The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

Coming to this novel was a shock after reading five of Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, science fantasy novels in a row. The Hainish stories are set in a remote future on remote planets and feature a range of humans, humanoids and aliens with Lord of the Rings-type names like Shevek, Ong Tot Oppong or Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe, who travel vast interstellar distances in spaceships or ride flying tigers, use telepathy and fire laser guns.

So it was a surprise to read this 1971 novel which is:

  1. set on earth
  2. in the very near future
  3. above all, features recognisably ‘normal people with names like George, William and Heather

George Orr the dreamer

The premise is disarmingly simple: George Orr is an ordinary, unassertive 30-year-old office worker living in Portland, Oregon, who has started to have particularly intense dreams which come true – his dreams alter reality and retrospectively change history!

The dreams started fairly modestly – as a shy teen he was irritated by an aunt living with his family who kept trying to hit on him. One night he dreamed the aunt had died in a car crash 18 months earlier and when he woke up – it was true! He was living in a new reality in which the aunt had died 18 months earlier, and his parents and all his relatives and the authorities all accepted the fact, had never known any other reality, lived entirely inside the alternative history he had dreamed into being. George’s dream had not only changed reality but he was the only one who knew it had changed.

The narrative opens a few years later with George on the verge of a nervous breakdown because he is dosing himself with high-powered drugs to try and stop himself doing any more dreaming. When he nearly overdoses and a local doctor is called in who refers him to a psychiatrist, a certain Dr William Haber. Haber is a specialist in dreams and the human brain and is working on an invention, the Augmentor, a device which detects and amplifies a person’s natural brainwaves, with a view to treating the people with mental problems who are referred to him by identifying and restoring their ‘normal’ brainwave patterns.

In their first interview, Haber slowly wheedles out of George his incredible story and, of course, as a scientist and psychiatrist, dismisses it as one more of the many florid hallucinations and delusions he’s dealt with over the years. He puts George to sleep with a combination of hypnosis and pinching his carotid artery which he has perfected over the years and, as he goes under, suggests he dream of a horse running free. When George awakes, the big picture of Mount Hood on Haber’s wall has changed into a big picture of the horse he saw running wild and free in his dream.

Did Haber notice the change or is he like everyone else who lives in whatever new reality George dreams into existence, as if it has always been that way?

Over subsequent sessions, George realises that Haber, being at the epicentre of The Change, right next to the Dreamer, does notice the change. At the next session Haber witnesses George’s dream turn the horse picture back into a view of Mount Hood. Haber insists they continue the ‘sessions’, but George starts to realise the doctor has plans to plant evermore ambitious suggestions into his head.

Thus soon Haber is transformed from a struggling researcher in the cramped room on the 64th floor of a rundown building, but the head of a prestigious dream research institute with a big office and a stunning picture window commanding a view over the surrounding landscape. And each successive phase of the story records Haber’s increasingly ambitious attempts to restructure the entire world to make it a better place.

Unfortunately the human mind, the unconscious dreaming mind, or George’s mind anyway, responds to Haber’s prompts in unnervingly indirect or unexpected ways. Thus, when Haber puts George to sleep, turns on the brainwave Augmentor and suggests to him that he overcome his fear of people, of being claustrophobically trapped in the overcrowded transport system and inadequate housing of modern Portland – George responds with a particularly vivid dream in which mankind has experienced a horrific plague a few years earlier, which devastated the earth’s population, reducing it from 7 billion to less than 1 billion. In this new reality everybody has experienced and refers to the Crash (p.79) a carcinomic plague caused by toxic chemicals in the air from car and industrial pollution.

And when he wakes up – it is true: George’s dream version of events has become human history, the overcrowded city of Portland with its gleaming skyscrapers has morphed into an underpopulated town of 100,000 whose outer suburbs were looted then burned down in the social chaos which followed the Great Plague. Both Orr and Haber manage to accommodate to this new reality – and to the fact that all their loved ones, parents and wives, have died in this vast global holocaust.

Even more drastic is Haber’s next attempt to make a better world. Throughout the narrative characters have been referring to a war bubbling away in Eurasia, which seems to involve Israel, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan and threatens to drag in other countries. So at their next session Haber puts Orr under and, as he goes into deep sleep, suggests that George creates World Peace.

Unfortunately, Orr’s imagination does this via the unexpected route of inventing an attack on humanity by aliens from outer space who capture the moon, murder the handful of earth colonists living on a moonbase and then threaten earth itself. George has certainly achieved peace on earth, and united the squabbling nations of the world – but at the cost of threatening all mankind with attack by ferocious aliens, methane-based forms of life from the planet Alderbaran (pp.132,142).

And so, bizarrely, on – each successive dream world session raising the stakes, and plunging George into deeper and deeper panics and bewilderment.

Even more dramatic than the Crash, the next sequence in which the aliens suddenly attack Portland, leading to the US launching nuclear weapons and bombing raids against them which go horribly wrong and end up doing far more damage to the city and its inhabitants than to the aliens. They even trigger the dormant volcano, Mount Hood, into having a full-blown volcanic eruption and raining lava bombs onto the terrorised city. Chaos!

In the midst of this pandemonium, Orr makes his way across the ruined city dodging bombs and flying lava and makes it up to Haber’s office, where, ignoring the pandemonium, Haber puts George into deep sleep just as an alien appears, hovering at Haber’s smashed-out window and threatens to blast them all, and….

George’s dream once again transforms reality. For now it turns out the aliens are peace-loving, the attack on the moon settlers was a misunderstanding, they don’t have any weapons, there are only a thousand or so of them and they came in peace. So much so that, in this new reality, aliens are integrated into human society, walking the streets (admittedly in their eight-foot-tall spacesuits which make them look like giant turtles), Portland is restored to pristine condition and Dr Haber has been promoted once again, becoming a leading light in the World Planning Centre, the chief agency of the new, global ‘Federation of Peoples’ (p.126).

The future

So far I haven’t mentioned an important element of the novel which is that it is set in the future – not the remote, far-distant future of the Hainish novels but what was then – for Le Guin writing in 1970 – a mere thirty years in the future: the novel is set in 2002.

Quite apart from the mayhem caused by George’s dreaming, this futureworld is quite a lot to take on board, for Le Guin sees it as a dystopia. In this future, the global population is over seven billion, with the result that there isn’t enough food: many foodstuffs we are familiar with have disappeared, such as meat and any interesting alcoholic drinks. The doctor who first treats George casually mentions the incidence of kwashiorkor, a disease caused by malnutrition, among the city’s children. An oppressive aspect of George’s life in the early parts of the story is the horrifying cramped and packed conditions of public transport (private cars have long since been banned) – an anxiety which eventually leads him, as we’ve seen, to dream of a global plague which kills off most of the human population.

(I smiled as I read the ‘horrifying’ descriptions of George being pressed up against the other commuters on Portland’s packed trains and trams – that’s what I and tens of thousands of Londoners experience every day, trying to fight our way onto tube and overground trains every morning and evening.)

But by far the most striking aspect of Le Guin’s mentions of Global Warming. 1971 and she is talking about Global Warming! As Le Guin envisions it, the huge increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from industrial output and unfettered internal combustion engine usage has set in train global warming, which, by the time the novel is set – 2002 – has become unstoppable. The polar ice caps are melting, New York is going to be drowned, the average temperature has gone up – with the result that Portland experiences a permanent warm drizzle:

the endless warm drizzle of spring—the ice of Antarctica, falling softly on the heads of the children of those responsible for melting it.

It is like, George reflects, walking around in a thin warm soup.

It is quite a thing to be reading, in 2019, a novel which warns so accurately and prophetically about the catastrophic impact of manmade pollution and global warming. Shows you just how long anyone who cares about the environment, or understands environmental science, has known about the threat – fifty years! And yet what has been done to reduce carbon emissions, to limit car and plane and ship use, industrial emissions or ruinous agricultural practices in all that time?


Love interest

The other big thread I haven’t mentioned yet is the love interest. On page 40 George goes to visit a lawyer, Heather Lelache. Characteristically for the original version of the ruined dystopia, Heather works at a law firm whose offices are in a converted multi-storey car park – remember that, by 2002, private cars are a thing of the past and the huge concrete infrastructure built around them has had to be repurposed.

As with all Le Guin’s novels, it is nothing like a conventional love affair. Heather is described as being festooned with bangles, hard and clacking, a loud brass necklace, and is hugely unsympathetic to George when he comes to see her. He wants her to intervene with Haber somehow, maybe under privacy law. Heather listens with ill-concealed boredom as George tells his increasingly mad tale about how his dreams can change the world. She finally reluctantly agrees to arrange to visit Haber’s practice in the guide of a health and safety lawyer – but he persuades her to attend a session with Haber under the guide of a kind of health and safety inspector and arrange it so she sits in on a session with George.

This she duly does, and is present to witness the dream in which George dreams of the Great Plague, the Crash, which wiped out six-sevenths of the human population. She is staring out Dr Haber’s window over the skyscrapers of downtown Portland as the Change kicks in and she watches them shimmer, melt and disappear, to be replaced by the ruined low-rise town which Portland has become six years after the Crash (p.61).

Whereas Haber is a megalomaniac who quickly seizes upon the situation to implement his world reforms, Heather is more like you and me and responds to the change with terror and confusion. From that moment on she believes George but struggles to really accept the implications. A few days later she goes to see him at his rented apartment and discovers him in a terrible state, having tried to stay permanently awake. She persuades him to leave the city and drives him to the cabin in the countryside (which he has awarded himself as winner of a state lottery, in one of his many dreams) and here she cares for him, feeds and waters him, loads him onto the cot bed and falls asleep beside him.

They are both jerked out of their sleep by sirens and explosions. It is the invasion of the aliens I mentioned above, in which the US responds by firing nuclear missiles into space, some of which are deflected back to earth and explode setting off the vast volcanic eruption of Mount Howe, and so on. It is Heather who helps George drive back to the city and make it up to Dr Haber’s office, be wired up to the Augmentor and go into deep sleep just as a weird ovoid alien vehicle smashes through Haber’s office window…

In the new peaceful world which follows George sorting out this crisis, Heather and George become close. She is black, one of many black or non-white leading characters which populate Le Guin’s novels. She explains that her father was a radical black activist back in the 1970s (i.e. when the novel was written) and her mother a rich man’s daughter who rebelled against her privileged background (p.102).

Heather is, potentially, an interesting character and yet… Le Guin never really conveys her as a character apart from having lots of clacking bangles and clicking handbags and projecting a tough armature.


Le Guin is not a very funny writer. There is hardly any humour and certainly no warmth in her novels. I find them cold and heartless. But, unlike any of the Hainish novels, this one does have some attempts at humour.

There is some fairly crude satire in having the President of the United States named President Merdle (Albert B. Merdle, in fact):

  1. the association with the French word merde meaning shit and
  2. the other association, with the fictional character in Dickens, the millionaire financier Merdle in Little Dorrit who turns out to be a complete fraud

There is a flicker of humour in the start of the scene where Heather visits Haber’s office, and uses a pocket tape recorder to record their conversation which goes teep every few seconds and at one point Haber’s phone goes off, making a deep bong noise, the two sounds creating an antiphonal piece of minimalism.

And there’s humour of a sort in the unintended shape some of George’s dreams take: – I suppose it’s ‘funny’ that when Haber tries to get him to create World Peace, George does so at the cost of inventing an alien invasion!

Along the same lines, once the alien situation is dealt with and it turns out that they were friendly all along and are perfectly integrated into human society, Haber has a go at solving another social problem, the ‘race problem’ (like the references to global warming, it’s salutary and rather shocking to be reminded how long topics which are in the headlines as some kind of ‘news’ have in fact been around).

Anyway, when George comes round from this dream it is to find that he has indeed solved the ‘race problem’ – by turning everyone grey! There are no longer white or black or brown or yellow people. Everyone is the same uniform shade of battleship grey.

I suppose that’s sort of funny, but Le Guin has a way of draining the life out of everything. What could possibly have become a funny theme is made to feel tragic when George realises that Heather – who he has come to love who, indeed, in one of the worlds he creates, he has made into his loving wife! – as George realises that his beloved Heather is gone. Gone. Everything he loved about her, the tone of her jet black skin, the shape of her skull, her black physiognomy, and the feisty, no-nonsense attitude it gave her…. all these have disappeared in a world of same-colour but drab and rather sad humans.

Le Guin is making a sort of interesting point – that maybe the inequalities and frictions between races, genders and classes are precisely what make life interesting – but the reader – well, this reader – experienced it simply as a loss. The same kind of loss as when Falk leaves behind Parth or Strella is revealed to be a treacherous alien in The Lathe of Heaven or when the swashbuckling Lord Mogien, who we’d got to like in Rocannon’s Planet, is killed off, or – much more seismically – when Lord Estraven, one of the two central protagonists whose strange alien condition we had grown to understand and respect in The Left Hand of Darkness is simply machine-gunned to death, pointlessly, to no-one’s advantage, by overzealous border guards.

So many of the details are what old hippies called downers. In a tiny example, in the post-alien-war peaceful world where Dr Haber has become a senior official at the World Planning Centre, George is walking across of futuristic plaza when he witnesses a ‘citizen’s arrest’ i.e. a public-spirited citizen has tracked down a man who was diagnosed with a terminal cancer and gone on the run. But now he’s been tracked down and, once he’s rounded up the ten witnesses required by law, the public spirited one euthenases the cancer sufferer with a poison dart gun.

It’s a throwaway detail, a moment in a much larger narrative and I can see it’s making a point about a new and different type of dystopia which George has dreamed and yet…it’s harsh and cruel, and… unnecessary. Cruelty is thrown in; the extra detail will always be brutal.

Le Guin’s fiction seems to me to be full of these moments of loss or cruelty and, after a while, I find the cumulative effect to be emotionally draining and upsetting.


So the occasional flickers of possible humour cannot outweigh the relentless negative pessimism of her worldview. It is a bleak future indeed that she foresees for us, living in an over-populated planet characterised by food shortages and malnutrition, many familiar animal species wiped out, much of the forest chopped down, the thin permanent polluted drizzle falling on everyone, the sea levels rising and drowning coastal cities.

And, as if this wasn’t bad enough – there’s a horrifying moment in the middle of the novel where George revels his really big secret to Heather; not that his dreams change reality – but that the world has ended. The over-pollution and radioactive waste was so severe that by April 1998 most of humanity had died out, and he, George, was sick and ill and dying and staggering through the corpse-strewn streets of Portland and, as he collapsed on a cracked concrete step, with his last flickering moments of life, he dreamed, dreamed of a better world, dreamed that humanity survived.

In other words the badly polluted, overpopulated, malnourished world the novel opens in, is a saved version of the world. The real one came to an end in April 1998 (p.104). He explains to a horrified and disbelieving Heather that all the subsequent versions of reality they have lived through together are not only dreams, they are essentially lies, fictions, inventions. The real world ended ‘and we destroyed it.’

Eastern mysticism

A lot is made of Le Guin’s abiding interest in Eastern mysticism, which informs her whole approach to character and plot, and underlies her interest in alternative states of mind, of perception, of consciousness. Indeed the title of the book is a quote from the writings of Zhuang Zhou, specifically a passage from Book XXIII, paragraph 7, quoted as an epigraph to Chapter 3 of the novel:

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment.
Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

And at moments, very characteristic Le Guin moments, the narrative steps back from what you could call its Western technocratic  mindset to create epiphanies of peace and detachment. In particular, at several points George – for most of the book a whining, stressed individual – is portrayed as momentarily monumental, the still point of a chaotic world, somehow the centre of something awesome.

George himself is aware of the value of silence and contemplation. In a central scene (pp.136-140) Haber tells George that all the tests he’s run on him indicate that he is dead centre, totally average, average height, weight, brain patterns, EEG; in a weird way he is kind of at the dead centre of the human condition.

‘If you put them all onto the same graph you sit smack in the middle at 50. Dominance, for example; I think you were 48.8 on that. Neither dominant nor submissive. Independence / dependence – same thing. Creative / destructive, on the Ramirez scale – same thing. Both, neither. Either, or. Where there’s an opposed pair, a polarity, you’re in the middle; where there’s a scale, you’re at the balance point. You cancel out so thoroughly that, in a sense, nothing is left.

(Either/or. Aha. Now we see the meaning of George’s name. George Orr, a kind of permanent doorway into alternatives…)

This scene evolves into a confrontation where the pair challenge each other with speeches outlining the aggressive, technocratic, always-busy, improving and building western mindset (Haber) – and George’s intuition that humans are also capable of just being, and of going with the flow of nature and the universe – the Le Guin worldview.

So her feel for apparently Taoist, Eastern values threads in and out of the narrative, with sometimes very powerful effects in some scenes, butwith fortune cookie glibness at others. The aliens from Aldabaran have a very detached pint of view, if you can call it that. After all, they are inventions of George’s passive, middle-of-the-road imagination. As one alien tells him,

To go is to return

And yet, for me, whatever associations Eastern mysticism is meant to have with detachment and serenity are utterly overshadowed by Le Guin’s very Western obsession with technology, cities, urban living, drugs, dystopias, end of the world, science fiction, spaceships and aliens and murders and death. There is nothing detached, serene or blissful about any of these subjects. The Taoist thread is there to light a scene and gild a few perceptions. But for me it is totally outweighed by a heavy, endless acid rain pours grim and unrelenting pessimism over all her books.

