A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking (1988)

The whole history of science has been the gradual realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order. (p.122)

This book was a publishing phenomenon when it was published in 1988. Nobody thought a book of abstruse musings about obscure theories of cosmology would sell, but it became a worldwide bestseller, selling more than 10 million copies in 20 years. It was on the London Sunday Times bestseller list for more than five years and was translated into 35 languages by 2001. So successful that Hawking went on to write seven more science books on his own, and co-author a further five.

Accessible As soon as you start reading you realise why. From the start is it written in a clear accessible way and you are soon won over to the frank, sensible, engaging tone of the author. He tells us he is going to explain things in the simplest way possible, with an absolute minimum of maths or equations (in fact, the book famously includes only one equation E = mc²).

Candour He repeatedly tells us that he’s going to explain things in the simplest possible way, and the atmosphere is lightened when Hawking – by common consent one of the great brains of our time – confesses that he has difficulty with this or that aspect of his chosen subject. (‘It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space. I personally find it hard enough to visualise three-dimensional space!’) We are not alone in finding it difficult!

Historical easing Also, like most of the cosmology books I’ve read, it takes a deeply historical view of the subject. He doesn’t drop you into the present state of knowledge with its many accompanying debates i.e. at the deep end. Instead he takes you back to the Greeks and slowly, slowly introduces us to their early ideas, showing why they thought what they thought, and how the ideas were slowly disproved or superseded.

A feel for scientific change So, without the reader being consciously aware of the fact, Hawking accustoms us to the basis of scientific enquiry, the fundamental idea that knowledge changes, and from two causes: from new objective observations, often the result of new technologies (like the invention of the telescope which enabled Galileo to make his observations) but more often from new ideas and theories being worked out, published and debated.

Hawking’s own contributions There’s also the non-trivial fact that, from the mid-1960s onwards, Hawking himself has made a steadily growing contribution to some of the fields he’s describing. At these points in the story, it ceases to be an objective history and turns into a first-person account of the problems as he saw them, and how he overcame them to develop new theories. It is quite exciting to look over his shoulder as he explains how and why he came up with the new ideas that made him famous. There are also hints that he might have trodden on a few people’s toes in the process, for those who like their science gossipy.

Thus it is that Hawking starts nice and slow with the ancient Greeks, with Aristotle and Ptolemy and diagrams showing the sun and other planets orbiting round the earth. Then we are introduced to Copernicus, who first suggested the planets orbit round the sun, and so on. With baby steps he takes you through the 19th century idea of the heat death of the universe, on to the discovery of the structure of the atom at the turn of the century, and then gently introduces you to Einstein’s special theory of relativity of 1905. (The special theory of relativity doesn’t take account of gravity, the general theory of relativity of 1915, does, take account of gravity).

Chapter 1 Our Picture of the Universe (pp.1-13)

Aristotle thinks earth is stationary. Calculates size of the earth. Ptolemy. Copernicus. In 1609 Galileo starts observing Jupiter using the recently invented telescope. Kepler suggests the planets move in ellipses not perfect circles. 1687 Isaac newton publishes Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) ‘probably the most important single work ever published in the physical sciences’, among many other things postulating a law of universal gravity. One implication of Newton’s theory is that the universe is vastly bigger than previously conceived.

In 1823 Heinrich Olbers posited his paradox which is, if the universe is infinite, the night sky out to be as bright as daylight because the light from infinite suns would reach us. Either it is not infinite or it has some kind of limit, possibly in time i.e. a beginning. The possible beginning or end of the universe were discussed by Immanuel Kant in his obscure work A Critique of Pure Reason  (1781). Various other figures debated variations on this theme until in 1929 Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that, wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving away from us i.e. the universe is expanding. Working backwards from this observation led physicists to speculate that the universe was once infinitely small and infinitely dense, in a state known as a singularity, which must have exploded in an event known as the big bang.

He explains what a scientific theory is:

A theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make… A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: it must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

A theory is always provisional. The more evidence proving it, the stronger it gets. But it only takes one good negative observation to disprove a theory.

Today scientists describe the universe in terms of two basic partial theories – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. They are the great intellectual achievements of the first half of this century.

But they are inconsistent with each other. One of the major endeavours of modern physics is to try and unite them in a quantum theory of gravity.

Chapter 2 Space and Time (pp.15-34)

Aristotle thought everything in the universe was naturally at rest. Newton disproved this with his first law – whenever a body is not acted on by any force it will keep on moving in a straight line at the same speed. Newton’s second law stats that, When a body is acted on by a force it will accelerate or change its speed at a rate that is proportional to the force. Newton’s law of gravity states that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres. But like Aristotle, Newton believed all the events he described took place in a kind of big static arena named absolute space, and that time was an absolute constant. The speed of light was also realised to be a constant. In 1676 Danish astronomer Ole Christensen estimated the speed of light to be 140,000 miles per second. We now know it is 186,000 miles per second. In the 1860s James Clerk Maxwell unified the disparate theories which had been applied to magnetism and electricity.

In 1905 Einstein published his theory of relativity. It is derived not from observation but from Einstein working through in his head the consequences and shortcomings of the existing theories. Newton had posited a privileged observer, someone outside the universe who was watching it as if a play on a stage. From this privileged position a number of elements appeared constant, such as time.

Einstein imagines a universe in which there is no privileged outside point of view. We are all inside the universe and all moving. The theory threw up a number of consequences. One is that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, or E = mc². Another is that nothing may travel faster than the speed of light. Another is that, as an object approaches the speed of light its mass increases. One of its most disruptive ideas is that time is relative. Different observes, travelling at different speeds, will see a beam of light travel take different times to travel a fixed distance. Since Einstein has made it axiomatic that the speed of light is fixed, and we know the distance travelled by the light is fixed, then time itself must appear different to different observers. Time is something that can change, like the other three dimensions. Thus time can be added to the existing three dimensions to create space-time.

The special theory of relativity was successful in explaining how the speed of light appears the same to all observers, and describing what happens to things when they move close to the speed of light. But it was inconsistent with Newton’s theory of gravity which says objects attract each other with a force related to the distance between them. If you move on of the objects the force exerted on the other object changes immediately. This cannot be if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, as the special theory of relativity postulates. Einstein spent the ten or so years from 1905 onwards attempting to solve this difficulty. Finally, in 1915, he published the general theory of relativity.

The revolutionary basis of this theory is that space is not flat, a consistent  continuum or Newtonian stage within which events happen and forces interact in a sensible way. Space-time is curved or warped by the distribution of mass or energy within it, and gravity is a function of this curvature. Thus the earth is not orbiting around the sun in a circle, it is following a straight line in warped space.

The mass of the sun curves space-time in such a way that although the earth follows a straight line in four-dimensional pace-time, it appears to us to move along a circular orbit in three-dimensional space. (p.30)

In fact, at a planetary level Einstein’s maths is only slightly different from Newton’s but it predicts a slight difference in the orbit of Mercury which observations have gone on to prove. Also, the general theory predicts that light will bend, following a straight line but through space that is warped or curved by gravity. Thus the light from a distant star on the far side of the sun will bend as it passes close to the sun due to the curvature in space-time caused by the sun’s mass. And it was an expedition to West Africa in 1919 to observe an eclipse, which showed that light from distant stars did in fact bend slightly as it passed the sun, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory.

Newton’s laws of motion put an end to the idea of absolute position in space. The theory of relativity gets rid of absolute time.

Hence the thought experiment popularised by a thousand science fiction books that astronauts who set off in a space ship which gets anywhere near the speed of light will experience a time which is slower than the people they leave behind on earth.

In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving. (p.33)

Obviously, since most of us are on planet earth, moving at more or less the same speed, everyone’s personal ‘times’ coincide. Anyway, the key central implication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is this:

Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it. This was true even of the special theory of relativity. Bodies moved, forces attracted and repelled, but time and space simply continued, unaffected. It was natural to think that space and time went on forever.

the situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity. Space and time are now dynamic quantities. : when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time – and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe. (p.33)

This view of the universe as dynamic and interacting, by demolishing the old eternal static view, opened the door to a host of new ways of conceiving how the universe might have begun and might end.

Chapter 3 The Expanding Universe (pp.35-51)

Our modern picture of the universe dates to 1924 when American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that ours is not the only galaxy. We now know the universe is home to some hundred million galaxies, each containing some hundred thousand million stars. We live in a galaxy that is about one hundred thousand light-years across and is slowly rotating. Hubble set about cataloguing the movement of other galaxies and in 1929 published his results which showed that they are all moving away from us, and that, the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving.

The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. (p.39)

From Newton onwards there was a universal assumption that the universe was infinite and static. Even Einstein invented a force he called ‘the cosmological constant’ in order to counter the attractive power of gravity and preserve the model of a static universe. It was left to Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann to seriously calculate what the universe would look like if it was expanding.

In 1965 two technicians, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at Bell Telephone Laboratories discovered a continuous hum of background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. This echoed the theoretical work being done by two physicists, Bob Dicke and Jim Peebles, who were working on a suggestion made by George Gamow that the early universe would have been hot and dense. They posited that we should still be able to see the light from this earliest phase but that it would, because the redshifting, appear as radiation. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987.

How can the universe be expanding? Imagine blowing up a balloon with dots (or little galaxies) drawn on it: they all move apart from each other and the further apart they are, the larger the distance becomes; but there is no centre to the balloon. Similarly the universe is expanding but not into anything. There is no outside. If you set out to travel to the edge you would find no edge but instead find yourself flying round the periphery and end up back where you began.

There are three possible states of a dynamic universe. Either 1. it will expand against the contracting force of gravity until the initial outward propulsive force is exhausted and gravity begins to win; it will stop expanding, and start to contract. Or 2. it is expanding so fast that the attractive, contracting force of gravity never wins, so the universe expands forever and matter never has time to clump together into stars and planets. Or 3. it is expanding at just the right speed to escape collapsing back in on itself, but but so fast as to make the creation of matter impossible. This is called the critical divide. Physicists now believe the universe is expanding at just around the value of the critical divide, though whether it is just under or just above (i.e. the universe will eventually cease expanding, or not) is not known.

Dark matter We can calculate the mass of all the stars and galaxies in the universe and it is a mystery that our total is only about a hundredth of the mass that must exist to explain the gravitational behaviour of stars and galaxies. In other words, there must a lot of ‘dark matter’ which we cannot currently detect in order for the universe to be shaped the way it is.

So we don’t know what the likely future of the universe is (endless expansion or eventual contraction) but all the Friedmann models do predict that the universe began in an infinitely dense, infinitely compact, infinitely hot state – the singularity.

Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity… predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down… In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite. (p.46)

Opposition to the theory came from Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle who formulated the steady state theory of the universe i.e. it has always been and always will be. All that is needed to explain the slow expansion is the appearance of new particles to keep it filled up, but the rate is very low (about one new particle per cubic kilometre per year). They published it in 1948 and worked through all its implications for the next few decades, but it was killed off as a theory by the 1965 observations of the cosmic background radiation.

He then explains the process whereby he elected to do a PhD expanding Roger Penrose’s work on how a dying star would collapse under its own weight to a very small size. The collaboration resulted in a joint 1970 paper which proved that there must have been a big bang, provided only that the theory of general relativity is correct, and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.

If the universe really did start out as something unimaginably small then, from the 1970s onwards, physicists turned their investigations to what happens to matter at microscopic levels.

Chapter 4 The Uncertainty Principle (pp.53-61)

1900 German scientist Max Planck suggests that light, x-rays and other waves can only be emitted at an arbitrary wave, in packets he called quanta. He theorised that the higher the frequency of the wave, the more energy would be required. This would tend to restrict the emission of high frequency waves. In 1926 Werner Heisenberg expanded on these insights to produce his Uncertainty Principle. In order to locate a particle in order to measure its position and velocity you need to shine a light on it. One has to use at least one quantum of energy. However, exposing the particle to this quantum will disturb the velocity of the particle.

In other words, the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa. (p.55)

Heisenberg showed that the uncertainty in the position of the particle times the uncertainty in its velocity times the mass of the particle can never be smaller than a certain quantity, which is known as Planck’s constant. For the rest of the 1920s Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac reformulated mechanics into a new theory titled quantum mechanics. In this theory particles no longer have separate well-defined positions and velocities, instead they have a general quantum state which is a combination of position and velocity.

Quantum mechanics introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. (p.56)

Also, particles can no longer be relied on to be particles. As a result of Planck and Heisenberg’s insights, particles have to be thought of as sometimes behaving like waves, sometimes like particles. In 1913 Niels Bohr had suggested that electrons circle round a nucleus at certain fixed points, and that it takes energy to dislodge them from these optimum orbits. Quantum theory helped explain Bohr’s theory by conceptualising the circling electrons not as particles but as waves. If electrons are waves, as they circle the nucleus, their wave lengths would cancel each other out unless they are perfect numbers. The frequency of the waves have to be able to circle the nucleus in perfect integers. This defines the height of the orbits electrons can take.

Chapter 5 Elementary Particles and Forces of Nature (pp.63-79)

A chapter devoted to the story of how we’ve come to understand the world of sub-atomic particles. Starting (as usual) with Aristotle and then fast-forwarding through Galton, Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion, J.J. Thomson’s discovery of electrons, and, in 1911, Ernest Rutherford’s demonstration that atoms are made up of tiny positively charged nucleus around which a number of tiny positively charged particles, electrons, orbit. Rutherford thought the nuclei contained ‘protons’, which have a positive charge and balance out the negative charge of the electrons. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the nucleus contains neutrons, same mass as the proton but no charge.

In 1965 quarks were discovered by Murray Gell-Mann. In fact scientists went on to discover six types, up, down, strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks. A proton or neutron is made up of three quarks.

He explains the quality of spin. Some particles have to be spin twice to return to their original appearance. They have spin 1/2. All the matter we can see in the universe has the spin 1/2. Particles of spin 0, 1, and 2 give rise to the forces between the particles.

Pauli’s exclusionary principle: two similar particles cannot exist in the same state, they cannot have the same position and the same velocity. The exclusionary principle is vital since it explains why the universe isn’t a big soup of primeval particles. The particles must be distinct and separate.

In 1928 Paul Dirac explained why the electron must rotate twice to return to its original position. He also predicted the existence of the positron to balance the electron. In 1932 the positron was discovered and Dirac was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Force carrying particles can be divided into four categories according to the strength of the force they carry and the particles with which they interact.

  1. Gravitational force, the weakest of the four forces by a long way.
  2. The electromagnetic force interacts with electrically charged particles like electrons and quarks.
  3. The weak nuclear force, responsible for radioactivity. In findings published in 1967 Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg suggested that in addition to the photon there are three other spin-1 particles known collectively as massive vector bosons. Initially disbelieved, experiments proved them right and they collected the Nobel Prize in 1979. In 1983 the team at CERN proved the existence of the three particles, and the leaders of this team also won the Nobel Prize.
  4. The strong nuclear force holds quarks together in the proton and neutron, and holds the protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. This force is believed to be carried by another spin-1 particle, the gluon. They have a property named ‘confinement’ which is that you can’t have a quark of a single colour, the number of quarks bound together must cancel each other out.

The idea behind the search for a Grand Unified Theory is that, at high enough temperature, all the particles would behave in the same way, i.e. the laws governing the four forces would merge into one law.

Most of the matter on earth is made up of protons and neutrons, which are in turn made of quarks. Why is there this preponderance of quarks and not an equal number of anti-quarks?

Hawking introduces us to the notion that all the laws of physics obey three separate symmetries known as C, P and T. In 1956 two American physicists suggested that the weak force does not obey symmetry C. Hawking then goes on to explain more about the obedience or lack of obedience to the rules of symmetry of particles at very high temperatures, to explain why quarks and matter would outbalance anti-quarks and anti-matter at the big bang in a way which, frankly, I didn’t understand.

Chapter 6 Black Holes (pp.81-97)

In a sense, all the preceding has been just preparation, just a primer to help us understand the topic which Hawking spent the 1970s studying and which made his name – black holes.

The term black hole was coined by John Wheeler in 1969. Hawking explains the development of ideas about what happens when a star dies. When a star is burning, the radiation of energy in the forms of heat and light counteracts the gravity of its mass. When it runs out of fuel, gravity takes over and the star collapses in on itself. The young Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated that a cold star with a mass of more than one and a half times the mass of our sin would not be able to support itself against its own gravity and contract to become a ‘white dwarf’ with a radius of a few thousand miles and a density of hundreds of tones per square inch.

The Russian Lev Davidovich Landau speculated that the same sized star might end up in a different state. Chandrasekhar had used Pauli’s exclusionary principle as applied to electrons i.e. calculated the smallest densest state the mass could reach assuming no electron can be in the place of any other electron. Landau calculated on the basis of the exclusionary principle repulsion operative between neutrons and protons. Hence his model is known as the ‘neutron star’, which would have a radius of only ten miles or so and a density of hundreds of millions of tonnes per cubic inch.

(In an interesting aside Hawking tells us that physics was railroaded by the vast Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and then to build a hydrogen bomb, throughout the 1940s and 50s. This tended to sideline large-scale physics about the universe. It was only the development of a) modern telescopes and b) computer power, that revived interest in astronomy.)

A black hole is what you get when the gravity of a collapsing star becomes so high that it prevents light from escaping its gravitational field. Hawking and Penrose showed that at the centre of a black hole must be a singularity of infinite density and space-time curvature.

