The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

The short paper by James Watson and Francis Crick establishing the helical structure of the DNA molecule was published in the science journal, Nature, on April 25, 1953. The blurb of this book describes it as the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Quite probably, although it was a busy century – the discovery of antibiotics was quite important, too, not to mention the atom bomb.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their DNA model at the Cavendish Laboratories in 1953

Anyway, what makes this first-person account of the events leading up to the discovery such fun is Watson’s prose style and mentality. He is fearless. He takes no prisoners. He is brutally honest about his own shortcomings and everyone else’s and, in doing so, sheds extraordinarily candid light on how science is actually done. He tells us that foreign conferences where nobody speaks English are often pointless. Many scientists are just plain stupid. Some colleagues are useless, some make vital contributions at just the right moment.

Watson has no hesitation in telling us that, when he arrived in Cambridge in 1951, aged just 23, he was unqualified in almost every way – although he had a degree from the University of Chicago, he had done his best to avoid learning any physics or chemistry, and as a graduate student at Indiana he had also avoided learning any chemistry. In fact the book keeps referring to his astonishing ignorance of almost all the key aspects of the field he was meant to be studying.

The one thing he did have was a determination to solve the problem which had been becoming ever-more prominent in the world of biology, what is a gene? Watson says he was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s 1946 book, What Is Life? which pointed out that ‘genes’ were the key component of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must understand what genes are and how they work. The bacteriologist O.T. Avery had already shown that hereditary traits were passed from one bacterium to another by purified DNA molecules, so this much was common knowledge in the scientific community.

DNA was probably the agent of hereditary traits, but what did it look like and how did it work?

Our hero gets a U.S. government research grant to go to Copenhagen to study with biochemist Herman Kalckar, his PhD supervisor Salvador Luria hoping the Dane would teach him something but… no. Watson’s interest wasn’t sparked, partly because Kalckar was working on the structure of nucleotides, which young Jim didn’t think were immediately relevant to his quest, also because Herman was hard to understand –

At times I stood about nervously while Herman went through the motions of a biochemist, and on several days I even understood what he said. (p.34)

A situation compounded when Herman began to undergo a painful divorce and his mind wandered from his work altogether.

It was a chance encounter at a conference in Naples that motivated Watson to seek out the conducive-sounding environment of Cambridge (despite the reluctance of his funding authorities back in the States to let him go so easily). John Kendrew, the British biochemist and crystallographer, at that point studying the structure of myoglobin, helped smooth his passage to the fens.

Head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where Watson now found himself was Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography. The unit collecting X-ray diffraction photographs of haemoglobin was headed up by the Austrian Max Perutz, and included Francis Crick, at this stage (in 1951) 35-years-old and definitely an acquired taste. Indeed the famous opening sentence of the book is:

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.

followed by the observation that:

he talked louder and faster than anybody else, and when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious.

So he had found a home of sorts and, in Francis Crick, a motormouth accomplice who was also obsessed by DNA – but there were two problems.

  1. The powers that be didn’t like Crick, who was constantly getting into trouble and nearly got thrown out when he accused the head of the lab, Bragg, of stealing one of his ideas in a research paper.
  2. Most of the work on the crystallography of DNA was being done at King’s College, London, where Maurice Wilkins had patiently been acquiring X-rays of the molecule for nearly ten years.

There was a sub-problem here which was that Wilkins was being forced to work alongside Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, who was an independent-minded 31-year-old woman (b.1920) and under the impression that she had been invited in to lead the NA project. The very young Watson and the not-very-securely-based Crick both felt daunted at having to ask to borrow and interpret Wilkins’s material, not least because he himself would have to extract it from the sometimes obstreperous Franklin.

And in fact there was a third big problem, which was that Linus Pauling, probably the world’s leading chemist and based at Cal Tech in the States, was himself becoming interested in the structure of DNA and the possibility that it was the basis of the much-vaunted hereditary material.

Pauling’s twinkling eyes and dramatic flair when making presentations is vividly described (pp.37-8). Along the same lines, Watson later gives a deliberately comical account of how he is scoffed and ignored by the eminent biochemist Erwin Chargaff after making some (typically) elementary mistakes in basic chemical bonding.

It is fascinating to read the insights scattered throughout the book about the relative reputations of the different areas of science – physics, biology, biochemistry, crystallography and so on. Typical comments are:

  • ‘the witchcraft-like techniques of the biochemist’, p.63
  • ‘In England, if not everywhere, most botanists and zoologists were a muddled lot.’ p.63

In a typical anecdote, after attending a lecture in London given by Franklin about her work, Watson goes for a Chinese meal in Soho with Maurice Wilkins who is worried that he made a mistake moving into biology, compared to the exciting and well-funded world of physics.

The physics of the time was dominated by the aftershock of the massive wartime atom bomb project, and with ongoing work to develop both the H-bomb and peacetime projects for nuclear power.

During the war Wilkins had helped to develop improved radar screens at Birmingham, then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Now he was stuck in a dingy lab in King’s College arguing with Franklin almost every day about who should use the best samples of DNA and the X-ray equipment and so on. (Later on, Watson tells us Wilkins’ and Franklin’s relationship deteriorated so badly that he (Watson) was worried about lending the London team the Cambridge team’s wire models in case Franklin strangled Wilkins with them. At one point, when Watson walks in on Franklin conducting an experiment, she becomes so angry at him he is scared she’s going to attack him. Wilkins confirms there have been occasions when he has run away in fear of her assaulting him.)

It’s in this respect – the insights into the way the lives of scientists are as plagued by uncertainty, professional rivalry, and doubts about whether they’re in the right job, or researching the right subject, gnawing envy of more glamorous, better-funded labs and so on – that the book bursts with insight and human interest.

Deoxyribonucleic acid

By about page 50 Watson has painted vivid thumbnail portraits of all the players involved in the story, the state of contemporary scientific knowledge, and the way different groups or individuals (Wilkins, Franklin, Pauling, Crick and various crystallographer associates at the Cavendish) are all throwing around ideas and speculations about the structure of DNA, on bus trips, in their freezing cold digs, or over gooseberry pie at their local pub, the Eagle in Cambridge (p.75).

For the outsider, I think the real revelation is learning how very small the final achievement of Crick and Watson seems. Avery had shown that DNA was the molecule of heredity. Chergaff had shown it contained equal parts of the four bases. Wilkins and Franklin had produced X-ray photos which strongly hinted at the structure and the famous photo 51 from their lab put it almost beyond doubt that DNA had a helix structure. Pauling, in America, had worked out the helical structure of other long proteins and had now began to speculate about DNA (although Watson conveys his and Crick’s immense relief that Pauling’s paper on the subject, published in early 1953, betrayed some surprisingly elementary mistakes in its chemistry.) But the clock was definitely ticking very loudly, rivals were closing in on the answer, and the pages leading up to the breakthrough are genuinely gripping.

In other words, the final deduction of the double helix structure doesn’t come out of the blue; the precise opposite; from Watson’s account it seems like it would have only been a matter of time before one or other of these groups had stumbled across the correct structure.

But it is very exciting when Watson comes into work one day, clears all the clutter from his desk and starts playing around with pretty basic cardboard cutouts of the four molecules which, by now, had become strongly associated with DNA, adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine.

Suddenly, in a flash, he sees how they assemble the molecules naturally arrange themselves into pairs linked by hydrogen bonds – adenine with thymine and cytosine with guanine.

For a long time they’d been thinking the helix had one strand at the core and that the bases stuck out from it, like quills on a porcupine. Now, in a flash, Watson realises that the the base pairs, which join together so naturally, form a kind of zip, and the bands of sugar-phosphates holding the thing together run along the outside – creating a double helix shape.

The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structures of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. (Source: Wikipedia)

Conclusion

I am not qualified to summarise the impact of the discovery of DNA has had on the world. Maybe it would take books to do so adequately. I’ll quote the book’s blurb:

By elucidating the structure of DNA, the molecule underlying all life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionised biochemistry. At the time, Watson was only 24. His uncompromisingly honest account of those heady days lifts the lid on the real world of great scientists, with their very human faults and foibles, their petty rivalries and driving ambition. Above all, he captures the extraordinary excitement of their desperate efforts to beat their rivals at King’s College to the solution to one of the great enigmas of the life sciences.

The science is interesting, but has been overtaken and superseded generations ago. It’s the characters and the atmosphere of the time (the dingy English rooms with no heating, the appalling English food), the dramatic reality of scientific competition, and then the genuinely exciting pages leading up to the breakthrough which makes Watson’s book such a readable classic.

Rosalind Franklin

I marked all the places in the text where a feminist might explode with anger. Both Watson, but even more Crick, assume pretty young girls are made for their entertainment. They are referred to throughout as ‘popsies’ and Crick in particular, although married, betrays an endless interest in the pretty little secretaries and au pairs which adorn Cambridge parties.

It is through this patronising and sexist prism that the pair judged the efforts of Franklin who was, reasonably enough, a hard-working scientist not at all interested in her appearance or inclined to conform to gender stereotypes of the day. She felt marginalised and bullied at the King’s College lab, and irritated by the ignorance and superficiality of most of Watson and Crick’s ideas, untainted as they were by any genuine understanding of the difficult art of X-ray crystallography – an ignorance which Watson, to his credit, openly admits.

Eventually, Franklin found working with Wilkins so intolerable that she left to take up a position at Birkbeck College and then, tragically, discovered she had incurable cancer, although she worked right up to her death in April 1958.

Franklin has become a feminist heroine, a classic example of a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world, patronised by everyone around her. But if you forget her gender and just think of her as the scientist called Franklin, it is still a story of misunderstandings and poisonous professional relations such as I’ve encountered in numerous workplaces. Watson and Crick’s patronising tone must have exacerbated the situation, but the fundamental problem was that she was given clear written instructions that she would be in charge of the X-ray crystallography at King’s College but then discovered that Wilkins thought he had full control of the project. This was a management screw-up more than anything else.

It does seem unfair that she wasn’t cited in the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962, but then she had died in 1958, and the Swedish Academy had a simple rule of not awarding the prize to dead people.

Still, it’s not like her name has disappeared from the annals of history. Quite the reverse:

Impressive list, don’t you think?

And anyone who hasn’t read the book might be easily persuaded that she was an unjustly victimised, patronised and ignored figure. But just to set the record straight, Watson chooses to end the entire book not with swank about his and Crick’s later careers, but with a tribute to Franklin’s character and scientific achievement.

In 1958, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of thirty-seven. Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements. The X-ray work she did at King’s is increasingly regarded as superb. The sorting out of the A and B forms [of DNA], by itself, would have made her reputation; even better was her 1952 demonstration, using Patterson superposition methods, that the phosphate groups must be on the outside of the DNA molecule. Later, when she moved to Bernal’s lab, she took up work on tobacco mosaic virus and quickly extended our qualitative ideas about helical construction into a precise quantitative picture, definitely establishing the essential helical parameters and locating the ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis.

Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis, to whom she frequently came for advice or when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realising years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosalind’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death. (p.175)

That is a fine, generous and moving tribute, don’t you think? And as candid and honest as the rest of the book in admitting his and Crick’s complete misreading of her situation and character.

In a literal sense the entire book leads up to this final page [these are the last words of the book] and this book became a surprise bestseller and the standard source to begin understanding the events surrounding the discovery. So it’s hard to claim that her achievement was suppressed or ignored when this is the climax of the best-selling account of the story.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Corita Kent: Power Up @ the House of Illustration

Corita Kent (1918-86) was a nun, who began making personal, rather Expressionist prints with religious subjects in the 1950s, and then swiftly evolved in the early 1960s into a pioneering political print- and poster-maker. In 1968, under pressure from the revolutionary times and enjoying greater artistic and commercial success, she asked to be released from her vows, left her order, and became a fully commercial artist, continuing to make prints as personal statements, but also for a wide range of commercial clients, up to her death.

The House of Illustration has brought together some 70 large, colourful Corita Kent prints to create the largest ever show in the UK of this ‘pop artist, social activist and nun’.

The exhibition is bright, uplifting, thought-provoking and, as usual, divided between the gallery’s three exhibition rooms and small video room.

Introduction room

In 1936, aged 18, Frances Kent entered the Catholic Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and took the name of Sister Mary Corita. In 1951 she was introduced to the technique of print-making by Maria Sodi de Ramos Martinez.

The first room displays a handful of Kent’s early works, which are dark and stormy, every inch of the surface covered with often dark browns and blacks, amid which you can see outlines of primitivist or Byzantine images of Christ the King. Dark and troubled, packed and claustrophobic, they’re redolent of the Abstract Expressionism which dominated the American art world of the time.

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

In their murkiness they reminded me a bit of the art of Graham Sutherland, the presence of the religious imagery reminding me of Sutherland’s work for Coventry cathedral.

Within a few years Kent had begun to experiment by including handwritten text into the designs. The need to make the text legible meant she had to declutter the images though they are still, in this first room, a little scary, apocalyptic, done in drab austerity colours.

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Main room

This first room is sort of interesting but it doesn’t prepare you at all for the impact of walking into the next space, the gallery’s main room – which features a riot of colour, an orgy of huge colourful prints and posters, showcasing a wide range of fonts and lettering set against vibrant dynamic colour designs.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

It’s difficult to believe it’s the same artist. Out have gone the minutely detailed, busy and cramped designs, and in have come big white spaces used to emphasise the use of primary colours to bring out simple texts and slogans laid out in a dazzling variety of formats and designs.

Some of the prints still use religious texts from the Bible, but these are accompanied by slogans from protest movements, song lyrics, modernist poetry and lots of subtle or overt references to the signage and billboard adverts of Kent’s native Los Angeles.

There’s a sequence of searing prints protesting against the war in Vietnam and unashamedly using images lifted from magazines and newspapers, hard-core images of soldiers and war of the kind the American public was watching on their TVs every night from the mid-60s onwards, alongside images and slogans protesting against black segregation, celebrating the Civil Rights Movement, bitterly lamenting the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on.

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Everywhere you look are classic slogans from the long-haired, dope-smoking, flower power protests of the day. ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ ‘Stop the bombing’. ‘Get with the action’. ‘Violence in Vietnam’. ‘Yellow submarine’. ‘Come Home, America’, and the slogan which gives the exhibition its title, the words POWER UP spread across four enormous prints. (Which, on closer reading, we discover was the slogan used by the Richfield Oil Corporation in their ads, and one of the many elements of signage in the cluttered visual landscape of her native Los Angeles).

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

It is an astonishing transformation, from the personal and cramped and expressive, to the public and political, big, bright and open, in half a decade.

One of the videos playing in the video room shows ancient footage of young men and woman dancing in circles and painting their faces and carrying all manner of props and decorations and art works, to and from the numerous ‘happenings’ which blossomed all over America.

Earnest young women in mini skirts, men in Grateful Dead sideburns, dancing and painting themselves, intercut with the usual footage of napalm over Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on. It’s the ever-popular 1960s, the decade we can’t leave alone.

The exhibition feels like the poster and print accompaniment of that era, flower power, hippies, protest songs, the stormy later 1960s.

The Fraser Muggeridge studio

A word on the design and layout of the exhibition which is beautifully done by Fraser Muggeridge studio. They have very successfully replicated the super-bright, Pop Art colour palette of the original works without in any way over-awing them, which is quite a feat. The result is that the main and final room themselves take part in the exhibition’s vibrancy and dynamism.

At the end of the main room is a set of 26 prints, Circus Alphabet, from 1968, each one of which combines one of the letters from the alphabet done big, set against a fascinating variety of layouts, some simple, other cluttered with text, in a wide range of fonts. Reminded me of the imagery surrounding Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the song Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Apparently, Kent was inspired by the poet e.e. cummings who was devoted to the institution of the American circus (‘damn everything but the circus’, he is quoted as writing), and the prints combine political texts with material she found at the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, with images from A Handbook of Early Advertising Art, compiled by Clarence P. Hornung.

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

What fun! What a tremendous eye for layout and design. What an consistent thirst for innovation and experiment.

End room

The smaller final room is painted a deep azure blue. This space showcases work Kent produced after she asked to be released from her vows and left the convent in 1968. At which point she moved to Boston and became a fully commercial artist. Apparently, her sister became her business manager.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of Corita Kent: Power Up at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

The photo above captures pieces which demonstrate a new variety and style in her work.

At the bottom right you can see ‘our country is red spilled blood’ from 1970, a poster commissioned by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee to promote a three-day fast for peace and depicting a Vietnamese woman grieving over the body of her dead husband. (At the turn of the 60s, early 70s, a lot of the titles omit capital letters, another testament to the influence of the laureate of lower-case, e.e. cummings).

The wide, thin poster to the left of it uses the slogan, ‘Come home America’, the slogan used in the campaign of Democratic Presidential contender George McGovern during the 1972 presidential campaign.

Above it, the piece divided between blue on the left and orange on the right, is ‘the Ellsberg poster’ from 1972, containing a quote from US government analyst Daniel Ellsberg who decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971 (subject of the recent Stephen Spielberg movie, The Post). The quote reads: ‘Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?’

