A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne (1977)

The Algerian War was the long brutal conflict between the National Liberation Front (the Front de Libération Nationale or F.L.N.) fighting for Algerian independence from the French Empire, and the French Army tasked with repressing it.

The war lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic and eventually forced General de Gaulle out of retirement to become President in 1958, solely in order to sort out a peace deal. As the violence committed by both the FLN and the army increased, as international opinion turned against the French, and as the Soviet bloc became friendlier with the Algerian revolutionaries, de Gaulle found himself reluctantly pushed towards the only logical solution – that France withdrew and granted Algeria its independence.

This was so unpopular among the 500,000 or so troops which France had by this time deployed to Algeria, and who had been fighting and dying in often inhospitable environments (the arid desert, the freezing mountains) that it prompted a military coup by the generals in Algeria. This collapsed in just four days, but the rebellion helped bring together a number of mid-ranking soldiers and psychopaths into an anti-de Gaulle, anti-independence paramilitary which called itself the Organisation armée secrète or O.A.S.

These (and other freelancers) planned and attempted some thirty (!) assassination attempts against de Gaulle as well as an escalating campaign of murder and terrorist outrages against liberal French in Algeria, against writers and thinkers in Paris (they bombed Jean-Paul Sartre’s flat and the homes of newspaper editors) as well as attacking Muslim bars, shops, schools, colleges and so on. IN February 1962 they killed over 550 people. The F.L.N. responded with their own tit-for-tat terrorist outrages. In March F.L.N. activists broke into the home of a pied noir nightwatchman, disembowelled his wife and smashed the heads of his two children, aged 5 and 6, against the wall (p.526). This book is packed with stories like that. Every day in Algiers was marked by the sound of explosions and gunfire.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1962 secret talks began between de Gaulle’s emissaries and F.L.N. representatives at a secret location in the Swiss border. Horne’s book – brilliant in every aspect – shows how right down to the wire the F.L.N. representatives refused to budge on the purity of their demands for complete independence and control of all Algeria’s territory (shrugging aside attempts by France to hang on to her naval bases or the vast areas of the Sahara to the south of the Atlas mountains where, ironically, in the last few years of French rule vast reserves of oil and even more of natural gas had been discovered). A peace treaty granting Algeria independence was signed in March 1962.

Brutality

Official French figures tally up to about 300,000 Algerians who lost their lives in the fighting, but even more in the terrorism and as victims of the extensive intra-Muslim fighting and vendettas. The Algerian state settled on the round number of one million Muslims and sticks to it to this day.

The F.L.N. used terrorist tactics, planting bombs, using drive-by shootings and chucking hand grenades into European cafes, bars etc, but mostly they set themselves to murder Algerians who had sold out to the French authorities e.g. native village constables and local caids, cutting off noses or lips as a first warning, slitting the throats of any ‘traitors’ who remained loyal to the French regime. The French efforts became steadily more indiscriminate, arresting all political suspects in the towns, bombing entire villages and, at the scenes of brutal murders of Europeans, running wild and shooting every Muslim in sight. All of which, of course, helped recruitment to the rebels.

Both sides used torture although the F.L.N. routinely used barbaric bloodthirstiness: on August 20, 1955 about 80 guerrillas descended on the town of Philippeville and went from house to house massacring all Europeans. Mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies cut open by bill-hooks, babies had their brains beaten out against the walls. One women had her belly cut open and the corpse of her young baby – cut to ribbons by knives – stuffed back inside her (p.121). When French paratroopers arrived on the scene some hours later they went mad and machine gunned every Muslim in sight.

In this respect F.L.N. tactics worked: the native population was terrorised into abandoning the French and giving the guerrillas help; the atrocities sparked the French into harsh reprisals which further alienated both peasant and educated opinion. The F.L.N. strategy was to militarise the conflict and the whole country, and it worked.

The advent of the O.A.S. in the final period of the war raised the levels of wanton brutality to revolting new heights, as French fanatical right-wingers launched attacks in mainland France and in Paris. The French Secret Service attempts to penetrate the O.A.S. were eventually successful in rounding up the O.A.S. leaders but, ironically, this only increased the level of murder and terrorism because the psychopathic ordinary members were now headless and unchecked.

In another level of irony (and what is history except irony written in blood), Horne shows how the O.A.S. – fighting to keep Algeria French – probably did more than any other group to ensure Algeria became independent.

Their aim was to create such chaos that it would lead to the overthrow of de Gaulle the traitor and then… and then… something good would happen (like the coup plotters, they had no grasp of politics). But their way to achieve this chaos was through random outrages, mostly against moderate and educated Muslims – and this had the effect, in the final year of the conflict, of driving a huge wedge between the communities. And this had toe effect of destroying forever any hope that the pieds noirs would be able to live side-by-side in harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

Divisions on both sides

War suggests two monolithic sides, but in fact both ‘sides’ were deeply divided and riven by factions. Ever since the French Revolution back in the 1790s, the French political nation has been bitterly divided between a revolutionary Left and an authoritarian Catholic Right, with all kinds of ineffective liberals ranged in between. After the Second World War, France also had to contend with a large and powerful Stalinist Communist Party. This contributed to the chronic problem with French politics – its instability: there were no fewer than 21 different governments between 1945 and 1958! It was, thus, very difficult for ‘the French’ to formulate and stick to one policy.

On the other side, Horne explains the political situation at the start of the war among the Algerians: there was a communist party, a Muslim fundamentalist party, and a Liberal party representing the so-called évolués i.e. educated Algerians who were progressing along the state-approved path towards full ‘French-hood’.

All of these found themselves outflanked and outmoded by the violence and determination of the F.L.N. But there were also big divisions ethnically and culturally among the Algerians, and within the F.L.N. itself. For a start there were gulfs between the minority of urban, educated, literate Algerians and the majority of the nine million population which were illiterate peasants. Also between ethnic groups in Algeria, for a large percentage of the population were (and are) Kabyle, descended from the original Berber tribal occupants of the country who had their own language, culture and traditions and not all of whom were Muslim. Horne shows how the Kabyle-Arab divide was a permanent problem of the F.L.N. leadership and on the ground led to some appalling massacres perpetrated by each side.

A glaring example was the Massacre of Melouza, in late May early June, 1957, when FLN rebels massacred 300 Muslim inhabitants of the Melouza village because they supported the rival rebel group M.N.A. To be precise the F.L.N. rounded up every male over the age of fifteen, herded them into houses and the mosque and slaughtered them like animals with rifles, pick axes and knives (p.221).

There was also a long-burning division between the ‘insiders’, who stayed in the country to lead the armed struggle, and a cohort of ‘outsiders’ who a) acted as ambassadors, seeking political and financial support from other Arab states – especially Nasser’s nationalist Egypt and b) worked tirelessly at the United Nations in New York to lobby the Cold War blocs and the rising non-aligned movement to support the struggle.

As in every other aspect of this masterful book, Horne gives a thorough and insightful account of the changing personnel, changing relationships and evolving success of each of these factions.

Obstacles to a settlement

The successive French governments had a dual prong strategy: to completely suppress the armed revolt through military means, while simultaneously implementing ‘reforms’ to try and win over the majority of the population. These were stymied for a number of reasons.

  1. Too little, too late The government sent Liberal Jacques Soustelle as Governor-General of Algeria in 1955 to devise a reform package. He introduced the concept of ‘integration’, not altogether easy to distinguish from the previous policy of ‘assimilation’. He aimed to improve the crushing poverty and unemployment in which most rural Algerians lived. He declared he would make Arabic an obligatory language in Muslim schools, train peasants in modern agriculture, eliminate inequities in education alongside the creation of other public works. But the rebellion had already started and, as atrocity followed atrocity, Soustelle found his rational, sensible plans becoming irrelevant in the sea of blood.
  2. The pieds noirs Pieds noirs is French for ‘black feet’. It’s a slang expression the metropolitan (or mainland) French invented for the French who had settled in Algeria. In actual fact, a large proportion of the European settlers in Algeria were from Italy, Spain and other countries. But they all thought of themselves as 100% French and were led by some powerful men who owned huge businesses, rich from shipping, agriculture, vineyards, housing and so on. There were nearly a million pieds noirs and they dominated the Algerian Assembly. In theory Muslims could be elected to this, but in practice, through a system of double elections designed to prevent Muslims being elected, only a small number of Algerians were representatives, despite the natives outnumbering the settlers by about 9 to 1. Anyway, unlike the French government and Liberal opinion, pieds noirs sentiment was solid and consistent: it was anti any kind of further power or representation for Algerians, it wanted the war pursued with maximum aggression, it was against independence in any shape or form. Early on it held riots against ministers sent over from France and realised that it, too, could mobilise the street and threaten violence to foil any attempts at concession.
  3. Algeria was French The strangest element, the most fateful, tragic aspect of the whole bloody tragedy, was that the French government of 1848 made the fateful declaration that Algeria was an integral part of France, as much a part as Brittany or the Dordogne. At least Morocco and Tunisia to the west and east of it had only been French protectorates and so they could, relatively easily, be given their independence – both in 1956. (An unintended consequence was that F.L.N. fighters could use both countries as refuges and arms bases.) But French politicians were lumbered with the fateful situation that Algeria was legally – and all the pieds noirs took this absolutely literally – part of France and so could not be given independence because it was not legally or culturally perceived as a separate entity.

Thus for the French it was not a question of granting a colony independence: it was a case of losing part of France itself. This, to any outsider, is quite obviously insane and part of the experience of reading this long book is to be soaked in the ongoing insanity of the entire French political class. Looked at in this way, the F.L.N. struggle can be seen as the brutal attempt to make the French realise and admit that Algeria was a nation in its own right.

Indo-China and Algeria – one long war

If the year 1954 rings a bell it’s because that was the year the French Army lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and, as a result, began to withdraw from Vietnam (see my reviews of two classics on the subject, The Last Valley by Martin Windrow  and Embers of War by Frederik Logevall). The massive French base at Dien Bien Phu was overrun in May 1954 and the rebellion in Algeria began in November 1954. In fact Horne shows that the founding meeting of the umbrella group of revolutionary parties that formed the F.L.N. actually took place on the very day that news of Dien Bien Phu reached Algeria. Many of the same military units who had just been repatriated from Vietnam found themselves being sent on to North Africa to fight another insurgency.

Thus, although on opposite sides of the globe, the wars in Indochina and in Algeria can be seen as aspects of the same struggle of native peoples to free themselves from French rule. Taken together they meant that France was engaged in serious colonial wars from 1945 to 1962. Long time, isn’t it? A long time that it could have been devoting its money and energy to rebuilding its war-torn society back home. And, if it had agreed negotiated independence for both countries, how many lives would have been saved, and what a good reputation France would have enjoyed within those countries and around the world. It makes Britain’s withdrawal from India and Pakistan, though flawed, look like the wisdom of Solomon.

The French military record

In the 1950s the French Army had to look back 150 years, to the heyday of Napoleon, to be really sure of major military victories which they won by themselves.

Napoleon’s army had been finally, definitively, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The conquest of Third World Algeria began promisingly in 1830, but the French faced stiffer opposition than they expected and the conquest dragged on for over 15 years. It’s true the French won the Crimean War (1853-56) but only  in alliance with the British, only just, and only after establishing a reputation for caution and delay and after losing huge numbers of troops to illness. A few years later the military suffered a humiliation when their attempt to install a Francophone Emperor in Mexico failed and the puppet Emperor was executed in 1867.

But none of this compared with the seismically crushing military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After the Prussians had finished occupying and looting Paris, the city descended into a super-violent civil war as leftists declared a Commune and the French Army was sent in to defeat and annihilate them. The military defeat of the war and the deployment of Frenchmen to kill Frenchmen left a poisonous legacy which lasted a generation.

A generation later the French Army was the epicentre of the Dreyfus Affair which from 1894 to 1906 tore the country (again) into violently opposing factions either supporting or reviling a certain Captain Dreyfus, who was (wrongly) alleged to have sold military secrets to the Prussians. When he was, finally, exonerated, almost the entire army hierarchy looked like frauds and incompetents.

The French would have lost the Great War if the British Expeditionary Force had not helped to hold the line on the Marne in 1914. After three years of butchery, in 1917 the French Army was dishonoured to suffer widespread mutinies (the British didn’t).

Between the wars France was so divided that many thought the street riots which erupted across Paris in 1934 were the beginning of a civil war. The profound divisions between left, right and liberals encouraged the spirit of wholesale defeatism which led to the speedy French capitulation against invading Nazi Germany in 1940 (‘better the Germans than the reds’, was the cry of conservatives across the country).

France was finally liberated in 1945, with a large contribution from the British but mainly from the overwhelming might of the Americans, scores of thousands of whom died to liberate la patrie. Immediately, the French roared back into arrogant World Power mode and, in Indo-China, instead of taking Vietnamese nationalists seriously, spurned all talks and decided to beat them militarily (the tragic story so brilliantly told in Frederick Logevall’s Embers of War) to restore France’s gloire and grandeur and prestige around the world (it is telling that even in English, we use French words for these ideas).

The eight-year struggle to hang on to Indo-China climaxed in the international humiliation of defeat at Dien Bien Phu, when the French army’s heavily-defended citadel was crushed by the third world army of General Giap, leading the French Army and civilian administration to pack up and leave Vietnam.

(Some of the many, many soldiers, statesmen, civilians and eye witnesses quoted in this long book start the long track of France’s humiliations earlier, with the massive failure of the Seven Years War back in the 1760s, in which King Louis XV’s lack of financial and military commitment led the French to lose both Canada and India to the British Empire. Reflecting on this during the days it took to read this book, a simpler theory came to mind: in the Seven Years War Louis sacrificed the foreign colonies because his main focus was on maintaining France as the pre-eminent military power on the Continent, as his father had and as Napoleon would do. If we take this as the central aim of French foreign policy – to maintain French pre-eminence on the continent – then it was doomed to failure when it met the unstoppable rise of Prussia and Germany from the 1850s onwards. It took three bitter wars between the nations – in 1870, 1914 and 1940 – to prove beyond any doubt that Germany was (and remains) the top power in Europe. So a) France had wasted all those years, men and money in a project which turned out to be futile – while b) all the time their bitter rivals the British were by and large ignoring continental squabbles to focus on expanding their vast maritime empire).

Thus, at their elite academies (e.g. the famous École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr) each new generation of French officers was brought up on an unremitting diet of gloire and grandeur but had, embarrassingly, to look all the way back to the great battles of Napoleon 150 years earlier, to find the last real military victories, the last time the French had really won anything. The French were very aware that in the Great War (arguably) and in the Second War (definitely) its success was on the coat tails of the British and the Americans.

This long history of defeat and humiliation helps to explain the special bitterness and acrimoniousness of France’s relations with her colonies post-1945. She didn’t want to be humiliated yet again. According to the French historian, Raymond Aron:

that deep ingrained sense of past humiliations had to be exorcised. (p.331)

And yet, with bleak irony, it was the very doggedness with which she hung on in Indo-China and in Algeria that ended up guaranteeing the political and military humiliations she was striving so hard to avoid.

It’s important to grasp this sense of inferiority and grievance and bloody determination because it helps to explain the fundamental irrationality of the French military ending up declaring war on their own government, trying to assassinate the French head of state, taking France to the brink of civil war, and why a hard core of ‘ultras’ formed the O.A.S. which set out on a policy of murdering their fellow Frenchmen.

Suez

Horne pithily calls the Suez invasion ‘the shortest war in history and possibly the silliest’. (p.163). I hadn’t previously understood its connection with Algeria. The French were convinced that Nasser (leader of Egypt) was supplying the F.L.N. with arms and munitions (they and everyone else were given that impression by the fiery pan-Arab messages coming over on Radio Cairo). In fact, Nasser and the other Arabs were notably unhelpful in the early part of the war, refusing to supply the rebels anything – but the French didn’t know that. Thus when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 – two years into the Algerian crisis – the French seized the opportunity to strike a blow against the (supposed) supplier of their enemy in Algeria. The Israelis already wanted to strike a blow against the strongest Arab state and both countries leaned on the British to get involved.