In 1967 the study of black holes was revolutionised by Werner Israel. He showed that, according to general relativity, all non-rotating black holes must be very simple and perfectly symmetrical.

Hawking then explains several variations on this theory put forward by Roger Penrose, Roy Kerr, Brandon Carter who proved that a hole would have an axis of symmetry. Hawking himself confirmed this idea. In 1973 David Robinson proved that a black hole had to have ‘a Kerr solution’. In other words, no matter how they start out, all black holes end up looking the same, a belief summed up in the pithy phrase, ‘A black hole has no hair’.

What is striking about all this is that it was pure speculation, derived entirely from mathematical models without a shred of evidence from astronomy.

Black holes are one of only a fairly small number of cases in the history of science in which a theory was developed in great detail as a mathematical model before there was any evidence from observations that it was correct. (p.92)

Hawking then goes on to list the best evidence we have for black holes, which is surprisingly thin. Since they are by nature invisible black holes can only be deduced by their supposed affect on nearby stars or systems. Given that black holes were at the centre of Hawking’s career, and are the focus of these two chapters, it is striking that there is, even now, very little direct empirical evidence for their existence.

(Eerily, as I finished reading A Brief History of Time, the announcement was made on 10 April 2019 that the first ever image has been generated of a black hole –

Theory predicts that other stars which stray close to a black hole would have clouds of gas attracted towards it. As this matter falls into the black hole it will a) be stripped down to basic sub-atomic particles b) make the hole spin. Spinning would make the hole acquire a magnetic field. The magnetic field would shoot jets of particles out into space along the axis of rotation of the hole. These jets should be visible to our telescopes.

First ever image of a black hole, captured the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The hole is 40 billion km across, and 500 million trillion km away

Chapter 7 Black Holes Ain’t So Black (pp.99-113)

Black holes are not really black after all. They glow like a hot body, and the smaller they are, the hotter they glow. Again, Hawking shares with us the evolution of his thinking on this subject, for example how he was motivated in writing a 1971 paper about black holes and entropy at least partly in irritation against another researcher who he felt had misinterpreted his earlier results.

Anyway, it all resulted in his 1973 paper which showed that a black hole ought to emit particles and radiation as if it were a hot body with a temperature that depends only on the black hole’s mass.

The reasoning goes thus: quantum mechanics tells us that all of space is fizzing with particles and anti-particles popping into existence, cancelling each other out, and disappearing. At the border of the event horizon, particles and anti-particles will be popping into existence as everywhere else. But a proportion of the anti-particles in each pair will be sucked inside the event horizon, so that they cannot annihilate their partners, leaving the positive particles to ping off into space. Thus, black holes should emit a steady stream of radiation!

If black holes really are absorbing negative particles as described above, then their negative energy will result in negative mass, as per Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc² which shows that the lower the energy, the lower the mass. In other words, if Hawking is correct about black holes emitting radiation, then black holes must be shrinking.

Gamma ray evidence suggests that there might be 300 black holes in every cubic light year of the universe. Hawking then goes on to estimate the odds of detecting a black hole a) in steady existence b) reaching its final state and blowing up. Alternatively we could look for flashes of light across the sky, since on entering the earth’s atmosphere gamma rays break up into pairs of electrons and positrons. No clear sightings have been made so far.

(Threaded throughout the chapter has been the notion that black holes might come in two types: one which resulted from the collapse of stars, as described above. And others which have been around since the start of the universe as a function of the irregularities of the big bang.)

Summary: Hawking ends this chapter by claiming that his ‘discovery’ that radiation can be emitted from black holes was ‘the first example of a prediction that depended in an essential way on both the great theories of this century, general relativity and quantum mechanics’. I.e. it is not only an interesting ‘discovery’ in its own right, but a pioneering example of synthesising the two theories.

Chapter 8 The Origin and Fate of the Universe (pp.115-141)

This is the longest chapter in the book and I found it the hardest to follow. I think this is because it is where he makes the big pitch for His Theory, for what’s come to be known as the Hartle-Hawking state. Let Wikipedia explain:

Hartle and Hawking suggest that if we could travel backwards in time towards the beginning of the Universe, we would note that quite near what might otherwise have been the beginning, time gives way to space such that at first there is only space and no time. Beginnings are entities that have to do with time; because time did not exist before the Big Bang, the concept of a beginning of the Universe is meaningless. According to the Hartle-Hawking proposal, the Universe has no origin as we would understand it: the Universe was a singularity in both space and time, pre-Big Bang. Thus, the Hartle–Hawking state Universe has no beginning, but it is not the steady state Universe of Hoyle; it simply has no initial boundaries in time or space. (Hartle-Hawking state Wikipedia article)

To get to this point Hawking begins by recapping the traditional view of the ‘hot big bang’, i.e. the almost instantaneous emergence of matter from a state of infinite mass, energy and density and temperature.

This is the view first put forward by Gamow and Alpher in 1948, which predicted there would still be very low-level background radiation left over from the bang – which was then proved with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965.

Hawking gives a picture of the complete cycle of the creation of the universe through the first generation of stars which go supernova blowing out into space the heavier particles which then go into second generation stars or clouds of gas and solidify into things like planet earth.

In a casual aside, he gives his version of the origin of life on earth:

The earth was initially very hot and without an atmosphere. In the course of time it cooled and acquired an atmosphere from the emission of gases from the rocks. This early atmosphere was not one in which we could have survived. It contained no oxygen, but a lot of other gases that are poisonous to us, such as hydrogen sulfide. There are, however, other primitive forms of life that can flourish under such conditions. It is thought that they developed in the oceans, possibly as a result of chance combinations of atoms into large structures, called macromolecules, which were capable of assembling other atoms in the ocean into similar structures. They would thus have reproduced themselves and multiplied. In some cases there would have been errors in the reproduction. Mostly these errors would have been such that the new macromolecule could not reproduce itself and eventually would have been destroyed. However, a few of the errors would have produced new macromolecules that were even better at reproducing themselves. They would have therefore had an advantage and would have tended to replace the original macromolecules. In this way a process of evolution was started that led to the development of more and more complicated, self-reproducing organisms. The first primitive forms of life consumed various materials, including hydrogen sulfide, and released oxygen. This gradually changed the atmosphere to the composition that it has today and allowed the development of higher forms of life such as fish, reptiles, mammals, and ultimately the human race. (p.121)

(It’s ironic that he discusses the issue so matter-of-factly, demonstrating that, for him at least, the matter is fairly cut and dried and not worth lingering over. Because, of course, for scientists who’ve devoted their lives to the origins-of-life question it is far from over. It’s a good example of the way that every specialist thinks that their specialism is the most important subject in the world, the subject that will finally answer the Great Questions of Life whereas a) most people have never heard about the issues b) wouldn’t understand them and c) don’t care.)

Hawking goes on to describe chaotic boundary conditions and describe the strong and the weak anthropic principles. He then explains the theory proposed by Alan Guth of inflation i.e. the universe, in the first milliseconds after the big bang, underwent a process of enormous hyper-growth, before calming down again to normal exponential expansion. Hawking describes it rather differently from Barrow and Davies. He emphasises that, to start with, in a state of hypertemperature and immense density, the four forces we know about and the spacetime dimensions were all fused into one. They would be in ‘symmetry’. Only as the early universe cooled would it have undergone a ‘phase transition’ and the symmetry between forces been broken.

If the temperature fell below the phase transition temperature without symmetry being broken then the universe would have a surplus of energy and it is this which would have cause the super-propulsion of the inflationary stage. The inflation theory:

  • would allow for light to pass from one end of the (tiny) universe to the other and explains why all regions of the universe appear to have the same properties
  • explain why the rate of expansion of the universe is close to the critical rate required to make it expand for billions of years (and us to evolve)
  • would explain why there is so much matter in the universe

Hawking then gets involved in the narrative explaining how he and others pointed out flaws in Guth’s inflationary model, namely that the phase transition at the end of the inflation ended in ‘bubble’s which expanded to join up. But Hawking and others pointed out that the bubbles were expanding so fat they could never join up. In 1981 the Russian Andre Linde proposed that the bubble problem would be solved if  a) the symmetry broke slowly and b) the bubbles were so big that our region of the universe is all contained within a single bubble. Hawking disagreed, saying Linde’s bubbles would each have to be bigger than the universe for the maths to work out, and counter-proposing that the symmetry broke everywhere at the same time, resulting in the uniform universe we see today. Nonetheless Linde’s model became known as the ‘new inflationary model’, although Hawking considers it invalid.

[In these pages we get a strong whiff of cordite. Hawking is describing controversies and debates he has been closely involved in and therefore takes a strongly partisan view, bending over backwards to be fair to colleagues, but nonetheless sticking to his guns. In this chapter you get a strong feeling for what controversy and debate within this community must feel like.)

Hawking prefers the ‘chaotic inflationary model’ put forward by Linde in 1983, in which there is no phase transition or supercooling, but which relies on quantum fluctuations.

At this point he introduces four ideas which are each challenging and which, taken together, mark the most difficult and confusing part of the book.

First he says that, since Einstein’s laws of relativity break down at the moment of the singularity, we can only hope to understand the earliest moments of the universe in terms of quantum mechanics.

Second, he says he’s going to use a particular formulation of quantum mechanics, namely Richard Feynman’s idea of ‘a sum over histories’. I think this means that Feynman said that in quantum mechanics we can never know precisely which route a particle takes, the best we can do is work out all the possible routes and assign them probabilities, which can then be handled mathematically.

Third, he immediately points out that working with Feynman’s sum over histories approach requires the use of ‘imaginary’ time, which he then goes on to explain.

To avoid the technical difficulties with Feynman’s sum over histories, one must use imaginary time. (p.134)

And then he points out that, in order to use imaginary time, we must use Euclidean space-time instead of ‘real’ space-time.

All this happens on page 134 and was too much for me to understand. On page 135 he then adds in Einstein’s idea that the gravitational field us represented by curved space-time.

It is now that he pulls all these ideas together to assert that, whereas in the classical theory of gravity, which is based on real space-time there are only two ways the universe can behave – either it has existed infinitely or it had a beginning in a singularity at a finite point in time; in the quantum theory of gravity, which uses Euclidean space-time, in which the time direction is on the same footing as directions in space it is possible:

for space-time to be finite in extent and yet to have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge.

In Hawking’s theory the universe would be finite in duration but not have a boundary in time because time would merge with the other three dimensions, all of which cease to exist during and just after a singularity. Working backwards in time, the universe shrinks but it doesn’t shrink, as a cone does, to a single distinct point – instead it has a smooth round bottom with no distinct beginning.

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

Finally Hawking points out that this model of a no-boundary universe derived from a Feynman interpretation of quantum gravity does not give rise to all possible universes, but only to a specific family of universes.

One aspect of these histories of the universe in imaginary time is that none of them include singularities – which would seem to render redundant all the work Hawking had done on black holes in ‘real time’. He gets round this by saying that both models can be valid, but in order to demonstrate different things.

It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description. (p.139)

He winds up the discussion by stating that further calculations based on this model explain the two or three key facts about the universe which all theories must explain i.e. the fact that it is clumped into lumps of matter and not an even soup, the fact that it is expanding, and the fact that the background radiation is minutely uneven in some places suggesting very early irregularities. Tick, tick, tick – the no-boundary proposal is congruent with all of them.

It is a little mind-boggling, as you reach the end of this long and difficult chapter, to reflect that absolutely all of it is pure speculation without a shred of evidence to support it. It is just another elegant way of dealing with the problems thrown up by existing observations and by trying to integrate quantum mechanics with Einsteinian relativity. But whether it is ‘true’ or not, not only is unproveable but also is not really the point.

Chapter 9 The Arrow of Time (pp.143-153)

If Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct and light always appears to have the same velocity to all observers, no matter what position they’re in or how fast they’re moving, THEN TIME MUST BE FLEXIBLE. Time is not a fixed constant. Every observer carries their own time with them.

Hawking points out that there are three arrows of time:

  • the thermodynamic arrow of time which obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics namely that entropy, or disorder, increases – there are always many more disordered states than ordered ones
  • the psychological arrow of time which we all perceive
  • the cosmological arrow of time, namely the universe is expanding and not contracting

Briskly, he tells us that the psychological arrow of time is based on the thermodynamic one: entropy increases and our lives experience that and our minds record it. For example, human beings consume food – which is a highly ordered form of energy – and convert it into heat – which is a highly disordered form.

Hawking tells us that he originally thought that, if the universe reach a furthest extent and started to contract, disorder (entropy) would decrease, and everything in the universe would happen backwards. Until Don Page and Raymond Laflamme, in their different ways, proved otherwise.

Now he believes that the contraction would not occur until the universe had been almost completely thinned out and all the stars had died i.e. the universe had become an even soup of basic particles. THEN it would start to contract. And so his current thinking is that there would be little or no thermodynamic arrow of time (all thermodynamic processes having come to an end) and all of this would be happening in a universe in which human beings could not exist. We will never live to see the contraction phase of the universe. If there is a contraction phase.

Chapter 10: The Unification of Physics (pp.155-169)

The general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics both work well for their respective scales (stars and galaxies, sub-atomic particles) but cannot be made to mesh, despite fifty of more years of valiant attempts. Many of the attempts produce infinity in their results, so many infinities that a strategy has been developed called ‘renormalisation’ which gets rid of the infinities, although Hawking conceded is ‘rather dubious mathematically’.

Grand Unified Theories is the term applied to attempts to devise a theory (i.e. a set of mathematical formulae) which will take account of the four big forces we know about: electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

In the mid-1970s some scientists came up with the idea of ‘supergravity’ which postulated a ‘superparticle’, and the other sub-atomic particles variations on the super-particle but with different spins. According to Hawking the calculations necessary to assess this theory would take so long nobody has ever done it.

So he moves onto string theory i.e. the universe isn’t made up of particles but of open or closed ‘strings’, which can join together in different ways to form different particles. However, the problem with string theory is that, because of the mathematical way they are expressed, they require more than four dimensions. A lot more. Hawking mentions anywhere from ten up to 26 dimensions. Where are all these dimensions? Well, strong theory advocates say they exist but are very very small, effectively wrapped up into sub-atomic balls, so that you or I never notice them.

Rather simplistically, Hawking lists the possibilities about a complete unified theory. Either:

  1. there really is a grand unified theory which we will someday discover
  2. there is no ultimate theory but only an infinite sequence of possibilities which will describe the universe with greater and greater, but finite accuracy
  3. there is no theory of the universe at all, and events will always seems to us to occur in a random way

This leads him to repeat the highfalutin’ rhetoric which all physicists drop into at these moments, about the destiny of mankind etc. Discovery of One Grand Unified Theory:

would bring to an end a long and glorious chapter in the history of humanity’s intellectual struggle to understand the universe. But it would also revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe. (p.167)

I profoundly disagree with this view. I think it is boilerplate, which is a phrase defined as ‘used in the media to refer to hackneyed or unoriginal writing’.

Because this is not just the kind of phrasing physicists use when referring to the search for GUTs, it’s the same language biologists use when referring to the quest to understand how life derived from inorganic chemicals, it’s the same language the defenders of the large Hadron Collider use to justify spending billions of euros on the search for ever-smaller particles, it’s the language used by the guys who want funding for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), it’s the kind of language used by the scientists bidding for funding for the Human Genome Project.

Each of these, their defenders claim, is the ultimate most important science project, quest and odyssey ever,  and when they find the solution it will for once and all answer the Great Questions which have been tormenting mankind for millennia. Etc. Which is very like all the world’s religions claiming that their God is the only God. So a) there is a pretty obvious clash between all these scientific specialities which each claim to be on the brink of revealing the Great Secret.

But b) what reading this book and John Barrow’s Book of Universes convinces me is that i) we are very far indeed from coming even close to a unified theory of the universe and more importantly ii) if one is ever discovered, it won’t matter.

Imagine for a moment that a new iteration of string theory does manage to harmonise the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics. How many people in the world are really going to be able to understand that? How many people now, currently, have a really complete grasp of Einsteinian relativity and Heisenbergian quantum uncertainty in their strictest, most mathematical forms? 10,000? 1000,000 earthlings?

If and when the final announcement is made who would notice, who would care, and why would they care? If the final conjunction is made by adapting string theory to 24 dimensions and renormalising all the infinities in order to achieve a multi-dimensional vision of space-time which incorporates both the curvature of gravity and the unpredictable behaviour of sub-atomic particles – would this really

revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe?

Chapter 11 Conclusion (pp.171-175)

Recaps the book and asserts that his and James Hartle’s no-boundary model for the origin of the universe is the first to combine classic relativity with Heisenberg uncertainty. Ends with another rhetorical flourish of trumpets which I profoundly disagree with for the reasons given above.

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. (p.175)

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is a hopelessly naive view of human nature and culture. Einstein’s general theory has been around for 104 years, quantum mechanics for 90 years. Even highly educated people understand neither of them, and what Hawking calls ‘just ordinary people’ certainly don’t – and it doesn’t matter. 

Thoughts

Of course the subject matter is difficult to understand, but Hawking makes a very good fist of putting all the ideas into simple words and phrases, avoiding all formulae and equations, and the diagrams help a lot.

