Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions is longer than the average Vonnegut novel at 270 pages in an old Panther paperback edition I have.

It’s experimental in several ways. Each paragraph is introduced with an arrow → making them seem more like disconnected apothegms than part of a consecutive prose text, and sometimes the paragraphs reduce to totally disconnected sentences. More like reading Nietzsche than a novel.

Then there’s the author’s amateurish but quite appealing drawings, at least one every two pages, sometimes two on a page, squeezing the prose out, like in a children’s book. I counted 119 of them. Here’s an example.

Page from Breakfast of Champions

And another one.

Goodbye Blue Monday by Kurt Vonnegut

It took Vonnegut a long four years to grind out Breakfast of Champions and several times he abandoned it. It had poor reviews and in later life he gave it a low rating among his works. But I like it. I think it demonstrates two of his leading characteristics.

1. It is chatty. It is like listening to an interesting guy who’s knocked about the world a bit, telling you funny anecdotes, about pornography, explaining how we’re all actually machines, leaning forward to impress on you that war is wrong, and so on.

2. And it is roomy. Having established this chatty, informal persona, Vonnegut can casually rope just about any subjects he wants into the so-called ‘story’.

For example, out of nowhere in particular comes this paragraph:

The Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, shook Trout’s hand in a Cohoes grocery story one time. Trout had no idea who he was. As a science-fiction writer, he should have been flabbergasted to come so close to such a man. Rockefeller wasn’t merely Governor. Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.
‘How’s it going, fella?’ Governor Rockefeller asked him.
‘About the same,’ said Kilgore Trout.

That is the complete ‘section’, that’s all we hear about Governor Rockefeller. On the face of it this is some kind of satire against obscene wealth – the kind of stoned oppositionism which made Vonnegut such a hero of the counterculture and 1970s students. What I like about it though is its irrelevance. Its irreverent irrelevance. Its insouciance. He tells a story. Nothing much happened. It was a thing. OK. So long.

As to ‘plot’, well, the story follows events in the lives of two American men, Kilgore Trout, the failed author of hundreds of science fiction novels who we met a few years back in Slaughterhouse-Five and who appears in about five other Vonnegut novels; and Dwayne Hoover,  a Pontiac car dealer in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, who is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The plot comes to a climax with them both meeting, by accident in a bar, and Trout’s presence being the thing which topples Hoover into his psychotic episode (beating up a bunch of people in the bar, his mistress and a couple of cops before being overpowered and taken to gaol).

Both characters contain elements of self-portraiture: Trout since Vonnegut himself struggled a) in his early, poor days against indifference and bad reviews, then b) when he was famous, against writer’s block; and Hoover since Vonnegut (apparently) suffered lifelong from depression, was on anti-depression medication and tried to commit suicide at least once. It is relevant that Vonnegut’s own mother committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills when he was 21 – not least because he tells us as much in chapter 17.

‘This is a very bad book you’re writing,’ I said to myself behind my leaks.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said.
‘I know,’ I said.

And he makes Dwayne’s wife, Celia, kill herself by drinking Drāno.

a mixture of sodium hydroxide and aluminum flakes, which was meant to clear drains. Celia became a small volcano, since she was composed of the same sorts of substances which commonly clogged drains.

For the richest and most powerful country in the world, America sure was, and apparently still is, full of very unhappy people.

The narrative arc is that Trout – based in New York – is invited to an arts festival taking place in (the fictional) Midland City, and has a string of adventures getting there, while Hoover is going mad in Midland City, disconcerting his various staff and employees at the Pontiac salesroom he owns.

But the real point of the novel is, I think, the way Vonnegut just adds all sorts of anecdotes, stories, jokes, pictures and reflections into it.

For example, the notion that Trout is almost supernaturally prolific allows Vonnegut to add in one-page synopses of Trout’s far-out science fiction novels. They come across as too simple to even be worked up into short stories, but they make excellent one-page diversions. There are at least ten of them, which add an extra layer of wackiness to the mix.

The fake naive style

What most distinguishes Breakfast of Champions from Vonnegut’s other books, and from any other book I’ve ever read, is the author’s deployment of a strategy of describing everything, even the most minute and obvious elements of life and society – as if to an alien who has never heard of them before.

Everything he mentions, almost anything, he stops the narrative to explain it as if to someone who has never heard of it before, often adding one of his drawings.

For example, right in the opening pages he sets out to piss off any conservative readers, and whip up his student fanbase, by treating America and its iconography as if it is inexplicably weird.

Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously… (Vonnegut quotes the entire lyric of the American national anthem)

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

And:

If they studied their paper money for clues as to what their country was all about, they found, among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top of it, like this: (a hand-drawn illustration of the logo on an American dollar) Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength’.

A lot of the nonsense was the innocent result of playfulness on the part of the founding fathers of the nation of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times.

As to American foreign policy:

When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to drop things on them from airplanes.

All this was written as the Vietnam War reached its bloody climax:

Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

If American authors want to say their country is rubbish, that’s fine by me – although I’d love to read about the backlash there must have been against Vonnegut by any kind of conservative writers, publications or institutions.

What interests me more is the wide-eyed innocence of this narratorial approach – as if he were not only explaining America to aliens, but to alien children.

Thus later on the narrator explains what a beaver is (with a drawing), what a clocktower is (with a drawing) what a gun is (a device for making holes in other people, along with a drawing), what an apple is (with a drawing), what a lamb is:

A lamb was a young animal which was legendary for sleeping well on the planet Earth. It looked like this:

To a large extent whether you like the book or not will be based on whether you can read hundreds of pages written in this faux innocent style, whether you find it liberating, or at least interesting, to see all human activity through these alien child’s point of view. Or whether you find it tiresome and almost demented.

Machines and chemicals

Closely related to the style is the delusion the author attributes to Dwayne Hoover of seeing all other human beings as machines. This is one of the ‘hallucinations’ which tips Hoover over into full-blown madness but we know, from the preface and from comments liberally sprinkled throughout the text, that Vonnegut often feels the same.

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collisions, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe.

This conceit is used more for humour than bleakness. In fact the idea is most fully expressed in a book by Kilgore Trout which Dwayne reads in the cocktail bar at the climax of the novel and which brings on his fit. In the book, Trout writes:

‘Your parents were fighting machines and self-pitying machines,’ said the book. ‘Your mother was programmed to bawl out your father for being a defective moneymaking machine, and your father was programmed to bawl her out for being a defective housekeeping machine. They were programmed to bawl each other out for being defective loving machines.

‘Then your father was programmed to stomp out of the house and slam the door. This automatically turned your mother into a weeping machine. And your father would go down to a tavern where he would get drunk with some other drinking machines. Then all the drinking machines would go to a whorehouse and rent fucking machines. And then your father would drag himself home to become an apologizing machine. And your mother would become a very slow forgiving machine.’

If read in the right mood, this is pretty funny.

And Vonnegut sees human beings not only as machines, but as bags of chemicals:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside.

This comes over in the thread running throughout the text whereby the author refers to all kinds of aspects of the characters’ behaviours as being determined, not by free will, but by ‘the chemicals in their brains’.

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads.

Vonnegut tells us in the preface that:

My own mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep. When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.

I know from personal experience what a huge difference medication for mental illness can make to a person. Chemical imbalances in the brain can certainly be life defining, character defining. Vonnegut lays this fact out with the same wide-eyed fake naivety as everything else from the American flag to apples.

Taken together the ideas that people are a) machines b) whose behaviour is largely determined by chemicals in their brains, dominate the book’s worldview.

Race

There’s a lot about race in the book. Of course the 1960s in America saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of its leaders, and the growth of Black Power. How exactly the historical background seeps into the book, I couldn’t say except that it is very aware of ‘the black problem’ and, as you would expect, Vonnegut is 110% on the liberal side, depicting southern slavery, southern bigotry, black crime rates and black incarceration rates as all aspects of white oppression.

Francine mused about the prison, where the guards were all white and most of the prisoners were black.

Then again, he crosses all kinds of lines we, in 2019, have been taught to avoid. He uses the N word more than any modern writer would dare, mostly setting it down in his standard fake naive way, a way that conveys the outrage and injustice embodied in the word all the more powerfully for being used flat and blank.

Harry knew Dwayne better than did any other man. He had been with Dwayne for twenty years. He came to work for him when the agency was right on the edge of the Nigger part of town. A Nigger was a human being who was black.

There’s a lot more in the same ilk, some of it pretty disturbing. Here is Harry LeSabre, sales manager at Dwayne Hoover’s Pontiac dealership, talking with his wife, Grace.

‘Can the reindeer hear you?’ said Harry. ‘Fuck the reindeer,’ said Grace. Then she added, ‘No, the reindeer cannot hear.’ Reindeer was their code word for the black maid, who was far away in the kitchen at the time. It was their code word for black people in general. It allowed them to speak of the black problem in the city, which was a big one, without giving offense to any black person who might overhear. ‘The reindeer’s asleep – or reading the Black Panther Digest,’ she said.

The reindeer problem was essentially this: Nobody white had much use for black people anymore – except for the gangsters who sold the black people used cars and dope and furniture. Still, the reindeer went on reproducing. There were these useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions. They were given small amounts of money every month, so they wouldn’t have to steal. There was talk of giving them very cheap dope, too – to keep them listless and cheerful, and uninterested in reproduction.

The Midland City Police Department, and the Midland County Sheriffs Department, were composed mainly of white men. They had racks and racks of submachine guns and twelve-gauge automatic shotguns for an open season on reindeer, which was bound to come.

This is bleak whichever way you view it. Is Vonnegut agreeing that there is a big race problem in America? The idea that blacks are given a small dole to stop them stealing is bleak satire. Should Harry and Grace’s attitude be taken as the average white middle class view of the day? And then the mass arming of the police against the coming of a race war even bleaker.

Sometimes Vonnegut combines his fake-naive approach to race with the conceit that humans are machines, to produce really biting dark satire. Thus, emerging from a porn cinema in Times Square, Kilgore Trout is propositioned by two hookers.

These were country girls. They had grown up in the rural south of the nation, where their ancestors had been used as agricultural machinery. The white farmers down there weren’t using machines made out of meat anymore, though, because machines made out of metal were cheaper and more reliable, and required simpler homes.

All America’s social problems are treated in the same way, with huge detachment as if we are all machines in a grotesquely malfunctioning factory.

Sex

Slaughterhouse-Five offended many Americans because of its dwelling on pornography. Not the writing of pornography, just Vonnegut dwelling on it as a symptom of human beings’ madness. Well, men’s. There’s a lot more of it in Breakfast of Champions.

Sex shops It turns out that Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels are generally bought up by pornographers purely to pad out their wank mags. This means that, before he sets off to the arts festival in Midland City, Trout spends some time cruising the sex shops around Times Square in New York.

Beaver shots Vonnegut goes to town on this, describing how hard core sex magazines advertise that they contain ‘wide open beaver’ shots i.e. photos of women with their legs and labia apart, for men to masturbate to. It’s a classic opportunity to use the false-naive approach to highlight the absurdity of men, women, sex, humanity.

At the time he met Dwayne Hoover, Trout’s most widely-distributed book was Plague on Wheels. The publisher didn’t change the title, but he obliterated most of it and all of Trout’s name with a lurid banner which made this promise:

WIDE-OPEN BEAVERS INSIDE!!!!!

A wide-open beaver was a photograph of a woman not wearing underpants, and with her legs far apart, so that the mouth of her vagina could be seen. The expression was first used by news photographers, who often got to see up women’s skirts at accidents and sporting events and from underneath fire escapes and so on. They needed a code word to yell to other newsmen and friendly policemen and firemen and so on, to let them know what could be seen, in case they wanted to see it. The word was this: “Beaver!”

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

When Dwayne was a boy, when Kilgore Trout was a boy, when I was a boy, and even when we became middle-aged men and older, it was the duty of the police and the courts to keep representations of such ordinary apertures from being examined and discussed by persons not engaged in the practice of medicine. It was somehow decided that wide-open beavers, which were ten thousand times as common as real beavers, should be the most massively defended secret under law.

There you have Vonnegut’s satirical view of the absurdity of sex, pornography and society.

The clitoris Trout has written an entire book about the clitoris (p.144) and how a man should pleasure a woman.

Penis size There is also a longish passage half way through the book, where Vonnegut tells us the precise penis lengths of all the make characters in the book. This feels like Tristram Shandy, the most famous example of learnèd wit, i.e. taking the mickey out of absurd scholarship and learning, updated to the era of the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour. In case you’re wondering:

Dwayne Hoover, incidentally, had an unusually large penis, and didn’t even know it

while:

Kilgore Trout had a penis seven inches long, but only one and one-quarter inches in diameter

at which point, in his fake-naive style, Vonnegut includes a drawing of an inch so that we know what we’re talking about.

Orgasms And this segues into a discussion of how many orgasms the main characters have per month.

Dwayne’s monthly orgasm rate on the average over the past ten years, which included the last years of his marriage, was two and one quarter. [Grace]’s monthly average over the same period was eighty-seven. Her husband [an assistant in Dwayne’s car dealership]’s average was thirty-six.

Cross dressing I was struck that Harry LeSabre is a transvestite. At weekends he likes to dress up in women’s clothes. His wife, Grace, is fine with this, but Harry is petrified lest it get out among his work colleagues.

Homosexuality And Dwayne is bothered because his son, George, has come out as gay, after having a terrible time at the military academy Dwayne sent him to when he was only a boy –

George Hoover went to Prairie Military Academy for eight years of uninterrupted sports, buggery and Fascism. Buggery consisted of sticking one’s penis in somebody else’s asshole or mouth, or having it done to one by somebody else.

with the result that he now insists on being called Bunny and plays piano in the cocktail lounge of the town’s Holiday Inn.

Role playing Earlier Dwayne took his secretary and lover, Francine Pefko, to the Holiday Inn where they made love but then Dwayne a) got really angry with her, shouting accusations, after which b) he collapsed into self pity and wanted her to be his Mommy.

He begged her to just hold him for a while, which she did.
‘I’m so confused,’ he said.
‘We all are,’ she said.
She cradled his head against her breasts.
‘I’ve got to talk to somebody,’ said Dwayne.
‘You can talk to Mommy, if you want,’ said Francine. She meant that she was Mommy.
‘Tell me what life is all about,’ Dwayne begged her fragrant bosom.

Prison sex A minor character, a black man just out of prison named Wayne Hoobler who’s been hanging round Dwayne’s Pontiac salesroom, reminisces about sex in prison.

He missed the clash of steel doors. He missed the bread and the stew and the pitchers of milk and coffee. He missed fucking other men in the mouth and the asshole, and being fucked in the mouth and the asshole, and jerking off – and fucking cows in the prison dairy, all events in a normal sex life on the planet, as far as he knew.

My point being that if a contemporary novel tackled these ‘issues’ it would be praised for being up to date and contemporary. But here’s Vonnegut writing about them 45 years ago. Nothing changes. Sex deranges everything.

The environment

But amid the satire about humans being machines driven by malfunctioning brain chemistry, about the madness of patriotism and wars, about the crazy attitudes to sex and the brutal racism of American society, there’s another strong theme which is environmentalism.

Right at the start of the novel Vonnegut describes Earth as a damaged planet, a dying planet, a wrecked planet, before we learn Trout’s theory that the atmosphere will soon become unbreathable and goes on:

He told Bill that humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.

The theme is picked up by the truck driver who Trout hitches a lift east out of New York with. As they drive through the wastelands of New Jersey, the driver laments how dirty and polluted the whole state has become.

‘And when you think of the shit that most of these factories make – wash day products, catfood, pop…’ He had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.

He said he knew that his truck was turning the atmosphere into poison gas, and that the planet was being turned into pavement so his truck could go anywhere.

And the theme is repeated big time when they drive through West Virginia and see how the landscape has been devastated by coal mining and Vonnegut, using the fake-naive approach, laments how crazy it is that people, because they own the minerals and oil and coal deep within the Earth, are allowed by our laws to devastate and pollute the surface of the Earth which we all inhabit.

The truck carrying Kilgore Trout was in West Virginia now. The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

Summary

The experience of reading Breakfast of Champions is funny if disconcerting. The fake naive style, the casual way all kinds of topics are – race, sex, politics, war, environment – are treated with a deadpan straight face and reduced to absurdity by being illustrated with the author’s drawings, all this is often quite amusing.

But as soon as you stop and tabulate the themes, as I’ve done, you can see that just beneath the surface – and quite often on the surface – is world class depression, pessimism and nihilism.

In the last third of the novel Vonnegut himself appears as the author of the book and begins to play a role in it. We learn how he bought a pair of dark glasses on his way to Midland City where he walks into the same cocktail bar where Kilgore Trout is sitting and then watches the entrance of his character, Dwayne Hoover. He then shares with us the process of making up various secondary characters, giving them names and attributes and generally orchestrating the events which follow.

Not only does he tell us how he’s making the story up – in standard post-modern style – but he shares with us his worries about his mental illness (‘leaks’ in this extract is the term Vonnegut has developed to describe glasses and sunglasses).

There in the cocktail lounge, peering out through my leaks at a world of my own invention, I mouthed this word: schizophrenia. The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soapflakes. I did not and do not know for certain that I have that disease. This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbours believed.

I am better now.
Word of honour: I am better now

Much of these personal anxieties are present in Slaughterhouse-Five but there they are contained and channelled into the vivid description of, and emotional reaction to, Billy Pilgrim’s terrible war experiences. They are justified by the genuine nihilism of war. That’s what makes Slaughterhouse-Five a classic. The subject justifies the deranged treatment. The reader thinks: well, having been through what Vonnegut went through, I’ll give him any amount of leeway in how he presents it.

But Vonnegut is all too aware that this novel completely lacks the historical authenticity and punch of its predecessor. It lacks the excuse of being about a Big Subject.

For sure, he excoriates every aspect of American society and human nature which he can get his hands on, but as a result the book not only lacks focus but lacks a justification. Instead, you keep circling back to find Vonnegut’s face, staring out at the reader in mute despair.


