an example of the general fictionalisation of American life in which malicious rumours instantly become poisonous political fact.

To complete his tidy-up strategy, Teabull hires an arsonist to lure Angie in her truck to a fake call-out in a remote location as the sun is setting, and the guy lobs a firebomb in the back of her truck. Both she and Joel who she’d taken along, scramble out of the truck which melts down and is a write-off. But this doesn’t put Angie off, was never likely to.

In the event all Teabull’s efforts come to naught as he is sacked from his job at the Lipid Estate as the media furore around Diego snowballs. A TV station runs an entirely fictitious ‘reconstruction’ of the night Diego and his dastardly accomplices supposedly broke into the estate and abducted little old Kiki,  an entirely fictional recreation which leads to just about every rich charity cancelling its bookings at the Lipid mansion, hence Teabull’s sacking. It is also another example of the fictionalisation of American journalism, the triumph of fakery over news.

Mockingbird’s affair with her Secret Service man becomes increasingly intense. His superior, the same Paul Ryskamp who is beginning an affair with Angie, learns about Keith and the First Lady and warns him off, and steps are taken to reassign him, but Mockingbird intervenes to keep him around as her lover. She and the President never even touch each other, let alone sleep together. Anyway, he’s screwing Suzi Spooner so Mockingbird has no moral qualms.

The return of Skink

But the big revelation of the last third of the novel is the Return of Skink, yes everybody, Skink! Skink is back! And his trusty helper and minder, Jim Tile, an old man now, who walks with a cane and lives at the Rainbow of Life Senior Centre. It’s Jim who gets in touch with Angie Armstrong, tells her he sat in back during her court case for mutilating Pruitt on behalf of a friend who admired her style i.e. the old eco-vigilante and ex-governor, once known as Clinton Tyree, who has for a long time now (well, ever since Hiaasen’s second novel), gone under the pseudonym Skink.

Jim gives Angie a map to Skink’s secret base deep in the Everglades and she hires a flatboater to take her out there. Just to keep up his quota of outlandish concepts, Hiaasen tells us that in the empty  eye socket where Skink usually sports a glass eye, he is currently incubating an iguana egg. This doesn’t faze Angie, used to all kinds of weird critter situations, so she passes the Skink test.

He then offers her some roadkill coyote for dinner, which is standard. But we discover he has a new habit: he is continually micro-dosing himself with acid to stave off boredom and despair, and he has slipped a little into her rum.

Which explains why, when Skink takes her into his snake enclosure, Angie finds them glowing with fiery red eyes and changing colour. Snake enclosure? Yes. For it is Skink who has been collecting king-sized pythons and deploying them in Presidential hangouts. He was responsible for deploying mega pythons into: a vanload of the President’s favourite key lime pies; the First Lady’s favourite fashion boutique, plus 2 or 3 other random locations. Did he deploy the monster python which ate Kiki?

Anyway, his obsession with giant pythons explains why Skink’s camp is among trees from which hang hundreds of long dried snakeskins, which the pythons have shed. Half way through their meeting, Angie realises that Skink not only took interest in her trial but paid for her defence lawyer. So he has deep involvement with her going back some way. With that revelation, he shoos Angie back to the shore of the island where the airboat driver has returned to collect her, and she stumbles, dazed, back towards civilisation after this trippy encounter with Hiaasen’s great anti-hero.

The novel heads towards the traditional Big Climax, which is the so-called Commander’s Ball, hosted by Mastodon at the Casa Bellicosa. Seems pretty obvious Skink has got something big planned, like releasing all the pythons he’s been collecting.

Meanwhile, back in what you could call the dirty realist end of the plot, Diego, still in prison, foils one attack by a white supremacist, but is then badly stabbed and beaten up by some ‘Aryan Brothers’. (Look them up. American prisons are full of white supremacist groups. No wonder our media admire America so much: so much to copy, so much to learn from.)

Diego is hospitalised, his plight is dire, a friendly Hispanic tells him there’s a ten grand bounty on his head, eleven if they cut off his ‘nut sack’. His defence lawyers quit because they’ve been receiving death threats. The gaol guards are also threatened and/or tired of the extra hassle of protecting him. They include a new leather belt in his next laundry delivery. One of them gives him a full bottle of sleeping pills. These are not-too-subtle hints that he kill himself. Thus the fate of illegals in the US ‘justice’ system’ i.e. hounded to death.

The President’s Ball

Well, the President’s Ball does serve as the climax to the novel alright, though, to tell the truth, it is a little underwhelming. Highlights are:

1. Throughout the novel there’s been a running thread about the President’s tanning sunbed, and the guys who service and clean it. In the days leading up to the ball there are some unexplained malfunctions so it is no real surprise when it goes badly wrong just hours before the big event, turning the President’s face aubergine purple and burning his hair. With the result that he appears on the stage and delivers a big speech hiding his face behind the only thing they could rustle up at short notice – a Bakongo tribal fertility mask!!!! (p.350) More clearly than ever, you can see how Hiaasen goes way beyond ‘satire’ into a realm of lunatic farce.

2. Mastodon addresses his puzzled millionaire guests from behind his African mask but, when he turns to introduce his lovely wife, she isn’t there – and this is because she is in her private rooms having wild sex with Special Agent Keith/Youssef (in a tiny detail, she is riding him cowgirl style, the position which I’ve noticed, is favoured by all of Hiaasen’s strong, independent female protagonists)

3. As we might have predicted, a massive Burmese python does turn up in the grounds of the Casa Bellicosa, where it disturbs the most repellent of the POTUS Pussies, the cohort of super-rich widow supporters of the Commander-in-Chief, Fay Alex Riptoad. Unfortunately the python interruption occurs just as she is having the front of her expensive dress unbuttoned by an over-sexed guest, Stanleigh Cobo, who thinks he’s ingested a heroic amount of erection-inducing narwhal horn (a long story about erectile dysfunction and the lengths the rich will go to in order to secure cures).

Secret Agent Paul Ryskval had made sure to invite Angie Armstrong to the ball and so, when Fay’s screams attract all the guests, Angie takes centre stage, the only one with the balls and expertise to confront the huge swaying python and Angie suddenly realises that it is tripping. Skink is dosing his giant pythons with LSD.

Still, in the end, Angie manages to decapitate this one like the last one, although her pretty ball dress does get covered in spraying blood in the process. Once the body is taken away by ground staff, and the guests wander off gossiping, Angie goes to the ladies loo to have a good cry. When she comes out, gentlemanly special agent Ryskamp tells her how fabulous she looks and how brave she was. Which cheers her up, a bit.

