Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

In May 1977 young Rosemary Elizabeth ‘Posy’ Simmonds MBE (born 9 August 1945 and so aged 32 at the time) started to draw a weekly comic strip for the Guardian newspaper. It was initially titled ‘The Silent Three of St Botolph’s’ as a jokey reference to the 1950s comic strip ‘The Silent Three’ by Evelyn Flinders, and consisted of parodies of jolly hockeysticks public schoolgirls’ adventures.

However, the strip soon evolved to focus on the stories of three girls in particular, showing how they had grown into middle-class, middle aged adults. They were:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, and mother of a large exhausting brood of children
  • Jo Heep, married to whisky salesman Edmund Heep, mum to two rebellious teenagers
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, mother of a young baby

The strip soon dropped the St Botolph’s title and used ad hoc titles for specific strips or episodes, eventually becoming known simply as ‘Posy’. In the end the strip ran for ten years, until 1987, and was periodically collected into books. Mrs Weber’s Diary was the first of these collections. It was published in 1979 and is a slender 64 pages long.

Mrs Weber’s Diary

Diary format

The first thing you notice is that, for the book version, Simmonds embedded the original cartoon strips into mock-ups of Wendy Weber’s diary entries. These consist of shopping lists, lists of chores, notes and doodles, and occasional longer entries which comment on, or explain, the strip below.

January entry from Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

I’m sure George Weber would have a field day discussing the hypertextuality and interplay of discourses thus created, but I found the diary entries read a lot like, well, diary entries. ‘Cleaned out lint from tumble dryer’, ‘Lunch with the Whites’, ‘must get new guinea pig litter- it’s not riveting stuff. More a kind of ‘phatic’ text which helps to extend – and so further enfold you – in the imaginative world of the cartoons.

And like Bridget Jones’s Diary (which started in 1995) the diary format, apart from anything else, fills up space. It is an easily repeatable filler idea. (This diary format is dropped in the succeeding books, but is revived big time in the 1993 collection, Mustn’t Grumble, which collects the large-format calendar pages made for the years 1988 and 1989, each month represented by a full-length profile of a representative figure of the day.)


The next impression is how very wordy the strip is. Everything requires a lot of talking. The strips are packed with speech bubbles. Dialogue is absolutely crucial because the humour – such as it is – lies in the nuances of what people are thinking and saying, rather than in anything they actually do. It lies in satirising the modish, liberal, left-wing views and attitudes of the comfortable middle-middle-classes (and their children), and these have to be expressed in order to be lampooned.

The Silent Three by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Wordiest of all is George Weber who struggles to maintain his earnest feminist, environmentalist and socialist views in a world which obviously doesn’t give a damn. He is supposed to be writing a vast book which will be the last word in structuralism and semiology – a theory of how meaning is constructed in cultural artefacts – which was all the rage in the late 1970s, but which will obviously never be published or even completed, while his long-suffering wife Wendy, a part-time illustrator of childrens books, is the one who keeps the household together. In an early strip, Wendy changing the kitchen curtains triggers a characteristic outburst of Georgian rhetoric: ‘the blind translates the window into a mirror of attitudes totalisantes.’

From Mrs Weber’s Dairy by Posy Simmonds

Variety of font and style

In the strip above you can see – before you even read the words – that they are arranged in a striking variety of fonts and sizes and formats. A lot of words are in bold, symbols are used to replace swearwords, a lot of dots indicating pauses, there’s the alternation of sentence case with capitalised words – generally there is a lot going on in the text. In fact arguably more goes on in the speech bubbles than in the actual ‘world’ of the images, and this is entirely characteristic. The strips are about what people are saying and thinking, often at great length, rather than what they do – which is often little or nothing. (In its way a typographic satire on bien-pensant liberals’ concerns with what people say, to the complete neglect of what people actually do.)

The most common variation is to use bold and/or capitals to bring out the simply adorable emphases which the unbearably twee and posh middle-classes give to words, to make everything sound so simply super and marvellous. Thus the exchanges in this picture: ‘Wendy! You DIDN’T make ALL those!’ ‘Yes, I did… but QUICHES are MARVELLOUS! They’re all out of my freezer.’

From Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds

No continuous narrative

Within each individual strip there is a strong narrative with a (sort of) punchline or payoff, but between strips there seems to be no overarching narrative. In fact, as well as the ten or so regular characters who we get to know (based around the three women, their husbands and the kids) Simmonds sometimes introduces completely unrelated characters and stories.

Some strips abandon the format of a series of pictures to focus on, say, just two large ones, or even one very big one, for example as in the scene above which depicts a street party in the street where the Webers live.

The ‘joke’ of this piece is that all the well-meaning mums and dads spend ages agonising over preparing all the food themselves, making sure it is vegetarian and organic and home-made and all the other Guardian reader shibboleths all in the name of keeping it as simple and ‘authentic’ as possible – with the result that the street party is a pretentious, urban, middle-class pastiche of a peasants’ meal. Witness the man at the bottom left offering his daughter, Sasha (such a nice middle-class name) a glass of mead. Yes, mead.

But the picture contains another joke, for the composition of this large final frame in the strip is based on a 1567 oil painting, The Peasant Wedding, by the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel (1567)

This is learnèd and witty, but not what you’d call funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny. It typifies the way more than half the pleasure of the strips comes from ‘getting’ the references, not the jokes. When George starts droning on about Nathalie Sarraute or the nouveau roman or Roland Barthes or hypertextuality, the reader is not meant to laugh out loud. It is, after all, not particularly funny. It’s more that the reader is meant to nod wisely to themselves and think, Nathalie Sarraute, yes I’ve hear of her; the nouveau roman, I tried reading an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel once.