Heather returns

Distraught at losing Heather, George drops into an antiques shop run by one of the now-friendly aliens. The aliens have their own language and somehow seem to know that George possesses a skill which they have a word for, iahklu. After a weird Zen conversation which may, or may not, mean anything, the alien apparently on the spur of the moment gives George an ancient 45rpm single vinyl record. George takes it home to his modest apartment, pouts it on the turntable, and plays it over and over again. It is Help From My Friends by the Beatles. He falls asleep and dreams.

Suddenly we are in the mind of Heather, as she awakens in George’s apartment, watching him sleep, listening to the Beatles on a loop. She’s back! He’s dreamed her back! Although it becomes clear this version of her has not experienced the Change and so doesn’t know about George’s dreams.

At almost every turn of the story Le Guin wrings the maximum amount of confusion from her characters.

The end

The narrative had been heading for the moment when Dr Haber perfected his ‘dream augmentor’ and this is the trigger for the book’s climactic scenes.

Haber puts George under one last time and instructs him to dream that his dream skills have gone, disappeared, ended. George awakens, and they have.

Haber thanks George for all his co-operation and bids him and Heather goodbye and they set off across the now, finally at-peace city — but they have got only a mile or so away when the entire world begins to fall to pieces.

Haber has hooked himself up to the Augmentor and is copying and augmenting the brain rhythms he’s spent the book recording off George. Now he is having his own reality-changing dream and it is a nightmare. Because he has no personality, no inner life apart from his burning ambition, the dream is the first genuine nightmare we’ve experienced, in which everything disintegrates into a terrible swirling maelstrom of emptiness.

George makes his way through the mounting chaos as the city and landscape melts into a tornado of meaninglessness, by sheer effort of will maintaining just enough physical reality to allow him to walk up melting stairs, cross disappearing floors, and ride disintegrating escalators to the collapsing office where Haber is lying wired up to the Augmentor and with one, final, terrific effort of willpower… to turn it OFF.


The scene cuts to a few months later, and the world is still struggling to come to grips with what everyone refers to as The Event. The world was restored to a kind of reality after Haber’s nightmare, but seriously out of kilter, with buildings, roads and so on half-built or built in two zones or clashing styles, starting and ending abruptly. As do people’s personal lives, and human history, which is now full of all sorts of inexplicable and nonsensical non-sequiturs – a kind of world of solidified chaos which has given rise to an epidemic of mental illness. Among whose victims is Haber, who is now confined to a mental home, silent, withdrawn, catatonic.

In this topsy-turvy world George has got a job in an antiques store, working for a detached, courteous ten-foot-tall, turtle-suited alien named E’nememen Asfah (now there’s the Ursula Le Guin I’m used to, with her silly made-up names).

George mourns for his lost wife, beautiful black Heather. Then one day he bumps into her in the shop being sold kitchenware by her boss. But she is not the same Heather. She is back to black (the grey world has gone) and is much harsher and harder than the grey woman who became his wife. She tells him she is married and his heart quietly breaks. She tells him her husband died in that war in the Middle East and his heart quietly soars.

She vaguely remembers meeting him once or twice at some doctors’ office; wasn’t he the guy who thought his dreams changed everything. Is he cured now? Yes, quite cured he say. And he invites her for a cup of coffee, both of them with a whole new unknown future to pay for.

Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
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
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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall 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 – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel 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 comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings 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 Kent, gets caught up in 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, where they discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet 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 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 narrative involving 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
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
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 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 space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey 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
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

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, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population un

The Eastern Front 1914-18: The Suicide of Empires by Alan Clark (1971)

The title is typically melodramatic and grabby, for Clark was a very headline-grabbing historian, junior politician, drinker, adulterer and diarist of genius.

Alan Clark

Alan Clark (1928-99) was the son of Sir Kenneth Clark, the immensely influential art historian and administrator. Alan went to prep school, Eton and served in a training regiment of the Household Cavalry. He went to Oxford and studied history, then studied for the bar, but decided not to practice and try to earn a living as a historian. His career took off with the publication in 1961 of The Donkeys: A History of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, a scathing indictment of the incompetence of the British generals, which was popular and influential. Many professional historians have subsequently criticised the book for its inaccuracy and sensationalism but it remains a powerful work.

In the 1970s Alan became a Conservative MP, and in the 1980s served as a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s governments. He left Parliament in 1992 after Mrs Thatcher’s fall from power. The following year he published the first of three volumes of diaries and these turned out to be his most popular works, covering, between them, the years 1972 to 1999 and shedding much light on the behind-the-scenes machinations of the politics of the period.

Suicide of the empires

The Eastern Front 1914-18 is part of the ‘Great Battles’ series published by Windrush Press. These all follow a similar format – very short, very focused, lots and lots of contemporary photos or paintings or posters, brisk chronology at the end.

The illustrations take up a lot of space, so that I counted only about 56 pages of actual text in the entire book. Most of the other volumes in the series concentrate on just one battle e.g. Hastings, Agincourt, Edgehill, so it seems a bit bonkers to devote such a tiny space to an entire war, let alone one of the largest wars in world history.

What’s more, although it has half a dozen maps of specific campaigns, and although the key events are all lined up in the right order, Clark’s account is distinctly, and disarmingly, gossipy much, one imagines, like his diaries.

When he contrasts the two men at the top of the Russian army – Grand Duke Nicholas, tall, handsome, blue-eyed commander-in-chief of the army and uncle of the Tsar, and plump, feline, insinuating General Sukhomlikov – it is in terms of their character and ability to schmooze at the Imperial court.

The entire German campaign is presented as a clash of personalities, first between the Chief of the German General Staff Moltke and the commander of VIII Army, General von Prittwitz, who Clark takes pleasure in telling us was nicknamed der Dicke or ‘fatso’ — subsequently between the two Generals brought out of semi-retirement, General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, and the man who replaced Moltke as chief of General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn. Falkenhayn was, Clark tells us, tall, suave and cynical: he thought Germany could not win the war, and he was right.

General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff

We get a similar profile of Feldmarschall Franz Xaver Josef Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf, Field Marshal and Chief of the General Staff of the military of the Austro-Hungarian Army and Navy from 1906 to 1917, whose timidity, Clark claims, caused catastrophic losses in the early months of the war.

Or, as Wikipedia puts it:

For decades he was celebrated as a great strategist, albeit one who was defeated in all his major campaigns. Historians now rate him as a failure whose grandiose plans were unrealistic. During his tenure, repeated military catastrophe brought the Austrian army to its near destruction.

Clark is amusing satirical about the army leaders lower down the food chain, as well:

Gradually, like some prehistoric monster responding to pain in a remote part of its body, [General Ivanov, Russian commander of the South-West front] made his adjustments. (p.46)

Back in Russia, Clark treats us to several excerpts from the diary of the French Ambassador to the Imperial Court, Maurice Paléologue, including over a page in which he describes taking tea with the Tsar in December 1914, which I think is included to show how naively optimistic Nicholas was.

All this meant that I had a good impression of the key military leaders and their developing enmities and infighting but, paradoxically for a series titled ‘Great Battles’, found Clark’s accounts of the actual campaigns and the vast battles fought on the Eastern Front often confusing and difficult to understand.

Key facts

Germany had a 400-mile eastern border with Russia.

The southern part of the border was protected by her ally Austro-Hungary. If Austro-Hungary collapsed, at least part of its eastern section, the Slavic nationalities, would come under Russia’s influence, thus extending Germany’s exposure to Russia even more. Thus the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to be defended at any cost.

Russia’s population was 170 million. Of these some 160 million were peasants living close to the land in often abject poverty. Above them sat some 10 million middle-class and petit-bourgeois lawyers, doctors, traders and shopkeepers, who got by. Above them were some 30,000 great landowners, some of whom owned vast estates, and above them the aristocracy leading up to the Imperial Court.

THE key decision of the war was taken by Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, when faced with the initial fast-moving advance of the Russian army into East Prussia in August 1914, to transfer three corps and a cavalry division from the right flank of the advance into Belgium, all the way back across the north of Germany, to face the Russians. This decision arguably decided the outcome of the war, because it weakened the German advance through Belgium just enough for the French and British to hold them at the Battle of the Marne, for a stalemate to emerge, and the attack to fail, condemning Europe to four years of armed stalemate.

At the three-day-long Battle of Tannenberg the cream of the Russian army officer corps, her best NCOs, her newest equipment, were slaughtered, shattered and lost. More importantly, the industrial productivity of Russia was weakest of all the combatants, and her rail and distribution network the most primitive.

In August and September 1914 Conrad sent the Austro-Hungary army north-eastwards into Russia where it was split up and cut to ribbons, forcing a general retreat, and the Germans to send troops to stiffen their ‘ally’.

The summer of 1915 saw the Germans and Austrians attack along the whole front, pushing the Russians out of the bulge they’d created and back, back towards their own frontier. Ammunition of all sorts ran low, there were scandals about corruption in supply, and for the first time the Russian army and people felt they might lose. Maurice Paléologue reports astonishing amounts of defeatism at all levels of Russian society, and a contact tells him about the Marxist firebrand Lenin, who actively wants Russia to lose, so as to overthrow the entire existing social system.

The tragedy of the failure of the Brusilov offensive of 1916, where Brusilov’s Russian army attack in the south into Austria was not backed up by Evert’s army coming in from the North to prevent German reinforcement, led it to grind to a halt with some 750,000 casualties. It was the last throw of the dice. If Evert had come in, decoyed the Germans in the north and allowed Brusilov to penetrate deep into Austria-Hungary, chances are the Hapsburgs would have been forced to sue for peace, and the Hohenzollerns soon afterwards.

The thing to realise about the February Revolution of 1917 was that it was the consequence of the failure of the Brusilov offensive, exacerbated by food shortages in the cities, strikes, marches, and then the troops firing on the crowd. It was two army generals who persuaded the Tsar to abdicate. Kerensky came to power at the head of a ‘liberal’ post-imperial government but made the terrible mistake of, in May, launching a new offensive under a new General. The army had by now exhausted all its resources and materiel, as well as leadership at officer and NCO level and after initial gains, gave up and marched home. Widespread rioting and political breakdown in Petersburg led to the vacuum into which the Bolsheviks stepped in October 1917.

Clark is revisionist about the end of the war, too. The conventional view is the Germans last offensive overstretched their lines and then the tide turned and the Brits counter-attacked. Clark with impish subversion, claim the British offensive was itself running into trouble when the end came from a completely unexpected direction: a small Anglo-French force broke out of its encirclement in Salonika and out into Bulgaria forcing the Bulgarian government to sue for peace on 29 September – and this was the straw that broke Ludendorf’s confidence,

Overworked, exhausted and having suffered a minor stroke, he advised the new Chancellor that the army could fight no more. Within a week, on 4 October, the Germans sued for peace, the Chancellor abdicated and civil war broke out all across the Reich. It was over. Although another generation of uncertainty, repression, and then inconceivable terror, was only just beginning.

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Art & music


Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1971)

Pedler and Davis

This is a hugely enjoyable, trashy but compelling sci-fi shocker, written by the scriptwriting duo of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. The story of the their writing partnership is interesting in itself:

Christopher Pedler was a British medical scientist, science fiction author and general science. He was head of the electron microscopy department at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University of London, when he was invited in the mid-1960s to contribute to the BBC programme Tomorrow’s World.

As a result of proving to be media-friendly, he went on to become the unofficial scientific adviser to the Doctor Who production team. It was here that he met and formed a writing partnership with Gerry Davis, the programme’s story editor.

Their interest in the way modern science was changing and endangering human life led them to collaborate on a number of scripts and storylines. Probably their most notable achievement was to jointly create the Cybermen, the second most popular monsters on Dr Who (after the Daleks).

In the late 1960s they devised and co-wrote a new science fiction TV series for the BBC, Doomwatch, which ran from 1970 to 1972. Doomwatch covered the work of a fictional government department that was set up to fight the increasing threat of technological and environmental disasters.

I watched the original series back in 1970 and remember to this day the scary special effects in the very first episode of series one, The Plastic Eaters. This episode set the tone of technology run wild creating worldwide disaster and was so popular that Davis and Pedler then turned it into the 1971 novel, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters.

Mutant 59

Unsurprisingly, the book shows all the signs of having been written in a hurry – it is not very well proof-read, and the science and technology bits often feel cut and pasted into gaps between the exciting ‘adventure’ scenes.

Nonetheless, I found it so gripping – in a ripping yarns sort of way – that I literally couldn’t put it down. I picked it up in the ‘library’ of a small hotel where I was staying, started to read the opening chapter about 11.30 pm and then found I couldn’t stop, reading the entire book through until 3.30 in the morning – much to my regret the next day.

The plot is simple: a man-made bacterium starts eating plastic, all plastic, everywhere. Incidents occur around the world, but the heart of the infection is in London and during the course of the novel, central London is cordoned off by the army who erect decontamination centres at key gateways in and out.

It takes a while for this basic fact to really emerge clearly because, to begin with, it seems more as if a new super-plastic created by a trendy technology company is at fault. The firm is run by go-getting American, Arnold Kramer, whose beautiful wife, tough independent journalist Anne, has just discovered he is having an affair. Kramer has recently hired from Canada a tall, handsome scientist named Luke Gerrard, who is to emerge from the rather confused opening scenes as the hero.

Together Kramer’s company had pioneered a tough new form of plastic, shown to resist anything and sold it to companies around the world. It is components made from this plastic which fail in the opening pages of the book, with disastrous results for

a) an Apollo 19 space mission which explodes as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere
b) BEA flight 510 which crashes into a suburban street on its approach to Heathrow with devastating results (a genuinely harrowing description of the death and destruction caused by a plane crashing into an inhabited area)
c) the loss of a British nuclear submarine
d) the failure of a an experimental new computerised traffic system, which brings chaos and – again – death to the area around Kensington

Enquiries are started in Whitehall into the submarine loss and into the road traffic fiasco. In the latter we are introduced to the architect of the traffic scheme, Slayter, who has been developing the scheme for years and is puzzled and upset that it fails on its first day. The book is also quite persuasive about the bureaucracy of the civil servants who had commissioned the traffic scheme and how they all blame each other when it goes wrong. There are scenes set in Whitehall meeting rooms where various officials report to the head of the enquiry, and a good description of the in-house feuding led by the senior government official, Atherton who had always been against the scheme and now takes his revenge in a quiet bureaucratic sort of way.

Meanwhile, at Kramer’s consultancy we meet not only him, the wife Anne and Luke, but several of the other scientists. We learn that they had not only developed a type of plastic which lasts forever – the type which was used to insulate wires in the space ship, submarine and traffic system, the meting of which cause all the catastrophes. We now learn that they had also been working on a type of plastic designed to decompose when exposed to a chemical they’ve developed. The motive for this was the ever-increasing mountains of disused plastic which are cluttering up the Western world. The plastic-eating chemical might have any number of applications, for example a little sachet might be built into plastic drinks bottles sold in supermarkets. When you’ve drunk the drink, pull a little pin, the chemical is released and the plastic decomposes in front of your eyes.

It takes a while for all this to emerge because the first 50 or 60 pages of the book are quite confusing. The failure of the moon shot, the findings of the nuclear sub enquiry, the Whitehall arguments about the road traffic fiasco and so on all create a compelling sense of foreboding and menace, and the reader is happy to be carried along on a wave of suspense – but it also results in quite a blizzard of names, with some 30 characters being introduced and no clear sense of who, if anyone, is the ‘lead’.

The tube adventure

It is only about a third into the book that the central part of the narrative kicks off and this is the part which kept me up half the night. What happens is that members of the two enquiries going on in Whitehall (into the traffic and nuclear sub accidents) bump into each other, as jolly Whitehall types do, and begin to realise that the incidents all have something in common, something to do with the failure of the plastic lining of the electrical wiring.

Thus the plastics man sent along by Kramer – hunky Luke Gerrard – gets chatting to traffic scheme designer, Slayter, a practical no-nonsense man after his own heart – in a smoky 1970s pub. they put two and two together and start wondering where else plastic insulation is widely used. Turns out they’ve recently done a job to rewire the London Underground system. Hmmm.

Gerrard raises all this when he reports back to the board of Kramer Consulting. He suggests he rings up their contact in London Underground and goes to inspect the cables for himself. Anne Kramer (big Kramer’s cheated wife) is in the meeting and, being a go-getting journalist, insists on coming along. Gerrard rings up Slayter, who he took a shine to in the pub, and asks him if he wants to come, too.

Thus it is that this trio – Gerrard, Slayter, Anne – are met by several Underground officials who take them underground, initially along a live Tube rail line, and then off into some of the huge number of unused branch lines running off it, all with a view to examining the new wiring.

