Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed chapters, which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and, during the reign of Theodosius (379-395), the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can, however, be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically, as regards the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was also in the end so self-defeating.

Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed Italy to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack.

The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and its rapacious administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople.

Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion against Phocas in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and then, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of the latter’s great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious theological nonsense. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

For the East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘There is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – territory reclaimed from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – e.g. in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians, who wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in the trees who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone eminent met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. A clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many modern schoolboys have even heard of them.

The sack of Rome

The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on.

Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths as mercenaries within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was a form of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then did something even more stupid and caved in to the pent-up frustration of many Romans with the way their country was being held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. So Honorius ordered a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally, the Senate granted Alaric a substantial subsidy of (i.e. bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini, where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy.

These were generous terms but Honorius like an idiot refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed to this demand, opened the gates to Alaric, and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric as his own magister militum, the highest level of command in the Roman army.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the fact that North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – was still controlled by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But the newly installed emperor, Attalus, insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to negotiate with Heraclian. This envoy was, unfortunately, promptly murdered.

Alaric badgered Attalus to let him attack Heraclian, but Attalus refused to give a Goth army (Alaric’s army) permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point the former emperor Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened, Honorius announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn, Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West)

The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet ’emperors’ in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy.

In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474, Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defences and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, and Orestes himself was captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus.

More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asking to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining.

As it happens, I do – but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West.

By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking (1988)

The whole history of science has been the gradual realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order. (p.122)

This book was a publishing phenomenon when it was published in 1988. Nobody thought a book of abstruse musings about obscure theories of cosmology would sell, but it became a worldwide bestseller, selling more than 10 million copies in 20 years. It was on the London Sunday Times bestseller list for more than five years and was translated into 35 languages by 2001. So successful that Hawking went on to write seven more science books on his own, and co-author a further five.

Accessible As soon as you start reading you realise why. From the start is it written in a clear accessible way and you are soon won over to the frank, sensible, engaging tone of the author. He tells us he is going to explain things in the simplest way possible, with an absolute minimum of maths or equations (in fact, the book famously includes only one equation E = mc²).

Candour He repeatedly tells us that he’s going to explain things in the simplest possible way, and the atmosphere is lightened when Hawking – by common consent one of the great brains of our time – confesses that he has difficulty with this or that aspect of his chosen subject. (‘It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space. I personally find it hard enough to visualise three-dimensional space!’) We are not alone in finding it difficult!

Historical easing Also, like most of the cosmology books I’ve read, it takes a deeply historical view of the subject. He doesn’t drop you into the present state of knowledge with its many accompanying debates i.e. at the deep end. Instead he takes you back to the Greeks and slowly, slowly introduces us to their early ideas, showing why they thought what they thought, and how the ideas were slowly disproved or superseded.

A feel for scientific change So, without the reader being consciously aware of the fact, Hawking accustoms us to the basis of scientific enquiry, the fundamental idea that knowledge changes, and from two causes: from new objective observations, often the result of new technologies (like the invention of the telescope which enabled Galileo to make his observations) but more often from new ideas and theories being worked out, published and debated.

Hawking’s own contributions There’s also the non-trivial fact that, from the mid-1960s onwards, Hawking himself has made a steadily growing contribution to some of the fields he’s describing. At these points in the story, it ceases to be an objective history and turns into a first-person account of the problems as he saw them, and how he overcame them to develop new theories. It is quite exciting to look over his shoulder as he explains how and why he came up with the new ideas that made him famous. There are also hints that he might have trodden on a few people’s toes in the process, for those who like their science gossipy.

Thus it is that Hawking starts nice and slow with the ancient Greeks, with Aristotle and Ptolemy and diagrams showing the sun and other planets orbiting round the earth. Then we are introduced to Copernicus, who first suggested the planets orbit round the sun, and so on. With baby steps he takes you through the 19th century idea of the heat death of the universe, on to the discovery of the structure of the atom at the turn of the century, and then gently introduces you to Einstein’s special theory of relativity of 1905. (The special theory of relativity doesn’t take account of gravity, the general theory of relativity of 1915, does, take account of gravity).

Chapter 1 Our Picture of the Universe (pp.1-13)

Aristotle thinks earth is stationary. Calculates size of the earth. Ptolemy. Copernicus. In 1609 Galileo starts observing Jupiter using the recently invented telescope. Kepler suggests the planets move in ellipses not perfect circles. 1687 Isaac newton publishes Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) ‘probably the most important single work ever published in the physical sciences’, among many other things postulating a law of universal gravity. One implication of Newton’s theory is that the universe is vastly bigger than previously conceived.

In 1823 Heinrich Olbers posited his paradox which is, if the universe is infinite, the night sky out to be as bright as daylight because the light from infinite suns would reach us. Either it is not infinite or it has some kind of limit, possibly in time i.e. a beginning. The possible beginning or end of the universe were discussed by Immanuel Kant in his obscure work A Critique of Pure Reason  (1781). Various other figures debated variations on this theme until in 1929 Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that, wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving away from us i.e. the universe is expanding. Working backwards from this observation led physicists to speculate that the universe was once infinitely small and infinitely dense, in a state known as a singularity, which must have exploded in an event known as the big bang.

He explains what a scientific theory is:

A theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make… A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: it must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

A theory is always provisional. The more evidence proving it, the stronger it gets. But it only takes one good negative observation to disprove a theory.

Today scientists describe the universe in terms of two basic partial theories – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. They are the great intellectual achievements of the first half of this century.

But they are inconsistent with each other. One of the major endeavours of modern physics is to try and unite them in a quantum theory of gravity.

Chapter 2 Space and Time (pp.15-34)

Aristotle thought everything in the universe was naturally at rest. Newton disproved this with his first law – whenever a body is not acted on by any force it will keep on moving in a straight line at the same speed. Newton’s second law stats that, When a body is acted on by a force it will accelerate or change its speed at a rate that is proportional to the force. Newton’s law of gravity states that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres. But like Aristotle, Newton believed all the events he described took place in a kind of big static arena named absolute space, and that time was an absolute constant. The speed of light was also realised to be a constant. In 1676 Danish astronomer Ole Christensen estimated the speed of light to be 140,000 miles per second. We now know it is 186,000 miles per second. In the 1860s James Clerk Maxwell unified the disparate theories which had been applied to magnetism and electricity.

In 1905 Einstein published his theory of relativity. It is derived not from observation but from Einstein working through in his head the consequences and shortcomings of the existing theories. Newton had posited a privileged observer, someone outside the universe who was watching it as if a play on a stage. From this privileged position a number of elements appeared constant, such as time.

Einstein imagines a universe in which there is no privileged outside point of view. We are all inside the universe and all moving. The theory threw up a number of consequences. One is that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, or E = mc². Another is that nothing may travel faster than the speed of light. Another is that, as an object approaches the speed of light its mass increases. One of its most disruptive ideas is that time is relative. Different observes, travelling at different speeds, will see a beam of light travel take different times to travel a fixed distance. Since Einstein has made it axiomatic that the speed of light is fixed, and we know the distance travelled by the light is fixed, then time itself must appear different to different observers. Time is something that can change, like the other three dimensions. Thus time can be added to the existing three dimensions to create space-time.

The special theory of relativity was successful in explaining how the speed of light appears the same to all observers, and describing what happens to things when they move close to the speed of light. But it was inconsistent with Newton’s theory of gravity which says objects attract each other with a force related to the distance between them. If you move on of the objects the force exerted on the other object changes immediately. This cannot be if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, as the special theory of relativity postulates. Einstein spent the ten or so years from 1905 onwards attempting to solve this difficulty. Finally, in 1915, he published the general theory of relativity.

The revolutionary basis of this theory is that space is not flat, a consistent  continuum or Newtonian stage within which events happen and forces interact in a sensible way. Space-time is curved or warped by the distribution of mass or energy within it, and gravity is a function of this curvature. Thus the earth is not orbiting around the sun in a circle, it is following a straight line in warped space.

The mass of the sun curves space-time in such a way that although the earth follows a straight line in four-dimensional pace-time, it appears to us to move along a circular orbit in three-dimensional space. (p.30)

In fact, at a planetary level Einstein’s maths is only slightly different from Newton’s but it predicts a slight difference in the orbit of Mercury which observations have gone on to prove. Also, the general theory predicts that light will bend, following a straight line but through space that is warped or curved by gravity. Thus the light from a distant star on the far side of the sun will bend as it passes close to the sun due to the curvature in space-time caused by the sun’s mass. And it was an expedition to West Africa in 1919 to observe an eclipse, which showed that light from distant stars did in fact bend slightly as it passed the sun, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory.

Newton’s laws of motion put an end to the idea of absolute position in space. The theory of relativity gets rid of absolute time.

Hence the thought experiment popularised by a thousand science fiction books that astronauts who set off in a space ship which gets anywhere near the speed of light will experience a time which is slower than the people they leave behind on earth.

In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving. (p.33)

Obviously, since most of us are on planet earth, moving at more or less the same speed, everyone’s personal ‘times’ coincide. Anyway, the key central implication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is this:

Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it. This was true even of the special theory of relativity. Bodies moved, forces attracted and repelled, but time and space simply continued, unaffected. It was natural to think that space and time went on forever.

the situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity. Space and time are now dynamic quantities. : when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time – and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe. (p.33)

This view of the universe as dynamic and interacting, by demolishing the old eternal static view, opened the door to a host of new ways of conceiving how the universe might have begun and might end.

Chapter 3 The Expanding Universe (pp.35-51)

Our modern picture of the universe dates to 1924 when American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that ours is not the only galaxy. We now know the universe is home to some hundred million galaxies, each containing some hundred thousand million stars. We live in a galaxy that is about one hundred thousand light-years across and is slowly rotating. Hubble set about cataloguing the movement of other galaxies and in 1929 published his results which showed that they are all moving away from us, and that, the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving.

The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. (p.39)

From Newton onwards there was a universal assumption that the universe was infinite and static. Even Einstein invented a force he called ‘the cosmological constant’ in order to counter the attractive power of gravity and preserve the model of a static universe. It was left to Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann to seriously calculate what the universe would look like if it was expanding.

In 1965 two technicians, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at Bell Telephone Laboratories discovered a continuous hum of background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. This echoed the theoretical work being done by two physicists, Bob Dicke and Jim Peebles, who were working on a suggestion made by George Gamow that the early universe would have been hot and dense. They posited that we should still be able to see the light from this earliest phase but that it would, because the redshifting, appear as radiation. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987.

How can the universe be expanding? Imagine blowing up a balloon with dots (or little galaxies) drawn on it: they all move apart from each other and the further apart they are, the larger the distance becomes; but there is no centre to the balloon. Similarly the universe is expanding but not into anything. There is no outside. If you set out to travel to the edge you would find no edge but instead find yourself flying round the periphery and end up back where you began.

There are three possible states of a dynamic universe. Either 1. it will expand against the contracting force of gravity until the initial outward propulsive force is exhausted and gravity begins to win; it will stop expanding, and start to contract. Or 2. it is expanding so fast that the attractive, contracting force of gravity never wins, so the universe expands forever and matter never has time to clump together into stars and planets. Or 3. it is expanding at just the right speed to escape collapsing back in on itself, but but so fast as to make the creation of matter impossible. This is called the critical divide. Physicists now believe the universe is expanding at just around the value of the critical divide, though whether it is just under or just above (i.e. the universe will eventually cease expanding, or not) is not known.

Dark matter We can calculate the mass of all the stars and galaxies in the universe and it is a mystery that our total is only about a hundredth of the mass that must exist to explain the gravitational behaviour of stars and galaxies. In other words, there must a lot of ‘dark matter’ which we cannot currently detect in order for the universe to be shaped the way it is.

So we don’t know what the likely future of the universe is (endless expansion or eventual contraction) but all the Friedmann models do predict that the universe began in an infinitely dense, infinitely compact, infinitely hot state – the singularity.

Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity… predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down… In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite. (p.46)

Opposition to the theory came from Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle who formulated the steady state theory of the universe i.e. it has always been and always will be. All that is needed to explain the slow expansion is the appearance of new particles to keep it filled up, but the rate is very low (about one new particle per cubic kilometre per year). They published it in 1948 and worked through all its implications for the next few decades, but it was killed off as a theory by the 1965 observations of the cosmic background radiation.

He then explains the process whereby he elected to do a PhD expanding Roger Penrose’s work on how a dying star would collapse under its own weight to a very small size. The collaboration resulted in a joint 1970 paper which proved that there must have been a big bang, provided only that the theory of general relativity is correct, and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.

If the universe really did start out as something unimaginably small then, from the 1970s onwards, physicists turned their investigations to what happens to matter at microscopic levels.

Chapter 4 The Uncertainty Principle (pp.53-61)

1900 German scientist Max Planck suggests that light, x-rays and other waves can only be emitted at an arbitrary wave, in packets he called quanta. He theorised that the higher the frequency of the wave, the more energy would be required. This would tend to restrict the emission of high frequency waves. In 1926 Werner Heisenberg expanded on these insights to produce his Uncertainty Principle. In order to locate a particle in order to measure its position and velocity you need to shine a light on it. One has to use at least one quantum of energy. However, exposing the particle to this quantum will disturb the velocity of the particle.

In other words, the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa. (p.55)

Heisenberg showed that the uncertainty in the position of the particle times the uncertainty in its velocity times the mass of the particle can never be smaller than a certain quantity, which is known as Planck’s constant. For the rest of the 1920s Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac reformulated mechanics into a new theory titled quantum mechanics. In this theory particles no longer have separate well-defined positions and velocities, instead they have a general quantum state which is a combination of position and velocity.

Quantum mechanics introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. (p.56)

Also, particles can no longer be relied on to be particles. As a result of Planck and Heisenberg’s insights, particles have to be thought of as sometimes behaving like waves, sometimes like particles. In 1913 Niels Bohr had suggested that electrons circle round a nucleus at certain fixed points, and that it takes energy to dislodge them from these optimum orbits. Quantum theory helped explain Bohr’s theory by conceptualising the circling electrons not as particles but as waves. If electrons are waves, as they circle the nucleus, their wave lengths would cancel each other out unless they are perfect numbers. The frequency of the waves have to be able to circle the nucleus in perfect integers. This defines the height of the orbits electrons can take.

Chapter 5 Elementary Particles and Forces of Nature (pp.63-79)

A chapter devoted to the story of how we’ve come to understand the world of sub-atomic particles. Starting (as usual) with Aristotle and then fast-forwarding through Galton, Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion, J.J. Thomson’s discovery of electrons, and, in 1911, Ernest Rutherford’s demonstration that atoms are made up of tiny positively charged nucleus around which a number of tiny positively charged particles, electrons, orbit. Rutherford thought the nuclei contained ‘protons’, which have a positive charge and balance out the negative charge of the electrons. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the nucleus contains neutrons, same mass as the proton but no charge.

In 1965 quarks were discovered by Murray Gell-Mann. In fact scientists went on to discover six types, up, down, strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks. A proton or neutron is made up of three quarks.

He explains the quality of spin. Some particles have to be spin twice to return to their original appearance. They have spin 1/2. All the matter we can see in the universe has the spin 1/2. Particles of spin 0, 1, and 2 give rise to the forces between the particles.

Pauli’s exclusionary principle: two similar particles cannot exist in the same state, they cannot have the same position and the same velocity. The exclusionary principle is vital since it explains why the universe isn’t a big soup of primeval particles. The particles must be distinct and separate.

In 1928 Paul Dirac explained why the electron must rotate twice to return to its original position. He also predicted the existence of the positron to balance the electron. In 1932 the positron was discovered and Dirac was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Force carrying particles can be divided into four categories according to the strength of the force they carry and the particles with which they interact.

  1. Gravitational force, the weakest of the four forces by a long way.
  2. The electromagnetic force interacts with electrically charged particles like electrons and quarks.
  3. The weak nuclear force, responsible for radioactivity. In findings published in 1967 Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg suggested that in addition to the photon there are three other spin-1 particles known collectively as massive vector bosons. Initially disbelieved, experiments proved them right and they collected the Nobel Prize in 1979. In 1983 the team at CERN proved the existence of the three particles, and the leaders of this team also won the Nobel Prize.
  4. The strong nuclear force holds quarks together in the proton and neutron, and holds the protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. This force is believed to be carried by another spin-1 particle, the gluon. They have a property named ‘confinement’ which is that you can’t have a quark of a single colour, the number of quarks bound together must cancel each other out.

The idea behind the search for a Grand Unified Theory is that, at high enough temperature, all the particles would behave in the same way, i.e. the laws governing the four forces would merge into one law.

Most of the matter on earth is made up of protons and neutrons, which are in turn made of quarks. Why is there this preponderance of quarks and not an equal number of anti-quarks?

Hawking introduces us to the notion that all the laws of physics obey three separate symmetries known as C, P and T. In 1956 two American physicists suggested that the weak force does not obey symmetry C. Hawking then goes on to explain more about the obedience or lack of obedience to the rules of symmetry of particles at very high temperatures, to explain why quarks and matter would outbalance anti-quarks and anti-matter at the big bang in a way which, frankly, I didn’t understand.

Chapter 6 Black Holes (pp.81-97)

In a sense, all the preceding has been just preparation, just a primer to help us understand the topic which Hawking spent the 1970s studying and which made his name – black holes.

The term black hole was coined by John Wheeler in 1969. Hawking explains the development of ideas about what happens when a star dies. When a star is burning, the radiation of energy in the forms of heat and light counteracts the gravity of its mass. When it runs out of fuel, gravity takes over and the star collapses in on itself. The young Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated that a cold star with a mass of more than one and a half times the mass of our sin would not be able to support itself against its own gravity and contract to become a ‘white dwarf’ with a radius of a few thousand miles and a density of hundreds of tones per square inch.

The Russian Lev Davidovich Landau speculated that the same sized star might end up in a different state. Chandrasekhar had used Pauli’s exclusionary principle as applied to electrons i.e. calculated the smallest densest state the mass could reach assuming no electron can be in the place of any other electron. Landau calculated on the basis of the exclusionary principle repulsion operative between neutrons and protons. Hence his model is known as the ‘neutron star’, which would have a radius of only ten miles or so and a density of hundreds of millions of tonnes per cubic inch.

(In an interesting aside Hawking tells us that physics was railroaded by the vast Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and then to build a hydrogen bomb, throughout the 1940s and 50s. This tended to sideline large-scale physics about the universe. It was only the development of a) modern telescopes and b) computer power, that revived interest in astronomy.)

A black hole is what you get when the gravity of a collapsing star becomes so high that it prevents light from escaping its gravitational field. Hawking and Penrose showed that at the centre of a black hole must be a singularity of infinite density and space-time curvature.

In 1967 the study of black holes was revolutionised by Werner Israel. He showed that, according to general relativity, all non-rotating black holes must be very simple and perfectly symmetrical.

Hawking then explains several variations on this theory put forward by Roger Penrose, Roy Kerr, Brandon Carter who proved that a hole would have an axis of symmetry. Hawking himself confirmed this idea. In 1973 David Robinson proved that a black hole had to have ‘a Kerr solution’. In other words, no matter how they start out, all black holes end up looking the same, a belief summed up in the pithy phrase, ‘A black hole has no hair’.

What is striking about all this is that it was pure speculation, derived entirely from mathematical models without a shred of evidence from astronomy.

Black holes are one of only a fairly small number of cases in the history of science in which a theory was developed in great detail as a mathematical model before there was any evidence from observations that it was correct. (p.92)

Hawking then goes on to list the best evidence we have for black holes, which is surprisingly thin. Since they are by nature invisible black holes can only be deduced by their supposed affect on nearby stars or systems. Given that black holes were at the centre of Hawking’s career, and are the focus of these two chapters, it is striking that there is, even now, very little direct empirical evidence for their existence.

(Eerily, as I finished reading A Brief History of Time, the announcement was made on 10 April 2019 that the first ever image has been generated of a black hole –

Theory predicts that other stars which stray close to a black hole would have clouds of gas attracted towards it. As this matter falls into the black hole it will a) be stripped down to basic sub-atomic particles b) make the hole spin. Spinning would make the hole acquire a magnetic field. The magnetic field would shoot jets of particles out into space along the axis of rotation of the hole. These jets should be visible to our telescopes.

First ever image of a black hole, captured the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The hole is 40 billion km across, and 500 million trillion km away

Chapter 7 Black Holes Ain’t So Black (pp.99-113)

Black holes are not really black after all. They glow like a hot body, and the smaller they are, the hotter they glow. Again, Hawking shares with us the evolution of his thinking on this subject, for example how he was motivated in writing a 1971 paper about black holes and entropy at least partly in irritation against another researcher who he felt had misinterpreted his earlier results.

Anyway, it all resulted in his 1973 paper which showed that a black hole ought to emit particles and radiation as if it were a hot body with a temperature that depends only on the black hole’s mass.

The reasoning goes thus: quantum mechanics tells us that all of space is fizzing with particles and anti-particles popping into existence, cancelling each other out, and disappearing. At the border of the event horizon, particles and anti-particles will be popping into existence as everywhere else. But a proportion of the anti-particles in each pair will be sucked inside the event horizon, so that they cannot annihilate their partners, leaving the positive particles to ping off into space. Thus, black holes should emit a steady stream of radiation!

If black holes really are absorbing negative particles as described above, then their negative energy will result in negative mass, as per Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc² which shows that the lower the energy, the lower the mass. In other words, if Hawking is correct about black holes emitting radiation, then black holes must be shrinking.

Gamma ray evidence suggests that there might be 300 black holes in every cubic light year of the universe. Hawking then goes on to estimate the odds of detecting a black hole a) in steady existence b) reaching its final state and blowing up. Alternatively we could look for flashes of light across the sky, since on entering the earth’s atmosphere gamma rays break up into pairs of electrons and positrons. No clear sightings have been made so far.

(Threaded throughout the chapter has been the notion that black holes might come in two types: one which resulted from the collapse of stars, as described above. And others which have been around since the start of the universe as a function of the irregularities of the big bang.)

Summary: Hawking ends this chapter by claiming that his ‘discovery’ that radiation can be emitted from black holes was ‘the first example of a prediction that depended in an essential way on both the great theories of this century, general relativity and quantum mechanics’. I.e. it is not only an interesting ‘discovery’ in its own right, but a pioneering example of synthesising the two theories.

Chapter 8 The Origin and Fate of the Universe (pp.115-141)

This is the longest chapter in the book and I found it the hardest to follow. I think this is because it is where he makes the big pitch for His Theory, for what’s come to be known as the Hartle-Hawking state. Let Wikipedia explain:

Hartle and Hawking suggest that if we could travel backwards in time towards the beginning of the Universe, we would note that quite near what might otherwise have been the beginning, time gives way to space such that at first there is only space and no time. Beginnings are entities that have to do with time; because time did not exist before the Big Bang, the concept of a beginning of the Universe is meaningless. According to the Hartle-Hawking proposal, the Universe has no origin as we would understand it: the Universe was a singularity in both space and time, pre-Big Bang. Thus, the Hartle–Hawking state Universe has no beginning, but it is not the steady state Universe of Hoyle; it simply has no initial boundaries in time or space. (Hartle-Hawking state Wikipedia article)

To get to this point Hawking begins by recapping the traditional view of the ‘hot big bang’, i.e. the almost instantaneous emergence of matter from a state of infinite mass, energy and density and temperature.

This is the view first put forward by Gamow and Alpher in 1948, which predicted there would still be very low-level background radiation left over from the bang – which was then proved with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965.

Hawking gives a picture of the complete cycle of the creation of the universe through the first generation of stars which go supernova blowing out into space the heavier particles which then go into second generation stars or clouds of gas and solidify into things like planet earth.

In a casual aside, he gives his version of the origin of life on earth:

The earth was initially very hot and without an atmosphere. In the course of time it cooled and acquired an atmosphere from the emission of gases from the rocks. This early atmosphere was not one in which we could have survived. It contained no oxygen, but a lot of other gases that are poisonous to us, such as hydrogen sulfide. There are, however, other primitive forms of life that can flourish under such conditions. It is thought that they developed in the oceans, possibly as a result of chance combinations of atoms into large structures, called macromolecules, which were capable of assembling other atoms in the ocean into similar structures. They would thus have reproduced themselves and multiplied. In some cases there would have been errors in the reproduction. Mostly these errors would have been such that the new macromolecule could not reproduce itself and eventually would have been destroyed. However, a few of the errors would have produced new macromolecules that were even better at reproducing themselves. They would have therefore had an advantage and would have tended to replace the original macromolecules. In this way a process of evolution was started that led to the development of more and more complicated, self-reproducing organisms. The first primitive forms of life consumed various materials, including hydrogen sulfide, and released oxygen. This gradually changed the atmosphere to the composition that it has today and allowed the development of higher forms of life such as fish, reptiles, mammals, and ultimately the human race. (p.121)

(It’s ironic that he discusses the issue so matter-of-factly, demonstrating that, for him at least, the matter is fairly cut and dried and not worth lingering over. Because, of course, for scientists who’ve devoted their lives to the origins-of-life question it is far from over. It’s a good example of the way that every specialist thinks that their specialism is the most important subject in the world, the subject that will finally answer the Great Questions of Life whereas a) most people have never heard about the issues b) wouldn’t understand them and c) don’t care.)