The display case in this room shows a number of books Corita illustrated, including several by Catholic priests protesting against the war.

But it isn’t all political protest. The two works on the right hand wall in the photo above, are designs to accompany purely literary texts, by James Joyce (on the left) and Rainer Maria Rilke (the pink and orange one on the right).

You have a sense that Kent was exploring beyond the dayglo and sometimes rather baroque stylings of the 1960s (the Sergeant Pepper circus chic) into a more laid-back 1970s. I suppose low-key minimalism was coming in during this period to replace plastic Pop Art.

The work in this room all feels cooler. More understated. The Joyce and Rilke ones look like a cross between Mark Rothko and Matisse’s late paper cuts in their combination of bold colour with abstract patterning.

And I also realised that the texts in all the works in that photo are hand-written and in relatively small point sizes. You have to go right up to the Rilke piece to even realise there’s writing on it. This is a sharp contrast with the Circus works – which use an entertaining variety of ready-made, machine fonts in massive sizes – and with the other more political works: these had non-machine font, hand-cut-out texts and slogans, but they were enormous and simple. The works in this room feel more… intimate in scale and effect.

On the wall opposite is a montage of prints featuring quotes from classic authors, each one treated in interesting new ways, experimenting with fonts and layouts and colours and designs. These are ads commissioned by Group W Westinghouse Broadcasting, a TV station. Kent began working with them as early as 1962 and continued to produce magazine-page-sized ads until nearly the end of her career.

A wall of Corita Kent's work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

A wall of Corita Kent’s work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

The texts are fairly trite – worthy and high-minded quotes from Shakespeare or Dr Johnson or Thoreau – the kind of unimpeachable uplift any corporation could use to mask its commercial operations in spiritual guff (‘The noblest motive is the public good’). Taken together, I found they called into question the whole point of pithy slogans. Somehow the way she could turn her vivid imagination to souping up Shakespeare in order to promote a TV channel undermined the seriousness of the ‘political’ work. I could almost hear a stoned hippy saying ‘All artists sell out, man’. She was 52 at the dawn of the 1970s. ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30, man.’

Content aside, what impresses is the way Kent produces such a wonderful variety of fonts, designs and layouts in which to set the text, and yet still manages to retain a visual unity and identifiable style. No wonder Westinghouse stuck with her for nearly 20 years.

IBM

The whole final wall is a blow-up of a magazine advert for computer manufacturer Digital. They commissioned Kent to create three suites of screen-printed decorative panels for Digital’s range of desks and computer cabinets. You see the blue and green wash panels at the end of the guy’s desk, on the side of the filing cabinet? That’s Kent’s design. This was in 1978, ten years after the heady year of the King assassination, the Democratic convention riots and all the rest of it. Her designs no longer hope to change the world but to beautify its everyday element. ‘Sold out to the man, baby.’

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Videos

In one of the two videos running in a loop in the small projection room (a spot of googling shows that there are quite a few films about Kent and extended interviews and documentaries), Kent is quoted saying something very interesting about the interaction of text and design. She relates it right back to the work of medieval copyists and the unknown monks who produced the extravagant decorations of illuminated manuscripts (of the kind to be seen at the British Library’s brilliant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition).

As she puts it, from those early textual illustrators right up to the times of her and her peers, there is some kind of joy and delight in the way colour and pattern brings out additional meanings latent in texts, and words crystallise and empower what would otherwise be abstract colours and designs.

For some reason, no doubt to do with the wiring of the human brain and the way we separately register colour and meaning, the power and variety of interplay between the two systems can often be extremely powerful and, as her work goes to prove, seems to be never-ending.

In my ignorance I’d never heard of Corita Kent. This is a wonderful – and wonderfully designed and laid out – introduction to the development and variety and life-affirming positivity of this scintillating artist.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)

In the irregular light the bounty hunter seemed a medium man, not impressive. Round face and hairless, smooth features; like a clerk in a bureaucratic office. (p.173)

This is the novel which director Ridley Scott made into the smash hit movie Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford at his charming, tough-guy best. The novel is a lot less glamorous, more puzzling and more worrying, than the movie.

Background

On the first page we learn that it is January 1992, as we meet Rick Deckard, android hunter and his bad-tempered wife, Iran. Within a few sentences they are discussing that central Dick topic, mental illness, depression and despair. It’s what his wife woke up feeling. Being a modern couple they have a Penfield Mood Organ on which they can dial any number of moods or feelings which the machine instantly stimulates the hypothalamus in their brains to make them experience.

Aha. What is ‘real’? What is ‘reality’? Another major Dick theme.

Oh, and a few years back there was a nuclear war which devastated large parts of the country. The chatty TV weather forecast includes predictions for the levels of today’s fallout.

After the war a radioactive dust covered the world. Nobody sees the sun any more. As many people as possible have migrated to colonies on the other planets of the solar system, Mars being particularly popular. Those who remain undergo regular DNA tests. Those whose DNA is acceptable remain ‘regulars’. But a steady number are diagnosed with radioactive mutations, and categorised as ‘specials’. Those who have undergone significant mental damage are nicknamed ‘chickenheads’ or ‘antheads’.

One such chickenhead is John Isidore, a mental defective who works for the Van Ness Animal Hospital owned by Hannibal Sloat, himself a man falling apart due to radiation poisoning.

Mood

So that gives you a flavour of the mood. Depressed. The entire novel labours under a black cloud of radioactive dust, with people dying or being mutated by radiation, with most animals (all birds) having been killed off, with everyone depressed at not being able to emigrate off-world or at the general plight, with people using drugs to alter their mood or escaping altogether via Mercerian fusion (more on this in a moment).

The plot

So as always Dick has created a very dense and thick texture of themes and subsidiary ideas within which to embed the big central idea.

This is that in the future, despite the war and dying off of most animals etc, humanity still retains advanced technologies and in particular has been refining better and better androids – artificial humans, with human minds, intelligence and reflexes.

Mostly these are used as slaves on the off-world colonies. But a small number rebel against their masters and jump ferries back to earth where they try to hide. As a matter of law and order, and also because they can behave unpredictably and violently, these escaped androids need to be tracked down.

Rick Deckard is an android bounty hunter. He tracks down rogue androids or ‘andys’, which have escaped from one of the off world colonies, usually killing their master in the process, in order to come to earth illegally. When he finds them, Deckard ‘retires’ them i.e. destroys them. He gets paid a grand per andy.

Deckard has barely finished dealing with his depressed wife before he gets a call from his boss, Harry Bryant. Eight andys have escaped from Mars and come to earth. Deckard’s fellow bounty hunter Dave Holden ‘retired’ two of them and was in the middle of interviewing a third when it shot him with a laser blaster. (Laser blasters are tubes you hold in your hand and do what they say on the tin, blasting a hole through a body or wall, and exploding people’s heads.)

Bryant hands him the task of finishing the job, getting the one that shot Holden plus the other five, six in all.

But there’s a problem, the sophistication of modern android brains. Just recently they’ve introduced the Nexus-6 electronic brain, the most complex and ‘human’ yet. It makes the job if identifying andys – and of distinguishing them from humans – almost impossibly difficult.

The only tool bounty hunters like Deckard have is the Voigt-Kampff test. This is designed to monitor the emotional reactions of those being tested. A patch is applied to the side of the testee’s face and wired up to the testing box, while a light is shone into the pupil of the eye. Then the interviewer asks a number of rather disturbing questions, a lot of them revolving around the plight of animals. Normal humans’ skin and eyes give immediate, unconscious responses to the questions. Androids have to think about them for a few milliseconds, and sometimes miss the emotional cue altogether. That’s what distinguishes humans from androids. At least up to now. Now some andys are giving borderline human responses. It’s getting difficult to tell them apart.

Deckard’s boss sends him up to Seattle, to the headquarters of the Rosen Corporation which invented the Nexus-6 brain. Here he meets the harassed owner, Eldon Rosen, and his striking 18-year-old niece, Rachael. They were meant to have lined up a mix of androids and humans for Deckard to test, as a test both of the Rosen androids, and of the test itself.

But Eldon insists that Deckard first of all test his niece. This leads to a prolonged scene in which Deckard at first comes to doubt the test because her reactions are all wrong – and then realises, with a shock, that the ‘niece’ is in fact an android. Eldon admits as much in front of her. (We are left to think through the emotional impact of thinking you are a human being and then being told, like this, that you are in fact a robot. With a limited life span. Later we’re told they last four years.)

Deckard flies back from Seattle in his hovercar, shaken and with serious doubts about the future of the Voigt-Kampff test. His boss calls him on the vidphone and tells him a Russian cop, Kadalyi, has flown in from the WPO (never spelled out but presumably some international police organisation).

Kadalyi arrives in a helitaxi and gets into Deckard’s hovercar, but they’ve barely begun talking before Deckard realises he’s an android, Max Polokov, the one who zapped Holden. Polokov pulls out his ‘laser tube’ to kill Deckard but, fortunately, Deckard’s hovercar is fitted with a device which emits a ‘sine wave’ which ‘phases out laser emanation and spreads the beam into ordinary light’ (p.74). Handy, eh? Deckard pulls out an old fashioned handgun and shoots Polokov’s head off.

Deckard phones his wife, who has relapsed into a prolonged and profound depression. He flies on to the San Francisco Opera House where Bryant has told him the next android, Luba Luft, is working as an opera singer.

Deckard loves classical music. He loves opera. When he walks into the auditorium a rehearsal is going on and he hears Luba Luft sing an aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. She has a beautiful voice and he is genuinely moved. He goes to her dressing room and starts giving her the Voigt-Kampff test but she objects that it’s all about sex and calls a cop. Five minutes later this cop, Officer Crams, arrives and arrests Deckard.

There then follows a genuinely weird and disorientating passage, for the Crams tells him he’s a long-time officer from the new San Francisco police station downtown. Crams says he knows all the bounty hunters and has never heard of Deckard. Deckard says this is all wrong and tries to call Bryan, who seems to appear momentarily on the vidphone but then it goes dead. When Crams calls the same number he gets through to someone who says that isn’t police HQ and there’s no-one called Bryant there.

Crams takes Deckard in his police hover car to the new Hall of Justice which is on Mission Street, which is a genuine police station, full of bored front desk officers processing drunks and crooks, uniformed cops hanging round and everything. The reader shares in Deckard’s delirious hallucinatory panic, his fear that…. maybe Deckard is the android. Maybe the entire story we’ve read to date has involved fake memories, is a delusion programmed into him for some reason. Maybe there is no police HQ where he thinks it is, maybe there is no Inspector Harry Bryant, maybe his ‘wife’ is part of the delusory programming.

This sense of vertigo doesn’t let up. Deckard is taken into the presence of Inspector Garland who is told all about him pestering some opera singer with a cock and bull story about being an android bounty hunter. Into the office comes the station’s best android bounty hunter Phil Resch. Deckard has never heard of him. Resch has never heard of Deckard. Has he stumbled into a parallel universe?

Everyone in the room accuses everyone else of being an android, with both Resch and Garland suggesting that Deckard must be. Deckard holds out but part of him is thinking: Is he?

Anyway, Resch is dispatched to go and get the test these guys appear to use for detecting androids, the Boneli Reflex-Arc Test. While he’s out of the room, Garland confides in Deckard that Resch is an android, the poor sap. As Resch returns with the test equipment in his hand, Garland makes a move with his laser tube, at which Resch drops to the floor and shoots his head in half. Deckard had also dropped and now regards the scene with shock.

So is Resch a genuine bounty hunter who he’s never heard of operating out of an HQ he didn’t know existed? Or is Resch, like Garland, an android, but doesn’t realise it? While he’s worrying about it Resch says they’d better get out of the cop station – it’s infested with andys – and he pretends to put cuffs on Deckard and walks him briskly to the lifts, up to the roof, and into his hovercar.

They return to the opera house where they’re told Luba Luft has gone to the nearby museum. They go there and find her examining the pictures of Edvard Munch, standing in front of Puberty. They now jointly arrest her but she continues the bewildering confusion by accusing Resh of definitely being an android, and she should know. Resch defends himself to Luba and to Deckard, claiming that he has a squirrel, a pet squirrel, and cares for him, so he has empathic response, so surely that means he’s human, right? Right?

By this time Deckard, and the reader, really don’t know. What definitely happens is that as they accompany her to the lift Luba continues to deliberately wind Resch up into a frenzy with her accusations that he’s a robot till he pulls out his laser tube and fires. because she pulls away he only wounds her in the stomach, so Deckard immediately finishes her off. The lift arrives at the ground floor, to the horror of museum goers.

They report the killing to Bryant at headquarters and continue the bizarre conversation about whether Resch is or is not a damn android. Finally he agrees for Deckard to give him a test (p.111). To Deckard’s surprise Resch is human. Resch, for his part, is surprised that Deckard is so upset about killing Luba. Her voice was divine. What harm, was she doing anyone? For the first time Deckard doubts his vocation.

Resch gives Deckard some parting advice. He says he had trouble with Luft because he was attracted to her. Callously, Resch says, instead of retiring an andy and then being attracted to her, how about the other way round – have sex with her first, then retire her. Byee.

Deeply traumatised and shaking, the only way Deckard can calm down at the end of this pretty tough day is by going over to Animal Row, where the pet shops are, and after some (quite amusing) haggling, buying a fine black Nubian goat, making a down-payment and signing a contract for crippling ongoing monthly payments (at 6% interest!). Maybe it’s time to explain about the animals.

Rare animals

Since the nuclear war almost all animals have died out (it might occur to sensible readers to wonder how any form of food can be cultivated if all animals – including the ones vital for pollinating crops – have perished, but Dicks’ books are less novels than visions, and you don’t quibble about facts or details in a vision, you let yourself be transported).

So all the characters are obsessed with owning one of the few remaining examples of each species. Deckard is extremely jealous of his neighbour in their apartment block because he owns a horse. Deckard can only afford the very second best option of owning an electronic animal, in his case an android sheep, which he pathetically pretends is real. Almost every other character has, or longs for, just one animal to own.

Dick invents a whole culture built around the trading of live animals, and the lesser market in manufactured android ones. For example, many of the characters keep a copy of the standard handbook of live animals, Sidney’s Animal and Fowl Catalogue (with monthly updates), which gives exact market prices for each species.

This is why Deckard, feeling shattered and confused, decides to blow blows the bounty money he’s made by retiring three androids (Kopolov, Garland – who he’s claiming, and Luba Luft) on a live black Nubian goat.

When he gets home his wife is awestruck and hugs and kisses him for the only time in the book.

Hence the title of the book – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – is a little less fanciful than at first sight. There really is an electric sheep in the novel. And the title sort of implies that Deckard may be an android who owns an electric sheep. Maybe…

More plot

His wife is at first thrilled with the Nubian goat until Deckard sort of admits he didn’t buy it for her but to manage his mood, his depression (his panic, I’d have thought, after such a confusing day).

She persuades him to have a go on the empathy machine. Grasping the twin handles he is immediately transported to become one with old man Mercer, in his Biblical robe, endlessly struggling up the desert hillside. He senses all the other people who are fusing at that moment, but is caught on the head stone by one of the Enemy, and releases the handles, re-emerging into ‘reality’. Ah. I’m going to have to explain Mercerism.

Mercerism

Mercerism is a new religion which appears to have eclipsed all the traditional Western religions, which are never mentioned. Followers possess an empathy box. Whenever they need to, they grab the two handles of the empathy box and are immediately transported into the mind of Wilbur Mercer who is depicted as an old man, wearing Biblical robes, who is endlessly, endlessly struggling up a steep rocky hill in the desert, with unseen Opponents jeering and throwing rocks at him.

The follower is keenly aware that thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of other followers are experiencing the same things at the same moment. The followers’ minds are joined together and they each experience tremendous empathy with others, and relief from their own anxieties. This experience is called ‘fusion’.

The Mercer experience is repeatedly described but still remains mysterious, especially the way that the gruelling ascent is only the start of the much worse experiences Mercer has to undergo once he has reached the summit of the hill.

In a hard-to-understand sequence, when the chickenhead Isidore activates his empathy box we appear to see some of Mercer’s backstory, that he was a mutant found abandoned in a raft, was adopted, and proved to have awesome powers, capable of reversing time in order to raise the dead! This motif appears a couple of times but always in the context of mind-bending ‘fusion’ so it’s difficult to know how ‘real’ it is.

More plot

While he was experiencing fusion one of the opponents, the enemy, the killers, threw a rock at Deckard which hit him on the ear and drew blood. A peculiarity of the empathy box is that physical wounds incurred while doing it persist back into ‘real life’.

Deckard’s wife, Iran, puts a bandage to the cut ear to stop blood, then Bryant phones and says he wants the remaining three andys retired today, this evening. Dazed Deckard is reluctant, but finally agrees.

Deckard hasn’t been able to get Rachael out of his mind, the young android he had tested up in Seattle. In a throwaway remark to him, as she was walking him to his hovercar, she had said she might be able to help him track down the three remaining andys.

Deckard realises his faith in himself is shaken. He empathised with Luba Luft, and found Lesch repellent – just the opposite response than logic demanded.