Here they do indeed discover that the plastic insulation around the wires carrying electricity along the lines of tube tunnels is melting. But they’ve barely made this discovery before there is a catastrophe. The process of plastic decomposition releases CO2 and methane, and a lot of this has built up in the Tube system without anyone realising it. Our heroes are carefully approaching a tube station where a train has stopped with a view to climbing up onto the platform, when there is the most enormous explosion and a ball of flame rips through the carriages and platform, turning people into human torches as they watch.

They try to save some of the victims but are forced back by the heat, running back to the last carriage on the train, through the door and down onto the rail, running as fast as they can to escape the fireball.

The CO2 is so widespread in the system that the explosion they witness turns out to be only one of a series of explosions which blow holes in main roads, kill passing pedestrians, making cars explode and generally introducing mayhem into central London.

In the rush to escape our heroes find that they have acquired a bossy military man in civvies, another guy and a blonde secretary, who also fled down the Tube line after them.

Unable to go back to the platform where a big fire is now burning, our heroes discover that if they continue down the track it dips and… is being slowly filled with poisonous heavier-than-air CO2. They find this out the hard way when Slayter and one of the Tube men go that way. The Tube man suddenly grows weak and faints and when Slayter bends to help him he too is very quickly overcome by poisonous fumes and is only just able to turn and stagger back up the slope of the tunnel, arriving back at the others weak, sick and close to death.

So this little troup of survivors can’t go back to the burning Tube station or forward down into the CO2-filled tunnel. Are there any other exits? This is where it comes in handy that throughout the process they have been guided by an old station master. Yes, he knows some old tunnels off to the side of the one they’re in. Although it turns out that he’s quite an old guy, nearing retirement, and all this excitement and activity isn’t good for his old ticker.

And thus begins their long, perilous and thrilling trek through the forgotten backways of the Tube – a subterranean odyssey which reminds me of the Weirdstone of Brisingamen or Bilbo Baggins’ lost adventures in the caves under the Misty Mountains, not to mention several classic Dr Who episodes set in the Tube.

Underground journeys through great peril go back, I suppose to Dante in the Inferno, and via him to Aeneas being shown the underworld, or back to Orpheus’s adventures in Hades. There is something very profound, very deep, in the most obvious sense, about being lost underground.

Not only could I not put the book down but I became genuinely scared as our heroes have to overcome a whole series of unexpected perils and trials. The door from my bedroom into the hallway was ajar showing a big black nothingness. The book gripped and scared me so thoroughly that I had to get up and switch on the hall light, so powerful was the sense of creeping terror.

Anyway, so by this stage we have the classic Disaster Movie scenario of a selection of random citizens who find themselves at the mercy of the increasingly unwell old station-master. He leads them on a complicated journey through the Tube network, into side tunnels and into disused old stations (notably Gray’s Inn station), encountering hazards all along the way. For example there’s a tunnel which he thinks leads out, and they can certainly feel a draught and fresh air coming up it but – it is half-filled with water above which are hanging some powerful electricity cables now stripped of their insulation. If the cables touch the water ZAP!

As in all these kinds of stories the bad-tempered military man insists on taking the risk of going into the water, despite everything the decent chaps – Gerrard and Slayter do to try and prevent him. Military bully persuades the weak-minded secretary to go with him, while Slayter and Gerrard manage to restrain Anne. Guess what happens to the military man and his follower… Yes. ZAP!

Alas, the old station master’s heart disease gets worse as the adventure progresses and our guys eventually have to abandon him in a large open space they’ve discovered, promising to come back and get him. Going on, they discover a big brick room with fresh tea and sandwiches incongruously laid out in it. They realise maintenance men had been at work here when the explosions happened. Good. They have only recently left and have… locked the steel door behind them. Bad 😦

However, the workmen abandoned some up to date acetylene torches behind them, good 🙂 But Slayter and Gerrard realise that the oxygen at the bottom of the room is being replaced by CO2 and that using the torches will use up even more. Bad 😦

Their further adventures include the completely unexpected return of the half-burned and wholly mad military man resurrected like a zombie, and climax in a final, almost impossible climb up a hundred foot, sheer-sided air shaft. It all reminded me very much of the movie The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and any number of other Escaping Disaster narratives.

Sex and friendship

To nobody’s surprise the independent, intelligent journalist Anne Kramer, who has just discovered her husband is cheating on her, finds herself strangely attracted to tall, rugged, decisive Luke. Fancy that!

At one point they are climbing a ladder and he looks up to see her white panties. Hm. At another, they have got soaked crossing through water and all strip down to their undies in order to dry their clothes in front of a makeshift fire, Anne, of course, stripping down to wet panties and to a clinging bra which shows her large brown nipples. Hmm.

When I was eleven years old this kind of thing titillated me no end as it was more or less the only form of erotic description you could access anywhere. Years later I can see it for the highly formulaic level of titillation required in this kind of adventure.

Just as formulaic but more enjoyable is the bromance between Gerrard and Slater. They share different but complementary types of scientific and technological insight so that they not only have to escape through the various underground hazards but between them begin to cobble together an explanation for what is going on with the melting plastic. (Maybe the teamwork between this clever, literate pair of scientists reflects something of the camaraderie of Pedler and Davis themselves?) Both think it is something to do with the new super-plastic developed and widely sold by Kramer’s consultancy.

the true source of mutant 59

But they are wrong. The plot takes a massive swerve in the middle of the narrative, when the narrator completely switches the time and setting of the story in order to give us the true cause of the melting plastic.

Turns out it was a completely different scientist, employed by a commercial company on unrelated work, who one day was irritated to discover his mains drains blocked by plastic toys thrown away by his children and, not for the first time, wondered whether he could concoct a bacterium which would eat plastic.

So he sets about creating a mini-lab in his own house, using materials filched from work. He systematically works through a set of variations on the most likely candidate, exposing each sample to varying degrees of radiation from radioactive cobalt in order to produce a plastic-eating mutation.

Now it just so happens that this scientist has a brain aneurism and, at the very moment when he discovers that variation 59 of his experiments does seem to be a potent eater of the small sample of plastic he has placed in the petrie dish – at that very moment his excitement at the discovery makes the aneurysm rupture, he collapses dead on the spot, and drops the petrie dish – plus its brand-new plastic-eating bacterium – into the nearby sink, where it oozes into the public drainage system and towards the local sewerage works.

This is a very convenient plot device, because it means that nobody knows where the plastic-eating bacterium comes from, and so there is no-one to sound the alert, or to blame.

So – I asked myself at about 2.30 in the morning – why the hell have we been so elaborately introduced to Kramer Consultants and their plastic sheaths? Because, it turns out, the substance which Kramers have created which degrades in sunlight – this turns out to be a kind of superfood for Mutant 59.

And since people have been drinking drinks and eating eats made from the new biodegradable plastic and then chucking it down the drains – the drainage system of London has become packed to the hilt with plastic-eating bacteria.

Not only that, but Mutant 59 is itself mutating at an astonishing speed, becoming more and more efficient.

And not only that but the by-product of the eaten plastic is the highly flammable gas methane. Hence the massive explosions in the Tube network. Hence smaller explosions in private residences all over the capital.

Civilisation collapses

So much for the ‘whodunnit’ aspect of the narrative. Any good sci-fi disaster story has to follow through the consequences of its disastrous premise, that’s part of the fun of the genre. And so we are treated to extensive descriptions of the collapse of the complex infrastructure lying under the feet of all Londoners, and ghoulishly enjoyable descriptions of what happens when it all melts and blows up.

The book is set in winter so the quick result of all this melting and exploding is the cessation of power, light and communications. The government assumes emergency powers. The army cordons off central London and sets up decontamination centres at key gateways, where citizens are stripped and deloused – all in a bid to prevent the bacterium travelling beyond central London and, potentially, around the world.

Obviously what policemen in novels refer to as ‘the criminal fraternity’ see a golden opportunity in all this and now we are introduced to three hardened crooks based in Soho who do a job on a West End jewellers.

Having had the true story of the origin of mutant 59 explained – and the resulting ‘social collapse’ painted in some detail (there’s a meeting of the Emergency Committee where we are introduced to officials from the Army, the Police, the water board, the sewage people, London Transport, food organisation civil servants, and so on and so on, at considerable length, with each one given a name and the chance to make a page-long speech about how their department is coping with the crisis) the slightly exhausted reader returns to the adventures of Anne and Luke and Slayter.

Long story short, due to Gerrard’s heroism and tough Canadian physique, he manages to climb up the air shaft, find the authorities, get Anne and Slayter (and the station master they had abandoned way back) all freed from the Underground and taken to hospital. And, after a brief spell in hospital, he calls an emergency meeting of the Kramer Consultancy scientists with Slayter attending.

The cure

I like the way that, throughout the book there is a large cast (confusing but realistic) and that we see them routinely arguing and bickering, just like real adults in all organisations do. The members of Kramer’s consultancy are at particular loggerheads, and it doesn’t help that their boss has been summoned to America to testify in front of a NASA committee looking into the Apollo space disaster.

With him out of the way, we watch the half dozen or so other members of the consultancy argue like ferrets in a sack about whether the disaster is their fault (for creating the biodegradable plastic), whether the company has lost its original altruistic intentions in the rush to make money and all join in criticising the character of their (absent) founder, Kramer himself. I liked all this bickering, it felt realistic, and it certainly felt realistic the way it hampers Gerrard from getting them to agree on any concerted effort to solve the problem.

Gerrard’s badgering finally gets the original designer of the degradable plastic to think aloud about possible solutions, and I liked the collegiate way team then collaborate, with accelerating excitement, towards a possible solution. This is to design a variant of the degradable plastic which replaces one of its polymers with the strongest poison they can find, a variety of industrial arsenic. The aim: to get the hungry mutant to gorge on poisonous plastic and wipe itself out.

Overnight the chemist creates a tiny amount of this experimental poisonous plastic in the lab and next morning they all crowd round to watch its action on a sample of Mutant 59 in the petrie dish. Mutant 59 gobbles it all up and then – dies!

OK, so how to distribute it? Another of the scientists suggests they could combine it with a petrol-based aerosol to create a spray. I liked all this. I particularly liked the way the little group of scientists, technicians and engineers go from squabbling among themselves to all falling into line with the new project, as their scientific enthusiasm trumps bitching.

So they contact the production company who had produced the original decomposable plastic for them, who quickly produce several canisters of the poison-plastic.

Gerrard goes out with an army team, all dressed up in biohazard suits, to the shabby quarters of some old proles who live in Soho. This hapless pair had recently reported to the authorities that the foul-smelling foam of post-plastic-eaten bacteria was swarming up through their sink drain,  onto the counter and floor, eating all the plastic in sight.

The proles, as well as Gerrard and the posh officer in charge of the unit, all watch in amazement as they spray the foam and – it works! Covering the foul foam with a shiny patina which the bacteria greedily eat and then – die – hardening into dead crusty flakes and ceasing to eat plastic.

The crisis is solved.

But not before one final piece of poetic justice. Kramer had taken a flight to America before full quarantine conditions had been applied. He has – with heavy inevitability – of course taken a fragment of Mutant 59 with him, attached to his plastic pen.

This allows the authors to paint a gruesomely enjoyable vision of the bacteria quickly spreading throughout all parts of the plane, from the galley to the flight deck, through the plastic insulation on the plane windows and along all the insulated electric wires which festoon a modern jet plane, as Kramer himself, then the air stewardess, then the flight crew realise that their plane is literally melting around them!

I think the teenage reader is then meant to feel there is a poetic justice about the way that, despite alerting the air crew and taking every precaution, the plane disintegrates and blows up in mid-air, killing the adulterer Kramer. He was, after all, a Bad Man, responsible for turning the consultancy he set up to solve the world’s technological problems into a capitalist money-making machine, concerned only with profit – tut tut – and an adulterer into the bargain.

Environmental issues

Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater is a great sci-fi romp for teenagers of all ages, for anyone who enjoyed the old Dr Who with its cardboard sets. It is badly written and the plot creaks with holes and improbabilities – and yet the atmosphere of fear, terror and menace which it creates kept me up half the night. I found it riveting.

But having put it down and got over my terror, the most grown-up thought it gave me was about the sheer antiquity of its environmental concerns. Pedler became disillusioned with the way technology and science were degrading the world’s environment in the late 1960s. Fifty years ago.

The driving force for both the rogue scientist in developing his plastic-eating bacteria and for Kramer’s consultancy in creating a biodegradable form of plastic, was that both groups knew that the world was producing too much plastic.

The world was choking in plastic.

Fifty years ago they were writing fictions about pollution by plastic. Nearly fifty years ago I read sci-fi novels, articles, watched documentaries and adventure series about it. For fifty years anybody who watched kids TV or read pop sci-fi novels has known this is an issue. Why has it only become a political issue now, fifty years too late?

How can people be so ignorant as to think that this is a new and urgent issue? It was new and urgent fifty years ago. Where have they been hiding, what have they been reading, how can they not know this?

Biology trumps ecology

Seen from this point of view – from an environmental point of view – the ‘relationship’ between tall strong Gerrard and fit and fertile Anne is capable of another, broader, social interpretation.

It shows that the sex drive of individual humans hugely outweighs broader social considerations. The blindingly feverish lust between two people widens like ripples in a pond from mutual obsession, to a lesser consideration of the impact of their affair on those around them (spouses, children, family), to a vague awareness of what the neighbours will think, and finally to indifference to the opinions of, or impact on, the billions of nameless souls who make up the world’s population.

Thousands of poems and novels reinforce the idea that our passions, here and now, the quick hot infatuation of lust, of present pleasure, of present convenience, are all that matter – blinding us to wider concerns.

Thus the brown nipples and white panties of the Gerrard-Anne affair can stand as a symbol of the profound selfishness which we are all biologically heirs to, the immediacy of present appetites which make us buy a bottle of water or sweets or sandwiches packaged in plastic, whenever we need to, and chuck away the wrapping and bottle, with no thought for the consequences.

It is ironic that two and a half thousand years of Western philosophers have emphasised the mindfulness and rationality of human beings, when all the evidence suggests the opposite – the extreme heedlesness and indifference of human beings to anything beyond the pleasure of the moment.

Fifty years after Pedler and Davis wrote this novel to alert its readers to the ruinous excess of plastic which was strangling the natural world. During that half century the situation has gone from bad to catastrophic, the seas are more polluted than ever, the birds are strangled in plastic netting, the fish die of poisonous plastic, there is barely a drop of water anywhere on the planet now which does not contain microscopic particles.

The thirst for comfort and convenience hard wired into each and every one of us always trumps the very abstract, unmeasurable sense of our impact on the wider environment. Biology always trumps ecology I thought, as I put the book down, turned off the light, and shivered with fear.

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The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown (1971 2nd edition 1989)

Peter Brown

Peter Brown has been a pioneer of the study of the late Roman / Early Medieval world for 50 years.

His books in the 1960s and 70s are credited with bringing a new coherence to the study of the period, and a new attitude which saw it not as a story of inevitable decline and fall, but as a period of surprising vigour and innovation – as a much more complex, rich and fascinating period than had previously been thought.

Brown helped to bury the term ‘Dark Ages’ – which is now generally deprecated – and bring about the recategorising of the period as the ‘Early Middle Ages’, now generally defined as 500 to 1000 AD.

The World of Late Antiquity was published in 1971 as an extended essay or meditation on the earlier part of this period, from roughly 250 to 750 AD. It was published by Thames and Hudson under the umbrella of their Library of European Civilisation series. It is some 220 pages long, in a large format paperback, with 130 illustrations, a chronology and a map – adding up to a well-written, visually stimulating and beautifully packaged book.

And it is extraordinarily accessible and interesting right from the start, throwing out ideas and insights on every page.


The structure and chapter headings summarise the overall story:

Part One: The Late Roman Revolution

  1. Society
  2. Religion

Part Two: Divergent Legacies

  1. The West
  2. Byzantium
  3. The New Participants (Islam)


Between 245 and 270 every border of the Roman Empire was breached by its enemies, most significantly the Persians in the east, the Goths in the north. Communication between provinces broke down and the army produced no fewer than 25 emperors in 47 years. The prolonged crisis gave rise to a military revolution which remodelled the leadership of the Roman Empire. The old aristocrats were banned from military service and leadership of the Empire became more militarised, selected from the new men who had risen through the ranks.

Thus the Emperor Diocletian, who set his stamp on the Empire from 284 to 305, came from a lowly family in Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast. During his reign the army almost doubled in size, to 600,000, making it the largest organisation in the world, and more than doubled in cost (one of the dominant themes of surviving documents from the period is everyone complaining about the high tax burden: land tax had trebled in living memory by 350 AD).

Emblematically, the new-style emperors aren’t depicted wearing the flowing toga of the leisured aristocracy of the early Empire, but wearing military outfits, generals’ costumes.

The old view was that these new men, these arrivistes, represented a decline from the leisured aristocratic class of the 1st and 2nd centuries, with its balanced prose style, its exquisite classical monuments etc. The modern view is that the late 3rd century re-organisation of the Empire led to rejuvenation and a burst of creativity in the 4th century. In this view the new style in art and mosaics is not a ‘decline’ from earlier classicism – it is a new, more expressive mode. On coins and monuments artists refer to this age as Reparatio saeculi, the Age of Restoration.

