Pure Posy by Posy Simmonds (1987)

From 1977 to 1987 Posy Simmonds drew a regular cartoon strip in the Guardian newspaper gently mocking the middle-class lifestyles and liberal concerns of a regular cast of a dozen or so fictional characters, centred on:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse, married to verbose polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, trying to attend night school while being mother of a brood of six children, ranging from little Benji to teenage glamour-puss Belinda
  • Jo Heep, married to tedious alcoholic whisky salesman Edmund Heep, and mum to two rebellious teenagers who’ve adopted the punk look
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, and mother of a young baby

Throughout the period the cartoons were periodically gathered together into books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

And these books were themselves gathered together into a huge compendium volume, Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, which was published in 2012 and now appears to be the only way to get hold of the cartoons.

Pure Posy is the fourth and final in the series of collections (given that 1981’s True Love wasn’t a collection but a one-off ‘graphic novel’, following the schoolgirl crush of a naive young woman, Janice Brady, for a regular cast member, tall, suave, philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright).

Historical context

Pure Posy brings together 75 Posy cartoon strips from 1985 through to 1987, a period of great historical change. In Britain the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5 tore the country apart and polarised political and social opinion, while Mrs Thatcher’s harsh monetarist economic policies saw unemployment continuing at record highs in many parts of the country. And yet those who had jobs, especially nice jobs in the City and service sector, had never had it so good, and thrilled to all sorts of new fashions, big shoulder pads, big hair, jogging, health food etc.

On the international scene the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 was soon followed by the launch of his new policies of glasnost and perestroika which, although nobody suspected it at the time, would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and the collapse of socialist ideology all around the world.

But for the first few years, the ones covered by this strip, all saw was a continuation of the worsening relations between the world’s superpowers and the escalation of tensions which terrified everyone that there might be actually a nuclear war, and which was symbolised, in England, by the ongoing protests by thousands of women at the Greenham Common airbase.


Pure Posy

In general the Posy strip formed a haven away from politics and the hurly-burly of events reported elsewhere in the Guardian newspaper, focusing, as it does, on the domestic concerns and foibles of the Weber, Wright and Heep households, with occasional forays off to meet new, unnamed characters to make other points about middle-class, white, heterosexual, well-meaning liberal Londoners.

As in the previous books the strips are deliberately not placed in the chronological order of their publishing but arranged to create a sort of seasonal progression through one notional year, opening with Christmas-themed strips, and in-between progressing through spring, summer holidays, autumn, and back to Christmas again.

The triumph of Thatcherism

That said the general cultural spirit of the times does hang heavy over many of the strips, depicting the extinction of the old 1960s values of caring and concern, in a welter of greed and materialism.

This is epitomised by a very telling strip from 1986 which depicts a local working-class couple commenting on the changes they’ve seen in their neighbourhood, namely that, in the later 1970s/early 1980s, posh middle-class nobs moved in, all called Gemma and holding dinner parties and hiring au pairs but… they spoke as if they were genuinely concerned about unemployment and the need to invest in infrastructure and the NHS and so on. They were nobs, but they were also ‘sort of middle-class socialists’.

Nowadays a new breed of nobs are moving in, who show all the signs of middle-class gentility i.e. obsession with wine, interior furnishings, hiring au pairs and nannies and having a pretty little place down in the country, BUT… they have abandoned their soft-left scruples: Now they say we’ve got to be realistic about unemployment, they choose private medicine over the NHS, they unashamedly send their children to private school.

In other words, this strip epitomises the success of Thatcherism in making middle-class people across the country feel unembarrassed about making money and spending it selfishly.

This one strip shows how the cosy, rather smugly liberal, soft socialist and feminist and environmentalist worldview of George and Wendy Weber became old hat, old fashioned, musty, irrelevant, marginalised, swept away by a new generation of thrusting young entrepreneurs and money-makers.

This theme is further demonstrated by the ‘Ox and Tiger’ strip in which the Webers are at a dinner table – but no longer accompanied by other bearded sociologists and dungareed feminists – now it’s being hosted by a coiffured chap in stripey shirt and red braces, who looks like a banker out of an Alex cartoon.

The world was moving on around the Webers and they were not moving at all, they were being outflanked and outnumbered, even by their own children (notably their go-getting materialist daughter, Belinda who is given several strips despising their useless, woolly old-fashioned values).

Themes

Changing times / the Weber values becoming passé (9)

  • Pot-head revisited The Webers hire Crispin Naylor, a young fogey down from Oxford to tutor their daughter Beverley. He is astonishingly old-fashioned, dressed in a tweed suit and smoking a pipe, he berates the 1960s generation as the ones who undermined the fabric of society. (The ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was broadcast in 1981. The expression ‘young fogey’ was coined in 1984.)
  • The ox and tiger The middle-aged, middle classes have no idea how they’ve screwed up the world for the unemployed young, who bitterly resent them.
  • W.O.T. For some reason Simmonds coins the expression Wifully Over-Tasked for people who choose to over-work or use work as an excuse not to face relationships or parental responsibilities.

W.O.T. A doctor warns (1986) by Posy Simmonds

  • Fortress Britons Simmonds quotes the famous John of Gaunt speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II (‘This other Eden, demi-paradise..) contrasting the jingoistic words with the reality of a society in which everyone’s afraid of everyone else, has burglar alarms on their cars, persons and multiple locks on doors and windows.
  • Gingerbread without guilt At a very swanky private party given for Stanhope Wright a kind of strippergram arrives, except that she has an odd role, which is to assuage Stanhope’s guilt at revelling in such luxury and persuade him that the party is giving employment and jobs to all sorts of people. She is a ‘guilt-o-gram’.
  • Weights and measures Another strip depicting the fad for jogging, exercising and losing weight, decpiting a party of bright 1980s people dominated by a smart woman who shows off how much weight she’s lost… until a very ‘big’ woman joins the conversation at which point they change the subject.
  • Toujours la politesse Belinda Weber’s rich City boyfriend is struggling to write a thank you note to George and Wendy for letting him stay over, and describes the evening to a work colleague, ridiculing George being a househusband, them letting the kids stay up and their general liberal permissive household. Maybe Guardian readers were meant to sympathise with the Webers but the thing is… City boy won.
  • Babaware A balding, paunchy middle-class chap goes to a mothercare type shop pushing a buggy with a very small child in it and asks an assistant about an item of clothing for it, and the assistant makes the mistake of asking, Is it for your grandson? No my son says the man. So the strip is addressing the (middle-class) trend for men to become fathers older and older.
  • Lunch break An office meeting attended by four men and two women who all appear to be equals discussing business, turnover, profits etc. they break for lunch and the men go to a bar where they’re served by scantily-clad young women, while the two women go to an Italian restaurant where they enjoy being fawned over by handsome young Italian men. Then they reconvene and carry on business. Is this strip making a comment on feminism, or equality, or real gender differences? To a modern reader the most striking thing is that they go to a restaurant for lunch break. Or that they have a lunch break at all.

Women and feminism (7)

  • Rough winds do blow On Bank Holiday the Webers drive down to the countryside to visit friends, but after a stroll through the fields and a drink in a pub, George snaps at his host, and we see him worrying and fretting about his work. Don’t worry, explains Wendy, he’s always like that when it’s his turn to look after the kids. Maybe that’s funny but I thought it just insulted men.
  • The house-keeping A wife suggest to her husband that she stops working (s dogsbody in an art gallery), the stop employing a nanny, she’ll be able to shop properly and have good hot meals ready, iron his shirts, everything properly washed… then she pulls his nose and says ‘April Fool!’ Is this funny because a man’s deepest wish is to have his wife at home looking after the kids, keeping a good house etc?
  • A mother’s plea Hand-written in dancing script, this is a letter from the statue of a suckling mother perched high on a plinth over some buy street, about how she is ignored, isolated, mute, passive, and only notice her to call her a single-parent family and a threat to society.
  • Always in the news George is in the front room watching telly with Wendy and two of their older daughters, as the news reports a succession of violent and sexual crimes perpetrated by men, while George – cartoon-style- gets smaller and smaller and smaller until, as the three women tut, ‘Tsk, men eh?’ he makes his excuses and leaves. I guess that’s because all men are rapists, paedophiles and child-murderers.
  • Pictures of the ages Like the Seven ages of women and the Seven ages of men cartoons she drew, this wordless strip shows the progress of a woman in twelve pictures from baby to old lady (dressed all in black in a parody of the painting Whistler’s mother [full title ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1’ by the American-born painter James McNeill Whistler]).
  • Long in the tooth Stanhope is in bed with his wife, Trish and for the first half dozen pictures is flossing his teeth which makes a peculiar tic and toc sound. Suddenly his wife says, ‘Stanhope, I want to have another baby before it’s too late’. ‘What’s brought this on?’ asks Stanhope, continuing to make the tick tock tick tock sound of her biological clock.
  • The world turned upside-down My wife remembers reading this strip back in 1987 in its original Guardian context and laughing out loud, it was so true! A harassed secretary, being leered over by her boss, dreams of a world in which women are in charge and men are patronised, touched up and made to do menial tasks, leered at by security guards and building workers etc.

Difficulties of motherhood and childcare (4)

  • Who worries about the worriers? Looking miserable and exhausted, Wendy walks home with a mum friend and explains how she gives all her energy to supporting her husband, her mother, Benji and Tamsin and Sophie and the babysitter and the bloody car and even the cat… ‘No one ever worries about ME!’

Who worries about the worriers? by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • An inspiration to us all Having given the kids their tea, Wendy Weber reads an interview in a women’s magazine with a successful globe-trotting woman writers, whose smug patronising tones make Wendy scrunge the mag up and chuck it in the bin.
  • Nature abhors a vacuum Another ironic reversal: for ten pictures a youngish mum tells Wendy how wonderful it is to finally have her kids off her hands, as they are starting full-time school, painting a vivid picture of what hell it is to be sole carer for young children, and Wendy supportively asks what she’s going to do next, get a job, do a PhD? And the mum dreamily says… ‘Thing is… I thought I’d have another baby.’
  • Cheerful thoughts George and Wendy are in their garden with a heavily pregnant mother, but the conversation soon takes a pessimistic turn as George in particular rants against the horribly violent aggressively materialistic society the new baby will be coming into. Result: general depression.

Childhood and small children (4)

  • The ratings Two youngish children are watching a TV soap in which the characters are shouting and criticising each other, until the voices of their parents in the kitchen get louder and we realise the parents are having a row (she’s accusing him of being selfish and being out every night and leaving her to do all the housework) and so the kids turn away from the TV to watch the squabbling shouting soap which is their parents’ marriage, until the parents quieten down and the bored children return to the TV.
  • Little ones’ lunch A busy strip divided into 4 to six boxes each depicting the various stages of children playing with, putting in their mouths, spitting out, mixing with uneaten food or spitting at their neighbours one of: fizzy drinks, jelly and ice cream, noodles with sauce, chocolate digestive biscuits, stew mash and peas.
  • Men’s talk Two little girls come into a room where two little boys are falling about laughing and eventually find out it’s because one little boy has looked at another boy’s willy. So the girls ask to look at the boys’ willies and themselves fall about with laughter, at which the little boys are aggrieved: ‘S’not funny.’

Men’s Talk by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Good sports Little Katie’s birthday party, where the bien-pensant liberal parents are determined to give everyone who takes part in the games presents – although ironically this creates lots of upset and unhappiness because those who genuinely won something are aggrieved that children who didn’t get exactly the same as them.

Divorce

Divorce featured strongly in the previous collection; for some reason it doesn’t feature at all in this one.

Ironies of love (2)

  • Live-in-love Young woman takes her cat to the vet. The cat is furious because after five years of living alone together, the woman’s fiancé has moved in so now the cat is pooing everywhere and generally misbehaving.
  • Moon flush A middle-aged woman is reading a romantic novel (text given in an unusual font, a type of Courier) and he cat is fidgeting with boredom so she shoos her out into the garden where the cat proceeds to re-enact the ‘romantic’ scene depicted in the novel, with a female cat, till their caterwauling prompts George Weber to throw a shoe at them and the cat scampers inside back to her owner’s lap just as the latter burst into tears at the sad love story she’s reading and the cat sobs at the missed opportunity for a shag.

Sex and adultery (5)

  • Forbidden fruit An ironic reversal of the reader’s expectations, for we find dedicated philanderer Stanhope Wright chatting up a dishy old flame at a Christmas party, and asking whether they can have a quick one for old time’s sake, but, when they sneak outside, it is revealed that they’re both being furtive and ashamed because they’ve nipped out… for a smoke!

Forbidden fruit by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Good timing One of the pastiche cartoons Simmonds is so good at, five rows of pictures which depict the four phases of a casual sexual encounter, namely: well before, before, during, and after – and on the left of the rows a bunch of Rococo cherubs hassling one of their number to intervene with an important message. It’s only at the very last picture that you realise they are encouraging him to prompt one or other of the participants to ask: WHAT CONTRACEPTIVE PRECAUTIONS ARE YOU TAKING?’ (Given that this dates from 1986 it’s surprising Simmonds isn’t satirising the Safe Sex / use a condom message, which first appeared in British journalism in 1984.)
  • Just past it That said, this strip from 1987 is about AIDS, featuring Belinda Weber sitting at dinner with her parents and some friends complacently discussing AIDS and how difficult sex is going to be for young people today… until she burst their complacency by suggesting that the AIDS virus has been about longer than people think, like back into the 1960s… at which the smug middle-aged people start panicking.
  • Where there’s a will Long ironic strip wherein inveterate philanderer Stanhope Wright chats up an old flame over launch and they agree to have a shag, but there’s a snag: wife? au pair? STD!? No, it’s the new neighbourhood watch scheme and the snooping neighbour Primula Stokes. To evade her ever-watchful gaze Stanhope outlines a plan of byantine complexity and the would-be shagee politely declines.
  • Thinking of you this Christmastide Notorious philanderer Stanhope Wright is slow coming to bed with wife Trisha. Being Christmas she is thinking about all her relatons, making a list of everyone she’s got to send a card to. Stanhope, by contrast, is weighed down by fears that he may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease, maybe even AIDS!!! and so runs through all the women he’s had sex with – Helen after the D&AD awards, Vicki, Penny, you never know. Typical of Simmonds to be really depressing at Christmastime.