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1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
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
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 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
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War 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?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

Good God, this is a great read! What a thrilling, compelling, exciting and wonder-working story.

Rama appears

It is 2031. Humanity has spread out to colonise some of the planets of the solar system and to conduct trade across much of it. We have realised by this stage that the system is crossed y hundreds of thousands of asteroids, meteors and comets travelling through it.

But a new one is spotted, that is spinning so fast (with a rotation period of 4 minutes) and then, upon closer investigation, is so symmetrical in shape, that astronomers conclude it must have been made by intelligent life. Since, as Clarke sardonically remarks, astronomers long ago ran out of names from the Greek and Roman pantheons with which to name heavenly bodies, they are now well into Hindu mythology, and that is why the unknown object is christened ‘Rama’, after the seventh avatar of the god Vishnu.

The solar survey vessel Endeavour captained by Commander Bill Norton is diverted from its scheduled route to go and investigate and so – fairly quickly, only 20 or so pages into the text – Norton and his crew come gingerly to rest on one end of an absolutely enormous metal cylinder, some 20 kilometres (12 mile) in diameter and 54 kilometres (34 miles) long.

With his trademark attention to scientific detail and the practicalities of physics, Clarke follows Norton and his crew as they almost immediately locate a ‘wheel’ embedded in one of the three large ‘studs’ which stick out of the otherwise vast smooth surface of the ‘end’ they’ve landed on.

Inside Rama

When Norton touches the wheel it lifts away from the stud and when he turns it… a side of the stud opens to reveal an entrance. It gives onto a long tunnel, which ends in another door with a control wheel, another tunnel, another door – a system of triple airlocks, with the final one opening into the interior of Rama, a vast empty cylinder which is so large, and is spinning at such speed, that the inside surface has gravity and on it appear to be various buildings.

Norton and the men and women of his crew realise that each of the three ‘studs’ must contain the airlocks and tunnels, because they can see two other doorways cut into the surface they can now see. From each of them a ladder stretches out across the surface of the gently curving ‘end’ towards the sides or ‘floor’ of the vast cylinder. After a few kilometers the ladders change into steps, a vast staircase which leads eventually down onto the smooth interior of the ‘floor’ which is, of course, cylindrical i.e. if you set off along the circumference you would eventually end up back where you belong. But due to the gravity imparted by Rama‘s spin, once on the ‘floor’ your body thinks it is a flat surface.

For the first hundred pages the teams navigate the ladders and steps, bring in equipment, set up a base at the foot of ‘their’ steps, then set out to explore the world more. Notable features include that it is warm, the air is breatheable if musty, but it appears uninhabited and completely lifeless.

One team arrives at the most striking feature of all which is a great central ‘sea’ which runs in a ten kilometer-wide band around the centre of the world, dividing it in two (p.41). Far away in the distance, at the south of the cylinder, on the ‘top’ or flat surface opposite the one they’ve come in by, they can see a set of six long, thin cones surrounding a truly massive one (which they name ‘the Big Horn’) which they speculate might be something to do with the propulsion system.

As in the best Clarke books,  the laws of physics, astrophysics and so on are rigorously adhered to and thoroughly explained. They provide the underpinning for everything that happens.

Surprises

But at the same time Clarke carefully paces the book (250 pages long in the Orion paperback version) to fill it with mounting suspense. At regular intervals there come great shocks or twists in the story which take the reader – and the crew of the Endeavour – by surprise.

Light

Thus the early spying out of the interior is done by means of enormous floodlights which the Endeavour conveniently is carrying. It is a great shock to the crew when suddenly… the lights go on. And we all realise that the six deep ‘canals’ which run the length Rama and which appeared to have ice or some frozen substance along their bottoms, are in fact Raman flood lights.

Storms

Then, as the atmosphere slowly warms up as Rama‘s trajectory through the solar system takes her closer and closer to the sun, Clarke gives a perfect example of the way he conceives the most dramatic twists, but based entirely on real scientific principles. One of the earth experts who are monitoring the crew’s mission, Carlisle Perrera, points out that… they should expect cyclones. Given the ship’s spin, and the fact the air is warming up, and that there is a central sea to provide moisture… well, they just better get out of it as soon as possible. Initially sceptical, Norton feels a breeze on his cheeks and orders the immediate evacuation. They take all the equipment they can and withdraw behind the airlock for 48 hours.

When they re-enter Rama it is to discover that it has clouds and a climate.

Sky bike

The longest thread or sequence concerns one of the crew members Jimmy Pak, who has smuggled onto the Endeavour one of the low-gravity sky bikes which he is a noted champion for riding on Mars. You lie in its very fragile, very frail balsa wood structure with gossamer fine wings and pedal a bicycle wheel which works a light propeller.

He now suggests to Commander Norton that he sets out dead centre to the axis of Rama (where he will have no gravity) and rides fragile his bike (aptly named Dragonfly) all the way to the south end. Norton agrees. In fact, being Clarke the author explains that Pak will actually get more traction on the air if he cycles a little off the central axis and so has a modicum of gravitational pull to help stabilise the bike.

He takes a camera and radio and reports back to Norton what he (and the reader) are seeing. It takes some hours but he gets right to the end and is floating around the vast central cone which sticks out miles into the centre of Ramas atmosphere when, by an unfortunate coincidence, he realises it is projecting a magnetic field, and then sees flicker of flames.

The experts back on earth who are monitoring everything via an audiovisual link tell the team that Rama is making a manoeuvre, altering the angle of its approach to the sun. Obviously whatever energies are achieving this are creating fireworks on the cones. They tell Pak to get the hell out of there. He gets a fair distance before there is a big discharge and the airwaves smash his sky bike like matchsticks. Very slowly but irrevocably it starts its long descent to the ‘floor’ beneath, with Pak furiously cycling to see if he can make it back across the Central Sea.

He doesn’t. It crashes. He is knocked out.

Robots

When he regains consciousness he sees a giant metal crab snuffling round him. It takes Pak a while to realise that it is some kind of robot and that it appears to have the task of collecting litter and detritus. It picks up the wreckage of Pak’s bike and slings it into a basket on its back. Pak follows it as it locates, chops up and stores all other metal bric-à-brac it finds before it makes its way to a huge circular hole with water at the bottom. It tips the trash into it and scuttles off. Pak watches as distant things surface from the murky water below and seize the trash.

He makes his way through a landscape of ‘fields’ clearly divided form each other but each put to bizarre uses, some covered in metal, or metal grilles, some with black and white squares, nothing to do with agriculture in our sense, although Pak does spot something which looks like an earth ‘flower’ and (rashly) plucks it – only to have it shrivel in his hand.

Norton has been planning a rescue attempt ever since Pak got into trouble. Another member of the crew, Sergeant Ruby Barnes, is an experienced sailor. She is able to rig up a craft with an improvised motor which should be able to make it across the Central Sea. Norton and others climb aboard.

The team’s biologist, Surgeon-Commander Laura Ernst, had taken samples of the Cylindrical Sea and discovered that, while it is water, it is packed with minerals, metal traces and poisons, making a kind of ‘organic soup’. Emphatically not to be drunk, preferably not even touched.

This makes it tricky when the rescue boat arrives at the other side because of a phenomenon they’d all observed but no-one can explain. Whereas the cliff from the ‘land’ down to the sea’s surface is only 50 metres on their side (they call their side the ‘north’ side), on the other side it is ten times as high, 500 metres. Huge.

The parachute

They discuss various ways that Pak might get down, until one of the earth scientists makes another, very realistic practical Clarkean observation. With gravity about a fifth of earth Pak can probably get by with simply using his shirt as a parachute. So, commending his soul to the lord Pak jumps off and, to everyone’s relief, it works and he sails gently down into the sea, admittedly landing in the toxic water a little way.The crew quickly get him out and wipe him down

Tidal wave

Half way back to the ‘north’ side the crew spot a terrifying thing. For some reason a wave seems to be moving across the sea, starting at a point over their heads, but moving fast. It is, they speculate, maybe the beginning of a ‘tide’, much as the heating of the atmosphere caused storms. Or maybe was caused when Rama made the course correction which caused the sparking and detonation which wrecked Pak’s sky bike.

Anyway, it looks like it will hit them before they can get to the other side. The sailor is quick witted and notices that the mountainous frothing wave gives way to shallow bump when it passes over the shallows. Clearly the bottom of the sea is very irregular. Noticing structures close to the surface, Barnes navigates to a shallow area, and the wave passes harmlessly past them.

And here again they see a strange looking nine-spoked wheel emerge from the disturbed sea, and then watch as it, too, is dismantled by a horde of tiny other little aquatic ‘creatures’. the place is pulsing with life but none of it organic.

Biots

As this summary shows, we don’t meet any Ramans. There are no alien encounters and shootouts with ray guns. Almost all the perils and dangers the crew face are the result of basic physical laws and some of the inexplicable behaviour of the inside of the ship.

This changes a bit when the crew wake to find bits of their camp dismantled and moved about. Looking down onto the plain they realise that it is now covered with moving objects. One of them is discovered damaged near the camp. It is three-legged, like a tripod with a football at the top. Upon inspection it appears to be partly organic, part machine, powered by a sort of organic cell. These along with the crab Pak saw, are obviously forms of robot carrying out maintenance tasks on Rama.

But where are the Ramans, the designers of it all?

Templates

As soon as the big lights had come on the crew had realised that the interior of Rama was dotted by clusters of buildings, which they referred to as cities and jokingly named London, Paris and so on with pride of place given to the cluster of buildings located on land within the great Central Sea. When they had investigated any of the cities they were puzzled by the ‘buildings’ which were building-shaped alright but had no windows or doors or even break between themselves and the metal floor.

The explorers’ time on Rama is running out. During the three weeks they’ve been there it has travelled from near the orbit of Jupiter to approach Mercury on what appears to be a journey which will take it close to the sun.

Commander Norton decides it is time to ‘break in’ to some of these buildings. They go to the nearest city, which they’ve named London and use a laser to cut a way into one of the buildings. Inside they see a formal array of pillars of what looks like crystal stretching away. On closer examination they realise each one contains a sort of hologram image of an artifact. Slowly they realise they must be tools, maybe even eating utensils and, the most thought-provoking find, what appears to be an item of clothing, which appears to have straps and pockets.

Threes. The Ramans do everything in threes or multiples of three. There were three airlocks into the interior. there are six enormous long fluorescent strips running the length of the ship. The biot they found had tripod legs. And now this uniform looks like it is designed for something with three arms. Hmmm.

Could it be that these holograms are the stored record of items which can be manufactured at will out of the ingredients found in the Central Sea? That the proliferation of biots they saw suddenly appearing are manufactured by this process, and anything which is damaged, lost or consumed is chucked back into the sea which thus provides an eternal source of everything necessary to build and maintain this world?

Time to leave

Anyway, other members of the crew report that the biots seem to be returning to the Central Sea, and they all notice that the six gigantic striplights which illuminate Rama’s interior are beginning to dim. Time to pack up and leave and go back aboard the Endeavour. Not without quite a bit of frustration on everyone’s part that they have seen so much, and seen so much and yet… haven’t even scratched the surface, are left understanding nothing.

The Hermian conspiracy

Right at the end there is a bit of ‘thriller’ content, an utterly man-made peril. All through the book we have been cutting away to meetings of the specially set-up Rama Committee consisting of members of ‘the United Planets’ i.e. representatives from all the colonised planets and moons.

The Hermian colonists have been sharp and aggressive throughout and withdrew altogether from the Committee a few episodes earlier. They consider that Rama might establish itself in an orbit just inside that of Mercury and use this position ‘to dominate the solar system’.

Now Endeavour‘s crew detect a rocket carrying a nuclear weapon approaching Rama. They receive a warning from the government of Mercury (the Hermians, from Hermes, Greek name for the Roman god Mercury) telling them they have an hour to get away before the bomb is detonated. Norton is appalled at this act of barbarism against an object he has come to deeply respect.

Again Clarke uses his knowledgeability about basic physics to have one of the crew members, Lieutenant Boris Rodrigo (‘the quiet, dignified communications officer’, p.66), point out that there is a significant time delay for radio signals to pass from Mercury to the rocket, about five minutes. This would give him about ten minutes to putter out to the rocket on his jet ‘scooter’ and disarm it before the Hermians have time to react. Even if they see him approaching the rocket using a little jet-propelled pod and press detonate, that signal will take five minutes to travel back.

In other words he should have time to propel himself out to rocket and cut the cables activating the bomb. If his jet propellent works properly. If he succeeds in securing himself to the bomb quickly. If he can find the right cables. if he can cut them.

Clarke ratchets up the tension with thriller-style suspense here at the end but, of course, Rodrigo succeeds, and the Hermians are covered in vituperation from the rest of the United Planets. Not only does Rodrigo disarm the bomb, but he cuts the cable securing its radio antenna, so that it can no longer receive any signals from Mercury. And then he very slowly uses the small amount of propellant the ‘scooter’ has to redirect the missile and then push it slowly away from the sun. It is now set on a trajectory to take it away from the sun and out of the solar system (although it will, admittedly, take it several thousand years).

(It is no coincidence that Rodrigo is picked for this job. He is a Cosmo-Christer,follower of a form of Christianity which has updated itself for the space age.)

Ave atque vale

Endeavour activates its engines and steers away from Rama initially using its cone of shadow to protect it from the sun to which they are both now uncomfortably near.

Since it was detected human scientists have been speculating about whether it intended to contact earth, to slow down and ‘visit’ one or other of the planets, or adopt a permanent orbit round the sun. But right to the end Rama maintains its complete indifference to humanity. As it reaches its closest point to the sun it changes direction, using the sun’s gravitational field and its own mysterious ‘space drive’ to accelerate on out the other side of the solar system, heading towards an unknown destination in the direction of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a mystery to the end.

An artist's impression of the interior of Rama

Of the many available images I think this artist’s impression of the interior of Rama best conveys the scale but also the barrenness of Clarke’s conception

Captain Cook

The spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey is named Discovery. In Rama the central spaceship is named Endeavour. These are both names of ships led by Captain Cook in his famous three voyages around the Pacific. On page 89 we learn that Commander Norton is not only a fan of Captain Cook, and has read everything he wrote, but has turned himself ‘into probably the world’s leading authority on the greatest explorer of all time’. No surprise, then, that when they’re wondering what to christen the makeshift dinghy they’ve knocked up to sail on the great Cylindrical sea, they come up with Resolution, the name of another of Cook’s ships. And again, after Norton has received the threatening ultimatum from Mercury telling him to take the Endeavour clear of Rama before the Hermians detonate the nuclear bomb, there is a page when he is alone in his cabin looking at his portrait of Captain Cook, communing with the old explorer’s spirit, while he tries to decide what to do: obey the simple order and let Rama be obliterated, or act on his instinct to preserve and save it. Cook’s spirit of tolerance and scientific enquiry prevails. Norton gives the order for Rodrigo to set out on his Rama-saving mission.

Clarke writes from an era when one could give unqualified praise to the great white male heroes of the past. Having been to two exhibitions about Captain Cook this year, I know that this, along with many of Clarke’s other views, no matter how reasonable, now seem very dated.

Audiobook

YouTube has a number of readings of the entire book. This sounds like the best one.


Related links

Arthur C. Clarke reviews

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

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Marx: Surveys from Exile 1848-1863

Back in the left-wing, strike-ridden 1970s, Penguin launched a standard edition of the works of Marx and Engels. It was produced in collaboration with New Left Review magazine (founded in 1960 as a forum for new left cultural and political debate, and still going strong in 2018 – New Left Review).

Marx wrote a lot: he was, after all, a freelance journalist by trade. Articles, pamphlets, books, historical studies, economic theory, introductions to other people’s books, political commentary, speeches, as well as a copious correspondence poured from his pen.

Penguin assembled some of this into three volumes devoted to Marx’s ‘political writings’ i.e. the shorter, more ephemeral pieces combined with the handful of book-length commentaries he wrote on contemporary events.

This is Volume Two of the political writings, covering the years from 1848 – after Marx was forced to flee the continent in light of the failed revolutions in Germany and France of that year – through to 1863, half way through the American Civil War. Fifteen years of writing and thinking.

The shorter pieces are:

  • a book review and eight articles about contemporary politics in Britain
  • four articles about India (specifically the Indian Mutiny of 1857)
  • one about China
  • two about the American Civil War
  • a speech celebrating the anniversary of The People’s Paper
  • a ‘proclamation’ on Poland for the German Workers Educational Association

But the lion’s share of the book (250 of its 370 pages) is taken up by Marx’s two seminal works of contemporary political analysis, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 (four separate newspaper articles published in Germany in 1850 and spliced together into book form by Engels) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (written as newspaper articles between December 1851 and March 1852).

These works represent Marx’s most sustained attempts to apply the theories about class conflict and the ‘inevitable’ triumph of the industrial proletariat over the capital-owning bourgeoisie, which he had laid out in The Communist Manifesto of early 1848, to specific contemporary historical events in France.

The book benefits from a very focused, densely intellectual introduction by the Marxist scholar David Fernbach.

Five levels

Marx is always very readable, and often a very enjoyable read. However, assessing the validity / importance / relevance of what he wrote is very difficult, for a number of reasons. As I read through the book, I realised that there are at least five distinct levels at play, or five areas to be aware of:

  1. Historical facts All the texts refer to historical events. You can’t really understand the essays unless you have a good grasp of the actual events he’s analysing. Wikipedia is the obvious first stop.
  2. Marx’s interpretation Clearly the essays themselves present Marx’s interpretation of historical events, an interpretation which sees them all in terms of the struggle between the industrial proletariat and the capitalist bourgeoisie (in western countries) and interprets events further afield (in India or China) insofar as those countries are ruled or dominated by western imperialist nations and are being dragged into the international capitalist system.
  3. Fernbach’s interpretation Fernbach is a very knowledgeable Marx scholar. His introduction gives the context to each piece before going on, very candidly, to assess their strengths and weaknesses. In other words, as you read them, you should bear Fernbach’s comments in mind (or frequently refer back to them, as I did).
  4. Stedman Jones I have just finished reading Gareth Stedman Jones’s vast and hugely erudite biography of Marx. The difference between Fernbach and Stedman is the difference in perspective between 1973 and 2016. Jones gives a more thorough account of the actual historical events than Fernbach has room to do, and also presents Marx’s texts in the context of his other writings and with regard to the controversies he was involved in with other, rival, socialist writers and thinkers. I deal with Stedman Jones’s interpretation of this period and these essays in a separate blog post.
  5. A rhetorical reading Marx was a very rhetorical writer. In his student days he wanted to be a poet (who didn’t?) and in his adult prose he deploys quite a range of rhetorical devices, from biting satire, to crisp antitheses, to sprawling lists, to withering personal abuse – all of which make his prose surprisingly fun to read, or at least, a pleasure to analyse. I deal with Marx’s prose style in a separate blog.