The greatest example of this comprehensive re-organisation of the Empire was the Emperor Constantine’s decision to divide the Empire in two, the West to continue being ruled from Rome, the East from the new capital city he built over the existing Greek town of Byzantium and named after himself, Constantinople.

The new city was officially consecrated in 330 AD. This division of the Empire into East and West, along with Constantine’s Edict of Milan decriminalising Christianity in 313, were the two greatest legacies of the late Roman Empire to the rest of European history.


Perhaps the biggest embodiment of this new creativity was the surge in religious thought. Brown points out that Christianity didn’t experience steady growth from Jesus’ death to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312. Instead it simmered underground for two centuries before undergoing a surge in growth during the troubled late 3rd century, alongside other exotic beliefs, such as the popular Mithraism, and varieties of Gnosticism.

Again, conservative historians used to see the spread of these eastern religions as a falling-off from the purity of classic Roman paganism: the modern view is to see them as creative responses to the new political and social conditions. And Brown points out that a new generation of arrivistes – i.e. men who didn’t hail from the close-knit traditional Roman families – changed the intellectual world as much as the military: leaders of the new ways of thinking including Plotinus from Upper Egypt, Augustine from North Africa, Jerome from Stridon, John Chrysostom from a clerk’s office in Antioch.


The Age of Restoration, in the West especially, saw the rise of enormously wealthy landowners: the dominance of super-rich, provincial patrons who indulged in a more private lifestyle (Brown points out the abrupt falling-off in public dedications of buildings after 260). This new leisured class lived in big villas, decorated with fine mosaics, which show that they were decorated by wall paintings, tapestries and hangings. For those lower down the scale, the petit bourgeoisie, businessmen and merchants, the Age of Restoration offered a world of new stability and greater mobility.

I never cease to be amazed by the breadth of the Roman Empire and the way it enabled a tremendous cultural uniformity across such a vast area: Brown has a lovely paragraph describing how bureaucrats working at the border with Scotland in the rainy north or at Dura on the Persian border, both lived in villas built to the same plan and decorated with the same images, drinking from goblets and eating off plates produced to the same styles.

The new religious beliefs

These offered:

  1. A framework of belief and living and practice for people below the level of the provincial aristocracy and of the big landowners, the middle class, the ordinary people.
  2. Continuity and stability – bishops and their congregations became increasingly well organised at the collection of alms, the distribution of charity, for helping their growing flocks in difficult times.

Brown is insightful about how the new popular religions, especially Christianity, offered ‘instant wisdom’, without the lengthy and intensive study required by the traditional training of the aristocratic class. The processes of ‘revelation’ and ‘conversion’ offered quick access to new mind-sets, complete with pithy practical ethical guidelines.

Angels and demons

Pagans believed the world was alive with spirits operating under the aegis of a variety of gods and demi-gods. Brown claims the biggest intellectual change in this era was the arrival of demons, angels and demons, and the master of demons, the devil. Although historians tend to analyse the rise of Christianity in terms of its sophisticated theology and erudite thinkers, Brown points out that almost all contemporary accounts claim the really distinctive thing about Christianity was the way the new holy men, the saints and martyrs, had the ability to perform exorcisms and cast out evil demons.

This more starkly black and white view of the universe, and the notion of the earth as a battlefield between God and his army of saints and the devil and his legions of demons – this sounds like the start of the Middle Ages right there, so it’s striking to have it located so early.


Brown makes an issue of demons as representing an intellectual turning point, but I’d have thought the invention of monasteries was as much or more important, certainly in terms of social organisation. The first monk (from the Greek μοναχός, ‘monachos’, meaning ‘single, solitary’) is generally considered to have been Anthony, who around 270 left his village in Egypt to go into the desert and live by himself. Word of his piety spread and villagers brought him food if he would pray for them. Others followed his example, some living in very loose communities of solitaries and anchorites. Within two generations the movement was widespread across the Middle East and went on to become one of the dominant forms of social organisation throughout the Middle Ages.

And it is in the East that all this takes place: the new Christian movements, the most radical Christian thinkers, the most important frontiers, the new capital city Constantinople, all this happens around the Eastern Mediterranean where passionate Greek-speakers were also reviving pagan traditions, spinning them out into new neo-Platonic mysticisms, conducting ferocious intellectual battles against the newly invigorated and confident Christians: all of this happens east of Rome.

The turning point

Into what, by now, Brown has convincingly portrayed as a complex balance of social, political, economic and military, religious and cultural forces, came a generation of military disasters.

It started with the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Roman Army was soundly thrashed and its emperor, Valens, killed by the Goth army led by Fritigern. In 406 other Goths crossed the Rhine border and spread throughout thinly defended Gaul and into Spain. In 410 Visigoths led by Alaric sacked Rome itself.

Brown points out that the sack of Rome in 410 was caused by the blinkered chauvinism of the old Roman aristocracy. They had earlier given Alaric and his Vandals permission to cross the Rhine frontier to escape from marauding Huns; but they then allowed them to be mistreated by provincial governors and, when Alaric marched towards Rome, haughtily refused to buy him off with subsidies.

The Imperial government had already moved to Milan before the sack of Rome and now moved to the more easily defended Ravenna – but having lost so much territory and tax revenue, it was virtually bankrupt between 410 and the dismissal of the last emperor in the West in 476.

Brown points out how the growing sense of threat, and then the advent of actual catastrophe, were linked to a wave of religious fervour: at the end of the 4th century there was a wave of anti-pagan repression (in 382 Gratian disestablished the Vestal Virgins, in the 390s the Emperor Theodosius effectively banned pagan religion and made Christianity the official religion of the empire).

The new fervour of Christian chauvinism included an ominous new development – attacks on Jewish communities who became increasingly blamed for rejecting Christ’s healing revelation.

The decadent West

The Western Empire fell because it was decadent. If the East was made up of hundreds of coastal cities and towns in a tight web of maritime commerce, and similar webs of fierce philosophical and religious argumentation, the vast areas of Gaul and Spain and Britannia were only thinly defended and, in the century preceding the collapse, had become the playgrounds of a handful of fabulously wealthy landowning families. Their ideal was otium, a life of leisured scholarship, inviting each other to stylish dinner parties or recommending each others’ sons or nephews for posts in the increasingly powerful Church hierarchy. When the Goths invaded in the 400s, they found huge expanses of lightly defended territory, ideal for seizing, looting or, eventually, settling in.

Brown makes the point that it was the very snobbery of the Latin landowners which helped isolate the incoming barbarians and ensured they would set up their own free-standing kingdoms. He compares this huge social transformation with the way the Chinese were comprehensively invaded by Mongol barbarians in the 13th century yet, within a few generations, had completely assimilated them so that the new rulers were almost indistinguishable in style and culture from the conquered.

According to Brown, the image of Roma aeterna was a creation of the heady but impotent patriotism of this age, consciously created by the writers and senatorial poets of the late 4th century. In the same way, the growing cult of St Peter in Rome was a conscious Christian counterblow to the survival of paganism and the triumph of the barbarians. Together, nostalgic pagans and Christians helped to create the myth of ‘the grandeur that was Rome’.

Attila the Hun 434 to 453

Attila ruled a vast confederation of Hunnish tribes from 434 to 453. They formed the first barbarian empire the Romans had to confront and the Romans soon learned they couldn’t be withstood by full frontal military attack. Instead the Huns forced the emperor in the East to resort to buying other barbarian allies to form alliances against them.

The ongoing tribulations of the fifth century saw a significant shrinkage in the Latin cultural domain. There were fewer schools or libraries or centres of learning, and Latin shrank to become the badge of a small aristocratic elite. Local ties and local affections became steadily more important, replacing the distant emperor in Ravenna, let alone the immeasurably distant emperor in Constantinople. Thus local saints and the increasingly reliable and consistent local organiser, the local bishop, steadily grew in importance.

After the last emperor was removed from Rome in 476, coins continued to be minted in Rome but no longer showing an emperor’s head, instead depicting symbols of Roma invicta. This represented the dawning of a romantic ideology of Rome, a nostalgia for old power. The Catholic Church in the West became an increasingly beleaguered outpost of learning in the shifting seas of barbarism, transforming its officials into an isolated oligarchy. The privileged libertas of the old aristocracy, the confidence to bestride the vast territory of the empire, passed to the new cosmopolitan élite, the bishops.

Justinian 527 to 565

The Emperor Justinian emerges as one of the most fascinating figures in the book. He had been eastern emperor for a few years when the Great Nika Riot broke out in Constantinople, with the masses sacking the city, burning and looting.

The riot appears to have spurred Justinian to carry out sweeping reforms, improving city morals, raising the emperor and his entourage to semi-divine status, cutting away dead traditions, focusing power on himself and his advisers. This far more centralised administration, characterised by poisonous and intricate palace politics, was his chief legacy to his successors, and gives its meaning to our modern usage of the word ‘byzantine’, referring to a formidably complex bureaucracy.

Hand in hand with the reforms in the Eastern Empire went Justinian’s aggressive military campaigns: first against the Aryan heretics in the West, then in 533 he sent an army to North Africa which conquered it in one quick campaign. Thus emboldened, Justinian’s army proceeded to Italy where in 539 it drove the Ostrogoths out of Rome and in 540 his general, Belisarius, entered Ravenna.

However, events in the East brought this progress to a grinding halt. In 540 the ruler of the Persian empire, Khosrow I Anushiruwān, broke his truce with Rome and attacked into Roman territory, sacking Antioch, then slowly returning home, devastating towns and cities as he went.

In response Justinian stopped the Western campaign in mid-flow, stripped the Danube of its defences and undertook a punitive attack in the East. But the campaign was hampered by severe setbacks: 542 saw the outbreak of a devastating plague which recurred throughout the decade and ravaged the Roman army. Having denuded the Danube defences, Justinian left them exposed to attack, so that in 548 Slavic tribes carried out their first invasion across the river into the Balkans, penetrating far enough south to threaten Constantinople itself.

So, in the end, Justinian’s conquest of the West was left unfinished, while his defence of the East split his forces and required permanent attention. For the rest of his long reign Justinian was tied up in endless struggle to keep the barbarians at bay.

His general, Belisarius, was accompanied on his campaigns in the West by the historian, Procopius of Caesarea (500-554), who went on to write a history of his campaigns titled The Wars. But it is symptomatic of the times that Procopius is better known for his scandalous Secret History, which gives a lurid account of Justinian and his court. (It was these copious sources which the novelist and poet Robert Graves used to create his historical novel, Count Belisarius.)

The start of the Middle Ages

The disasters of the mid to late 500s saw a hardening of borders. For the first time Constantinople began to seem the isolated, beleaguered beacon it would remain for the next 900 years. This was accompanied by an inner, cultural hardening, with increasing persecution of ‘heretics’ and Jews. Brown says it was now, in the late 500s, that you see the emergence of the Total Christian Society which was to characterise the Middle Ages.

In the West the secular élite vanished. On the other hand, ‘the Book’ stops being a workaday manuscript and becomes a precious Codex, highly decorated and valued as a relic of a lost age. The classical past becomes perceived as irreparably gone.

One aspect of this was that it was a golden age for fakes and forgeries as authors filled in blanks in the Christian record, creating the documents, the histories and letters which they thought ought to have survived, forging the letters which which Paul ought to have written, and Peter should have dictated.

In the East, the figure of Christ rises above the merely human to become Christ Pantocrator, the All-Powerful, his image overshadowing the emperor in increasingly hieratic iconography. Throughout Christendom, the relic and the holy grave oust the living holy man.

There is a great turn towards a large and authoritative Past. Part of this was the continuing rise of the bishops; as the old secular landed aristocracy vanished, it left bishops in every urban centre as the sole focal point of their dioceses, as the main organiser, the last surviving sponsor of literacy and learning. It was they who rallied populations against the barbarians and when, in the 630s, the Muslims conquered, it was the bishops who emerged as leaders and representatives of their populations.

In the early 600s the Persian leader Khosrow’s grandson, Khosrow II ‘Aparvēz’, took advantage of the weakness of the Eastern Empire to attack and seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619), and got as far as the walls of Constantinople itself in 620. At Jerusalem he even seized a relic of the True Cross.

The Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610 to 641) responded aggressively, buying alliances with neighbouring nations then counter-attacking deep into Persian territory, defeating the Persians at the Battle of Nineveh and marching south along the Tigris to sack Khosrow’s great palace at Dastagird. After this humiliation, Khosrow was murdered in a coup led by his own son. But the damage had been done – the Persian War had devastated territories around the Eastern Mediterranean, the populations and economies of Antioch and Alexandria were decimated. Though nobody knew it at the time, this would make them ripe for attack a generation later by the rampaging Muslims.


Brown’s brilliant, thought-provoking, vivid and insightful account ends with 20 pages on the rise of Islam and the eruption of Arab war bands into the Middle East in the mid-7th century.

I was fascinated to read Brown’s account of how the original Arab/Bedouin version of Islam was co-opted by the Persian empire under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty, which reached its height in the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) and the establishment of Baghdad as a centre for art and learning.

It is a natural culminating point in the story, heralding the end of the Mediterranean as ‘our’ lake, entirely surrounded by first classical and then Christian civilisation. This monumental shift threw a self-conscious sense of embattlement in the surviving Christian kingdoms in the north and west of Europe, creating the geographic concept of ‘Christendom’ which – in the secular form of the European Union – arguably lasts to this day.


Living in England and being interested in English history from the Roman through the Saxon and Viking periods, I tend to think of the Dark Ages in North European terms. This book is a powerful reminder of the Eastern-ness of the Roman world. It hardly ever mentions Gaul and only names Britain once.

Instead, by the 500s and the rule of Justinian, the barbarian kingdoms in Gaul, Burgundy, Spain, north Africa and Italy were well-established and ‘Late Antiquity’ means the Eastern Empire. Thus Brown doesn’t mention the Vikings, Charlemagne or Alfred, heroes of the north, because they are outside and after the era of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity is a lot earlier, and a lot more eastern, than we tend to think.

Chronology of late antiquity

284 to 305 Emperor Diocletian, typical new man of the period, rises through the ranks to become emperor and reorganise the Roman Empire.

313 Edict of Milan, the Emperor Constantine decriminalises Christianity

325 Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea to define Christian doctrine

346 The first Christian monastery was founded in Egypt by St Pachomius

376 Visigoths under King Fritigern appeal for permission to cross Danube into Roman territory and settle

378 Visigoths forced into revolt by famine and excessive taxation, leading to:

378 The Battle of Adrianople (9 August) Eastern Roman Army led by Valens destroyed by Gothic forces led by Fritigern

379 to 395 Theodosius, the last emperor to rule over West and East, institutes reforms which include the banning of pagan religion i.e. Christianity becomes the official religion of the Empire

395 Partition of Roman Empire into West Roman Empire (Honorius) and East Roman Empire (Arcadius), ruled by a Tetrachy of four rulers (an emperor and assistant for each half)

410 Sack of Rome by the Visigoths under Alaric

434 to 453 Attila ruler of the Huns and an empire which stretched from Holland to the Caucasus

455 Vandals raided Rome

476 September 4 – Odoacer (a Germanic leader in the Roman army) deposes the last western Roman emperor, ruling the Western Roman Empire as King in his own right

486 Franks conquered the Seine and Loire valley

507 Frankish King Clovis converted to Catholicism taking his people with him

524 Execution of philosopher and statesman Boethius at the order of Ostrogoth King Theoderic

526 Death of King Theodoric

529 Saint Benedict founded his monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy

529 Justinian closed the Academy at Athens, founded by Plato in 347 BC

535 to 553 The Gothic War: Byzantine invasions, and finally conquest of the Ostrogothic Kingdom

568 The Lombards leave their homeland in the western Pannonian plain and, under King Albion, arrive in Italy

600s Persian armies under Khosro I seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619)

620s The Emperor Heraclius counter-attacks forcing the Persians to an exhausted truce

622 Mohammed and his followers migrate to Medina, the event known as the Hijra which marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar

632 Death of Mohammed

635 to 638 Middle East falls to the Arabs

670 to 695 North Africa falls to the Arabs

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Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe (1971)

A black man pretending to be a white woman, dancing steps of a ballet he has never seen, dressed in clothes made of a material totally unsuited to a hot climate on a lawn which was imported from England, and kissing the stone face of a man who destroyed his nation, filmed by a woman who is widely regarded as the arbiter of good taste. Nothing could better express the quality of life in South Africa. (p.143)

The word farce doesn’t begin to adequately convey the out-of-control extremity, the relentless savage absurdity of Sharpe’s very funny first novel. The story or, rather, the narrative stuffed with absurd and absurdly violent incidents, focuses on three thick-headed, cruel and blundering policemen in apartheid South Africa – Kommandant van Heerden, Luitenant Verkramp and Konstabel Els. The plot kick starts like a rusty motorbike when they receive a phone call from Miss Hazelstone, an elderly Englishwoman who lives in an old colonial mansion, her grandfather having led the forces which conquered this part of Zululand, her father having been a notorious hanging judge.