Although the strip satirises a certain type of 1970s pretentious intellectuality (almost all the thinkers and film-makers referred to are, of course, French) you have to be pretty familiar with the subject matter to ‘get’ the references. Later in the series she plays the same joke, where Jocasta the art student and several other young women go out to the country for the day with their tutors who criticise something they’re wearing prompting the girls to take off all their clothes – but the point, the purpose and the ‘punchline’ of the strip is that the final picture is a Simmonds version of the famous Manet painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. Aha, the cultivated reader is meant to nod sagely to themselves. ‘Of course. Very funny.’ I am reminded of the comic tag which dates from around this period, where some preening clever clogs is meant to exclaim: ‘Pretentious?? Moi???’

Thus there is a kind of cosy self-referentiality going on, where readers of the Posy strip can congratulate themselves on being as well-read and culturally in the know as their creator and – presumably – all the Guardian‘s other clever, with-it, intellectuals.

The same is even more true of so many of the ‘situations’ Simmonds depicts – mums in the playground blaming each others’ kids for an outburst of nits, George’s acute embarrassment at being deputed to make the farewell speech to the extremely unpopular serving lady at his polytechnic’s canteen, George agonising over the morality of having a vasectomy, George and Wendy being berated by their teenage daughter’s punk boyfriend, Wendy’s chagrin at her little boy not getting involved in the perfect party and party games and party spread laid on by a perfect mother (Pippa – ‘I don’t know HOW she does it!’)

These are all very mundane everyday subjects and that’s the point. The humour, if humour it is, comes from the familiarity, from recognising the situations, from thinking, ‘Oh God, yes, that happened to me.’

Sexism and feminism

Two consistent threads are a) the draining harassment of being a mother and b) the permanent atmosphere of harassment endured by women at work, in pubs and bars or even walking down the street. The cartoons accurately convey exactly the kind of angry, embattled feminism expressed by the young women I met at university in the early 1980s.

From Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Wendy’s glasses

Many of the greatest cartoon characters have one or two tell-tale motifs. Arguably the entire Posy strip is signified by Wendy Weber’s enormous glasses in which the black pupils of her eyes roll around like marbles.

Although she is just as liable to say or think silly things as any of the characters, there is a deeper sense in which the whole world is seen, caught and captured through Wendy’s eyes. Wendy Weber sees all and knows all, particularly in this book, where the initially rather random cross-section of subject matter, is all rolled up into – caught and contained within – the format of being from Wendy’s diary.

Frontispiece to Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)


Study of all the examples I’ve chosen will show you how very carefully all the strips are drawn. Each frame is packed with detail. Take the two cars parked in the first frame in the January picture, or the detail of the piano keys in the punk strip, or the scaffolding, sack of cement and traffic cones in the one about workmen wolf-whistling the girls.

Again, this isn’t exactly humour, but it is the transformation of the world of reality into a gentler, rounded, somehow mollified and more reassuring cartoon format. Everything is just so, everything is just as you would expect it, but nicer.

Simmonds the feminist may be mad as hell about street harassment and everyday sexism, but the viewer’s eye, while taking the point, also takes in the myriad details including, for example, the care with which she’s drawn the metal clips on Jocasta’s dungarees.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the famous modernist poet T.S. Eliot said that the ‘meaning’ of a poem is a bit like the raw steak a burglar throws to a guard dog to keep him distracted while he goes about his business of nicking stuff; the ‘meaning’ of a poem is the bit which engages the conscious mind while the actual poetry – the euphony of sounds, the metre and rhythm, the alliteration and assonance and so on – do their infinitely subtler work of conveying unconscious or preconscious feelings and impressions. Of changing your mood and, maybe, perceptions.

Same here: each strip has an ostensible subject – childrens’ parties, old drunks down the pub, meeting an architect to discuss an extension, visit from an American friend the Webers knew back in the heady 60s – but I didn’t find any of them funny, and not many of them even amusing. Often they lack any kind of recognisable punchline, or the punchline – instead of being a shock, surprise, which triggers laughter – is more like a confirmation of everything about the situation which you had already recognised.

Take the strip in which a too-perfect househusband Adrian Smythe, and his adorable daughters Amy and Saffron, drop in on their neighbour Trish Wright, and while she rushes round flustered and harassed by her one child, young Willy, he coolly, calmly sorts everything out and – without meaning to – shows off what a perfect father he is, growing vegetables with his kids, having set up a Nature Table for them to study insects and flowers, and so on and so on – and all the time, of course, writing his next book, which, in the last frame, Trisha, pushed to the limits of chagrin and frustration, thinks should be titled ‘One Woman’s Sink Is Another Man’s Swimming Pool’. I recognised the general situation, having been a househusband myself. I recognised Trisha’s irritation at Adrian’s calmness and effortless superiority. But I didn’t think it was funny, and certainly the punchline – Trisha’s alternative title for Adrian’s book – didn’t strike me as either funny or clever.

The point – as far as I could tell – was in the reader’s recognition of the situation – and in this transformation I am describing, the transformation of the harsh unpredictable world into the warm, cosy and predictable set of stereotypes and caricatures with which she populates the cartoons; and in the essentially softening effect of the visual style.