A writer’s life (3)

  • Nine till five Satire on a woman writer who has to produce a weekly column showing how she puts off all her other chores and social engagements yet still manages to leave it to the last minute and have a massive crisis the night before.
  • J.D. Crouch As far as I can see this is the first appearance of the tubby, middle-aged, bearded writer J.D. Crouch, who will go on to become a regular feature in post-Posy strips (in 1992 Simmonds commenced a year-long strip solely about him and a writer’s life). Here he is in his natural habitat – the book signing – when unexpectedly his ex-wife appears and asks him to sign a copy of the book for: herself who he beat up in 1975, one each for the writer’s she saw him plagiarise (Kingsley Amis, John Updike, Alan Sillitoe, Gunther Grass), one each for the children he has never bothered to visit, one for his former researcher who he was knocking off while his wife lay in hospital… during which recitation Crouch shrinks smaller and smaller until he is hiding under the table. Men, eh.
  • The pleasure of their company A literary party at which a load of writers mill about gossiping about new books, are jealous of more successful writers, criticise book deals and publishing execs and publicity people and generally bitch and backstab, ending with the ironic conclusion that they don’t know why they bother attending them. A strip like this just makes you despise book luvvies even more.

Academia (3)

  • George retires? In the poly canteen George’s colleagues speculate that he’s retiring and in a chorus tell him about the pitiful perks he’s amassed in 17 years working there (a small parking space, use of the Xerox machine, he can claim for cassette tapes on expenses), all of them tending to how pitiful and puny his rewards are, except that… in an ironic reversal… they all reveal that they are madly jealous of these huge perks and tell him he’d be mad to quit.
  • The absent-minded professor George has a nightmare in which he actually really kicks an insufferable colleague he’s dreamed about kicking for years.
  • To whom it may concern George is angry that he’s been asked to provide a reference for one of his pupils without the student asking him first, also that the boy was lazy and rude. At first he types out the truth, but then we see the debate in his wooly liberal conscience as the figure of the student asks what right George has to ruin his life and, slowly, reluctantly, George goes back through his draft revising it and systematically lying.

Middle class mores and hypocrisies (10)

  • Year of the tiger A dinner party where most of the guests are lamenting how awful 1985 (the year of the Ox) was but how they’re looking forward to 1986 (year of the Tiger) and proceeding to chunter on about the new vintages of Bordeaux and champagne and so on – leading to an outburst by the posh host’s son. An unshaven man who points out that he and his girlfriend are unemployed. They represent the new year and the anger of the tigers.
  • Union Jakes In the Brass Monk pub the Weber’s are discussing Britain with some Americans and the conversation somehow gets onto toilets and toilet humour and the assembled Brits make fools of themselves by trotting through the amazing gamut of slang expressions we have for toilets and crapping.

Union Jakes by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • New minorities A comment on the spread of health food shops and jogging, Edmund Heep is in a cheap corner shop where his punk sons spot him and encourage him to buy a selection of crisps and buns and lollies, but when they go out onto the street we see all the other shops have become gentrified (‘Croissant Neuf’, the Natural Food Store, the Grainery, Herbalism) and it is they who are regarded as oddballs and cranks.
  • Senses and sensibilities A very structured strip in three rows of five pictures, the top row showing three high street shops, including clothes, burgers and records: in the next row pedestrians experience the five sense of sight (nice looking clothes), smell (of fired burgers and chips), taste (people munching burgers on the street), hearing (sounds from the record shop), touch (two women feeling nice clothes). And in the third row is the reaction of passersby to a tramp (unsightly, smelly, distasteful), a busker (unheard) and some vagrants who tell passersby to fuck off (untouchable). This is the kind of strip my daughter (aged 17) read and asked me, ‘So? What’s it meant to be about?’ Maybe it was early virtue signalling and reading it made you feel that somehow you more sensitive and caring about the homeless and squalid high streets… all without the effort of putting down your newspaper.
  • The Age of REASON A television commentator reports that inhabitants of gentrified Balaclava Road are up in arms because one new incomer has stripped away all the chintzy facade of his house and restored it to being the Victorian artisans’ dwelling which which the entire street, despite their facades, actually consists of.
  • School steps Two teachers at parents’ evening discuss how there’s been a lot of them this evening, them being the parents who fuss about giving their beloved kids extra coaching and tutoring and support and so on and the punchline is that… these are all the signs of over-concerned step-parents. (This 1986 strip is notable for having a non-white person speaking, an apparently Asian male teacher.)
  • What monet can buy At a house party that posh woman with the big blonde hair and twin pearl necklace we’ve met at her second home and running the Society for People With Second Homes, ribs Wendy because she’s heard Wendy is sending Bev to a private school. No no no no no insists Wendy, however can we expect to tackle inequality and improve the state system if the middle classes abandon it etc etc? But then the daughter in question reveals that she does have a private tutor and Wendy turns bright red with embarrassment.
  • May Day The Webers and children drive through wretched Bank Holiday traffic, the children requiring stops to throw up, everyone getting tired and angry… all to visit George’s mother in her rest home, whereupon she is subtly dismissive of all the presents they’ve brought and moans and complains. Maybe this is meant to prompt ‘the wry smile of recognition’ but I found it simply depressingly accurate.
  • French impressionists A funny strip in which the Webers take some French friends to the Royal Academy and, to the Webers’a amazement, the French rave about the foggy, grey, dull English climate. Really? Yes think of the great masterpieces it has produced and then… they point at some of the shops along Piccadilly showcasing the great names of British art, namely… Harris Tweed, Burberry and Barbour!
  • Smoke signals Bonfire night and three London neighbours have fires which pinpoint their social class: the posh Belpers are burning wood they brought back from the countryside, admittedly with one or two disposable nappies in it; the Timmises are burning an old settee and some shag pile carpet, the Webers are burning old books and magazines and theses (in a symbolic bonfire of so much of the late 60s / early 70s French intellectual content they valued and went out of date like old fruit).

Pastiches and parodies (5)

  • The Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas is retold with the king giving a poor collector of wood in the snow ‘Take this sovereign and this tie / This clever bar utensil / And this stilton and this pie / This matching pen and pencil’… and then the strip cuts to some moustachioed club bores telling a silly joke at a modern party.
  • A second cartoon features Good King Wenceslas and his rich party-goers besieged in their castle by four million unemployed for whom they have zero sympathy: ‘Don’t bore us with talk of strikes / Or your whingeing blather / Off your bums and on your bikes / And pull yourselves TOGETHER!’
  • Pilgrimage An extended skit which takes the opening verses of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…’) but applies it to middle-aged, middle class people going on pilgrimage to sanctuaries and health spas.
  • Spring song The text is written in Simmonds’s trademark chintzy hand-written script (technically, dancing script, I think) which tells a jingle (‘As I awoke this morning, I heard a funny thing…’) which is ironically set against poor student Jocasta Wright waking, crunching around in her dingy student flat, and suddenly realising she’s late handing in her dissertation.
  • Household tips from the household gods Not sure it’s really a parody, but the strip is dominated by the Greek gods who give spring cleaning tips on how to clean various dirty areas round the house, like the kitchen floor or the toilet, but give up when – unexpectedly – this includes nuclear waste! A reflection, maybe, of the Chernobyl disaster (26 April 1986).

Second homes (3)

  • Arcadia Also a parody, two large pictures, the first showing an 18th century gentleman and wife admiring a winsome country cottage, the second in the present showing a coachload of tourists turning up to photograph the same cottage, now the second home to rich Londoners.

Old Arcadia by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Different species Rich London family enjoy walking round the cliffs near their second home identifying plants and species until, in the final frame, they enter a packed pub of locals and we are shown the latter’s thoughts, assessing their worth, calling them a blight, and figuring out how to mulch them for money doing repairs and gardening.
  • Turning an honest penny Tresoddit is the fictional seaside Cornish village Simmonds has invented to take the mickey out of the way the countryside is colonised by rich Londoners buying up second homes. The strip concerns Kevin Penwallet, one-time lecturer in anthropology who gave it up to open a shop in Tresoddit but has been forced to abandon all his socialist principles and reinvent it as an emporium of revoltingly twee knick-knacks for posh London mums to coo over and pay extortionate prices. Again, this isn’t funny so much as depressingly accurate.

Christmas (3)

  • The book opens with one big photo showing a Santa on top an ope-top red bus yelling ‘Ho Ho Ho’ in the middle of an Oxford Street absolutely thronged with harassed shoppers, even the bus driver looks pissed off, and Wendy Weber is among the throng and yells up at Santa, ‘It’s NOT FUNNY.’
  • The book ends with a sequence of Christmas strips:
  • Thinking of you this Christmastide Notorious philanderer Stanhope Wright is slow coming to bed with wife Trisha. Being Christmas-time, she is thinking about all her relations, making a list of everyone she’s got to send a card to. Stanhope, by contrast, is weighed down by fears that he may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease, maybe even AIDS!!! and so runs through all his relations i.e. the women he’s had sex with – Helen after the D&AD awards, Vicki, Penny, you never know. It is typical of Simmonds to be really depressing at Christmas-time.
  • Edmund Heep’s problem page An oddity made up of two big pictures in which you’re asked to spot the difference – except I don’t think there were any differences. Another in which you’re asked to spot the four policemen – except I don’t think there were any policemen in it. Edmund asks three riddles, none of which I thought were funny or interesting. And then there’s a maze the reader has to navigate to help drunk Edmund back to his house.

Teenagers and the Generation Gap (3)

  • George and Wendy’s eldest, Belinda, is moping round the house leading the parents to worry what it could be – break-up with boyfriend? pregnant? herpes? other STDs? drink? drugs? debt? trouble with the police? general depression? But then she comes bouncing out of the loo happy and clutching a box of tampons: she’s had her period and she’s not pregnant.
  • Family planning Trish Wright is showing her step-daughter Jocasta photos of a family wedding tutting about the ghastly relatives. Jocasta says Don’t knock the family, it’s the cornerstone of society (echoing Thatcherite rhetoric), and then ironically goes on to point out how the young couple getting married in the photo will end up having to support a whole array of ageing relatives (as is coming true in our own time).
  • Hair today A young dud with stubble and a ponytail goes into a barber’s who presents him with a bewildering range of haircuts, until the dude says he needs one that will help when he goes home to see his parents to beg for money since he can’t survive on his grant.

Edmund Heep the alcoholic (3)

  • Good samaritans Heep is staggering home drunk in his sheepskin jacket and beer belly, and about to throw up, ignored by decent couples who pass by on the other side of the road when… he is accosted by two skinhead bovver boys who appear to be rifling through his pockets, finding £20 notes etc, but… it turns out they are looking for a 20p piece to open a nearby street lavatory. They find one, pay, help him into it, wait till he’s thrown up, then help him out and give all his money back, and walk off, two modern angels.
  • Giving up An ironic reversal where the appalling Edmund Heep is propping up the bar at some pub and showing off to friends how he’s cut back on smoking by making a cigarette log which he then shows them and reveals.. he’s smoked two packs already that day!
  • Edmund Heep’s problem page as above

Miscellaneous (4)

  • Live from the scene of the tragedy An odd strip devoted to satirising TV news, showing a reporter shoving his microphone in front of someone who’s just witnessed a terrible (unspecified) tragedy, asking how they feel, and the interviewee does what most of us wish they would do in these situations, which is knee the insensitive, crass reporter in the nuts, grab his microphone, and asks him how he feels now!

We bring you – live, from the scene of the tragedy… by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • To a tree Wendy gets furious with the council workmen who’ve come to prune the tree in front of the house, insisting they cut the bloody thing down as it is a magnet for dog poo.
  • A modern alphabet 26 acronyms, starting with AIDS and going through to the Zzzz of a homeless person in a cardboard box, via  CND, GBH, PLO, UB40, and VDU among others.
  • Two American tourists wonder just what it was that stood out most for them on their visit to Britain and trot through a set of clichés – was it the pub, the language, the history and culture, the healthy lifestyle – to each of which, as you might expect, Simmonds gives a typically depressing, downbeat ironic visual counterpoint (the language of Shakespeare is old codgers in a pub, the healthy food is sausage and mash and beans) util they conclude – depressingly – that whatever it was they sure are glad they don’t live here.

Animal liberation and vegetarianism (2)

  • Flying fur Unexpectedly, a strip showcasing ‘speciesism’ in the form of a selection of furry toys in a department store all complaining about how humans exploit them for food, fur, research and so on
  • Only connect Linked to this 1987 strip which has a straightforward vegetarian message, as the lamb joint Wendy Weber serves up to guest starts singing and dancing.

Homosexuality (1)

  • A kind of liberation The one and only strip about homosexuality in the strip’s ten year existence, this is an odd one about George going shopping with a gay friend and how the gay friend camping it up has ruined all the effort George has put in over the years to persuade the proletarian shopkeeper that it’s OK for men to do the shopping and the housework. I couldn’t work out if this is insulting or patronising, but I couldn’t see how it could be considered funny.