Miss Hazelstone was telephoning to report that she had just shot her Zulu cook. Konstabel Els was perfectly capable of handling the matter. He had in his time shot any number of Zulu cooks. (p.16)

These three short sentences convey Sharpe’s style. Quick, effective prose which crisply conveys the ludicrousness, the heartlessness and the absurdity of the events with the maximum of biting humour. Comedy is in the timing and, when applied to comic prose on the page, this means sentences must run briskly and crisply up to a punchline – ideally one with an unexpected insight or comic thrust. As Sharpe’s prose does. Time after time.

In a much later scene, the tied and bound Bishop is visited in prison by a cynically detached English chaplain (who has only been persuaded to do this unpleasant chore because he was assured there some rare wild flowers to be seen in the grounds).

The chaplain paused, and looked at the manacles and chains. ‘Do you wear those all the time?’ he asked. ‘They must be frightfully uncomfortable.’
‘Only when I’m going to be hanged,’ said the Bishop.
The chaplain thought he detected a note of bitterness in the remark… (p.192)

Crisp, clear, ironic dialogue.

Back at the plot, the three police officers drive up to Miss H’s house to find her holding a vast elephant gun from the colonial era and a dead cook lying on the lawn by the statue of her dignified ancestor – and things quickly start descending into Sharpeland. Not wanting the criminality of such an honourable old family to be publicised, van Heerden orders the very stupid Konstabel Els to go down to the gatehouse and make sure nobody comes in or out. ‘Shall I shoot?’ asks the Konstabel and the Kommandant rashly says yes. Els finds a colonial-era blockhouse hidden among bushes and takes up position with the elephant gun, a revolver and lots of ammunition. Which is a shame, because the Kommandant has also called the police station and ordered everyone up to the house, fully armed and accompanied by the six Saracen armoured cars the force possesses, to back up the Konstabel.

On the way they are ordered to post large signs warning against rabies and – just to be on the safe side – bubonic plague, around the perimeter of the estate, and this has the unfortunate effect of creating a large-scale panic in the town in which a lot of the population get caught up and start fleeing.

But the main result is that when the policemen advance towards the gatehouse they are immediately fired on by the psychotic Konstabel Els, the elephant gun having truly awesome powers of destruction and mutilation. — Thus, the first half of the book is dominated by the rapidly escalating absurdity of this stand-off, with the armoured cars being brought up to attack the impregnable blockhouse, and a contingent of officers sent round the side camouflaged as bushes – only to discover the hard way that Miss Hazelstone’s military grandfather had prepared an elaborate system of defences including concealed trenches with sharpened spikes at the bottom onto which many of the hapless officers fall, shrieking with agony. Sharpe’s world is not for the faint-hearted. Many people die.

On entering Miss H’s mansion, Kommandant van Heerden discovers a naked man covered in blood snoring in a bedroom and takes him for the murderer, when it is in fact Miss H’s brother, the very Christian bishop of Barotseland, who had run from his bedroom immediately after the shooting to give Fivepence the last rites (hence the covered-in-blood).

There is a sequence of events which involve the bishop eventually waking, having a bath to wash off the blood and walking down to the luxury swimming pool in the grounds where he takes long relaxing lengths underwater, just as the police arrive at the mansion and start shouting for Miss H to come out. Being underwater, the bishop only dimly hears these shouts, which he mistakes for the voice of God announcing a new calling to him.

Meanwhile, Kommandant van Heerden makes a series of unpleasant discoveries about Miss Hazelstone which turn his (admittedly dim) understanding of the world upside down, namely that she has been having a sexual affair with her Zulu cook, in which they both dressed up in rubber fetish suits, Miss Hazelstone dressing as a man, the cook (named Fivepence) dressing as a woman; further, that the cook had premature ejaculation which could only be staved off if Miss H injected his penis with novocaine.

Unfortunately, Kommandant van Heerden only discovers this after he recovers from a blow on the head incurred while fleeing for her savage Dobermann Pinscher to find himself dressed in just such a rubber sex suit, handcuffed to a king-size bed, with Miss H bearing down on him, syringe in hand!

Eventually Konstabel Els realises the enormity of his actions in killing and maiming some 20 of  his colleagues, beats a hasty retreat from the gatehouse and stumbles across the swimming area in the dark (it’s night-time by now), discovering a handy suit of black clothes in the changing area whose pockets he promptly fills with his revolver, all his ammunition and the empty bottle of scotch which had been fuelling his orgy of shooting.

Thus it is that the bishop emerges from the pool and is just discovering something odd in his pockets when a whole load of policemen and their German Shepherd dogs fall on him, chasing him round the swimming pool, before finally arresting him for the murder of the black cook (not that anyone cares about Fivepence by now) and the massacre of 21 policemen. He is handcuffed and dragged off to the police station where he is amiably tortured until he admits to everything and a whole lot more.

And so the narrative goes, madly, absurdly, dizzyingly, on, having left all plausibility and verisimilitude far behind after the first few pages as it escapes into a completely new world of absurdist farce, bitterly satirical, savagely violent and very, very funny.

Autobiography and ‘impurity’

In the past month or so I’ve been reading novels by Kingsley Amis and David Lodge, which are characterised by a high degree of autobiography. Lodge’s novels in fact amount to a lightly fictionalised autobiography, very obviously based on the key milestones in his own life (boyhood in south-east London during the war, mind-expanding visit to post-war Germany, National Service, impoverished junior academic trying to support a wife and children, academic exchange with an American colleague, and so on).

Amis’s fiction not only hints at his autobiography (bolshie young academic, librarian in Wales, freelance writer) but is further ‘impure’ in the sense that, no matter who the central character is, and whether it’s a first person or third person narration, they all tend to have Amis-style thoughts (grumbles and exasperations), be prey to the characteristic self-conscious deployment of plans and strategies (generally to seduce women, or get revenge on enemies), and all couched in Amis’s deliberately throwaway attitude.

The impure text Taken together, the heavy reliance on autobiography, and the tendency of their characters to sound like their authors, make the work of both novelists ‘impure’ ie the texts relate strongly back to their authors’ tone of voice and obsessions. In any Lodge novel you are likely to come across a lecture about Catholic teaching on sex, in any Amis novel passages of the narrator wondering out loud about some quirk of his consciousness or why women are so ‘difficult’.

The pure text This is by way of contrasting them both with Tom Sharpe, whose comic universe is complete, perfect, and miraculously detached from the real world, like a zany balloon which has slipped its mooring and is floating up into an entirely new dimension, previously unknown to humankind.

No chief of police, trussed in a rubber fetish suit, has ever dangled from handcuffs attaching his wrists to the posts of a bed wedged in the second-storey window of a colonial mansion in provincial South Africa. No constable has barricaded himself into a Victorian gun emplacement and systematically slaughtered 21 of his colleagues with an antiquated elephant gun. No provincial bishop has been interviewed by police so stupid they take his mentions of rubrics, chasubles and orbs to refer to the sexual implements he uses in depraved midnight orgies.

And no elderly lady, confined to a South African mental asylum (as Miss Hazelstone is in the novel’s finale) has organised a full-scale re-enactment of the Battle of Islandlwana, with the black inmates impersonating their Zulu ancestors and the white inmates their Boer antecedents, and which goes disastrously wrong when they get their hands on live ammunition.

No chief of police has ever been promised a heart transplant from an Anglican bishop about to be hanged and has been anaesthetised and cut open in preparation – when at the last minute the hanging goes disastrously wrong, the ancient gallows collapsing and killing half the witnesses with only the bishop making a freak escape – so that the the embarrassed surgeons quietly agree to sew the chief’s chest back up and assure him the transplant was a complete success!

In a refreshingly welcome change, no character in the book is a ‘substitute’ for the novelist. Nobody in it is a writer or an academic. It is uncontaminated by the ‘infection of literature’. Although it is ‘set’ in South Africa under the laws of apartheid – both of which really existed in this world – the narrative itself is wonderfully free of the limits of logic or plausibility, it is as completely alternative and fantastic a world as Wonderland, and the reader staggers from one over-the-top scene to the next feeling like a hallucinating Alice, and experiencing a unique and powerful sense of imaginative liberation.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Riotous Assembly featuring the fabulous cartoon illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback edition of Riotous Assembly featuring the fabulous cartoon illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis (1971)

‘Ageing shag tries to stimulate jaded appetite by recreating situation of days of first discovery of sex plus whiff of illegality.’ (p.69)

After the madcap freedom of Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe, returning to Amis felt like walking back into a cocktail party uncomfortably packed full of stuffy, unattractive, middle-aged English people all getting drunk and being unpleasant to each other. It is a lowering experience.


Short version Two middle-aged, Scotch-drinking, classical music-loving men have affairs with swinging 60s, dope-smoking, rock-liking dolly birds. Embarrassing for them, and the reader.

Longer version Music critic Douglas Yallend narrates how he gets entangled in the pathetic and sordid attempts of noted British composer Sir Roy Vandervane to have an affair with a 17-year-old hippy, Sylvia. Doug has been called in by Roy’s drama-queen wife, Kitty, who is distraught at the affair, and finds himself getting involved with Roy’s grown-up daughter Penny (who he sleeps with), partly at the behest of Penny’s ‘right-on’ black boyfriend Gilbert, who is writing an ‘experimental’ novel and who also lives in the chaotic Vandervane household – spoilt younger son Ashley, lapdog yapping round everyone’s ankles all the time – in a grand house north of London.

Yallend finds himself dragged into key moments of the affair, engaging with all the participants, and embroiled in the complicated but ultimately very boring domestic politics of the Vandervane household – at some cost to his relationship with his part-time girlfriend, Vivienne (who is also sleeping with another man).

Do you care what happens to any of these people? No, neither did I.

Set pieces There are two set-piece comic scenes: where Sir Roy takes his teenage girlfriend Sylvia, Douglas, and his 20-something daughter Penny, to a wrestling match, which is a pandemonium of shouting vulgarity; and, late in the novel, Douglas attends, as music critic, the premiere of Roy’s pretentious ‘transmedia’ composition, Elevations 9, at a dark and filthy venue festooned with hairy hippies. Neither are as funny as the TV interview at the climax of The Egyptologists; both really just convey the author’s horrified disgust at the modern ‘scene’.

Dénouement After various shenanigans, and against all advice, Sir Roy does finally leave his wife for the teenage Sylvia; Kitty leaves the family home taking horrible spoilt young Ashley with her; to Douglas’s surprise his girlfriend leaves him for Gilbert, Penny’s black boyfriend, chiefly because he has a traditional, conservative attitude towards women.

In the final scene Douglas takes the train out the Vandervane’s big house to find attractive young Penny the only one living there and wondering whether his couple of sexual encounters with her can be parlayed into a full-blown relationship. He finds her bits of the house surprisingly tidy, Penny herself looking well-dressed, alert and attentive, and even specimens of classical sheet music on the piano which she has obviously been practicing. Impressed and heartened, Douglas asks what’s brought about this transformation in her attitude? Oh, I’ve started taking heroin, she replies. And on this crushingly bleak note, the novel abruptly ends.

Title explained

In the middle of the book Roy and Doug have a long conversation about how just reading ‘Girl, 20’ looking for accommodation in the small ads in a shop window used to give Roy an erection but now he needs, you know, more, more stimulation, younger chicks doing cleverer tricks, to get it up and to feel alive and help him compose and help him work and, well, generally give him strength to face the day. Lechery or despair appear to be the alternatives for these ageing, alcoholic, posh men. Behind the sparkly flim-flam you’re aware of a profound unhappiness.


It’s a first-person narrative, like The Green Man, and several things are immediately noticeable.

1. Lechery is dull

I paid little attention, because I was looking so closely at Penny Vandervane, now also of the company, and most closely of all at her breasts. (p.24)

The main character spending page after page leching after young women and planning, scheming, calculating how his friend’s affair with a mistress half his age will pan out, or discussing at great length how you have to resort to more and varied perversions to keep the sex drive up in middle age, no longer feels funny and liberating. Adam Diment‘s spy novels, for all their unevenness, give an upbeat, enjoyable insider’s view of the swinging 60s mentality. Amis’s books, by contrast, dourly describe a man well into middle-age who disapproves of everything from the 1960s – its politics, its music, its bad manners, its common accents, the horrible young people (referred to as the ‘current little slobberers’ p.102) – everything except for the easy availability of sex. This line of investigation, this relentless lasciviousness, feels dingily lecherous.

As [I leant over her] I noticed at close range, but in adequate focus, that the front of the bed-jacket had fallen apart and that a nipple was protruding from inside the Norma-style nightdress. (p.166)

2. Over analysis Worse than that, it is boring because the bulk of the text is made up of Yallend reflecting on, pondering on, analysing etc the fullest possible set of everyone’s possible motives, feelings etc about every possible permutation of attitude generated by their various tangled relationships. I found myself skipping paragraphs which I knew would be more maundering psycho-waffle.

Her reply illustrated one of the best things in [Vivienne’s] character. Although the other bloke [she’s sleeping with] had been on the scene since Christmas or so, and took up all her free time and half her bed every Tuesday and Friday, and although she knew I knew about him, he had not been made conversational flesh until now. It was a relief not to have to machete my way through a jungle of what-are-you-talking-aboutery before I could get at him. Admittedly, this readiness to concede facts went with a reluctance to volunteer them, so that the process of finding out from her what, for instance, her father did (it transpired that he was the lay secretary of an ecclesiastical body) was too much like one of those yes-or-no guessing games. But one cannot, and in this sort of case probably should not, have everything. (p.52)

The youthful, humorous Amis is typified by the jungle and machete metaphor and the willingness to invent what-are-you-talking-aboutery. But it feels buried and stifled in the too-rational and over-long assessment of Vivienne’s character which is, ultimately, boring. Who cares.

3. Needless qualifications Another Amis mannerism is needlessly qualifying a simple statement, as in the last sentence of the quote above. I’m sure this was generally funny in the earlier novels, but this also feels like it’s become an automatic reflex. What does that last sentence mean?

To this, she said nothing in a marked manner, but differently marked from the one she had been using for the last three-quarters of a minute. (p.165)

Harold was one of the very few men I had ever met with the outlook and temperament to face without hesitation the row, the publicity, the dismissal and the loss of prospects that surely must, or probably would, or easily might follow the performance of what he promised. (p.179)

‘How’s Sylvia?’
‘That’s more like it. A bit more like it. She’s fine as far as I know, which is virtually no distance at all.’..
‘Any progress?’
‘No. None whatever. Very nearly none whatever.’ (p.198)

He went on like this until, indeed until after, some champagne, a plate of smoked-salmon sandwiches and another brunette whisky had been delivered to us. I refrained as studiously as I could from studiously refraining from any flicker of reaction when Roy poured the new whisky into the substantial remains of the old, but I must have over- or underdone it, because he stared coldly at me… (p.199)

That point about helping others, or not helping others… On the other hand, or more likely the same hand… (p.230)

These repetitions with variations – on the face of it subtle qualifications, scrupulous attentiveness to the detail of human behaviour, with a supposed comic angle – have become a trait, a mannerism, a nervous tic of mind and style.

4. Hyper awareness What began as a refreshing new flavour or attitude in his earliest novels, namely the protagonist’s super-hyper-self-awareness, his notation of every flicker and pseudo-flicker of his own mind and his projection of this into acute analyses of every possible nuance or inflection in the voice, expression and words of everyone he deals with – this has become a mannerism.

It reads as if it should be a super-accurate noticing of other people but, in this book for the first time, I realised it had become purely a reflex: if you dwell on any of these countless overwrought meditations, you realise they tell you nothing, add nothing, to the story.

Roy looked neither transparently honest nor pained at having his honesty thrown in doubt, which meant he was being honest, or very, very nearly. (p.65)

The uncharacteristic malice here showed that I had registered a hit. Good. Well, goodish. Was Roy going off his head in more than a manner of speaking? As if in answer to my thought (or rather, I was sure, actually and quite non-characteristically and reassuringly in answer to it) he burst into one of his bursts of offensive song. (p.172)

5. Style It is staggeringly ironic that a man who invented a certain kind of anti-authoritarian bolshieness in his first novels, who wrote in something closer to the ordinary speaking (and swearing) voice of real young middle-class people in the 1950s, has, by the early 1970s, adopted a fogeyish disapproval of the way young people speak these days. He has an unfailingly acute and precise ear for the sounds and rhythms of characters’ speech patterns, but whereas these were captured for laughs in the early novels, now they are recorded blank, and with occasional disapproval.

There is an admittedly funny strand of Doug noticing the trendy pronunciation of would-be swinging Vandervane, which he transcribes phonetically – typically acute and observant of Amis:

‘I’m giving her up. Cleam break.’ (p.49)

‘I’m really moce grateful to you two.’ (p.57)

‘Power in all its forms, which is obviously what politicians exiss for…’ (p.61)

‘That’s no way to talk to someone who’s juss seen a blime man across the street.’ (p.67)

‘Nop by her standards.’ (p.83)

‘I though they soundig good myself.’ (p.126)

‘Some right-wing shag had written the scream-play.’ (p.136)

‘High tea, Christ. Ham and Russian salad and sweep pickle and tim peaches and plung cake…’ (p.197)

Sort of funny. But not exactly laugh-out-loud. It’s interesting and capable, but not enough on its own.