Angie and the First Lady

The president addressing the crowd in an African mask and a tripping python menacing his chief cheerleader just as she is being undressed for sex, this ought to be funny, and it reads fairly funny in summary, but in practice, somehow, I found it a bit inevitable and, I’m afraid, under-whelming. Maybe I’ve read too many Hiaasens and know what to expect.

But if the doomed gala ball turns out to be a bit of a damp squib, maybe what follows at the end of the evening is the real climax of the plot. Angie is still at the ball and slips a message to the First Lady asking to see her. Mockingbird is curious to meet the woman who dealt with the giant snake and so agrees, and the two women meet on the seawall of the Casa Bellicosa (well, accompanied at a distance by all her security men).

Here Angie explains that a) she knows all about Mockingbird’s affair with Keith, and b) that Keith is a Muslim, which would play terribly with the C-in-C’s supporter, and c) she knows all about the President’s affair with the pole dancer, d) who is writing a no-holds-barred memoir about her affair with the President.

She, Angie, will blow all this wide open, leak it all to the press, ruin everyone’s lives, unless Mockingbird uses her influence, and this threat, to get the President to give Diego Beltrán a full pardon and fast track his appeal for political asylum.

Which is what Mockingbird proceeds to do, encountering the President as he stumbles out of a state room where he just tried and miserably failed to take the pole dancer from behind. Mockingbird makes plain she will blow the whole gaff, expose their sham marriage and list his many affairs to the press unless he releases Diego. So Mastodon caves in.

I hadn’t mentioned that Jim Tile had used some old connections to get invited to the president’s ball, dressing snappily and toting a stylish cane. Right at the end of the evening, after she has had her seawall meeting, he accompanies Angie out onto the steps of the mansion as chauffeur-driven cars line up to collect the super-rich. Jim climbs into one which, she suddenly realises, is driven by Skink. She races after it, flags it down, and is amazed at Skink’s stylish appearance. He has washed and combed his hair and put on a suit specially.

I thought the funniest thing in the entire book was the fact that the iguana whose egg he had been carrying in his empty eye socket has now hatched.

Skink smiled down at the breast pocket of his suit jacket. A little bright green head was peeking out. ‘We’re working on our manners,’ Skink whispered. (p.378)

It’s almost the only moment of gentleness. There’s plenty of humour elsewhere in the book, but it’s of the savage, violent, macabre or super-cynical fuckstick variety. This was one tiny moment of humanity. Thank you, Skink.

It’s quickly over though because when Angie asks what that loud banging is, Skink explains it’s her stalker, Pruitt, stashed in the boot of the car. Skink is going to take him out to the wilderness to teach him ‘how to be at one with nature’. That’s comedy, too, but of the more tough-minded, cruel variety.

Epilogue

Diego Beltrán is freed on orders from the president, is smuggled out the back of the gaol, given a wig and fake moustache and transported north to New Jersey.

Turns out that Skink unleashed not one but a host of monster pythons at a number of other charity balls on the same night. Police chief Jerry Crosby drove round to all of the events, shooting them dead, but was filmed doing so, clips which made their way onto YouTube and killed the Florida hospitality sector stone dead. Why have a party in Florida if a python might eat your guests? The industry’s anger falls on the chief and he quits before he’s fired.

Mockingbird has Youssef acknowledged as her lover, but still kept on by the Secret Service because she blackmails the Secret Service bosses with her knowledge of a hushed-up drug orgy among the agents.

On the last pages Angie hires an airboat and skims out through the Everglades to visit Skink in his new base. No more snakes, he transported them all north to freedom. And Pruitt? Skink attached an electronic tracking collar round his neck and set him free in the wilderness. He’s still alive, somewhere.

And then the punchline to the whole story: the huge Burmese python which ate Kiki Fitzsimmons? Turns out it wasn’t Skink’s idea. He didn’t set it loose on the Lipid Estate. It made its own way there. It was a normal, free python doing its own thing. Nothing to do with Skink, the incident only gave him the inspiration for his later battle plan. Angie laughs with relief, Skink is off the hook and takes none of the blame.

THE END.

The environment

This is the first novel in his long career where Hiaasen seems to have given up on saving the environment which is, I think, the appropriate response. The fight to save the environment has been decisively lost. Eco-systems around the world, along with the countless species they contain, are being exterminated on a daily basis. Global warming is only one aspect of the man-made destruction of the environment, of all environments, going on all the time, everywhere, as Angie mournfully reflects:

It didn’t seem to matter who was in power – nothing got better in the besieged, breathtaking world she cared about most. The Everglades would never be the lush unbroken river it once was; the shallows of Florida Bay would never be as pure and sparkling with fish; the bleached dying reefs of the Keys would never bloom fully back to life. Being overrun and exploited was the historical fate of places so rare and beautiful…

The President of the United States was a soulless imbecile who hated the outdoors but, in Angie’s view, at this point Teddy Roosevelt himself couldn’t turn the tide if he came back from the dead. All the treasured wilderness that had been sacrificed at the altar of growth was gone for all time. More disappeared every day; nothing ever changed except the speed of destruction, and only because there were fewer pristine pieces to sell off, carve up and pave. (p.318)

Fruity and novel language

Hiaasen’s characters swear freely and so does the narrator. ‘Fuckstick’, ‘shitbird’, ‘cockhead’ and ‘Señor Fuckwhistle’ (p.258) being some of the nicer expressions characters use about each other. Here are some other samples of state-of-the-art Yankee slang:

  • Prince was flipping through channels like a gacked-up chimp. (p.74)
  • ‘The Feds cut your time ’cause you flipped. You rat-fucked your friends.’ (p.74) = betrayed.
  • ‘Hit the shower, bro’. You smell like a fucking grow house.’ (p.173) I think ‘grow house’ means the kind of indoors greenhouse space used to grow marijuana.
  • Uric ended up paying the Prince the full three hundred he wanted, which he ended up spending on chronic. (p.173) ‘Among cannabis consumers, chronic can be used as slang for marijuana itself, but many users reserve the term for particularly potent strains of the plant’ (Dictionary.com)
  • nutsack = scrotum
  • knuckle bump, aka fist bump
  • ‘I got a dope new truck’ (p.214) – where ‘dope’ presumably means cool, neat, great.
  • ‘I can’t take a chance that he hasn’t suddenly stripped his gears.’ (p.242) presumably meaning lost it, gone mad, gone psycho.
  • Two white-clad Brits stood in wait while the driver, whose name was Guppo, backed up the gaily painted Betancourt Pastries chariot. (p.247) ‘Stood in wait’?
  • One day Nutter was approached in the chow line by an inmate who said a group of patriots on the outside was offering serious bank for the death of Diego Beltrán. (p.254) = big money
  • A buzz kill = something which destroys the mood, specially a romantic mood around sex (p.280)
  • Studly = like a stud, as in ‘a studly lover’ (p.326)
  • Reamed = getting reamed, being reamed = a strong telling-off (p.33)
  • Rails = lines of cocaine (p.366)
  • Toasted = stoned (p.380)

Fleabag

I was surprised when Hiaasen has his sympathetic protagonist, Angie, in a spare evening, catch an episode of Fleabag, the award-winning British TV series. He also has a character, the one-handed psycho Pruitt, reference Game of Thrones, specifically the one-handed character Jaime Lannister (p.257). Gotta keep up with the popular culture, I suppose.