The Suez Crisis is remembered because only a day or so into the joint Israeli-French-British assault on the canal zone the Russians began to make loud warning noises and President Eisenhower threatened to ruin the British economy by selling the U.S. government’s sterling bonds unless the Brits desisted. British forces were stopped in their tracks and British political leaders, the army, informed public opinion, all realised – with a never-to-be-forgotten jolt – that it marked the end of Britain’s role as a Global Power.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s my generation accepted all of this as a given and now, 60 years later, it seems like ancient history. But it is just one more of the many insights this wonderful book throws up, to revisit it from the Algerian perspective.

Scale

The Algerian War is important in its own right, as the largest and bloodiest of all decolonising wars. You occasionally read about:

  • Britain’s heavy-handed response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, but that eight-year conflict resulted in some 12,000 Kenyan dead (mostly killed by fellow Kenyans) and only 200 settlers dead.
  • The Malayan Emergency, when Chinese communists led an insurgency against British imperial forces over a 12-year period from 1948 to 1960, led to a total of about 2,000 Malay and British police and army killed, and some 6,000 communist insurgents dead.
  • The crisis in British-held Cyprus in the later 1950s which resulted in some 600 dead.

Together with other small conflicts, these ’emergencies’ and insurgencies routinely appeared on the front pages British newspapers during the 1950s, but they are quoted here to compare and contrast with the awesome scale and enormous casualties and the huge political turmoil of the Algerian War. It was a completely different order of magnitude and the sheer number of bombings and atrocities is impossible to imagine. In some months there were over 1,000 incidents, over thirty every day. At the peak of O.A.S. activities they would set off 20 or 30 plastic explosive devices every day. In all, the French authorities recorded some 42,090 acts of terrorism.

Horne’s book is long and immaculately detailed, giving a riveting military history of the entire conflict, peppered with accounts of just enough of the atrocities to make you feel continually sick, and tense at the scale of what was at stake. It is like one of the most gripping novels ever written.

Long-term

The Algerian War turned out to be a testing ground for the kind of urban terrorism which has become so common in the 21st century, a pioneer of the strategy of attacking ‘soft’ civilian targets – nightclubs and pop concerts – in order to militarise and polarise society: the worse the atrocity, the greater the success in creating the battle lines.

The only response to this kind of terrorism-to-divide is not to rise to the bait and not to let society become polarised. But the best way to prevent it is not to allow injustice and grievance to build up to such a pitch in the first place, by giving all parts of society a voice, a say, and by having mechanisms through which to confront and solve grievances.

The war was also a template for the kind of asymmetric warfare in a Muslim country between a Western-style army and irregular militia and terrorist units, which has also become common in the 21st century – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. The cover has a blurb from Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco – the damning account of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – which says this book has become compulsory reading for all U.S. military officers and counterinsurgency specialists, and Horne himself draws direct parallels with the Iraq invasion in his preface to the 2006 edition.

The war was such a long and convoluted conflict, with so many aspects, that it also contains examples of a whole range of political problems. In fact, it could almost be read as a sort of compendium of classic problems of statecraft.

  • How not to colonise a country and how not to ruinously hang on to it long after the time to go has come.
  • How not to stage a military coup, something the generals in fact attempted twice, failing both times.
  • How to return to a divided nation as a saviour, how to be all things to all men, and then how to steer a perilous course through violently opposing factions – as de Gaulle did.
  • How not to try and assassinate a head of state.
  • How to penetrate urban guerrilla organisations – Horne’s account of how the French penetrated the undercover F.L.N. network during the Battle of Algiers is brilliant.
  • Just as insightful, and impressive, is the account of how General Maurice Challe in 1959 instituted a whole new method to tackle attacks by smallish groups in remote desert areas – by using radio to call in helicopters carrying reinforcements to surround the armed bands, and by not giving up the chase or hunt until each one had been exterminated. Challe’s approach was showing real results, clearing entire areas of nationalists and reducing attacks, when his operation was overtaken by political developments and he was replaced by a general who never completed the process.
  • Building a wall. Like the Israelis were later to do, and Donald Trump threatens to do in our time, the French built a wall against their enemies. In their case it was an electrified fence stretching along 320 kilometres of Algeria’s border with Tunisia, the so-called Morice Line, because Tunisia in particular was a major bolthole for F.L.N. operatives, guns and money. The Morice Line formed a barbed-wire barrier lined with minefields and a sophisticated alarm system which alerted rapid response units to attempts to breach it, and who could be quickly helicoptered to the breach to intercept and kill F.L.N. fighters.
  • Urban uprisings. Both the pieds noirs and the Muslims staged mass uprisings in Algiers. The French one, starting in January 1960, was called ‘the week of barricades. Horne even-handedly shows how the pieds noirs students and activists organised it, and how the authorities tried to handle it.

There is just a whole host of war-related conflict and public order disturbances throughout the book. Not only Western armies but police forces could probably learn something about managing civil disturbance, disobedience and violent crowds.

Mass migration

The peace was signed with little agreement about the future of the pieds noirs. Seeing themselves as sold down the river, abandoned by their fatherland, and terrified of the reprisals in store once an F.L.N. government took over, the result was panic and a mass movement of people on a scale not seen since the end of the Second World War.

Over a million pieds noirs fled Algeria in a matter of weeks! There were many heart-breaking and panic-stricken scenes which Horne describes. Because of the demand on ships and planes, the pieds noirs were only allowed to take two suitcases of belongings with them. So they made bonfires of all their other goods, mementoes and belongings, then left their homes, which had often been the homes to families for many generations, abandoned to their new Arab owners. The refugees arrived in a France which was completely unprepared for them and which struggled to find homes and schools and jobs for them for many years to come.

Much worse, though, was the fate of the harkis, the native Muslims who had collaborated with the French Army and administration. Up to a quarter of a million Algerians worked with the French army, the ones who came under actual army discipline being called harkis. One of the (just) grievances of senior army figures was that the fate of the harkis wasn’t even addressed in the peace negotiations. Only about 15,000 managed to escape to France. The rest, over 200,000, were, in effect, left to the mercies of the F.L.N. which means that very many of thyem were tortured and murdered.

No-one knows for sure how many of these collaborators were murdered in the months that followed the French withdrawal in July 1962, but Horne quotes a few of the horror stories which later emerged. Hundreds were used to clear the minefields along the Morice Line by being forced to walk through them and get blown up. Many were tortured before being killed.

Army veterans were made to dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed; they were burned alive, or castrated, or dragged behind trucks, or cut top pieces their flesh fed to the dogs. Many were out to death with their entire families, including young children. (p.537)

In some barracks French officers were ordered to take away the harki‘s weapons, promising them replacements, but then departing the next day, leaving the harkis completely unarmed and defenceless. Some French soldiers were ordered to stand impassively by while harkis were killed in front of them. As you’d expect, many French officers disobeyed orders and smuggled their Muslim comrades abroad, but nowhere near enough.

This book is absolutely packed with situations like this, cruel ironies of war and defeat, atrocities, torture and murder. 600 pages of horror – but reading it gives you an important – a vital – insight into contemporary France, into contemporary Algeria, and into contemporary conflicts between the West and Islam.

A Savage War of Peace

Sir Alistair Horne’s account was first published in 1977 and has long held the field as the definitive account, in English, of this awful conflict – although new studies have appeared throughout that period.

At 600 pages it is long, thorough and beautifully written. I’d read criticisms that it doesn’t give a proper account of the Algerian side, but there is page after page devoted to portraying and analysing the lead characters in the F.L.N. and to disentangling the hugely complex machinations both among the F.L.N. leadership, and between the F.L.N. and the other Muslim groups.

Horne quotes extensively from interviews he himself held with as many of the surviving F.L.N. leaders as he could track down. He explains in forensic detail the social, cultural, economic and political barriers put in the way of Algerians under French colonialism and the multiple unfairnesses of the French system, which led to so much poverty and grievance. When the violence gets going Horne is scrupulous in abominating the results of the terrorist attacks by all sides, and the execution of ‘traitors’ within the F.L.N. or to the civil war between Arab and Kabyle. But he accompanies these with clear-headed explanations of why each side adopted strategies of atrocity. It struck me as perfectly balanced.

Horne was a journalist in the lead-up to the war (working for the Daily Telegraph) and was in Paris researching his first book when the war broke out. He gives examples of the impact de Gaulle’s rousing speeches had on him and fellow journalists as they heard them. He was there. This gives him the invaluable advantage of being able to really convey the atmosphere and the mood, the psychology, the milieu, the feel of what is now a long-distant period.

As mentioned, Horne carried out extensive interviews with all the key players he could track down including – fascinatingly – surviving leaders of the F.L.N. and of the O.A.S. and the French coup leaders. He interviewed no fewer than five of the ex-premiers of France who governed during this stormy period. The text is littered with quotes from key players which shed invaluable light on the complex and long, long course of events. It also means he is able to give in-depth accounts by the main players of vital political and military decisions taken throughout the period.

Horne was himself a soldier who served during World War Two, and so manages to get inside the peculiar mindset of the soldiers in this war, from the foot soldiers on both sides to the higher ranks, the colonels and generals. He doesn’t view the conflict as an academic would (or as I would) as an abattoir, an unrelenting list of brutal murders and tortures – but rather as killings carried out in the name of understandable (if reprehensible) military and political strategies.

Speaking as a non-military man, as much more the liberal humanities student, from one angle the entire text – like the war – is a kind of exploration of the strange twisted notions of ‘honour’ which led men to throw hand grenades into dance halls, to assassinate schoolmasters, to slit the throats of gendarmes, to eviscerate pregnant women. You could make a list of the people – the generals and colonels – who pompously spout on about ‘honour’ and then correlate the massacres and murders committed by their troops. Something similar could maybe done to the F.L.N. who spoke about human dignity and smashed children’s heads against walls or slit open pregnant women.

I circled every mention of ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ I saw. So often they came just before or just after the description of yet more killing, bombing and knifing. Eventually I wished, as the narrator of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell To Arms does, that those old words – glory, honour, pride, dignity – could all be abolished, scrapped forever, thrown into the depths of the sea.

Horne’s style

I’m an English graduate. Words always interest me. Horne was very posh. The son of Sir Allan Horne, he was born in 1925 and sent to a series of public schools before serving in the RAF and the Coldstream Guards during the war. All things considered, it’s impressive that his prose isn’t more old-fashioned. It happily belongs to that post-war style of posh, correct English, grammatically correct but loosened up by the egalitarianism and the Americanism of the post-war years. His prose is a pleasure to read and to read aloud. As a tiny detail of this masterpiece of historical research & writing, I enjoyed the way he confidently uses rare and flavoursome words:

meridional Relating to or characteristic of the inhabitants of southern Europe, especially the South of France, in practice meaning hot-tempered

Says Jouhaud proudly [his disguise] gave him the air of ‘an austere professor, whom candidates would dread at exam time’, though, in fact, photographs reveal something resembling more the coarse features of a meridional peasant. (p.481)

contumelious – (of behaviour) scornful and insulting; insolent

[In the French National Assembly] one of Abbas’s fellow deputies had declared: ‘You showed us the way, you gave us the taste of liberty, and now when we say that we wish to be free, to be men – no more and no less – you deny us the right to take over your own formulas. You are Frenchmen, and yet you are surprised that some of us should seek independence.’ After this eloquent plea, he had been brought to order by the President of the Chamber in this contumelious fashion: ‘Monsieur Saadane, I have already reminded you that you are at the French tribune. I now invite you to speak in French there…’ (p.73)

Objurgation A harsh rebuke:

Through being in charge of the Cinquieme Bureau, with its potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare [Colonel Jean] Gardes had a powerful weapon and he now used it unhesitatingly to further the cause of francisation – regardless of the objurgations of [Delegate-General] Delouvrier. (p.354)

The Islamic world

Horne has some blunt and simple things to say about the Islamic world. Writing in 2006 he says:

In many ways the horrors suffered in Algeria’s own civil war do read like a paradigm, a microcosm of present-day Islam’s frustrated inadequacy to meet the challenges of the modern world, the anger generated thereby finding itself directed into lashing out against the rich, successful West. (p.18)

This has not got any less true with the eruption in 2011 of the Arab Spring revolts which, in most cases, led to brutal suppression (as in Egypt) or the kind of chaotic civil war to be seen in contemporary Libya or Syria. If you include the under-reported civil war in Yemen, itself a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the recent ostracism of Qatar by the other Gulf states, it’s not difficult to see the entire Arab world as racked by conflicts and crises which its own political and cultural traditions don’t seem equipped to handle.

European nations themselves are fragile – until a generation ago half of Europe was part of the Soviet empire; in my lifetime Spain, Portugal and Greece were run by military dictatorships. And as Horne’s book brings out, just as I was born (in 1961) France nearly experienced a full-blown military coup which could have plunged the country into civil war. Democracy is extremely fragile, requires deep roots, requires the ability to disagree with your opponent without wanting to cut their throat.

Neo-Malthusianism

My son (19 and studying philosophy) calls me a neo-Malthusian. He means that whenever we discuss current affairs I always come back to the sheer scale of human population (and the related destruction of the natural environment). When France invaded, the population of Algeria was 1 million. When the insurrection broke out in 1954 it was 9 million. When Horne wrote his book in the mid-1970s it was 16 million. Today (2017) it is 41 million. The country is lucky enough to float on a vast reserve of natural gas which should underpin its budget for generations to come. But all across the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan, huge population increases have put pressure on governments to supply jobs to young men, while at the same time all those countries are reaching the limits of their agricultural and natural resources (of water, in particular).

I don’t think a ‘clash of civilisations’ is inevitable; but I do think an ever-expanding population will provide the motor for unending conflict, and this conflict will be channelled into well-worn channels of racial and religious conflict, invoking the well-worn vocabulary of grievance, victimhood and justification (this doesn’t mean just anti-western violence: the conflict between Sunni and Shia will just get worse and worse, the proxy wars between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi will get worse; the plight of communities caught in the middle – the Kurds or the Egyptian Copts – will continue to deteriorate).

And various groups or individuals will accept the by-now traditional discourse that ‘It’s all the West’s fault’, that ‘There are no civilians; everyone is a warrior in the war against the infidel’, and so will be able to justify to themselves setting off bombs at pop concerts, driving a truck into a crowd of pedestrians, machine gunning sunbathers on a holiday beach, or storming into a popular market to stab everyone in sight.

All of these things happened during the Algerian War. And all of them are happening again. There are now five million Algerians living in France out of a total population of 67 million. Many of them descendants of the harkis who managed to flee in 1962, many are temporary migrant workers, and many are refugees from Algeria’s bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Many millions are crammed into squalid banlieus, suburbs of cheaply built high-rises and equally high unemployment, where periodic riots break out – the subject of Mathieu Kassovitz’s terrifying film, La Haine. France has been living under a state of emergency since the Bataclan attacks in November 2015. A massive deployment of troops and police was called up for the recent French elections. I shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a permanent state of emergency. Angry Muslims are here to stay.

The Algerian War has effectively crossed the Mediterranean to France… (p.17)


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)

‘… the madness, the bitterness, the horror and doom of it…’ (p.87)

Types of history

There’s a vast and ever-growing factual historiography of the Vietnam War, which for the past twenty years has been able to take advantage of the post-communist opening up of archives in Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi to present a fully-rounded history of the Indochina conflict, setting it in the long perspective stretching back to the Great War and forwards past the collapse of Russian communism in 1990.

These accounts are now able to analyse the course of events from the perspective of the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese and Chinese, and can bring the same detachment historians have been used to applying to the Great War or the Crimean War.