Levels 1, 2 and 3 in more detail

1. Historical facts

The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte give Marx’s interpretation of the extremely complicated sequence of political events in France between early 1848 and December 1851, the period of the ill-fated Second Republic.

Briefly, in February 1848 popular discontent reached a head when King Louis Philippe banned the ‘banqueting clubs’ under cover of which, for several years, radicals had been taking the opportunity to lambast the ineffectiveness of the king’s economic policy which, combined with a depression of 1847, had led to large-scale poverty and unemployment.

A particularly provocative banquet had been planned in a working class part of Paris for 21 February and, when it was banned, on 22 February, Parisians took to the streets and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Guizot. Guizot did in fact resign the next day but, as a large crowd gathered outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to celebrate, it was fired on by soldiers, leaving over 50 dead.

Parisians erected barricades, lit fires, marched on the royal palace with vengeance in mind. As a result of the escalating chaos, Louis Philippe abdicated and fled to England.

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

Lamartine (the slender figure in the middle standing on a green chair) in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag in favour of the patriotic tricolour, on 25 February 1848 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

Louis Philippe was replaced on 26 February by a provisional government which announced the formation of the ‘Second Republic’. (The First Republic dated from when the French revolutionaries deposed King Louis XIV in 1792, until Napoleon declared himself emperor, in 1804.)

This led to a very complex sequence of events: the provisional government scheduled elections for March 1848, declaring universal male suffrage, and thus creating at a stroke an electorate of nine million voters. National Workshops were set up to provide work for the urban unemployed, the brainchild of the socialist Louis Blanc. Taxes were levied on rural voters (mostly the peasants) in order to subsidise these workshops, profoundly alienating them from the republic. When the national elections went ahead in April, the nine million voters elected a mainly conservative administration.

As 1848 progressed, the early hope of radicals were crushed as the elected government showed itself to be surprisingly reactionary, banning free association and introducing draconian press laws, etc. In May a crowd of Parisian workmen invaded the National Constituent Assembly and proclaimed a new Provisional Government. They were quickly suppressed by the National Guard and the leaders of the revolt imprisoned.

As you might expect, this attempt at a coup united the factions of the bourgeoisie into a ‘Party of Order’ which decided to close the much-hated National Workshops on 21 June. This would have ended the dole being given to some 100,000 unemployed Parisian working men, and so the decision sparked the ‘June Days’, when up to 170,000 working class people set up barricades all across Paris in opposition to the decision. The government put General Louis Eugène Cavaignac, fresh back from the conquest of Algeria, in charge of the Mobile Guard and the National Guard with orders to crush the rebellion and take the barricades. Which they did, with thousands of lives lost.

The working classes were defeated: up to 3,000 were killed and in the months that followed some 15,000 were sent to prison, including the main leaders of the proletariat. The June Days marked the exit of the working classes from the political activity of the Second Republic.

The political forces in the National Assembly realigned to maximise the Party of Order and to isolate any radical or working class factions. Cavaignac was appointed head of state, a position he held from June until 10 December 1848, when a full presidential election was held. Cavaignac was one of the four candidates who stood for the presidency but to everyone’s surprise the winner was a complete outsider, the semi-comical figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (nephew of the great general, Napoleon) who got 5,587,759 vote, compared with 1,474,687 votes for Cavaignac, and 370,000 votes for Ledru-Rollin (the candidate of the left).

Louis-Napoléon was a comic figure because he had been sent into exile as a boy after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, had done a variety of undignified odd jobs (working for a while as a police constable in London) but most notoriously, tried a few ridiculous coups, attempting to rally barracks full of soldiers behind his (and his uncle’s names) both times being easily defeated and, after the second attempt, in Boulogne, in 1840, imprisoned for 6 years.

Marx’s two long essays detail the convoluted political manoeuvring which took place from 1848, throughout 1849, 1850 and 1851, and in particular the two years leading up to ‘president’ Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte staging a coup in December 1851, declaring himself sole ruler of France, a position he consolidated when he formally took the throne as Napoleon III in December 1852.

This historical period in France thus saw a huge narrative arc from the revolutionary optimism of February 1848, through the bloody insurrection of June 1848, on to the surprise election of Louis Napoléon, and then to two years of cynical manoeuvring and backstabbing, which led to the utter failure of radical hopes and the seizure of power by a comic-book character whose empire represented the triumph of all the reactionary forces in French society.

Three things are going on in these two long essays.

1. Actual history It is impossible to understand them unless you have read a very good account of the actual historical events elsewhere because, although Marx often descends to day-by-day analysis, he assumes the reader already knows the story, so he is constantly alluding to historical characters, twists and turns in the story, which you have to know already.

2. Applying theory to reality From the point of view of understanding Marx’s theory, the obvious thing about both these long texts is that in them Marx was trying to apply the purely theoretical principles of his abstract texts, like The Communist Manifesto, to actual contemporary history.

To the reader who is not an expert in Marxist theory, the most obvious result of this is that, whereas in the Manifesto, and elsewhere, Marx and Engels confidently write about just two classes – the fiendish bourgeoisie which is reducing an ever-growing number of the population to utter poverty as part of the industrial proletariat – in the two French essays Marx is forced to concede that there are in fact lots of classes or political groups or factions or interests at work in France.

The immensely complicated squabbling of the Assembly and its deputies, the turnover of different administrations, the management of violence in the streets between mob, militia and army, the numerous newspapers and pamphleteers supporting various sides – in order to make sense of this kaleidoscope of events, Marx has to abandon the simple bourgeois-proletariat dichotomy of his theoretical writings and invent a raft of new ‘classes’ or class interests. these include:

  • the financial bourgeoisie – the bankers and stock market speculators, who were the ultimate seat of power
  • the industrial bourgeoisie – whose wealth and income are dependent upon the production and sale of goods, and weren’t numerous enough to seize power by themselves
  • the petty bourgeoisie – shopkeepers, teachers, generally conservative in tendency
  • the Montagne (or the Democratic Socialists) named after the similar group who came to prominence in the 1790s revolution, in 1848 this faction of the National Assembly came to represent the petty bourgeoisie
  • numerous types of royalist:
    • legitimists, or Bourbonists – who wanted the return of Louis XVIII, overthrown in 1830
    • Orleanists – who wanted the restoration of Louis-Philippe, descended from the Orleans branch of the royal family, hence their name

Marx has to account for the fact that a lot of the ‘street’, the rough elements of the Paris working classes, voted against their own interests when they voted for – and defended in street fighting – the ludicrous Louis Napoléon.

Obviously this can’t be the class-conscious proletariat of his theoretical writings, so he has to invent a new group, the lumpenproletariat (a term which Marx, apparently, invented), meaning worthless drunks and wastrels. Unlike the ‘heroic’ proletariat, the lumpenproletariat will follow anyone who offers them free beer and cigars, which Louis-Napoléon does. In fact Napoleon actually set up an organisation specially, called the December 10 Club – members becoming known as the ‘Decembrists’.

To the list above should be added the large ‘agrarian interest’ which Marx finds he needs to account for the fact that rural voters numbers more than all the urban classes put together. He divides the ‘agrarian interest’ into two great factions:

  • the wealthy landowners who had dominated French society from the Middle Ages down until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, small in number, big in power, but being squeezed out of representative assemblies by the urban bourgeoisie
  • the peasants – the largest single group in French society, who gave the decisive support to Louis Napoleon in the 1848 election

(As an aside: giving the vote to all adult males may have sounded progressive to Paris radicals but they forgot, like so many radicals in so many countries down to our own time – that the majority of the population does not want a violent and drastic overthrow of all existing social structures and values. They just want a return to prosperity, jobs and security, and will vote for whoever promises it, from Louis-Napoléon to Donald Trump).

The net effect of this proliferation of names and factions is that Marx is sometimes in danger of sounding like just any other historian, simply describing a complex world of multiple factions and interests. In order to maintain his separateness from being ‘just another chronicler’, he is at pains to continually remind the reader of the various groupings’ relationships to types of capital, the economic lynchpin of his entire theory (for example, in the distinction he makes between the industrial and the financial bourgeoisie). Quite often the proliferation of terms Marx is inventing gets very confusing.

Whether he convinces you that his fine-sounding socio-economic theories can be applied to complex contemporary history, is a judgement call every reader must make for themselves.

3. Wrong predictions As Both Fernbach and Stedman Jones point out, all Marx’s predictions in these texts turned out to be wrong. The revolutionary hopes triggered by the events of 1848 proved utterly illusory. Louis-Napoléon consolidated his grip on power and there followed ten years of relative prosperity, from which peasants and workers, as well as the bourgeoisie, industrial and financial, all benefited (there was an economic slump in the late 1850s which caused discontent but the emperor managed to weather it).

A slow legalisation of trade unions allowed working men into the power structures of the state. In fact, it was to be 22 long years before a situation remotely like the 1848 days reoccurred, when the workers rose up in the Paris Commune of 1871 – and that only happened because the disastrous Franco-Prussian War had caused the collapse of peacetime government in Paris – and even then the Commune only lasted a month or so before being brutally crushed.

2. Marx’s interpretation of French politics 1848-1852

1. Truth and reality

Putting to one side the difficulty Marx has in matching simplistic theory to complex reality, and the fact that history was to prove all of Marx’s predictions wrong – nonetheless these two books are rich in ideas, some of which only make sense within the realm of Marxist-Leninist discourse, but others which are open to anyone regardless of political orientation, and are very thought-provoking.

Take the opening page of The Eighteenth Brumaire:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past. The tradition of all the generations of the dead weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem involved in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never before existed, it is precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis that they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow names, battle cries and costumes from them in order to act out the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language. (p.146)

This is a richly metaphorical language: conjuring up spirits, costumes and disguises, it invokes a world of theatre and drama. But the actual idea expressed is simple and profound: we humans are free but not completely free; we are able to make our own lives and times, but that freedom is massively constrained by the accumulation of all the human history leading up to us.

This short passage also introduces an idea which is central to the Brumaire in particular, which is the distinction between mask and reality, disguise and true identity.

Previous historians had tended to take politicians, kings and diplomats at their word, or to point out where they were ‘lying’, by contrasting their words with other versions of events, other people’s statements and so on. For Marx all this is skating on the surface of things; he envisions a much bigger, much deeper sense of the notion of masks or disguises.

Because throughout his work Marx develops the notion that human culture is the contingent product of a particular stage of economic and technological development: it doesn’t float freely as the beautiful thoughts of ‘great’ thinkers and artists; human culture is profoundly influenced, determined and constrained by the social arrangements of the society which produces it, which are in turn dictated by the technological and economic base of that society.

A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arises on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence. The whole class creates and forms these out of its material foundations and the corresponding social relations of a people.

Note the word ‘illusions’. Especially in the modern bourgeois society of his time, maybe more than ever before, the ruling class was at pains to conceal the reality of their power and their program beneath high-sounding ideals. For Marx the mask isn’t a small, trivial thing which some individual politicians hide behind – it is the huge facade of fake ‘values’ and ‘morality’ which an entire class hides behind in order to conceal its control of production and distribution, which is in turn based on the exploitation of the proletariat.

This is why Marx is dismissive of parliamentary democracy: it is a smokescreen, a facade of high-sounding verbiage which conceals the economic i.e. class-based realities of society. It gives the population the ‘illusion’ of having some kind of control over events, when events are controlled behind the scenes by the ruling class. Class struggles cannot be solved in the parliamentary arena. He dismisses the belief that they can, with characteristic brusqueness, as ‘parliamentary cretinism’.

Similarly, in the writings about India and China, Marx points out that the entire rhetoric of imperialism, all the discourse about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the French mission civilisatrice were humbug, cant and lies designed by the imperialists to hide from their own peoples (and even from themselves) the brutal reality of the conquest and rape of far-off lands.

This explains the consistent tone of irony & sarcasm found throughout Marx’s writings, because it is so obvious to him that everything a king or ruling politician or their pet journalists say or write is a lie designed to conceal the true basis of their rule in a system which methodically exploits the labour of the working poor (or foreign peoples). Marx’s attitude is that of course they would say that, publish that, declare that – all lies lies lies to distract from their real economic and financial interests.

And this is why his sarcasm rises to such heights of vituperation whenever he describes the impostor Louis-Napoléon, because his rise and rule is a kind of climax of lies and deceptions. Louis-Napoléon claimed to rule ‘for all the people’, hence his success with the peasantry who were largely responsible for voting him into power – but Marx almost bursts with frustration at the obviousness of the way this preposterous fraud in the event ruled solely to protect and promote the interests of the bourgeoisie.

To some extent it may be due to the relatively limited number of metaphors available to a writer in the 1840s, but nonetheless it is striking how consistently Marx applies metaphors of the stage, of the drama, of acting, of masks and disguises and conjuring, to all the reactionary elements in society – to the crown, the various elements of the bourgeoisie, their paid lackeys in the press and so on.

For the entire duration of its rule, for as long as it gave its grand performance of state on the proscenium, an unbroken sacrificial feast was being staged in the background – the continual sentencing by courts–martial of the captured June insurgents or their deportation without trial.

Bonaparte, on horseback, mustered a part of the troops on the Place de la Concorde; Changarnier play-acted with a display of strategic manoeuvres; the Constituent Assembly found its building occupied by the military.

In this great comedy of intrigues the Montagne showed its lack of revolutionary energy and political understanding…

June 1849, was not a bloody tragedy between wage labor and capital, but a prison-filling and lamentable play of debtors and creditors.

And Louis-Napoléon especially is seen as the arch actor.

An old, crafty roué, Louis Napoleon conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade in which the grand costumes, words, and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery. (p.197)

At a moment when the bourgeoisie itself played the most complete comedy, but in the most serious manner in the world, without infringing any of the pedantic conditions of French dramatic etiquette, and was itself half deceived, half convinced of the solemnity of its own performance of state, the adventurer, who took the comedy as plain comedy, was bound to win. Only when he has eliminated his solemn opponent, when he himself now takes his imperial role seriously and under the Napoleonic mask imagines he is the real Napoleon, does he become the victim of his own conception of the world, the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history. (p.198)

All these groups and factions in society are associated with play-acting, because the only class which can strip away the lies and confront the economic and power realities of the day, is the proletariat.

The proletariat is the cure for the disease of endless amateur dramatics which characterised the brief Second Republic (1848-1852). Quite apart from all the economic, social and moral benefits which the revolution will bring, the triumph of the proletariat will also be the triumph of Truth over acting.

France now possessed a Napoleon side by side with a Montagne, proof that both were only the lifeless caricatures of the great realities whose names they bore. Louis Napoleon, with the emperor’s hat and the eagle, parodied the old Napoleon no more miserably than the Montagne, with its phrases borrowed from 1793 and its demagogic poses, parodied the old Montagne. Thus the traditional 1793 superstition was stripped off at the same time as the traditional Napoleon superstition. The revolution had come into its own only when it had won its own, its original name, and it could do that only when the modern revolutionary class, the industrial proletariat, came dominatingly into its foreground.

2. Marx’s political analysis

So Marx’s analysis is based on the idea that all of the jostling factions which contested power in France after the fall of Louis-Philippe in February 1848 represented class interests which can be defined by their economic and commercial situations.

The ordinary ‘liberal’ historian analyses the clashing parties of the Second Republic according to their stated aims and values: the radicals want ‘equality’, the royalists talk about ‘legitimacy’, the financial bourgeoisie and the industrial bourgeoisie for a while ally together to create ‘the party of Order’ which wants precisely that, and so on.

Marx spent 100 densely-written pages showing that they are all living a lie. Whatever airy values, customs and traditions they invoke (he singles out ‘property, family, religion and law’ as the siren call of the hypocritical bourgeoisie), each of these groups represents its own financial interests: the royalists want a return of the king so they can get back their cushy jobs in the administration; the industrial bourgeoisie wants better terms of credit and trade; the financial bourgeoisie is happy to see a kleptocratic president elected since he has to borrow off them at high interest rates.

And, when the republicans made the fateful decision of instituting universal suffrage, effectively handing power to the peasants, the largest single group in France, they, in their rural ignorance (Marx doesn’t like peasants) voted for the most deceitful idea of all, for simple-minded conservative values and the gloire they associated with the venerable name of Napoleon.

Economics

Marx also digs deeper into the broader economic and trade context of these years, to point out that the late 1840s saw an agricultural crisis caused by the potato blight, a financial crisis caused by the end of Britain’s railway boom, and an industrial crisis caused by temporary over-production of cotton goods. All these added urgency to the motivation of the differing elements of the bourgeoisie in 1848 and 1849.

Marx highlights the way that France’s economy (as the economies of most of Europe) was dependent on Britain in its role as workshop and financial centre of world capitalism: Britain sneezes, Europe catches a cold, and that was certainly among the causes of the initial unrest in France in early 1848.

Marx interprets the Second Republic as maybe the most suitable form of government for the French bourgeoisie, because it allowed the varying factions within it to thrash out their differences without violence. But nothing in Marx is that straightforward; he rarely makes a formulation without going on to turn it into a paradox – something Fernbach takes to be the application of his ‘dialectical’ thinking but which the neutral reader might be tempted to think was just an addition to witty paradoxes and pithy phrase-making.