A kind of liberation by Posy Simmonds (1985)

Politics (4)

  • The game of happy families The one and only appearance of the dominant personality of the age, Mrs Thatcher, showing her playing a game of happy families with a vicar which is ruined when it’s revealed one of the cards has run off with his PA leaving a one-parent family to sponge on the state.
  • Heresies and blasphemies George and Wendy try to persuade their daughter Sophie to come on a march against nuclear dumping. the joke, such as it is, is that they present it as a duty, and Sophie resents it as a duty, which eerily echoes the pieties and sitting and standing and shuffling round which used to accompany attendance at church.
  • Suffering Compares the suffering of anonymous dark third World figures (war, famine, disease etc) with the suffering of the bien-pensant middle classes who read Guardian reports about it; and the real relief (food, medicine, money, water, clothes etc) is juxtaposed with the ‘relief’ felt by the Guardian-reading classes at how much they raised and donated to charity.
  • Consequences A surprisingly blunt and crude ‘political’ strip in comparing the fates of three drivers pulled over by the police. The rich white man talks his way out of it. The posh white woman gets off, although not without the policeman patronising her (‘Is this your boyfriend’s car?’). And then a black man driving an expensive car who doesn’t even wait for the police to ask if he’s stolen it but drives right out of the strip. Ending with the rhyme: ‘If you drive a motor car… You’ll get stopped, the chances are. But as a rule, you’ll be alright, If you’re male and posh and white.’ I found this crude, obvious and patronising, especially from a writer who includes no black or Asian or ethnic minority characters in any of her strips. In fact, the black man in this strip appears to be the only black person who speaks in any of the ten years of Posy Simmonds’ cartoon strips and his role is – to get into trouble with the police. Can’t help feeling Simmonds deals in stereotypes which are as patronising and clichéd as anything you’d find in the Sun or Daily Telegraph but just that they’re the patronising stereotypes of her tribe.

The end of the Webers (2)

  • Cutting the cord At a barbecue George sees his grown-up daughter Belinda in a huddle with notorious philanderer Stanhope Wright and thinks she must be propositioning him. In fact she is asking if he will ‘give her away’ at the big traditional wedding she’s planning to have, since her ‘principled’ feminist father refuses to.
  • Wedding party politics A strip describing Belinda’s marriage to options trader Mr Alistair Razer-Dorke, humorously profiling all the relatives and guests in terms of their party politics. In fact the wedding is an opportunity for Simmonds to review the key characters she’s created and whose company readers have kept over the previous ten years – and to say GOODBYE. The Posy strip’s time was up.

Thoughts

When I showed my daughter the book and she surfed through a dozen or so strips before handing it back, didn’t find anything funny in it, the opposite: said she felt she was being nagged or scolded – a common enough feeling for readers of the Guardian, which is targeted at self-flagellating liberals who feel guilty because they’re not doing enough about sexism and racism and homophobia and Islamophobia and the environment etc.

Some of the Posy strips are funny, but many of them rely on this mood or attitude – of taking a perverse pleasure in being told off or lectured or harangued. Of course the reader feels that, because they are being told off, they somehow rise above the guilt and responsibility for all the wrongs and injustice of the world. As if being nagged and lectured, cleanses and absolves you. As if, by reading a bitter comic strip about homelessness, and tutted and tsked about it, you have in any way whatsoever ameliorated the problem of homelessness.

It’s a peculiar psychological state, this state of recognition of some social ill, without any kind of proposal for what to do about it – and it is much the most frequent feeling you experience at the end of reading a strip, far more so than humour or comedy.

But the real story of the book is the way the Webers with their polytechnic-level, woolly soft liberal socialism and feminism and vegetarianism and permissive attitudes and touchy-feely concern about society and everyone less well-off than themselves had lived far beyond their sell-by date.

The strip had become stuck in that world, a world which had become a small island, a leftover of faded 1960s ideas, while the big wide world outside had moved on into a violent schizophrenic situation, caught between the millions thrown onto the dole, especially in the North of England and Wales, by the wide-ranging devastation of British industry, symbolised by the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 (not referred to anywhere) – while down in London, the City and related service industries of advertising and TV and publishing had never had it so good, with money cascading out from bankers’ bonuses into holiday homes, and new fashions for clothes and music and foreign holidays, while the escalating tension between the superpowers gave even the most stoic sleepless nights.

Not much of this, the drastically changing national mood, could be captured in the Webers’ homely little world, which is why it was the right decision to kiss them goodbye. And why I admire the cleverness with which Simmonds did it, the book climaxing in the highly symbolic marriage between the Webers’ own daughter, go-getting daughter Belinda – who had repeatedly repudiated and criticised their narrow old views – and rich, posh, public school City banker, Alistair Razer-Dorke.

Simmonds did, in fact, return to writing a weekly cartoon strip for the Guardian for the year 1992-3, and the Webers and a few other characters do, in fact, make a few scattered cameo appearances in it – but it was entirely the right decision for her to end the Weber strip in 1987 and move on to other projects and new perspectives.

Credit

All Posy Simmonds cartoons are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.


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The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of mural panels
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to point 3 – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by their Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress – so that the workers must take up arms and stage a revolution to overthrow the regime – I take it none of these ideas come as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke a deep nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction. How wonderfully certain they must have been.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in Rivera’s additional twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany; he was only interested in the corrupt and unfair present.

But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World on the west wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? What – as Lenin said – is to be done?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest of his career, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: the bent figures of the mourning women entirely wrapped in their cloaks reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets of murals you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately and powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, of Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality – for example where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns – revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

The mass, the throng, the diversity of life – like Breughel.

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more, just not on walls.

The noble poor

We are meant to compare and contrast the filthy rich with the noble poor, the liberated peasants, who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Zapata repeatedly said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof.

Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar (to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

War is always wrong unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause.

Fighting in the imperialist war was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to guerrilla and civil wars across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera had become famous as a bitingly anti-capitalist, communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans.

The Yankees invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933). At the same time as Diego was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich New Yorkers and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And did you talk to his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco adorns the stairs leading up from the Stock Exchange itself to the Stock Exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

But it was the murals he made in Detroit which Rivera himself considered the best he ever made. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow.

Crucially for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. They simply show men at work in modern factories, hymns to the marvel of modern technology.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling-out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who had commissioned a big mural in the lobby of their swanky new Manhattan skyscraper but cancelled it when Rivera insisted on painting in the face of Lenin.

With no other commissions in view, Diego reluctantly returned to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism.

He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI went on to rule Mexico without interruption until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises

  1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford)
  2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican

I think this explains why modern, post-political, post-communist scholarly commentary prefers to dwell on what it calls issues of ‘identity’ rather than the more blatantly communist elements in Diego’s work. It’s safer.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at Rivera’s densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 1950s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 1920s and 1930s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history and, above all, snagged on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed-out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and the heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history.

As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

There’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters in these vast paintings – and figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as the modern equivalent of Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panoramas of Mexican history (like the one shown above) just look like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. you have to be already very well educated to understand what is going on in his murals.

Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange – the socially conscious artists – in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors.

Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled.

I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit to paint his mural there. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. This was the exact opposite of the deeply troubled intellectual class in Mexico.

And, in my opinion, the reason for this is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammelled by negative thoughts or anxieties. As far as they were concerned it was a big empty space, ripe for the taking.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation. And Mexican intellectuals could never forget this fact because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty.

The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, the systematic semi-slavery of the vast majority of the population of illiterate forced labourers, mostly descended from the original tribal peoples.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with many evocative b&w photos
  • one page carries a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Which leaves 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. It was written in 1987, which is a long time ago and people back then, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography of Rivera so enjoyable and thought-provoking.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small.

The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and a highlight is the vitriolic attack which Siqueiros launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter.

There is a lot of small detail, about minor murals missed by Marnham’s biography, and a number of sidebars pleasantly go off on a tangent from the main narrative with what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture, which are diverting and often very interesting.


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (5) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Stepping back from the detail, this reader’s general sense of the actual fighting of the American Civil War – having just finished this 860-page book about it – was that the slaughter steadily escalated, until tens of thousands were being killed and wounded at each brutal, bloody, slogged-out battle, death and injury on such a scale you’d have thought they’d be decisive. And yet they weren’t. There was a terrible fatality or weakness about the commanding generals on both sides which prevented them landing really knockout blows and allowed the war to drag on for years longer than necessary.

The reader gets very impatient with General George B. McClellan who was in charge of the north’s largest army, the Army of the Potomac. He was, by all accounts, an excellent organiser of armies and inspirer of men who, however, turned out to be pathologically reluctant to risk his shiny machine in actual battle. And, on the rare occasions when he did engage and repel the Confederates, McClellan consistently failed to pursue and crush them, allowing them to retreat, lick their wounds, regroup, re-arm and come again. Eventually, President Lincoln became so impatient with McClellan’s fatal indecisiveness that he sacked him.

But, to the reader’s frustration, the turns out to be true of his replacement, Major General George Meade, who commanded the northern army at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863), massacring the rebels as they tried to storm his entrenched men along Cemetery Hill.

But then, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee called off the rebel attack and withdrew, Meade refused the calls from his officers, and from Lincoln himself, to pursue and crush the exhausted southern survivors – thus ensuring that Lee could withdraw, regroup, and that the war went on for another two years!

Apparently, a contemporary satirist described the armies of the American Civil War as little more than armed mobs wandering over the Virginia countryside at random, occasionally bumping into each other, massacring each other, then wandering off again with no decisive result. For long periods of time this satire does seem to be true.

According to McPherson, the siege and capture of the rebel stronghold of Vicksburg, which took place at the same time as the enormous Battle of Gettysburg (May to July 1865), marked a turning point in the war – but quite clearly neither was a knockout blow, and the South continued to field armies for 24 more bloody months.

Two years of bludgeoning, desperate bloodletting, as bigger and bigger armies engaged for longer and longer, at the costs of tens of thousands of eviscerated mangled bodies, with an enormous loss of life and treasure.

Meanwhile, as the generals of both sides failed to win the war, the conflict was nonetheless a time of rapid social, economic and technological change.

Military innovation

The generals initially carried on implementing Napoleonic battle strategy i.e. close ranked men march forwards, protected by cavalry on the flanks, until they’re within range to charge and close the enemy with bayonets – at which point the enemy breaks and runs, hopefully.

However, this was the war during which the rifle replaced the smooth-bore musket. Rifling made a bullet fly further and more accurately. This meant rifle fire could now kill men at three or four times the distance i.e. infantry advancing in the old style were cut down like grass.

Suddenly the advantage was with well-entrenched defenders. This explains the carnage at the Battle of Antietam as attacking Union troops found themselves funnelled into a lane which led towards the Confederate positions, and were mown down in their thousands. Or the carnage at Fredericksburg, where Union troops walked towards a solid wall at the base of St Marye’s Heights lined with Confederates assembled in ranks who fired in sequence – it was like walking towards machine guns.

It’s in the last two hundred pages, from the year 1864, that the power of defensive trenches really comes into its own, with the enormous losses suffered by Union soldiers trying to take rebel trenches at Spotsylvania and Petersburg. Here the fighting anticipated the appalling attrition rates of the First World War.

Arguably it was the development of the rifle, and the advantage it gave defenders, which is the one big reason why the American Civil War was so long and so bloody. (pp.477ff)

The scale of the slaughter

Some of the slaughter was awe-inspiring. The massacre at Antietam Creek left 6,000 men dead and some 17,000 wounded – four times the total number suffered on the Normandy beaches on D-Day – more than all American casualties in the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American war combined.

Similarly, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg was an abattoir, with some 8,000 killed out of about 50,000 casualties.

Even relatively minor encounters seemed to result in appalling rates of death and maiming.

Some 620,000 men from both armies died in the civil war. it was a catastrophe.

Disease the biggest killer in most wars

But disease was an even bigger killer than rifles and artillery. For every soldier who died in battle, two died of disease. The biggest killers were intestinal complaints such as dysentery and diarrhoea, which alone claimed more men than did battle wounds. Other major killers were measles, smallpox, malaria and pneumonia.

The fundamental basis of modern medicine – the fact that microscopic bacteria spread infections – had not yet been discovered. Medicine was, as McPherson puts it, still in the Middle Ages. The result was that no-one appreciated the importance of sterile dressings, antiseptic surgery, and the vital importance of sanitation and hygiene.

The impact of disease was so severe that it disrupted or led to the cancellation of a number of military campaigns. (p.488)

The changing role of women

McPherson goes out of his way in several places to discuss the changing positions of women. This is especially true of his section on medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the medical establishment, the army and the politicians, and made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness.

Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483). In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, specially in the North, where women were called in to replace men, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

Financial innovations

But arguably the most profound changes wrought by the Civil War – and certainly the most boring to read about – were the financial innovations it prompted.

To finance the war the northern government instituted the first ever federal income tax, on 5 August 1861. Taxes on other goods followed quickly under the Internal Revenue Act of 1862 which taxed ‘almost everything but the air northerners breathed’ (p.447) including liquor, tobacco and playing cards, carriages, yachts and billiard tables, taxes on newspaper adverts and patent medicines, licence taxes on virtually every profession, stamp taxes, taxes on the gross receipts of corporations, banks, insurance companies and the dividends or interest they paid investors.

The relationship of the American taxpayer to the government was never the same again.

This was accompanied by a Legal Tender Act of 1862 which issued, for the first time, a federal currency. Until this point each of the states had had their own treasury and their own forms of payment. Now the Federal government set out to supersede all these with the green dollar bills it produced by the million. These soon became known as ‘greenbacks’ and endure to this day.

Having revolutionised the country’s monetary and tax structures, the 37th Congress (1861-62) did the same for public land, higher education and railways.

McPherson shows how the economic dynamism of the north had been hampered and blocked for decades by southern states suspicious that every attempt to spread its free market, industrial culture was an attack on the South’s slave-based, agricultural economy.

Once the southern states seceded the Congress, now representing solely northern states, was set free to unleash its vision. A homestead act granted 160 acres of land to settlers who developed it for five years, underpinning the explosive expansion westwards.

A Vermont congressman developed a bill to make 30,000 acres of public land in each state available for the founding of further education, and especially agricultural colleges – establishing a network of institutions which ensured the most efficient exploitation of farmland by American farmers for generations to come.

And the Pacific Railroad Act granted land and money for a railway which eventually ran from Omaha to San Francisco. Much of the land dealing and speculation about the construction of this and later railways became notorious for corruption and sharp practices. But nonetheless the railways were built, connecting people, services and supplies across this vast continent.

Taken together these changes amounted to a ‘blueprint for modern America’, a:

new America of big business, heavy industry, and capital-intensive agriculture that surpassed Britain to become the foremost industrial nation by 1880 and became the world’s breadbasket for much of the twentieth century… (p.452)

The capitalists, labourers and farmers of the north and west superseded the plantation aristocracy of the South in the economic and political system, permanently remodelling America as a high-finance, industrialised, capitalist country.