But then, and quite separately, there is the mythology of the American War in Vietnam – a whole cultural complex, a mood, a movement, like a fashion, whose most enduring features at this distance in time are the classic movies it produced – Apocalypse NowThe Deer Hunter and so on – and the powerful pop music of the late 1960s – from the Beach Boys to Jimi Hendrix – which provided a soundtrack to the conflict.

All of this has been mixed and mashed with contemporary TV news footage and documentary clips of jungle mayhem, urban bombings, the last helicopters leaving the U.S. embassy in Saigon, cut and edited into sequences readily available on the History Channel or YouTube. A ‘myth’ as instantly recognisable as montages of flappers and jazz recall the Roaring Twenties or bomb blasts illuminating the night-time sky over Baghdad recall the Iraq War.

New journalism

Michael Herr’s Dispatches is one of the classic accounts of the Vietnam war but from a very particular, unconventional, mythopoeic perspective. The late 1960s saw the birth of ‘the New Journalism’, epitomised by the wacky reportage of Tom Wolfe and later taken to the limit in the ‘Gonzo Journalism’ of Hunter S. Thompson.

In this new approach the ‘reporter’ identified powerfully with the counterculture of the day, especially its openness to drugs and pop music. Their ‘pieces’ abandoned traditional journalistic attempts at objectivity in order to present personal, subjective accounts and to freely deploy literary devices like stream-of-consciousness, different points of view, florid imagery and so on. And the ‘reporter’ more often than not became the hero, the dazed centre of the report, struggling to make sense of the crazy world around him.

Herr was in at the start of this movement and a 1965 piece by him about Vietnam is included in the 1973 book-length anthology, The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe, which gave the ‘movement’ its name.

Dispatches’ prose and attitude is very much of its time, it’s the kind of knackered paperback you found lying around your elder brother’s room along with Zen and the Art the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (1970) among the butts of old joints and Leonard Cohen LPs. It is the high-tide of the new journalism approach to reporting Vietnam, it is a landmark, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

Dispatches

So Dispatches isn’t a work of history but neither is it conventional journalism. It consists of six titled sections (themselves made up of shorter numbered section), some of which appeared in magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone, which are copyrighted 1968, 1969, 1970, and which report on events the author witnessed from 1967 through 1968.

1. Breathing In (pp.11-61)

The first section opens in late 1967. The tone is hip, knowing, cool. Herr’s prose is always wearing shades and three days of stubble. His gift for phrase-making and capturing the mixed-up street slang-cum-war jargon of the Army in Vietnam to try to convey the mind-bending experiences offered in so many ways by the war, is frequently breath-taking.

In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder. (p.16)

Long looping sentences clotted with nouns, he also turns and twists the language to give familiar phrases new meanings in new contexts. He has a fantastic gift for vivid phrase making.

It was the same with your ongoing attempts at getting used to the jungle or the blow-you-out climate or the saturated strangeness of the place which didn’t lessen with exposure so often as it fattened and darkened in accumulating alienation. (p.19)

1960s slang and Nam slang, street slang, American slang, drug slang, black slang, war slang all meet on top of a sustained attempt to define indefinable sensations, pin down evanescent ideas, track down fleeting emotions:

At least actual contact when it was happening would draw long raggedy strands of energy out of you, it was juicy, fast and refining, and travelling towards it was hollow, dry, cold and steady, it never let you alone. (p.20)

This first section is the most trippy and poetic, pushing you in the deep end of deranged military activities and manic thoughts, offering up a smorgasbord of anecdotes, insights and reflections punctuated by manic moments under gunfire, contributing to the overwrought, druggy vibe.

2. Hell Sucks (pp.62-73)

Just one of the blasphemous mottos all the Marines were allowed to paint on their helmets – Born to Kill, Far from Fearless, Mickey’s Monkey, Avenger V, Born to Raise Hell (p.65).

Once Herr has established his recklessly anecdotal, prose poetic, wigged-out style in the first section, this second one is a relatively short burst describing the intense days Herr spent in the city of Hue during the Battle which raged around the Viet Cong-held Citadel in January 1968 – many mangled bodies, death-eyed G.I.s (uniformly referred to as ‘grunts’) telling him their Zen stories, hiding behind the huge Citadel wall from NVA snipers and everywhere terrified and injured civilians.

(Compare and contrast Don McCullins’ account of his eleven days in the same place and time, in his gripping autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour.)

3. Khe Sanh (pp.74-133)

The longest section, this gives an impressionistic account of the time Herr spent inside the American camp at Khe Sanh up near the Demilitarised Zone, during part of the epic siege which took place between 21 January and 9 July 1968. There’s more factual information here than in any of the other sections, explaining where Khe Sanh was, the layout of the camp and surrounding hills, information about the U.S. military units and the suspected North Vietnamese Army units which were surrounding and bombarding it, reporting on the progress of the ‘battle’ i.e. the enormous tonnage of bombs the U.S. Air Force dropped on the Viet Cong, as well as sections giving the ‘official’ version of U.S. strategy and events, including an interview with a half-deaf and totally out-of-touch colonel back at HQ.

But much more than that, this section gives a sense of how it felt to be there, numb with terror or awed by the beauty of incoming rounds or outgoing tracer fire, laced with insights about the bitter rivalry between the Marine corps and the Air Cavalry, the anxiety every correspondent felt about the next chopper that can take you out of harm’s way.

It also has the most extended portrait of specific U.S. soldiers – an odd couple comprising skinny blonde Mayhew and huge black ‘Day Tripper’, describing their arguments and confusion and unspoken solidarity.

This section contains a great one-page account of a VC sniper secure in a bunker a few hundred yards from the camp, who survives so much shooting and bombing and even napalming of his position that the Marines end up cheering him and nicknaming him ‘Luke the Gook’.

It has the one-page story of mean Southern redneck Orrin who gets a letter from his girl back in Tennessee telling him she’s pregnant with another man’s baby and describing Orrin’s hard-core vow to survive the war and get home in order to kill her. And, so ubiquitous is superstition among combat troops, that from that moment on, Orrin’s vow made him ‘lucky’, so that other soldiers sought out his presence, as if his vendetta would preserve him.

There’s the story of the voodoo black grunt who uses an M-79 grenade-launcher to ‘take out’ a wounded VC who’s lying out in the perimeter barbed wire screaming, without even looking, from the sound alone, to everyone’s awe. A scene lifted entire and used in Apocalypse Now, presumably by Herr himself who worked on the script for that epic film. (He also co-wrote the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick’s Nam movie, Full Metal Jacket.)

Eventually, after the six month siege ended with the VC melting away from Khe Sanh, the U.S. Army secured its perimeters, cleared up and after a few months completely abandoned the entire camp, removing all assets then blowing up the bunkers. Herr doesn’t invent the air of crazed futility about the whole enterprise, it is there in the actual facts, in the historical record, in the universal sense of pointlessness and absurdity.

Postscript: China Beach (pp.134-136)

Short description of China Beach facing the Bay of Danang where lucky troops get to go for a few days rest and recuperation (R&R). Its main point is that a few weeks later Herr bumps into some soldiers from the division he was with at Khe Sanh, and asks after the skinny joker, Mayhew, who we’d got to know in the previous section – only to learn he’d been killed, a direct hit from a  VC rocket-propelled grenade.

4. Illumination Rounds

These are short snippets, satoris, epiphanies.

  • The time he was riding in a Chinook which was under VC fire and the trooper next to him was hit and bled to death.
  • The bad reputation of the overpaid civilian construction engineers drinking and whoring in Saigon.
  • After a massacre of VC the U.S. captain had twenty or so VC corpses loaded into helicopters and then dropped on the centre of nearby villages to make a not-so-subtle point.
  • A pen portrait of Davis, a grunt shacked up down a back alley in Saigon with a local hooker, getting stoned with the boys and his unhappiness at the trap he’s caught himself in.
  • Meetings with the officer who claimed to have invented the phrase ‘Dink’ for VC, shortened from Rinky-Dink, because he didn’t like the common nickname ‘Charlie’.
  • How he first heard Jimi Hendrix on a tape deck switched on by a black grunt while they were all pinned down by VC fire in a paddy field. Jimi Hendrix – Fire (May 1967)
  • The Army surgeon in the provincial hospital at Can Tho a few days into the January 1968 Tet Offensive, who had been operating on wounded men for twenty hours without a break and ‘could not have looked worse if he’d lain all night in a trough of blood’ (p.150).

And so on…

5. Colleagues (pp.152-199)

This, the most thought-provoking section, begins as an account of the community of photographers and correspondents in Vietnam, which he estimates topped 700. His closest buddies were the photographers Tim Page, Sean Flynn, Rick Merron and Dana Stone (the ‘lapsed logger from Vermont’). They each get pen portraits, descriptions of their looks and attitudes and abilities, but the star of the show is Flynn, son of Hollywood actor Errol Flynn, who worked hard to live down his parentage but earned his chops as a fearless photographer.

This could have got a bit pally about his heroic mates, but Herr takes it deeper, with a number of anecdotes examining the odd relationship between the correspondents and the grunts. For example, the soldiers can’t believe the journos are there by choice.

And Herr moves on to ponder just what it was that drove him and the others to volunteer, to be there at all, to chopper out to wherever the ‘action’ was. To test themselves? To see if they measure up as men? And for the rush, the unparalleled adrenaline rush which comes from being under fire, running, shit-scared – which at the same time is the most exciting thing in the world and the most gut-churningly, pant-wettingly terrifying thing in the world – but which they become addicted to. Thus they come to understand not only the sick-to-death despair of the grunts who just wanna go home, but also the inexplicable compulsion of the soldiers who extend their tours, sign on for more. And also the terrible alienation of those who finish their time, ‘rotate back to the World’ – but discover they just don’t fit in any more; nothing makes sense or is so intense or meaningful as what they’ve just been through; who miss their comrades; who have to come back.

And then this section goes deeper still to consider the strengths and failures of media reporting on the entire war and Herr emerges from the stoner prose to make some really strong, sober points.

  1. His generation, he says, were saturated with TV and films – they experienced the war even on the ground in terms of movie scenarios, expecting people to get up after the firefight, adopting poses they’d seen in the movies – all of which prevented them, for a while, from realising this was ‘real’.
  2. The official version of events given out by the Army at their daily press conferences (nicknamed by the press corps the ‘Five O’Clock Follies’) was ludicrously detached from events on the ground, which correspondents had often witnessed for themselves that same day (‘most of what the Mission wanted to say to the American public was a psychotic vaudeville’, p.173). But the correspondents still had to report it, the official view. And since they all reported the same Official Version then – compared to the scattered, disorganised, highly personal nature of each of their alternative views – the Official Version tended to dominate the media and create the strongest impression on the Great American Public, simply by nature of its repetition and its consistency.
  3. Also militating towards the Official Version was the fact that most photographers and journalists worked for daily newspapers or TV stations and so were always in a tearing hurry to file a ‘story’, some – any – pics and words to send back to their agency or paper or channel, and the Official Version was always the easiest, the readiest-to-hand. This was another factor in its predominance, even though almost all the correspondents in the country knew it was horse shit.
  4. And another element of its dominance was the sheer amount of information the officials gave out, using a bewildering and evergrowing set of metrics, data and statistics – ‘kill ratios’, ‘tonnage of bombs dropped’, ‘enemy casualties’, ‘territory seized’, ‘light losses’, ‘moderate losses’, ‘heavy losses’ – to lie, lie and lie again, to hide the bitter truth that they were losing and ‘the Mission’ was failing. These blizzards of stats were easily printed and broadcast, they filled space and sounded impressive – they reassured the public that everything was under control.

Only slowly did Herr realise what a privileged position he was in because he was not a correspondent – he was a writer sent with an open-ended brief from the monthly men’s magazine Esquire, which he interpreted as the freedom to skip around, catching choppers to wherever sounded ‘interesting’, wherever the ‘action’ was, which gave him the time to really get to know the grunts, to get under their skin, to see the war from their point of view.

All of this leads up to what I take to be the credo or manifesto or thinking which lies behind Herr’s deliberate adoption of the common soldier’s point of view, language, drugs and spaced-out attitude. Which is that –

The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which is of course what it was all about. (p.173)

So on one level the entire book can be seen as an experiment in trying to create a prose style which can report meaningfully about death. Not facts or history, though some are required to give context. Instead a turbo-charged attempt to capture the incredibly intense emotions of bewildered, confused soldiers under fire in a chaotic, incomprehensible war.

In interviews Joseph Heller claimed that his World War Two classic, Catch-22 was actually more a satire about corporate America, about project management and management theory and management speak than about the  actual war. In Vietnam the ghastly wedding of management speak and grotesque carnage reached new heights – Herr contemptuously refers to the more senior officers who asked the press corps to

… get with the programme, jump on the team, get in for the Big Win. (p.184).

But Herr was blissfully free of the straitjacket of daily reporting which tied up most of his comrades, free to understand the crucial central fact, that:

Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it. (p.175)

And hence, quite simply, the rationale for his new journalism approach – for his stoner, tripped-out, grunt-level view of the madness. And that’s why his book is still a classic. 50 years after the event, 40 years after it was published, it still captures and describes in the gaudy poetry of American street slang the unbelievable intensity, horror and beauty of modern armed combat, as no straight journalism, military reports, or sober histories ever could.

This section winds down with very personal reminiscences of his gang of buddies as the legendary Tim Page returns to Nam, and Herr, Page and Flynn enjoy wacky, frat-house adventures, getting stoned, playing the Mothers of Invention real loud, winding up Army Press Officers – he makes it sound like a swell life, like one long mad party, driving down to China Beach to catch some rays, then travelling back to Hue, now completely pacified and cleaned up, incapable of believing all the pain and carnage he witnessed there.

From what I can make out, Herr was only in Nam for about nine months, from the end of 1967 through the Tet Offensive (Jan-Sep 1968), the Battle of Hue (Jan-Mar 1968), the siege of Khe Sanh (Jan-Jul 1968) and leaving in September 1968.

The end of the book is desperately sad, like coming down after a great party. Herr is back in the States when he hears that Tim Page has received his final, almost fatal, head injury, and flies back to see him. Page has definitely retired, has a girlfriend, slowly recovers the use of his legs and even his left arm. They get stoned with Flynn and other friends, laugh about the old times, cry about the old times. It’s all over. Time to go back to ‘the World’, where they will never quite fit in or feel at ease.

6. Breathing out (pp.200-207)

A few last pages struggling to make sense of 1968 and the way the war and the rock music fused in that year and then short-circuited the decade. Then came the awful 1970s and Herr watched on TV the choppers he had loved cadging lifts across war zones on, being pushed off U.S. aircraft carriers into the South China Sea after the final American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973.

And then, finally, in spring 1975 the North Vietnamese Army fought their way south to conquer and unite the country after thirty years of struggle. Herr poignantly reports seeing pictures of victorious Viet Cong soldiers sitting on the banks of the Danang River, exactly where the U.S. Press Centre had been and where Herr and his pals had sat smoking and joking and laughing. All gone now.


Analysis

The fantastically powerful and evocative trippy, stoner prose and the ‘attitude’ it describes can be analysed out into distinct strands:

Meaningless chaos – coming under fire in ‘random contacts’ – the GI who points his gun at Dana and, they all felt, could easily have pull the trigger. The whole war effort ‘out of control’ (p.45) all mirrored by the deliberate sense of getting-out-of-control created by the drugs of choice, pot and acid.

The risibility of the official version handed out at the daily 4.45 news conference, also known as ‘the Five O’Clock Follies’ – the man handing out press passes ‘thought it was all a fucking circus’ (p.177), and the actual troops on the ground often seemed lost souls in a demented fantasy.

Entire divisions would function in a bad dream state, acting out a weird set of moves without any connection to the source. (p.50)

To Herr and his stoned contemporaries the entire conduct of the war seemed like a very bad dream, irrational, insane.