My understanding is that A Brief History of Time was the first popular science to put all these ideas before the public in a reasonably accessible way, and so opened the floodgates for countless other science writers, although hardly any of the ideas in it felt new to me since I happen to have just reread the physics books by Barrow and Davies which cover much the same ground and are more up to date.

But my biggest overall impression is how provisional so much of it seems. You struggle through the two challenging chapters about black holes – Hawking’s speciality – and then are casually told that all this debating and arguing over different theories and model-making had gone on before any black holes were ever observed by astronomers. In fact, even when Hawking died, in 2018, no black holes had been conclusively identified. It’s a big shame he didn’t live to see this famous photograph being published and confirmation of at least the existence of the entity he devoted so much time to theorising about.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

The environment

Human evolution

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes @ the Photographers’ Gallery

‘The fact that I never had a family, a place or a story that defined me, inspired a need in me to join the community of mankind. I did so by inventing a poetic form linking this community, at least symbolically, in my imagination, through this form.’ (Dave Heath)

This is the first major UK exhibition dedicated to the work of American photographer Dave Heath (1931-2016).

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath started taking photos towards the end of his stint in the Korean War (1950-53). All his photos from Korea ignore battlefield heroics, firefights, explosions and hardware – instead showing the average grunt as isolated individuals caught in moments of thought, looking down, looking sad.

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

And this is the sensibility he brought back to civilian life. Of the 109 photos on display here, I only saw three where the subject is smiling or laughing. The other hundred and six show individuals or couples looking moody, intense, sullen, lost in thought. Inhabitants of solitude. Aficionados of introspection.

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Even the handful of photos which aren’t of people, but of buildings or the sidewalk, manage to make them look lost in thought and downbeat. The result is tremendously atmospheric if, on occasion, a bit samey.

Biography

The downbeat tone was set early in Heath’s life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1931 to very young parents who abandoned him at the age of four after which he was sent to a series of foster homes before being placed in an orphanage. From then on he carried a sense of loss and abandonment which he projected, very successfully, onto everything around him.

Heath became interested in photography as a teenager, and joined an amateur camera club. He read the photo essays in Life magazine and cites one in particular as having a decisive impact on his future. Bad Boy’s Story by Ralph Crane depicted the emotional experiences of a young orphan not unlike young Heath.

In a flash Heath realised that photography could be a means of self-expression, a way of shaping the external world to fit his experiences, and a way of connecting to others.

In his early twenties he set about becoming an expert in photographic techniques, taking courses in commercial art, working in a photo processing lab, and studying paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His stint in the army as a machine gunner interrupted his career for a few years, but crystallised his approach to subject matter, his skill at capturing a wide range of people in moments of thought and vulnerability.

On his return, Heath developed this aptitude for capturing an ‘inner landscape’, seeking out the lonely and lost and fragile on the streets of big city America. Most of the photographs on display here were taken on the streets of Chicago and New York (where he moved to in 1957).

Heath’s subjects seem eerily detached from their physical context, shot either singly or in couples, but always intensely aware of – almost physically projecting – their isolation.

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath is quoted as saying:

My pictures are not about the city but from the city. I’ve always seen it as a stage and I’ve always seen the people in the streets as being actors, not acting out a particular play or story, but somehow being the story itself…

It would be wrong to think that all his photos are close-ups of alienated individuals or couples. There’s more variety than that. At the busy end of the spectrum there’s a photo of a crowd gathering round a policeman in Central Park guarding the spot where a suicide has been discovered. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes he picked out just details, lost property, street detritus, close-ups of parts of people’s bodies, which manage to convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment.

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath’s photos capture that eerie moment in American history just before the 1960s exploded, just around the time JFK was assassinated and Civil Rights began to become an enormous, society-sundering issue and then, of course the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.

He had always been interested in exploring how individual photos could be tied together into sequences which created something larger than the sum of its parts. Heath once wrote that ‘the central issue of my work is sequence’ and thought that the rhythm of images arranged in collages or montages created a deeper and more complex psychological state than a single image.

A master printer – so good that other photographers asked him to make their prints for them – Heath also crafted handmade books and experimented with multimedia slide presentations. All this thinking and experimentation culminated in the book which is considered his masterpiece, A Dialogue with Solitude, published in 1965.

A Dialogue With Solitude

A Dialogue with Solitude was conceived in 1961 but not published till 1965. Heath chose 82 of his best or most characteristic photographs taken between 1952 and 1962 and grouped them into ten chapters dedicated to variations on the theme of solitude, being: violence, love, childhood, old age, poverty, war, race and death.

Each one is preceded by a short quote from a literary giant including: Matthew Arnold, James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, William Hazlitt, Herman Hesse, Rilke, Yeats and so on. In other words, all the names you’d meet in a basic undergraduate course in comparative literature – or at least before the explosion of feminist and black and queer studies added a lot more women and marginalised writers to the canon.

The book is commemorated here by a wall-seized display which places scores of photos next to the bookish quotes, to create a sort of immersive visual and literary experience.

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitude at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

In the opinion of the writer whose wall label accompanies this display, Francesco Zanot:

The primacy of montage and sequencing in Heath’s work is made obvious. The result has nothing to do with linear narration, but rather resembles a vast poem, rhapsodic and tormented. Heath merges together on the space of a page references as refined as they are distant from one another. The book, then, becomes the ideal medium by which to carry out a reflection both through and upon photography.

Thoughts

I liked the Korean War photos best. Soldiers in a war really have got something to be pissed off about. Guys lying on their bunks or sitting on a crate smoking a fag reminded me of all the crappy labouring jobs I’ve had, and how it feels when you get a break and five minutes to just sit staring into space, too tired to think about anything, too tired or too mind numblingly bored to say or do or think anything.

The photos of sad people in Philadelphia and Chicago and New York are undoubtedly atmospheric and poignant, beautifully composed and printed with a grainy effect that carries the viewer back back back to a historic era.

And yet… and yet…. I think I’ve seen too many photographs of unhappy Americans recently – the hundred or more photos by Diane Arbus currently at the Hayward Gallery, or the long career of Dorothea Lange devoted to documenting American misery and injustice, celebrated at the Barbican last summer, or the enormous brightly coloured images of alienation and being lost in the crowd created by Alex Prager.

Upstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery, right now, the works of Mark Ruwedel don’t feature any people but they, also, convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment via pictures of run-down shacks in the desert or the abandoned sites of military tests.

Abandonment, loneliness, isolation, solitude, unhappiness. These seem to be the default subjects of American art photographers.

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Independent movies

Off to one side of the main display rooms is a dark room where you can watch clips from cult independent films from the 1960s, contemporary with Heath’s works, which also focus on theme of solitude. These include:

1. Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke (1966), Jason being ‘a gay African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret performer’.

2. Salesman by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Mitchell Zwerin (1968) a creepy depiction of slimy American salesman.

3. The Savage Eye by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick (1960)

Interview with Senior Curator, Karen McQuaid

Curators

  • Curated by Diane Dufour, Director of LE BAL.
  • Senior Curator for the Photographers’ Gallery, Karen McQuaid

Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson (1965)

Moominpappa went and sat on the lighthouse-keeper’s little ledge and thought: ‘I must do something different, something new. Something tremendous.’ But he didn’t know what it was he wanted to do. He was quite bewitched and confused. (p.114)

This is a sad and troubling book. Moominpappa mopes about the house because everything in Moomin Valley is fixed and everything is taken care of.  Little My says he needs to get angry and let off steam, and indeed he bickers with Moominmamma in a way unimaginable in the earlier, innocent books. A little fire starts in the wood and he is irritated because his family puts it out before he even gets there. The Groke slides up to the house and Moominpappa likes to think of himself as the manly protector of his family, even though he joins the others in locking and bolting the door and hiding under the table.

He needs to ‘get away’, and decides to take his family to a remote island to start again. There’s a tiny dot on the map in the middle of sea. An island, reputedly with a lighthouse. Yes, they’ll go there.

A reduced Moomin family

Apart from the prevalent sad, middle-aged storyline, another way in which this book is very different from the earlier ones is that the family is massively reduced. The only people who sail with him to the new island are Moominmamma, Moomintroll and Little My. My has to be in the book to provide her own brand of malicious mischief, otherwise it really would just be the story of a man having a sad, mid-life crisis. Luckily she’s there to burst everyone’s balloon with the most cynical, quick, heartless attitude imaginable. Always bracing, sometimes really funny.

Little My was sitting on the steps, singing one of her monotonous wet-weather songs.
‘Hallo,’ said Moominpappa. ‘I’m angry.’
‘Good!’ said little My with approval. ‘You look as though you’d made a proper enemy of someone. It always helps.’ (p.102)

But whatever happened to Sniff, Moomintroll’s babysh companion? Or Snufkin? Or the Muskrat or the Mymble, the Whomper, Gaffsie, Too-ticky and all the other friends they’ve acquired in the previous books? They have all disappeared, are not mentioned – everything is subsumed to Moominpappa’s unhappiness.

The Groke

I was particularly struck by the way that the Groke – the big sad lonely figure which radiates deathly cold wherever she goes – previously a strange and ominous and fleeting figure – is handled in this book. Previously she appeared and disappeared for no reason, adding to the eerily wonderful sense of magic about Moomin Valley. But now Jansson dwells on her character and her immense loneliness at some length. She is attracted to the lamp back in Moomin Valley and when she sees the family sailing away with the lamp tied to the mast she determines to follow it and she does, by placing one foot in front of another on the restless sea, making it freeze solid at her touch. Thus she creates an ice bridge all the way to the island, following the little Moomin family like some kind of avenging angel or bad conscience.

The laughing children of the earlier books have all been swept away. Sad middle-aged characters are centre stage.

Compare and contrast the small, human-scale, comedy Moominhouse which Moominpappa builds back in The Exploits of Moominpappa.

with the way the tiny Moomin figures are intimidated and overwhelmed by the enormous, bare, bleak lighthouse they find when they arrive at the barren island in this book –

And what was often left powerfully unstated in the previous books is now made brutally explicit. Previously we were told that grass or flowers where the Groke passed were instantly frozen, in a rather wonderful fairy-tale way. Now Jannson makes it brutally clear that wherever the Groke sits for any length of time is killed stone dead and nothing will ever grow there again. This is a small but significant example of the way the tone has shifted from things withheld and, so, magical – and things stated explicitly and so become much more human and upsetting.

Moominpappa’s desperate enthusiasms

Again and again Moominpappa finds a project – lighting the lighthouse lamp, setting nets at sea, fishing in the black pool, building a breakwater out of big rocks – which fire and invigorate him but which, somehow, in the event, fizzle out in failure and disappointment.

Again and again he tries to assert his authority over his tiny family, declaring there is a fixed order to unpack the boat, to decorate the lighthouse, that only he knows about the sea or fishing or nets, or anything. And the others listen politely, then go about their business regardless, and on more than one occasion a frustrated Moominpappa is driven to declaring that he hates family life.

One such failure is the great effort to take out the old lighthouse-keeper’s nets and set them in just the right place off the coast. A huge storm blows up. Next day Moomintroll rows Moominpappa out and they both feel how heavy the nets are – boy, they’re going to be full of fish!

But as they struggle to drag the nets aboard their little dinghy it becomes clear the nets are full of nothing but seaweed; there isn’t a single fish. Fail.

Moominpappa felt quite deflated. This seaweed had come right after that wretched business of the lamp, it wasn’t fair. One toiled and toiled and nothing worked. Things just seemed to slip through one’s fingers. (p.91)

Moominmamma is endlessly supportive with her ‘Yes dear’, with her stoic agreement to leave her whole household and life behind her and settle in the unfriendly, damp surroundings of the half-ruined lighthouse, and Moomintroll is puzzled and confused. Neither of them can help the unhappy middle-aged man at the centre of the story.

Keeping bad thoughts at bay

What comes over from the text is the sense of someone deeply troubled by life and constantly looking to find a safe haven, a home, a secure place where the ‘black thoughts’ won’t start up and take over.

They come across a deep black pool among the rocks, which Moominpappa ends up being attracted to and fishing in for hours at a time, in quiet desperation.

Moominpappa was convinced with a kind of desperate certainty that at the bottom of [the pool] secrets were waiting for him. And there might be just anything down there. He thought that if he could only get everything up he would understand the sea, everything would fall into place. He felt he would fit in, too. (p.122)

This desperate search to ‘fit in’.

When Moominmamma decides to collect all the driftwood and timber she can find on the island and uses it to build a snug in the lee of the lighthouse and then starts sawing it all to the same length – this activity sort of has the reassuring feel of her quiet domestic tasks back in Moomin Valley – but it also feels slightly mad, a kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour designed to keep things at bay, the ‘things’ being doubts and worries about the future. She does it to fill the long empty days. She does it to avoid feeling ‘so much alone.’ (p.118)

They are both stricken.

Island mysticism

With most of the childish comedy stripped away, and putting on one side the middle-aged depression, the other strain which emerges most strongly is the strange and eerie, the almost mystical strain, in Jansson’s writing. The island they sail to is said to be ‘watching’ the little boat. The abandoned lighthouse is looking at them.

Moomintroll wanders off and discovered a secret dell amid the stunted little trees of the island. He also discovers a silver horseshoe on the beach and waits and waits until one magical evening he sees the sea horses dancing on the sand, kicking up rainbows from their hooves.

But more than these rather obviously magic moments, there are lots of quiet paragraphs where one or other character really communes with the strange, alien, intractable but deeply magnetic island.

Now that he was alone Moomintroll could begin to look at the island and smell it in the right way. He could feel it with his paws, prick up his ears and listen to it. Away from the roar of the sea the island was quieter than the valley at home, completely silent and terribly, terribly old. (p38)

It isn’t a pleasant place. It isn’t a friendly environment. It isn’t a sunny Greek island. It’s a hard, barren, stony, inhospitable place with a few patches of stunted wind-battered trees, with hardly any soil to grow anything in, and a derelict lighthouse with mud floors and dripping ceilings and a lamp which won’t light.

But this makes the moments when the rain stops and the sun comes out, or the sudden quiet when the wind drops, all the more impermanent, fragile and important.

The lighthouse-keeper

… isn’t there. That’s the point. No one knows who he was or where he went or why. His absence drips from the rainy eaves of the abandoned lighthouse. Moominpappa discovers poems the lighthouse-keeper had scribbled in charcoal on the walls of the lamp room. Still others he’d written and then feverishly scribbled over. Why? What drove this lonely man in his high house overlooking the never-still grey sea? Moominpappa discovers the lighthouse-keeper’s old notebook and skips though it looking for clues, but it only has records of wind speeds and directions. Moominpappa starts keeping his own diary.

Moominmamma starts painting on the lighthouse wall all the flowers and shrubs she left at home in Moomin Valley. In one hallucinatory moment, as the others are coming into the room, she steps smartly into her painting, hiding behind a painted tree and watching her family from inside the wall. In fact, she curls up and goes to sleep inside her mural and the others get so concerned they set off on a search party for her round the island.

By the time they get back Moominmamma has stepped out of the mural and is calmly making a towel. From then on she starts painting copies of herself into the mural of an increasingly large and brightly coloured garden.

‘Well, that really is the last word in madness,’ says Little My, and it’s hard not to agree that madness, a really genuine insane paranoia, fear and anxiety – stalk all through these pages.

The old fisherman

There is one inhabitant of the island, though – an old fisherman who lives in a concrete hut right out on a point at the extreme other end of the island. His boat goes past while Moominpappa is fishing and he tries to engage him in conversation but the old boy just mutters and won’t reply. Towards the end of the novel, a really massive storm blows up and the sea sweeps away the old man’s hut leaving him quivering under his upturned boat. Moomintroll and Moominpappa rope themselves together and one swims out to the point, once he’s safe the other swims out too. It gives both the Moomins a reassuring sense that they have somehow overcome the sea, which Moominpappa generally finds so troubling and incomprehensible.

They fetch the old man to safety, give him a tot of whiskey and some hot coffee but he refuses to stay in the lighthouse. Then they find out his birthday is coming up and Moominmama sets about making a cake and presents.

In the end

I haven’t yet mentioned a slightly nightmareish element of the story which is that Moomintroll wakes one night in his secret glade to find that it is moving. The entire glade, the woods, the trees, have pulled up their roots and are slowly moving up away from the sea. In a freakish moment Moomintroll thinks he sees the very sand of the beach moving upwards. They are all scared of the Groke. Every living thing is moving up closer to the lighthouse, for safety. The others notice it, too.

A juniper was moving slowly through the heather like an undulating green carpet. Moominpappa scrambled out of its way, and stood stock-still, frozen to the spot. He could see the island moving, a living thing crouching on the bottom of the sea, helpless with fear. ‘Fear is a terrible thing, Moominpappa thought. ‘It can come suddenly and take hold of everything…’ (p.192)

When Moominpappa puts his ear to the ground, he believes he can hear the beating heart of the island palpitating with fear.

Fear.

In the last ten pages several things happen. Moominpappa goes to the steepest cliff and tells the sea off for terrifying the poor little island. Doesn’t it give the sea pleasure to break and crash over its rocks? Well, stop being such a bully! Almost as if in apology, out of the chastened sea come some rather lovely planks, good for making shelves out of. He and the family quickly rescue them from the waves.