Reconstruction

And this is the background to the idea of ‘Reconstruction’.

As in any war, the war aims of both sides changed over time. Initially most northern Democrats and many Republicans simply wanted the southern states to de-secede and return to the Union, more or less as they were.

But savvier radicals realised that there would have to be drastic changes in southern economy, culture and politics if the whole nation wasn’t simply to return to the permanently blocked political deadlocks of the decades which led up to the conflict.

Even slow-to-change Abe Lincoln realised that the South would have to be remade on the model of the industrialised, capitalist North. Having been devastated, economically, in terms of war dead, in terms of goods and assets destroyed, burned and bombed to bits, and having had the fundamental underpinning of its entire economic existence – slavery – abolished – the South would need to be entirely rebuilt from scratch.

This is what the term ‘Reconstruction’ came to mean and McPherson’s book comes to an abrupt stop just before it begins. His book ends with the end of the war, with the moving encounter between the old enemies as Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, and then Confederate troops came in and surrendered their weapons to their union victors.

A short epilogue fleetingly references the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865, the vast funeral, the flight of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and half a dozen other events which quickly followed in the wake of peace – but that’s it as far as McPherson’s account is concerned.

The whole enormous story of what came next:

  • the attempts to reconstruct the South and their long-term impact, in terms of poverty and ongoing racial prejudice
  • the conquest of the West and the so-called Indian Wars
  • the astonishing industrial and financial rise of the North until America was on a par with the mightiest European powers

remains to be told in the next book in the series.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulyses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (3) by James M. McPherson (1987)

This is a long book. It takes McPherson about 280 pages before he gets to the outbreak of hostilities, just to paint in the complicated political, economic, legal and social background to the American Civil War. This build-up section is absolutely fascinating, giving insights into a number of deep and enduring aspects of American history and culture.

Cuba

I had no idea that freelance forces raised in the southern states repeatedly tried to invade and capture Cuba (this was after President Polk offered Spain $100 million for it and Spain haughtily refused). The so-called ‘Ostend Manifesto’ of 1854 declared that Cuba was as vital for American interests as any of the other American states. Invasion attempts were led by Narciso Lopez among others. Cuba was attractive because it had a slave population of some 500,000 i.e. annexing it to America would create a) another slave state, thus giving the existing slave states more political clout, b) add a big new territory in which slaves could be bought and sold i.e. where slave traders could make a profit.

And Nicaragua. In 1855 adventurer and mercenary leader William Walker managed to get himself appointed head of the Nicaraguan army, from where he usurped the presidency, ruling as President of Nicaragua for a year, 1856-57, before being defeated in battle by an alliance of other Central American states. (Walker had previously ‘conquered’ La Paz, the capital of sparsely populated Baja California, with a force of 43 men, and concocted various plans to seize territory from Mexico. McPherson’s book conveys a wonderful sense of this era of bandits, adventurers, filibusters and mercenaries.)

Plenty of southern ideologists thought that, blocked by the free states in the north, their destiny was to seize and conquer all the nations surrounding the Gulf of Mexico (Mexico, all of Central America, all the Caribbean islands), institute slavery in all of them, and corner the market in all the world’s coffee, sugar, cotton and other tropical goods, establish a new slave empire.

What an epic vision!

The various invasion attempts reinforced Latin American countries’ suspicion of America’s boundless arrogance and her thinly veiled ambitions to control the entire hemisphere, which lasts to this day.

Reviving the slave trade

Many southerners wanted to renew the slave trade, and some went as far as commissioning private ships to go buy Africans and ferry them back to America e.g. Charles Lamar, although Lamar was arrested (and released) and no sizeable trade was, in the end, established.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

In McPherson’s opinion the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was ‘the most important single event pushing the nation towards civil war (p.121).

The territories of Kansas and Nebraska needed to be defined and organised. The process was led by Senator Stephen Douglas. He needed senate support. A key block of southerners made it clear they wouldn’t support the bill unless Douglas allowed slavery in the new states. To be precise, unless he repealed the ban on slavery north of 36° 30’ which had a been a central part of successive compromises with the slave states since 1820.

Douglas inserted such a repeal into the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the bill’s supporters then forced a meeting with President Pierce (1853-57) during which they threatened him: ‘Endorse repeal or lose the south’.

Pierce caved in, the act passed and caused a storm of protest. McPherson details the process by which the Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated the collapse of the Whig party, whose northern and southern wings increasingly struggled to find common ground. From the ashes arose a variety of anti-slavery parties, which eventually crystallised into a new, entirely northern, Republican party.

Nativism

Immigration quadrupled after the great potato blight in Ireland of the mid-1840s. Immigration in the first five years of the 1850s was five times higher than a decade earlier. Most of the immigrants were Catholic Irish fleeing the famine or Germans fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848. They tended to be poor peasant labourers who crammed into urban tenements, driving up crime, squalor, disease and drunkenness.

Pope Pius IX (1846-78) helped stoke anti-Catholic feeling among liberals and the American Protestant establishment by making the Catholic Church a beacon for reactionary beliefs – declaring the doctrine of papal infallibility and publishing a Syllabus of Errors which forbade Catholics from praising or practicing liberalism, socialism, public education, women’s rights and so on. American Catholic archbishop Hughes published an inflammatory book declaring that Protestantism was declining and would soon be replaced by Catholicism in America.

Unsurprisingly, in reaction, spokesman arose for a movement called ‘nativism’, which promoted the Protestant virtues of sobriety and hard work. There were riots and fights in cities between nativist mobs and Catholic groups.

Nativism overlapped with a growing temperance movement, which sought to close down bars and ban hard liquor – an anticipation of the Prohibition of the 1920s.

Secret societies grew up dedicated to keeping America Protestant by organising their members to only vote for Protestant candidates. There may have been up to a million members of these societies who were told that, if anyone asked about the name or membership of their local branch, they were to say ‘I know nothing’. As a result they became known as the ‘Know-nothings’, and in the few years up to the Civil War knownothingness became a sort of political craze.

The Catholic Irish also tended to be strongly against blacks, with whom they competed for the roughest labouring jobs at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It was the Irish vote which played a key part in preventing blacks from being given equal voting rights in New York, in 1846. One journalist summarised the conflict as:

freedom, temperance and Protestantism against slavery, rum and Catholicism (p.137)

Abraham Lincoln

The trigger for civil war was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on 6 November 1860. The less well-known of the two candidates for the Republican party, it wasn’t so much him personally, as the sweeping triumph of the essentially northern antislavery Republican party running on a platform of opposing the spread of slavery to any more U.S. states, which prompted southern slave states to finally carry out the acts of secession they’d been threatening every time there was a political clash or controversy for the previous decade or more. (For example, South Carolina had threatened to secede in 1850 over the issue of California’s statehood).

Indeed, it was South Carolina which first seceded from the United States as a result of a political convention called within days of Lincoln’s election, the official secession declared on December 20, 1860. South Carolina was quickly followed by Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10, 1861), Alabama (January 11, 1861), Georgia (January 19, 1861), Louisiana (January 26, 1861), Texas (February 1, 1861), Virginia (April 17, 1861), Arkansas (May 6, 1861), North Carolina (May 20, 1861), and Tennessee (seceded June 8, 1861).

The seceding states joined together to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). In April 1861 President Lincoln made a speech saying the seceded states did not form a separate country, and that he would take steps to protect Union property and assets in the so-called Confederate states.

Almost immediately a flashpoint arose at Fort Sumter built on a sandbar at the entrance to the harbour of Charleston, capital of South Carolina. Reports that the Union navy was planning to resupply the small Union garrison in the (unfinished) fort prompted the South Carolina militia to make a pre-emptive strike and bombard the Fort into surrender on April 12, 1861. These were the first shots fired in the Civil War and Lincoln had been astute in managing to ensure it was a rebel state who fired them.

A political war

It was a political war. From start to finish the aims of both sides were political – broadly speaking the survival of their respective political, economic and social systems (one based on slave labour, one not) i.e. it was not a war fought about land or conquest.

Although it quickly escalated (or degenerated) into a total war, mobilising the resources of both sides, and leading to terrible casualties, the political aspect of the struggle was always pre-eminent.

Neither side was monolithic. There were moderates in the south, there were even unionists in the upper southern states, to whom Lincoln held out the possibility of negotiation and reconciliation. Similarly, not all northerners were in favour of total war, and one plank of southern rhetoric was to reach out to northern ‘constitutionalists’ by emphasising that the southern states’ cause was a logical consequence of the American Constitution’s concern for each state’s individual autonomy. They were merely fighting for their rights under the Constitution to govern by their own laws.

Whose rights came first – the states or the Union as a whole? Who ruled – the central or the states governments? This had proved a thorny problem for the drafters of the Constitution back in the 1780s and was, at least to begin with, the core issue of the war. It’s certainly the one Abraham Lincoln focused on in his early speeches, which assert that you simply can’t have a government if large parts of the country threaten to secede every time laws are passed which they disagree with.

We must settle this question now: whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.

But the south didn’t think it was a matter of this or that law – they thought the Republicans’ stated aim of stopping slavery from spreading and, in time, forcing it to wither and die, represented an existential threat their entire economic and cultural existence. As the South’s reluctant president, Jefferson Davis, said, the Confederate states had been forced:

to take up arms to vindicate the political rights, the freedom, equality, and state sovereignty which were the heritage purchased by the blood of our revolutionary sires.

Length and complexity

This is why the first 300 pages of McPherson’s book are so important. They need to paint a really thorough picture of the confused and contradictory political scene right across American society in the decades preceding the conflict:

  • explaining the arguments over slavery which tore both the pre-war Whig Party and that Democrat Party apart
  • explaining the rise of the new antislavery Republican party; describing the importance of nativist and racist movements in the north (not only anti-Catholic and anti-Irish but also anti-negro)
  • describing in detail the sequence of political crises which flared up over the admission of each new state to the union, the blizzard of arguments on both sides about whether each the new state should be slave or free
  • and detailing the complicated compromises which just about papered over the cracks for decades until the election of Lincoln.

And you need a good grasp of the kaleidoscopic and shifting complexity of American political scene in these years to understand why Lincoln took the decisions he did; for example why he appointed to his first cabinet several of his major political rivals – even from other parties – in order to build the widest coalition.

Why he appointed a soldier from the rival Democrat party George B. McClellan as head of the army on the Potomac, and stuck with him even though he failed to press the North’s military and logistical advantage.

Similarly, why Lincoln delayed so long before declaring the Emancipation of the Slaves – namely that he had to keep onside as many as possible of the Democrat (i.e. slave-friendly) politicians in the north who had continued attending the Union Congress and Senate, and avoid offending opinion in the border states of Missouri and Kansas.

The American Civil War really is a classic example of the old saying that war is politics by other means as, throughout the conflict, both leaders, Lincoln and Davis, had to manage and negotiate unending squabbles on their own sides about the war’s goals and strategies. McPherson notes how both leaders at various points felt like quitting in exasperation – and how both sides found their war aims changing and evolving as political feeling changed, and as the value of various alliances also changed in importance.

Killers

Meanwhile, as in any war, some men discovered that they liked killing.

You need the background and build-up in order to understand why the border states between north and south (for example, Missouri and Virginia) found themselves torn apart by opposing political movements and descending into their own mini civil wars, which generated gangs of raiders and freelancers beholden to neither side, degenerating into tit-for-tat bloodbaths.

One of Quantrill's Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James.

One of Quantrill’s Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James (pp.292 and 303)

It takes some time to explain why such a large, rich, bustling, vibrant nation managed to tear itself to pieces and descend, in many places, into violent anarchy. Battle Cry of Freedom is a very long book because it needs to be – but it never ceases to be completely absorbing and continually illuminating.


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1) by James M. McPherson (1987)

‘Our political conflicts must be in future between slavery and freedom.’ Whig Congressman Joshua Giddings at the Free Soil convention in 1848 (quoted page 61)

This massive volume (900 pages) is part of the multi-volume Oxford History of America which began publishing back in the 1980s.

The civil war is by far the most written-about event in American history, not least because more Americans died in it than in all other wars America has fought put together.

The civil war tore the Republic apart, and the schism between north and southern states is in some ways still evident to this day. Certainly the bitterly divisive issue of race in America shows no signs of going away, ever.

Social background

McPherson gives a good run-up to the war with a fascinating profile of economic and social progress in America in the half century from 1800.

I was particularly struck by his interpretation of the movement of women from being cottage industry producers to the heads of nuclear households in which the male went out to earn a wage, as a big step up in power and autonomy for women. Also the importance of women in creating a market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century or more.

And in creating an enormous market for an explosion of magazines and papers dedicated to women and women’s issues (homes and beauty etc). The bestselling novel of the entire 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was written by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Women also established their dominance in the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female; the figure is 80% in the UK). In 1848 a convention in New York state launched the modern women’s rights movement (pp. 33-36).

Inevitability

What comes over strongest is the inevitability of the war. Conflict – bitter and angry conflict – between slave and free states exists from the very start of his account. (McPherson doesn’t mention it, but reading Alan Taylor’s account of the drafting of the American Constitution, it’s clear that slavery caused problems even then, back in the 1780s, with the northern participants having to find loose and ambiguous forms of words to take into account problems raised by slavery – for example questions like: what was the population of a slave state, should you include slaves as ‘people’ or not?).

It takes McPherson about 300 pages to cover the period from about 1820 to the outbreak of war. Almost every page features rancour and disagreement caused by slavery.

The curse of slavery

In fact slavery comes over as a curse of Biblical proportions on America. There is no way round it, no way out of it, no way of escaping the fact that the wealth of half the country depended on whip and chains. It fatally undermines all the vaunting rhetoric about freedom and independence spouted by northerners and the rebels of 1775, and they knew it.

Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty had become mostly an empire for slavery. Territorial acquisitions since the Revolution had added the slave states of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida and Texas to the republic, while only Iowa, admitted in 1846, increased the rank of free states. (p.51)

Slavery had been absolutely vital for the economic success of the southern states when the mainstay crops were rice and tobacco. As the nineteenth century progressed, cotton rose in importance, not least to be exported to feed the mechanised cotton looms of Manchester. Economically, slavery increased its importance in the southern economy and culture as the century progressed.

Whipping a slave

Whipping a slave while his family watch

As America expanded, should the new states be slave or free?

The most fundamental fact of American history in the 19th century was its relentless progress westwards, settling, staking out, defining and creating new states as it went. Every time this happened, there was virulent debate about whether the new state would be slave or free.

Northern states, roughly represented by the Whig party, campaigned for all new states admitted to the union to be slave-free. Politicians, journalists, businessmen and activists all across the south saw this as:

  • a threat to their livelihood
  • a block to them expanding their economic model
  • in effect reserving each new state for the northern economic model of free farming or industrialisation
  • and so an insult to the much-vaunted ‘honour’ of the South

Politicians and journalists were talking about a clash between the slave-owning southern states and the free northern states from the turn of the century. As early as 1820 a compromise had to be hammered out about just how much of the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase should be slave and free (the decision was that it should be slave-free above latitude 36′ 30) and the accession of each new territory caused a repeat of the same arguments, except louder and more bitter each time.

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states and the enormous contested area of Kansas-Nebraska

The Mexican-American War

The book really gets going with the arguments in the wake of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. After American forces beat the Mexican army at a series of battles and then occupied Mexico City, the Mexican government was forced to cede California and New Mexico to America, and to give up hope of retrieving Texas which, for a while had been an independent state, before being absorbed in the USA. Mexico accepted the course of the Rio Grande river as its new border with America, losing a third of its territory to the States.

But even as the Mexican war was being fought, politicians, lobbyists and so on were bitterly arguing whether about whether the new territory seized from Mexico should be slave or free. The crisis lasted from 1846 to 1851, with a series of political expedients and compromises in Congress under successive presidents. McPherson goes into very great detail about how the arguments around this issue were central to the campaigns for party nominations, in the presidential campaigns, and in various congressional and senate contests.

The American party system comes over as confusingly fragmented (with Conscience Whigs, Cotton Whigs, the Liberty Party, Barnburners, southern ‘fire-eaters’, the Free Soil convention and many more floridly-named splinter groups), but roughly there were:

  • northern Whigs, representing industrialisation and civil liberties
  • and southern Democrats representing slavery, the rights of property and the slave economy

At least that was the situation in the early 1850s. It is a central thread of the book to show how this rough grouping was torn apart and refashioned by the war.

Arguments for and against slavery

Personally, I find one of the most interesting aspects of history is the study of the reasons or arguments which lost. Historians often skip over these, assuming that nowadays we all agree, that the values of the present are self-evident and eternal. But for me that’s precisely a major value of the study of history: to enter fully into the economic, social and political mindset of people in completely different times and circumstances, to fully understand what drove them to believe and fight for their cause.

McPherson usefully summarises the arguments for and against slavery, conceived in the broadest sense:

AGAINST SLAVERY

  • free labour was more efficient than slave labour because it was motivated by the inducement of wages and ambition for upward social mobility rather than coercion
  • slavery undermined free white labour wherever the two existed side by side
  • slavery inhibited education and social improvement, keeping not only blacks but poor whites in a state of low education
  • because it was best suited to a small number of labour-intensive crops, slave labour prevented the development of a diverse economy and innovation

Northerners thought these economic arguments explained why the northern free states were ahead of the South on almost all metrics, such as capital investment, literacy, industrialisation, innovation, and so on. And explained what was at stake in deciding whether new states should be slave or free: it wasn’t just a moral problem – allowing slavery in the new states condemned them to being second class economies. Allowing slavery into the majority of American states would doom the whole of America to becoming a backward, agrarian society.

FOR SLAVERY

Intellectual southerners invoked the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought that freedom amounted to economic independence based on the possession of property. He envisioned a nation made up of independent farmers and artisans who defined their own work rate, hours and products. Followers of Jefferson strongly opposed the spread of industrialisation in the north. Industrialisation converted free farmers into ‘hands’ who worked regimented hours in large factories, losing all their skills except the handful necessary to fit into mass production. Hence the expression ‘wage slaves’. By the 1840s everyone knew that industrialised society was prey to periodic depressions when trade collapsed and factories laid off workers in droves, to beg in the streets.

Therefore, intellectual southerners could position themselves as principled opponents of capitalism, maintaining what they saw as older ideas of ‘liberty’ (for white people).

  • slavery was a blessing to the slave and to the master
  • slavery had civilised African savages
  • slavery introduced heathen savages to Christianity
  • slavery provided slaves with a paternalistic cradle-to-grave care not available to northern ‘wage slaves’
  • it raised up white labourers by freeing them from the most menial tasks
  • slavery eliminated the spectre of class conflict among whites by eliminating class and caste differences between them, slavery brought whites closer together, unlike the widening gap between rich and poor taking place in the industrialised north
  • slavery generated the wealth to create a leisured class of gentleman who create civilisation, culture and fine living – unlike the hustling hucksterism of northern capitalism
  • all previous great civilisations had been based on slavery – the Greeks, the Romans etc

These pro-slavery arguments are fascinating because you can see there is a grain of truth in some of them (in the virtues of an agricultural over an industrialised economy, for example). They were certainly enough to mobilise opinion right across the south, enough to produce a torrent of speeches and articles fulminating against northern arrogance and soulless industrial capitalism, enough to prompt endless threats that the south would secede or take up arms to protect her special interests – enough to drown out the simple, undeniable fact that slavery was an outrage against human decency, dignity and any ideas of ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’.

To see how so many educated southerners – politicians, lawyers and journalists – managed to suppress this basic truth amid a flood of secondary arguments and justifications, is quite mind-boggling, and an education in human beings’ limitless ability to delude themselves when self-interest is at stake.

But it’s only if you make an imaginative attempt to understand, to internalise these arguments as much as their proponents, that you can hope to understand what came next. Thus McPherson quotes Senator John C. Calhoun as saying that slavery was:

the most safe and profitable basis for free institutions in the world (p.56)

This, and thousands of other statements like it, are virtually incomprehensible to us. But unless we make the effort to understand the almost unbelievable things people in the past have passionately believed in, we condemn ourselves to live in a world we don’t fully understand.


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Travelling Light by Tove Jansson (1987)

Solitary people interest me. There are so many ways of being solitary. (The Garden of Eden)

This is a selection of 12 short stories by Tove Jansson. She was 73 when the book was published. It was only when starting the fifth story that I realised they all had the theme of a journey in common.

In An Eightieth Birthday the daughter of a redoubtable 80-year-old bohemian artist takes along her new man, Johnny, to the birthday party. In part one they mingle, embarassedly among the guests, getting stuck with a bunch of critics discussing ‘perception’.

In part two they leave the party with a group of three older men, obviously once known artists themselves, now alcoholics and a bit hard-up, on nodding terms with the derelicts in a big church square in Helsinki. They wander across the city towards May and Jonny’s flat, where the three old artists carry on discussing how important it is to have a ‘passion’, how older artists had to try and copy the new fashionable styles of the 1960s, how her grandmother kept her integrity and carried on painting Finnish trees, about lots of things. They admire the scale model Jonny has built of a boat. They discuss the way sometimes just admiring beautiful things like a tree in blossom is every bit as important as trying to paint or recreate it. And then they leave.

There’s a plot of sorts, a narrative: bohemian party, wander across Helsinki, drinks at Jonny’s flat – but the poetry  is in the calm acceptance – of her grandmother, of her husband, of Helsinki, of tiresome critics and drunken artists – of life and art and words.

A Summer Child is quite a brutal story about a middle-class couple (Hannah and Axel) with three kids (Tom, Oswald and Mia) who decide to take in an inner-city child for the summer which they always spend among the islands in the Gulf of Finland. Now, if they took an inner-city boy from round where I live in South London they would be in for quite a culture shock, but this inner-city boy – Elis – to their slight dismay, turns out to come from quite a well-off family and drives the others nuts because of his unrelenting social conscience.

He nags the family about throwing food away, reminding them that people round the world are starving; for throwing away landfill, reminding them that the seas are filling up with plastic (this was forty years ago; none of this is new); using an outboard motor when the air is full of pollution – and so endlessly on. The father decides to take the kids on a boat trip to drop supplies to a number of lighthouses, drops the city boy and his oldest son on an uninhabited island planning to be back in an hour, but his fuel line ruptures and he ends up being away for a day and a night, with the result that the story turns into a Finish version of Lord of the Flies.

In A Foreign City the elderly male narrator is invited to go and stay with his godson and wife, but is in a fluster from the word go, forgetting his hat on the flight, getting into a muddle at Customs, then at the Lost Property office where, after much confusion, he ends up accepting a hat belonging to someone completely different. By the time he emerges to the airport taxi rank all the other passengers have gone. Then he realises he has completely forgotten the address of the hotel the relatives had booked for him. But he has an inspiration – to ask the taxi driver to take him to the address on the owner’s label inside the wrong hat he was given at the airport. With odd results…

In The Woman who Borrowed Memories, after fifteen years Stella goes back to the old apartment she lived in with her lover, where they had wild bohemian parties and a passionate love affair. But now she discovers it is lived in by a woman, Wanda, who she and her lover thought of as a waif and stray tagging on to their wild artistic circle. They let her stay with them for a while, before Wanda went off to London to study art, sending letters asking her lover to follow.

Now, to her dismay, Wanda treats Stella as the interloper. She claims it was always her flat, that it was she who hosted the famous parties and had all the bohemian friends, who made the bookshelf by hand, who took all the photos on the walls. Stella thinks it must be some kind of joke then realises – with some horror – that Wanda genuinely believes all this. She has effectively taken over Stella’s life and memories.

Stella becomes disorientated and tired, asking to rest on the sofa. Wanda makes her comfortable, tucks her up in a blanket and then, rather as if in a horror story, moves from words of comfort to repeating the words which she obviously used to Stella’s boyfriend when she (Wanda) seduced him: softly saying that Stella is no good for him, Stella is holding her back… and she says all this she slowly moves the blanket up over Stella’s ace as if… she is going to asphyxiate her!

Terrified, Stella leaps to her feet, makes Wanda open the door and stumbles down the stairs. This is tantamount to a horror story.

The title story – Travelling Light – is also very odd. The plot itself is a first-person narrative about a middle-aged man who ups and leaves his apartment and old life with no real explanation and sets off on a luxury cruise. He is hoping to get away from them, from humans, from all the beastly people who keep pestering him with their endless tedious problems. Except that, rather inevitably, on the cruise he meets nothing but the same: first of all the apparently rambunctious man who is sharing his cabin, who soon drinks too much and gets maudlin about his wife and children; then, when the narrator runs away and tries to wrap himself in a blanket on a deckchair on the passenger deck, he finds himself getting involved with an irritable middle-aged woman whose deckchair he’s dossing down in (the deckchairs are numbered and allocated by ticket). After some bad-tempered exchanges, she buys them both drinks, they settle into an uneasy truce and — this wretched woman starts telling the narrator about her family, ‘here would you like to see some photos?’ Precisely everything he spends his life trying to avoid – other people, entanglements.

The real message of this story, though, isn’t in the plot, it’s in the extraordinarily uptight tone of the narrator. He could almost be a Beckett character, describing the endless anxiety and unease other people cause him, and the lengths he will go to to find a place of isolation, aloneness, peace and bloody quiet.

Perhaps you have some idea of the depth of my fatigue, of my exhaustion and nausea in the face of this constant need to feel sorry for people? (p.91)

In The Garden of Eden Professor Viktoria Johansson arrives at a little hilltop village west of Alicante to visit her god-daughter only to discover the latter has had to rush off to see her ill mother. She’s left the keys, basic instructions etc. So Viktoria makes herself at home, tests her Spanish on the local shop-keepers, but then is visited/welcomed to the ex-pat community, by a brusque hysterical woman with four neurotic little dogs who is convinced her next door neighbour is trying to kill her.

Now Viktoria likes a good murder mystery and, being a professor, is systematic, so she opens a notebook and decides to ‘investigate’ the case, starting by paying a visit to the woman she labels X. X turns out to have lived in the village longer than all the other ex-pats and she despises them – their wealth, their lazing around sunbathing, their insistence on gutting the traditional houses and filling them with all the latest mods cons. Yuk!

Around this rather slow, ironic ‘investigation’ Jansson depicts the moods and thoughts of an ageing spinster, Viktoria, as she reminisces about other foreign trips, about old friends who she should get in touch with. There’s a ‘plot’ in the present, but it’s also a pretext for the portrait of a woman’s mind.

She attends the local town’s colourful fiesta where everyone dresses up in ornate and convincing costumes, and there sees the two women dancing with knives in their hands in a way which looks genuinely threatening until Miss X darts forward and in two swift movements, chops off Josephine’s red plaits.

Viktoria organises an unconventional grand meal (choosing the successive dishes solely on the basis of their sound, with no knowledge what they actually are, from the local restaurateur) and invites Josephine and Miss X. She tries to get them to make up, fails, goes and hides in the ladies loo (several times she reminisces about girl arguments at school, and the whole story is intertwined with memories of falling out with a friend when they went travelling when they were 19; it all has a slightly Fifth Formers of St Clare’s kind of feel – ‘Viktoria had a sudden impulse to scold them. Girls, girls! she wanted to say, but she held her tongue.’ p.131).

But when she returns to the dining room at the village cafe the girls have, in fact, sort of made up and they all go out onto the terrace to admire the spectacular view over the hills at sunset.

Shopping is an astonishingly bleak little vignette about two people who have survived a surprise nuclear war and are living in the ruins of a city. Kristian went outside just as the bombs exploded (‘typical male pride’) and half the building fell on him, so he’s laid up on a mattress in the kitchen, the only room which survived. Emily goes scavenging for tinned food in the ruined city. Occasionally she spots ‘others’ but hides or runs away. Finally, Kristian cracks up after spending so long in a darkened room and smashes open the barricade Emily had built over the one window. Daylight reveals their squalid useless shelter. They go out into the light. And the ‘others’ are there, and they start walking towards each other.