For although the republic created a safe environment for business to proceed, unhampered by the often unpredictable monarchy of Louis Phillippe, it also (alas) let other classes of society into power (the petty bourgeoisie and the working classes) thus creating a new set of problems and power dynamics for the bourgeoisie to manage.

Universal suffrage had allowed the backward peasantry to elect Louis-Napoléon president, as a result of which universal suffrage was promptly repealed by the conservative National Assembly, but too late. His huge mandate added to an unstable economic and political situation by creating with two centres of power, a National Assembly clothing itself in the rhetoric of liberty (which in fact wanted to restrict the suffrage and close down the National Workshops and make France safe for business) and a president who clothed himself in the rhetoric of empire and grandeur, but in fact relied on the arms and support of the lumpenproletariat in Paris and the conservative peasants beyond it to remain in power.

It’s the instability of this situation which makes for a very complicated story, as all of the competing sides put forward laws, made political moves, tried to redraft the constitution, called their supporters out onto the streets, and so on, for the three years from Louis-Napoléon’s election in December 1848 to his coup in December 1851.

At a deep, psychological level, the chancer and trickster Louis-Napoléon was able to gain power because he represented everything to everyone.

At a practical level, Marx’s hundred pages are devoted to cataloguing the excruciatingly long, drawn-out sequence of political manouevring which created the conditions for Louis-Napoléon to carry out his coup in December 1851 (basically all his opponents fought themselves to a stalemate, leaving Louis-Napoléon as almost the only centre of viable authority left standing).

But at the beginning, middle and end of these essays Marx has continually to explain away the fact that the proletarian revolution which he and Engels expected any day, not only didn’t happen, but that its polar opposite – a capital-friendly empire – was put in place.

Marx’s basic excuse is that France wasn’t economically advanced enough. The industrial proletariat was in a distinct minority, outnumbered in the cities by the petty bourgeoisie (shop-keepers, teachers, junior lawyers and so on) and in the countryside by the peasants, who made up the vast majority of the French population. In a nutshell, France wasn’t ready.

The struggle against capital in its developed, modern form – in its decisive aspect, the struggle of the
industrial wage worker against the industrial bourgeois – is in France a partial phenomenon, which after the February days could so much the less supply the national content of the revolution, since the struggle against capital’s secondary modes of exploitation, that of the peasant against usury and mortgages or of the petty bourgeois against the wholesale dealer, banker, and manufacturer – in a word, against bankruptcy – was still hidden in the general uprising against the finance aristocracy.

Nonetheless, Marx claims that the confusing and short life of the Second Republic was a ‘necessary’ stage on the pathway to revolution:

  • It was necessary for the various elements of the Party of Order (the two types of royalists, the two types of bourgeoisie) to fall out with each other and help make the National Assembly so ineffectual that almost everyone was relieved when Louis Napoleon stepped in and dissolved it in December 1851.
  • It was necessary for the proletariat to be politicised in the street fighting of June 1848 (which they very bloodily lost) because it taught them that they needed greater numbers and strength to win eventual victory.
  • It was necessary for the peasants to vote for Louis-Napoléon so that they could become bitterly disillusioned by his inability to solve the deep structural problems of the French rural economy, disillusioned with the essentially bourgeois political system, and so prepared them to make an alliance with the urban proletariat when the great day comes.
  • It was necessary for the whole of French society, in other words, to be simplified into the primal antagonism which Marxist theory requires, between the vampire bourgeoisie and its countless helpless victims.

Thus Marx claims that all the tortuous political manouevring of these four years has ‘cleared the stage’ for the next development – The Red Revolution.

The only problem with this entire reading being, of course – that it didn’t. We know that nothing of the sort occurred and that, apart from the historical accident of the Commune, France was never to experience a proletarian revolution, even during the darkest days of the Great War.

Thus, clever though they generally are, Marx’s arguments and analyses often sound like special pleading. His incisive association of particular groups with particular economic and commercial interests is totally persuasive; but his argument that the squabbles among these groups is leading in a pre-determined direction, towards the inevitable victory of the proletariat now reads like science fiction.

The preposterous chancer Louis-Napoléon would in fact remain in power for 19 more years, longer than his famous uncle, and wasn’t toppled by any social revolution from within France but by the completely contingent actions of the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, who wanted to seize Alsace and Lorraine in 1870 as part of his campaign to create a unified Germany, provoked war with France and promptly thrashed the French, capturing Louis-Napoléon and forcing him to abdicate. No dialectical materialism involved.

3. Fernbach’s interpretation of the other essays

Fernbach’s extremely knowledgeable introduction to the book explains the context to each piece before going on to candidly assess the strengths and weaknesses of Marx’s essays. He lists the insights of Marx’s writings, but is also clear where Marx glossed over areas of theory which he and Engels had not yet found a solution for – or where he was just plain wrong.

For example, Fernbach brings out the shortcomings of Marx’s essays about India and China (later in the book). Marx regarded both these vast nations as history-less blank slates on which the European colonisers could write. It was left to Lenin, in his writings about imperialism, to really explain the relationship between the metropolis and the colonies in the European imperialist systems. (Fernbach says Marx has a ‘Europocentric’ perspective, presumably writing before the expression ‘Eurocentric’ had become commonplace on the left.)

Indeed, Marx regarded the European colonising of India and China as a good thing because a) these countries had no history beforehand b) and were trapped in ‘rural idiocy’, in the strait jacket of the caste system and poverty c) Marx insisted that these countries had to develop according to his pre-ordained schema (the ‘textbook course of development’, as he called it, p.150). They had to have bourgeois industrialisation before they would be ready for the revolution of the proletariat, and being conquered and ruled by European nations  was the only way they could move forwards. Hence, in a roundabout way, imperialism was a good thing.

Thus, paradoxically, although he was a vitriolic critic of the brutally exploitative rule of European empires, Marx thought the technological and commercial nature of British imperial rule had produced ‘the greatest and, to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia’, while its profit-seeking urges had destroyed the ‘solid foundation of Oriental despotism’ that had ‘restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass’. England may have been ‘actuated only by the vilest interests’ but these were essential for ‘mankind to fulfil its destiny’.

Marx was confident that the modernising forces of empire would end up undermining its own rule: by creating an Indian army, education system, press, and industrial base (with the inevitable industrial proletariat), the imperial rulers would lay the ‘material premises’ for their own downfall – they really would become their own grave-diggers.

The British Empire was, for a Marx, a kind of cruel necessity, which would drag non-European countries into the world system of capitalism, and thus push them quickly towards the promised land of proletarian revolution.

The first part of Marx’s prediction did indeed come to pass i.e. the oppressed Indian nation did rise up to seize the imperial infrastructure of its oppressors, albeit 90 years after Marx was writing about it (1857-1947). However, the Indians did not then proceed to have a proletarian revolution and create a communist society. Very much the reverse.

Pondering these short essays about India from a modern perspective makes you wonder, yet again, at the central paradox of Marx: he was wonderfully insightful about the dynamic power of capitalism in his time, an acute analyst of the way it restructured the means of production and social relationships in industrialised countries, and was completely right to see it as the agent of change and modernisation right around the world, dragging every single nation into the network of capitalist trade and finance – a vision which is as thrillingly global as it is excitingly insightful.

You only have to compare Marx’s writings with those of contemporary ‘thinkers’ – especially in philistine England – like Thomas Carlyle or John Stuart Mill or Benjamin Disraeli to be embarrassed at the obtuse stupidity of their ideas, their absurd vapourings about ‘the superior national character of the British’ or ‘the moral duty of the aristocracy’, and a thousand and one other formulas which all concealed the real commercial and power relationships, between classes and between countries, which Marx makes so dazzlingly clear.

But then, Marx proved to be entirely wrong in predicting that all these developments must inevitably lead to proletarian revolution. It’s 160 years since he wrote these essays about France, a long, long time. Reviewing those 160 years of history, and the events of our day – how ‘capitalism’ has survived two catastrophic world wars and the 70-year opposition of a huge bloc of communist countries, and continues to survive major global banking crises and depressions – makes you suspect that maybe the world will just stick in capitalist mode for the foreseeable future, until environmental calamity rewrites the rules of our tenure on planet earth.

Maybe there only is a capitalist mode; maybe there simply isn’t any viable alternative. Corrupt and cruel though ‘capitalism’ routinely is, maybe this is the only way humans can manage to have industrialised societies. All the evidence of the past 160 years points that way.

The same thought is prompted by the gaggle of Marx’s shorter pieces at the end of the book. Take his optimistic piece on the Chartists which predicted that the extension of universal suffrage would be the precursor to ‘the political supremacy of the working class’. Well… no.

Or the piece entitled Agitation Against the Sunday Trading Bill, where Marx optimistically describes a now long-forgotten mass protest in Hyde Park as the moment when ‘the English revolution began’. Er… nope. As Fernbach candidly comments:

Marx was never able to get to the root of the peculiarities of the British state (p.20)

an admission which arguably undermines his entire achievement, since Britain was the leading economic and technological power in the world.

What Marx couldn’t understand is why the most advanced capitalist nation on earth had no standing army and a relatively small bureaucracy, so that power was diffused to a thousand localities and actors – so very unlike the militarised Prussian state of his youth, and the centralised government of France.

Fernbach has a go at explaining why English society didn’t conform to Marx’s expectations: he explains that the settlement of 1688, after the Glorious Revolution, established a much collaboration between landed aristocracy, merchant adventurers, and (100 years later) industrial factory owners, than existed anywhere on the continent. In Germany and France the new industrial bourgeoisie had to fight hard to win any power from the obstructive feudal landowners and an aristocratic reaction. In England, the Glorious Revolution had prepared the way for a century of agricultural, commercial and imperial growth (the 18th century). New money slotted seamlessly into old, no bourgeois revolution (such as fizzled out in France in 1848 and never had chance to take place in Germany) was required.

After the failure of the Chartist campaign of 1848, labour leaders turned their energies from campaigning for grand utopian goals, and put their energy into developing model trade unions and settling disputes on a case-by-case basis. When it eventually became clear that these unions presented no threat to the powers-that-be, the franchise was widened in 1867 and again in 1884, and the English working classes proceeded to dutifully vote for the existing political parties, the Conservatives or Liberals.

Instead of growing into an unstoppable opposition to the bourgeois state, the English proletariat assimilated (fairly) smoothly right into it. Fernbach quotes Engels writing rather despairingly to Marx:

The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie! (quoted on page 26)

Hopefully, this brief summary shows that Fernbach’s introduction is in many ways more useful than the rest of the book in highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of Marx as political analyst, and in going beyond Marx to give some really useful insights into British and European history.

Fernbach’s worldview

If Fernbach has a shortcoming it’s that he doesn’t write as an objective outsider but as a devout follower of Marx, one who has drunk deep of the faith and is every bit as doctrinaire as the Master. He takes sides. He is as much against the capitalists and imperialists as Karl himself. This is Fernbach’s own voice, picking up on Marx and taking him further, teaching us, lecturing us:

Since every propertied minority must rely on the exploited masses to fight its battles for it, it can only exert political power by presenting its own particular interest as the interest of society in general. It is thus always necessary for the propertied classes to appear on the political stage in ideological disguise. (p.12)

While the worst years of reaction saw the steady maturation of Marx’s general theory, and his critique of bourgeois economics, his political theory made little progress compared with the heady developments of the 1848 period. Revolutionary political theory can only develop in response to the new problems and tasks raised by mass struggle, and this was completely lacking in Marx’s England. (p.19)

Fernbach clearly himself thinks that Marxism (or ‘dialectical materialism’) is the Truth and the Way. This makes his own explanations – such as the page explaining Marxist-Leninist thinking about imperialism (page 27) – very useful and informative. But it does result in some controversial and out-of-date pronouncements which pull you up short.

In the most glaring example, Fernbach thinks that Czechoslovakia and East Germany were fortunate to have carried out their ‘socialist revolutions’ under the protective umbrella of the Soviet Union, and so managed to avoid being dominated by the capitalist West.

After the socialist revolution in Russia it became possible for countries that made anti-imperialist revolutions to escape from the tyranny of the world market, and industrialise within socialist relations of production. (p.27)

This ignores the fact that both Czechoslovakia and East Germany had communist dictatorships forced on them by the Soviet occupying forces after the second World War. And it sees the state of having had a ‘revolution’ as fortunate and blessed.

Compare and contrast this utopianly doctrinaire Marxist view with the detailed description of the takeover of East Germany by the Soviets given in Anne Applebaum’s history, Iron Curtain, and the wretchedly repressive, Stasi-ruled society which resulted.

I wonder if Fernbach is still alive. I wonder if he has repented his devoutly Marxist defence of the Soviet Union and its imperialist conquest of Eastern Europe.

In summary, Fernbach lucidly explains what is important about the development of Marx’s theory as shown in these political writings from the 1850s, clarifies what is enduring about Marx’s insights and highlights their shortcomings – but we are constantly aware that his own perspective comes from a now antediluvian world.

Conclusions

Marx and his followers are:

  • too clever and right about some things (the economic base of society, the technological innovativeness, the radical cultural breaks and the violent political impact of capitalism) to dismiss
  • but too profoundly wrong in all their ‘scientific’ predictions (Germany going communist in 1848, Britain teetering on brink of communist revolution in 1860 etc) to take seriously
  • and their social theories proved so catastrophically wrong when put into practice in Russia, China and the rest of the communist world, that is impossible not to feel periodic bouts of nausea and horror at the casual way Marx dismisses entire classes and groups of people

Because less than forty years after his death, entire classes and groups of people would start to be dismissed with bullets and mass starvation by the tyrants he had directly inspired.


Related links

Related blog posts

Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which was Orwell was fighting with and he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

Indecent Exposure by Tom Sharpe (1973)

The sequel to Riotous Assembly, the second (and last) of Sharpe’s ‘Piemburg’ novels, Indecent Exposure is also (loosely) based on the author’s time in South Africa (1951-61) and features the three catastrophically clottish policemen from the first novel: Kommandant van Heerden, LuitenantVerkramp and Konstabel Els.

The Kommandant, continuing his obsession with all things English, meets a flirtatious middle-aged English woman at the local golf club. She is Mrs Heathcote-Kilkoon, wife of Colonel Heathcote-Kilkoon, they live at a big house outside the town of Weezen with a Major Bloxham, nickname ‘Boy’. They are, in fact frauds, chancers from South London who won the Pools and came out to Kenya where they reinvented themselves among the snobs of Happy Valley. Booted out of paradise by the Mau Mau rebellion, they have come to practice English snobbery in apartheid South Africa where they have set up a Dornford Yates fan club and have parties where they re-enact episodes from that author’s novels of posh 1920s society. Hence the house’s name, White Ladies, based on the house of the same name in Yates’s ‘Berry’ novels.

Attracted to the Kommandant’s coarse brutishness, Mrs H-K invites him to come and stay – which is downgraded to an invitation to stay at the local hotel by the worried Colonel who doesn’t like boorish Boers – and this leads to a classic cock-up when the Kommandant arrives in Weezen armed with a load of English clothes, jackets, ties etc, and a book of etiquette, only to be directed by unhelpful locals to what they insist is the only hotel in town but is in fact a health spa, stinking of sulphurous water, inhabited by whispering old ladies. After a series of misunderstandings, Mrs H-K finally tracks the Kommandant down and invites him to a posh English dinner party where he misunderstands everything that is said to him and takes offence at the rather camp and fey atmosphere.

There is a fabulous scene where Mrs H-K encourages the Kommandant to come fox hunting with the local Hunt and, when the Kommandant falls badly from the mad horse the Colonel has deliberately given him (infuriated by his Boer crudeness), the Kommandant is carried into a dark copse where he is tended a little too intimately by Mrs H-K. She is quickly naked except for her riding hat and crop and straddling the Kommandant in a very compromising way, when with a hullaballoo the hounds come bursting into the clearing and swarm all over the prostate Kommandant and around the naked Englishwoman, closely followed by the Colonel and ‘Boy’ and their guests. Luckily the Kommandant is invisible under the howling hounds and Mrs H-K displays the legendary British sang-froid: When her husband shouts, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ she roars back, ‘I am having a shit‘ and the men retire in chastened confusion…

But this, the bogus posh English circle, is the minor strand in the story. The main action is what happens in Piemburg in the Kommandant’s absence, having left his over-zealous and none-too-bright subordinate, Luitenant Verkramp, in charge. He immediately implements two long-standing ambitions of his:

  1. To put an end to inter-racial relations on the part of his men ie to stop them screwing black women, he puts into practice a theory he learned from the over-zealous and oversexed lady psychiatrist at the Piemburg prison, Dr von Blimenstein, viz. he has cohorts of policemen put in strait-jackets, their penises wired up to electrodes and shown slides of naked black women projected on the wall. Each new slide prompts a horrific electric shock. (Sharpe’s fiction is not subtle and not for the faint-hearted.) Grotesque as this sounds, the outcome is even more gruesome for the several hundred constables turn out to be put off not just black women, but all women, and become camp homosexuals – big South African rugby-playing cops reporting for duty wearing loud lipstick and garish wigs!
  2. Verkramp’s second plan is to flush out the communist subversives who must be causing all the unrest among the blacks (what other reason could there be?). He calls in a dozen secret policemen from out of town and tasks them with tracking down the secret communist cells and working their way into them, committing some limited acts of terrorism, if necessary, to back up their cover stories. The result is the secret agents – none of whom know about the others – end up infiltrating each other’s little set-ups, committing ever more egregious acts of violence in a bid to prove their seriousness and penetrate the heart of subversive organisations which don’t, in fact, exist.  Thus, the secret agents are responsible for blowing up the power station, the radio station, the town sewage works and much more, plunging Piemburg into anarchy. Things come to a head when two secret policemen, each convinced the other is a communist subversive, meet in the Piemburg zoo and conceive the bright idea of sowing panic by placing gelignite attached to timers inside condoms and getting the zoo’s ostriches to eat them, then letting them loose. This, after much embarrassment about buying the condoms etc, they manage to do, but the released ostriches turn out to be very affectionate creatures and instead of running off into the town at random, decide to follow the secret agents who’ve given them the nice meals, who start panicking as the timers inside the birds tick down to their explosive climaxes.