Search and Destroy, more a gestalt than a tactic, brought up alive and steaming out of the Command psyche. (p.55)

That phraseology is not a rational analysis of a military strategy, but Herr has thought it through and the insanity didn’t call for a sane response. ‘(Who’s crazy? What’s insane?)’ (p.61), the only ‘answerable style’ for the madness is a mad style.

Drugs Dope is referred to openly throughout, the evening sessions with joints passed round, the household fuelled by booze and grass, the widespread smoking of joints among the troops. As to stronger drugs, Herr refers  once to the powerful hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’) but surprisingly rarely to the other great 1960s drug, LSD or ‘acid’.

And yet the prose reeks of acid, of the way LSD strips your sense of their blinkers and protection and exposes your nervous system to massive sensory overload. Indeed that concept of too much information, of the brain, nervous system and mind being subjected to more than it can cope with, is mentioned throughout the text as a metaphor for the experience of combat when the adrenaline shock, and the rush of terrified awareness, is experienced as just ‘too much’ to process or handle.

Once your body was safe your problems weren’t exactly over. There was the terrible possibility that a search for information there could become so exhausting that the exhaustion itself became the information. Overload was such a real danger, not as obvious as shrapnel or blunt like a 2,000-foot drop, maybe it couldn’t kill or smash you, but it could bend your aerial for you and land you on your hip. (p.58)

Even when Herr quits the war and ‘rotates back to the World’, Page gives him a small ball of opium to float him through the flight home (p.200).

Pop culture is all around them, every unit has tape cassette players and either in bunkers or even out on patrol are liable to click Play and the room or trail or trench would echo to the sounds of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix or the latest single by the Rolling Stones.

Prose poetry

The rangy, slang, street poetic prose owes a lot to the Beats, to Allen Ginsberg’s poetic rants and William Burroughs’ cut-up prose, but also to the eloquence of American slang, a can-do attitude to the English language which creates openings and expressions from a recalibration, a special angling, of even the most ordinary words. During the 1960s the drug-cum-Zen-cum-Beat poetry language of a small sub-section of 1950s Bohemian culture, along with Black street slang and the argot of the urban jazz world, all mixed and went feral, spreading across street culture and into the songs and films and eventually official channels of the media and even the Army itself.

The book is alive with slang terms from all these sources, mashed together:

  • ‘believer’ – a dead Viet Cong (p.41)
  • ‘dig’ meaning to ‘get’, to ‘understand and enjoy’ – ‘can you dig it?’
  • ‘dink’ meaning ‘Vietnamese’ (92)
  • ‘gook’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese fighter’
  • ‘greased’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘grunt’ meaning infantry soldier (15). According to the online etymological dictionary the term originates from the Vietnam war and is first recorded in print in 1969.
  • ‘hip to’ meaning ‘up to speed with’ (86) as in ‘hip to…the sound, the trip, the mission, the attitude’
  • ‘jag’ meaning ‘prolonged bout’ as in ‘a crying jag’
  • ‘jive’ – routine, schtick, can be negative or positive – ‘don’t jive me, man’
  • ‘luck out’ meaning ‘get lucky’ (69)
  • ‘Slope’ meaning ‘Vietnamese opponent’ (86)
  • ‘spade’ meaning ‘Afro-Caribbean’ (98)
  • ‘tightly wrapped’ meaning ‘uptight, tense’ (97)
  • ‘tough shit’ meaning ‘bad luck’ (86)
  • ‘totalled’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘wiggier’ from ‘wiggy’ meaning ‘weird, freaked out’ (p.52), ‘wigged-out crazies’ (p.189) ‘the wiggiest goof of them all’ (p.197)
  • ‘zip’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese’

Beyond individual words, Herr records slang phrases which capture the alternative realities opened up by drugs and war and the lethal combination of both:

  • ‘Well, I’ll be dipped in shit.’
  • someone looks like ‘ten thousand miles of bad road’
  • ‘get some’ can refer to sleep, or just ‘action’, hence a demented chopper machine gunner can fire randomly into the jungle yelling ‘get some, get some’ – in a cracking throwaway Herr refers to this phrase as ‘the American banzai’ (p.184)
  • ‘have a pair’ (p.53) or ‘grow a pair’, as in a pair of testicles, to prove you are a man
  • the ‘thousand yard stare’, a vivid description of the distant look in the eyes of soldiers fresh from action – ‘Hill 861 was the home of the thousand-yard stare…’ (p.101)
  • ‘it’s hotter than a bastard’ (p.164)

But it’s the way often fairly simple vocabulary is stacked together in spaced-out ways designed to capture the fleeting moment, the psych, the thereness of the impression, you had to have lived it, you had to know it, which transcends the context of Vietnam to become a series of experiments in time-encapsulating language, and helps give the book its enduring sense of life and weirdness.

Sitting by a road with some infantry when a deuce-and-a-half rattled past with four dead in the back. The tailgate was half lowered as a platform to hold their legs and the boots that seemed to weigh a hundred pounds apiece now. Everyone was completely quiet as the truck hit a bad bump and the legs jerked up high and landed hard on the gate. ‘How about that shit,’ someone said, and ‘Just like the motherfucker,’ and ‘There it is.’ Pure essence of Vietnam, not even stepped on once, you could spin it out into visions of laughing lucent skulls or call it just another body in a bag, say that it cut you in half for the harvest or came and took you under like a lover, nothing ever made the taste less strong. (p.203)

Tracks referenced in the text

‘Whenever one of us came back from an R&R we’d bring records, sounds were as precious as water.’ (p.187)

The text is littered with references to contemporary pop songs. One of the things which made the war seem so special was the way that pop music evolved incredibly quickly into more adult (pretentious) rock over precisely the same period (1965-70), and so seemed to be directly commenting on the escalation and spiralling insanity of the conflict. Thus Herr can comment on the Beatles track, Magical Mystery Tour – ‘That was a song about Khe Sanh; we knew it then, and it still seems so.’ (p.91).

I began making a list of tracks as I came across them mentioned in the text and listening to them off the internet. Taken together, they evoke a vivid revolutionary world, which is immensely evocative even though it is all at least 50 years old, having gone through nostalgia, into obsolescence, been revived, and now becoming history. I remember some of these songs from my boyhood – my kids have never heard of any of it.


Credit

Sections of Dispatches by Michael Herr were published as articles in American Review No. 7Esquire and Rolling Stone in 1968 through 1970. It was published in book form in 1977 by Alfred A. Knopf. All quotes and references are to the 1982 edition of the 1978 Pan Books paperback edition.

Related links

Rudyard Kipling: Selected Verse edited by James Cochrane (1977)

This Penguin edition from 1977 has neither introduction nor end notes, in fact there is no editorial matter of any kind. It also contains only 119 poems, compared to 183 in the Craig Raine selection and 123 in the T.S. Eliot edition. On the face of it, the Raine edition is the best paperback selection, casting its net widest, including more of the early light verse, and more oddities and rarities: it’s the most diverse and the most entertaining.

Where this edition does score over both the others is in its layout. Each new poem starts at the top of a page. Both the other editions run one poem straight on after the previous one, so poems start mid-page or right at the bottom of a page, with maybe just one stanza visible before you have to turn over and continue. Sometimes, given that Kipling poems often comes in sets and also often have a preliminary stanza in italics before the main poem begins, this layout can lead to real confusion.

Trivial though this may sound, the layout of this Cochrane edition does actually give each poem a kind of dignity and space in which to operate. When a poem ends the rest of the page is blank. You turn over – and a new one begins. It’s much clearer and easier to read than the other two.

Partly because of this, reading this edition I noticed poems which, although they’re included in the other editions, are broken up across several pages whereas here, starting at the top of their own dedicated page, they immediately had more presence and made more impact.

And once again, the poems amazed me with Kipling’s range. I was particularly struck by The Way Through The Woods (1910). A world away from the bouncy music hall ballads or the sonorous hymns of the 1890s, it could be by the sensitive Georgian poet Edward Thomas.

The Way Through The Woods

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.


Related links

Other Kipling reviews

The Big Footprints by Hammond Innes (1977)

‘Just look at these pictures. That’s what happens when there are no game laws and men are allowed to let their lust for killing run away with them. Extermination,’ he thundered. (p.75)

Innes’ novels have half a dozen regular characteristics.

1. Exotic location Here, it’s Kenya, exhausted and dilapidated at the end of a (fictional) civil war, during which armies on both sides ravaged the wildlife, sometimes going on killing sprees and decimating the large mammals, especially elephants. Wildlife is also being destroyed by a severe drought and – the general message of the novel – by the growing demands of a spiralling population.

2. Ordinary bloke hero Colin Tait, a freelance TV producer/director, is in Kenya to attend a conference of wildlife activists. Sort of interesting though this is, he harbours an ambition to travel north to Lake Rudolf to confirm descriptions he’s read in an unpublished manuscript given him by his publisher uncle, of a mountain littered with ancient buildings, where pottery has been found depicting a pyramid hill capped with buildings, indications of one of the earliest cultures in the world, the so-called rock pyramid of Porr.

3. Mysterious, older figure who bears a secret The classic example is Captain Patch from The Wreck of The Mary Deare who keeps secret from the narrator for 250 pages the fact that his ship didn’t sink as everyone thinks, but that he beached it to keep it as evidence of company embezzlement and fraud. Here the mysterious older figure is Cornelius van Delden, a legendary Africa hand, tall, white-haired, an expert on Kenyan wildlife and environments, nicknamed Tembo. He is virtually banned in this fictional Kenya for speaking out against the government’s acquiescence in the mass murder of wildlife by their troops during the war and by the runaway population, and so he makes a lightning appearance at the conference before disappearing in a well-arranged stunt. Eventually the entire novel turns into his quixotic quest to save the area’s last wild elephants from hunters, aided – or witnessed – by Colin and American TV journalist, Abe Finkel.

4. The curse of the past For a writer so at home with the modern world of travel magazines, international flights, with the minutiae of business law and practice, and capable of inspiring descriptions of physical activity, Innes’ plots almost all feature a heavy Gothic sense of doomed family relationships. Here we learn that the environmentalist van Delden was once best friends and business partner of Alex Kirby-Smith, but whereas the former has gone into sharp criticism of the government, the latter has allied with the same government, seeing it as the best way to moderate its excesses and regulate surviving wildlife, also setting up a fleet of meat freezing trucks to capitalise on his hunting activities, and generally exposing himself to accusations of being a heartless butcher.

5. Woman, carrier of the past Van Delden has a daughter, Mary, who loves him but also gets drunk and cries about how he was never around when she was small, was always disappearing off into the bush, animals more important than her or her mother etc. Tait, as so many Innes’ protagonists, finds himself attracted to this strong-minded, tough woman (and eventually, on page 250, they do have wild sex during a thunderstorm on a mountain), but she is, as so often, heir to a twisted family legacy. For half way through the book she reveals that she is in fact Kirby-Smith’s daughter. Van Delden’s wife had an affair with his best friend, impregnating her, though it was van Delden who brought Mary up and who she spent her childhood calling father. No wonder she becomes very upset as the rivalry between the two men becomes more intense.

In fact, everyone has ‘a past’, as the book reveals that Colin’s parents committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, and he was raised by an uncle in the publishing trade, and routinely bullied at school for having no parents. And Abe Finkel, who he teams up with, reveals half way through that his reason for abandoning the journalistic mission he was on, is that his wife recently died of cancer, making him realise, if you don’t fulfil your dreams of roaming in the African bush now, when will you…?

6. Hesitation and miscommunication Presumably it’s intended to create tension, but on every page occurs Innes’ trademark technique of having more or less every conversation dominated by one or both sides turning away, stopping in mid-sentence, pausing, going silent, shrugging or hesitating. It creates the sense that everyone knows something they’re not telling. Intended to create ‘suspense’ and tension, it risks leaving the reader frustrated and irritated.

On one level there is a ‘plot’ – when the other conference delegates catch the bus back to Nairobi airport, Tait, influenced by New York TV man Abe Finkel, decides to stay on, to see if there’s mileage in the van Delden story, but really planning to head north to Lake Rudolph, to the mysterious mount Kulal and the archaeological finds he’s read about in the old manuscript his uncle left him.

This sounds like it should be a dynamic situation, but on a page by page, paragraph by paragraph level, the text is made up instead of these endless deferrals, postponements and delays.

She gave a little shrug…I hesitated…He didn’t say anything after that…She didn’t answer. The silence was oppressive…After that we didn’t talk…Karanja hesitated…She shook her head…She was silent now…She didn’t answer…He didn’t say anything…He hesitated…He nodded uncertainly…He shrugged. ‘How the hell do I know? It’s just a feeling.’..’I don’t know. Maybe’…Karanja shook his head. ‘I don’t know’…He shrugged…He hesitated, staring up the road ahead…He was silent for a moment. the smile gone. Then he gave a quick little shrug…Abe asked, ‘Any game left?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he said, uncertainly…Murphy hesitated…Abe gave a little shrug…He hesitated…Van Delden shook his head. ‘Who knows?’…Van Delden shook his head…Karanja hesitated, then he shrugged…He shook his head…I shook my head…She was silent for a moment…She gave a little shrug…I hesitated…I shook my head, not wanting to talk about it…Kirby-Smith hesitated..I shook my head…But Karanja shook his head…Her gaze went back to the mountains and she was silent for a long time…She hesitated…She shrugged…

On one page, 156 in the Fontana paperback edition, Colin and Abe are asking their tracker, previously a van Delden associate, where van Delden must be hiding out and every paragraph starts this way: ‘Karanja shrugged… Karanja didn’t answer…Karanja shook his head again…Karanja was silent…Karanja hesitated…He was suddenly silent…Karanja hesitated…staring urgently at Abe, who didn’t say anything for a long time…’

On the very next page, Mary joins Abe and Colin and asks whether they think van Delden shot the Africans (see below): ‘…Silence was the only answer I could give her…I didn’t say anything…She was silent for a moment…her voice trembling into silence…She was silent for a while…I sat there, silent, not knowing what to say…’

Though they’re meant to be adventure books and are set in adventurous locations and feature violent and tragic incidents, the actual page-by-page experience of reading a Hammond Innes book is often of stasis and paralysis.

7. Participle clauses There is another mannerism or part of Innes’ style perhaps worth commenting on, his tendency to write sentences which – after an active first clause – have two or three dependent clauses containing no active verb, but instead participles (generally the present participle or the past participle) or no verb form at all.

Short simple examples are obviously designed to create breathless excitement.

We waited, crouched in the gulley, listening. (p.166)

The elephants had all swung round, trunks weaving, seeking the new source of danger. (p.191)

And the effect can be strung out over longer distances:

Evergreens and patches of thick impenetrable bush, the boles of tall trees, twisted ropes of lianas, and my heart pounding as we climbed, following the beam of Karanja’s torch. (p.163)

But longer, slower sentences using this structure crop up throughout the novel, creating a particular effect which I can’t quite put my finger on.

I didn’t answer [main verb], suddenly aware of her reaching out [present participle clause], her hand on my arm [no-verb clause], pulling me down beside her [present participle clause]. (p.249)

Two possible interpretations occur to me – pictorial and static. Pictorial The main clause with the main verb introduces the sentence, and then the successive clauses, lacking an active verb, are like pictures, images, stills – as in a slideshow.

We were heading [main verb] across country in a more northerly direction, our speed gradually increasing [present participle], patches of soft sand, the scrub thicker and more trees [no verb]. (p.204)

From where we stood in the back of our truck we could see the flat expanse of the makeshift airstrip, scrub and boulders piled along the line of its single runway, and beyond it the thicker bush that marked the line of the lugga, acacias with flattened tops, and further still the greener growth spilling from the low arms of the mountains, the Horr Valley a sharp gash between cedar-dark slopes and the sky beginning to take on colour, the first rose tints of the rising sun. (p.139)

We were climbing now, the land sloping gently upward, the heat increasing rapidly. (p.180)

Static Or, conversely, the lack of active verbs – their replacement with verbless clauses – sometimes adds to the sense of stasis and paralysis created by the endless silences and hesitations of the characters.