Hawking goes on to describe chaotic boundary conditions and describe the strong and the weak anthropic principles. He then explains the theory proposed by Alan Guth of inflation i.e. the universe, in the first milliseconds after the big bang, underwent a process of enormous hyper-growth, before calming down again to normal exponential expansion. Hawking describes it rather differently from Barrow and Davies. He emphasises that, to start with, in a state of hypertemperature and immense density, the four forces we know about and the spacetime dimensions were all fused into one. They would be in ‘symmetry’. Only as the early universe cooled would it have undergone a ‘phase transition’ and the symmetry between forces been broken.

If the temperature fell below the phase transition temperature without symmetry being broken then the universe would have a surplus of energy and it is this which would have cause the super-propulsion of the inflationary stage. The inflation theory:

  • would allow for light to pass from one end of the (tiny) universe to the other and explains why all regions of the universe appear to have the same properties
  • explain why the rate of expansion of the universe is close to the critical rate required to make it expand for billions of years (and us to evolve)
  • would explain why there is so much matter in the universe

Hawking then gets involved in the narrative explaining how he and others pointed out flaws in Guth’s inflationary model, namely that the phase transition at the end of the inflation ended in ‘bubble’s which expanded to join up. But Hawking and others pointed out that the bubbles were expanding so fat they could never join up. In 1981 the Russian Andre Linde proposed that the bubble problem would be solved if  a) the symmetry broke slowly and b) the bubbles were so big that our region of the universe is all contained within a single bubble. Hawking disagreed, saying Linde’s bubbles would each have to be bigger than the universe for the maths to work out, and counter-proposing that the symmetry broke everywhere at the same time, resulting in the uniform universe we see today. Nonetheless Linde’s model became known as the ‘new inflationary model’, although Hawking considers it invalid.

[In these pages we get a strong whiff of cordite. Hawking is describing controversies and debates he has been closely involved in and therefore takes a strongly partisan view, bending over backwards to be fair to colleagues, but nonetheless sticking to his guns. In this chapter you get a strong feeling for what controversy and debate within this community must feel like.)

Hawking prefers the ‘chaotic inflationary model’ put forward by Linde in 1983, in which there is no phase transition or supercooling, but which relies on quantum fluctuations.

At this point he introduces four ideas which are each challenging and which, taken together, mark the most difficult and confusing part of the book.

First he says that, since Einstein’s laws of relativity break down at the moment of the singularity, we can only hope to understand the earliest moments of the universe in terms of quantum mechanics.

Second, he says he’s going to use a particular formulation of quantum mechanics, namely Richard Feynman’s idea of ‘a sum over histories’. I think this means that Feynman said that in quantum mechanics we can never know precisely which route a particle takes, the best we can do is work out all the possible routes and assign them probabilities, which can then be handled mathematically.

Third, he immediately points out that working with Feynman’s sum over histories approach requires the use of ‘imaginary’ time, which he then goes on to explain.

To avoid the technical difficulties with Feynman’s sum over histories, one must use imaginary time. (p.134)

And then he points out that, in order to use imaginary time, we must use Euclidean space-time instead of ‘real’ space-time.

All this happens on page 134 and was too much for me to understand. On page 135 he then adds in Einstein’s idea that the gravitational field us represented by curved space-time.

It is now that he pulls all these ideas together to assert that, whereas in the classical theory of gravity, which is based on real space-time there are only two ways the universe can behave – either it has existed infinitely or it had a beginning in a singularity at a finite point in time; in the quantum theory of gravity, which uses Euclidean space-time, in which the time direction is on the same footing as directions in space it is possible:

for space-time to be finite in extent and yet to have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge.

In Hawking’s theory the universe would be finite in duration but not have a boundary in time because time would merge with the other three dimensions, all of which cease to exist during and just after a singularity. Working backwards in time, the universe shrinks but it doesn’t shrink, as a cone does, to a single distinct point – instead it has a smooth round bottom with no distinct beginning.

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

Finally Hawking points out that this model of a no-boundary universe derived from a Feynman interpretation of quantum gravity does not give rise to all possible universes, but only to a specific family of universes.

One aspect of these histories of the universe in imaginary time is that none of them include singularities – which would seem to render redundant all the work Hawking had done on black holes in ‘real time’. He gets round this by saying that both models can be valid, but in order to demonstrate different things.

It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description. (p.139)

He winds up the discussion by stating that further calculations based on this model explain the two or three key facts about the universe which all theories must explain i.e. the fact that it is clumped into lumps of matter and not an even soup, the fact that it is expanding, and the fact that the background radiation is minutely uneven in some places suggesting very early irregularities. Tick, tick, tick – the no-boundary proposal is congruent with all of them.

It is a little mind-boggling, as you reach the end of this long and difficult chapter, to reflect that absolutely all of it is pure speculation without a shred of evidence to support it. It is just another elegant way of dealing with the problems thrown up by existing observations and by trying to integrate quantum mechanics with Einsteinian relativity. But whether it is ‘true’ or not, not only is unproveable but also is not really the point.

Chapter 9 The Arrow of Time (pp.143-153)

If Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct and light always appears to have the same velocity to all observers, no matter what position they’re in or how fast they’re moving, THEN TIME MUST BE FLEXIBLE. Time is not a fixed constant. Every observer carries their own time with them.

Hawking points out that there are three arrows of time:

  • the thermodynamic arrow of time which obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics namely that entropy, or disorder, increases – there are always many more disordered states than ordered ones
  • the psychological arrow of time which we all perceive
  • the cosmological arrow of time, namely the universe is expanding and not contracting

Briskly, he tells us that the psychological arrow of time is based on the thermodynamic one: entropy increases and our lives experience that and our minds record it. For example, human beings consume food – which is a highly ordered form of energy – and convert it into heat – which is a highly disordered form.

Hawking tells us that he originally thought that, if the universe reach a furthest extent and started to contract, disorder (entropy) would decrease, and everything in the universe would happen backwards. Until Don Page and Raymond Laflamme, in their different ways, proved otherwise.

Now he believes that the contraction would not occur until the universe had been almost completely thinned out and all the stars had died i.e. the universe had become an even soup of basic particles. THEN it would start to contract. And so his current thinking is that there would be little or no thermodynamic arrow of time (all thermodynamic processes having come to an end) and all of this would be happening in a universe in which human beings could not exist. We will never live to see the contraction phase of the universe. If there is a contraction phase.

Chapter 10: The Unification of Physics (pp.155-169)

The general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics both work well for their respective scales (stars and galaxies, sub-atomic particles) but cannot be made to mesh, despite fifty of more years of valiant attempts. Many of the attempts produce infinity in their results, so many infinities that a strategy has been developed called ‘renormalisation’ which gets rid of the infinities, although Hawking conceded is ‘rather dubious mathematically’.

Grand Unified Theories is the term applied to attempts to devise a theory (i.e. a set of mathematical formulae) which will take account of the four big forces we know about: electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

In the mid-1970s some scientists came up with the idea of ‘supergravity’ which postulated a ‘superparticle’, and the other sub-atomic particles variations on the super-particle but with different spins. According to Hawking the calculations necessary to assess this theory would take so long nobody has ever done it.

So he moves onto string theory i.e. the universe isn’t made up of particles but of open or closed ‘strings’, which can join together in different ways to form different particles. However, the problem with string theory is that, because of the mathematical way they are expressed, they require more than four dimensions. A lot more. Hawking mentions anywhere from ten up to 26 dimensions. Where are all these dimensions? Well, strong theory advocates say they exist but are very very small, effectively wrapped up into sub-atomic balls, so that you or I never notice them.

Rather simplistically, Hawking lists the possibilities about a complete unified theory. Either:

  1. there really is a grand unified theory which we will someday discover
  2. there is no ultimate theory but only an infinite sequence of possibilities which will describe the universe with greater and greater, but finite accuracy
  3. there is no theory of the universe at all, and events will always seems to us to occur in a random way

This leads him to repeat the highfalutin’ rhetoric which all physicists drop into at these moments, about the destiny of mankind etc. Discovery of One Grand Unified Theory:

would bring to an end a long and glorious chapter in the history of humanity’s intellectual struggle to understand the universe. But it would also revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe. (p.167)

I profoundly disagree with this view. I think it is boilerplate, which is a phrase defined as ‘used in the media to refer to hackneyed or unoriginal writing’.

Because this is not just the kind of phrasing physicists use when referring to the search for GUTs, it’s the same language biologists use when referring to the quest to understand how life derived from inorganic chemicals, it’s the same language the defenders of the large Hadron Collider use to justify spending billions of euros on the search for ever-smaller particles, it’s the language used by the guys who want funding for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), it’s the kind of language used by the scientists bidding for funding for the Human Genome Project.

Each of these, their defenders claim, is the ultimate most important science project, quest and odyssey ever,  and when they find the solution it will for once and all answer the Great Questions which have been tormenting mankind for millennia. Etc. Which is very like all the world’s religions claiming that their God is the only God. So a) there is a pretty obvious clash between all these scientific specialities which each claim to be on the brink of revealing the Great Secret.

But b) what reading this book and John Barrow’s Book of Universes convinces me is that i) we are very far indeed from coming even close to a unified theory of the universe and more importantly ii) if one is ever discovered, it won’t matter.

Imagine for a moment that a new iteration of string theory does manage to harmonise the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics. How many people in the world are really going to be able to understand that? How many people now, currently, have a really complete grasp of Einsteinian relativity and Heisenbergian quantum uncertainty in their strictest, most mathematical forms? 10,000? 1000,000 earthlings?

If and when the final announcement is made who would notice, who would care, and why would they care? If the final conjunction is made by adapting string theory to 24 dimensions and renormalising all the infinities in order to achieve a multi-dimensional vision of space-time which incorporates both the curvature of gravity and the unpredictable behaviour of sub-atomic particles – would this really

revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe?

Chapter 11 Conclusion (pp.171-175)

Recaps the book and asserts that his and James Hartle’s no-boundary model for the origin of the universe is the first to combine classic relativity with Heisenberg uncertainty. Ends with another rhetorical flourish of trumpets which I profoundly disagree with for the reasons given above.

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. (p.175)

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is a hopelessly naive view of human nature and culture. Einstein’s general theory has been around for 104 years, quantum mechanics for 90 years. Even highly educated people understand neither of them, and what Hawking calls ‘just ordinary people’ certainly don’t – and it doesn’t matter. 

Thoughts

Of course the subject matter is difficult to understand, but Hawking makes a very good fist of putting all the ideas into simple words and phrases, avoiding all formulae and equations, and the diagrams help a lot.

My understanding is that A Brief History of Time was the first popular science to put all these ideas before the public in a reasonably accessible way, and so opened the floodgates for countless other science writers, although hardly any of the ideas in it felt new to me since I happen to have just reread the physics books by Barrow and Davies which cover much the same ground and are more up to date.

But my biggest overall impression is how provisional so much of it seems. You struggle through the two challenging chapters about black holes – Hawking’s speciality – and then are casually told that all this debating and arguing over different theories and model-making had gone on before any black holes were ever observed by astronomers. In fact, even when Hawking died, in 2018, no black holes had been conclusively identified. It’s a big shame he didn’t live to see this famous photograph being published and confirmation of at least the existence of the entity he devoted so much time to theorising about.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos (1988)

Our innate desire for meaning and pattern can lead us astray… (p.81)

Giving due weight to the fortuitous nature of the world is, I think, a mark of maturity and balance. (p.133)

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who won fame beyond his academic milieu with the publication of this short (134-page) but devastating book thirty years ago, the first of a series of books popularising mathematics in a range of spheres from playing the stock market to humour.

As Paulos explains in the introduction, the world is full of humanities graduates who blow a fuse if you misuse ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, or end a sentence with a dangling participle, but are quite happy to believe and repeat the most hair-raising errors in maths, statistics and probability.

The aim of this book was:

  • to lay out examples of classic maths howlers and correct them
  • to teach readers to be more alert when maths, stats and data need to be used
  • and to provide basic rules in order to understand when innumerate journalists, politicians, tax advisors and other crooks are trying to pull the wool over your eyes, or are just plain wrong

There are five chapters:

  1. Examples and principles
  2. Probability and coincidence
  3. Pseudoscience
  4. Whence innumeracy
  5. Statistics, trade-offs and society

Many common themes emerge:

Don’t personalise, numeratise

One contention of this book is that innumerate people characteristically have a strong tendency to personalise – to be misled by their own experiences, or by the media’s focus on individuals and drama… (p.1)

Powers

The first chapter uses lots of staggering statistics to get the reader used to very big and very small numbers, and how to compute them.

1 million seconds is 11 and a half days. 1 billion seconds is 32 years.

He suggests you come up with personal examples of numbers for each power up to 12 or 13 i.e. meaningful embodiments of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and so on to help you remember and contextualise them in a hurry.

A snail moves at 0.005 miles an hour, Concorde at 2,000 miles per hour. Escape velocity from earth is about 7 miles per second, or 25,000 miles per hour. The mass of the Earth is 5.98 x 1024 kg

Early on he tells us to get used to the nomenclature of ‘powers’ – using 10 to the power 3 or 10³ instead of 1,000, or 10 to negative powers to express numbers below 1. (In fact, right at this early stage I found myself stumbling because one thousand means more to me that 10³ and a thousandth means more than more 10-3 but if you keep at it, it is a trick you can acquire quite quickly.)

The additive principle

He introduces us to basic ideas like the additive principle (aka the rule of sum), which states that if some choice can be made in M different ways and some subsequent choice can be made in N different ways, then there are M x N different ways these choices can be made in succession – which can be applied to combinations of multiple items of clothes, combinations of dishes on a menu, and so on.

Thus the number of results you get from rolling a die is 6. If you roll two dice, you can now get 6 x 6 = 36 possible numbers. Three numbers = 216. If you want to exclude the number you get on the first dice from the second one, the chances of rolling two different numbers on two dice is 6 x 5, of rolling different numbers on three dice is 6 x 5 x 4, and so on.

Thus: Baskin Robbins advertises 31 different flavours of ice cream. Say you want a triple scoop cone. If you’re happy to have any combination of flavours, including where any 2 or 3 flavours are the same – that’s 31 x 31 x 31 = 29,791. But if you ask how many combinations of flavours there are, without a repetition of the same flavour in any of the cones – that is 31 x 30 x 29 = 26,970 ways of combining.

Probability

I struggled with even the basics of probability. I understand a 1 in five chance of something happening, reasonably understand a 20% chance of something happening, but struggled when probability was expressed as a decimal number e.g. 0.2 as a way of writing a 20 percent or 1 in 5 chance.

With the result that he lost me on page 16 on or about the place where he explained the following example.

Apparently a noted 17th century gambler asked the famous mathematician Pascal which is more likely to occur: obtaining at least one 6 in four rolls of a single die, or obtaining at least one 12 in twenty four rolls of a pair of dice. Here’s the solution:

Since 5/6 is the probability of not rolling a 6 on a single roll of a die, (5/6)is the probability of not rolling a 6 in four rolls of the die. Subtracting this number from 1 gives us the probability that this latter event (no 6s) doesn’t occur; in other words, of there being at least one 6 rolled in four tries: 1 – (5/6)= .52. Likewise, the probability of rolling at least one 12 in twenty-four rolls of a pair of dice is seen to be 1 – (35/36)24 = .49.

a) He loses me in the second sentence which I’ve read half a dozen times and still don’t understand – it’s where he says the chances that this latter event doesn’t occur: something about the phrasing there, about the double negative, loses me completely, with the result that b) I have no idea whether .52 is more likely or less likely than .49.

He goes on to give another example: if 20% of drinks dispensed by a vending machine overflow their cups, what is the probability that exactly three of the next ten will overflow?

The probability that the first three drinks overflow and the next seven do not is (.2)x (.8)7. But there are many different ways for exactly three of the ten cups to overflow, each way having probability (.2)x (.8)7. It may be that only the last three cups overflow, or only the fourth, fifth and ninth cups, and so on. Thus, since there are altogether (10 x 9 x 8) / (3 x 2 x 1) = 120 ways for us to pick three out of the ten cups, the probability of some collection of exactly three cups overflowing is 120 x (.2)x (.8)7.

I didn’t understand the need for the (10 x 9 x 8) / (3 x 2 x 1) equation – I didn’t understand what it was doing, and so didn’t understand what it was measuring, and so didn’t understand the final equation. I didn’t really have a clue what was going on.

In fact, by page 20, he’d done such a good job of bamboozling me with examples like this that I sadly concluded that I must be innumerate.

More than that, I appear to have ‘maths anxiety’ because I began to feel physically unwell as I read that problem paragraph again and again and again and didn’t understand it. I began to feel a tightening of my chest and a choking sensation in my throat. Rereading it now is making it feel like someone is trying to strangle me.

Maybe people don’t like maths because being forced to confront something you don’t understand, but which everyone around you is saying is easy-peasy, makes you feel ill.

2. Probability and coincidence

Having more or less given up on trying to understand Paulos’s maths demonstrations in the first twenty pages, I can at least latch on to his verbal explanations of what he’s driving at, in sentences like these:

A tendency to drastically underestimate the frequency of coincidences is a prime characteristic of innumerates, who generally accord great significance to correspondences of all sorts while attributing too little significance to quite conclusive but less flashy statistical evidence. (p.22)

It would be very unlikely for unlikely events not to occur. (p.24)

There is a strong general tendency to filter out the bad and the failed and to focus on the good and the successful. (p.29)

Belief in the… significance of coincidences is a psychological remnant of our past. It constitutes a kind of psychological illusion to which innumerate people are particularly prone. (p.82)

Slot machines light up and make a racket when people win, there is unnoticed silence for all the failures. Big winners on the lottery are widely publicised, whereas every one of the tens of millions of failures is not.

One result is ‘Golden Age’ thinking when people denigrate today’s sports or arts or political figures, by comparison with one or two super-notable figures from the vast past, Churchill or Shakespeare or Michelangelo, obviously neglecting the fact that there were millions of also-rans and losers in their time as well as ours.

The Expected value of a quality is the average of its values weighted according to their probabilities. I understood these words but I didn’t understand any of the five examples he gave.

The likelihood of probability In many situations, improbability is to be expected. The probability of being dealt a particular hand of 13 cards in bridge is less than 1 in 600 billion. And yet it happens every time someone is dealt a hand in bridge. The improbable can happen. In fact it happens all the time.

The gambler’s fallacy The belief that, because a tossed coin has come up tails for a number of tosses in a row, it becomes steadily more likely that the next toss will be a head.

3. Pseudoscience

Paulos rips into Freudianism and Marxism for the way they can explain away any result counter to their ‘theories’. The patient gets better due to therapy: therapy works. The patient doesn’t get better during therapy, well the patient was resisting, projecting their neuroses on the therapist, any of hundreds of excuses.

But this is just warming up before he rips into a real bugbear of  his, the wrong-headedness of Parapsychology, the Paranormal, Predictive dreams, Astrology, UFOs, Pseudoscience and so on.

As with predictive dreams, winning the lottery or miracle cures, many of these practices continue to flourish because it’s the handful of successes which stand out and grab our attention and not the thousands of negatives.

Probability

As Paulos steams on with examples from tossing coins, rolling dice, playing roulette, or poker, or blackjack, I realise all of them are to do with probability or conditional probability, none of which I understand.

This is why I have never gambled on anything, and can’t play poker. When he explains precisely how accumulating probabilities can help you win at blackjack in a casino, I switch off. I’ve never been to a casino. I don’t play blackjack. I have no intention of ever playing blackjack.

When he says that probability theory began with gambling problems in the seventeenth century, I think, well since I don’t gamble at all, on anything, maybe that’s why so much of this book is gibberish to me.

Medical testing and screening

Apart from gambling the two most ‘real world’ areas where probability is important appear to be medicine and risk and safety assessment. Here’s an extended example he gives of how even doctors make mistakes in the odds.

Assume there is a test for cancer which is 98% accurate i.e. if someone has cancer, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if one doesn’t have it, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time. Assume further that .5 percent – one out of two hundred people – actually have cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor sombrely informs you that you have tested positive. How depressed should you be? The surprising answer is that you should be cautiously optimistic. To find out why, let’s look at the conditional probability of your having cancer, given that you’ve tested positive.

Imagine that 10,000 tests for cancer are administered. Of these, how many are positive? On the average, 50 of these 10,000 people (.5 percent of 10,000) will have cancer, and, so, since 98 percent of them will test positive, we will have 49 positive tests. Of the 9,950 cancerless people, 2 percent of them will test positive, for a total of 199 positive tests (.02 x 9,950 = 199). Thus, of the total of 248 positive tests (199 + 49 = 248), most (199) are false positives, and so the conditional probability of having cancer given that one tests positive is only 49/248, or about 20 percent! (p.64)

I struggled to understand this explanation. I read it four or five times, controlling my sense of panic and did, eventually, I think, follow the argumen.

However, worse in a way, when I think I did finally understand it, I realised I just didn’t care. It’s not just that the examples he gives are hard to follow. It’s that they’re hard to care about.

Whereas his descriptions of human psychology and cognitive errors in human thinking are crystal clear and easy to assimilate:

If we have no direct evidence of theoretical support for a story, we find that detail and vividness vary inversely with likelihood; the more vivid details there are to a story, the less likely the story is to be true. (p.84)

4. Whence innumeracy?

It came as a vast relief when Paulos stopped trying to explain probability and switched to a long chapter puzzling over why innumeracy is so widespread in society, which kicks off by criticising the poor level of teaching of maths in school and university.

This was like the kind of hand-wringing newspaper article you can read any day of the week in a newspaper or online, and so felt reassuringly familiar and easy to assimilate. I stopped feeling so panic-stricken.

This puzzling over the disappointing level of innumeracy goes on for quite a while. Eventually it ends with a digression about what appears to be a pet idea of his: the notion of introducing a safety index for activities and illnesses.

Paulos’s suggestion is that his safety index would be on a logarithmic scale, like the Richter Scale – so straightaway he has to explain what a logarithm is: The logarithm for 100 is 2 because 100 is 102, the logarithm for 1,000 is 3 because 1,000 is 103. I’m with him so far, as he goes on to explain that the logarithm of 700 i.e. between 2 (100) and 3 (1,000) is 2.8. Since 1 in 5,300 Americans die in a car crash each year, the safety index for driving would be 3.7, the logarithm of 5,300. And so on with numerous more examples, whose relative risks or dangers he reduces to figures like 4.3 and 7.1.

I did understand his aim and the maths of this. I just thought it was bonkers:

1. What is the point of introducing a universal index which you would have to explain every time anyone wanted to use it? Either it is designed to be usable by the widest possible number of citizens; or it is a neat exercise on maths to please other mathematicians and statisticians.

2. And here’s the bigger objection – What Paulos, like most of the university-educated, white, liberal intellectuals I read in papers, magazines and books, fails to take into account is that a large proportion of the population is thick.

Up to a fifth of the adult population of the UK is functionally innumerate, that means they don’t know what a ‘25% off’ sign means on a shop window. For me an actual social catastrophe being brought about by this attitude is the introduction of Universal Credit by the Conservative government which, from top to bottom, is designed by middle-class, highly educated people who’ve all got internet accounts and countless apps on their smartphones, and who have shown a breath-taking ignorance about what life is like for the poor, sick, disabled, illiterate and innumerate people who are precisely the people the system is targeted at.

Same with Paulos’s scheme. Smoking is one of the most dangerous and stupid things which any human can do. Packs of cigarettes have for years, now, carried pictures of disgusting cancerous growths and the words SMOKING KILLS. And yet despite this, about a fifth of adults, getting on for 10 million people, still smoke. 🙂

Do you really think that introducing a system using ornate logarithms will get people to make rational assessments of the risks of common activities and habits?

Paulos then goes on to complicate the idea by suggesting that, since the media is always more interested in danger than safety, maybe it would be more effective, instead of creating a safety index, to create a danger index.

You would do this by

  1. working out the risk of an activity (i.e. number of deaths or accidents per person doing the activity)
  2. converting that into a logarithmic value (just to make sure than nobody understands it) and then
  3. subtracting the logarithmic value of the safety index from 10, in order to create a danger index

He goes on to say that driving a car and smoking would have ‘danger indices’ of 3.7 and 2.9, respectively. The trouble was that by this point I had completely ceased to understand what he’s saying. I felt like I’ve stepped off the edge of a tall building into thin air. I began to have that familiar choking sensation, as if someone was squeezing my chest. Maths anxiety.

Under this system being kidnapped would have a safety index of 6.7. Playing Russian roulette once a year would have a safety index of 0.8.

It is symptomatic of the uselessness of the whole idea that Paulos has to remind you what the values mean (‘Remember that the bigger the number, the smaller the risk.’ Really? You expect people to run with this idea?)