There is also his fondness for a certain kind of repetition of words or phrases, designed to shed new light on their meaning and/or absurdity.

Vivienne clearly thought that her censorious looks at Sylvia looked like nothing more than looks. (p.58)

I might have gone on to tell her I considered the fugue the most boring artistic innovation before the adult Western if I had not been nearly sure I had once said so to Roy, if her harangue had not cowed me a little, and other ifs. (p.103)

‘All right, I’ll talk to Penny, but you’ll have to fix everything up yourself. I’m not going to talk her into being talked to.’ (p.117)

‘You’ve no idea how much I’ve sometimes wanted to find out why chaps who feel like that feel like that, the older ones, I mean…’ (p.189)

One [possible reply] still in stock concerned belief in belief in something reasonable, and just how reasonable the something had to be in order to count as reasonable, but I kept quiet. (p.192)

Funny? Mm. Interesting, sort of. It does do something clever and unusual to the everyday language, but to very much effect? Along with the other tricks, presented in a dense, fairly long text, it begins to feel like eating through a large amount of cardboard.

As usual there is a crop of sentences which include a throwaway ‘… or something‘, ‘… or somewhere’ to convey the insouciant bolshiness so striking in Lucky Jim Dixon.

Gilbert drove out of the parking area like an international ace leaving the pits at Le Mans (or somewhere)… (p.77)

Then I held my breath for a moment, realising, to my vexation or uneasiness or something… (p.79)

Sylvia, whose black jerkin, black thigh-boots and extended waistbelt of chains hung with padlock-sized pendants (or whatever)… (p.135)

Inwardly too, I assured myself that, however loathsome the episode in the flat and however boring Kitty’s appraisals of it, I must endure until she had had the chance to talk herself back to normal (or somewhere near one of her norms)… (p.160)

… a lithograph or whatever of Haydn… (p.185)

But it doesn’t pack the comic punch it once did, none of Amis’s tricks do, and I think that is because something bad has happened to Amis’s attitude and to his style.

5. Hardening of attitude The  novels immediately previous to this one are often described by the critics as ‘experimental’, because The Anti-Death League has a smidgeon of sort-of science fiction in it (the Army has invented a rifle which shoots tiny atomic bullets) and The Green Man is a ghost-cum-horror story (albeit almost drowned in Amis’ twin obsessions of unbridled lechery and gross alcoholism). But what really came across in those books was a new formalism about his style, which announced itself as more correct and old-fashioned. Lots of ‘whom’ and moving word order around so as to avoid ending a sentence with a dangling participle.

Ie the ‘experiment’ wasn’t so much in the subject matter, but finding out what happened if he stopped trying to be funny, stopped straining every sentence and paragraph to be funny – instead aiming for more accuracy of description and ‘correctness’ of style. The result has been a rapid formalisation of much of his prose.

Acting as the Vandervane all-purpose social diluent had been no uncommon experience during our former association. Today’s usage seemed unlikely, in prospect, to take much out of me, differing in this regard from the favour to which I had alluded a minute before. (p.65)

 Surely this could hardly be more pompous. It sounds like a Royal Equerry.

Harold took Roy’s request for a preludial double champagne cocktail without overt demur, and made only a token stand by recommending the carafe Chablis. (p.175)

Preludial. Overt demur. Only a token stand.

The core of Amis’s proposition in the 1950s was his deliberate rejection of loads of rules of style, his happy use of repetitions, the latest slang, capturing in flight the real speech – and the convoluted thought processes – of his youthful anti-convention characters.

In this novel he tries to combine both – and the result of self-consciously trying to write more elegantly and correctly, with trying to keep some of the wayward speech and thought patterns which made his name, is a surprising number of sentences which are actually incomprehensible. For the first time in Amis’s oeuvre I’m reading sentences I just don’t understand.

‘And there’s no whacking fucking as a side of life where how things strike you matters at least as much as what the things are really like. Whatever they are really like.’ (p.67)

These clots of incomprehensibility indicating a broader problem, Amis’s hardening attitude to the changing England around him, which drains the novel of comic atmosphere, and injects it with darker levels of unhappiness, with bewilderment at moral and emotional chaos, with tedious resort to strong alcoholic as some kind of consolation and – in the surprise twist ending of this book – blank despair.


If you were a sympathetic middle-aged male book reviewer of the time, you might think this was a ‘pitiless’ and ‘unflinching’ dissection of the contemporary ‘scene’ and of a particular type of ageing, would-be ‘cool’, upper middle class dilettante. I found it unpleasantly lecherous, depressingly narrow in theme and scope, eerily badly written but, above all, boring and, when not boring, greyly depressing.

Related links

Here’s the salacious cover of Girl, 20 which gives you a very good idea of how this novel was commissioned, published and promoted. Right next to Playboy and Penthouse.

Salacious cover of the Panther paperback edition of Girl, 20

Cover of the Panther paperback edition of Girl, 20

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.

Think Inc. by Adam Diment (1971)

I squeezed the trigger and there was a derisive click as the firing pin fell on nothing. The fucking gun wasn’t even loaded. (p.29)

And so we bid a sad farewell to the stoned and sex-mad ‘spy’, Philip McAlpine, in this, the fourth and final novel by young Adam Diment, all public school and swinging London, who knocked out four fun short novels before disappearing from the scene and writing no more. This is his swan song, his farewell to writing, and it is surprisingly downbeat.

There are still plenty of throwaway lines (‘Ostia is the Southend of Rome.’ p.8) but the book feels significantly more controlled and coherent than its predecessors, less larky. It is the best plotted and written of the four, the most psychologically persuasive, and significantly darker and more bitter.

Dirty old London

Though set in 1968 (it is explicitly stated that the Jewish character, David, goes home to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of Israel in 1948) the book was published in 1971 and it definitely feels like the long party which was the 1960s is over.

‘What’s London like now?’
‘Coming down off its high. The scene is shifting but nobody is sure where to.’ (p.43)

There is less London than before, no parties in bohemian flats or in dingy clubs off the King’s Road. In fact, when he does return briefly to London the text is packed with critical comments: how ugly it is; how the traffic is appalling; the unfriendliness of taxi drivers and people on buses, the quiet racism, the casual exploitation – ‘I was home and I hated it.’ (p.153)

At a loose end the night before a ‘job’ which has drawn him back to the capital, McAlpine picks up a prostitute in the luxury hotel he’s staying at and surprises himself – and the reader – by the depth of pity and compassion he feels for her. He buys her an expensive dinner and gets to know about her and her pitiful attempts to break into ‘modelling’ and suddenly realises he doesn’t want to sleep with her, at exactly the same time that the girl says she does want to sleep with him, but not be paid, because he’s actually treated her like a human being.

This is the first of the novels to have believable, and creditable, human emotions in it.


Having burned his bridges with British Intelligence after a job handling a defector goes badly wrong (defector gets shot, government money is lost) McAlpine hightails it to to Jamaica to lie low. When he finally and reluctantly returns to Blighty for an interview at a grouse shoot (!) with his hated boss Quine, the latter says a number of agencies and individuals are after his blood: fly you fool. So McAlpine packs a fake passport and flies to Rome.

Hardly has he settled into a routine of hanging round the beach at Ostia worrying where his next lira is coming from, than he is picked up by some armed goons and taken to see a gentle giant named Faustus, who runs a nice criminal syndicate, jokingly titled Think Inc. As in all the other novels, McAlpine is blackmailed into joining them; if he says no, Faustus will simply alert the British authorities and then a rat’s nest of baddies will come gunning for him.

So he is involved in three scams or ‘capers’, as Modesty Blaise would call them:

  • The faked kidnap On a light note, Think Inc. ‘kidnap’ a young gorgeous movie star, Solange Dore. In fact, she wants to be kidnapped and had contacted one of the gang to suggest it, because she wants to get out of her contract with a crappy Rome film studio. Solange flirts with the crew, creating dissension in the ranks, until giant Faustus drags her to his cabin for a good spanking; after which she behaves herself, and a few days later, after the ransom is paid, she is dropped at an isolated beach with a story of having been kept doped all the time, so she can’t identify her kidnappers.
  • Gun smuggling and catastophe The team are using a fine pleasure cruiser, and have set up base on a tiny Greek island where Faustus once did something heroic for the locals. The second scam is smuggling guns and here, in the middle of this short novel, things go wrong and the tone dramatically changes. The captain of the boat delivering the guns recognises the number two in Think Inc. against whom he obviously has a grudge, immediately pulls a gun and starts firing. Our boys fire back at which the crew of the other boat open up with a devastating M60 machine gun. Half of Think Inc. are killed in minutes. The badly wounded Faustus tells whimpering-with-fear McAlpine where to find a machine gun and grenades in the hold, so McA takes them, swims over to the enemy boat – which is still relatively close – and use the grenades and machine gun to kill everyone on board, before blowing it up. He swims back, then coaxes Think Inc.’s battered boat back to the Greek islands where the locals patch the survivors up.
  • Hijacking a Boeing 707 carrying a cargo of gold – part one McAlpine undergoes training to fly a 707 in a repressive Middle Eastern country. We have barely caught up with him before he is kidnapped, awaking in a concrete cellar where he is beaten to get him to reveal the details of the caper. He makes the baddies think he’s hurt worse than he is, then decks one, clouts the other and runs to the car outside. Here there is a short vicious fight with the main baddie, McAlpine using the car aerial to whip him round the face, then beating him to the ground before making his getaway, driving straight to the airport, and using his fake passport and a spare set of clothes to catch the next flight out.

Diment’s spy novels have always felt like an uneasy marriage between the convincing pothead, dolly bird-shagging narrator (based rather closely, one suspects, on the author) and a lot of rather implausible spy palavah tacked on to justify their existence. Most of the shooting has been like an episode of The Man from UNCLE where bullets ricochet around and only faceless baddies fall unlamented. Only at the very end of The Great Spy Race and The Bang Bang Birds was there the real killing of characters we’d got to know – which gave both books peculiarly sour endings – but even these were quickly forgotten compared to the generally light-hearted, dope smoking, sunbathing and girl-ogling antics which dominated the texts.

In Think Inc., by contrast, it is as if Diment is making a conscious effort to mimic the mainstream thrillers of, say, Alistair MacLean, with their focus on the knuckle-crunching reality of physical violence. The shootout between the boats is very detailed and gory. Him taking a beating in the concrete cellar, then the way he hits and whips his gaolers to escape, is similarly visceral.

  • Hijacking a Boeing 707 carrying a cargo of gold – part two McAlpine escapes the gang who’d kidnapped him and, as with the other books, the text races, hurtles full pace to the final scene which is McAlpine playing the part of a replacement second pilot on a 707 (hence the training). There’s a detailed account of how he and his faked credentials take in the real crew, how they go aboard, do all the checks, and fly to Rome. Land, refuel, eat dinner etc before taking off for the Middle East – and it is on this leg that he slips a mickey finn into the crew’s coffees. They all pass out and McAlpine is free to reroute the plane to an abandoned RAF airstrip in the empty desert of Muscat. In a nailbiting sequence he just about manages to land the monster of a plan on his own, on a poor quality strip. He undoes the door as Faustus and the remainder of Think Inc. drive over in a lorry to unload the gold but – at this moment of triumph, a powerful machine gun opens up, ripping holes in the side of the plane, in Faustus and the ground team. Presumably it is the same set of crims who kidnapped him during his training, though in the panic he doesn’t wait to find out, but ducks and weaves back to the cockpit, starts the still warm engines, wheels the plane around and takes off…

Sex and love and escape

In the previous novels McAlpine spends a lot of effort eyeing up every woman he meets, and sleeping with as many as he could get his hands on, in an atmosphere of unlimited randiness set against the miniskirts and hash haze of the Summer of Love.

This final novel is distinctly different and, although it still has enough casual sexist remarks to give any feminist apoplexy, Diment goes out of his way to have his hero actually fall in love with a woman he respects for the first time in his life. His inamorata is Charity, the only woman in Faustus’s gang, and black (itself very interesting) but the point is that the narrator shows a new sensitivity and depth in his feelings for her.

She smiled softly as she undid the towel round my waist with long cool fingers and ran her nails across my stomach. I shivered and hooked my fingers into the neck of her shift. She raised her arms and wriggled slightly as I pulled it off. Her breasts were hard and small as two apples with pointed, dark chocolate nipples. Her skin was very soft and taut and had a slight, sub-cutaneous luminosity. As though there were lights just under the surface. We kissed for a long time as I stared into the wells of her gentle brown eyes and we lay in a slowly shuddering tangle of touching limbs. She closed her thighs and squeezed, trapping me and I jerked like a startled horse. (p.44)

Well, I like it. Not the fact that it’s pornographic – but that it has a scattering of unexpected phrases and sweet insights.

Half way through the novel there is an unprecedented event: McAlpine spends a couple of pages (pp.85-86) thinking about his life and, specifically, wondering whether he has ever loved someone and whether he ever will. These thoughts are closely tied in to reflections on his career as a murderer: including the men on the boat, he has murdered some 10 people, even though he’s never been in a war and is still not 26 (p.103). He’s sick of it.

The love interest in the previous novels had existed solely to provide the hero with sex, and the girls’ main plot function was to turn out to have been agents all along, sleeping with him only to keep an eye on him – ie providing a not-very-convincing burst of fashionable cynicism or disillusion at the end of the story.

Here the feeling is completely different. McAlpine is given numerous moments of introspection in which he realises he is sick of the life of murder and crime, and wants out. After the trauma of the shipboard massacre, when he is finally safely back on the Greek island, he falls into Chastity’s arms and weeps and weeps. When he awakes he realises he is genuinely in love for the first time in his life.

Already he had had the novel experience of – when Solange offered herself to him – turning her down, more worried about its impact on his relationship with Chastity than the offer of quick sex. Changed. In a previous novel, when a girlfriend had revealed she was pregnant, all he could think was ‘Dozy cow! Why didn’t she take her pill?’ just like the thoughtless philanderer Alfie in the film of the same name.

But now, when Chastity reveals that she is pregnant, McAlpine is genuinely overjoyed and kisses her and kisses her stomach. They have both been involved in abortions and, Diment laments, his generation has been brought up to expect instant gratification, there is rarely time to form a bond with a lover of the opposite sex before the sex has become familiar and boring and you’re on to the next partner.

Now he wants to escape all of that: he realises he hates cold, ugly, polluted London with its rude racist population; he wants to give up a life of spying, crime and killing and go live somewhere peaceful with his love; and he wants to give up the shallow promiscuity that dominated the earlier novels and commit himself to marrying Chastity and becoming a husband and father. It is genuinely touching when McAlpine says he wants the baby to be a little girl because he’s always liked them.

Which makes it all the more heart-rending when, in the final scene, on the final page, as the ambushers open up with the heavy machine gun, scything down Faustus and the others beside the plane, and Chastity leaps screaming with fear, reaching up to McAlpine to pull her inside the plane, at the last moment she is hit by a volley of large-calibre bullets and is already bleeding heavily and unconscious when McAlpine drags her inside, then has to duck back to the cockpit and make an emergency take-off.

The novel – and McAlpine’s fictional existence – ends on a very bitter note as, once in the air, he sets the plane on autopilot, heaves himself up out of the pilot’s seat, and steels himself to go back into the cabin to confront the fact that the woman who taught him how to love, and who represented all his hopes of escape and a new life, is probably bleeding to death and might already be dead.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Think Inc.

Pan paperback edition of Think Inc.

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.

Levkas Man by Hammond Innes (1971)

‘You don’t think about the world you live in, your species. You’re just a healthy, normal human animal. That’s why I need you. To keep me from thinking about my own species – the explosion of its populations, the massing in concrete jungles, the destructive assault upon the balance of nature which can only lead to nature’s retaliation – a long, slow, terrible battle of disease, famine and war.’ (p.192)

After the bright fluorescent modernity of Len Deighton, Innes reads almost like a Gothic writer, with his lingering on ancestral curses and implacable fates. As with the doomed relationship between the brothers in Atlantic Fury (1962) and the even more ill-fated relationship between father and son in The Doomed Oasis (1960), this is another tangled family saga.

Two things filled my mind – the way this house drew those who were connected with my father, as though his brooding personality were a living force within its walls, and the extraordinary pattern that was dragging me almost against my will into the area of his activities. (p.49)

Moreover, this novel is dominated by a gloomy early-1970s feeling that the world is coming to an end, that Man is destroying the environment and himself.

Levkas Man

The first-person narrator, Paul (28) is the adopted son of a famous Dutch archaeologist – Dr Van der Voort. The relationship was a stormy one, with much anger and beatings, until he ran away to become a merchant seaman. The narrative opens as, back from a long sea journey and fleeing some kind of waterfront brawl, Paul comes sneaking ‘home’ one night to the tall, dark, empty house in Amsterdam which is so full of memories and ghosts.

After wandering through the empty rooms and letting the memories flood back he is visited by his father’s young housekeeper/secretary, Sonia, and then, over the next few days, by two archaeologist colleagues of his father’s. Both want his father’s journal, the account of his current expedition out in Greece – although the trip has reportedly run into trouble, with stories of money shortages and fights.

