The Municipal Museum of Tossa de Mar

Tossa de Mar was originally a settlement on a small promontory sticking out into the Mediterranean about 1oo kilometres northeast of Barcelona. The Romans built a small town with villas and so on, and in the middle ages the promontory itself was sealed off by a thick wall punctuated by great round towers. Within was a rabbit warren of lanes and alleys.

With the tourist boom of the 1970s onwards hotels sprang up like mushrooms along the big curving sandy beach to the north, and in the evening the streets of the newish town are lined with tourist boutiques and restaurants, though within the thick stone walls, the old town – the Vila Vella, in Catalan – is much quieter.

In a small square at the top of a steep cobbled lane stands the medieval building – once the house of the local Abbot – which has been gutted and converted into three light and airy floors full of art which is now the Municipal Museum of Tossa de Mar.

Though called a museum it is in fact much more of an art gallery. The basement has three rooms or so of Roman statues, coins, kitchen utensils and pots and on one wall hangs the big restored mosaic found in a nearby Roman villa. But the two floors above it each contain half a dozen rooms devoted respectively, to the museum’s permanent collection of artists who lived or worked locally; and to a rotating exhibition. When I went, the exhibition was ‘La Forma en Evolució’, works by Josep Martí Sabé.

It’s hardly worth making a pilgrimage to, but on the other hand the entrance fee is only three euros and for that you get a lot more variety and interest than you’d expect. Also, in the blistering heat of a Spanish summer day, it is lovely and air-conditioned!

1. Archaeology

There are some remains from palaeolithical times onwards, but the main display is of Roman remains from the several nearby villas which have been discovered. Coins, broken pots, farm tools and fishing tackle, hairpins and brooches, along with a handful of bigger pieces.

Roman statue, Museo Municipal de Tossa de Mar

Roman statue in Carrara marble, Museo Municipal de Tossa de Mar

A hundred years ago a major Roman villa was discovered and excavated on the outskirts of the present town (just next to the bus station is a fenced-off area clearly showing the ancient walls and floor).

The pride of the archaeological section is the huge recreation of one of the villa’s mosaics.

Restored Roman mosaic, Museo Municipal de Tossa de Mar

Restored Roman mosaic, featuring the name of the villa owner, Vitalis, and the mosaic-maker, Felices. Museo Municipal de Tossa de Mar


2. Josep Martí Sabé – Form in evolution

Jose Marti-Sabé (1915-2006) was a Catalan artist, born and lived at Santa Coloma de Farners about thirty miles inland from Tossa. He trained as a sculptor in Barcelona. To quote the exhibition handout:

In 1950 Marti-Sabé founded, alongside the sculptors J.M. Subirachs Francesc Torres Monsó and the painters Esther Boix, Ricard Creus and Joaquim Datzira, the ‘Postectura’ group. They were influenced by constructivist tendencies and preconised a new humanism. Josep Martí Sabé worked with materials such as stone, cast, iron, and terracotta. Each material allowed him to experience with the plastic qualities and he consolidates the analysis of dualities and oppositions: horizontal and vertical, positive and negative, full and empty.

In practice the thirty or so pieces here show a development from kitsch neo-classical statues of naked women with babies which would have been at home in the state-approved realism of Nazi or Soviet art, through a more stylised soft modernism in wood and bronze, and on to flat metal sculptures reminiscent of Picasso crossed with Giacometti.

Banyistes de Cassi (1954) by Josep Martí Sabé

Banyistes de Cassi (1954) by Josep Martí Sabé

Part of the point is to show his experimentation with materials. This wood carving is very easy on the eye.

Eva (1977) by Josep Martí Sabé

Eva (1977) by Josep Martí Sabé

A couple of pieces in bronze really stand out for the combination Art Deco style faces or bodies, against deliberately rough backgrounds.

Profiles (1979) by Josep Martí Sabé

Profiles (1979) by Josep Martí Sabé

Having spent a few hours in the nearby sea made this shiny bronze of a swimmer all the more relevant.

Nadador ((1975) by Josep Martí Sabé

Nadador (1975) by Josep Martí Sabé

And late in life he experimented with a completely new approach, producing these completely flat, stylised steel cut-outs of people. Note the way the joined heads make the shape of a heart.

Parella (1990) by Josep Martí Sabé

Parella (1990) by Josep Martí Sabé

Not earth shattering but a pleasant break from the nearby beach, and an insight into a little local world of art I’d never heard of. How many thousands of similar artists worked across Europe during the twentieth century, never breaking into the big time but commemorated in local museums and galleries?


3. The permanent collection

Speaking of which, the permanent collection records the fact that by the early 1930s a surprising number of artists were living and working in Tossa, making it a ‘Babel  of Arts’, as a contemporary magazine feature put it. The most famous single artist was Marc Chagall who – allegedly – dubbed Tossa ‘the blue paradise’, and is commemorated by two works.

The Celestial Violinist by Marc Chagall

The Celestial Violinist by Marc Chagall

The oil painting (above) has pride of place, but I preferred the simpler more poignant impact of this print.

Vers l'autre clarté by Marc Chagall

Vers l’autre clarté by Marc Chagall

The handout mentions over 30 artists who lived and worked here and who are represented by at least one piece. Apart from Chagall, I’d never heard of any of them, though that probably reflects my vast ignorance of European art.

Ballerina by Jean Metzinger

Ballerina by Jean Metzinger

It’s a fascinating cross-section of B or C list art from the 1930s, much of it very enjoyable.

Cavaller (1934) by Oscar Zügel

Cavaller (1934) by Oscar Zügel

The big exhibitions I see in London are always of super-famous international stars. The Tossa Museum gives you the opportunity of meeting and savouring much more obscure artists, and enjoying the variety of styles available to 20th century artists.

Moulin Rouge by Eugene Paul

Moulin Rouge by Eugene Paul

Mostly paintings, but some striking sculptures.

Untitled by Manuel Alvarez

Untitled by Manuel Alvarez

I kept returning to this one. I like sketches, works in charcoal, strong lines and cartoons. Ricard Lambi’s Fish market reminded me of sketches by Old Masters. I liked the confident lines and sense of action.

Fish market (1911) by Ricard Lambi

Fish market (1911) by Ricard Lambi

There’s a story behind this statuette of Ava Gardner. In 1950 she arrived in the town along with director Albert Lewin and co-star James Mason to shoot a movie, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. During her stay Ava made a big impact on the locals for her genuine friendliness and openness. Plenty of the local shops have big posters of Ava, or collages of press and publicity photos. You can buy Ava Gardner memorabilia. In 1998 the Spanish sculptress, Ció Abellí, created a life-size statue of Ava looking out from a small square in the old town onto the beach where she frolics in the movie. This is a small study for the larger work.

Bronze statuette of Ava Gardner (1992) by Cio Abelli

Bronze statuette of Ava Gardner (1992) by Cio Abelli

Beautiful town. Lovely museum.

Related links

Burmese Days by George Orwell (1934)

By the roadside, just before you got to the jail, the fragments of a stone pagoda were littered, cracked and overthrown by the strong roots of a peepul tree. The angry carved faces of demons looked up from the grass where they had fallen. (Chapter 11)

Orwell served in the British Imperial Police Force in Burma from 1922 to 1927. He was efficient enough, won praise, but was considered an outsider by his colleagues. For example, he was one of the few officers to actually learn Burmese, becoming fluent, something they all considered odd.

In this, Orwell’s first novel, his deep familiarity with Burmese climate, flora & fauna, language and customs, is wonderfully evident throughout.

He acclimatized himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy-fields were wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yaru d-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy-fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hop-scotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them – honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmans went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold. In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wilderness, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun. At night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns looming through the mist like crescents. One had three blankets on one’s bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken. After
dinner one sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and talking about shooting. The flames danced like red holly, casting a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to the fire like dogs. As one lay in bed one could hear the dew dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain. It was a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past. (Chapter 5)

Vivid, eh?

Characters

The novel is set in the small town of Kyauktada.

Kyauktada was a fairly typical Upper Burma town, that had not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910, and might have slept in the Middle Ages for a century more if it had not proved a convenient spot for a railway terminus. In 1910 the Government made it the headquarters of a district and a seat of Progress – interpretable as a block of law courts, with their army of fat but ravenous pleaders, a hospital, a school and one of those huge, durable jails which the English have built everywhere between Gibraltar and Hong Kong. The population was about four thousand,
including a couple of hundred Indians, a few score Chinese and seven Europeans. There were also two Eurasians named Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, the sons of an American Baptist missionary and a Roman Catholic missionary respectively. (Chapter 2)

The novel opens, shrewdly, with a chapter describing a typical morning of the wily U Po Kyin, the grossly fat sub-divisional magistrate of Kyauktada, introducing us to his loyal servant, the pock-marked thief Ba Taik, and his thin, long-suffering wife, Ma Kin. I say shrewdly because this opening chapter gives an immediate flavour of the heat, the climate, the native food (which U Po Kyin greedily stuffs himself with), and the cunning mind-set of a successful Burman. A potted biography of U Po Kyin gives a handy snapshot of how Burma had evolved under British rule since the war of 1885.

Having established the foreignness of the setting, the novel’s remaining 24 chapters almost all focus on the small European population of the town. Chapter two sets the tone by describing the town’s sad little European ‘Club’, where a group of very bored, hungover white men consort and bicker. Very quickly Orwell captures the hatefulness, boredom and spite of English colonials. Later on we are told that there are precisely eight white people in the whole town – collectively referred to as the sahiblog. They include:

Macgregor, worthy middle-aged chap, Deputy Commissioner and secretary of the Club. Always trying to see the best of things, tactfully avoiding arguments, a teller of long boring anecdotes. Macgregor has been instructed by his superiors to suggest that a ‘native’ join the Club, it’s the way things are going, most other clubs have one or two natives etc. This mild suggestion causes a storm of protest from the other whites.

Ellis, local manager of a timber company, is a spiteful racist cockney with a real deep loathing and hatred of the locals who he freely calls ‘niggers’, to the other white men’s discomfort. In every situation Ellis is guaranteed to pull all conversations down to the lowest common denominator and use every possible excuse to vent his hatred, not only of Burmans, but of women (‘There was nothing that gave him quite so keen a pleasure as dragging a woman’s name through mud.’ Chapter 7). In a historically interesting passage Ellis not only takes the mickey out of Flory’s blooming love for Elizabeth, but also gives a cynical opinion of the British Empire as a last-chance marriage bureau for women who have failed to find a husband back home – which is in fact an accurate description of Elizabeth’s plight.

Mr Lackersteen, the big, coarse-faced manager of a timber firm. He likes getting drunk and ‘having a good time’, which means touching up the local women, which is why his wife, Mrs Lackersteen, almost never lets him out of her sight. Later, he tries it on with his own niece, spurring her desperation to find a husband and move out of his house.

Westfield, the District Superintendent of Police, a man of clipped speech and melancholy voice, always making sad jokes. ‘A fresh-coloured blond youth of not more than twenty-five or six – very young for the post he held. With his heavy limbs and thick white eyelashes he reminded one of a cart-horse colt.’ (Chapter 2) Has a habit of predictably saying ‘Lead on, Macduff’ when anyone enters a room or commences some activity.

Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer. He ‘was lying in one of the long chairs reading the Field, and invisible except for two large-boned legs and thick downy forearms.’ (Chapter 2)

Dr Veraswami, an Indian and the only doctor in the town.

But the main character turns out to be Flory,

a man of about thirty-five, of middle height, not ill made. He had very black, stiff hair growing low on his head, and a cropped black moustache, and his skin, naturally sallow, was discoloured by the sun. Not having grown fat or bald he did not look older than his age, but his face was very haggard in spite of the sunburn, with lank cheeks and a sunken, withered look around the eyes… The first thing that one noticed in Flory was a hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Seen from the left side his face had a battered, woebegone look, as though the birthmark had been a bruise – for it was a dark blue in colour. He was quite aware of its hideousness. And at all times, when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he manoeuvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight. (Chapter 2)

We learn that Flory was bullied at school, keeps a black cocker spaniel named Flo, has a devoted servant – Ko S’la – who he grew up with, and keeps a beautiful mistress, the slender possessive Ma Hla May, who lets him have sex with her, passionlessly and dutifully, because she revels in the prestige and power of being the woman of a white man, especially the ability to boss about Flory’s long-suffering servants.

Flory has different opinions from the rest of the Europeans: he is supremely cynical about the worth of the empire, but more than that, he genuinely likes the native Burmans and is attracted to their culture and traditions. He has even learned their language when most Europeans barely bother to learn more than three words and get by on kicking servants. In this respect, he is quite obviously Orwell’s representative in the novel – up to a point.

Flory is good friends with Dr Veraswami – who the venomous Ellis nicknames ‘Very-Slimey’ – and on a number of occasions drops by his house for a chat in which the unctuous and anxious doctor always tries to please his troubled white friend. During one of these chats, Flory reluctantly promises to put his friend’s name forward for membership of the club reluctantly because he knows the arguments it will embroil him in.

For Flory’s problems is that he has to keep his perceptions of the beauty of the local scenery, the brightly-coloured birds and his love of the locals tightly buttoned up and kept rigorously secret, because it is so very contrary to the boorish, philistine codes of the pukka sahib. Flory is literally bursting with frustration to share his perceptions and experiences and the beauty he sees all around him with someone who will listen.

Then Mr and Mrs Lackersteen’s pretty young niece, 20-year-old Elizabeth, arrives in Kyauktada, and the story begins…

The plot

The plot has two strands:

1. The fat conspirator extraordinaire, taker of bribes and boundlessly ambitious U Po Kyin plots to discredit Dr Veraswami a) by writing anonymous letters to all the Europeans accusing him of innumerable scandals, and b) by fomenting a small rebellion in a distant village which he – U Po Kyin – will alert the authorities to and (arrange to) quell. In their gratitude the white men will invite him to join the Club, rather than the discredited doctor. As he explains to his slight, long-suffering wife, it will be the pinnacle of his career.

2. The hopeless love affair between shy, frustrated Flory and Elizabeth, young and freshly arrived from England. A chapter gives us her back story, namely that her father made a fortune during the Great War and so could afford to send her to a premium private school for young gels, where she acquired a taste for luxury and high living – but only for a brief year before Papa lost his fortune and she was sent to a succession of ever-dingier schools.

When poor Papa died, Mama was left with a pittance which she decided would go further if she moved to Paris where, after much self-indulgent dallying, she decides she will become an artist – in reality sinking into greater poverty surrounded by hangers-on spouting poetry and art and suchlike.

Shallow Elizabeth dreams only of being restored to her life among the rich and lovely and grows to loathe ‘highbrows’, their poverty and above all their futile pretensions. Elizabeth wants to marry a strong, noble, sunburned colonial god. When her Mama passes away, she receives a letter from her aunt in Burma and takes up the invitation to go and stay.

She arrives, is introduced to the bores and bigots and the Club. On virtually her first day she is menaced by a water buffalo, screams in terror, and Flory who happens to be passing comes to her rescue (knowing water buffalo are harmless). On the back of this he takes the role of showing her round, thinking he will interest her in local people and their culture.

But Elizabeth instinctively loathes the Burmans with their filth and revolting habits, and is unnerved to hear Flory spouting all the highbrow pretentious twaddle about ‘poetry’ and ‘beauty’ she associates with Parisian pretentiousness.

Flory, on the contrary, detests the traditional bric-a-brac of colonial life, the endless tedious conversations about tennis or dogs or guns or hunting. It is the colour and strange customs and ancient culture of Burma which attract him – and which Elizabeth loathes as ‘beastly’ and ‘high-brow’. It is a relationship based on mutual desperation and the central part of the book details with horrible stickiness their inevitable descent into an unhappy trap.

Flory and Elizabeth’s doomed romance

The middle half of the novel follows Flory’s feeble, dog-like attempts to show Elizabeth the local culture – taking her to a traditional pwe dance which she finds revolting, and into the home of a local notable, Li Yeik, which she finds filthy and where they serve revolting food and drink which makes her retch. (The description of their visit to the village festival and the performance of a pwe dancer are fascinating.) Orwell makes it perfectly, comically, tragically, clear they are at complete cross-purposes.

Then Flory has the idea of taking Elizabeth hunting, and this is the kind of thing Elizabeth expected: guns and beaters and manly men shooting things. Again, this is a riveting chapter full of brilliant descriptions of local birds and wildlife and climaxing in the gripping, cruel shooting of a leopard. (Hunting was much written about at this period: think of Hemingway’s classic account of a month on safari, The Green Hills of Africa, 1935). This is precisely the kind of thing the shallow brainless Elizabeth imagined when she thought of ‘India’ and its glamour. Over the body of the dead leopard she and Flory find they are holding hands; it is only a matter of time till he proposes to her.

That night at the Club Flory takes Elizabeth onto the veranda and is on the verge of proposing when her aunt interrupts by shouting from indoors. In fact, in a memorable development, before her aunt can appear on the veranda there is a minor earthquake which throws everyone off their feet, making all the women, native and European, scream. No-one is actually hurt but everyone assembles back inside the Club for a night of strong drink and yarning. The proposal moment is lost…

The arrival of Verrall

And lost forever because the next day a new arrival appears, the incredibly haughty, superior, supercilious Lieutenant the Honourable Verrall, son of a Lord, who has spent his career in India perfecting his polo playing. Verrall is a really superb creation, as effortlessly rude to the other Europeans as he is to the natives. He makes his mark immediately at the Club by giving the native butler a sound kicking and then refusing to apologise or even acknowledge the other members when they remonstrate with him.

Predictably, Elizabeth falls for this stiff, handsome, uncaring philistine – I pictured him as Edward Fox in Day of the Jackal – and drops Flory like a brick. It doesn’t help that her aunt helpfully lets slip the night after the successful hunt, that Flory keeps a native mistress. (In fact we know that Flory has painfully dumped Ma Hla May a week or so earlier. She made a big scene and returns to blackmail money out of him; in his eyes this makes someone telling Elizabeth about Ma Hla horribly unfair, though we readers may think the general point remains true – he is the kind of man who took a native mistress.)

Elizabeth cuts Flory dead and the devastated lonely man returns to his timber plantation up country where he throws himself into his work (the description of which is itself interesting). In fact, after barely two weeks he is so obsessed with her that he goes back down to Kyauktada, and has the bright idea of getting the leopard skin stylishly cured and giving it to her.

Predictably, this all goes wrong. The native charged with curing the leopard skin makes a dreadful hash of it, producing a scorched stinking skin which Flory foolishly persists on giving to Elizabeth – who naturally recoils. Their meeting, at Mrs Lackersteen’s house, is memorably embarrassing and Flory finds himself limited to the shallowest polite conversation before being more or less turfed out. Mrs Lackersteen orders the servants to burn the stinky leopard skin.

But meanwhile Elizabeth’s cause with Verrall is not prospering. We know this because the author has told us that Verrall has a record of dallying with attractive young gels and then dropping them. Hence they go riding together and – it is strongly hinted – might be doing the deed of darkness deep in the jungle. But, in his clipped, overbred way, Verrall drops never a hint of matrimony. Though he’s a cad and a bounder etc (it is emphasised that he leaves not only a string of broken hearts but also massive debts to all the local traders wherever he sojourns), in some ways Verall is the most attractive character in the book: he gets his way without whining or complaining.

The pretend rebellion

U Po Kyin’s toy rebellion goes ahead in some remote village; it turns out to involve just eight villagers. Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer, is involved in ‘suppressing’ it and, when one of the ‘rebels’ runs away, unwisely shoots, hitting him in the stomach and killing him. Nonetheless, U Po Kyin rather ludicrously claims the benefit and prestige of having tipped off the authorities.

Flory returns from his station to the Club for the vote at start of June about whether to admit a native. Ellis is ranting against ‘niggers’. Flory steels himself to keep his promise to his friend Veraswami and nominates him as a member. The others all start attacking him, Ellis with virulent racist hatred, when they are interrupted by natives mooring a boat by the river bank (the Club is right by the wide River Irrawaddy) and bringing up a body wrapped in local cloth. It is Maxwell. He has been hacked to pieces by the brothers of the native he shot dead a week earlier. For the first time an air of real tragedy descends on what till now had been at times a fairly brittle social satire.