In four pages the shortest story – The Jungle – describes how two small boys, in a holiday home looked after by a maid, paid for by their mother in the city, spend the summer pretending to be Tarzan (and his son), until they become genuinely afraid of the jungle creatures roaming outside their (quiet peaceful Finnish holiday) cottage.

The death of the PE Teacher He hangs himself, much to the school’s shock. But the story is about a bourgeois couple (Henri and Flo) who go to dinner at the very swanky house of his business associate who is, in fact, working late at some kind of conference. Flo makes an ass of herself, causing several scenes as she gets drunker. She is obsessed by the suicide and the way the teacher talked, just before his death, the petition he was trying to get signed to prevent the demolition of some woods to make way for modern dwellings (of the kind her husband and business associate build).

The Gulls A schoolteacher, Arne, has had a sort of nervous breakdown. The children have driven him mad and he’s resigned. But the school appreciate his condition and promise to keep the post open while his wife, Else, takes him out to the remote island in the Gulf of Finland where she used to holiday with her parents. Predictably, he gets on the wrong side of the gulls which are nesting and hatching their chicks. Going out one sunny day he blunders into an intensive nestery and is dive-bombed by screaming gulls, runs back to the house face streaming with blood, shaking, and won’t go out of the cottage for three days. This story of high anxiety on a remote island builds up to a typically hard, unsentimental climax.

The Hothouse is the most loveable, charming story in the set. Old Uncle goes to the Botanical Gardens, specifically the hothouse, to sit on a bench in silent contemplation of the lily pond. One day there is an interloper, another man sitting in his spot. A battle of nerves commences. But eventually they break their silence, speak to each other and discover they share a mutual wish to get away from people and sit in silence. So they meet every day, on the same bench, nod, don’t speak and open their books, reading in companionable silence.

But this preamble is just the frame, so to speak, for the telling of two other events. One day the other man (Vesterberg) doesn’t show up. Uncle and the sympathetic caretaker of the hothouse look up the address of the old people’s home where Vesterberg has mentioned he lives, and Uncle goes to visit him. That’s a chastening experience, described rather harrowingly.

But the core of the story is the second event: Uncle’s memory of being taken by his family to a remote island where the family stayed one summer in a cabin. There was a rough bridge over a ravine which led out to a flower meadow. Uncle fell in love with the meadow. The family decide to build a ‘tent sauna’ on the island and want to erect it on the meadow but Uncle insists otherwise. So, reluctantly, they build the sauna in the ravine, beneath the supports of the bridge. To his surprise, when Uncle goes to check it out, he discovers the tent door opens onto a splendid view of the meadow – and decides he wants to sleep there from now on.

One night a big storm blows up and floods the ravine, flooding his tent and mattress, floating belongings away, but also floating his beloved flower meadow. Uncle wades out across the storm-tossed, seawater-flooded flowers and feels their… their essence, their experience. the storm wrecks the bridge and carries its fragments off as driftwood. Later Uncle finds some of it and sets about making a perfect model of the bridge.

This memory burns in Uncle’s mind and he wants to share it with Vesterberg but, of course, both men have sworn to silence. After months, they are sitting in the hothouse when there is a sudden storm. The sky goes black, rain lashes on the glass, the doors blow open in a gust and Uncle, elated, breaks all the rules and steps into the big lily-pond walking through the warm water feeling the big strong plants and their roots brushing against his trousered legs.

Vesterberg eggs him on, two old men behaving badly. And when he finally calms down, Uncle climbs out and at last shows Vesterberg his model of the bridge. This leads to a little argument about whether the model has any purpose or ‘meaning’ or just ‘is’ a thing in itself. They agree to differ, bow to each other as they walk through the shattered greenhouse doors and happily make their ways to their separate homes.

Tiredness and rest

As pointed out in all my previous reviews of Jansson, her fiction oscillates – operates – along a spectrum between tiredness/anxiety and safety/sleep.

  • I tried to shake off my fatigue. When I get tired, everything slips away from me… I was dreadfully tired (A Foreign City)
  • ‘Are you maybe a little tired?’ said Wanda… ‘I’m tired. You talk too much.’… Stella felt a great urge to sleep; the room disappeared… (The Woman who Borrowed Memories)
  • The caretaker’s wife will look after my houseplants; those tired living things – which never look well no matter how much trouble one takes over them – have made me feel very uneasy… Sleeping on my own has become very important to me… One’s opportunities for feeling ill at ease in life are countless… When eventually I stopped, utterly exhausted, I was almost alone… Wonderful! To be able to sleep and sink into silence, oblivious of everything… (Travelling Light)
  • It had been a long tiring journey… That night Viktoria lulled herself to sleep by imagining she was an independent Spanish cat… (The Garden of Eden)
  • Big beautiful Nicole wished passionately that the world of calm and charm she’d created might be left in peace, that her life might as far as possible be left undisturbed by all the ugliness and chaos that crowded the world outside… The phone rang. Henri waited: he was very tired… ‘Let her sleep’… In the car Flo fell asleep…  (The PE Teacher’s Death)
  • She took his hand in hers and fell asleep again at once. The birds went on screeching. He tried to ignore it, but he could feel his old fear creeping closer, his horror of noise, of anything out of control… ‘You’re sitting in the bow and you’ve never been in the islands before. With every new skerry you think we’re there, but no, we’re going all the way out, right out to an island that’s hardly a shadow on the horizon. And when we land, it won’t be Papa’s island any more, it’ll be ours, for weeks and weeks, and the city and everyone in it will fade away, till in the end they won’t even exist or have any hold on us at all. Just pure peace and quiet. And now in the spring the days and nights can be windless, soundless, somehow transparent… (The Gulls)
  • Uncle liked to rest his legs and lose himself in a kind of contemplation and reflection that gradually freed him from all the concerns of the world outside. (The Hothouse)

Lyricism

Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Lyrical descriptions.

Up in the spring sky the dome of the cathedral rested like a white dream over the empty square. Helsinki was indescribably beautiful, I’d never realised before how beautiful it was. (p.29)

Out of doors all was completely at peace. It was a time of light breezes and soft summer rain; down in the meadow the apple trees were in bloom, and all of nature was at its loveliest. (p.43)

At that exact moment the setting sun broke through a gap in the mountain chain and the twilit landscape was instantly transformed and revealed; the trees and the grazing sheep enveloped in a crimson haze, a sudden, beautiful vision of biblical mystery and power. (p.117)


Credit

Resa med lätt bagage by Tove Jansson was published in 1987. It was translated as Travelling Light by Silvester Mazzarella and first published by Sort of Books in 2010.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

The Korean War by Max Hastings (1987)

This book

This account of the Korean War (1950-53) is thirty years old this year, and so dates from before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, although there are several shorter accounts on the market, this seems to be the only lengthy, in-depth, narrative history of the Korean War in print – an indication of the general lack of interest in the war, both at the time and since (compare and contrast the number of books which come out every year about WW2 or Vietnam).

Why the neglect? The Korean War lacked the scale of the Second World War, so only a relatively small number of soldiers’ families were involved. Around 100,000 British troops were posted to Korea in total, but the British population was more concerned with its own problems – ongoing food rationing, a general election – or the Soviet threat on the continent of Europe. Who cared whether Korea was partitioned along this line or that line?

a) The war was on the other side of the world and
b) After the dramatic reverses of the first year of the conflict, the latter two years dwindled down to a grinding stalemate, demoralising and inglorious. In the end there was no Allied victory (as in WW2), merely a ceasefire which created a border not very much different from the pre-war line. So it turned out to have been a boring, faraway war which achieved nothing.

Background to the partition of Korea

A newcomer to the subject might ask, Why was Korea partitioned between north and south at the 38th parallel in the first place?

To go back a bit, Japan had interfered in Korea’s affairs since the late 19th century. In 1905 Japan made Korea a protectorate; in 1907 the Japanese took control of Korean domestic affairs and disbanded their army; and in 1910 Japan formally annexed Korea.

In the following decades Japan forced some 100,000 Koreans to join the Imperial Japanese Army, and up to 200,000 Korean women were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers in Korea and Japanese-occupied China.

Then in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, the huge block of territory between northern China and Russia, and in 1937 attacked the rest of the coastal regions of China (as well as into Indochina, Malaya, Burma and so on). Korea was the earliest conquest of Japan’s Far Eastern empire.

Korea became an armed camp, in which mass executions  and wholesale imprisonment were commonplace, and all dissent forbidden. (p.16)

When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Stalin was careful to remain at peace with Japan. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Japanese did not declare war on Russia or attack in Siberia, which they could easily have done from their base in Manchuria. Stalin, for his part, maintained Russian neutrality even after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941 thus provoking war with America, and Japan and Russia remained at peace right up to the closing days of the war.

In February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan but he delayed till the last minute. (This, among other things, meant that the Japanese government held out the vain hope right into August 1945 that ‘neutral’ Russia would somehow stand up for them and negotiate good surrender terms with the Allies – a delusion.) So Stalin’s Soviet Union only abandoned its policy of neutrality and declared war on Japan on 9 August 1945. A huge Soviet army crossed the border from Siberia into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and swept south.

A glance at the map shows that the southern border of Manchuria is mostly sea, the Sea of Japan to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean peninsula, which dangles down from the Chinese mainland like an Asian Scandinavia. So, with the goal of attacking the Japanese wherever they found them, it was natural that the invading Soviet army crossed the Chinese-Korea border (formed by the Yalu river) and headed south into the peninsula, defeating Japanese forces as they went.

‘Suddenly’ the Americans who, according to Hastings hadn’t really considered the strategic significance of Korea, realised they didn’t want Stalin to occupy the entire peninsula create a communist stronghold so close to soon-to-be-defeated Japan. So the Americans requested Stalin to halt his forces and informed him that American forces would invade Korea from the south.

Two American officers were put in charge of figuring out where the dividing line should be between the uneasy allies. Poring over a map, they reached the ‘hasty’ decision that the 38th parallel was a handy dividing line: it more or less divided the country in two, with the capital Seoul, the best agriculture and industry, and most of the population, to the south i.e. in the American sector.

President Roosevelt duly contacted Stalin with the request that he stop his forces at the 38th parallel and, to the Americans’ surprise, Stalin readily agreed. Stalin didn’t want to risk confrontation with the ally he was working so closely with in Europe, and was also very aware of the atom bombs the Americans had just dropped on Japan. Yeah, sure, you can keep half of Korea.

(There is a nice irony here, that the Americans from Roosevelt down were vehement opponents of the European empires, and actively tried to sabotage the return to European imperial rule of Burma, Malaya or Indochina. But quite quickly they found themselves dragged into drawing precisely the kind of arbitrary lines and borders which they had criticised the Europeans for making in Africa and the Middle East. The existence of separate states of North and South Korea and the fates, the life chances and premature deaths of tens of millions of Koreans, were determined by this hurried decision made in the last gasp of the Second World War.)

North and South Korea

So Stalin stopped his troops at the 38th parallel, when he could easily have pressed on and seized the entire peninsula. American forces landed at Incheon on September 8 and liberated southern Korea from their Japanese occupiers. In time both countries put their own regimes in place in their sector, the Soviets basing their government in the northern city of Pyongyang, the Americans in the traditional capital, Seoul, permanently crystallising the distinction between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea.

While the Russians proceeded with their standard process of step-by-step managing the local communists into government and then picking off the opposition one by one to create a mini Stalinist state, Hastings describes the Americans as making a number of important mistakes in the South.

For a start, the Americans found the native Koreans completely unused to governing their own country. Thus, against their intentions, in the early days they ended up being forced to work closely with the now-defeated Japanese authorities, for the simple reason that the Japs had the experienced men in place to carry on carrying out the function of the state. Only slowly were these replaced by native Koreans, and then the Americans had the devil of a time selecting which of the many groups of clamouring Korean politicians to choose to run things.

As the threat from Soviet communism became more palpable into 1946, the Americans found themselves setting up a government run by the smooth-talking, right-wing émigré Syngman Rhee. Hastings recounts how left-of-centre Korean groups were too quickly marginalised because of the taint of communism and how the Americans, despite their best intentions, found themselves installing Rhee, and then coming to regret the choice of such a corrupt, brutal figure. Rhee ended up being president of South Korea from 1948 to 1960 and was an early example of the kind of brutal, repressive and corrupt right-wing regime which the Americans would find themselves supporting again and again throughout the Cold War.

This had the result of fuelling left-wing and communist agitation against his government, which led to a spiral of repression, and left many Americans feeling ambivalent and uneasy in their support for Rhee. This was epitomised by a reluctance to arm his air force, artillery and infantry with more than a token minimum of equipment, since there was good evidence that arms were mainly used against his own civilian population.

Meanwhile, throughout the late 1940s North Korea kept up a steady stream of propaganda broadcasts to the south, designed to appeal to all Korean patriots, calling for the reunification of the country, as well as predictable calls for the overthrow of Rhee and his unlikeable clique. In the spring of 1950 this rhetoric became steadily more heated and experts in the U.S. State Department warned of the growing threat of some kind of attack by the North on the South. The American government, under President Harry Truman, had its hands full coping with crises in the more obvious cockpit of the Cold War, Europe, beset by a sequence of crises including the Berlin Airlift from June 1948 to May 1949, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and so on.

The Korean War

1. The North invades Thus it came as a complete surprise to the world when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean army invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The United Nations immediately voted it an illegal act and sent forces to stop the advance. These were at first mostly American, but in time came to consist of a coalition including other Western countries and eventually 20 nations from round the world. But before this could be organised, the North Koreans succeeded in storming through the south, pushing the under-equipped demoralised Republic of Korea’s army back until it and its American support were, by September 1950, pinned into a pocket in the south-east of the peninsula, the Pusan area.