I sat on by the fire for a while, smoking a last cigarette and listening to the stillness. (p.110)

the present participles – ‘smoking’ and ‘listening’ – embodying the static lingering of the sitting. Or:

The argument went on for several minutes while we sat there motionless, the engine throbbing and the heat trapped in the valley. (p.111)

where the second clause gives a kind of sensual amplification of the first part, so that you can hear the engine ticking over, feel the prickliness of the African heat.

Nobody spoke, van Delden sitting silent and withdrawn, the three Africans squatting round the embers, a stillness settling on the land. (p.283)


The plot

Abe Finkel persuades Colin to stay on after the conference is over. The army officials who supervised the conference and all the delegates’ travel let them travel north on the understanding they are going to link up with Kirby-Smith’s troop who are carrying out a cull. But a pilot they chatted to saw a small camp off west of the road and here they find van Delden and three loyal African beaters/shooters, who promptly commandeer their Land Rover. A little later Colin and Abe are picked up by an army patrol of surly Africans and driven on to the Kirby-Smith camp.

Here Kirby-Smith says you’re welcome to watch and film a modern culling – and so there is a sickening description of him and his men in Land Rovers and trucks corralling half a dozen elephants into a clearing where they are shot down in seconds – and their corpses then set on by the soldiers, quickly joined by truckloads of locals (who are suffering from the drought and almost starving) who hack the dead animals to pieces.

It was the sort of scene cameramen dream about, nomadic tribesmen, hunters with guns, and elephants being hacked to pieces, blood everywhere. Close-ups of men, half-naked, armed with spears and knives, dark skins stretched over staring rib cages, faces drawn and shrivelled looking, of dead elephants, of tusks and meat, of Kirby-Smith, the great white hunter, firing at a warrior with his red cloak flung back, his sleek ochred hair coming loose in coils like snakes and his knife flashing. (p.145)

The next day, the cullers head out to another location to intercept another herd but, just as the elephants come into view, warning shots are fired which make the herd turn and escape, then one of the Kirby-Smith trucks explodes in flames, burning to a crisp the Africans inside. An appalled Colin is forced to agree with Kirby-Smith and Abe’s assessment that the men in it were shot dead, then the petrol tank ignited, by van Delden and his renegades. Van Delden has crossed the line and, in his bid to defend animals, has himself become a murderer. This is the context for Mary’s agonised confession that she is Kirby-Smith’s daughter but raised by van Delden and so caught between the two enemies.

In fact Mary begs Colin and Abe slip away from their army minders and go warn Van Delden that K-S and the army will now hunt him down and kill him, and so they persuade the African scout, Karanja, to take them to an old poacher’s hideout where they think van Delden might be lurking. And so they set off on what turns into the prolonged trek which will dominate the rest of the book. Briefly they scramble through scrub, up slopes, through forest, scared by wildlife, with vivid descriptions of the landscape, the nightscape, the animals and so on.

Van Delden appears out of the darkness and takes Colin and Abe under his wing, travelling with him and his scouts in pursuit of the next group of elephants. There’s an encounter with Kirby-Smith where they interrupt his trailing of another group of elephants, commandeering his Land Rover and smashing his rifle. Now their rivalry has turned into outright hatred. Mary had been in the vehicle. Van Delden makes her choose: are you walking back with Kirby-Smith or coming with us? In fact, he bundles her into the Rover as it sets off, and so she is now part of the small team.

Colin, Abe, van Delden and his pair of scouts drive on across the bush, passing through varieties of landscape allowing Innes descriptive faculties full rein. Whenever they camp and eat and talk, conversation turns to how to help the elephants survive and, increasingly, speculation as to why so many of the groups they’re coming across are travelling north, away from the overpopulated plains, towards the bleaker landscape around Lake Rudolph. Can elephants communicate? Do they know it is safer up there? Can they sense and communicate more than humans are aware of?

Van Delden goes off with one of the scouts, leaving Colin, Abe, Mary and Karanja to trek up the side of the mysterious mount Kalula (although there are not one but two maps showing the routes of these journeys, I found it impossible to follow their paths, and the text is quite vague about which bit of savannah, scrub, forest, desert, lava bed, river, hillside or mountain they are scrambling over at any particular point). Abe is experiencing increasingly visionary episodes, at one point almost going off on his own to defend a troop of elephants from the pursuing hunters, though talked out of it by Colin.

This mountain, Kulal, within thirty miles of Lake Rudolph, is setting to the climax of the novel: beyond it is where all the elephant groups seem to be heading. At its foot is an abandoned missionary building and it is here, on the edge of a steep gorge, that van Delden leaves them, promising to return once he’s found the elephants.

Later they hear engines and realise an army patrol is approaching, and quickly slip out of the back of the building and into the foothills of Mount Kulal, climbing quickly through low forest into the mist. After hours of climbing, they get to a sort of shelter among the rocks and spend the night. Here the group split up, Abe going with the tracker Dima, downstream towards the plain and the lake, while Colin and Mary go with Karanja up the sides of the mountain; as they near the peak a violent storm breaks out and it is here, in a rock shelter, that Mary suddenly offers herself to Colin and the simmering tension between the two is lanced in a feverish act of love-making (p.249).

Climbing higher they come upon a confusion of jagged volcanic spikes and gulleys and realise this can’t be the inhabited mountain top of the old account. Maybe it is on top of Mount Porr, thirty miles to the north and west…

Descending the mountain they hear a human cry and come upon Abe badly injured. He was with Kanjara when a cow elephant came to a nearby waterhole and Abe couldn’t resist sneaking really close to take photos. Something alarmed the cow who bellowed and its nearby calf came thundering out of the bush and trampled over Abe. He has a badly broken arm and cuts to the head. Kanjara, Colin and Mary help him down the rest of the mountain and to the shores of Lake Rudolph. That night, as they camp round a fire by the lakeside, van Delden appears out of the darkness. They learn that he and his scout have disabled the plane Kirby-Smith was using, sneaking up on it as the pilot worked on it, and have stolen another army truck. Not popular.

Karanja deserts them to go contact an army patrol. He returns saying he’s made a deal, van Delden to be flown out, a nature reserve set up, Karanji in charge of it. But none of this seems real compared with the stillness of the vast lake, the flamingos in the shallows, the elephants plodding silently to the shore, the immense primitiveness of the setting which Innes conveys as the characters stay awake most of the night knowing the next day will bring the inevitable Showdown the whole narrative has been building towards.

Van Delden drops Mary and the injured Abe where they can walk, or stagger, back the Mission, then returns with his scouts and Colin to the culling zone. Here trucks appear to scare a herd of elephants hidden in the forest out into the open; they emerge and there is a moment’s pause as the Land-Rovers containing their killers approach, then they go wild, trumpeting and attacking the vehicles. Abe makes a last, mad attempt to intercede, to change their direction and Mary comes running to his help and to my surprise both are trampled to death by the elephants who go on to rampage through the hunters’ vehicles, killing and goring many men, themselves losing many to rifle shots before breaking off the attack and lumbering towards the lake.

In the aftermath van Delden and an injured Kirby-Smith confront each other over Mary’s dead body while a disbelieving Colin looks on. Karanja appears and has now secured what he wanted ever since we first met him at the conference, power and authority – the minister who van Delden humiliated at the conference has been replaced and Karanji made Warden of a new wildlife sanctuary of the north: Karanji orders Kirby-Smith to suspend the cull; van Delden’s elephants are safe.

The small group bury Mary and Abe, building a cairn over their bodies. As night falls Colin falls asleep at their camp, exhausted. In the morning he wakes to see the small figure of van Delden paddling the primitive raft they found by the lake, north, towards the elephants. Karanji stands with the other African scouts: they will give Colin a lift back to civilisation, and 12 hours later he is back in London, unable to believe everything he has experienced and felt, determined to write this account of his strange adventure.

Nature writing

Innes is not what I’d call a prose poet. He doesn’t have the magical way with words of a Chandler or Cruz Smith. But, unlike a thriller writer like, say, Desmond Bagley (who also wrote a novel set in Africa, Juggernaut) he goes out of his way to provide descriptions of animals and, especially, of natural landscapes and changing times of day. These are, I think, most effective when Innes is in his beloved environment, the sea, but there are numerous attempts in this novel to convey the immediacy of the African scene, and of the elephants which dominate the story.

We pushed on, silent again, walking in a pale, cool light that was the interregnum between night and day. But it was brightening all the time and then suddenly the sun pushed a great shield of burnished red up into the eastern sky, and instantly the land flared with colour. From the flat sepia of desert gravel it turned to a dried blood hue in which everything glistened with light, scrub and thorn and skittering birds all brilliant with the great red glow of heat to come. It was fantastic, breathtaking… (p.180)

Save elephants, save the environment

Innes presumably intended this whole novel as propaganda, warning of the consequences of unchecked population growth in developing countries and the disastrous impact on wildlife. 40 years later I, like most people, I think, take it for granted that we are poisoning the seas, wiping out most large mammals as well as countless other species, and that it is too late to prevent catastrophic global warming.

Therefore, this novel seems like a memory of a more innocent age, the 1970s, when writers and the educated middle classes founded environmental pressure groups (World Wide Fund for Nature founded 1961, Friends of the Earth founded 1969, Greenpeace founded 1971) and thought there was something they could do to protect wildlife and the environment…

[Karanja] was staring out to the darkness of the gorge and after a moment he said, ‘Is part of our heritage and one day, maybe, I live to see those same elephants crossing Kulal again, but going the other way, going south into the lands they live in when I am young man, going to protected areas where the world can see them again. Quiet, dignified elephants living in peace and rearing their calves. Not fleeing half-starved and in terror, charging everywhere.’ He shook his head, smiling to himself. ‘Is a dream maybe, but that is what I hope.’ (p.247)

Related links

Hardback cover of The Big Footprints showing Mary van Delden in front of a big elephant, with the image of her father superimposed on the elephant's ear

Hardback cover of The Big Footprints showing Mary van Delden in front of a big elephant, with the image of her father superimposed on the elephant’s ear

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.

Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain by Len Deighton (1977)

For new pilots the high-altitude battles could be a frightening experience. It was very, very cold at 25,000 feet, and the Spitfires slipped and skidded through the thin air, as the propeller blades failed to bite. Invariably the Perspex misted over and reduced visibility. Only slowly did the aircraft add a few hundred feet, and for this reason the throttles remained wide open. It meant that if a pilot dropped back from his formation through lack of flying skill, he could never catch up with them again. And above them were the Bf 109s, watching and waiting for just such a straggler. This was the way that many young men died: alone and cold in the thin blue air, peering through the condensation into the glare of the sun, unable to see the men who killed them. (p.244)

This is a totally gripping, impressively researched and comprehensive history of a key moment in British and world history and showcases the incredible depth and range of Deighton’s knowledge of the subject matter and period.

I read Blitzkrieg, the later book first, because that is the sequence of events. Both books are divided into five parts, with a long central section about the technical developments in the key weapons (tanks in Blitzkrieg, airplanes in Fighter) followed by an equally long section describing in detail the key events (of the German invasion of France in May 1940, of the Battle of Britain July-October 1940) ending with a fairly short epilogue or summary.

Fighter’s strengths

Fighter is the more enjoyable book, becoming steadily more gripping and exciting as you read on. I think it’s because:

  • Fighter planes are more beautiful and inspiring than tanks.
  • The planes were more directly the creation of inspired genius designers, who are more interesting to read about than the designers of tanks (Willy Messerschmitt, Reginald Mitchell the Spitfire, Sydney Camm the Hawker Hurricane).
  • The history of manned flight since the Wright brothers is more interesting than the history of putting metal plates and a machine gun on a lorry chassis and calling it a ‘tank’, and understanding how airplanes actually fly is more interesting, and more broadly applicable, than understanding how tank tracks work.
  • The fighter plane part of the battle concerns dashing and heroic individuals who Deighton names and describes in detail – Peter Townsend, Josef Frantisek, Adolf Galland – there are photos of them – unlike the largely anonymous and massed ranks activity of the Battle for France, led by a handful of rather imposing generals (Rommel, Guderian).
  • Later in the war, it all got vastly bigger. While Britain was producing 400 new planes a month, towards the end of the year President Roosevelt ordered his factories to begin producing planes, 50,000 planes a year! Later in the war the Luftwaffe was to lose in one day as many aircraft as it lost in the entire Battle. The Battle of Britain represents a moment when individuals still counted – Deighton calls it the last romantic battle in history.

Learnings

I learned that:

  • Lord Beaverbrook’s contribution to victory – put in charge of Fighter Command logistics by Churchill, cutting through lots of bureaucracy to maximise factory output and set up roaming repair squads – was as important as Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s contribution, and that Dowding said so. I was virtually cheering the Beaverbrook passages. I like his motto: Organisation is the enemy of improvisation.
  • The Germans didn’t have a plan. Hitler wasn’t much interested. Operation Sealion (the invasion of Britain) was conceived too late in the year (August) and Göring never gave clear strategic guidance to his marshals. The Germans fundamentally didn’t know what they were trying to achieve and Deighton lists four possible outcomes which included: destroy Fighter Command to give Germany control of the air and enable a cross-Channel invasion; bomb London into submission; destroy Britain’s war machine ie factories. They did some of each but none completely and all historians agree that they were on the verge of destroying Fighter Command – reducing airfields, planes and pilots below an operational minimum – when, early in September, they switched to the second strategy and bombed London for 57 consecutive nights. Though the population of London wouldn’t have agreed Dowding and Park considered this ‘the miracle’ for it gave them time to rebuild the fighter force.
  • When summer slipped into autumn and the weather worsened making a seaborne invasion impossible, Hitler shrugged his shoulders and got out his maps of Russia. Britain was effectively neutralised, the war in the West essentially over: he was interested in new adventures.
  • Deighton powerfully dislikes the bureaucrats at the British Air Ministry whose main contribution was to hamper Fighter Command with stupid orders, come up with pointless hare-brained schemes, and treat Dowding and Park, the two men whose masterly strategy won the Battle, appallingly. Both were sacked at the end of the year. Dowding was given 24 hours to clear his desk.

Robust views/detailed knowledge

As in Blitzkrieg, Deighton is confident in his opinions. Discussing one of the countless machinations of Air Field Marshall Erhard Milch, Deighton writes:

Milch’s allegations are nonsense. (p.301)

These kind of confident assertions are based on Deighton’s incredibly in-depth knowledge of the entire period, from the technical spec of the planes, through the organisational structure of both air forces, detailed profiles of the key players on both sides, to an understanding of the changing tactics developed by each side, down to precise descriptions of uniforms, medals, hats, parachutes and so on.

For example, his captions to many of the 62 photos in the book not only point out the figures in a picture but name the medals the pilots and generals are wearing; there are few photos of planes without additional information about their markings or pointing out details of design and construction to look for. As in his other books, he shows a special interest in organisational structures:

Geschwader was about 100 aircraft, give or take twenty according to circumstances. It consisted of three Gruppen, always designated by Roman numerals I, II or III. Finally there was the Staffel, about twelve aircraft. Staffeln were numbered from 1 to 9, in arabic numerals, to make a Geschwader. Thus, III/JG 26 means the third Gruppe of Jagdgeshwader (fighter Geshwader) number 26. While 8/KG 26 is the eighth Staffel of Kampfgeschwader (bomber Geschwader) number 76. (footnote on page 129)

Towards the end of the book, Deighton makes the very broad claim (repeated in Blitzkrieg) that, without Hitler’s anti-Semitism – which forced many of Germany’s best scientists and engineers abroad – the Nazis would probably have developed atomic bombs and the long-range missiles to deliver them and would quite possibly have taken over the world. From the minutiae of medals to grand sweeps of alternative history, this is a fascinating and rewarding book on countless levels.