Moomintroll has been going down to the beach to confront the motionless, unspeaking Groke, not in aggression but in eerie silence, taking with him the lit lamp which she so worships. Now the family have run out of paraffin to light it. One nightfall Moomintroll goes down to the beach anyway and an odd thing happens: the Groke dances with delight. It wasn’t the lamp, she is just happy that someone wants to see her. After she has drifted away in the usual spooky manner, Moomintroll goes stands where she was and discovers the sand isn’t frozen as it usually is. Has she… has the Groke… stopped killing things with her coldness? Was all that was needed a little love?

Lastly, they find the old fisherman hiding and – much against his will – persuade him to come up to the lighthouse for a party. He has to close his eyes and take Moominmamma’s hand to enter the lighthouse, which he clearly has a great aversion to. He doesn’t want to go up the stairs to the main room.

But once there, he begins to thaw. He sips and then drinks a whole cup of coffee. He accepts the presents they’ve wrapped for him. He notices the bird’s nest they’ve taken out of the chimney. He spots the jigsaw puzzle they’ve been struggling with for months on a table, goes over and completes it in a few swift moves. He asks for the lighthouse-keeper’s hat – which Moominpappa has been wearing – back. In fact in the last few pages we watch him metamorphose back into the lighthouse-keeper because… that is who he is!

Somehow things have clicked back into place. The sea, if not tamed, has been understood. The lighthouse-keeper has, somehow, been cured and restored. The Groke, of all creatures, somehow seems happy. Moominpappa walks down to the sea feeling wonderfully alive. And as he stares at the ever-restless sea, communing with it, the lighthouse lamp suddenly comes on.

Thoughts

This is very clearly intended as a Happy Ending and maybe it ties up enough loose ends to please children readers. But I think it is forced.

Towards the end of his life my father developed dementia. You and I may be puzzled and unhappy and blocked and frustrated by something, but we have the mental wherewithal to think it through, discuss it with others, and find solutions or just move on. What I saw in my father – and in some other people I’ve known who’ve developed mental illness – is they lose that ability to work things through. They become stuck or trapped by even simple things, and then terrified because they think they’ll never get out.

In my experience, even seriously depressed people can be shown a way out by modern medication and once they’re out you can develop techniques to make that roadway out of unhappiness as wide and easy as possible. Just knowing there is a way out immediately reduces the level of stress they experience when they next go into a black depression.

But the really ill, or demented, can’t find a way out and are caught in a bewildering and terrifying series of traps with no hope of escape. Hence the wailing, the panic attacks, the desperate need to share their burden, even though they can’t put it into words any more.

Maybe I’m overdoing it, but on every other page of this 200-page book there are words like fear, terror, anxiety, small, worry, helpless, and prolonged descriptions of the characters – especially Moominpappa – trying to grasp the situation, trying to act the hero or strong family man or expert on the sea, in order to properly, fully become himself – and failing, failing, failing. And the more Moominmamma and Moomintroll indulge him and say ‘Yes, dear’ the worse it gets. Nobody understands!

Taken along with the disturbing story in the previous book, The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters, this novel goes a long way to eclipse the happy, carefree impression given by the earlier, genuinely happy Moomin stories.

Illustrations

None of the illustrations are as clean and crisp as those in the earlier books; but then they aren’t as sketchy and half-finished as those in Tales of Moominvalley. Somewhere in-between. And some – if you identify with the rather tortured, anxious mood of much of the writing, as I certainly did – have an unprecedented intensity.


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

The Man With The Golden Gun by Ian Fleming (1965)

Now the grey-blue eyes looked back at him from the tanned face with the brilliant glint of suppressed excitement and accurate focus of the old days. He smiled ironically back at the introspective scrutiny that so many people make of themselves before a race, a contest of wits, a trial of some sort. He had no excuses. He was ready to go. (p.95)

This is Fleming’s final Bond novel, written when he was in failing health. Hard to read without this knowledge shedding a twilight glow. As in so many of the previous novels, it’s a strange combination of the garishly new and the surprisingly tried and tested, hackneyed, even.

Bond’s amnesia

Novel and arresting is the opening scene: At the end of You Only Live Twice Bond had lost his memory after a fall in the old castle rented by his arch-enemy Blofeld. He manages to blow up the castle but a further fall into the sea further damages his head, resulting in complete amnesia. He is rescued by the Japanese pearl diver, Kissy Suzuki, who had fallen in love with him while Bond used her island community of divers as cover for his mission.

But after 6 months of bliss, with Bond unaware of his identity, a chance reading of the word ‘Vladivostok’ stirs ancient feelings. The amnesiac Bond knows it’s an important word, he must go there and find out why… Sadly, Kissy helps Bond travel to mainland Japan from where he goes to Vladivostok.

Bond the assassin

This novel opens with Bond back in London, making contact with MI6, but behaving oddly, causing comment about his strangely mechanical unemotional aspect. He makes it through all MI6’s screening processes, causing increasing concern, until he gets his wish of a personal interview with M. Breaking into a sweat and reciting a KGB-written speech, Bond accuses the man he loves most in the world of being a warmonger and pulls out a cyanide shooting device — just as M presses a button to let a bullet-proof shield fall in front of his desk. Phew! This is probably the most gadgety gadget in all the books (p.24). Bond has clearly been picked up and brainwashed by the KGB to assassinate his former boss. Now, collapsed and unconscious, Bond is packed off to a Service sanatorium, ‘the Park’.

Scaramanga

One month and 24 sessions of electro-shock therapy later (!) Bond is restored to his steely-eyed self and has been given a tasty mission. It is literally as if nothing had happened. There’s a little retrospective explanation of the treatment (pp.49-50) and then, whoosh! it’s business as usual.

A notorious assassin has come to prominence in the Caribbean since the Cuban revolution, one Scaramanga. As with all his other baddies, Fleming gives us a detailed background and psychological profile of this stony killer (pp.32-41), including a long-winded and preposterous account of his boyhood with a travelling circus. It was here that he looked after a performing elephant who, one day, jeered by the crowd, ran amok, crushed a few people, but Scaramanga was lovingly calming down when the local police chief shot it dead. According to the two-penny, ha-penny psychology of the Service ‘expert’, this accounts for Scaramanga’s psychopathy.

‘The subject is in my opinion a paranoiac in subconscious revolt against the father figure (i.e. the figure of authority) and a sexual fetishist with possible homosexual tendencies’ (p.41).

Whatever the cause, Scaramanga has carried out a number of high profile assassinations throughout the Caribbean – including five British Service agents – with his special gold-plated gun, hence the title. (In fact Scaramanga refers to himself as ‘the man with the golden gun’ on page 71.)

And so M sends Bond (after rest & recuperation and then intensive retraining etc) to ‘eliminate’ him (p.51). Bond is using the cover name Mark Hazard, and is now working for ‘the Transworld Consortium’ (p.46) – the cover name ‘Universal Export’ having been blown long ago, not least by all these James Bond books!

Bond has spent 6 weeks following Scaramanga’s spoor around the Caribbean, and has stopped off in Jamaica before pursuing him to his home base of Cuba.

Jamaica! The island where Fleming himself, of course, lived and worked and – not coincidentally – the setting of many of his greatest adventures, as he himself reminisces, sitting in the departure lounge running over the characters he’s met – Solitaire and Mr Big, Honeychile Rider and Dr No, to name the two obvious ones (p.45). [It is odd that this supposedly globe-trotting spy, active at the height of the Cold War, ends up spending so much of his time on a fun-loving, tropical island, nowhere remotely near Russia or the Soviet bloc?]

Funny coincidence department

As always there is little or no detection involved: Bond is waiting at Kingston airport for a flight on to Cuba and, flicking through the local newspaper, comes across the sale of a property in Love Lane. Then in the message rack (which they apparently had in airports in those days) he simply finds a letter left for ‘Scaramanga’! Handy! He opens the letter and it refers to a rendezvous at the very same Love Lane address which he just happened to be reading about (p.46). Ha! What a lucky coincidence!

So Bond decides to cancel his flight on to Cuba and go check out this Love Lane address, in the southern town of Savannah La Mar.

Mary Goodnight

Bond contacts the station commander of Jamaica, only to find – in another lovely coincidence – that the station’s assistant is none other than the fragrant Mary Goodnight, the good-looking ex-WREN who was Bond’s own secretary in smoggy old London, before being posted out here (p.47).

In no time at all she’s slipped into something more comfortable and is meeting him at a luxurious bar where they sip Martinis and she explains the practical arrangements she’s made: money and the old Sunbeam Alpine (p.53) which belonged to Strangways (the former station chief who we saw being assassinated at the start of Dr No). She’s also worried about the current station head, Ross, who went off a few days earlier to look for someone called Scaramanga (Bond keeps quiet about the details of his mission).

[Bond and Goodnight discuss the international situation, specifically the hefty subsidies Moscow has to pay Cuba to keep the fledgling revolutionary state afloat, and how Moscow wants Cuba’s sugar crop in return. Goodnight (reflecting Fleming’s views?) gives Castro another 6 months before the regime collapses. It is, of course, now over fifty years later, and Castro is still there albeit no longer in power – the country is ruled by his brother, Raúl Castro.]

No detection

Bond motors 120 miles over bad roads from Kingston to the south coast of Jamaica, which is where the town of Savannah La Mar is, to the Love Lane address in Scaramanga’s letter. He finds it is a rather genteel whorehouse kept by a pretty black girl, Tiffy, who flirts with Bond in the cheap bar, pours him a beer and plays with her two tame local birds, Jamaican grackles called Joe and May (p.63).

At which point Scaramanga enters the bar, cold and cruel. He is tough and confrontational with Bond and when Tiffy is a bit lippy, shoots her two birds dead (p.67). Bond pumps up his cover story, playing ‘Mark Hazard international security consultant’. After a lot of male antagonism and insulting each other, Scaramanga reveals he needs some ‘protection’ at an event he’s hosting. He’s poured money into a hotel development along the coast, but the tourist market has collapsed, it’s only half built and a number of ‘investors’ are flying in to discuss its future. Scaramanga shouldn’t mind a bit of extra ‘security’ to keep watch on the event: does Bond want to earn a quick $1,000?

Wondering what he’s getting himself into, Bond says yes. He walks out of the Love Lane whorehouse with Scaramanga and into his chauffeur-driven car. For a moment he realises he could just shoot Scaramanga in the nape of the neck and fulfil his mission: but he hates killing in cold blood and also – he’s intrigued.

At Scaramanga’s hotel

So Bond finds himself arriving at the half built hotel, shown to a comfortable room, showering, padding round his hotel room naked (as usual) changing and enjoying a nice dinner, and sleeping like a baby. Next morning he checks out the perimeter, all the buildings and familiarises himself with the layout. Then the ‘business partners’ start to arrive.

They are hoods, gangsters, cut from the same cloth as the Las Vegas gangsters in Diamonds Are Forever or the gangsters Goldfinger invites to join him in his scheme to capture Fort Knox. Only on a smaller scale, somehow. Investing in a crooked hotel is hardly the same as holding the Western world to ransom with atom bombs or raiding the US Gold Reserve.

Bond – exactly as in Goldfinger – acts as a secretary to the meeting, ticking off the names, circulating and getting to know them. After a hotel lunch they have a big meeting in the conference room. Bond eavesdrops and learns they are a Group or Syndicate dedicated to much wider criminal activities than just investing in this hotel: the Group has interests in the sugar market, in pushing prices up and so is behind the recent spate of fires and sabotage to the Jamaican sugar crop. He learns that ‘Mr Hendricks’, the Dutch man, is almost certainly KGB, and Hendricks warns Scaramanga, in front of the group, that British Intelligence have sent a man named James Bond to assassinate him.

When they leave the room and from that point onwards, the assembled hoods look askance at Bond for the rest of the proceedings. In fact, Bond overhears Scaramanga boast in the room that he recently killed another British agent who came snooping after him – Ross. So. Being head of station J (for Jamaica) seems like the most dangerous job in the Service: first Strangways (in Dr No), now Ross, have been bumped off! So Bond’s mission to eliminate Scaramanga has become personal.

That evening Bond livens up the tame calypso band by shooting the pineapple off the head of the girl singer, telling them all to play louder and faster and the girls to do a strip tease. This transforms the ‘entertainment’, with the girls performing semi-naked, doing limbo dancing, and one oiled naked woman doing rude gyrations around a life sized model of a hand. The hoods appreciate the more lively entertainment but still treat Bond like a leper.

Enter Goodnight

Bond is woken from a deep sleep in his hotel bed by Goodnight banging on the window. What the hell? She’s driven down in person from Jamaica to tell him that Hendriks is a KGB assassin, tasked with killing Bond. She’s half way through the explanation when the light goes on and Scaramanga is standing in the room (having entered through a secret passage in the wardrobe – just as Sluggsy does in The Spy Who Loved Me). Bond play acts that Mary is his fiancée come to tell him his mother is unwell. Scaramanga pretends to buy the story, but tells Bond to his face that he’s heard that a certain James Bond from the British Secret Service is on his tail: you wouldn’t happen to be him, would you?

I suppose, Mr Hazard, that your real name wouldn’t be James Bond? You showed quite a turn of speed with the gun tonight. I seem to have read somewhere that this man Bond fancies himself with the hardware. I also have information that he’s somewhere in the Caribbean and that he’s looking for me. Funny coincidence department, eh?’ (p.125)

Bond sticks to his cover story but doubts whether Scaramanga believes him, and Bond realises his time has pretty much run out.

Felix Leiter

In the final and most preposterous coincidence, Bond stumbles on the fact that the hotel is also being staked out by his old old buddy, Felix Leiter, supposedly retired to work for the Pinkerton Agency but somehow constantly being called back by the CIA to help with just the same missions James Bond happens to be one. Here he is posing as senior hotel staff, with an assistant named Henderson. [What hotel would hire a man with a big steel hook instead of a hand?]

The boys have been bugging the conference room and confirm that Hendriks is a KGB hit-man, tasked with executing Bond. They inform Bond that the second day of the ‘conference’ is going to feature ‘entertainment’ in the form of a ride on the miniature train round the hotel estate, followed by a fishing trip out to an island. The attempt on Bond’s life might come at any moment. [If they know all this, why don’t they just shoot Scaramanga and flee in a fast car?]

A web of crime

Bond eavesdrops on one further conversation between Scaramanga and Hendriks in which he learns that the Group’s subversive activities are far more wide-ranging than he initially thought: The KGB is directly funding Scaramanga to carry out assassinations, organise sabotage of the sugar and bauxite industries, promote marijuana smuggling between Jamaica and the States, and in a plan to pay off Jamaican politicians with a view to introducing a casino industry. The idea behind this is not only to make a profit but to stir up the social trouble that always accompanies gambling. They go on to talk about recruiting a new member of The Group and this leads them to a useful review of the leading criminals in Venezuala, Guiana and Mexico.

The purpose of this five-page scene is to big Scaramanga up, to try and make him more than a local hoodlum who’s good with a gun and show that he is a lynchpin in organised crime across the Caribbean, and that this crime itself is only a sub-set of the ways the Russians are seeking to destabilise the whole region and, ultimately, America.

It is a naked attempt by Fleming to try and boost Scaramanga’s importance to the same kind of global level as a Drax or Goldfinger or Blofeld.

The Belle locomotive

So Bond knows that Scaramanga knows that he is Bond and Bond knows that Scaramanga is planning to murder him, somewhere during the day’s ‘entertainment’ for the gathered gangsters. They all pile into cars and drive to a mock-up of a 19th century Wild West railroad station, complete with beautiful old engine, named The Belle, and one open carriage behind and a brake car (p.147). The plan is to take this through the sugar cane plantations to a jetty and then a cruise out to some island.

But Scaramanga starts openly taunting Bond – who is riding in the locomotive, with the hoods in the single carriage and Scaramanga at the back. Scaramanga starts kind of joky shooting, by shooting down a vulture flying near the train. When Bond tells him it’s a protected species, Scaramanga puts a few shots past his ears so Bond ducks back into the safety of the locomotive. But then he sees something on the track ahead. Something pink with, yes, billowing blonde hair. At which point Scaramanga cheerfully tells the hoods he has found the squeeze of this Secret Service man Bond – some dame called Goodnight – and his men stripped her and laid her across the line, old movie-style (p.151).

Bond goes into panic mode. Poking his head out from the protection of the locomotive’s steel frame, he sees Hendriks with gun in hand but expecting Bond the other side of the locomotive and so looking in the wrong direction. Bond shoots him dead between the eyes. Bullets wing past from Scaramanga and Bond hears a scream. Scaramanga has shot dead the Rasta driver of the train. Bond leaps for the controls, reducing speed and applying the brake, but there’s only fifty yards to go to the body on the line, it’s far too late, he hears two shots wing past then a third slams into his shoulder, throwing him to the floor, at the edge of the footplate and it’s from there that he sees the train thunder over the figure on the track which is… a shop window mannequin!

Even as Bond’s fevered brain processes the realisation that it’s not the real Mary at all, he hears Felix Leiter’s voice from the back of the train. Good God, somehow Felix hid in the back of the brake van and has now emerged with the drop on the bad guys. Felix tells the hoods to drop their guns then there’s a loud bang. One of them was a bit slow so Felix shot him dead; the others hastily obey. Now when he looks out, Bond sees the three remaining hoods cowering in fear, Hendriks lolling dead, and Scaramanga on his knees in the brake van, his shirt covered in blood.