Credit

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2020. All references are to the 2021 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2016)

‘This is Florida, the land of batshit, trigger-happy motherfuckers.’ (p.82)

Andrew Yancy

The most notable thing about Hiaasen’s 14th novel is that it is a direct sequel to his 13th, featuring the same protagonist (former Monroe County detective Andrew Yancy), the same girlfriend he ended that novel with (Dr Rosa Campesino), and the same running feud with the owners of the vacant lot next to his, on the island of Big Pine Key, who are threatening to build a mansion which will block out Yancy’s restful view of the sunset.

At the start of book 13 Yancy was kicked off the small Monroe County police force for assaulting the husband of his then-mistress. Bonnie Witt. The easy-going head of the Monroe police, Sonny Summers, had to drop Yancy after the press furore about the assault, but got him a job he cordially hates, as a health and safety or ‘roach’ inspector of local restaurants.

Yancy is ‘a tall, lean man with a baked-in Florida tan’ (p.134) in his early 40s. He is a regular smoker of dope, who sometimes does his job or gets involved in the novel’s various criminal escapades, half-stoned. Like other Hiaasen heroes he is too honest and blunt for his own good, ‘prone to an acid bluntness that produced poor results careerwise…’ (p.55)

As usual with Hiaasen, Yancy was soon joined by a blizzard of other characters, all of whom are given complicated backstories and then placed in ever-complexifying situations and interlinking storylines.

Buck Nance

The central thread which just about keeps all the complex storylines of this novel together concerns a popular reality TV show titled Bayou Brethren, about a family of rednecks who live and bicker on a chicken farm in the Florida panhandle.

The star of the show is one Buck Nance, a middle-aged redneck with a long salt-and-pepper beard, who runs the chicken farm and so has acquired the ironic nickname Captain Cock (p.58). He lords it over his brothers, has a tough bitching wife, Krystal, but is also screwing a ‘sex-crazed’ mistress with the porny name of Miracle, on the side. (It is a given in all Hiaasen novels, that American marriage entails infidelity.)

In reality, like everything in Hiaasen, the entire show is a meretricious fake and a scam. Buck’s real name is Matthew Romberg and he and his three brothers ( Bradley (TV name: Junior), Henry (TV name: Buddy) and Todd (TV name: Clee Roy, p.68) are actually from rural Wisconsin.

They were in an unsuccessful band named Grand Funk Romberg (a jokey riff on the actual American hard rock group, Grand Funk Railroad) when they were talent-spotted on account of their hick appearance and cast as the central characters in the new show (p.71). The brothers have had to be extensively coached in every aspect of the Florida redneck life which their adoring fans consider them to epitomise: the Cajun accent, the chewing tobacco, the down-home oaths and jokes, it’s all fake.

Lane is kidnapped

The novel opens with Buck’s agent, Lane Coolman, a no-nonsense, cynical New York talent agent working for Platinum Artists Management who owes his career and wages and expense account lifestyle to Buck’s success, arriving in Miami to supervise some ‘gigs’ Buck is scheduled to give. These ‘gigs’ consist of Buck sitting up on stage telling good ole boy stories and jokes while a guitarist noodles folk melodies behind him and Lane supports and whispers prompts from the wings.

Instead, as he drives from the airport to his hotel, Lane is kidnapped by the criminal Zeto (full name Juan Zeto-Fernandez) and his sexy, unhinged sidekick, Merry Mansfield. They use a technique known as ‘bump and grab’ whereby Merry bumps her (stolen) car into the rear of Lane’s hire car. When he pulls over and gets out to remonstrate, he notices her jeans are down to her knees and her knickers pulled down and she is shaving her pubic hair while she is driving. Merry is the Razor Girl of the book’s title.

Lane is speechless with astonishment and anger, as he watches Merry apologetically pull up her panties, then quickly becomes addled with lust. Thus, when Merry declares her car a write-off and asks if he can give her a lift to the nearest service station, Lane readily agrees. But when they get there, Zeto is waiting with a gun, climbs into the passenger seat and orders him to drive. He’s done gone and been kidnapped, the sucker.

Martin Trebeaux and beach renourishment

In fact, typically for Hiaasen’s comedies of accidents and misadventures, it turns out Zeto and Merry have grabbed the wrong guy. Zeto had been hired by a New York mobster, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola, from the Calzone crime family (p.139) to kidnap a crooked businessman named Martin Trebeaux, who was scheduled to drive a similar colour car along the same highway at the same time and looks similar to Lane. Oops.

Why was Trebeaux the intended target of a grab? This requires a bit of explanation. Trebeaux runs a big company resanding Florida beaches in a process known as ‘beach renourishment’. This is because global warming and rising sea levels are washing away lots of Florida’s luxury sandy beaches. Trebeaux’s company, Sedimental Journeys, rakes up tonnes of sand from just offshore and replenishes vanishing beaches.

So far, so reasonable. But Trebeaux is a crook. His company has been dogged by scandal. Firstly, the resanding process tends to muddy up the water and produce thousands of dead fish which wash up ashore, putting off the very tourists it’s meant to attract. Discovering this early on, Trebeaux moved his  sand dredging operation to the Bahamas, shipping the sand back to Miami. But it had the same environment-destroying impact in the island and when this was reported on the news and even prompted a BBC investigation, he was forced to shut it down, too (p.32).

Then Trebeaux took some bad advice from a contact who told him he could use sand from a ‘burrow pit’ (something I think we would call a gravel pit) on the edge of the Everglades. This Trebeaux proceeds to excavate and ship to the beach behind the Royal Pyrenees hotel. But the sand from this source turns out to be not only hard and sharp but to contain recycled asphalt and even broken glass! Soon after it is laid, tourists start cutting themselves to shreds and trade to the hotel plummets.

And this is where the mob comes in because the Royal Pyrenees hotel is owned by them and managed by their man, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola. This is why Big Noogie had hired Zeto to kidnap Trebeaux. But Zeto screws up and kidnaps Lane, who quickly makes it clear he’s the wrong guy. Nonetheless, Zeto and Merry tie and gag Lane while they ponder what to do with him, Zeto casually weighing the pros and cons of killing him.