He realises he needs Rachael to help him. He gets through and asks her. It’s late and she’s reluctant but eventually agrees to come and see him (it only takes an hour to fly by hovercar from Seattle to San Francisco – for most of the novel it’s easy to forget there’s been a nuclear war which has wiped out cities and animal life: the opposite – everyone seems to be using impressive futuristic gadgets as if benefiting from a highly advanced economy).

Deckard arranges to meet her in the St Francis, the last decent hotel in San Francisco (p.144). Rachael arrives wearing what appears to be a see-through top revealing her bra, skimpy shorts, and bearing booze, the hard-to-get-hold-of bourbon. They drink and they argue.

She is disgusted by the fact that she’s an android. She hates the other androids. She says one of them is identical to her, they’re no more people than identical bottletops coming off a production line. She assesses his chances against the three andys, tells him she’ll come and take out one of them, reducing his task to just two. She strips and gets into bed. He is struck by her weird shape, lean, without real breasts. He kisses her. She is cold. In the end she demands that he go to bed with her and he does. My God. This is just what Phil Resch predicted…

Later they get dressed and go to find the three remaining andys. A word needs to be said about J.S. Isidore.

The andys at the chickenhead’s apartment

This summary has so far concentrated on Deckard. But almost every other chapter cuts away to the activities of the chickenhead J.S. Isidore. There’s a minor plotline about an electronic cat he takes along to his boss at the Van Ness Animal Hospital. But the main thing is he discovers someone else living in the huge ruined apartment block where he lives in a rundown flat.

It’s a young woman named Pris Stratton. She’s living in some squalor. It takes a little while for the reader to realise this is one of the andys. During that interval there are a number of passages where we see her odd, detached android manner, though the eyes of Isidore who is himself mentally retarded. In other words, Dick makes fiction from the interaction of two deviant types of mind. Some of it is straightforward sci-fi thriller but some is weird.

That Pris is an andy is confirmed when two other andys turn up, Roy and Irmgard Baty. She short and dark, he wide, stock, eastern European looking. Isidore is persuaded to carry all their stuff up into his flat, which they’re going to use as a hideout. Vaguely he senses he’s being taken advantage of, but is mostly just happy that he’s got some new friends.

More plot

Deckard and Rachael are in his hovercar heading to Isidore’s apartment building.

(A logical flaw in the book is the way the androids are supposed to be in hiding, but Inspector Bryant simply phones Deckard up and tells him where they are. It’s just one example of the way the book isn’t really meant to be read logically or consistently. Plot logic is secondary to the puzzles about the nature of consciousness which it is designed to throw up.)

They have another big argument which takes a chilling turn when Rachael reveals that she has slept with a number of android bounty hunters and does it deliberately because after sleeping with her, they become incapable of killing other androids.

She only slept with Deckard in order to neutralise his professional instinct to kill andys. It turns out she knows Pris and Roy and Irmgard, she helped them from the start –  and provoked him into calling her, and then offered to help him and generally lured him into bed in order to destroy his andy-killing capacity.

Deckard is stunned. Cold. Goes numb. He had been flying the hovercar to the apartment building but now turns round and takes her back to the hotel. The argument takes a grim turn when she asks him to kill her, right there, right now, and he reaches out to do it and she says just one shot through the occipital bone, that would do it, if you’re going to do it, do it now. But suddenly he’s overcome with disgust at how easily androids just give up.

He kicks her out onto the hotel roof, then turns and flies to the apartment building where the remaining andys have been reported. On one level, what happens is straightforward. Isidore is at the main entrance to the building and tries feebly to put him off. Deckard ignores him and uses machinery to confirm their presence, goes slowly up the stairs to their floor. Pris tries to surprise him on the darkened stairs and he zaps her with his laser tube. Then he goes on to Isidore’s apartment, knocks and pretends to be the chickenhead. They tentatively open the door and he barges in, avoiding Roy Baty’s laser gun shots, and quickly killing both Roy and Irmgard.

What’s eerie, and would be unaccountable if this were a realistic novel, is that Deckard meets Mercer on the stairs. As he walked down a dark and derelict corridor, Mercer appeared out of the shadows, told him what he was doing was wrong but he had to do it anyway, and then warned him that the most dangerous one was coming up the stairs behind him. It was Pris. It is only because of Mercer’s warning that Deckard turns, ducks, fires and kills her before she can shoot him.

But Mercer, how can he be there, how did he get there, is it a vision, or has Deckard ‘fused’ enough to have visions of Mercer almost at will? Whatever the explanation, how does the phantom of Mercer know Pris is sneaking up on Deckard?

Buster Friendly

Especially as something equally unexpected happens just before the final shootout.

Throughout the book many of the characters are shown watching the no-stop, 24/7 TV show featuring your hilarious host Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends, with his mad laughter track and inane chatter with the same cast of c-list celebrities.

Androids was published 15 years after Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another novel dominated by the horror of American commercial television (and, incidentally, in which the freewheeling protagonist feels he is having a transformative experience which can’t be understood by his conventional narrow-minded wife.)

Incongruously, against all the logic of the idea that Buster and Mercerism are twin foundations of this weird future society, Buster has been predicting he would make a big revelation on tonight’s show. And so he does. Just a few minutes before Deckard arrives, Buster reveals that the religion of Mercerism is a fake. That Mercer is just an out of work bit-part actor, he was hired years ago for a shoot in the desert where they dressed him up in Biblical clothing and generally shot all the scenes which followers of Mercerism ‘experience’, that even the desert isn’t real. If you close up on the so-called desert you can see it’s all a painted backdrop. They even have an interview with the actor, an alcoholic, who cheerfully admits it’s all a fake.

This comes as a shock to the chickenhead Isidore when he watches it with Roy and Irmgard and Pris, just before Deckard arrives. It comes as a surprise to me, since I have read how the experience of the empathy box is genuinely undergone by all the characters.

But it becomes plain incomprehensible that, if this man and his religion are a cheap fake, he nonetheless magically appears to Deckard in the apartment hallway and saves his life. How does that work?

Into the wastes

Deckard flies home to check on his wife but is so restless and upset at the day he’s had that he takes off again and blindly heads north, he doesn’t know why, he is at an extremity of fatigue, he flies up into the forbidden zone where there is nothing but dust and lifelessness.

He parks the hovercar and in a kind of trance stumbles up a hill and realises that… he is becoming Mercer. He is Mercer. To make the illusion complete someone, the enemy, the killers, throws a rock at him which draws blood on his cheek. But he is far gone in this transcendental religious illusion to look for the throwers… it is the intensity of the fusion with Mercer which is transforming him.

Just as suddenly he realises he has to get away, and blunders back down to the hill to the parked hovercar. He is sitting, head lolling, exhausted, half in and half out of the hovercar, when he notices movement on the ground. It is a toad! It is the first live animal he has ever seen in the wild! He carefully packs it in a box and flies back to San Francisco.

Here he carefully presents the toad to his wife who is as thrilled as he is. Unfortunately, in playing with its tummy, she discovers the clip which opens the flap to reveal the electric innards. It is a fake animal. Oh well.

Too tired to talk, Deckard lies on the bed and falls asleep. Will he dream of electric sheep?

Gizmos and consumer culture

When Deckard wants to enter one of the andys’ apartments he uses an ‘infinity key’ which fits every known lock in the universe.

Coming from reading four novels by Arthur C. Clarke whose writing is characterised by a careful attention to scientific and technical plausibility, Dick fits with the line of American sci-fi writers who, if they’re characters need one, just invent a gizmo to do it. Anti-gravity drives, space warps, anti-death drugs, hovercars, mood organs, infinity keys, “you wan’ it, we got it, baby”.

Dicks’ novels satirise the superficiality of American consumer culture, but the glibness of detail in his sci-fi novels comes right out of the same bubblegum, ‘do you want fries with that?’ mentality.

The Penfield Mood Organ

If you can afford one of these gadgets then you plug yourself in and the organ activates different parts of the cerebral cortex to create a wide range of moods. Each mood has a specific number. Numbers, and moods, which are mentioned, include:

  • 3 – motivation to dial a number
  • 382 – despair
  • 481 – awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future
  • 594 – pleased acknowledgement of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters
  • 888 – desire to watch TV no matter what’s on

Every home should have one.

Credit

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was published in 1968. All references are to the 2017 Orion paperback edition.


Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of quicksand-like moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

Origins

It all started with a short story Clarke wrote for a BBC competition in 1948 when he was just 21, and titled The Sentinel. It was eventually published in 1951 under the title Sentinel of Eternity.

13 years later, after completing Dr. Strangelove in 1964, American movie director Stanley Kubrick turned his thoughts to making a film with a science fiction subject. Someone suggested Clarke as a source and collaborator, and when they met, later in 1964, they got on well and formed a good working relationship.

Neither of them could have predicted that it would take them four long years of brainstorming, viewing and reading hundreds of sci-fi movies and stories, and then honing and refining the narrative, to develop the screenplay which became the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 and one of the most influential movies of all time.

The original plan had been to develop the story as a novel first, then turn it into a screenplay, then into the film, but the process ended up being more complex than that. The novel ended up being written mostly by Clarke, while Kubrick’s screenplay departed from it in significant ways.

The most obvious difference is that the book is full of Clarke’s sensible, down-to-earth, practical explanations of all or most of the science involved. It explains things. From the kick-start given to human evolution by the mysterious monolith through to Bowman’s journey through the Star Gate, Clarke explains and contextualises.

This is all in stark contrast with the film which Kubrick made as cryptic as possible by reducing dialogue to an absolute minimum, and eliminating all explanation. Kubrick is quoted as saying that the film was ‘basically a visual, nonverbal experience’, something which a novel, by definition, can not be.

The novel

The novel is divided into 47 short snappy chapters, themselves grouped into six sections.

1. Primeval Night

The basic storyline is reasonably clear. A million years ago an alien artefact appears on earth, materialising in Africa, in the territory of a small group of proto-human man-apes. Clarke describes their wretched condition in the hot parched Africa of the time, permanently bordering on starvation, watered only by a muddy streamlet, dying of malnutrition and weakness or of old age at 30, completely at the mercy of predators like a local leopard.

The object – 15 feet high and a yard wide – appears from nowhere. When the ape-men lumber past it on the way to their foraging ground, it becomes active and literally puts ideas into their heads. It takes possession of members of the group in turn and forces them to tie knots in grass, to touch their fingers together, to perform basic physical IQ tests. Then, crucially, it patiently shows them how to use stones and the bones of dead animals as tools.

The result is that they a) kill and eat a wild pig, the first meat ever eaten by the ape-men b) surround and kill the leopard that’s been menacing the tribe c) use these skills to bludgeon the leader of ‘the Others’, a smaller weaker tribe on the other side of the stream. In other words, the alien artefact has intervened decisively in the course of evolution to set man on his course to becoming a planet-wide animal killer and tool maker.

In the kind of fast-forward review section which books can do and movies can’t, Clarke then skates over the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution which follow, during which human’s teeth became smaller, their snouts less prominent, giving them the ability to make more precise sounds through their vocal cords – the beginnings of speech – how ice ages swept over the world killing most human species but leaving the survivors tougher, more flexible, more intelligent, and then the discovery of fire, of cooking, a widening of diet and survival strategies. And then to the recent past, to the Stone, Iron and Bronze ages, and sweeping right past the present to the near future and the age of space travel.

Compare and contrast the movie where all this is conveyed by the famous cut from a bone thrown into the air by an ape-man which is half way through its parabola when it turns into a space ship in orbit round earth. Prose describes, film dazzles.

2. T.M.A.-1

It is 2001. Humanity has built space stations in orbit around the earth, and a sizeable base on the moon. Dr Heywood Floyd, retired astrophysicist, is taking the journey from the American launch base in Florida, to dock with the orbiting space station, and then on to the moon base.

Clarke in his thorough, some might say pedantic, way, leaves no aspect of the trip undescribed and unexplained. How the rocket launcher works, how to prepare for blast-off, how the space station maintains a sort of gravity by rotating slowly, the precise workings of its space toilets (yes), the transfer to the shuttle down to the moon: Clarke loses no opportunity to mansplain every element of the journey, including some favourite facts familiar from the other stories I’ve read: the difference between weight and mass; how centrifugal spin creates increased gravity the further you are from the axis of spin; ‘the moon’s strangely close horizon’ (p.74); how damaging an alien artifact would be the work of a ‘barbarian’ (a thought repeated several times in Rama).

Two other features emerge. Clarke’s protagonists are always men, and they are almost always married men, keen to keep in touch with their wives, using videophones. In other words they’re not valiant young bucks as per space operas. It’s another element in the practical, level-headed approach of Clarke’s worldview.

Secondly, Clarke is a great one for meetingsChildhood’s End‘s middle sections rotate around the Secretary General of the United Nations who has a busy schedule of meetings, from his weekly conference with the Overlords to his meetings with the head of the Freedom league, and his discussion of issues arising with his number two.

A Fall of Moondust features hurried conferences between the top officials on the moon. The narrative of Rendezvous with Rama is punctuated all the way through by meetings of the committee made up of with representatives from the inhabited planets, who discuss the issues arising but also get on each other’s nerves, bicker and argue, grandstand, storm out and so on. His fondness for the set meeting, with a secretary taking notes and a chairman struggling to bring everyone into line, is another of the features which makes Clarke’s narratives seem so reassuringly mundane and rooted in reality.

Same here. Floyd is flying to the moon to take part in a top secret, high-level meeting of moon officials. He opens the meeting by conveying the President’s greetings and thanks (as people so often do in sci-fi thrillers like this).

In brief: a routine survey of the moon has turned up a magnetic anomaly in the huge crater named Tycho. (The anomaly has been prosaically named Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One – hence the section title T.M.A.-1.) When the surveyors dug down they revealed an object, perfectly smooth and perfectly black, eleven foot high, five foot wide and one and a quarter foot deep. Elementary geology has shown that the object was buried there three million years ago.

After a briefing with the moon team Floyd goes out by lunar tractor to the excavation site where digging has now fully revealed the artifact. Floyd and some others go down into the excavation and walk round the strange object which seems to absorb light. The sun is rising (the moon turns on its axis once in fourteen days) and as its light falls onto the artifact – for probably the first time in millions of years – Floyd and the others are almost deafened by five intense burst of screeching sound which cut through their radio communications.

Millions of miles away in space, deep space monitors, orbiters round Mars, a probe launched to Pluto – all record and measure an unusual burst of energy streaking across the solar system… Cut to:

3. Between Planets

David Bowman is captain of the spaceship Discovery. It was built to transport two live passengers (himself and Frank Poole) and three others in suspended animation, to Jupiter. But two years into the project the TMA-1 discovery was made and plans were changed. Now the ship is intending to use the gravity of Jupiter as a sling to propel it on towards Saturn. When they enter Saturn’s orbit the three sleeping crew members (nicknamed ‘hibernauts’) will be woken and the full team of five will have 100 days to study the super-massive gas giant, before all the crew re-enter hibernation, and wait to be picked up by Discovery II, still under construction.

Clarke is characteristically thorough in describing just about every aspect of deep space travel you could imagine, the weightlessness, the scientific reality of hibernation, the food, what the earth looks like seen from several million miles away. He gives an hour by hour rundown of Bowman and Poole’s 24-hour schedule, which is every bit as boring as the thing itself. He describes in minute astronomical detail the experience of flying through the asteroid belt and on among the moons of Jupiter, watching the sun ‘set’ behind it and other strange and haunting astronomical phenomena which no one has seen.

Then there’s a sequence in which he imagines the pictures sent back by a probe which Bowman and Poole send down into Jupiter’s atmosphere: fantastic but completely plausible imaginings. After reporting what they see from the ship, and the images relayed by the probe, the couple have done with Jupiter and set their faces to Saturn, some three months and four hundred million miles away.

The awesomeness doesn’t come from the special effects and canny use of classical music, as per the movie, but from straightforward statement of the scientific and technical facts – such as that they are now 700 million miles from earth (p.131), travelling at a speed of over one hundred thousand miles an hour (p.114).

4. Abyss

All activities on the Discovery are run or monitored by the ship’s onboard computer, HAL 9000, ‘the brain and nervous system of the ship’ (p.97). HAL stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. It is the most advanced form of the self-teaching neural network which, Clarke predicts, will have been discovered in the 1980s.

HAL has a nervous breakdown. He predicts the failure of the unit which keeps the radio antenna pointed at earth. Poole goes out in one of the nine-foot space pods, anchors to the side of the ship, then does a short space walk in a space suit, unbolts the failing unit and replaces it.

But back inside the ship the automatic testing devices find nothing wrong with the unit. When a puzzled Bowman and Poole report all this back to earth, Mission Control come back with the possibility that the HAL 9000 unit might have made a mistake.