Felix yells at Bond to jump off the train. Why? It takes a couple of yells before Bond – now swaying and dizzy from his shoulder wound – realises how urgent Felix is, so he jumps, landing in a great morass of swamp mud which immediately releases vile stinks in his face.

But something goes wrong, because further down the track he sees Felix himself be thrown from the train instead of carefully jumping, followed by a tall, thin figure – Scaramanga! So he wasn’t dead after all! (p.156). Then, as Bond watches, the runaway train arrives at the big bridge over a river, and suddenly bridge and train blow up in a huge gout of flame – crash – with all the shattered pieces slowly falling down into the river gorge. So that’s why Felix was so urgent. He and his boys had booby-trapped it!

[Having a restored Wild West locomotive as the centrepiece of the showdown is very reminiscent of the climactic scenes of Diamonds Are Forever with its speeding locomotive chasing Bond and Tiffany Case through the desert, before reaching an explosive end.]

Showdown in the swamp

Bond, badly wounded in the shoulder and feeling the appalling heat of the Jamaican sun at mid-day, hauls the unconscious Leiter into the shade of some mangroves, then sets about stalking Scaramanga. Fleming draws out this final sequence as long as he can, maybe to pad out what feels like a thin story.

Eventually, after sneaking slowly through the jungle in the sweltering heat, Bond hear a quiet cough which leads him to the clearing where the tall man is lying propped against a tree. Bond watches fascinated while a venomous snake slides towards him as if for the kill. Scaramanaga appears too wounded, lying there drenched in blood and sweat, to do anything. But in fact at the snake comes into reach, like lightning the tall man leaps forward and skewers the snake with a concealed stilleto, before filleting it and eating it raw. Yuk. And that’s the moment Bond walks into the clearing, pointing his gun at the bloody figure.

And then there’s the corny movie-house scene where Bond finds he can’t, he just can’t, kill a wounded man in cold blood. He tries to rouse his temper by reminding Scaramanga (and himself) of one of the Service agents, Margesson, who he shot in both elbows and knees then forced to crawl across the floor and kiss his shoes before killing him. But even as he tells the story, Bond feels faint, and can hear his voice wavering. To his surprise Scaramanga asks to say a final prayer. Bond, weakening, lets him, and fails to notice one of the tall man’s hands moving slowly towards his right ear.

Suddenly, whiplash fast, he pulls out a pocket Derringer pistol and shoots Bond in the guts. As Bond spins and falls he fires all five of his bullets in Scaramanga’s direction then, from his position in agony on the ground, watches the tall assassin’s body finally collapse to the floor, shot through the heart.

Fleming had previously described not only the snake but the land crabs, among other fauna, which inhabited the mangrove. In an effective piece of word painting, he describes how the crabs wait a while after the last of the thuds, and then slowly emerge from their holes to feast on this rich array of fresh carrion…

Wind-up

Leiter, Bond and Scaramanga are found by Constable Percival Sampson of the Negril Constabulary, who had been called to the scene of the railway bridge explosion. In the hospital at Savannah La Mar the local doctor realises the bullet Scaramanga shot Bond in the gut with was tipped with horse poison, and administers an antidote [exactly as Bond is saved from fugu poison at the end of From Russia With Love].

Cut to Bond in his hospital bed in Kingston, one week later. To his embarrassment he is attended by the Commissioner of Police, a Judge of the Supreme Court, ‘Colonel Bannister’ from Washington (presumed CIA) Head of Station C (Caribbean) who’s flown in, and Mary Goodnight to take notes. The Judge reads out an ‘official’ account of events which not only exonerates Bond and Leiter of any crime but a) reinforces the scope and scale of Scaramanga’s criminal activities and attempts to undermine Jamaica b) awards him and Leiter medals, specifically the Jamaican Police Medal for gallantry and meritorious services to the Independent State of Jamaica.

Smiles, applause, the officials troop out, Leiter says farewell (to Bond and us devoted readers), Bond – exhausted by the effort – falls asleep.

Goodnight

A week later Bond is on the mend when Goodnight visits, looking trim in her 1960s office outfit. Not for the first time Bond fantasises about slipping it slowly off her to reveal the delights below. But in fact she has brought a ciphered message for Bond. She decodes it: Bond is being offered a knighthood. Goodnight is gleeful with happiness for him. Bond is sardonic and tells her to send a message turning it down: ‘My principal reason is that I don’t want to pay more at hotels and restaurants’ (p.188).

Goodnight says he’s allowed to leave hospital but needs to rest for another three weeks before flying back to London. She shyly tells him she’s got a nice bungalow up in the hills. With a spare room. With a great view. Near a good club where he can play golf during the day and bridge in the evening. Would he like to… you know…

Knowing what it will lead to, but knowing he will never settle down, that one woman will never be enough, that the world, in fact, is not enough, Bond agrees to stay with her and so ends his last adventure with the promise of some warm Jamaican loving.


Bond biographical snippets

Most of Bond’s biography was given in the obituary M wrote for him at the end of You Only Live Twice. Here we learn that M’s full name is Admiral Sir Miles Messervy (p.10). M’s number 2 is the Chief of Staff, Bond’s friend Bill Tanner.

Jamaica

Jamaica, where Fleming built his beloved house, Goldeneye and wrote most of the Bond novels, gained independence from Britain in 1962. According to its Wikipedia article, some ‘60% of Jamaicans would push to once again become a British territory’, due to decades of mismanagement and economic decline.


Credit

The Man With The Golden Gun by Ian Fleming was published in April 1965 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1989 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1965

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.

The Egyptologists by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (1965)

‘A typical Yank bint, gentleman. More money than sense and more cheek than either.’ (p.34)

After reading half a dozen Kingsley Amis books I thought I knew what to expect in terms of subject matter and style. Subject matter alternates between sex – the war of the sexes, men trying to shag girls etc – and men getting drunk, really drunk, and behaving terribly. The style is deliberately offhand: lots of casual ‘whatevers’; the use of military metaphors giving comic exaggeration to everyday activities; and the narrator’s tremendous awareness of the way characters deploy stylised facial expressions or tones of voice (all features described in my previous Amis reviews).

This novel has whole stretches, chapters even, where these tricks and tics aren’t present, so I imagine they are the sections authored by Robert Conquest. You can tell the Amis parts, particularly around voices and faces:

The President took it upon himself to offer a few practical demonstrations, including the ‘scholarly stoop’, the ‘excuse me while I check that reference’ and, as reply to being offered a drink, the ‘good heavens no’. (p.35)

A few feet away, Chester and the Treasurer passed by on their up-and-down promenade, talking volubly but indistinguishably, hands clasped behind back. They were performing the ‘Balliol quad peripatetic duologue’. (p.40)

In a way the entire novel embodies the military metaphor strategy, since it describes an amateur club or society consisting of half a dozen middle-aged men, supposedly devoted to Egyptology but whose main purpose, for the first hundred pages or so, is excluding everyone else, including their wives or anyone with genuine knowledge of ancient Egypt, from attending any of the meetings or even finding their way to the club house, squirreled away somewhere in darkest Westbourne Grove, in West London.

This gives rise to sort-of funny mention of a wide range of strategies, protocols, procedures, passwords, pamphlets and routines, all carefully numbered and named, whose sole purpose is to anticipate any possible eventuality of anyone ever wanting to visit the clubhouse, or talk to the President of the club, or discuss actual Egyptology. Thus, when an American academic pays a scheduled visit, the members all adopt ‘standard Article 22 procedure’, designed to discourage all discussion and hasten her departure. During Ladies Night – the reluctant necessity of inviting their wives along to the Club at least once a year – the novel explains the elaborate plans for what each member has to say to each wife to sow confusion and misunderstandings among them, and to generally put them off attending any other events. Article 6 states:  Members whose wives wish to attend a lecture must block this by counterfeiting one of the following: food-poisoning, slipped disc… (p.119)

Some of the members have even worked up pseudo-scientific analyses of the problem of dealing with snoopers:

[The Secretary had even proposed] the devising of a curiosity-lethality formula with variables including N to represent the number of potential investigators, S their degree of solidarity, I their mean intelligence quotient and a number of others rather lamely eked out with K as an invariable cussedness-constant. (p.69)

In quite a funny scene, a troublesome reporter from the BBC phones up asking to speak to the President of the Society and the member on duty says, ‘Sorry, the President is addressing a public audience’, and turns up a record player he has to hand which plays a record of a Society meeting made some while earlier, complete with applause and coughing.

This is fine as far as it goes but by page 100 I was still no closer to discovering what these half dozen grumpy, heavy-drinking, middle-aged men meet for unless it is to discuss the myriad ways they’ve managed to stave off anyone finding their club or discussing actual Egyptology there. Is it a sort of spoof of the mania for spy stories, of the flood of films and novels and graphic books about spies and espionage which exploded into the mediascape in the mid-1960s? (A hunch reinforced by mention of the classic Bond villains, Goldfinger and Blofeld, on page 102, and of James Bond himself a little later). Is it simply a satire on men and their need to form clubs and make up silly rules to give themselves a sense of importance?

First half of the plot, or sequence of events

We meet the members of the Club, deliberating. A young American woman academic visits and is shown the elaborate charade that the Club is, alas Madam, closing down as you can see (fixtures and fittings being removed during her visit etc). They hold a Ladies Night for their wives packed full of disinformation strategies (described above). They are raided by the police, maybe hoping to find porn or contraband but there isn’t any and, upon having to make a formal visit to the police superintendent a few days later, they are surprised when he asks to join the Club.

A BBC reporter phones for an interview with the President, only to be put off with ever more elaborate excuses. In the middle of the book there is a Grand Scheme which involves them organising a weekend away, allegedly to dig for and research pagan remains near York: in reality, the Secretary is the only one at the end of the phone number given as the group accommodation contact, answering any calls made by the members’ wives or any other inquisitive persons. He is pictured rather vividly shacked up with the attractive American who came calling in an early chapter. The wives hold a meeting of their own, drinking bad wine and wondering why their husbands all suddenly developed an intense interest in ancient Egypt at the same time.

Why indeed?

Half-way revelation

All is explained in chapter 13 (unlucky for some) when the member named Isham unwisely has a date with the President’s wife. He plies her with drink, lots of drink, a splash-up dinner in St Martin’s Lane, and then a (deliberately) confusing taxi journey to a house in Westbourne Grove. Yes, he is having an affair with her and using the Club’s premises to do so! Unfortunately, she has cleverly rumbled the whole thing. It is an Adultery Club. It organises regular Thursday night lectures which don’t exist, during which one of the members mans the phone and plays the recording of a meeting if required while the others go a-swiving; the Wives Night is a necessary chore to maintain the fiction; the awaydays allow an entire weekend of adulterous fornication.

On one level it is a great Disappointment, taking the cunning, over-planning lecher theme from Amis’s previous novels and raising it to a new level – a whole club for calculating womanising swine. (In fact this particular chapter is very funny, in the way the biter is bit and poor Isham realises the wife of the Club has not only rumbled the entire set-up but it is his fault and his responsibility – oh dear, what are the others going to do to him?)

Aftermath

… And, once the secret is out, the novel stops being so God-Almighty mysterious, slips into place as a farce and becomes much more enjoyable. The second half is dominated by a series of crises, all designed to show the hapless husbands panicking like Brian Rix running round without his trousers round his ankles in a Whitehall farce. There are a number of choice scenes:

  • Furze, the Society servant, delivers a deadpan speech about the awfulness of women, featuring his own pledge to his wife that she will ‘get it’ once a month, regular like, whether she wants it or not, and ‘e’s kept his word, regular as clockwork and soon ‘is 35 years duty will be up and ‘e’ll be able to retire an honest man.
  • One of the wives arrives unexpectedly and, after a panic, they press-gang a new member into pretending to be a visiting Italian academic and Professor of Egyptology, complete with outrageously exaggerated accent. Reminiscent of a Peter Sellers or Terry Thomas comedy.
  • When an American who, through a friend of a friend, joins the Society then promises to set up a cousin branch in New York, actually arrives back in New York, he is arrested for smuggling hashish in the stuffed crocodile the members had given him as a memento. The investigation by the American authorities hangs over the second half of the plot like a cloud…
  • There is a pointless sub-plot about a silly conversation that gets going about the relative merits of front-clipping as opposed to back-fastening bras. One of the members owns a textile place and gets his people to run up a sample which opens both front and back. When he brings it to a meeting several members enthusiastically help him try and clip it on the life-size bust of Queen Nefertiti just as the latest member, an MP, walks in and, in a bid not to be caught, they clumsily let the statue fall to the ground where it smashes.
  • Maybe the funniest sequence is the incident of the burglar. When the Society servant sees a light on in the building late at night, he lets himself in, only to hear an intruder bolting out the back way. The superintendent, once established as a member, suspects the intruder will do it again and recreates the incident, Furze in the front door, intruder belting out the back only to be caught by the copper and a few other members. To their surprise it is the inoffensive character, Mordle. When questioned it turns out he has developed a real interest in Egyptology and had been breaking into the club to use the reference books in a paper he’s writing. The weekend in Yorkshire they’d used for seeing mistresses, he had gone on a study weekend at Oxford. ‘But what do you tell your wife to explain these evening absences?’ they ask him. ‘Oh I tell her I’ve got a girlfriend,’ he says deadpan and they all fall about laughing.

So that when we see the President’s wife not telling the other wives the Club’s secret, but planning a more complex revenge, it only adds to the general air of frenzied absurdity wholly appropriate to a farce. The climax of the novel comes when she conspires with the BBC producer to arrange for an outside broadcast team to descend on the Club and force the members to take part in a live 12-minute debate segment on a daily news programme, along with a real-life Egyptologist. This scene is a comic masterpiece, with the members having just a few minutes to come up with an elaborate plan, viz they will adopt personas designed to out-talk the time but without revealing their complete absence of knowledge. Thus the Secretary adopts the ‘doddering old man’ strategy and takes two hesitating, stuttering repetitive minutes to begin to even warm up to the answer to the question, ‘What first interested you in Ancient Egypt,’ while the Secretary, asked the same question, launches into an extremely detailed breakdown of the Society’s accounts along with his credentials as an accountant and the difficulties posed by the financial challenges of… and so on and so on.

The expert is still able to get a few words in edgeways and is in danger of discrediting them when they play their trump card by getting the presenter slipped a note saying the noted Polish academic Professor Asimov is in the audience and willing to take part. Asimov is, of course, the club President in an outrageous disguise and his heavily-accented and deliberately obtuse replies to the hard-pressed TV presenter are the funniest things in the book.

Sexism

This novel’s predecessor, One Fat Englishman, was bursting at the seams with outrageous opinions about women (as of Asians, blacks, Jews, Americans and anyone else he could think of to insult) but, being told in the first person, the reader could attribute these views to the repellent anti-hero, Roger Micheldene.

This novel is told by an omniscient narrator and you can almost hear something snap as Amis or Conquest or both decide to just vent their angry opinions about women. Mentioning the poor quality of the wine which the wives of the Egyptology Soc members consume at their meetings,

Not that, being women, they took much notice of what they drank – they came for the chatter. (p.69)

It is taken as axiomatic that all the men in the Club are reluctant to go home to their shrewish wives, and that the wives must be manipulated into complete ignorance of the Club’s true purpose. All the men at one point or another make speeches about how ghastly and unbearable women are, leading up to Furze’s, admittedly quite comic, but fundamentally misogynist, diatribe.

His earlier novels featured fornication – That Uncertain Feeling and Take A Girl Like You treated quite bitterly and seriously – but the whole mating game was reasonably balanced, with women giving as good as they got. Even in the One Fat Englishman you get a powerful sense of the American women Roger Micheldene lusts after, responding in kind and outmanouevring him at his own game.

But somehow, in this one, the balance tilts and the continuous, concerted and unrelenting denigration of women by the members of the Society stops, eventually, even pretending to be funny. Beneath it all you can sense a real hatred of women. In Englishman Roger’s perceptions vary wildly between genuine affection and drunken lechery, in the earlier novels the protagonists’ feelings are complex and mixed; here, all the men hate women, full stop. There’s no nuance, just a large number of well-educated, successful professional men united in their uniform and unrelenting hatred of women, and it’s not so funny any more.

This mood falls away in the last part of the novel, which becomes genuinely farcical and hilarious. And in the last few pages there’s a kind of boom-boom punchline, when it is revealed to various members that their wives knew all along the whole thing was a con, some just wanted their menfolk out of their hair, some felt pity for them and thought a nice affair would make them feel better, some took advantage of the free Thursday nights to have affairs of their own. So the authors make an effort to redress the balance in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’, and it does make the men and their labyrinthine plotting look absurd. But it doesn’t quite wash the flavour of the women-hating of the middle parts of the book out of the reader’s mind.

Swearing

Maybe it is the ‘permissive’ influence of the 1960s but there’s more crude swearing in this novel than in its predecessors.