Long story short, after failing to bump Len off on a boat, Zeto reluctantly agrees to take him along with them when they have another go at bumping and grabbing the actual Martin Trebeaux the next day and, during the confusion, Lane manages to wriggle out the window of the car he’s being held in and run off, eventually finding a payphone and calling his boss in LA.

Buck’s disastrous gig

Now the important thing about Coolman being mistakenly kidnapped is that he provides a vital psychological support to his TV star Buck Nance when the latter does his ‘gigs’. Buck has a guitarist strumming along in the background but it is Lane’s reassuring presence just offstage that gets him through the gigs, giving him confidence beforehand and prompting him if he dries, as he tells good ole boy stories and jokes to his redneck audience.

So Buck turns up for his ‘gig’ at a bar called the Parched Pirate on Duvall Street in Key West and, without either the guitar player (whose absence is unexplained) or Lane (who we have seen being kidnapped en route to the gig) Buck’s set goes disastrously awry. Instead of the usual stories he panics, forgets his script and ad libs some off colour jokes from Wisconsin about blacks and then about gays. This turns out to be a terrible idea because the Parched Pirate is actually a gay hangout.

The upshot is there’s a riot, Buck is grabbed, beaten up, has his shirt ripped off and his long grey beard forcibly chopped off with scissors before he can flee for his life, ducking through a maze of back alleys and eventually hiding out in the tangled branches of a huge banyan tree where he stays, thoroughly razzled, for the entire night.

During the ruckus he has lost his wallet and his mobile phone and he looks like crap. He has been reduced to bum status.

Enter Yancy

Believe it or not, this is where Yancy comes in, because next day he’s called to a restaurant run by Irv Clipowski (‘a long-distance runner with a goatee which he dyed goosewhite’), which generally has good hygiene standards, but where they’ve found hanks of grey hair in the quinoa vat. The hair has apparently been chucked there overnight and the reader quickly realises it’s the remnants of Buck Nance’s beard, forcibly cut off him by an enraged crowd and chucked through an open window.

Yancy clears up the sample of rogue hair cuttings and orders the restaurant owners to do a thorough deep clean of their kitchen.

As it happens, later that day, Rogelio Burton, a friend of Yancy’s who’s still a detective on the Monroe police force, mentions that a big fuss has kicked off about this TV star, Buck Nance, who’s gone missing and when, that evening, Yancey watches a few old episodes of Bayou Brethren out of boredom, he suddenly realises the grey hair in the quinoa looks identical with Buck Nance’s grey beard in the TV show. Huh. A clue!

Now, Yancy is bored with his job and pissed off because his long-term girlfriend, smart Dr Rosa Campesino, formerly of the Miami morgue (her job when he met her), now working in a hospital emergency room, has abruptly announced that she’s going to Europe, to Norway, without him. It feels like a snub and they part at the airport on bad terms. At a loose end, on impulse, Yancy decides, what the hell, he’ll have a go at tracking down this missing TV star.

Fallout from Buck’s bad gig

Meanwhile, the president of Platinum Artists Management, John David Ampergrodt, known as Amp, is going nuts because Nance’s homophobic, racist jokes were recorded by some of his audience and immediately posted on YouTube. Not only that, but Buck’s unhinged girlfriend, Miracle, becomes convinced that the missing Buck has run off with some other woman and so hacks into the Bayou Brethren‘s Facebook page, adding a photo of Osama bin Laden and making it look like Buck is jokily comparing his own beard with the famous terrorist’s.

So Amp finds himself in the midst of a major PR disaster, when Zeto lets Lane rings up desperately begging for a ransom to be paid so that mad Zeto doesn’t waste him (while Zeto and Merry are still holding him). You can see why Amp doesn’t immediately believe Lane or grasp the seriousness of the situation. 12 hours later Lane rings from a roadside phone box to say he’s managed, as we’ve seen, to free himself from his kidnappers but, again, Amp is too distracted by the crisis in hand to take him seriously.

(There’s a running thread that Lane has a wife, Rachel, who is planning to divorce him and is currently ‘revenge fucking’ her way through all the men in Los Angeles, notably Lane’s boss John David Ampergrodt, who routinely meets her at the Wilshire Hotel for quick cunnilingus and boning sessions [p.144]. We are given graphic descriptions of comic moments when Amp has his head rammed firmly between Rachel’s parted thighs and is slurping away when his phone goes off with an important business call. The hard life of a Hollywood agent, eh. Lane has a divorce lawyer working for him and trying to discredit Rachel. The lawyer’s name is Smegg [p.278].)

Pause for breath

So: what’s going to happen to Martin Trebeaux, who by now Zeto and Merry have successfully kidnapped? Where’s Buck Nance hiding out and what’s going to happen to him, now beaten up, penniless and beardless? Will Yancy manage to find Buck or will he get dragged into the whole Zeto-Merry-Trebeaux storyline? Will there be a happy resolution to Yancy and Rosa Campesino’s relationship, which seems to have fallen on hard times? Stay tuned, folks.

Main plot developments

There are so many complicated plot ramifications and complexifications it’s hard to keep track. Here are the highlights:

Zeto electrocutes himself trying to adjust the plug on the cable to an electric car he’s stolen, so he’s out of the story quite early on.

Trebeaux is handed over to Big Noogie who, with a hardass assistant (‘the man with the ivory toothpick’), attaches surgical clamps to Trebeaux’s ‘nutsack’ (scrotum) and then dangles him from a local railway bridge until Trebeaux admits the sand he rebeached the Grand Pyrenees with was sub-standard and promises to do everything in his power to fix it.

Merry astonishes Lane by bumping into Lane a few days after he escaped from her and Zeto and calmly asking if she can move into his motel room with him. Merry is a splendid fictional creation, a constant fount of unexpected and unpredictable behaviour. She refuses to conform to any conventions, kidnapping someone one minute then wanting to be their friend. She concocts extravagant and hilarious lies at the drop of a hat. After a brief period with Lane she then arrives on Yancy’s doorstep (see below). There’s a funny piece of dialogue where she explains to Yancy that she doesn’t regard herself as a criminal at all, but more of a performance artist (p.93).

Brock and Deb I need to mention Yancy’s neighbours. After he drove away the property developer who was trying to build on the lot adjacent to his house in the previous novel, the lot has now been purchased by a shyster lawyer, Brock Richardson, and his good-looking spoiled fiancée, Debbie. As with the previous owner, Yancy embarks on a campaign to drive them away, which includes drunkenly firing his rifle at beer bottles he lobs into the air close to the border fence when Brock and Deb are around. In a later gag he gets a buddy of his that he plays poker with to pretend to be a state archaeologist and ‘discover’ ancient teeth on the site, which he claims must have belonged to the Calusa native Americans who occupied this land thousands of years ago. The fake archaeologist immediately declares that all building works will have to be suspended while the site is fully excavated, much to Brock’s fury (p.177).