Eventually, the Kommandant is contacted and told about the mayhem going on his absence. Verkramp has finally realised all these nightmarish incidents are his fault, and has contacted all his agents and paid them to leave town. Van Heerden returns to deal with the knotty problem of finding a group of white men (the agents were seen by witnesses at some of the explosions) who can be blamed for all the mayhem… until Mrs Heathcote-Kilkoon learns of his problem and suggests… the pompous Britishers of the Dornford Yates club! Yes, they offended the Kommandant with their lofty superiority and now he can get his revenge!

Which leads to the novel’s violent climax as various police agencies approach the unwitting home of the good Colonel and Major, in the midst of holding another gay and frivolous party, when suddenly shooting breaks out, the Britishers respond, and the whole thing comes to a fiery climax when the reliably psychopathic Konstabel Els floods the cellar of their mansion with petrol and throws in a match. Whoompf.

Slowly Piemburg is restored to normal. The terrorists all appear to have died in the inferno. The memory of the exploding ostriches dies away. Luitenant Verkramp is hypnotised by the large and fearsome lady psychiatrist, Dr von Blimenstein, into marrying him and Kommandant van Heerden adopts one of the habits he learned from the Yates society, fox hunting, having rescued their pack of bloodhounds and now regularly ties a bag of aniseed to a black prisoner, giving him a five minute head-start, and then – Tally Ho!

Civilisation – South Africa-style – has been restored.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Indecent Exposure by the brilliant Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Indecent Exposure by the brilliant 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 (eg naked Mrs Heathcote-Kilgore straddling the Kommandant and surrounded by baying hounds – the red face of the Kommandant she’s straddling is to the left oof her thigh, with a hound’s foot in his mouth; the row of South African police with their penises attached to electrodes watching projected image of naked black women; the big woman in pink on the front is the voracious psychiatrist Dr von Blimenstein, waiting to seduce the (typically for Sharpe) skinny, scared male, Luitenant Verkramp, cowering just behind her buttock).

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.

The Riverside Villas Murder by Kingsley Amis (1973)

‘You’ll find the blurb, the summary inside the jacket, is rather misleading as regards one crucial point. But I think that’s more or less legitimate, don’t you? After all, the whole raison d’être of a murder story is to trick the reader. Isn’t it?’ (p.160)

This is a historic murder mystery novel, set in the summer of 1936 – as we know from a casual reference to an obituary in a newspaper of schoolmaster and ghost story writer M.R. James (died 12 June 1936).

Peter Furneaux loses his virginity

The Riverside Villas Murder is a third-person narrative which (mostly) sees events from the point of view of good-looking, precocious, 14-year-old schoolboy, Peter Furneaux. He lives in one of a row of modest semi-detached houses backing onto a little river in a small suburb on the edge of south-east London (there is a description late in the book of the drive from Waterloo Bridge, through Brixton and Norbury, to his house).

As well as liking model airplanes and toy soldiers and comics and cakes, Peter is precociously sexually active, part of a circle at his grammar school which swap (mostly theoretical) notes about sex, and which also engages in largely ‘innocent’ mutual masturbation. For example, he goes to his pal, Reg’s house, where they read comics, discuss war stories, play old-fashioned jazz records and, when his mum pops out, appear to wank each other off… before returning to the comics and toys.

Inevitably, there is a local girl, the object of his obsessions, 15-year-old Daphne who lives across the Green and ignores, or pretends not to understand, his hesitant flirtations, resulting in Everests of anxiety and frustration.

One central thread in the story is Peter’s incredulous discovery that his young, glamorous, good-looking married neighbour, Mrs Trevelyan, fancies him. He realises this at a dance at the village hall. She dances with him perfectly normally, as all the other married couples and older singletons are politely dancing, or exchanging partners between dances. But when the lights go out she presses herself against him and whispers that she really likes him. A week or so later she invites him over for tea, which his innocent parents approve of, and Peter has to spend a whole day with a hard-on, trying not to shoot his bolt too soon, and agonisingly awaiting the 4 o’clock appointment. When the moment comes, Mrs Trevelyan does not disappoint, taking him upstairs to the bedroom where she takes a dominant role, at least three times, to Peter’s utter amazement, flooding his mind with sensations and memories which dominate his consciousness for the rest of the book.

So this, the most powerful thread in the first parts of the novel, amounts to a coming-of-age or losing-of-virginity tale.

Mr Inman is murdered

But the novel is titled and marketed as a murder mystery, which it also is.

Through Peter’s eyes we get a sense of his parents and their small circle of friends: Captain Furneaux, injured in the Great War, unable to use his right arm, stuck in a dowdy job as an estate agent’s assistant, and his snobbish wife; the neighbour Mr Trevelyan and his vivacious wife (who we’ve met); quiet Mr Langdon, who likes doing his allotment, and his wife; short, fair-haired Mr Inman and his wife, and so on.

1. Early in the novel persons unknown break into the fusty local museum and steal a random collection of old coins, as well as an ancient mummified body, variously described as prehistoric, or Roman or Celtic. Of no obvious value, anyway. At this point we are introduced to the trio of policemen who will be involved throughout (see below).

2. At the local dance (where Mrs T presses against Peter) there is an argument and semi-fight as Mr Inman, clearly drunk, starts making insinuating comments about Trevelyan, Langdon and Peter’s father, causing them all to look uneasy until someone eventually confronts Inman and pushes him over onto a table full of drinks, before his wife rounds him up and takes him home.

3. A few days later, Peter is reading a comic in his front room when there’s a bang at the French windows and Mr Inman bursts in, in a bad way, dripping wet from having fallen in the river, bleeding from the head, barely able to breathe. Peter runs out into the garden, shouts for Mrs Trevelyan to come help, which she does, then phones the police. While he’s doing so, Inman expires. When Mrs T was with him alone. The same Mrs Trevelyan who looked embarrassed by Inman’s insinuations at the dance. Hmmm.

The police soon find a murder weapon, a truncheon-like club with a nail driven through it, which appears to have battered Inman’s temple and penetrated his brain. Statements are taken. The area is scoured. No witnesses are found and nothing can be added to Peter’s terrified account.

4. A week or so later Peter is in the bath (playing with himself), his mother making up the bedrooms, when he hears a knock at the front door, his father answer it, and then a scuffle, shouts, a loud bang. Grabbing a towel and running downstairs he finds his father slightly wounded with a cut around the ear, lying under the heavy hall dresser which has been pushed on top of him, and another version of the truncheon-with-nail abandoned nearby. As the police who question Peter point out – nobody actually witnessed any attacker or assault? So Peter’s father could have faked the attack, pretty harmlessly scratching himself and pulling the dresser on top of himself? Why? To throw the police off the scent if he was Inman’s murderer. Hmmm.

Colonel Manton

Amis is thought of as a conservative-minded man writing traditional novels, but what strikes me about almost all his novels is their oddity. What disrupts the possibility of this being a ‘normal’ murder story is the odd relationship between the three main policemen involved in the investigation: Detective-Constable Barrett of the County CID, his superior – Detective-Inspector Cox – who he dislikes and enjoys needling; but both are swamped by the larger-than-life figure of Colonel Manton, a retired military man, living in a big house from whose living room he calls the silent attendant, Mrs Ellington, by sending Morse code messages on the bell push, among other eccentricities.

Manton’s entire approach is disarmingly offbeat, telling the uniformed officers to carry out house-to-house enquiries while pointing out it will reveal nothing; ordering them to leave no stone unturned at the murder scene, ditto; confidently expecting the murder weapon to have no fingerprints and not to be the actual murder weapon, and in general giving the impression that he effortlessly knows who the killer is although, as he explains to Peter, the trick of detection is not knowing who’s guilty – it’s marshalling the evidence to prove it.

Manton interviews Peter a couple of times (as well as his father, Mr Langdon, Mr Trevelyan and the others in the little circle). But is then given a much longer and more powerful scene three-quarters of the way through, when he invites Peter to a vast afternoon tea. Coming hot on the heels of Mrs Trevelyan’s afternoon seduction, Peter half expects the Colonel to be after something similar and is prepared for him making a dirty-old-man pass or even exposing himself, something Peter’s pseudo-worldly-wise attitude is ready for.

However, nothing of that sort happens, the Colonel just interviews him in depth about his life and loves and character and hobbies, about model aircraft and girls, before moving on to a detailed discussion of contemporary jazz, which they both like to listen to on the BBC or on big long-playing discs sheathed in thick cardboard. Peter declares his favourite band is probably Ambrose and his Orchestra, while the Colonel not only plays him some hot discs by Louis Armstrong, but impresses him by sitting at the piano in the living room and bashing out a 12-bar blues in true stretch piano style. Peter leaves awed by the breadth and depth of Manton’s wisdom, not noticing – as the reader maybe has – how many sly questions about his father, about Langdon et al, Manton had slipped into his display.

From this point onwards the novel is seen through two points of view, from Peter’s intense, close, self-conscious, flustered perspective; and from scenes featuring the indomitable Colonel Manton as he alludes to his various theories to his sidekick, Barrett; alludes to, but never (frustratingly) fully explains. But this makes the book sound too rational and straightforward, when it is anything but…

Super-acute observation of himself and others

Having read 12 Amis books, I feel confident sketching out key elements of his worldview.

The dominating feature of Amis’s voice and presence is a super-self-consciousness of his own behaviour and thoughts, an over-ratiocination which questions every motive and subjects every flicker of consciousness to multiple interpretations, combined with a projection of this onto other people, resulting in a hyper-awareness of other people’s speech, facial gestures, behaviour, in all its ambiguity.

In the early novels this is played for laughs, the air of manic play-acting and over-interpreting other people’s behaviour, treating himself and everyone as if they are acting at least two roles at the same time, contributed to the madcap humour.

But from The Anti-Death League (1966) onwards, the humour is turned right down, sometimes completely absent, whereas the self-awareness remains at the same level or, in some texts such as the ostensible ghost story, The Green Man, reaching an unpleasant level of intensity. It manifests itself in:

  • ascribing multiple motives to almost every scrap of dialogue or bit of anyone’s behaviour
  • in jokey comparisons of his own or other people’s behaviour to actors performing B-movie roles
  • in casting entire ways of thinking into the mock-heroic military style which (we can see from this book) derives from Amis’s own schoolboy reading of war stories and comics
  • in picking up the absurdity inherent in many common phrases and demonstrating this through repetition or unusual manipulation, stretching phrases until they nearly break

Examples

The frequent deployment of the throwaway add-on to any sentence, ‘… or something’:

Back in the sitting-room, [Peter] stared out of the french window at the saturated, scrubby little garden and tried to feel pleased, or relieved, or something… (p.131)

Mock military metaphor Of Peter’s first experience of sex.

He had pictured the business as something rather like drifting down a river in a small boat on a summer afternoon; the reality turned out to be something equally like leading a cavalry charge across rough country under a heavy artillery barrage. (p.136)

Playing with everyday phrases

Was the colonel in fact the strange man that so many people so obviously thought he was? That remained to be seen, and Peter hoped it would go on remaining. (p.146)

At the end of the novel Peter prepares to go across and chat up Daphne. This is a good example of Amis’s tendency to playfulness taking him to the border of incomprehensibility.

[Peter] washed his armpits and slapped into them some of his mother’s talcum powder, put on a clean shirt and a pair of long trousers, gave his hair a good brushing – he could not be absolutely certain, just ninety-nine point nine recurring per cent certain, that Daphne might not be present for a few seconds before she went wherever whoever the hell it was was taking her out or after he brought her back. (p.195)

Whoever. Whatever. Wherever.

Comparisons with B-movie stereotypes

The colonel, eating sandwiches, watched him with a benign air, though you would not have had to change it much for it to suit a poisoner who was very full of himself. (p.154)

The colonel bustled off, reappearing to Barrett’s view before the police car was out of sight. He now wore a green-and-brown-check suit with a highly suspect matching cap, a combination that suggested a bookie thinly disguised as Sherlock Holmes, or the other way round. (p.179)

The two set off side by side down the Meadow, reminding Barrett of a pair of supposed schoolmasters he had once seen in a film. With mortar-boards and gowns on, they had paced a lawn beside a chapel. (p.182)

The dénouement

Whodunnit? Well, there are more twists in the second half.

  • Colonel Manton arrests Peter’s father, much to the latter’s horror.
  • The police are posted a letter with cut & pasted newsprint drawing their attention to two other suspects.
  • Some time is spent on Mr Hodgson, a retired policeman himself, who was called out to a job in a non-existent part of London during the hours of the murder. Hmmm, dodgy alibi…

All the time the two strands – Peter’s and Manton’s – progress in parallel. There is a bizarre sequence where the colonel invites Peter to re-enact the journey of the nearly-dead Mr Inman along the river ie gets him to change into swimming trunks, have a rope tied round him by attending constables for safety, and then put in the river where Inman probably fell or was pushed, to see what the current actually does to it. This re-enactment does turn up something when Peter, from his water-level view, spots the actual murder weapon jammed in the mud – but it is still a very odd way of carrying on, as the attending coppers mutter, and Barrett wonders whether Cox was right in saying the whole thing is just a ruse for the colonel (who is one of ‘those’) to get close to the nearly-naked body of such a pretty boy…

The climax comes the night of a particularly violent storm when Peter and his mother have been invited round to the Hodgson household, the latter feeling sorry for the Furneaux, now that Peter’s father is in custody. At the height of the storm the windows are mysteriously smashed and rain pelts in. Peter runs out into the rain to bump into various policemen in rain-capes waving torches but, on a hunch, hares off to a culvert through which the little river flows. There, his hunch correct, he finally meets the true murderer who is fleeing the scene, and they fight in the dark and then fall into the flooded river.

Peter’s suspicions are confirmed. It is Mrs Trevelyan. She stops fighting when she realises it is Peter. She allows herself to be taken back to her house. There Colonel Manton is waiting beside an extraordinary contraption she has rigged up using the kind of elastic straps Peter uses in his model planes, attached to furniture, to create a large catapult.

With this she has been firing golf balls through the Hodgson’s windows, shattering them. (Why?) Peter is dismissed and told to go back to the Hodgson household but loiters outside the window and hears Mrs Trevelyan refuse to admit anything until Manton says he will be forced to prosecute her for having under-age sex with a minor (Peter). ‘Confess now or see Peter’s name dragged through the mud.’ Peter hears all the spirit go out of her voice, as she admits everything, then signs the confession, to this effect:

She was having an affair with Inman (short and fair and, now we come to think of it, rather like Peter in look and build) but he had a guilty conscience and was threatening to tell everyone. So she rigged up the catapult in her front room, had the french windows open, and the next time he paused at the garden gate o his way to visit her, shot him in the head with a model plane modified into a dart. She disguised herself as a man and staged the assault on Peter’s father to try and prove his innocence. Same motive for sending the cut & paste letter, to throw suspicion away from Peter’s father. And the break-in to the local museum and theft of the mummy in the early chapters? She stole it to practice on.

Manton allows her to go back to her house knowing she will do what she does next – which is commit suicide, stabbing herself and letting her body fall into the flooded little river to be found downstream hours later.

Peter’s father is released, Manton apologises for the arrest (knowing Peter’s father was innocent, aiming to flush out the true culprit) to Peter and explains everything on the long car ride back from a police station in central London to Norbury, during which he also sort of confesses to being ‘one of those’ and that’s why they shouldn’t really see each other again, old chap.

Peter takes all this in his stride and emerges a far more confident, adult boy, who steps right up to Daphne’s porch, refuses to take no for an answer, and insists he will be taking her out that night. The whole ordeal has not been an ordeal at all, has left no visible scars, and just made him a more confident young man.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this summary brings out the sheer oddness of the story. Not an Agatha Christie or Peter Wimsey adventure at all. Something at the same time more strange and troubling in its peculiarly alienated attitude to human nature, in its disconcerting frankness about various sexualities, while also being wildly improbable and a little cack-handed in basic plot mechanics: a giant catapult? golf balls? a model airplane reworked as a weapon?

Above all, there is the strange inconsequentiality of it all. The entire experience seems to have bounced off Peter as it does off the reader. It’s a highly competent, oddly insightful, occasionally funny, but very superficial experience.

Dallas Blues by Louis Armstrong

One of the vintage jazz tracks played and discussed in the novel by Peter and Colonel Manton.


Related links

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.

Golden Soak by Hammond Innes (1973)

Old mines, like old houses, have their own atmosphere – a feel, an aura compounded of many things , but chiefly of the way men have handled the problems of working underground. It’s there in the construction of the galleries, the cross-cuts, drifts and winzes, the way they have stoped and handled the ore. But down here, on the third level of Golden Soak, it was something different, as though the rock itself had absorbed such a radiation of human fear that it could still infect the atmosphere of the place. (p.97)

Hammond Innes has three great strengths:

  • He writes about ordinary men who didn’t go to public school and who aren’t writers and artists – real people with real jobs: miners and engineers, merchant seamen and Royal Navy sailors, soldiers and solicitors, whalers and railroad builders, oil prospectors and surveyors, captains and fishermen, bulldozer drivers and cafe owners.
  • He describes work, real work, hard physical work, designing and building and excavating and constructing and navigating and fishing and diving and drilling.

The rig was on exploratory work, drilling a test hole high up on Mount Whaleback. Across from where it was spudded in the view was of a mountainside being gnawed to destruction by blasting and giant shovels. And beyond the huge stepped gashes of industrial erosion stretched the ever-endless wastes of the Australian outback, iron hills throbbing through a miasma of ore dust so fine it hung like a haze that half-obscured the sun. They were adding a fresh rod when we arrived, Duhamel and his off-sider working in unison, both of them stripped to the waist and red with the grime of ore dust. (p.177)

  • And – when his heroes are not battling physical and psychological odds – there is a feeling in his descriptions, especially of anything touching on his beloved sailing, of real joy, excitement and exhiliration, delight at being alive in a beautiful world.