Next day Ellis is walking from his bungalow to the club and Orwell gives us a running stream of his thoughts which are phenomenally angry and racist. God he wishes there’d be some trouble, a real riot, because then they could call the Military Police out and massacre the brutes; kill scores, hundreds of ’em. That would teach ’em a lesson – and so on. (As a matter of historical curiosity, in an earlier conversation at the Club, Ellis is seen defending Colonel Dyer who, notoriously, ordered the killing of some 400 protesters in the Amritsar massacre of 13 April 1919. It is not so much the reference as the context Orwell puts around it which, fascinatingly, helps you see that there would have been many Brits who whole-heartedly supported Dyer.)

An inoffensive Burman carrying bags passes him, prompting a psychopathic wish to attack and hurt him. Next he sees five schoolboys coming towards him, smiling and when they reply in broken English to his salvo of abuse, Ellis snaps and hits one of them in the face with his stick. That one goes down and the other four attack Ellis but he is surprisingly strong, fights them off and makes it to the club veranda. (In a a brief exasperated sentence Orwell adds that, later on, a local doctor administers some foul concoction to the boy’s eyes, thus successfully him.)

The real riot

That night a huge crowd of Burmans, several thousand strong, surrounds the Club calling for Ellis to be sent out. Macgregor staunchly goes out to try and restore calm but is subject to a bombardment of stones and the crowd turn really ugly. The whites (and their terrified servants) barricade the Club, locking all windows and doors, and there’s the real possibility the mob will storm the building and it would only take blood to be drawn on either side to spark a massacre. All the whites panic, Ellis abusing everyone in sight, Mr Lackersteen drinking himself unconscious, the memsahibs wailing – all want to know where the damn military police are.

For Verrall had arrived with a detachment of a hundred and fifty military police – but he and Westfield have been gone several days on a mission to track down Maxwell’s killers. Flory has bright idea of creeping out the back of the Club and swimming down the river to alert the police. He does so, easily evading the handful of Burmans in the back garden, and within minutes is emerging a few hundred yards downstream to realise the police haven’t come to help because they themselves are engulfed in the mob, having waded into them with only sticks.

Flory manages to struggle through to the (Indian) NCO of the police and instructs him to a) struggle free of the mob b) rally his men c) issue firearms d) fire over the heads of the crowd. As soon as they let fly the first volley, the entire crowd falls to the ground. Another and they are up and running away.

I found this scene extremely convincing, and a reminder that Orwell himself personally was in charge of this kind of force and had had to handle tricky situations. Quick assessment, quick decision, quick action save the day. The police advance on the Club whence the last few Burmans are fleeing and liberate the whites. Flory is very much the hero of the hour – though there is an element of comedy in that out of nowhere U Po Kyin has attached himself to the police and is trying to claim half the credit for quelling the riot.

Flory enjoys being hero for an hour. Next day finds he is respected by everyone, Elizabeth is looking at him with new respect, Ellis has his come-uppance as during the siege he swore and insulted all the other whites, specially the unforgiving Mrs Lackersteen.

In a simple but poetic (symbolic) touch, as the last of the rioters had dispersed the previous night, the long-awaited monsoon had broken and it began to rain tumultuously. That evening Flory and Elizabeth meet at the Club and, amid the din of the rain, she seems favourable to him again, but breaks away to go inside. Flory had arranged to return to his lumber camp and sets off.

Verrall decamps

Elizabeth had been hesitant because she is genuinely torn between dashing Verrall and now-heroic Flory. Trouble is Verrall hasn’t been seen at the club for several days and, typically, hasn’t contacted her. The days pass as Mrs Lackersteen and Elizabeth wait timidly at the Club for the reappearance of Verrall. Imagine their horror when, on the third morning, out of the torrential rain appears a bumptious youth in uniform who announces that he is the new head of the military police. ‘Yes, that other chappy, Verall, he’s just leaving by train now.’ The women run out into a rickshaw and get it driven through the pelting rain to the station – only to watch the train puffing out of sight. Such a cad is young Verall that he not only packed and left, loading up his horses and saddles, in secret, but actually ordered the stationmaster to send the train off ten minutes earlier, the better to avoid a sticky scene.

The women digest this blow to their ambitions (the whole plot thread of Mrs Lackersteen encouraging her niece to clamp on to the nearest available man has a very calculating, feminine Jane Austen feel to it). It is Saturday. That evening the chaplain arrives for his six-weekly visit. Next morning the entire white community will (reluctantly) go to church, and Flory will come back into town for the event. Both the women have, without saying anything explicit, completely reversed their view about him, now that Flory has reverted to being the only eligible bachelor in town. The lovely Mr Flory!

Tragic denouement

Next morning the whites assemble for the six-weekly visit of the chaplain and Sunday prayers. Elizabeth looks radiant and when Flory asks whether Verrall has left, she confirms it, and looks doe-ishly into his eyes. It is now a sure thing that they will get married. Flory’s mind drifts off during the service into fantasies of living in a beautiful bungalow, decorated by Elizabeth’s fair hand, with flowers everywhere and a piano – a piano! – when… he is awoken by a rumpus at the door.

It is Ma Hla May, his ex-mistress, looking more raddled and ragged than ever, screeching at the top of her voice, accusing Flory of having used her and kicked her out, demanding he pay her the money he (foolishly) promised her and then – horror of horrors – she begins to tear at her clothes with a view to stripping naked, the ultimate in self-abasement and shaming behaviour.

Since she’s yelling in Burmese none of the whites understand a word but they definitely get the gist. Flory turns white then a cringing yellow. Elizabeth looks at him and for the first time sees how old and raddled and worn and pathetic he is – and for the first time really sees how ugly his birthmark makes him. And Flory sees all this pass through her eyes. Ma Hla May is man-handled out the church by two Eurasians, but the damage is done.

The service staggers to a conclusion and Flory leaves immediately, his ears burning, his mind reeling. Looking back he sees all the others making for the Club, leaving Elizabeth slightly apart. He quickly runs over to her and begs forgiveness, begs her pardon, asks if she will consider him again, in a year, in five years, in ten years. He has previously pleaded with her (on the night he gave her the wretched botched leopard skin) but now he reaches new depths of humiliating abasement. But Elizabeth coldly insists there was never any understanding between them, says he revolts her, and hurries off.

Flory staggers to his bungalow in a daze, rejects the breakfast laid on by his faithful servant, drags his dog Flo into his bedroom, locks the door, then shoots first the dog, then himself through the heart. The servants panic at the shots and call Dr Veraswami, who confirms that his best friend is dead. He writes a death certificate saying it must have been ‘accidental death’, cleaning his revolver etc, a last service to his friend.

So that is that. Throughout its course I wasn’t sure how it would end, but it turns out to be quite a dark tragedy – rather against the grain of some of the social satire and the lush descriptions.

Tying up loose ends

The short last chapter makes a comprehensive round up of all the remaining characters, tying up all the loose ends. (In this respect – a sad final chapter after the agonised main character has melodramatically committed suicide in a sweaty colonial setting – reminds me very much of Graham Greene’s The Heart of The Matter where we are witness through two hundred long pages to Scobie’s agonised pangs of conscience leading up to his suicide – and then in the sad postscript discover that everyone knew about his silly infidelity anyway, and didn’t much care.)

Same here. Despite Dr Veraswami’s efforts to cover up his friend’s suicide, Flory quickly just becomes another story of the sad so-and-so who killed himself because of girl trouble. The good doctor sinks very low now in social esteem, his one solid white friend being dead and U Po Kyin’s continued campaign of anonymous letters attacking him take their effect. Orwell details the precise extent of his degradation as he is demoted and switched to a stinking third-rate hospital in sweltering Rangoon.

U Po Kyin’s plans succeed. He is indeed elected a member of the Club where he turns out to be agreeable company, having the tact to only rarely attend and when he does, turns out to be an excellent bridge player. Orwell pushes the satirical point home by having U Po Kyin promoted by the authorities for his role in repressing the ‘rebellion’ and the riot, and then invited to a durbar, where the Great British Empire in all its pomp includes him in a list of loyal servants given royal awards. However, he dies of a stroke a few days later, leaving his poor widow agonising about his probable tribulations in the Burmese afterlife.

And Elizabeth is at her wit’s end – Verrall abandoned her, Flory turned out to be a hopeless beast before squalidly killing himself – and all the time the wretched Mr Lackersteen continues his campaign of pinching, fondling and trying to kiss her whenever Mrs Lackersteen’s back is turned. If she returns to England she will be penniless, oh what to do? At which point kindly Mr Macgregor proposes to her and is accepted. After marriage, he becomes even more human and contented, while she ascends to her rightful position, a fiery preserver of white privilege, a despiser of native culture, keeping a beady eye on the Civil Service List to see who is up and who is down, and a terror to her servants.

Thus the British Empire in all its glory.


Anti-imperial

Is the book by any chance anti-imperial? Just a bit.

He had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code. In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you
sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they ARE
greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. (Chapter 5)

But it’s not just where the subject is overtly discussed – which is only in half a dozen or so places – quite obviously the entire book, insofar as it a downbeat description of colonial life in a small station in British India, is implicitly critical.

We can assume a lot of the characterisation and the psychology is fairly accurate, in fact Orwell was so worried about the risk of libel – having based the town and some of the characters on a real place and real people – that he had it published in America first to test out the waters, and it was initially turned down by his British publisher. In the event, people who’d known him in Burma felt he’d let the side down but nothing worse happened.

The book critiques the Empire in at least three ways:

  1. overt analysis/criticism as quoted above, where Flory, for example, explicitly states the Empire is nothing but institutionalised robbery
  2. by portraying through the opinions and actions of the white characters a variety of types or shades of racist thought and action
  3. but above all, structurally – by which I mean that the entire book shows how absolutely everyone in it, all the whites and all the natives, are caught in the imperial power structure, are defined as either rulers or ruled, and how this determines almost every aspect of their lives, from the grandest schemes to the tiniest details of contempt and humiliation

The arguments for and against Britain’s presence in India are presented in a set-piece debate between the cynic Flory and the devoted loyalist Dr Veraswami in chapter 3.

‘Seditious?’ Flory said. ‘I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.’

The novel as a whole is a powerful indictment not because of the explicitly anti-imperial reflections of poor unhappy Flory, but because of the penetrating details of imperial life which it depicts, often as asides.

For example, it is in the briefest of references that we learn that the eight or so villagers U Po Kyin paid to stage a fake ‘rebellion’ in fact end up brutally sentenced, to fifteen years in prison, floggings and so on. With a handful of exceptions – servants and mistresses – the Burmese are just a background throng against which the adventures of ‘real’ i.e. white people take place. The blinding of the Burmese boy, the ruination of Ma Hla May, the sentences meted out to the ‘rebels’ – all are mentioned but deliberately briefly to implicate the readers themselves in the imperialist ideology of only taking white people seriously.

We, in our times, are so continually exposed to unanswerable post-colonial propaganda about how awful and racist the British Empire was, that it is a relief – and much more powerful – to see it described in detail by someone who was there, and so to realise that it was made out of people like you and me. Some are bastards. Some are decent. Some try to improve things. Some ruthlessly exploit their superior position.

All are caught in the ideology and social structure of their time which requires them to go along with the more or less overt exploitation and humiliation of the native peoples they ‘rule’, all living with a greater or lesser degree of bad conscience, all internalising it into guilt feelings like Flory (and as Orwell himself did, as he confesses in The Road To Wigan Pier), or externalising it into vicious bigotry and thoughtless violence, like Ellis and Verrall.

This fictional depiction of empire makes a much more compelling anti-imperial case than many of the anti-imperial histories I’ve read recently, because it is subtler, and shows how the insidious consequences of imperial rule poisoned all social relations, and the characters of all those involved.

Tourist info

Orwell’s local knowledge treads a fine line between being genuine insider tips and occasionally becoming a bit too explanatory – the tone sometimes reminds you of the ‘old India hand’, keen to explain this that or the other about colonial life to the new boy.

  • Every European in India is ex officio, or rather ex colore, a good fellow, until he has done something quite outrageous. It is an honorary rank. (Chapter 2)
  • It is a disagreeable thing when one’s close friend is not one’s social equal; but it is a thing native to the very air of India. (Chapter 3)

This keenness to explain extends to numerous details of Burma life:

  •  All European food in Burma is more or less disgusting – the bread is spongy stuff leavened with palm-toddy and tasting like a penny bun gone wrong, the butter comes out of a tin, and so does the milk, unless it is the grey watery catlap of the dudh-wallah. (Chapter 4)
  • There is no Burmese word for to kiss. (Chapter 4)
  • In India it is in some way evil to spend a day without being once in a muck-sweat. It gives one a deeper sense of sin than a thousand lecheries. In the dark evening, after a quite idle day, one’s ennui reaches a pitch that is frantic, suicidal. Work, prayer, books, drinking, talking – they are all powerless against it; it can only be sweated out through the pores of the skin. (Chapter 4)
  • The meal was pretentious and filthy. The clever ‘Mug’ cooks, descendants of servants trained
    by Frenchmen in India centuries ago, can do anything with food except make it eatable. (Chapter 4)

Generalisations

As you can see, Orwell likes generalisations. It’s a common habit of his factual prose as well, the paragraph which leads towards a sententious moral. Once I’d noticed this sententiousness it put me in mind of his contemporary, Graham Greene (born in 1904 to Orwell’s 1903). Orwell is not as completely addicted to spouting quotable mottos as Greene, but it reminds you that they both come from the same public school, administrative class, which was taught above all other things, to sound authoritative.

In fact I think their sententiousness is part of the appeal of both writers, though admittedly to rather different audiences: they both sound so wise and experienced, ultimately because they are capable of generating such authoritative sounding generalisations.

But as with Greene, not all of these, on a moment’s reflection, are totally persuasive.

  • No Englishman ever feels himself in real danger from an Oriental. (Chapter 6)
  • When one does get any credit in this life, it is usually for something that one has not done. (Chapter 6)
  • Meanwhile, Flory’s proposal went no further. One cannot propose marriage immediately after an earthquake. (Chapter 15)
  • As it was, everyone except the two women detested him [the Honourable Verrall]  from the start. It is always so with titled people, they are either adored or hated. If they accept one it is charming simplicity, if they ignore one it is loathsome snobbishness; there are no half-measures. (Chapter 18)
  • Like all sons of rich families, he [Verrall] thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits. (Chapter 18)
  • She was italicizing every other word, with that deadly, glittering brightness that a woman puts on when she is dodging a moral obligation. (Chapter 19)

Similarly, Orwell assumes the reader is familiar with experiences, feelings and sensations which, in fact, we often aren’t.

  • He had called out eagerly, appealingly, as one does when one is conscious of looking a fool. (Chapter 16)
  • Mrs Lackersteen left him standing up in the drawing-room, feeling lumpish and abnormally large as one does at such times. (Chapter 19)
  • Ko S’la had the art, so necessary in a bachelor’s servant, of undressing his master without waking him. (Chapter 19)
  • Envy is a horrible thing. It is unlike all other kinds of suffering in that there is no disguising it, no elevating it into tragedy. It is more than merely painful, it is disgusting. (Chapter 20)
  • There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways. (Chapter 23)

These kinds of generalisations are coercive: they push you into accepting the values of the fiction, and they have a secondary role in nudging you to accept the higher wisdom of the author. Whatever their merit as statements about human nature, their immediate function is to suck you into the fiction and bolster the author’s authority. Thus, to some extent, all those fans of either Greene or Orwell who worship them as ‘great writers’, have to some extent been suckered by their rhetorical devices.

Etc etc

Orwell has an odd tic, which is his use of ‘etc etc’ when impatiently summarising a point of view he thinks is tiresomely obvious.

In his journalism he often caricatures opposing points of view by quoting a stream of their most obvious arguments before, rather insultingly tailing off with ‘etc etc’, as if everyone knows and is bored of them. A kind of ‘argument from boredom’.

But it is unusual to find a novelist doing this with his characters in a fiction. Thus:

  • Ellis the bigot: ”My God, I should have thought in a case like this, when it’s a question of keeping those black, stinking swine out of the only place where we can enjoy ourselves, you’d have the decency to back me up. Even if that pot-bellied greasy little sod of a nigger doctor IS your best pal. I don’t care if you choose to pal up with the scum of the bazaar. If it pleases you to go to
    Veraswami’s house and drink whisky with all his nigger pals, that’s your look-out. Do what you like outside the Club. But, by God, it’s a different matter when you talk of bringing niggers in here. I suppose you’d like little Veraswami for a Club member, eh? Chipping into our conversation and pawing everyone with his sweaty hands and breathing his filthy garlic breath in our faces. By god, he’d go out with my boot behind him if ever I saw his black snout inside that door. Greasy, pot-bellied little –!’ etc.
  • Of the note Ellis the bigot composes: ”In view of the cowardly insult recently offered to our Deputy
    commissioner, we the undersigned wish to give it as our opinion that this is the worst possible moment to consider the election of niggers to this Club,’ etc, etc.
  • Describing Elizabeth’s mother’s prattle in Paris: ‘How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can’t think whom you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply EVERYTHING. I seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my lunch off Nash’s Magazine to save wasting time washing plates. Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a sheet,’ etc., etc., etc.
  • The letter Mrs Lackersteen writes to Elizabeth from Burma: ‘Of course, this is a very small station and we are in the jungle a great deal of the time. I’m afraid you will find it dreadfully dull after the DELIGHTS of Paris. But really in some ways these small stations have their advantages for a young girl. She finds herself quite a QUEEN in the local society. The unmarried men are so lonely that they appreciate a girl’s society in a quite wonderful way, etc., etc.’
  • Francis the Eurasian’s interminable recounting of his life story: ”Of my father, sir, I remember little, but he was very choleric man and many whackings with big bamboo stick all knobs on both for self, little half-brother and two mothers. Also how on occasion of bishop’s visit little half-brother and I dress in longyis and sent among the Burmese children to preserve incognito. My father never rose to be bishop, sir. Four converts only in twenty-eight years, and also too great fondness for Chinese rice-spirit very fiery noised abroad and spoil sales of my father’s booklet entitled The Scourge of Alcohol, published with the Rangoon Baptist Press, one rupee eight annas. My little half-brother die one hot weather, always coughing, coughing,’ etc., etc.
  • The native butler at the Club excitably recounting earthquake stories: ”Oh, sir, but 1906 was bigger! Very bad shock, sir! And big heathen idol in the temple fall down on top of the thathanabaing, that is Buddhist bishop, madam, which the Burmese say mean bad omen for failure of paddy crop and foot-and-mouth disease. Also in 1887 my first earthquake I remember, when I was a little chokra, and Major Maclagan sahib was lying under the table and promising he sign the teetotal pledge tomorrow morning. He not know it was an earthquake. Also two cows was killed by falling roofs,’ etc, etc.
  • Elizabeth avoiding saying anything meaningful to Flory: She helped him to pick up the table, chattering all the while as gaily and easily as though nothing had happened: ‘You have been away a long time, Mr Flory! You’re quite a stranger! We’ve so missed you at the Club!’ etc., etc.
  • A sample gravestone from the white cemetery: ‘Sacred to the memory of John Henry Spagnall, late of the Indian Imperial Police, who was cut down by cholera while in the unremitting exercise of’ etc., etc., etc.
  • The official and completely untrue account of an affray Ellis is in:  ‘The boys had attacked Mr Ellis without any provocation whatever, he had defended himself,’ etc., etc. (Chapter 22)

It is a kind of journalistic short hand, which is unusual in a novel. It also, perhaps, has a slightly coercive effect, as in ‘You know all this stuff already, why do I need to blether on?’

Joy of descriptions

I was taught at school and university to consider novels as tracts of moral philosophy, to assess the rightness or wrongness of characters’ actions, thoughts etc, and to work up long analyses of the various moral ‘issues’ raised. We were also taught to hunt for the symbolism to be found in many novels, the use of imagery to reinforce ideas or themes. Later I was attracted by ideas around structuralism and narratology, analysing texts out into their component parts, like taking a machine to pieces to see how it works.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve taken more to the purely sensual qualities of books: drawn to the combination of intelligent insight and style (which you get in good history books), or to the sheer pleasure and sensuality of the descriptions, to be found in fiction. To my great surprise this book, by the generally puritanical Orwell, turns out to be awash with sumptuous descriptions. It is a surprisingly sensuous and physical read.