Conclusion

After the first four Ipcress novels Deighton’s fiction changed – his prose became more obvious and functional while he experimented with new subject matter: comedy, a novel set in Hollywood, and then his devastating documentary novel about a World War II bombing raid, Bomber. When he returned to the spy genre in the early 1970s, the three spy novels leading up to Fighter feel much weaker than the Ipcress set.

Could it be that the time and mental energy Deighton expended researching his WWII histories, visiting key locations, months spent at the Imperial War Museum and other archives, and the correspondence and meetings he had with key players in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain (both books contain photos ‘taken by the author’ and refer to letters and conversation with eye witness participants) – could it be that this massive expenditure of time and effort and immersing himself in bureaucratic records and organisational archives, permanently damaged his imaginative prose style and weakened his fiction?

Related links

Paperback cover of Fighter

Paperback cover of Fighter

Len Deighton’s novels

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

The Great Pursuit by Tom Sharpe (1977)

Sharpe’s longest novel to date, a satire on the worlds of literary criticism and publishing. For the first time it contained what felt like genuine personal concerns and attitudes in the narrator’s fierce animus against the hypocritical literary critic, Dr Louth.

Plot

Frederick Frensic is a successful literary agent who has built his career on inverting everything he learned at Oxford, under the elitist (lady) literary critic, Dr Louth. Out of the blue he is posted an anonymous novel of breath-taking pornographic content describing the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman – Pause O Men For The Virgin – via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it.

Now Frensic has had on his books for ten years a no-hoper novelist named Peter Piper, a lost soul thoroughly misled by his literary education into thinking he must only write high-mindedly about ‘significant relationships’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘the soul’, who treats the very same Dr Louth’s masterwork of criticism, The Moral Novel, as holy writ, reading it every night before bed, and who every year rewrites his hopeless account of his sensitive adolescence in the style of one of the literary Greats.

So Frensic and his American partner, Sonia Futtle, decide to pass off the crude novel off as being by Piper and oh what a tangled web this creates, a web of deceits and contracts which determines the rest of the increasingly labyrinthine plot:

Piper is told he will get money and the wretched book he’s been working on for so long will be released as his second novel, so he reluctantly agrees. A firm of posh British publishers which is down on its luck is persuaded to publish the English version because Frensic, correctly, predicts that this high-brow imprimatur will make it easier to convince the American publisher Hutchmeyer, ‘the Al Capone of publishing’, to snap it up and publish and promote it in the States. This the bullish, illiterate Hutchmeyer does, paying an incredible $2 million advance, not least because Sonia flirts outrageously with him.

But things begin to veer out of control when Hutchmeyer insists that this Piper fellow does a promotional tour of the States to do TV and book signings. There is a very funny scene at New York’s docks where Hutchmeyer’s sidekick organises an ‘event’ for Piper’s reception, something that will get him on the news, by inviting activists from widely varying groups to meet him – Jews are told he’s an ex-Nazi Peipmann, Palestinians that he’s a leader of the PLO Piperfat, the Irish that he’s O’Piper the IRA leader, gays something else, with the result there is a massive riot, from which Piper barely emerges in one piece to scramble into a waiting ambulance, where the fixer – MacMordale – grabs a bag of blood from the bewildered nurse and breaks it over the dazed Piper’s head. Any publicity’s good publicity, right?

At the upstate Hutchmeyer residence, actually a vast tasteless mansion, a bloodied and bandaged Piper is introduced to his overwhelming host and his wife, Baby, one-time beauty queen in the 1930s, now the recipient of so many facelifts that, as Sonia points out, if she smiled, she’d scalp herself. In typical Sharpe fashion Hutchmeyer and his wife hate each other and, by a roundabout process, Baby comes to believe Piper is the real thing, a young man of genius and sensitivity who deserves protection from the cruel world.

Sonia, drunk, flirts with Hutch and persuades him to take her out in his yacht in bad weather. Baby takes advantage of the fact to act on impulse and reject the lies and frustrations of the past 40 years. Pack your bags, she tells Piper, we’re getting out of here, as she determines to act out a scene from one of the great historical novels. What makes it Sharpe is she decides to burn down the wretched mansion, so empties cans of petrol across it and sets them afire, but has brought the last one trailing gas down to the quayside and the cruiser where a very nervous Piper is waiting with his bags, so that the trail of flame follows her and leaps into the boat just as Piper accelerates the engines. They both leap off into the sea as the cruiser, now aflame, heads off into the bay where it collides with Hutch’s yacht and explodes. Hutch is rescued by the typically Sharpe Sonia, a big, strong, calculating lady, while Piper and Baby swim ashore further down the coast.

Baby realises she has burnt her bridges (and her husband’s house to the ground) and decides on impulse to head South, to the Deep South, of slavery and mangrove swamps and drags a reluctant Piper along with her. Everyone presumes they are dead and in scenes reminiscent of Wilt for a while Hutchmeyer is suspected of murdering  his wife. Instead Baby persuades Piper – his head still swathed in bandages from the New York riot, to write out a full draft of Pause O Men For The Virgin, which they photocopy and post to Frensic in London.

Frensic had become very nervous about Piper revealing the elaborate scam to Hutch who would doubtless sue for all his money back and more, but when he receives the manuscript of the novel in Piper’s own hand-writing he is very perplexed. He goes back to the firm of solicitors in Oxford who posted him the typewritten manuscript and winkles out of them the name of the secretarial company which typed it up, run by a Miss Bogden.

In the true Sharpe manner this Miss Bogden is a frustrated divorcee and, having had his phone enquiry flatly turned down, he realises he must woo her: so he sends her red roses then phones posing as a long-time admirer from a distance, then invites her to dinner, all the time probing for any proof of the author’s whereabouts. Miss Bogden drops that she had a phone number she could ring if she had problems with the manuscript but then evades the subject and Frensic finds himself forced to accompany her back to her flat and, well, to be engulfed in her consuming sexual appetites in the name of his quest. He goes so far as to propose to her and, next morning, finds himself going to a jewellers to choose a ring before he finally finally gets the phone number out of her and makes his excuses. It is a funny moment when, after all this build-up, Frensic rings the number and it is an Indian takeaway 🙂 He realises he’s transposed the numbers in his excitement, and dials again, A quavery voice answers and says it is is Dr Louth here.

Frensic puts down the phone thunderstruck. So the high-minded and elitist literary critic, whose insistence that her students only read novelists of her Great Tradition – Austen, James, Conrad, Lawrence – and who cast into the outer darkness all mere entertainers, anyone who wrote for money – Dickens and Trollope and Meredith, let alone the entertainers from an earlier era, Smollett and Sterne and Fielding – whose baleful influence ruined generations of would-be writers by making them aspire to an impossible, and irrelevant, high-mindedness, who misled Frensic in his early career until he threw off her influence, and whose damaging influence is embodied in Piper’s unreadable screeds – it was she who wrote this pornographic best-seller. Frensic’s anger at her is real, and bespeaks Sharpe’s own experience at Cambridge in the heyday of the elitist literary critic, Frank Leavis, who similarly insisted on the existence of a Great Tradition. In fact the title of this novel is a simple merging of two of Leavis’s most famous books of criticism, The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit. And of course, in none of these books or Leavis’s lectures or stern admonitions was there any place for the kind of well-crafted entertainments that Sharpe himself writes.

The novel hints at the journey Sharpe himself had to make, to throw off the stifling high-mindedness of Cambridge, before he could find his own voice and métier as a satirist and entertainer of genius.

Frensic goes on a hateful pilgrimage to Oxford, visits Louth in her ancient house, confronts her with the truth and forces her to burn the manuscript of the novel as going some way to making reparations for all the lives she’s ruined. Meanwhile, we learn that Hutchmeyer, liberated from his nagging wife, has made the umpteenth proposition to tough Sonia and – to his surprise – been accepted, and they get happily married.

In the tiny southern hamlet of Bibliopolis Baby and Piper come across Deep South prejudice and real hellfire preaching. In fact at the first service they are forced by their fanatical landlady to attend, the congregation get so carried away they insist on ‘bringing out the snakes’ which promptly go mad, biting lots of people, in fact killing the preacher himself while Baby, in an orgy of guilt and self-recrimination rips open her blouse a) to reveal her perfect (silicone) breasts b) to let a poisonous coral snake take hefty bites of them – to no effect. This so impresses the good folks of Bibliopolis that they promptly elect Baby their new preacher, and Piper finds himself giving hand-writing lessons to the locals, in time (ironically) setting up an official School of Writing.

Coda

As with many of Sharpe’s novels, you would have thought things could stop right here: The mystery of the book’s author has been revealed; Frensic’s quest is at an end; Hutch and Sonia are happily married; Baby and Piper have found their niche in a sleepy southern backwater.

But no. There is more. It’s a little hard to follow, but Baby has encouraged Piper to continue writing out Pause O Men For The Virgin in his own hand-writing, but each time, making it more in his voice, turning it into his version. Which Piper does, dutifully posting it off to Frensic in London, who is perplexed. Like everyone else, he thinks Piper and Baby perished in the fire at the mansion.

Meanwhile, Miss Bogden, jilted by Frensic (who had used a false name during his 24 hours of passion with her), is set on revenge and tracks him down. Frensic hears her voice on the stairs to his Hampstead flat, grabs his essentials and decamps to Corkadale’s house where he reveals the truth that Piper is not the author of this wretched book. He then takes a plane to new York, on to Miami, and hires a car to drive to this wretched place Bibliopolis. Here he finds Piper a part-time preacher in the Church of the Great Pursuit and there is space for another bitter screed against Dr Louth/Leavis and their deadening, anti-humane influence, before Frensic confronts Piper, lashing out at his wretched ambitions and telling him to stop sending him rubbish manuscripts of his awful novel.

But outside a ‘welcoming committee’ of the local sheriff and assorted hicks await Frensic; they’ve all heard him crticising that nice Mr Piper, a fine upstanding pillar of the community, and drag Frensic before the local judge who turns out to be — none other than Baby Hutchmeyer. She grimly dangles in front of Frensic the prospect of being sentenced to the local chain-gang, which he will survive for, ooh, maybe a month. The alternative is the final stitch-up in a book made up of crooked contracts and devious deceptions. He, Frensic, must allow his name to go on the succession of novels which Piper will send him, once a year, from Bibliopolis. He, Frensic, must arrange for them to be published and promoted.

And so it comes to pass. Frensic arranges for Piper’s first novel to be published, but under his name: he quits his literary agency and goes to live in obscurity in the South Downs and – the final cruel irony – the critics love Piper’s first novel, and it is a roaring success.

Anti-American

The entirely gratuitous excursion into the deep South reminded me a bit of the journey of young Martin and Mark Tapley to a disease-ridden swamp in Dickens’s funniest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), which was criticised in its day for its surprisingly savage satire on the bad manners, appalling speech, filth and greed of contemporary America. Something similar is going on here. In Wilt the worst excesses of fashionable politics and trendy sexual openness are associated with the American couple, the Pringsheims, who are slowly exposed as hateful liars. The Great Pursuit moves almost all its plot to America the better to satirise the crass commercialism, philistinism, crudity, violence and shallowness of American life.

F.R.Leavis

That said, the real core of the novel’s anger is with Dr Louth, a transparent version of F.R. Leavis, the enemy is English through and through.

The Great Pursuit was Dr Sydney Louth’s latest, a collection of essays dedicated to F.R.Leavis and a monument to a lifetime’s execration of the shallow, the obscene, the immature and the non-significant in English literature. Generations of undergraduates had sat mesmerised by the turgid inelegance of her style while she denounced the modern novel, the contemporary world and the values of a sick and dying civilisation. Frensic had been among those undergraduates and had imbibed the truisms on which Dr Louth’s reputation as a scholar and a critic had been founded. She had praised the obviously great and cursed the rest and for that simple formula she was known as a great scholar. And all this in language which was the antithesis of the stylistic brilliance of the writers she praised. But it was her anathema which had stuck in Frensic’s mind, those bitter, graceless curses she had heaped on other critics and those who disagreed with her. By her denunciations she had implanted the inhibitions which had spoilt Frensic and so many others like him who had wanted to write. To appease her he had adopted the grotesque syntax of her lectures and essays. By their style Louthians were instantly recognisable. And by their sterility. (p.205)

F.R.Leavis was still alive when this novel was published. Was he made aware of its savage criticism of his life’s work? What on earth must he have made of it?

Related links

Cover of the Pan paperback edition of The Great Pursuit, illustration by Paul Sample

Cover of the Pan paperback edition of The Great Pursuit, illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story (the cover, above, depicting the riot which greets Peter Piper – centre, thin, looking scared, and being defended by the feisty Sonia Futtle – on his arrival at New York). 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.

Goodbye California by Alistair MacLean (1977)

His speech had the fluency and precision of an educated man for whom English is not his native language. (p.86)

Bad

This is a bad, bad book. Why? Well, let’s start with the ludicrous plot, cardboard characters and almost unreadable style.

Plot

A muslim fanatic named Morro has concocted an evil conspiracy: he has kidnapped the top nuclear physicists in America along with half a dozen technicians, and been stealing or buying uranium on the black market. He and his gang are holed up in a Xanadu-style millionaire’s castle built high in the Sierra Nevadas. The final step in the setup is to break into the San Ruffino nuclear reactor, steal nuclear waste and kidnap half a dozen staff who are carried off to the remote castle.

One of the hostages is Susan, wife of renowned tough LA cop, Sergeant Ryder. Guess what, he’s a maverick who does thing his own way, rubs the authorities up the wrong way but always gets the job done. And his son, Jeff, is also a cop. When they hear their wife/mother has been kidnapped they tender their resignations to the corrupt chief of police they call Fatso, and go independent to track down the gang. Not that independent, as they acquire the grudging help of the FBI, although they go way outside the law, severely beating the aforementioned (it’s catching) corrupt police chief and then the local crooked judge (who they handcuff in bed naked with his ‘secretary’ and photograph).

It’s a two-track plot: on the one hand Ryder and his son are pursuing leads via his crooked boss, the corrupt judge, investigating the head of security at San Ruffino who turns out to have shady links, all the time trying to figure out where Susan is being held. Parallel to this we are shown the situation in the mountain hideout where the hostages are treated with the courtesy, fine wine and indulgent smiles of the psychopath baddie we’re familiar with from a thousand Bond movies and pale copies. ‘Ah, Professor Aachen, I am so glad you could join us’ etc. And shown the laboratory and workshop where the scientists and technicians have been tortured into building working hydrogen bombs.

Hydrogen bombs!

Morro’s plan is to detonate one off the California coast, causing most of it to fall into the sea and the rest to be submerged in a monster tsunami.

Can Ryder and his son track down and neutralise Morro and his gang before they can carry out this plan?

I didn’t care. I was surprised by how little I cared. Partly because I felt I was reading the novelisation of a really low-budget 1970s disaster movie, cross-bred with the terrible American TV series of the period like CHiPs (1977-83).

Styleless

But most of all because MacLean’s prose style has become insufferably opinionated, long-winded, unfunnily ironic and facetious.

About ten minutes before ten Jeff switched on the TV. The screen showed a bluish-tinged stretch of extremely unprepossessing desert, so unattractive a spectacle that the commentator was trying – and making extremely heavy weather of it – to compensate by an intense and breathless account of what was taking place, a gallant and foredoomed effort as nothing whatsoever was taking place. (p.301)

LeWinter was at home and had the look of a man who didn’t intend to leave it. If he was informed by the spirit of joie de vivre and goodwill towards his fellow man he was concealing it well. (p.326)

The police had made a record number of arrests of hoodlums whose greed in taking advantage of this unprecedented opportunity had quite overcome their sense of self-preservation and were still looting away with gay abandon when policemen with drawn guns had taken a rather less than paternal interest in their activities. (p.405)

Burnett began to swear, with a fervour and singular lack of repetition that showed clearly that a considerable part of his education must have been spent in fields other than the purely academic, remembered that he was in the presence of ladies, reached for the Glenfiddich and fell silent. (p.417)

It is impossible to really enter the spirit of a book, to enjoy it, let alone be gripped by it, when you are reminded on every page that the author is a twerp.