2. Landing at Inchon Not only did the Americans reinforce their troops who fought bravely to hold the line at Pusan but General MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific War, who had been ruling post-war Japan as American Vice-Consul, now conceived his last great strategic coup, which was to organise a massive American amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, on the coast near Seoul, thus attacking the North Koreans in their rear, and threatening their supply lines.

The Americans broke out of the Pusan pocket and drove north, pushing back the demoralised and exhausted North Koreans, back across the 38th parallel and further north. At this point Hastings’ account dwells on the massive disagreements within the American administration on whether or not the Allies should halt at the parallel or press on to take the entire peninsula. This latter view prevailed and the American, ROK and other UN national forces (British and Commonwealth as well as a large contingent from Turkey) pressed north.

3. China enters the war Allied forces had come within sight of the Yalu river which forms the border between Korea and China when they were horrified to learn that a vast contingent of the People’s Republic of China had crossed the border and was attacking along the line. Briefly, sheer weight of numbers overran Allied positions, creating confusion and panic, and it is chastening to read accounts of Allied troops dropping their guns and equipment and running in panic fear. The Chinese routed the Allies, pushing them relentlessly southwards back towards the 38th parallel.

Hastings excels, in this book as in his later one about the War in the Pacific, at combining at least three levels of analysis:

  • Carefully chosen eye witness accounts (from letters, diaries and reports made at the time along with highlights of the scores of interviews with veterans which he conducts for each book).
  • Detailed descriptions, with maps, of specific battles and the broader military situation.
  • But what I enjoyed most is Hasting’s ability to pull out of this narrow focus to explain in detail the strategic and geopolitical issues behind the war. Thus there is a lot of analysis throughout the book of the conflicting aims and strategies of the Allies, and particularly within the US administration and armed forces. It is riveting to read how war aims a) can be so contradictory and fiercely debated within a set of allies b) change over time according to all sorts of pressures, like domestic opposition, political attacks from opponents, looming elections, threats elsewhere.

4. Shall we bomb China? The largest issue raised by the Chinese victories and our troops’ humiliating defeats was whether to broaden the war to attack China itself i.e. why only fight the Chinese forces inside Korea, why not bomb mainland China, as we did Germany and Japan? 1. The scattered terrain of hilly Korea, lacking main roads and railways, and the methodology of the communists, moving across country, made it difficult to attack enemy formations in Korea. 2. All their supplies were coming from factories in China, and Chinese MiG jets were flying from airfields in China – why not attack those?

The highpoint of this point of view, strongly espoused by senior figures in the US army and air force, was MacArthur’s request that the Allies use the atom bomb against Chinese forces not only in Korea, but against Chinese cities. The army drew up a list of twenty possible targets. Imagine!

Within Truman’s own cabinet there were – as always – hawks and doves, with some supporting broadening the war, others strongly against. In the event, Truman took the cautious line, and posterity has to agree. If both sides, by tacit consent, limited their confrontation to within the peninsula, it was containable and manageable. In February 1950 Russia and China had signed a defensive alliance committing each to go to war if the other party was attacked, so if the UN forces had bombed Chinese cities, would Russia have been forced to come to China’s defense? Would it have triggered World War III? Was it worth taking the risk?

Hastings brings out how US hawks saw the conflict in terms of the global Cold War against communism. The gruesome way Soviet-backed regimes were established across Europe and the victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in China in 1949, gave a very real sense that communism was advancing on all fronts. The North Korean attack fitted right in with that view of the democratic West being under sustained attack, and revelations of the extent of Soviet spies inside the atom bomb programme and throughout the US establishment, go a long way to explaining the mounting hysteria epitomised by the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee. Truman had to stand up against a great deal of pressure, within the military establishment, from the McCarthyites, from some sections of the media and public opinion, in refusing to widen the war. 60 years later we pay him credit.

Only very slowly, did some parts of the US administration come to realise that China’s motives stemmed at least from simple nationalism as from world communist conspiracies. A captured Chinese soldier is quoted as saying, ‘How would you like your enemies armies, complete with atom bombs, parked just across your 450-mile-long border?’ If the Americans hadn’t pushed on north beyond the parallel, maybe the Chinese wouldn’t have been prompted to invade. Maybe a lot of lives could have been saved.

5. Stalemate Of course, the decision not to widen the war i.e. attack the Chinese mainland – condemned a lot of American, British Commonwealth and UN troops to ongoing slog, battle, injury and death. In December 1950 Lieutenant-General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command of the US Eighth Army and began to turn it around. Retrained, re-equipped and remotivated, his forces held the Chinese and then began to press northwards, retaking Seoul in March 1951, and pressing forward to the parallel.

Throughout this period General MacArthur, in overall command of US forces in the Far East, had given interviews and communicated to representatives of other governments his wish to expand the war, often in direct conflict to the stated aims of the US administration. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to relieve him of his command on 10 April 1951. This caused a storm of protest within the military, in Congress and among the general public, for whom MacArthur was a great American hero. Truman’s popularity fell to the lowest ever recorded for a US President. And without it being the immediate intention, MacArthur’s sacking sent out a strong message to America’s allies, to China and Russia, that the United States did not intend to attack China, did not even intend to seize the whole Korean peninsula, but would settle for the much more limited aim of returning to the status quo ante.

As spring 1951 turned to summer, the front line advanced and receded around the parallel, slowly settling into a stalemate. A year after the initial invasion, the armies were back more or less where they had started. The North Koreans reluctantly agreed to open ceasefire talks and protracted armistice negotiations began on 10 July 1951 at Kaesong, before moving to the neighbouring village of Panmunjom. Due to the intransigence of the North and the Chinese, these talks dragged on for two long years, while on the ground there was a steady stream of offensives and counter-offensives, none of which really changed the strategic picture, but in which a lot of soldiers died pointlessly on both sides.

The narrative pauses at this point for a series of chapters looking at specific aspects of the war:

  • The war in the air, where the West learned for the first time the limits of air power – something which was to be repeated in Vietnam – and for the first time jet fighter fought jet fighter, Soviet MiGs against US Sabres.
  • The creation more or less from scratch of a U.S. intelligence operation, which featured a number of gung-ho operations behind the lines but precious little usable intelligence. I was tickled to read that the CIA’s Seoul station had 200 officers, but not a single speaker of Korean, an attitude of uninterest in local cultures and languages which the Americans repeated later in Vietnam and the Middle East.
  • The issue of communist prisoners of war, whose numbers had risen to some 130,000 by the end of the war and whose repatriation back to the North became one of the big stumbling blocks of the peace negotiations.

The mounting frustration at having to fight and die in bloody, futile engagements while the diplomats at Panmunjom, just a few miles away, drew the peace negotiations out with unbearable delays, is well depicted in this 1959 movie, Pork Chop Hill. It illustrates the brutality and heavy losses incurred for insignificant hilltops, the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda broadcast to Allied troops by loudspeaker across the front line, and the widespread demoralisation of the American soldiers with many, perhaps most, of them expressing intense doubt about what they were fighting for and whether it was worth it.

Hard not to see foreshadowings of the irresolution and crushing sense of futility which were to bedevil the Vietnam War.

6. Ceasefire Josef Stalin died in March 1953 and Soviet policy went into a shadowy period of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Republican President Eisenhower replaced Democrat President Truman. Part of his campaign had included the pledge to bring the war to an end. These final stages include the unnerving plans made by the new administration to: massively boost South Korean armed forces; bomb China north of the Yalu; deploy the new artillery-fired nuclear weapons the US had developed; and to transport Chinese Nationalist fighters from Formosa to the Chinese mainland to carry out guerrilla operations (p.473). These aims were communicated to the Soviets and Chinese and at last broke the logjam. In April the communist delegates at Panmunjom began to respond to suggestions.

Ironically, the final stumbling block turned out to be the obstinate dictator of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who was refused by America’s decision to ‘abandon’ his nation and refused to agree to a ceasefire or sign the agreement. The Americans, not for the last time, found themselves struggling to contain a right-wing leader of their own creation, but by immense pressure managed to prevent Rhee actively sabotaging the negotiations. It is rather staggering to learn that they developed a plan for kidnapping Rhee and overthrowing his government if he refused to play ball (plan EVER-READY p.479).

On 27 July 1953 a ceasefire was finally declared and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) created either side of the ceasefire line. Legally, the war has never ended and this, along with the belligerent rhetoric which has continued to pour out of Pyongyang, along with the occasional terrorist atrocity and a trickle of shooting incidents across the DMZ, explains why South Koreans have lived in a state of tension and high alert for the past 64 years.

And now that Kim Il-sung’s son and successor as Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, has developed nuclear weapons and is testing long-range missiles to deliver them, who knows what further trouble this barren peninsula might cause.

Stats

  • 1,319,000 Americans served in Korea, of whom 33,629 were killed and 105,785 wounded
  • The South Korean army lost 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded
  • The Commonwealth lost 1,263 killed and 4,817 wounded
  • The Americans estimate that 1.5 million Chinese and North Koreans died, but this is an educated guess
  • Wikipedia reports that some 2.5 million Koreans, north and south, were killed or wounded

This huge loss of civilian and military lives is captured in Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War from 2004, a phenomenally violent Korean film directed by Kang Je-gyu, and saturated with blood-spattering special effects.

The lessons of history

The Korean War is interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. as a dramatic and very hard-fought war in and of itself
  2. as the first armed confrontation between two superpowers in the Cold War
  3. as a template for the Vietnam War

It’s the latter which is, at this distance of time, maybe the most resonant. Their convincing win against Japan gave the Americans the sense that overwhelming might on land and sea and in the air guaranteed victory. Korea disabused them of this confidence. In Korea the Americans stumbled upon issues which were to plague them 15 years later in Vietnam:

  • the difficulty of supporting an unpopular native regime
  • the problems of creating a native army to support an unpopular regime, in a corrupt and inefficient society
  • the cost of underestimating an Asian army
  • the difficulty of using air power, no matter how overwhelming, against a peasant army with no identifiable infrastructure – this wasn’t like bombing German or Japanese factories
  • the difficulty of deploying a highly mechanised army in broken country against a lightly armed, highly mobile enemy (p.xvi)

This is an excellent, thorough, well-written and gratifyingly intelligent account of an important war which, paradoxically, makes it clear why it has been so often overlooked by historians in the Allied countries which fought in it, namely America and Britain. It powerfully explains why fighting a pointless war in a faraway country for an ugly regime was so unpopular at the time and has been neglected ever since.

P.S. Japan

Big strategic history like this is full of ironies. I was delighted to learn that the Korean War helped to set Japan on its feet again and kick-started its astonishing post-war economic recovery, helped along by the vast amounts of money poured into the country which served as ‘aircraft carrier, repair base, store depot, commissariat, hospital, headquarters and recreation centre’ for the UN forces in the Far East (p.444). Every cloud has a silver lining.


Credit

The Korean War by Max Hastings was published in 1987 by Michael Joseph. All quotes and references are to the 2010 Pan Macmillan paperback.

Related links

Winter by Len Deighton (1987)

‘And how would Himmler benefit?’
‘If Fritsch went, the Reihsführer-SS would also take the opportunity to extend his powers.’
‘Himmler, extend his powers? My God, the fellow has taken over all the police forces in Germany. And now he’s expanded this SS army of his to two regiments, plus a combat-engineer company and a communications unit.’ (Winter p.339)

‘I like diagrams.’ (Len Deighton, interview January 2014)

The Deighton Dossier seems to be the main site on the internet dedicated to Len and his work and contains lots of fascinating material, including a bunch of interviews from recent years. Reading through these one thing comes over loud and clear, which is Len’s fascination with technology. Whether it’s the early computers and word processors he wrote his novels on (an interest crystallised in Billion Dollar Brainwhich is about a vast super-computer), or the technical histories of tanks and warplanes which are at the heart of his two classic history books (Blitzkrieg and Fighter), Len is warmly sympathetic to the designers and engineers who overcame practical obstacles with inventiveness and creativity (and often critical of the politicians and senior civil servants who frequently made a complete shambles of deploying these wonderful machines).

This knowledge of Len’s profound interest in engineering, design, diagrams, maps, charts and technical details coloured my reading of Winter. This is by far Len’s longest book, an ‘epic’ novel describing the lives, loves and destinies of several German families – the wealthy parents, the sons and daughters, the husbands and wives, the friends and relations – from 1899 to 1945 ie through the Great War, the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler and World War Two.

Winter is very readable, being written in Len’s characteristic no-nonsense, factual style. It is packed to the gills with eye-witness accounts of world important historical moments and never misses an opportunity to reference the key technical, military, political and cultural events at each stage of the story. And this is part of the problem. It feels too schematic. Information trumps character.

Plot

Prosperous German industrialist Harry Winter has an American wife, Victoria Rensselaer, a mistress in Vienna and two blonde sons, Peter (b.1896) and Paul, born on the first day of the new century. The text jumps briskly between snapshots of key events in their lives, the chapters simply named after the relevant years (1899, 1900, 1906, 1908 etc).

We read about their privileged childhood in the Edwardian years and move swiftly to the outbreak of the Great War and their differing careers as soldiers. While slim elegant Peter remains an aloof officer, stocky clumsy Pauli serves in the trenches and, on one fateful occasion, breaks the rules to visit his brother behind the lines. This breach of discipline could be punished by death but instead he is consigned to a punishment battalion, then to a stormtrooper unit, which turns him a hardened fighter.

In the chaos of post-war Germany Paul finds himself drawn into the Freikorps, the anarchic militias of generally right-wing soldiers, formed to combat the communists in the street battles which shook many German cities. We meet Pauli’s friend Alex Horner; their tough bastard NCO, Brand, who helps get Pauli punished and then becomes a rising star in the Nazi movement; another tough soldier, Graf, who goes on to become a power in the Sturmabteilung.

We also meet Victoria’s American family, her father Cyrus and her adventurous brother, Glenn. One summer, back when the boys were still small the dinghy they were learning to sail in was blown out to sea, they both pitched over board and were likely to drown until saved by the rough, crude, son of a local pig farmer, Fritz Esser. Their paths are to cross and cross again as Esser also becomes a power in the Nazi Party, rising to become a senior adviser to Heinrich Himmler.