Poole and Bowman ponder the terrifying possibility that the computer which is running the whole mission might be failing. Mission Control send a further message saying the two HAL 9000 units they are using to replicate all aspects of the mission back home both now recommend disconnecting the HAL computer aboard the Discovery. Earth is just in the middle of starting to give details about how to disconnect HAL when the radio antenna unit really does fail and contact with earth is broken. Coincidence? Bear in mind that HAL has been monitoring all of these conversations…

After discussing the possibility that HAL was right all along about the unit and that they are being paranoid  about him, Poole goes out for another space walk and repair. He’s in the middle of installing the new unit when he sees something out the corner of his eye, looks up and sees the pod suddenly shooting straight at him. With no time to take evasive action Poole is crushed by the ten-ton pod, his space suit ruptured, he is dead in seconds. Through an observation window Bowman sees first the pod and then Bowman’s body fly past and away from the ship.

Bowman confronts Hal, who calmly regrets that there has been accident. Mission orders demand that Bowman now revive one of the three hibernators since there must always be two people active on the ship. HAL argues with Bowman, saying this won’t be necessary, by which stage Bowman realises there is something seriously wrong. He threatens to disconnect HAL at which point the computer abruptly relents. Bowman makes his way to the three hibernator pods and has just started to revive the next in line of command, Whitehead when… HAL opens both doors of the ship’s airlock and all the air starts to flood out into space. In the seconds before the ship becomes a vacuum, Bowman manages to make it to an emergency alcove, seal himself in, jets it up with oxygen and climb into the spacesuit kept there for just such emergencies.

Having calmed down from the shock, Bowman secures his suit then climbs out, makes his way through the empty, freezing, lifeless ship to the sealed room where HAL’s circuits are stored and powered and… systematically removes all the ‘higher’ functions which permit HAL to ‘think’, leaving only the circuits which control the ship’s core functions. HAL asks him not to and, exactly as in the film, reverts to his ‘childhood’, his earliest learning session, finally singing the song ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.’

Hours later Bowman makes a journey in the remaining pod to fix the radio antenna, then returns, closes the airlock doors and slowly restores atmosphere to the ship. Then contacts earth. And it is only now that Dr Floyd, summoned by Mission Control, tells him the true reason for the mission. Tells him about the artifact in Tycho crater. Tells him that it emitted some form of energy which all our monitors indicate was targeted at Saturn, specifically at one of its many moon, Japetus. That is what the Discovery has been sent to investigate.

And it is only in the book that Clarke is able to tell us why HAL went mad. It was the conflict between a) the demand to be at all times totally honest, open and supportive of his human crew and b) the command to keep the true purpose of the mission secret, which led HAL to have a nervous breakdown, and decide to remove one half of the conflict i.e. the human passengers, which would allow him to complete the second half, the mission to Saturn, in perfect peace of ‘mind’.

5. The Moons of Saturn

So now Bowman properly understands the mission, goes about fixing the Discovery, is in constant contact with earth and Clarke gives us an interesting chapter pondering the meaning of the sentinel and what it could have been saying. Was it a warning to its makers, or a message to invade? Where was the message sent? To beings which had evolved on or near Saturn (impossible, according to all the astrophysicists)? Or to somewhere beyond the solar system itself? In which case how could anything have travelled that far, if Einstein is correct and nothing can travel faster than light?

These last two chapters have vastly more factual information in than the movie. What the movie does without any dialogue, with stunning images and eerie music, Clarke does with his clear authoritative factual explanations. He gives us detailed descriptions of the rings of Saturn from close up, along with meticulously calculated information about perihelions and aphelions and the challenges of getting into orbit around Saturn.

But amid all this factuality is the stunning imaginative notion that the moon of Saturn, Japetus, bears on its surface a vast white eye shape at the centre of which stands an enormous copy of the TMA artifact, a huge jet black monolith maybe a mile high.

Which leads into a chapter describing the race which placed it there, which had evolved enough to develop planet travel, then space travel, then moved their minds into artificial machines and then into lattices of light which could spread across space and so, finally, into what humans would call spirit, free from time and space, at one with the universe.

It is this enormous artifact which Bowman now radios Mission Control he is about to go down to in the pod and explore.

6. Through the Star Gate

In the movie this section becomes a non-verbal experience of amazing visual effects. A book can’t do that. It has to describe and, being Clarke, can’t help also explaining, at length, what is going on.

Thus the book is much clearer and more comprehensible about what happens in this final section. Bowman guides his pod down towards the enormous artifact and is planning to land on its broad ‘top’ when, abruptly it turns from being an object sticking out towards him into a gate or cave or tunnel leading directly through the moon it’s situated on. He has just time to make one last comment to Mission Control before the pod is sucked through into the star gate and his adventure begins.

He travels along some faster-than-light portal, watching space bend around him and time slow down to a halt. He emerges into a place where the stars are more static and, looking back, sees a planet with a flat face pockmarked by black holes like the one he’s just come through, and what, when he looks closely, seems to be the wreck of a metal spaceship. He realises this must be a kind of terminal for spaceships between voyages, then the pod slowly is sucked back into one of the holes.

More faster than light travelling, then he emerges into a completely unknown configuration of stars, red dwarfs, sun clusters, the pod slows to a halt and comes to rest in… a hotel room.

Terrified, Bowman makes all the necessary checks, discovers it has earth gravity and atmosphere, gets out of the pod, takes off his spacesuit, has a shower and shave, dresses in one of the suits of clothes provided in a wardrobe, checks out the food in the fridge, or in tins or boxes of cereal.

But he discovers that the books on the coffee table have no insides, the food inside the containers is all the same blue sludge. When he lies on the bed flicking through the channels on the TV he stumbles across a soap opera which is set in this very same hotel room he is lying in. Suddenly he understands. The sentinel, after being unearthed, monitored all radio and TV signals from earth and signalled them to the Japetus relay station and on here – wherever ‘here’ is – and used them as a basis to create a ‘friendly’ environment for their human visitor.

Bowman falls asleep on the bed and while he sleeps goes back in time, recapitulating his whole life. And part of him is aware that all the information of his entire life is being stripped from his mind and transferred to a lattice of light, the same mechanism which Clarke explained earlier in the novel, was the invention of the race which created the sentinel. Back, back, back his life reels until – in a miraculous moment – the room contains a baby, which opens its mouth to utter its first cry.

The crystal monolith appears, white lights flashing and fleering within its surface, as we saw them do when it first taught the man-apes how to use tools and eat meat, all those hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Now it is probing and instructing the consciousness of Bowman, guiding him towards the next phase. The monolith disappears. The being that was Bowman understands, understands its meaning, understands how to travel through space far faster than the primitive star gate he came here by. All he needs is to focus his ‘mind’ and he is there.

For a moment he is terrified by the immensity of space and the infinity of the future, but then realises he is not alone, becomes aware of some force supporting and sustaining him, the guiders.

Using thought alone he becomes present back in the solar system he came from. Looking down he becomes aware of alarm bells ringing and flotillas of intercontinental missiles hurtling across continents to destroy each other. He has arrived just as a nuclear war was beginning. Preferring an uncluttered sky, he abolishes all the missiles with his will.

Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

And those are the final sentences of the book.

Thoughts

Like Childhood’s End the book proceeds from fairly understandable beginnings to a mind-boggling, universe-wide ending, carrying the reader step by step through what feels almost – if you let it take control of your imagination – like a religious experience.

Eliot Fremont-Smith reviewing the book in the New York Times, commented that it was ‘a fantasy by a master who is as deft at generating accelerating, almost painful suspense as he is knowledgeable and accurate (and fascinating) about the technical and human details of space flight and exploration.’

That strikes me as being a perfect summation of Clarke’s appeal – the combination of strict technical accuracy, with surprisingly effective levels of suspense and revelation.

His concern for imagining the impact of tiny details reminds me of H.G. Wells. In the Asimov and Blish stories I’ve been reading, if there’s a detail or the protagonist notices something, it will almost certainly turn out to be important to the plot. Clarke is the direct opposite. Like Wells his stories are full of little details whose sole purpose is to give the narrative a terrific sense of verisimilitude.

To pick one from hundreds, I was struck by the way that Dr Floyd finds wearing a spacesuit on the surface of the moon reassuring. Why? Because its extra weight and stiffness counter the one sixth gravity of the moon, and so subconsciously remind him of the gravity on earth. Knowing that fact, and then deploying it in order to describe the slight but detectable impact it has on one of his characters’ moods,strikes me as typical Clarke.

Hundreds of other tiny but careful thinkings-though of the situations which his characters find themselves in, bring them home and make them real.

And as to suspense, Clarke is a great fan of the simple but straightforward technique of ending chapters with a threat of disaster. E.g. after his first space walk Poole returns to the ship confident that he has fixed the problem.

In this, however, he was sadly mistaken. (p.140)

Although this is pretty cheesy, it still works. He is a master of suspense. The three other novels I’ve read by him are all thrilling, and even though I’ve seen the movie umpteen times and so totally know the plot, reading Clarke’s book I was still scared when HAL started malfunctioning, and found Bowman’s struggle to disconnect him thrilling and moving.

As to the final section, when Bowman travels through the star gate and is transformed into a new form of life, of celestial consciousness, if you surrender to the story the experience is quite mind-boggling.

It also explains a lot – and makes much more comprehensible – what is left to implication and special effects in the movie.

Forlorn predictions

Clarke expects that by 2001:

  • there will be a permanent colony on the moon, where couples will be having and bringing up children destined never to visit the earth
  • there will also be a colony on Mars
  • there will be a ‘plasma drive’ which allows for super-fast spaceship travel to other planets

I predict there will never be a colony on the moon, let alone Mars, and no ‘plasma drive’.

On the plus side, Clarke predicts that by 2001 there will be a catastrophic six billion people on earth, which will result in starvation, and food preservation policies even in the rich West. In the event there were some 6.2 billion people alive in 2001, but although there were the usual areas of famine in the world, there wasn’t the really widespread food shortages Clarke predicted.

The future has turned out to be much more human, mundane, troubled and earth-bound than Clarke and his generation expected.

Trailer

Credit

All references are to the 2011 reprint of the 1998 Orbit paperback edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, first published by Hutchinson in 1968.


Related links

Arthur C. Clarke reviews

  • Childhood’s End (1953) a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
  • Rendezvous With Rama (1973) it is 2031 and when an alien object, a cylinder 15 k wide by 50 k long, enters the solar system, and Commander Norton and the crew of Endeavour are sent to explore it

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Weimar Culture by Peter Gay (1968)

The complex of feelings and responses I have called ‘the hunger for wholeness’ turns out on examination to be a great regression born of fear: fear of modernity. The abstractions that Tönnies and Hofmannsthal and the others manipulated – Volk, Führer, Organismus, Reich, Entscheidung, Gemeinschaft – reveal a desperate search for roots and for community, a vehement, often vicious repudiation of reason accompanied by the urge for direct action or for surrender to a charismatic leader. (Weimar Culture p.100)

It took me a while to figure out what this book was for, what it’s about. I had to read the first half twice before the penny dropped.

It’s a relatively short book, 150 pages in the old Pelican paperback edition which I’ve got, and is divided into six chapters, with a 20-page historical overview at the end. The need for this appendix highlights the main thing about the text: it is emphatically not a history of the Weimar Republic. It is not even, despite the title, a history of Weimar culture. It is a series of six essays showing how certain highly specific, and limited, aspects of Weimar culture helped to fatally undermine it.

The chapters are:

  1. The Trauma of Birth: from Weimar to Weimar
  2. The Community of Reason: Conciliators and Critics
  3. The Secret Germany: Poetry as Power
  4. The Hunger for Wholeness: Trials of Modernity
  5. The Revolt of the Son: Expressionist Years
  6. The Revenge of the Father: Rise and Fall of Objectivity

Analysis of chapter 2

To take a sample chapter, the ‘Community of Reason’ chapter is not about intellectual life as a whole in the Weimar republic: it focuses on the founding of several important institutes outside the established universities, including the German Academy for Politics (1920), the Warburg Institute (1921), The Institute for Social Research (1923) and the Psychoanalytic Institute in Berlin (1910). (Gay has a special interest in psychoanalysis and is the author of a major biography of Sigmund Freud.)

The stories behind each of these organisations is fairly interesting, in a gossipy sort of way (Warburg was a borderline psychotic, apparently), but it’s only at the end of the chapter that Gay makes his point, which is that – although these are the bodies which went into exile when the Nazis came to power and therefore had a large influence abroad – at home they were relatively little known and had little or no impact.

This point only really becomes obvious in the last few pages where he contrasts the modernising innovativeness of this handful of institutes with the prevailing worldview of most academics and further education institutions in the Weimar republic, which were incredibly conservative and close-minded. We tend to think of students as fairly radical and subversive. Not in Weimar Germany, apparently.

Gay describes a widespread phenomenon known as Vernunftrepublikaners or ‘rational republicans’. This was the label given to intellectuals who only reluctantly gave assent to the establishment of the Weimar Republic, who supported it with their heads, while their hearts and souls continued to lie elsewhere.

So the ‘Community of Reason’ chapter amounts to a gossipy surf through the sector, with a conclusion that the most interesting thinkers in this area were ineffectual or irrelevant, while the majority of academics and students remained resolutely against the new liberal government.

Analysis of chapter 3

The same sort of structure is used for chapter three, ‘The Secret Germany: Poetry as Power’.

This takes the form of a sequence of shortish sections each describing a German poet who lived during – or was revived during – the Weimar period, being: Stefan George (1868-1933), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the Romantic poet Hölderlin (1770-1840), Kleist (1777-1811) and the playwright Büchner (1813-1827).

The pen portraits of each writer read much like the short introductory essays you used to get in old-fashioned student introductions to literature, books with titles like ‘An introduction to German poetry’ – short intros with a smattering of biographical facts, some generalisations about the work of their circle (the George circle seems to have been a particular phenomenon of Weimar). But Gay doesn’t actually quote or analyse any of their poetry, so you are left none the wiser about their abilities or styles.

Again it is only at the end of the chapter that we come to the point: all these writers were emphatically anti-rational, their writings over and over emphasising the importance of spirit and sensibility, community and authenticity – in both the writers and the style of their critics and readers.

Rilke became the dubious beneficiary of German literary criticism, a kind of writing that was less a criticism than a celebration, intuitive in method and overblown in rhetoric, a making and staking of grandiose claims, a kind of writing mired in sensibility and pseudo-philosophical mystery-making. (p.54)

Gay finds in the popularity of living poets like Rilke and George, and in the revivals of Hölderlin and Kleist, a morbid obsession with death, unreason, an ‘exaltation of irrationality, a blissful death wish’ (p.66). The blurring of the dividing lines between passion and religion led to ‘shapeless but impassioned religiosity’. It fatally led to poets being placed above thinkers or, as in Heidegger’s case, thinking itself becoming a kind of poetry, a kind of rousing rhetoric. Obscure but impassioned, it paved the way for fanatic barbarism.

It was only by reading the opening chapters twice that I realised Gay’s intention is not at all to give a panoramic overview of Weimar culture. It is not even to explore particular sectors, like poetry or film. It is to build up a collective indictment of the way leading intellectuals, institutions, writers and poets, historians and philosophers, refused to embrace the values of modern urban democracy – and so paved the way for Nazism.

Martin Heidegger

Take the notorious Martin Heidegger, notorious because he was both one of the seismic philosophical presences of the century, and because he undoubtedly gave help and support to the Nazis. Difficult and obscure though his work is (and he wrote it using words and terminology which he invented solely for the purpose) its central themes are comprehensible enough: rejection of the city, of urban life, of business, of politics, of democracy. Embrace of primitive being, primal existence, preference for living (as Heidegger did) a primitive existence in a retired rural area, wearing peasant costume, thinking weighty troubled thoughts.

Gay gives a pen portrait of Heidegger not to offer any analysis of his work or importance as a philosopher, but to show that a direct line links him with the anti-Enlightenment Romanticism of Holderlin; to show how deep and powerful the anti-modern, anti-democratic spirit was in German cultural life.

As a tiny symptom of this prevailing mood Gay points out that the Nazi Party was, of course, a political party, but it always referred to itself as a movement, a mass movement of spiritual and cultural regeneration and purification. Something above party and politics.

And this rhetoric fell right into line with the rhetorics of poets like Hölderlin and philosophers like Heidegger.

What Heidegger did was to give philosophical seriousness, professorial respectability, to the love affair with unreason and death that dominated so many Germans in this hard time. (p.85)

Summary

So: I thought this book would be an introduction to the cultural life of the Weimar Republic, but it really, really isn’t. Much the reverse: Gay shows how intellectual trends like a yearning for the order and hierarchy of the old Empire, combined with a widespread revulsion against modern urban life, and the cult of nature, primitivism, the rejection of the intellect and worship of ‘authenticity’, ‘depth’ and rhetorical power – how all this created an intellectual and cultural environment which was tailor-made for the advent of Hitler, with his appeal to people’s deeper, more ‘authentic’ emotions, his dismissal of foreign democracy and decadent cosmopolitanism, his appeal to the ‘true’ German spirit, founded in blood and suffering – his demand for unquestioning devotion.

And the remaining chapters ram this message home.

There is a long section about German historians of the 1920s (of pretty limited interest to anyone who isn’t themselves a professional historian) which indicts them for tending to glorify great Leaders of the past (Frederick the Great) as embodying German values of Kultur, an idea which German intellectuals considered superior to the decadent tinsel of Paris culture, and to Britain’s shopkeeper mentality.