First or third person

The Wikipedia entry on Alistair MacLean divides his 30 or so novels into four groups: the fourth and by far the worst phase starts in 1973 with the terrible The Road To Dusty Death, and continues through the next 11 novels, including this one, to his death in 1987.

An obvious feature of all of them is they are all told in the third person – by an omniscient narrator. When MacLean’s lumpen jokiness and heavy irony was in the voice of the hero being ironic at his own expense, it was generally shorter and more bearable: it genuinely lightened moments of stress – but when that heavy irony and facetiousness is deployed by the creator against his own creations, when he finds his own story and characters laughable and predictable (‘it was, inevitably, x’, ‘he was, predictably, y’, ‘it took no great intelligence to realise z’), the believability of the whole text evaporates.

And a third-person narrator has the fatal opportunity to crap on at greater length, much greater length, than a first-person narrator. The first person narrators of his classic thrillers of the 1960s are generally in a tearing hurry. They are doing stuff. The switch to third part narrator accompanies a switch to a more leisurely approach, as the narrator now regards everything from a lofty, and loftily satirical, point of view.

MacLean’s would-be humour works OK in the first person, and in small doses, but becomes clumsy and crass when translated into the third person.

America, like England, has much more than its fair share of those people in the world who choose not to conform to the status quo. They are the individualists who pursue their own paths, their own beliefs, their own foibles and what are commonly regarded as their own irrational peculiarities with a splendid disregard, leavened only with a modicum of kindly pity and sorrow and benign resignation, for those unfortunates who are not as they are, the hordes of faceless conformists amongst whom they are forced to move and have their being. Some few of those individualists, confined principally to those who pursue the more esoteric forms of religions of their own inventions, try sporadically to lead the more gullible of the unenlightened along the road that leads to the ultimate revelation: but basically, however, they regard the unfortunate conformists as being sadly beyond redemption and are resigned to leaving them to wallow in the troughs of their ignorance while they follow the meandering highways and byways of their own chosen life-style, oblivious of the paralleling motorways that carry the vast majority of blinkered mankind. They are commonly known as eccentrics. (p.80)

If a character spouted this gibberish as his personal opinion, it might be a tad more acceptable, it could be taken as throwing light on the character, necessarily partial, and it would probably have been kept a lot shorter. But this lumpish, badly-written rubbish opens an early chapter, supposedly setting the scene and tone of the work. And because it is the narrator talking, he can write at whatever length he wants. There are numerous long, wearily facetious passages like this. It is the tone of the novel. It just makes you think the author is a berk.

When the first person narrator of his classic thrillers was piecing the jigsaw together we shared his burning urgency, lives were at stake, think, man, think! I’ve never read novels which grip you so tight by the throat and don’t let go. But the transition to the third person narrator destroys the tension, because the narrator airily transports you to the baddies hideout, taking you round the setup, explaining how it’s all been done and what the plan is – and making poor Ryder’s investigations seem pathetic and pointless. Destroying the tension, erasing interest.

Characters

In a related problem, the last phase novels all have large casts. When events are seen from one person’s point of view they tend to have a narrow focus of friends (one or two key allies) and foes. This novel has over forty named characters and I was frequently confused about who was who. The maverick cop. His wife held hostage by the evil baddies (think Die Hard without the style). His daughter pops up for a scene. His son. His corrupt boss. The rotten judge. The local sheriff who gets assassinated. The overworked FBI man. The pal on the local newspaper. The unflappable, civilised, psychopath baddie. His 6-foot-6 man-mountain number two. Some good cops. Some bad cops. Harassed head of nuclear reactor. Five kidnapped nuclear scientists. Six kidnapped technicians. Morro’s hired psycho who enjoys torturing them. And so on…

America

Like Breakheart Pass, The Golden Gate and Seawitch this is another book set in America and the trans-Atlantic move is somehow, along with the other factors listed above, connected with the collapse of MacLean’s writing. America was where the audience, the money, the movies were, so… that’s where MacLean set his novels. America in the 1970s had a taste for cheap disaster movies (1974 alone saw The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Hurricane, Trapped Beneath the Sea etc), so… MacLean bent to prevailing fashion and wrote a nuclear blast-catastrophic earthquake-tsunami disaster novel…

And it’s a stinker.

Related links

1980 Fontana paperback edition of Goodbye California

1980 Fontana paperback edition of Goodbye California

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

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.
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.
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.
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.

Send No More Roses by Eric Ambler (1977)

May guests be permitted to know what fresh disaster now postpones our detailed examination of your criminal past?’
‘Certainly. The house is on fire.’ (p.222)

This is not an accessible, easy-to-read, poolside thriller; it is something much more peculiar and oblique.

Set-up

The narrator, Paul Firman, is currently working for a complex nest of companies, all under the ‘Symposia’ brand, which offer tax avoidance advice to large, and not always law-abiding, clients. He has adopted various identities over the years, as required. His boss is Mat Williamson, a native of a Pacific island, a colourful character, much taken with Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout teachings and whose education by missionaries helped him reach high position in a newly-independent Indonesia crying out for educated non-Westerners. (This section is reminiscent of the Far Eastern settings of Ambler’s 1950s novels The Night-Comers and Passage of Arms).

Having made a healthy profit from bribes and kickbacks Williamson pays his way through an Ivy League law school and is currently involved in a campaign to win the south sea island of his birth – Placid Island – independence, in order to turn it into a lucrative tax shelter and become its de facto ruler.

Into this intricate set-up comes major disruption in the form of one Professor Krom, a sociologist with a new ‘theory’ about the Able Criminal. The idea is that criminologists and sociologists have previously studied criminals, people who broke defined laws. Prof Krom is proposing a new definition, clever people who break no laws but whose work is definitely against the interests of society: the Able Criminal. (This is one of the factors making the novel challenging to read, as this ‘theory’ is itself rather hard to grasp; or, more accurately, it’s hard to believe that one academic pursuing a rather thin theory is the ultimate motor for the series of complicated incidents which the novel records.)

At an otherwise innocuous conference on tax legislation, Krom confronts Firman (who is using another name, Oberholzer), revealing that he knows all about him, and announces he is going to write a book-length study of his not-quite-criminal career, with or without his co-operation. Firman flies to London to consult with his boss, Mat the South Sea islander, and they agree to invite Prof Krom and colleagues, the thirty-something Drs Connell and Henson, to the Villa Lipp to hear the proposal out. Firman hosts the event, along with helpers Melanie and Yves.

This trio subject the guests to quite intensive security, searching them, confiscating a camera and fingerprint kit Dr Henson was carrying, and only allowing Dr Connell to keep his tape recorder because they have bugged all the rooms and so can keep tabs on what he’s recording.

Challenges

Send No More Roses is slow and thickly-textured and requires time and effort to read, for at least four reasons:

1. The voice of the first person narrator is dense and elaborate. He is thorough and pedantic and precise. Is this the late style of Ambler himself, a man born in 1909 ie aged 68 when this novel was published? Or is the fussiness exaggerated for fictional purposes, to exemplify the slow, painstaking thought-processes of the narrator-protagonist, Paul Firman?

I knew at once exactly who he was. In the tax-avoidance game our coverage of legal and financial publications of all sorts and nationalities is as comprehensive as we can make it. The Institute and Symposia between them employ a multilingual, and very expensive, full-time research staff of eight as well as numerous part-timers. With us, good intelligence is as essential for survival as discipline and foresight. Our coverage of specialised technical journals dealing with law enforcement at policy-making levels is extremely thorough. Krom’s allusions to tax avoidance and evasion in the published version of his Berne lecture had been sufficient to ensure its being brought to my attention flagged with a red sticker. Even if he had not initiated our acquaintance by playing games with dead men’s names, I would have known enough about Krom to be wary of him. (p.22)

Treacly.

2. It is highly tactical. The text is almost all made of dialogue and conversation – and the narrator lingers over every implication of every conversational thrust and exchange on every page – mulling the consequences, considering the legal and financial and strategic repercussions for himself and his organisation, analysing what his opponents are saying, leaving unsaid, guessing at – continually weighing ever word, every part of every dialogue, as a competition, stopping to assess the opponent’s tactic, considering whether to continue with his current strategy or move to another one. Because, for quite a long time, we don’t even know what his ‘game’ is, this makes it a tiring and often very puzzling read.

In a typical few pages the lengthy speeches by all the characters are bracketed by their sizing-up of each other, and the narrator’s sizing-up of them while they size him up. It’s like this throughout.

I paused as if to dismiss his unspoken protest… His martyred God-give-me-patience look brought in Henson for the defence…I gave her my best smile…Connell rallied to the cause…I was finding it difficult to remain cool and had to make a conscious effort…Connell went into a world-weary, cut-the-cackle routine… With almost no effort I was able to laugh…Despite her confident tone she was by then having several second thoughts…He tried to sound as if her were at ease, but… now he was afraid of me again; not afraid this time, though, of what I might be going to do, but of what he had sensed that I might be going to say…I found it meanly satisfying now to ignore him and give his witnesses the answers he so anxiously awaited…By the time we moved out to lunch by the swimming pool, a lot more had been said and the guests were thoughtful. Connell hadn’t pressed me for an answer to his questions. He had probably decided that I had no answers. (pp.182-186)

3. It is a very static story; there is little ‘action’. Compared to the Alistair Maclean page-turner I just read (Seawitch), which is all hold-ups and knockings-out and tyings-up and raids and burglaries and shoot-outs and kidnappings, this novel is like an exceptionally refined game of chess, except played with odd, almost incomprehensible rules (nobody seems in any rush to achieve check, let alone checkmate). In fact, it is more like a play than a novel, a play with big flashback scenes.

4. Flashbacks

The narrative has quite a complex structure, featuring multiple flashbacks, and including flashbacks within flashbacks. Some of these are very enjoyable – the long account of the narrator’s upbringing and adventures in Europe during the war is very readable and comprehensible. It leads up to his involvement with an Italian lawyer and crooked financier, but then stops. Stops and reverts to the scene on the veranda at the Villa Lipp, where most of the narrative is set. What happened next? How did that upbringing lead to the villa? What happened in the interim time? This is only slowly filled in later and, even after I’d finished the book, I wasn’t sure how important the whole autobiography section had been, if at all.

Around page 100 comes the longest flashback in which the narrator gives his autobiography. He is a characteristically Amblerian cosmopolitan figure (are any of Ambler’s post-war protagonists straightforward Brits born in Britain?). Firman was born in Argentina to emigrant British parents, sent to public school in England, then takes a gap year to tour around the Mediterranean where he manages to become the lover of a rich yacht owner’s wife. When the husband finds out about the affair he flees to Italy just as war clouds are gathering, returning to Blighty to enlist, undergoing various training ordeals before – because he can speak some Italian – he ends up as a military security operative with the British Army as it inches its way up the Italian peninsula.

It is here that he meets the Italian lawyer who opens his eyes about business opportunities and becomes his business partner for a decade or more… And it is here that the text reverts to the scene on the balcony at the Villa Lipp exactly where we left it 40 pages earlier, virtually in mid-sentence, return us to the probing, minutely-observed cut and thrust between the narrator who is trying to give nothing away, and professor Krom who is trying to provoke him to confirm that he is head of this international tax avoidance and blackmail corporation.

It’s not the structure itself, the jumping around in time – it’s the inconsequentiality of many of the flashbacks – very entertaining in themselves but which don’t really move the plot forward – which made the book a rather confusing read.

Finale

In the last 100 pages it becomes clear that his boss, Mat, suggested and authorised the use of the safe house at the Villa Lipp, because he in fact intended to dispose both of the troublesome Professor and, rather harshly, with the narrator himself, who has become a liability.

This might be quite exciting if it wasn’t dealt with in such a dreamy, unreal way: the warning phone call from Mat’s deputy is oddly opaque, full of hints which evaporate. Similarly, the characters all observe a yacht mooring in the bay below them and, since it is August 14 in France, starting to let off fireworks. The narrator correctly expects some of the fireworks to land on the terrace itself and is not surprised when they turn out to be small mortar bombs. But although the characters duck a bit, they’re not really panicked. Professor Krom hides behind the little parapet but continues obstinately believing Paul is the boss of the syndicate and only putting this show on as a cover. Between mortar bursts they continue interrogating each other. Dream-like.

It is revealed that Yves, the bodyguard from the narrator’s organisation, is in fact Williamson’s man on the inside, and has a gun on him. But there is no urgency about the fact. The narrator walks off into the garage where he detonates a petrol bomb, enough to set the villa on fire and get the fire brigade called out. And Yves lets him do it. Why? And after the fire brigade has arrived, Yves lets the narrator call taxis for the trio of academic investigators and lets them leave. Why? And why did the yacht lob over a few small mortars and then stop, why not finish the job? In fact, why didn’t Yves just shoot them all in cold blood? Or why didn’t the menacing figures who’ve been staking out the villa simply close in and shoot them all?

The story is puzzlingly frustrated, circling around its own inconclusiveness. Firman and the middle-aged woman who had set up the meeting at the villa – some kind of security operative for his organisation – drop Yves off at a payphone (if he’s Mat’s man on the inside why hasn’t he killed the others, as he appeared to be threatening to do?). They go on to an anonymous hotel in Nice in case the baddies are in pursuit. But they aren’t. Then fly out to the secret Caribbean island Firman part owns as a result of his earlier career with the Italian con-man. And that’s where the novel ends up.

So if the title is The Siege of the Villa Lipp, it’s a fairly ironic one, since the ‘siege’ amounts to Firman becoming aware there are shadowy figures in cars watching them, then the next evening a few mortars land on the terrace harmlessly. Then they leave by taxi. Hardly Leningrad. Hardly anything.

And the novel ends peculiarly, with the Professor publishing his book-length account of Firman’s life, and the narrator revealing that the entire preceding text is the narrator’s own counter-version of events, his attempt to ‘put the record straight’. But it doesn’t put the record straight: I’m confused as to who was telling the truth.

The final pages are an account of Prof Krom flying to Placid Island to interview Mat Williamson, now rebranded as Mat Tuake, first Minister of the island (his Placid Island scam having come to a successful conclusion) and, typically, no real conclusion is reached: does Prof Krom realise that Mat was the man behind everything after all? He certainly realises he’s the Mat Williamson mentioned so often in Firman’s account, but does he finally admit Williamson is the boss and Firman the number two, contrary to his obsessive theory (and book)? Is the Professor’s account the true one or Firman’s? I have no idea and had ceased caring.

Conclusion

It’s all very readable, once you have slowed down to the leisurely pace and discursive style of the narrator and the peculiar obsession with analysing every single verbal exchange. The autobiographical passages about Firman’s young manhood and war experiences, and about Mat’s upbringing as a South Sea islander, are clear and comprehensible – by far the most enjoyable sections. When I was in the last pages I kept hoping the Professor’s idée fixe would be proved right, that the narrator would turn out to be an unreliable liar all along, or that there’d be some other clever twist, throwing new light on what otherwise seemed an amiable, odd and strangely eventless narrative. But if there was, it was too subtle for me…

For this novel, although it does include a few bangs and a little housefire is, more than most of Ambler’s other post-war novels, a strangely elusive experience; an oblique slant on the thriller genre and not at all the pacey actioner the packaging and blurb suggest.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Send No More Roses

Fontana paperback edition of Send No More Roses

Eric Ambler’s novels

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

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

Seawitch by Alistair Maclean (1977)

To wincing observers his modus operandi seemed nothing short of Draconian, but Cronkite would blasphemously brook no interference. (p.13)

In the later 1960s and throughout the 1970s MacLean was one of the most successful writers in the world, forced into tax exile in Switzerland by the fortune his fast-paced thrillers and their movie adaptations earned him.

Which is sadly ironic because the richer and more famous he got, the worse his novels became.

