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.

Norwich has 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).

The Early Centuries is in 18 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) ie up to the time of Charlemagne (crowned 800 AD in Rome). 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 see and 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 upon the small Greek city of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Empire was under pressure from invading barbarians beyond the borders, leading to a 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 Ravenna, thought to be more defensible behind a network of marshes.

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 (by 410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes were 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 regarding 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 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 it 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 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. Nice. 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 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, 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 their 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 logical problem. 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’. 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.

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’ set of beliefs, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’. And hence, 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 – reclaimed territory 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 cut off his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric) 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 here, or here, or here: 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 (ie allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc). But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast was lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break 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

It’s beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining 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 does what it says on the tin and mentions the political changes purely as background to his main theme, the evolution of Christian theology and debate.

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 – eg 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 had him declared a saint find 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 them 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 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. 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 contemporary schoolboys have 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 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. Disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces 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 by way 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 unleashed the Romans’ pent-up frustration with the way their country was held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes in 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 him a substantial subsidy of (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 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, 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 his magister militum. The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the control of North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But Attalus insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to Heraclian who was promptly murdered. Alaric badgered Attalus who refused to give a Goth army permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to please be left with 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 he 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 rulers 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. Handy.)

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 ie ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ ie 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 defenses 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, Orestes 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, asked 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. 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

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

Kingsley Amis 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 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 sensitive 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.
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
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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.

Spy Hook by Len Deighton (1988)

No matter where I went or what I did, Berlin would always be home for me. My father had been Resident long ago… and Berlin held all my happy childhood recollections. (p.43)

The previous trilogy (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match) featuring just-turning-forty British spy Bernard Samson all took place in the space of a few months, interlinked as all three novels were by the sensational defection of Samson’s wife, Fiona – who turned out to have been a KGB spy – and its repercussions.

Spy Hook is the first in a new trilogy featuring the same characters, also told in the first person by Bernard, but represents a break with the first set in a number of ways.

  • It is set three years since the action of the previous set (p.47), Samson is now 43 (and it is, of course, three years since publication of its predecessor, 1988 to 1985). [In a note to the sequel, Spy Line, Deighton explains that this novel takes place ‘at the beginning of 1987’.]
  • On the personal front, Fiona is long gone; his girlfriend Gloria has supervised his move from his convenient Notting Hill house to a bigger, but drabber, semi in the boring, commuter-belt surroundings of Raynes Park; the children – Billy and Sally – are older and unhappier (14 and 11).
  • And in the ‘Department’ of British Intelligence where he works, there have been notable changes:

Dramatis personae

  • Bret Rensselaer – after years of treatment, has – according to Frank and others – died of the wounds received when he was shot in Berlin at the end of London Match.
  • Dicky Cruyer – still Samson’s boss, careful to avoid making any decisions which might compromise himself, but the Deputy DG has told him to stop wearing Medallion Man faded jeans and cheesecloth shirts; now he wears a suit like everyone else.
  • Frank Harrington – head of the Berlin Field Unit, knew Bernard Samson’s dad during the war, has been persuaded to stay on in Berlin after his official retirement age.
  • Director General Sir Henry Clevemore, depicted as senile in the first trilogy, he is still DG but has been sidelined by the new Deputy DG.
  • With his sidelining goes the power base of the vile creep Morgan, who was his toady.
  • The newly prominent Deputy DG, Sir Percy Babcock, is a successful barrister, brought in to run things better (description on page 19).

The ambience

Like the first trio there is less a plot than a likeably chatty depiction of the daily round of Samson’s life: his reaction to the new house, the pain of the commute into central London, the boredom of trying to make sense of Dicky’s meetings or wade through wordy, pointless research files. His sexy young girlfriend Gloria is good with the children but rubbish at cooking, which prompts a tearful shouting match after she makes burned sausages, lumpy mash and dripping wet spinach for dinner. Being still in her early 20s she is determined to take up a place at Cambridge where she’ll stay during the week and Bernard suspects she will fall in with the young students and, eventually, leave him.

We see Bernard chatting to other characters over pub lunches, at dinner parties, in pool halls, in hotel rooms; he pokes at hotel food, airplane food, dinner party food, pub food. He mooches.

These domestic, humdrum scenes a) distinguish Deighton’s writing from the hi-tech, glamour Bond tradition, continuing the low-key tone established in his early Ipcress novels b) are very likeable. Feels like we’re getting to know Bernie, his kids, their nanny, his girlfriend, his bosses and colleagues at work, his moans and worries. All designed, of course, to root the ‘spying’ – and the occasional outbreaks of violence – in a ‘real’ world.

The plot

In among all these homely descriptions are laced scenes relating to his work as an employee of British Intelligence, threads which come together to force Samson to a grim conclusion:

  • He is sent to Washington to interview one Jim Prettyman (who once worked for the Department and is now retired) about some fund which the accountants say has gone missing, probably a cock-up. Jim denies knowledge.
  • Back in London he hears that Bizet, a network of agents in Poland, has been uncovered by the KGB, and there is speculation at various meetings about what can or should be done about it: undertake a rescue mission; do nothing?
  • His old friend Werner Volkmann flies in from Berlin to confide that his wife Zena smuggles between East and West and he’s worried Frank Harrington is going to betray Zena to the Stasi in exchange for the Bizet agents.
  • Jim’s divorced wife, Lucinda ‘Cindy’ Mathews, contacts Bernard, invites him to a seedy south London pool hall to tell him Jim has been shot dead, 6 times, and the body cremated. Jim was on to something: he was a signatory to some secret fund: the Department had him murdered Bernard! Samson goes away confused and concerned.
  • In Berlin Werner tells him that he is going to step in to run Frau Lisl’s guesthouse, the ramshackle old place where Bernard always stays when he’s in Berlin. Lisl, in fact, has said she’d like to leave it to Werner after her death: but Lisl has a sister in France, could Bernie go speak to her about the inheritance?
  • Bernard takes Gloria and they visit Frau Inge in her mansion in the south of France – she is old and her house decorated with photos of Hitler and all the other leading Nazis. Bernard is monitored by her strict, spinsterish daughter, Ingrid.
  • While they’re there Gloria – who is in fact of Hungarian parentage – takes him to see her ‘Uncle Dodo’, an extraordinary old man who lives in ramshackle squalor, gets so drunk over dinner he passes out and, apparently, produces top class art forgeries. Bernard notices some photos of Dodo among faces he recognises, not least John Koby aka Lange, who ran a network of ex-Nazis after the war.
  • In a bizarre sequence a motor cycle courier delivers tickets and instructions for Samson to fly to Los Angeles. Here he’s met by a cowboy who drives him far up into the hills, to a heavily guarded luxury mansion with heated swimming pool and all the trimmings. He is introduced to the owner, 60-year-old Mrs O’Rafferty who is an offshoot of the Rensselaer family and then, to his amazement, his former colleague Bret Rensselaer, the one everyone told him is dead who is, admittedly, not looking very well. Bernard asks him about the money and the secret account and Bret hisses at him to shut up and cease poking into matters which don’t concern him. But Bernard is motivated by the prompts of Jim Prettyman’s widow to get to the bottom of Jim’s murder.
  • After an uncomfortable night in the luxury ranch Bernard is driven back towards LA airport by one of the Mexican ranch hands, when fog and rain close in and they find the way blocked by a jack-knifed lorry and traffic cops. One of them points out a black limo also heading off to LAX, why doesn’t Bernard  hitch a ride? To his surprise – and the reader’s frank disbelief – the limo contains Posh Harry, a spiv and fixer and – now, apparently – CIA employee. He takes Samson to the airport, along the way heavily hinting that the CIA are behind Bret: when he says back off, back off: drop your investigation.
  • Back in England Bernard motors all the way to the Cotswolds house of ancient Silas Gaunt, a retired eminence of the Department who knows everyone and everything. Here again Samson meets a brick wall as Silas refuses to clarify his suspicions about a vast slush fund. In addition he warns him not to go speaking to ‘Uncle Dodo’ who has now relocated to London.
  • Which prompts the obstinate (and foolish) Bernard to drive straight to the house Uncle Dodo is renting, near Hampton Court. Dodo reluctantly lets him in and then, with no warning, punches him, karate chops him, and slips out a flick knife with the obvious intention of eviscerating him. There follows an intense fraught fight around the rooms packed high with precious antiques as Barnard just about fights Dodo off, but is visibly losing strength when – someone creeps up behind Dodo and coshes him; the lights go on; there are men everywhere collecting evidence, carrying off Dodo’s body and – leading them all is Jim Prettyman! Hang on, you’re supposed to be dead… Jim says he’s under deep cover, tell no-one, and keep your nose out of what doesn’t concern you.

‘Bernie, it’s time you realised that the Department isn’t run for your benefit. There’s nothing in Command Rules that says we have to clear everything with Bernard Samson before an Operation is okayed.’ (p.238)

Safely back home, over the next few days Bernard’s suspicions grow. He becomes convinced his defector wife Fiona and Bret were running some kind of big secret slush fund, Jim has something to do with it – now his girlfriend Gloria cheerfully tells him the bank in Berlin which appears to be the site of the fund – is owned by the Rensselaer family, bought before the war.

Finally, Bernard blags his way into the gentleman’s club where the ancient decrepit DG has a room-cum-office. Worryingly the DG gets him confused with his father, Brian, but eventually Bernard gets to present before him the complete list of evidence he has that a vast slush fund exists, deeply covered up but he’s tracked it down to this bank in Berlin and wants to expose his wife’s involvement with it.

Then Bernie catches a flight to Berlin with his pal Werner, incongruously carrying some china houseware that Werner’s bought in his capacity of renovating Frau Lisl’s old boarding house. At the airport military police step forward to arrest Samson and his old friend saves him by saying he‘s Samson; the police lead Werner away and Bernie undertakes a complicated journey across Berlin and through the Wall – then doubles back into the West by another route – all to decoy and pursuers and buy him time.

Time to make it out to Frank Harrington’s big country pile outside Berlin. Disconcertingly, Frank is expecting him, and delivers the knockout blow: ‘Yes, Bernie, maybe there is a top secret slush fund containing millions, and maybe Fiona and Bret did manage it; because maybe Fiona is a triple agent, pretending to work all these years for the KGB while actually working for us; and maybe all this investigating and shouting your mouth off to all and sundry – has put your wife’s life and her top secret mission at risk. And that is why London have issued an Orange File on you. That’s right, Bernie: you are wanted for treason!

And it is on this bombshell, this cliffhanger, that the novel ends.


Winter

Between the first trilogy and this first of the next trilogy, Deighton published Winter, the enormous novel following a Berlin family from 1900 to 1945, covering the major historical, political and military events of the era from the German point of view, and extending out to portray a cast of as many as 50 characters.

Part of his motivation in writing it was to show the enjoyably convoluted back stories of many of the characters who appear in the Samson books, not least Bernard’s dad, Brian Samson as a young man parachuted into Berlin just before the war ended.

Spy Hook contains knowing references to characters and incidents in Winter, which are explained and could stand alone, but gain significance, resonance, if you’ve read the longer work:

  • Frank repeats Bernard’s dad’s story about being stuck in a Berlin flat with a sympathetic German waiting for news of Hitler’s assassination which doesn’t come, instead a Nazi official arrives. This is a reference to Peter and Paul Winter, the brothers and central characters in Winter and to scenes described in that novel.
  • As usual, when in Berlin Samson stays with old Frau Lisl in the grand home she turned into what is now a run-down boarding house. Lisl is so crippled with arthritis that Werner Volkmann, Bernard’s best friend, plans and then begins to take over running it. We are taken to meet Lisl’s sister, Inge, and reminded of the history of the three sisters who we meet, in Winter, and see as girls before the Great War and growing up to marry Erich Hennig, the concert pianist (Lisl), and Paul Winter, the Nazi bureaucrat (Inge).
  • In a thread which doesn’t, on the face of it, have anything to do with the main plot about Fiona and the missing bank account, Ingrid tells Bernard that her mother is insistent that Bernard’s father, Brian, was responsible for killing the Winter brothers. In Winter we had been told that the brothers escaped from custody and headed south to the family home in Bavaria. Brian Samson was with the American troops tracking them down, but it was those soldiers who shot the escaping brothers. Could it be that the account in Winter is a lie? Could it be that a number of events in Winter are not as reported? Could it be that the novels contain multiple levels of deception?

Grumpy old man

Bernard Samson is 43 but he moans a lot. Having recently read novels by Kingsley Amis, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, David Lodge and the Reggie Perrin novels, I have come to the conclusion that  one of the thing the male novelists of the 1970s and 80s have in common is their moany dislike of the modern world: women’s lib, scruffy teenagers who speak no known language, punks and rockers and hookers on the streets, developers who rip out characterful buildings and put up glass and steel horrors from which landlords screw high rents and government high taxes, package tour operators, horrible plastic food in airports and airplanes and hotels, the frequent moans about England’s weather and culture make it sound like the world is coming to an end.

On page 219 there is a reference to AIDS, and I googled the fact that the famous (to those alive at the time) government advertising campaign featuring an enormous tombstone made a big impression in 1987 when this novel was, presumably, being written.

The heady, optimistic, carefree days of the 1960s feel long gone in these novels.


Atmosphere of age

Why did he have to be such an old woman? (p.261)

And cheek by jowl with the moaning is an almost oppressive atmosphere of age. Lisl is old, crippled with arthritis. Bernard visits her sister Inge who is even older, surrounded by photos of Hitler and Nazi luminaries, a bedroom made for her on the ground floor because she can no longer manage stairs. Uncle Dodo, though he turns out to be a savage killer, lives in a rundown ramshackle dirty house, wearing tatty threadbare clothes. Frank Harrington in Berlin is well off but chooses to wear knackered cords and smoke rancid old man tobacco. Back in London the Director General is so old he rarely comes into the office any more, can’t remember anyone’s names, survives in a room absolutely crammed with souvenirs, relics, books and manuscripts. Even in youth-worshipping America, Mrs O’Rafferty, owner of the luxury West Coast ranch, is well-reserved but can’t conceal she is 60 and sometimes looks haggard; and Bret Rensselaer has been reduced to a shadow of his former self by illness.

We’re old fossils. We’re part of another world. A world of dinosaurs. (p.91)

Old characters His lover Gloria and Werner’s hard-edged wife Zena, are the only people in the novel under the age of 40 (apart from Bernard’s kids) and neither of them are quite believable.

World War Two It’s something to do with the war and the Cold War. The war because Winter made it abundantly clear that a lot of the contemporary events and people have their roots in the activities of the previous generation during and after the war. But by 1988 these people are ageing. Deighton’s imagination, his writings – both factual histories and the spy stories – were all heavily dominated by the second world war and its legacy. As the world moved into the 1990s this legacy must have seemed more remote.

The Cold War And the clearest legacy of world war two – the domination of half of Europe by Russian-imposed communist dictatorships – evaporated half way through this second trilogy – 1988-90. How will Deighton cope when his main subject matter – the antagonism between the communist world and the free world – and its crux, its anvil, its focus – the bizarre never-never land of West Berlin – evaporate like morning dew with the collapse of the communist regimes, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the joyful reunification of Germany?

Related links

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Hook

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Hook

Len Deighton’s novels

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

Nice Work by David Lodge (1988)

‘I feel as if I’m getting dragged into a classic realist text, full of causality and morality. How shall I get out of it?’ (Part 5, chapter 3)

This is the third of the Changing Places trilogy (Changing PlacesSmall WorldNice Work), often to be seen gathered together in a hefty omnibus paperback edition.

It is linked to its predecessors by being set at the (fictional) University of Rummidge (based on Birmingham University where Lodge taught all his life) and by, peripherally, featuring the two protagonists of Changing Places (mundane Brit Philip Swallow, now going slightly deaf, and the turbo-charged American academic, Morris Zapp) who also featured in Small World.

But it isn’t a real sequel and can be read as a stand-alone book in that it doesn’t require any knowledge of the previous novels and the central protagonists are two characters we have not previously encountered:

  • Robyn Penrose is a highly intelligent lecturer in feminist theory at the University, who reluctantly acquiesces in taking part in a scheme to ‘shadow’ a leader of local industry
  • Vic Wilcox is the short, stubby, hard-headed Brummy recently installed as Managing Director at J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory, who reluctantly agrees to be shadowed by her

After opening expositions which give us Robyn and Vic’s life stories and current situations – firmly establishing that there could barely be two more different people living in the same city – we watch them thrown together in numerous scenes designed to highlight their different ideas and expectations, lives and lifestyles, and watch as they slowly, grudgingly, develop a sort of mutual respect and then – guess what – fall in love.

The oppression of history

One way Nice Work is very of its time is the way its time seems to oppress the story more than the mere fact of being set in 1969 or 1979 oppressed the previous two books. The 1980s – due to Mrs Thatcher’s belligerent style and confrontational policies – seemed a very embattled era, and the forces of youth and the Left were hammered. Previously characters seemed to live their lives with scant regard of politicians. During the 1980s everyone seems oppressively aware of the plight of the economy, the recession impacts everyone, the decimation of entire industries weighs heavily on the national consciousness and on individuals.

True to the spirit of the age, Robyn and Vic don’t show each other new things – they fight about them.

Changing Places is set in 1969, Small World exactly ten years later in 1979. Although they are intended to be comedies, with a strong element of fantasy and exaggeration, they are nonetheless firmly rooted in Lodge’s default ‘social realism’, the accurate depiction of real life as lived by ‘average’ – not privileged, not rich, not particularly special in any way, people – and a going-out-of-his-way to describe the humdrum details of everyday life. Pants and socks and tumble-dryers and glasses falling off and papers getting lost.

But more so than in the previous novels, social history predominates in this one, from the big-picture political situation to ‘softer’, cultural trends. The very first sentence of Nice Work is: ‘Monday, January 13th, 1986’, setting us firmly amid the Tory party’s privatisation of government-owned industries and the savage cutting back of government budgets, including the budget for Higher Education.

Lodge is careful to establish these cuts as the background to Robyn’s situation and the decisions she must make. Her boss, Philip Swallow, is given a mournful speech declaring that his academic life (closely paralleling Lodge’s) has shadowed the life cycle of post-war academia: limited options in the 1950s, explosion of higher education in the 1960s, with a concomitant eruption of new theories and ideas (all those newly-tenured academics had to make their careers writing about something) – the biggest complaint from academics of that era being the noise of endless new buildings being erected on their campuses. And now, in the 1980s, swingeing government cuts, retrenchment and demoralisation.

As Robyn struggles to finish her second academic book, Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, and approaches the end of her three-year contract at Rummidge, she, Swallow and the narrator all point out the harsh truth that there are now no new jobs in academia. It is a dead-end career.

‘I have no choice,’ said Robyn. ‘There’s no future for me in this country.’ (Part 6, chapter 2)

But things are no better for Vic Wilcox. The third-person narrator takes us into his thoughts as he drives the flyover across Rummidge to his metal-casting and engineering plant in rundown West Wallsbury, surveying on his way the landscape of empty factories and bricked-up houses. Low grey cloud, rain, grime.

We are allowed into Vic’s thought processes as comprehensively as into Robyn’s and it is a refreshing departure in Lodge’s fiction to encounter such a fully-developed, rounded character who has nothing to do with literature, Roman Catholicism or sex. His thoughts about the economic and industrial malaise of the mid-1980s are interesting in their own right, as well as fleshing out his character – about the need to be competitive, the need to buy British, the impact of ruinously high interest rates, the struggle to keep a manufacturing business going against stiff foreign competition.

And both he and Robyn note the presence of black youths on the streets, unemployed, hanging round at street corners – the first appearance of immigrants in Lodge’s fiction, associated with menace and off-stage rioting, reported on the radio.

In another sign of the times, Robyn, it turns out, has a go-getting brother (Basil) who is a bond trader in the City of London, younger than her but already on three times her salary, driving up for lunch in a high-powered BMW with his currency dealer girlfriend (Debbie, daughter of a Whitechapel bookie), bubbling with praise for Mrs Thatcher’s remodelling of the British economy, away from old manufacturing and towards service industries (like finance), both gleefully looking forward to the ‘Big Bang’ (the deregulation of City institutions, which took place on 27 October 1986).

(It is a clinching sign of defeat, defeat for the cause of the Left and for the study of literature itself, when Robyn’s long-time boyfriend, Charles, writes her a long letter explaining in detail why the 1960s expansion of university education has run out of steam, why the Left is finished as a vanguard force, and why post-structuralist literary studies are absurd – which is why he is packing it all in to become a merchant banker. Robyn flings the letter to the floor and repeats ‘You shit, you utter shit’, but is appalled because so many of his arguments find echoes in her mind. — Towards the end of the book, even Philip Swallow expresses his approval of privatisation; turns out he bought shares in BT which have trebled in value and will now buy many more in the soon-to-be-privatised British Gas. Mrs Thatcher’s strategy of creating a permanent Conservative majority in Britain, a property-owning, share-owning middle class who would never again allow Socialists into government, is shown to be succeeding at the macro and micro level.)

Travel and optimism, stay-at-home pessimism

Changing Places and Small World had a terrific optimism and comic exuberance as their protagonists flew to new countries, new destinations, meeting new people, exploring new ways of life, finding new possibilities.

Nice Work is the opposite. It is notable for the lack of travel. It almost all happens in the grim, post-industrial landscape of Rummidge. Vic Wilcox’s dad is a kind of epitome of anti-travel, refusing to move from his rundown unheated house at the centre of a Victorian terrace, even when a roaring flyover is built just thirty yards from his bedroom window.

The bleak, exhausted heart of England’s industrial rust belt sucks everyone down. Although both its characters have their eyes opened and change (as in the most traditional Victorian novel), it is a much more limited change than the previous novels, where people’s lives were transformed out of all recognition. There is a strong feeling of pessimism, of belatedness, that the Golden Age is over.

Change, it seems, for most of the novel, is only possible if you escape from Rummidge.

  • In part five of the novel, Vic takes Robyn on a 2-day business trip to Frankfurt. He has become besotted with her; she thinks it is fun to flirt. And when they get tipsy at dinner and have a dance at the disco, it is easy for the liberal, open-relationship-believing Robyn to lead Vic to her hotel room and into her bed. The (three) couplings which follow are described with Lodge’s trademark clinical detachment. But abroad – with its sense of physical, emotional and erotic possibilities – is quickly over, as they fly back to Rummidge, and Robyn is appalled to find Vic now hopelessly in love with her, and wanting to divorce his wife, pestering her with phone calls and letters. Before things take a downward turn for both of them.
  • Robyn can only finish the critical book she has been labouring on throughout the novel – Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females – by fleeing Rummidge (and Vic’s attempts to contact her) for the haven of her parents comfortable house on the South Coast.
  • And when Morris Zapp, the hyper-ambitious American who brought such vim and energy to the earlier novels, makes a cameo appearance at a party of Professor Swallow’s, once again, as in the earlier novels, it is America which seems a land of hope and opportunity. And boundless money.

There was something about Morris Zapp that inspired hope. He had blown into the jaded, demoralised atmosphere of Rummidge University like an invigorating breeze, intimating that there were still places in the world where scholars and critics pursued their professional goals with zestful confidence, where conferences multiplied and grants were to be had to attend them, where conversation at academic parties was more likely to be about the latest controversial book or article than about the latest scaling-down of departmental maintenance grants. (Part six, chapter one)

The possibility of hope

But almost as soon as he’s appeared, Zapp is gone, flying off to yet another conference, leaving Swallow and his wife and Robyn to the bleak realities of higher education under Mrs Thatcher in the abandoned rust belt of a declining power. Soon after which things take a turn for the worse, as Vic is called in by his boss and abruptly dismissed. The rival firm he had been involved in outwitting have made a bid for Pringles which as been accepted and Vic is given a day to clear his desk and leave.

Vic is really the core of the novel, a character so outwith Lodge’s comfort zone of academia, and one of the best scenes is about neither sex nor post-structuralism, but the family meeting he calls when he gets home, with his long-suffering wife and three layabout children and doddery old Dad. And to his surprise they all rally round him. His wife has mistaken his infatuation for Robyn for worry about work and is tearfully relieved that the worst is over and Vic finds he can’t disabuse her, but is touched by the selflessness of her love. And his son turns out to have got a job with a local recording studio and his daughter says she’ll step up her work at the local hair stylist in order to pay her way through uni. It is heart-warming stuff.

While over on Robyn’s side of the plot, she is inundated by rather fairy tale good luck: Morris Zapp phones up, says he loves her book, and offers her a job at Euphoria State; then she finds her Australian uncle has died and left her his entire fortune in his will, all £150,000 of it. Lodge’s soft-hearted humanism shines through these concluding pages; if you’re going to have a corny happy ending, ahh, what the hell, why not go for it?

And so in the final pages Vic turns up back in Robyn’s office, explains he’s been made redundant but feels liberated by it and might have a go at setting up a firm to produce the widget he described to her on their foreign trip. Well, she says, I’ve just come into some money: can I invest in your firm? How much? £100,000. Wow, yes, of course. And they shake hands on it. And Vic blushes as he tells her he has gotten over his crush and has been reconciled with his wife. She congratulates him and writes a dedication in the volume of Tennyson he wants to borrow off her. Keep it, she says.

And on the last page, harassed Head of Department Philip Swallow says, there’s been a slight reprieve in the unemployment situation: the University has been given the freedom to redeploy resources budgeted for one item to another, if necessary. They might be able to pay her salary and extend her contract.

Should she go down to London to accept the marriage proposal from her old boyfriend, Charles, now making a fortune in the City? Should she accept Morris Zapp’s proposal to start a new life in the Californian sun? Or should she stay here, to battle for what she believes in, to try and use her knowledge and natural talent as a teacher to educate, to promote humane values, to try and build a better society?

‘All right,’ she says, turning back to Philip Swallow. ‘I’ll stay on.’

Despite all the anti-human forces to the contrary, Nice Work has a rousing and resoundingly happy ending which brings a tear to the eye.


TV series

The book was made into a four-part BBC television series, broadcast in 1989, starring the wonderfully grumpy Warren Clarke and the appositely aloof Haydn Gwynne, which won the 1989 Royal Television Society award for best drama series. Which makes it all the odder it’s not available on Amazon – though it is on ebay, starting around £20.

Related links

Hardback cover of Nice Work

Hardback cover of Nice Work

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance.
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

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