The Weimar years saw the tremendous growth of the ‘Wandervogel’, community groups for the young which promoted outdoor activities and folk culture. Although some were supposedly socialist, Gay emphasises that their politics was shallow: it was a great surf of emotional enthusiasm looking for a direction, for a Leader.

Later chapters deal, in the same brief manner, with a number of other cultural peaks. The famous film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, is taken as typical of the confusion of aims and objectives common among Expressionist artists and film-makers. They too wanted a return to nature, a breakthrough to a more spiritual world – and yet they specialised in conveying confusion, fear, ugliness and extreme emotions. These weren’t attitudes suited to the calm, business-like give and take of democratic politics.

Gay has a longish discussion of Thomas Mann’s most famous novel, The Magic Mountain, whose main thrust seems to be that the novel is a working-through of Mann’s conflicted emotions about culture and democracy. The characters of the novel, living high in an Alpine sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis, on the face of it want to recover and live — but there is a tugging undercurrent romanticising death, with characters romantically attracted to extinction, to vaporous fantasies about ceasing upon the midnight with no pain. Even for so sensible a figure as Mann, death is just so much more glamorous and interesting than humdrum existence.

In fact, Mann is taken as a paradigm of Weimar attitudes: he had written patriotic gush when Germany had entered the Great War, had slowly become disillusioned as the war ground on, had been one of the early ‘rational republicans’ giving reluctant support to the Republic and, by the end of the 20s, had come to appreciate its virtues and to be an active supporter of democracy.

But it was too little, too late. Gay shows how outnumbered he was.

Gay’s thesis

In each chapter, in each movement and sector he looks at, Gay discerns the same underlying pattern: worship or glorification of the irrational, savage criticism of urban life, of business, of politics. Grosz et al tend to be admired nowadays for their scathing satires on political corruption. Gay interprets them as banging another nail in the coffin, with their communist, anti-republican propaganda.

For a democracy to work a culture must believe in it, must want it. It must have enough functioning civil servants and politicians who believe in its structures and institutions, who support its values and ideas, to keep it working.

Gay singles out the second-phase Bauhaus under the influence of László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers from about 1925 onwards, determined to work with modern materials and confront modern design challenges, as an epitome of what should have been happening.

What Gropius taught, and what most Germans did not want to learn, was the lesson of Bacon and Descartes and the Enlightenment: that one must confront the world and dominate it, that the cure for the ills of modernity is more, and the right kind of modernity. (p.106)

But Gropius was opposed, even within his own school, by more radical voices, communists who wanted to overthrow the existing system. Meanwhile from the outside, the Bauhaus faced right-wing nationalist opposition throughout its existence and was, finally, closed down by the Nazis soon after they came to power.

Gay’s book shows how, from top to bottom, from university historians to avant-garde film-makers and artists, from arcane philosophers to youth movements, from its architects to many of its leading politicians, the majority of the Weimar Republic’s intellectuals despised it, hated its ‘shallow’ urban values, despised the business-like compromises and deals which democracy requires.

Being passionate artists or historians entranced with Germany’s military past or philosophers of ‘Authenticity’, they preferred passion, blood, Kulturdas Volk, intuition… almost anything except reason and moderation.

Basically, the book could have been better titled The Weimar Republic and its Enemies. Or maybe The Weimar Republic: The Enemies Within. Or The Intellectual Malaise of the Weimar Republic.

After Hitler came to power it was common for foreigners to say, ‘How can Hitler and his gang of thugs have taken over the country of Bach and Mozart?’

Gay’s book goes to show how little the people who said that understood the Germany of the 1920s and 30s. His book explains the failure of intellectuals not so much to oppose Hitler (there were plenty of communist intellectuals who wrote, painted or acted against Hitler) but to do the more practical and needful thing – to actively support the Weimar democracy.

His book shows how the lack of support, indeed the widespread lack of understanding of what is required for a functioning democracy, goes a long way to explaining why the Weimar republic collapsed: not enough influential people believed in it or wanted it. They didn’t necessarily support Hitler but – on the evidence Gay presents here – for all sorts of reasons, they actively opposed the republic and the spirit of modern, secular, urban democracy which it represented.

Gay’s authority

And Gay speaks with more than academic authority. Peter Joachim Fröhlich was born in Berlin in 1923, at the height of the hyper-inflation which racked the Weimar Republic in that year. In 1941 he emigrated to America where he changed his surname to Gay, a close translation of Fröhlich which means ‘cheerfully’.

Gay studied history at the university of Denver, gained a PhD at Columbia, and then taught at Yale University from 1969 until his retirement in 1993. He wrote 25 history books, several of them becoming bestsellers, including a massive biography of Sigmund Freud (1988), and this study of Weimar culture.

So Gay was German, his friends and family were German. He was an impressionable teenager in the world he’s describing, and he mentions that some of his conclusions are drawn from direct conversations with key players in Weimar – Hannah Arendt (formidable intellect in her own right and one-time partner of Martin Heidegger), Walter Gropius, first director of the Bauhaus, and so on.

Reading through Gay’s systematic indictment of the leading minds of the Weimar Republic, marvelling at all the ways that German intellectuals failed to support, or actively undermined, their nation’s first attempt at democracy, tends to:

  1. profoundly worry you about the German national character
  2. make you distrust carping, sneering, ‘subversive’ public intellectuals even more than you already did

As I read the very last page with its poetic oration for the exiles forced to flee the advent of Hitler, I had a thought which Gay doesn’t mention. Maybe all the famous exiles from Hitler’s Germany, from Einstein to Brecht, from Schoenberg to Koestler, from Kurt Weill to Billy Wilder – if, as Gay suggests, they simply weren’t capable of supporting a sensible modern culture, well then maybe they could only thrive abroad in the stable environment provided by capitalist, democratic America. They were quite literally not capable of running a country of their own.


Related links

Related reviews

I Want It Now by Kingsley Amis (1968)

Ronnie… sat on the opposite side of the deck with some people called Sir something and Lady Saxton and, a yard or two further off, Chummy Baldock, who was drinking a glass of beer and, to all appearances, sneering at the sea. Ordinarily, Ronnie despised the sea himself: it was a part of scenery and therefore a waste of time, and today it was at its most boringly smooth. But no element that caused Baldock to show so many of his top teeth and look down his flexible nose could be all bad. If he were to fall into it, then he, Ronnie, would be on its side. (p.67)

A return to familiar Amis territory after the strange experimentalism of The Anti-Death League. From that long, complex novel with a fairly large cast exploring multiple themes with unexpected sensitivity, this is a shorter (204 pages) novel with a smaller cast, focused on the picaresque adventures of one young randy ‘hero’, who is, in the time-honoured Amis manner, continually calculating how to manipulate and manage people using a variety of tones of voice and ‘faces’- which has a serious side and serious moments but which are pretty much swamped by his breath-taking cynicism and hilariously heartless commentary.

Even the title is a return from the mock portentous – The Anti-Death League – to the deliberately casual throwaway phrase which is Amis’s normal style. It not only sounds like the kind of phrase someone might say, it actually is a direct quote (compare One Fat Englishman, which is how one of his American lovers describes the fat hairy anti-hero of that novel). Here, on page 24, the young female lead, ‘Simon’, demonstrates her unbalanced egotism by suggesting to the hero at a posh house party that they have sex and when he says, Sure, come back to my flat, she says, No, ‘I want it now’, which epitomises her entire spoilt attitude to life.

Part one – London

35-year-old TV presenter Ronnie Appleyard is ferociously ambitious and relentless in his pursuit of success and sex. Fresh from humiliating a Cabinet minister on his current affairs show, he shares a cab with a hated rival – Bill Hamer – to a swanky party given by a top business lawyer where he meets a bohemian young woman who disconcerts him by asking him to take her upstairs for sex immediately. ‘I want it now,’ she says sulkily. This prompts an argument with the posh hostess who a) Ronnie had chatted up and has the fury not only of a woman spurned but spurned for a younger woman b) knows the girl’s mother and is therefore able to act doubly scandalised.

Having left the party under a cloud, and out on the street the girl, Simon Quick, catches up with him and insists on coming back to his flat where she is quick to hop into bed but where things go badly wrong. She is either a virgin or terrified or really disturbed but she freezes and (even) Ronnie can’t go through with the deed. He tells her to pack her stuff and clear out and strolls to the pub across the road to phone up his standby bird, Fat Susan.

But when he gets back to his flat Simon is still in his bed, so he forces her to get dressed and is on the verge of booting her out when she mentions how rich her parents are. Her mother has had several filthy rich husbands and is currently married to the well-known Lord Baldock. Ding! A lightbulb goes on in Ronnie’s mind. Money. Wealth. Power. He resolves to go out with the scrawny screwed-up Simon and ingratiate himself into the bosom of her family. [He is that heartless and calculating.]

So he walks her back to her parents’ swanky house in Eaton Square, where they walk in on a very grand evening party. There is a scene in the library where the red-faced, middle-aged man Simon had been talking with at the first party bursts in and shouts at Simon for rejecting him and then nearly hits Ronnie for taking his place, before being asked to leave by the very superior Lord Baldock.

(This has all taken place on the same evening, a typical Amis handling of time ie the continuous real-time description of events as they happen.)

Ronnie goes into overdrive to ingratiate himself with Lady Baldock, flirting more than a little with her but also presenting himself as the sensible, professional man who can look after her poor, wayward daughter. As reward he is invited to go and stay for a week or so with them on their ‘little villa’ on a Greek island.

Part two – Malakos [Greece]

The villa is, predictably, on an epic, luxury, Cleopatra scale, as are the guests and the ‘light meals’. By this stage I’m realising the book is as much if not more a satire about the rich, the international rich, who namedrop Princess Margaret and Onassis, as it is about one lowly TV presenter. Ronnie’s sexual predatoriness has been swallowed, as it were, by the bigger theme.

During this trip Ronnie’s relationship with Simon becomes deeper. One hot afternoons they go to bed and it is now he elicits from her the fact that, although she’s slept with numerous men, she has never enjoyed it, in fact it has traumatised her. So Ronnie, surprisingly, sets about a very slow process of ‘sexual healing’ ie beginning with just gentle touching in ‘safe’ areas, over a series of afternoons, designed to make her less uptight and ‘frigid’, as the 1960s terminology had it.

There are a number of humorous outings and lavish meals which all provide scope for Amis’s withering commentary on the selfishness, greed and petty rivalries of the rich. But t his section climaxes with a lot of the rich standing round at the drinks part of the evening while Lady Baldock systematically humiliates her daughter in front of them all. Ronnie now realises that Simon’s problem is she has been crushed and destroyed by her wicked mother who, all the time, pretends to ‘love’ and ‘adore’ her daughter. So he stands up to Lady Baldock, interrupting her diatribe and saying that, No, Simon is sensitive and caring. ‘Do you claim to know my own daughter better than I do?’ says Lady B in best Cruella de Ville mode, and a whole lot more, ‘I invite you to my house, I lavish food and blah blah and you stand there and insult me blah blah’. So Ronnie has to pack his bags and leave.

Part three – Fort Charles [USA]

Three months later and somewhat improbably, Ronnie has been invited by Lady B to her other house in the Deep South of America. Among other things, this gives Amis the opportunity to satirise the really revoltingly racist Deep South Rich who at any opportunity start spouting about the Glories of the Confederacy and the only way to manage the ‘negro problem’ is to ‘keep them in their place’ etc.

Ronnie has been invited because Lady B wants to make contact with his colleague, Bill Hamer, who has a higher-profile TV show than him. She wants to appear in the TV show Hamer has been planning about ‘the Rich’. This, again, is all rather improbable. In terms of plot, it allows Ronnie to meet up with Simon again, only to discover she has now been paired off by her evil mother with a particularly unpleasant Southerner of impeccable wealth which allows him to sound off as much racist twaddle as he likes to everyone, while taking another drink from the tray held by the black servants.

Ronnie realises that he has been invited not only to introduce Hamer, but also to rub his nose in the fact that Simon is now affianced to this Yank; and a little later realises it is also to rub Simon’s nose in the fact that she has lost him for good. Ie it has multiple levels of snub and malevolence, something the subtle rich are so good at.

More or less the same happens as in Greece, ie Ronnie is just getting somewhere with Simon again, despite the opposition of Lord and Lady B, as well as everyone else in their circle, when he completely blows it by not being able to stand yet another tirade by the ghastly fiancé on the Glory of the Confederacy and the degeneracy of black folks etc, and just tells him to shut the **** up, that he is talking unpleasant, offensive balls. Once again Lady B takes a high hand and insists he leaves. And once again Ronnie packs his bags and takes a cab to the airport but, rather surprisingly, they are nearly run off the road by a fast car which swerves in front of them and turns out to be driven by Simon. They transfer his luggage into it and she drives him to a cabin in some forest park hundreds of miles away.

She has realised, from Ronnie’s intervention and his sheer presence there, that he really does love her, and she has begun to see that her mother is not her protector but her oppressor and so, for the first time, they make love in something like the normal way and she almost enjoys it, or at least isn’t horrified and disgusted.

Unfortunately, she had left a hint where she was going with a relative to avoid a real panic occurring over her disappearance, and this was just enough for Lord B and the local police to track them down and burst open the cabin door. The cops and a smooth Southern lawyer point out that he has broken various Federal and State laws about carrying women over state borders for immoral purposes. Ronnie puts up a fight, but it is made clear that even if a good lawyer got him off, the publicity would end his career.

Within five minutes Lord B, the cops and Simon are gone and Ronnie drinks the rest of the bottle of whiskey and passes out. Next morning he catches his flights back to London.

Part four – London

Months later and Ronnie is back presenting his TV show as sparky as ever but, off camera, finds his mind wandering. He can’t get Simon out of his head. He has tried to track her down but her family move promiscuously to Cannes and Africa and America and all over.

The climax of the novel is also pretty improbable. Hamer tells Ronnie he has finally organised the TV discussion Lady B wanted him to organise. The guests will be some expert on the rich, her Greek billionaire friend and herself. But, Hamer explains to Ronnie, he’ll say the fourth member of the panel dropped out at short notice and that he asked his colleague Ronnie to help him out at the last minute – and together they’ll stitch her up. Why are you doing this, asks Ronnie. Because, explains Hamer, he in fact got to have sex with Lady B in America (!) but despite this, on several occasions, she described him as a filthy upstart and a jumped-up nobody. And also because she is evil.

And so Lady B appears on Hamer’s live studio discussion TV programme in which she is duly humiliated. Hamer allows Ronnie to make general comments about the selfishness of the rich which become obviously applicable to her and a number of her guests – unbearably posh characters we’ve been introduced to in earlier scenes – themselves speak out to confirm that, yes, she is a selfish manipulative bitch. Even the Greek billionaire, when appealed to, confirms the general opinion. Why did she want to appear on the show? It is only the sleight of hand of fiction which can conceal – while you’re reading it – the utter unlikeliness of such a smart calculating woman allowing herself to walk into such a trap. Also, in 40 years of watching, I’ve never seen a TV show which was obviously set up solely to humiliate one of the guests. I think it would be illegal, as well as career-ending for Hamer and Ronnie.

Lady B retaliates and starts getting pretty personal about Ronnie, ‘I welcomed you into my home but like the ungrateful reptile you are you seduced my daughter…’ and plenty more climaxing with – ‘and all the while you were just after her money.’ Which prompts Ronnie to finally lose his temper and say, Yes, he was after her money and social contacts to begin with, but he has fallen totally in love with Simon and doesn’t care if she’s cut off without a penny to her name, in fact it would be better for all concerned. The programme closes in uproar as the loud Confederate fiancé emerges from the audience to protect the honour of Lady B, and is manhandled by studio security. Punches are thrown, chaos ensues. — This isn’t like TV in the real world, it is a cartoon version.

Afterwards Hamer and Ronnie share a drink, the former happy with the ratings boost and the way the punch-up will put him back on the trend of ‘urgent’, ‘confrontational’ TV. Ronnie goes sadly home to his poky little flat and is just considering that he really must move when a car pulls up and there’s a knock on the door.

To his amazement it is Lord Baldock, the man who has spent the entire novel looking down his nose at Ronnie, sneering at him in company and insulting him in person. Now, with wild improbability, he claims that Ronnie’s declaration live on air that he doesn’t care about Simon’s money has converted him, made him see that Ronnie is the real thing after all. And so he has got Simon outside in the car, does he want to see her?

Ronnie rushes outside and he and Simon are reconciled on the spot. Over a quick snifter in the pub opposite Lord B explains his motives a bit more then says you’d better pack your bags, go somewhere secret and get married immediately. He clears off and Ronnie and Simon prepare to head off into the Happy Ever After.

Conclusion

I have got used to Amis novels being strong on individual sentences, comic and witty insights, outrageous characters, but weak on plot and plausibility.

The first half or so of this novel was the funniest stuff he’s written, I thought it was going to turn out the best book he’d done, I laughed out loud on almost every page. But the humour drained away a bit as the love affair with Simon became more serious, the psychological roots of her depression or despair became more real and earnest, and the satire on America and the rich became darker and from angrily humorous became just angry.