Made for TV plots

In the previous novel, a gang of criminals hijack the US President on the Golden Gate bridge; in this one a meeting of oil executives decide to use force against the oil billionaire who is undercutting their prices, by attacking his flagship oil rig, the Seawitch.

These plots have the tacky predictability of made-for-TV movies, every one of the scenes conforming to your lowest expectations. When I told my son the billionaire has two beautiful daughters, he said, ‘Bet they get kidnapped.’ And they do.

Stereotypical characters

The characters are stock, straight from central casting: a room full of cynical oil businessmen hire Cronkite, ‘the best in the business’, the tough-talking Texan oil rig disaster recovery man who bears ‘a remarkable resemblance to John Wayne’ (p.15).

He also happens … to be one of the world’s top experts – if not the very top – on the use of high explosives. (p.86)

Cronkite has a bitter personal grudge against the buccaneering oil billionaire, Lord Worth (‘one of the world’s five richest men’) ‘lean, tall and erect’, with the looks of ‘a Biblical patriarch [or] a better-class Roman senator’, ‘He looked and was every inch an aristocrat’. He possesses the biggest mansion in Florida. His two daughters are beautiful, one a blonde, one a redhead. The trashy mindset anticipates Dallas (first episode May 1978 ie in development when this novel was published) or Dynasty (first ep. January 1981).

All the characters are the biggest, richest, best or most powerful etc in the land. And made of cardboard.

Belton… had the justly-deserved reputation of being the President’s indispensable right-hand man. (p.87)

It said much for Lord Worth’s aristocratic magnetism that even the most villainous eventually addressed him in respectful tones. (p.129)

The flimsy pretext to the story is that Lord W’s oil-producing rivals want to stop him drilling in international waters. Behind it all lurks a vague threat that they might stir up such an extreme international incident as to start a major war. Cronkite, the John Wayne lookalike, listens to these naughty men squabbling then makes them an outrageous offer: pay him $1 million, plus $10 million expenses, and he will undertake the mission – but no questions asked about what he is going to do or how. This is like a really cheap copy of the breath-taking scene where the Jackal states his demands to the French security forces in Day of The Jackal. That novel is a masterpiece; this is junk.

Too many characters are ‘inevitably tough’; ‘he was, of course, the meanest…’; ‘He was, hardly surprisingly, extremely tough and ruthless.’

The inevitablys, of courses and hardly surprisinglys sprinkle the text because MacLean’s imagination is now only dealing with cartoon characters: the richest, the toughest, the meanest. The inevitablys signal the collapse of MacLean’s imagination into permanent stereotype and exaggeration. All human subtlety has disappeared. I laughed out loud when the narrator says craggy old Cronkite looks like John Wayne.

He was newly returned from Indonesia where he had inevitably maintained his 100% record. (p.15)

The chairs, inevitably, were Louis XIV. (p.20)

Lord Worth’s butler Jenkins – English, of course… (p.22)

They were, understandably, not unguarded… (p.135)

Plot

Rather than meet with Lord Worth and negotiate, the cabal of oil producers agrees to hire Cronkite, who says he’ll use any means necessary to bring Worth down and, because one of the attendees is in fact a spy for Worth and tells him all about it, within four or five pages, both sides have effectively declared war.

  • Worth’s people immediately raid the Mississippi Naval Armoury (!) to steal mines, arms and ammunitions and fly them out to the rig
  • Cronkite’s people blow up one of Worth’s oil tankers in Galveston harbour
  • Worth learns the cabal is using its influence to get a Soviet destroyer and a Venezualan cruiser to leave port and head for the oil rig, Seawitch
  • Worth flies to Washington to call for senior help from the Department of State, the Army and Navy
  • Cronkite’s people raid Worth’s home and kidnap his two beautiful daughters, then nick one of Worth’s helicopter pilots to fly them out to the rig.

Did I mention the two handsome, tough young men who were kicked off the police force for being too honest in these troubled times and are the boyfriends of Lord Worth’s beautiful daughters? Well, they get involved at an early stage and are in the helicopter which flies out to Seawitch soon after the baddies’ one carrying the two girls.

They masquerade as oil engineers but have smuggled aboard Smith & Wesson revolvers with silencers. You might not be surprised to learn that, single-handedly, they ‘save the day’.

Shocking prose

MacLean handles the English language as if he’s only just made its acquaintance.

Scoffield was a large, rubicund, smiling man, the easy-going essence of good nature. To the fact that this was not precisely the case any member of his drilling crews would have eagerly and blasphemously testified. (p.28)

Roomer straightened from the key-hole of the main door of the armoury and reluctantly pocketed the very large set of keys for the carrying of which any ill-disposed law officer could have had him behind bars without any need for a warrant. (p.46)

‘In comparison with the kidnapping of your daughters, your own ventures outside the law fade into something that is comparatively a peccadillo.’ (p.118)

Durand’s mind was brutalised to the extent where it was incapable of picking up any psychic signals: had it been so attuned he could not have failed to hear the black wings of the bird of death flapping above his head. (p.131)

Vocal chords can become paralysed when the mind is possessed of the irrevocable certainty that one is but one step, one second removed from eternity. (p.148)

There are all the faults I’ve itemised in other reviews: the repetitions…

‘Your brow is very damp, Lord Worth. Why is it very damp?’
Lord Worth didn’t enlighten them as to the reason why his brow was damp. (p.117)

‘I hope you believe me.’
Palermo believed him. (p.125)

‘With your connections you could find out in minutes.’
Lord Worth did find out in minutes. (p.166)

… the heavy-handed humour

He was a police chief of incomparable incompetence, but was a consummate and wholly corrupt politician, which was why he was police chief. (p.103)

Larsen had a few choice observations to make in return, none of which would have received the approval of even the most tolerant board of censors. (p.124)

Ha ha ha. Out of the whole novel, I liked just one such jokey sentence, for its cartoon brio:

When Lord Worth poured on his icy contempt he used a king-sized can. (p.129)

With its setting in Florida and climax on an oil rig, elements of the plot are similar to MacLean’s 1961 classic Fear Is The Key, except that that is a good book. Read that. And never read this.


Related links

1979 Fontana paperback edition of Seawitch (Cover photo be Derek Berwin)

1979 Fontana paperback edition of Seawitch (Cover photo by Derek Berwin)

Derek Berwin

Arguably the best thing about this book is the cover, featuring an atmospheric underwater photo by Derek Berwin. Derek is still active and has a blog with a potted biography, some wonderful underwater shots and links to numerous other sites which feature his great photos.

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 – mostly good

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 – Dr 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.

The Enemy by Desmond Bagley (1977)

‘There’s one thing about being in an organisation of spies – news gets around fast.’ (p.163)

This is another belting thriller from Bagley; man, he really hit his stride in the 1970s. There’s a question mark over some of his novels from the 1960s, which often become a bit over-excited (eg Wyatt’s Hurricane, which starts sensibly, ends up featuring a hurricane, a tsunami and a civil war all in a frenzied 200 pages). But by the 1970s his stories are much more calm, focused, factually anchored and, for that reason, when the action kicks in, all the more plausible and genuinely gripping. Like The Snow Tiger, I just couldn’t put this one down and read it through into the early hours.

Sweary

It’s a first-person narrative. Either Bagley’s style evolved during the 1970s or, as I suspect, he deliberately created a different voice for each of these books. There was swearing in the last two novels – and certainly more swearing than you get in MacLean, who tells you people swear but not necessarily the words they use. The protagonist of this one, Malcolm Jaggard, is 34, the optimum age for heroes of this kind of thriller (Bagley himself was 54 when this novel came out). His voice starts out fairly traditional, almost posh (as well as his job he enjoys a private income of £11,000 per annum, a lot in 1977) mixed with rather dated slang. But as the novel proceeds he becomes steadily more vulgar – until right at the end he, rather surprisingly, tells his boss where he can shove his job.

To stitch together some sample snippets of speech and thought…

‘Stuff the record,’ I said… ‘Who’s pinched our Who’s Who?’… ‘The man keeps a bloody low profile…’ A couple of hours later I was having a mild ding-dong with Larry… ‘Oh Christ!’ I said, ‘Nellie is a tattle-tale, too bloody gossipy by half’… I was knocking croquet balls around on the lawn when Ashton pitched up… ‘Nip round to the garage and see what’s missing,’ I said… I told her a damned sight more than I ought to have done, and to hell with the Official Secrets Act… We can have another noggin at the Coach and Horses… ‘… and has been freezing his balls off ever since…’ ‘… the bloody Russian embassy.’ ‘I’m making bloody sure I do stay out of sight’…. He was doing it deliberately, the bastard…’Oh Christ!’ I said… ‘Caught in a shell blast, my arse!’… ‘I think it’s a bloody disgrace.’…’It is bloody difficult’… Jaggard, you bastard!… there was a hell of a lot missing… ‘The bloody thing beat me in the end’… ‘We’re going to talk to that bloody auctioneer’… ‘Ashton was a clever bastard,’ I said… What a ruthless bastard he had turned out to be!…’I won’t take compliments from you, damn it!’

I said bluntly, ‘Get lost.’
He was not a man who showed astonishment easily, but he did then. ‘What did you say?’
‘You heard me. Get lost. You can take Kerr’s job and your job and stuff them wherever you like. The Minister’s backside might be a good place’ (p.251)

The plot

British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard is falling in love with Penelope, daughter of well-off self-made industrialist George Ashton, when someone throws acid in the face of Ashton’s other (grown-up) daughter, in the drive to his country house. When Jaggard digs into Ashton’s background he discovers he was a high-ranking child prodigy and Soviet scientist who defected to England in the 1940s. But his life is shrouded in mystery and, when Ashton and his loyal man-servant, Benson, suddenly disappear, Jaggard can’t get access to the Classified files.

The novel turns into a Quest, a Pursuit. Jaggard’s boss, Ogilvie, tasks him with finding the two men and, after a lot of false trails, Jaggard discovers them living in Stockholm, under false names, suspiciously close to the Russian border. His daughters, his household, know nothing about it. It was a very professional disappearing act.

Jaggard suggests he simply presents himself to Ashton and asks him to return to England, but his boss, Ogilvie, insists he mount a major operation to snatch him. Half a dozen men tail Ashton round Stockholm, alerting him to the fact he’s rumbled, scaring the pair into catching a train west. Following the train Jaggard and his team detect them alighting at a tiny village stop and are planning to corral them into a car, and thence to a plane and home to Blighty. But Ashton and Benson are stubborn – what is their secret, what are they so afraid of? – and make off into snow-covered woods, where the pursuing agents are horrified to hear the sound of guns – single shots, then machine guns. My God, they’re blundering towards a Swedish Army exercise! Now Jaggard and his men close in at speed on the old man and his loyal servant when, to everyone’s amazement, just as Ashton turns towards Jaggard who is shouting to warn him – Benson shoots his master twice, and is immediately shot dead by one of the agents. Disaster!

On his return to London Jaggard has not only to explain the catastrophic failure of his mission to his boss – and then to a committee including the Home Secretary – but has to live with the knowledge he has helped kill his fiancée’s father.

But this is only half way through the book. There’s something very wrong about the whole affair and Jaggard’s boss, Ogilvie, while pretending to downgrade him, in fact gives him free rein and orders to get to the bottom of the business. In doing so Jaggard uncovers a plot which extends to the highest levels in Whitehall and which dates back to the War, and which leads Jaggard from a comfy Home Counties mansion to a grim, storm-tossed Scottish island where a secret laboratory is carrying out hair-raising germ warfare experiments.

There are some light and amusing scenes along the way – especially around the slowly-emerging significance of the enormous model train set which the agents find in the attic of the dead Ashton’s mansion – but the brutal deaths in a Swedish forest mean the book can never have a happy ending, and in fact its last few pages contain an unexpected twist which contain a horrifying message for all of us, even 40 years later. Hence the title which is lifted from an American satirist, Walt Kelly: ‘We have met the enemy – and he is Us.’

No descriptions

Bagley just isn’t into descriptions, visual descriptions, the way other novelists are. When the narrative moves to Stockholm, the opening of chapter 18 sets the scene. Or rather it doesn’t. Even when a sentence or paragraph starts out describing something it always veers back to human or anthropomorphised activity. People, animals, scenery, architecture – they aren’t painted, they always have to be doing something in Bagley. His is a dynamic imagination.

It was dark and cold in Stockholm at that time of year. All the time I was in Sweden it didn’t stop snowing; not heavily most of the time, but there was a continual fall of fine powder from leaden-grey clouds as though God up there was operating a giant flour-sifter. I was booked into the Grand, which was warm enough, and after I had made my call to Henty I looked out over the frozen Strömmen to the Royal Palace… There were swans on the Strömmen, walking uneasily on the ice and cuddling in clusters as though to keep warm. One was on an ice floe and drifting towards Riddarfjärden; I watched it until it went out of sight under the Ström bridge then turned away feeling suddenly cold in spite of the central heating. (p.117)

It’s not intended as a criticism. I’m just trying to identify the differences between, to individuate the strengths and weaknesses of, Bagley, Deighton, Innes, MacLean et al.

Instead of description of scenes and places, what you do get in Bagley is lots of factual background. And so at several places there are detailed explanations of genetics and genetic engineering, circa 1976, each instalment picking up ideas from the previous one and exploring them further, thus adding depth (and tension) to the plot.

The way Bagley incorporates his obviously in-depth background research into the drama of the text is one of his great achievements.

Computers

Same goes for his extensive knowledge of computers demonstrated by his technically precise descriptions of:

  • the Department’s central database with its remote terminals and passwords
  • the complex computer language which Ashton turns out to have programmed into his labyrinthine train set with its advanced micro-processors
  • the links along a landline which the investigating computer scientist sets up from his remote terminal to another, central information-processing computer

All this isn’t clunked into the text, it is woven seamlessly, it is part of the imaginative fabric of the story:  the computers and the genetics turn out to be what the novel is, ultimately, all about.

The anxiety of influence

As in every spy thriller from this period, there are the obligatory comments trying to distance the narrator (and the text) from the enormous shadow of Ian Fleming. After using his organisation’s new, super-powerful computer, Jaggard remarks:

Strange how the real world is catching up with James Bond. (p.28)

Later, he explains his profession to his fiancée, Penelope.

‘State security! You mean you’re some sort of secret agent. A spy?’
I laughed and held up my hands. ‘Not a spy. We’re not romantic types with double-o numbers and a licence to kill – no nonsense like that.’ (p.60)

‘You people amaze me. You think you’re James Bonds, the lot of you. Well, I don’t think I’m living in the middle of a highly coloured film, even if you do.’ (p.120)

Social history

The novel turns out to be about genetics and genetic engineering and it’s a bit of a shock to realise just how long this has been a ‘hot’ topic of debate. Same goes for three or four other political/social issues, altogether making me realise how little things really change:

  • Genetic engineering Typically thorough Bagleyesque explanation of the state of genetics in the mid-1970s, what genes are, how phagocytes are used to carry snippets of DNA etc, and the risk of it all going wrong, of creating virulent new viruses and diseases.
  • The internet Jaggard and his team use remote computer terminals to access a central computer database. They require login details and passwords, just like the computer I sit down in front of every day. When the ‘boffins’ analyse the train set they set up a link by phone line with a remote computer. Here, pre-1977, are the seeds of the internet.
  • Scottish devolution As soon as the narrative switches to Scotland, the narrator mentions Scottish nationalism and the Scots desire for devolution or even independence. In the pub in Ullapool:

There was talk of English absentee landlords and of ‘Scottish’ oil and of the ambivalent attitude of the Scottish Labour Party, all uttered in tones of amused and tired cynicism as if these people had lost faith in the promises of politicians. (p.220)

Thank goodness, 40 years later, all these issues have been sorted out by the wise men who govern us.

Related links

1977 Fontana paperback edition of the Enemy

1977 Fontana paperback edition of The Enemy

Bagley’s books

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

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

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

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