Coming to Innes after reading Graham Greene is like stepping from a pitch-black confessional where a suicidally depressed man has told you all his pornographic fantasies, out into the light of a beautiful spring morning. Though a morning which turns out to be not without its problems…

Golden Soak part 1

The book opens at a fast pace as we watch mining engineer and surveyor Alec Falls driving drunkenly away from the meeting of the board of the tin mine in Cornwall which he set up, having punched one of the directors and facing the fact the mine was finished, all played out. Back at his house he finds his ‘bitch’ of a wife has left him and so, on a drunken whim, he fakes his own death and sets fire to his home. Drives drunk along the coast to Southampton, abandons his car and takes ship for Australia. He had met a young woman, Janet Garrety, touring mines in England who came from mining country in Western Australia and she’d invited him to go visit. By the end of chapter one he has travelled all the way out to her and her father’s ranch in Jarra Jarra, Western Australia, only to discover it is bankrupt, their mine is played out, no rain has fallen for a year and the cattle are dying.

Thus, like many an Innes’ protagonist, Alec is in a desperate plight.

I got suddenly to my feet. I must be mad even to think of it. I was a stranger in a strange land, alone, with no money and nobody to help me. (p.48)

The rest of the plot describes his attempts to secure a living in his new country and how, slowly, he becomes caught up in a web of old vendettas and allegiances to do with abandoned mines and legendary discoveries, overlaid with sharp business deals which see him accepting cash offers and then bribes to falsify geological reports, getting deeper and deeper into trouble though he doesn’t realise it until it’s too late.

Australia

As with all his novels, Golden Soak is the result of Innes’ own extensive travels through the territory described, a fact emphasised by the Author’s Note at the end of the text which carefully distinguishes the fictional locations and characters from the real-life places and people who helped and guided him on his tours. Viewed from one angle, Innes’ novels are really extended travelogues with sometimes rather contrived plots, or sometimes not even plots – just situations – embedded in them.

Golden Soak is a classic example and contains scores of passages describing the bleak desert landscape of Western Australia: in the blistering heat of the day, at the mercifully cool dusk, in the chill hours before dawn. Because it is a novel about mining, special attention is paid to the geology of the region, with quite technical descriptions of geological formations, underlying rocks, the different types of dust, and to the sun-toughened flora which just about survive in this harsh environment.

We clambered the broken rock to the small trees at the top, taking our personal clouds of flies with us. The sun was already blazingly hot and away to the south-west a salt-white glimmer marked  the flat immensity of Lake Disappointment. All to the east now was nothing but desert, speckled with the golden yellow of spinifex, and the sandridges like a flat red swell coming in from the north-north-east. High overhead two wedge-tailed eagles worked the air currents, soaring on great wing spans, intent, searching for anything that still had life in that arid hell of drought-ridden sand. (p.215)

The book does demonstrate the full force of this weird Innes ability to describe oppressive and challenging landscapes, first and foremost the unrelenting descriptions of the desert in all its varieties, the different types of rock and dust and sand, the unforgiving heat, the buzz of the insects, the flights overhead of bright colourful birds, the dingoes crying at night, the sudden appearance of kangaroos one night – the whole book does very powerfully convey the strangeness of Australia.

(I guess Innes is not much read now: the fact that most of his novels are out of print suggests that. But a great anthology could be made of all the scores of stretches where he describes landscapes and scenery – and especially seascapes – in bold and striking colours.)

The human geography is described just as vividly (and presumably, as accurately): the rundown ranches, the abandoned mine workings, the hot metal shacks, the brick hotels, the dusty roadside diners. And the novel has a large number of incidental characters, of hard-pressed ranchers and embittered miners, who clump into the kitchens of their harassed wives after a long day of hard labour in the blistering sun, their faces and backs streaked with sweat and covered in the red dust, gagging for the first stubby of the day and some hot tucker.

Minor characters

Initially I thought the action would be confined to the Jarra Jarra ranch where Falls stays for a while with Janet Garrety, her tough old father, Ed Garrety, himself the son of local legend Big Bill Garrety who founded the ranch and homestead. But the father watches him getting closer to his daughter and doesn’t like it: there’s no work for Falls, the empty mine, Golden Soak, ruined his father and is long abandoned after a calamitous flood which killed seven men. And so Garrety none too politely suggest Falls leaves, and this kicks off his travels via harsh roadside cafes and tough pubs to raw frontier settlements like Nullagine, Meekathurra, Kalgoorlie and Ora Banda.

Which gives Innes the opportunity to depict different types of harsh Aussie terrain and to introduce us to a sizeable cast of vividly drawn minor characters.

  • Alec Falls: protagonist and narrator, embittered failed mining engineer and company owner
  • Rosa: his glamorous wife who never loved him and leaves him on the fateful night when he fights with his fellow directors and sets  his own house on fire
  • Ferdie Kaden: son of a Serbian immigrant who worked himself to death in the mines round Kalgoorlie. Ferdie vows not to be like his father and becomes a sharp businessman, a chancer, who also writes to Falls offering him a job in W. Australia, and then inveigles him into a number of dodgy financial deals
  • Janet Garrety: stocky snub-nosed young woman he meets in England, who tells him all about her ranch in Western Australia and sparks the fantasy of escaping there
  • Ed Garrety: her tough rancher father, who was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese during the war, and returns afterwards to a homestead ruined almost beyond recognition
  • Big Bill Garrety: grandfather, the legendary figure who founded the homestead in the 1890s then squandered the family money on the ill-fated Golden Soak mine
  • Henry Garrety: Janet’s brother, Ed’s son: joined the Australian Army to escape the barrenness of Jarra Jarra and was one of the first Australians to be killed in Vietnam, aged 18
  • Pat McIlroy: Garrety’s partner; when the ill-fated mine failed he took off into the interior and was never seen again, leaving behind the rumour of some legendary mineral discovery
  • Andie Andersen and his Italian wife, Maria, who keep a dusty roadside pasta restaurant at Lynn Peak
  • Wolli: drunk aborigine whose father was with McIlroy during his last ill-fated expedition and who, therefore, Falls tries to get the truth out of
  • Prophecy: fag-smoking card-playing owner of the bar in the flyblown settlement of Nullagine
  • Phil Westrop: ‘just an ordinary, hard-drinking, hard-driving, mind-your-own-bloody-business Australian’ (p.83)
  • George Duhamel, owner of a mining rig Falls meets in a pub, and then hires to drill on a bluff next to Golden Soak
  • Josh: plays the guitar with Duhamel’s drilling gang
  • Chris Culpin: tough embittered miner, working for Ferdie Kadek
  • Edith: Culpin’s thin unhappy wife
  • Kennie: Culpin’s son; after an argument with his father which comes to blows, he leaves home and heads back north with Falls, thereafter becoming his sidekick
  • Les Freeman: chaiman and MD of Lone Minerals, in partnership with Ferdie Kadek, who – it turns out – is conning him with the reluctant help of Falls
  • Petersen: head of Petersen Geophysics, a small geology and assaying company, characterful Swede always slapping people on the back
  • the old prostitute who was one of the last to see McIlroy before he disappeared

Mystery and stasis

Innes has many strengths, but his novels share one massive weakness, which is they don’t really have much plot. By plot I mean a sequence of events which reveal incidents from the past or which string together current events into a meaningful pattern. Instead Innes novels tend to focus around an obsessive figure who keeps to himself what, in the final analysis, is a very simple revelation, which many of the characters know or suspect, but which everyone refuses to express, articulate, spit out or share over several hundred pages of aborted conversations, shrugs and silences.

Thus, in this novel, the protagonist soon learns there are one or two ‘mysteries’ connected with the Garrety family – What happened in the Golden Soak mine to cause it to be abandoned after Big Bill Garrety had ruined his family by spending all his capital on it and borrowing more to develop it? What happened to Phil McIlroy who had told everyone in the local bars that he’d struck it rich and discovered ‘McIlroy’s Monster’, a big copper deposit, out in the desert somewhere – and then disappeared off the face of the earth? Both events happened in 1939, on the eve of war, and thirty years ago – are they connected?

A well-constructed thriller would plant these mysteries early on and then lead the narrator (and reader) through a cunning sequence of revelations to a final understanding of the ‘real events’ behind them. Innes, however, here as in almost all his other novels, uses a peculiar technique of Obstruction: the narrator talks to a wide range of people who don’t know, can’t shed light, clam up, hesitate and shrug. The text doesn’t proceed by dramatic or subtle revelations, it doesn’t proceed in a line, but circles around the central ‘mysteries’ via innumerable inconclusive and frustrating conversations where characters don’t reveal what they know, turn away, go silent and gaze into the distance. The narrator (and the reader) never gets any further forward for literally hundreds of pages – until suddenly it all comes tumbling out in the end.

This blockage, obstruction and frustrating stasis isn’t accidental or a minor feature: it is absolutely central to Innes’ conception of the novel, to his narrative methodology, and occurs on almost every page.

After that she didn’t say anything… I sat there at a loss for words, the silence growing… There was a sudden silence and I looked up to find her staring at me… He didn’t say anything for a moment, a stillness settling on the room… I hesitated… The silence deepened, his face frozen… The stillness was absolute then… He shrugged and got to his feet… He went out then, leaving me with questions still unanswered… She didn’t seem to know… she shook her head… She hesitated… ‘I can’t explain, I don’t really understand it myself’ … She shrugged turning quickly away…She shook her head… Again she shook her head… But she shook her head… But he didn’t answer… But Lenny shook his head… She knew no more than I did… But I couldn’t answer that… It seemed a lot longer with Culpin sitting morose and tense at the wheel, not saying a word… I just stood there, silent, wondering what sort of a man I was… Kadek didn’t say anything. Nor did Freeman… He didn’t know… I shrugged… I started to say something and then I turned away… We left immediately, Culpin driving in silence… Kennie sitting beside me, tight-lipped and silent… I didn’t answer… In the end I drove in silence… ‘I hope not, but I don’t know’… He didn’t answer… Nobody said anything… A silence settled on the room… He stared at me, the room suddenly deathly silent… I didn’t answer… Ed Garrety shook his head… ‘I don’t know’… There was a long silence… ‘He won’t say what he’s up to, won’t tell me anything’… ‘It’s something else, but he won’t say. He won’t tell me anything’… ‘It was something else, but I don’t know what. I just don’t know’… He didn’t answer… Kennie shrugged… He hesitated again, as though unwilling to put his thoughts into words…We didn’t talk. We just sat huddled there… I sat down beside him, both of us silent for a long time… There were questions I wanted to ask but I didn’t know how to begin… He didn’t finish, but continued staring down at the ground… he gave me a long slow look, the nodded and turned away… He didn’t say anything, his eyes glinting in the starlight… ‘All in good time. Don’t rush me.’ He stood for a moment in complete silence… His voice trailed off… After that he closed right up on me, wouldn’t say another word… He was silent then and I didn’t know what to say… He didn’t answer, the silence heavy between us… Silence still and I had to repeat the question… And after that he wouldn’t say any more… There was a long silence… So I kept my mouth shut, the two of us staring at each other in silence… I didn’t answer… I should have warned Kennie… but I didn’t… He hardly spoke, he seemed shut up inside himself… We didn’t talk much, both of us wrapped up in our own thoughts…

Falls tries to talk to Ed Garratty:

It was a closed look, the blank stare of a man on the defensive… He didn’t answer, the silence stretching uncomfortably between us… He relapsed into silence then… I didn’t say anything for a moment… He sat there for a moment, not saying anything… But Ed Garrety didn’t answer… I asked him where he was going but he didn’t seem to hear… I didn’t know, I just didn’t know what my motive was…

Falls tries to get answers out of Janet Garrety:

But she didn’t answer, just sat there, quite still as though she’d suddenly been struck dumb (156)…’I don’t know… I don’t know’… She shook her head, God knows’, she breathed… But Janet didn’t answer… She looked away towards the window. ‘I don’t know,’ she said… She hesitated, half-shaking her head…

Falls tries to get answers out of the aboriginal woman, Brighteyes:

She shook her head… She shook her head, ‘I don’t know’… I didn’t know what to say… She shook her head… She didn’t answer but her eyes moved, evasive, uneasy…

Falls tries to get answers from the barkeeper Prophecy:

After that there was silence… ‘I don’t know. Nobody knows.’… She didn’t answer… It seemed she knew no more than I did…

Falls tries to get answers from the aborigine, Wolli:

He shook his head… To all these questions he just shook his head…

Falls tries to get answers from Phil Westrop:

He didn’t say anything, standing there with his beer in his hand…

Falls meets Chris Culpin in Kalgoorlie

He was silent for a moment… He was silent after that… He didn’t say anything more, nursing his grievance in silence…

Falls tries to get answers from Chris Culpin’s wife, Edith:

Again that hesitation, as though she wanted to tell me something else… She was silent…

Golden Soak part 2

An early narrative climax comes when Golden Soak, precariously propped up as Falls discovers when he goes illicitly poking around in it, collapses with a boom and a lot of dust. Falls and Kennie were driving out towards it, chasing after Ed Garrety who had disappeared and, for a long ten minutes they think he must have been in it when it collapsed. Until he emerges covered in dust from the nearby workings…

Thereafter Falls goes touring round various townships in Western Australia, looking for work, having threatening conversations with various rough miners and prospectors and businessmen all looking after number one. Falls finds himself reluctantly taking money from the dodgy dealer, Kadek, in exchange for giving misleadingly optimistic information to the fairly honest businessman, Les Freeman. Falls then uses the money to hire the driller Duhamel and his crew to drill up at Golden Soak but is bitterly outwitted by the harsh, unforgiving Chris Culpin who has taken the trouble to get an official ‘claim’ made for the area: anything Falls finds will belong to Culpin. Falls ceases the drilling in disgust.

Defeated and depressed, Falls drives back to Jarra Jarra to discover Janet in hysterics because her father, Ed Garrety, has driven off into the desert.

Finally, after 200 pages of incommunicative peregrinations, this is the (typically Innes) climax of the novel. Falls grabs young Kennie and together they undertake a fifty-page adventure, loading the Land Rover with petrol and water and driving off with an old map and compass into the inhospitable Gibson desert. Really inhospitable. So blisteringly hot during the day you can’t drive or be outside, so they drive at night. The journey, and the extreme conditions, force Falls to review what he’s doing in Australia and what the hell he’s doing driving into the heart of one of its worst deserts to find an ageing, bitter, dying man who possibly has gone off to end it all. However, Falls also knows Garrety has a map showing the location of the McIlroy Monster: so he’s pursuing Garrety in order to save Janet’s father for her, and to try and redeem his damn fool decision to emigrate by finding the legendary hill of copper.

But he doesn’t. When he finally catches up with Garrety it turns out the dying old man has come all the way out into the desert to find the place where, back in 1939, he shot McIlroy dead. Aha. So that’s what happened. Why? Because somehow, it is implied, McIlroy had ruined his old man, deluded him with his damn fool plans and then lured Ed into a crazy expedition into the desert so that when Ed awakes one morning to find McIlroy shooting the camels to eat, Garrety flips, they fight over the gun and Garrety shoots McIlroy dead.

That’s it. That’s the bitter secret which Garrety has concealed for 30 years, which has eaten into his conscience, which has made him bitter and grouchy and led all the local gossips to speculate whether he killed McIlroy in the Golden Soak and arranged the flooding, or whether there really is a big hill of copper which he’s keeping from everybody. After this anti-climactic revelation, Falls passes out. Next morning he wakes to find Garrety has headed off in a raging sandstorm like Captain Oates deliberately seeking the oblivion of death.

Falls and Kennie turn round and their knackered Land Rover just about makes it back to civilisation where Falls is promptly arrested. We learn that this entire narrative has been written from prison.

Coda

The technicalities of his arrest and the charges are described with typical Innes thoroughness: courts martial and trials, dodgy business deals and boardroom manoeuvres feature in many of his novels. But, in summary, Falls is eventually released and, among other developments, persuades Kennie to return with him to the Gibson Desert. Here, after further suffering, they do at last, indeed, find McIlroy’s Monster, a great plateau of copper-bearing rock but again, only to seem to be frustrated. A helicopter lands and men start staking out the claim with professional pegs: it is Chris Culpin – Falls’s repeated nemesis, who foiled him when he was drilling up at Golden Soak. At this, the climax of the novel, Innes persuades us that Culpin’s son, Kennie, is wound up to such a state that he rushes forward – father and son argue, then fight, then Kennie grabs a rifle and shoots his father dead.

The men take Culpin’s body and Kennie into the chopper and fly off.

This leaves Falls free to stake out the claim himself, then spend ten days struggling back through the desert to Jarra Jarra. During this time – symbolically – it rains for the first time since his arrival in Australia, and when he arrives at Jarra Jarra it is to find the desert blooming, the herds of cattle thriving after Janet, Ed Garrety’s daughter, followed his suggestion of watering them at the new pool formed in the crater of the ruined collapsed Golden Soak mineworkings, and Janet herself running into his arms for a Hollywood ending.

In the last pages, he says they are now a pair, awaiting his divorce to come through from Britain, and Janet is pregnant. He has never worked so hard in his life, refencing the farm, drilling waterholes, and hopes that, if the child is a girl,

pray God she grows up with the same qualities as her mother, the same love of this harsh demanding place where I have now put down my roots. (p.285)

Fathers and sons

As with Levkas ManThe Doomed Oasis and others of his later novels, Golden Soak ends up being a tragedy about a son and a father in which the father dies. Sons and fathers run like a thread through the text. Big Bill Garrety, founder of the dynasty, who goes mad and his son Ed, who goes off into the desert to die, and his son Henry, who is killed in Vietnam. Culpin’s son Kennie, who kills his father.

There is a strong Gothic element in these doomed relationships of fathers and sons.

A tale of two women

Innes also goes out of his way to contrast between the two lead female characters in the novel.

Falls repeatedly describes his wife, Rosalind, Rosa, as being stunningly good looking: there’s a page or so mulling over his marriage as he comes to realise that he never loved her, he just wanted – in the heady days of his success when the tin mine in Cornwall was showering money – to ‘own’ her, to possess her like a flash sports car.

Two thirds of the way through the story Falls is horrified to learn that Rosa has figured out he never died in the fire and tracked him down all the way to the ranch at Jarra Jarra. Falls returns from a day out drilling to find Rosa in a tense stand-off with Janet, her polar opposite. After an edgy dinner, later that night when he’s in bed, Rosa quietly slips into his room and there’s quite a powerful description of how they have sex, even though he hates her and he knows she despises him, but she is just so damn erotic. Here, as in a number of the other novels (eg Air Bridge) Innes is very good at honestly depicting the way a man can simply be overcome with lust and be attracted to a woman he positively dislikes.

All this is deliberately and repeatedly contrasted with not so attractive, stocky Janet with her turned-up nose and freckles, with her agonised love for her troubled father and her daily struggle to keep the ranch alive.

Innes is making a deliberate contrast between beautiful heartlessness and not-so-beautiful honesty and truth and, after everything they’ve been through, it is Janet and Alec’s honest, open, homely declaration of love right at the end of the story which, to be honest, brought a tear to my eye.

Environmentalism

It is fairly understated but at several points characters make the point that man has severely damaged the natural environment of Australia. Towards the end the opposition between Kennie Culpin and his father comes to represent the conflict between the older generation, grasping, selfish, only out to make a short-term profit from mining, and the younger generation who think their elders murdered the black aborigines and devastated the flora by over-farming it, until the place has become an inhospitable desert.

40 years later Australia is, of course, still inhabited, though I have read articles claiming that, with climate change, it might in the long term become unviable for human life.

Certainly Innes gives a sympathetic if unblinking portrayal of a number of aborigines, the original owners of the land who knew how to live in harmony with it, degraded by service to the white man and all too often addicted to white man’s alcohol, but many retaining their mysterious link to the soil, to their tribal languages and customs. And at one of the key moments, when Falls confronts Garrety out in the desert and he confesses his murder of McIlroy, the old man’s head is leant back against a rock covered in the strangely powerful geometric designs of the country’s long-dead aboriginal owners, as if this white man’s tragedy is unfolding against a much larger canvas of history and culture.

And the symbolic rainfall at the very end of the novel and the miraculous greening of the land, also represent an earnest, a glimmering gesture towards Garrety’s dying wish that the land not be raped for mineral deposits but that its human masters learn to use its resources more wisely to revive and restore it.

Adaptation

Golden Soak was made into a six part TV mini-series by Australian TV, which you can watch on YouTube, but only appears to be available in a version dubbed into German.

Related links

Fontanta paperback cover of Golden Soak

Fontanta paperback cover of Golden Soak

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 Honorary Consul by Graham Greene (1973)

‘Contrary to common belief the truth is nearly always funny. It’s only tragedy which people bother to imagine or invent.’ (p.21)

Greene in the 1970s

Greene was 69 when this novel was published, entering his fifth decade of astonishing productivity – an output which included prize-winning novels, short stories, Oscar-winning film scripts and plays – and was widely seen as the greatest living English writer of the day.

He had done this in part by mining a narrow vein of themes with obsessive repetitiveness until they were completely identified with him and the phrase ‘Greeneland’ had been coined to describe the imaginary landscape where they met:

  • a gloomy despairing Roman Catholic faith which tortures its believers more than it consoles or uplifts
  • a nihilistic view of human life which leads the protagonists in his most famous novels to kill themselves or seek out death
  • adultery, ideally of the kind that makes the lovers miserable as sin
  • an unerring eye for the seedy or squalid or shabby details of failed lives and disappointed souls
  • a fondness for poverty-stricken war-torn foreign locations such as Mexico, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Cuba, Congo and – in this novel – Argentina run by a military dictatorship

Therefore, part of the pleasure of reading Greene is not only for the prose and story, but in greeting all the familiar tropes which dominate his narratives: it is like saying hello to a gang of old lags: hello to the comfortably familiar pessimism, hello to the reassuringly predictable focus on the seedy side of life, a negativity so relentless that it risks becoming comic despite itself, a bit like Fraser’s cry, ‘We’re doomed, we’re doomed,’ in Dad’s Army.

Hope creaked in his throat like a piece of rusty machinery. (p.23)

The Honorary Consul part 1

The Honorary Consul does not disappoint in its heartless depiction of disappointment. It is set in a remote city in northern Argentina, near the river border with Paraguay (still under the military rule of General Stroessner). The Latin American location immediately is painted vividly: from the horribleness of the military government – one of the characters has three fingers missing, cut off by his torturers under the eye of CIA ‘supervisors’, and the narrator casually mentions the bodies of political murderees washed up on the Argentine side of the river – to the heat which makes everyone sweaty and weary, the ubiquitous atmosphere of Latino slackness and corruption.

‘Assassinations, kidnapping, the torture of prisoners – these things belong to our decade.’ (p.57)

It opens with middle-aged Dr Plarr looking across the wide river at sunset and remembering how he was abandoned by his English father, who shipped him and his mother off to Buenos Aires while staying on in Paraguay to fight the junta. Failure disappointment disillusion. His mother has, of course, not worn well, instead becoming a querulous old lady fussing about her lost estates –

He felt the same sense of wasted time as when he visited his mother and she complained of headaches and loneliness while she sat before a plate heaped up with éclairs in the best teashop of Buenos Aires. (p.51)

– and it was partly to escape her that he chose to take up the medical appointment here at this remote outpost near the border. (How 1930s it sounds.)

Dr Plarr goes to meet the only other Brit in town, Humphries, at the local hotel where, of course, the food is disgusting, produced by a depressed Hungarian chef, the restaurant is empty, the solitary waiter can barely summon up the life to serve them. Plarr, inevitably, notices that the nicotine stains in Humphries’ thin white hair are the same colour as the goulash stains on his napkin. The entire sequence is a showroom display of Greene’s eagle eye for the seedy, shabby, dispiriting and defeated in human existence.

Almost the only institution the narrator mentions with enthusiasm is the brothel, whose madam, we are assured (twice) and with heavy irony, is the wealthiest woman in town.

Señora Sanchez was a very stout lady with a dimpled face and a welcoming smile from which kindliness was oddly lacking, as though it had been mislaid accidentally a moment before like a pair of spectacles. (p.55)

‘like a pair of spectacles’ – it is a characteristically crisp and effective simile, but also characteristically detached and with the note of slightly lofty Edwardian gentility which is the tone of the whole book.

The general air of incompetence, failure and collapse is racked up as the plot is now disclosed to us: the American ambassador has been visiting the city and a gang of ‘rebels’ and ‘freedom fighters’ has used information which Dr Plarr provided them with to ambush his car. Except that, through a sequence of mistakes, they pull over the wrong car and stop the one carrying Dr Plarr’s friend, the ageing, fat British alcoholic Charley Fortnum. Some while ago Fortnum was made Britain’s ‘honorary consul’ in the city and he had been roped in at the last minute to translate from the local Spanish for the US ambassador – and now finds himself ambushed, kidnapped, drugged and carried off to a mud hut in one of the city’s poorest barrios. Plarr is rung up by the rebels in the middle of the night to be informed of this disastrous mistake.

Adultery 1 It wouldn’t be a Greene novel without adultery, his favourite subject and one he was an enthusiastic practitioner of in real life (see the numerous biographies). Dr Plarr is, inevitably, having an affair with ‘his friend’ Charley Fortnum’s wife, Clara. As Plarr tells the police inspector:

‘Charley Fortnum is a friend of mine.’
‘Oh, a friend… It is usually a friend one betrays, isn’t it, in these cases?’ (p.89)

In fact, he was first attracted to her when he saw her working in Señora Sanchez’ brothel – she is a prostitute who Fortnum, with his own kind of ageing white male condescension, fancies he has ‘rescued’. Some time after the marriage, Plarr meets Clara at a chemists shop where she’s buying fancy sunglasses, one thing leads to another and she goes back to his apartment to sleep with him. He’s not very enthusiastic about the situation but keeps on seeing and sleeping with her until he eventually gets her pregnant – she claims she knows for certain, since Fortnum rarely has sex with her – thus creating numerous ‘ironic’ situations where Plarr has to congratulate Fortnum on the old chap’s good fortune ha ha.

Betrayal And not only has Plarr betrayed Fortnum by impregnating his wife, but now – albeit inadvertently – he finds himself instrumental in the absurd mistake of kidnapping him. It all came about because Plarr was approached one day at his surgery by the rebel leader, who he was at school with decades ago, and who persuades Plarr to pass on the timetable of the ambassador’s trip. The plan is to kidnap the American ambassador and hold him hostage until the General, ruler of Paraguay, releases 10 political prisoners there, including Plarr’s own long-separated father – that’s Plarr’s motivation for agreeing. But nobody knew Fortnum would be going along to interpret for the ambassador, and so the rebels intercept the first car driving the agreed route and it turns out to be the one Fortnum is travelling in, since the ambassador’s one was full and following a little way behind.

The plot 2

In the first half the plot is meandering and leisurely with loads of flashbacks to earlier encounters and conversations, which makes it occasionally confusing. From about page 180 the pace picks up as Plarr finds himself agreeing to go out to the mud hut where the rebels are hiding to treat Fortnum, who they injured when he made an escape attempt.

Once he is there, however, they refuse to let him leave. And for the remaining 50 pages of the novel the rebel leader-cum-failed priest and his common law wife Marta, loverboy Plarr, injured drunk Fortnum, and three other rebels, are all trapped in the two rooms of the mud hut, a setting which quickly becomes a kind of pressure cooker or incubator for a whole stream of increasingly programmatic discussions about Greene’s favourite things: adultery, sex, God, sin, despair, the meaning of life.

Presumably these final 50 pages are meant to be nerve-racking – a small cast of characters trapped in a static and hermetic setting, they read as if cannibalised from a particularly claustrophobic play – all with the looming threat of an army attack closing in even as the victims squabble among themselves.

I suppose in 1973 it was new territory to describe what it’s like to be kidnapped by revolutionary terrorists, and it is immensely to Greene’s credit that he escaped the parochial Aga sagas of middle class English fiction to set his novels in such a wide variety of exotic settings.

It is unfortunate, then, that what the squabbling and discussions feel so sixth-formish, like sessions at a theological college, a rather lurid rehash of the usual Greene themes. Maybe if this was the first Greene novel you ever read it would hit you like a thunderbolt, the dramatic setting, the life and death debates. But if you’ve read more than three or four, the effect is more like a rather weary sense of déjà lu.

Meandering

The first 180 pages or so have a very slow leisurely meandering pace. After the revelation in the first 20 pages or so that the rebels have got the wrong man, the text switches to a long series of flashbacks describing Plarr’s first encounter with Fortnum, companionable trips to the brothel, dinners with the tiresome local novelist, visits to his mother in Buenos Aires. Each scene has a point in illuminating the characters, but they are described in a languid easygoing manner which, more than the meaning of the words, convey a certain Latin American laziness to the whole text.

Greene’s novels generally have complex time schemes which allow for plenty of hindsight and memory: The End of The Affair in particular has a cunning interweaving of scenes from multiple moments in the past, and this – for me – is the most impressive aspect of many of his novels, the construction of narratives which work at multiple moments, simultaneously.

But this one feels significantly slower than the others, more leisurely, the interweaving more of a meandering, most of the action having the quality almost of a dream.

There is no feeling that Dr Plarr – supposedly in his thirties – actually does any work. He wanders around the town, reading novels and chatting with the small group of characters in a supremely relaxed easygoing way. These first two-thirds of the novel have a pleasantly soporific effect.

Middle-aged male fantasy

This is not unconnected to the way it is tempting to read the whole novel as a kind of middle-aged male fantasy: you don’t do any work; you lie around all day reading; meet up with friends in the evening to enjoy a meal and a drink and a chat; nobody minds if you stroll round to the whorehouse which is full of attractive and compliant women; which one tonight, you wonder, as you puff on your cigar; or you may prefer to dally with one of your three or four mistresses. And all the time you can be mulling over your own sinfulness, tutting at the way you manipulate your women, elegantly toying with the psychology of sex and adultery and relationships and more sex.

Plarr looks at his devout secretary and wonders why he hasn’t slept with her yet. On the plane back from Buenos Aires he is buttonholed by one of his mistresses, a patient, which leads him to remember having sex with her at her home while her husband was in the room, though drunkenly asleep. He remembers bumping into this woman’s husband at the brothel where the husband was entertaining no fewer than four prostitutes. He remembers a number of other patients who became lovers. He wanders along to the brothel and has a girl and sizes up several others, including the future Mrs Fortnum. It’s in the same lazy inconsequential way that he starts the affair with Fortnum’s wife. After Fortnum is kidnapped he drives out to his house to comfort her, and again they have sex. When he chats to the chief of police they laugh and joke about the women they have both had affairs with. Ha ha ha. Everyone appears to be having sex with everyone else…

Apart from the descriptions of sex (on the whole mercifully brief) these many sexual situations allow Greene to write a lot about the psychology of sex in a man-of-the-world tone which many a modern woman might find offensive and I find rather complacent, but which appears to have appealed to lots of his male reviewers back in the 1970s. All his books contain these quotable quotes, sub-Wildean aphorisms, without the wit or the heart.

Secrecy, he thought, is part of the attraction in a sexual affair. An open affair has always a touch of absurdity. (p.90)

In a real love affair, he thought, you are interested in a woman because she is someone distinct from yourself; then bit by bit she adapts herself to you, she picks up your habits, your ideas, even your turns of phrase, she becomes part of you, and then what interest remains? One cannot love oneself, one cannot live for long close to oneself – everyone has need of a stranger in the bed, and a whore remains a stranger. Her body has been scrawled over by so many men that you can never decipher your own signature there. (p.90)

He began to comfort her with his hand as he would have comforted a frightened dog, and gently, without intention, they came together. He felt no lust, and when she moaned and tightened, he felt no sense of triumph. He wondered with sadness, why did I ever want this to happen? Why did I think it would be a victory? There seemed to be no point in playing the game since now he knew what moves he had to make to win. (p.97)

‘A husband is of great importance in a love affair. He is a way of escape when an affair begins to get boring.’ (p.174)

‘I’ve often noticed,’ Dr Plarr said, ‘when a man leaves a woman he begins to hate her. Or is it that he hates his own failures? Perhaps we want to destroy the only witness who knows exactly what we are like when we drop the comedy.’ (p.216)

And much, much more in the same worldly-wise, one man-of-the-world to another, vein. Maybe this depiction of characters with a very un-English, unashamed and liberal attitude to sex explains his popularity in the 1960s and 70s.

Catholicism In a move which should surprise nobody it turns out the alcoholic honorary consul is a lapsed Catholic, much given to maudlin, drunken, religiose self-pity. Just, in fact, like scores of other Greene characters. To double the dose, the leader of the ‘rebels’ is a lapsed Catholic priest, too. And Plarr was of course raised a Catholic: a trinity of religion-obsessed characters! Which enables them, in the final 50 pages of the book, to have numerous discussions of Catholic ‘issues’ ie for Greene to drop into the text numerous Catholic one liners or paragraphs of bumf, of which he seems able to spin a literally endless amount.

Plarr said, ‘I doubt if her Confession will take very long.’
‘Those who have nothing to confess always take the longest,’ Léon Rivas said. ‘They want to please the priest and give him something to do.’ (p.102)

They always treated him with great courtesy, he noticed… Or was it perhaps the habitual courtesy which a prison warder is said to show even the most brutal murderer before his execution? People have the same awed respect for death as they have for a distinguished stranger, however unwelcome he may be, who visits their town. (p.119)

‘People have the same respect for death as they have for a distinguished stranger… who visits their town.’ That’s gibberish, isn’t it?

‘It is one of the duties of a father to provide.’
‘And God the Father, Léon? He doesn’t seem to provide much. I asked last night if you still believed in him. To me he has always seemed a bit of a swine. I would rather believe in Apollo. At least he was beautiful.’
‘The trouble is we have lost the power to believe in Apollo, Father Rivas said. ‘We have Jehovah in our blood. We can’t help it. After all these centuries Jehovah lives in our darkness like a worm in the intestines.’ (p.216)

It seems to me that Greene has the same attitude of amused complacency towards the Catholic faith as he does to sex, prostitution and infidelity: there is nothing genuinely threatening or disruptive in his description of either: you get the impression he could write hundreds and hundreds of pages of smoothly expressed truisms and bromides about sex or about religion, none of which are really true, none of which ever really making the reader sit up and think. They’re a sort of rhetorical accompaniment, pseudo-philosophical tinsel hung on the melodrama of the plot.

By the end the rebels, after much arguing, convince themselves they need to kill Fortnum if their demands are not met by the deadline they’ve set, otherwise this kind of kidnap will never be taken seriously, the revolution will never happen, justice will never be secured. Specifically, this leads to a series of debates between Plarr and the priest-turned-rebel, Father Rivas, which easily segue into colourful conversations about the character of God, which casually go off in all kinds of wild and imaginative directions.

‘When you shoot Fortnum in the back of the head, are you sure you won’t have a moment’s fear of old Jehovah and his anger? “Thou shalt not commit murder.”‘
‘If I kill it will be God’s fault as much as mine’
‘God’s fault.’
‘He made me what I am now. He will have loaded the gun and steadied my hand.’
‘I thought the Church teaches that he’s love.’
‘Was it love which sent six million Jews to the gas ovens? You are a doctor, you must often have seen intolerable pain – a child dying of meningitis – is that love? It was not love which cut off Aquino’s fingers. The police station where such things happen… He created them.’
‘I have never heard a priest blame God for things like that before.’
‘I don’t blame Him. I pity Him,’ Father Rivas said. (p.219)

Rubbing it in

In case anyone hadn’t realised Greene’s ultimately despairing view of the world, he rubs it in at the climax of the novel by having Dr Plarr killed as he tries to parley a truce with the surrounding military.

Fortnum is returned to his wife in one piece but, having discovered during his ordeal that the child she is carrying is really Plarr’s, his love, his happiness, is destroyed.

And, in a final bitter twist, the British ambassador in Buenos Aires, in a hurry to get Fortnum off the payroll but keen to ensure his acquiescence, tells him they’re relieving him of the position of honorary consul but will be offering compensation in the form of a medal for services rendered to Queen and country, in fact the Order of the British Empire.

Ha, the futility. Oh the humanity.

The movie

The Honorary Consul was made into a British movie, released in 1983, directed by John Mackenzie and starring Michael Caine in sweaty, middle-aged alcoholic mode, along with Richard Gere, Bob Hoskins and Elpidia Carrillo.

Related links

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

The Tightrope Men by Desmond Bagley (1973)

From what Carey had said, his days of high living were over. That suited Denison. In the past few days there had been less chance of high living than of low dying. (p.236)

After the thumping obviousness and poor style of Alistair MacLean’s 1970s thrillers it is a blessing and a relief to turn to Desmond Bagley’s well-written gripping novels of the same era, and this is a real belter.

The man in someone else’s body

It’s told by a third person narrator who relates how Giles Denison wakes up feeling a little groggy to find he is trapped inside the body of a man 15 years older, with completely different features. The resultant panic fear and vertigo are brilliantly conveyed in Bagley’s sober, factual style, as Denison discovers more about his terrifying plight: he went to bed in Hampstead as Denison; now he’s woken up in a hotel bedroom in Oslo, Norway, as a certain Dr Meyrick. The hotel staff confirm he’s been there for three weeks, he has a hire car in his name, down in the foyer a strange woman calls him by name – is it a friend, or his wife or a mistress? He hasn’t a clue.

In his hire car he finds a doll, a souvenir from a nearby beauty spot, with a scrawled message to meet someone there the next morning. He drives there and wanders a little way into the woods only to be confronted by three thugs, one armed with a knife. He punches and runs, jumps into his car giving rise to a hair-raising chase, which ends with the others scarpering and our man detained by the Norwegian police.

The men from the embassy

Several men from the British Embassy come to free him and Denison finally tells them the full story. In a separate room McCready discusses the thing with his angry, sweary boss, Carey. They were carrying out an ‘operation’ with Meyrick; can he conceivably have been swapped with Denison? Can Denison’s mad story be true? How? Why? Carey and McCready take Denison back to the hotel where he then has a placid dinner with the woman he’d met earlier, one Diana Hansen. We know from McCready and Carey’s conversation that she is somehow part of the Meyrick ‘operation’ and Denison finds it out when he has a poke around her handbag and discovers a gun in it. It’s almost as if he’s stumbled into a spy thriller.

That night McCready and Carey drive Denison to a safe house where he is examined by a doctor and a psychologist. They conclude: Yes, he is Denison. He was kidnapped, kept unconscious for a week while persons unknown puffed his face with silicon, created scars and birthmarks (actually tattoos), dragged a slight hood of skin over his left eyebrow, permanently removed the front of his hair and dyed the rest. Excellent job.

The background

Now what? After some procrastinating, Carey explains the set-up. Meyrick is self-made millionaire in electronics, originally from Finland who fled as a boy when the Russians invaded. His father before him had been a world-class physicist, in the Nobel Prize league, and had been working on breakthrough stuff in X-rays when he was killed in a bombing raid. Prior to that, as the war got rough, he had buried a chest of all his papers in the garden. The house, the city and the entire region of Karelia was absorbed by Soviet Russia after the war.

Carey and Meyrick were working on a way to cross the border into Russia, find the house, and dig up the trunk. So. Does Denison want to help? At first, no. So Carey explains that Meyrick’s father’s work into X-rays were theoretical in the 1930s, but in 1960 the laser was developed, a weapon of amazing accuracy and power. The next stage would be the X-ray laser, and Meyrick’s father’s work has a direct bearing on building one. Now does he want to help? Reluctantly, yes.

Lyn

The situation is complicated when Meyrick’s 22-year-old daughter turns up unannounced. Now that Denison is undertaking the mission, he has the whip hand and can get Carey to get his people back in London to knock out dossiers about anyone, and so he gets the gen on the daughter, Lyn. Still, of course, he is busking it like crazy and she soon begins to realise something is going on. Not least because he’s no longer the arrogant superior bastard he used to be but seems genuinely interested in her.

Finland

Lyn and Denison travel to Finland to meet the last survivor of the lab Meyrick’s father ran before the war, a jolly fat physicist. Back in the hotel Denison tries a sauna and is knocked unconscious and wakes up in a dark room, naked in handcuffs. Immediately he is interrogated by a man brandishing a gun, but leaps at the his interrogator, the chain of his cuffs over his throat, before making it to the door and being amazed to realise he is still in the hotel, so he runs down to the lobby stark naked waving a gun. That brings the police, who release him etc once he’s told his story.

Full disclosure

There’s a scene where Carey and McCready travel to see a corpse on an island mortuary. It is almost certainly the real Meyrick. It seems that, in fog, a small vessel was run down by a large liner. C&M speculate that these are the people who ‘lifted’ Meyrick and exchanged him for the surgically-altered Denison; they were transporting Meyrick east when… this accident intervened.

Back in the hotel Denison’s relationship with Meyrick’s daughter reaches a climax when she tricks him with a whole load of false memories of her childhood which he agrees with, thus catching him out – then she angrily demands to know who he really is. Denison collapses, C&M are called, along with Dr Harding, the psychiatrist who first assessed Denison. All together in one room they reveal the truth to Lyn and make the following decisions:

  • Carey’s plan is based on the idea that the Baddies are unsure how much Denison knows – his plan is simple, to send Denison to a series of nature reserves in north Finland, with camping gear, and surveying equipment and maps, to make it look as if he’s searching for something really valuable, hoping the Bad Guys will follow him. He’ll have a deliberately vague and completely fictional map which seems to indicate where Meyrick’s father’s scientific papers are buried.
  • Mrs Hansen aka Diana, will go with Meyrick as protection, as well as McCready as liaison ie ot keep him on-project.
  • Lyn listens to all this and insists that she go as well. C&M are initially reluctant but a) Lyn threatens to blow the whole operation by going to the press b) it would offer good ‘cover’ if the daughter is accompanying the father. Hmm. They agree.
  • Lyn also insists that Dr Harding accompanies them, to monitor Denison’s physical and mental health.
  • All this is entirely a red herring, to distract the Bad Guys away from Carey and McCready who will sneak over the Russian border, go to Meyrick’s father’s old house, and dig up the box of vital secrets.

So the last hundred pages of narrative splits into two parallel streams: Denison, Lyn, Harding and Diana’s decoy mission in the north; Carey and another embassy official, Armstrong’s efforts to get to the famous garden, in the south.

Comedy

Unexpectedly, as the two sets of protagonists pursue their missions, a comic tone enters both narratives.

Up north McCready, on guard at a nature reserve where they’re camping, spots two separate groups making for our heroes, coming along the same river from different ends. He fires a few shots at each, enough to start a battle between them and thoroughly confuse the situation. Unfortunately, while they relax at this minor triumph, Denison wanders away from the camp and is coshed. Again. When he comes to he has regained a lot of his memory but the map has been stolen. Everyone is relaxed. They were fakes, anyway.

The team (Denison, McCready, Mrs Hansen and Dr Harding) move on to a different nature reserve at Sompio, since their job is to continue to act as decoy ducks until they hear that Carey and Armstrong have secured the information from the buried box. They have barely moved into a rangers’ hut before it is surrounded by Czech secret service agents who demand Meyrick’s secret. Clearly these guys don’t know about whoever it was who coshed Denison and stole the map at the first camp. Outgunned, they make a pretence of reluctantly handing over another copy of the useless map, then are locked in as the Czechs make their escape.

Until, that is, shooting breaks out all round the hut: apparently another gang has stumbled across the Czechs and they’re shooting it out. — Just how many different nationalities are after this damned map? In the confusion of this battle in a marsh in the mist, our team escape using the bird-fowling punt Harding found in a nearby boathouse, with hairy moments as bullets from unknown assailants whistle all round them.

Down south Meanwhile, Carey and Armstrong rendezvous with some right-wing Finns who happen to bus into the big factory in the industrial town of Enso every day. For a payment they are ready to let two of their number be replaced by C&A. So C&A nervously go through the process of getting up early, dressing in workers’ clothes, joining the bus and travelling through the Russian border checkpoint, on to the factory, and lying low till another Finn can walk them part of the way to the famous garden.

Here they pretend to be a water pipe inspector and assistant and get permission to use a metal detector and dig up the garden from a worried housewife. There are comedy delays as the family’s little boy follows them round, then the housewife comes out for a chat. Eventually they find the damn box, open it and extract a whole load of papers covered in mathematical symbols, have just put them in secure bags and into a wheelbarrow to walk away when the man of the house turns up and, after initially being suspicious, asks for a go on the metal detector, and then wants to show it to his next door neighbour. Who is a policeman! Tantalising delays. Ealing comedy.

In both of these strands, comedy, banter and back-chat are more prominent than tension. Armstrong and Carey, in particular, have some funny exchanges as they get into their roles of Soviet supervisor and disaffected Soviet worker.

In the end

The northern team escape safely, have a wash and kip and all feel better. Everyone rendezvous at a safe house in Finland owned by British Intelligence. But here, there is one final unexpected twist in the tale…


Old fashioned and sweary

The Freedom Trap‘s first-person narration is clear, colourless and factual. The scenes set in breath-taking Finnish beauty spots are conspicuous for having next to no description. There’s a lake, there’s some birch trees. Bagley is interested in people and procedure, not in local colour.

Also his style in this one is noticeably more stilted and old-fashioned than in the smooth-flowing the Freedom Trap. He uses ‘one’ a lot. And ‘but’ instead of only – ‘A nice gun with but one fault.’ (p.244). After pre-dinner drinks Denison ‘arose’ from his chair. After the meal he turns down a cigarette and ‘soon thereafter’ pays the bill. There are a million different concepts of ‘good style’, it seems Bagley’s notion involved using slightly out-of-date and pompous phraseology, phrases which would be dropped in the 40 years up to our time, and which now stick out uncomfortably.

Denison suspected that he was encountering something of which hitherto he had only heard – the generation gap. (p.77)

‘… of which hitherto…’? Old man style. ‘Which up to now he’d only heard about’. And ‘the generation gap’? Very 1970s, along with the references to the population explosion, long-haired layabouts, smoking pot and taking LSD.

Contrasting oddly with Bagley’s occasional pompousness is the surprising vulgarity. The narrator of The Freedom Trap swore freely and the characters in this novel swear like I remember people swearing in the 1970s ie unrestrained use of bloody, bastard and bugger. (The f and c words are genuinely taboo.)

‘There was a car behind me. The driver was playing silly buggers.’ (p.39) ‘Carey’s bloody wild about that.’ (p.41) ‘You did a Steve McQueen through the Spiralen, roared through Drammen like an express train, and butted a copper in the arse.’ (p.44) ‘… a lot of balls about mysterious attackers…’ (p.45) ‘… an arrogant bastard…’ (p.46) ‘… this bloody odd situation..’ (p.50) ‘Someone has been bloody ruthless about it.’ (p.66) ‘He’s bloody competent.’ (p.69) ‘For Christ’s sake,’ said McCready. (p.70) ‘You’re a really cool, logical bastard,’ said McCready… ‘Balls!’ said McCready (p.218) ‘… those bloody rifles..’ (p.219) ‘Giles was right, you’re a thorough-going bastard.’ (p.246)

The liberal use of these swearwords throughout the text evokes a very 1970s notion of manliness – Old Spice and The Sweeney.


The tightrope walkers

In the last pages all is explained: Ever since the atom bomb was invented, mankind has been walking a tightrope. We are all tightrope walkers. There is a delicate balance of power between NATO and Soviet Russia. The people trying to maintain that balance of terror ie no one side gaining a unique advantage, are the tightrope walkers. And within Government, inside the Whitehall corridors of power, some authorities have the World War Two mindset that all wars can be won; but others know that will lead to nuclear annihilation. Therefore, policy must be finely judged to maintain the balance of power between hawks and doves, to prevent conflict ever breaking out. They, also, are tightrope walkers.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Tightrope Men

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Tightrope Men

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.

The Way to Dusty Death by Alistair MacLean (1973)

‘Please don’t talk like that, Johnny. I’m scared. I’m scared all the time now, scared for you. There’s something terribly wrong, isn’t there, Johnny?’ (p.133)

Suddenly, in this 1973 novel, Maclean’s grasp of style and plot have collapsed. I was 12 or 13 when I started reading MacLean and devouring his back catalogue like sweets. Until I got to the newest ones, this and Breakheart Pass, which I remember struggling to read. And then I abandoned him altogether and moved onto adult writers. For forty years I’ve wondered whether I simply outgrew MacLean in the early 70s, or whether he had got measurably worse. Now I can say quite confidently – he got terrible.

Dusty Death feels like a cartoon or a comic strip compared with the depth, detail and conviction of most of the previous novels. The characters are paper-thin stereotypes: the greatest racing driver in the world; the best Formula One engineer in the world; the richest company owner in the world; two dastardly rivals; the most glamorous hotels, the finest food; the French assassin with his slicked-back black hair…

The plot

The world number one Formula One racing driver, Johnny Harlow (‘Oh, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, what have they done to you?’), has suddenly lost his nerve, taken to drink, become a danger to himself and others. The novel opens in the aftermath of a bad crash where he pulled out in front of a rival overtaking him, at just the worst moment, causing the rival to spin off the track, crash and burn to death, while Johnny’s car went cartwheeling into his own pit, badly injuring the pretty daughter of the team owner – Mary MacAlpine – crushing her leg, laming her for life.

Despite this, everyone gets up the next day and carries on as usual. In a nutshell, Johnny is faking the alcoholism while he is busy breaking into rooms and skulking around the car transporter at midnight, digging up evidence to show that the rest of his team are drug smugglers, led by the fiendish main engineer, Jacobson, with the help of ‘the notorious Marzio brothers’ from Corsica (p.158); that they are keeping the team owner, MacAlpine quiet, by the simple expedient of holding his wife hostage; that they are responsible for his bad driving and for the crash which killed the other driver and lamed Mary, by sabotaging his car. Phew.

It read like a cartoon, made of one or two-page, simply-drawn scenes, and characters speaking simple-minded dialogue which would have looked better in speech bubbles.

Something about Mary The Wikipedia article about MacLean points out that his later books repeat plots and scenes and even whole sentences. And names, Mary or Maria becoming the recurring name of the heroine – there are two Marias in Force 10 From Navarone; in this one, MacAlpine’s wife is called Maria and his daughter Mary.

The style

Everything is cranked up to the max. All the actions or attributes are so-and-so indeed, or no such-and-such whatsoever, everything crudely over-emphasised.

The other man proceeded to search the unconscious Harlow in a very thorough manner indeed. (p.137) He looked very tired indeed. (p.145) The five occupants of the room stretched their hands very high indeed. (p.151) The swarthy man lifted his right hand very quickly indeed. (p.151) Tracchia listened very intently indeed. (p.160) For about three minutes he trailed them at a very discreet distance indeed. (p.174)

Emotions are overblown, 100%, total, complete. There is no subtlety or shading.

Neubauer’s voice was low-pitched, conspiratorial and totally convincing (p.88)… Dunnet remained totally unmoved (p.89)…For long seconds Dunnet stared at Harlow in total disbelief (p.110) ‘Dad? Blackmailed?’ Rory was totally incredulous. (p.146)

He’s much given to making a statement of fact in a facetious or question-begging way, and then picking up on his own wording, along the lines of – ‘He looked very unhappy – and unhappy was indeed the way he felt’ – where MacLean is reacting parodically or ironically or just lazily, not to the situation he’s describing, but to his own slack phraseology.It may have begun as humour but it has become a mannerism.

Dunnet lapsed into a semi-stunned silence and closed his eyes like a man in prayer. Very probably he was. (p.185)

He’s stopped believing what he’s writing. He’s stopped imagining it. Empty phrases proliferate. A parody MacLean sentence would read:

Harlow had the look of an unhappy man, as well he might do, having just received some very bad news indeed, that left him with no alternatives whatsoever, except to undertake the course of action he deemed necessary and had embarked on with an expression of dazed incredulity on his already strained and exhausted but still dashingly handsome face.

Actual sentences from the book include:

Normally the most icily calculating and safety-conscious of drivers, his impeccable standards had become eroded and his previous near obsession with safety dismayingly decreased while, contradictorily, he had consistently kept on breaking lap records on circuits throughout Europe. (p.10)

It is almost as if MacLean has forgotten how to write English.

The hands were still now, hands that bespoke a man at peace with himself, but it would seem likely that the hands belied and did not bespeak for it seemed equally that he was not at peace with himself and never would be again for to say that Johnny Harlow’s fortunes steadily declined from that day he had killed Jethou and crippled Mary one would be guilty of a sad misuse of the English language. (p.31)

Both Mary and Rory watched him go, the former with dull misery in her eyes, the latter with a mixture of triumph and contempt at which he was at no pains at all to conceal. (p.38)

The silence in the dining-room that evening was more in the nature of a cathedral hush, one that could not have been attributed to a beatific enjoyment of the food which was of a standard to earn for the Austrians the most astronomical odds against in the culinary stakes. (p.48)

Harlow remained thoughtful for some seconds, apparently lost in deep thought. (p.105)

Maybe MacLean’s incipient alcoholism was beginning to show; maybe he was ill – though he had another 13 years of life – and no fewer than 11 novels – left in him. But this novel signals a catastrophic, almost tragic, collapse in style and content. Where were his editors? Why wasn’t he getting help?cartoon

It was the best he could think of on the spur of the moment and, besides, the twins, though excellent mechanics, were of a rather simple cast of mind who would readily believe anything that a person of the stature of Johnny Harlow were to tell them. (p.115)

The movie

The novel was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1995, directed by Geoffrey Reeve and starring Simon MacCorkindale as Harlow and Linda Hamilton as the romantic interest, Marie MacAlpine. There’s a short clip on YouTube. It looks dire.

1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Way To Dusty Death

1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Way To Dusty Death

Related links

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

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

First person narrator – the classic novels

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

Third phase

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

Bad

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

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