‘All this is pretty farfetched, isn’t it? I thought Swift had taken the piss out of the anagrammatic method for good and all.’ (p.44)

The Secretary’s wife spoke with emphatic disgust. Her habit of rebuking what she called going out of one’s way to be a shit… was one of the things that bound her husband permanently to her. (p.73)

‘I took him very carefully through my “special field” – you know, magical sodding cults and beliefs in the pissing Late Period…’ (p.99)

When informed that an MP is going to be elected to the Society, Cambuslang replies:

‘But he’s the most terrible prick, isn’t he?’ (p.101)… and later: ‘He struck me as a really massive shit.’ (p.164)

In Amis’s novels the rise in swearing corresponds closely to the decline in humour, as if the necessity to use euphemisms and indirect insults in the more restrained texts of the buttoned-up 1950s made for a more charged and humorous prose. Once you’re allowed to say someone is a sod or a prick, you end up with a text full of people calling each other sods and pricks. It very quickly becomes monotonous.

L.S. Caton

A character named L.S. Caton appears in Lucky Jim. He promises the eponymous hero that he’ll publish his academic paper in a newly-established journal. Instead, Caton flees the country and the journal collapses – a further blow to Jim’s shaky reputation – while Caton is last heard of setting off for South America.

But Caton is then mentioned in most of the subsequent Amis novels, making him a nice running joke:

  • In Take A Girl Like You Caton appears in a letter offering to deliver a lecture at Patrick Standish’s school about his experiences in South America.
  • On page 159 of One Fat Englishman Roger Micheldene discovers a letter asking a reviewer to consider Caton’s book about South America for publication.
  • In this novel Caton appears on page 43, as an agenda item for a meeting of the mysterious Egyptology Society, and then again on page 158 as that night’s guest speaker.

Related links

Cover of The Egyptologists

Cover of The Egyptologists

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge (1965)

‘It’s a special form of scholarly neurosis,’ said Camel. ‘He’s no longer able to distinguish between life and literature.’
‘Oh yes I can,’ said Adam. ‘Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about children. Life is the other way round.’ (p.56)

This is a short comic novel about a young academic, Adam Appleby, struggling to finish his PhD on time, a Roman Catholic who has followed Vatican teaching on birth control and as a consequence has three small children and a harassed wife, all living in narrow poverty in a seedy flat at the top of a rickety old building.

Appleby is strikingly similar to the protagonist of Ginger, You’re Barmy (a timid shy literature-minded man enduring his two years of National Service before getting unhappily married) and shares with him a naive inexperience of life, a painfully embarrassed approach to sex, a feeble inability to make decisions or get anything done – all compensated for by a superior feeling that his Catholic faith makes him the privileged actor in Grand Moral Decisions.

And like Ginger, this Penguin paperback edition has a lengthy afterword from the author appended to it.

The afterword

The afterword freely reveals the motivation for the novel and the ideas behind its treatment. Its over-riding theme is the issue of Catholic doctrine on birth control (ie don’t use any), an issue made pressing by the arrival of the Pill in the years leading up to the historic Second Vatican Council, which attempted wide-ranging modernisation of the Church.

Appleby and his wife have obeyed Catholic teaching on birth control to the letter, which is why they currently have three children and are petrified that she’s pregnant with child number four. The novel describes an anxious day in the life of the harassed young researcher who undergoes all sorts of mishaps and indignities as he struggles to get even five minutes research done in the British Museum Reading Room – but underneath all the comedy lies the genuinely desperate anxiety of the miserable Catholic.

There was no doubt, he thought wryly, that the conditioning of a Catholic upbringing and education entered into the very marrow of a man. It unfitted him for the prosecution of an affaire with the proper gaiety and confidence. The taking of ‘precautions’ which was, no doubt, to the secular philanderer a process as mechanical and thoughtless as blinking, was to him an ordeal imbued with embarrassment, guilt and superstitious fear; and one which, Adam now saw, might easily come to overshadow in moral importance the act of sexual licence itself. (p.131)

Just as with Ginger, in many ways the afterword is the most interesting part of the book. The novel is funny alright, its incidental portraits of competitive academics and the failed, sad types who populate the BM Reading Room, keeping a constant smile on the reader’s lips. But, as with Ginger, it is regrettable that the novel has to have an issue as its central thread and, as a non-Catholic, it was hard to put up with page after page of the lead character bitterly complaining about his Church’s doctrines and the ruinous affect they are having on his sex life and his marriage, without eventually wanting to give him a slap and say, ‘Well, why don’t you leave your bloody awful church, then?’

Which, of course, millions of Western Catholics did during the 1960s and 70s. Though many preferred to stay on and suffer, filling their lives and minds and souls with mousy exasperation. And writing quietly cross novels like this.

Comedy

An example of the kind of comedy: In his anxiety Adam keeps phoning his wife back at the flat, to see whether she’s pregnant, on the Museum’s antique coin-operated phones. On one occasion he finds himself waiting for a fat American who has been on a long-distance call to the States to vacate the booth. Later, the phone rings as Adam arrives at it and an American calling himself Bernie tries to leave a message with him to pass on to the fat one. When Adam tries to explain that he isn’t the fat Yank, he finds the caller has left and that, instead, he is dealing with the operator, and is also caught on crossed lines with a complete stranger who’s trying to make an emergency 999 call to tell the police his books have been stolen.

Three people end up talking at once in a quite funny confusion, and when Adam says he received a call from Bernie the operator mishears and says, ‘Burning? You need the fire brigade.’ Adam puts the phone down on this confusing conversation and makes his way back to the Reading Room only to find an agitated crowd building up, because someone has called the fire brigade and big booted firemen are at that moment dragging hefty firehoses across the floor and into the Reading Room telling everyone not to panic. Adam slinks off to one side and desperately hopes the operator didn’t catch his name…

Even if you don’t find all the comic scenes that funny, I think you still have to admire the thoroughness with which Lodge sets various comedic strands going in the first part of the novel and then cleverly interweaves them and brings them to an artfully contrived climax.

Pastiches

Speaking of artful, it becomes apparent about half way through that the text is undergoing sporadic changes in tone or register. When Adam is sent on a wild goose chase to a house in Edgeware where he thinks he might be able to pick up a valuable manuscript from a lonely old lady, I recognised that the whole style became a parody of Henry James. (I guessed that this was also a tribute to The Aspern Papers which is about the attempt to purchase literary remains from a reluctant seller. Score double 🙂

From that point onwards I realised the text contained a number of deliberate pastiches of literary authors (Lodge, in his afterword, identifies ten of them). If you hadn’t realised before, this fact was rammed down your throat by the final section, an Epilogue, which suddenly switches the point of view to that of Adam’s long-suffering wife.

It had already struck me that the day-in-a-life structure mimicked that of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Now, as Barbara’s thoughts become increasingly freeform and without punctuation, I realised the epilogue was a homage to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which concludes Ulysses – except that Lodge’s version leads up to a knowing joke: whereas Molly’s (and Ulysses’) last word is Yes – a heroic affirmation of life and love – Lodge’s much more constrained, English, embarrassed and parochial story ends with… ‘perhaps’.

Funny? Sort of. Clever clever? Very.

David or Len?

It’s hard to believe that Lodge’s feebly timid, mouse-like academics, in books published in 1962 and 1965, inhabited the same world, let alone the same London streets, as the stylish, decisive protagonist of Len Deighton’s fabulously cool Ipcress novels – The IPCRESS File (1962), Horse Under Water (1963), Funeral in Berlin (1964). The movie of The Ipcress File features a scene set in the British Museum in the same year as Lodge’s dowdy comedy is set there (1965), and Deighton’s stylish spy works from an office only a few hundred yards from the Museum, in Charlotte Street.

Same city, different worlds.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being released by the IRA (!), and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for the fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses
1980 – How Far Can You Go?
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

The Strode Venturer by Hammond Innes (1965)

It was only much later, much later, that I came to understand the crazy streak in him. It wasn’t a question of instability so much as a certain theatrical quality in his make-up. His was a volatile, flamboyant nature feeding on excitement, carried away by his enthusiasm, his delight in the grand gesture. I was cast in the role of ground tackle, an anchor to keep him from wrecking himself. (p.105)

The setup

March 1963. Commander Geoffrey Bailey (p.20) comes from a once wealthy family. His father owned the Bailey Oriental Shipping Line, they had a big house in Eaton Square, entertained nightly (p.15). Until the week in 1931 when the company was forced into bankruptcy and bought out by the ruthless Henry Strode and his shipping line. The boy Geoffrey was taken out of prep school and sent to a college for naval cadets from where he graduated into the Navy, serving for nearly 20 years. Then unhappy marriage to Barbara and the opportunities apparently presented by Britain’s entry into the European Common Market prompt him to leave the Navy and travel to London to seek work. But it is harder than he expected. And he finds himself drawn (mysteriously drawn, as so many Innes’ heroes are) to visit Strode House in the City, headquarters of his family’s nemesis.

Strode’s assistant led me quickly up the great staircase and as I passed my father’s portrait, wondering what the hell they wanted, I had a strange feeling that all my life had been leading up to this moment. I cannot explain it even now, this feeling of inevitability, the sudden certainty that my future was linked with the Strode Orient Line. (p.36)

It is very typical of Innes that the plot requires overlays of coincidence. The previous novel, Atlantic Fury, gives a good example of Innes technique: the protagonist, Donald Ross, is on a mission to find out whether a certain Major Braddock is in fact his long-lost brother Iain, presumed dead during the war. To find out he has to travel up to the Hebridean island of Laerg where Braddock has taken on a new command. But this island will turn out to be the setting for the naval disaster at the core of the narrative. But in another layer of meaning, Laerg is also the island the Ross brothers’ grandfather was brought up on and they both have a mystical feel for and where Donald has wanted to return and see for years. And – as if these aren’t coincidence enough, Laerg just happens to be the island where Ross/Braddock came ashore after surviving at sea on a life-raft after his troop ship was torpedoed – the scene of his transformation from Ross to Braddock, the place where he stole another man’s identity.

The Innes’ technique is to build up the text not only by linear narrative, but by laying coincidence upon coincidence until events take on an eerie significance because they are drawing on not one or two but three or four levels of meaning. After one or two such coincidences the reader is sceptical, but after three or four the force of the narrative persuades you to accept them as strange and eerie twists in reality.

Just so, in this novel, Bailey’s connection with the Strode family are multiply layered:

  • the Strode family patriarch, Henry Strode, ruined his father then bought up his bankrupt shipping line
  • Henry Strode’s family thus changed the shape of his life, forcing his parents to send him to a cheap naval college, and then into the Navy
  • by a far-fetched coincidence he happens to meet one of the siblings, Peter Strode the traveller, in the Persian Gulf, and spend an evening chatting and getting to know him
  • back in London looking for work he writes a letter to the Strodes asking to meet Peter; only when he visits Strode House does he realise the Peter Strode he met is the black sheep of the family, currently missing and the other Strode brothers employ Bailey to track him down – now he is working for the very people who ruined his family
  • later on, Bailey finds himself commanding the very boat – The Strode Venturer – with the very same (alcoholic) captain Deacon – from which his father jumped to his death in the sea
  • in the course of the story, the narrator (rather inevitably) falls in love with Peter Strode’s sister, Ida, providing a romantic/biological connection with his enemies
  • and in the climax Bailey helps Peter defeat his brothers in a boardroom coup, and becomes a leading director of the new managanese shipping firm, thus providing poetic justice on wicked old Henry: the son of the man he ruined is now running his company and sleeping with his daughter

This heavily coincidental but eerily convincing intertwinement of destinies is very Innes. If it weren’t for the dramatic, and very masculine, disasters which are at the heart of every Innes narrative, these frameworks of coincidences, often based on family ties and blood allegiances, arguably have more in common with more traditionally women’s fiction and soap operas.

Now, at a dryly described shareholders meeting, Bailey discovers not only that Peter Strode holds a deciding block of shares in Strode and Company, but also that he is missing, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Strode & Co. have heard that Bailey met Peter once, by accident, in the Persian Gulf, so, on this shaky basis, they hire him to track the errant director down. Thus Geoffrey becomes witness to yet another of Innes’ protagonist’s ‘magnificent obsession’.

The plot

Big shipping line, Strode and Co. One of the legendary old founder’s sons, Peter Strode, has for years bummed around the Asian coast, seeking the good life. Latterly he has stumbled across the Maldive Islands and one particular atoll, Addu, which is trying to maintain its independence from the Confederation of the Maldives. He falls in love with their idyllic way of life and becomes determined to help them. So, much against the wishes of the London directors of the company, he uses the resources of his father’s shipping line to man an expedition to a remote volcanic island in the Indian Ocean which appears to have large stores of manganese ore, a valuable commodity which he plans to mine and sell to help ‘his’ islanders.

The narrator, Bailey, is also on this expedition, aboard The Strode Trader. Strode insists on confiscating sextants and charts, and steering the ship himself at various points to make sure nobody, not even the captain, knows the island’s location. They find the island, anchor and start shipping men and equipment out to it, commence drilling and digging and things go well for several days.

One day bad weather arises, a rainy squall, and the narrator decides not to take shelter in the overcrowded cabins on the ‘island’ but to take the rickety dinghy out to the ship anchored a mile offshore. As he leaves the lee of the island the sea gets choppy, the wind picks up and he starts to take on water but, much worse, he sees the ship he’s heading for, The Strode Trader has weighed anchor and is steaming away from him. Desperately he increases the revs on the dinghy and, helped by the waves swamping him from the stern, eventually crashes into the barge tied to the side of the ship. He leaps aboard the barge as the dinghy is crushed and destroyed, and is making his way forward, when a big swell knocks him off his feet and into the hold of the barge, where he regains consciousness some time later, bloody and half-drowned, and with no way out of the smooth-sided hold.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, he realises the main ship has run aground, as the storm continues to break over it and then – with a vast thunderclap – it is struck by lightning, not once but three times – it’s keel aground on the seabed is providing an earth to the lightning – and bursts into flames. There is the narrator, head wound and half-conscious, half-drowned, with no way of alerting the crew to his whereabouts, watching his one hope of safety burst into flames and burn.

Innes’ strength – wonderful sea descriptions

THIS is the kind of scene Innes conceives and describes with tremendous power. His descriptions of the most basic run-of-the-mill sea activity, of elementary sailing and navigating, resonate with the authority of a lifetime’s experience sailing the seas. But when his knowledge and experience are brought to bear in exceptional scenes like this (as in the storm scenes of Atlantic Fury) surely there is no-one who can match the depth and force of Innes’ imagination.

All morning clouds had been building up to the south of us, great convoluting mushroom growths standing like stacks along the horizon and constantly changing shape. Shortly after lunch the northerly breeze died away. It became suddenly very humid, and standing in the doorway leading to the foredeck, I could see a great toppling mass of cloud leaning over us. The sun vanished, huge raindrops fell singly, large as coins, and the surface of the sea began to dance as though struggling to reach up to the water still prisoned in the sky above. Lightning stabbed and instantaneous thunder clapped a great peal of noise onto the stillness; and then suddenly white water below the blackness of the cloud, a tooth-white line that grew broader and broader as it bore down on us until it stretched from horizon to horizon with the sea behind it all boiling. Then the wind hit us with screaming force and the ship heeled. (p.221)

You’ll be relieved to learn the ship survives the fire and, once the storm has passed, Bailey attracts the crew’s attention and is helped to safety, and the crippled ship limps back to the Maldives. But Bailey is furious that the Strode Trader‘s captain, Reece, turned tail and fled at the first sight of a storm, abandoning Peter Strode and the labourers on the atoll to their doom. The RAF send out Shackleton airplanes to search the area but there is no sign of the island. The official assumption is that the same volcanic activity which raised this couple-of-mile-long stretch of seabed above the surface, has sunk it again and Peter and his labourers have drowned.

Bailey catches the next RAF flight to Singapore and so back to London. Here, the completely different world of City firms and shareholder meetings are described with just as much thoroughness and attention to detail as the Indian Ocean scenes. Bailey, helped by Ida – Peter Strode’s sister – and a few accomplices, stand up to the Board of Strode and Company, blocking the takeover of the company by asset strippers, and ensuring that another ship is rigged and commissioned to go back out to find Peter Strode.

Sure the RAF has spent weeks flying quadrants over the presumed position of the ‘island’, but for the first time Bailey begins to wonder whether the Board back in London have conspired with the young captain of the ship which sailed away, to abandon Peter to his death, an inconvenience standing in the way of their bigger plan of liquidating the company and walking away with the loot.

Bailey flies to Aden to rendezvous with another Strode ship – The Strode Venturer – bound to take mail and supplies to the RAF station on the Maldives, equips it with the (alcoholic) captain Deacon who knows the area best, and then steams further south in search of Peter Strode and his ‘lost’ island. You might not be entirely surprised to learn that, after days of looking, they find him and it.

In this penultimate section a large strand of the book which I haven’t mentioned comes to fruition: namely Peter Strode’s obsession that the island not only be located, but also populated and officially claimed by his friends from the Adduan Republic. Bailey, on board the Strode Venturer, had heard radio reports of the approach of a small flotilla of Adduan dhonis or native boats. In the final pages we learn that a Royal Navy ship is nearby and steaming directly for them and so it becomes a race to see whether Adduans or Brits will be first to land, raise a flag, and claim the island.

In a happy ending, it is the Adduans, Peter’s friends. The Navy arrive a few hours later, accept the situation, land a small party for security, then the Adduans get down to loading the manganese ore into their boats to tranship to the Strode Venturer… and Peter Strode? His magnificent obsession finally fulfilled, his friends the Adduans in possession of this new land – he and Bailey go aboard the Royal Navy frigate… and sleep.