The narrator could escape: the next morning he walks down to the docks and meets a seaman who introduces him to a captain who needs a mate for a voyage to New Zealand. It is everything Paul wants: flight to the other side of the world, escape to sea. But he turns it down and goes to a meeting with an international antiquities smuggler who wants him to move valuables between Turkey and Greece. Why? Because his father is in Greece… and he feels himself being pulled into what he repeatedly describes as the ‘pattern’.

I’d been given the chance of escaping from the pattern and, God knows why, I had rejected it. (p.51)


As I’ve noted before, Innes has a trick or habit of mind of rendering long static scenes rather than dramatically active ones. People brood and stare off into the distance, stop speaking in mid-sentence and there is a general air of things unsaid, actions untaken, truths unexpressed, a paralysis which grips the characters and eventually the whole plot.

I sat there for a long time, the papers in my hand (p.40)… an awkward pause that held us silent (50)… He seemed resigned to my inability to help him and gave a little shrug (74)… He gave a shrug (78)… He stared at me, not saying anything (80)… He hesitated (81)… She hesitated, frowning (91)… She turned away (92)… He half rose as if to say something.. but then changed his mind (94) She had withdrawn into herself (97)… ‘I don’t know… It’s just a feeling.’ (98)… I think I must have stood there for quite a long time (103)… He was silent for a long time (105)…

There was nothing I could say and I stood there silent (107)… He just sat there silent, lost in his own thoughts (108)… He gave his habitual little shrug (117)… She hesitated as though about to say something… then she turned abruptly and went back (118)… He was not very communicative… we walked on in silence (123)… I hesitated… I didn’t say anything (128)… The intensity of his frustration… He hesitated (129)…

His open, honest features had reflected his own puzzlement as he searched for words to express his feelings (142)… For a time he seemed lost in his own thoughts (149)… He wouldn’t give me a straight answer to that (161)… We didn’t talk much, both of us wrapped in our own thoughts. (162)… he had withdrawn inside himself… He stared at me, his eyes suddenly blank (165)… The brooding look had returned to his face and  his mind was far away… a mood of withdrawal (167)… My father had withdrawn into himself (169)… Silence then, a silence that dragged. (188)… He was staring through the windshield, his mind on something else… He hesitated, staring at me (240)… I didn’t say anything. What could I say? (267)

It cannot be over-emphasised how much this atmosphere of blockage and constriction dominates the obscurely doom-laden text.

The plot

The plot, as in most Innes novels, is a concatenation of procrastinations.

Paul takes the smuggling assignment, flying to Malta where he meets up with the boat that’s been chartered for him to pick up the merchandise. But as soon as he and the husband-and-wife crew arrive in their first port in Greece, Paul is picked up by the Greek police who drive him to the dig, at a place called Despotiko.

  • The police (in the shape of a Greek Intelligence officer) want to know if his father is really a Communist spy – based on the fact he was a Party member in the 1930s and some of his expeditions were funded by Russia.
  • Meanwhile, it  becomes clearer that at least one of his father’s archaeologist rivals wants to steal his father’s discoveries, but why.
  • And at the site of the dig, up in the mountains, Paul asks the two assistants, Carpenter and Winter, why there was a fight, why the Doctor went mad, attacked one of them, then stalked off into the night.

And the answers to these questions? Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know.

The novel proceeds through a sequence of incidents none of which clarify what’s really going on or where we’re heading, creating a fog of uncertainty and indecision – and it’s a long one for Innes, 280 pages in the Fontana paperback edition.

So either you become quite frustrated at the lack of answers or you decide to sit back and enjoy the ride, savouring the saltily evocative description of sailing from Malta to Greece, or the sound and smells of evening in the square of a small mountain-top village.

There’s an Aegean Interlude in the middle of the novel, where Paul and the charter guys pull off the simple bit of antiquity-smuggling which, after all, is why he went out there – and this interlude contains wonderfully expressive descriptions of sailing along the Greek coast and out to the islands off Turkey. Sailing was Innes’ passion, and it shows.


Paul has a brief encounter with his father at the Despotiko dig, long enough to realise he is exhausted and at the end of his tether in obsessive pursuit of his theories, before decoying the police away from him. Drawing a blank there, the Greek Intelligence officer instructs the police to move their search to the locations where Dr Van der Voort was seen the previous year, specifically some caves on the island of Levkas.

Here they discover Dr Van der Voort has been exhausting himself for months, obsessively digging away at the rockfall at the back of the cavern, taking little food or drink at his feeble camp, in pursuit of the proof for his theories. But he is nowhere to be found. The Greek police, the other archaeologists, Paul and Sonia, all assemble here and realise the Doctor is missing because he’s trapped behind the rockfall, caused by a small earth tremor all of them felt a day or two previously, not big enough to be reported or cause any damage, but enough to trap the Doctor somewhere behind it.

In the final scenes, while the archaeologists go to work to remove the fallen rocks, Paul makes a tense and dangerous undersea dive along the shoreline directly beneath the cavern and finds a secret way up into it. In the climax to the various plot strands he discovers that:

  • his father has murdered his rival, Professor Holroyd, who had stolen some of his earlier discoveries and made the mistake of getting through the rockfall into the cavern at an earlier moment when a gap opened and before a further rockfall closed it
  • his father is now alone in a vast cavern covered with precisely the kind of prehistoric cave paintings which prove his theories about the migration of ancient man, about the triumph of Cro-Magnon Man, but above all confirm his view of Man as an irredeemably psychopathic killer


This brings us to the themes which are sprinkled throughout the text. They start out as being Dr Van der Voort’s theory, or theories:

  1. The sea was once 200 or 300 metres lower than it is now. The entire Mediterranean was then a vast savannah covered with the kinds of mammals you find in Africa. An enormous volcanic explosion (like the one which tore apart Santorini) blew up what are now the islands around Levkas. The ice melted and sea levels rose, making all sorts of places inhabitable by Stone Age man now underwater, hence the diving element in the plot.
  2. Prehistoric man came up into Europe from Africa, not Asia. (Since this is now the near universal view, it’s difficult to take seriously the idea that this is a Major Breakthrough, over which rival archaeologists are prepared to argue and even fight).
  3. ‘Modern man’, homo sapiens sapiens exterminated the heavier-browed, ape-like Neanderthal Man who he discovered inhabiting Europe, until only hss survived. (I think this is also the modern view, though disputed.)
  4. The Doctor’s personal theory that man is not the tool-making creature, but the weapon-making creature. Throughout the novel it is asserted that this insight is reinforced by his own personality and sudden rages, which have apparently included killing a man in Russia and (as narrated in the novel) attacking his assistants on the Despotiko dig. And the Doctor frightens his son, the narrator, by asserting that he, Paul, has inherited the old man’s violent tendency: hence the event before the text began, where Paul is meant to have killed a man in a waterfront fight. (Obviously a personal view of human nature.)
  5. Modern civilisation is sick, we are destroying the planet, maiming Nature, killing off each other, at a terrible rate. (See the quote at the top.)

Maybe the aim was to establish Van der Voort as a rather deranged version of someone like Laurens van der Post. The 1970s saw the rise of a number of ‘gurus’, people with a generally critical view of our consumer culture and a wider perspective on history or the cosmos, who were looked up to because they promoted ‘spiritual values’. Now that we know life is entirely about making money and buying the latest Apple iPhone, the alternative culture of the 1970s, with its aspirations to escape slavish consumerism, to bring peace and to protect the environment, seem utopian and naive.

Redemption in the end

As with the last few Innes novels I’ve read, you have to wade through several hundred pages of essentially mundane events, hundreds of frustrating non-communicative conversations, while some lonely obsessive leads the other characters a seemingly pointless dance – until the conclusion of the book, which in every case is a dramatic or imaginatively intense coup de théâtre which eclipses the preceding frustrations and leaves you with a powerful after-memory.

Same here: all the meandering plot and irritating non-conversations fade from memory by contrast with:

  • The scene where Paul confronts his father in the vast buried cavern completely covered in amazing prehistoric cave paintings of slaughtered animals which both can only see by the flickering light of Paul’s dying flashlight, which it has taken to many trials and adventures to discover, where Paul is oppressed by an almost tangible sense of prehistoric violence and evil, and where his father admits that he murdered the rival archaeologist, brutally staving in his skull.
  • Several scenes later, after Paul has burned his bridges by refusing to tell his potential lover, Sonia, the truth, and then beaten and tied up the Greek Intelligence officer who had been shadowing him – he steals the charter boat and heads south to freedom and new adventures. Man may be a murderer who is destined to fight countless wars and destroy his environment but, for this moment, for one man – Paul – there is the (very Innes) exhiliration of being at sea, at one with the elements, master of his own destiny, free. Not only is it powerful in itself, but comes as a tremendous psychological release after the sense of oppressive constriction which dominates most of the text, building up to the terrifying confrontation scene in the cavern. The narrator and the text are freed, liberated, newborn in the motion of the waves and the smell of the salt spray and the wide sky above.

Although the first two-thirds of a Hammond Innes novel are often a trial and a torment to read, it is almost always worth it because of the imaginative power of these final climactic scenes, for which the preceding pages are merely a sort of scaffold which can be kicked away and forgotten once the Big Scene has gripped your imagination, whose power lingers and forms your lasting memory of the book.

TV series

The novel was made into 6-part TV mini-series by ABC, the Australian TV channel. I think this must be the very of-its-time theme tune of the series.

Related links

1971 Fontana paperback edition of Levkas Man

1971 Fontana paperback edition of Levkas Man

Hammond Innes’ novels

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

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

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

This is a spectacularly brilliant book. It is utterly gripping and absorbing. If I had to give someone who’d never read a thriller an example to show them what the genre can do, it would be this one.

Compared to books by Desmond Bagley, Alistair MacLean, Eric Ambler or Hammond Innes which generally weigh in at around 220 pages, The Day of The Jackal is nearly double the length (at 382 pages in the Corgi paperback version) and twice as gripping.

The length is an indicator of its key strength, its lavish attention to detail, the depth and meticulousness of its research. Rarely can a thriller have been written with such verisimilitude.

Political background

France invaded Algeria in 1830. Very quickly it became not a colony, as in the British model of Empire, but an actual administrative department of France, fully integrated into the patrie. After World War Two there were growing calls for independence and low-level violence escalated into a full-blown war of independence which started in 1954, led by the main independence movement, the National Liberation Front or FLN.

By the late 1950s their campaign of violence – with retaliatory attacks by the French Army and paramilitary groups – had spilled over into mainland France and it had become the dominant political issue: should France cling on to Algeria at the cost of ever-increasing repression and violence, or grant the country independence? Communist, socialist and liberal deputies and opinion formers argued for independence, but the Army, the right wing and most of the colonists, or pieds noirs, were violently opposed, considering Algeria not a colony but a part of the sacred soil of France.

By 1961 it became clear that only one man could heal the massive rifts in French politics and Charles de Gaulle, the embodiment of the nation, the voice of freedom during the dark days of the Nazi occupation, was recalled from retirement and made President. Both sides expected a miracle, that he could somehow square the circle, but inevitably one side had to lose and it was the colonists – de Gaulle called two referendums in which the nation as a whole voted to withdraw from Algeria. The Army and colonists felt betrayed and opposed the plan with every means at their disposal including violence, attacking police and political sympathisers. The Organisation de l’armée secrète or OAS was founded in January 1961, in response to the first referendum, and one of its central aims was to murder the traitor, de Gaulle. No fewer than six attempts were made on the President’s life.


The novel opens with a detailed account of one of these plots, the assassination attempt mounted by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry in the Paris suburb of Le Petit-Clamart on 22 August 1962. The plot failed, Thiry and his co-conspirators were caught, and Thiry was executed by firing squad on 11 March 1963.

So far the book has been a completely factual account of actual historic events. This is part of what gives it such depth and conviction, not just that it is based on historical fact, but that those events are described with such a debonaire and confident combination of factual accuracy and drama.

The fiction is seamlessly woven into fact, as the radio announcement of Thiry’s execution is heard by the OAS’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Marc Rodin. (He has taken over control since the head, Antoine Argoud (real historical figure) was abducted from Germany by French security forces.)

Rodin convenes a meeting of two senior directors of OAS and presents them with a novel plan in his highly-guarded rooms in a Rome hotel. They will hire a foreigner, someone with no connection with France let alone the OAS. It will be done in complete secrecy by this special committee of three, telling no-one else in the organisatoin in order to ensure total security.

They draw up a shortlist of international assassins and their search brings an Englishman to their Rome hotel. He demands half a million dollars to carry out this once-in-a-lifetime hit. The three agree.

To pay for it, they order the OAS to carry out a wave of violent crime across France to raise the money, leading to a spate of robberies, thefts, burglaries, along with the response of the authorities. Meanwhile, the Jackal returns to London and starts to make his elaborate and detailed plans.

Forsyth describes in detail the clever scam whereby French security kidnap one of the bodyguards from the Rome hotel, and then the gruesome torture techniques they apply (electric clips to the nipples and penis, huge electric shocks). He reveals that a foreigner came to visit Rodin and his codename, le chacal. French security deduce a foreign assassin has been hired and convey this to their masters.

Forsyth reveals an incredibly detailed and thoroughly researched grasp of the structure of the various French security services, how they interlock and overlap with civil servants and ministers of the relevant ministries. Roger Frey, the French Minister of the Interior, convenes a meeting of the heads of all the services to discuss what to do.

The Minister stood at the head of the table. To his immediate right sat his chef de cabinet, and to his left the Prefect of Police, the political head of France’s police forces. From Sanguinetti’s right hand down the length of the oblong table sat General Gibaud, head of the SDECE, Colonel Rolland, chief of the Action Service and the author of the report of which a copy lay in front of each man. Beyond Rolland were Commissaire Ducret of the Corps de Sécurité Presidentielle, and Colonel Saint-Clair de Villaubin, an air force colonel of the Elysée staff… To the left of M.Maurice Papon, the Prefect of Police, were M.Maurice Grimaud, the Director-General of the Sûreté Nationale, and in a row the five heads of the departments that make up the Sûreté. (p.181)

At this meeting the Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire says the first thing is to establish the Jackal’s identity, a job for a detective. When asked who is the best detective in France he replies (not, alas, Inspector Clouseau who, coincidentally, made his debut film appearance in 1963) but his own deputy commissioner, Claude Lebel.

From this point onwards the novel becomes a cat and mouse narrative, split into two streams, one detailing the immensely thorough precautions and plans of the Jackal; the other describing in just as much detail the actions of the French policeman.

Several things contribute to the novel’s phenomenal power:


The forward momentum and pace of the novel never let up, from the moment Thiry is executed in March 1963, as it follows day by day the activities of the Jackal, of the OAS and then of Lebel right up until the fateful 25 August when the plot and the novel come to their explosive climax. Almost every chapter begins or ends with a phrase like ‘as they were talking the clock passed midnight and it was Monday 15 August’. The pressure of the timeline is always present in the narrative.


The novel is mind-bogglingly well-researched. Forsyth the narrator comes across as immensely knowledgable and thoroughly in command of his material. He displays a totally convincing understanding of the intricate and complicated roles and responsibilities of all of France’s police and security agencies and then, when the hunt moves to England, a similar grasp of the overlapping responsibilities of the police, Scotland Yard, Special Branch and MI6, or ‘the Service’.

Not only are the stakes of the novel high – life and death of the leader of a major western nation, the future of France – but Forsyth’s grasp of the implications of the plot, at all levels, from the most senior geopolitical issues, through the mazes of security and police bureaucracy, down to the tiniest details of the Jackal’s preparations for the assassination, is complete. It is a masterful text, an astonishing achievement.

Sex and death

Sex, death, guns, sports cars, forged papers, security services, kidnapping, torture, international banking transactions – all are described in the same efficient, factual and powerfully credible style. Forsyth exudes confidence. He is at home with all of this stuff. One of the striking features of this and his other novels is how relaxed and matter of fact he is about sex. In the thrillers I’ve read up to the mid-1970s by Eric Ambler, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and John le Carré, sex has been conspicuous by its absence. The anonymous narrator of Len Deighton’s Ipcress novels alludes to having sex with his girlfriend, but only in the most oblique ways (she asks for her ear ring back). Compare and contrast with Forsyth’s frank, unashamed description of sex between the Jackal and the lonely Baroness he picks up because she has a conveniently isolated chateau where he can hide out.

The door opened and the Baroness came in. Her hair had been let down around her shoulders and she wore a pegnoir held together at the throat but open down the front. As she moved it swayed briefly open. She was quite naked beneath it, but had kept on the stockings she had worn at dinner and the high-heeled court shoes. The Jackal propped himself up on one elbow as she closed the door and walked over to the bed.

She looked down at him in silence. He reached up and slipped loose the bow of ribbon that held the nightdress closed at the throat. It swung open to reveal the breasts, and as he craned forward his hand slid the lace-edged material off her shoulders. It slid down to the floor without a sound. (1975 Corgi paperback edition, p.316)

At which point she grasps his wrists, pushes him flat onto the bed, straddling his chest, dangling her breasts in his face, then tells him to ‘perform’ as she moves her loins up over his mouth. Cunnilingus. I’ve read nothing like this in the English thriller tradition up to this point. It’s not so much that it’s rude and arousing, as that Forsyth reports it with the same confident, unembarrassed savoir faire he applies to every other aspect of his story.