All images (except the Bruegel) are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism.

Related links

Other Posy reviews

Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk by Len Deighton (1979)

Blitzkriek does what it says on the cover – gives a swift account of the rise of Hitler to power, then skates quickly over the years of crisis which led up to the start of World War Two, in order to focus on what really fascinates Len, the theory and practice of Blitzkrieg itself, and then its implementation in the Battle for France.

This hinged on the battle for the river Meuse, a few key days in May 1940 when the German army surprised the world by using tank divisions supported, not by lumbering artillery which would have slowed them down, but by agile fighter-bomber airplanes which could keep up with them as they tore through France’s supposedly impregnable defences. The German panzer divisions deliberately avoided confrontations with France’s strongpoints (the major error of World War One), instead racing for the Channel ports and effectively cutting off the French Army and British Expeditionary Force in the north from their supply routes and surrounding them, before closing in for the kill.

What the German Army failed to achieve in 4 years in 1914-18, it achieved in 5 weeks in 1940 using this new Blitzkrieg strategy (Blitz = lightning, Krieg = war) , made possible by modern developments in tank and plane technology. This is what Deighton’s book sets out to analyse and explain in detail.

The book is divided into five parts:

Part one – Hitler and his army (the rise of Hitler): 68 pages
Part two – Hitler at war (reclaiming the Ruhr, Anschluss, invading Czechoslovakia etc): 47 pages
Part three – Blitzkrieg: weapons and methods: 94 pages
Part four – The battle for the river Meuse: 83 pages
Part five – The flawed victory (Hitler’s flawed victory ie Dunkirk): 36 pages

The overall story is too well known and too long to repeat here. Nor am I tempted to quote any of the hundreds and hundreds of surprising facts, figures and shocking events which it describes; any account of the war (of any war) contains them. Nor am I qualified to compare and contrast Len’s theories and emphases with other historians of the period, nor to point out the ways in which 36 years of research and books by the numerous professional historians of the period have doubtless changed our understanding of various aspects of this vast subject.

I’m more interested in the light it sheds on Len’s practice as a novelist.


Len is not afraid to be boldly opinionated:

A Nazi regime without anti-Semitism would probably have had some form of atomic warhead and V-2 rockets to deliver them by the late 1930s. Thus I am of the opinion that but for his anti-Semitism Hitler might have conquered the world. (p.86)

A disproportionate  number of senior German generals came from the artillery… M. Cooper in his book The German Army, attributes this to the brains required for gunnery and the much lower casualty rate that gunners suffer in war. I cannot agree… (p.103)

It is partly the forthrightness of his opinions which makes this narrative more readable than other, more scholarly and tactful accounts, might be.

Some histories tell stories of German freighters in Norwegian ports, filled with infantry, waiting like ‘Trojan horses’ for zero hour to disgorge their invaders. One history says that such freighters sailed but were sunk in transit. This is incorrect. (p.120)

As the book progresses Len’s anger at the incompetence of the Allies – France and Britain – mounts, resulting in open displays of sarcasm. Remember, Len had produced and written the screenplay of the searing anti-war film, Oh! What A Lovely War ten years earlier, in 1969, and was to publish an overview of war’s stupidity 14 years later – Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II (1993).

The French High Command, which already had the worst system of command in the world – many different HQs far apart, with commanders not certain where their authority ended – was able to integrate into this, the worst air force command system. (p.221)

In the latter parts of the book there is some fierce criticism of the wholesale inadequacy, laziness, stupidity and then self-serving defeatism of the leaders of the French Army. ‘Cheese-eating surrender monkeys,’ seems to be a simple statement of fact. Len quotes a military commentator:

‘The Maginot Line was a formidable barrier, not so much against the German Army as against French understanding of modern war.’ (p.351)

And when the pathetically defeated French Army ended up, by the irony of politics, taking over the French government in the shape of the 84-year-old puppet figure, General Pétain, one French minister wittily commented:

‘The republic has often feared the dictatorship of conquering generals – it never dreamed of that of defeated ones.’ (p.360)

Still, Len goes out of his way to give credit to the units of the French army which did fight bravely and gallantly and, in particular, to the French soldiers who held the perimeter at Dunkirk thus allowing almost all the British Expeditionary Force to be evacuated. But the French High Command and senior politicians… dear oh dear.

The Deighton paragraph

Len’s prose comes in crisp paragraphs. Some stories or moments are dwelt on in detail, for example the Night of the Long Knives. In other places, particularly in the hasty second section which skims over the diplomatic history around Hitler’s confrontations with the Allies as he bullied and blustered his way to seizing the Ruhr, Austria, the Sudetenland etc, Len’s connecting paragraphs cover big subjects in a handful of taut sentences, which feel almost like notes.

Poland was a huge parcel of land which had emerged periodically from the mists of European history, but never in exactly the same place. Three times already Poland had been divided between Germany and Russia. Now it was to happen for a fourth time. (p.101)

Everywhere the Luftwaffe submitted the Poles to machine-gun fire and bombs. Every account of the Polish fighting has to be read bearing in mind this German command of the air. It was a war of continuous movement; no front formed for more than a few hours. (p.109)

Reading his style in a factual book sheds light on his fiction, which shows the same tendency to blithely skip over explanations when they’re boring. In the early Ipcress novels this produces the attractive, cool, ellipticism of the style ie it often misses out so much you’re not sure what’s going on. Even in the later, more ordinarily written novels there are still moments where a door opens and someone comes into the room and starts talking and the reader has to stop and figure out who from earlier clues, rather than Deighton being so mundane as to simply name them and describe them entering.