We meet the three pretty daughters of Frau Wisliceny: Inge worships Peter but Peter loves Lisl but Lisl marries Erich Hennig, the smarmy boy who rivals Peter at their shared skill of piano playing. Peter then breaks Inge’s heart by marrying an American woman (like his mother), Lottie Danziger, daughter of an American Jewish businessman. Inge, after years of mourning this decision, to everyone’s surprise abruptly marries the other brother, Pauli, in a whirlwind romance. Her support helps Pauli through his training as a lawyer and then as his early contacts with the Nazis evolve into full-time employment as a senior Nazi lawyer. Much later, disillusioned and cynical, she has a prolonged adulterous affair with Fritz Esser.

Problems

There is no denying the range of characters and the cleverness of the network of relationships Deighton builds up between them. It is a phenomenal feat of planning to map out the lives not only of the main players but of the thirty or so minor characters whose paths cross and recross the central narrative, and to dovetail all of them with the complex political events of these fraught years.

There is no denying Deighton’s extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the period, his grasp of the political, military and technological developments year by year, the sheer depth of  his research. If Len says the weather was terrible on Sunday April 10 1932, the day of the second presidential election, with pelting rain in Berlin (p.271), then you can bet the house this was the case and that Len has checked and double checked it. But:

a) Overfamiliarity I did the rise of Hitler for O-Level 40 years ago. My son did it for GCSE 3 years ago. My daughter is doing it this year. We are in the middle of the 100 year commemorations of the Great War, with the BBC and umpteen other outlets following the events day by day. A month ago was the 70th anniversary of VE Day, with ceremonies involving the Queen, and all autumn there are shows around the country involving flypasts of the remaining World War Two planes. All these events are marked by TV, radio, newspaper and magazine coverage. In other words – the political and military events surrounding the build up to, and the prosecution of, the First and Second World Wars, must be the most intensively written-about and repeatedly dramatised, described, raked over and discussed historical period in our culture. It is a very very familiar story.

b) Overschematic This tends to give the entire narrative an inevitable, predictable character. It is 1908, so the characters are at the Baltic Sea watching the Kaiser’s fleet of Dreadnoughts and wondering about German’s naval rivalry with Britain. July 1914? The characters are feeling tense about Russia’s mobilisation; surely this Balkan nonsense will blow over. Spring 1918? Could the two boys in different parts of the German Army be about to be swept up in the German Spring Offensive? Yep. Christmas 1918? Is it all over, and our boys are eye witnesses to German society collapsing into chaos with the Army fighting communist insurgents on the street. 1924? Are we going to learn how the Winter family has survived the appalling hyperinflation (very well) and their views on Hitler’s 1923 Munich Putsch? Yes. 1929, could one of the characters be directly involved in the Wall Street Crash (yes, old man Danziger (Peter’s father-in-law) who commits suicide when he loses everything).

The new trends and fashions sweeping Europe? Let’s give Pauli a glitzy birthday party featuring young women sporting the new ‘flapper’ look and a band playing the new ‘jazz’ music. Does the novel need insight into the extraordinary cultural turmoil and creativity of the era? Let’s have Peter the piano-playing Army officer very unexpectedly get a job playing piano for Bertolt Brecht’s theatre company, so he can tell stories about Brecht’s genius at directing and play the latest numbers written by Kurt Weill. Hey, here’s a new one called Mack the Knife!

And so it goes on in a rather inevitable way, perilously close to a dramatisation of the BBC Bitesize guide to German history. 1930 election giving the Nazis 100 seats in the Reichstag? The characters express their various levels of disbelief. 1933 election of Hitler as Chancellor? In various conversations the characters react. Pauli is an eye-witness to the Night of the Long Knives in July 1934: he personally accompanies Hitler, Goebbels and others to the hotel where Röhm and the other SA leaders are hiding out; he gives legal advice about how the sentencing and execution can be speeded up and then he watches his old colleague from the War, Graf, be shot by firing squad.

Indeed the two brothers, Peter and Paul, have an uncanny knack for being in exactly the right place at the right time. When the Army is ordered to storm the Kaiser’s Palace in Berlin to evict the drunken sailors who have taken it over (1919), Pauli is at hand to persuade big, bear-like Fritz Esser to leave the sailors who he’s spent most of the war promoting communist propaganda among, and to join Pauli and his fellow officer Alex Horner, in the new right-wing Freikorps.

This latter incident is typical of the way you feel the characters are manipulated to fit the events. I found it frankly unbelievable that Esser, the angry, illiterate son of the village pig man who’s spent most of the war as a communist agent provocateur, could be persuaded to abandon his comrades at the moment of their greatest peril to go on a Berlin pub crawl with Pauli and then, what the hell, join the proto-Fascist Freikorps. Once the deed is done he swiftly rises to become the Adjutant and admin to the Berlin Freikorps commander and, further down the line, right hand man to Heinrich Himmler.

This is phenomenally convenient to the narrative because it means Fritz can drop into Pauli’s apartment at will for the rest of the novel and tell him the latest about senior Nazi machinations, for example Himmler’s consolidation of power via the SS. Much later it allows him to spell out the tentative peace feelers Himmler puts out towards the end of the war, and the various unsuccessful conspiracies to assassinate the Führer.

Fitz’s repeated visits are given the fictional pretext of him having a long-running affair with Pauli’s wife, Inge. Maybe so. The affair is fairly well portrayed or repeatedly described – but I didn’t believe in it half as much as I believed Fritz’s insights into political and historical events, which seemed immediate and convincing. Information trumps character.

No doubt people’s beliefs were fluid in this chaotic period and real people did make astonishing and unexpected changes of belief and loyalty. But you expect a novel to explore the psychology of these characters, of their allegiances and beliefs. You could argue that a novel is useful insofar as it sheds light on the minds of others. This novel doesn’t do that so much. The characters are dexterously moved and manipulated to allow us to be eye witnesses to key events, and to witness the changing political currents of the period. Their motivation, their psychology, comes second.

Early in the novel we see how the brothers’ father, Harald Winter the banker, gains a parcel of land in Bavaria after the suicide of a Jew who owed the bank money. Anybody who knows about the subject will smile when they read it is near the pretty village of Berchesgarten, because we know this is where Hitler was to build his rural Bavarian hideaway. And sure enough, 300 pages later, Pauli and Peter are invited, along with his other neighbours, for an audience at Hitler’s house, after the Nazi Party has gained its first big election victory. Paul and Inge go so we can get a first-hand account of Hitler’s rambling speeches and compulsive mannerisms. But – true to the schematic, diagrammatic nature of the narrative – Peter refuses to go on the insistence of his Jewish wife, Lottie.

One brother has married Jew, one has married Aryan, with predictable divergence of destinies: German Inge insists Hitler’s speeches are all hot air designed to appeal to the sentimental German soul; Lottie the Jewess says, ‘But can’t you hear the genuine hatred of the Jews in his speeches?’ It is a problem that the different views don’t have the same imaginative weight: we overwhelmingly know which one was right, there is no imaginative freedom to choose between characters, the weight of history presses us down on one side.

Schematic conversations

Thus too many conversations relate schematically to the timeline and bear little relation to either the characters or to how people actually talk. ‘Have you heard about the Munich Beerhall Putsch?’ ‘You mean the attempt by the crazy man Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party to take over the regional government by force? Thank goodness it failed and he and all his colleagues were arrested!’ ‘Yes, but did you hear he wasn’t sentenced to hard labour, the judge gave him a six month sentence in good conditions and I hear he is dictating his masterwork, Mein Kampf which will set out his core beliefs and ideas for a Nazi-run Germany!’ That’s a caricature but lots of the conversations veer in that direction:

‘Pauli couldn’t come. Pauli’s packing to go off to Vienna…’
‘Vienna? So the Anschluss is happening?’
‘At dawn tomorrow, our troops cross the border. Please God the Austrians don’t start shooting.’ (p.342)

Or sound like Wikipedia articles rewritten into dialogue.

‘They’re not tanks at all,’ complained von Kleindorf, thumping the thin steel of the PzKw IA with his fist. ‘Five metres long, and armed with nothing better than a couple of machine guns. The damned thing only weighs six tons!’ (p.346)

Moral development

Literature courses teach that the classic novel deals with ‘morality’ and this long novel shows in detail how people lived under the Nazis and came to accommodations with them or thrived. One aspect of the novel is to suggest to the reader how any of us would continue to live, seek promotion or take opportunities under a regime which leads us step by step into horror.

The main vehicle for this ‘moral’ thread is Paul, initially the hesitant, clumsy, younger son, who ends up becoming a proficient lawyer and, when his lay clients dry up a bit, takes on work for the local Nazi office in Berlin and finds himself becoming more and more indispensable.

It is Paul who suggests how Hitler can concentrate power in his hands after the death of President Hindenburg by leaving the office of President permanently vacant and superseding it with office of Führer. It is Pauli who devises a short form of sentencing for the SS executioners to quickly mutter before they murder the top brass of the SA in the Night of The Long Knives. And then, very casually, it is mentioned that it is the quiet, patient lawyer Pauli who writes a paper suggesting that the newly formed concentration camps could and should become economically self-sufficient – which helps spur the organisational structure and purpose of the camps right across Europe.

And, in the only really chilling moment of the novel (I have read too many books and seen too many movies about the Holocaust or the fighting in Russia to be shocked by many of this book’s revolting details) Pauli admits that he was only able to prevent Peter’s Jewish wife Lottie being sent to a concentration camp by swapping her identity papers with his father – Harald’s – Jewish mistress in Vienna, Martha. In an electrifying scene Pauli is forced to admit what he has done to his own father who, with hatred in his voice, bans him for the family house or from ever visiting him again.

In such a vast and compendious novel other readers may well find scenes which horrify and move them, but that one did it for me.

Narrative voice

Deighton’s Bernard Samson spy novels are so enjoyable because they are told in the first person in a voice which is persuasively warm and human (lots of stuff about his wife and kids and sister-in-law etc), ironic and questioning (about his espionage work) and, from time to time, dryly funny (especially about his dim Oxbridge bosses). The convoluted plots are – for me – secondary to this very readable voice and to the reassuringly familiar, sitcom-ish quality of the small group of bickering characters who crop up in each book. If the novels are sometimes rather dry and lacking in emotion and depth, well, that can be put down to the narrator’s costive character.

It is in novels told in the third person that Deighton’s lack of interest in the subtlety of human psychology becomes a bit more obvious. In Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, whereas the technical descriptions of the American fighter pilots, procedures and planes are totally convincing, the main emotional relationships – between Jamie Farebrother and his father, and Jamie and his lover – are contrived and unconvincing, and Deighton’s attempts to bring them out, to describe them and extract from them generalisations about human nature, a little trite and superficial.

This novel, Winter, falls into the second camp, the factually super-researched, emotionally underpowered third-person narratives: fascinating in their skilled retelling of technical and historical detail, reassuringly familiar in ticking off all those GCSE Important Dates – often weak in terms of human psychology and characterisation.

Characters from the Bernard Samson books

Winter has the added attraction for Deighton fans of being the fourth in the series of novels about jaded spy Bernard Samson. As the story unfolds we read, with a thrill of recognition, names of characters we have come to know very well in the first trilogy of Samson novels, because we are reading about their parents.

Thus Harald Winter has married into the Rensselaer family, which makes Veronica’s brother, Glenn, Peter and Paul’s uncle. But it is another branch of the family we’re interested in, for when Glenn and Veronica’s mother dies, their father marries again, and it is one of the step-mother’s three children who has a child who will become the Bret Rensselaer who features so prominently in the Samson novels.

It is a thunderbolt when Samson’s father, Brian, makes his first appearance as an enthusiastic young intelligence officer on page 275. He goes on to play a more and more prominent role in the story as he is put in charge of Peter Winter. Peter had been visiting America at the outbreak of the war, is marooned there for years but, at the prompting of his uncle Glenn Rensselaer, agrees to work for the Allies and so is parachuted back into Germany just before the end of the war as an agent for British Intelligence, supervised by Bernard’s dad!

Similarly, as soon as the character Erich Hennig is introduced and becomes an item with Lisl Wisliceny, I realised she is the old lady, Tante Lisl, who Samson stays with whenever he’s visiting Berlin (in the spy trilogy), because it is in her house that his father set up shop immediately at war’s end, was married and raised young Bernard. The scenes of elegant salons, parties and piano recitals which we witness in this novel are her backstory which is referred to in the trilogy.

Another major character in the Samson stories is the German Jew, Werner Volkmann, Samson’s oldest friend. In Winter we follow the tribulations of his father, a fashionable dentist, who sees his practice destroyed by the Nazi boycott and who only survives by the slenderest of margins, becoming a gravedigger in Berlin’s Jewish cemetery, a job no Gentile will do, which ensures his survival.

In fact, it is through old man Volkmann’s eyes that we see the final Russian push into the heart of Berlin, and the terrifying arbitrariness of total war, as his colleagues decide to walk towards the advancing Russian infantry waving a home-made red flag – and are promptly machine gunned and run over by the advancing communists – whereas Volkmann simply sets off home to his wife and young children and himself only escapes an encounter with one of the last-minute SS execution squads because their officer happened to have his teeth fixed by Volkmann 20 years earlier, in the peaceful Weimar days. In increasingly horrifying examples, the novel powerfully demonstrates that it is by such slender threads that our fragile destinies dangle.

Unlike the rather heavy inevitability of the Political Chronology, these touches and flashing insights into the back stories of characters from the Samson novels are unexpected and delightful, giving a distinct layer of pleasure and enjoyment to what is a very enjoyable but very long and too-often wooden narrative.

Conclusion

It’s a challenging book – long, complex, historical – and not really quite a novel if novels are meant to be concerned with character, psychology and motivation. But as a fictionalised account of the disaster years of German history, as a gripping, comprehensive, awe-inspiring and very readable history lesson, and as a storming backgrounder to the Samson spy novels, Winter is a huge and hugely enjoyable read.

Related links

Paperback cover of Winter

Paperback cover of Winter

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.

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