And the final pages conclude the saga of the boardroom struggle which has been running in parallel with the foreign narrative for the length of the book – one of the most sustained and factually accurate descriptions of boardroom battles that I know of. All the time he’s been out in the Indian Ocean his half-brothers Henry and George Strode have been manoeuvring to sell the company to asset strippers. Now, riding high on the triumph of his discovery of a new island as widely reported in the national press, Peter launches a boardroom coup which sees him join his shares with those of his sister, with Bailey and a couple of other sympathetic directors, to get old Strode’s brothers booted out of the company, and to re-structure Strode Orient to begin a major new venture, shipping raw manganese ore from the island. In other words, a business triumph!

And a few months later Geoffrey and Peter’s sister, Ida are married. And nine months later they fly out to Singapore so she can smash a champagne bottle against the prows of a new Strode Venturer as she is launched. Poetic closure.


Innes’ magnificent obsessives > delaying tactics

Innes characters all come across as more or less the same type of white middle-class professional men, often Army, Navy or merchant marine, sharing the same 1950s, late-British Empire values. Practical men living in a practical world. Yet the action always focuses around men who don’t fit into this mould, who have something extra, something mysterious and fascinating, a ‘magnificent obsession’ which drives the narrative. An aspect of this is that in other thriller novels the protagonist is clever and has a plan – or multiple plans – which are shared with us or which we enjoy deducing – and this process of deduction is part of the pleasure of the text.

In Innes books the Visionary, the Obsessive Protagonist, barely even has a plan – the captain of the Mary Deare beaches his ship so as to have evidence the owners intended to scuttle it; Kavan in Strange Land lies about his identity in order to get to the legendary silver mine; Saeton in Air Bridge will go to any length to test out his new jet engine; Braddock in Atlantic Fury wants to get to the island of Laerg to destroy the evidence of his crime; Peter Strode in this novel, is obsessed with finding his island full of valuable manganese ore – ‘only death would deflect him from his purpose.’ (p.146)

These are not cunning, fast-changing plans; they are idées fixes, obsessions. They are not susceptible to reason or argument or change. But in order to give the impression of tension, of thrill to the first halves of his novels, Hammond’s books all resort to the same strategy – having the magnificent obsessive not reveal their obsession, evade questioning, and so keep the narrator, and we the readers, guessing for as long as possible.

This, I think, explains the epidemic of delaying tactics and evasive answers which Innes makes all these Visionary characters use – the long silences, the character ‘withdrawing into himself’, answers cut off, conversations abandoned, the ‘little shrug’ which they’re all prone to.

The silence between us seemed to last a long time… He gave a little shrug… He wouldn’t tell me where the island was… He wouldn’t tell us what advice the old man gave us… He was worried about something but when I asked him about it he seemed reluctant to put it into words… ‘Then why didn’t you tell Reece that?’ ‘I don’t know.’ He shrugged peevishly… ‘What’s wrong,’ I asked. ‘Nothing,’ he snapped… Peter gave a little shrug… He let the silence run on, making no comment (148)… He sat for a long time without speaking (171)… He gave a quick little shrug (172)…

Anybody expecting the cunning plans and sleight of hands of the conventional thriller will be disappointed by Innes’ novels because there aren’t any. Instead you get:

  • detailed travelogue of interesting exotic places (vivid, well-written descriptions of places, peoples and boats)
  • a period of slow-paced prosaic processes and procedures – a trial or court martial or shareholders’ meeting (interesting, in a dry London boardroom kind of way)
  • a long period of wilful mystery and obtuseness and evasiveness (frustrating)
  • and then, the last fifty pages or so burst into thrilling description of intense physical challenges, disasters and survival (and as it’s the last bit you read, this visceral excitement tends to be your final – and redeeming – impression of the book)

This lack of conformity to modern thriller practice helps explain why The Strode Venturer is no longer in print and why I picked up my copy in a second-hand bookshop for just 10p. It’s worth much more than that for Innes’ vivid descriptive powers, especially of all and anything to do with his beloved sea.

The sun was falling now towards the west and I stayed there, watching the sparkle of it on the water until it sank into the sea and the sky turned fiery red, a flaming furnace glow dyed purple at the edges. Three pillars of cumulo-nimbus burned for a while, anvil-headed; the glow faded to a hard duck’s egg green and the first stars appeared. Then, suddenly it was night… (p.225)


The decline and fall of the British Empire

In its immediate predecessor, Atlantic Fury, Innes has the standard-issue, thriller-writer/man-of-action contempt for Whitehall bureaucracy and for the cynical hacks of the popular press. His protagonist has no political views and is only interested in the fate of the men he knows and his brother.

By contrast, The Strode Venturer is the first Innes book I can think of which contains direct and revealing comments on contemporary politics and culture. The general idea is that Strode and Company has gone downhill since its heyday in the 1930s when it was led by the fierce and ruthless Henry Strode. His several sons are pale copies of the original, and characters more than once lament that the company’s decline mirrors the decline of Britain itself and its Empire, once led by strong, ruthless men, now in the control of small, mean-minded men only interested in turning a quick profit.

  • Common Market – the hero’s whole predicament comes about because he quits the Navy in the hope Britain’s entry into the Common Market will create a surge in jobs – but General de Gaulle vetoed Britain joining in 14 January 1963 – ‘l’Angleterre, ce n’est plus grand chose
  • Declining Empire – ‘I’m talking now of the period between the wars. I don’t think we were conscious then that the Empire was slipping from our grasp, but the smell of decay was in the air, all the life blood of the country poured out in the trenches of that First World War and the men that were left, most of them of poor quality.’ (p.46, Strode’s ageing solicitor)
  • The era of Socialism and high tax signals the end of capitalism – ‘The power of the state is now so great that the gap between our brand of capitalism and Russia’s brand of communism is closing all the time.’ (p.24, George Latham, stockbroker)

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Strode Venturer

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Strode Venturer

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall (1965)

The zip on the briefcase was the interlocking plastic flange type and opened silently. Inside was the folder with the black cover. It was the memorandum… It would contain all the information they could give me, all the names, suspects, dossiers, leads and theories they could cull from the whole of the Bureau files, a complete and exhaustive breakdown of the field. (p.20)

This is a cold-eyed, cold-hearted spy thriller about a non-Jewish concentration camp survivor tracking down former Nazis. The tone of the novel is dictated by his sporadic memories of unspeakable atrocities by the Germans against their Jewish prisoners. No laughs, no colour, no colleagues or clubs, no music or art or galleries – just a solitary man trudging the streets of Berlin, moving from hotel to hotel, and soon being hunted by the very organisation he’s trying to expose.

Elleston Trevor

Elleston Trevor (1920 – 1995) was a British novelist and playwright who wrote prolifically under at least eight different pseudonyms. Under the name Adam Hall he wrote no fewer than 19 spy novels featuring the tough secret agent, Quiller, from his début in 1965 to his final appearance in 1996.

The Quiller Memorandum

It is Berlin in the freezing winter, snow everywhere. Quiller isn’t his real name – we don’t find out what that is. He works for ‘the Bureau’ – we don’t really know what that is, though he explicitly denies that it’s MI6. He has a set of codewords which is the only way he has of identifying other agents, as well as terminology not found in other spy books – ‘tags’ are people tailing him, ‘flushing’ is losing a tag, ‘doubling’ is double crossing.

We learn he was at Dachau concentration camp during the War. He saw Jews being murdered, he saw Nazi guards and officers at work, he has a scar on his leg picked up at Dachau, and somehow he set up a network smuggling Jewish prisoners out. He has been working undercover for 9 months in modern Germany, tracking down ex-Nazis and delivering dossiers about them to the Z Commission which then arrests them and delivers them to the Nazi trials in Hanover.

A contact meets him to explain that one of the biggest names is back in Berlin – Heinrich Zossen, a leading Nazi who he last saw twenty years ago at the edge of an execution pit in Dachau. The contact, Pol, is from the Berlin office of the Bureau, otherwise known as Berlin Control. Pol gives him a list of other Nazis they’re looking for – a memorandum (the original title of the novel was The Berlin Memorandum). Quiller’s task is to track them down. Rather melodramatically Pol says he is the sole man standing between two armies poised to go to war.

He has a fortuitous encounter with a girl called Inga who, after inviting him back to her flat for a drink, tells him about her harrowing experiences of being a nine-year-old in Hitler’s bunker which has left her with lots of unresolved ‘issues’. She reveals she used to be a member of Phönix, an underground group of ex-Nazis.

A Jew Quiller knew from the camp, who now works in a germ warfare lab, Sol, contacts Quiller and is on his way to meet him when he is assassinated. Shortly afterwards Quiller is picked up by some of the Phönix group, led by the cold-eyed boss, Oktober. They inject him with various drugs and interrogate him. (The use of drugs in interrogation reminds me of the similar scene in An Expensive Place To Die where the unnamed narrator is injected with LSD.)

The Nazis want to know the location of his superiors, the office of Berlin Control. Quiller knows they will raid it or bomb it, so he resists during a prolonged and hallucinatory scene, until he hears Oktober order him to be shot and dumped in the river. When Quiller comes to, wet, near the river, he realises it was a ploy. And it works because, once he has made it back to a hotel and cleaned up, he goes back to Inga’s flat seeking – as the narrator explains in brutally clinical language – the sexual release of the man who has escaped death. Only to find Oktober there and ready to torture the girl in front of him to get details of the Bureau, its code words and tradecraft etc.

Cold psychology

Though there are occasional flashes of colour, metaphor and simile in the writing, on the whole it is cold-eyed and factual. There is none of the humour of Len Deighton or Ian Fleming, none of the agonising theology of Graham Greene, none of the fast-moving excitement of Alistair MacLean, none of the subtle plot and counter-plot of 1960s Le Carré. Instead the narrator is very detached from himself and his plight, analysing his physical and mental reactions to situations. He liberally uses psychoanalytical terms to analyse his own and other people’s motivations.

I was helpless in a situation of rapidly increasing strain, and however much the ego and superego tried to rationalise and seek comfort or simple acceptance, the id knew I was in bad trouble and was ready to throw the switch and relieve the strain by blacking out. (p.117)

Everything is rationalised in a cold, detached manner. Even his return to Inga’s flat he analyses by describing himself and her as mating animals. To say there is little or no feeling in a book which prides itself on its coldness is an understatement.

It was no good thinking, this is no prelude to love. There would be nothing of love. This was the prelude to something that we would each act out for our own reasons: the simple biological urge to impregnate and be impregnated, the needs of dominance, subjection, identification, a lot of things known and unknown, an act of catharsis to let the fiends come out and perhaps to let others in. The beast with two backs would lord the jungle for a time, then it would die, without knowing why it had lived. (p.108)

Twice Oktober captures him and twice – after the drug interrogation, and after they’ve tortured Inga to try and get him to talk – they let him go without a scratch. Each time Quiller surmises the Nazis hope he will lead then to Berlin Control so he goes wandering round Berlin refusing the temptation to ring his office or post a message – but this rather blank and circular repetitiveness stretches credulity. A Modesty Blaise-style shootout would lighten the mood and lift the tension. And they’re Nazis. Surely they could extract the information they wanted pretty quickly? The entire premise of the plot doesn’t convince.

There is an elaborate double bluff where the Phönix organisation let Quiller into their base and let him see a big tabletop plan of a Nazi takeover of the new West German army. It is only when they release him that Quiller concludes it is an elaborate ruse to provoke him into contacting his Control, so they can find out where it is. And yet, at the end of the novel, it appears there actually was a Nazi plot to seize control of the army. And that the Sol who was shot on his way to meet Quiller had been working for the Nazis and been tasked with producing vials of fatal germ warfare bugs. I’d stopped caring…

Disconnect

There’s a radical disconnect between the majority of the plot which is Quiller stumbling round Berlin trying to shake off his tails (or ‘tags’ in this book) and getting picked up twice by the group and having sex once with Inga – a very small set of rather dull incidents – and the vastness of the supposed conspiracy to seize the German Army and then all Europe! It seems quite mad.

Memo style

The style often descends into memo or Powerpoint format. ‘Situation: Being followed. Decision: ditch tag at next junction.’ Quiller’s favourite phrase is ‘no go’, his response to umpteen calculations of the odds of various course of action. Towards the end the prose reduces further and further to bullet points and lists of issues and actions.

Paramount consideration: protect the Bureau from risk. Worst eventuality: death and no signal sent, my people back where they began. (Who would replace me? Dewhurst? Disregard likelihood)
Programme: send signal by direct phone if absolutely certain unobserved. If impossible, wait for the bullet in the neck and try to – (Disregard).

It’s an interesting experiment in style, which obviously struck a chord in 1965 as it became a popular bestseller – an exercise in alienation, an essay in a certain kind of masculine psychology, a modish assemblage of contemporary concerns in the era of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’. But it’s difficult and for the most part unrewarding to read now.

Spy boom

The Berlin Memorandum was published in 1965, at the height of the 1960s spy movie boom. The same year saw the release of Thunderball – the decade’s most popular Bond film, as well as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and the book was swiftly turned into a movie itself.

The movie version was released just a year later, in 1966, with a sparse repetitive screenplay by Harold Pinter, directed by Michael Anderson, and starring George Segal, Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow and Senta Berg.

The TV series

Ten years after the Quiller novels began publication they were turned into a 13-part BBC TV series starring Michael Jayston, which transmitted from August to November 1975. I remember watching and loving it. Sadly, the series is not on YouTube or available on DVD, though someone has uploaded the funky jazz-fusion 1970s theme tune.

Related links

The Quiller novels

  • 1965 – The Berlin Memorandum Quiller tangles with a group of neo-Nazis led by Oktober, trying to get details of their organisation til the capture and interrogate him to get the details of his organisation.
  • 1966 – The 9th Directive Quiller is in Bangkok where he uncovers a plot to assassinate ‘a leading Royal’, which he incompetently fails to realise is really a disguised plot to kidnap him. After much shooting and a high speed road chase the Royal is exchanged for an enemy spy on the Chinese border.
  • 1968 – The Striker Portfolio Quiller investigates the unexplained crashes of NATO’s latest high speed jet and uncovers a sinister conspiracy.

Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell (1965)

Her mind was a carefully controlled instrument, rejecting all considerations except those which were or could be vital – and to these it was infinitely sensitive. (p.171)

The comic strip

The Modesty Blaise comic strip first appeared in The Evening Standard in May 1963. It was conceived and written by Peter O’Donnell who chose to collaborate with artist Jim Holdaway, who he’d already worked with on the strip Romeo Brown. Over succeeding decades several other artists would draw the strip but O’Donnell was always the writer.

The movie

In 1965 a movie adaptation of the strip went into production, starring starred Monica Vitti as Modesty, Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin and Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel. O’Donnell was paid to write the initial screenplay but the final version was substantially rewritten by many hands. Among other things it changed the chaste relationship between Modesty and her side-kick Willie which gives the stories their oddly dignified and principled tone – a change which helped contribute to the movie’s lack of success. But O’Donnell was also commissioned to write a novelisation of the movie – in this he stuck closer to the original spirit of the strip and the book was successful.

Thereafter, O’Donnell continued to write the comic strip and novels in parallel.

There were 11 novels in all, plus two volumes of short stories, the final one appearing as late as 1996. Purists prefer the cartoons, which have been repackaged in a rather confusing variety of formats over the years, and there have also been several graphic novels. All is explained in the comprehensive Wikipedia article.

Modesty Blaise the novel

Background

After World War Two Modesty is a Displaced Person who made her own way across the Balkans to the Middle East where her existence is, for the first time, officially registered. Along the way she is raped twice and becomes a hardened survivor. She works for a small gambling gang in Tangier run by one Henri Louche, till he is bumped off – at which point Modesty takes over and becomes a kind of criminal mastermind, establishing a successful international crime outfit known as The Network, which carries out operations around the world, building up a far-flung web of contacts and helpers.

At some point she meets Willie Garvin, a young cockney criminal, and sees his potential. She makes a man of him and he never forgets, becoming her closest partner and ally. They’re not just criminal brains but extremely fit and acrobatic assassins, each with speciality ways of killing – Modesty with her acrobatics and archery, Willie with his trusted knives, stashed in a special chest holster.

Eventually, Modesty achieves her aim of making half a million pounds and retires, buying a lavish penthouse suite in central London.

The plot

Oil and diamonds. The British government has done a deal to exploit the oil fields of a little sheikhdom on the border of Iraq – Malaurak – but the ruler, Prince Abu-Tahir, does not like money and insists on being paid in kind, in this case, with South African diamonds. Ten million pounds worth of diamonds. Put simply the plot is: British government representative Sir Gerald Tarrant is sent to ask Modesty if she will work on the side of the angels and protect the diamonds. And she says Yes.

First she has to release Willie from a prison he has been foolish enough to be sent to, in Latin America. Then, back in London and the Home Counties, there is a lot of training and fiddling with gadgets, an exploding tie, poison gas lipstick, a bow and arrow made from slender sections which can be smuggled sellotaped to the body then quickly assembled, and so on.