Pitrolux Worth mentioning that one of the book’s dozen or so storylines focuses on Brock’s role as the lawyer for a series of class actions he’s managing against a new wonder-product named ‘Pitrolux’. This is a combination underarm deoderant which also cures erectile dysfunction i.e. gives men boners which last for hours. Despite what he knows about its ill effects, Brock himself starts taking Pitrolux and his rock-hard, everlasting erections rekindle his love life with Debs, until he starts to suffer from the same side effects as all his clients, namely a) the erections won’t go away, last for hours and become really painful, and b) the growth of unsightly skin tags or polyps in the shape of tiny penises in his armpit, which Debs discovers and freak her out.

The diamond ring A simple incident occurs early on which turns out to become central to the plot. Yancy spies Deb poking around in the as-yet-unbuilt-on plot. He jumps over the fence and aggressively questions her. Turns out she has lost the massive engagement ring Brock gave her which cost him $200,000. She’s pissed off because it was slightly too big for her finger, Brock having originally bought it for an earlier, tubbier fiancée. Yancy pretends to help until Debs gets fed up and leaves, at which point Yancy picks it up from where it was lying concealed in long grass.

Yancy stores the monster ring in a tub of hummus in his fridge and what happens is, through various coincidences, a series of bad guys hear about the missing ring and come to pay Yancy visits. Thus, at one point Trebeaux and Richardson meet by complete accident in a bar and both mouth off about their woes. But when Richardson mentions the missing $200,000 ring, and that he thinks Yancy has stolen it, Trebeaux passes the news along to Big Noogie in a bid to impress his new mafioso boss.

Big Noogie immediately decides the ring will be just perfect for his son to give to his fiancée, and sends a couple of hard men round to Yancy’s to intimidate or, if necessary, torture its whereabouts out of him. They only have to start slashing up Yancy’s sofa before Yancy gives in and hands it over.

Merry moves in By this point half a dozen other things have happened. For a start, when Lane moves out of his motel into a smarter hotel, Merry has nowhere to stay and so turns up on Yancy’s doortstep. To his own surprise he takes a keen liking to her, for her independent, free-spirited sassiness. She’s great fun, an outrageous liar and flirt and fantasist. Some of her extended riffs are very funny and help to make this, at least in the first half, arguably Hiaasen’s funniest novel (for example, page 166).

‘You don’t know what to do with me, do you? I love that!’ (p.257)

There’s also broad comedy when Yancy’s estranged girlfriend, Dr Campesino, phones from Oslo and every time it seems, by bad luck, to be Merry who answers the phone. One time by bursting into the bathroom where Yancy is having a shower so that she answers the call from Rosa but then hands it over to an obviously naked Yancy (p.148). Yancy finds this (understandably) difficult to explain and Rosa for her part announces that she wants to stay in Norway.

Comedic though the shape of this storyline is, it contains a very serious social point. Rosa has worked all her life in either the Miami morgue or Miami emergency ward and she’s had enough. She’s snapped. She’s had a sort of breakdown. She just can’t face the sound of endless police sirens from morning to night, and she can’t face any more the task of patching up children – children – with extensive gunshot wounds. On one of their long, difficult calls Rosa tells Yancy how many murders there have been in Oslo that year. The answer: one. Two farmers got into a drunken fight and one hit the other with a shovel a bit harder than he meant to. Guns are illegal in Norway, so there is no gun crime, compared to:

a place as ethnically diverse and gun crazy as Florida. (p.298)

It’s a serious point about the stupidity of America’s gun laws and its out-of-control epidemic of violence and I read it on the same day there was a mass shooting in the very same Miami Rosa is talking about, Hiaasen’s Miami.

‘These people [the Norwegians] have evolved in a positive direction,’ Rosa said. ‘Americans are heading the other direction.’ (p.377)

Anyway, the fact that Merry seems to have moved in with him explains why she is present when Big Noogie’s goons arrive and why she helps to persuade Yancy to give in and hand over the diamond. Mind you, Yancy is easily persuaded because he is, at the time, lying on his sofa recovering from a bad knife wound to the gut. Knife wound?

Yes, because there is an entirely separate plotline which only really gets going in the middle of the book but then comes to dominate it. This rotates around a redneck cretin named Benjamin ‘Blister’ Krill who is a fanatical fan of the Bayou Brethren, so fanatical that he has a massive tattoo inked across his shoulders reading HAIL CAPTAIN COCK.

When Buck climbs down from the banyan tree the morning after the riot in the bar he sets about shoplifting a new shirt and hat and shades etc. But Blister Krill recognises his hero and tries to engage him in conversation. When Buck repeatedly rebuffs him (p.200), idiot Blister gets furious, whips out his knife and frogmarches Buck through the tourist crowds in Key West, out to the dock and onto a little put-put boat which he drives out to a knackered old boat he owns, a cabin cruiser named Wet Nurse. Here he handcuffs Buck to a bunk in the cabin until he learns some manners.

From this point onwards Blister becomes a sort of daemon ex machina, the wild card driving the plot. Things escalate when Blister, inspired by the kind of racist language Buck used at his ill-fated gig and which has triggered an outpouring of redneck bigotry across the internet, spots a foreign-looking guy on the tacky touristy Conch Train which weaves through Old Key West, goes up to him and starts yelling Islamophobic abuse.

This poor man, Abdul-Halim Shamoon, is from New York where he has a family and children and runs a harmless electronics retail shop (p.126). He’s loaded up on tacky souvenirs which he’s planning to take home for the kids when a rough redneck confronts him and starts spitting insults in his face. So Shamoon tries to get off the train while it’s still moving but falls awkwardly onto a tacky porcelain gewgaw he’s bought which pierces his sternum and punctures his aorta. There and then he bleeds to death all over his tropical tourist shirt and souvenir knick-knacks. Blister runs off into the crowd.

Hiaasen’s early novels feature some outrageously grotesquely violent incidents, such as the hitman who gets a dead pitbull attached to his arm in Double Whammy and the angry New Yorker who crucifies a crooked property developer to a satellite dish in Stormy Weather. Later novels try but, I think, generally fail to match the first fine careless insanity of these early incidents. Having Shamoon fall on some tourist gewgaws and bleed to death isn’t outrageous enough to be blackly funny. Instead it feels genuinely tragic and sad.