The morning sunlight slanted up the maidan and struck, yellow as goldleaf, against the white face of the bungalow. Four black-purple crows swooped down and perched on the veranda rail, waiting
their chance to dart in and steal the bread and butter that Ko S’la had set down beside Flory’s bed.

They walked on and came to the jail, a vast square block, two hundred yards each way, with shiny concrete walls twenty feet high. A peacock, pet of the jail, was mincing pigeon-toed along the parapet. Six convicts came by, head down, dragging two heavy handcarts piled with earth, under the guard of Indian warders. They were long-sentence men, with heavy limbs, dressed in uniforms of coarse white cloth with small dunces’ caps perched on their shaven crowns. Their faces were greyish, cowed and curiously flattened. Their leg-irons jingled with a clear ring. A woman came past carrying a basket of fish on her head. Two crows were circling round it and making darts at it, and the woman was flapping one hand negligently to keep them away…

The bazaar was an enclosure like a very large cattle pen, with low stalls, mostly palm-thatched, round its edge. In the enclosure, a mob of people seethed, shouting and jostling; the confusion of their multi-coloured clothes was like a cascade of hundreds-and-thousands poured out of a jar. Beyond the bazaar one could see the huge, miry river. Tree branches and long streaks of scum raced down it at seven miles an hour. By the bank a fleet of sampans, with sharp beak-like bows on which eyes were painted, rocked at their mooring-poles…

‘Look!’ Flory was pointing with his stick to a stall, and saying something, but it was drowned by the yells of two women who were shaking their fists at each other over a basket of pineapples. Elizabeth had recoiled from the stench and din, but he did not notice it, and led her deeper into the crowd, pointing to this stall and that. The merchandise was foreign-looking, queer and poor. There were vast pomelos hanging on strings like green moons, red bananas, baskets of heliotrope-coloured prawns the size of lobsters, brittle dried fish tied in bundles, crimson chilis, ducks split open and cured like hams, green coconuts, the larvae of the rhinoceros beetle, sections of sugar-cane, dahs, lacquered sandals, check silk longyis, aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills, glazed earthenware jars four feet high, Chinese sweetmeats made of garlic and sugar, green and white cigars, purple prinjals, persimmon-seed necklaces, chickens cheeping in wicker cages, brass
Buddhas, heart-shaped betel leaves, bottles of Kruschen salts, switches of false hair, red clay cooking-pots, steel shoes for bullocks, papier-mache marionettes, strips of alligator hide with
magical properties. Elizabeth’s head was beginning to swim. At the other end of the bazaar the sun gleamed through a priest’s umbrella, blood-red, as though through the ear of a giant. In front of a stall four Dravidian women were pounding turmeric with heavy stakes in a large wooden mortar. The hot-scented yellow powder flew up and tickled Elizabeth’s nostrils, making her sneeze.

There are lots of passages like this, making the book a surprisingly voluptuous description of the ‘mysterious East’.

Beauty

In particular, I was struck by how beautiful Orwell finds things, particularly the flora and fauna. Again and again he describes birds and flowers with an accuracy and delight which is infectious. He repeatedly uses the word ‘beautiful’.

There was a stirring high up in the peepul tree, and a bubbling noise like pots boiling. A flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries. Flory gazed up into the great green dome of the tree, trying to distinguish the birds; they were invisible, they matched the leaves so perfectly, and yet the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it. Flo rested herself against the roots and growled up at the invisible creatures. Then a single green pigeon fluttered down and perched on a lower branch. It did not know that it was being watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of iridescent colours.

The canoes, each hollowed out of a single tree-trunk, glided swiftly, hardly rippling the dark brown water. Water hyacinth with profuse spongy foliage and blue flowers had choked the stream so that the channel was only a winding ribbon four feet wide. The light filtered, greenish, through interlacing boughs. Sometimes one could hear parrots scream overhead, but no wild creatures showed themselves, except once a snake that swam hurriedly away and disappeared among the water hyacinth.

The pigeon rocked itself backwards and forwards on the bough, swelling out its breast feathers and laying its coralline beak upon them. A pang went through Flory. Alone, alone, the bitterness of being alone! So often like this, in lonely places in the forest, he would come upon something – bird, flower, tree – beautiful beyond all words, if there had been a soul with whom to share it. (Chapter 4)

Flory went outside and loitered down the compound, poking weeds into the ground with his stick. At that hour there were beautiful faint colours in everything – tender green of leaves, pinkish brown
of earth and tree-trunks–like aquarelle washes that would vanish in the later glare. Down on the maidan flights of small, low-flying brown doves chased one another to and fro, and bee-eaters, emerald-green, curvetted like slow swallows. (Chapter 6)

Ten yards away a little cock the size of a bantam, was pecking vigorously at the ground. He was beautiful, with his long silky neck-feathers, bunched comb and arching, laurel-green tail. There
were six hens with him, smaller brown birds, with diamond-shaped feathers like snake-scales on their backs.

Everyone squatted down round the leopard and gazed at him. They stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s, and squeezed his broad pugs to bring out the claws, and pulled back his black lips to examine the fangs.

It was the night of the full moon. Flaring like a white-hot coin, so brilliant that it hurt one’s eyes, the moon swam rapidly upwards in a sky of smoky blue, across which drifted a few wisps of yellowish cloud. The stars were all invisible. The croton bushes, by day hideous things like jaundiced laurels, were changed by the moon into jagged black and white designs like fantastic wood-cuts. By the compound fence two Dravidian coolies were walking down the road, transfigured, their white rags gleaming. (Chapter 15)

He noticed that Verrall’s pony was a beautiful Arab, a mare, with proud neck and arching, plume-like tail; a lovely milk-white thing, worth several thousands of rupees. (Chapter 16)

Even people can be beautiful.

Unblinking, rather like a great porcelain idol, U Po Kyin gazed out into the fierce sunlight. He was a man of fifty, so fat that for years he had not risen from his chair without help, and yet shapely and even beautiful in his grossness; for the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling. (Chapter 1)

Ma Hla May was a woman of twenty-two or -three, and perhaps five feet tall. She was dressed in a longyi of pale blue embroidered Chinese satin, and a starched white muslin ingyi on which several
gold lockets hung. Her hair was coiled in a tight black cylinder like ebony, and decorated with jasmine flowers. Her tiny, straight, slender body was a contourless as a bas-relief carved upon a tree. She was like a doll, with her oval, still face the colour of new copper, and her narrow eyes; an outlandish doll and yet a grotesquely beautiful one. A scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil came into the room with her. (Chapter 4)

There is also a kind of beauty in the precision and careful vocabulary with which Orwell describes ugliness – poverty, slums, gravediggers and so on – I could give many examples – but they tend to be outweighed by the lush. It is these richly exotic and full and positive descriptions which I’ll remember.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)

Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led – to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. (Chapter 1)

This was Orwell’s second book of social reportage. Like Down and Out in Paris and London it is in two parts, but in a different way. The first hundred pages comprise a detailed but selective account of his journey to the North of England to see the results of the Depression and mass unemployment for himself. The second half switches tone to become a long account of his own intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism.

By 1936 social reporting had become a respectable intellectual activity. J.B. Priestly had published a successful book about England north of the Trent two years earlier. The Mass-Observation social research organisation was to be founded the following year. The new wave of young writers and poets, led by W.H. Auden, focused on the landscape of modern industrial England and on the social impact of the depression. Quite radical left-wing attitudes were widely held among the intelligentsia, the trade unions and ordinary workers. Indeed, Orwell was commissioned to write the book by radical publisher Victor Gollancz, and it was published by his Left Book Club.

Part one

Like Down and outWigan pier is obviously based on Orwell’s real experiences, but artfully arranged and edited to create a certain impression. For example, it is artful that the book opens with a semi-comic account of the cramped and dirty lodging house-cum-tripe shop kept by permanently filthy Mr Brooker and the sofa-bound and obese invalid Mrs Brooker. The tales of their moaning and mean-mindedness, alongside pen portraits of the other inhabitants of the house, pick up on Down and Out‘s technique of combining close observation with comedy to create an atmosphere of seediness and petty-minded poverty.

But it also has the structural function of easing you into the subject matter and the north, by casual asides and observations. The next chapter begins a serious examination of both the working conditions, pay and economic importance of coal mining to Britain – which features Orwell’s famously gruelling description of a coal miner’s working day. If the book had opened like this it would have seemed too much like a worthy left-wing pamphlet. The Brooker chapter’s function is to soften the blow, to leaven the hard-hitting description.

Chapter 2 is a gripping and detailed account of his trips down coal mines to give a visceral description of the appalling back-breaking work involved. Chapter 3 continues the coal mining theme with more detail about the work which morphs into a breakdown of miners’ earnings and outgoings, showing how wretchedly they are paid. Chapter 4 is a gruelling description of the really appalling condition of northern slum housing. The small rooms, windows that don’t open, no heating, no hot water, no toilets, back to back housing where you have to walk 200 yards to the nearest toilet, in all weathers, and then queue. The families of 5, 6, 7 or more people sleeping in two beds.

A dreadful room in Wigan where all the furniture seemed to be made of packing cases and barrel
staves and was coming to pieces at that; and an old woman with a blackened neck and her hair coining down denouncing her landlord in a Lancashire-Irish accent; and her mother, aged well over ninety, sitting in the background on the barrel that served her as a commode and regarding us
blankly with a yellow, cretinous face. I could fill up pages with memories of similar interiors. (Chapter 4)

Chapter 5 is a detailed analysis of unemployment figures (if you include the dependents of the unemployed, then truly huge numbers, probably over ten million were in want) which goes on to analyse the complicated structure of the dole payments made in the 1930s.

Let’s face it, almost all of this material is of historical interest. Coal has almost ceased to be mined in this country; now almost every aspect of our lives is dominated by oil which is extracted in much better-paid conditions and in far-away countries. There is unemployment, there is a long-term underclass in this country, but it is very difficult to get information about them. Much council housing may be grim but nowhere near as squalid as the Victorian slums gone rotten which Orwell describes.

There is a note of relevance in an interesting section at the end of chapter 5 which describes Orwell’s puzzlement at how this period of mass unemployment and demoralisation has oddly coincided with the rise of cheap luxuries: off the peg clothes and cheap movies were an innovation in his generation. Sweets and crap food are cheap, whereas meat and vegetables remained expensive. He saw for himself that some families barely had enough to feed themselves, but that every single household had a radio. Similary, maybe, to our own times when even the poorest of the poor have a mobile phone and a TV. Orwell considers the cheap left argument that this is the ruling classes keeping the workers down with cheap gewgaws but I agree with his analysis, that it is just the market working logically. People want luxuries, the unemployed want to live in a fantasy of Hollywood stars and celebrities, no matter how poor people will prefer cheap fattening foods and dinky devices to nourishing diet and the arts. People are people, even the poorest want to look like Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber – you have to begin from that basis, not from some fantasy of a revolution-wishing proletariat.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even ‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organized gambling has now risen almost to the status of a major industry. Consider, for instance, a phenomenon like the Football Pools, with a turnover of about six million pounds a year, almost all of it from the pockets of working-class people. I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler,
Locarno, Fascism, and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the
Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury. And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they
really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life. (Chapter 5)

Chapter 6 continues the theme, focusing on food but lamenting that a) the northern working classes prefer cheap luxuries – tinned peas, fish and chips, sweetened milk – to more straightforward nutritious food; but then conceding that when you are unemployed and demoralised little luxuries are vital to keeping your spirits up.

But why the preference for cheap luxuries might be a contributory factor to why b) their physiques are so stunted. Nobody over thirty has any of their own teeth. Even children’s teeth are blue and carious. Orwell repeatedly admires many of the miners’ wonderful physiques, but they are nearly all short men (for the obvious reason that the mine shafts are generally only 4 or 3 feet high). The men are stunted and ill; you never see a good-looking working woman. Where are the six-foot heroes he read about as a boy? Grimly, he concludes, ‘buried in the Flanders mud’.

If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. (Chapter 6)

D.H. Lawrence lamented the stunted ugliness of body, face and manner of the Nottinghamshire working class he grew up among.

An hour walking bent double to the coalface, seven and a half hours hard labour, an hour walking back and then the walk back to a slum house with no bath or hot water

An hour walking bent double to the coalface, seven and a half hours hard labour, an hour walking back to the lift to the surface, and then a couple of miles walk back to a slum house with no bath or hot water, every day, for thirty years or more

Part two

In part two of the book Orwell describes in some detail his intellectual development towards a belief in socialism.

This is, frankly, plain weird and pretty disappointing. Although it contains many striking sentences and sheds light on social changes from his Edwardian childhood through the 1930s, nonetheless it is an intensely personal, even cranky, set of opinions. For a start Orwell focuses to an embarrassing extent on how the main difference between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is smell, sweat and dirt. He tells quite a few stories, which we really don’t need to hear, about how as a boy snob the thought of swigging from bottles others had drunk from make him feel sick, how the sight of soldiers marching made him nauseous because of their proletarian sweat.

Again and again he is distracted from any kind of theoretical ideas by the immediacy of his physical feelings of repulsion. For example, there is a fascinating section about his experiences in Burma as an officer in the Imperial Police which makes the astonishing claim that many if not all Anglo-Indian officers thought the Empire was a bad thing, realising there was absolutely no justification for us to be ruling over foreigners in their country. But Anecdotes about the handful of officers who had ever dared break the taboo about discussing the subject are sidetracked with an equally long disquisition (a page) comparing the average Burmese body (smooth, brown, hairless) and English body (ugly, clumsy, podgy, hairy in embarrassing places).

Here’s a typical passage which is a) well written b) conveys powerful thoughts with energy but c) is so completely personal and autobiographical as to be way out of place in a general essay about politics.

When I came home on leave in 1927 I was already half determined to throw up my job, and one sniff of English air decided me. I was not going back to be a part of that evil despotism. But I wanted much more than merely to escape from my job. For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable remembered faces–faces of prisoners in the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had
snubbed, of servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moments of rage (nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally: Orientals can be very provoking)–haunted me intolerably. I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that
sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same. I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of
the oppressors yourself. I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to ‘succeed’ in life to the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly,
a species of bullying. (Chapter 9)

Most of what Orwell writes is readable because he writes it in the clear, crisp prose of a man educated at Eton who went on to serve in the Imperial Police, a man trained to getting to the point and saying it like it is. It is backed up with his almost pathological need to tell the complete honest truth, no matter how embarrassing to himself, which makes it psychologically compelling. And each page is littered with fascinating insights into the society of his time and its attitudes, not least where it reveals what we today would consider – despite his claims to be a progressive thinker – attitudes of astonishing racism and everyday sexism.

But there are also long passages dealing with attitudes, caricatures, personas, social ‘types’ which have completely vanished, satirising stereotypes which you have to look up on Google to understand. Maybe these were acute and funny in his day but they now read like long woolly padding.

It is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what
your own beliefs really are. If you are a bourgeois ‘intellectual’ you too readily imagine that you have somehow become unbourgeois because you find it easy to laugh at patriotism and the G. of E. and the Old School Tie and Colonel Blimp and all the rest of it. But from the point of view of the proletarian ‘intellectual’, who at least by origin is genuinely outside the bourgeois culture, your resemblances to Colonel Blimp may be more important than your differences. Very likely he looks upon you and Colonel Blimp as practically equivalent persons; and in a way he is right, though neither you nor Colonel Blimp would admit it. So that the meeting of proletarian and bourgeois, when they do succeed in meeting, is not always the embrace of long-lost brothers; too often it is the clash of alien cultures which can only meet in war. (Chapter 10)

What, frankly, is he on about? This long second part is incredibly anecdotal, based on Orwell’s own opinions, experiences, conversations and so on. The more I read the more I realised it lacked three things which characterise modern political discourse.

1. It is utterly untheoretical: the terms bourgeois and proletariat and intellectual are chucked about without any definitions or precision, let alone any of the vast weight of radical theory which began to be generated, I suppose, in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, Orwell goes out of his way to disparage anyone who studies or uses Marxist terminology:

As for the technical jargon of the Communists, it is as far removed from the common speech as
the language of a mathematical textbook. I remember hearing a professional Communist speaker address a working-class audience. His speech was the usual bookish stuff, full of long sentences and parentheses and ‘Notwithstanding’ and ‘Be that as it may’, besides the usual jargon of ‘ideology’ and ‘class-consciousness’ and ‘proletarian solidarity’ and all the rest of it. After him a Lancashire working man got up and spoke to the crowd in their own broad lingo. There was not much doubt which of the two was nearer to his audience… (Chapter 11)

2. No sense of the complexity of social groupings: modern marketing and advertising from the 1960s onwards led to sophisticated ways to break down western societies not only into social classes but into groups and types with their own specific interests (the grey pound, the gay community), not to mention the influx of immigrants who now have to be taken account of. Twenty years of internet marketing have gone hand in hand with the growth of identity politics to create a sense of a society teeming with special interest groups. Reading Orwell’s division of society into a ruling upper class, a bourgeois class, and a proletariat is like reading a fairy tale. When he does talk about other social groupings they read like Bateman cartoons, the most simple of stereotypes. For example there is a long sequence where he says the average person is put off ‘socialism’ because it seems to attract so many cranks:

In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured ‘Socialists’, as who should say, ‘Red Indians’. He was probably right – the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary
man, a crank meant a Socialist and a Socialist meant a crank. (Chapter 11)

It’s quite funny but hopelessly anecdotal (and note the thread of physical repulsion which runs like a vein through all Orwell’s writings). It’s interesting as social history but useless as any kind of argument. Passages like this are really a kind of ‘higher gossip’, it’s a story told in the pub – ‘You know I was on the bus the other day…’ – it’s almost as far from political argument as you can get.

3. Numbers: Modern political discourse is absolutely saturated by numbers, be it percentages of the population or particular groups who say they want this or that, in countless opinion polls, or amounts of money required to support the NHS, Britain’s schools or hospitals or prisons or drug rehabilitation centres. Modern political discourse is saturated with statistics and it feels quaint and old fashioned to read a supposedly political essay which revolves around the author’s memories of childhood, of school, of his early jobs, and all the way through how his sense of smell or hygiene is offended by workers and foreigners.

4. Using literature as evidence Lacking theoretical precision, lacking a sociological or economic understanding of the complexity of modern society, lacking a grasp of agricultural or industrial production, Orwell’s most repeated tactic is ad hominem attacks on the failings of other writers.

Chapter 10 sets out to answer the question ‘What is socialism?’ but very disappointingly falls away into a string of shallow hits at contemporary writers or social stereotypes (he really hates naturists, sandal-wearers, vegetarians, fruit juice drinkers and feminists). He slags off the high profile Roman Catholic converts of the day (G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox – notably omitting the more famous – to us – Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene); he calls Auden ‘a gutless Kipling’; he thinks George Bernard Shaw’s plays show that Shaw is averse to revolutionary socialism from below and only wants to impose his own sense of order and discipline from above. Fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb’s autobiography gives ‘unconsciously, a most revealing picture of the high-minded Socialist slum-visitor’; Henri Barbusse (author to the First World War classic, Le Feu) is criticised for his mindless claims that he wants to bayonet the bourgeoisie; a certain Prince Mirsky who stayed in exile in England for a while before returning to the USSR and writing an excoriating criticism of the British intelligentsia, is quoted at length; William Morris is a ‘windbag’.

Orwell claims it is a common phenomenon that intellectuals and writers heartily support the downtrodden, the urban poor and so on… until there’s the remotest chance that the downtrodden might actually stand up for themselves and start to change things, at which point they turn into the most reactionary of conservatives. And his proof for this assertion? The novels of John Galsworthy.

Chapter 11 sets out to address what he sees as a common objection to socialism, which is ordinary people’s dislike of the mechanisation of life and society. This is represented in an astonishingly vague abstract way via – once again – purely literary authors. The utopia of Samuel Butler (in Erewhon, 1872) is contrasted with a lengthy critique of the idea of ever-increasing mechanisation proposed in the sci-fi novels of H.G. Wells, and both contrasted with the dystopian vision of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). This is fine as literary chat but is useless as political analysis.