Boys with their toys

The long middle, Blitzkrieg, section revolves around interesting discussions about the origin and development of the tank and fascinating accounts of the between-the-wars ‘tank theorists’, with learnèd speculation about their influence on the man who emerged as a leading proponent of the Blitzkrieg strategy, Panzer General Heinz Guderian. This, the heart of the book, contains some formidably thorough technical descriptions of tanks, half-tracks, artillery and so on – if you like technical specifications, these pages are for you:

The two German battle tanks were given entirely different armament. The PzKw IV carried the stubby 7.5cm gun, one of the largest-bore tank weapons on the battlefield, but its muzzle velocity was only 1,263 feet per second (fps). The short range of  this weapon made it particularly unsuited to tank-versus-tank combat. But if it got as near as 500 yards to an armoured target, it could penetrate 40mm armour (and few tanks had thicker armour than this) and the missile from this 7.5cm KwK L/24 weighted 15 pounds. Compare this to the 3.7cm KwK L/45 that was fitted to the PzKw III tanks. This small-bore gun had a muzzle velocity of 2,445 fps, with all the characteristics of the high-velocity gun, but of less use against infantry or anti-tank batteries. (p.190)

These sections are accompanied by wonderfully lucid, innocent line drawings by technical illustrator Denis Bishop – 23 in all, with titles like ’12 ton Sd. Kfz.8 half-track towing 15cm sSH. 18 heavy gun’. Bishop illustrated numerous other books about World War Two weaponry.

Depth of research

Maybe the most obvious point of relevance to Deighton’s practice as a novelist is the phenomenal depth of research his history books reveal, in a number of ways:

  • there is the sequence of events themselves and his interpretation of them, standard territory for a historian
  • there is great attention paid to the arms and equipment used in the war, with Bishop’s drawings – less often found in ‘pure’ histories
  • there are references to Len’s personal expeditions to visit all the major sites connected with the battle, and the book includes photos taken by him of key locations
  • and the reference sections at the back mention the many conversations, letters and correspondence he had with men who played major roles in events

Reading this history goes a long way to putting in context Deighton’s war fiction eg Bomber or SS-GB or the wartime background to XPD. Each of these texts is obsessed with pursuing into minute detail the precise organisational structures of the, generally, Nazi organisations involved in the stories, as well as displaying a profound grasp of the inter-departmental rivalries among the jostling, competing Nazi departments: this is especially true of SS-GB where a good deal of the plot boils down to the scheming rivalry between two senior Nazi policemen who belong to different and rival parts of the SS.

The paradox of war hobbyists

I always find it paradoxical that so many men who are otherwise kind and gentle husbands and fathers, delight in the technical spec of wartime tanks, planes, guns and grenades, attending military shows and vintage air displays, collecting guns and wartime memorabilia. As I read page after page about armour-piercing shells, howitzers’ explosive capacities, lighter, more efficient machine guns, the use of new short-fuse hand grenades — I am continually thinking that absolutely all these devices, so cunningly designed and crafted, are designed for one thing only, which is to murder human beings: to eviscerate, blind, maim, blow up, vaporise and destroy human beings, and I can’t help shuddering.


If the book has one message it is that, whatever the term’s precise origins (which he discusses in detail) and whatever the word exactly meant (there were and are different definitions), Blitzkrieg was only actually put into practice this one time, in the Battle for France, where conditions were perfect for it: good road systems, relatively small battlefields, failure of the French Army and Air Force to make a coherent stand, pre-emptive strikes on enemy airfields giving complete air superiority, lightning speed and efficiency at achieving definable goals (crossing the river Meuse, racing to the Channel ports, thus splitting the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force from their supply lines).

Few if any of these factors were to apply in the subsequent theatres of war, in North Africa and then, fatally, in the attack on Russia.

Related links

Granada paperback edition of Blitzkrieg

Granada paperback edition of Blitzkrieg

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 Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth (1979)

While Adam Munro was changing trains at Revolution Square shortly before 11am that morning of 10th June, a convoy of a dozen sleek, black, Zil limousines was sweeping through the Borovitsky Gate in the Kremlin wall a hundred feet above his head and one thousand three hundred feet southwest of him. The Soviet Politburo was about to begin a meeting that would change history. (p.46)

Forsyth’s fourth novel, published in 1979, is long (479 pages long), very densely factual, and set in what was then the future ie June 1982. It’s far bigger than a ‘spy novel’, it’s a thriller about international affairs, a geopolitical thriller, rooted in the machinations of Cold War politics at the highest level.

Plot – part one

A catastrophic grain harvest in the USSR prompts a split in the Soviet Politburo: If they do nothing the USSR will be plunged into famine by the spring:

  • half the delegates, led by current General Secretary Maxim Rudin (a sort of ‘moderate’, in this context), want to explore lengthy negotiations at a neutral venue (turns out to be Ireland) in which the US and Canada can be persuaded to sell the USSR their surplus grain at a knock-down price in exchange for reductions in Soviet conventional and nuclear arms;
  • the other half, led by Party theoretician Yefrem Vishnayev backed by head of the Red Army, Marshal Kerensky, put forward the gob-smacking plan of invading Western Europe in the spring to seize the West’s grain and to further the glorious communist revolution – using tactical nuclear weapons if necessary, and ready to reply to any American long-range strikes, ie are prepared to start World War Three.