Anyway, Blister runs off, but some bystanders provide identification of sorts and the ‘murder’ of Shamoom gets mixed up with the ongoing disappearance of TV star Buck Nance in a whole load of complicated and twisted ways.

Yancy, bored and hoping to impress his ex-boss by solving the crime, picks up various clues which lead him to Blister in his crappy apartment, where he’s barely begun questioning him (with absolutely no authority; he is no longer a detective and the head of Monroe’s Police force has emphatically told him to stop interfering) when Blister takes a ‘spazzy’ swipe at him with a knife, not stabbing him but raking a cut across his stomach.

Luckily enough Yancy was accompanied by Merry, who manhandled him out the apartment, into their car and ran all the red lights to get home to a hospital ER in 6 minutes.

Being the tough guy hero of a thriller / obstinate failed cop and stoner (take your pick) Yancy refuses to stay in hospital overnight after he’s been stitched up, and insists on going home where he can lie on his own sofa and get pleasantly stoned while Merry tends to him. Which is precisely the moment Big Noogie’s hoods choose to arrive and threaten to turn over his house till they find the $200,000 engagement ring.

Complicated, isn’t it? There’s a lot more. Blister then kidnaps Lane Coolman as well as Buck and ends up with both of them handcuffed to bunks in the cabin of his rancid old motor yacht. The only way the two men can persuade Blister to let them go is with a plan which goes beyond any bounds of sanity or probability: the three concoct the idea that Blister will join the cast of Bayou Brethren as Buck’s long lost brother. It’s Blister’s idea, and he comes up with a long and extravagant backstory to justify his sudden appearance in the show. Lane is one tough, cynical agent and, despite having been kidnapped and handcuffed to a bunk in a rancid old boat, he can actually see Blister’s plot twist working.

The result is that Blister releases them from their handcuffs, takes them back to the mainland, Lane calls Amp at the agency’s office in Los Angeles, pitches the story and, to the reader’s increasing disbelief, Amp flies out to meet the (by now genuinely psychopathic and dangerous) Blister in person.

This storyline now spins way out of control leading to a scene where Blister is taken for a spin in Amp’s private jet along with his common law wife, Mona, and Lane and Buck as they drink champagne and discuss the finer points of the contract he’s going to be signed to. All is going well until Amp’s big black bodyguard, Prawney, makes a grab for Blister’s Glock semi-automatic which he’s been carrying round for the past hundred pages. The gun goes off, shooting Prawney through the cheeks and in the chest. Amp orders the pilot to turn the plane round and land back in Key West. Well, as business meetings go, that wasn’t a great success.

Trebeaux and Juvenile

Now he’s come all this way south to sort out the sand situation, Big Noogie likes it in Key West. After Trebeaux had been hung off the bridge and made the wise decision to co-operate fully with the mob, he’d been flown to New York to meet the heads of the Calzone family who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse i.e. took over his company wholesale (p.139). On the way Trebeaux had introduced Noogie to a scam he’d never heard of before, which was to get hold of a dog and dress it in a hazard jacket and pretend to be disabled so as to blag a better seat on the plane. Americans appear to call this a ‘service dog’ (p.410). When they fly back to Key West together, Trebeaux wants nothing more to do with the dog and the Noogie finds himself looking after it and slowly getting to like going for regular walks through the tourist crowds of Old Key West and along the beach. Yes, life here is nice and relaxing.

Anyway, Trebeaux is still orientating himself in his dangerous new situation vis-a-vis the mafia, and is unpacking in his hotel room when there’s a knock on the door and Big Noogie’s mistress, a big florid flake nicknamed Juveline (a name she acquired when a New York cop couldn’t spell ‘juvenile’ on her arrest sheet) walks into his room and asks whether he fancies a mind-blowing fuck. Trebeaux says yes and they go for it. Soon she has become his mistress, two-timing the Big Noogie.

Trebeaux knows this is a very bad idea but is turned on by the sheer outrageousness of the situation and they keep having regular sex, Juveline explaining that Big Noogie is such a big, fat, middle-aged guy that he isn’t that interested in it. Also, Noogie doesn’t get jealous if she disappears for days on end to her relatives’ houses or shopping and such, which gives her plenty of opportunity to be unfaithful.

This plotline reaches a peak when Trebeaux tries to pull a scam on the Big Noogie, bullshitting that he has heavyweight connections in Havana Cuba who will do a deal to supply world-class pink sand from Cuban beaches to make the Royal Pyrenees beach the envy of Florida. Unwisely, Trebeaux lets Juveline talk him into taking her on the 2-day jaunt to Havana.

Only trouble is that Juveline talks in her sleep and one night cries out ‘Harder, Marty, harder’, much to the surprise of Big Noogie lying next to her, who instantly realises what’s going on (p.389). Thus, when Trebeaux has landed and made himself at home in Havana, and goes to meet Juveline off a later flight, it is not Juveline he sees walking through passport control but the same hardman who applied the surgical clamps to his nutsack and helped dangle him off the bridge. Ah. Oh. Bad. In fact Trebeaux’s body is discovered a few days later, buried on a beach. So, that’s the end of him, then.

Funny

Razor Girls may well be Hiaasen’s funniest novel, meaning the one which made me laugh out loud the most. For two reasons: Yancy develops a really buddy-buddy routine with fellow detective Rogelio, which leads to lots of snappy repartee:

YANCY: ‘The human bloodhound is what they call me.’
ROGERIO: ‘A pain in the sphincter is what they call you.’ (p.87)

OK, so it’s not Oscar Wilde, but in the context of a fast-moving, American crime comedy caper, and in the context of the sustained backchat between the pair, it’s good, it works.

But the main reason is for the indefatigably unpredictable behaviour of fantasist and survivor Merry Mansfield. Almost everything she says and does is wonderfully confident, bluff and canny. Unquenchably amoral. At several points Yancy realises it would be wise to tell her to move out and make a break with her, but she’s just so much fun to have around.

It was hard to picture an even-keeled relationship with a person who took her last name from a  dead movie star and and crashed automobiles half-naked for a living. (p.284)

Men

Once again, as in many previous Hiaasen novels, the entire male sex comes in for sustained criticism, yet again, for their pitiful addiction to sex. Flash most men some boob or a whiff of your panties and they turn into drooling slaves. Most of this comes from the mouth if Merry, inventor of the shaving pubes scam, who has the lowest possible opinion of pathetic men.