Modesty has a calculating affair with a hunky crim who is also an accomplished artist, named Paul Hagan, who she dumped way back, but they now need again. They move to the south of France and tangle with Pacco, a local boss who controls hoods and assassins, and is an outlier of the larger organisation. Through various violent confrontations (Modesty and Willie kill Pacco and all his henchmen) they confirm that the man behind the plan to rob the diamonds is a cool calculating killer, Gabriel, of the invisible irises and penetrating black pupils. He controls a large gang of henchmen who have taken over a monastery on a minute island close to Cyprus. They use this as the base from which to sail a pleasure cruiser to Port Said, from where they make the daring heist on the diamond ship.

Notable among Gabriel’s crew is a psychopathic woman with the Joe Ortonesque name Mrs Fothergill, who gets her sexual thrills by murdering people by hand.

Gadgets

The focus on improbable gadgets puts it very much in the James Bond universe. The daring heist is made with an undersea diving bell which has been modified to cling to the bottom of the diamond ship while the baddies cut through the hull into the strong-room using an oxy-acetylene cutter. You can almost hear the exciting 1960s thriller music playing during these scenes.

Bond with boobs

Modesty’s character amounts to a kind of pact between O’Donnell and the reader: yes, she is physically sexy, yes, we see various scenes in which she strips off her pullover and bra for action, yes, she makes love once or twice to Hagan. BUT she combines this with not being a victim, a floozy, an air-head or a sex kitten – but being the strongest figure in the book, physically, mentally and intellectually, she is the undisputed leader.

Modesty is very much in control at all moments, from start to finish. Sir Gerald Tarrant is fascinated and intimidated by her; the hoodlums she kills experience her physical prowess and ability to kill at will; the arch-baddy Gabriel underestimates her; Modesty fights and defeats Mrs Fothergill in a girl-on-girl fight which is pulp in concept but described with surprising lack of salaciousness; she saves Willie when he is wounded; and she saves the diamonds. She is a hero.

Sure Modesty has a sexual element, and she sometimes uses her sexuality – but she isn’t defined or constrained by it. Just as Bond is a handsomely attractive man, but also a lot more; in exactly the same way, Modesty is a hot woman whose lacy bras and stockings are frequently registered – but she is a lot more as well.

By the pact between O’Donnell and the reader I mean that we promise not to laugh at Modesty’s preposterous adventures and, for his part, the author maintains her dignity and respects her character; he never lowers the tone or exploits Modesty’s sexuality for cheap effects.

Shallow

Having said all that, I struggled to enjoy most of the book because it is all action, like a novelisation of an episode of The Man From UNCLE or The Avengers. Although references are made to her troubled past and to Willie’s respect for her and to Tarrant’s changing perceptions of her as he sees her in action – there is really very little psychology, little or no interiority to the text. After a while it is just a sequence of bad guys getting killed in a variety of florid and imaginative ways. Because we know both Modesty and Willie will survive whatever happens to them, the element of risk quickly diminishes, until there is little or no real risk or jeopardy. Compared to a novel by Alistair MacLean, the most genuinely nailbiting and physically intense thriller writer I know of, Modesty’s adventures come across as, well, a cartoon strip.

Clichés

And the paper thin psychology, the comic strip origins, are reflected in comic strip style. Whereas Len Deighton can make the English language perform hitherto unheard-of feats, O’Donnell is content to re-use the hyperbolic clichés of pulp. I don’t think there’s an original phrase in the entire novel.

The unintelligent eyes surveyed Modesty with a touch of greediness, like a mastiff scenting a bone. (p.171)

McWhirter looked at her and she saw the cruelty that lay deep in the twinkling blue eyes. (p.177)

Hagan registered every detail in one instant mental snapshot before he felt any emotion at all. Then sickness hit him hard in the stomach, a sickness of rage against himself. (p.90)

She smelt of cordite and sweat, and the sharp blend of it stirred him strangely. (p.231)

That said, the ending is sentimental but effective. After the climactic shootout at the baddy’s lair, our heroes are saved at the last minute by the arrival of the Prince’s men (in a glider!) to round up and disarm the last of the enemy. Hours later, cleaned up and exhausted, Modesty sinks onto the shoulder of her lover-for-the-time-being, Hagan, who is left staring out over the Mediterranean waves sparkling in the sunshine, wondering what adventures the future will bring, wondering how long they will have together…

Seen-it-a-thousand-times scenarios and threadbare clichés can still stir the heart.

Related links

The movie

This is the trailer for the 1966 movie, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Monica Vitti as Modesty, Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin, and Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel. Bogarde’s improbable blonde barnet reminds me of Javier Bardem’s equally improbable blonde hairdo in the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall (2012) – plus ça change.

Modesty Blaise novels

  • Modesty Blaise (1965) Introducing Modesty and sidekick Willie Garvin, as they protect government diamonds from a fiendish international criminal, Gabriel.
  • Sabre-Tooth (1966) Modesty and Willie get involved with a small army of hardened mercenaries who are planning to overthrow the government of Kuwait.
  • I, Lucifer (1967) An eccentric bunch of crooks have got hold of a mentally ill young man who thinks he is the Devil but has the useful knack of being able to predict natural deaths: they are using this to blackmail VIPs, until Modesty and Willie intervene.

The Looking Glass War by John le Carré (1965)

‘All right,’ Haldane conceded. ‘We have our brief. But things have changed. It’s a different game now. In those days we were top of the tree – rubber boats on a moonless night; a captured enemy plane; wireless and all that. You and I know; we did it together. But it’s changed. It’s a different war; a different kind of fighting.’ (p.62)

Failure and misery

This novel has the unrelenting despair and misery of a Graham Greene book. Everyone is unhappy, incompetent, in failed marriages with wives who despise them, children they don’t understand, in unsuccessful careers, too old, living in the past, working for a superannuated organisation, slack, doomed to failure.

He went back to his room. There were times when he confronted his own image as a man confronts an empty valley, and the vision propels him forward again to experience, as despair compels us to extinction. (p.103)

The same wish-to-lecture as Greene. And the same subject: despair, emptiness, the horror of life.

The flat was in darkness. Standing before it, he tried to detect in the house, in himself, some trace of the sentiment, or affection, or love, or whatever it was that explained their marriage, but it was not to be found and he supposed it had never been. He sought desperately, wanting to find the motive of youth; but there was none. He was staring into an empty house. (p.151)

And the same easy equation of complex situations with half a dozen standard bromides about love and guilt.

He was terribly tired; the tiredness was like a physical despair, like the moment of guilt before making love. (p.212)

Like most of Greene’s editorialising, this sounds fine but, on inspection, is meaningless, as if the words ‘despair’, ‘guilt’ and ‘love’, ‘faith’ and betrayal’, are shiny counters which can be placed in any order to deliver a Grand Statement about the Human Condition.

‘Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.’ (p.196)

Greeneitis.

Competence and the thriller

If you can put aside the relentlessly depressed view of human nature, the novel has other themes.

It highlights the importance of ‘competence’ as a key concept in the thriller. From Sherlock Holmes to Jason Bourne the hero has a super-human ability to swiftly size up situations and seize the advantage. Despite le Carre’s reputation for the downbeat and realistic, George Smiley (p.32) does in fact perform the function of the omni-competent hero in the eight novels in which he is mentioned (part of the reason I don’t like the running gag about his glamorous wife, Lady Ann, having left him, is because it is so obviously a ruse designed to conceal the fact that Smiley is, beneath his thick glasses and badly-tailored clothes, as shrewd and all-seeing as Holmes.)

The Looking Glass War

In this novel le Carré goes out of his way to portray incompetence. It is set in a government ‘Department’, which had a clear brief during the War to gather intelligence but has now fallen on hard times, its staff dwindling, its agents taken over by the ‘Circus’, in whose shadow the resentful handful of remaining ageing bureaucrats dream up schemes to reassert their importance, led by a hesitant, small man named Leclerc. The old-timers with too much time on their hands reminisce about the War, and the plot boils down to an effort by these middle-aged dreamers to recapture the intensity, the sense of purpose and the excitement they felt, during the War.

Part one

In the brief first part we are introduced to Taylor, a boastful man sent by Leclerc to a remote airport in Finland. A commercial flight has been instructed to fly over East German airspace with cameras in the belly, presumably to look for military installations. Taylor is to meet the pilot and take receipt of the roll of film. The point of the entire section is to highlight Taylor’s incompetence:

  • he fluffs elementary security by telling his wife about the mission, and she has told their daughter (!)
  • he is tempted at every turn to impress the airport staff with how jolly important he is
  • instead of finding a quiet corner of the bar and waiting for the pilot to arrive, he hogs the bar and makes himself memorable by insulting the barman
  • when the pilot arrives he is himself flustered by having been intercepted by MIG jets, unhappy with the mission
  • and they exchange the roll of film and money in plain sight

By the time Taylor has realised he’s drunk, the last airport taxis have all gone and he sets off to walk through the heavy snow to the hotel. A car seen earlier loitering, accelerates up behind him and deliberately runs him over, killing him. The strong implication is this murder follows logically from the folly of the mission and the failure of Taylor to observe almost every rule of ‘tradecraft’.

Part two

Leclerc hosts a meeting of the ‘Department’. Le Carré forensically highlights the politics, the psychological combat, of the attendees. (Le Carré literally belittles Leclerc: he has small fists, a small head, struggles to assert himself.)

Leclerc tells them a mechanic who fled from the East brought photos of what appear to be the latest type of Russian missile being installed in secret locations in East Germany. The attendees are sceptical. They point out that their man who forwarded this ‘information’ – Gorton – has his contract up for renewal; maybe he invented it. (On page 167 Haldane, head of Research, finds similar photos which are known to be fake, but doesn’t inform anyone.) They are critical that Taylor, an overt courier, had been used for a clandestine mission (which explains why he was so puffed up and incompetent), but generally accept the conclusion that this could be a new Cuban Missile Crisis. –What comes over in spades is their collective sense of inferiority to the ‘Circus’, their resentment of the Foreign Office, their determination to prove themselves. All desperately downbeat and depressing.

This is one of the eight Smiley novels: he is not the main figure, as in Tinker, Tailor or Smiley’s People, but not quite as peripheral as in Spy. Once the Circus learns what the Department is up to, Control asks Smiley to lend a hand and keep watch. Smiley interviews Avery on pages 55 to 58. It is clear that he is appalled at his ignorance of tradecraft. Smiley gives him detailed instructions on how to ‘drop’ the film to an experienced courier. He reports back to Control and is tasked with keeping a watch on the Department’s activities.

Avery comes across as a young romantic fool. His trip to Helsinki to collect Taylor’s body is a disaster. Le Carré shows unrelentingly how your story must be perfect to the utmost bureaucratic detail or else the Consul, the Embassy, the local police, the coroner, the airline – someone, in the normal course of their duties, will stumble across any anomalies, and then start asking difficult questions. Avery is portrayed – like Taylor before him – as completely out of his depth. He cannot even manage burning Taylor’s letters and affects in his hotel room without staining the sink, leaving tell-tale traces, and making the hotel staff suspicious.

Wives

Depression and failure colour the entire book. Le Carré carries it deep into the characters’ private lives. The members of the Department fail to keep basic security by telling their wives what’s happening. Their wives don’t believe them or despise them. We meet:

  • Woodford the technician and his drunk weeping malicious wife, Babs – ‘she was a thin, childless woman’ (p.168)
  • Taylor’s wife, horribly distraught with grief, when told her husband has died ‘for his country’
  • Fred Leiser’s wife, drunk and resentful and suspicious: he’d rather spend the night with a prostitute than return to her
  • Young foolish Avery emerges as probably the lead character in the novel and we learn far too much about the sterile love-hate marriage with Sarah, who bitterly resents his secrecy and his new sense of puffed-up importance, and are mildly nauseated by the way both of them use their young son Anthony as a pawn in the endless arguments – ‘If it weren’t for Anthony I really would leave you’ (p.164)
  • Smiley thinks Control stays in town on Monday nights because he wants to get away from his wife (p.154)
  • and, of course, everyone knows about Smiley’s wife, the glamorous Lady Ann, and her serial infidelities

All relations between the sexes, in this novel, cause pain. Reading the many passages about relationships in this novel are like having toothache.

Part three

Back in Blighty, young Avery discovers there’s been more incompetence: since he had used his own name when visiting Helsinki to reclaim Taylor’s body, the irregularities in Taylor’s identity were noted and pursued by immigration police our end, who called on Avery’s wife in the middle of the night. As if that wasn’t bad enough, because he’d blabbed to her, she proceeded to tell the police all about Taylor and his secret mission. If they were police, that is…

Meanwhile, we are shown Leclerc adroitly handling the Whitehall system and getting permission and money to ‘send a man in’ to check the rocket rumours. We are shown Department buffer Woodford going to a shabby old club, the Alias Club, on Villier Street near Charing Cross, set up by veterans of the War, and asking about old contacts, trainers he could call up, plus does anyone know the whereabouts of the man they’ve chosen for the mission, the only man they have on the books from the old days who can speak German, a Polish emigré who fought with us during the War, Fred Leiser.

The novel describes the way old hands from the War are tracked down and set to work training Leiser for his top secret mission at a rented house in Oxford. But the whole flavour of the thing is bitter farce: they are all dreamers, deluded; they want the old days to return, the War years to restore a sense of purpose to their empty lives. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is downbeat, but the leanness of the narrative and the slowly-revealed depths of intelligence in the plot are invigorating for the reader. This novel is plain depressing. Everyone is deluded.

The training is described in minute detail. Maybe it is an accurate portrayal of espionage tradecraft circa 1960. Certainly the class consciousness is very 1960s. Leiser and the the trainers are sergeants and NCOs, not proper officer material, dontcha know. While Leclerc and Haldane swell into their officer-class sense of self-importance, Avery notices the trainers and the agent himself have ‘something of the backstairs’ (p.166).

In the East

The final forty or so pages, describing Leiser’s pointless ‘mission’ into East Germany, are vividly imagined and written, heart-stopping, terrifying: he sneaks across the night-time terrain, through the wire, suddenly killing the young border guard he encounters, then blundering through snow, through darkened villages, stealing a motorbike, asking questions and causing suspicion wherever he goes, leaving a trail a mile wide. The defining mistake is transmitting a radio signal back to his controllers for a solid six minutes, when the maximum for security purposes is two-and-a-half. After three the East Germans have detected it, and the remaining minutes allow them time for several receivers to pick him up and work out his location. They close in for the kill.

Control

It’s not as if the ‘Circus’ (the name all the characters use for British Intelligence due to its location on Cambridge Circus in central London) is much better. The Circus is well-informed about all these developments but let the Department’s crazy plan go ahead anyway, deliberately lending them antiquated radio equipment, fixing passports and papers. On pages 216 to 218 a conversation takes place between Control and Smiley in which the former seems to be admitting that they’ve set the Department up to fail; in other words, that they’re happy for this agent to be captured or killed if it leads to the disgrace and closure of the Department and the triumph of the Circus. ‘It’s not my fault they’ve taken so long to die.’ (p.218)

This exchange clinches one’s view of Control. He is nasty, amoral and manipulative (as he seems to have been in conceiving the plan which led to Liz and Leamas’s death in the Spy Who Came In From The Cold). But, worse, he comes over as doddery. He is portrayed as a querulous old man who detests the modern world and judges people as much by snobbery as on their merits.

  • I do detest the telephone (p.216)
  • Leclerc’s so vulgar…a silly, vulgar man (p.217)
  • God, how I loathe civil servants. (p.217)

Partly this looks forward to Control’s death just before the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and everyone’s comments in that book that he’d lost it, become obsessed, should have been pensioned off etc. But on every page of this novel I thought, if this is a remotely accurate account of Britain’s intelligence services in the early 1960s no wonder the Americans were so supremely reluctant to share anything with such a shower.

Short

The narrator not only belittles the silly ‘Department’, its foolish plan and its ham-fisted incompetence, he literally belittles the characters. They’re always short, under-sized.

  • Leclerc Smaller than the rest, older. (p.29) Leiser laughed in a reserved way. It was if he could have wished Leclerc a taller man. (p.182) His small hands folded tidily on his knee. (p.202)
  • Leiser He was a short man, very straight (p.106) He was very much the small man just then. (p.184) As Leiser put on each unfamiliar thing… he seemed to shrink before their eyes. (p.187) … his small face was turned to her… (p.237)
  • Smiley Little sad bloke.’ (p.112)

Everything about the book is little and sad, including, by extension, England itself, its shabby pubs and seedy clubs, its streets full of prostitutes, its awful food and grim weather. The descriptions are beautifully precise. Le Carré’s prose is crisp and clear. But this is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.

He handed in his suitcase to the depository at Paddington Station and wandered out into Praed Street because he had nowhere to go. He walked about for half an hour, looking at the shop windows and reading the tarts’ advertisements on the glazed notice boards. It was Saturday afternoon: a handful of old men in trilby hats and raincoats hovered between the pornography shops and the pimps on the corner. There was very little traffic: an atmosphere of hopeless recreation filled the street. (p.149)

The movie

Made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with plausibility, precision and thrilling intelligence.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) Depressing tale of a ramshackle wing of British intelligence left over from the War, whose members try to recapture the old glory when they receive a (dodgy) tip about missiles stationed in East Germany, and wangle the funding to give incompetent training, useless equipment and send to his pointless death, a hapless Polish émigré. A detailed and persuasive account of a dispiriting shambles.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist German political movement.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European emigre in Hampstead leads, eventually, the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to allow herself to be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things start to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
%d bloggers like this: