Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and it’s by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which is the backdrop to his first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 15 years earlier, in 1975, Kundera had finally abandoned all hope Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by theories of History, the Communist Party, and the awful political events of his homeland.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial, and represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator, who makes his first in-person appearance on page five:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding at him from every direction
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ (p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer to sounding like your moany old grandad.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you to reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives.

But I wonder if it’s also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young. Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although it turns out that he has misunderstood just about every important thing that ever happened to him, nonetheless it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels), by contrast, sounds tired and and pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives, but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas) which is life-affirming – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another aspect of Kundera’s settled dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat sound bites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix, which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’. Well, as you read into it you realise part of the reason this book is his longest one is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint requiring the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone has said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’ It feels like Kundera has undone his belt… and it’s all come flooding out, fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations, and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching the wave of an older woman at a swimming pool to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and trying to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone thought would die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died, her Father lingered on, when her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto her. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has

‘the feeling that she had nothing in common with those two-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face’. (p.43)

No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. Briefly, though, as the great general is mostly distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity. It might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. She bombarded the older man with letters and guarded his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, presenting his awareness that she is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the way, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe. The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is that it operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country, gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristic Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, he is completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the free world, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris, these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera has been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124). The protagonist listens to a radio programme where an interviewer has got a film actor on but only wants to talk about his private life. Can’t we talk about my films, the actor asks. What are you trying to hide? the interviewer asks, insidiously. No escape from the ghastly insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138)

He complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127) meaning the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128). Tut tut, modern life, eh?

This grumbling is half-heartedly turned into ‘fiction’ by having the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station Paul (Agnes’ husband) works for, tell its director, nicknamed the Bear, to sack him from his weekly radio talk. Although he carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is bewildered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He is so preoccupied with this fate that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him; but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships.)

He begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of his weekends away to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.) And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment. He

  • invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe
  • how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of his fat peasant wife])
  • swoops from the troubadours of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage in all Kundera which I found boring and pointless.

He discusses the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really clarifying it very much. He then reverts to the relationship with Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

One day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk and they saw the Empress i.e. wife of the ruler of Weimar coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-up-manship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies and centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle, approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all the other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests that there are five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He discusses this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, an entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these kinds of mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was this Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company open an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Then they discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which lead the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death.

Meanwhile back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac, for astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or remembers odd quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain with the most plain partners which haunt him. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. He nicknames her the lute player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the lute player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt him, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. Ad as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the lute player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married, it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no. He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says ‘No’ to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the lute player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the lute player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through all the modern part of the story.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of humanity, of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzling obstinate difficulties, of life as most of us experience it. It still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul. It appears to be years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and this is part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled. All this is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he married his dead wife’s sister, Laura. But has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. We are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that, on the night when he was arrested for apparently threatening a woman with a knife (when he was in fact slashing car tyres), Avenarius took Paul up on his offer to act as his lawyer, and that Paul got Avenarius acquitted.

It is typical of him that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist rather than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. that it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death.)

Before he leaves, Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which first attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. The narrator tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to pin them all down – and it combined this fizzing emporium of ideas with a highly charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

The other strand concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created for posterity by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then how her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists. So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same techniques – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

Put yet another way, it boils down to its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them. When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious ever-changing world round them much more interesting than the rarefied and self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

In the soothing reek of his tobacconist’s quiet stockroom, at the corner of Chancery Lane and Carey Street, Oliphant held the corner of the blue flimsy above the concise jet of a bronze cigar-lighter in the shape of a turbanned Turk. (p.338)

This is a really absorbing, intelligent and often mind-blowing book.

We are in 1855, though not the 1855 familiar from history books, for this is an alternative history. The ‘point of divergence’ from actual history appears to come around 1822 when Charles Babbage, not only theorises about the possibility of a computing machine (as he did in actual history) but builds one. This sets off a cascade of technological changes which result in a new political party, the Industrial Radical Party, seizing power, apparently by the assassination of then-Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington, in 1831. This led to a period of widespread rioting and anarchy, during which Luddites smashed the new-fangled machinery, referred to by the characters as the Time of Troubles.

It was during, or as a result of this disorder, that the Industrial Radical Party came to power with a vision of a completely new type of society, governed by reason and science and calculation. The ‘Rads’ co-opted the more flexible of the Luddite and working class leaders into cushy jobs as leaders of tame trade unions (p.295). Once in power the ‘Rads’ inaugurate an era of dazzling new technological and industrial innovations, led by a great social movement of industrialists, radicals and savants.

Lord Byron emerges as the great orator of the Industrial Radical Party, but Charles Babbage is its grey eminence and foremost social theorist (p.93)

Examples of these innovations are that Charles Babbage’s Calculating Machine has found a wide variety of applications, including the creation of a Central Statistics Bureau which stores information about every person in the country via the medium of paper with holes punched in them (in reality, ‘punched card’ computers, which could only do very basic data storage, were not developed till the late 1890s, early 1900s).

Babbage’s very first Engine, now an honoured relic, was still less than thirty years old, but the swift progression of Enginery had swept a whole generation in its wake, like some mighty locomotive of the mind. (p.121)

British people are no longer ‘subjects’ in this technicalised society, they are ‘citizens’, each issued with a unique citizen number, against which numerous records are kept, including their credit rating.

Another example is the new-fangled kinetrope machines, sets of cellulose cards with images on them which are ‘clacked’ through a machine in front of a light source to produce moving images (about 40 years before the earliest moving picture machines were actually invented).

London’s underground train system is well advanced, with characters hopping off and on the noisy, smelly subterranean trains (in reality, the first tube line wasn’t opened until 1863). London’s streets are filled with steam engine-driven omnibuses or ‘gurneys’ as they seem to be called.

To summarise, in this alternative history, a wide range of new technologies have been developed about 50 years before they did so in the real world, and this produces a continual clash between the characters’ mid-Victorian speech, dress and behaviour, and the continual array of newfangled technology the authors keep creating for the to interact with.

Historical jokes

There are a number of knowing, nudge-nudge, boom-boom jokes in which the authors imagine alternative destinies for various Eminent Victorians. Thus I sat up with a jolt when one of the central characters is approached by a short, grey-haired man who says he started life as a doctor but then wasted his youth dallying with poetry, before finding his current métier – as a purveyor of kinetrope films. His name? John Keats.

Benjamin Disraeli, far from gouging his way up the ‘greasy pole’ of politics (it was Disraeli who coined that expression), is stuck as a super-fluent novelist and journalist.

A divergence from our history which is probably too large to be a ‘joke’ is that, in this alternative history, the American Civil war has already broken out and war is raging between the Union North and Confederate South. The most striking feature of the war has been a working class insurrection in New York which has led to the creation of a ‘Commune’ (just as was to happen in Paris in 1870) led by the German émigré journalist and agitator Karl Marx! Presumably he found an England ruled by the Industrial radical party not a safe place to settle and moved on to New York (where, after all, he had many sympathisers, the real Karl Marx writing numerous articles for the New York Daily Tribune as its Europe correspondent from 1852 to 1862).

Another joke for the literary-minded is the fact that, in this world Lord Byron did not die of malaria in Greece in 1824, but lived on to become a leader of the Radical Party and is, at the time of the novel, Prime Minister of England, although the social disturbances described in the middle of the story coincide with the ‘old Orator’s’ death.

In fact this is a central fact to the plot, because the mystery or secret at the heart of the book rotates around Byron’s daughter, Lady Ada Byron who was, in our version of history, an advanced practitioner of Babbage’s theories, so much so that she is nowadays sometimes credited with being the very first computer programmer. In reality Ada died aged only 36 in 1852; in the novel she is still alive, but a very dubious figure, rumour has it she is addicted to gambling of all sorts and, when we first meet her, she appears to be high on drugs.

Style

The prose is stuffed and cluttered with two distinct elements, steampunk and Victoriana.

Steampunk

Continual reference to machines and technologies and the political party and scientific discoveries which dominate the age, never letting you forget its novel alternative industrial ambience. Wherever possible people use gadgets, machines which click and clunk together, cards which have hole punches, steam-gurneys in the street, offices with voice tubes, telegraphs not only between post offices but extending to people’s individual houses, and so on. Here’s a description of Oliphant’s telegraph machines.

Three Colt & Maxwell receiving-telegraphs, domed in glass, dominated the end of the table nearest the window, their tapes coiling into wire baskets arranged on the carpet. There was a spring-driven transmitter as well, and an encrypting tape-cutter of recent Whitehall issue. the various cables for these devices, in tightly-woven sleeves  of burgundy silk, snaked up to a floral eyebolt suspended from the central lavalier, where they then swung to a polished brass plate, beating the insignia of the Post Office, which was set into the wainscoting. (p.296)

Or the scene at the enormous Central Statistics Bureau, keeper of the most powerful Engines which keep tabs on all citizens:

Behind the glass loomed a vast hall of towering Engines – so many that at first Mallory thought the walls must surely be lined with mirrors, like a fancy ballroom. It was like some carnival deception, meant to trick the eye – the giant identical Engines, clock-like constructions of intricately interlocking brass, big as railcars set on end, each on its foot-thick padded blocks. The whitewashed ceiling, thirty feet overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns. White-coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles. (p.136)

Victorian slang

I wonder how two authors born in South Carolina (Gibson) and Texas (Sterling) managed to create a prose style absolutely stuffed with Victorian slang and argot.

Rich style

But above and beyond these two identifiable components, the style is just very rich, the sentences seamed with inventive imagery and interesting vocabulary. Here are our heroes standing by the sewage-laden Thames.

Fraser looked up and down the mudflats at the foot of the embankment. Mallory followed his gaze. Small boats were embedded in the grey-black mud as if set in cement. Here and there along the bend of the Limehouse Reach, rivulets of viridian slime reached up through the gouged tracks of channel-dredgers. (p.253)

Or Oliphant looking at mugshots of Victorian criminals:

It was a collection of stipple-printed Engine portraits. Dark-haired Englishmen with hangdog looks. The little square picture-bits of the Engine prints were just big enough to distort their faces slightly, so that the men all seemed to have black drool in their mouths and dirt in the corner of their eyes. They all looked like brothers, some strange human sub-species of the devious and disenchanted. (p.128)

Or the lowering weather during the Stink of London:

Outside the Palace, the London sky was a canopy of yellow haze.
It hung above the city in gloomy grandeur, like some storm-fleshed, jellied man-o’war. Its tentacles, the uprising filth of the city’s smokestacks, twisted and fluted like candlesmoke in utter stillness, to splash against a lidded ceiling of glowering cloud. The invisible sun cast a drowned and watery light. (p.164)

Or the kind of zippy, mind-expanding phraseology which prose can do better than all TV or film:

It was hot, uncommon hot, beastly hot. There was not a ray of sun but the air was mortally still and the high cloudy sky had a leaden, glowering look, as if it wanted to rain but had forgotten the trick of it. (p.138)

The plot

The book is divided into five ‘iterations’.

First Iteration: The angel of Goliad (62 pages)

Cockney courtesan Sybil Gerrard, daughter of the Luddite agitator Walter Gerrard (who was hanged as the Radical Party took power) has been taken up by Michael Radley, Flash Mick, who promises to make her an apprentice adventuress and take her with him to Paris. Flash Mick is orchestrating the European speaking tour of Texas legend and American politician, Sam Houston. We witness one of his speeches about his life and times, which is accompanied by a kinetrope projection of moving pictures onto the backdrop behind him, managed by Mick. However, Houston double crosses Mick by stealing the projection cards. Mick sends Sybil up to Houston’s hotel room, while he keeps the Texan busy drinking in the hotel’s smoking room but Sybil is horrified to discover an assassin waiting in the room, who holds his knife to her throat to hush her. A few minutes later Mick opens the door into the darkened room, and finds himself pinned against the wall by the assassin and his throat brutally cut. Then Houston himself arrives to find himself confronted by the assassin. He’s one of the Texan fighters who consider that Houston betrayed them, particularly when Texan soldiers were massacred by the Mexicans who’d captured them after the battle of Goliad, and ran off with their money. Houston tries to sweet talk him round but the assassin pushes him to the floor and then shoots him in the chest, before smashing the hotel window and escaping down the fire escape.

Horrified, Sybil crawls to Houston’s body as he gurgles pleas for help, and realise she is crawling over diamonds which have spilled out from Houston’s cane. The man was a walking treasure trove. She stuffs as many as she can into her bodice, then stands and exits the hotel room. Standing for a moment quietly in the empty hotel corridor, before walking as casually as she can away.

Second Iteration: Derby Day (23 pages)

Introduces us Edward Mallory, tall, bearded hero of a scientific expedition to Wyoming where he discovered the fossilised skeleton of a brontosaurus, hence his nickname ‘Leviathan Mallory’.

He is at Epsom for the Derby, drinking in the sights and sounds of a mid-Victorian day out. He goes to see his younger brother, Tom, who’s got a good job working for the designer and builder of a new type of (steam-powered) racing machine, Michael Godwin (p.74). The machine looks like a big tadpole on wheels, named The Zephyr. Godwin suggests Mallory bets £10 on the Zephyr, but he doesn’t have that much. So Godwin says he’ll lend Mallory a tenner and if they win they’ll share the proceeds, or he can pay him back if it loses. So Mallory goes along to a betting booth, places the £10 and then, on impulse, decides to gamble all the money he has in the world, £40. In an exciting race, Zephyr wins at long odds. Mallory makes £500 – he is rich!

Mallory is making way for a steam-powered brougham or carriage pushing through the crowd, when he notices the young woman sitting in it punching the older woman by her side (p.85).

Mallory immediately intervenes to protest but a rough-looking man driving the carriage leaps out and asks him what business it is of his, lunges at him and – Mallory realises – stabs him in the thigh with a stiletto. Mallory is a big man, he was a boxing champion and has survived in the wilds of the American West. Now he smashes the little spiv in the face, breaking some of his teeth. The bloodied little man screams at Mallory that he will not only kill him, he will destroy him.

Mallory helps the woman who was hit out of the coach. She is wearing a veil and talks as if drugged and quite calmly hands a long wooden box, ‘something like an instrument case’ (p.85). When she removes the veil he realises it is Ada Byron, daughter of the Prime Minister and one of the most important theoreticians of the calculating machines which dominate modern life, ‘Lady Ada Byron, the Queen of Engines’ (p.89). Mallory accompanies her to the Royal Box where she is let in by the security guards, but not him, who they turn away. He wanders off puzzled, to collect his winnings, and realises he is still holding the long wooden case. What is in it? Why did she hand it to him?

When Mallory opens it he discovers it is full of Engine-produced cellulose cards i.e. designed to be ‘clacked’ or projected onto a screen via a light source. Mallory stashes it in his locker at the Museum of Practical Geology (p.103).

Third iteration: Dark Lanterns (102 pages)

The phrase dark lanterns appears to refer to people working undercover, for whatever reason.

Having recently returned from a scientific expedition to the American mid-West – where he cemented his reputation by discovering the fossilised skeleton of a brontosaurus – Mallory is staying in rooms at the vast Palace of Palaeontology. Here he is visited by Laurence Oliphant, supposedly a journalist, in fact some kind of official, and wounded in the ‘Tokyo Affair’, by a sabre slash across his wrist.

Oliphant knows Mallory’s secret – that on the scientific expedition he also undertook gun-running tasks for the Royal Society Commission on Free Trade. Unnervingly, he also knows that Professor Rudwick, who has recently been murdered in London, was also carrying out secret offices for the Commission on Free Trade. Rudwick had been arming the Comanche Indians in Texas. He was murdered the same night Sam Houston was wounded and his publicist, Mick Radley, was eviscerated, as we saw in the first iteration.

(It takes some teasing out from the hints scattered across the narrative, but I think the gun-running is somehow to undermine America by making Texas focus on is own troubles with Indians. We know America is racked by a civil war. Britain is happy for America to remain fragmented into separate countries – the Union, the Confederacy, an independent republic of Texas, and so on.)

Mallory walks through central London to the Museum of Practical Geology in Duke Street, where he meets and chats with Thomas Henry Huxley, in real history famous for publicising Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. For a long time after Darwin’s theory was published there were two schools of evolutionists: uniformitarians who believed the world was immensely old and evolution had taken place very slowly over vast periods; and catastrophists, who believed the whole world and its living systems were regularly shaken by cataclysms, volcanic activity, tsunamis, comets crashing into the planet, you name it and that these catastrophes ware the driving force of change in life forms. Until the start of the 20th century they actually had science on their side, because all educated opinion had it that the sun was only a few million years old. This was because astrophysicists knew nothing about radiation and dated the sun on the basis that it was a burning ball of hydrogen (p.178). Only with the discovery of sub-atomic particles and the splitting of the atom did science realise that the sun is driven by nuclear fusion, and that this process could have been going on for billions of years, which swung the pendulum in favour of the uniformitarians.

In the 1980s and 1990s Stephen Jay Gould and colleagues advanced the theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ i.e. the notion of very long periods of slow change interrupted by a number of cataclysmic events which rewrote ‘the book of life’. The debate continues to this day.

The conversation with Huxley makes it clear that Mallory was a catastrophist (which matches the sometimes melodramatic events of this book) (p.115). Huxley introduces the man who is going to erect the brontosaurus bones into a life sized model at the museum, and they have an argument since he has been told to build the animal squatting like a frog, since a rival palaeontologist thinks it lived in swamps. Mallory strongly disagrees and says it must be built with a tall neck stretching up like a giraffe, since it ate leaves off the canopies of trees.

Mallory goes to Horseferry Road, site of the Central Statistics Bureau, heart of this Engine-based society. He’s been advised to come here by Oliphant, in order to track down the ruffian who stabbed him at Epsom using the CBS’s vast ‘Engines’, primitive computers used to file and sort vast numbers of punched cards. Oliphant told him to contact Wakefield, Undersecretary for Quantitative Criminology.

Mallory bribes the assistant, Tobias, who Wakefield allots to help him look through the mugshots the Engines shoot out on the basis of his description. Doesn’t seem to be a record of the cad who stabbed him. But there is a mugshot of the vividly red-haired ‘tart’ who he saw punch Lady Ada. She is Florence Bartlett.

Back at the Palace of Palaeontology, sweating because of the hot summer weather, Mallory has lunch and picks up letters from his family back in Sussex (much is made of his Sussex heritage and a Sussex accent he can revert to, if provoked), and his little sister who’s getting married. it crosses his mind to buy her a wedding present.

So after lunch in the Palace’s dining room, Mallory walks along Piccadilly to Burlington Arcade where he buys a large clock for his younger sister and discovers he is being followed by a man who holds a handkerchief to his mouth a lot, who Mallory christens the Coughing Gent. Mallory lets himself be trailed into an alleyway where he suddenly springs on the man, driving him to the ground when he is himself struck hard on the back of the head by a cosh and collapses dazed, then wanders back down the alleyway to Piccadilly, leaning against a paling with blood coursing down his head and neck.

He realises he is near where Oliphant lives and blunders up to the door of his house in Half Moon Street. Oliphant lets Mallory in, tells his man to get water and a flannel and proceeds to clean and stitch up the wound. When Mallory suddenly remembers he left his sister’s precious clock in the alleyway, Oliphant dispatches Bligh who discovers it untouched and brings it safely back. Oliphant playfully speculates whether the attack was made on behalf of rival scientists (or ‘savants’ as they’re called throughout the book) or is some kind of payback for his gun-running activities in America.

Either way, he recommends the discreet services of Inspector Ebenezer Fraser of the Bow Street Special Branch.

In an eerie scene Oliphant then introduces Mallory to half a dozen Japanese businessmen and diplomats who have come to learn the ways of the West and raise their land out of backwardness and superstition. They are all kneeling Japanese style at a lacquer table in a back room of Oliphant’s apartment. Here they demonstrate to him a robot woman they have made which pours out drinks.

After passing a hot sweaty night in his rooms at the Palace, Mallory is woken by cleaners come to flush out the stinking toilet. There’s also a letter printed on celluloid, demanding that he return the box he took from lady Ada, via instructions given in the Daily Express, and threatening to ruin him otherwise, signed ‘Captain Swing’. Even as he reads it the card bursts into flames and he has to grab other papers to douse it. At that moment Ebenezer Fraser enters his office.

Fraser shows Mallory a photo of Professor Rudwick’s cut-up body and a note which implies it is only the first in a series. It seems someone is trying to frame Mallory and scare fellow savants into thinking he is instigating a series of murders.

Fraser and Mallory walk through London while they discuss a number of issues, recent history, the Time of Troubles, the triumph of the Industrial Radical Party, Lady Ada Byron’s real character (a savant, yes, but also a notorious gambler) for Mallory has an appointment to meet the noted romantic novelist and scribbler, Benjamin Disraeli, who he finds eating a breakfast of coffee and stinking mackerel fried in gin (!). Disraeli has been engaged to write an account of Mallory’s adventures in America, which went well beyond scientific investigation for fossils and included friendship with the Native Americans. Mallory censors his memories for Disraeli (leaving out the fact he had sex with Indian women) and ends up helping the author fix an early form of typewriter.

Back in the street, Mallory hooks up with Fraser who had been waiting. Something weird is happening to the sky. It has turned a yellow colour and the atmosphere is thick and pestilent. Smells of sewage. This is the book’s version of the real historical event of the Great Stink of London which took place in 1858, when hot weather made stinks from the Thames overrun central London forcing Parliament to move to Oxford.

In this novel it combines with dense fog to create an end-of-the-world atmosphere.

Fraser exposes the Coughing Gent and (presumably) the accomplice who coshed Mallory, as well-known private detectives Mr J.C. Tate and Mr George Velasco. Sullenly, like naughty schoolboys, they put up with Fraser’s description of them, then, when Mallory offers to pay guineas, confess the man who put them up to following Malory is a fellow savant and rival palaeontologist, Peter Foulke.

They have a gritty lunch at a roadside booth and then return to the Palace of Palaeontology to discover that someone has broken in and set fire to his room, burning a lot of his papers and clothes. It is this ‘Captain Swing’ again who is clearly carrying out a vendetta till he gets the box of cards back. Luckily Mallory has hidden them safely where no-one will ever know – inside the skull of the brontosaurus fossil which the assistants are even now erecting in the museum. the only person he tells is Ada Lovelace, who he writes a personal message to.

Mallory now decides he wants to do some ‘genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken drinking’ and Fraser suggests they go to the pleasure grounds at Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea. The shops are closing, The sky is dark yellow. it is difficult to breathe. Earlier they’d noticed the Underground railway workers had come out on strike claiming it was impossible to breathe underground. Now shops are putting up their shutters. Somewhere on the way to Chelsea Fraser and Mallory are best by a gang of boys, jeering in their faces, one of them riding an early type of roller skates. After yelling abuse at our chaps this boy spins out of control and shoots through a plate glass window. Instantly his mates start looting the shop. Fraser wades in and someone throws a shard of glass which embeds in his back, painfully though not fatally. Mallory pulls it out, staunches the bleeding and helps Fraser to the King’s Road police station.

Fourth iteration: Seven Curses (93 pages)

Mallory proceeds on to Cremorne Gardens where he gets drunk and chats up a woman with a fine figure if a blocky, lantern-jawed face. After a dance, they proceed to a snog, she takes him outside and lets him touch her breast. She persuades Mallory to pay their fare on a paddle streamer which will take them along the sluggish, effluent-filled Thames down to the East End. She’s called Hetty and we realise she is the flatmate of Sybil who we met in the first iteration. They are both courtesans.

Hetty takes Mallory back to her squalid little rooms where they have sex several times, in a manner constrained by Victorian convention and vocabulary, for example he has to pay a lot extra for her to strip naked. Mallory uses French letters he had earlier purchased in Haymarket, and the authors use the Victorian word ‘spend’ for orgasm which, along with numerous other details, give it an authentic historic feel.

Next morning Mallory emerges into a London which seems overcome by cataclysm. Overnight there has been widespread looting and shooting. Mallory himself is nearly shot down by a nervous shopkeeper. Firemen have been attacked. An omnibus pushed over and set on fire. London has collapsed into complete anarchy, with armed bands, drunk bands, rioters and looters roaming the streets and trashing street after street, as Mallory discovers as he makes his way through the foggy, dangerous streets. He gets set on by a mob and only frees himself by firing his revolver into the air.

Then, in a surreal scene, he comes along a trundling cart being used by three bill posters to stick up enormous posters along the base of London buildings. This all seems harmless until he reads one they’ve just put up which starts off publicising a speech to be given by him, Mallory, before turning nasty and accusing him of all sorts of crimes. Mallory threatens the bill posters who call for their boss, who describes himself as the Poster King and sits inside the jaunting, swaying carriage into which he invites Mallory for a civilised chat. He explains that they were engaged this morning by a man calling himself Captain Swing. This captain has based himself in the West India Docks. Mallory gives them cash in exchange for all the posters libelling him.

Mallory blunders through the fog dodging rioters to arrive back at the Palace of Palaeontology, with his clutch of posters. It is full of refugees from the heat and stink and fog and anarchy.

Here he is delighted to discover his brother Brian, back from service in India. And Tom, the youngest brother, has motored up in the famous Zephyr. What of the marriage of their younger sister? Mallory asks. Brian sadly informs him that some bounder wrote a letter to Madeline’s fiancé accusing the innocent girl of all kinds of scandal (pre-marital sex, basically).

Mallory explains the letter was written by the tout, the driver, the man who attacked him, the infamous Captain Swing. It is just part of a much larger campaign, for London is now plastered with posters exhorting the working classes to rise up against their oppressors and claim what is theirs. Fired by revenge, Brian and Tom vow to join Ned on a march to the west India Dock to find and punish this fiend. Fraser (who has joined them) agrees to come along, in the spirit of arresting this dangerous anarchist.

They trundle across London from Kensington to the Isle of Dogs on Tom’s Zephyr but when they get to the docks realise that its eight-foot-high walls are guarded and the gates locked and barred. The only way in is via the locks giving onto the Thames which is at low tide. So they strip and wade across the foul stinking mud, until they’re spotted by guards, a ragamuffin crew of anarchists, but pretend themselves to be anarchists and looters and so are helped up to ground level, washed off with water and cologne, and led along to a big meeting of the lads by a cocky young lad who calls himself the Marquess of Hastings.