  • Merry said, ‘Men. I swear.’ (p.44)
  • ‘Men are so pitiful.’ (p.93)
  • ‘his poor little pecker…’ (p.119)
  • ‘You men.’ (p.134)
  • He said, ‘Yeah, I know. Us men, we’re pitiful.’ ‘Totally, Andrew.’ (p.190)
  • ‘Men, I swear.’ (p.285)
  • She had had ‘a lifetime of being disappointed by men.’ (p.360)
  • ‘Men are the worst.’ (p.364)
  • ‘Men are so freakin’ predictable.’ (p.415)

One touch on the pecker and men become ‘immune to rational thought’ (p.388). I wonder if Hiaasen made the same kind of sustained criticism of women or Jews or blacks or Muslims, whether his liberal readers would take it all in good spirit and laughingly accept the sustained barrage of negative stereotypes.

American slang

Hiaasen’s novels are notable not only for their very dense plots, overflowing with colourful characters and garish incidents, but for the aggressive ‘attitude’ of the narrator himself, who freely uses street slang and swearwords to describe his characters and their doings, and liberally sprinkles the text with those handy terms for things and actions which Americans just seem to have and we Brits don’t. I found this novel particularly rich in new terminology, in fact I became addicted to collecting them.

  • app = short for appetiser. ‘His calamari app.’
  • baggie = a brand of plastic bag, Yancy uses them for stashing mank he finds on his restaurant inspections, such as rodent ‘scat’
  • baked = stoned
  • to ball = to fuck cf. to bone. ‘Is she still balling that dickface Drucker?’ (p.370)
  • to bang = to fuck, cf, to ball, to bone. ‘Don’t bang a stranger.’ (p.404)
  • bank = big money. ‘You saved the agency some serious bank.’ (p.63)
  • a beat-down = a severe beating. ‘So I can cancel your beat-down?’ (p.414)
  • berserk-o = adjective meaning wild, crazy. ‘The beserk-o side of the place [Miami] was basically all you saw, if you were a cop or a coroner.’ (p.190)
  • to bitch someone out = nag someone, generally a woman bitching out a man (p.252)
  • blow smoke = to bullshit, make something up. ‘… that didn’t mean Trebeaux wasn’t blowing smoke.’ (p.182)
  • to bone = to fuck
  • bonehead = ‘A stubborn, thickheaded and determined person that doesn’t think things through before acting upon them’
  • boner = erection (p.374)
  • to brace = to meet, to confront (p.393)
  • a bumblefuck = insult
  • Bumfuck = generic term for inconsequential settlement in the middle of nowhere, as in Bumfuck Wisconsin or any of the other anonymous mid-Western states.
  • a bump and grab = a type of criminal scam: one crim bumps their car into the back of the victims car; when the victim stops, they’re hijacked / kidnapped
  • to bus tables = to be a waiter
  • buy the farm = to die. ‘… a biker who’d bought the farm at Mile Marker 19.’ (p.304)
  • buzzed = adjective meaning ‘stoned’
  • to can = to fire. ‘No wonder the sheriff canned your ass.’ (p.188)
  • chunk-muffin  = fat person (p.36)
  • cockhead = variation on dickhead, an idiot, an annoying or vexatious person (p.367)
  • cold one = a beer (p.306)
  • cooch = pussy, fanny, vulva. ‘…shaving cream all over her cooch…’ (p.260)
  • to crack the blinds = of closed blinds, to prise them apart to spy through them (p.327)
  • courtesy fuck = a guy buys a woman dinner, chocolates etc, she owes him a courtesy fuck
  • cracker = term of contempt for poor whites, particularly of Georgia and Florida, dating back to the American Revolution, and derives from the cracked corn which was their staple diet
  • to dick around = to waste time (p.309)
  • dickface = loser, idiot (p.370)
  • dickweed = an asshole or idiot so pernicious they are like a weed (p.384)
  • dirtbag = person who is committed to an alternative lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other social norms i.e. washing
  • to do = have sex with. ‘I’d do her.’
  • Dogpatch = name of a fictional poor rural community in the U.S., especially in the South, whose inhabitants are unsophisticated and have little education. Hence its use as an adjective: ‘A Dogpatch moniker like Clee Roy should have stuck in his head.’ (p.188)
  • a doobie or doob = a joint, cannabis cigarette (p.328)
  • dopp kit = small bag made for transporting toiletries in a convenient and portable manner
  • douche, short for douche bag = ‘a dick, an asshole, a jerk, whose crass behaviour has led them to be compared to a cleansing product for vaginas.’
  • a dust bunny = ball of dust and fluff (p.326)
  • dweeb = abbreviation of ‘dick with eyebrows’, implying the person is a walking penis
  • flake = an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through (p.311)
  • four-top = table for four in a diner
  • to frog = to punch someone in the upper arm or chest with the middle knuckle partially extended to inflict a sharp concentrated blow
  • fry cartons = generic name for the kind of flimsy, grease-stained cardboard cartons you get takeaway fast food in
  • fuckwhistle = idiot, moron, one who lacks the most basic common sense to make correct decisions
  • fuckweasel = person who behaves in a sneaky manner to create favourable circumstances for themselves at the expense of others
  • gank = to steal. ‘I think the asshole who lives next door might’ve ganked it.’ (p.181)
  • gas up = fill a car with petrol (p.346)
  • goatfuck = a monumental screwup. (p.410)
  • goober = term of affection for a lovable, silly, lighthearted person: ‘…a crew from ET [was] interviewing some sunburned goober’ (p.97)
  • googan = a person wearing trendy sports clothing that is completely clueless in the ways of fishing
  • goomah = a mafioso’s mistress
  • grab-ass = the act of wrestling or chasing another person with the intention to touch or squeeze that person’s butt
  • a grow house = a room or rooms or larger space where marijuana plants are grown (p.245)
  • a hardass = someone who takes no shit off anyone, someone who expects to get their own way and won’t take no for an answer; dominating (p.364)
  • hard chargers = party animals. ‘Rogelio didn’t screw around on his wife, never stayed out late with the hard chargers.’ (p.82)
  • hardcore = adjective meaning serious, intense, relentless. ‘This judge is hardcore.’ (p.370)
  • honcho = a person in charge of some group or function. ‘The network honchos…’ (p.247)
  • horn, on the = on the phone
  • horndog = a guy or girl that is always horny. ‘He couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was a hopelessly shallow horndog.’ (p.284)
  • iced = adjective meaning killed or completed, depending on context. ‘I’ll have [the contract] iced by the next time we walk.’ (p.238)
  • an innie = belly buttons come in two shapes, innies and outies
  • to jack = ​jack something or somebody (for something) to steal something from somebody, especially something small or of low value (p.322)
  • jackoff = a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person
  • jag = ‘To “be on a jag” or “go on a jag” means to be completely unrestrained, whether you’re on a drinking jag or a crying jag.’