When put to the vote, six delegates opt for peace, six for war; the deciding vote is cast by Rudin for negotiation, but Rudin is a sick man and knows the opposition will use any pretext they can seize to force a vote of no confidence, overthrow him and proceed with the war plan.

Such an opportunity comes along when the head of the KGB is assassinated while visiting his mother in Kiev by a group of Ukrainian nationalists well-organised by their (improbably) English emigre leader, Andrew Drake (Andriy Drak). These nationalists want to strike a devastating blow at the ‘tyrant Russia’ which has invaded their country and destroyed their culture. The hit is carried out with the kind of technical and organisational precision we expect of all Forsyth characters: the best long-range rifle, night-sight from Britain, and so on. The conspirators knock the KGB boss’s mother over as she crosses the road, but are careful not to be fatal. They know the hospital she’ll be taken to; they know the security back entrance to it; they are waiting for the KGB boss to arrive to visit his stricken mum. One shot is all it takes to plunge the Politburo into seething chaos as the various factions jockey for power and the security organisation moves to hush up this catastrophe…

The conspirators’ next step is to smuggle the two assassins (who happen to be Ukrainian Jews) out of the country, ideally to Israel, where they can reveal at a press conference that the KGB is leaderless and rudderless. This, they hope, will prompt their people – largely kept in thrall by fear of the Russians’ security organisation – to rise up and throw off their oppressors, an uprising against communist tyranny.

The conspirators are blithely unaware that a famine of massive proportions is heading towards the whole USSR unless the negotiations in Ireland work out ie that this unprecedented famine will foment widespread unrest and massively help their cause – but the Kremlin knows and institutes both a massive manhunt for the killers and a ferocious clampdown on any witnesses to the assassination: the dead man’s driver, security guards, the doctors that treated him, the undertaker etc are all swept off to prison camps, while the official story put about is that comrade Ivanenko has suffered a heart attack.

The two assassins make their bid to escape by hijacking a domestic Soviet passenger flight and insisting it fly to West Berlin. When the pilot tries to trick them by landing at the East Berlin airport some kind of accident happens – maybe the wheels touching down bumpily or the terrorist with the gun at the pilot’s head panicking – the gun goes off, the pilot is shot dead. The terrified co-pilot flies them on to an airstrip in West Berlin where they are both promptly arrested, charged and set for trial.

When the Ukrainian terrorists learn this, the leader of the group back in England formulates a bold and dramatic rescue plan, which will both liberate his comrades and achieve massive publicity for their cause. He and the original cell members recruit more Ukrainian nationalists for the dramatic gesture which will form the second part of the novel.

Plot – part two

A reformed group of seven Ukrainian nationalists led by Drake hijack the largest supertanker in the world, the Freya, as it approaches the Hook of Holland carrying the largest cargo of crude oil ever carried by one vessel – 1 million tonnes.

It is only at this point that the reader realises why the many threads and storylines covering the previous six months or so (and many of which I haven’t mentioned) had included one about the commissioning, construction, launch and maiden voyage of this behemoth, as well as a biography of its craggy Norwegian captain, Thor Larson.

The nationalists demand the two hijackers are released from West German prison and flown to Israel within two days: otherwise they will blow up the Freya, killing its crew of 30 and causing the biggest environmental catastrophe of modern times, destroying marine life in the North Sea and polluting the beaches of France, Britain, Holland, Germany for years.

Until this point the narrative had covered days, weeks and months as the various storylines (agricultural reports, Politburo power struggle, US President and advisers, UK embassy staff in Moscow, construction of Freya, career of Larson) had slowly unfolded. With the hijacking, about half way through the text, it changes tempo and the chapters gain a timeline measured in hours (‘1500 to 2100’) as the pace quickens to fever pitch.

A number of world leaders now face a complex of interlocking dilemmas, each of which Forsyth explores in his straight-talking no-nonsense style, supremely confident of putting words into the mouths of the members of the Politburo, the US President and his advisers, the British Prime Minister, West German Chancellor and Israeli Premier and so on.

It boils down to:

  • The North Sea nations put pressure on West Germany to release the terrorists, the German Chancellor having to balance giving in to terrorism against the ecological and political results of the oil explosion
  • The Israelis also have to balance acceding to terrorism with the complication that the two Ukrainians happen to be Russian Jews, a powerful constituency within Israel who will applaud their release
  • It falls to the British to follow the European line but to make independent plans which involve the SAS and its seaborne wing the Special Boat Service: we are introduced to them, their leader and all their equipment, as they make an elaborate plan to storm the Freya and kill the terrorists, liaising with the Americans
  • Meanwhile, as the siege progresses, the nearest US warship ordered to take a station near the Freya (but outside the 5 mile zone the terrorists have stipulated) has orders to blow the Freya, its crew and cargo out of the water, when signalled by the President

Having created the situation or dilemma, Forsyth explores the logical possibilities for all the main players with the thoroughness of a chess instructor or an academic paper on international affairs.

The Devil’s Alternative

But all calculations are thrown into turmoil when the Russians suddenly and unexpectedly announce they will cancel the arms treaty if the West releases the two terrorists. Now there is a real stand-off:

  • Release the terrorists and the treaty will fail, raising the prospect of the overthrow of the Soviet leader Rudin, by the hawkish Politburo faction and the very real threat of another European war;
  • don’t release them and the terrorists will blow up the Freya, killing its captain and crew, destroying nearly a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of boat and oil, creating the largest environmental disaster of the century. (It is to avert this last scenario that the President has ordered his own ships – as a last resort – to blow the Freya up, since phosphorus shells will ignite the crude oil which will mostly burn off in a fiery inferno, leaving a lot less residue to be cleared up than the raw crude.)

This is the Devil’s Alternative of the title which confronts, more than anyone else, the US President. What should he do?

The Nightingale

And it is here that the ‘Nightingale’ thread of this amazingly multi-faceted text assumes a central role. Much earlier we had learned that the head of British Security in Moscow, Harold Lessing, had gone off sick with suspected gastric ulcers. At short notice, a slightly maverick replacement, Adam Munro, is selected on the basis of his flawless Russian during what is bound to be a tricky period of negotiations.

Munro’s secret is that fifteen years earlier he was in love with a beautiful Russian woman, Valentina, who spied for him in Berlin but wouldn’t desert her family and walked through the early stages of the Berlin Wall away from him, never to return, leaving him devastated.

Not long into the new role in Moscow Munro is astonished to be contacted by her and told she now has a highly sensitive role in the secretariat of the Politburo itself! And she has notes from the most recent meeting which she proceeds to show him, the one where Kerensky made his suggestion that Russia kick off World War Three. Aware that this is one of the biggest security coups of all time, Munro immediately makes her his agent, under the codename Nightingale, and forwards her reports back to England where Forsyth conveys, with characteristic attention to organisational structure, protocol and detail, how the information is processed and then fed up the pecking order to the Prime Minister.

This back channel into the reality of Politburo infighting provides a vital source of information for US President Matthews and British (woman) Prime Minister Carpenter.

And it is here, in the vital final stages of the plot, when Rudin springs his surprise that he will walk away from the arms for grain negotiations if the hijackers are released, that Nightingale becomes vital. Matthews asks the Prime Minister who asks the head of SIS who passes on the request to Munro to ask Nightingale to risk everything to lay hold of the notes of the most recent Politburo meetings to find out what the devil the Russians are up to.

Despite being sickened at the risk this exposes her to, Munro asks her and, because of the personal bond between them, she copies and gives him the vital notes. These minutes of the most recent Politburo meeting reveal that the War Party blames Rudin for the KGB head’s assassination and that, if the terrorists are released and are allowed to make their public declaration that they assassinated the head of the KGB – that the world-famous security force is in fact vulnerable – and if this prompts rebellions (aided by the widespread food shortages) all this will lead to the overthrow of Rudin and triumph of the War Party.

And it is this this secret information gained by this backdoor channel which explains to the West the real motivation behind the USSR’s sudden threat to abandon the talks and which gives President Matthews the confidence to go ahead with a complicated and immoral solution to the dilemma. This is a plan hatched and carried out by the same Adam Munro, the man who knows his final request to his beloved Valentina has almost certainly consigned her to her doom in the gulag, and who therefore pursues his high-risk plan in the final chapters of the book fuelled by anger and bitterness.


So, does the West give in and release the terrorists? Do the terrorists make the announcement which threatens to spark uprisings in the Soviet Union and overthrow the ‘moderate’ Rudin? Or does the West stand firm against ‘terrorist blackmail’ and risk the detonation of the Freya and an environmental apocalypse, in the better cause of keeping the arms for grain talks on track? Or does Munro’s cunning and complicated plan manage to square the circle and reconcile both the devil’s alternatives?

Walls of facts

In the early 1960s record producer Phil Spector invented the ‘wall of sound’ in which every element of a pop record was doubled or trebled, which chucked in lots of additional percussion, and used echo chambers to fill out the dynamic range of the instruments to create a ‘wall’ of sound with no gaps or chinks – a solid sonic block.

Forsyth does something similar with the factual research for his novels. No name, no body, no institution, no place goes unsupported by a paragraph of factual information. Before we get to the characters in the Kremlin we are given a tourist’s guide to the precise layout of all the buildings in it. Before we meet the British Prime Minister we are treated to a couple of paragraphs describing the exact layout of buildings in Downing Street. Before anyone shoots anyone else we get paragraphs explaining the exact provenance, origin, design and full technical specification of all the guns, bullets, silencers and sights involved. Before the US President meets his security advisers we get several (very interesting) pages explaining the exact relationship between the various (competing and bickering) US security services. And so thoroughly on.

Forsyth’s background is as a high-end journalist working for The Times and Reuters and boy it shows. For stretches the text reads more like one of the Sunday Times Insight team specials, the kind of highly technical, detailed pullout they did about the SAS storming the Iranian Embassy or any aspect of terrorism or counter-terrorism for the past 50 years or so. A very male focus on precision of timing, complexity of organisation, on hard-eyed special forces trained to kill, suave diplomats capable of the subtlest manipulations, hierarchies of steel-eyed men all displaying incomparable competence and professionalism.

Nobody makes a mistake in a Forsyth novel. Nobody is human or fallible. They are like terminators all starting from different positions on the board, programmed with certain aims, and then let loose into the shiny, steel and chrome tracks of the narrative.


Brilliant at organisation structure, complex fast-moving dilemmas described with documentary realism and the hard burnish of the latest military hardware, Forsyth is rubbish at human character. The characters aren’t really characters in the traditional sense, they are ciphers in the schema, functions in complex programs. Forsyth’s novels show an astonishing, a peerless grasp of documentary fact concerning international corporations, governments, espionage and security departments, armies and their technologies. He puts a vast cast of characters through an asonishing maze of logical permutations and possibilities. The text is less like a novel than a complex flowchart, populated less by characters than by animated organograms.

Predator World

At a deeper level Forsyth’s novels have an evolutionary biology element. All carnivores have large complex brains to help them outwit slow-moving herbivores. After all, the brain evolved to help mammals survive in a shifting matrix of predators and prey, including – in the apes and other large mammal communities – rivals within the same group, rival lions or chimps, rival humans. A key function of the brain, a key driver in its evolution, has been to help us assess and outwit other animals, and other rivals within the same cohort.

It seems to me that Forsyth’s novels are designed to pique and pleasure that part of our primitive mind; the revelation of complexities within complexity, the deceptive power arrangements of human societies, organisations, nations, political parties, leadership groups. Seems to me that the webs of machiavellian scheming and counter-scheming described in this novel please a particular type of (probably male) reader, and a particular part of that reader’s brain, in a very deep way.

But the other, more traditional pleasures of the novel – in depth characterisation; development of character through moral events pondered on and analysed; imaginative use of language – are completely, deliberately and clinically absent.

Related links

2011 Arrow paperback edition of The Devil's Alternative

2011 Arrow paperback edition of The Devil’s Alternative

Forsyth’s books

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

The Wilt Alternative by Tom Sharpe (1979)

The Wilt Alternative is the sequel to Wilt (1976), possibly Sharpe’s best-known novel. It starts in the same comic-fantastical mode as its predecessor, with absurd events trying Wilt’s threadbare patience:

  • drunk on the way back from the pub, Henry Wilt has a pee in a rosebush but badly scratches his member, is then caught by his wife dipping it into her tooth mug which he’s filled with antiseptic, prompting a hissy fit from her, then is forced to go to hospital where he refuses to let various nurses or consultants touch it, and so on.
  • meanwhile one of the ‘radical’ tutors at the technical college where Wilt is head of department, has made a ‘revolutionary’ film featuring one of the students simulating sex with (what turns out to be a model) crocodile, thus involving Wilt in embarrassing or confrontational scenes with the other staff members and the college Principal.
  • his wife, Eva, with whom he’d been largely reconciled at the end of Wilt, is irritating him again with her enthusiasm for the Alternative Society – what we call environmentalism – eg composting household waste, recycling poo, drinking home-made wines and beers and – the latest enthusiasm – solar powered panels on the roof.

But at page 90 the novel turns into something drastically different.

For the Wilts have gone up in the world and, to suit their higher status, purchased a larger house, not least to be home to the four quadruplets Eva conceived and bore after going on fertility treatment between the last novel and this. And since there’s a spare room in the attic they let it out to a nice German au pair. Except that, as Wilt discovers when he takes her cash payment to the bank, the ‘au pair’, real name Gudrun Schautz, is one of the most wanted terrorists in Europe.

As Special Branch, the Anti-Terrorist forces and Army descend on his quiet suburban street, a shocked and stunned Wilt is persuaded to venture back into the house to quietly extract Mrs W and the quads. Unsurprisingly, things go disastrously wrong. His wife and children aren’t even in the house but Wilt determines to press on and confront this young woman who’s caused so much trouble, going upstairs to find her in the attic bathroom having a bath and, taking the opportunity to have a root around in her luggage, discovers various machine guns and grenades. It’s all horribly true!

At that fateful moment the children do return to the house through the garden door in the care of a kindly old neighbour, Mrs de Frackas, just as two of Gudrun’s ‘boyfriends’ – terrorist accomplices – come in the front, and Wilt, in his amateur zeal, stumbles out of the cramped attic storage space and trips over, oops, accidentally firing the machine gun through the roof.

All hell breaks loose. The assembled security forces in the garden start firing back at this attack from the house, the accomplices climbing the stairs start firing out the windows at the cops, Wilt locks Gudrun in the bathroom, the accomplices find and force the quads and old lady down into the cellar – and we have the beginning of quite a lengthy hostage/siege situation.

Somehow Sharpe manages to make this funny: the old lady shepherding the quads is the indomitable wife of a (deceased) British colonial officer, well-used to dealing with uppity natives, and the quads run around enjoying themselves, loving the gunfire, gorging themselves on miscellaneous foodstuffs and throwing up everywhere. While Wilt in the attic progresses from complete panic to various cunning stratagems designed to unnerve the terrorists. On the party phone line he puts on a funny voice and pretends he is a splinter group of the cell the main two terrorists are part of, making completely contradictory demands to theirs, puzzling and confusing them so they wonder whether their leader is part of a different cell.

Wilt then manages to talk Gudrun out of the bathroom by playing-acting the dim English twit and then, improbably enough, finds himself being seduced by her. All this is captured on the secret microphone the cops have dropped into the room from a hovering helicopter and is overheard in graphic detail by Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint of the local constabulary and – the seduction part – by his outraged wife, Eva. In a later phase of the long siege Wilt bamboozles Gudrun with the kind of Marxist rhetoric he’s picked up from the half-baked communist lecturers at the Tech, into almost believing that Wilt is the member of a subversive sleeper cell (not-that-funny satire on the Marxist mumbo-jumbo spouted by so many academics at this period).

The siege goes on for quite a long time and eventually, despite all the twists and turns – as the cops drop a microphone into the attic, as Eva breaks out of the local police station where she’d been kept for her own good and makes her way across country through the police cordon and into the house, as Wilt desperately runs through a series of ‘alternative’ scenarios to keep the terrorists confused, the Wilt alternatives of the title – eventually it becomes a little boring. Finally, as Mrs de Frackas distracts the terrorists by openly making for the kitchen door, Wilt bundles the quads into the cellar slamming the door shut, then up the external trap door into the garden and into Eva’s beloved compost heap. At which point Eva’s bio-loo device handily explodes covering the terrorists in crap and disorientating them long enough for the cops to move in and arrest them.

‘Shits in shits’ clothing,’ muttered Professor Maerlis, gazing in awe at the human excreta that stumbled about the lawn. (p.212)

The quads are freed. Wilt is freed. Eva up in the attic where she had swapped places with Wilt, is freed. The two accomplices covered in poo are arrested. And Gudrun is taken down from the complicated gallows Eva had barnstormingly constructed for her in the siege’s final moments. Alles gut.

In the final chapter Wilt is exonerated of all blame by the authorities, keeps his job at the Tech, and decides he and Eva will move out of the now ill-fated posh house into something more modest. The new neighbours won’t know what hit them… But we will, presumably, find out all his adventures in the next sequel, Wilt on High (1984).

1970s terrorism

Earlier this year I read The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot and one of the main themes of the decade is the widespread terrorist violence which occurred in almost all western countries: the Weather Underground (USA), the Angry Brigade and IRA (Britain), ETA (Spain), Baader-Meinhof (Germany), the Red Brigade (Italy), the PLO (everywhere).

With the benefit of hindsight, with access to interviews and even the autobiographies of some of the surviving terrorists themselves, DeGroot is able to show that their shared theory of ‘spectacle’ – that violent and spectacular terrorist atrocities would awaken the slumbering masses, make them realise their oppression and rise up in revolutionary fervour – was an unmitigated failure. And not only did revolutionary violence fail to create revolutionary mass movements, it failed in a secondary motive, to ‘purify’ and ‘cleanse’ the terrorists of their bourgeois guilt.

Instead, all the groups found themselves being drawn inexorably into a vortex of ever-more savage and pointless violence, eventually killing people for the sake of it, just to maintain their reputations, and to maintain discipline within their faltering ranks.

Which makes it all the more striking that this was Sharpe’s unsparing opinion during the period itself.

The vast majority of mankind lived in abject poverty, were riddled with curable diseases which went uncured, were subject o despotic governments and lived in terror and in danger of dying by starvation. To the extent that anyone tried to change this inequity, Wilt sympathised… [But] terrorising the innocent and murdering men, women and children was both ineffectual and barbaric. What difference was there between the terrorists and their victims? Only one of opinion. Chinanda [one of the accomplices] and Gudrun Schautz came from wealthy families and Baggish [the other accomplice], whose father had been a shopkeeper in Beirut, could hardly be called poor. None of these self-appointed executioners had been driven to murder by the desperation of poverty, and as far as Wilt could tell their fanaticism had its roots in no specific cause. They weren’t trying to drive the British from Ulster, the Israelis from the Golan Heights or even the Turks from Cyprus. They were political poseurs whose enemy was life. In short they were murderers by personal choice, psychopaths who camouflaged their motives behind a screen of utopian theory. Power was their kick, the power to inflict pain and to terrify. Even their own readiness to die was a sort of power, some sick and infantile form of masochism and expiation of guilt, not for their filthy crimes, but for being alive at all. Beyond that there were doubtless other motives concerned with parents or toilet training. Wilt didn’t care. It was enough that they were carriers of the same political rabies that had driven Hitler to construct Auschwitz and kill himself in the bunker, or the Cambodians to murder one another by the million. As such they were beyond the pale of sympathy… (pp.166-167)

In my review of Sharpe’s first novel, Riotous Assembly, I wrote that a great attraction of his violent farce was its hallucinatory detachment from the ‘real’ world, achieving a mad kind of imaginative purity. This has become noticeably less true as his novels proceed:

  • Wilt is a kind of portmanteau of middle-class male whinging about bloody Yanks and their bloody trendy fads and bloody women’s libbers
  • The Great Pursuit reveals a genuine hatred for the stiflingly narrow interpretation of literature he was taught at Cambridge, with large dollops of anti-American sentiment thrown in
  • The Throwback, set in the wilds of Northumberland and a fantastical Surrey cul-de-sac should have had that imaginative purity but contains numerous passages editorialising about the iniquity of income tax, the VAT inspector, what does the bloody government spend it on anyway?-type moaning which read like Daily Mail editorials

And now The Wilt Alternative which, despite numerous comic scenes, can’t help being overshadowed by its serious, angry, and still tragically relevant, analysis of the terrorist mindset.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of The Wilt Alternative illustrated by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of The Wilt Alternative illustrated 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 chooses Wilt’s accident in the rosebush as the main subject but also shows him firing the machine gun by accident (top left), the police helicopter at top right, the naked Gudrun emerging from the bath top right, the two terrorist accomplices middle left, his wife Eva a little too violently pulling the sticking plaster the doctors put over his ravaged penis middle right, and the terrorists slipping and sliding on the quads’ vomit bottom right.

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.

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