And so, when he realises the Baroness has (very foolishly) used the extension in her bedroom to overhear the Jackal’s brief phone call to his OAS minder, he kills her just as coldly and efficiently, and Forsyth deploys the same unembarrassed, uncoy, uneuphemistic, accurate, factual style to describe it.

She made a rush for the door. He caught her easily and hurled her back across the room on to the bed, coming after her in three fast paces. As she bounced on the rumpled sheets her mouth opened to scream. The back-handed blow across the side of the neck into the carotid artery choked off the scream at source, then his left hand was tangled in her hair, dragging her face downwards over the edge of the bed. She caught a last glimpse of the pattern of the carpet when the forehanded chop with the edge of the palm came down on the back of the neck. (p.326)


One reason for reading novels, and a key element in ‘literature’, is interest in the depth and fullness of ‘character’, and to observe how characters interact and change and develop through the incidents of the plot.

In Forsyth the characters are robots: the OAS characters are bent on revenge; the security characters pursue logically all administrative precautions to prevent the assassination; the Jackal is a killing machine – if ‘competence’ is a mark of the thriller protagonist, the level of professionalism he brings to every aspect of his life is off the scale – and, for his part, detective Lebel is a man given a task by his superiors who carries it out to the best of his ability.

There are a few moments or areas where a shadow of psychology creeps in:

  • In the daily briefings which Lebel is ordered to give to the entire assembled security chiefs, one of them, Saint-Clair, is consistently harsh in his criticism of the failure to arrest the Jackal – we know, and Lebel eventually proves, that this man has been going home and telling everything he’s learned to his young mistress, while she sexually pleasures him in various explicitly described ways, before she sneaks off and phones her OAS control, who then tips off the Jackal – for the is an OAS plant. The growing antagonism between Saint-Clair and Lebel almost amounts to a bit of character development, though the simplicity with which he is revealed as the leak, and accepts his humiliation is surprisingly straightforward.
  • More simply, the Baroness is given a backstory wherein her husband has abandoned her to gallivant with starlets in Paris; she is given a scene where she admires her naked body in the mirror and makes the conscious decision that, alright, she too is going to enjoy herself – and it is this decision which leads her to accede to the Jackal’s advances, and ultimately leads to her death.
  • Most tellingly, there is one long paragraph which purports to give an insight into the Jackal’s motivation.

He looked out at the jewelled sea and the lithe brown girls walking along the beach, the hissing Cadillacs and the snarling Jaguars that crept along the Croisette, their bronzed young drivers keeping half an eye on the road and the other flicking across the pavements for a likely pick-up. This was what he had wanted for a long time, from the days when he had pressed his nose to the travel agent’s windows and gazed at the posters showig another life, another world, far from the drudgery of the commuter train and the forms in triplicate, the paper clips and tepid tea. Over the past three years he had almost made it; a glimpse here, a touch there. He had got used to good clothes, expensive meals, a smart flat, a sports car, elegant women. To go back meant to give it all up. (p.277)

It is not enough. It doesn’t justify the Jackal’s superhuman precision and efficiency. In fact, it is a bit of a letdown. The Jackal isn’t a man, he is a phenomenon, an embodiment of ‘a certain type of masculinity’, raised to almost mythical status, he is Achilles, he is Beowulf. From about half way through the novel the authorities think they’ve identified him as an Englishman, Charles Calthrop, involved in previous mercenary work. Only at the very end do we learn that even this identity was a fake, that he appears to have no identifiable past.

He is, in fact, a man with no name and, like the Clint Eastwood character (who debuted in the 1964 movie A Fistful of Dollars), the very absence of backstory, or psychology, or any attempt at explanation, is crucial to his conception. He is a sort of force of nature.

The movie

The novel was a famous success, bestseller of 1971 and launched Forsyth’s long career. Inevitably it was imediately snapped up by a producer and turned into the classic thriller movie directed by Fred Zinneman and starring the impossibly plummy Edward Fox.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

The Freedom Trap by Desmond Bagley (1971)

This is a good, functionally-written, gripping and believable thriller. Very enjoyable.

The diamond heist

Joseph Rearden arrives in London from South Africa, where he is a professional criminal. He meets with one Mr Mackintosh, in a fake office with a fake secretary, who has a job for him. They know a package of industrial diamonds is due to be delivered to a certain address over the next day or two in a bright yellow Kodachrome photo envelope. Rearden’s job is to lie in wait for the postman and, when he sees the package in his hand, mug the postie and make off with the diamonds. This Rearden does, slipping the bright pack into a larged box and palming this to Mackintosh in a crowded London market, then returning to his hotel, scheduled to catch a flight out of town the next morning and collect his money via a Swiss bank after the diamonds are sold. The perfect heist, eh?

Unfortunately, the police come calling that evening and arrest him. He has been grassed up: the police have received anonymous phone calls giving them all the evidence they need: eyewitnesses, fingerprints, the lot. Looks like Mackintosh stiffed him. Rearden is charged, taken to court and convicted. The police and his solicitor emphasise that if he reveals the whereabouts of the diamonds he’ll get a much reduced sentence. But not only does Rearden not reveal anything about Mackintosh, he refuses to even admit his guilt. He is sent down for 20 years.

Prison life

Life in prison is hard. There’s a flutter of excitement when a new boy arrives and the story goes round that he’s Slade, a high profile double-agent, who’s been caught and given 42 years. In among the conversations with other lags Rearden gets to hear of the Scarperers, a gang who can fix your escape, for a steep price. Rearden arranges a down-payment from one of his South African accounts and he is sprung from prison in a daring raid which involves smoke grenades to confuse the warders, and then the platform of a ‘cherry picker‘ being lowered into the exercise yard. At the last minute he is told Slade is going too, so he risks his own escape to bundle the older man up into the cherry picker.

The Scarperers

The gang spirit him away, promising him a new identity, but then stick a needle in him. When he wakes up he is in a luxurious apartment, with waiter service and every convenience – but bars on the windows and a guard at the door. He is sharing the place with Slade, both being held pending final payment to the Scarperers before they are delivered to their ultimate destinations. Rearden will not be released till he coughs up the rest of the payment, £10,000 – a lot of money in 1971. It takes some time to arrange payment via a Swiss bank account of his, during which a) Slade one day disappears, moved on b) there is a sudden change in the mood music. The posh polite man who comes to see them every day, who never gives his name and who Rearden calls ‘Fatface’, one day announces they know Rearden isn’t in fact Rearden. And they know about Mackintosh: so what’s the truth, fellah?

Back story

Flashback: Rearden is in fact Owen Stannard, a British agent. He worked in the Far East for many years until he was caught up in political trouble in Indonesia, shipped out, and moved to South Africa under a new identity to become a ‘sleeper’ agent. He has lived a quiet respectable life for seven years and now Mackintosh flies out from the UK to activate him. He explains that it is one thing the Scarperers running a successful organisation helping prisoners escape; Mackintosh’s interest is that, among the general run of lags, they are helping imprisoned security risks to escape.

So the plan is: Stannard will adopt the identity of South African crook Rearden, recently dead in a genuine road accident; he will come to England and pull the diamond heist and Mackintosh will make sure he is caught and sent to prison; he will wait in prison for as long as it takes for the Scarperers to contact him; he will keep an eye on Slade and, if he looks like being released, capture or, if necessary, kill him.

Got that?


Which explains why Rearden/Stannard coshes Fatface next time he walks into the apartment, sets fire to the place, yells fire and pushes Fatface in front of him when the guard outside opens the door, so they collide and fall in a heap, while Rearden legs down the stairs, knocks out a guard, climbs a wall, across a lane, across a field, through the woods to a road where he catches a bus which turns out to be going to Limerick because it turns out that all this time he’s been held in Ireland! (Echoes of the Ipcress narrator being held and tortured for months in a prison in Albania, which, when he escapes, turns out to be an old building next to some allotments in Acton.)


Having stolen Fatface’s wallet and cash Rearden is able, once he gets to Limerick, to phone Mackintosh’s office back in London where the prim secretary, Mrs Smith, answers. Mackintosh was recently run over and is in hospital unconscious. Oops. He is the only official who knows about Rearden’s mission ie he is not the criminal he appears to be. Could be trouble. To Rearden’s surprise Mrs Smith says she’ll be with him, with lots of money and a fake passport in three hours. How? She’ll fly there in her private plane.

What emerges is that Mrs Smith is Mackintosh’s daughter, Alison, and that he trained her from an early age in all aspects of spycraft. She and Rearden become a team and she is, in fact, better at lots of things than him, not least shooting. And of course, drop dead gorgeous.

They hire a car and drive back to the burning house. Rearden stole a contacts book off Fatface and they drive to the location of the nearest one, a coastal village beyond Galway. The locals tell them the Big House is owned by a Brit, Mr Wheeler MP, self-made millionaire, he moors his luxury yacht down in the bay. As they’re leaving the pub Rearden bumps into the big strong silent (possibly dumb) waiter who served him everyday in the safe/prison house, who recognises the escapee and they start fighting. It is here Alison that first shows her prowess with a gun, shooting Big Guy very accurately in the knee, then accelerating the car up to Rearden so he can jump in and the car screech off with a rattle of gravel against the low-angle camera. Very filmic.

Albanian spies

Now Wheeler was one of the last officials Mackintosh saw before he was run over. Hmm. Rearden and Alison do some investigating, she flying back to London to see her (still unconscious) father and using her extensive contacts. What they find is that Wheeler is not English but Albanian. He fought with the communist partisans in Yugoslavia before fleeing to England. Soon after the war, he mysteriously acquired a number of properties which set him on the road to becoming a millionaire, and from there on his aquisition of a parliamentary seat and onto various influential committees was easy.

In a killer fact, Alison has discovered he employs a large number of staff at the Big House in Ireland – and all of them are naturalised immigrants from – Albania! Rearden sketches out a hypothesis: Wheeler is a communist agent, infiltrating the Establishment at a high level. The Big House is a finishing school for other agents who come and stay long enough to perfect the language and manners of an English servant, before being recommended by Wheeler to his posh friends and moving on to become servants to God knows how many important men around the country. It is a spy network!

The yacht Artina

Meanwhile his yacht, the Artina, has sailed. Rearden and Alison follow it to Cork, then fly in her plane to see it dock in Gibraltar. But it is only there long enough to refuel (not long enough for Rearden to get abaord) before it sails on to Malta. Our team speculate that a) it has Slade aboard, and b) it is heading back to Albania.

It had been introguing Rearden that the locals in ireland thought Wheeler well known for his Chinese cooks. Now he realises that Albania, where Wheeler originally hails from, is not part of the orthodox Russian sphere of influence but, under its eccentric leader Enver Hoxha, has declared its allegiance to Maoist China.

Could it be that Slade, a Russian agent, has been promised passage to Moscow but is being betrayed by Wheeler and is ultimately headed, via Albania, for Red China, where he will spill the beans not only about British intelligence, but also about KGB operations? Ha, the irony.


So our heroes fly to Malta and it is here the novel reaches its climax.

In the first attempt, Rearden and Alison row quietly out to the yacht, Rearden scrambles aboard and makes his way to Slade’s cabin – for his guess that Slade is aboard turns out to be correct – where he plants the seed of doubt that Wheeler is Albanian, taking him to Albania and China. He has just persuaded Slade to tiptoe along the deck and try to find the boat when the floodlights come on, strong arms seize Rearden, and the famous Mr Wheeler makes his appearance, in a scene right out of James Bond.

Next to the skipper stood a tall man with ash-blond hair, who, at that moment, was fitting a cigarette into a long holder. He dipped his hand into the pocket of his elegant dressing-gown, produced a lighter and flicked it into flame… ‘So thoughtful of you to join us, Mr Stannard. It saves me the trouble of looking for you.’ (p.187)

(He might as well be sitting stroking a white cat and saying, ‘So, Mr Bond. We meet at last.’)

Oops, you think, it’s all over. Except we forgot about the amazing Alison and her Dad’s training: she quickly shoots the two goons holding Rearden and he dives overboard. They swim behind the stern, round the other side, then manage to escape ashore in all the confusion.

Attempt Two is more elaborate. Rearden and Alison buy a speedboat, hire a boatyard, weld steel rods onto the front to form a battering ram, and pile it high with fireworks. Plan: ram the yacht, breach the fuel tanks, ignite the fireworks, watch everything explode. Despite some hairy moments with the now-hopeless steering, it does the trick. The Artina goes up like a bonfire, Rearden is shot in the shoulder just as he jumps overboard in his scuba dicing suit, but is rescued – as ever – by Alison driving a little put-put.

On staggering out of the water, bleeding badly from his shoulder wound he is, rather comicaly, confronted by the arresting officer who caught him in the early part of the book. ‘I must warn you that anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence against you.’

Tidying up

Rearden awakens in a Maltese prison, his shoulder patched up and is immediately visited by a precise Civil Servant who explains to him (and us) the full story. Everything is as we know except that Mackintosh deliberately betrayed Rearden to Wheeler in order to make Wheeler panic and play his hand. That’s how his captors in the Irish house suddenly knew who he was; that’s why Mackintosh was run over. But, fortunately for everyone, he had written out a full account of the whole story in a letter posted to his lawyers and to be opened in the event of his death. This caused a bit of a delay, during which the chase form Ireland to Malta took place, but Mackintosh now having finally died, the lawyers opened the letter and called in the Service. And so the quiet man is in Rearden’s cell. And so they discuss how to manage everything:

  • Wheeler dead, great man killed in tragic fire
  • British divers remove and hide the ramming boat Rearden used
  • why not put it out that Rearden was also killed resisting arrest somewhere in the UK, and so he is free to resume his Stannard identity and return to South Africa

Right at the very end, a released Rearden meets Alison in the bar of a Malta hotel. They chat about this and that, and then suddenly he proposes to her. And what do you think she replies?

Flat style

I’d forgotten how flat and factual Bagley’s style is. Hardly any colour, few similes or metaphors, hardly any passages of description. Hammond Innes beats him hands-down for descriptions of exotic settings, especially of the sea. But Bagley’s clear pedestrian tone comes as a relief after reading some of Alistair MacLean’s 1970s novels, with their ham-fisted, repetitive, mannered and would-be comic style.

Bagley describes situations calmly and accurately. The sequence of Rearden mugging the postman, palming the diamonds, returning to his hotel, being visited by the police and arrested is told in a long, detailed, orderly way, as it happens. It isn’t very exciting but it builds conviction. Similarly, he describes his interviews with his solicitor and then the actual trial at considerable pedantic length. Bit dull but it does slowly, patiently build up atmosphere and verismilitude.

There’s a moment when he describes being in Malta waiting for the baddie’s yacht to arrive. Think what the Len Deighton of Horse Under Water could have done with this opportunity for Sunday supplement pyrotechnics! But Bagley describes it like an accountant.

With nearly four days to wait we suddenly found ourselves in holiday mood. The sky was blue, the sun was hot and the sea inviting, and there were cafés with seafood and cool wine for the days, and moderately good restaurants with dance floors for the nights. (p.168)

Sounds like a postcard from Doug in Accounts, only less imaginative. Bagley isn’t a visual writer, he is about activities: then this then this then this then this. But that’s no bad thing. Precisely because a lot of it is flat and humdrum, his style gives the action that much more plausibility. There is no ambiguity about events and, when things do get exciting, your pulse starts racing along with the protagonist’s.

I checked my watch for the twentieth time in fifteen minutes and decided that the time had come. I put on the scuba gear, tightened the weighted belt around my waist, and hung the mask around my neck. Then I started the engines and the boat quivered in the water. I cast off the painter and pushed the boat away with one hand and then tentatively opened the throttles a notch, not knowing what to expect. (p.206)

The anxiety of influence

These thrillers from the 1960s and 70s are so conscious of the clichéd and stereotyped ground they tread and of the wealth of spy movies or TV series which blossomed in popular culture at this period, that sooner or later they try and distance themselves from it.

The cult of James Bond has given rise to a lot of nonsense. There are no double-o numbers and there is no ‘licence to kill’. (p.113)

Depressed as I was I nearly laughed in his face. He was acting like the villain in a B picture…Fatface was an amateur who seemed to get his ideas from watching TV. (p.116)

But it is useless to resist, Mr Bond. They are a part of that time and place and world, whether they want to or not. Though Bagley the author may laugh at any connection with James Bond, the novel itself has numerous Bond-like moments, and the trailer for the movie, (below) has Bond-style titles and involves fights, shoot-outs, luxury yachts and a beautiful girl – ie it looks just like (an admittedly low budget) Bond movie.

The movie

The novel was quickly turned into a film, released in 1973, directed by the great John Huston and starring Paul Newman as Rearden, Michael Hordern as ‘Fatface’, and James Mason as the suave Grandee double agent. Looks bizarre seeing gorgeous Paul Newman in drab 1970s greys and browns reminiscent of contemporary TV shows like Porridge or On The Buses. Shame the DVD is so needlessly expensive.

Related links

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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