Here, in a warehouse, Mallory is astonished to find an audience of looters and anarchists and communists being addressed by none other than Florence Russell Bartlett, the red-haired young woman who had been bullying Lady Ada at Epsom and is now haranguing an audience of lowlifes about ‘the revolutionary spirit of the working class’ (p.268)

Mallory has a coughing fit and is led away by the Marquess but, in his reactions to the speaker, pretty clearly gives himself away as a patriot and radical. Before he can react Mallory punches Hastings unconscious. Hasting’s black servant Jupiter stands watching, not lifting a finger. As he remarks:

‘There is nothing to history. No progress, no justice. There is nothing but random horror.’ (p.272)

Mallory returns to the lecture to find Bartlett now onto the death of the family and the triumph of free love in the communist society when he stands up and declares he has a message for Captain Swing. An uproar breaks out, chairs are thrown at him, Mallory brings out his pistol and shots are fired. Suddenly he, Brian, Tom and Fraser are on the run through the warren of Victorian warehouses. This turns into a prolonged fight, with our boys doing well but soon running out of ammunition while the enemy consolidate their position and begin sniping. our boys hide within an enormous pile of bales of cotton which they hurriedly erect into a makeshift fortress. The tide turns their way when Brian lets off an artillery piece he has, killing quite a few of the attackers, and making his way into the fortress with new rifles, but then they are again pinned down.

Captain Swing himself approaches waving a white flag, calling for a truce and asking for the return of the wooden box of cards. Then the entire situation is transformed with a tremendous explosion and collapse of part of the ceiling. One or more naval ships out in the Thames are firing at the docks, which have been identified as a centre of sedition. The roof collapses. Fire breaks out. Dead and injured anarchists lie about the floor. In a cinematic moment Mallory emerges to stand on the ‘parapet’ of the cotton fortress. Captain Swing, far away on the floor of the warehouse, takes aim and misses, while Mallory methodically swings a rifle into the correct grip, takes aim, and shoots Swing down. Fraser leaps to the parapet beside him then clambers down and across the body-littered warehouse floor to clap the wounded captain in handcuffs.

At just this moment the long sweltering heat stifling the capital finally breaks in a tremendous thunderstorm.

Catastrophe had knocked Swing’s fortress open in a geyser of shattered brick dominoes. Mallory, blissful, the nails of his broken shoe-heel grating, walked into a London reborn.
Into a tempest of cleansing rain. (p.287)

The last four pages of the chapter jump to Mallory as an old man of 83 in 1908. He lived to a ripe old age and rose to become President of the Royal Society. Now we find him in the study of his home and, in a manner entirely fitting the rather hallucinatory scenes we’ve just witnessed, the narrative gives two alternative scenarios for his death from heart failure.

On his desk are two folders, one to his left, one to his right. In one scenario, Mallory opens the folder on his left which describes the demise of the Japanese branch of the international Society of Light, which makes him sad and then so angry that he bursts an artery.

In the other scenario, Mallory opens the folder on his right which describes the amazing new fossil finds which have been made in the Burgess shale in western Canada, an explosion of weird and inexplicable animals shapes never seen before or since which creates such a rush of blood to his head that he suffers a stroke and dies.

Fifth iteration: The All-Seeing Eye (64 pages)

We appear to have left Mallory now. The new focus of the narrative is Laurence Oliphant, who poses as a dandyish journalist but quite obviously belongs to one of the security services with a special interest in tracking representatives of foreign powers.

It’s in this respect that he was hosting a dinner party for six Japanese men that Mallory interrupted. Now he goes about a day’s work accompanied by another fawning Japanese who is infatuated with British technology ad modern appliances, a Mr Mori Arinori.

We are told that it is November 1855, some six months after Mallory’s adventure in the cotton warehouse. Lord Byron has in fact died, and been replaced by Lord Brunel (presumably Isambard Kingdom) though not without civil disturbances through the summer and there now appears to be a purge of old Luddites whose cases are being reopened and re-prosecuted by the zealous Lord Charles Egremont who is conducting something of an anti-Luddite witch-hunt.

Oliphant’s leisurely drawling personage (‘his gaze, beneath the black brim of his top hat, is mild and ironical’) proceeds to:

– visit Dr McNeile, a physician who uses an articulated ‘manipulation table’ and electric currents applied to the body to try and cure ‘railway spine’, a spurious medical condition in which the ‘magnetic polarity of the spine’ is supposed to have been reversed by trauma. Oliphant had been recommended to McNeile by Lady Brunel, wife of the new Prime Minister (p.295).

– home to his house in Half Moon Street off Piccadilly, where his butler Bligh serves him a luncheon of cold mutton and pickle with a bottle of ale. Oliphant checks the three receiving-telegraphs on his desk and finds a request to meet from Fraser, the detective who accompanied Mallory through most of the previous two sections.

– take a cab to Brigsome Terrace in the East End where Fraser is waiting to show him the body of a huge man who died of poisoning while eating a tin of baked beans in a squalid little flat. Oliphant questions Fraser and his subordinate Betteridge. A complicated picture emerges whereby several Pinkerton agents arrived in London eighteen months earlier and had begun to extend a network of contacts and informants. Betteridge had been tasked with attending a performance by a troupe of women dancers come over from New York – The Manhattan Women’s Red Pantomime Troupe. New York is now a workers’ commune, run by Karl Marx (the authors describe the revolution growing out of anti-conscription riots, and there were indeed widespread and violent riots against the conscription imposed during the Civil War).

In the crowd at the panto performance Betteridge had spotted the well-known agitator, Florence Bartlett. It emerges that Bartlett is a well-known murderer and vitrioleuse i.e. acid thrower. She likely commissioned the Texian giant whose corpse they’re standing over to murder Professor Rudwick, when he refused to agree to some mission or task – and then poisoned the giant.

– next day proceeds to the Statistics Bureau and to see Wakefield to ask him to run information through to the Engines to tell him who sent a particular telegram to the Duke’s Hotel. Wakefield’s machine tells him it was Charles Egremont. Oliphant asks Wakefield to find the text of the telegram and leaves.

–  Oliphant is much possessed by memories of flash Mick Radley’s death. He was there in the smoking room getting drunk with Houston and Mick, when Mick was called out of the room by a scared-looking woman (who we know to be Sybil Gerrard). Later that night Oliphant was called back to the hotel and has vivid flashbacks of searching through the belongings of the eviscerated Radley and wounded Houston. The Texian connection links into the visit of the red Ballet, and the arrival 18 months earlier of the Pinkertons. No direct links, But a mood.

– to visit Mr Hermann Kriege, late of the New York Volks Tribüne, who had greeted Karl Marx to New York, and had been on the central committee of the commune Marx set up there, till they fell out and Kriege had to flee for his life, now living in poverty-stricken exile in a slum in Soho (like many other American exiles). Oliphant is paying him to be a spy and informer about goings-on in the émigré community.

– to a pub in nearby Compton Street, which hosts dogs fighting rats competitions. Much drinking and gambling and dead rats and, occasionally, dead dogs. Oliphant meets Fraser and together they go up to the rat arena where they meet the manager Sayers, and show him a daguerreotype of the giant found murdered in the East End. Sayers confirms that that’s the big man who murdered professor Rudwick. They bump into Tate and Velasco, the confidential agents we last saw assaulting Mallory, guns for hire. They are cocky and abusive so that Fraser nearly arrests them, but suave Oliphant is charm itself and tells him to desist. They swank themselves that they are hired by an eminent member of Parliament, Oliphant guesses Egremont.

– Oliphant breakfasts (presumably the next day) with Mori Arinori, the most zealous of the Japanese who have come to Britain to study its go-ahead culture. Oliphant takes him to the pantomime at the Garrick theatre, Whitechapel, to see the Manhattan Women’s Red Pantomime Troupe. The performance is full of inexplicable modernism and half naked women. They go backstage and are introduced to a ‘Helen America’ who insists they go round the corner to the latest thing in self-service cafeterias (Mr Arinori is entranced; in reality this kind of thing wouldn’t appear in America till 100 years later). Oliphant shows her an Engine-produced image of Flora Barnett which makes Helen America cross, saying Flora is no communist, is not even American. She realises Oliphant is some kind of policeman and storms out of the café.

– Arriving home, Oliphant discovers that the boy Tobias who he bribed at the Statistics Bureau has tracked down the punch code of the telegraphic message sent to Duke’s hotel and delivered it while he was out. After fiddling about with screwdrivers and such, he rigs up his own telegraph-receiving machine to read the card and translate it into text. It is an illiterate long message sent by Sybil Gerrard accusing Charles Egremont of ‘ruining’ her i.e. taking her virginity out of wedlock, which we saw her dictating and sending in the first chapter, when Sybil thought she was going to Paris with flash Mick.

– Oliphant, rather amazingly, pays a visit to Albert the Prince Consort, with whom he on intimate terms, having brought a present for the son and heir, Alfred. (It turns out the Japanese automaton we saw earlier in the story was also a gift designed for young ‘Affie although, like most children, he’s managed to break it). In the middle of reading Affie the new storybook he’s brought, an urgent message comes for Oliphant.

He races by cab to Fleet Street where he discovers there’s been an outrage. Florence Bartlett and two assistants broke into the Museum of Practical geology and stole the skull Mallory’s brontosaurus. They made their getaway in a horse and trap. Getting caught in a jam with another cab, the baddies pulled out a gun, passing police fired on them and there happened to be a soldier passing by and carrying one of the new ‘Russian shotguns’ which – I have only now realised – are a newfangled type of extremely destructive hand-held weapon, maybe like a bazooka (I realise Brian had used one of these to devastate the attackers in the Battle of the West India Docks). Anyway, Florence Bartlett and her two assistants are very dead, along with half a dozen passersby and police. Rival police agencies are at work on the bodies and Fraser takes Oliphant aside and slips him the case they found on the dead robbers, covered in plaster and obviously extracted from the skull. And a letter informing Bartlett that the case is inside the skull. They both recognise the hand-writing of Ada Lovelace, deary me she really is deep into this trouble.

Oliphant slips away with this booty, and examines it at leisure at the office of his tobacconists’, not far away in Chancery Lane. He destroys the letter from Ada then asks the man to lock the box containing the Engine-cards in his safe. What the devil is on them??

The climax

In pages 330 to 355 or so we find out what it’s all about. The set of Engine-cards which Mallory received from lady Ada and Captain Swing went to such trouble to reclaim and which Flora Bartlett died stealing, are French in origin. They contain a code designed to disable the Great Napoleon, the name given to the vast calculating machine prized by the French. Disabling it is a blow for the anarchists and those who oppose this surveillance society.

Oliphant confronts Wakefield in his club and learns that Egremont, via his department of Anthropometry, has taken over the Bureau of Statistics. Wakefield is scared to be seen with Oliphant. We learn from his muttered remarks that Oliphant and his people were the first to practice swiping people off the street, interrogating them and then making them disappear. They did it in a ‘good’ cause. But now Egremont and his people are going to do it in order to secure their grip on power. Egremont is close to Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, who holds power in the Lords and is a strong proponent of genetics. Of helping evolution along by sterilising the poor and weak and forcing the breeding of the noble and fit. It isn’t stated in these terms, but this constellation of forces has the potential to institute a Fascist society.

Convinced he is being followed, Oliphant slips out into a back alley, and catches a night train to Paris where he meets a trusted colleague high up in the Imperial Police Force. He wants to the whereabouts of Sybil Gerrard. It is only when he meets Sybil in a bohemian Montmartre café that we learn that it isn’t simply a case of Egremont deflowering – or maybe ‘abusing’ Sybil, as we would say nowadays.

Much more dangerous to Egremont is that in his early days, he was a sympathiser with the Luddites, he was a colleague and friend of Sybil’s father. It was only later that he helped get him arrested and hanged. And the witchhunt he is organising under the new Prime Minister, Lord Brunel, reflects his paranoia about his old links with the Luddites resurfacing.

In the Montmartre café Oliphant appears to persuade a reluctant Sybil to help him, to dictate a testament about her own deflowering but also about Egremont’s early political heresy, which will ruin him and stop the totalitarian party.

Cut to a really brief, clipped scene: Mr Mori Arinori arrives outside the Belgravia home of Charles Egremont MP in a new-fangled Zephyr, parks, takes off his goggles, walks politely over to Egremont, ignoring the machine-gun-armed bodyguard, bows, hands Egremont ‘a stout manila envelope’ and returns to his car. Egremont watches him, puzzled.

The reader is left to deduce that the envelope must contain Sybil’s testimony and some kind of demand that Egremont resign.

Modus: The images tabled

This is a peculiar thing to have in a work of fiction: the last 27 pages form a sort of appendix made up of excerpts from various documents, diaries, letters, recordings, histories and so on which shed light on how the alternative history came about, tell us about the later destinies of many of the characters, and ‘explain’ the meaning of the Engine-cards.

1864 – A (fictional) extract from an essay by Charles Babbage explaining how insight into using a language of signs and symbols extended the theoretical workings of the Difference Engine into the practical form of an Analytical Engine.

1830 – Letter to a newspaper encouraging readers to go out and vote for Babbage in the 1830 General Election.

1912 – (Fictional) history describing how Wellington’s repression in 1830 featuring massacres of protesters led to the Times of Trouble and eventual triumph of Lord Byron’s Industrial radical Party.

1855 – (Fictional) letter from Disraeli describing Lord Byron’s state funeral.

1855 – three-page testimony from Byron’s wife describing how she had to put up with his – to her – disgusting sexual practices which she out up with while finding solace in the kindly educating of Charles Babbage, full of ‘the pure light of mathematical science’.

1855 – a couple of miners working with the huge underground digger boring tube tunnels witness a visit by the Grand Master Miner Emeritus

1855 – record of the words of the Reverend Alistair Roseberry who denounces Ada Byron as a debauched gambler, before he is grappled to the ground and actually shot.

1855 – Brunel’s address to his cabinet asking their help to deal with the murder of Roseberry.

1855 – testimony of Kenneth Reynolds, nightwatchman at the Museum of Practical Geology, on discovering the corpse of the Marquess of Hastings who a) we met cockily inviting Mallory and brothers up into the West India Docks, who then b) Mallory punched unconscious and c) took part in the robbery led by Florence Bartlett to steal the box of Engine-cards from their hiding place in the skull of the brontosaurus, being lowered by rope through the skylight, extracting the box and handing it up to his colleagues before slipping and falling onto the hard stone floor below, shattering his skull.

1870 – memo to the Foreign Office from Lord Liston, describing the drunk behaviour of the ex-President of the American Union Mr Clement L. Vallandigham – to which is added a note that Sam Houston, ex-President of Texas, recently passed away in exile in Mexico.

1875 – spoken reminiscences of Thomas Towler, grandfather of Edward Towler, inventor of the Towler Audiograph who remembers a) the extreme poverty before the Rad government revolutionised the economy and b) the way Lord Byron roused the English to send food to Ireland during the Potato Famine, thus securing the loyalty of the Irish for generations.

1857 – John Keats gives testimony about a meeting with Oliphant. Oliphant is a smooth operator but we have but we have been given access to his mind and his rather paranoid fears and waking nightmares about an ‘all-seeing Eye’, which knows all our numbers and identities, that the computational powers of the Engines will match and supersede God’s knowledge. Oliphant has Keats confirm that kinetropy is probably the most advanced branch of computing, and then gives him the French Engine-cards to analyse and find out what they mean.

Lyrics to the Great Panmelodium Polka, the panmelodium being the Victorian steampunk version of a juke box.

1860 – snippet of gossip from Tatler machine that Oliphant has set sail, leaving Britain to join the Susquehanna Phalanstery established by Professor Coleridge and the Reverend Wordsworth, which could be interpreted as a) the gloomy religious visions which we saw occasionally dogging his mind have tipped him over or b) Britain became too dangerous for him.

1866 – the full Victorian-style playbill of a major new Kinotropic Drama staged by J.J. Tobias, who we met as the junior clerk in the Quantitative Criminology section of the Central Statistics Bureau, and who Oliphant bribed to get him the text of the telegram which turns out to have been the accusation sent by Sybil to Charles Egremont.

1854 – poem written by Mori Yujo, samaurai and classical scholar on his son’s departure for England.

1854 – letter home to his father from Mori Arinori describing his first sighting of the shore of England.

Narrative A – a return to the third person narrator which gives a seven-page description of Lady Ada on a speaking tour of Paris in which she describes in rather mystical terms the potential for the so-called ‘Modus Programme’ to lead to an Engine whose method of self-referentiality might eventually lead it to self-awareness. There’s scattered applause from the half-filled auditorium and Fraser (for it is he; a much older, white-bearded Fraser, wounded from some incident in the line of duty, now retired and allotted a final task of being Lady Ada’s bodyguard) helps her to her changing room where he knows she’ll help herself liberally to the gin. He waits at the stage door where he finds a woman loitering. At first he (and the reader) think it might be part of some diabolical scheme: maybe someone’s going to kidnap lady Ada and replace her with an impersonator who will travel across Europe saying… saying what, exactly?

But it turns out to be Sybil Gerrard, only now using the surname Tournechon (as she told Oliphant when he tracked her down to the Montmartre café). When Ada emerges, at first Sibyl asks for an autograph – then changes her tone and asks what it feels like to be a little old lady, lecturing to empty halls, deliberately hurtful. Then changes her tune again, trying to push past Fraser (who is by now pushing her away) in order to give Ada a large and genuine diamond ring, presumably made with one of the diamonds she stole from Houston after he was stabbed.

Then she is gone. Fraser helps her into the gurney. It drives to their hotel. Fraser helps her up to her room. They discuss money. Maybe she will have to go and lecture in America, though whether Confederate South or Union North… Fraser recalls being given the job by ‘the Hierarch’ (the only time this word is used in the book: who does he mean? is it as simple as Lord Brunel?) His task is to keep her out of England and so out of scandal, away from gambling dens, try to keep her sober and out of trouble.

1991

And then, in a weird and disorientating final move, Ada is in her hotel room, looking into a mirror and… it reflects a city which is… the city of London in 1991.

These last four or so paragraphs are confusing. The Wikipedia synopsis says that the London described on this final page, the London of this alternative world, is a city built entirely of Engines in which the self-referential computer programme referred to by Lady Ada finally, at the very end of the book, in its last words, attains self-consciousness!

When I first read it I didn’t get this, and I didn’t understand the final, impressionistic sentences where this is, apparently, described as happening.

What I very much did read into the final couple of paragraphs was the apparent fact that human beings have ceased to exist. That cities are futuristic artefacts in which human-like simulacra are created by the All-Seeing Eye solely for the purpose of analysing their actions, interactions, for analysing the nature of causation and chance themselves.

Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye. And when a given face has served its purpose, it crumbles frail as ash, bursting into a dry foam of data, its constituent bits and motes. But new fabrics of conjecture are knitted in the City’s shining cores, swift tireless spindles flinging off invisible loops in their millions, while in the hot unhuman dark, data melts and mingles, churned by gearwork in a skeletal bubbling pumice, dipped in a dreaming wax that forms a simulated flesh… (pp.382-3)

Comment

I am in two minds about this conclusion.

On the one hand it is a familiar science fiction trope, that somehow humans have been eliminated by computers – as in the Terminator franchise of movies – or only the facade of human life is maintained to serve the computers’ purposes – very like the situation in The Matrix films. And it’s fair to say that this abrupt, dystopian future does follow logically from the speculations of Ada Lovelace, which themselves grow out of the pioneering work of Babbage, so worryingly premature and advanced in this alternative history.

BUT, all that said, the appeal of the previous 282 pages all derived from the vivid language and extravagant delineation of a host of very human characters, especially tough Mallory, suave Oliphant, and unflappable Fraser. And a lot of the appeal is from the verbal energy of their dialogue and the Victorian vocabulary deployed in the narrative prose. The final Terminator-style vision of a post-human world goes a long way to annulling all the affection and complex network of feelings for both the characters and the prose which the previous 380 pages had so carefully, and impressively, built up.

I wish they had found some other clever way of rounding off the story which kept it within the gorgeously humanistic tapestry of the alternative 19th century they so brilliantly created.

Or maybe left it with the rather inconsequential back alley confrontation between Ada and Sibyl. It’s often a characteristic of ‘high literature’ that it does not end with the boom and the bang that genre fiction often demands – instead it relies for its final impact on something more obtuse and implied, such as that vivid but ineffective confrontation between Ada and Sybil would have provided.

So I think I think that the ending of this wonderful, thoroughly researched and deeply entertaining book, lets it down.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Alternative histories

  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962) In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War.
  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) Set in a 20th century England and Europe where the Reformation – and thus the Industrial revolution – never happened and so the Catholic Church still rules the entire continent.
  • SS-GB by Len Deighton (1978) A detective thriller set in England soon after Nazi Germany won the war and occupied England.
  • Russian Hide-and-Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980) Set in a near-future when the Soviet Union took advantage of the campaign for nuclear disarmament and invaded and conquered England.
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992) A detective thriller set in the 1960s after Nazi Germany invaded Britain, made peace with America, and now rules the entire continent.

Warhol by Klaus Honnef (1990)

Taschen editions tend to be:

  • cheap (this one cost me a fiver)
  • full of excellent quality colour reproductions (I count 92 illustrations, about 80 in colour)
  • translated from the original German – which often makes the prose feel a bit lumpy

Biography

Andrew Warhola was born in 1928 or 1930, in Forest Hill, Pennsylvania son of a Czech immigrant miner and construction worker, who was often away from home and died after a protracted illness in 1942. 1945-9 Andrew studies at Carnegie Institute of Technology Pittsburgh before moving to New York and quickly finding work as a commercial artist for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and other top-end magazines, while also producing commercial art, sales images of shoes and shop window-dressing. First solo exhibition in 1952 and first group exhibition in 1954. 1956 exhibition of Golden Shoes and wins awards for his commercial design. 1957 wins another award for commercial artists. 1960 creates first works based on comic strips and Coca Cola bottles.

1962, after 13 years in New York, he paints his breakthrough paintings of Campbell soup tins, dollar bills, the first silk-screen prints of Hollywood stars, takes part in a pioneering exhibition of Pop art, produces silk prints of car crashes and the electric chair, rents the attic which will later become famous as the Factory. In the next two years he and a cadre of keen young assistants produce over 2,000 works.

In 1963 he starts producing films with Sleep and Empire: he’ll go on to produce 75 experimental and avant-garde movies.

1964 first sculptures of commercial products – Brillo, Heinz and Del Monte packaging. 1965 announces he’s giving up art to focus on film-making and meets the Velvet Underground with whom he’s involved for the next few years.

1969-72 few works, only a handful of commissioned portraits. 1972 series of Mao. 1975 publication of his book, From A to B and Back Again. 1876 The Skulls and Hammer and Sickle series. 1977 Ten athletes. 1980 retrospective exhibition Portraits of the 70s. 1980s develops a TV channel. Publishes POPisms. A series based on famous paintings e.g. Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. 1986 series of Lenin portraits and self-portraits prove to be his last. 1987 dies as a result of surgery.

Work

You can read a book like this or just skip through the pictures. For a start the examples given here of his commercial art or of his early drawings are astonishingly weak.

This early part of the book is the most interesting because it describes his struggle to find a voice and style. The art world in the 1950s was dominated by Abstract Expressionism – Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko et al. The tone was intensely intellectual and serious, with each spatter of paint symbolising the anguish and agony of the Great Artist struggling with his medium and against his own psychological demons. A few lone voices argued for a lighter view of the world, namely Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who both, in the mid-1950s, had begun to experiment with using everyday imagery (numbers, targets) or detritus from the streets. Similar ways of thinking are visible in his famous window display at Bonwit Teller department store, 1961.

In the panel on the left the use of fragments of words and letters is reminiscent of Johns; while the large-scale blowing up of a scene from a Superman comic to make the third panel obviously brings to mind Roy Lichtenstein who was to make a career out of blowing up comic illustrations. The book tells us that Warhol was introduced to Lichtenstein, saw his early comic book work, recognised Lichtenstein was doing it better and dropped his on the spot.

Storm Door from 1960 is fascinating because it shows the influence of both Johns, in the use of words and fragmented phrases, with the deliberately loose dripping which characterised Abstract Expressionism. He is so obviously caught between stools. And the same with Peach halves.

Then, suddenly, Bam! Soup tins, dollar bills, Marilyn, electric chair and he has found his brand, a look and feel he would never depart from and – crucially – could be mass produced, turned out in large numbers.

He experimented with a stylised treatment of newspaper front pages but these seem to me very poor.

What these and the early illustrations of boots and shoes and hamburgers seem to show is that his own drawings were very so-so. But his eye for a photographic image – and then the silk screen printing of them, with variations in colour and contrasting – was nothing less than genius.

Warhol and the Portrait

Millions of words have been written about Warhol’s obsession with or deconstruction of glamour, the movies, celebrity culture, sex appeal, consumer capitalism and the rest of it. Honnef makes a simpler more powerful point when he observes that Warhol’s longest lasting and most prolific genre was The Portrait, a genre as old as painting. Consider how he refreshed and altered it, especially by using series with variations, in ways hard to explain.

It would be interesting to get a copy of the book, Portraits by Andy Warhol which features some images, including Elvis, Mao, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Blondie, Mick Jagger, Ginger Rogers, Prince, Grace Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev, even Queen Elisabeth II of the UK. He was described as ‘the court painter of the 70s’ and there is a new shallowness, a cocaine and Studio 53 vapidity about many of the 70s portraits; there’s certainly a ‘late’ feel to the silk screen portraits done after the 60s, just as brilliant but somehow less inspired.

He also did quite a few self-portraits, particularly in the 80s.

Do Warhol’s portraits say anything about the sitter? Or do the pencil and paint additions to the basic photographic likeness, the mad multiplicities of gaudy colourings, do they reinforce, undermine or empty the images of all feeling? Are good photos transformed into semi-divine icons?

Just on this one issue of portraits, the book (not the author, his selection of images) makes crystal clear that when Warhol strays away from the human subject his work – even when still using striking images and the silk screen technique and multiple iterations with colour variants etc – by and large gets pretty dull. Sort of OK, a bit interesting, but…

In the 1980s he returned to actually drawing things – coloured and printed in sets like the photos but still, images he himself drew in the endearingly amateurish style of the 1950s.

Yes, nice enough in their way, and once coloured and printed in sets then, yes, attractive. But fundamentally, Andy was a people person.


Five types of repetition

Does repetition empty of meaning or fill with meaning? Or both.

Honnef quotes a comment by the German art historian Werner Spies that some of the repetitions capture ‘the desolation of repetition’. More precisely, ‘the destruction of feeling by overexposure and of enjoyment by overconsumption’ (quoted page 68). These are two distinct things:

1. The destruction of feeling is something Warhol apparently celebrated in his own life, carefully cultivating a completely affectless persona, studiedly indifferent even to the creation of his own artworks, leaving – for example – the colour combinations of many of the Marilyn prints to his assistants. On this interpretation Pop aims at complete cool, not just deadpan presentation of hyper-familiar artifacts but actual emotional deadness. Emptiness but not with negative connotations. Just nothing being there.

‘If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me. There’s nothing behind it.’

2. The second phrase comes from a different register, suggesting the repetitions re-enact the destruction of sensory enjoyment in a culture which is overwhelmed with too much of everything: the obsessively repeated images of glamour and stardom and iconic figures become a visual form for the other sense which are over-stimulated in affluent America: fast food leading to obesity; drugs leading to 50,000 overdoses every year. They amount to an overdose of imagery; they embody the excess of overweight American culture.

Well, they’re possibilities, just two of the several hundred which can be teased out of Warhol’s work.

3. Repetition with variation also strongly suggests music: the classical tradition is full of composers who took simple themes and showed off their dazzling skills by putting them through all sorts of musical hoops and distortions, from the listenable works of Bach and Mozart through to the fiendishly mathematical structures of the post-war serialist composers. Theme and variations is a basic genre of classical music and a common task set all aspiring composers.

4. Towards the end of the 1960s, the New York composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich rejected the stifling complexities of serial composition and began experimenting with the fundamental building blocks of music, the repetition of very basic motifs, with very slight changes in tempo and co-ordination which turned out to create strange hunting blurred effects.

These composers came to be called Minimalists and became famous in the early 1970s at the same time as the Minimalist artists – but the fascination with the aesthetic, psychological and semantic meaning of repetition which they explore, is already a key aspect of Warhol’s style a decade earlier.

5. But Warhol is quoted elsewhere as saying Repetition amounts to reputation and, delving into this phrase, it turns out to be a commonplace of marketing and brand management i.e. the dependable repetition of service, a delivery, a purchase, underpins a brand’s reputation. Warhol seemed to be using it in a slightly tangential way to indicate that repetition of an image imprints it on the viewer’s brain. This can be taken on at least three levels:

a) As a basic tenet of advertising and brand management – get your product in front of the consumer as often as possible – hence the proliferation of Warhol’s own prints helped to make them well-known and created a virtuous circle, creating his brand, which led to more art in series and multiples, which then boosted the brand. Until we find ourselves in a situation where works by Warhol are now among the most expensive in art history so that Eight Elvises recently sold for $100 million and Car Crash for $105 million.
b) On a psychological level, if we see something enough times it becomes part of our mental furniture and an emotionally and psychologically reassuring presence. Is that how we feel about the Mona Lisa or a picture of Churchill? Does it explain how and why photos of movie stars (and latterly, pop stars) seem so reassuring – simply because we are saturation bombed with them from billboards, hoardings, TV ads, all over the internet, the front of magazines and newspapers? Is that what ‘screen icon’ means, a look which either taps into archetypal longings in our animal minds, or creates a profound sense of familiarity and reassurance by virtue of its repetition?

Which comes first, the brilliance of the photographic image which Warhol selects – or his artistic treatment of it, his proliferation of it into sets of paintings and prints? Or do both conspire in a potentially unlimited virtuous circle until part of the great Vortex of Images which all sighted people inhabit, the so-called Mediasphere, becomes permanently Warhol.


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Culloden and the ’45 by Jeremy Black (1990)

Jeremy Black MBE is a prolific and respected historian who’s written mostly, but not solely, about 18th century history. This is a large format book in the series of Illustrated History Paperbacks from Sutton Publishing but it isn’t a balmy coffee-table read; it is a dense and detailed account of this key event in British history.

In a sense you have to go back to the Civil Wars to understand the Jacobite Uprising of 1745; taking the long view, as far back as the Reformation. Thus:

The Reformation 1517

In 1517 the monk Martin Luther nailed to a church door in Germany a set of ‘theses’ which attacked the social and theological corruption of the Roman Catholic church. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, for his theological attack crystallised a century or more of opposition to the Catholic church’s elaborate medieval theology, his attack on the church’s corruption (demanding money for ‘indulgences’ – in effect, charging people to get into heaven) attracted social reformers, and the political uproar he caused suited many rulers of German’s numerous little states who seized it as an opportunity to throw off political domination of Catholic emperors and declare their theological and political independence. Within a generation what became known as ‘the Reformation’ spread across Europe, inextricably intertwining politics with theology and creating two armed camps, of Protestants and Catholics.

The Reformation in England and Scotland 1530s and 1540s

The Reformation caused mayhem in England where King Henry VIII seized the opportunity to use the new theology as a pretext to overthrow the authority of the pope and make himself supreme ruler, coincidentally allowing himself to shut down the nation’s rich monasteries and convents and seize their riches.

His successors – Edward, Mary and Elizabeth – managed this turbulent legacy of religious and political dissension as best they could, Elizabeth more or less stabilising the conflicting views of theologians in a media via or compromise position which came to characterise the Church of England.

Scotland underwent its own version of the Reformation which was much more hardline in nature – briefly this meant the Scots rejected the rule of bishops in the church (seeing them as appointees of the king not of God) and adopting Calvin’s version of Protestantism, which emphasised God’s foreknowledge and the idea that all our lives are predestined. (In contrast to the Catholic view that, if you sin you can say confession and be forgiven by a priest or buy ‘indulgences’ or pay for masses to be said to save your soul or generally buy forgiveness and entrance to heaven, Protestants from Luther down emphasise the idea that all of us are irretrievably damned and can do nothing to save ourselves; only the love of God can save us, only his ‘amazing grace’ offers any hope of forgiveness.)

The British Civil Wars 1637-49

When Elizabeth I died she left no heir and Parliament invited King James VI of Scotland to come down and become King James I of England. James had survived the poisonous machinations of the Scottish court of his childhood and so was well-prepared to enter the equally complex web of post-Elizabethan power politics and theological conflict.

However, James brought his son, Charles I, up to be a modern European monarch and to believe in the Divine Right of Kings. This was a mistake for, when Charles I inherited the throne in 1625, his high-handed, aristocratic and dangerously Catholic views alienated a diverse range of his subjects. Businessmen were frustrated that he awarded monopolies on foreign trade to court favourites. Lawyers and politicians were offended by his high-handed way with Parliament, which he eventually suspended for blocking all his plans and laws. And the party of ‘Puritans’ – people from all walks of life who believed that Elizabeth’s Church of England was a sinful compromise with worldly authority – were scandalised when Charles I married a Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria. Even worse, Charles I allowed her to have a Catholic priest and to attend Mass in Whitehall, which rumour implied that Charles I himself sometimes attended! Meanwhile, he made himself very unpopular by reintroducing the altar rail, images, singing and other ‘Catholic trumpery’ into the Church of England.

In 1637 Charles I made the bad mistake of trying to impose a new, more ‘Anglican’ Prayer Book on the church in Scotland. There was a popular rebellion against the ‘Popish innovations’, a movement quickly seized hold of by dissident aristocrats. Charles I ordered a ramshackle English force to enter Scotland and impose his Prayer Book, but to everyone’s surprise it was defeated by a better organised Scottish army which forced the English back across the border and then marched south and seized Newcastle. Charles I was forced to recall his hated Parliament which, instead of voting him the money he needed to prosecute the war, set about renewing all the demands for political, economic and religious reform which had made him shut it down in the first place. And many Parliamentarians started corresponding on friendly terms with the Scots Presbyterians, with whom they shared Puritan values.

King Charles I painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck

King Charles I painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck. It all starts with his ineptitude.

Charles I recalled his most effective minister, the Earl of Strafford, from Ireland to consult on plans, but this in turn gave the rebellious Irish the opportunity to rise up and storm the English settlements in the Pale of Dublin, driving many Protestants into the sea. Exaggerated stories of atrocities played into the hands of Puritan propagandists, who could present the attacks from Ireland and Scotland as part of a coordinated plan to overthrow Protestant rule in England. When Charles I attempted to arrest his leading critics in Parliament – and failed; forewarned, they had fled London – he realised he had stepped over a line. He withdrew with his court and supporters to Oxford, raised his standard, and the countries of England, Ireland and Scotland were plunged into an intertwined and very complicated series of wars.

The Commonwealth 1649-60

Briefly, after three separate wars (in England alone) beside the campaigns in Scotland and Ireland, and a maze of negotiation, Charles I was captured, put on trial and executed in January 1649, his wife and sons, the future Charles II and James II, having long ago fled to France. For 11 long years they languished in exile, hosted by a French king eager to foment rebellion in Britain, hatching innumerable failed plots for their return.

This was to become the pattern of behaviour for the next hundred years of what Black pithily titles The Wars of British Succession.

The Restoration 1660

Oliver Cromwell had risen to the top of the pile in republican Britain and, following Charles I’s execution, led successful military campaigns to quell first the Scots then the Irish. He ruled as ‘Lord Protector’ from 1653 to his death in 1658. His son, Richard, inherited the position, but had none of his father’s skills or connections and within a year the republic crumbled away, and influential soldiers decided the only way to avert anarchy was to restore the monarchy and invite Prince Charles back to become King Charles II.

Surprisingly maybe, Charles II returned a hero to great jubilation and wine flowed in the street. He became infamous for having numerous mistresses, holding drunken parties and gained the nickname ‘the Merry Monarch’. Charles II was careful to put the royal imprimatur on all sorts of organisations, from the Royal Society to the Royal Academy, the Royal Observatory, as well as instituting Derby Day, sailing at Cowes and other popular leisure activities. BBC surveys and the like report that he is one of the best-known and most popular English kings.

On a more serious note, the restored Parliament persecuted many of the leaders of the old Puritan regime, as well as anyone who refused to ‘conform’ to the new, strict Church of England. These ‘non-conformists’ as they became known, were often imprisoned, where many died. Those who could afford to emigrated to America, such as the Quaker William Penn who founded Pennsylvania in America.

King Charles II painted by John Riley

King Charles II painted by John Riley. Dissolute and profligate but determined never to go on his ‘wanderings’ again, Charles  II managed Britain’s affairs better than his father.

Stuart kings and the Catholic issue

More serious still were persistent rumours that Charles II had become a Catholic while living in France and was doing secret deals with the French king Louis XIV. Worst of all, Charles II’s younger brother, James, publicly announced he was a Catholic. There was much opposition to this from traditional Anglicans, and it led to the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81 when Parliament tried to pass a bill excluding James from the succession because of his Catholicism. Charles II eventually overcame the crisis but it was followed by the Rye House Plot of 1683, a conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and Prince James. There was serious, high-level opposition to the notion of England being ruled by a Catholic.

This wasn’t prejudice or bigotry. From the street to the pages of leading philosophers, Catholicism was associated with despotism and tyranny. The Catholic Church was known for its terrifying Inquisition, tainted by its association with the Spanish conquistadors wars of extermination in the new World. Long memories harkened back to the rule of ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor, England’s only Catholic ruler who managed to burn alive 300 Protestant clerics during her short reign (1553-58). On the continent England’s great foe, France, was led by an all-powerful king who used the Catholic church to stifle debate and crush opponents. Since Henry VIII’s time the English had spent 150 years defining themselves as virtuous protestants surrounded by Catholic enemies, not forgetting the rebellious population of John Bull’s other island, Ireland to the west. The idea of allowing one of these tyrants, Papists, heretics, torturers and despots to become king of England alienated the majority of the population.

James II

James II learned nothing from his father’s folly or his brother’s cunning. His Catholic allegiance and personal arrogance led to his overthrow and 80 years of Jacobite unrest.

When Charles II died in 1685 his brother James succeeded him to the throne, becoming James II, with the grudging acquiescence of many Anglican aristocrats, and the overt opposition of many. Almost immediately one of Charles II’s many illegitimate sons, the Duke of Monmouth, led a sizeable rebellion in the West Country, calling on his countrymen to rise up and overthrow the Catholic ‘tyrant’. The powers-that-be rallied round the legitimate ruler and the Monmouth Rebellion was crushed at the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685.

But three short years later James, like his father before him, had managed to alienate key numbers of the ruling classes. The decisive moment came when a son was born by his second – Catholic – wife, Mary of Modena, and James let it be known that this heir to the throne would be baptised a Catholic. The powers-that-be decided that something had to be done. James’s sister, Mary, had married the leading European soldier, William Prince of Orange, an impeccably Protestant ruler who was almost permanently at war with his neighbour Catholic France.

The Glorious Revolution 1688

The ‘immortal seven’ formally invited Mary and her husband William to come and adopt the throne. William accepted and sailed to England with an invasion force which landed at Brixham on the south-west coast on 5 November 1688. He marched with is army towards London, while all James’s best generals defected to his side. James was allowed to flee to France – it was infinitely better to pain him as having absconded and in effect abdicated than to create a martyr in battle, let alone – by far the worst option – capture him and hold some kind of grotesque trial. The throne was William’s.

King William III painted by Thomas Murray.

King William III painted by Thomas Murray. He was invited to become king of England by virtue of his mother, Mary, being daughter of Charles I, and his wife, also a Mary, being the daughter of his uncle, James II. And because he was a good Protestant, which he proved by his lifelong war with Catholic France.

He set about quelling James’s supporters in Scotland then moved onto Ireland which had risen up against its English oppressors. Here William won the Battle of Boyne on 1 July 1690 against James leading Irish and French forces, going on to retake Dublin. To this day, the Orangemen in Northern Ireland celebrate the Battle of Boyne every year during the so-called marching season. James returned to France where he, his son and grandson were to spend the next 70 years plotting their return.

Dubious successions to the British crown

From the start the Jacobites were just one among the kaleidoscope of forces, parties and causes swirling round 18th century Europe. The French offered James assistance to invade in 1692, 1696 and 1708. The latter is significant. In 1707 the English government bribed key Scottish nobles to agree to an Act of Union between England and Scotland to create ‘Great Britain’. The Act was very unpopular across most of Scotland and so the French despatched an army to Scotland led by James. However, most of the fleet was intercepted by the Royal Navy, only a handful of ships making it to the Scottish coast where they decided not to bother landing.

In 1702 King William died, his wife having died before him. Parliament had foreseen this and passed an act providing for the succession of Mary’s sister Anne (daughter of the exiled James but raised a good Protestant), herself married to Prince George of Denmark. Despite 17 pregnancies (!) she had no living children and died childless in 1714.

Once again parliament had foreseen this outcome and passed over no fewer than 50 closer relatives (but who were all Catholics) to alight on the Electress Sophia of Hanover, who was a descendant of Charles I. Unfortunately, she had died a few months before Anne and so the crown passed to her son, George, Elector of Hanover, who became George I of Great Britain.

King George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller

King George I painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller

The rebellion of 1715

The following year, while George was still settling in, there was a major and co-ordinated Jacobite uprising. James II had died in 1701 handing on his claim to the throne to his son (the one whose birth prompted the Glorious Revolution back in 1688) James Francis Edward. The Earl of Mar led an uprising in the Highlands which secured the north of Scotland; the government in England made pre-emptive arrests of Jacobite leaders which prevented an uprising in central England, and sent troops to Bristol, Southampton, Plymouth and Oxford to deter rebels; but Jacobite forces rallied in Northumberland and initially won battles. Only slowly did British forces in Scotland and the North of England win back the initiative and by the time James Edward Stuart arrived from France it was too late. After decisive government victories he sailed back to France to brood and plot like his father and his uncle before him.

The Spanish invasion 1719

From Charles II’s escape through to the last days of Bonny Prince Charlie (for well over 100 years), France was the bolthole and main supporter of the Jacobite cause. The exception which proves the rule was a single attempt by Spanish forces to land in Scotland and raise the Jacobites in March 1719. As usual, the same ‘Protestant wind’ which had wrought havoc on the Armada of 1588 was on hand to damage and disperse the Spanish fleet. Most were too damaged and dispersed to continue, but a small contingent of 300 Spanish got through to form the nucleus of a Jacobite force which fought the Hanoverian army at the Battle of Glenshiel. They were thrashed, the Spanish surrendering, the Highlanders melting away to their mountain homes to scheme and plot anew.

The Atterbury invasion Plot 1722

Jacobites continued to hold high office in Georgian England. The country itself was badly divided between Tories (the party of country and Church of England) and Whigs (mercantilists and soldiers, anti-Catholic, anti-Stuart defenders of the Hanoverian succession). There was a tendency for anybody grumbling about the state of the country to be labelled a Jacobite, as well as a tendency for drunks, rioters and trouble makers to drunkenly call for the restoration of the ‘true king’. For several generations Jacobitism was a permanent part of the political landscape, used by all sides as excuse, rallying cry, fig leaf or threat.

The Atterbury plot was a conspiracy led by Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester along with other leading Jacobites, the accusation being that they were planning to support a French-backed invasion in 1722. Government spies revealed the plot which led to the ringleaders being thrown into the Tower or fleeing, as so often, to France, the Old Enemy. Only one relatively minor figure was found guilty of treason and hanged, drawn and quartered.

The 1744 invasion

From the time of the British Civil Wars onwards, most of these events can only be fully understood in the context of the never-ending conflicts in Europe. The nations of Europe were almost permanently at war, in a bewilderingly complex maze of alliance and counter-alliance. Many of the wars were disputes about who had the right to succeed to contested thrones (The War of Spanish Succession 1701-14, the War of Austrian Succession 1740-48). In the latter Britain was at war with France’s ally Spain and it was only a matter of time before France and Britain went to war (again), which they did in 1744. This prompted the French to consider a quick knockout invasion of Britain and King Louis XV ordered his ministers to draw up an attack to be launched from Dunkirk. They contacted James II’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart (the ‘Old Pretender’ as he became known) and planned to make a lightning invasion on the south coast, march on London and restore James to the throne, thus securing Britain as a Catholic client state for France. The French government chose to believe Jacobite claims that a large part of the population and leading nobles would rise up for their ‘rightful king’.

The French gathered forces of around 10,000 and embarked them in February 1744. But once again bad weather played the decisive role and in fierce storms 12 French transport ships were sunk, seven going down with all hands, the others were badly damaged and limped back to Dunkirk. The main French fleet was also badly mauled whereas the British ships had stayed in harbour and escaped the worst of the storms. The French – as so often – called off the invasion and the troops were packed off to umpteen other battlefields on land. Needless to say, the Old Pretender and his Jacobite followers were bitterly disappointed.

The ’45

The next year the Old Pretender’s son (and so James II’s grandson), Charles Edward Stuart, aged just 24 and recently appointed Prince Regent by his father, decided to take matters into his own hands. He commissioned two ships and sailed to Scotland. As usual he hoped for French support and as usual the French fleet was mauled by storms and never showed up. So Charles Stuart, or Bonny Prince Charlie as he became known to posterity, landed at Eriskay on 23 July 1745 with just seven companions. They roused the Highland chiefs and marched on Edinburgh whose governor quickly surrendered. On 21 September 1745 the Jacobites defeated the only government army in Scotland at the Battle of Prestonpans. His growing army crossed the border into England, took Carlisle and marched south through England unopposed, reaching as far as Derby, just 120 miles from London.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart by Antonio David

Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonny Prince Charlie’) painted by Antonio David

Here they hesitated. The English Jacobites had failed to rise up in the numbers promised. And where was the French army they had been promised? And reports reached them of a major Hanoverian army being assembled and heading towards them. Against the Bonny Prince’s desperate pleading, his army commanders decided to withdraw, a decision taken on ‘Black Friday’, 6 December 1745.

Pressing on was not really an option for the Jacobites not so much because of the military situation, however misrepresented at Derby, but because of the breakdown of confidence in the prince among his commanders… [Charles] lost support because of a breakdown of confidence arising from the failure of his promises over the English Jacobites and the French. The Scots understandably considered themselves tricked, led into a more risky situation than they had envisaged and that a long way from home. (p.116)

In fact the French did try to mount an invasion: King Louis XV expressly ordered it and his General Richelieu made extensive plans, gathered soldiers and ships, but they were defeated by delays in gathering materiel, terrible weather in the Channel (as usual) and the ever-present threat of the Royal Navy, which managed to stage attacks on some of the shipping gathered at Dunkirk and Brest. And then the French heard the news that Charlie and the Jacobites were retreating to Scotland, and all bets were off.

So the Jacobite army withdrew into Scotland, losing adherents along the way, in terrible winter weather. They won a further battle at Falkirk and took Inverness without a fight. Although back in Scotland they still presented a real threat and rumours of a French invasion kept Hanoverian troops in the south to protect London; and all the while the situation in the ongoing War of Austrian Succession on the Continent deteriorated as the French took parts of the Austrian Netherlands now undefended by British troops who’d been withdrawn to protect against the rebellion and/or threat of invasion (Antwerp, Mons, Charleroi). (Black emphasises that all of the Jacobite uprisings, and the Hanoverian response, must be seen in the broader context of the European war of the time – although this does have the effect of making it a much more confusing, or demanding, story.)

Both sides hunkered down for the snowy Highland winter, the Hanoverian army under King George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, spending the time training in modern military manoeuvres with the fairly newfangled bayonet fixed to the end of their muskets, at their base in Aberdeen, while the rebels holed up in Inverness. The French continued their half-hearted support and made several attempts to send money, troops and supplies, but all of them were intercepted by the Navy or loyalist land forces, leaving Prince Charlie with dwindling money and food, encouraging a trickle of desertions. Also the prince was unwell for most of the winter, a condition which brought out the worst, most indecisive aspect of his character. But it was lack of funds and food which forced the Jacobites to seek a confrontation with Cumberland rather than eke out a prolonged insurgency, which some pessimistic commentators had thought might become ‘tedious and lasting’ (Lord Albemarle) and maybe even drag on for years.

Thus a determined Cumberland marched west from Aberdeen in April, fording the river Spey where the Jacobites missed the opportunity to halt him. On the night of 15 April, which was his 25th birthday, Cumberland rested his troops at Nairn, and Charles conceived the idea of leading his forces on a surprise dawn attack. The Jacobites marched in three columns across what turned out to be marshy heath, in fog, obstructed by walls and dykes, so that the forces became hopelessly separated and delayed and never got within striking distance of Cumberland’s forces. Just before dawn they abandoned the night attack and marched back the way they’d come, towards Culloden House, where they regathered, tired, demoralised and disorganised. It was a terrible preparation for what turned out to be the decisive battle of the whole campaign and, indeed, of the whole Jacobite cause.

The Battle of Culloden

On 16 April 1746 the Duke of Cumberland finally, after nearly 6 months of stalking his enemy, brought Bonny Prince Charlie and the Jacobites to battle on the bleak upland moor of Culloden. Charlie insisted on this as the battle site despite the objections of his most experienced general, Lord George Murray. With superior numbers (around 9,000 to possibly 5,000), the firepower of its muskets and its disciplined use of bayonets in close formation, the Hanoverian army massacred the Scots. Black quotes eye-witnesses extensively who all testify to the slaughter. It was all over in half an hour. Black emphasises that Culloden was unusual for an 18th century battle, in its brevity and completeness and makes an interesting comparison with Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757, another victory of well-drilled infantry using muskets and bayonets against numerically superior, but less disciplined opponents. Around 2,000 Jacobites were killed and over 500 taken prisoner, against 44 Hanoverians killed and 250 wounded.

Cumberland ordered that no quarter was to be given. All the Scots wounded were executed on the battlefield (there is an old story that Cumberland came across a wounded Jacobite and ordered the nearest officer – who turned out to be James Wolfe, later to gain immortality at Quebec – to finish him off. Gentlemanly Wolfe refused, so Cumberland turned to a common soldier who finished the Jacobite off without compunction.) There were stories that many camp followers i.e women and children who had accompanied the Jacobite army, were also killed. In the days and weeks that followed Hanoverian forces tracked down and killed straggler Jacobites, burnt all the surrounding hovels, amid accusations of indiscriminate rape and murder, and then further afield rounded up all suspected Jacobites to send to mass trials and execution. This was how Cumberland – only just 25 years-old -earned his nickname of ‘the Butcher’.

William Augustus Duke of Cumberland by Sir Joshua Reynolds

William Augustus Duke of Cumberland, the ‘Butcher’ of Culloden, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

As news spread, rejoicing was widespread across England, with church bells rung, bonfires lit and parties in the street. Wikipedia tells us that a thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, that included the first performance of Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, composed especially for Cumberland, which contains the anthem ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’.

About 4,000 surviving Jacobites regrouped at Ruthven but Charlie refused to join them and said it was every man for himself. He spent months hiding among peasants and conspirators across the Highlands, who eventually smuggled him to the coast where he was picked up by a French ship on 20 September. This story is retold in songs and ballads and novels as a glamorous and heroic exploit, but abandoning his men to their – generally dire – fates doesn’t strike me as that heroic.

And so it was back, once again, to France, to spend the rest of his life trying to persuade the French king to launch another invasion, while his descent into alcoholism and his taking a disreputable mistress alienated many of his followers in Scotland and England.

The legacy of Culloden

Defeat in battle left a lasting legacy in the Highlands. Apart from the many clan leaders who died, many more were arrested and sent for trial in Scotland or London. Lords and clan chiefs who had supported the Jacobite rebellion were stripped of their estates which were then sold and the profits used to boost trade and agriculture in Scotland. The wearing of tartan or the kilt were banned. Leaders of the Church were compelled to take an oath of allegiance to the reigning Hanoverian dynasty; any who refused were dismissed. Several acts of Parliament sought to end the extensive traditional rights and powers clan chiefs had over their tenants and members. Many small settlements were depopulated after the revenge of the Hanoverian army, forcing many Highlanders to emigrate, mostly to the North American colonies. And many of the men, with their warrior tradition, enlisted (ironically) in the British Army, where they formed the core of regiments which went on to become some of Britain’s most successful and feared fighting units.

Black’s treatment

If you are in a hurry to get the basic sequence of events and to understand the basic context, I’d advise you to read the Wikipedia articles about Culloden, which link off to articles about Jacobitism, about the Old and Young Pretender and, if you wish, the context of the European wars against which the various invasion attempts are set.