What is Socialism?

It is really striking that nowhere does Orwell present or discuss the policies actual political parties, neither the British Liberals, Conservatives or Labour Party, let alone any parties from the continent. Instead the entire debate is frame either in terms of Orwell’s own very personal experiences or by way of paraphrasing authors old or contemporary.

He continually tells his readers that the only possible choice for the sensible modern person is Socialism, we must put aside our differences and adopt Socialism, now is the time etc etc. But as to what Socialism actually is, he only gets around to addressing on a handful of occasions, when his definitions are tragically banal:

  • Socialism means justice and common decency. (Chapter 11)
  • The essential aims of Socialism are justice and liberty. (Chapter 12)
  • We have got to fight for justice and liberty, and Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the
    nonsense is stripped off it. (Chapter 13)
  • I suggest that the real Socialist is one who wishes – not merely conceives it as desirable, but actively wishes – to see tyranny overthrown. (Chapter 14)
  • Socialism means the overthrow of tyranny. (Chapter 14)
  • The Socialist movement has not time to be a league of dialectical materialists; it has got to be a league of the oppressed against the oppressors. (Chapter 14)
  • All that is needed is to hammer two facts home into the public consciousness. One, that the interests of all exploited people are the same; the other, that Socialism is compatible with common decency. (Chapter 14)

Pitifully inadequate. How many sceptics do you think were won over by these trite formulations?

Interesting as social history and literary gossip, this long hundred pages is a desperately disappointing failure to present even the most basic tenets of socialism or give any idea how it could be implemented or brought about.

Illustration by H. Lanos to When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells which Orwell uses at length in his discussion of the mechanisation of modern society

Illustration by H. Lanos to When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells which Orwell uses at length in his discussion of the mechanisation of modern society

Postscript – Orwell and cranks

Orwell’s hatred of ‘cranks’ is itself cranky.

  • And then there is the outer-suburban creeping Jesus, a hangover from the William Morris period, but still surprisingly common, who goes about saying ‘Why must we level down? Why not level up?’ and proposes to level the working class ‘up’ (up to his own standard) by means of hygiene, fruit-juice, birth-control, poetry, etc. (Chapter 10)
  • The middle-class I.L.P.’er and the bearded fruit-juice drinker are all for a classless society so long as they see the proletariat through the wrong end of the telescope; force them into any real contact with a proletarian – let them get into a fight with a drunken fish-porter on Saturday night, for instance – and they are capable of swinging back to the most ordinary middle-class snobbishness. (Chapter 10)
  • The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with
    a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. (Chapter 11)
  • The only thing for which we can combine is the underlying ideal of Socialism; justice and liberty. But it is hardly strong enough to call this ideal ‘underlying’. It is almost completely forgotten. It has been buried beneath layer after layer of doctrinaire priggishness, party squabbles, and half-baked ‘progressivism’ until it is like a diamond hidden under a mountain of dung. The job of the Socialist is to get it out again. Justice and liberty! Those are the words that have got to ring like a bugle across
    the world. For a long time past, certainly for the last ten years, the devil has had all the best tunes. We have reached a stage when the very word ‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.  (Chapter 12)
  • It would help enormously, for instance, if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly! (Chapter 14)
  • It is fatal to let the ordinary inquirer get away with the idea that being a Socialist means wearing sandals and burbling about dialectical materialism. (Chapter 14)

Orwell’s quite vitriolic dislike of faddists and cranks and of all the left-wing writers he disagrees with, of Catholic converts and communists, of proletarian writers and high-minded reformers, of writers and the entire London literary scene as a whole, is itself a (quaintly English) symptom of the hopeless lack of unity and infighting which has so often bedevilled the parties of the Left, and which in his day paralysed their opposition to Mussolini and Hitler and, on a much more serious level, was a key element in the defeat of the republic in the Spanish Civil War.

His rhetoric often operates on precisely the kind of visceral physical insults which he was later to condemn in Stalinism. For example, he is very prone to calling people he despises fat:

  • Mrs Brooker used to lament by the hour, lying on her sofa, a soft mound of fat and self-pity… (Chapter 1)
  • Ideally, the worst type of slum landlord is a fat wicked man, preferably a bishop, who is drawing an immense income from extortionate rents. (Chapter 4)
  • ‘I think running water is much more attractive in moor and mountain country than in the fat and sluggish South.’ (actually a quote from a letter written to him by a friend, Chapter 7)
  • The white man is generally ill-shaped, and when he grows fat he bulges in improbable places. (Chapter 9)
  • Please notice that this essentially fat-bellied version of ‘progress’ is not an integral part of Socialist doctrine; but it has come to be thought of as one… (Chapter 12)
  • Barring wars and unforeseen disasters, the future is envisaged as an ever more rapid march of mechanical progress; machines to save work, machines to save thought, machines to save pain,
    hygiene, efficiency, organization, more hygiene, more efficiency, more organization, more machines–until finally you land up in the by now familiar Wellsian Utopia, aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World, the paradise of little fat men. (Chapter 12)
  • Brave New World belongs to a later time and to a generation which has seen through the
    swindle of ‘progress’. It contains its own contradictions (the most important of them is pointed out in Mr John Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power), but it is at least a memorable assault on the more fat-bellied type of perfectionism. (Chapter 12)
  • Clearly I do not, in a sense, ‘want’ to return to a simpler, harder, probably agricultural way of life. In the same sense I don’t ‘want’ to cut down my drinking, to pay my debts, to take enough exercise, to be faithful to my wife, etc., etc. But in another and more permanent sense I do want these things, and perhaps in the same sense I want a civilization in which ‘progress’ is not definable as making the world safe for little fat men. (Chapter 12)
  • This [opposition to socialism] is traceable to two main causes. One is the personal inferiority of
    many individual Socialists; the other is the fact that Socialism is too often coupled with a fat-bellied, godless conception of ‘progress’ which revolts anyone with a feeling for tradition or the rudiments of an aesthetic sense. (Chapter 13)

Instead of criticising pretty much every group he could identify and every author he’d ever read, Orwell should have been trying to unite as many disparate groups as possible by hammering out an anti-fascist, anti-Right wing platform which could be agreed on by the widest possible range of parties and groups.

This is precisely what he tried to do in the final chapter of the book, by saying that the ‘comrades’ need to turn down the anti-bourgeois rhetoric because it is precisely the office workers and commercial travellers and clerks that they have to win over to the cause. Alienate them by telling them they are capitalist running dogs and you push them into the Fascist camp. But these exhortations to unity come at the end of nearly a hundred pages of unrelenting criticism: too little, too late.

And above all, there is a huge, a vast chasm in the book which is where he should have been explaining just exactly what he means by Socialism and how it would be brought about and just why it is in the direct personal interest of a floor walker or commercial traveller, the clerks and drapers and civil servants and millions of other petit bourgeois to espouse it and fight for it.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)

Poverty is what I’m writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. (p.9)

This is George Orwell’s first published book. It is a book of two halves – a tale of two cities, in fact.

Eric Blair

George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair. Eric was born in India in 1903 to an Imperial civil servant father. The family returned to England in 1907 and sent young Eric to prep school then to, surprisingly, managed to wangle him a scholarship to Eton. Good at sports (not least because of his gangling six-foot-two height) Eric’s poor academic record made it seem unlikely he’d get into Oxbridge so the decision was made to send him to join the Imperial Police Force in Burma in 1922.

Eric served for five years before quitting and returning to England in 1927, determined to make a career as a writer. (His time in Burma and his growing disillusionment with the empire is described in chapter 9 of The Road to Wigan Pier; a huge amount of background knowledge and observation went into his first novel, Burmese Days.) Eric took odd jobs while scratching together drafts of novels, but found it easier to write essays and factual descriptions.

By the late 1920s Eric was living in London and fascinated by the East End. He made the first of numerous forays into the world of the doss house, the spike or the kip, the very basic lodgings provided for tramps. It fed something in him to turn his back on his genteelly upper-class milieu and confront really grinding poverty. In fact, in Wigan Pier he explains that he returned from Burma feeling guilty at being one of the oppressors; he thought he could only throw off his guilt by really sinking himself into the life of the oppressed. The sights, sounds and people he met provided the material for the second – London – section of Down and Out in Paris and London.

In 1928 Eric went to live in a ragamuffin hotel in a poor quarter of Paris hoping, in the traditional manner, to become a writer. He stayed for nearly two years. The area is named the Coq d’Or quarter in the book, and he claims he lived there for a year and a half (p.14). Eric managed to sell some journalistic pieces to French journals, was ill and hospitalised for a while and, upon his release, had all his money stolen from a lodging house.

The first hundred pages of Down and Out detail the sights and sounds and smells of this shabby area, of the squalid hotel and its impoverished but colourful inhabitants. In the opening chapters, robbed of almost all his cash, Eric is living in complete poverty off what he could pawn, often going completely hungry for days on end. Then he teams up with an ex-waiter, an émigré Russian named Boris and, after many hopes and disappointments, he finally gets a job for a glorious month or so working very long hours but with a regular income, as a plongeur at a swanky hotel-restaurant off the Rue de Rivoli.

Against his better judgement he is persuaded by Boris to quit this job to help at a new venture, the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, which turns out not even to have been properly wired, plumbed or decorated. Eric helps with all this work while, yet again, virtually starving. Finally the auberge opens and he finds himself working even longer hours, in the furnace-like kitchen where the super-harassed staff and cook spend 17-hours a day shouting abuse at each other and preparing awful food.

Eventually, Eric can’t stand the squalor, the stress and the lack of sleep any more and cables a friend in London. The friend (referred to only as B.) sends back a fiver and the promise of a job in England looking after an invalid. Eric quits the auberge, says goodbye to Boris, packs his bags and takes the cross-Channel ferry back to Blighty in chapter 24.

Here Eric is devastated to find the invalid has upped stumps and gone to the continent, so he is once again thrown on his uppers, pawns his suit and changes into the smelliest old clothes and tries his luck at a variety of filthy doss houses. For the last 80 or so pages the narrative switches to London and the towns around it, detailing the squalid conditions in the different sorts of kips in and around London, as well as his encounters with other tramps and the short-lived friendships he makes.

This second part lacks the charge and joie de vivre of the first half. The irrepressible Russian optimism of Boris brings the Paris section to life, and also the hotel is a permanent base whose inhabitants he gets to know very well, drinking and carousing with them (when he is in funds). Also the depiction of the life of a plongeur in a smart hotel is genuinely fascinating, even gripping. You get a strong flavour of Paris with descriptions of trams and night noises and dawn over the city.

By contrast the second section is not really about London at all, since many of the kips are out of town. And because he is constantly on the move (many of the doss houses only let tramps stay for one night), even when he meets other tramps and gets to know them a bit, it is only for fleeting encounters. There are no real friends such as Boris, and none of the warm camaraderie of the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. Instead the dominant theme is of large groups of extremely poor, old and sick men stripping bare in squalid bath rooms, their bodies covered in sores and rashes, all of them forced to ‘wash’ in a couple of filthy metal bath tubs.

Eric Blair becomes George Orwell

The book marks Eric’s first use of the pen-name George Orwell. Apparently he didn’t want to publish it under his own name as he didn’t want his family or friends or literary contacts to know the squalor he’d been living in. He wanted to disassociate himself from his earlier scattered articles. And he had come to consider the surname ‘Blair’ as being ‘too Scottish’.

So he submitted a list of four possible pen-names to his agent and they both agreed on George Orwell, George sounding hearty and patriotic, Orwell from the river in Suffolk not far from Southwold where his parents had by this stage bought a house and where he often stayed. (The other three were P. S. Burton, Kenneth Miles and H. Lewis Allways.)

Anyway, the name has become set in stone and it shows the essentially comical and absurd transmutations of language and culture that a sleepy little river in Suffolk has come to be the adjective educated people around the world now use to describe a dystopian vision of a crushingly totalitarian future – Orwellian.

Aspects of poverty

Taken together these 200 pages provide a vivid picture of the life of poverty in the capital cities of the two main Western democracies in the early 1930s. The book established Orwell as a great writer of social reportage, a genre he was to excel in.

Early on in the Paris section Orwell lists the characteristics of poverty (chapter 3 – the entire text is available online courtesy of the fabulous George Orwell – The Complete Works website – I’ll link off to the relevant sections of the text, as appropriate).

For a start people think poverty must be very simple, but being poor is surprisingly complicated. You have to work out dodges and wheezes both to scrounge money or food, and to avoid the unnecessary commitments you can no longer afford. You have to fib to the laundress why you no longer send her your laundry; to the tobacconist why you no longer buy your baccy from him. You pay for a handful of vegetables but discover one of the coins is Belgian, which they refuse and, since you have no others, have to slink off without paying, covered in humiliation. You find yourself lying to people, and Orwell hated lying. (It is notable that Orwell’s humiliations are not ours e.g. bringing food home to eat in the hotel room is obviously a source of deep shame for him, whereas it’s commonplace today). Shops full of delicious food (this is Paris!) make you realise how starving hungry you are. Your starving mind tells you just to grab a baguette and run, but you are too afraid to even do that. Your self-loathing deepens.

To some extent all of this is compensated for by the one great positive aspect of poverty – it abolishes care for the future, because there is no future. There is only day-to-day survival, to eke out the little money you have, to calculate how to eat, drink and find somewhere to sleep, and then to waste the day working through the thousand and one mean dodges required to stay alive.

Comedy & character

One of the blurbs of an older edition describes it as being ‘a savage portrait of the lower depths’. It’s true that the dwelling on the hunger, squalor and humiliation of utter poverty is grim, but this is to overlook the fact that the book is full of humour. He describes the couple who live in his shabby hotel and make a living by the Seine selling the postcards in bags which usually include pornographic photos – only theirs contain pictures of the chateux of the Loire, which, when they open them, the purchasers are too embarrassed to return and ask for their money back.

The majority of the Paris experience describes his shared tribulations with his friend Boris, a Russian emigre whose bumptious optimism, encyclopedic knowledge of the military campaigns of Napoleon, swanking references to his many old mistresses, and incessant bad luck make him a triumphantly comic character.

When Orwell finally finds a job as a plongeur or kind of washer-up-cum-food-server in the hellish bowels of a swanky Paris hotel, his revelations of how filthy the whole behind-the-scenes operation is may come as a shock to many people (I’ve worked in posh pubs and in the kitchen at Royal Ascot where I quickly overcame my horror at the casual lack of hygiene of food preparation; what people don’t know won’t hurt them – probably).

He gives a particularly gloating description of how the best steak will be pawed and padded and its gravy licked first by the maitre d’, then by the waiter, their unwashed filthy fingers more likely than not drenched in hair oil and nicotine, and only once they’re satisfied will they wipe their fingermarks off the plate with a cloth and sally forth to present it as a work of art to the oblivious customer.

Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it. (p.72)

This isn’t ‘savage’; it is gloating at the way the rich are abused behind their backs. He gleefully claims that all French cooks without exception spit into the soup they’re making. The communist Magyar waiter at his next job tells Orwell that he sometimes wrings a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup ‘just to be revenged on a member of the bourgeoisie’ (p.101).

Orwell’s dissection of the hotel’s complex class system which demarcates, the maitre d’, the cooks, the waiters, and the plongeurs like himself is fascinating, wonderful reporting of an unknown world, and full of humorous touches. Take the Italian waiter who, after a big slanging match with a plongeur who has accidentally broken a wine bottle, threatens to cut the offender with a razor, lets forth a last stream of Italian abuse and farts contemptuously as he exits the first of the swing doors out of the fiery kitchen — only to completely transform his demeanour into stylish subservience as he exits the second door into the hotel dining room, gliding like a swan across the swish floor to the customer’s table where he presents the much-pawed dish with balletic grace, and standing attentively to serve. He was, Orwell, comments, a natural aristocrat (p.61). This and almost all of the scenes are wonderfully humorous and human.

Orwell gleefully explains how the food served at the hotel is average to poor – all the ingredients bought at local markets and the prices at least doubled; the wine is common vin ordinaire poured into posh bottles. The waiters live on tips and one of the many dodges among waiters is to get commission from champagne brands for every cork returned to them. The management are therefore at a loss what to do with the faddish American who orders for dinner a glass of hot water and salt. In the end they serve it and charge a ludicrous 25 Francs which the American pays without a murmur.

This comes among a sequence of broad humour at the expense of American guests who, Orwell suggests, deserve to be ripped off for their wealth, their faddishness and their lack of taste, who ‘seemed to know nothing whatever about food’ (p.74). It is an indicator of just how far away Orwell is from us that one of his prime proofs of how swinish Americans are is their habit of eating ‘disgusting American “cereals”‘ (p.74), a habit which had pretty much conquered the western world by the time I was a boy and shows no sign of going away.

An entire chapter, 17, is a wonderful description of the weekly piss-up in the cellar bar of the cheap hotel he lodged in, the Hotel des Trois Moineaux, with thumbnail portraits of the villainous characters who lived there and each got drunk in their own way. The ex-soldier who started the evening as a communist but got progressively more patriotic the more he drank, until he was easily baited into launching into a raucous version of La Marseillais until he is pinned down by two jokers while a third suddenly shouts ‘Vive l’Allemagne’ in his face and the whole room roars with laughter at his helpless rage – all this is deliberately comic and poignant, in fact the chapter is a masterpiece of mood and description.

Or take Charlie’s story about how he nearly got caught out in scam to diddle food from one of Paris’s hospital for pregnant mothers, in chapter 18. This is a straightforward comic anecdote.

Consideration of these two chapters brings out how short all of the chapters are. The Penguin paperback text stretches to 185 pages in total, divided into 38 chapters = an average of 4.8 pages per chapter. It is, then, a book of snapshots and anecdotes.

Typical is the pen portrait of Bozo the screever which makes up chapter 30. Less warm and funny than one of the Paris sections, it is nonetheless eye-opening and poignant on a number of levels.

Comparing Paris and London

All day I loafed in the streets, east as far as Wapping, west as far as Whitechapel. It was queer after Paris; everything was so much cleaner and quieter and drearier. One missed the scream of the trams, and the noisy, festering life of the back streets, and the armed men clattering through the squares. The crowds were better dressed and the faces comelier and milder and more alike, without that fierce individuality and malice of the French. There was less drunkenness, and less dirt, and less
quarrelling, and more idling. Knots of men stood at all the corners, slightly underfed, but kept going by the tea-and-two-slices which the Londoner swallows every two hours. One seemed to breathe a less feverish air than in Paris. It was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange, as Paris is the land of the bistro and the sweatshop. (Chapter 25)

Politics

In chapter 22 Orwell gathers his thoughts on the life of a plongeur, considered as a kind of slave.

He presents two ideas. The weaker one is the idea that the upper classes and the liberal intelligentsia are both terrified of the mob and believe their best way of preventing a revolution in which they’ll be shot, their house burned, their precious library despoiled or end up forced to work in a lavatory, is to keep the terrifying working class in its place by forcing it to work all the hours God sends. This may have been a plausible interpretation in his day, but it’s not clear if there is a working class in that way any more. I read lots about the ‘gig economy’ these days but if people continue to work long hours in catering, retail and – especially – out in the fields picking crops, it is because there is a slander margin on these activities and they continue to be, despite all the crap about robots taking over, very labour intensive.

His second point is more pertinent, for he attacks the whole basis of ‘luxury’ and ‘hotels’. Are they really needed? I agree with him that they’re not, and that the so-called ‘luxury’ they provide is in fact trashy and fake – airport luxury, Dubai luxury. But then I am a Puritan like Orwell, I share his honesty, his hatred of cant and jargon, and his physical revulsion at luxury and comfort.

But having just got back from a holiday in Spain, from reading the daily papers with their ads for luxury products and holidays, and from watching daytime TV at the gym where it is beamed onto half a dozen screens, I can confidently say that we are in a minority. There will continue to be hotels and restaurants and bars and cafes because lots and lots of people like being served. Every day in Starbucks and all the other coffee chains, and food shops, and restaurants etc, people in the rich West like to be served. And from what I’ve seen of Arab countries, of Turkey and Greece, of India and south-east Asia, it is a universal pleasure to take a seat at an outdoors table, order a little coffee or chai, light up a cigarette and watch the world go by.

Luxury, no matter how fake, continues because people want it and enjoy it. It feeds the human spirit to be able to ‘take your ease at your inn’, to quote Falstaff.

London Labour

Orwell is on safer ground when presenting sociological material. Chapter 32 is a brief consideration of London slang and swear words. It starts with the slang for different types of beggars and the tools of their trade. This immediately put me in mind of Henry Mayhew’s epic and classic account of the livelihoods of the London poor in the 1840s, London Labour and the London Poor, a veritable encyclopedia listing and categorising hundreds of types of street worker, along with their stories and trade secrets in five enormous volumes. Orwell’s slender chapter is like a snowdrop next to an iceberg in comparison.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006)

Franco did not so much win the war: the republican commanders, with the odds already stacked heavily against them, squandered the courage and sacrifice of their troops and lost it. (p.476)

This is a wonderfully sensible, thorough, intelligent and powerful history of the Spanish Civil War.

The war started on 17 July 1936 when the Spanish Army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected Republican government. The coup, although carefully planned and co-ordinated between units of the Spanish Army in Spain’s colony in Morocco and on the mainland, managed to seize key towns and areas across western Spain but failed in its bid to swiftly overthrow the government. Instead republican forces, spearheaded by socialist and anarchist trade unions, seized villages, towns and cities in central and eastern Spain, including the capital Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s second city, and capital of the separatist region of Catalonia.

Both parts of divided Spain then undertook a quick holocaust of enemy supporters, the nationalist army executing large numbers of ‘reds’ and trade unionists in their territory, the ‘republicans’ doing the same in their parts. Beevor analyses these numbers in some detail and hesitantly concludes that the nationalists ending up killing as many as ten times the number as the republicans, especially when you factor in that the execution of ‘reds’, trade unionists and anyone who opposed them continued long after the war finished on 1 April 1939, continued through the Second World War (in which Spain was neutral) and right up to the death of General Franco in 1975. Possibly as many as 200,000 Spaniards were killed by Franco’s forces in non-military executions, suicides, tortures to death and so on (p.450).

Meanwhile nationalist propaganda exaggerated and invented republican atrocities, quickly putting out stories about churches being burned to the ground (often true since the Catholic church was seen as the number one defender of the entrenched, exploitative, landowning aristocracy), priests being murdered (true in some numbers, apparently) and nuns systematically raped (this story, though salaciously retailed across the world’s media, appears never to have happened).

By the winter of 1936 battle lines had hardened across a divided Spain (the book has plenty of maps showing the general battle lines and detailed maps of specific battles) and both sides settled in for what looked like becoming a protracted war.

At this point Beevor’s account tends to alternate between detailed accounts of specific (bloody) battles, analyses of the complicated internal politics on both the nationalist and republican sides, and explanations of how the war was internationalised.

1. International war

Immediately the two Fascist dictators in Europe, Hitler and Mussolini, grasped the significance of the war and saw ways to exploit it. Mussolini sent airplanes and pilots and his fleet patrolled the Mediterranean coast of Spain to prevent arms getting to the republican east of the country. He wanted to crush communism in Spain, establish a western ally, and assert the Italian navy’s power in the Mediterranean. Hitler shared the same motives and was in addition delighted at the opportunity to give his Luftwaffe and army real war experience, in advance of his plans for conquest in Europe. German military advisors, and especially the notorious Condor Legion of planes and pilots, gave the nationalist invaluable help. It was the Condor Legion which carpet bombed Guernica, capital of the Basque country in the north, on 26 April 1937, and machine gunned men, women and children fleeing from the burning city.

The legitimate republican government appealed to the western democracies, namely Britain, France and America but – and this makes shameful reading – Britain, terrified of both Hitler and Stalin, led the way in creating the spurious and one-sided ‘Non-Intervention Committee’, arranging with the French and Americans not to supply arms or support to either side, so long as the Axis powers didn’t either. This deprived the republican government of much needed weapons and material, and the British stuck to their non-intervention, even when documentary proof was presented showing without doubt the huge amounts of aid the nationalists were receiving from Germany and Italy.

Worse, Beevor shows (in chapter 13 ‘Arms and the diplomats’) that there were many active fascist-sympathisers at the highest levels of the American and British governments and that, although the majority of the populations of both countries supported the republicans, key leaders in business and politics were both mortally afraid of a socialist/communist victory and actively sympathised with the nationalists’ aims of re-establishing order and religion. Credit, oil and business facilities were made available to the nationalists. In fact, Beevor quotes a Spanish diplomat who claimed, after the war, that

‘without American petroleum and American trucks and American credit, we could never have won the civil war.’ (quoted page 155)

Worst of all, the hypocritical refusal of the democracies to help a fellow democracy, forced the Spanish government into total reliance on aid from Stalin’s Soviet Union, which certainly sent tanks and airplanes, along with drivers, pilots and military advisors – but the price of this aid was submission to the communist way of doing things, planting commissars and secret police into every unit of the ramshackle popular army and the anarchist and socialist militias.

2. The battles

In the entire war the republicans only won one major engagement. In every other military engagement they were hamstrung by lack of arms, ammunition, lack of experience and training, lack of discipline and coherence across a hodge-podge of different forces but probably, as Beevor shows in harrowing detail, appalling military incompetence and terrible decision-making. In the second half of the war republican military decisions tended to be made on the basis of what would provide big, propaganda-friendly victories, largely at the command of the Soviet Union and its military advisors.

But Beevor shows how the war coincided with the height of Stalin’s paranoia, which was finding expression in the series of show trials taking place in Moscow in 1936 and 1937, in which hundreds of old Bolsheviks, having been tortured into submission, were forced to admit that they were anti-Soviet spies, tools of international imperialism, or Trotskyite saboteurs and so on. Partly these were a way of focusing the attention of the Soviet public away from the very obvious failures of Soviet economic policy such as the disastrous famine in the Ukraine in 1933 and the ongoing food shortages and lack of goods. Partly it was an almost medieval response to the failure of the Soviet experiment which had an almost medieval aspect – if there’s a famine, blame the witches or the Jews, and burn them. Partly Stalin was clinically paranoid and believed there were endless conspiracies against him.

A vital element of the general madness was that the Red Army had in the 1930s under the innovatory General Mikhail Tukhachevsky been developing a new modern way of fighting which integrated fast-moving tank forces, supported by airplane attacks and accompanied by well-organised infantry. As part of his mad purges of the Red Army Stalin had Tukhachevsky and everyone who propounded these new theories executed, and labelled the whole approach Trotskyist deviationism etc.

In fact Tukhachevsky was developing the same Blitzkrieg technique of fast-moving co-ordinated attacks which Hitler was to use to such effect in the Second World War. But his execution led to all thinking in that direction being banned, and Soviet military advisors fell back on the old, tried and completely discredited tactics of the Great War – big set piece battles where 19th century artillery barrages softened up the enemy before floods of infantry advanced over no man’s land to be slaughtered in their thousands.

Tragically, because the Western democracies effectively abandoned republican Spain, these discredited tactics along with the paranoia, the universal presence of the secret police who arrested huge numbers and carted them off for interrogation, torture and execution, were imported lock, stock and two smoking barrels into the republican forces.

The result was that the Soviet advisors again and again bullied the republicans into launching unnecessary and grandiose set-piece battles (in a bid to win glory and curry favour with Moscow) using out-of-date tactics, which the hodge-podge of republican forces were badly-suited to carrying out (because they required immaculate military precision) and in which they were invariably slaughtered in wave after wave of futile head-on attacks. Thus the massive defeats at the battles of Brunete and the Ebro.

And when wretched defeat and withdrawal (often simple routs when the bloodied survivors turned tail and ran) inevitably occurred, the commissars and Soviet advisors and NKVD secret police all blamed the defeat on Trotskyite traitors, fifth columnists, saboteurs etc and intensified their persecution of their own side.

Beevor gives scores of examples of the political commissars just lining up surviving troops and shooting a set number (in the back of the head) in punishment for their ‘cowardice’ i.e. their refusal to follow obviously incompetent and suicidal orders.

Beevor points out several times that the best way to use the scattered, less organised and badly equipped republican army would have been to mount an organised defence of existing republican territory while despatching large numbers of guerrilla fighters to harass and wear down nationalist forces from the sides and rear. This more unconventional approach might have kept the situation in a stalemate until the general European war – which everyone was expecting – broke out and the republican side could have hoped for a change in the position of Britain, France and America to open support.

3. Internal politics

Alongside the lack of international support, probably the key factor for the republican side was how splintered it was. Beevor spends a lot of time clearly explaining the nature and aims of the different factions. In fact the first fifty or so pages give a history of Spain from the Napoleonic Wars onwards which show how the fundamental divide between Catholic, landowning, aristocratic Spain grew apart from urban, working class, often atheist Spain, increasingly influenced by new socialist ideals crossing the Pyrenees from France and then, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, from Russia. The three years from 1918 to 1920 saw a wave of political strife in the Asturias and Catalonia which became known as the ‘three years of bolshevism’ (p.17) In 1932 the army in the form of General Sanjurjo tried to stage a coup against the republican government, but it was poorly planned, led to massive strikes by the left and was easily quashed.

A strike of Asturian miners in October 1934 quickly spread across northern Spain, turning into a general strike and then an attempt at the revolutionary government. The most intense political mobilisation took place in Catalonia and its capital Barcelona and led to street fighting, before being crushed by 19 October.

The nationalists, the army, the upper classes and the small fascist groups all feared that another attempt at revolution was just a question of time and it was this fear which lay behind the army coup of August 1936.

But in fact the republican side was hopelessly divided. There were regional differences, with both Catalonia and the Basque country thinking that the war would lead to their independence, while conservative socialist groupings in the central government wanted to resist any such independence.

And then the left was amazingly divided, between socialists, who had their own trade unionists, anarchists ditto, an initially small communist party, the larger liberal parties representing the middle classes, and a wide variety of colourful splinter groups, as well as various parties in the would-be independent nations of Basque and Catalonia.

Trying to reconcile the widely divergent aspirations of all these groups was probably impossible right from the start, but it was fatally injured by something which George Orwell and other foreign visitors realised straightaway: which is that the army coup didn’t just prompt the socialists and anarchists to rise up to defend the essentially bourgeois government; it triggered the very social revolution they feared. The anarchists of Catalonia were the fiercest revolutionaries and they burned down churches, abolished bourgeois forms and terminology in the towns (no more senor and senorita, no more ties and posh hats) and in the countryside instituted a wide-ranging policy of forming workers’ collectives. All this had been tried and planned for some time and happened very quickly.

But meanwhile the central government contained bourgeois liberal elements who were terrified of this revolution and sought in countless ways to undermine and defeat it.

The situation would have been complicated enough, without the heavy-handed intervention of the Soviet Union. The main thrust of George Orwell’s classic account of his time spent as a volunteer fighting on the republican side was that he saw at close quarters the surprising fact that Stalin’s communist party formed a reactionary element in this mix. This is easily enough to explain but devastating in its implications:

The struggle between two of the founding Bolshevik leaders, Stalin and Trotsky in the late 1920s, was that Stalin was convinced the new communist state must consolidate its existence and pursue ‘socialism in one country’. Trotsky, in contrast, advocated permanent and global revolution, arguing that one communist nation just couldn’t exist when surrounded by a sea of capitalist opponents. Trotsky lost the argument, he and his followers fled Russia, in Trotsky’s case to Mexico, where he was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1940. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Stalin became (justifiably) concerned about the spread of overtly anti-communist Fascism in Europe, with Fascist governments in Germany and Italy and authoritarian government in East European countries like Romania and Poland. Given this line-up of ideologically opposed and militarily strong enemies, Stalin realised he needed to cultivate friends wherever he could find them and so pursued a policy of friendship with France and as much friendship as he could muster with Britain. If it came to war, he would need them as allies (as indeed happened). Therefore Stalin did NOT want there to be a successful communist revolution in Spain; that’s the last thing he wanted, as it would terrify France and Britain to have a revolution on their doorstep, push them away from Russia and towards the Axis powers. Therefore Stalin used his centralised organs of state, the Communist International (the Comintern), his military advisors, the political commissars, his ambassadors and the NKVD secret police, to all promulgate the Party line that Spain was NOT ready for a proletarian revolution but must work unite in a ‘Popular Front’, a broad alliance of all left-of-centre parties to oppose Fascism. (The same line being peddled by the Stalin-controlled communist party in France.)

It took some time for the idealistic workers and peasants of Spain, for the anarchist and socialist politicians, activists and trade unions, and for the tens of thousands of volunteers who came from across Europe and America to fight for liberty and revolution etc, to grasp the fact that the full weight of Stalin’s communist machine was aligned against them. Sure, the party kept on spouting communist slogans but, on the ground, it worked tirelessly to seize control of the key ministries, to outflank Spanish politicians, taking every opportunity to suppress the genuinely revolutionary anarchist movement.

The repression of genuine revolutionary spirit took a step forward when the nine or so security and counter-intelligence agencies on the republican side were consolidated into the Servicio de Investigacion Militar or S.I.M. which quickly came under the control of the communists and carried out the latest Soviet tactics i.e. setting up secret prisons in Madrid and Barcelona, arbitrary late-night arrests of suspects who were then tortured using beatings, mock executions, disorientation and sensory-deprivation techniques. (p.340)

From this perspective, the history of the war is the story of the relentless rise to power, on the back of threats, violence, torture, secret police and also thanks to the being the only viable source of invaluable planes, tanks and munitions – of the anti-revolutionary communist party.

But although he was good at gaining power, Stalin was far from being all-wise, as his track record in the USSR showed. Just as his policy of forced collectivisation led to mass starvation in the Ukraine and elsewhere across the one-time bread baskets of Russia, so the implementation of anti-revolutionary repression in Spain had counter-productive effects. Not only did communist advisors force the republican army into wrong-headed tactics (as explained above), but the stranglehold of communist policy and terror had the effect of demoralising the huge numbers of socialists and anarchists who formed the backbone of the militias which originally formed so enthusiastically to combat the coup back in August 1936.

Thus morale plummeted as military defeat was followed by communist witch hunts, tortures, imprisonments and executions. Scattered mutinies were put down with mass executions. Volunteers from abroad found they couldn’t return to their home countries, anyone who tried was executed. In fact, the Soviets implemented far and wide the only way they knew how to run anything which was to execute anyone who opposed them or might oppose them or gave voice to any criticism of them. Or just anyone they didn’t like.

This parlous plight was well established by late 1937 and only got worse as the war lumbered into 1938, via the catastrophic battle of Teruel (December 15, 1937 – February 22, 1938) a strategically unimportant town which saw ferocious street fighting in sub-zero temperatures during which the place changed hands several times. The eventual loss of Teruel, with the loss of over 60,000 men, permanently undermined republican morale.

There was still a lot more fighting to go but, psychologically, many republicans of all stripes had given up; many leftists were horrified and disillusioned at witnessing Stalinist lies, violence, torture and pointless executions from close up. Beevor describes how this loss of morale led to defeatism even at the highest levels – from the spring of 1938 the republican minister of war Indalecio Prieto began telling all his colleagues the war was lost; and Beevor details the futile attempts of the Prime Minister, Juan Negrín, to formulate negotiating positions for a peace settlement. None of the republicans realised that Franco didn’t want peace. He wanted complete, unconditional, crushing victory.

After the terrible Battle of Teruel over Christmas 1937-8, the next main military event was the nationalists’ storming campaign through Aragon which brought them to the Mediterranean sea, cutting Catalonia off from the rest of republican Spain, in March-April 1938. Catalonia, with its capital Barcelona, was now isolated.

Beevor then hangs his head and describes the republican effort to score a big propaganda victory by launching the Battle of the Ebro, which lasted 113 days from July to November 1938, a mad folly which led to the virtual obliteration of the popular army amid the usual round of recriminations.

To attack a sector so close to the bulk of the Army of Manoeuvre meant that the enemy could counter-attack rapidly; to choose to fight with a large river behind your front line when the enemy had a crushing air superiority to smash your supply lines was idiotic; and to refuse to pull back after a week when it was clear that you had no chance of achieving your objectives was bound to lead to the useless sacrifice of an army which could not be replaced. It was beyond military stupidity, it was the mad delusion of propaganda. (p.400)

Long before this bitter battle was over, republicans of all stripes realised that they had lost.

4. The nationalists

This summary has tended to ignore the nationalist side, partly because the republican story is more complex and fraught. Suffice to say that the nationalists were also divided among various parties. Supported by the Catholic Church (and with the express blessing of the Pope), the big landowners, all business owners and hugely helped by the backing of Italy and Germany, nonetheless there were still complex rival factions among the nationalists which Beevor explains with clarity and persuasiveness.

I was particularly struck by the ferocity of the Carlists, a party loyal to a very old vision of a Catholic monarchist Spain, originally founded to support the royal line descended from Don Carlos, Count of Molina (1788–1855), after disputes over the succession laws and widespread dissatisfaction with the Alfonsine line of the House of Bourbon. The Alfonsine line had in fact come to an end with the forced abdication of king Alfonso XIII in 1931, the abdication which created the Spanish republic and gave the Carlists hope that their man would one day be restored. (In the event this wasn’t to be and Alfonso XIII’s son, Prince Juan met Franco after the war, when Franco needed to broaden support for his regime, and they agreed that Juan’s ten-year-old son, Juan Carlos, should become Franco’s ward and heir. Indeed the little boy would become King Juan Carlos upon Franco’s death, in 1975.)

Beevor also explains the origin of the Falange – Spanish for Phalanx – a frighteningly violent, extreme right-wing party, founded in 1934 and led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera. These and other right-wing parties had their own leaders, rivalries and differing ideologies. Beevor describes them in careful detail and then explains how Franco cleverly played them all.

Beevor shows how cautious, canny and ruthless General Francisco Franco was. Franco had seen action in the 1934 revolution, but the main thing about him was he had been in charge of the Spanish Army in Morocco, and the important thing about this was that the Moroccan force was the only part of the Spanish army which had any kind of battle experience. The army in mainland Spain had never fought a battle, never fired a shot in anger, for Spain did not take part in the First World War. Only the African Army had experience of maintaining discipline under fire and of close-quarters fighting. This gave rise to a mystique surrounding the africanistas, something Franco exploited militarily and politically (p.16).

Beevor shows how Franco never moved until he was completely confident of victory. This goes for his political manoeuvres as much as his military campaigns. Essentially the war was won because the nationalist chain of command was centralised and efficient, and worked smoothly with its German and Italian supporters. But Franco still had to wait patiently until the time was right for him to assert his authority as the leading general among all the others who had staged the coup. This he did by ensuring it was his forces who led the liberation of Toledo. Toledo contained the Alcázar fortress, held by nationalist but besieged by republican forces since the start of the coup. Like Mafeking during the Boer War, its eventual liberation led to widespread rejoicing. And enthusiastic hailing of Franco as its saviour.

On 21 September 1936, at a meeting of his fellow generals at Salamanca airport, Franco, with preparatory work done by his devoted brother-in-law and other supporters, managed to get himself appointed chief military commander with the title Generalísimo.

On 29 September, after the final relief of the Alcázar, Franco proclaimed himself Caudillo (meaning ‘chieftain’, the Spanish equivalent of the Italian Duce and the German Führer). At the same time the disparate nationalist forces – falangist, Carlist, Alfonsist – were amalgamated into one governing nationalist party.

A few days later, on October 1, 1936 Franco’s title of Caudillo was confirmed at a big parade of army and state in the nationalist capital of Burgos. Although some nationalist parties demurred at this rapid consolidation of Franco’s power, their leaders were quickly dealt with, and the entire nationalist mind-set in any case valued strong central authority, so most of the officers and soldiers on the nationalist side were predisposed to accept one strong central command. From now on, that command was Franco’s.

5. Defeat and aftermath

The last 100 pages of this large-format, 470-page book make hard reading because it is so depressing to watch the republican side slowly being ground down, losing territory, pushed back, fighting among themselves, with Stalin’s SIM arresting, torturing and executing anyone who queried what turned out to be the hopeless Russian tactics.

The nationalists regrouped and re-equipped after victory in the Battle of the Ebro in November 1938. Then launched a swift campaign to seize Catalonia in January and February 1939. Nationalist forces entered one-time revolutionary Barcelona on 26 January, and by the end of February all Catalonia was in their hands. (It is interesting to learn that Franco hesitated before attacking Catalonia, convinced right to the end that the French were planning to invade and seize it, against all the advice of his own generals and to the frustration of the hard-headed Richtofen. Of course, the terrified French never had any such plan.) This left only Madrid and the area to the south-east still in republican hands.

In March, what was left of the republican army in Madrid staged a coup against prime minister Juan Negrín, who fled to France. But communist forces around Madrid staged a counter-coup against the army, so, once again, the republicans were fighting among themselves when the nationalists launched their final military assault, capturing Madrid on 28 March. By 31 March the nationalists controlled all Spanish territory. Franco proclaimed victory in a radio speech aired on 1 April 1939, as the final republican forces surrendered, and it is that day which goes down in history as marking the end of the war.

What began as a military coup designed to quickly seize power ended up lasting two years and 254 days, with as many as a million deaths, if you combine civilian with military casualties.

General Franco was installed as dictator of Spain and immediately began issuing laws rolling back all the reforms of the republican regime and brutally centralising all aspects of Spanish life. The Basque and Spanish languages were banned. All media became state controlled, as did all industry, railways and other infrastructure. Secret police were everywhere. Even a few unwise words of criticism in conversation could land you in prison or worse.

Franco remained dictator of Spain until his death in 1975. Beevor’s book follows the aftermath of the war, with sections on the wretched conditions refugees to France endured in miserable transit camps.

I thought Franco cannily kept Spain out of the Second World War so was surprised to learn here that he in fact made repeated overtures to join the war on the Axis side. However, he made such extortionate demands for weaponry from Germany, and also demanded to be given France’s colonies in Africa i.e. the rest of Morocco as well as west African colonies – that the Nazi regime was put off and repeatedly refused the offer.

Once the Axis powers began to lose, in 1943, Franco shifted his official position back from Axis support to neutrality (much to Hitler’s disgust).

At the end of the war his regime, so clearly authoritarian and militaristic and with all kinds of ties to the defeated Axis, might have struggled to survive, had it not been for the start of the Cold War between America and Russia. Ironically, it was (the threat from) communist Russia which led the West (i.e. America) to consider an authoritarian but stable Spain better than a chaotic and possibly communist one.

Thus Spain remained in a state of suspended animation until the old dictator’s death in 1975. The country took a generation to recover from the devastation of total war, with cities, towns and villages laid waste, its people, infrastructure and culture scarred for decades. Arguably, many these scars last to this day.

Footnotes

Spanish boasting Criticism of the overweening and unfounded arrogance of the Spanish on both sides crops up in several places. Beevor more than once quotes foreign military experts as well as Spanish officers, who all agree that the Spanish were too proud to dig trenches i.e. holes in the ground. Having not experienced the Great War, most Spanish thought war consisted of valiant charges and heroic stands and refused to hide in holes. The result, especially on the republican side, was that they were mown down or strafed to pieces in their tens of thousands.

The Germans, with their emphasis on efficiency, were particularly appalled at the discrepancy between Spanish vainglory and their chaotic practice. Beevor goes right back to the Duke of Wellington who led the British forces in the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon (1807-1814) and who remarked of the preening Spanish officers assigned to his staff, that ‘the national weakness was boasting of Spain’s greatness’ (quoted page 158). For Richtofen, writing in his war diary, nothing at all had changed in 130 years.

New version, new sources Beevor wrote and published an earlier version of this book in 1982. This new longer version benefits from the opening of archives across Europe, particularly in the Soviet Union. Thus accounts of battles and political struggles are backed up by extensive quotations especially from newly accessible Soviet sources.

Still, the most gripping single source is Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen who was sent as an air force adviser to the nationalists and wrote a daily diary commenting on all aspects of the war. He is scathing about the incompetence of the Spanish and Italians and exults in the destructiveness of the German forces, especially his beloved Condor Legion.

Beevor points out that Richtofen pioneered the close co-ordination of armoured forces, infantry and air planes, and developed a new technique of close ground-to-air communications which proved vital in Nazi victories of the Second World War. He was a great destroyer of cities. In Spain his Condor Legion destroyed Durango and Guernica. He went on to be responsible for the destruction of Rotterdam, Belgrade, and Heraklion in Crete, before co-ordinating the bombing of Stalingrad in which some 40,000 civilians died (p.212).

The twentieth century was the great era of mass murderers. It is like looking out over a limitless expanse of burned and bleeding bodies. How can anyone possibly claim that human beings are a rational species?

Comrades! Work and fight for the Revolution!

Comrades! Work and fight for the Revolution!

War art The war saw an outburst of art and propaganda on both sides. Beevor points out it was the first war in which control of telegraph, telephone and radio were important. The republican side produced many stirring posters, poems and songs. But no amount of art could make up for a) the lack of foreign backing b) the consequent lack of guns, artillery and planes c) the lack of military training and experience d) the vicious, self-destructive in-fighting led by the communists and e) the idiotic military decisions which led to defeat after defeat.

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Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

The Fundació Joan Miró (the Joan Miró Foundation) is a museum of modern art celebrating the life and work of Spanish artist Joan Miró. It is located on the side of the Montjuïc hill south of central Barcelona in Catalonia, eastern Spain. The Foundation is part of the Barcelona Museum Pass or Articket scheme which gives you free entrance to six museums around Barcelona and, importantly, the ability to skip the long queues and walk straight in to any of them, for just 30 Euros (about £30).

Brief history of the Joan Miró Foundation

Miró was a native Barcelonan, born there in 1893. He was world famous by the time he had the idea in the late 1960s to establish a foundation to house a good cross-section of his life’s work as well as act as a research and study centre. With the help of old friends he was able to get the funding and buy some land on the side of the big hill, Montjuïc, a 20-minute walk south of the city’s famous central avenue, the Ramblas – and just round the corner from the ornately Victorian and massive Museum of Catalan Art (which is also in the Articket scheme; the well-organised art buff would make a day of doing both).

The cool white Modernist building which houses the Foundation was designed by Josep Lluís Sert (who also designed Miró’s purpose-built studio at his post-war home in Palma, Majorca). Sert’s large airy whitewashed rooms are the perfect setting for Miró’s light and colourful fantasies.

The Foundation owns some 217 of Miró’s paintings, 178 sculptures, 9 textiles, 4 ceramics, some 8,000 drawings and almost all of his prints. It’s a major venue.

Exterior of the Fundació Joan Miró

Exterior of the Fundació Joan Miró

Five euros buys you a handy audioguide which takes you through the fifteen or so rooms of the permanent collection, and includes photos contemporary with various works as well as thoughtful music to listen to while you contemplate the photos, ranging from Mozart to Stockhausen.

The rooms are in simple chronological order and give a much more complete overview of Miró’s work than the Picasso Museum (which I visited the day before) does of their subject.

Here the early rooms establish that Miró deployed a surprisingly figurative approach well into the post-war period, with many landscapes of the village of Mont-roig (Village and church of Mont-roig, 1919) and portraits, albeit done with a distinctively primitive or naive air.

Portrait of a young girl, 1919

Portrait of a young girl (1919)

Mont-roig was very important to Miro as a talisman of Catalonian peasant life, landscape and authenticity. The village is about 120 kilometers west of Barcelona, along the coast. Miro made hundreds of paintings of the landscape, people and architecture of the village which provided him with a visual vocabulary of shapes, forms and colours and a primitive approach which helped him escape from 19th century academic tradition. Today the village hosts a Miró Centre which the Miró completist should visit.

In the early 1920s Miró moved to Paris and, like so many artists before him, found in the city of light a heady air of invention and intellectual liberation. In 1924 André Breton published the first of many manifestos promoting the new movement of Surrealism. Miró found something particularly liberating about Surrealism’s combination of art and poetry. The works here suggest how extraordinarily quickly he abandoned traditional perspective and realistic depiction of figurative elements and began to experiment with a more abstract approach to line and colour.

The biggest single discovery seems to have been that a modern painting need have no perspective. It doesn’t have to be a window or a box containing things from ‘the real world’ in a ‘realistic’ relationship. There are roughly two steps in his development: In the earlier Surreal works Miró explores how objects from ‘the real world’ can be portrayed out of any context or perspective – very much the kind of random combinations which Surrealism favoured (though always in French, obviously). The wine bottle and fly are still identifiable in this transitional work.

The bottle of wine (1924)

The bottle of wine (1924)

The next stage was to realise that any shapes or marks or patterns can be presented against this undifferentiated background. Playing with any size or shape of line and experimenting with the effect produced by filling these abstract shapes with primary colours opens up a completely new world.

With one bound, his imagination was set free!

Painting (1933)

Painting (1933)

Are these people? Bodies? Moving or still? Full of anger or harmony?

What are the key elements of a Miró painting?

  • a flat wash background
  • black lines creating shapes and patterns
  • some of which are filled with blocks of unshaded primary colour, very often yellow, red or blue
  • Some of the shapes have individual lines or tufts of lines which look like hairs
  • Some of the shapes have what look like eyes which turn them into faces; probably
  • there are often star or moon-shaped figures.

It’s amazing that elements which can be described so simply turn out to be capable of generating such a vast array of combinations and variations. One room in fact contains a suite of variations, 27 drawings which play with these basic elements in a bewildering profusion of possibilities.

Also, you wouldn’t have thought such a basic approach would be capable of development, but it really is. The early Surreal works have a feel of their own, with their semi-cubist use of cafe paraphernalia (wine bottles). Some of the works from the 1930s lean towards the smooth melting surfaces of Salvador Dali. Some of the more mature works are blocky, like Painting, above. But by the 1940s and 50s he has settled on using a much thinner line, frail spindly black lines against a solid wash of primary colour, either creating closed shapes which are filled with primary red, yellow or blue, or dangle by themselves to create a kind of trailing fishing-line effect, or are self-contained objects forming child-like stars or crescent moons – as below.

The single most distinctive element is the hand-held, imperfect, spindly wavering quality of the lines. Compare and contrast with the mathematically precise shapes of contemporary Modernists like Kandinsky or Mondrian. There are hardly any dead straight lines to be seen – instead there is always a hand-drawn, child-like air to almost all of Miró’s work.

The museum nods towards Miró’s work in other formats. He experimented with fabrics and commissioned this monster tapestry, which is displayed alongside photos detailing its creation by a team of weavers.

Tapestry of the Fundació, 1979

Tapestry of the Fundació (1979)

The building is also dotted, inside and outside (in the attractive gardens and around the terraces of the building) with sculptures. Miró’s sculptures stand out from most modern sculpture because of their gaudy colours – most modern sculpture rejoices in the coarse heaviness of steel or bronze or stone; our man likes the bright primary colours of his paintings. It is odd but striking that none of the sculptures, entertaining though they are, have the same visceral impact as the shapes on a flat surface of the paintings.

Pair of lovers playing with almond blossoms (model for the sculptural group at La Défense, Paris) 1975

Pair of lovers playing with almond blossoms (model for the sculptural group at La Défense, Paris) 1975

Miró finally managed to take a long-dreamed-of trip to Japan in the 1960s where he met Japanese artists who gave him a feel for the Japanese art of calligraphy (and also the use of long, narrow canvases echoing the shape of traditional Japanese scrolls).

Calligraphy uses traditional wide brushes to paint rather thick black lines whose imperfections – where you can see the flaws and rasps in the stroke – testify to their authenticity. His later work can be seen as experiments with different sizes (and shapes) of hand-drawn lines in a generally much-pared-back approach, which has moved a long way on from the hectic, shape-filled works of the 1930s.

Two thick calligraphic brushstrokes in effect create this work, although set off by one of his trademark stars and a few blots and rasps.

Drop of water on pink snow (1968)

Drop of water on pink snow (1968)

The ‘thick brush’ approach contrasts vividly with experiments in the opposite – seeing just how much you can say with one simple slender line.

The climax of this approach can be seen in several rooms (which are in fact more like alcoves of just three walls, the fourth being open so you can walk in and out) in which are hung several of Miró’s modern triptychs. These consist of sets of three massive canvases which display experimental variations on really pared-down patterns or designs, and which date from the 1960s.

The simplest set consists of three massive white canvases each of which bears just one thin line. It’s difficult to convey how powerful, how just right, these seem. The audioguide mentions the influence of Japanese Zen philosophy – Less is more. Simplicity. Silence.

Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse (II) (1968)

Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse (II) (1968)

The next alcove along contains another triptych which plays with rather more elements than just a line, exploring the idea of a coloured blotch set off against a curved but open line, with a field of paint splatters along the bottom forming a sort of ‘shore’ or fringe.

The hope of a condemned man II (1974)

The hope of a condemned man II (1974)

Why do they work? What is it that feels not only restful and calming about them, but so right. I would pay good money to read an analysis of his art by whichever type of scientist it is that researches the science of perception, the psychology of vision, why it is that some colours, arrangements, shapes and patterns are pleasing to the eye, feel ‘right’, go deep into our pleasure centres.

Obviously there’s a lot to be written about Miró’s biography and career, his love-hate relationship with the Surrealists who never quite accepted this quiet Spanish bourgeois, about his take on their use and abuse of Freudian theories, and then on the disruptive and demoralising impact of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, as well as considerations of Miró’s personal psychological profile. (He was striving for an art which brought calm and peace and contentment to a mind which was often, by his own account, anxious and depressed – ‘Surrealism opened up a universe that soothed and justified my torment’.) But I am concentrating on the impact his works have on the viewer.

Also I was a little dismayed to be told by the audioguide just how many of the apparently abstract figures in the paintings were actually depictions of men and women and moon and stars and ladders and oceans, along with a fairly obvious analysis of what these symbols mean (the ladder motif appears in lots of works and represents escape from the violent or mundane world into a higher sphere of art and poetry etc).

I preferred to close my mind and drift among the shapes and colours in much the same way as you can lie on your back and float for hours in the warm, lulling Mediterranean Sea.

The gold of the azure (1967)

The gold of the azure (1967)

If you only have time for one museum in Barcelona, this one is much better, gives a much more comprehensive overview of its subject and contains many more wonderful paintings, than the more popular but patchy Picasso Museum.

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Picasso Museum @ Barcelona

There are Picasso Museums all over the place – Paris (where he worked), Malaga (where he was born), Antibes (where he went on holiday) – reflecting the man’s enormous fecundity and iconic fame.

There’s a Museo Picasso in Barcelona because this is where the young Picasso (born in 1881) came to study and make a name as a student and young artist before his first trip to Paris in 1900. The publicity makes much of the fact that this is the first and oldest Picasso Museum (founded in 1963), the only one set up during his lifetime (he died in 1973), and has one of the largest collections with some 4,251 works.

(It was the only cultural venue my teenage kids absolutely insisted on visiting on our recent trip to Barcelona. There was a queue though, to be honest, not as long as the ones at the London Royal Academy, let alone the monster queues at the National gallery. Nonetheless, you can skip past the queue if you buy an Articket or Barcelona Museum Pass, a collective ticket which costs 30 Euros and gets you into six Barcelona museums – Picasso, the Fundació Joan Miró, the National Museum of Catalan Art, the Centre of Contemporary Culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Fundació Antoni Tàpies. Not only is this good value if you can manage to visit all 6, but the Articket also lets you jump the queues at all these places, making for a much smoother experience.)

The Picasso Museum has been beautifully crafted out of several adjoining buildings in the historic Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, not far from the cathedral. The buildings are from the 13th or 14th centuries and each one has a small atrium or central open space with an external staircase going up and around the walls to a first floor arcaded balcony and so into the gallery rooms. These balconies were packed with tourists getting shots of themselves against the ancient stone backgrounds.

Arcaded balcony and steps inside the medieval Picasso Museum, Barcelona

In the cool ground floor rooms are not one but two art bookshops, which were well stocked and fascinating. Surprisingly for such a major attraction, and despite numerous street signs, such is the maze-like nature of the Gothic Quarter that the museum took a bit of finding.

The museum

So after all the effort to find it, figure out the Articket system, and the general build-up, it was a big surprise to discover that the collection is so patchy. There is a great deal of work from PP’s earliest years – very realistic academic studies of nudes, portraits and sentimental Victorian scenes from the 1890s.

It’s tempting to think how conventional and so-so these are, until you realise that Picasso was 14 and 15 years old when he painted them! The museum divides this juvenile period into:

  • the early years (Málaga, Corunna and Barcelona, 1890–97)
  • the training period (Barcelona, Horta de San Juan and Madrid, 1897–1901)

By the turn of the century Picasso is hanging round with bohemian types at the Els Quatre Gats cafe in Barcelona, and amusing them by knocking off sketches and caricatures of his friends, music hall performers, writers and notables in Bohemia.

He makes his first visit to Paris in 1900 and you can immediately feel the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas in his paintings. In fact, the museum lets you see Picasso motoring through all the available influences, trying them on for size.

There are several rooms focusing on the famous Blue Period, of sentimental, stylised, blue-coloured people and landscapes from 1901 to 1904.

So these first 4 or 5 rooms have been very thoroughly about his earliest years as pupil, student and young Bohemian, just tinkering with the influences of the day, when you step through to the next room… Then you walk into the next room and — it’s 1917 and Picasso is suddenly in Paris with the Ballets Russes collaborating on the scenery for their production of Parade.

Whaaat? The entire period from about 1905 to 1917 is absent i.e. the invention of cubism, the basis of modern art, is not here. His combination of Cezanne and discovery of African and Oceanic masks resulting in weird masterpieces like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), the entire adventure of collaborating with Braques in the invention of the different types of cubism – nada, nichts, niente, a blank. Instead we leap over the crucial decade to find ourselves among Picasso’s post-cubist work with absolutely no visual explanation of how we got here.

There’s much to like here but then we walk into the next room and… it is suddenly 1923, the war is over and across Europe the arts are undergoing a return to the clarity of neo-classical art in art and music. Here is a room of light, playful lithographs of classical ladies, bearded gods, pillars etc – and some of the later, darker but still mythological lithographs in the style of the Vollard Suite. Again, it feels like we’ve taken a massive leap forward in time, skipping over various key milestones in Picasso’s career.

In an even bigger leap, we then enter a room containing 30 or so of the 58 odd variations Picasso made on Velázquez’s classic painting Las Meninas in 1957. The bitter style of Guernica, the war years, the early Cold War years – invisible. Admittedly the Meninas variations are, apparently, the only series of Picasso variations which is still together and can be viewed in its entirety. But it feels like another massive leap.

In another room there is a similar suite of variations on the dovecot Picasso owned in the south of France, in much the same style as the Meninas variations, and from the same year.

Off to the side are several rooms of Picasso’s ceramics, donated by his last wife Jacqueline Roque – quirky, inventive, humorous plates featuring a basic smiling face or an embossed Picasso fish.

And that’s it. So the Picasso Museum, Barcelona does very much not present a comprehensive overview of Picasso’s whole career. It is a hefty collection of the early student and young-man work in Barcelona – and in this respect it is certainly a place to visit to really study his earliest realistic style and the origins of his art – and after that, there are sudden bursts from what appear to be almost random moments in the rest of his long, creative career.

Likes

My kids liked the blue period and harlequin style paintings best. My daughter liked:

I didn’t disagree, and there were were quite a few other good early works on show – but I ended up liking the room of Las Meninas variations most of all.

By this stage in Picasso’s life, the late 1950s, he really had conquered the world of art and the variations bespeak a superb confidence: he can do anything and he is not afraid. If the images look slapdash, the colours don’t go to the edge of the spaces, if daubs create an effect, lines clash here or there – it doesn’t matter. The variations demonstrate am almost boastfully virile knowledge of the inner workings of oil and art.

The kids and I walked round the room identifying motifs, listing the visual elements which appear in each of the version, re-envisioned in successive variations – some dark and intense, some light and colourful, some detailed and cluttered, some simple and clear.

For example, almost all the variations feature

  • a vertical grid of squares which reappears in different colours and severity
  • two figures at the back which appear as smiley faces atop columns with black-and-white minstrel-type hands sticking out
  • cartoon faces with dots for eyes and ticks for noses as, after all, the original is a portrait of half a dozen or so people.

Most compelling of all is the figure of the man opening the door into the room which appears in all the variations against different coloured backgrounds. My daughter quickly took to thinking of this figure as the centre of a psychedelic title sequence to a science fiction TV series, opening the same door and each time finding a madly different scene before him. He’s in the top in the middle of the first image below.

It became a fun game to identify the elements in each version and see what he’d done with them. This Where’s Wally approach to looking closely at each variation put me in the mood to also enjoy the room of variations Picasso painted on the dovecote and the strutting doves he owned at his home in the South of France (the Museum handily includes black and white photos of the great man among his doves).

Again the same basic theme is remodelled multiple times with varying colours, designs, with an intensity of black lines or a lighter touch. It was fascinating to experience the way different treatments of essentially the same semi-abstract scene evoked widely different emotional and visual responses.

Summary

In summary, you should definitely visit the Picasso Museum (next time you’re in Barcelona) but you should be prepared for the fact that it isn’t at all an overview of his career – it is a thorough look at Picasso’s very earliest work, something which may be mainly for scholars and real devotees – and then snapshots of half a dozen other moments or sets of work of which the Las Meninas variations, as I’ve made clear, would in my opinion be the best reason for going.


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Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power @ Tate Modern

Back to the 1960s, again

America again (after American Prints at the British Museum, America after the Fall at the Royal Academy, Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern, Alexander Calder at Tate Modern). Can’t have too much art from America.

And the 1960s again (after The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern and You Say You Want A Revolution at the V&A). The 1960s are art curators’ favourite decade, a brief period when words like ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ actually seemed to mean something.

Let’s just take it for granted that the averagely-educated person knows that the 1960s were a time of ‘turmoil and change’, especially in an America racked by the escalating tragedy of the Vietnam War which led to an explosion of student activism and widespread popular unrest etc.

Various key figures were assassinated – John Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King (1968) – adding to the sense of permanent crisis. The counter-culture of drugs, folk, jazz, poetry, experimental theatre and film which had existed in tiny beatnik enclaves in the 1950s went mainstream, reaching a heady climax in the summer of love of 1967 by which time free love, LSD, flower power and all the rest of it were widely publicised in music, film, newspapers, magazines, TV and on the streets.

There was an explosion of experimentation in all the arts and especially in popular music, which is more enduring and accessible than any other art form – the songs of the Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones, through Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream and hundreds of other groups and singers – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan – immediately recall for most people a decade and a time very few of us personally experienced, but which we have been exposed to again and again in celebratory documentaries, biographies, albums, movies and adverts as a kind of peak of creative endeavour.

Afro-American clichés

A major strand of the general outburst of popular culture and protest was the ongoing demand for equal civil rights by a wide range of Afro-American organisations, voices and artists.

As indicated above, it is pop music which endures longest in the collective imagination and so most of us are familiar with the brilliant achievement of countless black recording artists (and behind them the network of black writers, producers, agents, clubs etc) such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, the whole Motown stable as well as the amazing array of great jazz artists, the obvious ones being Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Anyone with a TV will have seen the world-famous images of the Civil Rights movement as replayed over and over again in documentaries about the time (such as the video at the American Prints exhibition which gave a three-minute whistle-stop tour of America in the 1960s to a soundtrack of The Doors) – Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, black teenagers being hosed down by Alabama cops, and so on. (The ‘I have a dream’ speech is played on a loop on a bank of TV monitors positioned just outside the exhibition, alongside information panels about black cultural icons of the time like Malcolm X and James Baldwin.)

Here’s a clip from it, just in case you’ve never heard or seen it before.

Soul of a nation

So given our over-familiarity with the period and most of its obvious cultural products, it comes as a genuine surprise to realise the scale and breadth of black art during this period. For this exhibition turns out to be very successful at going beneath the popular images of the decade to exhibit the specifically Black art of the 1960s and 70s, and especially the work linked with the political movements for civil rights – from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers and so on.

No fewer than 65 black artists feature in the exhibition, working across a bewildering range of styles and media.

Rather than attempting to summarise it, you’d best take a look at Tate’s own room-by-room guide to the exhibition. (Realising the importance of contemporary black music, this walk through the show includes recommended listening from contemporary musicians.)

The 12 rooms of the show range from a number of movements, galleries and artists in New York, to the very different feel of West Coast black artists.

There’s a room of black-and-white photos by a range of photographers: apparently Roy DeCarava was the big daddy of black photographers but plenty of others are on show; I especially liked the shots of jazz musician John Coltrane and his drummer Elvin Jones, since I’ve been a big fan of both since discovering them as a student. But there are also evocative b&w shots by plenty of other black artists, the terrific street scenes of Beuford Smith and the more politically engaged photos of Herb Randall.

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

There are icons of blackness in a room titled Black heroes. This includes a series of semi-naive figurative oil paintings by Barkley Hendricks.

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

There’s a room dedicated to the work of Betye Saar, an artist who works in wood, found objects and carving with a primitive vibe. The more I looked, the more I liked.

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Beye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Beye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

At the start of the show many of the works are directly political, referring to specific incidents of police brutality or discrimination. A good example is Dana Chandler’s powerful sculpture of a life-sized bullet-ridden door to commemorate the shooting of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in his Chicago apartment in 1969.

A number of photo-montages create a disconcerting sense of poverty, anxiety and dislocation, reminiscent in technique of similar cut-ups from the Weimar Republic back in the 1930s.

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Anger and political activism, a refusal to take any more white racism, violence and discrimination leap from many of the exhibits, which commemorate both specific outrages and negative events as well as celebrating positive moments, political heroes and speeches and gestures of resistance.

Did the bear sit under the tree by benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Did the bear sit under a tree? by Benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

There was a room of sculptures referencing Black African traditions, variations on the kind of wooden fetishes studded with nails which you can see in the British Museum. I liked the works of Noah Purifoy, including Totem and various untitled fetishes.

And hanging on the wall of room 4 (titled ‘Los Angeles Assemblages’) was a series of great twisted metal sculptures by Melvin Edwards.

I have nothing against political art – I enjoyed the exhibition of Peter Kennard‘s highly political art at the Imperial War Museum – and like a lot of the stuff here, but it’s also fair to say that looking at umpteen images of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X sometimes has the same effect as looking at the dusty old album covers in the V&A’s 1960s exhibition – it seemed to emphasise how long, long ago all this revolutionary fury was. And all this hope for change.

Repeated invocations in titles and works themselves of ‘the revolution’ and ‘revolutionaries’, references to the revolutionary writings of Malcolm X or the revolutionary activism of Angela Davis, all remind us just how dated hopes of some kind of social revolution along Soviet or Maoist lines now seem.

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

For as with all exhibitions from the 1960s, we now view these works over at least two seismic historical dividing lines – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the start of the War on Terror in 2001. ‘Power to the people’ is a rallying cry from a long-distant time.

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

The curators raise, or mention, a number of ‘issues’ which were hotly debated at the time – ‘Is there a distinct Black aesthetic?’ ‘Should a Black artist’s work focus only on the Black struggle?’ ‘Should the Black artist address only a Black audience, or a universal audience?’ and so on. My son has just taken his A-levels and all these ‘issues’ have a kind of rounded, academic A-Level feel to them.

Certainly, many of the works here do focus on the Black experience, take Black people as subjects, try to create a Black art, an art of Black protest and an art of Black celebration, and so on…

But, on this visit, on a bright summer’s day, I ended up liking the far more abstract (and larger and more colourful) work to be found in room 7 (titled ‘East Coast abstraction’) and then room 10 (‘Improvisation and Experimentation’).

Some of these were huge and, if they had political or social undertones, they tended to be eclipsed by their sheer size and power as works of art. Very big, colourful works by Frank Bowling appear in both rooms 7 and 10.

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Next to this one was an enormous work by Melvin Edwards (the sculpture whose Lynch fragments I liked earlier on). It is a huge curtain made from dangling strands of barbed wire, joined along the bottom by chains. A reference to slavery? Probably. But also just an awesome object in its own right.

Also in the same room was a huge canvas, painted abstract shapes and colours but designed to be knotted at the top differently everywhere it is hung. Doesn’t sound much but it is big, covering an entire wall.

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Nearby sits a huge lump of ebony-black smooth wood, a sculpture titled Self by Martin Puryear. Ominous, absorbing light, filling the space, a meditation on blackness, a threat, a calming influence – make of it what you will.

There’s a lot of anger, the reminders of horrible atrocities, racism, murders and violence in this exhibition. There’s a lot of defiance and pride and rejoicing in black icons and heroes. There’s a lot of fist-clenching and right-on rhetoric about the revolution — I think the average educated person will know about these ideas or issues already.

Where this exhibition scores is in showing the sheer diversity, range and imagination of all these Black artists, creating art for all occasions, impassioned and political, or cool photographs of street life and jazz musicians, or huge awe-inspiring abstractions. There’s something for all moods and all personalities. Go see which bits you like.

Maybe part of the reason I like the bigger abstract works is because they suggest that the response to racist atrocity needn’t itself be full of anger and hate. Alabama is a piece of music John Coltrane wrote in response to a terrorist attack which shocked America, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite and a timing device under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The resulting explosion killed four little girls and injured 22 others. How stupid, wicked and evil racism is. What extraordinary beauty Coltrane – and many of the Black artists on display here – made from it.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne (1977)

The Algerian War was the long brutal conflict between the National Liberation Front (the Front de Libération Nationale or F.L.N.) fighting for Algerian independence from the French Empire, and the French Army tasked with repressing it.

The war lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic and eventually forced General de Gaulle out of retirement to become President in 1958, solely in order to sort out a peace deal. As the violence committed by both the FLN and the army increased, as international opinion turned against the French, and as the Soviet bloc became friendlier with the Algerian revolutionaries, de Gaulle found himself reluctantly pushed towards the only logical solution – that France withdrew and granted Algeria its independence.

This was so unpopular among the 500,000 or so troops which France had by this time deployed to Algeria, and who had been fighting and dying in often inhospitable environments (the arid desert, the freezing mountains) that it prompted a military coup by the generals in Algeria. This collapsed in just four days, but the rebellion helped bring together a number of mid-ranking soldiers and psychopaths into an anti-de Gaulle, anti-independence paramilitary which called itself the Organisation armée secrète or O.A.S.

These (and other freelancers) planned and attempted some thirty (!) assassination attempts against de Gaulle as well as an escalating campaign of murder and terrorist outrages against liberal French in Algeria, against writers and thinkers in Paris (they bombed Jean-Paul Sartre’s flat and the homes of newspaper editors) as well as attacking Muslim bars, shops, schools, colleges and so on. IN February 1962 they killed over 550 people. The F.L.N. responded with their own tit-for-tat terrorist outrages. In March F.L.N. activists broke into the home of a pied noir nightwatchman, disembowelled his wife and smashed the heads of his two children, aged 5 and 6, against the wall (p.526). This book is packed with stories like that. Every day in Algiers was marked by the sound of explosions and gunfire.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1962 secret talks began between de Gaulle’s emissaries and F.L.N. representatives at a secret location in the Swiss border. Horne’s book – brilliant in every aspect – shows how right down to the wire the F.L.N. representatives refused to budge on the purity of their demands for complete independence and control of all Algeria’s territory (shrugging aside attempts by France to hang on to her naval bases or the vast areas of the Sahara to the south of the Atlas mountains where, ironically, in the last few years of French rule vast reserves of oil and even more of natural gas had been discovered). A peace treaty granting Algeria independence was signed in March 1962.

Brutality

Official French figures tally up to about 300,000 Algerians who lost their lives in the fighting, but even more in the terrorism and as victims of the extensive intra-Muslim fighting and vendettas. The Algerian state settled on the round number of one million Muslims and sticks to it to this day.

The F.L.N. used terrorist tactics, planting bombs, using drive-by shootings and chucking hand grenades into European cafes, bars etc, but mostly they set themselves to murder Algerians who had sold out to the French authorities e.g. native village constables and local caids, cutting off noses or lips as a first warning, slitting the throats of any ‘traitors’ who remained loyal to the French regime. The French efforts became steadily more indiscriminate, arresting all political suspects in the towns, bombing entire villages and, at the scenes of brutal murders of Europeans, running wild and shooting every Muslim in sight. All of which, of course, helped recruitment to the rebels.

Both sides used torture although the F.L.N. routinely used barbaric bloodthirstiness: on August 20, 1955 about 80 guerrillas descended on the town of Philippeville and went from house to house massacring all Europeans. Mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies cut open by bill-hooks, babies had their brains beaten out against the walls. One women had her belly cut open and the corpse of her young baby – cut to ribbons by knives – stuffed back inside her (p.121). When French paratroopers arrived on the scene some hours later they went mad and machine gunned every Muslim in sight.

In this respect F.L.N. tactics worked: the native population was terrorised into abandoning the French and giving the guerrillas help; the atrocities sparked the French into harsh reprisals which further alienated both peasant and educated opinion. The F.L.N. strategy was to militarise the conflict and the whole country, and it worked.

The advent of the O.A.S. in the final period of the war raised the levels of wanton brutality to revolting new heights, as French fanatical right-wingers launched attacks in mainland France and in Paris. The French Secret Service attempts to penetrate the O.A.S. were eventually successful in rounding up the O.A.S. leaders but, ironically, this only increased the level of murder and terrorism because the psychopathic ordinary members were now headless and unchecked.

In another level of irony (and what is history except irony written in blood), Horne shows how the O.A.S. – fighting to keep Algeria French – probably did more than any other group to ensure Algeria became independent.

Their aim was to create such chaos that it would lead to the overthrow of de Gaulle the traitor and then… and then… something good would happen (like the coup plotters, they had no grasp of politics). But their way to achieve this chaos was through random outrages, mostly against moderate and educated Muslims – and this had the effect, in the final year of the conflict, of driving a huge wedge between the communities. And this had toe effect of destroying forever any hope that the pieds noirs would be able to live side-by-side in harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

Divisions on both sides

War suggests two monolithic sides, but in fact both ‘sides’ were deeply divided and riven by factions. Ever since the French Revolution back in the 1790s, the French political nation has been bitterly divided between a revolutionary Left and an authoritarian Catholic Right, with all kinds of ineffective liberals ranged in between. After the Second World War, France also had to contend with a large and powerful Stalinist Communist Party. This contributed to the chronic problem with French politics – its instability: there were no fewer than 21 different governments between 1945 and 1958! It was, thus, very difficult for ‘the French’ to formulate and stick to one policy.

On the other side, Horne explains the political situation at the start of the war among the Algerians: there was a communist party, a Muslim fundamentalist party, and a Liberal party representing the so-called évolués i.e. educated Algerians who were progressing along the state-approved path towards full ‘French-hood’.

All of these found themselves outflanked and outmoded by the violence and determination of the F.L.N. But there were also big divisions ethnically and culturally among the Algerians, and within the F.L.N. itself. For a start there were gulfs between the minority of urban, educated, literate Algerians and the majority of the nine million population which were illiterate peasants. Also between ethnic groups in Algeria, for a large percentage of the population were (and are) Kabyle, descended from the original Berber tribal occupants of the country who had their own language, culture and traditions and not all of whom were Muslim. Horne shows how the Kabyle-Arab divide was a permanent problem of the F.L.N. leadership and on the ground led to some appalling massacres perpetrated by each side.

A glaring example was the Massacre of Melouza, in late May early June, 1957, when FLN rebels massacred 300 Muslim inhabitants of the Melouza village because they supported the rival rebel group M.N.A. To be precise the F.L.N. rounded up every male over the age of fifteen, herded them into houses and the mosque and slaughtered them like animals with rifles, pick axes and knives (p.221).

There was also a long-burning division between the ‘insiders’, who stayed in the country to lead the armed struggle, and a cohort of ‘outsiders’ who a) acted as ambassadors, seeking political and financial support from other Arab states – especially Nasser’s nationalist Egypt and b) worked tirelessly at the United Nations in New York to lobby the Cold War blocs and the rising non-aligned movement to support the struggle.

As in every other aspect of this masterful book, Horne gives a thorough and insightful account of the changing personnel, changing relationships and evolving success of each of these factions.

Obstacles to a settlement

The successive French governments had a dual prong strategy: to completely suppress the armed revolt through military means, while simultaneously implementing ‘reforms’ to try and win over the majority of the population. These were stymied for a number of reasons.

  1. Too little, too late The government sent Liberal Jacques Soustelle as Governor-General of Algeria in 1955 to devise a reform package. He introduced the concept of ‘integration’, not altogether easy to distinguish from the previous policy of ‘assimilation’. He aimed to improve the crushing poverty and unemployment in which most rural Algerians lived. He declared he would make Arabic an obligatory language in Muslim schools, train peasants in modern agriculture, eliminate inequities in education alongside the creation of other public works. But the rebellion had already started and, as atrocity followed atrocity, Soustelle found his rational, sensible plans becoming irrelevant in the sea of blood.
  2. The pieds noirs Pieds noirs is French for ‘black feet’. It’s a slang expression the metropolitan (or mainland) French invented for the French who had settled in Algeria. In actual fact, a large proportion of the European settlers in Algeria were from Italy, Spain and other countries. But they all thought of themselves as 100% French and were led by some powerful men who owned huge businesses, rich from shipping, agriculture, vineyards, housing and so on. There were nearly a million pieds noirs and they dominated the Algerian Assembly. In theory Muslims could be elected to this, but in practice, through a system of double elections designed to prevent Muslims being elected, only a small number of Algerians were representatives, despite the natives outnumbering the settlers by about 9 to 1. Anyway, unlike the French government and Liberal opinion, pieds noirs sentiment was solid and consistent: it was anti any kind of further power or representation for Algerians, it wanted the war pursued with maximum aggression, it was against independence in any shape or form. Early on it held riots against ministers sent over from France and realised that it, too, could mobilise the street and threaten violence to foil any attempts at concession.
  3. Algeria was French The strangest element, the most fateful, tragic aspect of the whole bloody tragedy, was that the French government of 1848 made the fateful declaration that Algeria was an integral part of France, as much a part as Brittany or the Dordogne. At least Morocco and Tunisia to the west and east of it had only been French protectorates and so they could, relatively easily, be given their independence – both in 1956. (An unintended consequence was that F.L.N. fighters could use both countries as refuges and arms bases.) But French politicians were lumbered with the fateful situation that Algeria was legally – and all the pieds noirs took this absolutely literally – part of France and so could not be given independence because it was not legally or culturally perceived as a separate entity.

Thus for the French it was not a question of granting a colony independence: it was a case of losing part of France itself. This, to any outsider, is quite obviously insane and part of the experience of reading this long book is to be soaked in the ongoing insanity of the entire French political class. Looked at in this way, the F.L.N. struggle can be seen as the brutal attempt to make the French realise and admit that Algeria was a nation in its own right.

Indo-China and Algeria – one long war

If the year 1954 rings a bell it’s because that was the year the French Army lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and, as a result, began to withdraw from Vietnam (see my reviews of two classics on the subject, The Last Valley by Martin Windrow  and Embers of War by Frederik Logevall). The massive French base at Dien Bien Phu was overrun in May 1954 and the rebellion in Algeria began in November 1954. In fact Horne shows that the founding meeting of the umbrella group of revolutionary parties that formed the F.L.N. actually took place on the very day that news of Dien Bien Phu reached Algeria. Many of the same military units who had just been repatriated from Vietnam found themselves being sent on to North Africa to fight another insurgency.

Thus, although on opposite sides of the globe, the wars in Indochina and in Algeria can be seen as aspects of the same struggle of native peoples to free themselves from French rule. Taken together they meant that France was engaged in serious colonial wars from 1945 to 1962. Long time, isn’t it? A long time that it could have been devoting its money and energy to rebuilding its war-torn society back home. And, if it had agreed negotiated independence for both countries, how many lives would have been saved, and what a good reputation France would have enjoyed within those countries and around the world. It makes Britain’s withdrawal from India and Pakistan, though flawed, look like the wisdom of Solomon.

The French military record

In the 1950s the French Army had to look back 150 years, to the heyday of Napoleon, to be really sure of major military victories which they won by themselves.

Napoleon’s army had been finally, definitively, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The conquest of Third World Algeria began promisingly in 1830, but the French faced stiffer opposition than they expected and the conquest dragged on for over 15 years. It’s true the French won the Crimean War (1853-56) but only  in alliance with the British, only just, and only after establishing a reputation for caution and delay and after losing huge numbers of troops to illness. A few years later the military suffered a humiliation when their attempt to install a Francophone Emperor in Mexico failed and the puppet Emperor was executed in 1867.

But none of this compared with the seismically crushing military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After the Prussians had finished occupying and looting Paris, the city descended into a super-violent civil war as leftists declared a Commune and the French Army was sent in to defeat and annihilate them. The military defeat of the war and the deployment of Frenchmen to kill Frenchmen left a poisonous legacy which lasted a generation.

A generation later the French Army was the epicentre of the Dreyfus Affair which from 1894 to 1906 tore the country (again) into violently opposing factions either supporting or reviling a certain Captain Dreyfus, who was (wrongly) alleged to have sold military secrets to the Prussians. When he was, finally, exonerated, almost the entire army hierarchy looked like frauds and incompetents.

The French would have lost the Great War if the British Expeditionary Force had not helped to hold the line on the Marne in 1914. After three years of butchery, in 1917 the French Army was dishonoured to suffer widespread mutinies (the British didn’t).

Between the wars France was so divided that many thought the street riots which erupted across Paris in 1934 were the beginning of a civil war. The profound divisions between left, right and liberals encouraged the spirit of wholesale defeatism which led to the speedy French capitulation against invading Nazi Germany in 1940 (‘better the Germans than the reds’, was the cry of conservatives across the country).

France was finally liberated in 1945, with a large contribution from the British but mainly from the overwhelming might of the Americans, scores of thousands of whom died to liberate la patrie. Immediately, the French roared back into arrogant World Power mode and, in Indo-China, instead of taking Vietnamese nationalists seriously, spurned all talks and decided to beat them militarily (the tragic story so brilliantly told in Frederick Logevall’s Embers of War) to restore France’s gloire and grandeur and prestige around the world (it is telling that even in English, we use French words for these ideas).

The eight-year struggle to hang on to Indo-China climaxed in the international humiliation of defeat at Dien Bien Phu, when the French army’s heavily-defended citadel was crushed by the third world army of General Giap, leading the French Army and civilian administration to pack up and leave Vietnam.

(Some of the many, many soldiers, statesmen, civilians and eye witnesses quoted in this long book start the long track of France’s humiliations earlier, with the massive failure of the Seven Years War back in the 1760s, in which King Louis XV’s lack of financial and military commitment led the French to lose both Canada and India to the British Empire. Reflecting on this during the days it took to read this book, a simpler theory came to mind: in the Seven Years War Louis sacrificed the foreign colonies because his main focus was on maintaining France as the pre-eminent military power on the Continent, as his father had and as Napoleon would do. If we take this as the central aim of French foreign policy – to maintain French pre-eminence on the continent – then it was doomed to failure when it met the unstoppable rise of Prussia and Germany from the 1850s onwards. It took three bitter wars between the nations – in 1870, 1914 and 1940 – to prove beyond any doubt that Germany was (and remains) the top power in Europe. So a) France had wasted all those years, men and money in a project which turned out to be futile – while b) all the time their bitter rivals the British were by and large ignoring continental squabbles to focus on expanding their vast maritime empire).

Thus, at their elite academies (e.g. the famous École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr) each new generation of French officers was brought up on an unremitting diet of gloire and grandeur but had, embarrassingly, to look all the way back to the great battles of Napoleon 150 years earlier, to find the last real military victories, the last time the French had really won anything. The French were very aware that in the Great War (arguably) and in the Second War (definitely) its success was on the coat tails of the British and the Americans.

This long history of defeat and humiliation helps to explain the special bitterness and acrimoniousness of France’s relations with her colonies post-1945. She didn’t want to be humiliated yet again. According to the French historian, Raymond Aron:

that deep ingrained sense of past humiliations had to be exorcised. (p.331)

And yet, with bleak irony, it was the very doggedness with which she hung on in Indo-China and in Algeria that ended up guaranteeing the political and military humiliations she was striving so hard to avoid.

It’s important to grasp this sense of inferiority and grievance and bloody determination because it helps to explain the fundamental irrationality of the French military ending up declaring war on their own government, trying to assassinate the French head of state, taking France to the brink of civil war, and why a hard core of ‘ultras’ formed the O.A.S. which set out on a policy of murdering their fellow Frenchmen.

Suez

Horne pithily calls the Suez invasion ‘the shortest war in history and possibly the silliest’. (p.163). I hadn’t previously understood its connection with Algeria. The French were convinced that Nasser (leader of Egypt) was supplying the F.L.N. with arms and munitions (they and everyone else were given that impression by the fiery pan-Arab messages coming over on Radio Cairo). In fact, Nasser and the other Arabs were notably unhelpful in the early part of the war, refusing to supply the rebels anything – but the French didn’t know that. Thus when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 – two years into the Algerian crisis – the French seized the opportunity to strike a blow against the (supposed) supplier of their enemy in Algeria. The Israelis already wanted to strike a blow against the strongest Arab state and both countries leaned on the British to get involved.

The Suez Crisis is remembered because only a day or so into the joint Israeli-French-British assault on the canal zone the Russians began to make loud warning noises and President Eisenhower threatened to ruin the British economy by selling the U.S. government’s sterling bonds unless the Brits desisted. British forces were stopped in their tracks and British political leaders, the army, informed public opinion, all realised – with a never-to-be-forgotten jolt – that it marked the end of Britain’s role as a Global Power.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s my generation accepted all of this as a given and now, 60 years later, it seems like ancient history. But it is just one more of the many insights this wonderful book throws up, to revisit it from the Algerian perspective.

Scale

The Algerian War is important in its own right, as the largest and bloodiest of all decolonising wars. You occasionally read about:

  • Britain’s heavy-handed response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, but that eight-year conflict resulted in some 12,000 Kenyan dead (mostly killed by fellow Kenyans) and only 200 settlers dead.
  • The Malayan Emergency, when Chinese communists led an insurgency against British imperial forces over a 12-year period from 1948 to 1960, led to a total of about 2,000 Malay and British police and army killed, and some 6,000 communist insurgents dead.
  • The crisis in British-held Cyprus in the later 1950s which resulted in some 600 dead.

Together with other small conflicts, these ’emergencies’ and insurgencies routinely appeared on the front pages British newspapers during the 1950s, but they are quoted here to compare and contrast with the awesome scale and enormous casualties and the huge political turmoil of the Algerian War. It was a completely different order of magnitude and the sheer number of bombings and atrocities is impossible to imagine. In some months there were over 1,000 incidents, over thirty every day. At the peak of O.A.S. activities they would set off 20 or 30 plastic explosive devices every day. In all, the French authorities recorded some 42,090 acts of terrorism.

Horne’s book is long and immaculately detailed, giving a riveting military history of the entire conflict, peppered with accounts of just enough of the atrocities to make you feel continually sick, and tense at the scale of what was at stake. It is like one of the most gripping novels ever written.

Long-term

The Algerian War turned out to be a testing ground for the kind of urban terrorism which has become so common in the 21st century, a pioneer of the strategy of attacking ‘soft’ civilian targets – nightclubs and pop concerts – in order to militarise and polarise society: the worse the atrocity, the greater the success in creating the battle lines.

The only response to this kind of terrorism-to-divide is not to rise to the bait and not to let society become polarised. But the best way to prevent it is not to allow injustice and grievance to build up to such a pitch in the first place, by giving all parts of society a voice, a say, and by having mechanisms through which to confront and solve grievances.

The war was also a template for the kind of asymmetric warfare in a Muslim country between a Western-style army and irregular militia and terrorist units, which has also become common in the 21st century – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. The cover has a blurb from Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco – the damning account of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – which says this book has become compulsory reading for all U.S. military officers and counterinsurgency specialists, and Horne himself draws direct parallels with the Iraq invasion in his preface to the 2006 edition.

The war was such a long and convoluted conflict, with so many aspects, that it also contains examples of a whole range of political problems. In fact, it could almost be read as a sort of compendium of classic problems of statecraft.

  • How not to colonise a country and how not to ruinously hang on to it long after the time to go has come.
  • How not to stage a military coup, something the generals in fact attempted twice, failing both times.
  • How to return to a divided nation as a saviour, how to be all things to all men, and then how to steer a perilous course through violently opposing factions – as de Gaulle did.
  • How not to try and assassinate a head of state.
  • How to penetrate urban guerrilla organisations – Horne’s account of how the French penetrated the undercover F.L.N. network during the Battle of Algiers is brilliant.
  • Just as insightful, and impressive, is the account of how General Maurice Challe in 1959 instituted a whole new method to tackle attacks by smallish groups in remote desert areas – by using radio to call in helicopters carrying reinforcements to surround the armed bands, and by not giving up the chase or hunt until each one had been exterminated. Challe’s approach was showing real results, clearing entire areas of nationalists and reducing attacks, when his operation was overtaken by political developments and he was replaced by a general who never completed the process.
  • Building a wall. Like the Israelis were later to do, and Donald Trump threatens to do in our time, the French built a wall against their enemies. In their case it was an electrified fence stretching along 320 kilometres of Algeria’s border with Tunisia, the so-called Morice Line, because Tunisia in particular was a major bolthole for F.L.N. operatives, guns and money. The Morice Line formed a barbed-wire barrier lined with minefields and a sophisticated alarm system which alerted rapid response units to attempts to breach it, and who could be quickly helicoptered to the breach to intercept and kill F.L.N. fighters.
  • Urban uprisings. Both the pieds noirs and the Muslims staged mass uprisings in Algiers. The French one, starting in January 1960, was called ‘the week of barricades. Horne even-handedly shows how the pieds noirs students and activists organised it, and how the authorities tried to handle it.

There is just a whole host of war-related conflict and public order disturbances throughout the book. Not only Western armies but police forces could probably learn something about managing civil disturbance, disobedience and violent crowds.

Mass migration

The peace was signed with little agreement about the future of the pieds noirs. Seeing themselves as sold down the river, abandoned by their fatherland, and terrified of the reprisals in store once an F.L.N. government took over, the result was panic and a mass movement of people on a scale not seen since the end of the Second World War.

Over a million pieds noirs fled Algeria in a matter of weeks! There were many heart-breaking and panic-stricken scenes which Horne describes. Because of the demand on ships and planes, the pieds noirs were only allowed to take two suitcases of belongings with them. So they made bonfires of all their other goods, mementoes and belongings, then left their homes, which had often been the homes to families for many generations, abandoned to their new Arab owners. The refugees arrived in a France which was completely unprepared for them and which struggled to find homes and schools and jobs for them for many years to come.

Much worse, though, was the fate of the harkis, the native Muslims who had collaborated with the French Army and administration. Up to a quarter of a million Algerians worked with the French army, the ones who came under actual army discipline being called harkis. One of the (just) grievances of senior army figures was that the fate of the harkis wasn’t even addressed in the peace negotiations. Only about 15,000 managed to escape to France. The rest, over 200,000, were, in effect, left to the mercies of the F.L.N. which means that very many of thyem were tortured and murdered.

No-one knows for sure how many of these collaborators were murdered in the months that followed the French withdrawal in July 1962, but Horne quotes a few of the horror stories which later emerged. Hundreds were used to clear the minefields along the Morice Line by being forced to walk through them and get blown up. Many were tortured before being killed.

Army veterans were made to dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed; they were burned alive, or castrated, or dragged behind trucks, or cut top pieces their flesh fed to the dogs. Many were out to death with their entire families, including young children. (p.537)

In some barracks French officers were ordered to take away the harki‘s weapons, promising them replacements, but then departing the next day, leaving the harkis completely unarmed and defenceless. Some French soldiers were ordered to stand impassively by while harkis were killed in front of them. As you’d expect, many French officers disobeyed orders and smuggled their Muslim comrades abroad, but nowhere near enough.

This book is absolutely packed with situations like this, cruel ironies of war and defeat, atrocities, torture and murder. 600 pages of horror – but reading it gives you an important – a vital – insight into contemporary France, into contemporary Algeria, and into contemporary conflicts between the West and Islam.

A Savage War of Peace

Sir Alistair Horne’s account was first published in 1977 and has long held the field as the definitive account, in English, of this awful conflict – although new studies have appeared throughout that period.

At 600 pages it is long, thorough and beautifully written. I’d read criticisms that it doesn’t give a proper account of the Algerian side, but there is page after page devoted to portraying and analysing the lead characters in the F.L.N. and to disentangling the hugely complex machinations both among the F.L.N. leadership, and between the F.L.N. and the other Muslim groups.

Horne quotes extensively from interviews he himself held with as many of the surviving F.L.N. leaders as he could track down. He explains in forensic detail the social, cultural, economic and political barriers put in the way of Algerians under French colonialism and the multiple unfairnesses of the French system, which led to so much poverty and grievance. When the violence gets going Horne is scrupulous in abominating the results of the terrorist attacks by all sides, and the execution of ‘traitors’ within the F.L.N. or to the civil war between Arab and Kabyle. But he accompanies these with clear-headed explanations of why each side adopted strategies of atrocity. It struck me as perfectly balanced.

Horne was a journalist in the lead-up to the war (working for the Daily Telegraph) and was in Paris researching his first book when the war broke out. He gives examples of the impact de Gaulle’s rousing speeches had on him and fellow journalists as they heard them. He was there. This gives him the invaluable advantage of being able to really convey the atmosphere and the mood, the psychology, the milieu, the feel of what is now a long-distant period.

As mentioned, Horne carried out extensive interviews with all the key players he could track down including – fascinatingly – surviving leaders of the F.L.N. and of the O.A.S. and the French coup leaders. He interviewed no fewer than five of the ex-premiers of France who governed during this stormy period. The text is littered with quotes from key players which shed invaluable light on the complex and long, long course of events. It also means he is able to give in-depth accounts by the main players of vital political and military decisions taken throughout the period.

Horne was himself a soldier who served during World War Two, and so manages to get inside the peculiar mindset of the soldiers in this war, from the foot soldiers on both sides to the higher ranks, the colonels and generals. He doesn’t view the conflict as an academic would (or as I would) as an abattoir, an unrelenting list of brutal murders and tortures – but rather as killings carried out in the name of understandable (if reprehensible) military and political strategies.

Speaking as a non-military man, as much more the liberal humanities student, from one angle the entire text – like the war – is a kind of exploration of the strange twisted notions of ‘honour’ which led men to throw hand grenades into dance halls, to assassinate schoolmasters, to slit the throats of gendarmes, to eviscerate pregnant women. You could make a list of the people – the generals and colonels – who pompously spout on about ‘honour’ and then correlate the massacres and murders committed by their troops. Something similar could maybe done to the F.L.N. who spoke about human dignity and smashed children’s heads against walls or slit open pregnant women.

I circled every mention of ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ I saw. So often they came just before or just after the description of yet more killing, bombing and knifing. Eventually I wished, as the narrator of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell To Arms does, that those old words – glory, honour, pride, dignity – could all be abolished, scrapped forever, thrown into the depths of the sea.

Horne’s style

I’m an English graduate. Words always interest me. Horne was very posh. The son of Sir Allan Horne, he was born in 1925 and sent to a series of public schools before serving in the RAF and the Coldstream Guards during the war. All things considered, it’s impressive that his prose isn’t more old-fashioned. It happily belongs to that post-war style of posh, correct English, grammatically correct but loosened up by the egalitarianism and the Americanism of the post-war years. His prose is a pleasure to read and to read aloud. As a tiny detail of this masterpiece of historical research & writing, I enjoyed the way he confidently uses rare and flavoursome words:

meridional Relating to or characteristic of the inhabitants of southern Europe, especially the South of France, in practice meaning hot-tempered

Says Jouhaud proudly [his disguise] gave him the air of ‘an austere professor, whom candidates would dread at exam time’, though, in fact, photographs reveal something resembling more the coarse features of a meridional peasant. (p.481)

contumelious – (of behaviour) scornful and insulting; insolent

[In the French National Assembly] one of Abbas’s fellow deputies had declared: ‘You showed us the way, you gave us the taste of liberty, and now when we say that we wish to be free, to be men – no more and no less – you deny us the right to take over your own formulas. You are Frenchmen, and yet you are surprised that some of us should seek independence.’ After this eloquent plea, he had been brought to order by the President of the Chamber in this contumelious fashion: ‘Monsieur Saadane, I have already reminded you that you are at the French tribune. I now invite you to speak in French there…’ (p.73)

Objurgation A harsh rebuke:

Through being in charge of the Cinquieme Bureau, with its potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare [Colonel Jean] Gardes had a powerful weapon and he now used it unhesitatingly to further the cause of francisation – regardless of the objurgations of [Delegate-General] Delouvrier. (p.354)

The Islamic world

Horne has some blunt and simple things to say about the Islamic world. Writing in 2006 he says:

In many ways the horrors suffered in Algeria’s own civil war do read like a paradigm, a microcosm of present-day Islam’s frustrated inadequacy to meet the challenges of the modern world, the anger generated thereby finding itself directed into lashing out against the rich, successful West. (p.18)

This has not got any less true with the eruption in 2011 of the Arab Spring revolts which, in most cases, led to brutal suppression (as in Egypt) or the kind of chaotic civil war to be seen in contemporary Libya or Syria. If you include the under-reported civil war in Yemen, itself a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the recent ostracism of Qatar by the other Gulf states, it’s not difficult to see the entire Arab world as racked by conflicts and crises which its own political and cultural traditions don’t seem equipped to handle.

European nations themselves are fragile – until a generation ago half of Europe was part of the Soviet empire; in my lifetime Spain, Portugal and Greece were run by military dictatorships. And as Horne’s book brings out, just as I was born (in 1961) France nearly experienced a full-blown military coup which could have plunged the country into civil war. Democracy is extremely fragile, requires deep roots, requires the ability to disagree with your opponent without wanting to cut their throat.

Neo-Malthusianism

My son (19 and studying philosophy) calls me a neo-Malthusian. He means that whenever we discuss current affairs I always come back to the sheer scale of human population (and the related destruction of the natural environment). When France invaded, the population of Algeria was 1 million. When the insurrection broke out in 1954 it was 9 million. When Horne wrote his book in the mid-1970s it was 16 million. Today (2017) it is 41 million. The country is lucky enough to float on a vast reserve of natural gas which should underpin its budget for generations to come. But all across the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan, huge population increases have put pressure on governments to supply jobs to young men, while at the same time all those countries are reaching the limits of their agricultural and natural resources (of water, in particular).

I don’t think a ‘clash of civilisations’ is inevitable; but I do think an ever-expanding population will provide the motor for unending conflict, and this conflict will be channelled into well-worn channels of racial and religious conflict, invoking the well-worn vocabulary of grievance, victimhood and justification (this doesn’t mean just anti-western violence: the conflict between Sunni and Shia will just get worse and worse, the proxy wars between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi will get worse; the plight of communities caught in the middle – the Kurds or the Egyptian Copts – will continue to deteriorate).

And various groups or individuals will accept the by-now traditional discourse that ‘It’s all the West’s fault’, that ‘There are no civilians; everyone is a warrior in the war against the infidel’, and so will be able to justify to themselves setting off bombs at pop concerts, driving a truck into a crowd of pedestrians, machine gunning sunbathers on a holiday beach, or storming into a popular market to stab everyone in sight.

All of these things happened during the Algerian War. And all of them are happening again. There are now five million Algerians living in France out of a total population of 67 million. Many of them descendants of the harkis who managed to flee in 1962, many are temporary migrant workers, and many are refugees from Algeria’s bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Many millions are crammed into squalid banlieus, suburbs of cheaply built high-rises and equally high unemployment, where periodic riots break out – the subject of Mathieu Kassovitz’s terrifying film, La Haine. France has been living under a state of emergency since the Bataclan attacks in November 2015. A massive deployment of troops and police was called up for the recent French elections. I shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a permanent state of emergency. Angry Muslims are here to stay.

The Algerian War has effectively crossed the Mediterranean to France… (p.17)


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

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