Having completed the danger index idea, Paulos returns to his extended lament on why people don’t like maths. He gives a long list of reasons why he thinks people are so innumerate a condition which is, for him, a puzzling mystery.

For me this lament is a classic example of what you could call intellectual out-of-touchness. He is genuinely puzzled why so many of his fellow citizens are innumerate, can’t calculate simple odds and fall for all sorts of paranormal, astrology, snake-oil blether.

He proposes typically academic, university-level explanations for this phenomenon – such as that people find maths too cold and analytical and worry that it prevents them thinking about the big philosophical questions in life. He worries that maths has an image problem.

In other words, he fails to consider the much more obvious explanation that maths, probability and numeracy in general might be a combination of fanciful, irrelevant and deeply, deeply boring.

I use the word ‘fanciful’ deliberately. When he writes that the probability of drawing two aces in succession from a pack of cards is not (4/52 x 4/52) but (4/52 x 3/51) I do actually understand the distinction he’s making (having drawn one ace there are only 3 left and only 52 cards left) – I just couldn’t care less. I really couldn’t care less.

Or take this paragraph:

Several years ago Pete Rose set a National League record by hitting safely in forty-four consecutive games. If we assume for the sake of simplicity that he batted .300 (30 percent of the time he got a hit, 70 percent of the time he didn’t) and that he came to bat four times a game, the chances of his not getting a hit in any given game were, assuming independence, (.7)4 – .24… [at this point Paulos has to explain what ‘independence’ means in a baseball context: I couldn’t care less]… So the probability he would get at least one hit in any game was 1-.24 = .76. Thus, the chances of him getting a hit in any given sequence of forty-four consecutive games were (.76)44 = .0000057, a tiny probability indeed. (p.44)

I did, in fact, understand the maths and the working out in this example. I just don’t care about the problem or the result.

For me this is a – maybe the – major flaw of this book. This is that in the blurbs on the front and back, in the introduction and all the way through the text, Paulos goes on and on about how we as a society need to be mathematically numerate because maths (and particularly probability) impinges on so many areas of our life.

But when he tries to show this – when he gets the opportunity to show us what all these areas of our lives actually are – he completely fails.

Almost all of the examples in the book are not taken from everyday life, they are remote and abstruse problems of gambling or sports statistics.

  • which is more likely: obtaining at least one 6 in four rolls of a single die, or obtaining at least one 12 in twenty four rolls of a pair of dice?
  • if 20% of drinks dispensed by a vending machine overflow their cups, what is the probability that exactly three of the next ten will overflow?
  • Assume there is a test for cancer which is 98% accurate i.e. if someone has cancer, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if one doesn’t have it, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time. Assume further that .5 percent – one out of two hundred people – actually have cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor sombrely informs you that you have tested positive. How depressed should you be?
  • What are the odds on Pete Rose getting a hit in a sequence of forty-four games?

Are these the kinds of problems you are going to encounter today? Or tomorrow? Or ever?

No. The longer the book went on, the more I realised just how little a role maths plays in my everyday life. In fact more or less the only role maths plays in my life is looking at the prices in supermarkets, where I am attracted to goods which have a temporary reduction on them. But I do that because they’re labels are coloured red, not because I calculate the savings. Being aware of the time, so I know when to do household chores or be somewhere punctually. Those are the only times I used numbers today.

5. Statistics, trade-offs and society

This feeling that the abstruseness of the examples utterly contradicts the bold claims that reading the book will help us with everyday experiences was confirmed in the final chapter, which begins with the following example.

Imagine four dice, A, B, C and D, strangely numbered as follows: A has 4 on four faces and 0 on two faces; B has 3s on all six faces; C has four faces with 2 and two faces with 6; and D has 5 on three faces and 1 on three faces…

I struggled to the end of this sentence and just thought: ‘No, no more, I don’t have to make myself feel sick and unhappy any more’ – and skipped the couple of pages detailing the fascinating and unexpected results you can get from rolling such a collection of dice.

This chapter goes on to a passage about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a well-known problem in logic, which I have read about and instantly forgotten scores of times over the years.

Paulos gives us three or four variations on the idea, including:

  • Imagine you are locked up in prison by a philanthropist with 20 other people.

Or:

  • Imagine you are locked in a dungeon by a sadist with 20 other people.

Or:

  • Imagine you are one of two drug traffickers making a quick transaction on a street corner and forced to make a quick decision.

Or:

  • Imagine you are locked in a prison cell, and another prisoner is locked in an identical cell down the corridor.

Well, I’m not any of these things, I’m never likely to be, and I am not really interested in these fanciful speculations.

Moreover, I am well into middle age, have travelled round the world, had all sorts of jobs in companies small, large and enormous – and I am not aware of having ever been in any situation which remotely resembled any variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma I’ve ever heard of.

In other words, to me, it is another one of the endless pile of games and puzzles which logicians and mathematicians love to spend all day playing but which have absolutely no impact whatsoever on any aspect of my life.

Pretty much all of his examples conclusively prove how remote mathematical problems and probabilistic calculation is from the everyday lives you and I lead. When he asks:

How many people would there have to be in a group in order for the probability to be half that at least two people in it have the same birthday? (p.23)

Imagine a factory which produces small batteries for toys, and assume the factory is run by a sadistic engineer… (p.117)

It dawns on me that my problem might not be that I’m innumerate, so much as I’m just uninterested in trivial or frivolous mental exercises.

Someone offers you a choice of two envelopes and tells you one has twice as much money in it as the other. (p.127)

Flip a coin continuously until a tail appears for the first time. If this doesn’t happen until the twentieth (or later) flip, you win $1 billion. If the first tail occurs before the twentieth flip, you pay $100. Would you play? (p.128)

No. I’d go and read an interesting book.

Thoughts

If Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences is meant to make its readers more numerate, it failed with me.

This is for a number of reasons:

  1. crucially – because he doesn’t explain maths very well; or, the way he explained probability had lost me by about page 16 – in other words, if this is meant to be a primer for innumerate people it’s a fail
  2. because the longer it goes on, the more convinced I became that I rarely use maths, arithmetic and probability in my day today life: whole days go by when I don’t do a single sum, and so lost all motivation to submit myself to the brain-hurting ordeal of trying to understand his examples

3. Also because the structure and presentation of the book is a mess. The book meanders through a fog of jokes, anecdotes and maths trivia, baseball stories and gossip about American politicians – before suddenly unleashing a fundamental aspect of probability theory on the unwary reader.

I’d have preferred the book to have had a clear, didactic structure, with an introduction and chapter headings explaining just what he was going to do, an explanation, say, of how he was going to take us through some basic concepts of probability one step at a time.

And then for the concepts to have been laid out very clearly and explained very clearly, from a number of angles, giving a variety of different examples until he and we were absolutely confident we’d got it – before we moved on to the next level of complexity.

The book is nothing like this. Instead it sacrifices any attempt at logical sequencing or clarity for anecdotes about Elvis Presley or UFOs, for digressions about Biblical numerology, the silliness of astrology, the long and bewildering digression about introducing a safety index for activities (summarised above), or prolonged analyses of baseball or basketball statistics. Oh, and a steady drizzle of terrible jokes.

Which two sports have face-offs?
Ice hockey and leper boxing.

Half way through the book, Paulos tells us that he struggles to write long texts (‘I have a difficult time writing at extended length about anything’, p.88), and I think it really shows.

It certainly explains why:

  • the blizzard of problems in coin tossing and dice rolling stopped without any warning, as he switched tone copletely, giving us first a long chapter about all the crazy irrational beliefs people hold, and then another chapter listing all the reasons why society is innumerate
  • the last ten pages of the book give up the attempt of trying to be a coherent narrative and disintegrate into a bunch of miscellaneous odds and ends he couldn’t find a place for in the main body of the text

Also, I found that the book was not about numeracy in the broadest sense, but mostly about probability. Again and again he reverted to examples of tossing coins and rolling dice. One enduring effect of reading this book is going to be that, the next time I read a description of someone tossing a coin or rolling a die, I’m just going to skip right over the passage, knowing that if I read it I’ll either be bored to death (if I understand it) or have an unpleasant panic attack (if I don’t).

In fact in the coda at the end of the book Paulos explicitly says it has mostly been about probability – God, I wish he’d explained that at the beginning.

Right at the very, very end he briefly lists key aspects of probability theory which he claims to have explained in the book – but he hasn’t, some of them are only briefly referred to with no explanation at all, including: statistical tests and confidence intervals, cause and correlation, conditional probability, independence, the multiplication principle, the notion of expected value and of probability distribution.

These are now names I have at least read about, but they are all concepts I am nowhere near understanding, and light years away from being able to use in practical life.

Innumeracy – or illogicality?

Also there was an odd disconnect between the broadly psychological and philosophical prose explanations of what makes people so irrational, and the incredibly narrow scope of the coin-tossing, baseball-scoring examples.

What I’m driving at is that, in the long central chapter on Pseudoscience, when he stopped to explain what makes people so credulous, so gullible, he didn’t really use any mathematical examples to disprove Freudianism or astrology or so on: he had to appeal to broad principles of psychology, such as:

  • people are drawn to notable exceptions, instead of considering the entire field of entities i.e.
  • people filter out the bad and the failed and focus on the good and the successful
  • people seize hold of the first available explanation, instead of considering every single possible permutation
  • people humanise and personalise events (‘bloody weather, bloody buses’)
  • people over-value coincidences

My point is that there is a fundamental conceptual confusion in the book which is revealed in the long chapter about pseudoscience which is that his complaint is not, deep down, right at bottom, that people are innumerate; it is that people are hopelessly irrational and illogical.

Now this subject – the fundamental ways in which people are irrational and illogical – is dealt with much better, at much greater length, in a much more thorough, structured and comprehensible way in Stuart Sutherland’s great book, Irrationality, which I’ll be reviewing and summarising later this week.

Innumeracy amounts to random scratches on the surface of the vast iceberg which is the deep human inability to think logically.

Conclusion

In summary, for me at any rate, this was not a good book – badly structured, meandering in direction, unable to explain even basic concepts but packed with digressions, hobby horses and cul-de-sacs, unsure of its real purpose, stopping for a long rant against pseudosciences and an even longer lament on why maths is taught so badly  – it’s a weird curate’s egg of a text.

Its one positive effect was to make me want to track down and read a good book about probability.


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Psychology

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (1988)

I’m discovering that the three novels of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl trilogy’ are more connected than I expected, featuring some of the same characters, themes and locations.

Like Count ZeroMona Lisa Overdrive opens with chapters explaining the set-up and situation of five different and apparently unconnected characters – so we straightaway realise that, as with Zero, part of the ‘interest’ of reading the book is going to be in finding out how these disparate personages are going to be woven together into one narrative.

But we also quickly realise that we’ve met some of these characters in the previous books and that this one represents a continuation of their stories, and so is a true sequel and not just set in the same fictional universe.

Kumiko

Kumiko Yanaka is the 13-year-old daughter of the head of a powerful corporation in Japan. The book opens in the confusing days after her mad (Danish) mother has committed suicide. Some kind of potentially violent infighting among the corporations is kicking off and her Dad has sent Kumiko to London to be out of the way of danger. She is met at Heathrow by a crop-headed, burly minder named, improbably enough, Petal, who drives her in a Jaguar along the M4 and to a safe house in Notting Hill, owned by one Roger Swain.

Her father gave her a device which, at a touch, projects a life-sized hologram of a chatty man named Colin who a) only Kumiko can see and b) has wide general knowledge, can access local computer and information systems, and so can give Kumiko advice. A cyber-guardian.

Next day she meets the owner of the house, Roger Swain, and an American woman with metallic lenses instead of eyes, named Sally Shears. Swain and Petal let Sally take Kumiko for a walk round the neighbourhood, in the falling snow, shopping and into a pub, where Sally explains that Kumiko is here because of an outbreak of infighting among the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). So – her father is a senior member of a worldwide criminal consortium.

The device which projects Colin can also record. Colin tells Kumiko to hide it in Swain’s office and then reclaim it later in the day. They replay a conversation between Swain and Petal which mentions Angie Marshall. If I’m not mistaken it hints at plans to kidnap her. Who she?

Angela Marshall

Young Angie Marshall was the central figure in the previous novel, Count Zero. A gang of professional kidnappers was expecting to extract her father, the star scientist Chris Marshall, from the grip of a big multinational corporation, Maas Biolabs, and was surprised when she turned up instead, his teenage daughter.

It was later revealed that Marshall had a) put her into the ultralight designed for him to escape in from the Maas Biolab compound, and b) then cut his own throat. Head of the extraction gang, tall rangy Turner, then took Angie on a cross-country odyssey, fleeing from agents of the vengeful Maas (and also Hosaka, the corporation who hired Turner and suspected some kind of double cross when Mitchell didn’t arrive). During this road trip it had become clear that Angie was special because a) Mitchell had embedded some kind of substance in her brain, presumably an example of the advanced ‘biosoft’ technology he was working on, so that b) Angie was able to tune into cyberspace without using any devices – without touching a console or dermatrodes, she could simply… enter cyberspace. And because of this unique ability, c) Angie had powerful dreams and visions in which she was visited by traditional voodoo gods and goddesses.

Indeed, it eventually was hinted that Marshall had in fact been a pretty mediocre researcher but had stumbled across contact with the voodoo gods, who gave him the secrets of advanced tech (and thus made his career) in exchange for his daughter. What did they want with his daughter? That was hard to really make out, even by the end of the previous book.

Voodoo? Yes, these presences are powerful inside cyberspace but also capable of reaching out to speak through the minds and voices of humans outside cyberspace. At the end of the Count Zero it is explained that these entities are a legacy of the great Unification of Cyberspace which took place at the climax of Neuromancer, had then somehow fallen apart again into separate but related, super-powerful cyber-entities which had ranged over the whole history of human signs and symbols and discovered that the voodoo gods and goddesses of Haiti were the most convenient, appropriate guise in which to interface with human beings.

So much for the events in Count Zero. Now, in the opening chapters of this book, we cut to seven years later, years in which Angie has become a super-famous stimstim star (simstim being an advanced form of television in which people enter into the bodies and sensations of lead characters).

We learn that Angie has replaced Tally Isham, who was mentioned throughout the previous two novels as being the great simstim star of the age. But we also learn that the price of fame, and trying to deal with the occasional return of the voodoo voices in her head, has prompted a major league drug addiction, to a designer drug DMSO which helps suppress the voices and the memory of the traumatic events, including her father’s death, of seven years earlier.

Angie has been sent by her concerned superiors at the simstim corporation Sense/Net to a rehab clinic, but checked out after just a week and, as the novel opens, has arrived at a windy, abandoned, luxury house on the beach in California – Malibu to be precise.

Here she pads around the silent rooms, trying to get her head together, trying to resist the temptation to take a hit of the (futuristic) drug she was addicted to, all the while spied on by her boss, Hilton Swift, who makes regular phone calls to check she’s alright.

Count Zero

Then there’s a series of chapters which are written in a different, far more louche tone, as if from a sci fi comic or manga magazine.

Kid Afrika (who is black) is chauffeured across the crushed steel surface of ‘Dog Solitude’ in a Dodge hovercraft (reminiscent of the hovercraft in which Turner drives Angie in Count Zero) driven by a white girl named Cherry Chesterfield to ‘the Factory’, some kind of derelict building.

They’re spotted approaching by the retarded Little Bird who points the hovercraft out to Slick Henry, who is working on a huge sculpture titled ‘the Judge’. Got all that?

In the back of the hovercraft is a comatose body on a stretcher which Kid refers to as ‘the Count’. In a flash we realise this is Bobby Newmark, also known as Count Zero, a young computer hacker (or ‘hotdogger’) from the New Jersey slums, who gave the previous novel its title.

Kid Afrika has orders to hide Count Zero and wants Slick Henry to take him in. Henry is reluctant because he knows that the secretive Gentry, the man who first discovered the (abandoned) Factory and moved into it and, effectively, owns it, will not approve. Gentry hates people.

But the Kid reminds Slick Henry that he saved the latter’s life once and owes him a big favour. Reluctantly, Henry takes him in, accompanied by Cherry who will act as a sort of nurse to the comatose Count… leaving the reader wondering what happened to the Count and why he’s been sent here.

Mona

Mona is 16 and SINless i.e. does not have a Single Identitification Number and so is off the grid of social security etc.

She lives with her pimp, Eddy, in a shitty, flyblown squat in Florida where he’s brought her, from Cleveland where she used to do erotic dancing in a seedy bar, in hope of making more money. Florida turns out to be polluted and dirty. Eddy sends her out to do tricks, beats her if she disobeys or complains, takes her money and then makes her describe the encounters to him, to make him hard so he can fuck her.

The whole milieu is painted with grim and depressing conviction.

After a chapter or two to establish this sordid set-up, Eddy suddenly introduces Mona to a smartly dressed man named Prior. To her surprise they are taken to an airport, loaded into a private jet and fly to Atlanta. Here they are taken to a swish hotel and next thing Mona knows she is having a medical checkover by a man named Gerald. Gerald and Prior seem to be discussing Mona’s appropriateness for some task – the colour of her eyes, her dental records, her age all appear to be relevant.

Now there have been several clues as to what’s going on:

a) In an earlier passage where Mona had gone shopping, she’d spotted a poster of Angie Marshall and reflected that people sometimes remarked on her looking like the great simstim star. b) In the next chapter we are with Kumiko as she and Colin listen to a playback of the conversations they’d bugged between her ‘hosts’. They hear Swain discussing with Sally Shears an ‘extraction’ job, and talking about the way ‘the target’ is back in ‘the house on the coast.’

All this sounds like what we’ve learned about Angie Marshall as she potters about the big house in Malibu. Swain goes on to say that ‘they’ (the unspecified client) don’t want her extracted by any number of mercs they could hire, but specifically by Sally Shears. And, he adds, there’s a new instruction: the client wants to make it look as if she’d been killed in the kidnapping. The client will provide a body.

Recap

So, by page 100 of this 300-page book, the reader has grasped that it’s going to be about a gang of crims, somehow organised by London-based Swain, and featuring lens-eyed Sally Shears, who plan to kidnap simstim star Angie Marshall (for what reasons, we will presumably find out) and we can deduce that the lowlife hooker Mona has been shipped to a hotel and given a medical examination because ‘they’ plan to kill her and probably burn or mutilate her body enough to make investigators think it is Angie’s (an idea which seemed, to this reader, remarkably low-tech: don’t they have DNA forensics in this otherwise hi-tech future?)

Backgrounds

Threaded in between the storylines, we learn a lot more of the background to this futureworld, aspects which help shed light on the earlier two novels.

We learn what you might call conventional aspects of any sc-fi story set in Earth’s future, those hints and tips about future apocalypses which titillate the viewer’s taste for catastrophe. For example, we get a few more details about the ‘three week war’ which obliterated Bonn in a nuclear strike and resulted in clouds of radiation drifting west which led to food shortages in Britain. Petal shows Kumiko a hologram constructed from old footage of the Battle of Britain, created, he tells her, to commemorate the centenary i.e. 2040. Now since in an earlier novel we’d read about the ‘law of ’53’, presumably 2053, I’m guessing the action is set somewhere in the 2060s, maybe 2070s.

I couldn’t help feeling this third novel has, at least to begin with, a middle-aged feel: it doesn’t kick off at a furious headlong pace in a flood of amphetamine-fulled prose like Neuromancer, but takes its time and spreads.

Thus the book takes its time to give each of the characters a hefty backstory, even the hooker Mona, starting with her time back as a kid working on a crayfish farm and following through her sorry life to date, liberated from a crappy manual job by stylish confident Eddy, who turns out to be a pimp and beater.

We learn that Slick Henry committed a series of crimes – stealing cars apparently – he was caught and punished by having his memory permanently damaged via the technique of Induced Korsakov’s Syndrome. It flares up when he’s under pressure and he can only remember five minutes back…

Dog Solitude, we learn, is a vast landfill site full of toxic rubbish, somewhere beyond New Jersey. When it was finally full to overflowing rollers or something heavy were sent across its surface to crush and flatten the metal objects, resulting in the whole thing becoming an uneven but essentially flat surface of billions of tin cans and appliances and crushed cars. Nothing grows there, the rain collects in toxic puddles and, because of the unevenness, only hovercraft can cross it.

Slick Henry, for his own psychological reasons, is assembling vast sculptures, symbols of the authority figures who locked him up and stole his memory, while Gentry, the misanthropic owner of the Factory – a vast derelict building with flaps of waste plastic clumsily stapled over its long-smashed windows – is pursuing some quixotic quest into discovering the meaning and shape of the matrix of cyberspace.

And this rhymes, chimes and echoes Angie’s preoccupation with understanding the beings, the entities, which can enter, access and ‘ride’ her mind, what the two black men she met in Count Zero used Haitian voodoo terminology to refer to as loa.

So much for the characters’ backstories.

Tessier-Ashpool again

In among all these themes and stories, I was surprised at the way that for the third time the orbiting space station owned by the legendarily wealthy Tessier-Ashpool once again emerges as an idea and destination for the characters.

Tessier-Ashpool in Neuromancer

You will recall that in Neuromancer, the protagonists Case and Molly, helped by the cloned daughter of the billionaire Ashpool, 3Jane, fulfil the task set them of activating a codeword which allows the two separate parts, the two ‘lobes’ of the matrix – named Wintermute and Neuromancer – to unite. The rather visionary, transcendent result is that, right at the end of that novel, the matrix becomes self aware. All of this takes place in the orbiting space station, Freeside, created by the fabulously rich Tessier-Ashpool family.

Tessier-Ashpool in Count Zero

Count Zero is set 7 or 8 years later and brings Angie Marshall, smuggled out of Maas Biolabs’ clutches to freedom and brought to a nightclub in New York, where she meets some heavy-duty black guys who explain to her that, above and beyond its rational business content, cyberspace is also possessed by strange religious god-like entities called loas, who have the names of Haitian voodoo gods (for example Baron Samedi).

Count Zero climaxes when the young art expert, Marly, fulfils the commission given her by the world’s richest man, Josef Virek, to discover the creator of a strange and haunting artwork – a vitrine filled with seven or so random objects. She follows the trail out into space, to very same orbiting space station, Freeside, more specifically to the section of it which the Tessier-Ashpool family created as its own private fortress and which has, since the events of Neuromancer, been ‘sawn off’ from Freeside and placed into its own orbit.

Here Marly discovers that someone has created a vast sphere with no gravity inside this space station, in which a cornucopia of rubbish and random objects floats slowly around, while a multi-armed robot device grabs random items as they float by, while other robot arms use lasers to shape and mould the objects, which are then placed in these vitrines. The whole thing is devoted to creating Damien Hirst-style artworks.

At the climax of the novel, the face of Josef Virek, the richest man in the world, who had given Marly her quest, appears on a monitor in this dome and tells her his people have followed her and are about to enter the dome. He thinks he is on the brink of getting his hands on a super-advanced technology which will give him immortality. I think what happens next is that we learn the dome, its robot artist and the haunting vitrines are all products of the loa, the self-aware entities within cyberspace. Marly’s quest was part of a scheme by the loa to lure Virek to his death and, sure enough, while logged into cyberspace in order to communicate with Marly, he is killed by the loa, thus freeing Marly from her quest.

Tessier-Ashpool in Mona Lisa Overdrive

Now, in this novel, Angie, on a very slender pretext, finds herself becoming obsessed with the Tessier-Ashpool family. She discovers that one of her simstim’s technical team had used the show’s recent break (while she was in the rehab clinic) to go ‘up the well’ (i.e. into space) to delve into the Tessier-Ashpool story. She asks for a copy of a recent documentary made into the mysterious fate of the Tessier-Ashpool family, which she watches several times, her viewings being opportunities for Gibson to feed us more bits of backstory.

Half way through Mona Lisa I had become a little bored of this Tessier-Ashpool theme. It seemed to me to close down the novel’s possibilities. It is a big world and, if you throw in space stations and extra-terrestrial travel, it is a very big world. It seemed oddly spastic for the stories to have to return to the same setting.

I thought Gibson is going to have to pull something pretty impressive out of the hat if he’s going to trump a) the climax of Neuromancer in which cyberspace becomes self aware! or b) the climax of Count Zero, with its hallucinatory vision of cyberspace being taken over by voudou gods!

Puzzles

This third of the Sprawl trilogy makes Gibson’s modus operandi clearer than ever. The main characteristic of the books is that they are deliberately confusing.

At the end of most thrillers there is some kind of explanation of what happened and often authors are considerate enough to tie up the loose ends. In Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive I was left more confused by the denouements than by the chase. I don’t think they can be summarised, really, because there are about ten named characters and all of them have shifting theories about what is actually going on, and the voices in the matrix themselves give changing interpretations of what is happening and why.

The result is a gathering sense of excitement, with a number of chases and battle confrontations all going off at the same time – but only a very confused sense of what is at stake. Something desperately important is at stake but, for most of the novel, it is hard to understand what.

For example, Kumiko escapes from the minder set to accompany her on a shopping trip around Portobello Road, and makes it across London to Brixton, to the scuzzy flat of the cockney console-cowboy Tick (real name, Terrance) who Sally Shears had introduced her to in a pub in Notting Hill early on.

Tick hands her some ‘trodes and takes her into cyberspace to show her a mystery which is puzzling the millions of other cyberjockeys around the world, which is the arrival of a huge new ‘building’ or artefact of gleaming data in the matrix. Why did Sally tell Kumiko to go to Tick’s? Who is Tick, really? What is the mystery of the shining artifact?

All that is relatively clear is that Swain’s men as well as the regular police will be out searching for Kumiko in force i.e. there is a strong sense of menace and paranoia.

Also, about a hundred pages we are explicitly told – if we hadn’t guessed it already – that ‘Sally Shears’ is none other than Molly Millions, the female lead in Neuromancer, characterised by her distinctive metallic lens implants where her eyes ought to be, and the 4-centimetre long retractable razor knives under her fingernails.

From various conversations Kumiko has overheard or we have witnessed, we realise she is a central part of the plan to kidnap Angie Mitchell, and that she is mighty unhappy about it. She says she’s only doing it because she’s being blackmailed and Swain says he’s only doing it because he’s being blackmailed, too, and I think – if I understood correctly – that they’re both being blackmailed into doing it by 3Jane, the mad daughter of Ashpool from Neuromancer, who is dead, but exists as an AI or ‘construct’.

More plot

Going back on the plan and abandoning Swain, Molly a) tells Kumiko to escape to the safety of Tick’s flat, while b) she, Molly, flees to America. First thing we know about her arrival is when she breaks into the clinic where Mona is having plastic surgery done on her to make her look like Angie Mitchell. The clinic door explodes as the minder, Prior, comes flying through it, followed by rough, tough Molly. She grabs Mona and escapes with her. (This is possible because she’s been tipped off about the surgery by the plastic surgeon, Gerald [did he do her lens-eyes, the reader idly wonders?])

Molly takes Mona off in a car and drives to New York, where she parks atop a multi-story car park and disappears, telling Mona to stay put.

Then we cut to Angie. In the intervening chapters she has more or less ‘recovered’ and agreed with her boss that she is ready to return to broadcasting. Her technical crew arrive, including hair stylists, make-up and so on, and then she flies back to New York, arriving by swanky corporate helicopter at the city’s smartest hotel, whose the top floors are permanently rented by her employers. Sense/Net. Remember, she is the most famous and highest paid simstim star in the world.

But Angie’s chopper has barely landed before Molly forces open the door, shoots Angie’s smooth gay black minder, Porphyre, with a stun dart, commandeers and flies the chopper over to the car park where she’d left Mona, and bundles Angie out of the chopper and into the back of the car.

Here, scared teenage Mona, doctored to look like Angie, meets her heroine, and Angie reacts with movie star aplomb to coming face to face with a clone of herself. Meanwhile, tough Molly is driving them off at speed, in fact, driving the car up the ramp into a nearby empty hovercraft which she proceeds to steal.

Meanwhile, in the derelict factory in the waste land beyond New Jersey, Gentry has become resigned to the presence of the comatose Count Zero at the Factory, because he’s jacked into the Count’s mind and realised that the Count, like him (Gentry), is on a mission, on a quest, to understand what’s happened to the matrix.

They both know that at some point, 14 years earlier, something changed in cyberspace. In their different ways they have pieced together the story told in Neuromancer, namely that Case and Molly oversaw the unification of the two lobes of an AI so enormous it effectively became cyberspace.

What is genuinely puzzling to this reader is the way Neuromancer climaxes with the matrix becoming self-aware at the climax of a thrilling, scary novel, but then the threat of the entire digital realm becoming self-aware is frittered away in the subsequent books.

At the very end of Neuromancer I thought it was going to become like the terrifying moment in the Terminator story, where the newly self-aware world computer declares war on its human creators.

But no. Nothing like that happens. Instead that-which-had-become-one appears to disintegrate again into a number of different entities and this fundamental oddity is compounded in Count Zero when we learn that these fragments have taken the shape and names and behaviour of the gods of voudou.

These are the Horsemen which dominated Angie’s mind in Count Zero and become increasingly present to her as Mona Lisa progresses:

And there they were, the Horsemen, the loa: Pappa Legba bright and fluid as mercury; Ezili Freda who is mother and queen; Samedi, the Baron Cimetiere, moss on corroded bone; Similor; Madame Travaux; many others… They fill the hollow that is Grande Brigitte. The rushing of their voices is the sound of wind, running water… (p.262)

We learn as the novel proceeds that this is why Angie became addicted to the drugs, because the drugs stopped her dreaming about the voudou horsemen.

But when the voices come through – the voice of Mamman Brigitte in particular being the dominant one in this novel – their explanations are even more confusing than in Zero.

They speak in highly mystical language: the loa came out of Africa but not as we (modern Caucasians) know them; Legba-ati-Bon – who rode Angie seven years ago at the climax of Zero – has also yet to come into existence i.e. he is and yet is not.

They confirm that the events at the climax of Neuromancer did indeed give rise to The One, but there was also an ‘other’. Then the centre failed and every fragment rushed away, each fragment seeking a form. Brigitte explains that, of all the signs and symbologies created by humanity, ‘the paradigms of voudou proved most appropriate’ (p.264).

But even if you’ve managed to process this, it is still not clear, even by the end of the book, what she is on about: more appropriate for what? For what purpose?

Brigitte confirms that it was the loa who approached Angie’s father, Chris Mitchell, star scientist of Maas Biolabs and offered him secrets; in return for this knowledge, he implanted biochemical programmes in Angie’s brain which made it easier for her to see the loa without jacking into cyberspace.

OK. But why?

And, as the novel progresses, Angie also realises that she has been seeing 3Jane’s dreams, memories of events which took place inside the Tessier-Ashpool fortress – but why? How is that possible and what does it mean?

My point is that – beneath the speed-driven, slangy, tech-jargon prose, and beneath the thriller motifs of gangsters and criminal cartels, and beneath the genuinely gripping, real world situations of kidnaps, and high speed chases, and getaways, and firefights – and even beneath the neon grid vision of cyberspace into which the characters pop with just enough regularity to remind us that depicting cyberspace is Gibson’s métier and USP – at the heart of all three novels in the Sprawl trilogy is a surprisingly mystical, non-rational and deeply confusing core.

If they were about money or drugs or gold or smuggling or guns or espionage or any of the other common thriller tropes, it would be one thing. But all three novels end up being about strange, mystical changes within cyberspace which all the books’ characters themselves don’t understand.

On balance this is a plus. It makes them rereadable. Usually at the end of a thriller the game is given away and we know whodunnit and why. Not in these books. They have all the structure and many of the trappings of conventional thrillers, plus all the hi-tech, lowlife drug paraphernalia thrown in. But at heart they remain oddly, eerily unknowable.

The last battle

The novel heads towards a climax at the Factory.

While we’ve been following the convergence of Angie and Molly and Mona in New York, things have hotted up at the Factory, namely bad guys have arrived. Using a loudhailer they demand the comatose body of Count Zero. Foolishly, Little Bird fires pretty much the only gun in the place at the tough mercs outside, at which point they announce they are going to storm the place.

The real world conflict is matched when Slick Henry jacks into Count Zero’s mind and discovers all kinds of wonders. Bobby’s consciousness exists in a tranquil paradise while he explores the mysteries of the new artifact in cyberspace. When Henry explains the situation, Bobby uses his control of cyberspace to reroute a passing automated cargo helicopter and make it drop its heavy loads onto the hovercraft and men approaching from outside.

Nonetheless, the mercs are just starting to fight their way into the Factory when out of nowhere the hovercraft driven by Molly erupts through the Factory walls. What follows next is largely seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Molly, who has found a stash of drugs and taken some, with the result that most of it is described in a stoned, dreamy, half-understood way.

Molly fights off the mercenaries aided by Slick Henry’s sculptures which, although they were built for his own psychological therapy, also happen to contain flame throwers and lasers and clutching claws and so on, all of which turn out to be handy in fighting off an attacking force of mercenaries.

While all this is going on, Angie makes her way up to the high-level ‘loft’ where Bobby’s stretcher is laid out and there, amid Slick Henry and Cherry, she embraces him. During the fight his weak body has finally expired. Angie puts on a spare set of ‘trodes, embraces his body, and she too disappears into cyberspace. Her body too expires, but we follow her into cyberspace where she imagines she is walking, being guided towards a wedding.

Back in the real world Molly has finished wiping out the mercs just as Angie’s boss, head of the Sense/Net simstim broadcasts, Hilton Swift arrives. His people had realised Angie had been kidnapped back at the hotel, identified the hovercraft she’d been driven off in, and it’s taken them this long to follow Angie out to the Factory.

Now Hilton and his people walk in at more or less the same time that Molly’s battered old hovercraft screeches off through a big gap in the Factory wall, taking with her Slick Henry and Cherry, who have forged some kind of bond in these last few hectic hours.

Tying up loose ends

As Hilton walks into the Factory he is confronted by just stoned Mona who, of course, is the spitting image of Angie, albeit twenty years younger. Entranced, Hilton and Porphyre (Angie’s minder) decide on the spot they will simply replace the dead Angie with Mona.

And so, after some extensive physical cleaning up and neural cleansing, it does indeed come to pass that Mona steps straight into Angie’s simstim shoes – and is even more of a hit than the original, returning to the world’s simstim screens new and refreshed after her detox break.

It had been explained, sort of, that Molly fled London and Swain because she had cut her own deal with (I think) 3Jane: this is what motivated her to bring Angie to the Count in his dying moments (though exactly why 3Jane wanted this to happen, I don’t understand). Anyway, in return for keeping her side of the bargain, all Molly’s criminal records are wiped clean, and she is a free woman.

It is confirmed that Swain, supposedly working for Kumiko’s dad, had in fact double-crossed him by selling out to 3Jane, partly due to her threat to expose all his criminal activities. But right at the end of the book we learn that Swain has been killed and replaced by the burly, crop-haired and rather fatherly Petal. Tick and Petal had taken a video call from Kumiko’s father explaining that the ‘difficulty’ he had been experiencing is now over. When Kumiko asks her father about his role in her mother’s suicide, he shows genuine remorse and repentance and Kumiko finds herself forgiving him. At which point there’s a knock on the door of Tick’s crappy flat and it is Petal who – to my relief – doesn’t just machine gun everyone inside – as happens in so many Yank movies – but instead kindly explains the situation and says he is taking Kumiko back into his guardianship under instructions from her father. Aaah.

The ‘other’

Despite rereading the ending I never understood why 3Jane’s dreams or thoughts appeared with such pressure and urgency to Angie. What I did understand is that all’s well that ends well.

Virtual Angie and virtual Bobby are shown living in a wonderful, luxury and very peaceful French chateau which he has constructed in cyberspace. Fragments of other minds drift in and out – tentative sad 3Jane, other players they’ve known such as Colin the smooth-talking cyber-guardian of Kumiko back in the early chapters, and in particular the foul-mouthed Finn, a character who has appeared in all the novels as a particularly wise and ancient cyber cowboy.

And then, one day, a limousine turns up and Bobby and the Finn, with Colin in attendance, lead Angie out and into it. They explain that on that day, 14 years earlier, when the matrix became one, it immediately sensed the presence of an ‘other’. Now they are taking her to meet that other. But cyberspace contains all human data, Angie protests. Sure, replies the Finn. But the ‘other’ isn’t human.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘If cyberspace consists of the sum total of data in the human system…’
‘Yeah,’ the Finn said, turning out onto the long straight empty highway ahead, ‘but nobody’s talking human, see?’
‘the other one was somewhere else,’ Bobby said.
‘Centauri,’ said Colin.
Can they be teasing? Is this some joke of Bobby’s?
‘So it’s kinda hard to explain why the matrix split up into all those hoodoos ‘n’ shit, when it met this other one,’ said the Finn, ‘but when we get there, yo’ll sorta get the feeling…’
‘My own feeling,’ said Colin, ‘is that it’s all so much more amusing this way…’
‘Are you telling the truth?’
‘Be there in a New York minute,’ said the Finn, ‘no shit.’

So a) it ends as many sci fi stories do, on the brink of the first encounter with intelligent life from another world b) I’m glad to see that even right at the end, there is no rational explanation for the One created at the end of Neuromancer is then discovered to have relapsed back into many fragments in the subsequent books, and not only that, but fragments which take the identities of voodoo gods.

Even right at the end where everything else is explained, this remains unexplained.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

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

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick (1974)

What can I tell him? Jason Taverner asked himself as he sat mutely facing the police general. The total reality as I know it? That is hard to do, he realised, because I really do not comprehend it myself. (p.119)

It is 1988 and Jason Taverner is the host of the immensely successful Jason Taverner Show which attracts 30 million viewers to its regular Tuesday evening slot. On this particular evening he’s featured guest star gorgeous, red-haired Heather Hart with whom he just happens to be having an affair, sharing his jet-set lifestyle, although she is impatient for him to actually marry her so they can settle down, have kids etc.

Part of their success is down to the fact that they are sixes. It is not explained, more hinted at in stray references, that sixes were genetically imprinted with superior genetic qualities, and that his happened at his birth, back in the 1940s (rather implausibly).

Jason and Heather complete another chart-topping show and are on board their Rolls Royce jet rocket (!) shooting up over Los Angeles when he gets a call from an ex, Marilyn Mason, a little flit of a thing who begged for help getting into show business, who he wangled a few auditions, and who he slept with him rather a lot before tiring of her. Heather is furious at the call, but Marilyn screeches down the phone that she’ll kill herself if he doesn’t visit her NOW, so Jason says we better go and check she’s OK.

Jason has barely got down into her flat before Marilyn, furious at having been dumped and ignored for six months, throws a bag at him containing ‘the gelatin-like Callisto cuddle sponge with its fifty feeding tubes’.

There’s no explanation of what this thing is or where it comes from, simply that the feeding tubes swiftly enter the human body and kill if not counter-acted. Jason has the presence of mind to grab a nearby bottle of alcohol and pour it onto the creature which falls off him, onto the floor, dead. But it leaves its feeding tubes inside him, and he passes out. He regains consciousness on a hospital gurney being rushed to an operating theatre with Heather peering over him, weeping, and then he blacks out.

The alternative world

All this happens in just the first chapter. In chapter two Jason wakes up and the world has changed. He awakens in a seedy motel room to discover that nobody knows who he is. In this world there is no Jason Taverner Show on TV, the motel manager has never heard of him, nobody has heard of him. When he phones his agent, then his producer, both say they’ve never heard of him and put the phone down.

He also has no ID cards and now, for the first time, we begin to learn about the world of 1988, namely it is some sort of military dictatorship. All across America identity checkpoints run by the national guard or the police pop up at random to check people’s ID cards. If you don’t have one or have a forged one, you are sent off to a Forced Labour Camp (FLC).

So, while he is still reeling from the fact that nobody recognises him, Jason is all-too-aware that down here, in the world of the ‘ordinary’ people, he needs ID cards fast. Luckily, he’s wearing the same clothes he had on when Marilyn attacked him which, conveniently enough, contained a big wad of cash. Now he bribes the desk clerk, Ed Pricem, to recommend a forger. The clerk (who, in a casual aside, mentions that he is a telepath – putting us in mind of the universe of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

Ed the desk clerk takes Jason through darkened streets into Watts which was, when Dick was writing, a slum. In a darkened garage Ed introduces Jason to a very young woman, Kathy Nelson, maybe only 17 or 18 (she eventually tells us she’s 19), who takes him to her workshop and turns out to be a master forger.

Here commences the troubled relationship which last for the next third or so of the book, for Kathy has impressive mental problems. Initially the conversation is fairly rational and, while she’s making him the forged IDs (he needs half a dozen in this police state) they recap a bit of future history, namely how there was some kind of Insurrection led by sixes like Jason, but it was repressed and most of the sixes were rounded up and shot and the government became even more repressive.

(In what I presume is a humorous / paranoid reference to the student unrest of the time the book was written, the early 70s, the narrative informs us that all universities have prison walls round them. Any students or lecturers caught escaping are sent to forced labour camps. Later we are told that up to 10,000! students at Stanford were massacred in one particular police action back during the Insurrection.)

(In another throwaway reference, we learn that Congress passed a bill led by someone called Tidman to solve ‘the race problem’ by restricting black couples to only one child. Over the generations this will or has hugely reduced their numbers. So much so that black people are now endangered and it is a crime to hurt them, p.29.)

But Kathy is odd, very odd. She’s convinced that her husband, Jack, is in a forced labour camp but approves of her sleeping with other men, something they discuss at length. She confesses that she was placed in a mental hospital for eight weeks. She is convinced she met a number of famous celebrities there, and slept with them.

Then she reveals that she is a great forger but embeds electronic tagging devices into her forged documents and tips off the police about the customers. Why? Because the police have promised her that if she helps them catch enough criminals, they’ll release her husband, Jack. (Later, when we meet her police controller, McNulty, he tells Jason that all this is a delusion: Kathy’s husband is in fact dead, died in a car crash, but she hasn’t got over it.)

Kathy insists that Jason – tall, handsome, confident – sleeps with her, which he is initially cheerfully in favour of until he begins to grasp how nuts she is. This is forcibly demonstrated when he takes her to a (terrible) restaurant of her choosing and when she doesn’t get her way, falls off her chair onto the floor screaming at the top of her voice. Till the waiters throw them out.

Walking back to Kathy’s flat, Jason manages to give her the slip. He phones his partner back in ‘the real world’, Heather Hart, on her personal vidphone but of course she’s never heard of him. He pesters her with several calls despite her repeatedly hanging up, and freaks her out with his intimate knowledge of her anatomy (she has a false tooth she calls Andy, p.58) and all her phone numbers. But he has clearly erupted into a parallel universe in which he was never born, never existed. Nobody knows him.

Puzzling this over Jason almost immediately walks into a pop-up police checkpoint. Paranoia and fear while they check the papers Kathy just made him. But they pass. Grudgingly the ‘pols’ let him go. But the checkpoint has given Kathy time to catch up and find him and once again he finds himself, immensely reluctantly, walking back to her flat. Here is horrified to find Kathy’s ‘control’, Inspector McNulty waiting for both of them. McNulty, in the way of scary totalitarian cops in this kind of fiction, now becomes politely but firmly interested in Jason and asks him along to the station.

There he makes him wait while the cops search the (global) database for him. By mistake the machine spits out the details of a ‘Jason Taverner’ born about the same year, but in the mid-West to farmers, a very ugly redneck. Thinking on his feet, Jason claims to be the same guy and makes up a story about him running away from the farm and using his grandfather’s inheritance to get comprehensive plastic surgery.

Yeeeees, McNulty says, staring at him, not really believing it. After several false releases – being let go then called back for ‘a few more questions’, which ratchet up the pressure – Jason finally gets to walk away. He had to hand all of his ID papers over to  McNulty to be triple-checked, but the cops handed him a week-long total pass (a ‘pol-pass’) in exchange. So he has a week to figure out what the hell is going on, which gives the novel a sense of urgency and a clear timeframe.

Recap

So the first hundred pages of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said are set in an America of the future which has become a police state (what Jason calls ‘a betrayal state, p.58) in which a genetically engineered man has made himself a successful career as a rich and famous TV star. But, after a near-fatal experience, he wakes up in a parallel universe where he appears never to have existed, is thrown down among the plebs, the ‘ordinaries’, stripped of his wealth and fame, and experiences life on the run.

Part two

Part two introduces new characters, namely McNulty’s boss, Police General Felix Buckman. He scares and intimidates McNulty, who tells him about this Tavern guy they just picked up. By this stage McNulty has discovered that the mid-West story is a fake. What puzzles him is that ‘Taverner’ has no records of any kind.

‘Jason Taverner doesn’t exist.’ (p.82)

Buckman is intrigued but has to cope with his no-good, drug addict, bondage addict sister, Alys who has, yet again, got past the guards and into his office where he finds her sleeping off another dose of something.

He wakes he up and gives her a sound telling off for being an addict.We learn that she paid for the removal of the ‘responsibility’ parts of her brain, leaving her just the pleasure centres, which she stimulates by ‘diddling’ (presumably masturbating) all day long.

Jason, with a week to find out what the hell is going on, takes an air taxi to Las Vegas hoping to find a woman whose pad he can crash in, maybe a woman he knew in the other life. Sure enough he has barely settled himself at the bar of ‘the Nellie Melba room of the Drake’s Arms’ in Las Vegas (p.85) than he spies an old flame of his, Ruth Rae. Knowing her sex addiction, he finds it easy enough to chat her up and soon they head back to her place, first for championship sex, and then for a long discussion about love and, unexpectedly, the power of grief.

But then the police burst in, having detected Jason via the microtransmitter the slipped into his clothes.

He is transported in a police ‘quibble’ (Dick’s humorous word for car or transport) back to LA, to the 469th Precinct Police Station, where he is ushered into the rather luxurious room of General Buckman. Buckman is one of only a handful of police generals in the country. Clever, he proceeds to bluff Jason that he is a seven (Jason didn’t even know sevens existed, but Buckman knows enough about the head of the research programme which developed the sixes to bluff him), trying to get him to spill the beans about the plot or conspiracy which he is convinced Jason must be involved in.

Eventually Buckman comes to believe that Jason really doesn’t know what he’s doing in this dimension. He decides to let him go, but to tag and trail him. Next morning Jason walks free into the LA sunlight (and the thick traffic pollution).

Someone calls his name. It is Alys Buckman, six foot, dressed in leathers with a metal chain. Where’s the whip, Jason thinks. Clearly she is visually meant to look like a bondage dominatrix. Alys explains she’s Buckman’s twin sister. She hates him. She tells him he has a microtransmitter and – surreally – a minute nuclear bomb – embedded on his person. She removes both with a kit she has. She flies him in her quibble (these ascend vertically and, apparently, have rotor blades) to the general’s luxury mansion which she shares with him. On the way she says she knows who he is! She is a big fan! She has two of his long playing records in the back of the quibble!

My God! Maybe she knows how to get back to his own world.

But, immensely frustratingly, Alys refuses to answer any of his questions, instead politely offering him some mescaline (‘Harvey’s yellow Number One, imported from Switzerland’, p.134) and, as he begins to trip out, fills the time with what appears to be a series of inconsequential chatter. She shows him her brother’s rare and precious stamps, his collection of snuff boxes.

As Jason’s trip reaches extremes Alys realises he’s too far in and offers to go get some thorazine to counter the mescaline. Jason staggers to the record player and, through his hallucinations, manages to get one of his records out of its sleeve and turn on the record player and drop the needle with a bump onto the play-in groove, but…. there’s just static. There’s nothing on the records. They’re blank! (p.144)

Part three

Jason staggers upstairs, looking for Alys and then, to his horror, opens a bedroom and finds… her leather clothes and stilettoes on the floor and inside them, wearing them, a long, long-dead shrivelled corpse! Horrified, he blunders, half falls down the steps, across the lawn of the mansion and to the guard by the gate. His drugged slurred speech alerts the guard who runs inside – he hears a shout – and the guard comes running back after him, letting off a few shots from his laser gun, obviously thinking Jason murdered his employer, before running back inside.

This gives time for Jason to escape from the grounds and blunder into a young woman just getting into her ‘flipflap’. Yes, flipflap. Like Kurt Vonnegut, you have the strong feeling that Dick, by now, in the early 70s, has taken enough drugs, written enough fantasy sci-fi books, to realise that he can make up anything, say anything, the more ludicrous the better – and people just as stoned as him will lap it up!

So he begs for a lift in this young lady’s flipflap and, although reluctant, she (name: Mary Anne Dominic) lets him fly her downtown (so she can post the ceramic pots she makes for a living) then they go to a coffee shop.

Jason is trying to make sense of Alys’s fate. For a start how come she knew who he was, the only person in this world to do so? But then again, how come the records were blank?

While he’s thinking out loud the young woman he’s sort of kidnapped picks up on the fact that he thinks he’s a famous TV star and singer and says, ‘Shall I go see if they’ve got any of your songs on the jukebox?’

To his amazement they have, and she puts a coin in the machine to play it. What? And the people in the café start to recognise him, applaud when the song ends, and some shy kids come up asking for an autograph. It’s all coming back, the ‘normal’ world he lives in, bit by bit, faster and faster.

Jason says goodbye to Mary Anne (after she has insisted on giving him one of her most beautiful deep blue pots, carefully wrapped) and sets off to see Heather.

On the way he speculates darkly: maybe the reality is that he’s an unknown pauper living in a crappy motel and it’s the drug which Alys gave him which takes him out of that world and into the world of fame. Maybe the world of fame is the drug-induced fantasy, which he needs Alys to regularly supply him the drugs to experience?

Meanwhile we cut back to the cops back at the death scene of Alys. The LA police forensic scientist says Alys died from an experimental new drug. There follows a long pseudo-scientific explanation that the drug suspends the brain’s ability to distinguish between fixed blocs of time and space i.e. the ability to compartmentalise events into before and after, and to compartmentalise space into separate, well, spaces. In a bit of a leap, they claim the drug allows more than one reality to exist at once, and in a further leap, that this leads to multiple universes existing at the same time. Alys’s use of the drug created an alternative universe into which Jason was pulled.

I.e it was all her fault. Jason’s entire experience of being pulled into this alternative universe in which he was never born – is solely the result of Alys’s trip on a new experimental drug.

I admit to being disappointed. I thought it was going to be something to do with toxins release by ‘the Callisto cuddle sponge’. Remember that, back at the start?

Now a newly confident Jason phones up Heather and – she recognises him! Darling where have you been, I’ve been so worried etc. But when he flies to her flat to meet her neither of them refer to the incident with Marilyn Mason. What? Last thing we saw in that universe, he was being rushed into surgery with Heather crying her eyes out? Did it not happen? Or has Dick now got bored of it and not bothered to link it to how his narrative has ended up?

To me the complete lack of follow-up to the Caliisto sponge scene doesn’t say anything about Dick’s clever manipulation of reality, it says everything about how he and his tripped-out readers don’t really care about logic or consequences or coherence,as long as the narrative contains loads of gee whizz references to drugs and the police state.

In a nutshell Alys took an entirely new, made-up drug, and this had the entirely made-up effect of dragging Jason (and Buckminster and everyone else around her) into her fantasy in which Jason had never existed. Until she died – at which point the ‘real’ world started flooding back. I still don’t understand this. Why him, why Jason? What is the meaning of the records which won’t play?

Anyway, now a completely new plotline kicks off. Backat police headquarters Buckman’s Machiavellian adviser points out that Alys’s suicide will make the gutter press snoop around, and that Buckman’s incestuous relationship with her is bound to come out, and that this will give his enemies and rivals among the four or so other Police Generals the opportunity to get him demoted or sacked.

Instead, Buckman had better get his retaliation in first, by concocting a scandalous story which somehow implicates them – the other generals. What they need to do is present Alys’s death as a murder resulting from some great conspiracy into which he can drag his rivals, ideally involving some high level, public figure who will divert attention away from the incest.

And it is at just this moment that the latest file on Jason Taverner is placed on Buckman’s desk. The perfect fall guy! They’ll say Taverner was driven mad with jealousy when he discovered that Alys had been having a lesbian love affair with his own long-term partner, Heather Hart, went round and murdered her. The security cop saw him at the scene. The police coroner can be ordered to change the evidence to do whatever it takes to incriminate Taverner.

They agree this plan and make a public announcement they’re seeking Taverner on a warrant for murder. Taverner has just arrived at Heather’s empty apartment feeling mighty happy to have his old life back when Heather storms in waving the newspaper with its front page headline about her and Alys (they did in fact have a lesbian affair) and the cops wanting to arrest them both. Jason and Heather argue and have tantrums and then realise there’s nothing to be done but hand themselves in.

Passivity

Having read four Dick novels in a row, one of the subtler threads or similarities between them is how passive his protagonists are. Frank Frink just accepts it when he’s arrested. Juliana shrugs when she finds out she’s living in a parallel universe. Rick Deckard undergoes mad experiences including inexplicable hallucinations, but ends up chatting sensibly with his wife. Joe Chin has moments of panic in Ubik but by and large functions efficiently and logically, despite finding out he has died and is being kept in cryogenic storage.

Similarly, at every moment when the cops confront him Jason Taverner… just gives up and goes meekly. There’s something very underpowered about Dick’s protagonists. They passively submit to weird hallucinations, mad revelations and terrifying time travel parallel universes.

Maybe the central protagonist has to remain calm and rational, in order to allow the weirdness to really come out.

Coda

I’ve also noticed that Dick’s books tend to get to what is definitely the end of the story… and then have an extra bit tacked on afterwards.

On paper (and in the movie) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? should end when Deckard ‘retires’ the last of the six androids he has been tasking with killing. Sure enough he goes home to see his wife. But then there is an extra and completely unnecessary chapter where he flies north into the radioactive wilderness and finds himself climbing the hill and somehow changing into Wilbur Mercer. And then a further extra bit, when Deckard finds the live toad and takes it home to his wife.

Same here. Having made the reasonably rational decision to frame Taverner for his sister’s death, Buckman then flies home. Job done, game over, right? But in the event he finds himself crying, torn by an impulse to go back and rescind the arrest warrant for Taverner.

Instead he pull up (i.e. descends to) an automated gas station in the middle of nowhere. One other quibble is there, its owner a smartly dressed black guy, pacing up and down as he waits for his quibble to be topped up with gas. On impulse Buckman takes a piece of police notepaper and draws a heart with an arrow through it and gives it to the black man. The black man looks at it, looks at Buckman, looks at the paper again, then lets it drop and blow away. Buckman gets back into his quibble and flies off.

OK, so far so far out, man. There’s still ten or so pages of text left so you’d expect to return to the plot, right?

But no. Buckman cries more tears, veers his quibble round and goes back to the gas station. Black guy is still there. This time they talk, and the black guy turns out to be remarkably perceptive, realising Buckman is in a weird emotional state, sympathises, gives him his card, says ‘Call me sometime’. Buckman gets back in his quibble and this time does fly back to his fine home.

What was that about? Is Dick playing with the format of the novel by consistently adding these overspill sections (rather as he plays with various conventions in this novel by dropping characters and forgetting loose ends – e.g. ‘the gelatin-like Callisto cuddle sponge with its fifty feeding tubes’)? Is he screwing with our heads, man?

Drugs

The four novels of Dick’s I’ve read all feature drugs as a common-or-garden, accepted element in the societies he describes.

Even in The Man in the High Castle, supposedly set in a parallel 1962, not only do some of the the characters (Frank Frink) smoke marijuana cigarettes, but these are commercially available i.e. not illegal.

In Ubik the owner of the half-life moratorium casually offers Runciter amphetamines when he looks like he needs pepping up, not as some illicit substance but as a perfectly ordinary element of polite society.

In this novel the cops not only smoke weed but offer Jason a joint after they arrest him. McNulty’s boss mentions that he should take some amphetamine.

And then there’s Dick’s prolonged portrayal of a mescaline trip at the police general’s mansion.

At the time (the late 1960s, man) I think this familiarity with drugs, drug paraphernalia and experiences and risks, gained Dick a vast audience among students and dropouts, and a reputation as a prophet of the alternative culture. So cool, man.

45 years later America is hooked on opioids which result in 122,000 deaths in 2015, not to mention the massive worldwide organised crime associated with heroin and cocaine trafficking. Only the relatively young and naive can any more think that any form of drugs is cool.

Sex

Sex doesn’t have the centrality in Dick’s work that it does in many other writers. It comes across as more of a plot device than an end in itself, designed to amplify the more important ideas around it such as fractured identity, altered mental states, parallel universes, and the general unreliability of ‘reality’ – whatever that is.

What’s interesting is the way the sexual element becomes more overt as you track these novels from the early 1960s through to the mid-1970s.

Following the trend, sex plays a bigger role in this story than all previous ones. The fact that he’s had sex with so many different women marks Jason as a product of the Hugh Hefner Playboy era. The introduction of Alys in particular, the leather-clad bondage girl, reminds me of all the leatherclad cartoon women from the 1950s.

But Dick piles on the perversion by having Alys and Buckman (whose name, if you replace the B with an F, would become more counter-cultural and, like, subversive,man) be not only twins but incestuous. really incestuous. So incestuous that they have had a son, Barney, who they’s packed off to boarding school in Florida. Weird enough for you, man?

And it is Alys who introduces Jason to the idea that there is a matrix or ‘grid’ of people who all go online to make mass phone calls at the same time, during which they live out their sexual fantasies. Alys explains that this can quickly become an addiction and that you can tell the people who are addicted to it by the way they look aged and drained. Nowadays, of course, we call this the internet.

Although the story is meant to be about a parallel world brought about by someone’s fantasies, it would not be hard to do an entry-level feminist critique of the narrative to bring out the way it is a picaresque story in which a tall, handsome rich man encounters a whole succession of women who represent different female stereotypes:

  • mature girlfriend Heather who wants to marry and have his babies
  • psychotic 19-year-old Kathy, with her undeveloped body (she laments her lack of bust) and paranoid possessiveness
  • Alys the six-foot, bondage lesbian
  • Mary Anne Domenico, the plain, sensitive, ‘artistic’ virgin

When Jason gets to Heather’s flat at the end, after what we can all agree has been a very trying two days, she’s out and he finds her faithful maid, Susie, at work. So he sidles up, slips his arm around her and grips ‘her firm right boob’ (p.178), behaviour which would see him arrested and sent to prison these days.

Dick fans may see Flow My Tears as a highly artful exploration of themes of identity, reality and mental illness. #metoo activists might not be wrong to see Jason Taverner as a forerunner of Harvey Weinstein.

Swearing

In the same way as sex becomes a more dominant theme, over these four novels I’ve noticed the way Dick’s characters swear more and more.  I’m not sure anyone swears in The Man in the High Castle (1962), whereas only 12 years later pretty much everyone is saying ‘fuck’.

  • ‘Do you think I’m a CF, a celebrity fucker?’ (Kathy, p.55)
  • ‘Don’t use that “I don’t give a fuck” tone with me.’ (Jason, p.58)
  • ‘Fuck off,’ said Ruth Rae (p.101)
  • ‘In what fucking way?’ he said, harshly. (Jason, p.104)
  • Isn’t it possible they’ll fuck up all down the line? (Jason thinking about the cops, p.107)
  • Her face glowed hotly and she said, ‘That motherfucker!’ (Alys, p.135)
  • ‘Nowhere Nuthin’ Fuck-Up’ (Jason’s most recent hit, p.155)
  • ‘We’ll kill you in the end, you miserable murdering motherfucker.’ (General Buckman, p.188)

Not just ‘fuck’, but a lot of the character use the cool groovy slang of the late 60s, early 70s.

  • ‘Can you lay a joint on this brother?’ (a Jesus-freak cop, p. 114)
  • a freak thing (Ruth Rae p.103)
  • ‘If you dig what I mean’ (Ruth Rae p.104)
  • ‘If you split now…’ (Ruth Rae p.106)
  • ‘Can’t you hold your hit, man?’ (Alys, p.140)
  • ‘Please don’t freak, I won’t hurt you.’ (Jason, p.152)
  • ‘You’re really far out,’ Mary Anne said enthusiastically.’ (p.156)
  • ‘Let’s get it on’, he said. (p.178)
  • ‘It’s OK. I can dig it.’ (the unnamed black guy, p.197)

Yeah baby, lay some skin on me, let’s stick it the Man, tell it like it is, right on sister.

It’s tricky to know whether Dick thought he was just updating his prose style and dialogue to reflect the way people were speaking in 1973 – or whether he was satirising the way people were speaking in 1973.

He’s certainly satirising the shallowness of TV and and the mind-boggling inanity of pop music – like the pretty crude joke that Jason’s most recent hit song, the one which Mary Anne puts on in the café as ‘his’ reality starts to flood back, is titled ‘Nowhere Nuthin’ Fuck-Up’. But then, what modern writer doesn’t satirise TV for its inanity? It’s a cliché of 20th century post-war fiction.

Either way, whatever the motivation, it’s another of the attitudes which – along with the glamorising of drugs and the hero’s casual expectation that he can sleep with any woman he wants to – make the novel seem such a period piece.

This sense – that a lot of the plot and comment is dated late-60s, early-70s satire – was hugely confirmed for me when, in a minor scene, the cops go to Ruth Rae’s apartment building to arrest Jason but break into the wrong room. Before they discover this they tiptoe across a wall-to-wall carpet depicting Richard M. Nixon’s ascent into heaven as God’s Second Begotten Son (p.108)

Over-excited satire of Richard Nixon belongs to a specific time and place which most people alive do not now remember or understand (he resigned the presidency in August 1974, presumably a little after this novel was published, and a long, long 45 years ago.) This really gross satire reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson’s obsession with Nixon in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and the way Thompson devoted an entire book to Nixon’s re-election campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

This detail made me realise how much Dick was writing for a very specific audience, addressing the pressing social, cultural and political issues of his day which seemed to be caught up in a really seismic crisis – and therefore how, at least on the level of his attitudes to politics, sex and drugs, his books are not prescient and prophetic but rather backward-looking and dated. Can you dig it, man?


Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns Japanese officials the Germans are planning a surprise attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) n 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
  • Ubik (1969) In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974) America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of quicksand-like moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman transformed into a galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Art Deco by Alastair Duncan (1988)

Perhaps most significant to the development of a twentieth century aesthetic was the birth in the interwar period of the professional industrial designer… (p.118) In the 1920s commercial art became a bona fide profession which, in turn, gave birth to the graphic artist. (p.150)

This is one of the older volumes from Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series, famous for its thorough texts but also, alas, for the way most of the illustrations are in black and white (this book has 194 illustrations, but only 44 of them in colour, most of them quite small).

Duncan also wrote the WoA volume on Art Nouveau, which I read recently, and has gone on to write many more books on both these topics, including a huge Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 30s. He knows his onions.

Main points from the introduction

  • Art Deco was the last really luxurious style – people look back to Art Deco and Art Nouveau with nostalgia because they were florid, indulgent and luxurious – since the Second World War all styles have been variations on plain functionalism.
  • Art Deco is not a reaction against Art Nouveau but a continuation of it, in terms of ‘lavish ornamentation, superlative craftsmanship and fine materials’.
  • Received opinion has it that Art Deco started after the war, but Duncan asserts that it had begun earlier, with some indisputable Art Deco pieces made before 1914 or during the war. In fact he boldly suggests that, had there been no war, Art Deco might have flourished, peaked and been over by 1920.
  • Art Deco is hard to define because designers and craftsmen had so many disparate sources to draw on by 1920 – Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, but also high fashion, motifs from the Orient, tribal Africa, the Ballets Russes, or Egypt, especially after the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in 1922.
  • Duncan distinguishes between the decorative styles of the 1920s which were luxurious and ornamented, and of the 1930s, when machine chic became more dominant, lines sleeker, more mechanical. The chapter on metalwork makes this clear with the 1920s work alive with gazelles, flowers and sunbursts, while the 1930s work copies the sleek straight lines of airplanes and steamships. In the architecture chapter he distinguishes between zigzag’ Moderne of the 1920s and the ‘streamline’ Moderne of the 1930s (p.195).
  • There’s also a distinction between the French style (the French continued to lead the field in almost all the decorative art) exuberant and playful, and the style of the rest of Europe and, a little later, America, which was cooler, more functional and intellectual. Throughout the book Duncan refers to the former as Art Deco and the latter as Modernism.
  • To my surprise Duncan asserts that Modernism was born at the moment of Art Deco’s greatest triumph i.e. the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The severe modernist Le Corbusier wrote an article criticising almost all the exhibits for their luxury and foppishness and arguing that true design should be functional, and mass produced so as to be affordable.
  • Duncan contrasts the attenuated flowers and fairy maidens of Art Nouveau with the more severe functionalism of the Munich Werkbund, set up as early as 1907, which sought to integrate design with the reality of machine production. This spartan approach, insistence on modern materials, and mass production to make its objects affordable, underpinned the Bauhaus, established in 1919, whose influence spread slowly, but affected particularly American design during the 1930s, as many Bauhaus teachers fled the Nazis.

So the entire period between the wars can be simplified down to a tension between a French tradition of luxury, embellished and ornamented objects made for rich clients, and a much more severe, modern, functionalist, Bauhaus style intended for mass consumption, with the Bauhaus concern for sleek lines and modern materials gaining ground in the streamlined 1930s.

In reality, the hundreds of designers Duncan mentions hovered between these two poles.

Structure

The book is laid out very logically, indeed with the rather dry logic of an encyclopedia. There are ten chapters:

  1. Furniture
  2. textiles
  3. Ironwork and lighting
  4. Silver, Lacquer and Metalware
  5. Glass
  6. Ceramics
  7. Sculpture
  8. Paintings, Graphics, Posters and Bookbinding
  9. Jewelry
  10. Architecture

Each of the chapters tends to be broken down into a handful of trends or topics. Each of these is then broken down into area or country, so that successive paragraphs begin ‘In America’ or ‘In Belgium’ or ‘In Britain’. And then each of these sections is broken down into a paragraph or so about leading designers or manufacturers. So, for example, the chapter on ceramics is divided into sections on: artist-potters, traditional manufactories, and industrial ceramics; each of these is then sub-divided into countries – France, Germany, America, England; each of these sub-sections then has a paragraph or so about the leading practitioners in each style.

On the up side, the book is encyclopedic in its coverage. On the down side it sometimes feels like reading a glorified list and, particularly when entire paragraphs are made up of lists of the designers who worked for this or that ceramics firm or glass manufacturer, you frequently find your mind going blank and your eye skipping entire paragraphs (one paragraph, on page 51, lists 34 designers of Art Deco rugs).

It’s a shame because whenever Duncan does break out of this encyclopedia structure, whenever he stops to explain something – for example, the background to a particular technique or medium – he is invariably fascinating and authoritative. For example, take his explanation of pâte-de-verre, something I’d never heard of before:

Pâte-de-verre is made of finely crushed pieces of glass ground into a powder mixed with a fluxing agent that facilitates melting. Colouring is achieved by using coloured glass or by adding metallic oxides after the ground glass has been melted into a paste. In paste form, pâte-de-verre is as malleable as clay, and it is modelled by being packed into a mould where it is fused by firing. It can likewise be moulded in several layers or refined by carving after firing. (p.93)

Having myself spent quite a few years being paid to turn a wide variety of information (about medicine, or botany, or VAT) into clear English, I am full of admiration for Duncan’s simple, clear prose. There’s a similar paragraph about silver which, in a short space, brings an entire craft to life.

By virtue of its colour, silver is a ‘dry’ material. To give it life without the use of surface ornament, the 1920s Modernist silversmith had to rely on interplay of light, shadow, and reflection created by contrasting planes and curves. Another way to enrich its monotone colour was by incorporating semiprecious stones, rare woods, ivory and glass. Towards the 1930s, vermeil or gold panels were applied to the surface as an additional means of embellishment. (p.71)

He tells us that the pinnacle of commercial Art Deco sculpture was work done in chryselephantine, combining bronze and ivory, and that the acknowledged master of this genre was Demêtre Chiparus, who made works depicting French ballet and theatre.

Duncan makes the simple but profound point that, in architecture, Art Deco tended to be applied to buildings which had no tradition behind them, to new types of building for the machine age – this explains the prevalence of the Art Deco look in so many power stations, airport buildings, cinemas and swimming pools. Think (in London) Battersea power station (1935), Croydon airport (1928), the Golden Mile of Art Deco factories along the Great West Road at Brentford, Brixton Lido (1937), Charles Holden’s Art Deco Tube stations, and scores of Odeon cinemas across the country.

I liked his wonderfully crisp explanation of costume jewelry.

Costume jewelry differs from fine jewelry in that it is made out of base metals or silver set with marcasite, paste or imitation stones. (p.167)

Now you know. When he’s explaining, he’s wonderful.

Likes and dislikes

To my great surprise I actively disliked most of the objects and art shown in this book. I thought I liked Art Deco, but I didn’t like a lot of this stuff.

Maybe I’m a Bauhaus baby at heart. I consistently preferred the more linear work from the 1930s.

Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because Duncan doesn’t include much about Art Deco posters (despite having authored a whole book about them). Indeed the section on posters here was remarkably short and with hardly any illustrations (7 pages, 6 pictures).

Similarly, the section on the scores of fashionable magazines and graphic illustrations from the era (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and countless others) is barely 3 pages long.

There’s nothing at all about movies or photography, either. Maybe this is fair enough since Duncan is an expert in the decorative and applied arts and that’s the focus of the book. Still, Gary Cooper is a masterpiece of Art Deco, with his strong lines ending in beautiful machine-tooled curves (nose and chin), his powerful symmetries – as beautiful as any skyscraper.

Gary Cooper, super duper

Gary Cooper, super duper

French terms

  • animalier – an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals
  • cabochon –  a gemstone which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted
  • éditeur d’art – publisher of art works
  • nécessaire – vanity case for ladies
  • objet d’art – used in English to describe works of art that are not paintings, large or medium-sized sculptures, prints or drawings. It therefore covers a wide range of works, usually small and three-dimensional, of high quality and finish in areas of the decorative arts, such as metalwork items, with or without enamel, small carvings, statuettes and plaquettes in any material, including engraved gems, hardstone carvings, ivory carvings and similar items, non-utilitarian porcelain and glass, and a vast range of objects that would also be classed as antiques (or indeed antiquities), such as small clocks, watches, gold boxes, and sometimes textiles, especially tapestries. Might include books with fine bookbindings.
  • pâte-de-verre – a kiln casting method that literally means ‘paste of glass’
  • pieces uniques – one-off works for rich buyers

Conclusion

In summary, this is an encyclopedic overview of the period with some very useful insights, not least the fundamental distinction between the French ‘high’ Art Deco of the 1920s and the ‘Modernist’ Art Deco of the 1930s (which flourished more in America than Europe). But it is also a rather dry and colourless book, only occasionally coming to life when Duncan gives one of his beautifully lucid technical explanations.

Probably better to invest in a coffee-table volume which has plenty of large illustrations (particularly of the great posters and magazine illustrations) to get a more accessible and exciting feel for the period.


Related links

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (1988)

This is an awesomely atmospheric, wide-ranging and astonishingly knowledgeable novel. The terms ‘spy novel’ or ‘thriller’ don’t get close to conveying the panoramic reach, the range of characters and places, and the magical depth of research which make it less a novel and more a portrait of an entire continent in crisis.

A spot of biography

Furst, born in New York in 1941, wrote four novels in the late 1970s and early 1980s which weren’t particularly successful. Then in 1984 he was commissioned by Esquire magazine to write about a journey down the Danube. Inspired by the scenery and history of Eastern Europe, he conceived the complex spy thriller, Night Soldiers, published four years later in 1988. This was the first of a series of 12 historical espionage novels all set in Eastern and Central Europe during the dark days of the 1930s and on into the Second World War, which have cemented his reputation as one of the most intelligent and distinctive spy writers of our time.

Night Soldiers is long, at 511 pages in the HarperCollins paperback. It is divided into five sections:

1. Levitsky’s Geese

It is 1934 and after his simple-minded brother, Nikko, is beaten to death by the village fascists, Bulgarian peasant Khristo Stoianev is recruited by a peripatetic Bolshevik talent-spotter, Antipin. He travels down the Danube with his minder, across the Black Sea and then up to Moscow where he joins a spy school run by the NKVD (precursor of the KGB) in Arbat Street. In his class are a number of other characters who reappear throughout the book: Colonel A.Y. Vonets aka Sascha (p.61/415), small intelligent Ilya Goldman, lanky Drazen Kulic, Kerenyi, the quiet Pole Josef Voluta.

After a training exercise in a deserted village in which the results were manipulated by the bosses, Kulic jokingly carves the text BF825 into the train carriage taking them back to Moscow – all it means is a made-up name Brotherhood Front and that unit 8 (his and Khristo’s unit) should have come first, unit 2 second and unit five third (p.88). It is a small joke, but it will resonate through the rest of the book, thousands of miles away and years later.

Claustrophobic terror is the atmosphere of the whole novel, from the very opening when Khristo’s brother is killed, throughout the training period when they see some of their instructors themselves (eg Major Ozunov) denounced as traitors and dragged off for interrogation and execution. In one terrifying scene, Khristo is forced to execute his lover, the tough communist zealot Marike, whose loyalty doesn’t save her. With no explanation he is taken from the training school to an interrogation centre, down into the cells, all the time being told a conspiracy has been uncovered and terrified that it is he who is about to be tortured. But they open the door to a cell and point out the traitor kneeling in the corner of the room and put a gun into his hand, and it is only when he is directly behind her that he realises it is his Marike…

The opening scenes are written in an uninflected language whose simplicity captures of the simplicity of rural peasant life. In Moscow the language becomes more interesting as Furst conveys the stifling terror of Stalin’s purges, and the narrative is packed with tiny details – of Bulgarian village life, food, tradition, or of Moscow’s streets, slang, traffic – which are utterly convincing. Food in particular. After shooting Marike he is taken back to the barracks where the fat old matron is making lunch and she gives him an extra portion of pelmeni, ground pork and onions wrapped in dough and boiled then served with sour cream and hot tea (p.66).

2. Blue Lantern

Madrid 1936. The embattled city is surrounded by the army of General Franco which has staged a coup against the elected left-wing government. Varieties of left-wing political groups and volunteers from the rest of Europe and America are defending the city, with some forces scattered in the country outside. It is here that Khristo (under the nom de guerre Captain Markov) and several of his colleagues from Arbat Street are sent, to support the counter-fascist struggle. Here we meet Andres Cardona, another Russian pretending to be a Spaniard (real name Roubenis), his American girlfriend Faye Berns, their friend Renata Braun. Khristo and Kulic are supervised by the suave NKVD officer and poet Sascha. There are lots of Spanish characters, lots of references to Spanish food and customs and use of Spanish phrases, as well as a thorough grasp of the complex and dark politics of the struggle. This section could almost be a novel in its own right, it has such a powerful atmosphere.

It is named after an incident where a blue lantern is lit by a fascist spy on top of an apartment block containing (unknown to its inhabitants) a big arms dump for the Nationalists. Faye spots it as she is taking turns on lookout duty atop a nearby building and a) bravely goes up the dark stairwell to get it b) moves it to her building, which has a big machine gun sited on the roof. Thus, when a German fighter-bomber from the Condor Legion flies low on a mission to bomb the building with the blue lantern, it finds itself being strafed by machine gun bullets and abandoning the task. Petrol tank ruptured, the plane crash lands in the countryside nearby where, it is strongly suggested, the local peasants show the German pilot no mercy (p.138).

But the revolution is eating itself; Stalin’s paranoia extends even here and Khristo finds himself one of many called in for interrogation by a terrifying General from his own side, General Yadomir Ivanovich Bloch aka Yaschyeritsa, the Lizard. Almost everyone thus called in ends up sent back to Moscow to be tortured and shot – in a powerful scene his control, Sascha, reveals that he too has been ordered home and gives a long drunken account of the infighting at the top of the NKVD which is resulting in entire sections being decimated. So Khristo crawls to the Lizard and begs for another chance. He just makes it, and is told to spy on Cardona, to get something incriminating which the Lizard can a) sell his bosses b) use to get Cardona arrested.

The scene cuts to Kulic, now Lieutenant Kulic commanding a group of Spanish fighters in the Guadarrama west of the city. A city car drives up and he is told by NKVD apparatchik Maltsaev that four of the men are traitors – which means they signed up at some stage with a farming union which has affiliated itself with the anarchist POUM movement. Kulic’s orders are simple – to execute them. He marches them off into the woods separately from the rest of the group, ostensibly to gather firewood, then raises his gun… But can’t do it. He explains his orders and why he is disobeying them, and they nod and head off west towards Portugal. Feeling the same frustration and sense of being trapped as on the training exercise, Kulic carves BF825 into a tree, a minuscule gesture of revolt.

Sascha returns to Moscow where he is given a good desk job and is relaxing when one day he is arrested and starts being beaten and interrogated in the car. They beat him continually until he names and implicates everyone he knows. Seems they were after his superior General Grechko, but along the way Sascha had named Khristo.

Back in Madrid Khristo is at the apartment of Andres and Faye and Renata when they get a phone call tipping them off that they are about to be arrested. Khristo recognises Goldman’s voice; they agree that if they ever get back in contact they’ll use the BF825 sign. The foursome pack and leave in five minutes. Fifteen minutes later the door is kicked down by the arresting party, but they are gone.

They drive north to the French border on a hair-raising journey where the car keeps breaking down and through various patrols and frights. At a little sea port they pay everything they have to an old fishing boat captain who chugs them round the coast and dumps them on the beach at St-Jean-de-Luz, where they are immediately arrested by French police (p.204).

The men Kulic let go are caught by Nationalists near the Portuguese border and tortured to tell their full stories. The information is passed up the chain to a German officer advising the fascists. He turns out to be an NKVD double agent and passes the information that Kulic is a traitor back to Moscow. From here it is passed to General Bloch in the field, who passes it on to his fixer Maltsaev. Maltsaev assigns Kulic and his men an assault on a fascist-held police station in an outlying village. It is a trap. His men are wiped out by machine gun fire and Kulic feels a mortar shell rip off half his face, his eye, then all is darkness.

3. The World at Night

Khristo is in Paris. Through illegal means he forged an identity and finally escaped the French internment camp (Renata and Faye had been released immediately; Andres had produced a forged Greek passport and been released, p.217). Now Khristo has become Nikko Petrov, known to everyone as ‘Nick’, the popular waiter at the Brasserie Heininger, run by the massive shaven-headed Turk Omaraeff. In one heart-stopping moment he is addressed as ‘Captain Markov’, his name in Madrid, but it is by Faye Berns, bumped into in the street by coincidence. They have a long lunch and reminisce about Madrid before she catches her train…

This is another very densely researched, written and felt section, with many characters and details. We get to know the wildly cosmopolitan clientele of the restaurant who assemble every night to party till dawn in the hectic, end-of-the-world mood of 1937, including a number of posh Brits and recklessly rich Americans. We see behind the scenes at the brasseries, where Omaraeff is king. Unfortunately, he knows Khristo is an ‘operator’ and asks him – well, blackmails him – into getting hold of a pistol and training a small group of watchers to establish the comings and goings of Soviet couriers who are routinely taking gold consignments to a Swiss bank in the city. But things go badly wrong. The gold robbery Khristo thinks he’s involved in turns into the assassination of a Soviet courier, Myagin, with several related deaths. And then a murder squad comes to the Brasseries and shocks even its jaded clientele by pulling out machine guns and shooting up the chandelier and decorations before pursuing Omaraeff into the ladies’ toilet and blowing his head off.

In among this mayhem Khristo had advertised in the newspaper using the BF825 signal and, to his amazement, receives a reply and makes a rendezvous with Ilya Goldman, the man who saved his life in Spain. Goldman updates Khristo (and us) about the fates of various characters met either in Arbat Street or Madrid – Sascha arrested, Kulic betrayed by his own side in Spain but then escaped, Voluta the quiet one in Arbat Street turns out to have been an agent for a Polish nationalist organisation, NOV (p.267).

Goldman warns Khristo the NKVD are operating in Paris, tracking down defectors. In fact someone they both know was very publicly hacked to death with an ice pick by NKVD assassins who escaped in a fast car before the cops arrived. Violence from the East has spread its tendrils even into Paris.

Throughout this section Khristo has been consoled by a romantic love affair with the beautiful Aleksandra. Their sensual sex, dressing up and role playing, her warmth and affection are the only things which keep him going. After the meeting with Goldman Khristo hurries back to the apartment but Aleksandra has gone. He finds marks of her fingernails on the wooden doorframes which she clutched onto for a second before being dragged away. She has vanished into the maw of the century of death like so many millions of others.

There is some complex plot: An Englishman named Fitzware tries to recruit Khristo who tells him to get lost, but Fitzware knows a lot about Omaraeff and knows Khristo bought the gun which carried out the Myagin assassination. In the scene with Goldman Khristo tells him that Omaraeff was behind the assassination of the courier Myagin. This information is probably fed back up the chain and leads to the commissioning of the machine gun thugs who murder Omaraeff at the Heininger. In a key scene Fitzware meets with Théaud, a young man in the DST, French equivalent of MI5. Irritated with Khristo for not signing up with him, Fitzware tells Théaud about his involvement in the Omaraeff affair. But Théaud is horrified, because the newly elected Popular front government of France is closely allied with the Soviet Union, the last thing it wants is a scandal implicating their Russian friends. So the pair cook up a solution which is for the French authorities to arrest Khristo, hold the trial in camera to avoid publicity, and imprison him for life.

Khristo moves apartment again, keeping one step ahead of the assassins, but after Aleksandra’s abduction has lost the will to live, spending days staring at the wall or weeping. On 23 July 1937 he is arrested as an accessory to the murder of Omaraeff and sentenced to life imprisonment. The narrative describes the cell, six feet by four feet, the cot bed tied to the wall during the day, the daily meal of mashed lentils and sandy bread, the ‘exercise’ twice a week, for one hour, where he briefly meets the other convicts. The window is thick yellow glass, with just one tiny fragment in a corner broken. Through this tiny hole Khristo can just about see the blue sky, and it is this one fragment of the outside world which keeps him alive.

Surprisingly, he gets a letter from Aunt Iliane, obviously his fairy godmother, Ilya Goldman, telling him that their cousin Alexandre is better after a bad experience and has gone abroad for her health. Khristo reads the letter and weeps and turns over on his cot towards the wall.

Because there’s been such a large and fluctuating cast of characters, because so many of them have been arrested, murdered, executed, killed in combat – the reader easily thinks this is the end of Khristo, leaving us with a very heavy heart.

4. Plaque Tournante

The narrative makes a surprising leap to an advertising company on Madison Avenue, New York, introducing us to bored copywriter Robert Eidenbaugh. To his own surprise he is approached by a friend working for the OSS and recruited. After extensive training he is parachuted into occupied France in autumn 1943. His mission is to base himself in a rural French village and organise resistance. To this end we meet and get to know half a dozen inhabitants of Cambras, their families, their lives and loves, in yet another section which could almost be a stand-alone novel.

After this long excursus it is a surprise to return to Khristo in his cell. Gruelling description of his mental state during his long imprisonment and deterioration. In July 1940 there is a scrap  of paper under his bowl of soup with ‘BF825’ scratched on it, and a time 2:30. At that time he is released from prison by a French priest who walks him through a series of open doors and into the open air. Freedom. Along with many other dangerous men he is being released as the German armies advance into France.

There is a thrilling sequence describing how he arms himself, steals a car and escapes from Paris, charitably stopping to pick up a handful of the most pitiful refugees he sees among the crowds fleeing the capital. He is flagged over by two ageing sisters, Sophie and Marguerite who are trying to help their sick boss, Antonin Dreu, who has in fact had a stroke, on the grass verge by a river. Khristo struggles to give him the last rites in Bulgarian and then the two sisters prevail on him to join them. The boss knew a cataclysm was coming and bought a cottage in the country which he stocked with tinned food. It is too good an offer to refuse, and Khristo hands the keys to the stolen car to his little group of refugees, then gets in the big sedan of the two sisters and drives them to the isolated cottage in the hills.

For several years they live very quietly together, ignoring the war. But Khristo feels increasingly guilty at his inaction and in the winter of 1943 makes himself known to the local Resistance. By January 1944 he has been recruited into the extensive network which Eidenbaugh has organised and leads, though himself under instruction from the shadowy, sleek Frenchman, Ulysse.

Winter turns into spring and a fascinating account of French resistance organisational structure, its tactics, and accounts of its sporadic attacks on German targets and persistent low-level sabotage. The section builds up to an attack on German forces in the village of Cabejac, led by Eidenbaugh under his nom de guerre Lucien. But this turns out to be a trap, the Germans are waiting for them, there is a firefight and Eidenbaugh and Khristo only escape because a little boy whistles to them, and guides them through the maze of back gardens, rooftops and then a long gruelling elbows and knees crawl through a disused sewer out beyond the village boundaries, from where they escape.

They are debriefed by Ulysse, over extended conversations, shown photographs, asked to identify the forces that attacked them. Ulysse tells them the entire population of Cabejac was exterminated by the Germans for collaborating. Eidenbaugh’s nerves are shot. He is being exfiltrated to Switzerland. Does Khristo want to go with him? Yes. So, after a nerve-wracking search of the peasant vegetable cart he is driving as cover by a punctilious German at the border, he finally escapes into Switzerland, to a half-hearted ‘internment’ which in fact amounts to him reading newspapers from his homeland and writing intelligence reports. In one of them he comes across a photo of Faye Berns, now a leading light in the American war effort, and thinks of the days in Madrid.

Bessarabia

It is December 1944 and Ilya Goldman has been buried in a crap job as an inspector of the gold mine labour camps of the river Kolyma. Here, in camp 782, to his astonishment he meets Sascha, the one-time dandy and poet, now a wreck of a haggard survivor, prisoner number 503775, who promptly blackmails his old friend, threatening to tell the authorities about his membership of the sinister BF825 brotherhood unless Ilya can get him a transfer to a camp in European Russia, from which he plans to flee to Romania. The other part of his plan is to get Ilya to convey to Voluta of the Polish NOV organisation, the fact that Sascha wants to defect and bears a lot of valuable information for the West. (As an example he says he knows that operative Andres from Madrid was killed by slow acting poison on orders of the NKVD in 1937.) Sascha will make his way to the village of Sfintu Gheorghe, there to be collected on a certain date. There are some highly believable sequences which show the elaborate lengths Ilya must go to in order to forge the transfer documents for Sascha. But he does it.

In a complete switch of scene which we are by now used to, we see Khristo approached by the American intelligence agency, the OSS and asked to perform a mission in Prague, operation FELDSPAR. He is given some training then parachuted in with a new model of lightweight radio. He hides in a bombed-out factory and his mission is to use the cover of being a Yugoslav munitions worker in order to send radio messages to a specially adapted RAF Mosquito, describing the war effort and situation in Czechoslovakia for his US masters. There is a lot of circumstantial detail, not least the taking of a plump Czech lover, Magda. It is she who stuns him one day by bringing a message from a Mr BF825 to meet at a certain bar at a certain time. Khristo is terrified. Someone not only knows he is here, but knows his past that far back. Is he about to be handed over to the Germans? Executed by the NKVD?

In the bar he is astonished to be met by Voluta, the quiet Pole who Goldman told him had turned out to be an agent for Polish intelligence all along. They don’t speak, but eat separately, till Voluta palms him a note which Khristo reads in the toilets, saying let’s meet on the bridge tonight. But when he goes to meet Voluta, way after curfew, on a dark deserted bridge, he watches helplessly as Voluta is shot dead from a passing car. NKVD? Germans? Not Germans because the rendezvous had been staked out by German intelligence, one of whom follows Khristo back to his bombed-out warehouse base and dies a horrible death.

But Khristo had got enough of the message about Sascha to wind up affairs in Prague. To his amazement Magda helps him escape to Bratislava, by tucking him under the rug in a carful of her friends dolled up to the nines, stinking of perfume and booze which they drive there, getting through every checkpoint on the way by saying they’re going to meet their German boyfriends and show them a good time. Let out of the car in Bratislava, Khristo takes in the bodies of German deserters hanging from the lamp posts and the silhouette of the bombed-out derricks.

He watches in surprise a tug pulling barges full of German wounded being strafed by a Russian jet and then, on an impulse, dives into the wide Danube river and just about manages to swim out to the tug and pull himself aboard by a trailing rope.

Now begins a long rather hallucinatory journey down the river Danube on the tug Tiza, skippered by the immense, confident capable Annika. She doesn’t mind having an able-bodied man to help her out and they form a rough wartime alliance as she sets off in company of several other tugs, back east along the river. At Budapest this rough friendship comes to an end as Khristo is arrested and interrogated by the occupying Russians but then released, he is obviously a river rat and they have bigger concerns as their army fights its way into Eastern Europe. Khristo wanders through bombed-out Budapest and then sets off on foot along the road bordering the river south towards Yugoslavia, becoming progressively more hungry and thirsty, dirty and careless as he proceeds.

He is lucky enough to be hailed by a Russian soldier in a rowing boat, a man who had both legs blown off by a landmine, and would welcome some able bodied help. Khristo rows, the man gives him clean water and food. Near the town of Osijek Khristo sees the insignia BF825 carved into the bow of a rotting barge. He abandons the rowboat and says hello to the old geezer fishing from the barge, who stiffly stands up and takes him to his son.

It is the badly disfigured Drazen Kulic, who escaped from Spain and made it back to his native Yugoslavia to become a partisan. Kulic takes Khristo up to their mountain headquarters. He explains the ‘mission’ – to identify Sascha and protect him until handed over to the Americans, if they show up. He warns Khristo he has a bad feeling about it all; it might be a trap. He takes Khristo up to their little partisan graveyard and shows him the headstone of Aleksandra. Goldman managed to get her safe passage this far south and Kulic protected her until she eventually took up arms and fought with them and was killed in a firefight with the Germans.

Kulic arranges Khristo’s passage on a barge named Brovno. This carries him further down the Danube to the village of Sfintu Gheorge, where Khristo a) witnesses a drunken village celebration, as someone has left the villagers a surprise present of food, fruit and vegetables b) climbs up into the dark attic of the local church, whispering Sascha’s name only for – pop – a gun to flare in the dark and to be shot in the chest. Down the ladder he falls and crawls out into the night eerily lit by flames from the village bonfire and celebration, and down after him comes Sascha, now almost mad, run-down, disorientated. Against all the odds he has made it this far but when he heard a Russian voice his first instinct was to shoot.

As he dies Khristo dreams men approaching and lifting him, a boat, a flying boat, water, engines, all supervised by an American with a machine gun.

In a complete break from this gripping narrative, we are suddenly in Palestine in April 1945, where the tired reception clerk Heshel Zavi at an immigration centre is processing yet more refugees. Number 183 in front of him turns out to be more able and biddable than most of the specimens he sees, and volunteers to help, to become a night watchman, maybe more. This one will go far, thinks Zavi. It isn’t made explicit but this would seem to be Goldman, and the reader is happy that he has survived the bloodbath and the cumulated weight of his story adds to your understanding of the founding of the state of Israel.

The very last  scene moves to a third party point of view, a little in the manner of Graham Greene, who liked to switch things away from his protagonist at the last moment. In Greene it is done to emphasise the author’s despairing world-view and to belittle the protagonists. Here it does the opposite, and the novel ends with a very American happy ending, as two enthusiastic women greeters whose job it is at the New York docks to greet veterans of the European war with fresh doughnuts and coffee, watch an unusual Slavic-looking man, walking with a limp and touching his hand to his left side as if in pain (and that’s what identifies him to the reader as Khristo) look around disoriented as he reaches the bottom of the gangway. A young woman waves to him and they meet, shake hands and then, under the approving gaze of the two greeters, link arms and walk away.

Their names aren’t mentioned but it must be Khristo, patched up and returned to the States by American intelligence after performing sterling work for them, being met at the dockside by Faye Berns, with the very strong implication that, with all their shared memories, they will fall in love.

It is an immensely moving finale to an epic novel, and gives the reader a very profound sense of what America meant to so many people in the later 19th century and throughout the 20th century, escape, a real sanctuary from the terrors of a Europe gone mad, in the most literal sense, the land of the free.


Comments

Tough start The first 60 or 70 pages set in a peasant village in Bulgaria are very slow moving and don’t give any sense of the breadth and scale which the novel will eventually cover, nor the epic range, nor the large cast of varied characters whose stories shed light on a dozen countries. First time round I found it hard getting past this opening, but it is well worth persevering.

Permanent menace Furst establishes the atmosphere of menace right for the start, when Khristo sees his simple-minded younger brother get kicked to death in front of him by local fascists, who then attack a meeting of sympathetic villagers organised by the Bolshevik, killing another man and locking the others into a house which they set fire to. The atmosphere of permanent menace and unease increases in the Moscow of 1934, with the trainee spies under observation at every point. In fact from start to finish you are in a world where every single conversation is the intersecting point of multiple motives, from the personal, to the highly political, via a maze of conflicting power struggles.

Vignettes I came to this book having just read a couple of John le Carré novels, which had very defined lead characters and very strong central narratives. I found Night Soldiers a relief because it was much more contingent feeling: it contains hundreds of anecdotes and vignettes, some only peripherally related to the central characters, and with no very strong sense of a central narrative. For long stretches I wasn’t sure who were the central characters – after Khristo is put in a Paris prison I really thought that was the last we’d hear of him and the new section which begins with the American I thought might signal a completely new series of episodes.

This is a good thing because a) it made the novel a lot less predictable, in fact it made it drastically unpredictable throughout the second half, which made it feel much more tense and interesting; b) it made it feel panoramic: scores of episodes give a powerful sense not just of a handful of lead characters, but of an entire culture, of an entire continent, hurtling to destruction.

Lyricism And, surprisingly for a book which contains so much brutal violence and so much cynical betrayal, there are scenes of great lyricism, especially the moments when Khristo is in his lovers’ apartment with Aleksandre, moments when the smoke for his Gitane cigarette spirals delicately towards the ceiling, or Aleksandre’s silhouette is captured against the skylight, moments which feel like a powerfully atmospheric black and white photo from the era. The very harsh world the characters inhabit is leavened by these moments of sensuality and feeling, to give the whole production a very distinctive, smoky, richly varied flavour.

This is a stunningly brilliant book.


Credit

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst was published in 1988 by The Bodley Head. All quotes and references are to the 1998 HarperCollins paperback edition.

HarperCollins paperback edition of Night Soldiers

The artwork for these HarperCollins paperback editions brilliantly conveys the atmosphere and setting of the novels, with the use of moody b&w shots of some European urban scene with shadowy figures under streetlamps at night. They are credited to Willy Ronis/Rapho/Network.

Related links

1988 Night Soldiers – An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star
1995 The Polish Officer
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Difficulties With Girls by Kingsley Amis (1988)

‘You selfish pig.’ (p.210)

Difficulties With Girls is Kingsley Amis’s 19th novel and a sequel to his fourth, Take A Girl Like You, published nearly 30 years earlier, in 1960. In that book we met twenty-year-old Jenny Bunn, a northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets and, eventually, after a lot of bad behaviour on his part, more or less resigns herself to marrying the lecherous, amoral public school teacher Patrick Standish.

On page 3 of Difficulties With Girls we learn that Jenny is now 28, ie it is set in 1968, not the 1988 when it was published. Jenny and Patrick had married partly because she was pregnant, but we learn in this book that she had a miscarriage in her fifth month and has since stopped ovulating. Meanwhile, Patrick, significantly older than her, at 35, was talked into leaving teaching and joining a ‘young go-ahead’ publishing company by its MD, Simon Giles.

As the novel opens Patrick and Jenny are settling into a new flat, one of a row in what sounds like a modernist concrete block on the South Bank near Waterloo. The ‘plot’, such as it is, will be largely about Patrick’s affairs and their eccentric neighbours.

We discover that the ‘glamour’ of publishing has long ago worn off, Patrick hates reading manuscripts at home and is waspishly critical of his dandruffy, dim, all-male colleagues at the little publishing house, while Jenny is haunted by not having a child and continually reminded of the fact since she took a job teaching mornings-only at a children’s hospital.

But none of this conveys the main points of the book which are:

  • the repeated theme that women are mad and unpredictable
  • Patrick’s fondness for pretty girls and porn mags (Titter 2Twosome 3) and adulterous affairs
  • Amis’s depressing philistinism: all poets are wankers, novelists are full of cack, writers are awful, artists are ghastly, publishers are frauds, agents are crooks, and on and on it goes, a relentless undermining and lowering of all creative endeavour. What a depressing old fart. It started out as a young man being wittily anti-cant and arty bollocks in the 1940s and by the late 1980s had hardened into a cult of blundering, boozy insensitivity, deliberate, wilful contempt for everything and everyone.

Shocking prose

Dominating all other aspects of the book is Amis’s bloody odd prose style. What began as funny voices and cheeky insubordination in the early novels has congealed into a really idiosyncratic way with English prose, rendering Amis almost incapable of writing a straightforward sentence without the addition of slangy tags and afterthoughts – ‘in a manner of speaking’, ‘well, not really’, ‘to be fair’, ‘so to speak’, ‘all the same’, ‘in so many words’, ‘not to mention’, ‘sort of thing’, ‘not really’, ‘in any case’, ‘at any rate’, ‘if indeed’, ‘worse really’, ‘let it be said’, ‘quite honestly’, ‘to some extent’, ‘and much else’ – the addition of these otiose tags and redundant qualifiers giving a completely spurious impression of precision of thought or observation when the actual effect is the opposite, a weakening, a diffusing, an unending watering-down, sometimes into complete obscurity, of whatever he’s trying to say.

For example, Patrick is sitting in a park, calculating how many acts of sex it would require the average couple to conceive the average 2.5 children over the average 12.5 years of active sex life assuming a 10 to one ration of sex to fertilisation. It works out at a fuck a month. So far so offensive. Then:

Patrick rather abruptly changed his position on the public bench where he now sat. Only then did it strike him that his train of thought had been fanciful in a special sense, in the unfortunate sense that Jenny and he were not normally fertile people, had not been since her miscarriage nearly seven years before, no great direct grief to him, but he shared in hers. It was something that, perhaps excusably, he tried to forget when he could. All the same, it had surely been unfeeling of him to forget it just then. Well, not really, not in any way that mattered. What was unfeeling, and much else, and what did matter, his reflections ran on without pause, was tolerating for a single instant that demented little bitch Barbara’s proposal to come and live on his doorstep, and in no spirit of chummy neighbourliness either. (p.34)

‘Well, not really, not in any way that mattered’ could be the motto of the whole text. Paragraph after paragraph is padded out with pointless equivocations, the addition of unnecessary alternatives (or this, or that, or the other) and automatic and pointless qualifications of the main clauses. Thought after thought is watered down and mucked about with until it is mush. In Amis’s hands the English language is like one of those cardboard boxes full of empty wine bottles left out in the rain all night after a house party, which you see in the morning by the front door gone all soggy, its colours run, its shape and structure collapsing, a forlorn wreck.

Patrick was in first class shape one morning the following week as he walked across the square to his office. There had been more days of rain, but the trees in the central garden, far from being discouraged, had responded with a rather showy outburst of foliage, both in quantity and in concentration of greenness. He liked trees. They reminded him of sex in a way, or at any rate were a distinguished form of life, and he made a point of being on the side of life, though he would have done so with an easier mind had it not been for all the terrible craps who volunteered the information that that was what they were. (p.111)

The anthropomorphising of the trees starts out fresh and inventive and then something dreadful happens to the train of thought as it becomes, firstly a bit repetitive, hits a couple of typical tags – ‘in a way’, ‘or at any rate’ – then goes off-piste with the introduction of sex until it is careering downhill into a grumpy and not immediately intelligible diatribe against ‘craps’ ie everyone he doesn’t like. Which is everyone.

Wherever you look Amis is addicted to very odd turns of phrase, reflecting a permanently odd frame of mind – popping with jarring or peripheral observations which run on into verbosely long sentences, topped with unexpected afterthoughts, larded with his trademark tags (‘after all’) and pointless alternatives (‘or this, or that, or something’).

She had said enough to remind him in full of her unpleasant accent, which differed so radically from his own. But she had not said enough to let him decide whether she was somebody who had never liked or approved of him and now had sensational cause to do even less of either, or somebody who had never liked or approved of him. She had sounded exactly like both. (p.166)

Takes a moment to work out what the jokey middle sentence is doing, and then a moment or two more to realise you don’t care. It doesn’t advance the ‘story’ one iota. It’s padding made out of not very funny playing with words and phrases. There’s a hell of a lot of it in Amis’s later novels which is why they’re so long.

After a board meeting at the publishers, his boss, Simon, says his wife Barbara is going to be in the neighbourhood, visiting the Young Vic theatre, so would it be OK if she pops in? He explains they’re thinking about buying the vacant flat along the row from Patrick and Jenny’s.

Patrick was nearly sure he stipulated a phone call in advance. He was even closer to being sure that there had been some unbearable theatrical or dramaturgical thing in Barbara’s earlier life that he was supposed to know about. He had still not finished trying to make up his mind to bother to try to remember what it was when Simon left. (p.179)

Is it a genuine attempt to capture the fleeting nature of human thought? Or is it meant to tell us about Patrick’s contorted mental processes? Is it meant to be funny?

One of the eccentric neighbours introduces himself as Tim Valentine, 36, dresses posh, has independent means, is a prison visitor in his spare time, has bad allergies and sneezes a lot. He and Patrick go to the pub where Tim reveals some of his ‘difficulties with girls’ ie he loses interest after the initial seduction and can’t perform when it comes to the act of love. Patrick is amused and waits for the ‘big unburdening’ to come and, predictably enough, Tim goes on to say he’s now seeing a psychiatrist who thinks Tim’s problem is his ‘suppressed homosexuality’. Patrick stifles his laughter.

Of course anybody could have seen it coming, but not from all that far off, and in any case a hundred miles away would have been too close for it to have arrived without some kind of shock. (p.78)

Is this funny? If not, what is it doing? Later in the novel Patrick is disconcerted when Tim barges in on Patrick’s uneasy reunion with his old teaching colleague, Graham McClintock (who we met in Take A Girl Like You).

Patrick introduced them in three and a half words apiece and rather wearily poured drinks. In silence, the two almost bowed almost stiffly to each other, behaving rather like two – well, two somethings-or-other, thought Patrick. Two climatological dendrologists or career torturers, pre-eminent in their respective domains but divided on some technical points. There seemed nothing to be done. Perhaps if he waited for a minute one or other of them would fall down dead. (p.197)

I can see that this is meant to be funny and it does raise a smile, but at rather a cost and the drop down dead punchline is just cold. But in many other places Amis’s compulsion to tinker, adjust, qualify and add waffle onto the basic proposition makes his sentences almost incomprehensible. The notion that Amis was ever considered some kind of guide to ‘good English’ prose style beggars belief.

Anybody could have told that that day he was not going anywhere he ought not to be going. (p.143)

Uncomfortable prose for an uncomfortable pose

Linked to the ever-equivocating, tag-happy prose is the detached and alienated point of view of the narrator and all the characters. Amis was famous as a student for his hilarious impersonations, funny voices and gurning faces. The habit hardened into an attitude of seeing everything everyone does or says as a racket, a turn, a routine, something to be summed up and dismissed in a witty definition, or a performance or rigmarole which – oh God – you just have to go through. Maybe once witty, this also has become tiresome.

Thus, in the extended scene in chapter nine where he seduces Wendy Porter-King in a friend’s house he’s borrowed expressly for the purpose, Patrick – as a jaded roué – interprets every single thing she says as elements of her ‘routine’, the standard stuff you have to put up with from women before you can screw them. He charmingly christens it ‘cock tax’. Yaddah yaddah yaddah, she goes, and we are meant to be amused at the running commentary the narrator gives us on Patrick’s ‘hilarious’ attempts to match her mood, agree with her girlish whimsy, refrain from kicking her in the teeth when she says something stupid, and generally manipulate her into getting her pants down. Ha ha ha.

People are always doing a bit of business with their eyes or going through a routine with their cigarettes or performing a part in a conversation or playing a role at a party or in a meeting or down the pub. On page 147 Tim’s sister turns up out of the blue on Jenny’s doorstep:

‘I’m his sister.’
Jenny’s first thought was that a true sister of Tim’s would have been more likely to say she was the Shah of Persia, only the Shah of Persia would not have been claiming to be Tim’s sister. Or something. In other words she was confused. But she successfully said, ‘How nice to see you,’ blocking off the dreaded pleased-to-meet-you formula without turning a hair.
‘Is he all right, old Tim?’
Jenny mentioned his telephone call that morning, and reminded herself he had not asked her not to say anything or anything.

Leaving aside the classic Amis pointless afterthought – ‘Or something’ – how about “She successfully said, ‘How nice to see you'”? As if this achievement required wit or sharp intellect on the part of either character or author. Time after time even the most mundane exchanges are treated to the Amis routine of placing them in inverted commas and having the characters ‘go through’ the ‘hello how are you bit’ or deliver the ‘oh so sorry to hear that’ performance. The overall effect is of someone who finds almost all conversation or contact with other people tiresome and inconvenient, and it shows, it really shows, throughout the novel, helping to make it a tiresome read.

When Patrick finally brings himself to confess his affair to Jenny, she is dreading it because it will all be so predictable:

She would have given a lot to have been able to stop the whole thing cold… He went into a swallowing routine, pushing his chin down and opening his lips… She bent forward in her chair, waiting for him to get on to the next bit… Jenny watched the pleased relieved expression drain away from Patrick’s face as he got himself ready for the last serious part that would round the whole business off. (pp.208-212)

At the end of chapter thirteen Patrick has a panic attack (a ‘spell of sudden extreme fear’, p.200). I’ve noticed in some of Amis’s other novels that the narrator or protagonist’s rather desperate and unfunny humour, their turning of everything into a joke, a game, a patter, a routine, stems from a deep-seated fear of just being, of existence, of simply doing and saying thing like normal people do. Seen in this light the novels dramatise, both in their characters and in their restless fidgety language, Amis’s inability to just watch and observe and describe. To be content.

The plot

Despite all his promises to Jenny to the contrary, Patrick has a cold-hearted affair with Wendy Porter-King, the female half of the couple who have moved into a flat along the way. Tall, creepy Tim Valentine reveals to Patrick that the therapist he’s been seeing thinks he’s gay, and so Tim tries out mincing and lisping in a couple of hard London pubs to Patrick’s horror. (From that point onwards there are quite a few references to how stupid and dangerous psychiatrists can be.) Patrick meets Eric, one of the pair of gay neighbours, in a dingy club in Soho and tries to persuade him to have a word with Tim and convince him he is not gay. There’s a party at Eric’s where they all meet Stevie, his gay partner, once a well-known actor and now given to throwing tremendous hissy fits.

A few days later the Porter-Kings hold a horrible, crowded party full of ghastly people talking about their gurus (it is 1968) and Jenny glimpses Patrick and Wendy exchanging, just for a few seconds, a look which unmistakably signals that they’ve had sex. Disgusted and mortified, she walks out of the party, packs her travel bag and moves out of the flat to stay with her friend Elsie in Enfield.

(There’s a sub-plot at Patrick’s work where his hard-faced boss wants to squeeze out an older employee, Jack, and uses the bidding and fussing around the new novel by a 70-something Irish author, Deirdre, to do it. Amis gives Patrick a presumably ‘hilarious’ set-piece dinner with Deirdre – or, as he charmlessly describes her, ‘the old mick’ (p.171) – who turns out to be every bit as calculating and cynical as Pat himself, and together they come up with an elaborate scheme to shaft his boss and save Jack’s job.)

Patrick calls Elsie and leaves messages for Jenny but when she doesn’t return his calls, after a few days Patrick begins to realise that Jenny has twigged his adultery with Wendy. Jenny returns a few days later and has to go through the excruciating ‘performance’ of Patrick’s a) finding something else to apologise about (the cat’s gone missing) in order to screw his nerve up to b) confessing everything to Jenny, who then has to decide just how angry/upset/indifferent to pretend to be before c) the whole routine ends up with them in bed for forgiveness sex. Again, as usual, as always. There is an overwhelming sense of the deadeningness of this routine. We know Amis was a serial adulterer to his wives. It all feels too familiar, too true, too painful and too bleak to be at all funny.

Later Patrick takes Jenny to another party (it is London in the 60s) at a big impressive house with a conservatory and garden and big Victorian kitchen. Here, among ha ha descriptions of children’s writers, literary agents, historians and reviewers getting sloshed and behaving badly, Patrick introduces Jenny to his old friend Oswald Hart, back from being a correspondent in Washington and they go for a walk in the gardens where Oswald tells her about his ‘difficulties with girls’, well, his wife, from whom he’s separated.

In a scene which changes the tone of the novel, back at their flat, Jenny rounds on Patrick in a sustained diatribe. Not only is he a selfish, lecherous pig, but he was trying to fix Jenny up with Oswald, virtually egging them on to have an affair, so that would make it alright for Patrick to continue being adulterous. As he shrinks into his chair, Jenny says not only is that disgusting but reveals just how little he knows her or understands her or women in general, and reaches the conclusion that there really is nowhere for their relationship to go because she is not putting up with this kind of behaviour any more.

The gay stabbing

At which point Tim knocks on the door, interrupting the climax of Jenny’s tirade and inviting himself in for a nightcap. Patrick suddenly remembers this was the night the gay couple next door, Eric and Stevie, were scheduled to take Tim on a tour of gay clubs. So they ask Tim what it was like and it is now that he gives the earth-shattering news about what homosexual men ‘do’. During his horror-stricken explanation, they all hear mounting talking, then shouting, from Errc and Stevie next door.

Now, up to this point the whole strand of Tim Valentine being a quite tall but stooping, shy, sneezing loser who preposterously thinks he’s gay, and the linked thread of the genuinely gay couple next door – Eric and Stevie – had been very much a side issue in a novel predominantly about Patrick and Jenny.

But in these few pages this changes dramatically. 1. Tim gives Patrick and Jenny a preposterous account of going to some gay clubs. He can barely bring himself to describe what he’s discovered which is, apparently, that one person does it to another person and that person receives it and what kind of person does that make him, or even worse that the other person does it to the first person and they even like it and what kind of person does that make that person?? — (It is difficult to take this muddled twaddle, and hence the novel, seriously.) 2. In their previous scenes Patrick’s main reason for trying to talk Tim out of his ludicrous delusion that he’s gay, was Patrick’s assertion that the queer scene was so violent – ‘They’ll kick your head in,’ he’d warned Tim. — This, at the time, had seemed so preposterous I didn’t take it seriously.

But now all three hear the shouting next door rise in tone and then scuffling outside their door and then Tim opens it to have Stevie stumble inside, blood pouring from a stab wound to his neck. While Jenny immediately fetches tea towels to staunch the bleeding, Tim wrestles with Eric in the doorway and for a bad moment I thought Tim might get killed, but he manages to disarm Eric and wrestle him into the Standish’s living room ,where he sits in a daze while the others call an ambulance and try to keep Stevie alive till it arrives. Then the police arrive, question everyone, and arrest Eric.

Well. That was unexpected. Having upset women in most of his books, insulted artists and writers whenever he gets the chance, satirised the psychiatric profession in Jake’s Thing and Stanley and the Women, Amis appears to have set out to slander gay men with this ludicrously melodramatic plotline.

In the next chapter Patrick goes to visit Eric, who has been let out on bail and is staying with his tut-tutting sister. I forgot to mention that the night Jenny turned on Patrick and Eric and Stevie took Tim for a trawl of gay clubs and then Eric stabbed Stevie was also the night the House of Commons was voting on decriminalising homosexuality. Possibly homosexuality is meant to be an Important Theme in the book, if only it hadn’t been handled so monstrously.

Eric delivers some kind of author’s message about him and Patrick being two of a kind, they are hopelessly attracted to the Other, the non-man, the Feminine: in Patrick’s case to actual women, in Eric’s case, to feminine men. They seem to agree this is a fate and a destiny which can’t be avoided and in some obscure way it justifies Patrick (and maybe Amis’s) adulteries.

‘It’s the clash between male and non-male that causes all the trouble. They’re different from us. More like children. Crying when things go wrong. Making difficulties just so as to be a person.’ (p.256)

In the office Patrick is amazed when his boss, Simon, confesses he’s been having ‘difficulties’ with his girl ie wife, Barbara, who, since reading a book about women’s liberation has been demanding ‘fulfilment’ in bed, which Simon just isn’t up to giving her. In an extraordinary moment, he makes it clear he’d like Patrick to step into the breach and, er, give her fulfilment – hence their interest in acquiring the vacant flat in Patrick’s row, so he could pop round and service her on demand. Patrick needs no time at all to assert that this is a very bad idea, and would never work.

As he is motoring back to the flat, Jenny takes a phone call from Tim, who has decided he isn’t gay and has returned to live with his wife, Augusta. He confesses he is still having ‘difficulties’ ie he can’t get it up for the act of love, but he is determined to stick it out.

Now, Tim, we have learned, is supposed to be a barrister. All the barristers I’ve ever met are very clever and very canny. Tim is depicted as a moron who is completely ignorant about sex and devastated when he learns the reality of gay sex, which had, ludicrously, never occurred to him before. He is just one of the many elements which make this book almost unreadably obtuse, thick-headed and irrelevant.

Patrick arrives home just as Jenny is putting the phone down on Tim. She announces she is pregnant. They are going to have a baby. Patrick’s face is covered in tears as he embraces her. He says she has saved their marriage, and Jenny is happy, too.

She was going to have him all to herself for at least three years, probably more like five, and a part of him for ever, and now she could put it all out of her mind. (p.276)

In other words it ends very like the first novel, with the ill-matched pair forlornly committing to each other over a pregnancy, leaving the reader with the ominous feeling that it will all work out very badly, all over again.

Conclusion

There are many good reasons not to read Kingsley Amis – the tiresome misogyny, driven by alternating fear of women and hatred of women – the relentlessly pathetic, juvenile addiction to sex – the some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews anti-semitism – the Stone Age attitude towards homosexuality. There’s the way the ‘plots’ are rarely worth making much effort to follow, since not much really changes or develops in them. There’s the way the whole world his characters inhabit is not like any world I’ve observed, a world in which behaviour and attitudes which are totally unacceptable here on planet earth are humorously encouraged.

But by far the biggest reason not to read Kingsley Amis is to avoid witnessing the peculiar deformations of the English language which his idiosyncratic style so routinely produces. He belongs to the no-nonsense generation of the 1950s who turned their backs on the modish experiments of the Modernism of the 1920s and 1930s but – in writing about modern people – he finds he needs some of its techniques, especially the near stream-of-consciousness which he uses when he is describing Jenny. Having spent his career denouncing the stuff and nonsense of experimental prose he finds himself, much to his embarrassment, regularly writing something close to it himself, but in a peculiarly ham-fisted, home-made fashion.

‘I love you,’ she said, and was honestly surprised when he came round the kitchen table and took her in his arms, and even more surprised (well, in a way) at what followed, which went on until a very short time before Tim came. In fact she brought up the question of what they would do if he turned up early like last time, and was glad she was the only one there to hear some of the things Patrick said to that. But there was no problem, and everything got eaten up and nobody quarrelled or went quiet. (p.222)


Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

Medusa by Hammond Innes (1988)

Mike Steele, the first person narrator of this adventure yarn, is a man with a past, a past which is only slowly revealed in this 350-page novel, Innes’ longest work.

Minorca

The novel opens with Mike going about his business on the island of Menorca in the western Mediterranean, where he runs a boat chandlery shop above the harbour of the capital, Port Mahon, has bought a couple of villas to rent out to tourists and manages his moody, pregnant wife Soo (Suzanne).

Mike’s a well-known figure about the harbour and among the ex-pat community on the island and we are plunged immediately into his networks of business and social contacts, checking the builders and decorators at the new villa, touching base with the crew of his two fishing boats, having lunch with local businessmen and attending a big gala hosted by the mayor to celebrate the opening of another urbanización, or building development.

The assassination

Mike is invited to the event and makes a little speech before introducing the charismatic mayor, Jorge Martinez, who stands and begins to say how valuable building developments like this are for the local economy etc. In mid-sentence, to the surprise and shock of the audience (and this reader), there’s the whip crack of a rifle shot and the back of his head is blown open by a sniper bullet (p.98).

Suddenly a lot of earlier incidents, a lot of scattered events from the first hundred pages, come into sharp focus. There’d been scattered references in the text to a political problem with ‘separatists’. Among other things, villas owned by foreigners are routinely broken into and daubed with graffiti (‘Minorca for the Minorcans’ etc) or squatted in. Is the assassination something to do with them?

Bosomy Petra

One of Mike’s wide circle of acquaintances is a young woman archaeologist, Petra Cassis, who Mike is strongly attracted to (he rarely encounters her without referring to her full shapely breasts – indeed, Innes is something of a boob man: all the female leads in the last four or five novels tend to have heaving bosoms – who can forget the passionate love-making on a mountainside in a storm between Colin Tait and Mary Delden, who rips open her blouse for the purpose?).

The cave paintings

Petra offers to show Mike round the archaeological dig she’s carrying out in caves near the villa he’s doing up for tourists. Soo comes along, heavily pregnant and grumpy with Mike, though flattered to be escorted by Gareth Lloyd Jones, a naval officer who’s visiting the island, has been introduced to the Steeles as local luminaries, and who Soo has taken a shine to.

Instead of the neolithic cave paintings Petra is so excited about, she and Mike discover someone has been digging through the back of the cave and, when they wriggle through a narrow gap in the rubble, find themselves emerging into a well-provisioned secret cave, complete with beds, heater and cooker, chemical lavatory and the cave mouth looking out over a ledge 20 yards below, at sea level. A perfect secret hideaway, but who for?

Soo loses her baby

Mike is at the cave mouth when he hears a cry from back at the rubble hole, two strange men have emerged from nowhere and pushed past Petra. Mike wriggles through the gap in pursuit, up to the landward entrance to the cave, emerging just in time to see figures in the distance jumping into a car. But then he is distracted by moaning nearer at hand. His wife, Soo, had left the safety of the car to come up to the cave entrance and had arrived just as the thugs ran out, pushing her out of the way. She had stumbled and fallen some yards down the steep gully, landing awkwardly on hard rock. Mike rushes her to the hospital where they operate to save her, but discover the baby was crushed to death in her womb. It was a boy.

Captain Lloyd Jones

Now more prominence is given Gareth Lloyd Jones, a Royal Navy officer who is on leave on Minorca before taking up captaincy of a ship, and has become friendly with the Steeles. A number of plotlines converge on this hesitant, troubled figure. 1. Soo, disgruntled with flashy Mike and his obvious attraction to Petra, quite quickly slides into friendship and then something more, with Jones. 2. Jones claims to be on holiday, but in fact is asking around whether anyone has seen the man shown in a photo who, it slowly, emerges, is one Pat Evans, a Brit with a long criminal record.

Pat Evans and his catamaran

Evans does show up, sailing into Port Mahon in a sleek catamaran, Thunderflash, which moors just below Steele’s shop. When Steele inevitably meets him he is amazed that Evans is prepared to sell the catamaran in exchange for one of Mike’s fishing boats, the Santa Maria, and one of his tourist villas. Mike sees it as a business opportunity, a chance to run much higher-class charters and make more money and so he agrees. But the assassination of Martinez takes place the same night as the deal is clinched with Evans and Mike suddenly has a bad feeling. Early the next morning he gets up, goes down to the cat and searches every inch of it. He is appalled to find a recently-fired rifle tied up in a bag and hidden in one of the hulls of the cat (p.110).

Mike breaks out in a sweat as he realises Evans is involved in the assassination and that he, Mike, is the victim of an elaborate frame-up. Flushed with panic, Mike carries the rifle off the boat in a bundle of linen, gets into his car and drives out to the villa he’s just sold to Evans. Finding it deserted, he gets in with the key he’s retained, and carefully conceals the rifle under floorboards in the kitchen.

The police interrogate Mike

Not before time, because when he drives back to the cat he finds the police waiting for him. Obviously they have been tipped off. One of Mike’s talents is as a sharp shooter and he shot for England, training at Bisley, and has a number of competition medals and cups in his living room. The police now suspect a well-known sharp shooter carried out the assassination, one Antonio Barragio (p. 121), and Mike has to admit he knows him, or has met him, at international shooting events. Then the police commence a detailed search of every inch of the cat and it becomes clear they’ve been tipped off where to find the rifle and are angry when it’s not there. The police leave, threatening to return and with the parting shot that they’ve confiscated his passport.

Escape to Malta

Now, the cat had been due to go on a test sail to Malta with his crew and Mike arranges for it to depart Port Mahon in full view of everyone, including the plain clothes cops set to watch him. But that night Mike slips out of his house and drives around the coast to a concealed bay and where he rendezvous with the cat which has doubled back, under the guidance of the entertaining East Anglian crew man, Carp (Carpenter).

The half-brothers

If Innes’ plots often don’t really stand up, if the psychology of his main characters is generally flat and uninvolving, he is good at creating a large cast of secondary characters and spending time filling in their backstories. Once he’s aboard the cat (illegally) heading towards Malta a) Innes can indulge his enthusiastic description of sea sailing b) Carp is able to fill in a lot of background about Captain Lloyd Jones.

Turns out Carp comes from the same small town on the Suffolk coast where Jones and Pat Evans grew up. Turns out the boys were both tearaways, brought up in the home of a local woman, Moira, the sons of the same father but by different women. After various tribulations as schoolboys roaming over the mudflats and learning to sail, they both ended up at HMS Ganges, a training camp for young would-be sailors. As so often with Innes, at the core of what is supposedly an adventure or thriller novel, there is an eerie, Gothic tale of twisted family ties, doomed siblings – here a pair of half-brothers, one on the right one very much on the wrong side, of the law, whose lives seem fated to intertwine.

After three blissful days free on the ocean, the cat arrives at Malta where they are surprised to see a British frigate, the Medusa, in the main harbour. Mike has no passport and is now on the run from the Spanish police, so he hesitates to go aboard until he realises the frigate is the one on which Jones has taken up his captaincy, he gets Carp to motor him over in the cat’s dinghy.

Aboard HMS Medusa

Jones welcomes Steele aboard and there now begins a long section set aboard the ship where Steele becomes a kind of spooky shadow to the captain. Surprisingly, improbably, Jones opens up about his eerie half-brotherhood with Evans, then tells Steele several stories: how he was forced on his first day to go up the mast of an old sailing ship kept at HMS Ganges, and it was Pat who came and rescued him, talking him down.

And how, a few years later, staying out late on the mudflats on the Suffolk coast, bird watching, he accidentally saw a catamaran, Pat’s catamaran, come inshore in complete silence and then start unloading crates to the beach. Hearing Irish voices, Jones’ worst suspicions are confirmed – Pat is mixed up with IRA terrorists. At which point, one of the terrorists emerges from the darkness and coshes him.

Jones awakes on the catamaran at sea and Pat hisses at him to keep quiet, the ‘clients’ wanted to kill him, Pat managed to persuade them to keep him alive, and then… Pat lets Jones escape over the side upstream of a famous buoy. Jones floats downstream to it, clambers aboard, and is rescued several hours later by a passing boat. This strange incident has blighted his professional career in the Navy but also dented his confidence. And why, we wonder, is he telling Steele all this. Because, in the few days’ leave he had on Minorca, Jones has developed this rather improbable crush on Soo, which she has responded to. Which means Mike is in the cabin of a Royal Navy ship, listening to the captain reveal some of the most shameful memories of his life, all the time an undercurrent of tension because Mike knows Jones is, or is about to, have an affair with his wife.

It just seems so misleading to market Innes’ books as thrillers, when they’re not very thrilling – the ‘action’ part of the plot often very unconvincing – whereas they all have these strange twisted melodramatic relationships which are actually what often drives events.

The Malta incident

We see Jones’ hesitancy in his new command in action when a crowd of Malta locals assembles at the foot of the Medusa‘s gangplank, shouting and jeering anti-British slogans. A shore party has to return through them so captain Jones despatches a sergeant with a small platoon down to the dockside to protect them on their return. But the crowd surges round them, starts rocking their car and eventually pushes it onto its side. As the shouting and threatening escalate a shot suddenly rings out and a British officer who was clambering out of the car window cries out and slumps bleeding. In a flash the sergeant tells his platoon to shoulder arms and fire over the heads of the crowd, which immediately disperses and runs in every direction. But the damage has been done. Within the hour the incident is being reported on the BBC World Service, and Jones is ordered to weigh anchor and leave port. In fact, he is ordered to steam to Minorca, where there have been some kind of civil disturbances.

At every step of these incidents Mike has asked to be allowed to go ashore or return to the cat but Jones finds a reason not to let him go. It reminds me a little of Conrad’s story, The Secret Sharer, about a doppelganger who is taken onboard a ship at sea and comes to haunt the captain. After supervising their departure to sea, Jones slumps in his cabin and, over a glass of booze, tells Steele more about his Gothic entanglement with his no-good half-brother, a section which creates a compelling fireside yarn atmosphere.

Back on Minorca

Captain Jones finally allows Steele to leave the Medusa as it steams into Minorca harbour. He lays on a windsurfing board and wetsuit, thus allowing a disguised Steele to appear in the harbour looking like any tourist, and not officially disembarking from the frigate. There is a passage of typical Innes, rejoicing in the innocence pleasure of pure physical exercise and is just one of the many passages which rejoice in the physical exuberance of sailing, being at sea, driving a fast car late at night, standing under the Mediterranean stars, putting his arms around a woman.

It was over two years since I had been on a sailboard. The technique doesn’t leave one, but, like skiing, the muscles lose their sharpness. I flipped onto it all right, but instead of getting myself and the sail up in virtually the same movement, it was all a bit of a scramble. The wind was funneling down the harbour, a good breeze that had me away on the starb’d tack and going fast before I was visible to the escort vessel, which was on the far side of Medusa and lying a little ahead of her, one of the old minesweepers by the look of it. There was a moment, of course, when I felt naked and unsure of myself, but as my arms and knees began to respond to the drive of the sail, confidence returned, and after I had snapped the harness on I began to enjoy myself, steering close to the wind, my weight a little further aft and the speed increasing, my exhiliration, too. (p.220)

Steele navigates to Bloody Island, in the middle of Mahon harbour, which just happens to be the location for sexy Petra’s main dig. He beaches the windboard and waits for her arrival not long after. a) She is robustly amused and delighted to see him, as he strips off his wetsuit he finds her getting involved with kisses and tickles and they are soon both naked and about to make love when b) there’s the buzz of an outboard motor approaching and she remembers she’s arranged for Lennie to come over with food and provisions.

Lennie is another one of Innes’ very believable secondary characters – an Aussie beach bum, described as completely indifferent what he wears or looks like or what work he does, forever cadging drinks and lifts BUT fanatically dedicated to his diving equipment, the best that money can buy. He was meant to be working on some of Mike’s villas but has transferred to Petra, picking up some pocket money helping her. Lennie and Petra bring Mike up to speed: while he was sailing to Malta and then caught up on the Medusa, bombs have been going off on Minorca. There is to be an election for a new Alcalde and the bombs are creating an atmosphere of crisis.

Lennie adds that he’s seen Mike’s old fishing boat in the cove beneath one of the clifftop villas he’s been working on for some German millionaire. Evans! More smuggling! So, with the unerring instinct of an Innes hero for getting himself into the wrong place at the wrong time, Steele decides to drive with Lennie and Petra to the suspicious villa. Here they discover that the underground wine cellar has a hole knocked through into a warren of tunnels looping down towards a big cavern open to the sea, in other words yet another handy place for smugglers to bring guns and weapons ashore. At which point a car and lorry come sweeping up and our heroes hold their breath, watching from the dark as the gang load the dodgy cases onto a lorry. They follow the lorries with their car lights off to another cove where they see the fishing boat guiding in two landing craft. From these emerge two armoured cars and several hundred armed men. Mercenaries!

Lennie, Petra and Mike sneak back to their car and drive at breakneck speed back to Port Mahon. Petra advises them to go into the port garrison and report what they’ve seen but Mike thinks they’ll arrest him first and ask questions later, so they all jump into the outboard and putter out to the frigate which has anchored by this time. Mike yells up at the duty officer to be taken onboard to see Captain Jones. Unfortunately, he’s barely begun explaining it all to a woken-up captain when firing starts ashore. The coup has started.

The coup

Briefly, the mercenaries are well armed and organised and take over the barracks, airport and radio station. Their president, the communist Ismail Fuxá, announces that the island is now an independent nation and calls on other nations to recognise the new regime. In and out of captain Jones’s cabin, Mike gathers that Soviet ships are on their way to Minorca. It is at this point he realises that Jones’s orders are to stay where he is and use the frigate to block the entrance to the largest harbour in the western Mediterranean. Suddenly the Americans and the Russians are sounding off at each other and Jones finds himself at the epicentre of a major international crisis.

And it is now that the personal relationships which we’ve heard so much about earlier in the book come into prominence. Because his brother, Pat, has kidnapped Soo, Mike’s wife, the woman Jones has come to love and threatens something very unpleasant will happen to her unless Jones orders his frigate to the leave the harbour. But Jones is under explicit orders from HM Government to stay put.

The stand-off

Several deadlines come and go and nothing happens. After Evans has delivered the ultimatum in person, Jones lets him and Mike go by dinghy to Bloody Island where Petra appears and is inadvertently grabbed by Evans, a knife to her throat, before there is a scuffle in which good old Aussie Lennie is badly carved up by Evans who makes his escape.

This final section is very characteristically and oddly Innes, because nothing happens. Once back on the island Mike is completely out of the picture, he just has a horrible foreboding that the Russian ships steaming towards them will arrive soon and then all hell might break loose, but he doesn’t really know what is going on, has no radio, and spends the night worrying about Soo. As the last deadline arrives captain Jones does something very weird and weighs anchor but the ship behaves very oddly as if its engines are broken and to Evans’ anger, the frigate steams backwards until it runs aground on the rocks of Bloody island.

Mike realises captain Jones has squared the circle: his ship can’t move now, there is no point bullying him or blackmailing him. His guns are still trained on the seized barracks, a British ship still has possession of Minorca harbour. It’s a very Innes’ non-event, a fitting climax to a novel which is full of blockages, hesitations, shrugs and mis-communication. None of the characters seems capable of normal, open conversation, nobody gets to the end of a paragraph without shrugging, breaking off, shaking their head and generally avoiding communication.

Innes’ dialogue is the opposite of snappy repartée, it is a kind of anti-dialogue. And, far from being full of action, his novels are full of inaction. The characters travel round and do things, but never seem able to shed light on anything, never tell each other what is going on. The ultimate destination of the inaction is complete stasis, frozen paralysis and at numerous points all dialogue and communication winds down to complete silence. The strange eerie silence which seems to be at the heart of Innes’ imagination.

Soo is found and rescued

Mike is woken in Petra’s tent on Bloody Island by Petra who tells him it’s all over. The Russians were deterred by the presence of the frigate, the Spanish navy has arrived in force to re-establish order, the temporary president and the mercenaries have fled. But no indication as to the whereabouts of the kidnapped Soo.

Mike immediately takes a dinghy to the mainland and spends a day on the phone to everyone he knows asking if they’ve seen Soo. Then it occurs to him – the villa he and Petra and Lennie investigated – the hole down into the caverns by the sea. What if the bad guys dumped Soo there? What if she’s dead? He drives like a madman out to the villa, now dark and deserted, breaks in, goes down to the cellar, then along the tunnel to the hole above the cavern – and here he finds Soo, dishevelled, hysterical, bruised, with a cut hand, but essentially safe. He helps her up out of the cavern, up the slippery tunnels, into the cool fresh air and she is delirious at being released, wants to run and shout and sing and insists on being taken to her favourite restaurant, before arriving back at their ransacked home.

Here she is irritated to find Petra, her husband’s fancy women, but there is another odd Innes scene when they discover captain Jones, the crisis completely over, has left the ship with his first officer, come ashore, and is now completely plastered in their living room. He drunkenly sways to his feet, calling out how relieved he is to see Soo alright, but she turns on her heel and walks out, Petra following.

In the realm of personal relations, like the realm of island politics, and in the overworld of superpower politics, the novel is about stasis, frustration, anti-climax, lack of fulfilment.

Court of enquiry

This long tangled and frustrating story comes to an end with a ten-page epilogue describing the court of enquiry the Navy holds on captain Jones for running his ship aground (reminiscent of the courts of enquiry in Maddon’s RockThe Wreck of the Mary Deare and Atlantic Fury to name only a few of its predecessors). Mike sticks up for captain Jones at the enquiry, and catagorically denies that he was having an affair with his wife. Next night the officer in command holds an informal party for Mike and Soo, Jones, a few Navy officials and some Spanish officers. Soo behaves perfectly, relaxed and friendly but obviously not intimate with Jones. To the latter’s surprise the Spanish official steps forward and awards him a medal from the King of Spain.

And then the captain of the enquiry announces that captain Lloyd Jones will be completely exonerated and the poor Welshman, who has grafted his way up from the ranks, dragged back on so many occasions by his wayward brother and his own emotional vulnerability, for once lets go, and bursts into tears.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

The Captain and The Enemy by Graham Greene (1988)

Of the Captain I have heard nothing for years, and Liza, whom I left of my own accord, I see only from time to time, always with a sense of guilt. It’s not because of any love I feel for them. It is as though I had taken them quite coldbloodedly as fictional characters to satisfy this passionate desire of mine to write. (p.51)

Part one

12-year-old Victor Baxter is in the playground at his boarding school (sounding suspiciously similar to Greene’s own boarding school, Berkhamsted) when a man arrives with a letter from his father, giving him permission to take Victor out for the afternoon. The man asks to be called ‘the Captain’ and they stroll down towards what sounds like Berkhamsted castle to a pub beside what sounds like Berkhamsted canal, where the Captain wangles lunch and a few drinks off the publican before leaving without paying. Aha. He is a swindler, a con man. And instead of taking Victor back to school the Captain takes him to Berkhamsted train station where they catch the next train to London. ‘You see, Victor,’ he explains, ‘I won you from your father over a game of backgammon.’ Oh,’ thinks Victor.

In London the Captain takes him along to a rundown house which is managed by young Liza. The Captain asks Victor to call her ‘Mum’. Liza and the Captain decide to call him Jim, a much nicer name. Jim is taking all this in his stride, chooses an empty room in the rackety old house to be his bedroom, then settles into life being fed and watered by Liza and getting used to the Captain’s long disappearances and mysterious reappearances.

One day the Captain hands a newspaper to Liza, highlighting an article. Later Jim reads it and it describes how a smartly dressed con man entered a jewellers shop after it was closed and, while the door was open, a gang barged in and stole the man’s stock. It gives the con man’s name as one the Captain has mentioned. Aha. That’s what he does for a living. Jim is sublimely untroubled by being removed from school: he hated it, he was bullied by the other boys, his mother died years previously and his father rarely came to see him; outside of term time he had to stay with an aunt who he hated. He nicknames his father the Devil.

A few weeks later his father in fact knocks on the door. ‘Tut tut,’ says the Devil, ‘so this is where you are’ – not at all outraged or upset by his abduction. We gather from his conversation with Liza that the two were once lovers, but he got her pregnant and paid for a back-street abortion which was bungled, leaving her ill for a long time and unable to have children. That’s when the Captain met her, looked after her and nursed her back to health, hence their connection. After some chat, the Devil leaves, making no effort to take Jim with him.

On another occasion the Devil arrives with the awful aunt, Muriel, who complains about the boy’s lack of schooling. This prompts the Captain to make an effort at home schooling, though this mainly takes the form of telling the impressionable boy tall tales about being shot down and taken prisoner in Germany during the war, before escaping across occupied France into neutral Spain.

The Captain’s absences get longer and longer, and during these long periods Victor finds himself forced to go to the local state school, and growing more independent of the increasingly sad Liza.

Part two

Greene was always interested in time shifts in a narrative. Sometimes a section of text embeds not one but several flashbacks, sometimes reverting from one period to another with next to no warning. Part two opens by announcing that all of part one is a fragment (of autobiography? of fiction?) which the older, mature Victor found among the boxes of Liza’s flat, when he came to go through it, after – years later – she was seriously injured in a car accident. Now – we learn – he is a journalist with years of experience behind, him, a grown adult.

He finds the fragment in a box of old letters in the basement of the house which is now identified as being in Camden. He reads old letters the Captain wrote to Liza, vague promises that he’ll make his fortune, latterly from south America. In fact one arrives during these days, post-marked Panama, including a check ‘payable to bearer’ and details of the flight Liza should catch to go out and join the Captain. This prompts Victor to contact his dad, who invites him to lunch at the Reform Club (posh) where they discuss the morality of cashing a check obviously intended for Liza. Jim discusses it at length, then does it anyway, packs in his journalism job and makes arrangements to fly to Panama. Oh and he brings the fragment up to date, thus writing the text we have seen in the previous two sections…

Part three

Victor flies to Panama and is met by Mr Quigly, a tall, thin man who claims to be a British journalist but speaks with an American twang. He takes him to the stylish hotel where the Captain has arranged a room and a bodyguard for Jim. A bodyguard? Apparently arranged by a certain Colonel Martínez who ‘looks after’ the Captain. If this seems vague that is because it is left deliberately vague: right to the end of the book we (and Jim) are not sure whether the Captain is working for the Colonel, or just given some kind of protection, just as we never completely learn what Quigly is doing. But it does lend the narrative a spurious sense of threat and edge.

After a few days, the Captain appears and Victor, when it comes to it, can’t bring himself to reveal that Liza is dead. This leads him into a series of lies, explaining her lack of letters etc with evermore elaborate excuses. To me, this simply seemed a pretext to allow the narrator to feel Guilt about his Betrayal of the Captain, or Liza, or both.

At various points the bodyguard or Quigly or the Captain take Victor out for drinks and meals. On one occasion the Captain – whose birth name, we learn, is Brown, but who is currently calling himself Smith – takes Victor out to the second hand airplane he keeps. He was a flyer during the war, remember. Maybe the dodgy activities he’s involved in include drug smuggling. It is striking how boring Greene manages to make the description of a small plane flight over the south American jungle. It’s mostly an opportunity for Victor to feel Guilty.

Finally, provoked after too many drinks, Victor tells the Captain that Liza is dead. Obviously I don’t give a damn about these shallow puppets, but I was interested in the choice of words, in the description of the scene:

He took a step towards me and I thought he was preparing to strike me. I backed towards the door and threw the truth at him like a glass of vitriol. ‘There’s no one to go back to. Liza’s dead.’ (p.153)

Isn’t this a scene from a Victorian melodrama? Isn’t ‘vitriol’ an old, almost obsolete word. Why not ‘acid’? And ‘strike’ – the Captain could have been advancing to hit, slap or punch Victor; but no, Greene chooses the most generic term, the one with literary or even biblical overtones, also, somehow, the emptiest.

Jim walks straight out and goes to see Mr Quigly who, based on Jim’s experience as a journalist back in England, offers him a job as a stringer ie a freelance journalist, providing ‘information’. But Jim is savvy enough to realise Quigly is some kinds of agent, probably for the Americans who run the American Zone and the Panama Canal.

Having done this deal, Jim goes back to the hotel room to sleep but is woken and requested to attend a meeting with the sinister Colonel Martínez. In fact the Colonel – something in the National Guard – turns out to be a tubby affable man. He asks Jim if he knows his father’s whereabouts? Jim says no. The Colonel tells him to avoid Quigly and ends the interview. He doesn’t tell us what the relationship is between him and the Captain nor what Quigly’s role is. It is all left deliberately vague and menacing.

Back at the hotel room Jim finds a last letter the Captain has written him, upset that he didn’t tell him Liza was dead immediately on arriving, saying Jim has Betrayed him, telling him to go back to England, and declaring that, now he (the Captain) is free of all duties and responsibility, he can do what he wants. Funnily enough a letter had arrived just today addressed to the Captain at the hotel and Jim had pocketed it. Now he opens it to discovers it is from Liza, written just before she died, knowing she’s dying, telling the Captain how much she Loved him. Ie it is created and positioned in the narrative to create the maximum sense of pathos in the reader, and the maximum sense of Guilt in Jim.

Then comes the sudden ending of the whole Captain narrative. Quigly phones, then comes to the hotel in person to tell Jim the Captain is dead. He uses an odd phrase – he Captain flew ‘in the wrong direction’ – a phrase repeated half a dozen times, as if it will gain symbolism or pathos, but doesn’t really. Soon afterwards the Colonel requests another meeting, and sends Pablo the bodyguard to fetch him. The Colonel informs Jim that the Captain flew his plane packed with explosives into the mountainside home of the Nicaraguan dictator Somosa. But Somosa wasn’t there, so all the Captain managed was to kill himself and shatter windows in a nearby hotel. It is a typically Greene ending for a character and a final image of complete futility.

Jim/Victor announces he is concluding this narrative, a failed attempt to create sense or meaning out of his lifelong association with a man and his beloved for whom, in the end, he felt nothing at all. He’s throwing it in the waste bin and drawing a line under this whole part of his life. He’s taking the money and setting off to start anew.

Part four

This last short section marks a complete departure in the text. It is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who describes the scene where Colonel Martínez calls in Quigly and asks him about Jim’s whereabouts and the meaning of this long mysterious narrative they found in the waste paper basket in his hotel room.

(They are discussing the long narrative Jim had written about his association with the Captain and which we saw/heard/read him planning to throw in the hotel waste paper basket. It is grimly, blackly funny that the Panama intelligence are taking Jim’s completely personal text as some kind of set of instructions or hidden messages).

The Colonel asks Quigly: what does it mean? Is it written in code? Obviously Quigly doesn’t know so then the Colonel tells Quigly that Jim has caught a plane to Chile: has he been sent by his masters to spy on Pinochet? Does he work for the Americans? Again, we get no answers to these questions but they powerfully suggest the milieu the Captain inhabited in this country, somehow involved in running, what? guns, munitions, in his plane, though we never learn why or for who.

Martinez tells Quigly to pack in his espionage activities and quietly go to the American Zone before an ‘accident’ befalls him.

Then, in the last few pages, the Colonel orders Jim’s narrative to be translated into Spanish so he can read it and puzzle out its meaning and the light it sheds on the murky espionage activities of the man they called the Captain. Who knows, one day it might even be published and win literary prizes, ha ha ha. The phone rings, the Colonel listens then replaces the handset, turning to tell the translator, Alas the son has gone the same way as the father, killed in an ‘accident’ on the way to the airport.

Greene’s epilogues

At the end of two of his greatest novels, The Power and The Glory and The Heart of the Matter, the point of view pulls away in the last few pages to reveal the point of view of people previously outside the magic circle of the Greene’s fraught narrative: to describe bystanders in a hotel near the prison where the whisky priest is being executed in Power and – devastatingly, in Heart – to reveal that Scobie’s wife and colleagues knew he was having an affair all along; his agonised decisions, his terrible suicide, were pointless.

Greene creates a similar effect here – the last few pages pull the rug out from everything which had gone before, making the Captain and his suburban devotion to the uneducated Liza look pathetic, and strangely pointless Jim’s efforts, revived at various points, to write his and their story in the preceding narrative, knowing it will all end up in a waste bin, and then be retrieved to be pawed over by army officers with no sympathy or understanding for what Jim was trying to achieve.

It’s a kind of knickerbocker glory of futility – adding to the futility of the Captain’s death and the futility of Jim’s death, an added layer of futility by explaining how Jim’s carefully worked narrative has fallen into the hands of people uniquely qualified never to understand a word of it. A bright red cherry of pointlessness sitting on top of the whole depressed concoction.


Style

The story is told in Greene’s later style, which is settled and formal and old-fashioned. These last books often feel as if the prose is tired out after the hysterical scenes of the middle period. It feels drained, calm, resigned, the morning after a wild party or a big emotional scene.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was free from school. Liza was out buying bread and for once she left me alone with my lesson books. Then the bell rang. It wasn’t the Captain’s code, nor was it my father’s. This was a ring, quiet, reassuring, even friendly. The ringer waited what seemed to be a polite time before he rang again, and the ring still remained unurgent, undemanding. (p.75)

It is always well-behaved and minds its manners, after all he went to a good public school and Oxford, you know. If it does go on a bit about despair and guilt, at least it’s wearing the right tie and knows which knife and fork to use for the fish course.

I had heard of Liza’s grave state in hospital from the police and so I came to what I still reluctantly called my home to do all the tiresome things which are required when one prepares for the death of a parent. There was no real next of kin to whom I could pass the disagreeable task. (p.83)

‘when one prepares…’ ‘to whom I could pass’. You can almost hear the knees creaking, see the liver spots on the hands of this prose, nice old gent prose, prose from a bygone era. Safe, correct, dull as ditchwater.

A message came. I went to the hospital. Liza had lapsed into a coma and she died the next day. There was nothing left to do but bury her. She had left no will: if she had money it was in some unknown account. (p.105)

Greene was never a prose stylist: Evelyn Waugh said it best when he commented that Greene’s prose treats words as if they have no history or overtones. He writes with a complete lack of poetry or colour. Greene’s prose is as cold and fishlike as his pale eyes in the countless black and white photos of him.

When they told me at the hospital that she was dead I felt no more emotion than when I had left her behind after a weekly visit to go to my bed-sitting room in Soho. If there was any emotion it was the emotion of relief, of duty finished. (p.133)

‘passionate desire’ – he would rather use clichés than colour. Greene’s prose makes its impact in his entertainments and the Catholic thrillers, not by his stylish deployment of language, but by the obsessive repetition of a handful of key ideas and key words – sin, fear, despair, doubt, betrayal etc, a shopping list of teenage angst dressed up – in the ‘serious’ novels – in Catholic voodoo. Mercifully, Catholic melodrama is mostly absent from this work of his old age but his buzz words, his weasel words, still litter the text:

I refuse to feel guilt at leaving her (79)… a letter which… near her death gave me a passing sense of guilt at having left her (83)… I had no sense of guilt (87)… I had a certain sense of guilt [about cashing someone else’s check] (102)… I was afraid of him, but I felt no guilt at all (153)…

Having just read his first novel, The Man Within, an over-the-top historical melodrama, the word ‘fear’ is still ringing in my ears, as it appears on every page of that novel, conveying the panic-stricken cowardice of the protagonist – so I was surprised to find it cropping up here, 60 years later, to describe the relationship between the Captain and Liza, and then increasingly throughout the text:

What remained afterwards was shyness in both of them and a kind of fear. (p.38)

Love and fear – fear and love – I know now how inextricably they are linked, but they were both beyond my understanding at the age I was then, and how can I be sure that I really understand them even now? (p.39)

Love, it was quite clear to me now, meant fear, and I suppose it was the same fear which made Liza go out every Thursday morning… (p.51)

(Are love and fear really inextricably linked? It sounds good, it sounds profound: but I think that’s all it is, empty rhetoric, part of the pretentious rhetoric of Greeneland which, on closer examination, evaporates.)

In my experience love was like an attack of flu and one recovered as quickly. Each love affair was like a vaccine. It helped you to get through the next attack more easily. (p.105)

In previous reviews I’ve suspected Greene had a notebook in which he wrote down these ‘wonderful’ aperçus and insights, and then waited to insert them into appropriate places in his stories which, since they are always about betrayal guilt and despair, was easy to do.

A closely observed world captured in careful and deft phrases is what you do NOT get in Greene. What you get is incidents, often pretty banal and mundane incidents, just enough to justify his mind leaping to his comfort zone – to large, portentous abstract nouns, to flights of pseudo-profundity, to bucket psychology; to the same mental slums, the unhealthy territory the wretched man inhabited all his life, of fear and despair and futility.

I could remember… how she once told me with a kind of despair, ‘He writes such a lot of rubbish.’ (p.88)

Despair? Really? Is that the appropriate description of such an everyday remark? How about ‘a kind of affection’ or ‘exasperation’ or ‘impatience’ or ‘indignation’ or ‘peevishness’ or ‘pique’? No? No, because these are wide-ranging words, words which would open the text up to the chaotic diversity of the real world and to real unpredictable people and would require a completely different, wide-ranging and open imagination, and an open, adventurous and interesting vocabulary to match it.

Whereas, in Greeneland, there are always only three or four people, trapped in doomed relationships, who think love is cognate with fear because being in love is always followed by harming the one you love, and who only have a clutch of the same negative dull emotions – fear, despair, guilt.

I get frightened when I think that one day I may harm you too like I’ve harmed the others. (p.92)

Despite the mellow story and the old man style, a surprising number of these sentiments could have come from Greene’s preposterous first novel: the sense of self pity, the claustrophobic feeling of a tiny emotional world, above all the fundamentally unhappy, grey, depressed and negative view of life, is never far below the surface.

‘Where’s the Captain?’ I asked.
‘How would I know?’ Liza said in a tone which, when I think of it now, comes back to me as almost a cry of despair. (p.68)

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

Related links

Greene’s books

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