And then the whole plotline of Lady B inviting Ronnie to the States solely to meet Bill Hamer solely to appear on his television show, stretched the bounds of plausibility to snapping point and beyond, as did Lord B’s last-minute conversion from sneering toff to fairy godfather.

The first half is comedy gold which I’d recommend to anyone… but then the issues I’ve listed in the second half make it an increasingly problematic read, and I finished it feeling puzzled and unsatisfied.

Maybe I understand now why Amis was such a presence when I started reading novels in the mid-1970s – because his stroppy, tell-it-like-it-is tone of voice and his numerous comic tricks and techniques are so effective and infectious, because he churned out a novel every year or two plus scads of articles and reviews and media appearances and poems and anthologies – but also why it’s difficult to pin down just one or two definitive novels to give to someone and say, ‘These are his masterpieces’. Because all his novels are, like this one, flashing with brilliance, humour and insight but wildly erratic and wayward in structure and plausibility.


Related links

Soft porn paperback cover if I Want It Now which, in a flash shows, you the kind of market Amis’s books were commissioned,written and published for.

Panther paperback edition of I Want It Now

Panther paperback edition of I Want It Now

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 Bang Bang Birds by Adam Diment (1968)

‘McAlpine,’ he grunted, ‘ why do you wear such godawful clothes. You look like a pacifist faggot beatnik hippie.’ (p.42)

The Bang Bang Birds – Great title, a really brilliant title.

The setting

This is Adam Diment’s third novel about his twenty-something hash-happy, dolly bird-hunting ‘spy’, Philip McAlpine, and finds our layabout spook lounging in the high rise offices of ‘Hun Sec 3’  in New York, seconded to a US Intelligence department run by 5 foot of crackling Marine energy, General Eastfeller. It’s told in the first person so we get the full frontal flavour of McAlpine’s scandalously sexist, insubordinate, stroppy attitudes.

Eventually, near the church, I found the club where they said they would be waiting for me. It was called, very appropriately but with little creative thinking, Stoned…I walked down the narrow stairs, painted day-glo orange and decorated by crude paintings of Pop cult figures. Through the baffle door and the sound hit me like ten road-drills… The club was not very large, maybe forty feet long by thirty wide, but it made the black hole of Calcutta look like a rest room…Great banks of smoke hovered over the floor like smog, writhing in the beams of light, and the smell of foreign tobacco, incense, and sweat nearly covered the sweet penetrations of hash… The girl at the desk wore a dress which looked as though giant, ravenous moths had been at it. A nipple poked coyly through one of the holes and I found myself preoccupied as to whether she was wearing panties… (p.126)

That gives you a good sense of the setting, the attitude and the style of the book – and note, not a word about spying anywhere in sight. As with the previous two novels, The Bang Bang Birds gets off to a slow start while it establishes McAlpine’s dossy lifestyle and prolonged love-ins with his rich, dim sexpot girlfriend, and this is where his writing really comes alive, in describing the swinging world of 1968. Quite often the whole spying malarkey feels like it’s tacked on to a potentially much more interesting memoir of the ‘scene’.

The plot

McAlpine is blackmailed and bullied (once again) into another undercover mission: this time he is to adopt the cover of Yankee playboy Lexington Sullivan in order to join a set of exclusive international clubs, the Aviary organisation, an elite version of the Playboy clubs, well stocked with booze, stunning bunnies and other ‘leisure facilities’. Why? Because a number of US politicians and scientists had been intoxicated, seduced and persuaded to spill the beans about all kinds of security and military and scientific secrets.

McAlpine’s mission: to infiltrate the clubs, work his way to the top, locate the microfilm or whatever all these secrets are stored on – and steal it back.

The setting then moves to Stockholm, because that is where the head of the Aviary clubs is currently based. Cue luxurious descriptions of the club, its hallucinatory décor, the compliant courtesans and their astonishing costumes, the raddled old Establishment politicians, generals and bishops seen flirting with them, and the pale, powerful pander, Henri Larceaux, Comte de Vitconne, who runs the whole thing. (There are a couple of pages giving us Larceaux’s backstory and rise from small-time pimping to his current empire, complete with some violent descriptions, reminiscent of the Nazi’s disturbingly hateful backstory in The Dolly Dolly Spy.)

You won’t be surprised to learn that McAlpine secures the microfilm – not without lots of sex with his girlfriend or convenient courtesans, not without a few shootouts, and not – of course – without being stitched up by his camp boss, Rupert ‘the swine’ Quine.

There is an amazing description of a really massive orgy which McAlpine makes all the more surreal by spiking the drinks with acid. It’s when everyone is completely incapacitated that he breaks into Vitconne’s safe and steals the microfilm. He makes his escape via the rooftop helicopter (of course), lands on a lake near a swinging party of stoned hippies and promptly steals one of their motorbikes to get away.

The great spy boom

These books are really to be considered in the company of 1960s TV series like The Man From UNCLE (1964-68), the crude spoof Get Smart (1965-70) or comedy spy movies like Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967), or the four Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin (1966-69) and featuring (apparently) girls with names like Lovey Craves It. Diment slips into line with these far-out parodies of the whole spy genre, their preposterously rugged heroes and the brainless dolly birds who fall into their arms like sweeties.

Au courant

1968 is a long time ago and the book is made poignant because the narrator is very aware of the speed and fragility of fashion, of the hurtling 1960s, the ephemerality of the moment. He makes a point of noting what’s in the newspapers and on the radio:

One of the local radio stations gave me the news. Another big drive had started in Vietnam. De Gaulle was being even more stroppy than usual about US troops in his Europe. The British pound was still weakening on the currency markets. Tomorrow would be hot and dry. (p.39)

Behind the texts is the strange story of Diment’s complete disappearance in 1971, vanishing from the scene after cresting the heady waves of fashionability. The books, in their Austin Powers preposterousness, don’t in the slightest hint at any of this, but their psychedelic braggadochio is shadowed by this later fate…

Let’s play

In this, his third novel, Diment is confident to play a little with the conventions.

  • On a superficial level, almost all the chapter titles are bad puns which include the word spy eg Spygetti, Spynless, Trespying, Spyniccer, Aspydystra lolz
  • The book is divided into three parts and each one starts with a one page anecdote, from which the ironical author then draws a moral. The first two are detailed accounts of screw-ups during World War II, so I thought they might have a subtle bearing on the plot, but the third one was an inconsequential anecdote about a journalist and a hippy and it turns out none of them had any relevance.
  • The opening chapter mentions no names and the omniscient third-person narrator describes a spy being ambushed and beaten up in a doorway, and conveys empathy for his plight. Only in chapter 7, page 129, do we see the same incident, this time reported by the first-person narrator, McAlpine who, it turns out, is the one doing the beating up. Aha. Playing with multiple points of view and teaser text.

In one of the last and bizarrest scenes, McAlpine is recaptured by the baddie and forced to face the self-same Russian agent he beat up, in an amphitheatre for the viewing pleasure of the jaded Aviary club members. For a second time we enter his mind and see the world from his point of view, as the short fight erupts and, once again, McAlpine gets the better of him, this time permanently.

In the last few scenes a new bitter tone emerges. McAlpine escapes (yet again), to rendezvous with his hated boss, Quine, before they are chased by a car of baddies who start shooting at them and McAlpine extemporises with a hastily made molotov cocktail which successfully explodes on the pursuing car and forces it off the road and into a fatal explosion. But not before McAlpine has seen the driver is a rather useless American agent he met in New York, and whose wife had hosted a nice dinner party for him.

Suddenly he feels world-weary and embittered. For what turns out to have been a shabby double cross, McAlpine has murdered two men. All the wind goes out of  his sails and the novel ends on a surprisingly sour downbeat.

Fun, not fine, writing

Whatever his other shortcomings, the boy can write. Erratically and slapdash, but often memorably. A vivid paragraph in The Great Spy Race described the setting sun reflected off the high rise buildings of London, and somewhere else he described the buds on the trees emerging into the weak London sunshine and diesel atmosphere. This time he’s in New York.

It had stopped raining and the clouds were forming a traffic block shifting out over the Atlantic. The sun slanted down between the buildings turning the whole long street into a zebra crossing of light and shadow. (p.35)

Quite a few of his sentences feel a mite clumsy and don’t unfurl or resolve as you expect, though that’s part of his wonky stoner charm. You get the sense he knocked them out and never reread them. But there is a consistent stream of verbal felicities and pleasures, small spangles illuminating the mind.

The Swedes tend to fits of gloom as a nation followed by bursts of unbridled drinking and debauchery. Maybe it is all those thousands of square miles of silent pine forests, the brooding quiet of unnamed, brackish lakes, or just the depressing thought of having the Arctic Circle in your country. (p.77)

‘Brackish’

The porter in the hall had summoned a maid who took me to the flat. She was one of those spry, wafer-thin Swedish ladies around fifty. (p.78)

‘Spry’

Similes

… are the currants in the Christmas pudding of prose, little bursts of flavour:

  • His voice, when he spoke, was flat as a jaywalking hedgehog and had the same prickly quality. (86)
  • He produced another of his laughs like a bulldozer going through a plate glass window. (125)

Related links

Bantam Books edition of The Bang Bang Birds

Bantam Books edition of The Bang Bang Birds

Adam Diment’s novels

  • The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967) Introducing Philip McAlpine, dope-smoking, randy and reluctant secret agent who is blackmailed into going undercover with a dodgy international charter air firm, then kidnapping a dangerous ex-Nazi.
  • The Great Spy Race (1968) A retired masterspy organises an international spy competition, where agents from every country’s Intelligence agencies have to follow a trail of clues across Europe and out to the Indian Ocean to win a complete breakdown of Red China’s spy network, with our man McAlpine reluctantly out in front all the way.
  • The Bang Bang Birds (1968) Our man is bullied (once again) into undertaking a mission in Sweden, to infiltrate an elite club-cum-brothel and retrieve top secret information which is being seduced out of its powerful clientele. Cue an acid-fueled orgy, a duel in a speedboat, a helicopter getaway, a high-speed car chase, lots of sex, and some rather sober and bitter killings.
  • Think, Inc (1971) Stoner spy Philip McAlpine is back in his last adventure, blackmailed into joining the ranks of an international crime syndicate based in Rome and working on three crime capers which turn out disastrously. In a new departure for the series, McAlpine falls in love, with a black Londoner named Chastity and dreams of escaping, from filthy horrible London, from his former life of promiscuity, and from his career as a spy and hit man – dreams which are horribly crushed in the novel’s final pages.

The Great Spy Race by Adam Diment (1968)

It felt good to be alive – take a memo McAlpine – make sure you stay that way. (p.78)
The main attraction of being a layabout is watching the rest of the world rushed off its aching feet. (p.83)

This is Diment’s second novel featuring Philip McAlpine – a kind of lazy, dirty, dope-smoking twenty-something nephew to James Bond – who is back and reluctantly embroiled in another wildly improbable, comedy spy caper.

Only quotes can convey how incredibly up-to-date and achingly 1968 Diment is: the clothes, the slang, the mini-skirts, the birds, the Stones, Dylan, the cars, the groovy boutiques and dope-ridden parties.

London has always been crap

The miserable drizzle gathered itself into a frenzy of proper rain as I trudged up the short, concrete crazy-paving path to the little, jerry-built semi-detached. Why for God’s sake, I thought, hadn’t I worn a hat? Answer – I haven’t got a hat. (p.7)

Outside, the polar wind denied the sunny impression I had got through my office window. March in London with the mutant plane trees trying to push green buds through a coating of soot into the carbon monoxide. (p.14)

It was pissing with rain in London and we stood together, gazing at our meteorological heritage. (p.75)

Only bits of London are swinging, very small bits – nobody could delude themselves into thinking Barnet is swinging. (p.132)

Lots of English writers accurately describe how horrible, grey, rainy, bleak and shabby London is, but Diment doesn’t let it depress him. The subject is grim but the language is always alive and amused.

The sun was setting over the roof tops beyond Hammersmith and the windows of the juvenile skyscrapers along Euston Road were ablaze with reflected glory. A few black clouds were piling themselves up north of the city, which would probably mean rain later but it was, so far, a lovely spring evening. Even the other cretins blocking the roads with their rotting piles of low-carbon steel couldn’t spoil my mood. (p.28)

Spying

In both his novels virtually every character we meet – and certainly all our hero’s lovers – turn out to be secret agents, comically disillusioning our man. The ubiquity of spies in his fiction presumably is a kind of satire on the ubiquity of spies in films and fiction during the great Spy Boom of the mid to late 60s.

This espionage racket is spreading like mould, I thought. Soon I won’t have a friend left who’s not in the racket. Only last year I had been shocked out of my life when I discovered Lord Kilmarry, friend and titled ponce of this parish, worked for the same department as me. Now here was Timothy, cold-eyed as anything out of Le Carré, offering to flog me Kosygin’s telephone number or something. (p.18)

More smuggling – if they caught me at customs they’d think they had another Philby. (p.94)

‘Exactly what are you doing here and what do you do for a living?’ On occasions like this, according to the Stationary Office Manual for Spies, you are supposed to mutter that you work for the War Office, the Ministry of Defence or the frigging Atomic Energy Commission and your actual labours are of a classified nature. This is the polite, retiring British way of saying I’m a spy or counterspy so kindly mind your own sodding business or you’ll be pestered day and night by retired security men checking you for clearance, non-membership of the communist party, debt and perversion. But ever since spying got to be a fashionable job – like photography or interior decorating, this formula is guaranteed to whet your questioner’s interest even further. (p.117)

The plot

There’s a plot? Oh yes. Well, McAlpine is asked by his boss to fly to the tropical hideout of a retired superspy – Peters, ‘the last of the great spies’ – who lives with a fearsome assassin/butler and a half-naked dolly bird. He thinks it’s just a courier job, delivering money.

But once out on the terrace of Peters’ fabulous modern pad overlooking the bay etc, the wicked old man reveals he has set up a ‘spy race’ ie he has posted instructions to every espionage agency in the world to take part in his espionage Olympics. Upon paying a £20,000 deposit each of the contestants will receive a series of clues which will lead him (or her) to the ultimate prize: an entire breakdown of Red Chinese agents in the Far East (p.66). And McAlpine has just unknowingly handed over his deposit. He’s in the race!

It’s a great idea for a madcap chase movie in the spirit of the Beatles’ Help (1965) or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) or even Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), and there’s enough tense confrontations, shootouts, flying, speedboating and car chases to gladden any boys’ heart.

The clues are addresses or numbers or locations, contained in bank vaults or known only to beautiful women who have to be seduced or which have to be blackmailed out of a gay boutique owner, which the spy (ie McAlpine) then has to interpret correctly.

But I’m not reading it for the story, I’m reading it for its attitude and devil-may-care style and the vivid depiction of London 1968, recognisably the London I got to know in the late 1970s – not the gentlemen’s clubs of Greene and le Carré or indeed Philby, but the dirty pubs and noisy bars and cheap boutiques and dodgy bistros and tiny flats and loud parties where swinging young people drink and smoke and posture.

‘Lend me your camera, man. I’m about to picture the biggest scene this century.’ I looped it off his neck and squeezed between two posturing lads, all bulging balls and manly deodorants, who blocked my way to the door. (p.86)


A dedicated follower of fashion

What people are wearing is very important to the narrator and one of the many markers or indicators situating the text historically and culturally.

‘By the way,’ he crooned, as I stood with my hands on the door button, ‘I just love your suit. But I don’t think the pink flowers on the tie quite go with your dolly little shirt.’ (p.25)

I dressed in bright green, high collared, military style suit with the regulation long-collared shirt and fertilised hot-house tie. Philip is wearing bright colours this spring. I clapped twenty quid into my American-style money clasp and ran the electric mower briskly over my virile stubble. (p.29)

He was hardly a man in the shadows. He wore a shirt covered in Arabic scrawl raised in gold thread on a green background. His hard lemon yellow trousers reminded me of ballet and feetwise he wore knee length, purple suede. (p.85)

Great party, man

And how refreshing, how funny, to have a party described, not a dinner part of the Le Carré or Deighton ilk, but a messy, noisy, dirty bash full of drunk randy young people.

The party was in a large studio flat over a boutique doing a strong line in old Wehrmacht uniforms. A tiny modelling girl, with long blonde hair and eyes like a bushbaby’s, led me into the room. Dark as the Western Front but not quiet, the cigarette fumes clotted the air like clouds of mustard gas while the very latest Stones’ LP gave a realistic sound track to the trench-warfare atmosphere. (p.30)

Sex…

McAlpine is leerily lecherous about almost every woman he meets. What makes it so 1960s is the way every woman he meets seems to be just as lecherous back, generally wearing the smallest of mini-skirts, no bras or pants, see-though dresses, topless sunbathing etc. It was the 1960s. Everyone experienced this as a tremendous liberation, apparently. And the lechery is not hateful, but is always heading in the direction of carefree consensual sex. The other thriller writers I’ve been reading rarely even mention sex or, like Graham Greene, only mention explicit details to convey more incisively their corroding despair and guilt.

Diment is a reminder sex can actually be fun.

‘We asked Josephine, seen here in a compromising position with gay man about swinging London, Philip McAlpine, whether she enjoyed the “New Morality”,’ I said slipping slowly into her plump, warm clingingness and she burst out laughing in happy passion. I like my sex to be fun – you can have old Lawrence’s deadly earnest copulations. She had a neat little trick of digging her heels into the base of your spine. Our activities ended successfully and added to the scar-tissue around my verebrae. (p.38)

Miss Sergeant looked much the same as she always did without clothes. I patted her generous behind and shuffled the clinging little thing over to the bed. Plump thighs flashing and little tits bouncing as she hit the springs… Rubbing against her flesh was like taking a bath in a vat of peaches. (p.98)

Mrs O took off her shades and looked at me, like a farmer appraising an untried bull, with her brown, slightly slant eyes. It sent a small tremor right down to my testes. Supercharger in, lads, I thought rather faintly. (p.109)

So many ‘serious writers’ come a cropper trying to describe sex which has led to the establishment of the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction award. Diment flirts with disaster but, I think, avoids it because he is happy and funny.

‘Mmm, you smell gorgeous. Masculine.’ She ran one hand through my hair and her nails produced a visible tremor right down my jellified spine. This girl was every carnal dream incarnate and still, I guessed, too young to vote. I took off my jacket which felt heavy as a suit of armour and dropped it on the floor. She rolled me out of my clothes like a stripper removing her nylons and led me over to the bed, gently, by my very aroused and totally uncontrollable member. ‘Unzip me,’ she said and turned round. Her hair, black and falling to the swell of her behind, covered a zipper which ran clear from the neck of her dress to the hem. I pulled it open and she stepped out of the dress and turned to me. There hung around her an aura (almost) a halo, of langorous sexuality. We rolled over on the bed kissing and feeling. (p.124)

I quote at length becuase this is the dominant note of the book, not the guns or cars or planes (which are also feelingly described). I suppose for some readers the relentless lechery might get a bit trying, and the book gives a strong sense of the attitude of male entitlement which the contemporary Woman’s Liberation movement was reacting against. 1968 was, apparently, the year when the term ‘sexism’ was first used and the first major protest was staged outside the annual Miss World competition.

… and drugs

The protagonist enjoys getting stoned, no melodrama, no big fuss, no Victorian moralising about drugs. He rolls ’em, he smokes ’em.

I flicked a joint out of the pack, the first and only manufactured packet of reefers I’ve ever seen – all little pink flowers and hearts, very psychedelic. ‘Got a light?’ … She came back with a gold Zippo lighter and I turned on. It was very good stuff that. In no time at all I was orbit high with my skin feeling lovely as I could sense every inch of it under the warm sun. (p.73)

… and Len Deighton

Taking a leaf from Len Deighton’s Ipress thrillers, the novel opens with a photocopy of what purports to be a ‘top secret file’ on McAlpine. Also each part (there are three) and each chapter, has an epigraph, as in Deighton’s novels – the difference is that, whereas Deighton’s were erudite allusions to the plot (for example the use of crossword clues in the chapter headings of Horse Under Water), Diment’s have the same irreverent attitude as his sparky young narrator. Eg:

Play up, play up and play the game.
WARCRY OF A CRUMBLIN’ EMPIRE

Love is better the second time around
POPULAR MISCONCEPTION


Similes

The text is well lubricated with a steady flow of cheeky, spur-of-the-moment comparisons:

  • The stars were like calculating lights on a huge cosmic computer. (88)
  • The American… was standing on the pavement looking bewildered and angry and talking to a dark-haired bird who balanced the extreme scantiness of her skirt with silver bells on her wrists. Every time she made a gesture she tinkled like a Himalayan monastery. (92)
  • I bounced out of Nice in my hired 2CV, Michelins crying on the curves and the engine buzzing like a chainsaw to keep the tinty tin can moving at forty miles an hour. (97)
  • She has a way of walking, that girl, like two soft ball bearings bouncing on a foam trampoline. (115)
  • Outside the sun hit me like a stadium full of electric fires. (127)
  • ‘Thanks man.’ I walked out across the apron to where the DC8 stood, like a great golden pterodactyl in the setting sun. (134)
  • [The pilot landed beautifully], cutting back the engines at the last moment and bringing her down like a casual mallard showing off for Peter Scott. (135)
  • In half an hour it would be broad daylight and if they had infra-red sights I was already staked out like a toad on a dissecting board. (136)
  • ‘Nearly there, nearly there,’ I said, skipping rapidly and moving like Chichester in a typhoon.’ (138)
  • My breathing steadied down as I went over the crest and my legs, like melting crème caramel on the beach, felt fine… I dropped the suede jacket and went on across the little plateau – I was going through clothes like the raviest of Mods. (148)
  • I slammed her into second which made the gearbox cogs emit a sound like breaking bottles. (151)
  • I went cold as fish fingers and bent over the quadrant of levers… Sweat stood out on my forehead like frosting round a lager glass. (159)
  • Sitting placidly in the cage, gun ready to hand, was my old enemy Miss Pringe. My heart dropped like a brick off the Post Office Tower. (169)

Great fun, but you can tell it won’t last. Diment’s novels make Modesty Blaise look like War and Peace. The only real character in them is the solipsistic narrator, sex mad and stoned – a very persuasive creation, this, but absolutely everything else about it, all the other characters, let alone the improbable plots, are as flaky as old paint. It’s a shame but you can see why Diment’s four novels have just about vanished without trace.

Related links

1968 Pan paperback edition of The Great Spy Race

1968 Pan paperback edition of The Great Spy Race

Adam Diment’s novels

  • The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967) Introducing Philip McAlpine, dope-smoking, randy and reluctant secret agent who is blackmailed into going undercover with a dodgy international charter air firm, then kidnapping a dangerous ex-Nazi.
  • The Great Spy Race (1968) A retired masterspy organises an international spy competition, where agents from every country’s Intelligence agencies have to follow a trail of clues across Europe and out to the Indian Ocean to win a complete breakdown of Red China’s spy network, with our man McAlpine reluctantly out in front all the way.
  • The Bang Bang Birds (1968) Our man is bullied (once again) into undertaking a mission in Sweden, to infiltrate an elite club-cum-brothel and retrieve top secret information which is being seduced out of its powerful clientele. Cue an acid-fueled orgy, a duel in a speedboat, a helicopter getaway, a high-speed car chase, lots of sex, and some rather sober and bitter killings.
  • Think, Inc (1971) Stoner spy Philip McAlpine is back in his last adventure, blackmailed into joining the ranks of an international crime syndicate based in Rome and working on three crime capers which turn out disastrously. In a new departure for the series, McAlpine falls in love, with a black Londoner named Chastity and dreams of escaping, from filthy horrible London, from his former life of promiscuity, and from his career as a spy and hit man – dreams which are horribly crushed in the novel’s final pages.

My Silent War by Kim Philby (1968)

The old Turkey hands, of course, were aghast. But it is a good working rule, wherever you are, to ignore the old hands; their mentalities grow inwards like toenails. (p.191)

Strong sense of déjà vu about the story of Kim Philby, the greatest betrayer in British espionage history, because I’ve heard of the Cambridge spies all my life – attended the Alan Bennett play about Blunt, saw the TV play starring Alan Bates, read the sections of Graham Greene’s biography which describe GG working for him during the war – they’re as much a part of English 20th century folk lore as England winning the World Cup in 1966 or the Great Train Robbery.

And then, just in this volume, the outline of his story is told in the blurb on the back of the book, in a thorough summary on the inside page, then again in the introduction by spy historian Philip Knightley, alluded to in the brief memoir by his friend and colleague Graham Greene, and then repeated again in the author’s detailed foreward. The reader has read five summaries of his life before even getting to the main text. So what is the story?

Philby’s story

Talented young man from the core of the British professional upper middle classes, Harold Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby went to prep school, Westminster school and up to Trinity College, Cambridge where he joined the Socialist society and then, in light of the collapse of the 1931 Labour government, the Communist Party. (His father was a noted Arabist, who converted to Islam; the nickname Kim comes directly from Rudyard Kipling’s novel, 1901, about a boy spy during the ‘Great Game’.)

Philby was recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1933 and spent the next 30 years feeding his Soviet controllers as much information as they wanted and he could provide. Initially this was from his activities as a Times journalist in Nazi Germany, then in Spain during the Civil War (1936-39) and then, when World War Two broke out, during the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk.

It was only once he was back in London during the early part of the war that Philby was approached and offered a job in the Secret Intelligence Services (what became known as MI6) – so he was a Soviet spy well before he joined British Intelligence.

There followed 15 years or so of a brilliant career in Intelligence. Philby impressed everyone he met with his easy charm, command of the facts and ability to work hard and take firm decisions. Graham Greene worked for him during the war, when Philby was head of section V of MI6, managing Britain’s agents in the Spanish peninsula, and attests to his effectiveness and popularity.

After the war his obvious competence was rewarded with promotions within the service and he also deployed several schemes to bypass and eliminate rivals, with the ultimate aim of becoming head of MI6. All the time he was passing everything that crossed his desk back to his Soviet handlers, betraying all MI6’s agents in the field, all operational procedures and all information shared with us by sister services, especially the CIA.

However, several incidents intervened which prevented Philby’s rise to the very top.

His fellow Soviet spies, Burgess and MacLean, fled Britain May 1951. Philby had been a friend of the loud drunk Burgess, and had invited him to stay in the Philby household when he was posted to Washington. After the pair’s flight Philby was interrogated by MI5 and, although no hard evidence found against him, dismissed from MI6. He struggled to find work as a freelance journalist, while a slow-moving government enquiry found him, if not exactly innocent, then with no evidence to show his guilt. In 1955 an accusation was made against him in the House of Commons, forcing the Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, to make a formal declaration of his innocence. In 1956 he went to Beirut to work as a journalist for The Observer and The Economist, and lost all touch with Soviet intelligence, though he probably continued to file reports for MI6 on a contractor basis.

Then, in 1961, a Soviet defector confirmed Philby as the ‘third man’. Suspicion mounted during 1962, a period – according to some biographies – when he was afflicted with depression and heavy drinking. He was formally confronted at the end of 1962 by an MI6 agent he had once worked with and finally confessed to being a Soviet spy. A formal hearing was set for a few weeks later, in January 1963, but he bolted.

On the evening 23 January 1963 Philby disappeared from the office in Beirut where he had been working as a journalist. Some months later he surfaced in Moscow, where the authorities made a formal announcement that he was a Soviet spy. The recriminations and investigations started, among his friends and colleagues in the services, their ministerial masters, in the FBI and CIA, and among innumerable historians, which continue to this day.

In Moscow Philby discovered he was not a KGB General, as promised. He was given a nice flat but not allowed much movement – civilised but watched and monitored. He received guests from the West and answered letters, requests for interviews and so on with the charm and breeding of an English gentleman. Depending on which account you read he was either terribly depressed by the reality of Soviet life and drank heavily, or lived happily with his fourth wife – a Russian he met in Moscow – reading The Times for the cricket and helping the KGB with analysis work.

Tinker, Tailor…

Apart from all his other achievements, and all the debate which has swirled around his name ever since, he gave rise to a literary classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré, which is about the hunt to find a high-ranking mole inside British Intelligence, the overall storyline generally taken to be based on KP’s long and eminent career. The difference being, of course, that owlish anti-hero George Smiley succeeds in unmasking the mole before he can flee – the opposite of real life.

My Secret War

Philby tells us he worked on his own version of events intermittently after arriving in Moscow in 1963 and had completed it by 1967 – coincidentally when the boom of preposterously glamorous spy fiction was at its peak back home. He even mentions James Bond, as every spy writer is obliged to.

I was surprised that the book contains almost nothing about his actual spying activities, about his relationship with his Soviet minders, how he communicated with them and so on; there are only a few passing references to checking decisions with them, and only one bit of exciting ‘spy action’, when, after Burgess’s defection, he packs the camera he used to photograph top secret files into his car, drives out to an isolated stretch of road, walks some way into the woods, and buries it.

Instead the book is a detailed account of his career in the Secret Intelligence Service from 1940 to his abrupt departure, describing his part in the birth and early development of the SIS, and the years of bureaucracy, politicking, infighting, meetings and memos which followed.

Unpromising though that sounds, My Secret War is in fact very readable, funny, informative and thought-provoking.

Funny

In its descriptions of the upper class amateurishness abounding in the military in the early days of the war, it echoes Evelyn Waugh’s comic masterpiece, Men At Arms (1952), with umpteen public school twits coralled into uniform and running round like headless chickens.

Philby recounts various ripping yarns with boyish humour. He tells us Section D listed each of its members with a further letter, thus DA, DB, DC and that their secretaries or assistants were DA-1, DB-1 and so on. Burgess was DU and Philby, technically his assistant, should have been DU-1, but Burgess charmingly refused to give him this label, insisting on alloting him another letter, D. And the punchline to this anecdote: ‘Thus Guy launched me on my secret service career branded with the symbol DUD.’ (p.45)

As Adam Diment’s stoned spy hero would say, Funneee!

Similarly, ‘Guy, indulging his schoolboyish sense of fun’, has the wizard wheeze of setting up an establishment to train potential agents before dropping them into enemy territory – and, after running through a serious prospectus of its subjects and courses, he capped the plan by suggesting it be named Guy Fawkes College, as it would be teaching the arts of blowing things up and overthrowing foreign governments. Boom boom.

Philby quickly distinguishes army officers into ‘the sensible military type, as opposed to the no-nonsense military, the mystical military and the plain-silly military.’ (p.66) He paints a hilarious portrait of the staff at the training camp in Beaulieu: ‘There was a Buchmanite who unhappily marked me down for conversion. The end came when he gave me his views on sexual intercourse and I remarked that I felt sorry for his wife. After that, our contacts were limited to table tennis.’ (p.67) He takes the same drily witty tone throughout. Charming and entertaining.

The headquarters of the Turkish Security Inspectorate were at Ankara, presided over at that time by a bulging, toad-like bureaucrat whom we referred to as Uncle Ned. It was my misfortune to visit him on duty about once a month. (p.194)

The book abounds in brisk pen portraits of the numerous people he encountered, famous or not so famous, all treated with the confident urbanity which is the main gift of an expensive English public school education, and the tone of his class and age – a permanent attitude of indulgent superiority.

My first house in Washington was off Connecticut Avenue, almost directly opposite that of Johnny Boyd, the Assistant Director of the FBI in charge of security… Boyd was one of Hoover’s original gunmen in Chicago – ‘the guy who always went in first’ when there was shooting to be done – and he looked the part. He was short and immensely stocky, and must have been hard as nails before he developed a paunch, jowls and the complexion that suggests a stroke in the offing. He had no intellectual interests whatsoever. His favourite amusement was to play filthy records to women visiting his house for the first time. He had other childish streaks, including the tough, direct ruthlessness of a child. By any objective standard, he was a dreadful man, but I could not help growing very fond of him. (p.229)

This passage admirably conveys the lofty superiority of the English public school man, which is emphasised by his charming ability to condescend to make friends with even the most beastly native – though not before giving him a patronising nursery nickname, such as Uncle Ned.

It also epitomises the anti-Americanism of the Cambridge spies. In the final sections of the book, posted to Washington, Philby is awed by the resources and manpower available to the FBI and CIA, and appalled at the unfocused pointless overwork to which they’re put. In the Foreword he says his motives for betrayal were really very simple: ‘The simple truth, of course, crumbling Establishment and its Translatlantic friends’ (p.21). He repeats his dislike of the monster J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, who he met, and emphasises that, for all his vast resources and epic paranoia, Hoover never actually caught any spies (p.227). Elsewhere he is cordially contemptuous of the post-war American tendency to take over everything (in Turkey) and make a hash of it – the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam. If he were alive today, he’d be saying ‘I told you so’ about Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya.

Informative

Philby really goes into detail about the early days of MI5 and MI6, tracing its roots back to the Great War, covering the inter-war years, and then describing the shambles he encountered when he joined. There is a lot of detail about how the intelligence services grew, how they were organised and about the key personnel. And a great deal about setting up and running networks, about payments to agents, about how intelligence was gathered from radio interceptions, from purloining diplomatic bags, from threatening opposition agents, and so on. Fascinating stuff.

It also has detailed insight into the office politics and inter-departmental sniping and conspiring which dog the intelligence services as much as any other large organisation, and Philby gives fascinating accounts of the personalities and power plays, the scheming and politicking which dominated the highly bureaucratic world of ‘intelligence’.

And the Old Boy Network. Philby mentions it dismissively a couple of times as if he himself hadn’t breezed from Cambridge into a job with The Times and then had a very casual ‘interview’ which led him into a twenty-year career in British intelligence, as if approximately 5% of the British population hadn’t arranged for themselves and their chums to share out all positions of responsibility in the government, civil service, armed forces, BBC, universities and anything else which needed running. Whenever things are a bit dull, old Banjo from school was bound to turn up and save the day – the rest of the population, the other 95% of the hoi polloi, fading into the background.