There are two types of history books: ones which simply tell you what happened; and ones which assume  that the reader more or less knows what happened and so are more concerned to present their theories and interpretations about the events, to refute other historians’ opinions, to challenge the accepted wisdom about this or that aspect, and so on. If you don’t even know what the received opinion is, or weren’t aware that this or that theory dominates the field, a lot of this effort is wasted on the casual reader.

This book is one of the latter: it assumes you’re already familiar with a lot of this history and the general background of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion; it goes through the events in broad chronological order but heavily loaded with the arguments Black is making, which I often found hard to follow.

It suffers from another major drawback, which is that Black proceeds by quoting extensively from contemporary letters, diaries, journals, reports, memos and so on. Entire pages are tessalations of quotes. I think the purpose is to convey the confusion, the misreports, the rumours, and panics and misunderstandings which clouded the view of contemporaries, and I can see that Black is committed to the worthy goal of accurately reporting what was known at the time from primary sources, and of placing as much of these sources as is practical before the reader.

This is very useful in his short account of the battle itself, where he quotes extensively from eye-witness accounts. I also understand that the broader aim of Black’s book is to show that the Jacobite Rebellion wasn’t pre-ordained to fail, that it scored numerous successes and could have survived in other forms (as a purely Scottish phenomenon, as a lasting insurgency) if not for a sequence of bad luck and poor decisions – and that Black uses the conflicting and confused testimony of major players at the time to emphasise the contingency of events.

But for me this was too much detail. What the British envoy to Venice wrote to the ambassador to Russia about the latest rumours of French or Austrian or Spanish plans in the spring of 1724 requires several levels of knowledge, knowledge of the key players, what was at stake, what their long term plans were, and all to be compared to what actually happened, in order to be of value to the reader, to be understood. While I was struggling to remember who Henry Pelham was and what his relationship was to the Earl of Newcastle and so grasp the context of his letter which is quoted at length, or to remember which side Colonel Cuthbert Ellison was on, or wonder if I was meant to remember Welbore Ellis and why he was writing to Lord Hartington (and who Lord Hartington was) I was missing the much bigger and more obvious developments.

I found this method of relating the events almost entirely through contemporary accounts just too demanding for a beginner; the reader ends up unable to see the wood for the trees. I think this book is better suited to readers already familiar with the story, as a prompt to review it in a new light.

The Seven Years War 1756-63

Amazingly, Culloden wasn’t the end of the Jacobite story. In fact British fears of a further French invasion revived in 1747 and were only allayed by the conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748, at which point France no longer had an incentive to threaten Britain with invasion or play the Jacobite card. Nevertheless, in 1751 and 1752 Alexander Murray of Elibank developed a conspiracy to kidnap George II and his family, and smuggle them to France, replacing them with the Bonny Prince. The plot was revealed and Murray fled into exile.

Meanwhile, the broader impact of The ’45, as it came to be known, had been to withdraw British troops from the Continent, allowing the French to capture Brussels and thus sowing disagreement in the anti-French alliance. Further afield, it made the British hesitate to follow up the capture of Louisburg in Canada, an enterprise which would have to wait ten years until the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756.

Charlie lived on and the two books I’ve just read about the Seven Years War (1759 by Frank McLynn and Battle for Empire by Tom Pocock) show that the Jacobite cause was still a bogeyman which enemies within and without could scare the British government with, one among the many tools the French monarchy could consider deploying in its never-ending duel with Britain.

In fact, right from the start of the Seven Years War (1756) the French government revived the invasion plans of 1744 and went to the extent of building hundreds of flat-bottomed barges to ferry an army of up to 100,000 soldiers across from Dunkirk to the South Coast. McLynn’s book is threaded through with detailed descriptions of the prolonged but ultimately abortive negotiations with the Bonny Prince to put him at the head of the invasion or, more cannily, to send him back to Scotland to raise the Highlands while the French attacked in the south.

But Charlie had learned from the ’45 that it was all or nothing – either he led a major invasion force against England, or nothing – he refused to be used as a figurehead for sideshows in Scotland let alone (in later plans) Ireland, and he flatly refused to be put at the head of one scheme which aimed to send him on a cock-and-bull mission to Canada! Given his obstinacy, in 1759 France’s invasion plans went ahead without him and, in the event, were foiled by brilliant victories by the Royal Navy at the Battle of Lagos and then the Battle of Quiberon Bay.

In 1766 the Old Pretender died. The Pope had recognised him as King James III of Britain, but didn’t extend the same recognition to young Charlie, realising his faltering legitimacy. Charlie lived on in Italy with his wife, Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern. Between them they failed to do the only task a monarch has which is to produce a male heir. He had an illegitimate daughter, Charlotte (b.1753) by his long-time mistress, Clementina Walkinshaw, legitimised her in law and gave her a title, the Duchess of Albany, but even among the most rigorous legitimists this didn’t entitle her to the crown. At Charlie’s death in 1788 the Jacobite legacy expired. With exquisite timing the very next year saw the start of the French Revolution and the beginning of a whole new era of French threats against Britain.

Right or wrong

Who was right? It depends on your point of view. For Scots their nation was betrayed by the Act of Union and their traditional culture decimated by the Highland Clearances and savage repression which followed Culloden. Scottish nationalists remember it to this day. For the Irish the Battle of the Boyne in 1692 remains one of many bones of contention, not least because it is commemorated every summer by Northern Irish Orangemen who march in celebration of King William’s victory.

For the English, who have forgotten most of their history, it probably all seems long ago and irrelevant.

For the objective reader, I can understand the motives of both sides. Charlie’s story is extraordinarily romantic, from the landing with just seven companions to the final weeks fleeing across the Highlands in disguise and helped by loyal supporters. But I can understand why the Hanoverian dynasty and its Whig supporters acted as they did. England had been invaded or threatened with invasion in the 1690s, 1701, 1708, 1715, 1722, 1744 and 1745, the last one being the most serious attempt to overthrow the lawful monarch, change the religion of the entire country, and rewrite foreign policy to suit our oldest enemy (France), probably abandoning our foreign colonies and business interests in the process. I can see why George II’s forces acted as they did, not only to defeat this invasion attempt but to put an end once and for all to the hotbed of Jacobitism/treason which had allowed it to fester on. As Cumberland’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Yorke wrote to his father from the Hanoverian army as it approached the retreating Jacobites:

The thing must be put an end to so effectually now, that it will never be able to break out again; otherwise you may depend on having it again in a very short time. (quoted p.146)

I can understand, but not condone it.

Out-of-the-way words

  • philabeg – the modern short kilt
  • spontoon – a half-pike, a type of European pole-arm that came into being alongside the pike

Credit

Culloden and the ’45 by Jeremy Black was published by Alan Sutton Publishing in 1990. All quotes and references are to the 1993 paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

War Stories and Poems by Rudyard Kipling (1990)

An excellent Oxford University Press collection edited by Andrew Rutherford, showcasing Kipling’s fictional and poetic responses to three distinct military eras:

  • the small wars of the Late Victorian period 1889-1899
  • the Boer War 1899-1902
  • the Great War 1914-18.

Despite setbacks and defeats, in the first period nobody doubted the duty of Empire to expand and spread good government and law; the Boer War disheartened both the nation and Kipling with its evident mismanagement and incompetence; and the Great War left millions bereaved, not least Kipling himself, who lost his only son, John.

Thus, as Rutherford shrewdly points out, the tone of Kipling’s writing about the three periods can be broadly divided into epic, satiric, and elegiac.

Having seen the incompetence of the Boer War at first hand, Kipling spent the next decade warning the country that it wasn’t taking the threat to its security seriously enough, despite some military and naval reforms, in a series of minatory poems and warning stories.

When the Great War came, Kipling was goaded to fierce anger by the aggression and cruelty of the Hun, resulting in the white hot anger of the early war stories, such as ‘Swept and Garnished’ and Mary Postgate, both written in 1915. In September of the same year his son was declared missing presumed dead on his first day in action. For the rest of the war Kipling kept up a steady, indeed impressive, rate of journalistic reporting in support of the war effort – writing France at War, The Fringes of the Fleet, Destroyers at Jutland, The War in the Mountains and The Eyes of Asia – but avoided writing fiction about it.

Moreover, in 1917 Kipling took on the task of writing the official history of his son’s regiment, the Irish Guards, a task which required interviewing soldiers in person, and reading soldiers’ letters and diaries over a sustained period. It was a demanding labour which took until 1923 to complete.

It is only then, with his debt to the dead fulfilled, that Kipling seems to have been able to return to the subject of the War in fiction, and the stories he wrote in the 1920s – especially the series of tales set in the London Freemasons’ Lodge for ex-soldiers – ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’, The Janeites, A Madonna of the Trenches, A Friend of the Family – have a new depth and subtlety, an empathy and pity which is a new flavour in his work. This deeper mature tone is part of what helps to make his post-war collection, Debits and Credits, his best book.

Imperial Frontiers

  1. The Drums of Fore and Aft (1889)
  2. A Conference of The Powers (1890)
  3. The Light That Failed, chapter two (1891)
  4. The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891)
  5. The Lost Legion (1892)
  6. Slaves of The Lamp, part two (1897)

The Boer War

  1. The Way That He Took (1900)
  2. The Outsider (1900)
  3. A Sahibs’ War (1901)
  4. The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902)
  5. The Captive (1902)

The Great War

  1. ‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915)
  2. Mary Postgate (1915)
  3. Sea Constables (1915)
  4. Introduction to The Irish Guards in the Great War
  5. A Friend of the Family (1924)
  6. A Madonna of The Trenches (1924)
  7. The Gardener (1925)

1. The Imperial Frontiers

The Drums of Fore and Aft (1889) Quite a long story, the gist of which is that an inexperienced Indian Army regiment is brought up to the North-West Frontier, and involved in a massed attack on a force of Pathans, alongside a Gurkha regiment and some Highlanders. Being completely inexperienced and – crucially – lacking older soldiers and officers with experience of the terrain and of fighting Afghans, the first attack of fifty or so Muslim fanatics armed with terrifying man-high machetes makes the Fore and Aft break in a screaming panic and run back to the pass they emerged from. The two coarse orphan fourteen-year-old drummer boys who were with the band, Jakin and Lew, are left behind in the mad flight, recover a drum and fife, have a swig of rum from a canteen of one of the casualties, and set about playing the stirring military tune, ‘the British Grenadier’, marching up and down between the Afghan lines and the trembling regiment cowering in its retreat. Shamed by their officers and humiliated by the example of the boys Jakin and Lew, the regiment regroups and charges back out, this time co-ordinated with attacks by the Gurkhas and Highlanders on its flanks, and decimates the Afghans, though not before both boys have been shot dead by the enemy.

There’s story enough here, but not much below the surface is a blatant tract or pamphlet lamenting the lack of training, the shortness of service and the disorganisation which can lead to such lamentable catastrophes. Also it is very violent. Early on, while still in barracks, Lew and Jakin establish their street credentials by kicking the crap out of an officer’s son they find spying on them. The battle itself is described with, for its day, pretty stomach-churning realism.

The English were not running. They were hacking and hewing and stabbing, for though one white man is seldom physically a match for an Afghan in a sheepskin or wadded coat, yet, through the pressure of many white men behind, and a certain thirst for revenge in his heart, he becomes capable of doing much with both ends of his rifle. The Fore and Aft held their fire till one bullet could drive through five or six men, and the front of the Afghan force gave on the volley. They then selected their men, and slew them with deep gasps and short hacking coughs, and groanings of leather belts against strained bodies, and realised for the first time that an Afghan attacked is far less formidable than an Afghan attacking; which fact old soldiers might have told them.
But they had no old soldiers in their ranks.
The Gurkhas’ stall at the bazar was the noisiest, for the men were engaged — to a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block — with the kukri, which they preferred to the bayonet; well knowing how the Afghan hates the half-moon blade.

‘To a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block’. Wow.

A Conference of The Powers (1890) The narrator hosts a reunion in his London apartment for his friends, ‘Tick’ Boileau, ‘the Infant’ (who is to appear in other Kipling stories for the next 30 years), and Nevin. All are under 25 and have seen active service in India and on its frontiers. They are yarning away and putting the world to rights when there’s a knock and in comes the noted older novelist, ‘Eustace Cleever’. The rest of the ‘story’ amounts to the older man listening to the stories the young Army officers tell about their experiences and realising how little he understands about the lives of the men who maintain the Empire and keep him in the luxurious lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. Particularly a long account by the Infant of a punitive expedition he led into Upper Burma to capture the leader of some dacoits or bandits, known as the Boh.

The story emphasises the pampered ignorance of London-based Liberals – and contrasts it with the clear-eyed enthusiasm and modesty of the Empire’s devoted servants. It also doesn’t scant on the reality of guerilla warfare and the dacoits’ savagery:

The Burmese business was a subaltern’s war, and our forces were split up into little detachments, all running about the country and trying to keep the dacoits quiet. The dacoits were having a first-class time, y’ know — filling women up with kerosine and setting ’em alight, and burning villages, and crucifying people.’
The wonder in Eustace Cleever’s eyes deepened. He could not quite realise that the cross still existed in any form.
‘Have you ever seen a crucifixion?’ said he.
‘Of course not. ‘Shouldn’t have allowed it if I had; but I’ve seen the corpses. The dacoits had a trick of sending a crucified corpse down the river on a raft, just to show they were keeping their tail up and enjoying themselves. Well, that was the kind of people I had to deal with.’

No wonder Kipling’s forthrightness made such a shattering impact on a literary world used to Tennysonian idylls.

The Light That Failed, chapter 2 (1891) The protagonist of Kipling’s early novel is an artist, Dick Heldar. His boyhood love for Maisie is frustrated so, like so many Victorian young men, he goes off adventuring round the Empire, only not as a soldier but as a freelance war artist. He bumps into a journalist named Torpenhow and Kipling packs in references to a lot of the small wars of the late 1870s and 1880s which they report and illustrate together, before they find themselves part of the expeditionary force sent up the Nile to rescue General Gordon, trapped in Khartoum, capital of Sudan, by the forces of the Muslim religious leader, the Mahdi. In the climax of the novel, Dick, Torpenhow and a host of British troops are all relaxing by the Nile, fixing boats and sails and clothes when they are subject to a surprise attack by several thousand Sudanese. The Brits quickly form into a square to fight off wave after wave of fanatical attackers, until the square gives and becomes the cockpit for savage hand-to-hand fighting.

Dick waited with Torpenhow and a young doctor till the stress grew unendurable. It was hopeless to attend to the wounded till the attack was repulsed, so the three moved forward gingerly towards the weakest side of the square. There was a rush from without, the short hough-hough of the stabbing spears, and a man on a horse, followed by thirty or forty others, dashed through, yelling and hacking. The right flank of the square sucked in after them, and the other sides sent help. The wounded, who knew that they had but a few hours more to live, caught at the enemy’s feet and brought them down, or, staggering into a discarded rifle, fired blindly into the scuffle that raged in the centre of the square.
Dick was conscious that somebody had cut him violently across his helmet, that he had fired his revolver into a black, foam-flecked face which forthwith ceased to bear any resemblance to a face, and that Torpenhow had gone down under an Arab whom he had tried to ‘collar low,’ and was turning over and over with his captive, feeling for the man’s eyes. The doctor jabbed at a venture with a bayonet, and a helmetless soldier fired over Dick’s shoulder: the flying grains of powder stung his cheek. It was to Torpenhow that Dick turned by instinct. The representative of the Central Southern Syndicate had shaken himself clear of his enemy, and rose, wiping his thumb on his trousers. The Arab, both hands to his forehead, screamed aloud, then snatched up his spear and rushed at Torpenhow, who was panting under shelter of Dick’s revolver. Dick fired twice, and the man dropped limply. His upturned face lacked one eye.

I wonder if anyone had described contemporary warfare with quite such brutal honesty before.

The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891) A satirical and comic story about nameless conspirators in America (highly reminiscent of the American scenes in the early Sherlock Holmes novels) who fund an Irish conspirator to join ‘the Mavericks’, nickname of a (fictional) Irish regiment in the British Army in India. This conspirator, Mulcahey, tries to spread sedition and is quickly recognised for what he is by the men, led by Dan Grady and Horse Egan, who come up with the simple idea of playing along, and telling Mulcahey everything he wants to hear, in exchange for an endless supply of beer.

One fine day Mulcahey sees the barracks in uproar, the men chanting and shouting, officers running in fear, the men consorting with native Indians – at last! The mutiny has broken out! But Kipling is taking the mickey. The men have been told they’re going to the Frontier to see some fighting and are excited about it. Moreover, Dan and Horse now make it crystal clear to Mulcahey that he’s not wriggling out of it, he’s coming along too. And when the battle starts they’re digging a bayonet into Mulcahey’s calf, so the only way is forwards. In fact Mulcahey goes wild with panic-fear, storms a compound, leads others to capture enemy artillery and then runs on, bereft of gun, hat or belt after the fleeing Afghans, one of whom turns and runs him right through the chest with a large knife. Dead.

All this time Mulcahey had been drawing funds from his ‘mother’ in New York, a front for the anti-British conspirators. The story ends on a comic note as the ‘mother’ receives a letter of condolence saying Mulcahey died bravely in battle and would have been recommended for a Victoria Cross, had he survived – which happens to arrive at the same time as a crudely forged letter from Dan and Horse promising to keep up the subversive work, if only they can be sent some more funds, on behalf of Mulcahey, who’s a bit under the weather, like.

Kipling is astonishing assured and confident of his subject i.e. the structure, organisation and morale of Irish regiments within the British Army. The American secret society comes over as melodramatic, but events in Ireland during this period involved conspiracies and atrocities. Although he is optimistic about the attitude of the average Irish soldier, it’s the detail and thoroughness of the portrayal, combined with schoolboy high humour, which impresses. Who else was trying anything like this kind of depiction of the reality of the British Empire?

The Lost Legion (1892) Told as if to a journalist (as Kipling indeed was). Some officers are leading a night-time cavalry foray into the foothills of Afghanistan to arrest a persistent bandit leader, Gulla Kutta Mullah. But they keep on hearing the chinking of cavalry behind them rather than in front; it isn’t their own forces and the bandits’ horses are silent.

Our boys are able to penetrate beyond the watch towers of the bandits because the bandits are calling to each other in terror about something. Our chaps realise it’s because down in the valley the Afghan bandits can see the ghosts of an entire native Indian regiment, which rebelled in the Great Mutiny of 1857, which fled the British into the marches of Afghanistan, and which was massacred a generation earlier. Now their ghosts have returned to haunt and paralyse the Afghans. Their dread allows the little expeditionary force to take Gulla Kutta Mullah’s village by surprise and (much to Kipling’s ironic disgust) politely arrest him and his other men wanted for various crimes and murders.

Slaves of The Lamp, part two (1897) ‘The Infant’ who told the novelist Eustace Cleaver the long account of his capture of the dacoit Boh in Burma in the story ‘A Conference of the Powers’ – is now 30 and has inherited a vast country house. He invites the narrator – identified as ‘Beetle’ from the Stalky stories – to come along to a reunion of boys, now men, from the old Coll.

There’s much larking about and reminiscing which, basically, turns into hero worship of Stalky himself, three of the men describing their encounter with him in the North-West Frontier, fighting the Afghans. Stalky is portrayed as a super-hero, at one with his men (Sikhs) who worship him, given to sneaking off for acts of derring-do. Since he and his men are besieged in an old fort by two Afghan tribes, Stalky sneaks out and kills some of one tribe, marking them with the victor’s sign of the other tribe. Next day, when the fort is under attack, he again sneaks out of the secret passage he’s found, with his Sikhs, and shoots at one tribe from the lines of the other, thus leading both tribes to end up fighting each other.

The others compound this by saying Stalky went on to pacify the border, dragoon the tribes into building roads, doing everything bar mint his own coinage, before being called to Simla to explain himself to the Imperial authorities.

The story brims over with schoolboy slang and enthusiasm. Stalky had adopted a tune from the pantomime of Aladdin which the boys had put on as schoolboys, as a signal to his troops, and the group of men convened at the Infant’s house keep stopping their tale to sing it, falling about laughing, all clamouring for more details of Stalky’s acts of heroism. Alas, Kipling’s boundless schoolboy confidence was to come a cropper in the Boer War, where the true Stalkies, the canny, sassy, unconventional fighters, turned out to be the Boers.

2. The Boer War (1899-1902)

The Way That He Took (1900) One of four stories about the Boer War published in the Daily Express then collected in a volume called Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides. It is a good atmospheric depiction of the landscape and people of South Africa, showcasing Kipling’s trademark research and understanding. In the first part a troop train pulls into a siding where detachment of Mounted Infantry are waiting. A captain gets talking to a nurse from the train and she turns out to have been born in the country, and have wonderful memories of a carefree childhood in the wide open spaces. This is the only scene of a man and a woman being tender and speaking softly under the stars that I can recall in any Kipling.

The second part commences a few months later when the captain has joined his regiment and they are in operations out on the veldt. In fact we first of all have a long scene where the leader of a Boer commando outlines a cunning plan – to send off the cattle trucks and some auxiliaries to stir up a lot of dust, and then wait on the low hills surrounding a little valley for the British regiment to come up – and shoot them like pigs in a pen. He knows the Brits will send a scouting party – who will poke around, draw the false conclusion the Boers are retreating, and return to the main force – and then lure them into the trap. It is crucial that a handful of men on a slope take a few pot shots at the scouting troop, enough to give them the impression they’re a rear-guard action – this will make the retreat seem even more real.

Sure enough the Brits see the dust cloud and send a scouting party. It is led by the captain we met talking to the nurse. He trots with his men through the twisting valleys to the place where a camp has apparently been struck and seems to be falling for the ploy. But then in a few vivid paragraphs, he realises something is wrong. It is as vivid as a movie. The hairs on his neck rise as he realises it’s a trap and it seems like someone else’s voice speaking when he gives the order to his sergeant, calmly to turn the men and go back.

At the last minute he remembers something the nurse had told him about her childhood, about how she and her siblings, on all their many ramblings, never went back the way they came. And suddenly taking this as his inspiration, the captain orders the men not to go back through the winding valley where (we know) a handful of Boers are waiting to take pot shots at them and one of them had singled him out as the officer to be killed. Thus, into this very military story, an element of voodoo slips. For it was the happenstance of remembering the nurse’s casual words, which saves the captain’s life.

The Outsider (1900) Another of the stories originally published in June 1900 (i.e. still in the early phase of the Boer War) in the Daily Express and only much later collected in a volume called Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides. Like the one above, it is a vivid impassioned story. Simply, but with great detail and persuasiveness, it contrasts the hard professional life of Jerry Thumper, an engineer on the Rand, and the privileged, limited worldview of a dunderheaded Army officer named Walter Setton. While his father the vicar and his mother fuss about buying Walter the correct socks for his posting to South Africa, Jerry is commanding men at the gruelling work of gold-mining on the Rand.

Their separate lives and experiences clash when Walter – wounded after a stupid attempt to capture a solitary Boer which turned out to be a trap and from which he only escaped with his life due to the canniness and bravery of Australian Irregulars – is posted to the most out-of-the-way railway station the Army can find to hide him. But even here he causes damage, because Jerry and his mates – kicked out of the Rand by Dutch rebels – have formed a corps of Railway Volunteers and are skilfully repairing the railway lines which the Boers have been at pains to blow up, and which are vital for ferrying British troops around the battlefield.

Kipling describes in great technical detail the engineering challenge Jerry and his men face trying to rejoin two severed lengths of railway line, and are right at the vital moment of riveting them together, when ignorant, stupid, blinkered, narrow-minded, officious Lieutenant Setton intervenes, demanding to know who gave them orders to do this work, and insisting they stop immediately until he receives written authority etc etc – intervening just long enough for the girders to collapse and knock over some braziers which start a small bush fire, insisting his soldiers escort the furious engineers to his tent for a dressing-down. In fact later that day it is Setton who is visited by an incandescent Colonel of Engineers who gives him an epic bollocking, and we last see him reduced to overseeing a saddle-cloth and boot-lace division.

The ‘story’ seethes with Kipling’s anger at the grotesque incompetence, narrow-mindedness and baseless snobbery of the English officer class – a long way from the hero worship of Stalkey and his mates. Every other nationality – the Australians and New Zealanders, the Canadians and especially the Boers themselves, are superior men and soldiers in every way.

The life of Second-Lieutenant Walter Setton followed its appointed channel. His battalion, nominally efficient, was actually a training school for recruits; and to this lie, written, acted, and spoken many times a day, he adjusted himself. When he could by any means escape from the limited amount of toil expected by the Government, he did so; employing the same shameless excuses that he had used at school or Sandhurst. He knew his drills: he honestly believed that they covered the whole art of war. He knew the ‘internal economy of his regiment’. That is to say, he could answer leading questions about coal and wood allowances, cubic-footage of barrack accommodation, canteen-routine, and the men’s messing arrangements. For the rest, he devoted himself with no thought of wrong to getting as much as possible out of the richest and easiest life the world has yet made; and to despising the ‘outsider’ — the man beyond his circle. His training to this end was as complete as that of his brethren. He did it blindly, politely, unconsciously, with perfect sincerity. As a child he had learned early to despise his nurse, for she was a servant and a woman; his sisters he had looked down upon, and his governess, for much the same reasons. His home atmosphere had taught him to despise the terrible thing called ‘Dissent’. At his private school his seniors showed him how to despise the junior master who was poor, and here his home training served again. At his public school he despised the new boy — the boy who boated when Setton played cricket, or who wore a coloured tie when the order of the day was for black. They were all avatars of the outsider. If you got mixed up with an outsider, you ended by being ‘compromised’. He had no clear idea what that meant, but suspected the worst. His religion he took from his parents, and it had some very sound dogmas about outsiders behaving decently. Science to him was a name connected with examination papers. He could not work up any interest in foreign armies, because, after all, a foreigner was a foreigner, and the rankest form of outsider. Meals came when you rang for them. You were carried over the world, which is the Home Counties, in vehicles for which you paid. You were moved about London by the same means, and if you crossed the Channel you took a steamer. But how, or why, or when, these things were made, or worked, or begotten, or what they felt, or thought, or said, who belonged to them, he had not, nor ever wished to have, the shadow of an idea. It was sufficient for him and for high Heaven (this in his heart of hearts, well learned at his mother’s knee) that he was an officer and a gentleman incapable of a lie or a mean action. For the rest his code was simple. Money brought you half the things in this world; and your position secured you the others. If you had money, you took care to get your money’s worth. If you had a position, you did not compromise yourself by mixing with outsiders.

Rarely has Kipling’s dichotomy between the dirty-handed, practical-minded men who do things – his beloved engineer class – and the superior, snobbish, ignorant English upper-classes been more fiercely delineated. It’s brilliant.

A Sahibs’ War (1901) – Umr Singh is a Sikh in the British Army who is in South Africa, tasked with going to Stellenbosch to collect horses. The text is his monologue to a Sahib who helps him get a ticket for the right train, in which he a) shows off his knowledge of Indian customs, religion, traditions and service in the Indian Army b) laments the British setbacks in the Boer War due to their being too courteous and considerate of the Boer guerrillas. The Sikh thinks it silly of the British not to have used the Indian Army to put down the Boers, silly and subversive, for if the Brits fail in South Africa other colonies will take note of their weakness.

But privately to me Kurban Sahib said we should have loosed the Sikhs and the Gurkhas on these people till they came in with their foreheads in the dust.

The reason being it is a White Man’s war. Umr is not happy to be given command of a load of ‘niggers’, Kaffirs, who are ‘filth unspeakable’. But the core of the story is how Umr and his Sahib, Captain Corbyn – both of whom volunteered to take ‘sick leave’ from their Indian regiment to come and fight the Boers – are tricked by Boers in an ‘innocent’ farmhouse who in fact organise an ambush of them in which Corbyn is killed.

In a rage Umr and the Muslim servant Sikandar Khan go back to the farmhouse to take revenge, beheading one of the wounded Boers inside it and taking the mentally sub-normal son to hang him in a nearby tree as punishment for the treacherous farmer-priest and his wife. At which point the spirit of Kurban Sahib appears to Umr and three times forbids him from hanging the boy, ‘for it is a Sahibs’ war’.

This latter part of the text, the account of the ambush and then the narrator’s revenge, is vivid and powerful, and the appearance of the Sahib’s ghost eerie – it has a real imaginative force – Kipling’s daemon pushing through. But it is embedded in a text which overflows with contempt, hatred, resentment and is continually teetering on the edge of, not just violence but sadistic violence, vengeful hateful violence.

Epitomised in the last few lines when Umr returns to the site of his Sahib’s death and rejoices to find, not only a memorial carved by the Australians (a platoon of whom were with Corbyn and Umr when they were ambushed) – but that the farmhouse, the well, the water tank, the barn and fruit trees – all have been razed from the face of the earth, by the ‘manly’ Australians, who aren’t shackled by the British concern for ‘fair play’. The narrator rejoices, Kipling rejoices, and the reader is meant to rejoice in this act of nihilistic vengeance – the kind of scorched earth policy which will characterise so much of 20th century history.

The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902) – A Boer guerrilla captures Private Alf Copper who had strayed unwisely far from his platoon. The Boer descants at length to Alf about how his father, a Transvaal shop-keeper, was deceived out of his livelihood by the British. But he gets a shade too close to Alf, who lays him out with one well-aimed punch.

Kipling couldn’t be more frothingly on the side of the British Army and against the treacherous, arrogant, deceiving Boers. Now it’s Alf who takes the stunned Boer captive and marches him back to the the English lines. Here they arrive to discover that Alf’s mates are looking over a British Liberal paper, which is, as usual, blackening their names, attacking the whole idea of ‘Empire’ and accusing British soldiers of abuse and worse. A fellow Tommy of Alf’s jokingly quotes it:

‘You’re the uneducated ‘ireling of a callous aristocracy which ‘as sold itself to the ‘Ebrew financier. Meantime, Ducky”— he ran his finger down a column of assorted paragraphs —“you’re slakin’ your brutal instincks in furious excesses. Shriekin’ women an’ desolated ‘omesteads is what you enjoy, Alf . . ., Halloa! What’s a smokin’ ‘ektacomb?’

The general idea is that both the arrogant Boer and the treacherous Liberals back home think the British Tommy doesn’t know what he’s fighting for and is a poor, badly educated pawn – but, Oh yes he does, and Oh no he isn’t, respectively! The humiliation of the Boer is part of the enjoyment of the story and, by extension, the humiliation of the hated Liberals at home by the reality of the tough-minded, no-nonsense British soldier.

The Captive (1902) – Starts as a third-person account of a journalist visiting a Boer prisoner of war camp during the Boer War (1899 to 1902). He is free to walk among the prisoners and gets talking to one in particular, at which point the narrative changes into a long, rambling, first-person account given by an American – Laughton O. Zigler from Akron, Ohio.

Zigler brought over a field gun and ammunition of his own design to sell to the Boers and ended up getting involved with one of their commandos, led by Adrian Van Zyl, fighting in the field alongside them against the British, until finally captured and brought to this camp. Kipling characteristically stuffs the man’s monologue with technical know-how about the artillery piece, the ‘hopper-feed and recoil-cylinder’, trying to out-man and out-engineer the reader.

It’s hard not to find Zigler’s facetious tone as he jokes about ‘laying out’ the British boys with his gun, offensive.

‘They [the Boers] fought to kill, and, by what I could make out, the British fought to be killed. So both parties were accommodated.’

The war is seen as a comradely adventure between ‘friends’ and all the British officers admit to being ‘a bit pro-Boer’. Is this how combatants saw the Boer War? Or is it the sentimental self-serving view of a privileged observer? In this account both sides spend half the time trying to kill each other and the other half being complimentary; often the combatants had actually met socially, dined and gossiped: now they are trying to kill each other.

The second half of the monologue describes a dinner the British General and officers give for Zigler and Van Zyl, comparing notes like professionals. The British General is mighty lofty and complacent, hoping the war will go on another five years or so, so that he can knock his ragtag collection of floor-walkers and stevedores into a professional army. Nothing is mentioned of the rank incompetence and idiocy which made the Boer War such a shambles for the British. (See The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham.) And a ghost walks over the text when the General boomingly declares:

‘It’s a first-class dress-parade for Armageddon.’

These are the kind of heartless pro-war sentiments for which, although put into the mouths of fictional characters, Kipling was so criticised. The ‘story’ is rammed full of political point scoring, relentless sarcasm about the stupidity of politicians and so on – though these are couched in Zigler’s down-home Yankee terminology:

‘Well, you’ve an effete aristocracy running yours, and we’ve a crowd of politicians. The results are practically identical.’

‘I tell you, Sir, there’s not much of anything the matter with the Royal British Artillery. They’re brainy men languishing under an effete system which, when you take good holt of it, is England…’

Overall the story is of a piece with Kipling’s other ‘warning’ poems and stories, warning that only eternal vigilance could keep Britain safe from her ever-present enemies, and lamenting the failure of peacetime politicians to pay enough heed.

3. The Great War

‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915) It is the first autumn of the Great War. Old German widow Miss Ebermann is in bed in her apartment in Berlin with a heavy cold, whining at her maid to bring medication from the chemists, and the maid scuttles off. To Miss E’s surprise, when she next opens her eyes, she sees, first one little child poking about in her room, and a moment later, five little children.

Miss Ebermann shouts at them to get out of her apartment, telling them they have no right to break into her home like this. But the children reply that they have been told to come here until ‘their people’ come to reclaim them. And then, through a series of hints, the reader realises that the children are from a town in Belgium where someone fired on the German army passing through, who promptly massacred the inhabitants and burnt it to the ground. Miss Ebermann remembers letters from her son at the front claiming that the German army has to carry out ‘justice’ when it is attacked by treacherous civilians. Now she is seeing the ghostly victims of German ‘justice’.

Her and the reader’s suspicions are crystallised when the children finally agree to leave, but on their way out, as they turn to go, Miss Ebermann sees their horrific open wounds and they leave blood puddled all over her bedroom floor. When the maid comes back into the room she finds the old lady on her hands and knees trying to scrub the blood off the floorboards, so the place is ‘swept and garnished’ ready for the Lord.

The Kipling Society website gives useful historical notes to this story, listing genuine German atrocities from early in the war, including the rumours that the Germans cut off the right arms of Belgian boy children, so they wouldn’t be able to fight in the future. Kipling’s stories are no longer about helping tottering old ladies in health spas as they were only a few short years previously. All is changed, changed utterly.

Mary Postgate (1915) This is an extraordinary story, combining war, vengeance, sadism and barely suppressed sexuality. Mary Postgate is the plain Jane, 44-year-old personal maid to old Miss Fowler. She fetches and carries without question, is always well organised and emotionless. Miss Fowler’s nephew, Wynn, is orphaned and comes to live with them and Mary brings him up almost as a surrogate son though he is unceasingly rude, arrogant and unfeeling to her. When war comes all the sons go off and Wynn enlists in the Air Force, coming to visit them in his fine uniform until one day he is reported dead, having died in a training accident – the implication being that he fell, maybe 4,000 feet, from the cockpit of one of those primitive early aircraft.

Both Mary and Miss Fowler are strangely unemotional – Miss Fowler had expected Wynn’s death all along, Mary had completely repressed her anxiety. The two women agree to donate Wynn’s uniform to the Forces, but to burn all his private belongings. Kipling then gives is a moving page-long description of a young man’s belongings, stretching back through all his toys and school prizes, which Mary collects and takes to the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.

Then she has to go buy some paraffin in the village and, on the way back, she and a friend she’s bumped into, hear a bang and a wail and run behind a house to find a local child, Edna, has been blown up by a casual bomb dropped from a German plane, maybe returning from a bombing raid on London. The friend, a nurse, wraps the little girl’s body in a blanket, which immediately soaks with blood and they carry it indoors. Here the blanket falls open and Mary sees, for a second, poor little Edna’s body torn ‘into those vividly coloured strips and strings’. (Not so far-fetched. I was recently at Essendon, a little village in Hertfordshire. Here, in the early hours of 3 September 1916, a German airship returning from a raid on London dropped a bomb on the village which killed two sisters and damaged the east end of the church. Dead, out of the blue, for no reason, except the incompetence and stupidity of the German Army High Command which thought it could invade and conquer France in 6 weeks in August 1914.)

Staggering out of the house with the eviscerated child, Mary regains control of herself and walks back to the big house. Here she wheelbarrows dead Wynn’s belongings down to the incinerator and begins piling them in to burn. It is at this point that she hears a noise from the trees at the end of the garden and discovers a German airman who also seems to have fallen from the skies and crashed through trees, landing badly injured not far from the incinerator.

And this is the crux of the story: for although Mary gets an old revolver from the house (the kind of thing which seems to have been much more common in those days than now) she decides to deliberately let the man die in agony without calling for a doctor or any help.

And it is in the phrasing of the physical bodily pleasure this gives her, that many critics detect a sexual element, some going so far as to say that the dying man’s death throes give the lifelong repressed virgin an orgasm, as all kinds of anger and repressions brought to a climax.

As she thought — her underlip caught up by one faded canine, brows knit and nostrils wide — she wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom, and careful scrapes round the brick-work above… The exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones. She hummed — Mary never had a voice — to herself… A woman who had missed these things [love, a husband, children] could still be useful — more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it… She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling… Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly…

Anger, revenge, violence, sadism, repressed sex – this is an extraordinarily powerful, haunting concoction of a story.

Sea Constables (1915) ‘A tale of ’15. In February 1915 the German High Command declared the North Sea a war zone in which all merchant shipping, including neutral ships, were liable to be attacked and sunk without warning. This story describes four Royal Navy men meeting at a choice restaurant in London.

The four men sat down. They had the coarse-grained complexions of men who habitually did themselves well, and an air, too, of recent, red-eyed dissipation. Maddingham, the eldest, was a thick-set middle-aged presence, with crisped grizzled hair, of the type that one associates with Board Meetings. He limped slightly. Tegg, who followed him, blinking, was neat, small, and sandy, of unmistakable Navy cut, but sheepish aspect. Winchmore, the youngest, was more on the lines of the conventional prewar ‘nut,’ but his eyes were sunk in his head and his hands black-nailed and roughened. Portson, their host, with Vandyke beard and a comfortable little stomach, beamed upon them as they settled to their oysters.

In Kipling’s usual late manner they settle down to telling stories, then concentrate on swapping notes about the Neutral vessel (presumably American, though it isn’t stated) which they were all partly involved in tailing through the North Sea, down the Channel and round into the Irish Sea. Winchmore starts it and hands over to Maddingham who played the lion’s share. The ‘Newt’, as they nickname the neutral vessel and its captain, claims to be carrying oil for Antigua, which they think a likely story. Maddingham follows him into an unnamed West coast port where the American captain prompts a Court of Inquiry into the way he’s being closely tailed and chased. This is given as one of the several examples in Kipling where the British bend over backwards to be fair and above board to an enemy which is utterly unscrupulous – an approach he thought bedevilled our efforts in the Boer War, the kind of ‘health and safety gone mad’ sentiment you can read any day in the Daily Mail. One of the four at table, Tegg, was a lawyer during the inquiry.

And that’s what you get for trying to serve your country in your old age!’ Maddingham emptied and refilled his glass.
‘We did give you rather a grilling,’ said Tegg placidly. ‘It’s the national sense of fair play.’

The Newt goes back to sea, closely followed again by Maddingham who tags him up and down the Irish Sea, in stormy foggy weather, regularly hailing the captain on his bridge and exchanging insults. Maddingham and the others suspect he was planning to rendezvous with a German submarine and transfer his cargo of oil to it. Eventually the Newt puts into Cloone Harbour, where the captain takes to his bed, ill with bronchial pneumonia. Dying, he asks Manningham to help him organise his affairs and write a will. Manningham sticks to his orders and refuses.

This is taken as the crux of the story, where a usually decent man fails to show common humanity / oversteps some moral mark, and is interpreted in some commentaries as an example of how war deforms morality. As usual the text is dense with naval jargon as swished around by a bunch of chaps used to shorthand expressions, fleeting references, who share the same values and so don’t have to explain their sentiments and views. A number of critics point to the clipped approach of these later stories, and the way they’re couched in talk, in reams of highly technical or slang or dialect speech, as evidence that Kipling had forged a kind of ‘modernist’ style of his own. Maybe. This is how the main talker, Maddingham, talks:

‘He set the tops’ls in his watch. Hilarity won’t steer under any canvas, so we rather sported round our friend that afternoon, I believe. When I came up after dinner, she was biting his behind, first one side, then the other. Let’s see — that would be about thirty miles east-sou-east of Harry Island. We were running as near as nothing south. The wind had dropped, and there was a useful cross-rip coming up from the south-east. I took the wheel and, the way I nursed him from starboard, he had to take the sea over his port bow. I had my sciatica on me — buccaneering’s no game for a middle-aged man — but I gave that fellow sprudel! By Jove; I washed him out! He stood it as long as he could, and then he made a bolt for Harry Island. I had to ride in his pocket most of the way there because I didn’t know that coast. We had charts, but Sherrin never understood ’em, and I couldn’t leave the wheel. So we rubbed along together, and about midnight this Newt dodged in over the tail of Harry Shoals and anchored, if you please, in the lee of the Double Ricks. It was dead calm there, except for the swell, but there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre in, and I wasn’t going to anchor. It looked too like a submarine rendezvous. But first, I came alongside and asked him what his trouble was. He told me he had overheated his something-or-other bulb. I’ve never been shipmates with Diesel engines, but I took his word for it, and I said I ‘ud stand by till it cooled. Then he told me to go to hell.’

Introduction to The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923) A few years after his son’s death in 1915, serving with the Irish Guards, Kipling was approached to write the official history of the Irish Guards during the war. He took the task very seriously, suspending his fictional writing and working his way through a mountain of official records, soldiers’ letters and diaries, and also interviewing scores of survivors of the various battles and campaigns. The result has often been praised as a thorough and unflashy chronicle of the regiment’s war. Throughout Kipling is concerned with the life of the soldier, from the soldier’s point of view, consistent with the Tommy’s-eye-view he had developed even before the Barrack Room Ballads.

The introduction is short but powerfully conveys the speed of events, the complete unpreparedness of the British forces, the scale of the slaughter and the terrifying turnover of men, and all the time the buzz of men’s conversations.

They speculated on all things in Heaven and earth as they worked in piled filth among the carcases of their fellows, lay out under the stars on the eves of open battle, or vegetated through a month’s feeding and idleness between one sacrifice and the next.
But none have kept minutes of those incredible symposia that made for them a life apart from the mad world which was their portion; nor can any pen recreate that world’s brilliance, squalor, unreason, and heaped boredom. Recollection fades from men’s minds as common life closes over them, till even now they wonder what part they can ever have had in the shrewd, man-hunting savages who answered to their names so few years ago.
It is for the sake of these initiated that the compiler has loaded his records with detail and seeming triviality, since in a life where Death ruled every hour, nothing was trivial, and bald references to villages, billets, camps, fatigues, and sports, as well as hints of tales that can never now fully be told, carry each their separate significance to each survivor, intimate and incommunicable as family jests.

A Friend of the Family (1924) Frame: The fourth in a series of stories Kipling wrote set in the Masonic Lodge, ‘Faith and Works 5837’. Four chaps get chatting over dinner – Bevin, Pole, a sassy Australian with a glass eye named Orton, and the narrator. They yarn about their respective trades (Bevin owns a chicken farm and is diversifying into herbs). They all grumble that all they wanted after the War was Judgement and justice, instead of which they got talk talk talk. Grumble grumble grumble.

‘We didn’t want all that talk afterwards — we only wanted justice. What I say is, there must be a right and a wrong to things. It can’t all be kiss-an’-make-friends, no matter what you do.’

But if any generation had a right to grumble it’s the men who went through the war. Kipling conveys the way they fall to remembering incidents e.g. on the beach at Gallipolli, then go quiet, their faces suddenly tight, with the awful memories.

Story: Once they’re all comfortably settled after dinner, Bevin tells the story of Hickmot, a quiet Australian from the back of beyond, ‘brought up among blackfellas’, who was the only survivor of his battalion at Gallipolli and seconded to what was left of Bevin’s battalion. He was very quiet, very unobtrusive. Then a new draft came out including a man from the narrator, Bevin’s, village, one Bert Vigors. His dad was a market-gardener and they tried to exempt Bert on account of the family business but the local tribunal didn’t listen and he was drafted. The same tribunal exempted the son of a Mr Margetts, also a market gardener, because he hired a canny lawyer and was friends with some of the tribunes. Result: Vigors’ business goes bust, Margett’s old man buys it up.

Vigors won’t stop moaning to anyone who’ll listen about his Grievance, so quite quickly all the boys nickname him ‘the Grief’ and avoid him – all except Hickmot. He’ll listen to Vigors about his Grievance for hours so long as Vigors will then listen to him talking about sheep in the Outback. The two become inseparable. Soon Hickmot cops it in the leg and is shipped home and then Vigors is killed.

Bevin knows he right on the edge of a breakdown and wonders whether he’ll win a VC for some reckless exploit or go postal and shoot everyone around him. Just in time he is brought out of the trenches. He is posted back to England as a bomb instructor. Since the training camp is near his home village, he is able to marry his sweetheart – who just happens to have been Bert Vigors’s sister – and sleeps at home in his own bed, before going off to instruction duty every day.

Then they get a letter from the Brighton hospital where Hickmot is recovering from his wounds, asking if he can come and stay. Since Bert’s sister (now Bevin’s wife) had read so much about Hickmot in the letters which Bert sent home, she says Yes. Hickmot arrives for  his visit, with one leg amputated above the knee, hardly says a word, but fits right in and does all the chores. One day he unobtrusively accompanies Bevin to bomb instruction, holing up in the dugout where the duds are kept till used, then accompanying Bevin home at the end of the day. Then they see him onto the train to Roehampton, where he will be fitted with a prosthetic leg.

That night there is a series of explosions in the village, the villagers initially thinking they must be stray bombs from an air raid and running out into the street in panic. But Bevin and another officer quickly realise the damage is suspiciously localised; in fact, it is limited to the market gardener Margett’s property: the roof of his house has been bombed, so it burns down, two hay ricks set afire, the furnace in his greenhouse has exploded, demolishing the building and all his horses been mysteriously released to trample and graze in the new fields he’d bought off Vigors’s dad. Oddest of all, Bevin had applied to the local council to dam a local stream to create a duck-pond for his wife’s ducks but been refused permission. But a bomb happens to have exploded under the bank of the stream and blocked it exactly where Bevin wanted. Fancy that!

By now Bevin’s dinner companions are laughing. Silent Hickmot must have listened to all Vigor’s grievances in the trenches, and made a plan to enact justice for the injustice of Vigors’s drafting and his death. Asking to come and stay with Bevin was just a ruse to see the lie of the land and, when he learned that Bevin was giving bomb training, Hickmot hatched his brutal revenge on the all-conquering Margett family.

Revenge: So it is one of Kipling’s many ‘revenge’ stories, but this time the brutality of the war somehow justifies it, and also justifies it as comedy, or farce – and also – in the injustice of Vigors’s drafting and death – makes it very moving. On the surface it’s a story about how at least one soldier carried out poetic justice. But the real impact of the story comes from the many little touches in it indicating just how psychologically damaged and scarred by war the talkers are. There are several moments in his telling where Bevin’s face grows stiff and his hands go to tighten a belt he isn’t wearing, unconsciously carried back to the trenches.

More overtly, he admits that, after Hickmot’s wounding and Vigors’s death, he was reaching breaking point: he had a funny taste in his mouth and a sense of being distant from everything – just when his superiors had the sense to post him home as a bomb instructor. He is, in fact, just one more of Kipling’s many, many men on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

‘It took ’em five minutes to make me understand I was saved. Then I vomited, an’ then I cried. You know!’ The fat face of Bevin had changed and grown drawn, even as he spoke; and his hands tugged as though to tighten an imaginary belt.’

A Madonna of The Trenches (1924) Frame: One of several post-War stories set in the Freemason Lodge ‘Faith and Works 5837’. The narrator is helping the Senior Warden who is also a doctor, Dr Keede. During a lecture a new recruit, Strangwick, has a nervous attack, has to be helped out and administered a sedative. The noise of scraping chairs had reminded Strangwick of the noise made by the leather straps of the corpses which the French used to build their trenches over, of the squeaking noise the straps made when you walked on the duckboards laid over them. God. What horror. But as Keede gently questions and sympathetically listens to the stammering man, he draws out a story which is far weirder and stranger than mere post-traumatic stress.

Story: Strangwick was in the same regiment as an older man, Sergeant Godsoe, who he’d known since a boy and had been a father figure to him and his sister. On the day in question, Godsoe was found dead in a sealed gas room in the trenches, with two lighted braziers. Asphyxiation. Dr Keede knew about the incident but thought, like everyone else, it was an accident – that the gas-proof door banged shut and locked Godsoe in by accident.

Now Strangwick slowly, hesitantly, in his working class idiom, explains that Godsoe had been having an affair with his (Strangwick’s) auntie Armine, his mum’s sister (real name, in fact, Bella). Auntie Armine had given Strangwick, on his most recent leave, a note to take back to Godsoe, saying her little trouble would be over on the 21st and she was dying to meet him as soon as possible thereafter.

Strangwick, in his job as a runner on the fateful 21 January, thinks he sees his Auntie Armine at a corner of an old French trench, and, when he tells Godsoe, the latter realises what it means and makes Strangwick take him back to the scene. Here Strangwick’s hair stands on end as he realises that the apparition he thought was a trick of the light earlier on, really is the ghost of his Auntie who – he later finds out – had died of cancer that morning. The ghostly figure is holding out her arms to Sergeant Godsoe, imploring him with a terrifying look on her face to join her – and the Sergeant calmly beckons her into the gas room with the braziers and barricades the door behind him. He deliberately asphyxiated himself, killed himself, so that he can be with his lover for all eternity.

Frame: Having got all this out of his system, Strangwick sleeps. The Brother who introduced him comes along and apologises for his behaviour. He’s been under a lot of strain, he explains, on account of a ‘breach of promise’ action brought against him by his sweetheart, after Strangwick broke off the engagement. The Brother doesn’t know why he broke it off – but we know the full story and the way the sight of a) a middle-aged love affair b) and the ghostly horror of his ‘uncle’s death, have unhinged Strangwick. And there is a final irony because the Brother who brought him to the Lodge… is his actual Uncle, Auntie Armine’s husband! Only Strangwick knows that his Uncle’s wife was so totally unfaithful to him. And this is another element or level in his hysteria.

A spooky story, sure enough – but for me the ghost story element is outweighed by the touching sensitivity to hysterical soldiers shown by the narrator, the doctor and the other Masonic members, who quietly come to enquire if they can help. It is a community of men looking after men.

Strangwick, who had been fidgeting and twitching for some minutes, rose, drove back his chair grinding across the tesselated floor, and yelped ‘Oh, My Aunt! I can’t stand this any longer.’ Under cover of a general laugh of assent he brushed past us and stumbled towards the door.
‘I thought so!’ Keede whispered to me. ‘Come along!’ We overtook him in the passage, crowing hysterically and wringing his hands. Keede led him into the Tyler’s Room, a small office where we stored odds and ends of regalia and furniture, and locked the door.
‘I’m — I’m all right,’ the boy began, piteously.
‘‘Course you are.’ Keede opened a small cupboard which I had seen called upon before, mixed sal volatile and water in a graduated glass, and, as Strangwick drank, pushed him gently on to an old sofa. ‘There,’ he went on. ‘It’s nothing to write home about. I’ve seen you ten times worse. I expect our talk has brought things back.’
He hooked up a chair behind him with one foot, held the patient’s hands in his own, and sat down.

It feels a world away from the cocky young men kicking their native servants in Plain Tales, nearly 40 years earlier.

The Gardener (1925) Written 10 years after Kipling’s own son, Jack, went missing during the Battle of Loos, this short story is about a well-off single woman, Helen, who adopts the orphaned son of her scapegrace brother, George, who had got an unmarried woman pregnant.

When George died in India, Helen arranged the passage home of the baby, named him Michael, and raised him as his ‘Aunty’. Michael goes through prep and public school and is scheduled to go up to Oxford when the Great War breaks out. He enlists into a regiment which is posted to fill the gap in the Loos Offensive. (This is the prolonged battle during which Kipling’s only son was killed, aged barely 18.)

Helen at once accepts the terrible message of the telegram, and communes with the vicar and others in the village who have also lost sons.

After some years she gets an official letter notifying her that Michael’s body has finally been found and buried in Hagenzeele Third graveyard, the letter giving the grave’s row and number.

Helen decides to go and visit it and finds herself entering what Kipling describes as a well-established process for travelling to France, feeling like she is entering a sausage factory, a production-line type machine, which had been set up to process literally millions of grieving relatives.

She arrives at the pre-booked hotel in France, where she has a strange encounter with an insistent fellow grave visitor, who insists on sitting with her at dinner and nattering on about this and that, before she more or less forces her way into Helen’s bedroom to confess that, when she said she was visiting her friends’ sons’ graves, she was lying – she is in fact compulsively visiting and revisiting the grave of the only man she ever loved but who belonged to another.

Helen gets rid of her and lies in bed shaking. Everybody’s lives seem wracked. Next morning she walks to the graveyard and is appalled by the rows upon rows of graves, some 20,000 in total. A young man planting flowers helps her, asking the number of Michael’s grave and takes her to it. In the very last line there is the strong, ghostly implication, that the young man is Christ.

A man knelt behind a line of headstones — evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: ‘Who are you looking for?’
‘Lieutenant Michael Turrell — my nephew,’ said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’
When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.

A masterpiece, a genuinely great story, which is all in the selection, the paring back to the barest essentials, just three short scenes conveying the relationship between the growing Michael and his Aunt – the disconcerting scene at the hotel with a distraught fellow grave visitor – and then just these seven sentences at the end. I’m crying as I write this.


Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish and accessible layout, and to the comprehensive notes provided on The Kipling Society’s website.

Other Kipling reviews

The Folks That Live on the Hill by Kingsley Amis (1990)

For more than just a moment Harry had the horrible feeling that he had finally lost all ability to understand why other people behaved as they did, and even to know what his own emotions or wishes were beyond a longing to be by himself indefinitely, unreachable by others, not necessarily in this room, just anywhere. (p.89)

I haven’t liked the last few Kingsley Amis novels I’ve read because of their sexist-verging-on-misogynist attitude and their convoluted, sometimes incomprehensible style. But this one I found funny and sympathetic. A lot of his stylistic and narratorial oddities are still in evidence but are outweighed by a sympathetic and quietly moving depiction of a pleasingly varied cast of characters.

Mise en scène

In and around the fictional park of Shepherd’s Hill live a ménage of modern life people: retired librarian Harry Caldecott who lives with his sister Clare, both doting on their ineffectual brother Freddie who is married to the ‘ghastly’ Désirée. Harry is twice divorced, first from Gillian and then Daisy. He has several children, notably 40-year-old son Piers. Clare married a man named Arnold Morrison who played the flute until he dropped dead, having spent almost all their money. Thus Harry very kindly invites her to come and share his big house with him. Around the same time a lesbian, Bunty Streatfield, who had been married to nice Desmond Streatfield, moves in. Bunty has a rather aggressive lesbian lover, Popsy, who she is slightly scared of and who Harry cordially dislikes.

Nearby there’s a parade of typical London shops, wine bars and bistros etc, and we get to know the proprietors of these, including a couple of Asian brothers, a bistro owner who talks like a wing commander, Kenneth the landlord of the King’s (Head?) pub who asks Harry about his decor, the regulars at Harry’s drinking club, the Irving, and more.

What happens to these characters? Well, they meet for drinks, and chats, gossiping and bitching about each other behind their backs, and generally carry on like ordinary people – well, ordinary university-educated, white middle-class people who say ‘one does this’ or ‘one does that’; a certain class of person. Quite posh. For example, this is Freddie, encountered at the barber’s:

‘If you’re not in the most absolute tearing hurry for the next few minutes I should be terribly grateful for a quick word.’ (p.134)

I think what makes this Amis novel distinct from the previous four or five is that it isn’t dominated by the point of view of one clever, angry, reactionary, sexist character – as Jake and Stanley dominated the novels named after them and were quite unpleasant company. Instead the narration is spread across incidents involving quite a large cast: it feels more like a soap opera about this particular part of London and entering into the minds of so many different characters forces Amis to be more sympathetic to them all. And so there’s no opportunity for the angry rants, for the prolonged bitterness and misogyny, which disfigure previous books, and so the overall effect is lighter and therefore the humour (which was present but, for me, swamped in previous novels) comes more to the fore. It feels lighter and funnier.

Chapters

1 It opens with Bunty Streatfield making coffee and breakfast and chatting to Piers Caldecote who lives in a flat in the same shared house, before she heads down to the shops on Shepherds Hill, there encountering the two Asian brother shopkeepers (improbably named Howard and Charles), before catching the tube to Chelsea, and a posh house party. She’s barely been there a few minutes when her lover, Popsy, insists they leave. They go to a restaurant to eat, then back to Popsy’s flat to make love (always, in Amis, skirted over in silence).

2 Introducing Harry Caldecote, twice divorced and living with his sister Clare. Clare lost her husband, Arnold, a few years previously and discovered he had no money left, so her brother kindly took her in as, effectively, the housekeeper. Barking reminds them they have to look after Towser, a massive dog (a great Dane? wolfhound?) which slobbers and spills hair everywhere. Harry takes phone calls from Desmond, Bunty’s estranged husband, and Maureen, a friend who lives nearby.

3 Chris Markou, dodgy Greek from the Shepherds Hill Wine Centre, pops into the Asian shop and asks Howard and Charles if they can lend him a few hundred quid; that Harry Caldecote just came in and cashed a cheque and cleared him out. When he’s gone the brothers remark Chris is a crook, and then notice cheap, probably illegal, booze being offloaded into the wine centre. The narrator reveals it is knocked-off vodka.

4 Opens with the ghastly Désirée meeting with her dim husband Freddie and his brother Harry in the King’s. Over beers she loudly describes Freddie’s prostate operation, then goes on to explain that ever since he’s become an animal in the sack. Harry asks Freddie to get drinks and, in a comedy moment, has to explain to his idiot brother how to go about the process. He finds himself alone with Désirée for five horrible moments during which he realises she completely mistakenly thinks he has a crush on her, God how can the woman be so wrong? She starts to explain that, thanks to Harry’s encouragement, Freddie is thinking about writing poetry. Inspired, Harry insists that Freddie be given complete peace and quiet to do so and on no account must be interrupted or must he show or share or discuss his work in progress with Désirée. She reluctantly agrees. The phone rings and the landlord calls Harry over. It’s another landlord, of the Rifle Volunteer in Blackheath. There’s a Miss Fiona almost passed out on the floor, drunk, after causing a lot of havoc: he’s ready to call the police, but she claims Harry’s her father. Harry says he’ll be straight over. Back at the table he explains to Freddie and Désirée he has to leave, though the latter clarifies that Fiona is his first wife (Gillian’s) sister’s daughter ie his ex-wife’s niece, his niece by marriage. Nonetheless, for obscure reasons, Harry feels responsible for her.

5 Desmond meets is ex-wife Bunty in the Shepherds Crook bistro where, despite being distracted by the super posh owner and a string of noisy diners, Desmond says he still loves her and can’t they just, you know, somehow, does she want to come back to his? At which she very gently and meekly tries to withdraw, saying he knows it’ll end up with kissing and him trying to get her into bed and that just isn’t going to happen.

6 The huge dog Towser is pining and scratching at the front door when Piers arrives, Harry’s grown-up son. Clare lets him in and they chat until the purpose of the visit becomes clear and he asks if she can give him a loan, just to tide him over, like. She writes a cheque and he leaves and Clare is alone with her memories, her feelings about her dead husband. She goes to look at his collection of antique and valuable flutes, almost the only things he left which are worth hanging onto and which she has gathered into an alcove, a shrine to his memory.

7 Fiona Carr-Stewart, the posh alcoholic Harry went to rescue from the pub in Blackheath, surfaces in her manky council flat, hauls bags of rubbish to the bins under the disapproving eye of her 70-year-old neighbour and tries to establish order in the flat’s filthy interior when a young, surly man arrives to read the gas meter. I’m not sure but I think she then seduces him or performs a sexual act, after which he leaves promptly. She drinks more then makes her way to Linda’s house where a gang of other reprobates are, there’s more drinking then they’re at a pub, where there’s more drinks, the lights are spinning, the music is loud, her friends seem to have left, a taxi is called which refuses to take her, somehow she is home and someone is helping her up the steps to her flat, muttering at what a disgraceful state she’s in and it not even ten at night yet. This is a grim and persuasive description of someone getting completely, horribly hammered.

8 Harry gets out of a taxi and the Shepherd’s Hill Wine Centre where he has an unpleasant, insulting exchange with Popsy. Harry takes a taxi to Maureen’s house, she’s married to Leonard, who’s hardly ever there. They drink gin, flirt and then have sex on the sofa.

9 Harry takes a taxi home, arriving in time to help his sister Clare finalise preparations for dinner with their brother, Freddie, and wife Désirée. Things go well until Désirée returns to the theme of Freddie’s new-found sexual prowess after his recent prostate operation, at which Harry politely demurs prompting Désirée to become bitchy and sarcastic, ‘Oh is there anything else we are not allowed to discuss at your chaste table’ etc. At which point Clare intervenes, genuinely upset, asking her to shut up. The party winds up soon after and Harry is sorry if the whole subject upset Clare and made her think of her dead husband.

10 Explains the location and setup of the Cafe Cabana, the bistro owned by Desmond Streatfield, Bunty’s ex-husband. After she moved out he got Philippa, a bit more working class, to move in, but she turns out to be a limited cook and a nag. We see him supervising the 17-year-old black kitchen assistant Sandra and fobbing off the dodgy wine dealer, Clive, before the scene shifts to Desmond sharing a few drinks with Harry at the pub. Here they mull over trouble with girls and both agree that old Brahms had it sorted, seeing the same prostitute once a week for twenty five years, at which point he switched to her daughter. Women, eh! Tsk. Bunty turns up, the men had invited her, but she is instantly on edge and after a few innocuous comments from Desmond, rounds on him, asking why they are always trying to run her life for her. At this moment Popsy appears, drinks half the Campari Harry had bought for Bunty and says, ‘Right! Off we go Bunty’ and they leave the two men to prop up the bar wondering what it is that lesbians actually do.

11 Fiona. She doses herself with drinks as she delivers shopping to various customers in council flats, posh Rob, an old boy named Roger Greenhough in the flat next to her who has the temerity to suggest ways of helping get her off her ruinous alcoholism. Humiliated she stumbles back to her flat and toys with slashing her wrists with the bread knife.

12 Fiona meets Harry in the King’s and he is kind and concerned and listens to her explaining that she’s been on the wagon for six whole days. She tells the anecdote about her sister, Elspeth, the one who died when her car hit a wall, telling her she’d been looking through family albums and saw a great-aunt who was the spitting image of her, Fiona, and had died young of alcoholism: is it hereditary? Is Fiona doomed? Harry tries to cheer her up, and when they part she makes her way through London streets back to her flat where she starts on a bottle of White Nun, reminiscing about her father (or husband?) the Right Honourable Iain Menzies Carr-Stewart. She is a very posh alcoholic. The doorbell rings and it’s a taxi driver who she asks in for a moment. It’s not totally sure but I think she is servicing almost all men who call on her. Hence the references in the text to her reputation spreading far and wide…

13 Harry is getting his hair cut at Andy’s Hair Bar when he spots brother Freddie. They stroll along to a nasty greasy spoon where Freddie explains Désirée thinks he takes a cab to St James’s to get a trim at a super-classy salon, whereas he gets it cut round the corner, spends a happy hour eating fat food, and generally feels like he’s escaping the clutches of his all-controlling wife. Which he has also done by starting up a stamp collection. Désirée co-opted the last one, so he has found a stamp dealer tucked away in a side street and spends free time admiring, sorting and buying new stamps to add to the collection he proudly shows Harry.

14 Harry’s disreputable son, Piers, meets him at his club, the Irving (a parody of the Garrick, round the corner) where he is phenomenally posh, ordering all the right champagne, wine and port, before asking Harry to front him £50,000 for a cast-iron, copper-bottom, can’t-fail business venture. Harry demurs. As they’re walking out they bump into a publisher who amazes Harry by telling him he’s going to make Freddie an offer for the long poem of his which Harry showed him. Obviously it’s crap, but they can package it up in their European Political Testaments series and lots of earnest foreign intellectuals will snap it up.

15 Harry, Clare and Freddie take a taxi to their mother’s house, a rundown brick mansion in derelict grounds. This is sort of funny as Amis describes the knackered lawns, ruined greenhouse, then the musty smell inside, his mother’s affected tones, and then the ghastly lunch served with undrinkable plonk. Harry discovers Piers has been cosying up to Freddie, discussing money (obviously intending to dun him) and has also sent their mum a nice letter, brown-nosing and asking for an investment. After lunch Harry happens upon Clare and mother looking at photo albums and stumbles across the same photo of Great Aunt Anne which Elspeth had told Fiona about. Looks nothing like Fiona; Harry must tell her, to bolster her morale. While Freddie is tripping over a ladder in the hall, Harry rips the page with the photo out of the album and stuffs it in his pocket.

16 Harry is at the Irving listening to some fart of a Cabinet Secretary or other bore the other members into a coma when he’s called to the phone to have the old lady who lives in a flat in the same house as Bunty tell him that Bunty’s husband, Desmond, has turned up, very drunk and shouty and Bunty has barricaded herself into the bathroom. Harry takes a taxi to the house, in a dodgy area, and succeeds in talking Desmond down. He pathetically clings to the notion that Bunty can be talked out of her lesbianism. Harry says she really likes Desmond but he just happens to be the wrong sex for her, nothing anyone can do about it. He leaves Desmond to make up with Bunty and takes a taxi home where he finds his sister Clare distraught because she’s lost a valuable piece of chalcedony from the antique flute collected by her deceased husband. Aha, thinks Harry. Bet Piers nicked it.

17 Next morning Clare is still looking for her chalcedony while Harry has breakfast and opens a letter from the Adams Institute in north-west USA which is looking for an experienced librarian and has had him recommended by a colleague. This gives Amis an opportunity to sound off about how ghastly Americans are, before there’s a phone call and a prim nurse from some kind of private hospital informs him that Fiona has been taken into their care. She refuses to give more details, leaving Harry worried. After his lunchtime trip to the pub he returns to get a message from Clare saying Bunty had called asking for a spare bed for the night. Have she and Popsy split up? It’s all getting a bit fraught.

18 A short chapter in which the two Asian shopkeepers, Howard and Charles, natter about developments in the neighbourhood, namely Chris the conman disappearing with a load of money, the unnatural relationship of Bunty and Popsy coming to an end, and Harry such a ghastly snob floating through it all…

19 Harry ponders his life and his options before getting a taxi round to Maureen’s for another companionable afternoon screw. She obliges but he notices the carpet is up, all the pictures in the hall on the floor and other signs. She explains she’s moving back in with her husband, Leonard. She’s never really liked the sex they have, like many other women she only does it for the companionship and she doesn’t get much of that, to be honest, so she’s giving her marriage a second chance. Harry is flabbergasted and even more so when a few minutes later Leonard, the erring husband, himself arrives and invites Harry to a slap-up lunch, as an old friend of the family.

20 Freddie reflects, in his dim way, on the way his wife Désirée moved into his life and took it over twenty years ago, leading him almost immediately to start uselessly wishing ‘she could somehow be smaller, quieter, further away, less there all the time’ (p.208). This chapter describes his incredibly regimented life, the hand-knitted socks, the pills at precise times throughout the day, the set meal-times and organic wholemeal food, the fixed chairs in which to sit and read books he was long ago bored with, the dinner at fixed time and then, periodically, the compulsory and always-the-same sex.

21 Harry and Clare have dinner at Odile’s where they discuss whether he should take the job in the States. It is an odd, like all Amis, but at bottom very decent and affectionate evening. They walk back to their house and, in the drawing room, agree Harry is not going to take the job but stay with her and his little group of friends and dependents. At that moment the doorbell rings. It is Bunty, her dress torn, slapped, bleeding a little. Popsy beat her up and threw her out.

22 Another nightmare episode for Fiona’s degradation. She invites the minicab driver in for a quick shag (so that is what she’s been doing to random men, and confirms the ‘reputation’ she’s described as having acquired), although he ends up telling her off for being such a degenerate. She stays in getting drunk, then Sean and Brendan are suddenly in the flat telling her she’s disgusting and saying this is the end. Then they’re gone and she’s drinking more and it feels as if her face is melting. And light through the window means it’s morning, so she drinks a bottle of sherry to help her cope and then feels really peculiar and rings Sean who tells her to lie still till he can be over. All told in blurred, rushing prose.

23 Harry is phoned by the Asian brothers who say he’d better come quick, Fiona’s had an accident. When he and Clare get to the shop they find a crowd gathered round Fiona who is on the ground, having a fit, lying in a pool of blood from a head wound. Charles explains a van drew up and she was thrown out the back without it really stopping. It was those Irish guys (presumably Sean and Brendan: why would they do that?) Explaining that the ambulances round here take forever, Charles and Howard very kindly volunteer to take Fiona, Harry and Clare to the nearest A&E in their cars, and do so. Harry holds Fiona’s hand in triage as a doctor pokes and prods her, then leaves. Harry finally gets to say his piece about Fiona not looking like her alcoholic great-aunt and has the photo to prove it. She is not doomed by alcoholic genes. She can change her life. All this seems human and kind, like the affection we saw between brother and sister in the previous chapter.

24 A week or so later and the new landlord of the King’s celebrates his first year there by having a little party, a handy way to bring together Harry, Clare and Fiona who is a) still alive b) proudly shows off that she’s drinking soft drinks. Bunty has a little chat with Clare who insists she moves in with them permanently. In a very funny moment Désirée gets Harry in a corner and horrifies him by suggesting the real reason he chose not to take the American job was because he’s in love with his sister. Really in love. Sexually in love. Harry is so outraged and bolts so fast he bangs the table and knocks over loads of drinks, but can see the bright side which is that, in future, he’ll be able to hate Désirée with a clear conscience! Desmond summons up the courage to tell Bunty he understands now, after Harry explained it to him, why she doesn’t want and will never want to sleep with him; but can they still be friends, can he meet her regularly and take her for dinner etc? She is relieved and pleased. Piers arrives with his newly announced fiancée, Priscilla, who it turns out Fiona was at school with. They are very posh together until Fiona takes Piers aside after they both spot the vile Popsy lurking at the other end of the bar. Piers wishes he could do something to remove the threat of Popsy and Fiona says she knows some unpleasant men who could put the frighteners on her if Piers has the money. They do a deal to arrange it… Then Piers saunters over to Uncle Freddie and we learn that Piers’ dodgy business deal, the one about illicit vodka which Harry refused to invest in, well it came off and not only is Piers suddenly affluent but he repaid his investors eg Uncle Freddie, who now has a tidy sum stashed away in the bank. And, Freddie tells an incredulous Piers, the local stamp collector company has given Freddie his own cubicle to take out and peruse his albums in. He is happy as a kid. And then it’s all back to Harry’s where Clare and Désirée and Bunty prepare a big salad lunch.

25 After the lunch party is dispersed, Clare is standing in the peace and quiet of the house looking out the window, remembering the special look Arnold used to have when nobody was looking at him, and knowing she had enjoyed real love, true love, which so many people never really know. And at that moment a ray of sunshine penetrates the clouds and she sees the gleam of the missing piece of chalcedony, tucked down by the wainscoting, where it fell out when the cleaner was dusting and accidentally dropped the ancient flute on the floor. Clare restores it to its place in the old flute, and the flute to the alcove which is her shrine to her beloved husband.

It is a luminous ending to a rich and satisfying (if oddly written) novel.

Amis’s style

The characters and narrator are never quite sure of anything. Or never quite finish anything. Amis is addicted to presenting alternatives to almost every description or fact. Things are something, or something else, or maybe something else. Amis uses ‘or’ a lot to present two or three or four ways of looking at any situation or bit of dialogue: is it intended to be a more precise rendition of quavering human thought; or in order to defocus and blur perceptions? Hard to tell, but no train of thought is ever clear or finished. More can always be added. Or appended. Or something (p.141). Or whatever it is (p.159). Or thereabouts (p.211). Or whatever it’s called (p.214)

With it she wore no jewellery or other ornamentation, not out of good taste or any of those but because everything she had ever had in that line had been sold or stolen or, most often, lost. Or as good as lost. (p.124)

‘I see,’ said Harry. He did too, or partly did, or might for the next five minutes or so. (p.154)

One of the things he came up with was that probable or possible or very short or only rather short (versions varied) affair that Harry and Désirée had had in the long ago. (p.210)

She gave him back a special glance or moue or wrinkling of the eyelids or all of the three that he knew he would see again whenever they met… (p.238)

Amis also deploys lots of conditional phrases, fillers, to hedge around and defocus perceptions and descriptions –

‘On the whole, maybe, in other words, on the off chance, in some way, perhaps, up to a point, so to speak, sort of, indeed, really, more or less, literally, as it were, after a fashion, at any rate, you know, in so many words, mind you, what do you call it, not to say, when you come to think about it, no doubt, such as it was, quite well enough, to put it mildly, for the most part, not by a long chalk, in a way, on the face of it, at all, actually, if you follow my meaning, and suchlike, and all that, and more besides’.

Any one example looks innocuous on its own, but there are two or three on every page and they have the effect of steadily, continuously chipping away at the clarity and conciseness of sentences, making them seem conditional, unsettled, blurry. I can’t decide whether Amis has his narrator and all his characters use them liberally as a satire on the bad useage of his day or because he’s keen to capture modern useage, in all its sort of, like, kind of casualness.

And he enjoys using words in unlikely combinations, especially phrases which take prepositions where he can butt them up against other prepositions and create odd jarring effects enjoying creating sentences which teeter on incomprehension or force you to read them twice.

Fiona spent most of her days and a lot of her nights looking forward to getting towards the end of whichever bit of either she happened to be in, but this was one she would have let go on as long as it liked. (p.125)

Clare put all she had, instead of being absolutely marvellous about the way she was putting all she had, into concealing the fact that she had given up hope that it would ever be found. (p.182)

Or just deliberately jar. Why?

Harry followed both these suggestions and when he came back found Clare looking nearly normal and sounding completely it. (p.221)

A long time ago this might have been funny. From one point of view it’s almost experimental – an anti-Modernist’s experiment with stream of consciousness, with getting inside people’s heads; or just for the fun of playing with the language.

On the table stood a bottle of White Nun with a glassful or so out of it and there was more, much more than enough more, where that had come from. The glassful or so was inside Fiona. (p.130)

But for a long time these three or four mannerisms, taken together, are Amis’s Late Style, ensuring you are continually stumbling over sentences which puzzle and perplex and give the text a sense of light-headedness, as if it is permanently tipsy, not quite making sense.

‘Of course, he’s very fond of you, you know,’ he said, trying not to make this sound like a good or any other sort of Harry’s marvellousnesses. (p.103)

If there could ever have been truly said to be more of something where something came from, the two at present conversing had run across it. (p.195)

Amis’s women

Amis’s misogyny is more restrained in this novel for the simple reason that he covers a wider range of characters and at least three lead characters – Clare, Bunty, Fiona – are not only women, but sympathetically portrayed. Nonetheless, given half a chance, his men start in on the same tiresome sexist comments about women being incomprehensible, mad etc which characterise most of his previous novels.

In the human or material sphere the nearest comparable disparity was between the number of words that women said and the number that would have to have been said about what they had said in order to produce a full or clear or straight account of any matter. (p.103)

But, as I’ve said a) there’s a lot less of it than before b) Harry is given several passages where he realises he is a trial to live with and that women, in fact, deep down, are the ones who end up cooking and cleaning and tidying and looking after the sick and generally making the world go round and c) regardless of these trivial views, held by some characters on a surface level, the novel itself shows the warmest empathy and compassion for its women characters, for dependable Clare, for nervous Bunty, for poor wrecked Fiona. Not perhaps for ghastly Désirée, but it isn’t a political tract, it’s a novel about all sorts, and it is Amis’s most balanced and enjoyable for years.

Amis’s humour

He became conscious that Désirée was sort of staring at him. He smiled encouragingly, instead of asking her what she bloody wanted. (p.84)

But in the midst of all this there are some really funny moments. The full description of the old fart boring members of the Irving is supplemented by the description of the hypnotically stealthy approach of one of the doddering old servants. Some of the dialogue escapes from Amis’s circumlocutionary style to have a real punch and sparkle. His dislike of rock music, London traffic, and greasy spoon cafes are all conveyed with a kind of brio that made me smile. Brother Freddie being so dim he has to have it explained to him twice how to buy a round in a pub made me laugh out loud, it is phrased with such energetic frustration. Lots to enjoy.

Credit

The Folks That Live On The Hill by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1990. All quotes are from the 1991 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

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

The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré (1990)

I had begun my quest idly – you may say frivolously – much as one might pick up an old copy of the Tatler in one’s club. (p.262)

The last of le Carré’s novels to feature tubby, unprepossessing, owlish cuckold George Smiley. It is a series of tales told in the first person by old British Intelligence man Ned (we never get his last name). He was in charge of the ‘Russia House’ wing of British Intelligence when the publisher/agent who he was managing, Barley Blair, went missing and defected for love (the story told in the novel, The Russia House.)

Partly as punishment for this foul-up, Ned is despatched to serve out his last years till retirement supervising the Intelligence training school at Sarratt. He invites Smiley up from his retirement in Cornwall to come and lecture the trainees, followed by whisky by the fire and reminiscences.

This is the frame narrative within which Ned proceeds to remember key moments in his career, starting in the early 1960s and proceeding up to the present – to the fall of the Berlin Wall and (the unthinkable) fact of senior Circus bosses being invited to Moscow to tour KGB headquarters! In light of the defeat of Soviet communism and the triumph of the West, Ned can’t help wondering all the failures and the betrayal were worth it.

1. Fat Boy and Panda One of Ned’s first assignments is to tail a rich Saudi prince, in London to finalise important arms sales. He quickly wins the nickname Fat Boy from the watchers, and his wife earns the nickname Panda for the dark rings round her eyes. It is a comic story, for the MI6 watchers following her soon realise that she is herself being tailed by a Middle Eastern man, and begin to panic whether it’s a kidnapper or even an assassin. Bit it turns out the Panda is a kleptomaniac, and this man is employed by her to hush up the outraged store detectives and pay for everything she’s walked off with stuffed into her handbag and up her sleeve.

2. Ben In training Ned is paired with Ben. They went to public school then Oxford at the same time, then both took commissions in the Army before joining British Intelligence. Ie their story is proof of the very narrow pool of like-minded, posh people who make up the Service. Ben is posted to Berlin. One day Smiley and a squad of searchers arrive at Ned’s place and start interrogating him. What’s going on? Ben has disappeared: kidnapped, gone over to the other side? And their main network in East Germany has been ‘rolled up’, betrayed, arrested. They know the pair were good friends and then, Smiley reveals, they have discovered a love letter to Ned from Ben. Turns out Ben was gay and in love with Ned, though Ned never knew. Ned remembers Ben had mentioned the old country estate of some cousins in the Western Isles of Scotland. Ned does a bunk, evading the watchers set on his flat, catches a train to Glasgow and then ferries out to the estate. Here he meets Ben’s aloof cousin – Stefanie – who, in this wild mountain scenery, he falls in love with on sight. Ben is out at the loch, fishing mournfully. Ned walks down and stands by him. After some manly silence Ben tells him the story: the boss at Berlin was an intimidating martinet, testing Ben again and again before his first meeting with the leader of the East German network. Ben, like a good swot, makes a set of prompt cards with complete details of all the agents, their names, address, passwords, secret codes. When the day for his first drop into the East and first meeting with the Top Agent arrives, Ben finds himself taking them with him in his jacket pocket. He has to get out of a not-quite-stationary car, pick up a bicycle, cycle to the rendezvous, lock it up, meet the Agent, exchange documents, back to the bike and unlock it, cycle back to a rendezvous with a different car. When he got back into this car, he realised the notes had all gone from his pocket. He had dropped them somewhere. East German agents must have found them and used the information to arrest the entire network, because by the end of that day the network had been betrayed. Distraught, Ben flew to London, then onto Glasgow, then the ferry boat to this Western Isle, where Stefanie cooks for him but leaves him to cope with despair at his ineptitude and failure. Soon afterwards, Smiley and his people arrive to arrest him. Ned returns to London, convinced he will be fired, and bewitched by the beautiful, artistic, remote Stefanie.

3. Bella and Captain Brand But Ned isn’t dismissed, he is sent to Hamburg. It is the early 1960s and Ned takes charge of Captain Brand and his circle of Latvian patriots, who run illicit missions along the Baltic coast. Brand is a big-hearted sailor with a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend, Bella. As soon as Brand and crew have departed on a mission to drop agents on the Latvian coast, Ned and Bella are at it like rabbits. Le Carré gives slightly cringe-inducing descriptions of her riding him, going down on him, offering him her rear for his penetration etc etc. When the mission to Latvia goes badly wrong – the patriots are met with machine guns, several killed – Ned is summoned back to England, to the executives on ‘the Fifth Floor’ who are convinced Bella is the traitor and Ned finds himself defending her, despite his own misgivings. Smiley plays an oblique role, appearing to defend Ned and his instincts against Bill Haydon, head of European operations, who insists Bella is the spy who betrayed the mission. Three years later the events described in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy take place, revealing Haydon to be a high-level Russian mole, confirming that it was hearty sailor Brand who was the spy, all the evidence against Bella having been cooked up by Moscow Central to protect him. She is shipped off to a new identity in Canada, never to see Ned again.

4. The Professor Ned is posted to Munich and tasked with managing a Hungarian professor, Teodor, who claims to be running a Hungarian network. Ned is suspicious of him from the start, him and his unhappy, ex-actress wife Helena, especially when he almost immediately starts asking for a British or American passport. But Toby Esterhase, one of the main characters in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and who survived the Bill Haydon revelations, insists he is a great source for the Americans. When Ned checks with the Americans they say, No, we were told he’s a great source for you. Hmm. One night Ned gets a melodramatic phone call from the Professor. A Hungarian assassin – Latzi – has come to kill him, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, confessed, and is now in his house. Ned rushes over. The shamefaced middle-aged, meek assassin empties his pockets of gun, cyanide bullets, garroting wire etc and tells an elaborate story about being briefed and sent to kill the Very Important Professor. All three are whisked away to a safe house where they are interrogated by MI6 and the CIA. Eventually, the Professor and wife are given US passports and put on the next flight Stateside. But not before the wife, walking down by the lakefront with Ned, admits it’s all a con. The ‘assassin’ is an out-of-work actor they hired to make the Prof look important. Ned doesn’t tell.

5. Colonel Jerzy Oskar, an agent in Poland who had gone quiet, suddenly activates again, sending messages in all the right codes, using all the right procedures. London is sceptical but Ned insists on going over to find out for himself whether it still is the same man. He flies into Poland on a forged Dutch passport and travels to Gdansk to meet Oskar. Instead, it is a trap and he is picked up by a group of well-organised communist security men who immediately start beating him up, then take him to a big empty house where he is really systematically beaten, losing several teeth, getting cracked ribs, before passing out, then waking up chained to a radiator burning his back and getting beaten some more. He sticks to his story that he is a Dutch businessman and this is all a terrible mistake and eventually, reluctantly, the officer in charge of the beating, stocky pock-marked Colonel Jerzy, orders him released. He is helped to a bath, cleaned and put in new clothes, then Jerzy drives him to an isolated spot and orders him out of the car. Dazed and in pain Ned wonders if he is going to be executed and pushed in the river. But no. Turns out Jerzy wants to become a spy for the West! Amazed, Ned sticks to his line of being a Dutch businessman and the exasperated Jerzy says, ‘OK, Have it your way, I will send you good information via such and such a channel when you are safely back in the West. We take it from there, OK?’ And indeed Jerzy becomes a totally reliable, high-level agent, revealing much about Polish and eastern Bloc security plans for the next five years. Ned speculates at length about Jerzy’s motives, but he appears simply to be bored. In a post-script, after the Berlin Wall has fallen, Ned is watching a TV report about a Catholic cardinal holding a huge open-air mass and, to his amazement, witnesses the moment when, among the throng pouring round him, the cardinal spots a hesitant Jerzy. The cardinal makes straight for him and there is a moment of recognition between them before Jerzy kneels to be blessed. And in that moment Ned knows the cardinal is one of the many many Poles that Jerzy has tortured and interrogated.

6. Britta Ned is in Beirut, in the depths of the Lebanon civil war (1975-1990), hearing the AK47s firing nightly, and the occasional car bomb. He is tracking down a German woman agent known as Britta. Eventually he discovers she is being held in an Israeli camp in the Negev Desert. Ned flies out there and interviews her under the supervision of some typically tough Israeli security officers. Britta turns out to be a) she is stunningly beautiful (as so many of the young women in le Carré are) b) phenomenally indoctrinated in a kind of sexual liberation / terrorist Marxism, a creed which justifies throwing bombs onto buses in order to ‘waken the slumbering masses’ etc. She refuses to co-operate in any way and Ned, in his self-absorbed way, departs shaken that her fanaticism speaks to something in him which wants to rebel. — [The whole episode feels like an off-cut from The Little Drummer Girl which dealt so intensively with the same milieu.]

7. Hansen Like Ned, half-Dutch, Hansen is an extraordinary figure, a wanderer and trouble-maker who, as a youth, is sent to the Jesuits in the hope they’ll make something of him, and becomes a fully qualified priest before being despatched to Dutch South-East Asia. Here he becomes a languages and culture scholar before sinking into more familiar le Carré territory ie reports soon emerge of his sexual escapades in villages and cities, with men, women and children. Finally, the Head of Station in Bangkok reports he’s been spotted by a Chinaman in their pay. Ned flies out to meet him and spends a long night in a hotel room listening to Hansen’s extraordinary story – how he lived in a safe part of Cambodia, well embedded in a village, with a native wife and young daughter, radioing in targets for the American bombers to pulverise. The Khmer Rouge are active in the area and one day he returns to the village to find it completely empty. He follows the trail of corpses to the Khmer Rouge camp, is captured but vows to survive the torture in order to protect his teenage daughter. To his dismay, she is successfully indoctrinated by the Khmer and denounces him as an imperialist bourgeois lackey etc. Still, it is probably her intervention which prevents him being murdered when the Khmers up sticks and move on. But Hansen follows them and her, discovering she left the group, scouring South-East Asia and eventually discovering her in a brothel in Bangkok. She is numbed, almost lobotimised by her experiences, and only finds authenticity in servicing her clients. But Hansen gets a job at the brothel as a jack-of-all-trades so he can keep an eye on her and take her home safely at night. Ned offers him money to be resettled somewhere. Hansen, totally embittered by the awful job he did calling in a holocaust of bombs on innocent villages and the disastrous effect it’s had on Cambodia, says, ‘Keep your stinking money’, and Ned returns to the office a sadder and wiser man.

This is the most powerful and the most Catholic of the stories. The violence and the casual attitude to prostitutes and brothels and the Catholic self-dramatisation of Hansen telling his story remind me of Graham Greene and of his novel set in Vietnam and with a prostitute as a central character, The Quiet American.

8. Ken Hawthorne A retired soldier sends a letter to the Service which George is tasked to handle. His tearaway son, in prison, insists he is a British agent, briefly returned from Russia and hiding in prison as a cover. ‘Don’t contact me again, Dad,’ he says: ‘but listen, there’s a club of us spies and we meet every year and, if we’ve done well, they award us special cufflinks.’ Dad gets letters from his son in various hand-writings hinting at secret missions. Then he is murdered in prison and his mum and dad bury him. The dad writes the letter to MI6: was his son an agent? Smiley calls him in for a slow patient questioning, then goes away and ransacks the Circus’s raddled files. No. He wasn’t. He never had anything to do with the Service and is indeed the sadistic thug his criminal record suggests. But, in a gesture of sweet kindness, Smiley invites the parents for a second interview: insists his son was nothing to do with them; never undertook any missions for them; he can disclose no more. And silently hands the dad a pair of beautiful gold cufflinks. They leave with tears in their eyes. Ned later finds out the cufflinks were a present to Smiley from his adulterous wife, Ann.

9. Frewin An anonymous letter denounces Cyril Frewin, an anonymous operative in the Cipher Section, as a spy, linking him with Modrian from the Soviet Embassy. Ned goes to Frewin’s sad suburban semi and the novel gives us a lengthy verbatim account of his interview of Frewin: over twenty pages or so we see precisely how a clever man like Ned can manipulate and play on the psychological weaknesses of a sad loner like Frewin to get him to finally confess that, yes, he was a spy for Modrian. But more than that, the story shows how Modrian and the Russians skillfully and elaborately played on Frewin’s sense of isolation in order to befriend him, to identify the things he loves (classical music, educated conversation), to persuade him they are on his side, in order to exploit him, and slowly increase the level of information they ask Frewin to send them. Ned realises he is guilty of just as much psychological exploitation as Modrian and (we’re getting used to it by this time) feels soiled and sickened.

Was love an ideology? Was loyalty a political party? Or had we, in our rush to divide the world, divided it in the wrong way, failing to notice that the real battle lay between those who were searching, and those who, in order to prevail, had reduced their vulnerability to the lowest common factor of indifference? I was on the brink of destroying a man for love. (p.332)

There is an awful lot of pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-theological discussion of love and betrayal and love and fidelity and love and loyalty in these stories. Who knew that British intelligence agents spent so much time thinking about love?


Tone

The style is deliberately, overtly posh, an attempt – I think – to give Ned a distinct voice. Public school, Oxford, a commission in the Army, then a spell in the Navy, before the Secret Service, Ned is impeccably pukkah and so is the world he moves in. When he mixes with the 95% of the population who didn’t go to private school – Monty and his team of ‘watchers’ or mum and dad of Ken Hawthorne – he is nervously aware he is mixing with ‘the other ranks’, the ‘NCOs’, people who can’t write a decent letter or are intimidated in the presence of their ‘betters’.

As in previous Circus novels there is a tone of complacency typified by the use of ‘we’. Back in those days we all this… We revered those senior figures… We felt that Smiley… In those days we…  etc. — Ned’s tone suggests a schoolmaster fondly recalling some of his more reprobate pupils, or a young master filled with awe and reverence for the old timers who embody the much-loved institution and its values. It is a tone of complacent self-justification, as if the ‘Circus’ and its internal squabbles is all that matters in the world.

After all, le Carré had a spell as a teacher at Eton. Eton. Is it possible to be more Establishment than that? And Ned’s role in the novel is as teacher or supervisor of trainee spies at Sarratt – so the patronising smugness of the old teacher – whoops, master – may be justified. Still, Ned’s tone often makes it seem as if British Intelligence was rather like a ramshackle public school, populated by eccentric, clever, spiteful masters, forever politicking among themselves and sending poor East European agents to their capture, torture and death. Oh well. Can’t be helped. Can I tempt you to another glass of this rather fine brandy?

Clive Bellamy, a gangly, mischievous Etonian, was in charge of Sarratt. (p.221)

Rumbelow (Station Head in Bangkok) spoke like an Etonian bookmaker. (p.225)

He put on an avuncular, friend-to-friend manner that reminded me of my preparatory-school headmaster. (p.318)

I continued writing to her from Tunbridge Wells but it became as difficult as writing home from [boarding] school. (p.334)

Even the enemy are seen in the same ‘what-ho, old Duffers eh, what a card’ public school tone of voice:

After my five years in the Russia House, Sergei Modrian was plain Sergei to me, as he had been to the rest of us: old Sergei, the crafty Armenian, head boy of Moscow Centre’s generously over-staffed residence at the Soviet Embassy in London. (p.274)

Head boy! Did the KGB see its operatives in terms of English public school positions?

At various points Ned has qualms and doubts and maybe the novel as a whole is meant to signify his ‘pilgrimage’ towards greater self-awareness and understanding of the role MI6 really played in these historical events. But it feels limited, like the master at a posh school who slowly comes to realise that maybe the senior staff aren’t the gods he was led to believe, and the mission to educate and civilise isn’t everything it was cracked up to be. But he doesn’t leave and he can’t leave, because deep down this is the only world, and these are only values, he knows.

Self-dramatisation

The ‘we we we’ is one aspect of the comfortable self-dramatisation. Ned takes the mickey out of himself for doing it, but carries on regardless making epic drama out of his life and work. The trip to see Ben in Scotland talks about the ‘Wagnerian’ setting and the ‘Romantic’ situation. In all the other stories he reaches for grand comparisons from European culture. It is typical that he refers to the revelation that Haydon was a Russian spy as ‘The Fall’, and the periods before and after as ‘Before The Fall’ and ‘After The Fall’. Typically bombastic. And it conceals the reality. There was no Fall, it wasn’t a legendary, mythic event. You idiots let a Russian spy rise to become chief British Intelligence’s entire East European spy network. He passed on every important secret which crossed his desk for 15 years or more. All because he was a jolly good chap, went to a good public school and Cambridge, had a ‘first-rate mind’ and so on and so on. The bombast – the comparisons with Wagner or the Bible or Don Quixote or Shakespeare – conceal the incompetence. No wonder the Yanks distrusted us.

Although, on a conscious level, the narrator analyses the career of spying as shabby and full of moral qualms etc, he actually describes it with grandiose and self-aggrandising comparisons, with a mock heroism that is so consistently present that it eventually turns into just heroism.

Like Quixote, I had set out in life vowing to check the flow of evil. (p.186)

Only Ahmed behind the counter who for a few dollars and a smile, would tell you the secrets of the universe. (p.200)

[Was he] a high-school war tourist on the hippy trail, searching for kicks in the city of the damned? (P.201)

The language, the comparisons, all as inflated as Milton’s Grand Style. On the same page he describes being in bed with his mistress, Monica, when he gets a call saying his mother’s been taken ill.

By an act of divine ill taste I was in bed with Monica when I took the call. (p.186)

‘Divine ill taste?’ Really? You think God had something to do with it? Isn’t it just an accident? In fact, does it matter at all where he is or who he’s with? No. Only to someone used to dramatising their every step as divinely fated or divinely tasteful would this be worth noting. He goes on to write of  his mother’s death:

‘I was orphaned and elated all at once… At last I stood unencumbered before life’s challenges… And when I looked at myself in the mirror of the undertaker’s rose-tinted lavatory after my night’s vigil, I was horrified by what I saw. It was the face of a spy branded by his own deception.’ (p.187).

I think the expression is: Get over yourself!

Catholic melodrama

The tale about the Dutch Jesuit spy Hansen is the most powerful piece because of the intense description it gives of being captured and tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Le Carré, in my opinion, weakens it by having the very tough Hansen a) be a Roman Catholic priest b) be taken prisoner because he is on a religious quest to find his young daughter. Thus a story which is quite harrowing enough, piles on every possible opportunity to cast each event, from his torture to her assimilation by the guerrillas, as edge-of-the-seat threats to their immortal souls. Having recently completed reading all of Graham Greene’s novels, I’ve had enough to last me a lifetime of the self-obsession and overblown melodrama of literary Catholicism:

Hansen had glared into my face with eyes lit by the red hells from which he had returned. (p.217)

‘Once you have embarked upon the impossible concept of God, you will know that real love permits no rejection. Perhaps that is something only a sinner can properly understand. Only a sinner knows the scale of God’s forgiveness.’ (p.238)

Maybe. But it seems a certainty that once you come out of the closet as a Catholic novelist there is no end, literally no end, to the amount of sentences and paragraphs and chapters and novels you can fill with pseudo-theology and self-important attitudinising:

[Hansen was] in search of Marie, his pure love, the earth mother who was his daughter, the only keeper of his grace. (p.240)

With Marie to support him, he could bear anything. Each would be the salvation of the other. Her love for him was as fierce and single-minded as his for her. He did not doubt it. For all his loathing of captivity, he thanked God he had followed her. (p.242)

I am nourishing her from my own breast. I am her guardian, the protector of her chastity. I am her priest, giving her Christ’s Sacrament.

Once this tone of holy pretentiousness is broached it becomes catching. Chapter 11 starts with Smiley explaining to the young acolytes:

‘And some interrogations are not interrogations at all, but communions between damaged souls.’ (p.273)

The stories themselves are gripping and fascinating. The intellectual framework within which they’re cast – the self-dramatisation, the emphasis on love and redemption and grace and salvation and communion etc, give them a very strong flavour, a particular set of spices, which I think you either love or hate.

Stefanie, Bella, Mabel, Monica, Marie, Sally

Lots of nubile and sexually available or provocative young women in le Carré’s fiction:

  • Stefanie is the half-German artist cousin of his friend and incompetent Ben, who he falls for heavily but she ignores him and moves abroad. He carries a torch for her the rest of  his life.
  • Bella is the scorchingly sexy girlfriend of beefy Captain Brand, who introduces Ned to championship sex.
  • Mabel is the dull English woman he actually marries and who likes curling up on the sofa in the evening with the Daily Telegraph (p.181).
  • Monica is a girl in the Service’s Industrial Liaison Unit who he has an affair with (p.186).
  • Marie is the Asian daughter of Hansen, the Jesuit priest-turned-spy, who he pursues across South-East Asia only to find her turned into a numb prostitute in Bangkok. Before he finds Hansen Ned is given a display of her skills. The way she turns, raises and wiggles her bare bottom provocatively at him (p.231) reminds the reader of the gorgeous Bella doing the same (p.100). Lucky Ned.

In chapter 11 he is having an affair with Sally, a tall, fair designer and ‘dancer’. Colleagues irritate him by asking after his wife; are they separating? Divorcing? He has become a mirror image of Smiley, who is faithful and quiet, betrayed by his wife, Lady Ann, taking serial lovers. Here it is Ned who appears to have the serial affairs, betraying his staid wife, Mabel. But in both models, a marriage is actually about betrayal and is another way to justify the tone of world-weary self-importance which dominates the book.

Out with the old…

Once you look, you realise every reference to George Smiley lays on with a trowel his wisdom, his insight, his patient deduction, the way he is ahead of everyone. In the last few pages he is referred to as sitting on a ‘throne’ as he talks to the students. Earlier we had heard of the cup and saucer he bequeathed to the secretary pool at the Circus being treated like a ‘chalice’. This is ridiculously overblown; makes it sound like an Arthurian romance. Smiley delivers a suitably vague and bombastic peroration about Russia – characteristically referred to as ‘the Bear’ rather than any detail of actual administrations, actual leaders, actual complex policies – we must help her join the community of nations etc. But his parting shot to the trainees is they must also be alert to the way we in the West have ‘given up too many of our freedoms in order to be free’. We must be watchful of our own society, as well.

Like the farewell speech of a much beloved headmaster. And so, amid sentimental tears and wise admonishments, George Smiley leaves the scene.

… and in with the new

But that isn’t the end. Instead, with only days till his retirement, Ned is sent on one last mission, to persuade an arrogant financier, a man who has built a fortune, bought a knighthood and a vast landed estate, based on business deals he did for the Service, to now stop selling arms and munitions to unsuitable nations (Serbia, central Africa).

Rich, replete Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw offers him champagne and tells him to fuck off. With dismay Ned realises these are the new breed, the completely ruthless, amoral international financiers who he has made the world safe for. Ned toys with telling him that, now we’ve defeated communism we have to set about defeating capitalism. But Bradshaw pounds on about how if he doesn’t sell the buggers arms someone else will and good luck to them. Business is business. This country’s going soft. Where there’s money to be made, he will make it. Ned fails, He has made the world safe for people like Bradshaw, and now it is over to them…

Credit

The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré, published in 1991 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1991 Coronet paperback edition, 1994 impression.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Spy Sinker by Len Deighton (1990)

This the third and final novel in the second trilogy of books about 40-something British intelligence officer Bernard Samson.

In the first trilogy (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match) his gorgeous, clever wife Fiona was exposed as a high-level ‘mole’ in the Department and forced to flee in a hurry to East Berlin.

In the first two novels of this set Bernard began to suspect – and then had it abundantly confirmed – that Fiona was in fact a double agent and had been working for us all along.

But the rainswept night of her final escape back from East Berlin to our side turned into a bloodbath: Samson and Fiona manage to escape but the agent accompanying Bernard – and Fiona’s sister, Tessa – are shot dead, as are the East German agent Stinnes and another man, Harry Kennedy.

The ex-CIA hitman masterminding this carnage burns Tessa’s body in the car, and throws the British agent, Stinnes and Harry into a deep ditch – part of the roadworks where the whole shambles took place – and where they will be covered with concrete and never found… Leaving the reader in shock.

What next?

Up until this bloody shootout the main appeal for me of the Samson stories was the generally light, mocking tone of the first person narrative and the relaxed, almost sitcom, feel to Samson’s generally humdrum round of work, meetings, files and reports, and his similarly mundane domestic life, hanging with his kids, with the girlfriend Gloria he took up with after his wife defected, and the numerous drinks parties and dinner parties where we meet and remeet the cast of recurring characters who populate the novels in an almost Dickensian teeming.

I found this social scene far more convincing and solidly imagined than the often far-fetched and abruptly violent elements of the ‘spy stories’. Especially as the spy stories boil down to such a simple narrative arc:

  1. Fiona defects (Berlin Game)
  2. Interlude while a KGB officer we thought was defecting, Erich Stinnes, turned out to be a spy so we sent him back (Mexico SetLondon Match)
  3. But Fiona isn’t a traitor after all, but a triple agent (Spy Hook, Spy Line).

In the last few pages of Spy Line we see Bernard and Fiona flown to Bret Rensselaer’s luxury safe house in California for Fiona to be debriefed at length. The Department has accounted for Fiona’s disappearance by making it look as if she died in the car conflagration (though I still don’t understand why the opposition are going to believe the car burst into flames; specially since it was a night of heavy rain).

But she saw her sister murdered in front of her and realises that was done to protect her. How can she avoid having a massive nervous breakdown? How can she ever go back to her ‘normal’ life? And the Department has put word out that Bernard has run off with Tessa, to explain their joint disappearance. How can that ever let Bernard return to London, where his mere presence will expose the falsehood? I really like the character of George Kosinski, the rough-and-ready East End used car salesman Tessa was married to. He will be devastated Tessa has run off with Bernard.

How can any of these people return to their happy-go-lucky lives or the novels return to their amiable, chatty tone?

Third person narrator

Deighton deftly sidesteps all the problems he had created for himself with the biggest surprise of the series so far – by switching narrative voice to a third person narrator, and by leaving our heroes’ present dilemma altogether to travel back in time and recap the entire narrative of the previous five novels from other people’s points of view! It is a bold and sometimes bewildering move because the net effect is to undermine and question everything we thought we knew.

So Spy Sinker commences back in September 1977, before the start of the first novel – Berlin Game – with the story of Fiona’s recruitment and the hatching of the plan to make her a double agent, showing the earliest genesis of the plan in conversations between Bret Rensselaer – whose idea it is – and the Director General, Sir Henry Clevemore – who is persuaded to sanction it. Both know she’s married to Samson and both agree to keep Samson completely in the dark whatever happens.

Thus we realise almost everything Samson tells us in the first person narratives of the previous five books has been flawed, half-informed, and often completely wrong. We, the reader, have been ‘had’ just as much as Samson.

Seeing Samson’s world from the outside, and having events we’ve seen through his eyes retold by an omniscient narrator, is a revelation – or a series of revelations. The dominant effect is to show how thoroughly deceived and lied to he’s been by absolutely everyone: by his wife, his colleague Bret Rensselaer, his old friend Silas Gaunt and by the Director General of the Department – they were all in on the deception and kept it from him for five years.

At the end, and particularly bitterly, even his closest and oldest friend Werner Volkmann is let in on the secret and keeps it from him.

Same scenes, drastically different perspectives

Incident after incident from the earlier novels is retold showing us what really happened. To give a small selection:

  • When he was hijacked by a black nurse in Mexico Set in order to pick up Fiona, it turns out it wasn’t Fiona but an agent impersonating her in an operation set up by Moscow thug Moskvar. He wanted to provoke Samson into pursuing the black agent back to the Department safe house in Bosham, where they would capture, torture and then murder him. Samson, as intended (and as he tells us) believes the impersonator is his wife (improbably) but then sends a junior operative to track down the black woman, and it is he who is tortured and murdered. The failure of his plan badly damaging Moskvar’s reputation back in the East.
  • The whole plotline which dominated the end of Spy Hook – the Department’s growing suspicion that Bret Rensselaer is a double agent – created and fostered by the two-timing KGB defector Erich Stinnes — we see this from the East Berlin point of view, how the KGB plan it and plant suspicion of Bret via his handling of the Stinnes defection. Which eventually leads to a commission of enquiry in which Stinnes bluntly incriminates Bret. Their case is helped by the fiasco in the laundrette in Hampstead where Bret had insisted on being in the field with Samson when the KGB men turning up to collect some money turn nasty with shotguns: Bernard is forced to shoot them both. [As so often with outbreaks of violence in Deighton, despite having read two different accounts of it, I still don’t understand why Bret and Samson were waiting with money to pay KGB agents and have no idea why the latter started the violence.] But this and other incidents are all a backdrop to Bret suddenly fleeing in a panic to Berlin which is the point, in Spy Hook, where we saw him – from Bernard’s point of view – abruptly turning up on the latter’s doorstep.
  • At the end of London Match there is a prolonged shootout in the streets of Berlin following the hostage exchange of Samson’s friend Werner Volkmann for the ‘defector’ Stinnes, in which the brutal Moskvin is forced to flee through the streets, exchanging gunfire with the following agents until shot by his own side, not before shooting and badly wounding Bret. (As with the laundrette scene, I still don’t really understand why his own side wanted to kill Moskvin, even after two explanations, in London Match and here. Like the other bursts of violence, it seems illogical, unnecessary and amateurishly done.)
  • Bret, severely wounded in Berlin, is flown to the luxury ranch in California which – we now learn from this book – he uses as a base to continue receiving information from Fiona, cleanse it and pass it onto the CIA.
  • To my astonishment, Fiona recruits Werner Volkmann, just before his exchange  the exchange back to the West, to become a direct conduit between her and the DG Sir Henry. a) It seems immensely risky to hire a non-employee of the Department for such an incriminating role b) so Werner is let in on the secret that Fiona is a double agent and keeps it from his best friend, Bernard, for the next 4 years!
  • At various points we watch old Silas Gaunt and the DG of the Department callously making plans which toy with other peoples’ lives and it is upsetting the way they tinker with telling Samson Fiona still loves him and is loyal to her country and him, before deciding not to, and leaving his life in ruins. Possibly all this is permissible for the importance of the mission they’ve given her. But they cross a line when, towards the end, we watch them orchestrating Fiona’s escape back to the West and deliberately acquiescing in murder.
    • It is Silas who hires an ex-CIA hitman, Thurkettle (who Samson had run across in Spy Line) and makes him the murdering orchestrator of the bloodbath. In a manouevre which I didn’t understand it is arranged for Fiona to be at the rendezvous at the motorway works with Erich Stinnes – now, very implausibly, caught up in drug smuggling.
    • Thurkettle will arrange the meeting for the now-drug-running Stinnes to hand over a consignment of heroin. But I have no idea why Fiona, Stinnes’ boss, would be with him on what sounds like a criminal act. I have no idea why Fiona couldn’t just get in a car and drive down the Autobahn into West Germany then be spirited away. The reason given is that, if the KGB think she is dead, they will leave their security setups as they are, allowing us to exploit Fiona’s inside information for a while longer; if they knew she’d defected back they’d change all their arrangements. But is this intelligence really worth the murder of Fiona’s sister, Tessa – which is what it leads to? For Thurkettle goes to great lengths to arrange for a body like Fiona’s to be found burned to a crisp in a burned out car, and whose body will that be – her sister’s.
    • And I still don’t understand what the KGB are to meant to make of all this: why was the car ever meant to have caught fire? It’s parked stationary off the motorway so it’s not in a crash. Is this the best British Intelligence can come up with?
    • A ghoulish element is introduced because Tessa’s head must be sawn off so that her skull can be replaced with another skull with Fiona’s dental work to persuade the KGB it really is her. But won’t their forensic scientists notice that this corpse has had its head sawed off? Might they wonder why the corpse of their former East Berlin chief is found with its head cut off in a car parked by the side of a motorway which has burst into flames for no good reason?
      • It just seems like a rubbish plan, too random, contrived and unnecessarily complicated
      • I just don’t believe the two old Etonians, Silas and Sir Henry, can calmly sit drinking whisky and smoking cigars in their nice country house and planning the murder of an innocent woman, one they’ve met socially several times. I don’t believe it.

Another big shocker in the first half of the book is the discovery that, for some time before she defected, Fiona was having an affair with a Canadian psychiatrist, a sustained sexual infidelity to her husband. This completely changes the framework of the preceding five novels. Fiona’s betrayal of Samson is even more personal than we’d thought. He’s called Harry Kennedy and, like all Deighton characters who do so, he falls almost immediately into a trance-like and perfect epitome of ‘love’: ‘I love you darling.’ ‘I know, darling.’

[All Deighton characters fall in love the same way and then talk in the same lovey-dovey way: Fiona and Harry’s love talk sounds just like Bernard and Gloria’s and just like Jamie Farebrother and Victoria’s in Goodbye, Mickey Mouse.]

In a further revelation, towards the end of the novel Fiona, the DG and Bret back in London (and we the reader) discover that her Canadian lover in fact comes from a Ukrainian family, was a member of the Communist Party at university and has done bits of small work for the KGB in the past – a discovery which stuns and amazes Fiona, leaving her feeling even more paranoid and lonely in her isolated double role in the terrifying East. Was Harry set to spy on her? Is he a glorified minder? Yes. Is there anyone she can trust? No.

Lowering

The net effect is, I think, depressing. Samson who in the first five books is the virile, confident and amusing narrator – is now revealed as entirely fallible, misled about everything. This applies not only in his immediate life but the book also refers to the events at the end of World War Two in which his father’s career in the SIS was tarnished, and shows how unfair that accusation was (specifically, the killing of the two Winter brothers which concludes Deighton’s epic novel, Winter, which provides historical background to the Samson books). Thus Deighton makes the trail of doubt and deceit goes back indefinitely into the past…

Depressing because Samson is partly a symbol of all of us. Fictions, novels, give us the entirely spurious impression we understand what is going on in the world. Fictional characters’ lives are laid out in generally schematic ways, as they interact with a small and manageable number of people in sequences of events known as ‘plots’ which have a convenient beginning, middle and end.

That’s why the first five Samson novels are so reassuring and warm (despite the occasional outbursts of violence each one contains). The amused tone of the ever-confident Samson is buoyant, reassuring company. But this sixth novel systematically devastates our understanding of what went before, making us realise we’ve understood almost nothing. And along with the events it undermines, go the warmth and security the other books had created. This book destroys those feelings. We are alone on a darkling plain.

Skipping

Deighton speeds up the overview in the last 100 pages. An author who normally takes ten pages to describe two people chatting over a drink or in a bedroom or on a country walk, suddenly skips big sections of time. As when he begins to show us the investigation committee set up to review Bret’s management of Stinnes’ defection in great detail, showing the members arriving at the safe house in the country where Stinnes is being kept, describing each of the men sitting round the table, and beginning with verbatim accounts of what is being said, as if this scene alone will, characteristically, take another ten pages… But then – it is almost as if Deighton is bored with his own thoroughness – the text suddenly reverts to a high-level summary:

When Bret faced the wall of opposition which Moskvin and Stinnes had between them constructed brick by brick, he did something that neither of the Russians had provided for. Rensselaer went to Berlin and pleaded for the aid of Bernard Samson. (p.321)

In the last 100 pages there are several occasions when the narrative tires of its own detail and simply jumps mid-paragraph to a completely new scene. Some sections repeat or introduce characters we already know. Overall the text gives the impression of having been written at different times – maybe the objective scenes were written at the same time that Samson’s point of view was being written for the earlier novels – and not fully integrated into a seamless whole.

It is very bitty, jumping between the key scenes of the earlier novels, relying on our memory of them to give the narrative coherence.


Undermining the East German economy

In the scene early in the novel, set in 1978, when Bret suggests his plan of creating a triple agent to fool the East Germans – a plan they eventually name Operation Sinker, hence the title of the novel and, by extension, of all three novels in the sequence – it is explained how Fiona’s infiltration is designed to undermine the East German state in two ways:

  • to identify key engineers, scientists and intellectuals who can be enticed to the West creating a ‘brain drain’
  • to identify opposition groups, dissidents from left or right, church and human rights organisations and so on, which the West can tacitly support and thus undermine the communist regime

The DG and Bret are seen speculating wildly that if the operation succeeds, they’ll have the Berlin Wall crashing down in ten years time, by, ooh, say, 1990.

Now, as we all know, Soviet domination of Eastern Europe did crumble in the second half of 1989 and the Wall was knocked through in November of that year (even if it didn’t begin to be formally demolished till June 1990). This novel was published in 1990 by which time not only was the Wall down, but we knew how it came about – the final collapse of the Soviet model of the Command Economy under Gorbachev whose efforts at selective loosening of the reins of state control (perestroika) only hastened its decay, along with the rapid growth of civic groups opposing the regime (given more freedom of expression under glasnost) – including dissidents and especially groups based in churches. Then the final straw of Hungary’s decision to open its borders and allow free passage for any East European citizen to the West, which at a stroke made the Wall redundant.

I would dearly love to know whether Deighton had conceived Fiona’s mission in terms which so closely predicted the actual course of events right from the start and before the first novel in the series was published in 1983 when everyone thought Soviet domination, the Wall and all the rest of it would last indefinitely? Or was the alignment to historical fact, and the timescale, only introduced after all this came to pass? Was Len a prophet predicting the future – or a dab hand at cutting and pasting actual events into a long-pondered narrative?


Related links

Granada paperback cover of Spy Sinker

Granada paperback cover of Spy Sinker

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.

Spy Line by Len Deighton (1990)

This is the second novel in the second trilogy about 40-something British intelligence agent, Bernard Samson. At the end of its predecessor he was on the run in Berlin, an arrest warrant issued by his own side for treason, presumably because he had been investigating (and publicising) a top secret slush fund which his wife – Fiona, who we saw defecting to the Russians in the first trilogy – helped set up and administer.

Summary

To cut a long story short, in this novel we find out that his wife is what he had come to suspect, a triple agent – working for British Intelligence for ten years, while all along pretending to be a KGB spy and sending the Russkies important information, then (at the climax of the first novel) pretending to be forced to flee after her own husband ‘outed’ her as the senior ‘mole’ in the Department – but secretly continuing to work for us from the senior position she is given in the KGB’s East Berlin office.

The Plot

Deighton is much more attracted to cosy domesticity than life on the edge. It’s a little disappointing that his ‘life on the run’ amounts to simply holing up in a dirty squat in a rundown part of Berlin for a week or two. There’s a colourfully seedy scene of Samson sitting drinking with Rudolf Kleindorf, ageing owner of a dance and strip club where old lags come to exchange gossip and information. And we accompany him back to his dirty, noisy squat. But we and Bernie have barely experienced the lowlife for more than a few pages before the head of Berlin Office, Frank Harrington, sends a man to fetch him to witness an interrogation. Oh. They knew where he is all along.

Rather puzzlingly, Samson goes along to watch this interrogation, the questioning of an East German operative. The only bit of interest being when he indicates a photo of Erich Stinnes (a KGB agent who featured largely in the first trilogy) and makes a throwaway reference to seeing him using a ‘white powder’. Drugs? More to the point, security is so lax that Samson overhears a remark which makes it clear this isn’t a defector but an ongoing agent who is about to be sent back to the East. Why did Frank invite him to watch this? Were a few snippets of information mentioned in the session somehow important? Who to?

Teacher

The Department employee who took him there – Teacher – drives him back to his own apartment to meet his wife and have lunch. Much more energy goes into describing the Teachers’ apartment and his wife, Clemmie’s, unhappiness at the coldness of Berlin and the rudeness of Berliners, than did painting Samson’s life in hiding. Domesticity and marital relations, soft furnishings and food are more persuasively described than jeopardy. (Later, we learn from one of the countless gossipy conversations Samson spends the book having, that Clemmie has run off with an American record producer who was passing through Berlin.)

His old mate Werner says, ‘This is silly, why don’t you come back and stay at Tante Lisl’s boarding house?’ and so Bernie moves back into his old room at the top of the building and sees for himself the ‘improvements’ Werner is making to the old place. And realises that Werner has fallen in love with Lisl’s rather stern niece, Ingrid, daughter of her sister Inge. (We learned a lot about the backstories of these two ladies in Deighton’s epic novel about Germany 1900 to 1945, Winter). Zena, Werner’s tough, young, self-centred wife, appears to have flown the coop.

Rehabilitation

Soon enough Head of Berlin Office Frank Harrington drops by and says London Central have made Samson an offer: sign all the official secrets stuff and resign: he can work out his notice in a menial job but retire on a full pension. They’ve never trusted you, Frank explains, since your wife was exposed as a KGB spy.

But Bernard refuses; resigning would admit some degree of guilt and collusion. ‘Well, go back anyway, the charges have been dropped,’ Frank says. Just like that. On the run, hiding out — oh you can go back now. It’s all very anti-climactic. No chases, no shootouts, no tension. Samson flies back to London, is reunited with his girlfriend, Gloria, and his kids, Sally and Billy, then goes back to the office where everyone treats him as if nothing had happened at all. Bit puzzling.

He’s called into the office of a previously unmentioned character, the Deputy Controller of Europe who turns out to be a tough, balding Australian, Gus Stowe. In the usual roundabout, tortuous way these conversations take place, Bernard realises he’s being sent on a hush-hush mission to Vienna, code name Fledermaus.

Stamps in Salzberg

He flies to Vienna and then on to Salzburg where, amid all the Mozart kitsch, he meets his contact, Otto Hoffmann, who turns out to be a stamp collector attending a big five-day philatelic auction. There is a lot – an awful lot – of detail about stamp collecting. (There is a lot of detail about stamps sent from Zeppelins before the war, which may or may not be a reference to the involvement of the Winter family with zeppelins, as described in Winter.) Bernard is given money and told to bid for one particular lot, an envelope with rare stamps on it.

In the actual auction, Samson is surprised when someone else bids getting on for double the price he was instructed to offer and wins the envelope. Samson tracks down the American collector who made the successful bid, Bart Johnson, and they both go to the cashier where you pay and collect your item, only to find someone else claims to have paid more and made off with it. Johnson is furious. Samson tags along with him out of curiosity (what’s going on?) and they go back to the hotel where they’re both staying and make a date to meet for drinks and dinner. Bernard is back in his room freshening up when he hears a (small) explosion, runs along the hall and finds Johnson has been the victim of a particularly nasty type of bomb, planted in the hotel electric shaver. It has blown his hand and face off. As other guests come pouring in, Samson makes good his escape wondering (like the reader) what the hell is going on.

The man who had given him the instructions about bidding for the envelope had also given him instructions about who to take it to in Vienna, one Baron Staiger. Bernard flies to Vienna, takes a cab the scheduled apartment and walks up to meet Baron Staiger who turns out to be – no other than Otto Hoffmann.

In another of the surreal scenes which litter these novels, Staiger is holding a super-refined party for Vienna’s upper crust in which Bernard feels very out of place, and which climaxes with the arrival of the triumphant soprano from the nearby opera house. Only when the party is quite over does Staiger talk to Bernard and declares himself pretty relaxed about the loss of the envelope – because he has it right here in his pocket! He had heard the Americans were going to bid for it so he was the other, mystery, bidder on the phone who drove the price way beyond Bernard’s limit, and ducked in to claim it before Johnson made it to the claims desk.

Staiger opens the envelope and it contains Czech security passes for himself and Bernard. Why, the reader asks, was this ridiculous charade necessary, except to pad the novel out with colourful scenes in Salzburg, a surreal stamp collecting convention, and the utterly unnecessary murder of an American?

Into Czechoslovakia

Next day Staiger drives Bernard across the border into Czecholsovakia (lots of local description, lots of Deighton-esque history of the Sudetenland under the Nazis and then under Stalin) accompanied by a Czech security car and then up to a mountain cabin which is crawling with security men, guns and ferocious guard dogs, before depositing Bernard outside a farmhouse.

Bernard goes in to find his wife Fiona who proceeds to confirm all his suspicions: she is a triple agent, she is so sorry for all the deceit and worry but they couldn’t tell him, her life depended on him acting genuinely outraged (the KGB have been tailing and watching his reactions to her desertion), and now she is coming back, in just a few weeks she’ll be back in the UK: ‘Oh I do love you darling,’ ‘and I love you, darling’.

This is even more surreal than the stamp collecting convention. If she’s such a professional, if this is the climax of 10 years of planning, why oh why is she risking it all for a rushed sentimental meeting with her husband? In full sight of about twenty Czech security police who will report every centimetre to their KGB bosses? Isn’t the room bugged? Won’t they guess what she’s doing? Did this clandestine meeting really require all the rigmarole of the stamp collecting convention and bidding? Why doesn’t she simply complete her mission and arrive back in London safe and sound, without the exploding stamp collectors and high risk tryst?

Gratifying though it is to have Bernard’s (and our) suspicions confirmed, this whole scene blows an enormous hole in the novel’s credibility. The one thing she asks him to do is get back from her sister, Tessa, the expensive fur coat her father bought her. The reader immediately thinks it must contain some microfilm or equally precious artifact.

Part two

Staiger drives Bernie safely back to Vienna and he flies back to London, to the embrace off his girlfriend Gloria, and the children, but inside is in complete turmoil. He tells no one about seeing his wife.

Instead the next 30 pages or so describe Bernard and Gloria attending a carefully choreographed dinner party at his boss, Dicky Cruyer’s house, complete with detailed description of every course of the meal and Dicky’s difficulties ‘carving’ the enormous poached salmon which is the opening course. It’s in this chatty, gossipy, homely surrounding that, as so often, a number of the guests (who are all ‘in the business’) discuss recent events and broach new ventures. Thus Samson finds himself asked to help the CIA in the form of Posh Harry, the Hawaiian fixer we met in the first trilogy and who played a central role in the odd Californian excursion in Spy Hook.

Parties

No sooner is this dinner, complete with cigars and port for the men, more or less over than Gloria begs Samson to be allowed to go on to a party his brother-in-law George Kosinski (the used car salesman) and wife Tessa, are going to. Very swanky place in Pimlico and a swanky party hosted by a German prince, known to all and sundry as Joppi.

Later, driving Bernard home, his brother-in-law confides that he thinks Tessa is on drugs: did he notice the slightly hysterical atmosphere at the party? People were taking drugs upstairs. And did he notice the sinister guy with a beard fringing his chin? Tessa’s been getting friendly with him; George thinks he’s a dealer and is selling her the stuff.

Rolf Mauser

The next day Samson meets Rolf Mauser, yet another ageing survivor of the war, who tells him Kleindorf, the nightclub owner we met in the first chapter, is dead. He was smuggling drugs. The official cause of death is suicide by overdose but Mauser has information one of his dancers injected him with raw heroin. Mauser explains the raw heroin arrives in East Berlin, then is smuggled West to be refined, before being smuggled back again for sale.

So is the novel about drug smuggling between East and West Berlin?

Thurkettle

Samson goes for the boozy lunch with Posh Harry that was arranged at Dicky Cruyer’s party but, on returning, begins to be questioned and then interrogated by Harry’s boss, John Brody. Turns out Johnson, the American stamp enthusiast in Salzberg, was a CIA man tasked with bringing in another ex-Company man, one Thurkettle, a hardened murderer and hit man who has gone rogue. Almost certainly it was Thurkettle who murdered Johnson. The Americans are suspicious of Samson’s involvement. He realises the description of Thurkettle fits the man George thinks is peddling drugs to Tessa.

Silas Gaunt

Next Samson motors out to the Cotswolds, to the country house of long-retired old Silas Gaunt, who, like so many of the characters, knew his father. In a refreshing bit of plain speaking the ailing Gaunt – warned by his doctor he is at death’s door – confirms all Samson’s suspicions: Fiona is a triple agent; she was recruited at Oxford; only old Gaunt, the doddery DG and Samson know the truth. If they all died, Fiona would be trapped. Gaunt makes Samson witness him signing a long document which he says is a detailed account of Fiona’s case which will exonerate her.

Over the next few days Samson has to process this devastating information. So his wife is a heroic agent, good. But she hid it all from him for ten years, and deserted him and his children without a qualm. Did he ever really know her? Could he ever trust her again? What are his feelings for her and how does effect his feelings for young Gloria, who is making such an effort to be a good lover and surrogate mother to his two children?

A few days later his boss, Dicky Cruyer, orders Samson to accompany him on a trip to Berlin. Dicky is actually hoping to make it a dirty weekend with Tessa, and Samson is cross at being pulled in as some kind of accomplice, but the jaunt is justified by meetings with Frank. After the usual lengthy chat, reminiscence, drinks and cigars, Frank eventually comes out and tells Samson he is being instructed to drive a van which is going to pick up an agent from the other side, accompanied by the young desk officer Teacher who we met early in the novel. If there is a problem, Teacher has instructions to kill the agent rather than let him fall into the hands of the opposition.

The reader begins to have a bad feeling the agent will be Fiona and that something will go wrong and he will have to shoot her…

Finale

The novel does climax in a bloody mess. Werner, his old friend, organises a big fancy dress party for the opening of the new, repainted Tante Lisl guesthouse. 150 guests are fired up and dancing as a fierce thunderstorm breaks outside. In the middle of the noise, Teacher comes looking for Samson: he’s received the signal – they must go to the rendezvous. The only catch is Teacher has come to the party in a joke gorilla costume and no-one has a suit for him to change into; in fact, he almost comes to blows with Werner trying to nick one of the latter’s suits, and is eventually forced, very unhappily, to drive on this important mission wearing his gorilla costume. And, at the last minute, Tessa, in a flighty yellow dress and stoned out of her mind, insists on climbing into the back of the van and no-one can persuade her out.

Shootout

Teacher, Samson and Tessa drive slowly in the transit van in the thundering rain along the West-heading Autobahn looking out for a parked car. Eventually they see lights and a darkened car parked by a load of giant earth-moving machines in an area roped off for repairs. It is pitch black and pouring down with rain. Teacher gets out and is moving towards the car when lights go on, there are shots, Teacher hits the car a few times before being himself shot down. Tessa comes floating out the back of the van and waltzes towards the German car when she is shot twice with a shotgun which tears her apart, blood pouring over her dress. Another woman’s voice shrieks, it is Fiona. In the drenching rain and darkness and confusion Samson has made it up onto the tracks of a giant digger and uses its raised shovel to steady his aim as he shoots and kills the two East German men. One of them is Erich Stinnes; Samson shoots him in the neck and watches a great spurt of blood shoot up against the motorway lights.

But there was a third man, now hidden, who had used a silencer. Samson stands stock still in the pouring rain waiting for something to happen. The man shouts over to Samson in an American voice. It is Thurkettle the assassin. Samson shouts to Fiona to move from the East German car to the van and start the engine. When she’s done so, he makes a run for the other van door. There are no shots. They’re being allowed to escape. They pull away from the scene of the shootout and Fiona drives through the rain and into West Germany in silence, her knuckles white against the wheel. In the rear view mirror they see a great gout of flame and hear an explosion: the East German car has been blown up along with all the evidence. Thurkettle has stage managed the whole thing…

Soldiers greet them at the checkpoint. Fiona is sedated, and they are loaded aboard a plane headed for America.

Aftermath

The novel ends with Samson and Fiona holed up in the luxury safe house-cum-prison on the California coast which we first saw in the previous novel. It is owned by millionairess Mrs O’Raffety, and the base where Bret Rensselaer is undergoing his long, painful rehabilitation after being shot at the climax of London Match. Turns out the whole thing – the Fiona defection – was his scheme and now it falls to him, as her case officer, to debriefing her. Days, weeks, and months go by. They are both trapped. Samson gloomily realises they might be there for years.

Samson learns the story being put about is that he has run off with Tessa. This explains their joint disappearance. Fiona slowly thaws out and talks to him. He tells her he thinks Tessa’s drug addiction was fostered as part of the plan. Tessa was lured to Berlin by a combination of Dicky and Thurkettle (who Samson is now certain he saw at Joppi’s party and who George warned him about), and encouraged to get into the van. Then she was deliberately murdered, so that her body would be found in the burnt-out car, and the enemy think it was Fiona.

Can the Department have done that? Murdered one sister to save the other? Bernard and Fiona huddle under blankets one cold Californian night looking out past the security fence into the darkness of the ocean with no hope.

This is a decisive shift in the tone of these novels. Whatever happens now, the murder of her sister will cast a long shadow over Fiona’s mental health, their marriage and numerous other characters. Will they ever be able to get back to England, their children and a normal married life? It seems impossible.


Atmosphere of old

I was too old for rough stuff: too old, too involved, too married, too soft. (p.37)
I was too old to get angry twice in one day. (p.219)

So many of the characters are old old old:

  • Tante Lisl and her sister Inge, into their 80s
  • Frank Harrington past retirement age in his middle 60s. ‘Frank was too old to be involved with Operations. Too old, too squeamish, too weary, too good-hearted.’ (p.271) ‘Frank was past retirement, soon he would be gone.’ (p.272)
  • John ‘Lange’ Koby in his seventies (p.44)
  • local fixer Kleindorf in his 70s
  • harsh old Wehrmacht officer Rolf Mauser in his 70s
  • Bart Johnson looks in his 60s
  • London CIA man John Brody, ‘He was old, a bald man with circular gold-rimmed glasses…’ (p.209)
  • Silas Gaunt, long since retired colleague of his father’s, ‘… was old and becoming more exasperating every time I saw him…’ (p.221) ‘… now he was old and he’d withdrawn into his own concerns with ageing, sickness and death.’ (p.224)
  • ‘Some people – including me – had said that Bret Rensselaer was too old ever to become a full-time Departmental employee again.’ (p.301)
  • ‘Mrs O’Raffety, the artistic old lady who owned the place…’ (p.303)

It is the central aspect of Samson’s character, indeed the main premise of the whole series, that Samson is the son of a man who was at the heart of British Intelligence in Berlin immediately after the war, and grew up among his father’s friends and colleagues, who provide the novel with its sense of breadth and historical depth.

But it inevitably means that, by the later 1980s, a lot of these characters are due to die off and with them will go the emotional background, the memories of his Berlin childhood and everything which makes Bernard Samson such a unique character.

Soon – very soon – Silas and Whitelands and all they meant would have vanished from my life. My mother was old and sick. Soon Lisl would be gone, and the hotel would be unrecognisable. When that happened I would no longer have any connections with the times that meant so much to me. (p.239)

Insofar as he is the nexus of all these relationships, a product of this history, Samson’s character – and the worldview of the novels which relies so heavily on the long shadow of world war two – has a limited shelf-life.


Related links

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Line

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Line

Len Deighton’s novels

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

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