  • jazzed = expression of extreme happiness. ‘I am totally jazzed to hear your voice.’ (p.238)
  • jewels = penis and testicles. ‘I mean she’ll kill me, cut off my fuckin’ jewels and kill me all over again.’ (p.90)
  • jizz = semen (p.268)
  • Johnson = penis (p.374)
  • junk = cock and balls. ‘Next she made him dunk his junk in a bucket of ice cubes…’ (p.287)
  • landing zone = woman’s genitals (p.331)
  • look fly = look smart, well presented (p.359)
  • mash = press hard. ‘He mashed the Lobby button half a dozen times…’ (p.309)
  • meathead = overmuscular man, too much time at the gym, can’t string a sentence together (p.292)
  • meat hog = muscle i.e. goons i.e. hired enforcers (p.322)
  • mick = Irish (noun or adjective) (p.373)
  • mo-fo = adjective, short for ‘motherfucking’, suggesting ‘big’ (p.180)
  • a mope = a person of any race or culture who presents themselves as uneducated and possibly criminal either by behaviour or clothes
  • a mouthbreather = a retard: someone so stupid they never learned to breathe through their nose
  • nooner = a sex session during a lunch break or around noon; made famous by Al Bundy of ‘Married with Children’. ‘She promised him that she was done with payback nooners at the Wlshire.’ (p.409)
  • nosebleed heels = heels so high your head is in the upper atmosphere, hence the nosebleed
  • a numbnut = someone who is a constant source of trouble, an individual who screws up, or constant makes mistakes
  • nut sack = scrotum; male characters in Hiaasen novels are always getting something bad happen to their nut sacks, in this novel Trebeaux has some surgical clamps (hemostats) attached to his balls
  • nuts = testicles
  • on the lam = on the run, very old slang
  • a peckerwood = used by Afro-Americans to describe a rural white southerner, usually poor, undereducated or otherwise ignorant and bigoted (p.381)
  • to peel out = to drive or go away. ‘Yancy grinned at the sight of the Taurus peeling out.’ (p.190)
  • to peel rubber = to accelerate an automobile very rapidly (p.364)
  • piece = gun (p.370)
  • poon = woman’s genitals. Short for ‘poontang‘, ditto (p.308)
  • a pop tab = the flip top on drink cans
  • to pop a tent = to have an erection that shows through your trousers, or erects a bedsheet
  • pussy hound = ‘a dude who’s main goal in life is balling ladies.’
  • rearview, to put someone in your rearview = get over someone, move on (p.302)
  • rebar = reinforcing steel used as rods in concrete.
  • revenge fuck = joins mercy fuck, courtesy fuck and sportfucking as categories of fuck. ‘Rachel was the undoubted queen of the revenge fuck in a town with many contenders for the title.’ (p.42)
  • the root prong = of a tooth (p.178)
  • salvor = ‘a person engaged in salvage of a ship or items lost at sea’
  • sawbuck = $10
  • scat = poo; ‘rodent scat’ (p.84)
  • schlep = noun: a long and tiresome journey; verb: to make a long and tiresome journey. Yiddish (p.373)
  • to screak = to make a harsh shrill noise : screech
  • shit-bird = a completely useless individual who is unaware of their own complete uselessness
  • shit-heel = adjective. ‘…his shit-heel brothers…’ (p.221)
  • shitkicker = insult
  • shitstick = insult
  • shitsucker = insult
  • shitweasel = person who is sly, sneaky, and opportunistic; someone who is looking to slip their way into a shitty situation and make it even shittier
  • a shucker = someone who shucks oysters, clams, corn, walnuts etc out of their shells
  • sick = adjective meaning really good, cool or very impressive
  • a slim jim = a tool used to open doors on cars, by ‘pulling up’ the lock within the door, hence the verb, to slim jim a car. ‘… content in mid-life to be slim-jimming cars…’ (p.275)
  • slut puppy = person who uses their adorable looks to attract a partner or partners for a casual sexual encounter
  • to snitch out = to betray. ‘A million bucks says you wouldn’t never snitch out your wife.’ (p.358)
  • to spazz out = sudden, fast movement(s); to go mental (p.373)
  • spazzy = adjective meaning clumsy or inept, with an overtone of demented or mad. ‘Benny Krill had made one spazzy swing with the blade…’ (p.192)
  • to stare down = verb: to look fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away
  • a stare-down = noun: the act of looking fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away (p.386)
  • stoner = someone who regularly smokes marijuana: there are many different types of stoner
  • swag = merchandise. ‘He promised to donate a truckload of Brethren swag to an auction benefiting the local kids’ baseball league…’ (p.248).
  • tanked = stoned
  • tank suit = a woman’s one-piece swimsuit with high-cut legs. Merry wears one (p.300)
  • a thundercunt = that much more cunty than an ordinary cunt. ‘She’s a major thundercunt.’ (p.62)
  • toot = to snort, generally cocaine (p.329)
  • to tune up = to give someone an attitude adjustment by beating their ass. ‘… the man who’d just tuned up Rick and Rod…’ (p.275)
  • a tweaker = a methamphetamine addict; derives from ‘tweak’ which is a slang name for methamphetamine’. ‘Mr Nance isn’t just some homeless tweaker.’ (p.47)
  • unspooled = adjective meaning unhinged, bonkers
  • weed = marijuana aka grass
  • a whack job = a nutcase, a lunatic
  • to whale at something = to hit something forcefully and repeatedly
  • to whorehop = to go from one (loose) woman to another, regardless of consequences (p.61)
  • to wig out = ‘to suddenly become unnecessarily worried, anxious, upset, or paranoid most often while under the influence of an intoxicating substance, especially marijuana’
  • wild-ass = adjective meaning crazy. ‘The van driver figured out they were being tailed, and made a wild-ass turn off Flagler Avenue.’ (p.362)
  • wood = an erect penis; thus ‘to get wood’, ‘to have wood’. Brock Richardson: ‘Never waste good wood.’ (p.288)

Englishisms

In among the blizzard of Americanisms I was struck by a handful of times Hiaasen uses what I think of as very English terms, such as nitwit (p.361) and thick (p.215). I wonder whether he was deliberately trying to include as much novel slang as possible in this book i.e. it has a conscious philological interest over and above the storyline.

Once again I note that the woman riding cowboy style is Hiaasen’s (fictional) sexual position of choice, Merry riding Yancy (p.254) just as Dr Rosa Campasino rode him on the morgue dissection table and, later, in his bath. Appropriate for the general ‘girls on top, men are pitiful’ theme of so many of his novels.

Handy phrases

  • Sonny Summers wasn’t the sharpest tack on the corkboard. (p.47)
  • ‘Not my circus, not my monkey.’ (p.185)

Credit

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2016. All references are to the 2019 Vintage Crime paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)
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