So, on the transatlantic voyage to take up his post in Washington in 1951, ‘The first thing I saw on the foggy platform at Waterloo was an enormous pair of moustaches and behind them the head of Osbert Lancaster, an apparition which assured me of good company on the voyage… Finally, a case of champagne was delivered to my cabin with the card of a disgustingly rich friend.’ (p.211) Tough job, this spying.

The middle section of the book is cluttered with the names of the chaps who began taking over various sections of MI6 and MI5 as they expanded through the war years, and the names alone are like the ringing of the Old School bell across an ivy-wreathed quad: Colonel Valentine Patrick Terell Vivian CMG CBE (vice-chief of SIS in the 1920s and 30s), Major General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, KCB KCMG DSO MC (Head of SIS 1939-53), Sir David Petrie, KCMG, CIE, CVO, CBE, KPM (Director General of MI5 1941 to 46), Sir Percy Joseph Sillitoe KBE (DG of MI5 1946 to 1953), Sir Roger Hollis KBE CB (Director General of MI5 1955-65) and so on.

Thought-provoking

Setting Europe aflame There’s an interesting passage early on where he says the biggest problem the early SOE faced throughout the war was trying to promote British Foreign Office strategy when there wasn’t one. Basically, the Foreign Office wanted Europe to return to the status quo ante Hitler ie a lot of weak right-wing monarchies propped up by Britain and France. But there was just no way the populations of the countries SOE operated in (Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece etc) – particularly the politically aware, highly motivated fighters who made it all the way to Britain to receive SOE training – would accept that. They wanted to kick the Nazis out of their countries and then have a revolution. This insight, again, throws light on Philby’s Choice: he rejected not only Britain’s ‘crumbling establishment’ but also its rotten Foreign policy. He wanted the nations he was helping to be truly liberated and not to fall back into the British-backed clutches of corrupt monarchies.

Russian saviours It is always chastening to be reminded of the USSR’s key role in winning the Second World War and the scale of the losses she suffered (an estimated 20 million dead). For all its wickedness before, during and after the war, Russia bore the brunt and took the lead in defeating Hitler. And Philby’s enduring loyalty to communist Russia assumes a slightly different colour when seen from this perspective. He was consistently on the side of the most important anti-Fascist power, even when many in the British Establishment wanted to make peace with the Nazis. It’s certainly how Philby saw it:

It is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito. It is a matter of great pride to me that I was invited, at so early an age, to play my infinitesimal part in building up that power. (p.28)


Apparently, according to the ‘experts’, the book is evasive and incomplete in key areas. Surprise. Any autobiography is a highly selective and censored document – take Eric Ambler’s amiably misinformative autobiography, Here Lies. And what would you expect from a high-ranking spy?

There are umpteen books about Philby and the other Cambridge spies which the enthusiast can consult to cross-check and identify the shortcomings of his version of events – although the problem seems to be that they all disagree with each other, as do the numerous people Philby met and worked with or had affairs with, lots of whom have published their own conflicting accounts and memoirs.

In fact, books about the Cambridge spies comprise a genre of their own, a very English cottage industry, like a racier version of the Bloomsbury Set, with the same mix of high-minded ideals and disappointingly low behaviour. Which is oddly paradoxical, because all we can really be sure about is that we, as a nation, do not come out very well from any version of this story.

Related links

Force 10 From Navarone by Alistair MacLean (1968)

Now it had come, Mallory knew. He looked at Andrea and Miller and Reynolds and Groves and knew that they knew it too. In their faces he could see very clearly reflected what lay at the very surface of his own mind, the explosive tension, the hair-trigger alertness straining to be translated into equally explosive action. Always it came, this moment of truth that stripped men bare and showed them for what they were. (p.118)

The plot

Of Maclean’s 28 novels, this is the only sequel. Immediately following the events of The Guns of Navarone, the surviving heroes – New Zealand mountaineer Captain Keith Mallory, American explosives expert ‘Dusty’ Miller – have only just come aboard a Royal Navy ship before they are despatched right back to Navarone to interrupt the wedding of the indomitable Greek partisan, Andrea Stavros, and take him to an airstrip from which they are collected and flown to Italy. So far, so preposterous.

Here, in Allied HQ Italy, ‘the splendidly piratical figure of Captain Jensen, RN, Chief of Allied Intelligence, Mediterranean’, tells them they are to have no rest but are to be parachuted into Yugoslavia, along with three hand-picked commandos, to link up with the anti-German partisans.

The strategic background is that the Allies are pinned down in Italy at the Monte Cassino line. If the Allies can foment trouble in Yugoslavia, the Germans will have to send divisions there, weakening the Italian line. ‘The whole future of the War is at stake’ – as usual. In particular, two German divisions have surrounded a force of some 7,000 partisans in an area called the Zenica Cage, to the west of the narrow gorge of the river Neretva.

Our heroes parachute into the mountains near the Zenica Cage. They are met by Yugoslavs, but who turn out to be Chetniks and who hand them over to the occupying Germans, led by Major Neufeld. To the puzzlement of the three young commandos, Mallory has foreseen this. Mallory spins the Germans a yarn about them being criminals and deserters which – amazingly – convinces the Germans. Mallory then persuades them to let Mallory et al cross through the lines into the Trap to rendezvous with the partisans, on the pretext of gaining valuable intelligence information from them.

So off Mallory, Miller and Andrea plus the three commandos go, to  meet the partisans and exchange genuine information, finding out about their troop deployments, about where the German armoured divisions really are. Then MM&A return to the Germans but, this time, they hold the Germans up at gunpoint, and force them to take our heroes to the cabin in the woods where the Krauts are holding four English prisoners of war.

Our heroes take the POWs up the hillside and over across to a high plateau where the snow is being trodden flat by hundreds of partisans so that a Wellington bomber can land. But, minutes after they left them tied and bound, a German patrol comes along and releases the imprisoned Germans, who follow them up the hillside and witness, from a distance, nine figures (our five heroes, plus the four released men) climb into the Wellington, which then takes off again. The Germans congratulate themselves. All along they knew our heroes were not the criminals they claimed to be, but were ‘enemy agents’: they allowed themselves to be captured, they allowed themselves to be locked up, they allowed our heroes to release the POWs, and they allowed them all to fly back to Allied HQ, because they had deliberately given them false information about the location of the two German armoured divisions.

Except that: Mallory knows the Germans know who they really are, he knows the Germans have planned to let them go; which is why he hasn’t flown off with the plane; the POWs were on it with a message to Jensen back at HQ, but the other five figures were lucky partisans impersonating our heroes.

The whole thing was a ruse and a sideshow. When our heroes met the real partisans, they learned about the German divisions’ true disposition and the German plan to attack the 7,000 partisans by crossing the Neretva bridge. This is the information they have sent back to Allied HQ.

Now the famous five go back down the hill to the same German hut they liberated the English POWs from half an hour earlier and where Major Neufeld is congratulating the Chetnik leader, Droshny, on their cunning plan – and once again hold up them up at gunpoint, this time to liberate Maria and her blind singer brother, Petar.

Who are they? We first met them in the Chetniks’ camp pretending to be baddys. They have an elaborate backstory – Maria’s is that her family were killed by partisans so she defected to the Chetniks and wanders freely everywhere accompanied by her blind brother, the minstrel singer. (But it won’t come as a surprise to readers used to MacLean that she turns out to be a double agent, working for the Allies all along, and that the blind singer turns out to be the head of Allied counter-espionage in the Balkans! and that they aren’t brother and sister, but are married).

Echoes of Eagles These plot twists and turns, and the way the truth is known only to the officer in charge, who only explains it bit by bit to his sidekick (here, Mallory to Reynolds) is a copy of the structure of Where Eagles Dare, in which only Major Smith knows every wrinkle of the plan, and only feeds it out to Lieutenant Schaeffer as required. Maria, the double-agent who is vital for keeping our heroes informed of Nazi intentions, is reminiscent of the Mary who, in Where Eagles Dare, is our girl on the inside. And in both novels the radio operator is murdered in sinister circumstances.

This book is full of echoes of its predecessor.

To cut a long story short: the remaining five heroes lead an attack on the Neretva dam. The German Colonel Zimmerman, who is in charge of the two armoured divisions, believes his Hauptman Neufeld has successfully sent the British agents off with misleading intelligence about the location of his tanks. The Allies play up to this misconception by elaborately bombing an area filled with wood mock-ups of tanks. So he thinks he and his divisions are safe. Little does he know that he has Captain Mallory, Dusty Miller and Andrea Stavros to contend with! Thus, Colonel Zimmerman confidently gives the go-ahead for his tanks and lorries and troops to start crossing the bridge across the river Neretva.

Which is a bad idea because, after much hand-to-hand fighting, shooting, chucking grenades, dodging patrols and a break-neck climb across a sheer cliff face, the heroes Mallory and Miller blow up the immense Neretva dam and the resulting torrent of water destroys the bridge, Zimmerman and most of his two divisions. More dead than alive our heroes stand exhausted by the edge of the gorge, watching the destructive waters gush past them, thinking tough guy thoughts.

In a brief epilogue they are received back at Allied HQ in Italy where they learn the Germans have had to send divisions to Yugoslavia to make good the gap, and the Allied attack – timed to coincide with this weakening of the German line – has been successful. Well done, chaps.

The book ends on a comic note as the ‘splendidly piratical’ Captain Jensen starts to mention that there’s just one more teeny, tiny job he’s got lined up for the boys. Cut to the expression of horror on Dusty Miller’s face – cue end credits and heroic war movie theme music.

Background

The Guns of Navarone, published in 1957, was Alistair MacLean’s second novel. Already it is rich in war-thriller clichés – the immensely strong partisan (Andrea) loyal to the clever Anglo-Saxon (New Zealand mountaineer-turned-commando Keith Mallory), the comically reluctant American demolitions expert ‘Dusty’ Miller, the earnest young Lieutenant Stephens, keen to prove himself and who, once he’s obviously dying of gangrene, volunteers to stay behind to hold the pass and sell his life dearly; and the Greek partisan who turns out to be a traitor, tsk tsk.

The novel was turned into the very successful 1961 movie, starring Gregory Peck as Mallory, David Niven as a non-American Miller, and Anthony Quinn as Zorba the partisan.

In the mid-1960s, so the story goes, MacLean was living near to Richard Burton, both in tax exile in Switzerland. Burton asked MacLean to write him a cracking wartime adventure yarn, something he could take his son to see. Six weeks later MacLean delivered the screenplay for Where Eagles Dare, a classic war movie starring Burton and the young, charismatic Clint Eastwood. Impressively, MacLean wrote the novel in tandem with the screenplay. Both have the classic MacLean characteristic, which is terrific pace, gripping the reader from the opening scenes in the plane flying over wartime Bavaria.

Force Ten From Navarone was not only the sequel to the original bestselling novel and movie, it was also written on the back of the book and movie success of Where Eagles Dare. It is, therefore, no surprise that it, too, has a stripped-down, no-nonsense narrative drive from the opening pages, that the scenes are often only a few pages long, that the characterisation is paper thin and that the twists, turns and revelations fly fast and furious.

But there’s something else at work which I think comes from MacLean’s close involvement with movies, and that is humour: he had seen that tough guys in the movies often have the snappiest one-liners, that in films like The Great Escape (1963) or The Dirty Dozen (1967) the tough, all-male, ready-for-anything atmosphere is reinforced by jokes, wisecracks, all-male banter.

The MacLean formula

Coming from reading Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, Graham Greene and Hammond Innes four things strike me about this novel and Alistair MacLean in general:

  • Pace. Nothing gets in the way of the hurtlingly fast forward momentum of the story. There is no love interest and certainly none of the leisurely philosophical lucubrations which cloy a Greene novel.
  • Suspense. The linear narrative is studded with unexpected twists and turns, double crosses and revelations – all of which maintain an atmosphere of boyish excitement and suspense.
  • Paper-thin characters. It’s all men, almost all soldiers, and they are all a) tall, gaunt, war-weary b) supremely competent with guns, knives, explosives and all the other ‘Action Man’ paraphernalia.
  • Terrible style. Not only are the characters tough guy stereotypes and the plot built of clichés, but the style includes hackneyed phrases, lots of repetitition of stock situations and feelings (defeat, despair, exhaustion), and prolonged, heavy-handed attempts at humour. MacLean is on record as saying he found it difficult to write, and it shows.

The superfluous adjective

A tell-tale sign of MacLean’s lack of subtlety is the excess adjective and thumping over-emphasis. ‘Indeed’ is a favourite word, used repeatedly to ram home the damn seriousness of a thing or situation.

The room was pleasantly redolent with the smell of burning pine, the source of which wasn’t difficult to locate: one could have roasted a very large ox indeed in the vast and crackling fireplace at the far end of the room. (p.25)

By this time… the darkened waters of the Neretva dam were clearly visible to the west and the railway track was now running very close indeed to the edge of what appeared to be a dangerously steep precipice. (p.153)

The brilliant illumination from the arc lights made it very clear indeed just what had happened. (p.213)

Repetition, comic There’s a type of repetition which emphasises the machine-like, clockwork efficiency of the heroes – Mallory, Miller, Andrea – and the fear and obedience they command. But it also emphasises that the text is operating in a particular kind of male territory of power and control. And the repetition is kind of humorous, like a gag, like a joke.

[Andrea shoves a Luger in Droshny’s face] ‘Please don’t tempt me.’ Droshny didn’t tempt him…

[If the hostages make a false move Mallory assures them Miller will shoot them.] ‘Please try to believe me.’ They believed him. (p.120)

‘Do exactly as you’re told,’ Neufeld ordered. The sergeant did exactly what he was told. (p.123)

Mallory said ‘Find out how to stop the damn thing.’ Miller looked at him coldly and set about trying to find out how to stop the damn thing. (p.153)

‘Drop those guns,’ he said. They dropped their guns. (p.217)

The text is jokily knowing about its own masculinity. It ironises its own dead-pan attitude.

Comedy It is one thing when the characters speak humorously, Dusty Miller in particular specialising in the wry, deadpan comment. But the text is in serious trouble when MacLean makes his (frequent) attempts at humour.

[Miller] ran forward and [gave the locomotive] several violent and well-directed kicks which clearly took into no account the future state of his toes… (p.150)

Miller made the descent to the ledge without incident, principally by employing his favourite mountain-climbing technique of keeping his eyes closed all the time. (p.157)

Comic writing has to be slick. It’s an art. And it is not MacLean’s forte. Some of the clunkier efforts are like watching your Dad do his party tricks. Morecambe and Wise  Dad’s Army or are not far away.

Repetitive repetition And then there’s just repetitiveness, of conception and of phrasing. Apparently it took MacLean about a month to write each novel and the speed and slapdash approach to prose shows on every page.

Miller took one brief glance at this terrifying prospect, stepped hurriedly back from the edge of the cliff and looked at Mallory in a silently dismayed incredulity. (p.156)

Reynolds looked at Mallory in an almost dazed incredulity. (p.166)

There are also half a dozen references to bad characters’ ‘wolfish grins’, several of the corpses are described as being in that distinctive huddled shape; there are the usual repeated assertions that all the heroes are tired, weary, exhausted etc. In other words, MacLean’s prose features habits of phrasing which recur (and are to increase in frequency in the later novels).

Bad And there are plenty of simply ham-fisted sentences, long and rambling and badly phrased.

The others rose and followed him, Groves and Reynolds exchanging glances which indicated more clearly than any words could possibly have done that they could have been even more wrong about Andrea than they had ever been about Mallory. (p.146)

Hundreds of long sentences like this which make their point clumsily.

Over emphasis As the climax approaches, the style becomes feverishly over-excited, with MacLean throwing buckets of dark adjectives at the wall to see what sticks.

The contrast was almost too much to be borne, the suddenly hushed silence strangely ominous, deathly, almost, in its sinister foreboding. (p.206)

The movie

Almost all MacLean’s novels were turned into movies and this one had the added appeal of being a sequel to the much-praised and commercially successful Guns of Navarone (1961). However, the movie of this book wasn’t made until 1978, and something went very wrong with film-making culture in the 1970s. Compare and contrast Roger Moore’s Bond films with Sean Connery’s. In 1969 Guy Hamilton directed the unquestionable classic The Battle of Britain, and he went on to direct Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun – each worse than its predecessor as the Bond franchise went steadily downhill. At least part of the reason for this was the producers’ and Roger Moore’s wish to make the films humorous – with dire consequences.

It was Hamilton who directed the 1978 movie version of Force 10, and it represents a measurable falling-off in comparison with the 1961 Navarone film: the parts of Mallory and Miller are played by Robert Shaw and Edward Fox – a come-down from Gregory Peck and David Niven. There is no love interest in the novel but one is created for the movie and played by Barbara Bach, hotfoot from stripping off in the Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. And, in the biggest travesty, the role defined by Anthony Quinn in the first movie is inhabited by Richard Kiel, Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

Related links

Original hardback jacket illustration of Force 10 From Navarone, by Norman Weaver

Original hardback jacket illustration of Force 10 From Navarone, by Norman Weaver

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

%d bloggers like this: