The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle (1957)

‘Nice place you’ve got here. Have some tea?’
‘Thanks, it’s very kind of you.’
‘Not at all.’ (p.95)

If Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet is a kind of Swiftian satire which glossed over the practical aspects of space travel in order to concentrate on making its moralising points, The Black Cloud is the exact opposite, a showcase of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and factual accuracy.

It is set slightly into what was then the future, the narrative opening in January 1964. The blurb on the back has already told you that it’s about a black cloud which enters the solar system heading towards the Earth, so there’s no surprise about the central fact of the story, but any suspense about whether this is going to be an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world shocker is killed stone dead by the first few words of the prologue. This is set fifty years in the future (2020) and immediately establishes the jocular tone and worldview.

It is a humorous letter from a chap at a jolly nice Cambridge college, Dr John McPhail, and he describes the advent of the black cloud as ‘an interesting episode’, so jolly interesting that it was the subject of the thesis which won him his fellowship at Queen’s College, Cambridge. Good show.

So – we realise immediately – the world is not going to end, and also we are going to be dealing with jolly decent chaps from Cambridge and the Royal Astronomical Society. Thus deprived of key elemens of suspense, the interest in this early part of the text derives from:

  • a highly accurate description of the state of astronomical knowledge circa 1957, along with the technology they used then (the different types of telescope, techniques for comparing prints of photos taken of deep space, a long description of punching the tape required in a very early computer)
  • some very detailed calculations about the probable velocity, density and direction of the cloud which the characters do on blackboards as they discuss it, and which are reproduced in the book (you don’t often see extensive mathematical formulae in a novel)
  • some of the terminology and phraseology: I was particularly struck by the way that the word lab, being a contraction of laboratory, is printed as ‘lab.’ throughout

Introduction to the star character, Professor Christopher Kingsley

So a group of astronomers in America notice that something is progressively blotting out stars in a particular part of the sky, while at the same time an amateur astronomer tips off the British Royal Astronomical Society that the orbits of the larger planets in the solar system seem to have shifted. Sceptical experts redo the observations and conclude that something massive is causing them to wobble.

At the meeting where these figures are first discussed we are introduced to the irascible figure of the Cambridge-based theoretical astronomer, Professor Christopher Kingsley, age 37, tall with thick dark hair and ‘astonishing blue eyes’, a man apart, who follows arguments to their logical conclusion no matter how unpopular, who gets cross with anyone slower on the uptake, and manages to be both highly intelligent and a figure of fun to his colleagues – and is without doubt the central character in the book.

All these chaps analyse the findings, draw formulae on blackboards, puff on their pipes and conclude that a cloud of unknown gas is going to engulf the Sun and Earth in about 17 months time. They estimate it will take about a month to transit past, during which time, if it blots out the heat from the sun, most animals on earth will die, along with most humans. Seeds in the soil should survive so the planet’s flora will kick off after the cloud has left.

As in Arthur C. Clarke, the pleasure comes from the scientific accuracy of the speculation at each stage of the narrative i.e. we eavesdrop while the American and British scientists discuss and interpret each new set of data and information as it comes in and then discuss the possible consequences. So one of the pleasures of the book is enjoying the temporary illusion that you are as clever as these top astronomers.

In these early pages Hoyle paints a stark contrast between the cultures of Britain and America. In Britain the astronomer royal visits Cambridge, where it is cold and damp and foggy and depressing – although the college fellows treat themselves to four-course dinners, and then sit by roaring fires drinking vintage wine.

By contrast, when Kingsley flies over to California to meet the astronomers there, he is hosted by astronomer Geoff Marlowe, who takes him for a drive out into the Mojave desert, then to a restaurant where they speculate about the forthcoming world-changing event – then onto a party at a rich property developer’s house, whence Kingsley goes on to a smaller, more intimate party where he tries to dance with a sexy broad, disapproves of American bourbon, doesn’t like the raucous music on the gramophone and generally comes over as an uptight limey. A dark-haired lady offers him a lift back to his hotel, but they go via her apartment where, since she’s forgotten her keys, he helps her break in, and he ends up spending the night

the contrast between big, rich, scenic, partyful and sexually promiscuous America, and cold, foggy, damp, austerity England where there don’t even appear to be any women, let alone loose women, couldn’t be more striking.

The scientists make a base in the Cotswolds

The book is full of what, to the modern reader, seem like all sorts of oddities and eccentricities. The American and British astronomers, over the course of a series of meetings, become convinced that an enormous cloud of gas is heading directly for the sun, though whether it is cold or hot, full of electrical or radioactive activity, or inert, they cannot say. If it’s hot it might boil the earth’s atmosphere way, killing all life. Even if it’s inert it will probably block the light from the sun, as described above, killing nearly all terrestrial life.

There are at least two oddities: one is the way they sit around in their Cambridge rooms, puffing their pipes and offering each other tea and biscuits while they speculate about the likely impact. The other is that both teams decide to conceal the fact from their respective governments. They think politicians will only interfere and cause panic.

In the event news does leak out to the civil service and the Home Secretary comes to meet Kingsley, who, deploying his ‘easy-going, insulting manner’ (p.128) is immensely rude and confrontational, telling him quite openly that he despises politicians and civil servants. We are then party to the Home Secretary reporting back to the Prime Minister and so on. It seems inconceivable that one man’s personal arrogance (Kingsley’s) can influence so much.

In the event a secretary to the PM, Francis Parkinson, comes up with the suggestion that the scientists be given their own research base to study the cloud, and Whitehall settles on the manor of Nortonstowe in the Cotswolds, a nice country mansion which the Ministry of Agriculture had just finished converting into a research centre for agriculture. It is co-opted for the astronomers. Kingsley is their undoubted leader and makes all kinds of demands as rudely as he can of the politicians.

The place us surrounded by military police, and servants rustled up from the nearby new housing estate, while Kingsley rounds up the best minds available and hounds the ministry into installing state of the art telescopes, photography equipment and so on (no computers). Kingsley makes the inexplicable demand that anybody who comes to Nortonstowe will not be allowed to leave. Thus the Whitehall aide, Parkinson, is inveigled into being stuck there, but Kingsley then pulls a deceitful trick by inviting a string quartet he knows from Cambridge to come and perform and, only on the morning after the performance, happening to tell them that, now they’re here, they won’t be able to leave.

Kingsley behaves like a cross between a dictator and a spoilt child and everyone has to put up with it because Hoyle makes him the great genius who knows or calculates or spots or thinks things through far faster than anyone else. The core of the novel is the dynamic between Kingsley and the small court of scientists he has assembled, including:

  • Geoff Marlowe the American
  • British astronomers Dave Weichart and John Marlborough
  • technicians Roger Emerson and Bill Barnett and Yvette Hedelfort
  • the woman leader of the string quartet Ann Halsey (who seems to spend her time making endless pots of coffee for the Big Brains around her and is on the receiving end of some breath-takingly sexist put-downs from Kingsley)
  • Knut Jensen from Norway via the States
  • Harry Leicester from the University of Sydney
  • John McNeil, a young physician, who ends up writing the prologue and epilogue to the narrative
  • and a Russian physicist who happened to be visiting Britain, Alexis Alexandrov, and soon becomes a comic figure because of his habit of speaking in extremely brief, pithy sentences, for example: ‘Gulf Stream goes, gets bloody cold’

Global devastation

Finally the cloud arrives and it is almost as an afterthought to the absorbing conversations between chaps puffing on their pipes and scribbling on blackboards, that Hoyle casually mentions the devastating impact it has on the rest of the human race. They thought the cloud would block the sun and cause a big freeze. They hadn’t anticipated that it would reflect the heat of the sun with increased force. Thus the world experiences unprecedented heatwaves.

Conditions were utterly desperate throughout the tropics as may be judged from the fact that 7,943 species of plants and animals became totally extinct. The survival of Man himself was only possible because of the caves and cellars he was able to dig. Nothing could be done to mitigate the stifling air temperature. The number who perished during this phase is unknown. It can only be said that during all phases together more than seven hundred million persons are known to have lost their lives. (p.120)

The really odd thing about the book, its most striking characteristic, is how the chaps at Nortonstowe carry on discussing theoretical physics and puffing on their pipes through it all. The vast rise in humidity led to atmospheric instability which led to an epidemic of wildly destructive hurricanes around the world. In fact the manor house at Nortonstowe is itself destroyed in one of these hurricanes and one of the astronomers, Jensen, killed.

All this was caused by heat reflected from the cloud. When the cloud itself begins to arrive and blot out the sun’s light and heat temperatures plummet. As Hoyle briskly summarises it:

Except in the heavily industrialised countries, vast legions of people lost their lives during this period. For weeks they had been exposed to well-nigh unbearable heat. Then many had died by flood and storm. With the coming of intense cold, pneumonia became fiercely lethal. Between the beginning of August and the first week of October roughly a quarter of the world’s population died. (p.127)

The scientists notice something strange and ominous. The cloud is slowing down. There is a great deal of scientific speculation about how it could do this which settles on the idea that it is sending out great pellets of ice which are acting like rockets to slow its velocity. Most vivid proof is when one of these enormous ice pellets hits the surface of the moon causing a massive spurt of moon dust which can be observed through earth telescopes. The cloud is slowing down and looks like stopping.

The Prime Minister pays a visit to what’s left of Nortonstowe (where things appear to be carrying on in the same civilised way, with tea and biscuits, despite the house itself having been wrecked) and tells Kingsley he’s pretty cross with the scientists. They said it would only occlude the sun for a month. It’s been there longer. Kingsley gets cross and says that’s because they have no idea what’s going on. Scientists aren’t gods, their knowledge is limited to what is known by observation, the cloud is a completely new phenomenon.

The cloud now does something else unexpected – it changes shape. It slowly changes from being a big amorphous cloud into the shape of a disk. This has the effect of allowing the earth to leave its shadow and emerge back into sunlight. Slowly humanity climbs out of its frozen caves to try and rebuild amid the ruins.

From a pure science point of view what sustains the book is that each stage of the cloud’s progress – from initial sighting through to enveloping the earth – the chorus of scientists Kingsley has assembled at Nortonstowe give voice to every possible interpretation of scientific possibilities. From one perspective the book is like a sequence of seminars on the successive stages of approach and envelopment by a gas cloud, which, altogether, cover a huge range of geographical and terrestrial phenomenon – the scientists discuss the possibility of global warming, global cooling, a new ice age, the atmosphere being heated until it boils, the entire atmosphere being torn away from the earth leaving it barren as the moon, the atmosphere freezing, and so on.

With the cloud now having completely halted and assumed a disc-like shape, and the earth having orbited out of its shadow, the astronomers have to tell the Prime Minister that it might become a new element of life on earth, that twice a year, in February and August, the earth will travel into the cloud and, for a few weeks, lose sun, warmth, life everything. It will be a completely new global condition.

Radio communication

There then follows a lengthy chapter which appears to be going off on a tangent. In preparation for the cloud arriving Kingsley had had the bright idea of installing not just telescopes and so on at Nortonstowe, but an array of the very latest radio equipment. This is because, in the coming disasters, he foresees that a centre of global information will be required. This chapter set out in minute detail the experiments with different wavelengths required to escape the interference caused by the cloud’s upsetting of the atmosphere. But during their experiments a pattern emerges: put simply, every time they change the wavelength, there is ionisation activity at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere which acts to neutralise it.

Kingsley astonishes the chaps by drawing a mad but logical conclusion: the cloud is blocking their radio transmissions; and if it is doing this no matter what wavelength they use, it must contain intelligent life.

Life in the cloud

Then there’s an interesting chapter devoted to the chaps arguing about how the cloud could possibly contain intelligent life and what form it could possibly take. Although Sir Fred Hoyle was the man who coined the expression Big Bang, he did it critically because he himself didn’t believe in the Big Bang theory i.e. that the universe had a definite beginning. Hoyle believed in the Steady State theory i.e. the universe has no beginning and will have no end. This chapter dramatises his theories of how intelligent life might have begun in vast gaseous clouds as electrical activity among groups of crystal molecules which formed on the surface of ice particles.

As routinely, throughout the book, the fact that half the earth’s population has just died, that agriculture and the environment have been devastated, economies ruined, ecosystems destroyed, are all completely ignored while a bunch of chaps sit around having a jolly interesting chat about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

Talking to the cloud

They make the decision to send regular pulses into the cloud as signs of intelligent communication. To cut a long story short, the cloud replies and within just a few days they are talking to the cloud. One of the technical johnnies rigs up a system whereby the electronic pulses the cloud sends back can be translated into words via one of those new-fangled televisions and, bingo! They can hear the cloud talk! And he speaks in exactly the tone of a jolly interesting Cambridge academic! This is the first message they hear from the cloud:

Your first transmission came as a surprise, for it is most unusual to find animals with technical skills inhabiting planets, which are in the nature of extreme outposts of life. (p.170)

One of the workers from the housing estate who had tended the gardens and tried to supply the scientists with fruit and veg through all the disasters, was a simple-minded gardener named Joe Stoddard. The technical johnny who rigs up the signals from the Cloud to come through a loudspeaker has, for a joke, used the voice pattern of Joe Stoddard. In other words, mankind’s first communications with the first intelligent extra-terrestrial life it’s encountered are translated into the phraseology of a Cambridge Common Room as expressed through the speech of a Gloucestershire peasant.As a result the scientists unanimously nickname the Cloud, ‘Joe’. Joe says this, Joe says that.

Joe proceeds to tell them all about himself. The universe is eternal and Joe thinks he has existed for some five hundred million years (p.178). He creates units of replicating life and seeds other clouds as he passes. Thus life is spread throughout the universe. He explains that intelligent life on planets is very rare for a multitude of reasons, for example the difficulty o gaining energy from surroundings by processing vegetable matter, and the thickness of skulls required to protect the brain militates against the brain growing in size. Plus the requirement of converting the intangible process of ‘thought’ – in reality a blizzard of electrical signals throughout the brain – into ‘speech’ i.e. the mechanical operation of jaw, lungs, vocal chords etc – a very primitive way to communicate.

This is fascinating and thought-provoking.

The hydrogen bombs

Back in the plot, word gets out to the politicians who are still running the governments of Britain, America and so on, that communication has been established with the Cloud. The governments insist on listening in on a ‘conversation’. This particular conversation is about human reproduction – sex – and its irrationality; it has to be irrational (love, lust) in order to overcome its very obvious pains and risks. The cloud opines that this may be why intelligent life on planets is so rare: the effort required for planet-borne life forms to communicate and to reproduce both tend to emphasise the irrational. Joe thinks the chances are humanity will over-populate the Earth and kill itself off.

After the ‘conversation’ is terminated, the conversation among the scientists continues with a few choice criticisms of politicians everywhere. Then one of the technicians points out that the politicians are still on the line. They have heard the scientists, particularly Kingsley, being as rude and dismissive of political interference as imaginable.

They then get a call from the American secretary of Defence to whom Kingsley is immensely rude and confrontational. When the Secretary threatens Kingsley, Kingsley foolishly replies that he can, with a few suggestions to Joe the Cloud, annihilate America if he wants to.

This seems tactless and rash even for Kingsley and the consequences are bad. As so often happens in 1950s Cold War sci-fi, the American and Russian governments decide the Cloud is a threat to their existence and launch missiles carrying hydrogen bombs at it.

The Nortonstowe scientists learn of this and warn the Cloud who is extremely cross, peeved wouldn’t be too strong a word. Kingsley explains that Earth is ruled by a variety of autonomous governments and that this decision has nothing to do with him or the other scientists. The Cloud announces he will simply return the missiles to their places of origin – with the result that El Paso and Chicago are wiped off the map, along with Kiev. About half a million people are vaporised.

In this, as in the reports of worldwide devastation, the really interesting thing is how offhand and disinterested Hoyle is about these, the melodramatic elements, of his story. Hundreds of millions die, hurricanes destroy the environment, H-bombs destroy American cities… but this is always forgotten whenever the chaps at Nortonstowe make a new discovery about the Cloud.

(And I never understood how Hoyle reconciles the fact that the entire manor house at Nortonstowe is destroyed in a hurricane with the fact that all the scientists carry on meeting in oak-panelled rooms, pouring each other cups of tea, puffing their pipes and discussing the various fascinating problems thrown up by the cloud. Where does all this happen? In a cave?)

The cloud departs

Then Joe the Cloud tells them that another cloud in the vicinity (i.e. hundreds of millions of miles away) has suddenly gone quiet. Joe tells us that this sometimes happens, none of the clouds know why. The clouds themselves are not omniscient. There are many aspects of the universe which are mysteries to them.

In the last few days before the cloud departs, our chaps ask it to tell them more about its vast knowledge. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

‘Now, chaps, this is probably one of our last chances to ask questions. Suppose we make a list of them. Any suggestions?’ (p.204)

Weichart volunteers to sit in front of a series of TV monitors hooked up by Leicester, the TV man, to the Cloud’s wavelength. The transmission begins and vast amounts of information leap across the screens. Slowly Weichart goes into a trance or hypnotised state. His temperature rises, he becomes delirious, he has to be dragged away from the screens to a bed, where he dies.

Then Kingsley announces he will do the same only they’ll ask the Cloud to transmit at a greatly reduced pace. Caring Ann tries to get the other scientists to persuade Kingsley not to do it. Obstinately he insists. He too sits in front of the monitors, his brain is bombarded, he goes into a fugue state, has to be dragged away and sedated. When the sedation wears off he looks deranged and then starts screaming. More sedatives. He dies of brain inflammation. The cloud simply knows too much for a human brain to process, although a couple of the scientists speculate that there might be a subtler reason: it could be that the Cloud not only overloaded his primitive brain with information but that what he learned was so at odds with human understanding, so completely contrary to all the scientific theories which Kingsley had devoted his life to, that he went mad.

Epilogue

A short epilogue explains the end of the affair. It is written by John McNeil fifty years later. He had been co-opted to Nortonstowe as a young physician and was an eye witness to all the key events and discussions. It was he who treated and failed to save Kingsley.

He now explains that the fact that the Cloud was intelligent and the entire course of all its discussions with humans, as well as the fact that it decided to move on out of the solar system, were kept hidden from the public, from the world. A handful of politicians and the tiny cohort in the Cotswolds knew but both decided to keep it secret, for their various reasons.

This text is therefore in the nature of being a bombshell for the human race.

Only now, fifty years later, is he revealing all in this long narrative, addressed to a young colleague of his Blythe. Why Blythe? Well, he’s a fellow academic, but another reason is that he is the grandson of Ann Halsey, the classical musician trapped at Nortonstowe and who – from a few dropped hints – we suspect had an affair with Kingsley while they were confined to the Cotswold mansion. So Blythe is Kinbgsley’s grandson as well (I think).

Now McNeil is leaving Blythe the full narrative of events and leaving it up to him whether to make the whole thing public. He also bequeaths him a copy of the punched card ‘code’ which Kingsley et al used to communicated with the Cloud. What he does with it now is up to him.

Comments

The science is fascinating, and takes on a whole new twist once we realise the cloud is intelligent. But from start to finish what should be appalling, epic events – unprecedented heat wave, blotting out of the sun and unprecedented freeze, death of quarter of the world’s population etc – take a firm back seat to detailed accounts of the conversations between the various chaps, led by the grotesque Kingsley – and these conversations are of such a 1950s, man-from-the-ministry, ornate style that it is really most frightfully difficult to work up the sense of awe or horror a science fiction novel should strive for. Instead one finds oneself more distracted by the Oxbridge and Whitehall Mandarin style of the dialogue than by the epoch-making events the book describes.

This is from the long conversation between secretary to the Prime Minister Parkinson and Sir Charles Kingsley at the latter’s rooms in his Cambridge college. We know they’re getting on because Kingsley offers Parkinson a second cup of tea, puts more logs on the fire, and then makes his demands of the British government thus:

‘I want everything quite clear-cut. First, that I be empowered to recruit the staff to this Nortonstowe place, that I be empowered to offer what salaries I think reasonable, and to use any argument that may seem appropriate other than divulging the real state of things. Second, that there shall be, repeat no, civil servants at Nortonstowe, and that there shall be no political liaison except through yourself.’
‘To what do I owe this exceptional distinction?’
‘To the fact that, although we think differently and serve different masters, we do have sufficient common ground to be able to talk together. This is a rarity not likely to be repeated.’
‘I am indeed flattered.’
‘You mistake me then. I am being as serious as I know how to be. I tell you most solemnly that if I and my gang find any gentlemen of the proscribed variety at Nortonstowe we shall quite literally throw them out of the place. if this is prevented by police action or if the proscribed variety are so dense on the ground that we cannot throw them out, then I warn you with equal solemnity that you will not get one single groat of co-operation from us. If you think I am overstressing this point, then I would say that I am only doing so because I know how extremely foolish politicians can be.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Not at all.’ (pp.83-84)

It’s a little like the end of the world as Ealing Comedy.

‘Would you like to talk to the first intelligent life from outer space that humanity has ever encountered, Charles?’
‘Oh, that’s frightfully kind of you, Algernon, but I was going to make a fresh pot of tea. Why don’t you take first dibs?’
‘Well, that’s jolly decent of you, old chap. Two lumps for me.’


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1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

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

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming (1964)

This is a strange and eerie tale about a ‘Garden of Death’ in remote and exotic Japan, so I liked it more than the straightforward adventure yarn of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, set in France and Switzerland.

As often, Fleming uses a simple but attractive structure for his tale, in this case dividing it into two parts: 1. ‘It is better to travel hopefully…’ 2. ‘… than to arrive.’

Plot summary

If Bond was hacked off in OHMSS (which began with him composing a letter of resignation from the Service), in this one he has lost all interest in not just his job, but life itself. Eight months have passed (p.24) since his wife, Tracy, was shot dead just hours after their marriage, by the dastardly Blofeld, and Bond has gone to pieces. He’s drinking heavily, not sleeping, missing appointments (to the anguished concern of his secretary, Mary Goodnight, and M’s PA, Miss Moneypenny). Bond has (not very believably) been sent on two missions during this period, both of which he’s ballsed up (p.22). Again he says he wants to resign (p.29).

M calls in the latest of umpteen nerve specialists, Sir James Molony (p.20) who says Bond needs to be shocked out of his gloom with a good tough mission, just like the last war forced so many people to stop dwelling on themselves and pitched them into challenging situations, which ‘cured’ them.

Cue M calling Bond in and giving him a rather peculiar mission. Turns out the Japanese secret service have been cracking Russian codes in the East (‘from Vladivostok and Oriental Russia’, p.30) and deciphering vital information about nuclear weapons testing, giving the system the codename MAGIC 44 (p.49). But they only share it with the CIA, not us. Bond’s mission is simple: go meet the head of the Japanese secret service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, and do whatever it takes to persuade him to secretly share their deciphered information with us (behind the backs of the CIA; maybe not that difficult as Tanaka is given a page-long speech expressing his dislike of American ‘culture’ and its revoltingly decadent exports, p.59).

Tanaka is a hard man. He gained a First in PPE (Politics, Philosophy, Economics) at Trinity College, Oxford, before the war – and so has a veneer of Western manners – but returned to Japan to join the military, becoming a member of the Kempeitai (‘their wartime Gestapo’), rising to be personal aide to Admiral Ohnishi before training as a a kami-kaze in the closing stages of the war, only saved by the abrupt nuclear end to the war from flying his plane into an American battleship (p.15). Now he has risen to the top of his country’s secret service, the Koan-Chosa-Kyoku and is a canny, sly, ironic operator.

Rather oddly, Bond will be posing as a member of the Australian secret services, under the guidance of the loud, drunk, profane head of Australia’s station in Japan, one Richard ‘Dikko’ Henderson. (‘Henderson looked like a middle-aged prize fighter who has retired and taken to the bottle’, p.37). This leads to a sequence of hard drinking nights in geisha bars, and a lot of background briefing on Japanese culture, politics and society, all presented as drunken rants by the colourful Dikko.

(At one point he makes a typically tipsy and grandiose reference to ‘brother Hemingway’, p.43 – the only use of the ‘brother X’ formula in all the Bond books – and I immediately thought of John le Carré, many of whose self-mythologising, grand-standing characters refer to others in their little circles as ‘brother’ this or that. Also, the hard-drinking, swearing, boorish ex-pat culture which Dikko represents reminded me of The Honourable Schoolboy, the overblown middle novel of le Carré’s ‘Karla’ trilogy, set among Hong Kong’s hard-drinking, boorish, ex-pat community.)

As so often, Fleming uses flashbacks to depict the various scenes outlined above and to give selected highlights of the month or so Bond has spent in Japan, steadily getting to like and respect Tanaka, which are all told from the position of the ‘now’ when the story proper begins.

‘Now’ is a lengthy sake-fuelled session lasting into the early hours, during which Tanaka finally states the terms of his deal. First a little background: He and his superiors have been dismayed by Britain’s decline and fall, by the speed with which she lost an empire and divested herself of her colonies, and then appalled at the fiasco of the Suez Crisis (1956). The long, apparently rambling conversation then wanders round to Japanese national characteristics and to the national fondness for suicide as an ‘honourable’ way out of various problems and of gaining face with family and ancestors. (Some 25,000 Japanese commit suicide every year and Tanaka is lavish in his praise of the rituals of seppuku, pp.70-73 [the current annual rate is 30,000, according to Wikipedia]).

In fact, Tanaka, goes on to explain, over the past year a strange sequence of events has occurred. Nearly a year ago a foreign scientist – Dr Guntram Shatterhand – and his wife, Frau Emmy (p.61) came to Japan, toured the country, then bought a derelict castle in the southern island of Kyūshū. From here they have imported every form of poisonous plant, tree, fish and insect known to man (spiders, scorpions etc) to create a ‘Garden of Death’. They gained permission from the Japanese authorities after promising to ultimately leave the garden to Japanese botanists, as well as to make available various rare poisons which Japanese scientists could use to experiment with cures and serums. (Fleming gives a four-page list of the poisonous species of tree, shrub and bush in the Garden, complete with Latin names and precise properties – pp.66-69).

But news of this intense ‘Garden of Death’ has leaked out to the general Japanese population with the result that depressed, unhappy, shamed or humiliated Japanese have been making their way there to kill themselves – to break into the ‘Garden of Death’, assured of being stung, bitten, grazed, poisoned or infected by any of the poisonous life forms in it. In the past year no fewer than 500 (!) Japanese have died in the Garden, despite Dr Shatterhand’s best attempts to put up security fences, employ security guards from Japan’s notorious Black Dragon Society (p.64), and so on.

The deal

‘So, Bond-san,’ Tanaka says. ‘My government is willing to share the secret Russian information we are intercepting – on condition you show your country still has pride, still has valour and that you enter the Garden of Death, uncover its secrets, render it harmless.’ In other words, kill Dr Shatterhand. No Japanese could do it, because the government would lose face if it failed. If Bond is caught or exposed, the government can claim he was a foreign agent (which he is).

Kill Dr Shatterhand and you get the secret information. Then Tanaka shows Bond photos and maps of Shatterhand’s hide-out on a remote coastal promontory, along with photos of the man himself and his wife. Bond is electrified: it is Blofeld, the wicked evil Blofeld who planned to detonate atom bombs in America in Thunderball and to decimate British agriculture in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and who, along with his squat ugly accomplice, Irma Bunt, shot dead Bond’s newly-wed wife, Tracy on the last page of the previous novel.

Bond had been hesitating before, about the propriety of assassinating a foreign national on foreign soil. Now his heart is set. Now it is personal. It is going to be revenge, pure and simple (p.115).

Turning Japanese

You Only Live Twice often reads like Fleming swallowed a guide book on Japan whole. There’s a friendly amount of cultural background on Jamaica, whenever Bond goes there; Fleming provides 2 or 3 page backgrounders to Saratoga races or Harlem or Las Vegas when Bond visits them in the States; half of From Russia With Love is set in Turkey which gives Fleming plenty of opportunity to describe Istanbul, Turkish food, customs and people: but none of the previous books has been so saturated with local colour as You Only Live Twice, which offers up guidebook facts and schoolboy explanations of Japanese history, customs and language on every page. Among many other things, we learn that:

  • samisen is a three-stringed musical instrument played at geisha parties
  • sake is Japan’s alcoholic spirit, to be drunk warm and, ideally, giving no outward sign that you are getting drunk
  • sumo wrestlers oil and massage their testicles from an early age so that, before a fight, they can retract them into their body cavity
  • bonsan means priest (p.54) so the Japanese can make a pun on Bond’s name, since it is polite to add san to the end of a name, thus Bond-san
  • futon is Japanese for bed
  • gaijin is Japanese for foreigner
  • tanka is a poem with 31 syllables
  • haiku is a poem of three lines and 17 syllables whose master was probably the 17th century poet, Basho (pp.100-101)
  • in Japan they don’t close doors to ensure security, they open all the doors and slender partitions in their houses so they can see that no-one else is eavesdropping
  • light switches go up, taps turn to the left, door handles likewise
  • samsara is a generic phrase for the good life, for wine, women and song
  • ‘All Japanese have permanent ON [a kind of moral/spiritual duty] towards their superiors, their Emperor, their ancestors and the Japanese gods.’ (p.42) The only way to discharge this burden of ON is to do the right thing, to behave ‘honourably’.
  • futsukayoi is an honourable hangover
  • four is an unlucky number in Japanese culture, as unlucky as 13 is for us in the West
  • According to Tanaka, the Japanese have no swearwords, which Bond finds hard to believe and gets him to explain at length (pp.83-84)
  • Food: Bond is astonished when the lobster he’s served begins to move – he is expected to eat it alive (p.89). He is similarly unimpressed at the fine strips of fugu, raw poisonous blowfish he is served later (p.104), or the bland and over-salty seaweed which comes with everything – although the raw beef he eats after meeting a farmer and massaging his cattle (!) does turn out to be the best steak he’s ever tasted (p.93). But he politely refuses a bowl of fresh bull blood when it is offered.

But for all the book’s immersion in Japanese culture, Fleming and Bond are still very sceptical and uneasy about the Japanese and their well-proven taste for the violent and the bizarre.

This suicide business in Japan is nothing more than a form of mass hysteria – an expression of the streak of violence that seems to run all through the history of Japan. (p.71)

It doesn’t change his mind when Tanaka gives a long and moving account of what inspired him to become a kami-kaze pilot on pages 87 to 89 – describing the excitement of dive bombing an American aircraft carrier, with detailed advice on where best to aim the plane (at the deck-top cranes and equipment). Tanaka makes it sound moving and heroic. Even worse is his eye-witness account of watching his boss, Admiral Ohnishi, commit ritual suicide by inserting a dagger in his belly and moving it from left to right and then upward to cut into the breast bone, all without flinching. Ohnishi in fact didn’t die of these self-inflicted wounds, but refused to move from his position and sat expiring for 24 hours. ‘A most sincere gesture of apology to the Emperor’ (p.89), Tanaka remarks.

Bond dislikes ‘the automatic, ant-like subservience to discipline and authority of the Japanese’ (p.152). Even the half-mad Blofeld is made to discuss ‘the profound love of horror and violence of the Japanese’ (p.134).

And the exaggerated politeness and stifling rituals get on his nerves. Bond becomes very exasperated at the never-ending bowing and sibilant hissing all the Japanese make from extreme politeness –

Bond had had about enough for one day. There weren’t many bows and smiles left in him, and he was glad when he was left alone… (p.85)

Bond hates having to sit on the floor in the lotus position until your knees are screaming with pain, and finds it impossible to sleep on an uncomfortable futon.

The isle of Kuro

Tanaka plans the operation with his lieutenants and Bond: the promontory with the Garden of Death is not far from a group of islands inhabited by the Ama, a self-contained tribe of Japanese who make a living diving for pearls in awabi or oysters (p.135). The divers tend to be lithe young women who often dive completely naked. They plan to dye Bond’s hair and skin to give him a Japanese complexion, then embed him in the little fishing village of Kuro, population 200 (p.121).

Travelling south Tiger takes him to visit a training camp for ninjas or ‘stealers-in’ (pp.93-98). Bond will be given a ninja black outfit, climbing rope and knife.

Here, Tanaka smirks broadly, Bond will be helped by the presence of one of the daughters of the community, Kissy Suzuki (p.113), a young girl who was talent spotted by roving Hollywood agents and went all the way to Hollywood to make a feature film, hated it, and has returned to the bosom of her family and community, but with a good working knowledge of English and of the Western mind-set.

So they travel down to the southern island, taking in various tourist sights along the way (the oldest whorehouse in Japan (p.99) taking the Murasaki Maru, a modern ocean liner to cross to Kyūshū (p.100). Here they meet the commissioner for police of Fukuoka, the administrative capital of the island. There are a few incidents along the way, most notable of which is when a stranger jostles Bond in the crowd and picks his pocket. Later they become aware of a motorcyclist who’s following their car. Tanaka orders the driver to ram the biker, who then puts up a fight and is killed. The body is found to have Bond’s wallet on him. Hmm – someone knows who Bond is and is paying hoods to trail his movements. Suspense!

Once again, Fleming gives a very persuasive description of this idyllic place and of his first sight of the simple fisher people. In the midst of this perilous mission and Bond’s personal trauma, Fleming is able to convey the sense that this is a ‘good place’, these are good people. You often come across these persuasive and powerful scenes in Fleming.

Bond is introduced to the smiling sardonic Kissy, her ancient parents and the local priest. For the next few days he goes pearl fishing with her, obviously attracted by her firm sexy body which wears just a g-string while diving, but Fleming also devotes pages explaining the diving technique, the lives and values of this community.

The idyllic setting makes Fleming relaxed and whimsical: he invents a pet for Kissy, a tame cormorant who she keeps tethered to a string, who dives with her and who she calls ‘David’ after the only person she met in Hollywood who respected her, the English actor David Niven.

This sequence climaxes rather beautifully when Kissy takes Bond to see the squat stone statues of the six Jizo guardians, the ‘Kings of Death’, old Buddhist gods who look over the island and its people, also known as ‘the Children of the Sea’ (p.136). Kissy prays devoutly to them for Bond’s safety and Bond finds himself making a prayer and then – in an astonishing moment – thinks he sees the one he prayed to nod its head. Nonsense! Just a trick of the gathering dusk. Pull yourself together man.

The Garden of Death

That night Bond slips into the ninja outfit Tanaka left him and Kissy accompanies him as he swims to the mainland setting of the ‘Garden of Death’ and the ominous, ruined Japanese castle at its centre.

Using his ninja grappling iron, Bond ascends the defensive wall, then steps carefully through the Garden, witnessing two Japanese who are killing themselves – one whose face and hands are hideously swollen by some plant poison and who blunders into the central pond where he is shredded by piranha, another who bows politely and walks down into one of the Garden’s stinking fumaroles or volcanic mudholes, voluntarily incinerating himself with a final shriek of agony (p.147). Bond finds a work shed and hides behind a big pile of sacking, eating and drinking a little, and waiting till dawn.

He is awoken by the sight of Blofeld dressed in medieval chain mail (as protection against all the poison) and Irma Bunt in a rubber suit with a beekeeper’s hat, strolling around their macabre domain. Bond is tempted to attack them there and then but the armour would be difficult to pierce and he has seen members of the violent Black Dragon Society roaming the Garden as security.

Inside the castle

Bond hides until night falls and then breaks into the castle. A couple of tense pages describe his faltering process up dark stone staircases, along deserted corridors etc, all eerily empty. Finally, he enters a corridor he saw a servant just leave and is half way along it when it swivels in the middle and tips him helplessly into a stone oubliette where he cracks his head very badly. He comes to being beaten around the face by some of the Black Dragon goons and then Blofeld intervenes.

These final scenes feel oddly disconnected: they’re gruesome enough but somehow lack conviction.

First of all it takes Blofeld, dressed incongruously in a silk kimono, a little while to realise that this intruder is in fact James Bond, come to kill him. Blofeld and Bunt take their captive to the ‘Question Room’. This turns out to be a stone throne Blofeld has built over one of the Garden’s many volcanic geysers. Bond is forced to sit on a toilet seat above a little hole up which a spurt of 1,000 degree-hot volcanic mud erupts every fifteen minutes. So Bond sits there as the minutes tick by till the next eruption, his flesh crawling as he imagines the devastating fiery impact incinerating his lower body.

Except that, oddly, Bond isn’t actually tied there and, a minute before the eruption, he simply gets up and strolls over to Blofeld and admits who he is – just as the volcanic mud squirts up the hole. So not that dangerous, really.

Even odder, Blofeld allows Bond to be escorted back to his ‘audience chamber’ and then dismisses his guard, relying on his own skill with a massive, razor-sharp samurai sword to keep Bond in check.

And now, he does what all the baddies do – conducts a long soliloquy in which he justifies all his wicked actions, insofar as they have roundabout beneficent results. And, as usual, this long rant gives Bond the opportunity to scope out the room and make a plan. As it draws to an end (‘and now to finish you for good, Mr Bond’) he makes a leap for a long wooden stave one of the guards had left leaning against a wall.

Bond a) clouts Irma Bunt in the head, knocking her out, then b) embarks on a long and tense fight withg Blofeld, the latter’s razor-sharp sword against Bond’s stave, with Blofeld steadily getting the upper hand, until Bond desperately throws himself at Blofeld, grabbing for his throat and, despite all blows, pummeling and biting, proceeding to strangle Blofeld to death, and to carry on choking and bludgeoning him long after he’s dead in a red mist frenzy.

Balloon escape

Bond comes out of his bloodlust daze and runs into the Question Room, using the machinery he saw to move a lid over the volcanic vent – that should block it up then cause quite an eruption! Back through the audience chamber and out onto the balcony, but it’s a sheer 100 foot drop to the ground, when he sees that a big balloon is tethered to the balcony balustrade. He tethers the loose rope round his body, then undoes the knot and – whoosh – is immediately lifted up into the air and moving away. Only at about this point does he become really bothered by the very painful throbbing in his head from the large bump he picked up when he fell into the oubliette. A few shots from the castle graze him as the Black Dragon goons realise he’s escaping before, suddenly, the entire castle shimmers, shakes and explodes with the force of the mini-volcano he had blocked. Cascades of boiling mud and then flames as various gas pipes etc rupture.

Bond clings to the rope as the balloon flies out over the sea, but the pain in his head is obliterating everything else and he can feel himself getting weaker and then, and then… He feels the rope slipping and passes out as he falls hundreds of feet into the sea below.

Amnesia with Kissy

If certain parts of the previous narrative had seemed disconnected and dreamlike, the final ten pages are unique in the Bond oeuvre for their strange and floaty feel. For Bond has complete amnesia. Impact with the sea completed what the heavy blow to his temple had begun, and he has completely forgotten who he is and what he does. Kissy and Bond had arranged that she would swim out to meet him every night, and so she sees his body fall from the balloon into the sea. But when she gets to him he doesn’t recognise her, doesn’t know what he’s doing in the sea.

Kissy’s heart sings as she realises she can make him hers forever, and she ferries him slowly in the rescue position back across the straight to Kuro, where she calls the village doctor, then fixes up with the village priest to tell the people to keep his presence a secret. While she tends his wounds and nurtures him back to health, the villagers stonewall a succession of visitors from the outside world, first Tiger, then British embassy officials. To all of them the villagers say they saw him depart, then the castle blew up, and they haven’t seen him since.

Far away in London, six months passes and the Service concludes Bond is missing presumed dead. M contributes an official obituary to The Times, in which we get a potted biography of Bond’s life, parents, upbringing and so on. But on the small island Bond is lovingly nurtured to health by Kissy and enjoys the simple healthy life of a pearl diver.

It may be a far-fetched comparison but a lot of this reminded me of Edmund Spenser’s Elizabethan epic poem, The Faerie Queene. In each of its six books a knight from the court of King Arthur sets out on a heroic Quest, encountering, battling and overcoming various allegorical figures along the way. By the sixth and final book, though, you can feel Spenser’s tiredness and are not surprised that, when Sir Calidore encounters a rural community living in complete equality, peace and harmony with its rural surroundings, the knight simply abandons his Quest and decides to live with them and enjoy pastoral simplicity and happiness.

In the last ten pages of You Only Live Twice, something similar happens and James Bond, cynical city slicker and worldly secret agent, forsakes his livelihood, forgets his raison d’etre and, tired and ill like his maker (Fleming was a sick man by the time the book was published in 1963), longs to become part of a simpler world, a healthier life, a place without conflict.

But will it last…?


Bond as Saint George

When Tanaka offers him the challenge, he puts it in Arthurian medieval form: ‘you are to enter this Castle of Death and slay the Dragon within.’ (p.78) Similarly, when Bond realises Shatterhand is Blofeld, he not only declares it is now a matter of personal revenge – he says: ‘It was ancient feud’ (p.116). ‘Ancient’? Hardly. His wife was murdered 9 months earlier. Calling it ‘ancient’ is part of the process of giving Bond a mythic, archetypal overtone.

Later Tiger says: ‘Does it not amuse you to think of that foolish dragon dozing all unsuspecting in his castle while St George comes silently riding towards his lair across the waves?’ (p.119)

In The Spy Who Loved Me Fleming had the female lead, Viv Michel, refer to Bond several times as her knight in shining armour, as her Sir Galahad, and Thunderball contained references to St George. It doesn’t especially deepen the pleasure of reading the books, but it is an indicator of the kind of quest-like, rather simple-minded Victorian-medieval hero worship, which is one thread underpinning the texts.

Visions of paradise

It’s only a paragraph or two, but as Bond arrives at the island community of Kuro he is struck by how it seems to be one of the world’s good places.

It was a pretty scene, with the delicate remoteness, the fairyland quality of small fishing communities the world over. Bond took an immediate liking to the place, as if he was arriving at a destination that had been waiting for him and that would be friendly and welcoming. (p.120)

Fleming’s writing conveys a genuine sense of peace and tranquility. It has several times before, especially in Jamaica or when he was in the hotel in Istanbul looking out over the Bosphorus at sunset. But here the setting has the added fairy tale element which threads strongly through the book.

At that moment, it all seemed to Bond as the world, as life, should be, and he felt ashamed of his city-slicker appearance, let alone the black designs it concealed. (p.123)

This ability to perceive and respond to natural beauty, and to find a refreshing innocence and loveliness in it, is one of Fleming’s most appealing features.

Male camaraderie

Bond may be a figure of male fantasy fulfilment in a number of obvious ways (easily available women, fast cars, tough fights which he always wins). One of the under-reported ones is his male friendships.

There’s the deep, abiding warmth of his father-feeling for M (‘James Bond felt a quick warmth of affection for this man who had ordered his destiny for so long’, p.32).

There’s the buddy-buddy act with his CIA pal Felix Leiter, who appears in no fewer than six of the novels and allows Fleming to let rip with pulp American slang and indulge Bond’s boyish bantering side.

There are the one-off friendships, forged in the intense closeness of a dangerous mission would include the elemental life force of Darko Kerim (From Russia With Love), the wise and clever Marc-Ange Draco (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and in this novel, the canny clever ex-kamikaze pilot Tiger Tanaka, owner of a ‘formidable, cruel, samurai face’ (p.14).

All three are elemental figures of masculinity, rooted in foreign cultures untouched by Western norms or political correctness; they have very dubious morals or pasts (Darko involved in various scams against the Russians, Draco the head of the Corsican mafia ie a dyed-in-the-wool criminal, and Tiger with his unapologetic devotion to the kami-kaze ideal); and all three smile big grins every time they explain another outlandish custom, extravagant scam or unacceptable piece of behaviour.

There is an elemental male aspect to their bonding; but there is also naughty schoolboy japery as well.


Credit

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming was published in March 1964 by Jonathan Cape. Fleming died in August the same year.

All quotes and references are to the 1965 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1964

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

To Catch A Spy edited by Eric Ambler (1964)

Seven short stories about spies, selected and with a genial introduction by Eric Ambler, who gives a useful summary of the spy genre from the turn of the century up to the early 1960s:

  • the late-19th century background of Sherlock Holmes/Rider Haggard popular adventure yarns
  • then suddenly the first classic spy novel, The Riddle of The Sands (1903)
  • the unexpected and not at all thriller-ish The Secret Agent (1907) by literary novelist Joseph Conrad
  • a flood of popular spy novels by the prolific William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • then the sequence of five Richard Hanny novels by John Buchan (1915-1936) raising the tone
  • overlapping with the proto-fascist Bulldog Drummond stories by ‘Sapper’
  • the standout early spy novel of them all, Ashenden (1928) by Somerset Maugham
  • the comic spy novel The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie
  • then Graham Greene’s secret agent novels of the 1930s – A Gun For Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear
  • overlapping with Ambler’s own six great thrillers set in the murky eastern Europe of the late 1930s
  • the hiatus of the war
  • then the explosive rise of Ian Fleming (first Bond novel 1953)

Writing in the early 1960s Ambler is unaware that the release of the early Bond movies (Dr No, From Russia With Love) would spark a spy boom, including Len Deighton’s fabulous Ipcress File novels (1962-67), the comic strip adventures of freelance agent Modesty Blaise (1965), the Quiller spy novels of Adam Hall (debut 1965), the ‘agent’ novels of Alistair MacLean, the arrival on the scene of Desmond Bagley who wrote spy novels in the early 1970s, and the most enduringly successful of English spy novelists, John le Carré (first novel 1961). Many of these novels were filmed very soon after publication to create a tidal wave of spy books and movies throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Spies went from being a minority pulp interest to becoming big money literary and Hollywood genres.

Ambler is no scholar but you can’t fault his opinions:

  • The Riddle of the Sands ‘one of the finest books about small sailing-craft ever written.’
  • ‘Although, on the whole, Buchan’s spy stories achieved a higher level of reality than those of Oppenheim, and were certainly better written, they had peculiar defects. His spy-heroes were mostly hunting-shooting-fishing men who went about their work with a solemn, manly innocence which could lapse into stupidity.’
  • Ashenden ‘is the first fictional work on the subject by a writer of some stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about.’

The short stories

The Loathly Opposite by John Buchan (21 pages) Buchan’s pukka heroes – Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and others – are sitting round jawing when one of them, Pugh, remembers his World War I work supervising codebreakers who struggled to crack the work of one particularly fiendish German coder and how, years later, recovering from war nerves, it turns out the mild-mannered German doctor treating him at a sanatorium is one and the same coder. Well, well.

Giulia Lazzari by Somerset Maugham (56 pages) One of the short stories which make up Maugham’s masterpiece, Ashenden (1928). In his frigid, well-mannered prose the narrator describes being given a mission by his controller, R. A dangerous Indian nationalist and terrorist, Chandra Lal, has fallen (improbably) in love with a travelling Italian entertainer-cum-prostitute who performs as an ‘exotic’ Spanish dancer, known as Giulia Lazzari. She’s been arrested in England and is being sent under guard to the French border with Switzerland because Chandra is in Switzerland.

Ashenden’s mission is to keep her under arrest and coerce her into persuading her lover, Chandra, to cross the border into France where he can be quickly arrested by the authorities, who can’t touch him in neutral Switzerland. Ashenden politely but implacably wears Guilia down until she consents to write the fateful letters asking her lover to join her. The whole affair ends squalidly when, cornered in a waiting room of the ferry by which he’s crossed the lake into France, Chandra swallows poison and dies immediately. As promised, Ashenden gives the broken Giulia the papers she requires to travel to Spain, and feels degraded.

The First Courier by Sir Compton Mackenzie (79 pages) Broad good-natured comedy. Year two of the Great War and Roger Waterlow is a naval officer, fed up with acting as intelligence officer in an unnamed boiling hot city (unnamed but obviously in Greece). He has a fat incompetent number two, a dodgy Cockney driver, a boss (Captain X) back in London who ignores his pleas to be transferred, and a clutch of comedy French diplomats to deal with.

Just as remarkable as the many genuinely amusing comic scenes, is Mackenzie’s often weirdly  convoluted prose, which maybe explains why he’s so little read today.

His own reward would be the Légion d’Honneur, the scarlet ribbon of which would seem to a little man so fond of dark habiliments and obscure subterranean trafficking a whole world of vivid colour. (1984 Bodley Head large print edition p.124)

The French Naval Attaché waved cordially to Waterlow as he mounted his car where, so full of nervous energy was he in repose, he seemed to flutter in the hot breeze like the spruce little tricolour on the bonnet, himself in that huge Packard like the flag a miniature emblem of his country. (p.130)

I Spy by Graham Greene (5 pages) A young boy sneaks down into his father’s tobacconist’s shop after dark to nick a packet of cigarettes and smoke a crafty fag. Approaching footsteps make him hide under the till from where he hears the conversation between his father and two official-seeming men, as his father scoops ups some packets and grabs his coat before going away with them. He appears to have overheard his father being arrested by police… Only a spy story in the broadest sense of the word ‘spy’, in which almost anyone overhearing anyone else hidden in a closet could be said to be ‘spying’.

Although famous for the variety of exotic locations for his fiction, I’m not the first to point out that Greene’s mind and imagination were often very mundane and humdrum.

Belgrade 1926 by Eric Ambler (31 pages) A chapter from The Mask of Dimitrios, which many consider Ambler’s best novel from the six he wrote before World War II, considered by most critics to be his finest period. It is an episodic novel about a writer’s quest to track down a legendary criminal, Dimitrios, which takes him across Europe to meet various people who knew Dimitrios and who describe key episodes from his life – hence the text is so easy to divide into sections.

In this excerpt the writer, Charles Latimer, writes to his Greek informant describing a long encounter with ‘G’, a spymaster in Eastern Europe, now based in Geneva. Working for Italy, G organises a scam to blackmail an official in the Defence Ministry in Belgrade to bring him charts of the marine minefields Yugoslavia is laying down in the Adriatic. G hires Dimitrios to act the part of playboy, and between them they flatter the clerk and his wife with high living and promises of big jobs until they lure them into a casino, where they arrange for them to lose a fortune. Thus, in fear of being exposed, of losing his job and going to prison for debt, the clerk is persuaded to steal the charts for a night and bring them to Dimitrios who will photograph them.

The clerk brings the charts, alright but unfortunately Dimitrios double crosses G, demands the photos of the charts at gunpoint, before going off to sell them to the French embassy. G has no choice but to inform the Yugoslav authorities, who promptly change their minefield arrangements, arrest the clerk and sentence him to life imprisonment. Dimitrios disappears. G concludes his business and leaves town.

You can see how, in Ambler’s hands, the spy story is more about betrayal and double crossing than glamorous adventures. That is how he made his name, moving the genre decisively away from the schoolboy heroics and naive patriotism of Buchan and Sapper into the amoral modern world – where it has firmly stayed ever since.

From A View To A Kill by Ian Fleming (40 pages) A motorcycle courier riding from NATO to SHAPE headquarters is assassinated by an identically-dressed motorbike courier, who takes the wallet full of battle plans and disappears. James Bond is staying overnight in Paris en route back to London from a bodged job in Hungary. He is ordered into going along to SHAPE HQ to help out the investigation and is not welcomed because SHAPE has its own security service and can do without the British Secret Service’s interference, thank you very much.

Bond pricks up his ears when casually told about the gypsies who camped in the forest during the winter. He goes and stakes out the gypsies’ old camp, which is when he sees the high-tech doors to the secret Russkie base open up and three men bring out the motorbike the assassin must have used. Next day Bond impersonates the daily courier and entraps the baddie into following him, but shoots first and kills him, then takes his team of four agents to capture the remaining men in their underground base. This leads to a shootout and Bond is rescued by the rather sexy woman agent who collected him from his hotel at the start of the story. Mmm. ‘Will you have dinner with me tonight?’ ‘Of course, commander.’ Perfectly, effortlessly entertaining.

On Slay Down by Michael Gilbert (24 pages) Never heard of Gilbert but this is arguably the best short story in the book. Two elderly middle-aged men, friends from the first war and both in ‘the Service’, discuss the need to assassinate a woman secretary who – investigations show – has been passing information to the enemy.

One of them, Calder, drives out to the fake rendezvous they’ve arranged between her and her contact, arrives way before her and sets up shop with a rifle. She arrives, gets out her car and he is about to shoot her when an Army lorry appears and the driver starts taking pot shots at rabbits. Smiling, Calder waits for the soldier to shoot and instantly fires, as if an echo, killing the woman. He packs up and leaves.

However, the two men running this grim project are puzzled that, by a few days later, the body has still not been found or reported. They track down the identity of the soldier, an officer, who was driving the lorry and nearly interrupted Calder’s assassination. Turns out he is now leading a small exercise in the same area.

Calder, obviously with the blessing of higher authority, dresses up as a senior officer in the man’s regiment and confronts the soldier in his tent. There can be only one explanation – the soldier must have found the body and, thinking he’d killed a harmless civilian, buried her. So, asks Calder: ‘Where did you bury her?’ The soldier’s first reaction is to reach for his pistol, but he thinks better of it and admits everything. In fact, he buried her on the very spot where their tent is pitched; he was horrified to find an exercise was planned for the same area and made sure he got there first and pitched tent above the grave. At which point Calder reveals his identity and… offers him a job in the Service. As he later recounts to his partner, over their evening game of backgammon.

‘He realised that he wouldn’t be able to get his gun out in time, and decided to come clean. I think that showed decision, and balance, don’t you?’
‘Decision and balance are most important,’ agreed Mr Behrens. ‘Your throw.’

Like the Bond, despite a spot of killing, this is essentially a comic story, slick and clever. Ambler, in his introduction, says it could have been retitled ‘On Slay Down, or the Recruitment of 008‘.

First sentences

Burminster had been to a Guildhall dinner the night before, which had been attended by many – to him – unfamiliar celebrities. (Buchan)

Accurately conveys Buchan’s milieu of upper-class, professional men who, however, are Country not Town; hunting, shooting, fishing types who mix with the rich but don’t know much about corrupt city ways, about this art or literature malarkey, dontcha know. Hence the importance of the ‘- to him -‘ clause. The hero is high-born – but pure.

Ashenden was in the habit of asserting that he was never bored. (Somerset Maugham)

Not only portraying the lofty detachment of Ashenden, the fictional writer-spy, but Maugham’s own enjoyably seigneurial tone.

It was hotter than ever in the city of South-East Europe some time round about the second anniversary of the war. (Mackenzie)

Sets the tone of complaint, one aspect of the Mackenzie’s comedy about the unhappy Naval officer forced to become a spy in this feverishly hot Mediterranean location and constantly moaning about mosquitoes, the awful food and the absurd machinations of the local French officials.

Charlie Stowe waited until he heard his mother snore before he got out of bed. (Greene)

Indicates the mundane banality of Greene’s settings and the flat, colourless tone of his prose. Why is he so famous, then? Due to his gimlet-eyed focus on seediness and loss, deception and guilt.

My dear Marukakis, I remember that I promised to write to you to let you know if I discovered anything more about Dimitrios. (Ambler)

Obviously the Ambler story’s format of a letter dictates the tone a bit, but this opening is nonetheless strongly indicative of Ambler’s good humour and amiability. His novels are excellent company.

The eyes behind the wide black rubber goggles were cold as flint. (Fleming)

You can immediately see the change in tone: Most of the preceding stories (with the exception of Greene’s cold-eyed heartlessness) have exuded chaps-in-the-club-with-a-cigar bonhomie. Fleming introduces pure physical excitement, a foretaste of the sadism, sex and shiny gadgets his novels delight in and which made him the most successful spy writer of all time.

‘The young man of to-day,’ said Mr Behrens, ‘is physically stronger and fitter than his father.’ (Gilbert)

Rather suave, man-of-the-world savoir faire of two older male friends discussing their professional interests ie security, spying and agents.

Conclusion

Of these seven texts the Maugham, Mackenzie and Ambler are in fact chapters from longer works. Maybe there aren’t (or there weren’t in 1964) that many good spy short stories.

Related links

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of their plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

A Kind of Anger by Eric Ambler (1964)

Mid-winter. A car comes hurtling down the drive of a remote villa near Zurich, crashes into a passing lorry, and screeches away. When police investigate they discover the place has been ransacked and the body of an exiled Iraqi soldier, Colonel Arbil – shot three times. New York-based magazine, World Reporter, tells its Paris office to get someone to investigate and the only man available is Piet Maas, a freelance Dutch journalist. He is not popular. A few years previously, a highbrow magazine he’d set up went bankrupt with big debts and he tried to kill himself. (Nobody knows that on the same day he found his girlfriend in bed with another man.) The driver of the hit & run car is identified as Lucia Bernardi, the colonel’s mistress. Now she’s missing and Interpol issue an alert for her whereabouts.

The New York office of World Reporter is contacting its Paris branch because it has a new tip about the name of a man Lucia used to hang round with – one Patrick Chase, also known as Philip Sanger. Acting on this, Piet travels to the south of France where he discovers that Sanger used to operate cons on rich older men with Lucia as the dollybird/bait, but she left him after she fell in love with the Colonel. Sanger, along with his wife Adèle, had been wisely investing the proceeds from his cons in a property portfolio around the south of France. When Lucia fled the scene of the murder in Zurich she turned to them for help and they’ve been hiding her in their empty properties.

It takes about half the novel for Piet to find the Sangers, arrange a meeting and then slowly gain their confidence. Eventually, they arrange for him to meet Lucia and her story is: Colonel Arbil was at the centre of a web of Kurdish exiles working for a Kurdish independent nation. One night she was in the bedroom at the villa when she heard male voices and sounds of violence. She hid. More noises, as of the place being turned upside down. Then screams. Then shots. She carried on hiding till she was sure the intruders had left, then ran down to the garage, jumped in the car, and fled.

Who was it? Might be assassins working for the Iraqis, or the result of some inter-Kurdish rivalry, or maybe even the Western oil companies who don’t want to see the oil fields around Kirkuk and Mosul nationalised by a Kurdish state.

When Piet reports back to the Paris office they say they want the full story, including details of Sanger and his history of scams and property dealing. Piet had expressly promised to leave him out. Therefore, confirming his boss’s opinions of him as a rubbish reporter, he gives them the Lucia material then quits. His boss says he’s coming south and calling up freelancers to track him down and find out what he’s hiding.

Maas checks into a new hotel under a false name. He is now, in effect, on the run from his former employer. In the meantime, his path had crossed a certain Monsieur Skurleti at the Cannes mairie, who was also looking for properties registered to Sanger: is he the financial investigator he claims to be, or working for more sinister forces? Piet promises to sell him the list of properties he had made when initially tracking Sanger, for a stiff fee – but also in order to keep in touch with Skurleti and find out who he’s working for.

Part two

The second half of the novel, therefore, feels like a game of three-dimensional chess, as Piet arranges secret meetings, holds late-night phone calls, moves between safe houses and uses false names as he juggles his relations with the Sangers (who he promised to keep safe), Lucia (who he quickly realises isn’t telling him the whole truth), his editor and freelancers (who threaten to blow the whole thing wide open), and Skurleti (whatever his agenda is).

These complications are doubled when he has a further interview with Lucia at which he realises what is really going on. She’d mentioned that she escaped from the villa with her clothes and a suitcase full of papers. Now he learns this is the main reason she gave him the interview – she wanted the key fact about having the suitcase to appear in the magazine as an advert to people who want to buy the papers.

And to explain why, she reveals more: The colonel belonged to a committee of Kurds pledged to fighting for a free and independent Kurdistan. Slowly, he realised a faction of the committee was planning uprisings with Russian support in Kurdish cities across the region, against the express wishes of the majority of its members. The colonel had inveigled himself into this plot and taken detailed notes. These notes are in the suitcase Lucia escaped with. It is potentially wanted by:

  • the dissident Kurds on ‘the Committee’
  • the mainstream Kurdish independents
  • the Iraqi security services
  • representatives of the ‘Italians’, an Italian oil consortium which has expressed an interest in stepping into the Iraqi oil business dominated by British and American companies, and giving the Kurds a better cut of the profits, if their uprising succeeds

Skurlati turns out to be an agent working on behalf of ‘the Committee’. Meanwhile, Lucia tells Piet that the colonel had been expecting the arrival of an emissary of the Iraqi government who also wanted the papers, a certain Brigadier Farisi. Possibly the burglars arrived, ransacked and tortured Arbil to find the notes precisely because they knew Farisis was about to arrive.

Final third

Piet and Lucia are now on the run from quite a few people and spend a good deal of time devising complex plans to sell some or all of the secrets to multiple buyers. She hands over the planning and running of the scams to Piet who comes up with some byzantine schemes. The fundamental decision they take is to sell copies of the notes to two different and opposed buyers: to Skurleti, representing ‘the Committee’, but also to Brigadier Farisi, representing the Iraqi government.

Piet has to make plans to see each of them, show them a taster of the notes at a safe place, make follow-up calls to negotiate a fee, then arrange a second meeting at another safe place to hand over the papers – without being observed by the police, by his newspaper manager and colleagues, but most crucially, by representatives of the other sides, especially the killers of Colonel Arbil who are still at large.

They have some fierce arguments but, at one particular moment of triumph & relief, find themselves kissing and going to bed together. However, having seen how clever and manipulative Lucia has been with other men, the reader is constantly wondering how much she is using Maas. Will she dump him? Or worse?

There is a law or rule at work that, the more tense the events become, the more carefully and precisely Ambler describes them. There is a hair-raising scene towards the end where Lucia and Piet creep up to the house she’s been using earlier in the summer and where she had carefully hidden the suitcase of notes behind lots of clutter, in the garage. They are actually in the garage, rummaging about when they hear male voices from the terrace above them and Lucia realises it is the men who tortured and murdered Colonel Arbil. Suddenly, the precise layout of the garage, the steps down to it from the terrace, the distance to the nearest outcrop of shrubs where they can hide, become terribly important.

Enjoying Eric

Eric’s novels definitely split into two groups, pre-War and post-War. Contrary to received opinion, I prefer the post-War ones. The pre-War ones definitely convey a sense of intrigue and menace in murky East European countries as the Continent hurtles towards War. They have a very 1930s vibe, like an old black and white movie filmed at night, the characters wearing thick overcoats with the lapels turned up, hats pulled down, revolvers appearing in the hands of sinister foreigners. But they are generally advertised as great spy novels and are often a bit disappointing in this respect, more often being about innocent Brits abroad who go on the run from political intrigues they’ve blundered into. Not spies, in our modern sense, at all. Just a strong political angle or edge to the plots.

Urbane The post-War ones are much more relaxed and cosmopolitan. Eric is charming company. There is a tremendous urbanity of tone and worldly wisdom. He knows his way around the world. Here is a man at home in Paris, Athens, Istanbul and Geneva, in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, familiar with the language, the customs, the food, the police, the local politics.

Bureaucratic procedure And also familiar with how the world works: the dominant feature of most of the post-War novels is a strong interest in bureaucratic procedures.

  • Most of The Schirmer Inheritance is about the arcane complexities of American inheritance law, before it becomes a detailed investigation of German genealogical archives.
  • Much of Passage of Arms is concerned with the legal niceties of freight forwarding between Far Eastern ports, and it’s fufilling what appears to be a minor technical requirement that unfortunately leads the protagonist into sudden outburst of guerrilla violence.
  • The Light of Day is ostensibly about a jewel robbery in Istanbul, but the plot actually turns on highly technical points surrounding Arthur Simpson’s nationality which lead to his Egyptian passport being out of date which leads to him being searched by Turkish authorities which leads to him being blackmailed into becoming a whistle blower inside the jewel thieves’ gang.

Ambler’s way with technical, administrative and bureaucratic niceties is central to the novels’ workings. And you have to pay attention to the details because at any point one of them may turn out to be the hinge of the plot.

This may sound dry but it isn’t. Most novels (for example, Graham Greene’s) are about the characters’ feelings. Events are selected, confrontations engineered, dramatic scenes manufactured, in order for characters to ‘grow’ and ‘mature’ and, along the way, the reader is also meant to grow in wisdom and understanding of human nature. That is the traditional defence of the novel as an art form.

Eric Ambler’s novels are much closer to real life as most of us experience it, ie there is not so much spiritual growth and gaining of wisdom. Instead, most of us do work which involves handling webs of information which need to be processed and managed. Most adults have to spend a fair amount of time filling in forms, answering letters, paying bills, arranging car hire or hotel rooms or train tickets or deliveries or receipts, worrying about expenses, handling paperwork, making innumerable plans and arrangements. That’s exactly what the characters in Ambler’s post-War novels do – only with the added pressure of doing so while evading the authorities of several countries, being on the run from killers or handling illegal arms or state secrets.

Title

When he quits the magazine, his editor at World Report asks him if the decision is motivated by the same self-destructiveness which led to his suicide bid or ‘a new kind of anger’? Later, in conversation with Sanger, Piet claims he’s angry, not at himself or his boss, but at the people who are terrifying the beautiful Lucia with whom, without quite realising it, he is falling in love.

However, it is only at the end of the novel that Sanger redefines the title. He says his and Piet’s earlier theory that Piet was motivated by a new kind of anger, was all wrong. It isn’t really anger at all, and certainly not new. It is simply that Piet has discovered his métier as a crook.

‘I thought I knew what made you tick. “A new kind of anger,” I said. How wrong I was! Your kind of anger is as old as the hills. You’ve just bottled it up all these years – just like the man who becomes a policeman instead of a crook. Or is that sublimation? It doesn’t matter. The point is that you have a taste for larceny. It agrees with you. Therapy!’ He started to giggle. ‘Instead of giving you all those shock treatments, you know what they should have done? They should have sent you out to rob a bank!’ (Fontana 1976 paperback edition, p.206)

Ambler had been writing novels for 30 years by this stage. But these two novels from the 1960s seem to breathe a new atmosphere. The last one from the 1950s, Passage of Arms (1959), had (for the most part) a light, quirky Ealing comedy feel (although populated by Indians, Chinese and Americans rather than bumbling Brits). But Light of Day and Anger are suddenly sassy. They are good-humoured heist stories in which the amoral protagonists triumph. They have a similar cheeky-chappy vibe as the movie The Italian Job (1969). They feel like they’re in colour. Piet and Lucia take on the police, his employers, hired hitmen and foreign agents, and end up driving into the sunset with a small fortune, leaving the reader with a big smile on their face.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of A Kind of Anger

1970s Fontana paperback edition of A Kind of Anger

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Funeral In Berlin by Len Deighton (1964)

‘What I’d like is an interest-free loan of eight hundred quid to buy a new car’, I said.
Dawlish gently packed tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with a match. He put the pipe into his mouth before looking up at me.
‘Yes,’ he finally said.
‘Yes I want it or yes I can have it?’ I said.
‘Yes, everything they say about you is true,’ said Dawlish. ‘Go away and let me work.’ (Chapter 13)

Funeral In Berlin, the third novel of the Ipcress File tetralogy, strikes me as being more relaxed and funnier than its predecessors.

‘Do you ever imagine what it would be like to be on the moon?’ Sam said.
‘Nearly all the time,’ I said. (Ch 15)

The humour works better and the disconnected, angular style is, initially at least, less impenetrable than in The Ipcress File. Several times I even thought I knew what was going on.

‘I never joke, Chico. The truth is quite adequately hilarious.’ (Ch 13)

Street smart

Just slightly pre-Swinging Sixties, when people still talked about ‘beatniks’ and hang out in Soho coffee bars and the most raucous sounds seem to come from loud jazz. A world where the nameless narrator is keen to demonstrate his street smarts, his cool, his savvy.

Charlotte Street runs north from Oxford Street and there are few who will blame it. By mid-morning they are writing out the menus, straining yesterday’s fat, dusting the plastic flowers and the waiters are putting their moustaches on with eyebrow pencils. (Ch 13)

The colour and detail of ‘pads’ which are about to feature in colour supplements about Jean Shrimpton or Burt Bacharach.

I walked into the lounge. It was about thirty foot of ankle-high carpeting from silk wall to silk wall. The cocktail cabinet was in the corner. I opened it and was socked in the head by pink neon. (Ch 14)

And yet, as I’ve noted before, the cool of Deighton (b. 1929) is combined with what later generations, or even the Beatles generation (b.1940) would think of as still very high-brow intellectual pursuits: when he wines and dines the sexy American girl he’s picked up – or who’s picked him up – they agree to go to a concert at the South Bank of Charles Ives, Berg and Schoenberg. In fact the Schoenberg piece – Variations for Wind band – appears three times, in different places, like a leitmotiv.

Security Service savvy

Deighton does a very good job indeed of conveying how we imagine the Security Services to actually be ie a pettifogging bureaucratic cross between the Army and the Civil Service, snowed under with paperwork, fussing about pay and pensions and expenses, thrilling to little perks like luxury lunches at the club – except that the petty jealousies and rivalries which plague all bureaucracies in this context overlap with very real plots and conspiracies to frame each other (as in Ipcress) or to hamstring each other’s projects to double-cross or treble-cross the Russian or German or Israeli secret services.

Textual apparatus

The security savviness is reinforced by more of the elaborate apparatus surrounding the text that was deployed in Ipcress and Horse Under Water:

  • each short chapter has a date stamp (eg Berlin, Monday, October 7th)
  • plenty of footnotes explicating obscure Security Service or military practice, 18 in the first 60 pages alone
  • half a dozen appendices at the end of the text giving longer explanations of key aspects
  • as Ipcress File had horoscopes at the head of each chapter, so each of Funeral‘s 52 chapters has an epigraph which is a rule or tip about chess. I play chess pretty well so was mildly interested in some of them, but they added nothing to my enjoyment and, as far as I could see, nothing to the meaning of the story so, like the horoscopes, I learned to ignore them

The plot

The same unnamed, first-person narrator from The Ipcress File, same boss – Dawlish – as in Horse, same secretary and staff in the same dingy Charlotte Street office. He’s in and out of Cold War Berlin handling the defection of a Russian scientist, Semitsa, reputedly an expert on enzymes, the deal being arranged by their Berlin fixer and chancer, Johnnie Vulkan.

Slowly it appears this is a red herring and the plot is really about the legacy of the war, about the fate of a German murderer who was in a concentration camp during the Nazi era and who has survived into post-War Berlin, although wanted by both the Communists and the Israelis.

The progress of the plot and of the Narrator’s efforts are closely monitored by the Russian General Stok, who pops up throughout the book, initially hinting that he himself wants to defect and that Semitsa’s passage will be a dry run for him; later, coming clean that he just wants to keep an eye on everything. Stok is a broadly comic character, permanently making toasts with vodka and caviare, engaging in witty banter with the wryly understated Narrator. Though there are a couple of sinister moments when he is pulled over by police in East Germany, then in Czechoslovakia, and thinks he might be about to be arrested – only for Stok to emerge from the shadows with a big grin and a bottle of vodka!

In Ipcress the narrator says plots aren’t as easy to define or tie up as writers of spy fiction would have you expect. He has some 600 files open at any one time, each of which is highly complex and may not even be a definite ‘case’, may just be an accidental overlapping of circumstances, while real ‘cases’ ie interconnected purposeful events, are going undetected.

All three novels enact this sense of uncertainty. It’s difficult to know what’s going on because in the ‘real world’ which the spy inhabits, everyone is lying, everyone has multiple identities and concealed agendas, you’re not even certain what your ‘own’ side wants, let alone the other official agencies, let alone the numerous freelancers you continually meet and are continually making dubious offers.

Thus for most of the novel it’s difficult to know whether this is:

  • a true case of a Russian scientist defecting
  • something to do with the Grehlen Group, a branch of German Intelligence – creepy Teutonic types we meet a couple of times – do they have a cunning plan to hijack Semitsa, or something more concealed?
  • a dummy run for General Stok’s plan to defect. Turns out he doesn’t want to. Is he willing to help Semitsa’s defection? In the event – No.

The main love interest is the gorgeous Samantha Steele, who seduces the Narrator while posing as an American agent. In the final quarter she is revealed as an Israeli agent and for a while it seems the plot might be about the Israelis tracking down a concentration camp guard who was responsible for murders in the death camps, and is still alive, therefore deserves punishing…

Only towards the end does it become clearer, that Johnnie Vulkan has taken British money to facilitate the smuggling of the Russian scientist Semitsa, across the Berlin Wall hidden in a coffin – hence the title – but double crosses the Narrator and the British by selling Semitsa on to Sam and Israeli Intelligence. But when Vulkan and the Narrator open the coffin as delivered to them in a West Berlin garage, they find no scientist, just a load of propaganda pamphlets. It seems this is a joke the ubiquitous Colonel Stock has played on them; not only did he never intend to defect himself, he never intended to supply any Russian scientist – all along he simply wanted to poke and pry into British Intelligence methodology.

But, in any case, Vulkan doesn’t give a damn about Semitsa or the Israelis – all along Vulkan had insisted the papers for the ‘corpse’/coffin be made out in the name of one Brouma. For a while it seemed to be merely a coincidence that, upon deeper investigation, this Brouma had been a real person who had survived for a while in Treblinka concentration camp before being murdered on the long walk West escaping the advancing Russians. Or maybe had lived on – maybe his death/murder were really a story and Brouma was in fact Vulkan or one or other of his dodgy underworld contacts.

The Narrator probes this murky history on a vividly described trip to Prague where he meets two ageing Jews who survived the camps and knew the real Brouma. It is typical of the novel (and of ‘reality’?) that they give sharply differing accounts of his character and fate…

But it’s simpler than that. Brouma did exist and did die but his family had left him a fortune in Swiss bank accounts. Therefore the entire scientist-smuggling operation was, for Vulkan, purely a pretext to get his hands on a set of British government-authenticated identity papers in the name of Brouma. He would then use these to reclaim Brouma’s fortune. It is a straightforward criminal scam.

However, after the Narrator and Vulkan open the coffin and discover it contains no Russian scientist, they argue and fight. Through sheer (bad) luck the Narrator knocks Vulkan backwards onto a rack of drills and Vulkan dies a horrible agonising death from a punctured lung. The Narrator promptly packs him into the coffin in time for the Israeli agents to arrive and collect it at gunpoint. This team is led by his brief one-time lover Sam Steele, also known as Hannah Stahl, who explains to the Narrator that they need Semitsa because his innocent-sounding work on enzymes is in fact into nerve gases, and this information will be vital when the next Arab-Israeli War breaks out.

Boy, is she in for a surprise when she opens the coffin and finds no Russian scientist, just the embarrassing corpse of a Berlin playboy and chancer.

And then there’s the departmental politics back in dear old London, where the narrator can never be sure whether his boss is backing him up or framing him, or whether other departments like the War Office or Foreign Office or Home Office are helping whatever it is he’s trying to do, or are playing completely different games in which he is only a pawn.

As with the previous novels, the plot felt like it was over with the failure of the Semitsa defection, but there is one last act, where the homosexual official in the Home Office, Hallam, who had made out the documents in Brouma’s name which were destined for Vulkan, turns nasty. He takes the Narrator to a fireworks night display in a bombed-out vacant lot near Gloucester Road. Here, amid the bangs and crashes, and in an impenetrably thick London fog, Hallam tries to shoot the Narrator, confirming the Narrator’s hunch that he was in on Vulkan’s scam and is now after the Broum documents (worth quarter of a million pounds).

Only in the final wind-up conversation with his boss does it emerge that they both knew that Hallam was on the verge of being sacked for his ‘homosexual tendencies’. This is what drove him to throw in his lot with Vulkan and then to make a rather panicky attack on the Narrator – the latter avoids his shots while throwing fireworks at him until Hallam’s long flamboyant scarf catches fire then ignites the bottle of booze in his pocket – whooosh!


What gives the novel its peculiarly Deightonesque quality, is that the narrator – who holds all the cards ie has his suspicions and is calculating the angles on all the scenarios mentioned above – does not share this knowledge with the reader. In this novel, as in Ipcress, it is only at the very, very end that any kind of order or pattern emerges from the events described, and then only in laconic conversations with his secretary or boss – and even this ‘final roundup’ still leaves holes in the narrative and motivation.

Multiple points of view

In a technical development over the previous two novels, some of the chapters take the perspective of characters other than the main narrator. These chapters are told by an omniscient third-person narrator who allows us into these other characters’ thoughts. This is a small mercy and makes Funeral easier to enjoy, if not exactly to follow, than Ipcress, which is so dominated by the concealing, allusive style of the narrator. Deighton relaxes (slightly) and draws extended pen portraits of other key characters and these are enjoyable in their own right. (It is one of them – Hallam the homosexual – who gives us a brief description of the anonymous narrator: ‘An upstart from Burnley – a supercilious anti-public school technician who thought he was an administrator.’ (Ch 2))

Smart similes

In this slightly more forgiving book the similes also seem less incongruous, more of a piece with the humour. Similes, like metaphors, are after all, a kind of joke, a revelation of incongruous similarities.

‘Ha ha ha,’ said Stok, then he exhaled another great billow of cigar smoke like a 4.6.2 pulling out of King’s Cross. (Ch 6)

Damp leaves shone underfoot like a million newly struck pennies. (Ch 15)

Now the powdery skin [of his face], sun-lamped to a pale nicotine colour, was supported only by his cheek-bones, like a tent when the guy ropes are slackened. (Ch 16)

Though some of the comparisons, as in Ipcress, strain a little harder than others.

From underfoot the sweet smell of damp grass rose like perfume. Birds were still singing in the trees that stood across the major surgery of sunset like massed artery forceps. (15)

Inside the semi-precious light of the stained glass softly dusted the smooth, worn pews, and a complex of brass candlesticks glinted like a medieval oil refinery. (15)

These last two betoken the fundamentally anti-Romantic, unsentimental stance of his no-nonsense Narrator: he dumps his girlfriend/secretary of the first book, Jean, to have an affair with the leggy American agent, Sam Steele; then arranges for her flat to be burgled to establish who she really is, confirming his hunch that she is an agent. He mistakenly beats up an elderly messenger in the street in Berlin and has no regrets (Ch 19). He kills two more major – and rather sympathetic – characters (Johnnie Vulkan and Hallam) with no qualms. And this hard attitude extends all the way down to small descriptions and casual phrases.

In Horse Guards Avenue and right along the Thames Embankment, hollow tourist buses were parked and double-parked. The red-cloaked Horse Guards sat motionless clutching their sabres and thinking of metal polish and sex. In Trafalgar Square pigeons were enmeshed in the poisonous diesel gauze. (Ch 17)

I walked out along the moonlit sea front. The phosphorescent breakers crumbled into shimmering lacework and the moon was an overturned can of white paint that had spilled its contents across the sea. (Ch 24)

This tough but humorous tone is the distinctive feature of the novel’s worldview and of its prose. Tough but humorous also characterises Raymond Chandler’s innovative style in the detective genre, and it is probably the humour – along with the impenetrable plots – which are Deighton’s big contribution to the spy novel. A tone of underplayed humour which is perfectly captured by Michael Caine’s performance in the movie adaptations of these books.

‘I wish you would try to understand,’ said Stok. ‘I am really sincere about giving you my allegiance.’
‘Go on,’ I said. ‘I bet you say that to all the great powers.’ (Ch 5)

The anxiety of influence

By 1964 there was quite a boom of spy TV shows and movies:

  • The Avengers TV series started in January 1961
  • The Modesty Blaise cartoon strip started appearing in the Evening Standard in May 1963
  • The Man From UNCLE TV series started in September 1964
  • Bond movies – Dr No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964)

which is reflected in the text. When the Narrator is arrested in East Berlin and taken to a police station, he reflects: ‘I knew there must be a way out. None of those young fellows on late-night TV would find it any sort of dilemma.’ (p.34). The Narrator gets a bit riled when ordered to give Hallam some money to establish his identity:

Who the hell is he going to think I am if I don’t give him four half-crowns – James Bond?’ (p.57)

Then his employee, upper class twit Chico, comes in.

‘I’ve got a file from A.E.A.S.D.’
‘What?’ I said.
‘Atomic Energy Authority, Security Department,’ Chico said.
‘That’s better,’ I said. ‘You’ve been watching those spy films on TV again.’ (p.68)

Spy fictions went from a minority genre to becoming big business in books, films and TV in the early 1960s, so that by the late 1960s TV schedules were full of special agents and the cinemas bulged with Bond lookalikes. Why? Is it as simple as that the genre is desperately romantic? Handsome capable men defeat baddies, bed willing dollybirds, get to drive fast cars and play with guns. Fulfilling every adolescent boy’s fantasies?

Homosexuality

Hallam the Home Office official is gay – the narrator teasing him for his campness from the beginning – but then his chief significance becomes that his homosexuality has made him a ‘security risk’ and led to his early retirement – and it is this, the official attitude, which drives him into criminal behaviour. In the final pages, the hero and his boss discuss the stupidity of anti-gay laws which make it easier to turn closet gays into security risks. It was only in 1967 that homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 were decriminalised.

Cars

Quite a lot of driving around. Only when you look up the cars mentioned in the text do you realise how antiquated they are, how distant that world is, how long ago it all was.

The movie

Michael Caine was signed up to reprise the role of Harry Palmer he first played in the film version of The Ipcress File. The movie was released in December 1966 and was directed by Guy Hamilton, who had directed Goldfinger in 1964 and went on to direct three other Bond films in the early 1970s.

‘Girls always make passes at spies who wear glasses.’

Related links

Cover of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of Funeral In Berlin

Cover of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of Funeral In Berlin

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

The Trial of Charles I by Dame Veronica Wedgwood (1964)

22 September 2012

I own about 50 books on the Civil Wars and am a member of the Cromwell Association, have attended lectures and visited battlefields and key Civil War sites. But if you asked me what to read on the subject I would unhesitatingly recommend the ageing but brilliant trilogy of books by Dame Veronica Wedgwood (1910-1997) – The King’s Peace (1955), The King’s War (1958), and The Trial of Charles I (1964).

The reason is simple. All the other books I’m aware of are either high-level overviews of the entire period (from the 1630s or earlier to the Restoration in 1660) or specialist books by professional historians arguing a particular thesis or interpretation. Wedgwood’s books are the only ones I know of which give a straightforward chronological account of what happened on an almost daily basis. This level of detail about the helter-skelter of day-to-day events, the rush and pressure of unpredictable crises and alarm, is crucial to understanding the decisions the key players made as they struggled to understand and control events.

Ten fateful weeks Wedgwood concentrates on the 10 weeks between Cromwell’s Army, on 20th November 1648, laying before a reluctant Parliament their demands that the king be brought to trial – and the execution of the king January 30 1649.  First she sketches in the background and the key political groups which had emerged during the Civil War:

  • The Royalists Mostly in exile or hiding after the failed rising or ‘second civil war’ in the Spring and Summer of 1648 which had been convincingly crushed by the New Model Army. Royalists throughout the land were being repressed and, if they’d helped in the uprising, often had their land and money confiscated.
  • The Army Under its brilliant commander Sir Thomas Fairfax the army had emerged victorious in the second civil war, defeating all Royalist forces. This battle-hardened army was to go on to occupy Scotland and then storm through Ireland. But the Army was divided into two parts:
    • The Levellers During the war there emerged from the common troops, formerly uneducated men who had found a voice and confidence through their success and solidarity, a group nicknamed the Levellers, who demanded a comprehensive overhaul of the English State, starting with free elections on the basis of universal male suffrage to form a new House of Commons with a mandate to review Common Law, abolish the Church of England, abolish tithes and so on.  Their most effective leader was the young, impassioned John Lilburne, once whipped through the streets of London at Charles’s order for slandering the Court.
    • ‘The Grandees’ the Levellers’ nickname for the landed gentry and aristocrats who led the Army, who opposed the king on legal or religious principle, but had not the slightest interest in reordering Society, who were convinced that would lead to anarchy. They formed a small Council of the Army, dominated by the ruthless workaholic Henry Ireton, who happened to be son-in-law to Cromwell.
  • Parliament
    • The House of Lords Heavily biased towards the king, most of the Royalists were abroad in exile, in hiding or dead. In the leadup to the trial sometimes as few as six Lords attended some sessions.
    • The House of Commons Claiming to represent the people of England, the Commons was already diminished by up to 200 of the original members of the 1642 House. Even so it was still dominated by the Presbyterians, so-called moderate Puritans who desperately wanted to reach agreement with the king. It was these moderates that Charles had been stringing along since 1647 while he hoped against hope for further uprisings or help from a foreign government to free him.
    • The Army MPs Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and some 20 others combined leadership positions in the Army with membership of the House of Commons and used their position repeatedly to get the Army’s way.

Pride’s Purge When the Presbyterian majority in the Commons delayed debating the Army’s demand for a trial, events took a dramatic turn. On December 5th Colonel Pride stood outside Westminster Hall and as each MP arrived, he let through the ones favourable to the Army, took into custody all those opposed. Only 45 MPs were let in. It became known as ‘Pride’s Purge’. It was in effect a military coup, ensuring that the Parliament Cromwell and the others took up arms to defend in 1642, now consisted of few if any Lords, and only a hard core of MPs favourable to the Army’s wishes.

The Commission This reduced ‘Rump’ was persuaded to set up a Commission with 135 members to administer the trial and decide the king’s guilt. Of this hand-picked group rarely more than 60 attended any of the sessions. Wedgwood gives a brilliant, day by day of the trial and the central clash – between the obscure lawyer John Bradshaw chosen to run the court, who repeatedly tried to get Charles to enter a plea – and the dignified king who knew the law inside out and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court.

The conflict Charles I was convinced he had a God-given duty to preserve not only the laws and traditions of England, but the rights and prerogatives of the Crown, as handed to him by his father, in order to hand them on to his son. The religious zealots in the Army were convinced that Charles’s defeat in the first and second civil wars showed beyond doubt that God had decided against him, that he was guilty of starting the war in the first place, and therefore was the ‘Man of Blood’ as they called him, and deserved to die. More practical roundheads like Henry Ireton probably Cromwell just simply realised there was no dealing with this king. One way or another they had been trying to negotiate with him since 1640 and it had led to nothing but bloodshed, political collapse, economic depression, while the king endlessly prevaricated and endlessly schemed, trying to get the Scots to invade, to raise an Irish army, to persuade the French king to aid him.

Wedgwood’s account brilliantly conveys why both sides were convinced God was on their side, and how the different interpretations of what that meant led to complete stalemate. The only way to break the stalemate was to remove one of the players.

Reactions to the execution The execution of the king was very unpopular. Even within the Army there were protests. The Presbyterian interest in London and beyond opposed it. It prompted the Presbyterian Scots to declare war on England. Royalists sincerely considered it the most heinous act since the Crucifixion of Christ, to which it was immediately compared.

Cromwell War in Scotland and Ireland took up Cromwell’s time over the next few years while the Rump Parliament gained a damning reputation for corruption until, in April 1653, Cromwell ejected it by force. Leaders of the Army offered Cromwell the crown. He refused but accepted the title Lord Protector in December 1653 and set about instituting the godly, fair and just government he had hoped for. But the various experiments in democracy, nominated Parliaments, and rule by military Governor-General all failed. Cromwell died in September 1658, almost ten years after he’d led the men who executed Charles I.

The Restoration Within a year his regime had unravelled, the Protectorate collapsed, and the strongest surviving military figure, General Monk, bowing to popular demand and political realism, invited Charles II to return to Britain and take the throne.

The disappearance of Christian belief As Wedgwood concludes, the strongest element in these events, the devout and sometimes fanatical Christian belief of all the players involved, is the one that has most faded from contemporary view, becoming almost inaccessible from our modern perspective. We fill the gap with Marxist or mercantilist or psychoanalytical, with political or biographical interpretations. But it was upon the rock of a shared Christian faith, reflected through vastly different interpretations, that all four nations in the British Isles came to bloody grief for 20 long years.

‘Cromwell before the Coffin of Charles I’ (1849) by Hippolyte Delaroche

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